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12.25.04

"Pinto Likes Bobby! Does Bobby Like Pinto?"

4. The Future = Sliding Doors

(As someone once said....) Let's talk about the effects (special and otherwise) on Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.

The special effects range from decent to pretty bad. In "Crash of Moons", the atmosphere belt effects — seen from the space station and various points — seem to be slowed-down footage of smoke clouds from the 1944 Vesuvius eruptions plus lightning effects. Ships taking off and landing are chroma-keyed or double-exposed — the ships are very pale against the backgrounds. (The massed United Planets ships taking off from Officia in the evacuation are the Orbit Jet and the Offician ship superimposed two dozen times on the planetary surface. Griff's ship in "Menace" is different from either of those.)

The spaceport on Earth looks like a 750 KV switching station in Tujunga or somewhere like that near LA. There are big transformers all around, walkways and a huge gantry, on which the Orbit Jet is superimposed.

The sound editing is variable — the aforementioned transformers are shown while the rocket is getting "in synch". Two beeping tones start out at different octaves and timings, slowly come together, and when they harmonize, the rockets in the Orbit Jet start and it takes off. Mysterious but effective uses of indigenous materials.

Space suits are mentioned in Menace but not used — both episodes deal with Earthlike environments. (I'm reminded of Dr. Flexi Jerkoff in Flash Gordon stepping out of the ship and going "*sniff* Good! There's oxygen here!")

Ray guns (blasters) are pointed a lot but hardly used. They're the neat fluted-cone type, like the business end of a hose nozzle. There are the aforementioned atomic-or better-torpedoes. (I seem to remember a blaster-type gun in the nose of the ships from 1954.) When the ships dogfight, they do it like Sopwith Camels and Fokkers — about a hundred yards apart. In both episodes, the Orbit Jet almost commits sodomy on the two ships it fires at — Griff's and Cleolanta's.) Maneuvering in space takes place as if sometimes there's air resistance, and at other times like there's no inertia. They just run up to a planet, flip the ship over and land.

The sound of a message coming in is signaled by one of those buzzers you hooked up to a 6-volt battery for your Science Fair project. When the Orbit Jet shuts its rockets off, it sounds like a B-24 winding down.

So then, what did Rocky Jones have going for it?

There's some attempt at verisimilitude. In "Menace", some of Griff's crew speak what sounds like Esperanto or Volapük; he uses both English and a few words of the other language. Offician society is an absolute (totalitarian?) monarchy. Posita has a sort of easygoing (constitutional?) monarchy, with Banner as a sort of King Albert of the Belgians-type guy. As is Negato (though their king wears a beard.) Earth is of course part of the United Planets (read: Nations). We assume Mr. Secretary has been elected.

The Space Ranger dress uniforms look like a cross between an usher's and a bell captain's, with the UP symbol (a planet with a ring through it) on the lapel; same symbol on the hats. Mr. Secretary's is slightly flashier, and, we assume, a lighter color. What Rocky and Winky wear when they fly the ship is pants, tee shirts, and baseball caps with the UP logo.

Vena wears a mini-skirted dress with a capelet, hose, and boots. Bobby wears a cutdown version of the dress Space Ranger uniform. Cleolanta looks space-regal, and Griff dresses in Early Depression Fascist Goth.

Who isn't in these episodes is Pinto Vartando, a sort of space-pirate/main chance capitalist/good-bad guy, who was in other episodes and was Bucky's main protagonist. (The title of this whole column comes from some dialogue when Pinto is trying to get Bobby to do something Very Bad to the Space Rangers.) Pinto dresses very much like The Boss in the 1936 Things To Come, somewhere between a Spanish Civil War cave-bandit and a Hun.

On the Orbit Jet, as on the Enterprise, the door between the control room and the navigation room slides open and closed (but not with the Enterprise's sound...)

The plots — though for kids — show some touches you wouldn't expect. Banner and his wife, on Posita, take the new baby out into the night (What night? What day?) to watch the roiling atmosphere belt and the lightning — it seems this is aesthetically pleasing — always another moon in the sky, the billowing clouds, the thousand-mile lightning bolts. This is not something the usual TV hack would come up with. Neither is flying to another world — through an atmosphere — in a jet planes.

The humor falls mostly flat: Winky and Bobby get most of the bad lines, though Rocky sometimes gets to wink and arch an eyebrow.

So am I wallowing in nostalgia, or what?

I don't think so. As a kid, I had enough moxie to know Rocky Jones was better than the W. German Flash Gordon (the same way, as in the library, you began to realize some of the books with the rocket or the atom symbol on the spine were better than others). I knew there were things wrong with the series. It wasn't exactly the future I wanted.

Maybe that's what it was about Rocky Jones — it gave us a view of the future (as coherent as they could make it on their budget). When you needed another planet in the Solar System, you just put it in there and got on with the plot. Same way — "Gypsy Moons" was about the first encounter with Posita and Negato. Later, you just had the physics settle Officia's hash.

This may have been the first TV show with story arcs that went through the entire run of the show — one episode sets up something that resonates way down the line. All you noticed when you were a kid was "Oh! Neat! Here come the Gypsy Moons again!" It would be another 30 years before Hill Street Blues changed the way TV was done — multiple plot lines within each episode, some resolved, some not; characters showing up later in other contexts; one problem resolved three episodes later while others have come up in between.

This probably was as much budgetary as anything — they let their limitations become virtues — if you have some neat special effects — Posita, Negato, the atmosphere belt — you use them again. Recurring characters — Griff, Cleolanta — are spread throughout the run of the show. You can film all their scenes at once, every month or two, with costume and set changes. (I don't know if they did this — I know on Superman Clark, Lois, Jimmy, and Perry White had three sets of clothes, and they would get together and film all the office scenes for all 13 episodes at once...)

Reed the producer, Morse the director, and Wilson the writer maybe haven't been given their due credit all these years. They set the template for Hill Street Blues, West Wing, ER, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos — in other words just about all the hour-long drama series of the last 20 years.

The thing these later shows had was speed of delivery, character interplay, great dialogue, and setting — remember when 100 things would happen in an early Hill Street Blues, and then they'd cut for the mid-show break?

What Rocky Jones had of all these was economy (and some imaginative thinking in the plots). And not much else. But it's there — as if the very concept of a show that could be shown in different formats and time slots — had them rethink the way you could to continuing-character shows on TV.

What this left us with finally is a double-view piece of futuristic nostalgia — in 2004 you can get a 1954 view of the future. (All communicating devices still had cords on them — as if space travel were going to be done with bigger, better 1954 technology, rather than being radically different.)

Go have a look. I did. I wasn't exactly drenched with sweet nostalgia — some things came back to me instantly; others stopped me dead — Why'd they do that?

Rocky Jones was the first sliding-door future. That future is still with us. And it wasn't just me. Why do you think John Varley named his space-jockey "Sirocco" Jones? I'm sure he had his equivalent of Outer Space Theater wherever it was that he grew up....

The faster you run from the past, the quicker it catches up...

 


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Howard Waldrop is a legend in his own time. He writes, he fishes, he builds bookcases. He does not have a cellphone, a computer, or an email account.

For someone who is about as wired as an echidna, Howard has a pretty substantial online career. He has had a website since 1997. You can read The Ugly Chickens, The Other Real World, Winter Quarters, D = R x T, and his collaboration with Leigh Kennedy, One Horse Town, on SciFiction. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is available on the excellent Strange Horizons. He has an occasional column, Crimea River, on Electric Story. And now he has a blog. Go figure.

For additional embellishments of the Waldrop legend, see Who Is Howard Waldrop, Anyway? For extravagant lies about Howard, see Alternate Waldrops, on Strange Horizons. Howard's most recent books are Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations and Dream Factories and Radio Pictures. Buy 'em.

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