Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1953. Starring Judd Holdren, Michael Fox, Forrest Taylor, Gene Roth, Vivian Mason, Ted Thorpe, Karl Davis, Nick Stuart, Lee Roberts, Frederick Berest, Jack George, John Cason, Leonard Penn.
A mad scientist named Dr. Grood (Michael Fox) is making regular trips from his secret laboratory on Earth’s Mount Vulcan to his base on the planet Ergro, where he and his henchman Reckov (Gene Roth) have put a group of hypnotized “robot” slaves to work mining “cosmonium”–a tremendously powerful mineral that’s unknown on Earth; Grood plans to force captive scientist Professor Dorn (Forrest Taylor) to build cosmonium-powered weapons with which Grood can conquer Earth. When reporter Rex Barrow (Judd Holdren), his photographer Tim (Ted Thorpe), and Dorn’s daughter Ella (Vivian Mason) start snooping around Mount Vulcan, Grood captures them and ships them to Ergro–where Rex soon joins forces with the resourceful Professor Dorn, who’s working surreptitiously but tirelessly to smash Grood’s dreams of world domination.
Like the earlier Columbia serial Captain Video (with which it shares shares several props, sets, locations, costumes, and actors), The Lost Planet is overloaded with science-fictional gadgets and with clunky dialogue intended to explain the workings of said gadgets. In fact, it’s even heavier on pseudoscientific jargon than Video was; while that serial periodically allowed its characters to stop yammering about futuristic technology long enough to engage in car chases and lively bouts of fisticuffs, Planet gives its characters (and its viewers) no such breaks: virtually all of its “action” consists of heroes and villains flipping switches, pressing buttons, reacting to uneven special effects, and spouting convoluted technobabble. Despite the fact that Spencer Bennet directs the serial, its fifteen chapters contain no real fistfights, gunfights, or chases; periodic walks or jogs across the surface of Ergro or through its caves, a few quick punches (most of them thrown by the hero while invisible), and a leap from a boulder in the last chapter are about all Planet has to offer in the way of action scenes.
Above: Forrest Taylor as the white-coated Professor Dorn explains to Michael Fox’s Dr. Grood how he’s thwarted the latter’s plan to kill the other good guys: “I’ve newly reversed the energizer on the solar-thermo furnace; that generated a de-thermal flame that was harmless.”
Planet’s plotting is not exactly strong enough to compensate for this almost complete lack of action. The serial’s narrative consists of nothing more interesting than an extremely repetitive series of captures and escapes, with the protagonists continually getting hypnotized by Grood and then breaking loose from his domination–almost always with the help of Professor Dorn, who thwarts Grood more frequently and efficiently than supposed hero Rex Barrow does. As for Grood himself, he never gets around to launching a large-scale attack (or even a small-scale attack) against the world, and instead devotes his energies to unsuccessful attempts to control Dorn, Barrow, and the other good guys; his efforts in this direction are so futile that it’s hard to take his pretensions to planetary dictatorship very seriously. The crooked gamblers who become major players in the plot from Chapter Seven onwards (after setting out to steal Grood’s valuable gadgetry) fail to break up the monotony of the struggle between the Grood/Dorn factions; they spend most of their time assisting either the heroes or the villains, instead of acting as an independent third party–although their oscillation between the two sides does at least lend Planet’s plodding story a touch of unpredictability.
Regular journeys between Earth and Ergro do little to enliven the serial’s plot, either–mainly since the two planets are often visually indistinguishable; a great deal of the activity on each of them takes place inside Grood’s two laboratories, both of which are interior sets filled with science-fictional props, and both of which are surrounded by caves and tunnel interiors that all look alike. The slopes of Iverson’s Ranch are seen occasionally as the approaches to Mount Vulcan (Grood’s Earth headquarters), while the Vasquez Rocks area appears more frequently as the landscape of Ergro; due to the aforementioned lack of chases, neither location is explored or displayed to very good advantage, although the Rocks–as in so many other science-fiction serials, movies, and TV shows–serve as a fittingly “alien” locale.
The prop gadgets littering Grood’s Earthly and Ergronian lairs–many of them previously seen in Atom Man vs. Superman and Captain Video–range from effective to laughable; the various laboratory control panels (covered with switches and flashing lights) are fine, as is the mockup of the “cosmojet,” but devices such as Grood’s can-shaped hand-held raygun or the “Axial Propeller” (which looks like a miniature zeppelin) have a comically clumsy appearance; the grandiosely awkward monikers that are bestowed on the Propellor and other gadgets (the “Thermic Disintegrator,” the “De-Thermo Ray,” etc.) do nothing to make them more impressive. As in producer Sam Katzman’s other sci-fi chapterplays, mediocre animation is frequently used to show Planet’s gadgetry at work–most noticeably when the cosmojet is flying between planets and when Rex is tossed into the air by the “Prysmic Catapult.” A lot of the cosmojet flight shots are stock from Captain Video; the cartoon flying saucer from Bruce Gentry also puts in an appearance via stock footage.
The Chapter Two cliffhanger sequence in which the hero and heroine (victims of the Axial Propeller) spin rapidly around until they vanish is carried off nicely without the use of animation–but this bizarre peril comes off as so silly that it’s hard to be too enthusiastic about the special effects involved. The effects in the Chapter Ten cliffhanger (which has the good guys menaced by burning volcanic rocks) are also respectable, while the cliffhanger itself is much easier to take seriously–at least until it’s resolved by the abrupt introduction of some contrived technobabble. Like these two endings, the serial’s other cliffhangers all center around gadgetry to various degrees, and thus tend to be both introduced and resolved with similarly abrupt outbursts of convoluted jargon–although, in a few cases, improbable live-through-it resolutions (like the one that follows the Chapter Seven Prysmic Catapult cliffhanger) or simple cheats (like the resolution to the Chapter Fourteen cosmojet/atomic-plane collision) are used to resolve cliffhanger situations instead. The apparently fatal zapping of Rex and Dorn by the hypnotized, raygun-wielding Tim and Ella at the end of Chapter Five might be the best of the chapter endings; it’s not staged, shot, or resolved with any real flair, but the grimly ironic basic situation can’t help but seem somewhat compelling.
Above left: It may look like a dance is going on, but Judd Holdren and Vivian Mason are actually being spun into oblivion by the Axial Propeller’s rays. Above right: In a cliffhanger that’s memorably bizarre (if nothing else), Judd Holdren and Nick Stuart suddenly encounter a train in the tunnels leading to Grood’s lair–the sort of thing that more usually happens to Wile E. Coyote.
Planet‘s constant technobabble and its ambitious but generally cheap-looking science-fictional devices frequently make the serial seem unintentionally humorous–although “unintentionally” might not be the right word here, since several portions of the script are so thoroughly absurd that one suspects writers George Plympton and Arthur Hoerl, realizing that Planet was going to be too talky and low-budgeted to be very exciting, decided to give their screenplay some degree of liveliness by making it self-parodic whenever possible. Grood and Professor Dorn’s relationship comes off as particularly spoofy; though Dorn is ostensibly Grood’s prisoner, he and his assistant Alden continually manage to smoothly checkmate Grood’s plans–while Grood, for his part, keeps threatening to punish Dorn horribly for his interference, but continually refrains from actually doing so, due to his utter dependence on Dorn’s technological know-how. One soon gets the impression that Grood is nearly as much at Dorn’s mercy as Dorn is at his–an impression that comically subverts the serial genre’s typical master-villain/captive-scientist dynamic.
Grood’s tendency to brag of his great scientific genius, while simultaneously relying on Dorn for scientific advice, further strengthens the self-parodic tone of the serial–especially in the bizarrely amusing Chapter Twelve scene in which Grood confidently tries to operate one of Dorn’s inventions, accidentally sends himself floating up to the ceiling, and has to seek the assistance of Dorn (who then proceeds to smugly scold Grood for his blunder). Grood’s interchanges with his assistant Jarva–who regularly brings his egotistical and excitable master down to earth with commonsense suggestions–are pretty comedic too; the two characters’ relationship strongly recalls that of Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. Rex Barrow’s pointless and counterproductive pranking of Grood while invisible, the sarcastically disbelieving reaction of Barrow’s editor when Rex tells him about Ergro, the scene in which the editor accidentally uses Rex’s invisibility device, and the brush-off that Barrow gets from an Army general when he tries to fill him in on the Grood threat also have a very tongue-in-cheek feel to them.
Above: In the left-hand picture, Gene Roth looks alarmed while Michael Fox shouts to an amused Forrest Taylor (in the right-hand picture) to get them down from the ceiling, after the Degravitizer goes awry. Karl Davis is next to Taylor.
Of Planet’s cast members, Michael Fox (as Grood) and Forrest Taylor (as Dorn) seem to have the most fun. Fox adopts a self-important and highly irritable manner, snarling loudly, vehemently, and rather petulantly at anyone who balks his will or questions his greatness; though undeniably amusing, he comes off as an egomaniacal crank instead of a menacing master villain. Taylor (who makes his final serial appearance here) occasionally indulges in vehement but controlled histrionics when faced with a particularly dire scientific calamity or when admonishing various villains, but slyly underplays his role most of the time–delivering his dialogue with calmly urbane self-assurance, and smiling cagily as he plans or executes anti-Grood maneuvers.
As the nominal hero of the serial, Judd Holdren makes much less of an impression than his two scene-stealing co-stars–partly because of his usual lack of screen personality, and partly because his role gives him little scope to display his one real acting strength. As paramilitary science-fiction heroes like Captain Video, Larry Martin (in Zombies of the Stratosphere), and Commando Cody (in Republic’s short-lived TV show of that name), Holdren was allowed to make full use of his talent for conveying sternness and earnestness as he barked out orders, outlined plans, or explained weird technology–and thus gave his characters an energetically authoritative air that saved them from complete blandness. Holdren is still quite energetic in Planet, but since his character principally serves as a sort of hapless pawn in the scientific struggle between Dorn and Grood, he rarely gets to really take charge of the action or assume his usual commanding aura–and thus comes off as merely bland.
Leading lady Vivian Mason, a former magazine model, has very little to do as Ella Dorn–spending a sizable portion of her screen time in a hypnotic trance and keeping largely to the background when unhypnotized. Perhaps this marginalization was for the best, since she sounds exceedingly stiff and unconvincing whenever she tries to deliver dialogue with any kind of emphasis. Ted Thorpe, as photographer (and ostenstible comic-relief character) Tim, also spends a lot of time in a trance–definitely a boon to the serial, since Thorpe’s noticeably whiny voice would undoubtedly have become very annoying had he tried to be “funny” on an extended basis.
As Grood’s long-suffering lieutenant Reckov, Gene Roth performs in typically laid-back style, his easygoing bearing providing an entertaining contrast to Michael Fox’s overheated ravings; Roth is particularly amusing when flattering Fox in lazily insincere-sounding tones or when surlily reacting to Fox’s bombastic reprimands, and is also good when sneeringly bullying the “robots” who serve under him. As Reckov’s chief underling Karlo (who periodically tries to undermine Reckov and take his place, leading to some rather comic displays of petty rivalry), ex-wrestler Karl “Killer” Davis is physically intimidating but is only adequate when handling his lines.
As Brenn–the “robot” who’s unhypnotized by the heroes, remembers his past life as a gambling boss’s henchman, and brings his shady former friends into the plot–Lee Roberts is swaggeringly confident and cheerfully gruff; he comes off as rather likable overall, and makes his eventual firm alliance with the good guys seem credible enough. Roberts, in fact, serves as Judd Holdren’s de facto sidekick in more than one chapter–as does Nick Stuart, who plays one of Brenn’s chief associates, and displays an enjoyable combination of hustling eagerness and pop-eyed nervousness as he sneaks around Ergro. John Cason is also a lot of fun as Stuart and Roberts’ blunt, tough, and perenially perplexed cohort.
Frederic Berest offsets a sinister appearance with an earnest and solemn demeanor in the role of Dorn’s astute and extremely helpful lab assistant Alden. As Grood’s lab assistant Jarva, the diminutive but resonant-voiced Jack George is gravely dignified–and, like Roth, plays well off of the volatile Fox. As shady (but ultimately benign) gambling boss Ken Wolper, Leonard Penn only gets to make brief and sporadic appearances–until Chapter Fourteen, when he comes to the hero’s rescue by facing down Jarva, in a scene that’s made delightfully entertaining by Penn’s cool and sardonic handling of the villainous scientist and his high-tech weaponry. Penn’s slick, breezily cynical, but affable attitude when Judd Holdren subsequently shows him around Grood’s Earth lab is similarly entertaining.
Joseph Mell plays the leader of the Planet People, natives of Ergo who’ve been imprisoned by Grood–and who (like the Tharosians in Captain Video) dress in Arab garb; due to sloppy scripting, Mell and his tribesmen come off as a bit schiznophrenic–gratefully thanking Dorn and Barrow for helping them in one scene but violently trying to kick Barrow off the planet shortly afterwards. Pierre Watkin fumes in his dryly annoyed Perry White style as Barrow’s editor, but isn’t given any of the sharply sarcastic dialogue that helped to make his White portrayals so memorable. Marshall Bradford plays the sceptical general mentioned above, and Terry Frost pops up in the final chapter as one of the “robots.”
Despite its weak plot and non-existent action scenes, Planet is never as thoroughly dull as some of Sam Katzman’s early post-war Columbia serials; it’s often enlivened–and made enjoyable at times–by its procession of hokey and outlandish gadgets, its various touches of apparent self-parody, Fox and Taylor’s knowing performances, and engaging work from Katzman stock-company members like Roberts, Stuart, and Penn. However, it’s still not likely to prove of much interest to anyone but a serial completist or a devotee of filmic “camp.”