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Tales of Tomorrow - Collection One

TV science fiction didn't begin with Star Trek, The Outer Limits, or The Twilight Zone. More than a decade earlier, viewers tuned their rabbit-ear anttenas to household-name stage and movie actors (and budding newcomers such as Paul Newman) in televised anthology series — The Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Television Theatre, and Playhouse 90. Alongside the adaptations of stage plays and classic novels and other "serious" fare, genre-specific programs like Lights Out, Suspense, and The Chevy Mystery Show specialized in popular pulp-magazine yarns. The first such science fiction anthology series, ABC's Tales of Tomorrow, premiered in 1951. (That was an auspicious year for fans of "that outer space junk," with movie houses debuting The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, When Worlds Collide, and other films kicking off a decade that defined the genre onscreen.)

Tales of Tomorrow was broadcast live, so its stories were essentially live stage plays with small casts. no studio audiences, no canned laughter, no "Applause!" signs. These modest chamber pieces went over the airwaves with long takes interrupted only for commercial breaks or for crosscutting to scenes played on the other set nearby. Above all, actors really had to know their stuff. Flubbed lines and goofs onstage or off were irrecoverable. Now this DVD set preserves goodness and goofs alike in a Tales of Tomorrow sampler. Here are 13 episodes from the program's first season, which ran year-round and offered 43 half-hour episodes between August '51 and August '52. (The second and final season, August '52 to June '53, delivered 42 episodes for a total of 85 broadcasts.)

To our eyes, these are primitive productions. The sets and special effects are, to put it fairly, economical and effective in context. The unsophisticated camerawork is aimed at sometimes arch performances and dialogue. The scripts are typically blunt and stilted (though a few, such as "The Little Black Bag," manage some grace and delicacy). But unlike Tom Corbett, Space Cadet or its other TV contemporaries, this science fiction series didn't aim for the kiddie market. Its grownup, sometimes thought-provoking dramas took science fiction and its audience seriously. For viewers whose memories of World War II and Hiroshima were only six years old, Tales of Tomorrow often dramatized Atomic Age anxieties about H-bombs and technology run amok. In the premiere episode, "Verdict from Space," an archeologist discovers a cavern full of alien machines monitoring Earth for a million years. When it transmits a signal announcing mankind's use of nuclear weapons, Doomsday arrives when someone Out There launches a pre-emptive strike against our WMDs. In "Blunder," a scientist risks destroying Earth's oxygen to invent a new power source. The scientist in "World of Water" devises a way to dissolve everything to H2O.

Before a single artificial satellite orbited Earth, these stories made rocketships and the "conquest" of space inevitabilities. In "Test Flight," obsessed tycoon Lee J. Cobb acquires a "counter-gravity motor" to become the first man in space, then blasts off to a conclusion that anticipates Twilight Zone's O. Henry surprises. (Even Cobb, Broadway's Willy Loman, gets confused and blows his lines trying to explain space travel.) Ten years to the day after Pearl Harbor, "Sneak Attack" oozed Cold War paranoia — a foreign nation (obviously the U.S.S.R.) holds America hostage after impregnable robot airplanes, loaded with Hetrodyne Bombs, land in U.S. cities. Denver is obliterated before freedom rings platitudinous.

Other social and technological bugbears converge in "Flight Overdue," where Veronica Lake's brassy aviatrix, lost after a secret Pentagon moonrocket flight, elicits a condemnation against the "strange breed" of self-interested dames representing the nascent Women's Lib threat. There's 27-year-old Paul Newman in his first professional screen acting job, "Ice from Space," which posits an all too literal Cold War. Here also is the infamous adaptation of "Frankenstein" with Lon Chaney, Jr. in the title role. Legend has it that Chaney stumbles through it because he was both drunk and unaware that this wasn't just a dress rehearsal. Twice he breaks character when he doesn't know what to do with a chair. And nowhere else will you see Mary Shelley's famous Monster suffer the indignity of getting shot in the crotch.

Meanwhile, we get stories by writers who shaped Golden Age science fiction on the page. Arthur C. Clarke's "All the Time in the World" co-stars Jack Warden, who abets a lowlife crook employed by a time-traveler from the future, the job being to rescue priceless art treasures from imminent nuclear annihilation. Theodore Sturgeon kick-started the series with "Verdict From Space," then screen-adapted "The Miraculous Serum," an immortality tale co-written by Stanley G. Weinbaum and starring Richard Derr from When Worlds Collide. Fredric Brown advocates compulsory mind-control to save the future awaiting us in 1965, a.k.a. the "Age of Peril" (starring Phyllis Kirk). Cyril Kornbluth's classic morality fable "The Little Black Bag" (with Joan Blondell) was adapted again for The Twilight Zone. Another later Twilight Zone redo is "What You Need," about a humble curio shop owner and a machine that can foretell an individual's future. Originally published in the October 1945 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, it's credited to Lewis Padgett, the pseudonym of husband-wife team Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore.

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Image Entertainment's Tales of Tomorrow DVD holds these 13 episodes (more than six hours) on two discs. It's subtitled "Collection One," so we can hope that subsequent installments are on their way. (Some episodes not included have appeared on VHS, and early in 2004 a single dollar-bin DVD held "Frankenstein" plus two others not here.) The original episodes were mothballed as kinescope recordings, created by filming the image that's playing on a television monitor. So the black-and-white imagery is certainly lo-fi. The source material is in fine shape, though expect plenty of video blooming and haloing. The hiss in the DD 2.0 monaural audio doesn't intrude on the dialogue, the musical accompaniments, or the microphones capturing all the coughs, bangs, and other offscreen noises in the studio.

As for "special features," who needs them when we get the original commercials, also shot live, from sponsors such as Kreisler watchbands, Masland carpets, and U.S. Defense Bonds ("the easiest way to save")? Whether you view these antiquities as retro-TV, proto-sci-fi, or as sociological snapshots, it's the closest we'll get to real time travel. Unless Arthur C. Clarke, as usual, knows something we don't. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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