“Sci-Fi for Adults”: The Story of SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE
By John C. Alsedek:
Accompanied by a swelling orchestral score, the scene opens on a stylized laboratory set, the camera slowly panning over a wide variety of scientific equipment: an oscilloscope, a telescope, a scanner, a Van de Graaff generator, etc. As the shot settles on a parabolic dish, the words "A ZIV Television Production" come up on the screen for a moment. Then the camera continues to pan slowly stage right until it comes to rest on a distinguished-looking gentleman seated at a viewer. He speaks:
“How do you do, ladies and gentlemen? I’m your host, Truman Bradley. If you’ll follow me to my demonstration table, you’ll see something quite unusual. . . .”
I’m too young to have grown up with the original Mr. Wizard, Don Herbert. I’m too old to have grown up with the Mr. Wizard reboot or Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nonetheless, a not-insignificant chunk of my childhood was spent with someone who did basic scientific experiments on a weekly basis. That someone was Truman Bradley, and the show was Science Fiction Theatre.
During the early-to-mid 1950s, the sci-fi genre on television was largely defined by shows such as Captain Video and His Video Rangers, Space Patrol, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet—space-opera fare meant mostly for kids. The most mature science fiction series to date had been the anthology Tales of Tomorrow, and while it would prove to be enormously influential on programs to come such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, it had lasted just two seasons and was gone by 1954. Science Fiction Theatre was meant to fill that void.
The show was the brainchild of Ivan Tors, a Hungarian writer, director, and producer who had a great interest in fact-based science fiction and had just completed his "Office of Scientific Investigation" film trilogy (1953’s The Magnetic Monster and 1954’s Riders to the Stars and Gog) under the A-Men Films banner. For Science Fiction Theatre, he teamed up with Frederick Ziv, whose Ziv Television Productions produced TV shows for syndication rather than for ABC, CBS, NBC, or DuMont (the four networks at the time). One of Ziv’s greatest successes to that point had been the Cold War espionage drama I Led Three Lives, which starred Tors’ A-Men Films partner Richard Carlson; as it would turn out, there was a lot of crossover (in terms of projects) with the folks who created Science Fiction Theatre.
As an anthology series, Science Fiction Theatre had only one regular cast member: the show’s narrator. That role was filled by actor Truman Bradley. Bradley’s face was slightly familiar to the general public due to his performances in films such as Northwest Passage, Murder Among Friends, and The Night Before the Divorce. But it was the gravitas of his distinctive voice that really won him the job. Bradley had spent most of his career in radio, starting out as a broadcaster (at one point he was widely considered “the Midwest’s leading news commentator”) and eventually moving into announcing for nationally popular shows such as Burns and Allen, The Frank Sinatra Show, and Ford Sunday Evening Hour. He was an ideal choice to host a series that aimed to straddle science fiction and science fact.
Science Fiction Theatre premiered on April 9, 1955, with the episode "Beyond," written by Robert Smith and George Van Marter from a story by Tors. It concerned a test flight using a new fuel that allowed the aircraft to exceed Mach 3; however, the flight goes awry when the pilot, Major Gunderman, suddenly ejects and the plane crashes. At an inquiry following the flight, Gunderman swears that another craft was about to collide with his—and that the craft may have been of extraterrestrial origin. Since the ground tracking crew saw nothing on radar, Gunderman’s story is disbelieved. Ultimately, the board of inquiry determines that the "torpedo-shaped craft" Gunderman saw was his own fountain pen, floating in the cockpit during a moment of weightlessness. However, that theory is immediately shot down by two facts. First, Gunderman never flew in the parabolic arc required for weightlessness during his flight. And second, the wreckage of his plane has inexplicably become magnetized!
"Beyond" would turn out to be a prime example of what Science Fiction Theatre brought to the airwaves: stories of fiction based on widely accepted scientific theory or fact. That was both a good and a bad thing.
The good is that Science Fiction Theatre was a thoughtful, well-reasoned show involving a lot of talented people. The directorial duties were handled by big-screen veterans such as Jack Arnold, who had helmed Universal classics such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space (which starred the aforementioned Richard Carlson!) and schlockmeister extraordinaire William Castle (more on him at the end). The actors on the show were by and large B-listers (two of them—Marshall Thompson & Dabbs Greer—would star in It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which I did an article on back in July), but there were some genuine stars mixed in there, including Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, and Ruth Hussey.
As for the bad . . . unfortunately, what may have led to the downfall of Science Fiction Theatre is that it was too fact-based—in other words, it could be kind of dry. That’s not to say that the show lacked imagination, far from it! A lot of the episodes had interesting premises that touched on science fiction while remaining at least somewhat based in reality. But the restrictions created not just by Tors’s emphasis on "science" but also by low budgets and tight shooting schedules led to a series that might have been a little too static/talky to fully grab the imagination of television audiences.
Science Fiction Theatre was renewed for a second season, but the color production was dropped in favor of less expensive black-and-white (not necessarily a negative, since the Eastmancolor process used in season one was pretty meh). The second season would be its last, and the 78th-and-final episode of Science Fiction Theatre aired on April 6, 1957. But that wasn’t quite the end. During the sixties, it made the rounds in second-run syndication as Beyond the Limits before returning to the Science Fiction Theatre name in the 1970s. In the eighties, PBS stations ran the show in its original form, while the nineties saw a chopped-up version (to allow for more commercials) air on The Sci-Fi Channel (now known as SyFy). Nowadays? Science Fiction Theatre is pretty hard to find; a cursory look couldn’t even find it available on DVD. But there are some episodes on YouTube, and I’d recommend giving it a watch!
You know how I said there would be more about William Castle at the end? Well, William Castle (the "King of the Gimmicks") is going to be the subject of a column in the very near future. But before we get there, we’ll be taking a look at the "middle ground" between Science Fiction Theatre and The Twilight Zone: John Newland’s great anthology series One Step Beyond. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.