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:: Saturday, October 18, 2003 ::

Crash of the Moons

The blooming 1950s television audience demanded science fiction adventure and drama. Rocky Jones: Space Ranger delivered the goods, bringing rocketships, ray-guns and the occasional robot into the home each week. The program featured (then) amazing models and effects and set a high standard. Too high a standard: the episodes were so expensive, the widely-watched show couldn't turn a profit and failed to win another season.

Fortunately many of the episodes found their way into feature films. To its adoring fans, Crash of the Moons represents the best of the Rocky Jones oeuvre. This film even got the Mystery Science Theater treatment, so it may be available in two different versions. (A complete list of the films is here.)

Crash of the Moons begins on the planet Opheisha. Rocky Jones (Richard Crane), pilot of the Orbit Jet and co-pilot Winky (Scotty Beckett) deliver Secretary Drake (Charles Meredith) to an audience with Cleolanta (suzeraine of Opheisha) (Patsy Parsons). Drake offers Opheisha membership in the United Worlds, but Cleolanta will have none of that nonsense. And since the United Worlds appears to be an extrapolation of the United Nations, she is right. Did I mention Cleolanta is the villain? Generating sympathy for her this early in the film is not a strong start.

Rejected, Rocky and his friends blast off and begin their trip home to Earth. Meanwhile, Professor Newton (Maurice Cass) and his young assistants Vena Ray (Sally Mansfield) and Bobby (Bobby Lyden) rocket out to Space Station OW-9 to greet our returning heroes.

A word about Maurice Cass: a refugee from the Bolsheviks, he and his family fled to the United States. He grew up here, and acted in more than 125 films. The Rocky Jones films were his last (he died shortly after season one). While he played a lovable and goofy foil to stolid Rocky, the man was a true American and it's great to see him in his last role and just months away from meeting his Maker.

When Rocky checks in with OW-9 by radio, Vena answers the phone and befuddles him. She sure doesn't sound like station chief Andrews (Rand Brooks). When Rocky finally gets the joke he almost smiles.

Almost. You see, Rocky is not your average laconic rocket pilot. He's downright unflappable, and conversely not very affable. Every inch the commander and hero, Rocky Jones is a proto-James T. Kirk. But don't take my word for it, here's what another Rocky-fan has to say on the subject:

Rocky Jones doesn't seem human to us today, because he is not paralyzed by doubts, he is serious about what he is doing, he is dedicated to fighting the bad guys who are clearly 'bad' guys. That a woman was aboard was ground breaking just as having a mixed crew was shocking when "Star Trek" hit the air waves. It was futuristic, and though it didn't go nearly far enough, it pointed the way to where our society has actually begun to go.

Rocky was a hero. He was not an ordinary guy with some extra training. He could do no wrong, by definition. Heroes are always in short supply, so it is not surprising that others went to him for advice and took what he gave. The only real difference between a hero story then and one now is that today's heroes need to fight the system to do their heroic deeds and they are tortured by the fear that they may die alone because no one understands their truths.

That Rocky Jones, he's a baaad motha--
Shut your mouth!
But I'm talking about Rocky!

Professor Newton announces that he and his assistants are preparing to visit the Gypsy Moons Posita and Nagato. Orbiting around each other, the Gypsy Moons pass through the solar system from time to time, and one of those times is now. Rocky hears the news and grows alarmed. Rushing to his charts, he projects the path of the Gypsy Moons and discovers to his horror that they'll pass far too closely to OW-9. The station will pass through the Moons' atmospheric chain and be destroyed by a violent storm. With no other rocketship close enough to rescue OW-9, it's up to Rocky Jones and his trusty sidekick Winky to save the day!

Because Crash of the Moons is recycled from a television series it is necessarily episodic in plot. And since the film abruptly switches gears at this point, we can surmise that the unresolved fate of Space Station OW-9 is the first episode's cliff-hanger.

Meanwhile on Gypsy Moon Posita, Bavaarro (John Banner) and Potanda (Maria Palmer) check on their baby prince (uncredited). By the way, the baby serves as the film's peril-o-meter. You can estimate the risk to Posita by measuring the baby's cries. Really: the characters even remark about it. That he is currently throwing a fit portends badly for this Gypsy Moon. (Foreshadowing)

As enlightened monarchs, the King and Queen rule over Posita with a gentle touch, although their lightning-bolt motif speaks of a sordid and bloody past. [And yes, that is that John Banner you know as Sgt. Schultz.] Cooing and comforting their heir, they discuss Professor Newton's impending arrival.

Said Professor might not be coming to Posita after all. With OW-9 feeling the effects of the atmospheric chain, he's otherwise occupied. The station tosses and turns, and the roller chairs roll back and forth. Ah, roller chairs on space stations. Weren't the fifties grand?

With only seconds to spare, Rocky Jones and Winky guide the Orbit Jet into OW-9's docking assembly. After Andrews throws the switch controlling the magnetic clamps, Rocky guns the engines and drags the space station to safety!

With OW-9 out of danger (and presumably in a safe new orbit), Rocky refuels his spaceship, gathers Professor Newton and his assistants, and blasts off for Posita. Rocky Jones is supposed to be a Space Ranger, but he does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time running a taxi service in this film.

Back on Posita, Bavarro and Potanda wonder what's taking Professor Newton so long. Something's amiss, but Bavarro can't quite identify it.

[George Lucas admits his Star Wars films are an homage to the science fiction series of his youth. I wonder if Bavarro inspired one of Obi-Wan's signature phrases.]

As the Orbit Jet speeds to Posita, Professor Newton and his assistants make the film's second startling discovery. Because the Gypsy Moons are not beholden to any star, they wander the universe and present something of a hazard to rocketships and other planets. In fact, Posita is soon to collide with Opheisha (home to Cleolanta). In other words, Posita and Opheisha are doomed worlds. The question of whether the United Worlds can attempt a rescue at this late stage is difficult to answer. So the crew debate whether to inform the imperiled planets.

By the way: when Rocky announces that the inhabitants of the Gypsy Moons can't develop their astronomical sciences because they lack a fixed point in space, does he realize that the Earth isn't fixed in space either? Is he proposing a Ptolemaic universe? Is it any wonder that Sputnik beat Explorer 1?

Upon landing, the passengers and crew debark and greet Bavarro and Potanda in their castle. The King and Queen are pleased to show off their young prince. As Bavarro greets each of the crew he declares how much he'd like his heir to emulate them. First, he'd like the prince to grow up to be strong and decisive like Rocky. Or wise and diplomatic like Secretary Drake. And what about Winky?

About that Winky: Rocky-fans are split about whether Winky preferred the love that dared not speak its name. Today, the debate continues to divide the Rocky Jones conventions. I doubt that a fifties space show for kiddies would feature such a character, but did the actor imbue the role with his own eccentricities?

Winky is played by Scotty Beckett, who began his film career in The Little Rascals. As one of the original Hollywood child stars, he suffered hard for his craft:

Scotty unfortunately would up like many child stars, living a sad life of depression, becoming addicted to drugs. Scotty's life was especially tragic, considering the promise he showed as a young actor. As a teenager, he began to use drugs and alcohol and his performance on screen and reliability off suffered. What info is available about his adult years indicates he had a bad temper, too. He couldn't hold a job, and his marriage failed. In his last days Scotty, only 38 and an alcoholic, was beaten up by some thugs, checked himself into a Hollywood hospital, and died not long after in 1968.
(Scotty Beckett Shrine)

A sad story, rendered sadder still by the death of Richard Crane (Rocky) a year later. Was the set of Rocky Jones cursed? Hardly, and Beckett's two marriages (and one offspring) vanquish the notion that the actor or the character is batting for the other team.

Meanwhile back on Posita, Bavarro is shocked to learn what fate has in store for his Gypsy Moon. Aghast a the thought of losing his realm, but showing concern for the people he rules, Bavarro agrees to join Secretary Drake on a mission to the other Gypsy Moon, Nagato. There he'll try to reach some accommodation with its ruler, Torvak. If all goes well, the United Worlds will be able to evacuate Posita before it collides with Opheisha. These adventures are barely depicted on screen, suggesting that they comprise scenes filmed for television, but edited out of this film. With their business on Posita concluded, Rocky and Winky attempt to warn the inhabitants of Opheisha, but their mission won't be easy.

In Cleolanta's castle, a young Opheishian officer named Atlasan (Harry Lauter) tells his wife Trinka (Nan Leslie) he's looking forward to an audience with Cleolanta. Trinka's not as pleased as you might expect.

While Atlasan's away, Trinka unpacks her secret astrophone she uses to listen to news from other worlds (Radio Free Universe?). She listens to Rocky Jones (in orbit above Opheisha) as he delivers the grim news of the impending crash of moons.

Having had a change of heart, Atlasan returns to apologize to Trinka, and catches her in the act of treason. Like any concerned husband, he smashes the astrophone and drags her off to his suzeraine.

Pleased at Atlasan's display of loyalty, Cleolanta interrogates Trinka to divine the extent of her treachery. But before Trinka spills the beans, Cleolanta learns that Rocky Jones is attempting a landing on Opheisha. Cleolanta orders her officers to destroy the Orbit Jet. Could this be the end for our heroes?

Turning the tables on her captors, Trinka steals her husband's gun out of its holster and holds Atlasan and Cleolanta hostage. Now Rocky Jones and Winky can land the Orbit Jet unimpeded. Unwisely dropping her guard, Trinka loses the pistol to Atlasan and is imprisoned for her troubles.

Rocky and Winky exit their rocketship and plan their approach to Cleolanta's castle. Rocky urges caution, making the audience wonder why they would bother to bring ray guns in the first place.

Wisely sensing that a direct approach would fail, Rocky resorts to subterfuge. Knocking on the castle door and retreating to a safe vantage, Rocky lures the Opheishian praetorian guards outside before leaping into a good-old fifties fistfight.

When's the last time you saw a fistfight on TV? Almost every episode of Star Trek had one or two. I miss them.

Getting the better of the guards, Rocky and Winky march into the throne room and set Cleolanta straight. Darn tootin'. Cleolanta is speechless.

Meanwhile on Nagato, Bavarro and Torvak reach an agreement. Bavarro and his people may live in their own kingdom on Nagato. Secretary Drake radios the good news so the people of Posita may load up their transport jets and fly through the atmospheric chain to their new world. Contrast the photograph from Nagato with those from Posita. White lightning/Black lightning. Another duality of man analogy? A comment on embracing diversity? We'll never know: the answer must lie in an episode edited out of this film.

In a negotiating room on Opheisha, Rocky and Cleolanta hammer out the details of the rescue of the Opheishians. When Cleolanta asks for a moment alone with her advisor (Atlasan), Rocky is gracious enough to oblige. Cleolanta and Atlasan exit the room. And like any autocrat worth her stuff, Cleolanta takes the opportunity to turn on the sleeping gas.

Why don't our negotiating rooms come with this handy feature?

With our heroes soundly asleep, Cleolanta reveals her evil plan. She'll use her space battleship to fly out to Posita. Bombarding it with Tritanic missiles, she'll blow up the Gypsy Moon and eliminate the threat to her planet. Atlasan observes that Posita hasn't finished its evacuation, but Cleolanta takes no heed. When you're a suzeraine, you've got to be decisive.

As Cleolanta gets the space battleship ready, Atlasan has a change of heart. He can't countenance mass slaughter -- even of Positians. Paying a visit to his wife (who is also held in a sleeping-gas saturated room), he revives her and urges her to do the right thing. And with that, he's off to co-pilot Cleolanta's craft.

Evading the guards, Trinka reaches Rocky's room. Closing the gas valve, she awakens our heroes. Advising Rocky and Winky of Cleolanta's evil intent, Trinka insists on joining the crew to save Posita and, if possible, save her husband too.

After another glorious and gratuitous fistfight, the three reach the Orbit Jet. After Rocky helps Trinka into the funniest acceleration couch ever, he joins Winky in the cockpit. When the talk turns to Trinka, Winky's ready to cut loose with a wolf-whistle, but Rocky curtly cuts him off. Ah, the good old sexual politics of the fifties.

With an imposing lead over our heroes, Cleolanta and Atlasan arrive over Posita and prepare their bombardment of Tritanic missiles. Cleolanta flubs the launch order, but the missiles fly anyway. That's Tritanic missiles, Cleolanta. Everyone else calls'em that. Anyway, the missiles really do a number on Bavarro's palace. Bobby leads Vena down to the bomb shelter. And as a courtesy to King and Queen, they take along the royal heir. Said prince is really howling it up now!

Rocky blasts onto the scene and dispenses justice, one torpedo at a time. A lucky shot konks out the Opheishian craft's engine, stranding Cleolanta and Atlasan in orbit over Posita. Trinka radios her husband in the enemy rocketship, pleading with him to cease bombardment. He obliges, infuriating Cleolanta. When she lunges for the big red button, Atlasan wrestles her back into her chair and ties her up.

With the threat to Posita eliminated, Rocky abandons the derelict Opheishian spaceship and takes the Orbit Jet down to the surface. He and Winky rescue Professor Newton and Queen Potanda from the wreckage of the castle. Once they locate Bobby, Vena and the prince (who is now silent) in the shelter, everything's back to normal, and the evacuation may continue. Winky uses a giant remote control to guide Cleolanta's spaceship down to a safe landing. With the crisis on Posita resolved, our heroes only have one remaining planet to save.

With rumors spreading throughout Opheisha, the streets are a riot of panicked citizenry. The praetorian guards are out to save themselves. Above the planet is the Orbit Jet, bearing Rocky, Winky, Trinka, Atlasan and the embittered Cleolanta. When they land on Opheisha, the guards rush the ship, hoping to overpower the crew and blast off to safety.

Another fistfight, and inside a rocketship! This film has everything!

Realizing the situation can get only worse, Cleolanta orders her guards to stand down. Heedless to her words, the guards cease fighting only when Trinka uses the intercom to appeal to their Opheishian solidarity. Good patriots to the last, those guards. The film plays up this point, putting the propaganda right under our nose.

Fearing she may lose the respect of her people, Cleolanta capitulates and agrees to a United Worlds evacuation of Opheisha. Mind, there's not much time left before the crash of moons, so things get a bit dicey. Trinka establishes a lottery for berths on the evacuation ships. They'll make as many trips to a new planet and back, before the moons crash. Trinka and Atlasan forfeit their berths, pledging to evacuate on the last rocket to leave Opheisha.

And with that, the film treats us to the mother of all rocket days.

With the evacuation drawing to a close, Cleolanta makes a last stand. She'll never leave her homeland. Atlasan must physically carry her off to the Orbit Jet

With everyone evacuated from Opheisha, the plot draws to the eponymous climax. The crew breathlessly await the crash of moons.

With Posita and Opheisha obliterated, Rocky radios Bavarro, who is safe in his new digs on Nagato. Bavarro's not pleased to see his homeland go up in a flash, but he's not going to dwell in the past. He also takes the opportunity to lay on the film's lesson with a trowel.

With literally nothing left to lose, Cleolanta divines hope from Bavarro's words. As long as she has her people, it doesn't matter where she and they may live. Realizing she can retain her role as suzeraine, she thanks Bavarro for his wisdom, slaps up another layer of message, instantly melts from ice-princess to likeable nobility, and cues the swelling end-of-film theme. The End

And that's when the afore-featured lightning bolts really strike home. Cleolanta's character arc reveals that we haven't actually been watching hokey space opera at all. This is nothing less than an epochal update of the Bard's immortal classic. You approach this film wanting rockets and rayguns. You never expect it to dangle those carrots in front of your eyes while it serves up a generous helping of The Taming of the Shrew. That Rocky Jones, he's sneakier than you might expect.

Crash of the Moons is the best of the best of a largely forgotten genre. The film is the best of the Space Ranger series, and the shows from which the films are derived are the best of the fifties television science fiction. At a minimum, they are superior because they commanded the largest production budgets and were shot on film rather than video.

With that said, the best of the best amounts to rather poor pickings. The film's science is... let's not talk about the science. The film has aged poorly: the medium is damaged and the atmosphere is anachronistic. The story is convoluted (necessary in an episodic cliff-hanger) and largely contrived. The characters are fodder for woodpeckers.

And yet I like it. Somehow, Crash of Moons draws you in and compels you to watch until the end. I can offer no explanation for this phenomenon. At the close of the film, I still feel like I've wasted my time, yet I feel strangely satisfied. Maybe it's a function of haughty superiority: I've watched films far better than you, Rocky, so there! Maybe it's hero-worship. Maybe it's the Shakespearian flourish at the end. Maybe it's something else I can't identify.

Whatever the reason, Crash of Moons is a film I endorse and recommend. They don't make films like this anymore, so this may be your only chance to see what the whole genre is like. Heck, IMDB appears to suggest you can watch the whole movie online. [I couldn't make the links work, but maybe you can.]

One Ear Up.
:: Anna 5:08 PM [+] ::

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