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Gals In Space (Serials): A Look At Changing Roles From The '30s to '50s by Mike Olshan
Review by Mike Olshan
Date: April 1, 2007

Links: Flash Gordon (IMDB) / Rocky Jones, Space Ranger - Crash Of Moons (IMDB) /

I'm always interested in the social, cultural and political values found in a film, especially as they reflect the mindset of the period in which it was made. I recently viewed a video of Crash Of Moons, the feature cut of one of the Rocky Jones TV serial story cycles. This led me to reflect on the changes in the presentation and role of women, as compared to the usage in earlier SF serials. The TV series makes a distinctly feminist statement of the kind you might not expect to find in media of the 50s.

When we look at the 1936 Flash Gordon serial and we see a deep and rich fantasy filled with powerful archetypes and themes derived from pulp magazines and comic strips. Here we find ideas and images which have their roots in literature, perhaps even going back to classical mythology. But if we look at how women are presented, we see that they are relatively passive and exist primarily as romantic or erotic objects. Dale is always frightened and threatened, and needs to be rescued; her function in the story is to be pretty and to be in danger. Every character is independent and nobody seems to be bound to any family structure. Princess Aura is a schemer, but she is passive-aggressive at best and her schemes are romantic or erotic, not political. She wants a piece of handsome Flash and to push rival Dale out of the way. Her inner conflicts (as deep as this sort of story goes) are resolved when she finds a romantic substitute.

Fast-forward to the 1950s and look at the female characters in Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. These are spunky 50s girls, the daughters of Rosie The Riveter. That's right, we've been through WWII and it has changed everything because women had to take an active role in the workplace, while the men were away in the service.

We're into the Cold War now, and must now go Beyond The Curtain Of Space, derived, of course, from the Iron Curtain. Instead of a Yellow-Peril-derived Ming The Merciless, we have Cleolantha, a lady dictator (and a cute one!) ruling a world halfway between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. We have spunky ladies, both good and bad, whose actions drive the plot forward.

And now, we also have family relationships and children are present. This is especially evident in Crash of Moons, where the ruler of Posita has a wife and child, the plot hinges on the strong actions of the wife of the lady dictator's executive officer, and young Bobby is a stand-in for the children in the audience.

Also, there is now a little more science in the science-fiction, at least on the image level. Flash Gordon takes its graphic style from the comic strip of its origin and from the lurid covers of pulp-fiction magazines.

Rocky Jones takes its graphic style from Willy Ley's futurology and Chesley Bonestell's magazine illustrations of rocket ships and wheel-shaped space stations.

I personally have a greater love for the rich, mythic storytelling fabric of the Flash Gordon serials made in 1936, 1938 and 1940. But the Rocky Jones stories have some very engaging content that is worth mentioning.

The twin gypsy moons, Posita and Negato, endlessly circling each other and linked by a lightning- filled atmosphere belt, present a wonderful conceit.

In an earlier story cycle, these worlds were perpetually at war, sending bombers back and forth through the atmosphere belt. In the previous story, Rocky made peace between them. Now, a crisis looms as Posita is on a collision course with Cleolantha's home planet, Ophecius. Rather than permit a mass emigration with the aid of the United Planets, she plans to destroy inhabited Posita with planet-busting bombs.

We have writers here who cannot resist giving characters names fraught with symbolism in a most literary fashion. The rulers of Posita and Negato are both bull-like in their attitude and build, and are named Boviro and Taurak.

Cleolantha obviously derives from Cleopatra, the archetypal strong-willed lady ruler. Her huge bodybuilder executive is Atlasan, he's holding up her world. Interestingly, as Crash Of Moons opens, we see that he is completely pussywhipped by Cleolantha and takes it out on his petite wife, Trinka. Her name implies "trinket," and she is both small and cute. But there is also a suggestion here derived from Katrinka the Strong, who solved problems by throwing trolley cars around in Toonerville.

As the story proceeds, Trinka finds her self-confidence and reveals a spine of steel. By the story's end, Trinka has dominated both Cleolantha and Atlasan and is calling the shots. She has broadcast an appeal to public opinion on her planet and forced a pacifist ending to Cleolantha's aggressive, destructive plotting. And the nominal hero of the series, Space Ranger Rocky Jones, has been reduced to a bystander or observer after his aggressive moves, employing warfare methods, have failed to resolve the problem. You'd never see Flash Gordon put in such a position.

###Mike Olshan is a New York-based journalist, 16mm film archivist and historian who hosts screenings, and lectures on cinematic subjects.

Our Readers Respond

From: Mariliyn Stern:
    Great article, good subject matter, well written. You definitely should solicit more from Mike. Marilyn

From Nick:
    ou should review The Adventures of Electra Elf, Mike. It would be fascinating to hear your take on it, and how it reflects on gender roles and social changes.

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