Friday, March 27, 2015

The Scifi/Supernatural Sixties: Silliness, Surrealism, Superheroes and Subversion

We have recently observed the huge collective outpouring of grief over the death of thespian Leonard Nimoy, who became an icon as the result of his work in a mid-1960's TV series called Star Trek. Star Trek was one of an amazing plethora of science fiction and fantasy programs aired by the 3 major US networks in the mid-1960's, and their collective popularity is such that Nimoy was not the only icon to emerge from the group.  These series include sitcoms, dramas, and action/adventure programs.

French critics group science fiction, horror and fantasy into one genre, which they call The Fantastique. The Flapdoodle Files believes this grouping to be both logical and useful for our purposes. 

For most of the past 45 years, The Fantastique has been a marginal genre in American network any one time, there might be between one and three successful Fantastique series on the air concurrently, such as Third Rock From the Sun and X-Files, for example, but never in numbers approaching the frequency of crime shows, workplace sitcoms, or medical programs.

In the mid-1960's, however, 31 Fantastique programs premiered on the Big Three American TV networks within a 6-year period. Considering that fantastical productions such as these all had special production requirements, such as optical and practical special effects, special make-up, special wardrobes and sets, and considering the technological and budgetary limitations of the period, this is a singular phenomenon in the history of TV. 

Technically primitive by today's standards, The Outer Limits was shocking and surreal to its original audience.
Note: The Flapdoodle Files has endeavored to list all Fantastique series, but has deliberate omitted cartoon and puppet series, simply for purposes of simplification (no disparagement of cartoon or puppet shows is intended). Gilligan's Island, which also contained many elements of the Fantastique is also omitted from this list, simply to avoid the need for side-tracking into a lengthy analysis in support of its inclusion.

  • My Favorite Martian (3 Seasons)
  • The Outer Limits (2 Seasons)
  • Bewitched (8 seasons)
  • Voyage to the Bottom of the  Sea (4 seasons)
  • The Man From UNCLE (4 seasons)
  • Addams Family (2 seasons)
  • The Munsters (2 seasons)
  • My Living Doll (1 season)

  • I Dream of Jeannie (5 seasons)
  • Get Smart (5 seasons)
  • The Avengers (already broadcast in the UK for several years, it premiered in the USA in 1965, for a total of 5 US seasons)
  • The Wild, Wild, West (4 seasons)
  • Lost In Space (3 seasons)
  • My Brother the Angel (1 season)
  • My Mother The Car (1 season)
  • Honey West (1 season)
  • Mission Impossible (7 seasons)
  • Dark Shadows (5 seasons)
  • Star Trek (3 seasons)
  • Batman (3 seasons)
  • Tarzan (2 seasons)
  • The Girl From UNCLE (1 season)
  • The Time Tunnel (1 season)
  • The Green Hornet (1 season)
  • It's About Time (1 season)
  • The Flying Nun (3 seasons)
  • The Invaders (2 seasons)
  • Captain Nice (1 season)
  • Land of the Giants (2 seasons)
  • The Ghost and Mrs Muir (2 seasons)
  • The Prisoner (premiered in the UK in 1967...1 season)
[Many readers will note that some Spy Shows, such as Man From UNCLE and Mission Impossible,  are included in this list of the Fantastique, and yet two excellent Spy Shows, Danger Man and I Spy are not included. This is because we have included the spy shows were science fiction technology or concepts were a regular feature, as opposed to Danger Man and I Spy, which, for the most part, avoided elements of the Fantastique.]

The high water mark for the trend is 1966. Counting series which aired their final episode that year, as well as new series and series which premiered that fall, The Flapdoodle Files counts 22 Fantastique series for that year.  Nineteen-sixty-six was also the year that Mission: Impossible, Batman, and Star Trek premiered. Of the Fantastique Sixties cohort, these shows have spawned the strongest media franchises, with 5 M:I films, 8 Batman films, and a Star Trek universe which includes 4 sequel TV series and 12 feature films. 

Certainly, there had been fantastical programs before the mid-1960's, notably Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949-55), but most of these had been aimed exclusively at a juvenile audience and were primitive, ultra-low-budget affairs. Captain Video's props were often toys straight from the shelves of Wannamaker's Department Store, which occupied the same building as the captain's broadcasting studio. Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1950-55) and Space Patrol (1950-55) were similar programs, also aimed at a juvenile audience.  

Captain Video was wildly popular, bringing in 3 million viewers at a time when there were about 6 million TV sets in the US, and it spawned a merchandising bonanza of comic books, ray guns, space helmets, etc. It was one of the first Baby Boomer media phenomena. When the Captain left the airwaves in 1955, it was not due to poor ratings, but rather the financial collapse of the Captain's parent company, the DuMont Television Network. 

Capt. Video, Ground Zero for Scifi TV
The same year that Captain Video premiered, the first two network western series, Hopalong Cassidy and The Lone Ranger also premiered. Like Captain Video and his peers, these early western series were aimed at children.

But the same year that the main juvenile scifi series ended, 1955, was the same year that the first two TV westerns aimed at adults premiered: The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke. These series which premiered within days of each other, and were soon followed by numerous other westerns aimed at the same audience, such as The Rifleman, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Rawhide, The Rebel, Have Gun Will Travel, etc.  Besides having better quality writing than their predecessors, these programs all had higher overall production values as well, with many of the creators striving to elevate the medium.

The emergence of 'adult' TV westerns in the mid-1950's seems to stem from two concurrent and related transitions in the TV industry: 1) Scripted TV was moving away from live real-time broadcasts to using material previously filmed or video-taped. 2) Adult dramatic programming, previously dominated by anthology-type shows, began to emphasize series featuring recurring characters and settings. 

The western genre was well-suited to dominate in this transitional period due to several factors: 1) a large, pre-existing infra-structure of sets, costumes, and trained horses, and the requisite staff familiar with the infra-structure 2) in the cinema, the western format had proven highly adaptable to virtually any type of story, so that writers were free to address a diversity of subjects, including love, war, greed, prejudice, even religion. 3) the western genre was immediately recognizable to the audience, so as to reduce the need for exposition 4) guns abounded in this genre, and every story promised some kind of violence, making it highly appealing to Americans, for whom violence is Mothers-Milk. In addition to these practical considerations, the western genre had also achieved mythic status in the imagination of the audience...placing human characters in a distant and timeless zone, where poetry was always just below the surface

While advertisers and networks were willing to devote sizable resources into western programs, the same is not true for science fiction and the fantastic. An adult-oriented science fiction anthology series, Science Fiction Theater, debuted for syndication in 1955, but it had a much lower budget than Gunsmoke, and only two seasons were produced.

The the high water mark for the western trend was 1959, when 26 western programs were broadcast during a single week.  That same year Bonanza premiered, one of the first network series to be filmed in color, and which eventually became a ratings juggernaut.

Most large scale trends do not continue forever.  Nineteen fifty-nine was also the year that the Maverick episode 'Gun-Shy,' an obvious spoof of Gunsmoke, aired.  Perhaps more significantly, that was also the year that Rod Serling's scifi/fantasy anthology The Twilight Zone began its long run.

The next milestone would come in 1961, when the Studebaker automobile company, against the better judgement of CBS, succeeded in bringing Mister Ed to national TV. Mister Ed was a variation of the domestic sitcom, featuring an intelligent horse who understands English and speaks it fluently, a purely fantasy concept, infused into a recognizable setting. Studebaker knew better than CBS, and the show was hit.  

Mr Ed premiered 12 years prior to Equus.
Looking back, it appears as sometime between 1961 and 1966, a lot of people were betting that the Fantastique would supplant the Western as the Next Trend in Television. The Flapdoodle Files has not uncovered any first-hand documentation as to exactly why this occurred, but we will nonetheless speculate:

Technological Acceleration: From the late 1930's onward, certain areas of technological development had been accelerating rapidly, and these developments had gotten heavy media coverage. You can see it dramatically if you Google the 1939 New York World's looks something like a Cult of Futurism. Television, radar, helicopters, jet planes, drone bombs, rockets, nuclear weapons, and stereophonic recordings were among the revolutionary innovations unleashed upon the public during this period. These seemingly rapid and certainly dramatic advances created an atmosphere wherein it seem plausible for technology to create almost any fantastic effect. The launch of Sputnik ignited the Space Race in 1957, and it was all suddenly turbo-charged.

Scifi Respectability: Literary scifi had been produced in abundance since the 1930's, and had been gaining in respectability since the late 1940's. Nineteen-fifty-three saw the first Hugo Awards, and by the 1960's a number of scifi writers, such as Bradbury, Heinlein, Poul and Asimov, had achieved mainstream fame and recognition. A number of high profile intellectuals, such as Marshall McLuhan, began to reference scifi within the hallowed halls of academia. 

Demographics: The Baby Boom officially began in 1946, which was also the peak year of the boom, as far as counting births goes. This was the first generation to grow up with TV in their homes, and with the Cult of Futurism as a backdrop. A Boomer born in 1946 would have been likely to have watched either Captain Video or Tom Corbett during grade school years, and at age 10 in 1956  might have read DC Comics' new science fiction hero the Flash. The first group to embrace The Man From UNCLE was college students...a Boomer born in 1946 would have been a college freshman in 1964, the year TMFU premiered. A huge cohort of potential customers was coming of age, each with a long potential life-span to buy cigarettes, laundry soap, ketchup, and automobiles.  It would be odd if the advertisers and network execs were not vigorously competing for the attention of these young consumers.  
Thespians of the Baby Boom: Bill Mumy, born in 1954; Burt Ward, born in 1945; and Angela Cartwright, born in 1952.
Sneaking Past the Censors: The Twilight Zone was created in part as a means for Rod Serling to circumvent interference from the squares at the network and the ad agencies. The Fantastique could be a means to camouflage potentially controversial content and ideas. We know that this also was a consideration for Gene Roddenberry during the creation of Star Trek as well, that he sought to televise stories that pushed the envelope, in terms of sex, politics, religion, and other potentially dangerous topics, but with the controversial aspects disguised by scifi props.  This idea is reinforced when we consider some of the Fantastique sitcoms of this period. My Favorite Martian, for instance, is about two single men living together, pretending to be nephew and uncle, who must conceal the truth about their relationship. I Dream of Jeannie features an unmarried man living with a naive and beautiful woman who calls him 'Master.' Bewitched and Mister Ed are also concerned with respectable middle-class men keeping secrets from the world. 

Two co-habitating men with a secret to hide...

In all likelihood, these combined factors, plus a few others, combined to create a milieu in which the powerful men wearing suits made decisions to spend big money on the Fantastique, a genre traditionally found only on the margins.  

There are two other trends, overlapping the Fantastique TV fad, which the Flapdoodle Files thinks worthy of mention.

One has been already touched upon: The so-called Silver Age of Comic Books, which is a period from 1956 until about 1969 when American mainstream comic books enjoyed a prolonged surge in sales. The Silver Age is characterized by a profusion of science-fiction related super-heroes and monsters, such as DC Comics' Green Lantern (premiering 1959) and Marvel Comics' Incredible Hulk (premiering 1962). The increased sales of comic books was concurrent with the peak years of innovation and virtuosity for a generation of artists and writers, such as Jack Kirby, John Broome, Carmine Infantino, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, Stan Lee and Gardner Fox. The monsters and super-heroes of the Silver Age certainly belong to the Fantastique, and thanks to extensive re-printing, much of the material is still popular today.  

The other trend involved fantastical imagery and references in pop music. In 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary scored a hit with 'Puff the Magic Dragon' and the Marketts charted with the surf-rock single 'Out of Limits,' an homage to both the Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits. This trend is too extensive to catalogue for this essay, but it includes Donovan's 'Sunshine Superman' (recorded in late 1965, it commemorates the Silver-Age comic-book hero Green Lantern), 'Windy' by the Association (1967), '2000 Light Years from Home' (1967) by the Rolling Stones, and of course several cuts from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album (1967). As with the Comic Book Men, these artists were also at the top of their game, and many of these songs are still played on commercial radio. 

Scifi super-hero, and Donovan's muse.

TV, pop music and comic books. Consumer art aimed at the youth market, reflecting a fantastical zeitgeist.

The premiere of Batman in early 1966 marks the most obvious convergence of the three trends. The character himself had been in comic book existence since 1939 but had never enjoyed the wide recognition of his pal Superman, and in fact had been on the verge of cancellation in 1964. Saved from a final oblivion by Carmine Infantino's brilliant visual reboot in 1964, it was the TV program which propelled Batman to super-star status and made him  a media and merchandising money-tree. 

Each Batman TV episode opened with a comic-book style animated credit sequence and driving rock and roll  theme song by Neal Hefti. The title song itself was re-recorded by the Marketts (becoming a top-40 hit) as well as by the Kinks and the Who. The producers attempted to reinforce the pop music connection with guest appearances on the show by Leslie Gore, and then Chad and Jeremy. 

Initially, Batman hit its prime demographic targets and more, being hugely popular with children, teens, college students and 'hip' adults, and initiating a marketing bonanza that would never quite disappear, even years after the show ended.  Batman was an immediate phenomenon, mentioned in the same context as Bond and the Beatles...for a while. 

Another popular music connection for the Dynamic Duo...
A number other Fantastique shows were also hits, especially the sitcoms Bewitched, Dream of Jeannie and Get Smart. Perhaps more significantly, a number of non-comedic 'adventure' shows also did well, such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Wild, Wild, West.

Besides Batman, two other series qualified as bona-fide phenomena. The Man From UNCLE,  which preceded Batman, had its own brief period of spectacular ratings, white-hot fandom, and marketing excess, before being supplanted by Batmania. For reasons unknown to the Flapdoodle Files, MFU was not syndicated in the 1970's, and is now, outside of baby-boomers, obscure.

Star Trek, costly to produce and with lackluster ratings almost immediately generated a cult of die-hard fans and a few high-profile boosters in the science fiction community, such as Isaac Asimov. The passion of Star Trek fans was such that their massive letter-writing campaigns helped persuade NBC to keep the show on the air beyond one season. Despite mediocre ratings, the show seems to have had an influence exceeding the ratings numbers. An RCA ad for Color TV (which was then still a luxury item) is an example:

Beside being the peak year for the trend, the 1966-67 season was also when a number of notable flops premiered: The Time Tunnel, The Girl From UNCLE, The Green Hornet, and It's About Time. Each of these programs was the brainchild of previously successful creators, so their respective failures might have been cause for concern for the networks and advertisers.  

It was about this time that ratings for The Man From UNCLE collapsed, after producers made the disastrous decision to emulate the 'camp' type humor of Batman.  And by spring 1967 ratings for the Caped Crusader himself had also started to hemorrhage.  The near simultaneous collapse of these two very high profile shows must also have been an ominous sign. 

Comic-book artist Jack Davis did the art on this item, evidence of confluence of the medium and Fantastique TV.
The Man from UNCLE was last broadcast on the network in January 1968, and Batman in March 1968.  Declining ratings caused Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to also be cancelled that year. It was the same year that Walter Cronkite famously declared the Viet Nam war to be unwinnable, the year that MLK and RFK were gunned down by assassins, the year the Chicago police brutalized anti-war demonstrators on national TV. 

No one knows exactly why ratings for so many of these shows seemed to dry up at roughly the same time. It may have simply been over-saturation, or the inevitable end of a fad. 

One possibility comes from the statistics kept by the US Government Selective Service System. Here are the draft numbers from the period:

1962:            82,060
1963:           119,265
1964:           112,386
1965:           230,991
1966:           382,010
1967:           228,263
1968:           296,406
1969:           283,586
1970:           162,746

The peak year for Fantastique TV was also the peak year for the Viet Nam draft. For the Baby Boomer audience coveted by the networks, literally every one of them was either a draftee, a potential draftee, or had friends/family as draftees. The 1966 draft numbers were more than threefold the 1963 numbers. The war hung over American youth like a Sword of Damocles: millions of young men lived with the expectation that any day they would ordered to submit to the institutionalized brutality of military life and the horrors of war. 

In 21st century vernacular, Shit Got Real. 

Circumstances had progressed to the point where perhaps televised fantasy was an insufficient opiate, and that something stronger might be required

Star Trek hung on until spring of 1969, in part because Paramount needed a complete third season in hope of recouping some of their losses by selling the program to syndication. The Wild, Wild West was also cancelled in 1969, in part due to pressure from parents' groups regarding the show's violent content.

The Flying Nun, Get Smart, Dark Shadows, Dream of Jeannie, The Ghost and Mrs Muir and Land of the Giants were cancelled in 1970. 

God doesn't give nuns the ability to fly, but TV does.
Of the 'straight' (non-comedic) Fantastique programs, only Mission:Impossible was left. But in fall of 1970, the emphasis of the series changed from super-spy operations, to the less fantastical emphasis of pursuing organized crime. M:I was following the crime-show trend which had begun in 1967, when Mannix and Ironside debuted. With inevitable peaks and valleys, and numerous adaptations to an ever-changing world, the crime-show trend continues to this day.

Bewitched held on until 1972. By this time, Night Gallery was on the air (1970-73) and The Six Million Dollar Man would premier in 1974 (running till 1978). This is the pattern that would prevail over the next three decades: successful Fantastique television shows would occur with only intermittent frequency, until cable programming and 'alternative' networks (i.e., Fox, and The CW) expanded sufficiently to accommodate a greater payload of the Fantastique. 

Because they could be enjoyed by both children and adults, most of the successful Fantastique TV programs of the 1960's were widely syndicated in the 1970's. A few series, such as Batman, Star Trek, and Bewitched have been been broadcast more or less continuously for the last 50 years, so that their total audience has become exponentially greater than their creators ever imagined. The longevity, financial success and cultural ubiquity of the Batman and Star Trek franchises suggest that Mr Spock and the Caped Crusader have both achieved the status of archetype, and even lesser characters, such as Barbara Eden's Jeannie, are said to be iconic. Considering these shows were originally conceived as products to be consumed immediately and then disposed of, their durability and adoption into modern mythology is a testament to their creators and to the power of the Fantastique. 

 Statue of the beloved fictional sorceress Samantha Stevens, from Bewitched, erected in 2005 in Salem, Massachusetts. 
In real life, Salem was notorious for having executed 20 accused witches in the late 17th century. 

No comments:

Post a Comment