“Challenging the stars themselves”: An infinitesimal look at what could well be Canada’s first science fiction television series, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Space Command
Do you like science fiction (SF), my reading friend? And yes, yours truly very much realises that if one was to ask two SF fans for a definition of that genre, you would probably get three opinions, if not five.
Personally, I rather like SF. I am especially fond of books that go over the history of the many aspects of that genre, from the magazines and books to the radio serials, television series and blockbuster movies.
You will note that yours truly used the acronym SF as an abbreviation of the term science fiction. True fans tended / tend to use that acronym, pronounced ess eff, never, ever pronounced sniff, rather than sci fi, pronounced sigh fi or skiffee. To give you an example of the difference between the two, the Star Wars franchise is sci fi whereas the Star Trek franchise if SF. Got it? Could this be a form of interstellar snobbery, you ask, my reading friend? Good question. Let us move on.
Yours truly would like to peer in “the vast blackness of interstellar space” on this fine day to learn more about what could well be Canada’s first SF television series. Yes, yes, the very first one, unless of course you know of an older one. Nothing comes to mind?
How about the serialised version of Jules Gabriel Verne’s world famous 1870-71 SF novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, broadcasted in September and October 1952 by the team behind the serial dramatic television series Tales of Adventure of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), itself broadcasted between September 1952 and March 1953, you ask, my erudite reading friend?
A good point I will admit, but Tales of Adventure was never intended to be an SF television series, now was it? Nothing else? Good. Let us peer and… Yes, Verne was indeed mentioned in several / many issues of our stunning blog / bulletin / thingee, and this since June 2018.
Our story presumably began in 1952 in a smoke-filled office or conference room in a building which housed offices of the CBC. Sadly, yours truly cannot say with certainty if the meeting which led to the birth of Space Command took place in Toronto, Ontario.
It looks as if Alfred “Alf” Harris, age 25 in March 1953, himself an SF fan, came up with the idea for an SF series aimed at a young audience, teenagers really, presumably male ones, and was tasked with writing the scripts for what can be described as one of the first dramatic television series developed in Canada.
Up to that time, the young Canadian had been busy writing for magazines, adapting theatre plays for radio, etc. As you may well imagine, he knew that space-related SF could work on television. One only needed to think of Captain Video and His Video Rangers (June 1949-April 1955), Space Patrol (March 1950-February 1955) and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (October 1950-June 1955), American weekly series aimed at a young audience.
And yes, in that distant past, SF was often seen as a more or less juvenile literary genre with little importance.
And no, yours truly does not know what happened in 1955 which led to the disappearance of all three of the aforementioned series, and… You have some thoughts regarding that, my reading friend? Do tell. In 1954-55, the interest of the American viewing public was turning to new and cool, at least for the time, western television series like The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-59), Cheyenne (1955-62), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61), Gunsmoke (1955-1975 (!)) and Fury (1955-60). Televised SF could not resist such a stampede, you say (type?). A very good point.
Incidentally, I distinctly remember watching more than a few episodes of Rintintin, Police des plaines / Le Justicier, in other words Gunsmoke, and Furie / Fury, in French of course, when I was a young and small Homo sapiens with hair (Sigh…), but back to our topic.
Incidentally, the aforementioned stampede presumably caused the cancellation of lesser known American space-related SF television series, namely Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers (April 1953-May 1954), Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (February 1954-November 1954) and Flash Gordon (October 1954-July 1955).
Would you believe that Flash Gordon was a multi-national project, one of the first in television in fact, which initially involved an American production house and a West German one, before switching to an American firm and a French one? And yes, most of the supporting actors were West German, at least when the series was shot in West Germany, but I digress.
To paraphrase Harris, and to quote a December 1953 issue of an Ottawa, Ontario, daily newspaper, The Evening Citizen, “‘Space Command’ is the name given to a hypothetical, earth-wide organization of the foreseeable future which directs, maintains and carries out Earth’s conquest of Space.”
I must admit at this stage of our story that the term conquest bothers me a bit. It smacks of the kind of conquest of America, Africa and elsewhere which usually ended in the subjugation / oppression, if not the decimation of indigenous populations deemed inferior because they were not white and / or Christian. There is not much that is joyful about the legacy of Christopher Columbus / Christoforo Colombo, to name just one subjugator / oppressor. Anyway, let us move on.
As designed by Harris, Space Command stuck with scientific principles, plausible hypotheses and known facts. The show’s characters were young explorers / scientists who went on adventures for sure, how could it be otherwise, but the motivations and causes of said adventures, not to mention the personal relationships and problems of said characters, were firmly rooted in the fact that they were space travellers. Space Command was most certainly not a space opera, an interplanetary cousin of the soap opera and horse opera much decried by many SF fans of the 1950s.
To quote Harris,
Science fiction has passed through its period of carefree adolescence and has attained a sincere and self-searching young maturity. But the term itself is greatly in need of definition.
Science fiction is not concerned with wild flights of the imagination. Weird, fantastic tales of space monsters, moon-maidens, space-pirates, and space-spies are not science fiction – even though they often do, unfortunately, masquerade under that name.
Given that Space Command was primarily aimed at the CBC’s young male viewers, one should not be surprised to hear (read?) that the series followed the space education / career of a young and white male (Christian?) Homo sapiens. Frank Anderson, played by Robert “Bob” Barclay, learned the ropes of life in space, so to speak, by moving from one division of Space Command (exploration, investigation / scientific, satellite, transport) to another. With each placement, Anderson and, ipso facto, the young viewers, gained new knowledge.
The first episode of Space Command dealt with the effect of sunspots on space stations and space travel, for example. At the time, the origin of these dark spots on the surface of the Sun was still not all that well understood.
Incidentally, the year 1953 was a low point in solar activity. The highest numbers of sunspots at the time were recorded in April 1937, May 1947, March 1958 and November 1968. And yes, solar activity changes over time according to an 11 or so year cycle known as the sunspot cycle / solar magnetic activity cycle / solar cycle / Schwabe cycle, named after the German astronomer Samuel Heinrich Schwabe, who first pointed out its existence in 1843, and… Sorry, I digress. I have to be brief. I have to be brief.
Other themes approached during various episodes of Space Command included evolution, space medicine, the danger posed by meteoroids and the origin of the asteroid belt located roughly between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter.
A brief digression if I may… Health in Space: Daring to Explore (Hello, EP and SB!) is a travelling exhibition developed by the dazzling Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency. A more permanent version of that exhibition can be admired at that admirable museal institution.
The evolution storyline… Err, you look puzzled, my reading friend. Ahh, I see. A meteoroid is a rocky or metallic object that travels through space. If a meteoroid of a certain size enters the atmosphere of the Earth, friction with molecules of gas present up there heat it up, thus creating a beautiful / frightening streak of light in the sky, in other words a meteor. If a meteoroid is large enough, it will punch its way through said atmosphere and hit the Earth, either in one piece or not. The part(s) of the meteoroid that hit the Earth are / is called a meteorite. Now back to our story.
The evolution storyline was presumably linked to an episode in which our heroes landed on a living planet whose craters and vines were decidedly unfriendly. The meteoroid one, on the other hand, was presumably linked to an episode in which our heroes had to hurriedly repair the damage to their spaceship caused by the impact of several objects of that type.
And no, evolution was not / is not one of the founding blocks of Communism and it is not an assault on religion either. It is a fact of life. No pun intended. Our earliest known ancestor did not come into existence on 28 October (Julian calendar) of the year 4004 before the common era. It was / is one of the various species of a small (50 grammes / 1.75 ounce) arboreal and omnivore critter known as Teilhardina which lived in northern Europe, Asia and America 47 to 56 million years ago.
Personal opinion: we should have stayed in the trees; the planet would be far better off.
By the way, the great American paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson named our little arboreal critter Teilhardina in 1940, after is discoverer, a French paleontologist / philosopher / professor / researcher / theologian, the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who had no doubts about the reality of the theory of evolution.
The first 30 minute episode of Space Command went on the air 70 years ago this month, in March 1953. Its early evening (prime time?) time slot changed over time. An example among several of such changes follows:
- Friday (March-July 1953)
- Saturday (October-December 1953),
- Friday (January-April 1954), and
- Saturday (May 1954).
If one is to trust the early 2000s memories of people who had seen the series half a century before, the starting point of the plot was the discovery of an extraterrestrial spaceship on Mars. The staff of Space Command reverse engineered its advanced propulsion system and created the first human-designed interstellar spaceship, the XSW-1, which became the mode of transport of the heroes of Space Command.
Given the presence of CBC television stations in Toronto and Montréal, Québec, and nowhere else, in March 1953, the viewership was initially a tad limited.
Limited was also a word one could use to describe the special effects of Space Command. As was the case with many / most SF television series of the time, said effects were not all that convincing, not when CBC people had to pull characters, allegedly making a spacewalk, across a stage with a black curtain studded with small “stars,” as they sat on sawhorses draped in black velvet. A disused Toronto area gravel pit was used whenever a spaceship had to be seen flying – or exploding. Mind you, the television screens were not all that big in 1953-54 and the quality of the image was not always all that great anyway.
All this being said (typed?), the uniforms worn by Space Command personnel, the bridge of the XSW-1 and the ship itself were / are pretty cool.
Dialogues, music and sound effects were used to beef up storylines as much as possible. Indeed, it has been suggested that music clips from at least one motion picture, namely Destination Moon, an American film premiered in June 1950 and one of the classic SF films of the age, were “borrowed” for use on at least one episode. Given the relatively poor sound quality of the copies of the episodes sent to more or less distant television stations, the music and sound effects were quite subdued in order not to drown the dialogues.
Incidentally, the fireworks which passed as engines on the spaceship models were provided by T.W. Hands Fireworks Company Limited of Toronto. Would you believe that this firm was founded in 1873 by English Canadian William T. Hands and that it still existed as of 2023, under the name Hands Fireworks Incorporated, I think? That subsidiary of Lì Dōu Yānhuā Gǔfèn Yǒuxiàn Gōngsī, one of the most important manufacturers of fireworks on planet Earth, has been selling foreign-made, in this case Chinese, fireworks since 2005.
Yours truly presumes that, as other CBC television stations and the first private stations made their appearance, more and more people were able to see Space Command. Said stations were located in
- Ottawa (June 1953),
- Sudbury, Ontario (October 1953 - private station - the first in Canada),
- London, Ontario (November 1953 - private station),
- Vancouver, British Columbia (December 1953),
- Kitchener, Ontario (March 1954 - private station), and
- Saint John, New Brunswick (March 1954 - private station).
Produced in Toronto, the series was recorded by a process known as kinescope or telerecording which, at the time, was the only practical way to preserve a live television broadcast and distribute it over long distances. You see, my reading friend, 2-inch (51 millimetres) quadruplex videotape only appeared on the market in 1956.
Now that we have made it this far, would you like to know the names of “the men dedicated to the planet Earth and to her perilous Space Command” which could be found in the photograph at the beginning of this article of our super blog / bulletin / thingee? And yes, that was a rhetorical question. Why do you keep asking?
Anyway, the four gentlemen in question were / are, from left to right:
- James Montgomery “Jimmy” Doohan, age 33 in March 1953, who played Phil Mitchell,
- John Thomas Howe, age 26, who played someone I have yet to identify,
- Andrew “Andy” Anthony, born Ondřej Antonín Zubak, age 26, who played Dr. Joseph Edmunds, and
Each and every one of these gentlemen was a white male anglophone and locally born Canadian, with one exception: Anthony was born in Czechoslovakia.
Oddly enough, the officer in charge of the good space ship XSW-1, Captain Steve Cassel, played by English actor Harry Geldard, age 32 in March 1953, was not in the photograph.
And yes, you are quite correct, my sarcastic reading friend. XSW-1 is one heck of a sexy name for a spaceship. It was / is even worse than C-57D, the name given to the spaceship of a classic 1956 American SF movie. If you are nice, I might give you the title of that movie, if you cannot figure it out for yourself.
Other white anglophone male Homo sapiens who played more or less occasional characters Space Command were
- Canadian actor Alexander Austin Willis, age 35 in March 1953,
- English Canadian actor Barry Morse, born Herbert Morse, age 34,
- Polish Canadian actor Cecil Yekuthial “Cec” Linder, born Zisil Yekuthial Linder, age 32, and
- Canadian actor William “Bill” Shatner, age 22.
Yes, yes, Shatner. Would you believe that this internationally known actor seemingly made his television debut in Space Command?
Indeed, Space Command was the first production in which Doohan and Shatner cooperated. It would not be the last, as we both know, do we not? Montgomery Christopher Jorgensen “Scotty” Scott and James Tiberius “Jim” Kirk?
You had me worried for a billion nanoseconds or two, my reading friend.
Incidentally, would you believe that Doohan’s character in Space Command might, I repeat might, have been an engineer? I kid you not. Harris’ decision in that regard was based on a 19th century stereotype / cliché. Sweating over the cranky engines of countless ships caught in horrendous storms and always saving the day, Scottish engineers transformed the world.
By the way, you will of course remember that Doohan was mentioned in an April 2020 issue of our interstellar blog / bulletin / thingee while Shatner has been similarly blessed, several times actually, since November 2018.
The only female character of Space Command was Ilene Morris, played by an American actor, possibly / probably the youngest member of the cast, Aileen Taylor, age 21 in March 1953. Was she a member of the crew, you ask, my reading friend? A member of the crew? Are you that naïve? Morris worked at the headquarters of Space Command, in… communications.
Yep, just like Nyota Uhura in the 1960s SF television series Star Trek. The latter, at least, got to travel in space with the rest of the boys. In a short skirt, mind you. And yes, I realise that most people came across the first name Nyota in the 2009 American SF action film Star Trek.
By the way, the first female astronaut hailing from the United States was / is Sally Kristen Ride. She rode her rocket in… June 1983. The Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Vladimirovna “Valya” Tereshkova had done the same in June 1963.
As appalling as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was, there was still someone there, in 1961, willing to push and shove, politely of course, to send a woman into space, for propaganda purposes of course, an action that no one in the United States, the great bastion of democracy, seemed able (or willing?) to duplicate. Just sayin’.
That someone, by the way, was apparently Colonel General Nikolai Petrovich Kamanin, the head of the Soviet cosmonaut training program. He was the one who convinced the most important bad hombre in the USSR, the first secretary of the Kommunisticheskaya Partiya Sovetskogo Soyuza, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, a nogoodnik mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2019.
And do not get me started on the 13 women involved in the not quite official 1959-62 Woman in Space Program. The First Lady Astronaut Trainees / Mercury 13, as they were sometimes / often called, got a raw deal.
Better yet, would you believe that the USSR seriously considered the possibility of sending into orbit an all female crew, consisting of Valentina Leonidovna Ponomaryova and Irina Bayanovna Solovyova, in 1966? One of these cosmonauts was even supposed to perform a spacewalk, a first for a female Home sapiens. Sadly, the sudden passing, at age 59, in January 1966, of the USSR’s chief rocket designer, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, a brilliant Ukrainian, yes, yes, Ukrainian, engineer, changed the deal. (Хай живе, вільна Україна!) Well, that and a shift in the focus of the Soviet space program toward a Moon landing. Said shift was one of numerous consequences of the removal from office, in October 1964, of the aforementioned Khrushchev.
And yes, Korolev was mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2019.
In the end, neither Ponomaryova nor Solovyova would go into space. Pity.
And yes, my reading friend who is desperate to change the subject, the Canadian telecommunication satellite Anik C2 was deployed during the mission Ride was a member of.
Speaking (typing?) of Canadian, the first Canadian female astronaut was Roberta Lynn Bondar. She went into space once, in January 1992.
Sadly, few people seem to remember the second Soviet female cosmonaut. Svetlána Yevgén’yevna Savítskaya went into space in August 1982. Yes, in 1982, 19 years after Terechkova’s journey into space, which went to prove that sexism was alive and well in the USSR. Savítskaya returned to space in July 1984, a first for a female cosmonaut, and became the first female Home sapiens to perform a spacewalk, but back to our story.
As far as yours truly can tell, the presence of Space Command on the air and the presence in Montréal newspapers, in 1953, of advertisements for the ‘Space Commander’ Vibro-Matic walkie talkies made in the United States by a, at the time, relatively little known toy maker, Remco Industries Incorporated, was a simple coincidence. Incidentally, I rather like the descriptor used in some French language advertisements to describe these walkie talkies, namely parleurs ambulants, in English ambulatory / strolling speakers.
One had to wonder if the mandarins at the head of the CBC knew that t-shirts bearing the words Outer Space Command went on sale in the spring of 1953 in department stores operated in Saskatchewan and, presumably, in other locations in other provinces, by Robert Simpson Company Limited of Toronto. I guess we will never know.
Incidentally, the supervising producer for many episodes of Space Command was a gentleman by the name of Sydney Cecil Newman, born Sydney Cecil Nudelman, age 35 in March 1953. That Canadian moved to England in 1961 to became Head of Drama at the British Broadcasting Corporation. A major figure in the development of British television, he played a crucial part if the creation of a British television series whose first episode hit the airwaves in November 1963. You might have heard of it. Perhaps. Do you know… Doctor Who?
Newman was not the only Space Command behind the scene people who went on to do interesting things. Nay. The series’ director, I think, Arthur Hiller, age 28 in March 1953, also a Canadian, went on to produce 35 or so movies between 1957 and 2006, including the very popular 1970 American romantic drama Love Story. Space Command’s producer, another Canadian, Murray Howard Chercover, age 23 in March 1953 and an SF fan, on the other hand, went on to become president (1967-90) of the CTV Television Network, based in Toronto.
Interestingly, as least to yours truly, and at least for some time and in some places, Space Command was followed by another 30 minute television series, The Johns Hopkins Science Review, produced by the good people of Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland. Would you believe that more than 300 episodes of that science popularisation series were broadcasted between March 1948 and March 1955?
The Johns Hopkins Science Review may well have been one of the first, if not the first American television series regularly broadcasted in Canada, from September 1952 onward, but back to our story.
The final episode of Space Command, a pretty popular series from the looks of it, seemingly went on the air for the last time in June 1954, possibly, I repeat possibly, in British Columbia.
All in all, it looks as if 35 or so episodes were made in 1953-54. And yes, that number differs from the one commonly found online. Yours truly came across it by chance and I will stick with it.
Many of the teenagers who watched that series presumably got hooked on another SF television series, an American one this time around, which hit the airwaves in September 1966. And we both know which series that was, do we not? No, not Lost in Space. Sigh… That somewhat cheesy series came out in September 1965. Sigh… The series yours truly was referring to was Star Trek.
Would you be interested in watching the one and only episode of Space Command known to exist, a November 1953 episode by the way, my reading friend? If you are, head to
I will bring the popcorn.
Whether or not any script has survived is unclear, at least to me.
From the looks of it, the television stations which broadcasted Space Command had to return all kinescope films / recordings to the main office of the CBC, in Toronto, where they were seemingly and routinely, gasp, disposed of / taped over. A rumour circulated at one point according to which hundreds and hundreds of CBC kinescope films were sold during the 1970s so that the government body could earn some moolah from the silver present therein.
And yes, it is very sad indeed that a great many television series dating from the 1950s, be they American, British, Canadian, French, etc., have not survived. A subtle blend of corporate indifference (and greed??) and technological limitations, among other things, might be to blame.
Yours truly hopes that this journey down the yellow brick road of memory lane was moderately entertaining, and… Why is a hand poking through the ether, my reading friend? The name of the classic 1956 American SF movie mentioned above? Forbidden Planet, of course. A movie which featured the first Canadian actor to play a spaceship captain, I think, Leslie William Nielsen, a gentleman mentioned in November 2018 and January 2020 issues of our interstellar blog / bulletin / thingee.
Speaking (typing?) of interstellar, you of course know that part of the 2014 American epic science fiction film Interstellar was filmed in Alberta? Sorry. Final digression. For today.