Is it a serial, or isn't it? That's the question that has often been debated about the 1953 Republic multi-episode adventure Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. It was intended to be a TV show (and it was broadcast in 1955) but contractual obligations made the studio release it as a 12-part serial, even though there are not cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. There is a single plot running through all of the installments (well... about as much of a plot as they fit into traditional serials), there is some continuity, just like a normal chapter play, and the hero did star in earlier serials, albeit with a different name in one of them. But it pretty much feels like a TV show. Now fans can judge for themselves after watching the whole run on a beautiful looking Blu-ray set, thanks to Olive Films.
The history of the Republic's heroes who have the same flying rocket suit is a bit convoluted. Originally the instantly recognizable suit was piloted by Jeff King (Tristram Coffin) and he was called Rocket Man in 1949's King of the Rocket Men. The next time the suit was used (Republic Studios was trying to trim expenses on its serials by this time an reusing footage and props as much as they could) was in 1952's Radar Men from the Moon. This time he was Commando Cody and was played by George Wallace, and along with his trusty assistants Joan (Aline Towne), Ted (William Bakewell) and Dick (Gayle Kellogg), he battled, as one might surmise from the title, radar men who came from the moon.
Radar Men was apparently popular, and as TV was coming to more and more households in the early 1950's, Republic decided to create a Commando Cody TV show. Not only that, but the TV show would be a prequel, taking place before Radar Men. This time it would star Judd Holdren as Commando Cody, Aline Towne would return as Joan, and William Schallert (easily recognizable actor best known for playing the father on The Patty Duke Show) was cast as Ted.
They filmed the first three episodes of Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe when, for reasons that I have never been able to uncover, they put the show on hiatus (none of which had aired at that point) and crafted another Commando Cody serial using many of the same lead actor: Zombies of the Stratosphere. Maybe they were having trouble pitching the series to stations, or maybe it was contractual obligations, but in any case this new serial would be a good tie in for the TV show, so why not? Inexplicably, they changed the names of the characters. Cody was now known as Larry Martin (Judd Holdren), Joan was now Sue Davis (Aline Towne), and Ted was replaced with Bob Wilson (played by Wilson Wood).
After that rip-roaring adventure was filmed and released, Republic went back and created nine more episodes of Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. While Holdren and Towne returned to their roles, Schallert did not come back. His character was replaced by Dick Preston (Richard Crane).
After they had all twelve episodes in the can, all that was left was to put it on TV, right? Well, no. Apparently there was a problem with the contracts for the union workers who made the show, and it had to have a theatrical release before it could be broadcast. So the 12 episode Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe TV show was turned into the 12 chapter Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe serial. They didn't edit the TV show to include cliffhanger endings, so each installment is a standalone piece, though there is continuity and the shows should be seen in order, so it is a lot like a serial in that respect.
In the first episode, Joan and Ted arrive at Commando Cody's office to interview for jobs. They're two research scientists and they're excited at the prospect of working with the famous Commando Cody. That's not his real name of course, but a pseudonym that was given because he was one of the best commandos during the war, in addition to being a great inventor. In addition to changing his name, he also always wears a domino mask to protect those around him. What a guy, always thinking of others (and if the show was a hit and the actor playing him wanted more money, it would be easy to replace him). Of course Cody's greatest invention is his rocket suit, a leather jacket with a jet pack attached and controls labeled "up/down," "on/off" and "slow/fast." With this he zooms through the air in the defense of freedom!
After hiring Ted and Joan, Cody explains that missiles have been raining down on Earth, launched from another planet. These attacks have been covered up and a layer of radioactive dust has been spread in the upper atmosphere, one of Cody's inventions, which stops the weapons, but make no mistake, the Earth is in an interplanetary war. Cody has been given the position of Sky Marshal of the Universe and is ready to defend Earth to the last.
Battling against Cody is The Ruler, the one behind the missile attacks on Earth. The Ruler has several agents on Earth to do his bidding and help him achieve his ultimate goal of conquering Earth and using it as a stepping stone to taking over the rest of the universe.
Cody's first job is to build a nuclear powered rocket ship, but in secret. So he and Ted go to an old abandoned town in the west and begin work on constructing it the scientific miracle with Joan occasionally showing up to bring them food. Unfortunately The Ruler's men have discovered where the rocket ship was to be constructed, and hid in a secret room before Cody arrived, allowing them to overhear all of the Sky Marshal's plans and to sabotage the ship as it was nearing completion. A couple of thugs are no match for Cody and Ted however, and they're dispatched in the very first episode and the space ship is successfully completed.
Each installment (they aren't labeled as 'chapters' in the opening credits, just given numbers) is a self-contained story with The Ruler's henchmen being captured or killed by the time the credits roll. But for every nefarious plan Commando Cody foils, The Ruler has another one ready to go. He threatens to topple Earth's cities by causing gigantic storms, he tries to smash the Moon into the Earth (which wouldn't leave much for him to rule over, but whatev) and even has a plan to couple the Earth and Saturn which threatens to start a new ice age (don't ask... it doesn't make sense). For a fairly low-budget affair, they also spend a good deal in space. One of my favorite episodes is the third one, Cosmic Vengeance, where Cody, Ted, and Joan take the battle to The Ruler who is on Venus. Ted doesn't really want to go and complains about not being on terra firma. In the next episode he's gone, replaced by Dick who just mentions, in passing, that Ted was transferred. That's what ya get when you whine about interplanetary travel around Commando Cody, a transfer to dullsville. (And it was a good thing he left. I would have hated to see how he acted when the team headed off to Saturn (it has a breathable atmosphere by the way), when Dick was turned into a robot, of they had to jaunt off all the way to Planet M27.
So how is it? Pretty good overall. It doesn't feel like a serial, it definitely is more similar to Space Patrol than Buck Rogers, but the production values are pretty high for juvenile TV fare from the 50's. Judd Holdren is about as wooden as a hero can be and still move his knees and elbows, but he makes up for it (partially) in the action department and his assistants carry the scenes when he can't.
The program moves much faster than a serial too. With each story wrapping up at the end of the episode they zip along much faster than a traditional chapterplay which typically milks a plot for everything its worth. So what if all of the alien planets look like the same patch of barren desert? This show is goofy fun, and well worth watching.
All 12 episodes of Commando Cody arrive on a pair of Blu-ray discs in a double disc case.
Like their previous Blu-ray serial releases, Olive Films AVC 1080p transfer preserves the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and looks amazing. The first thing that will strike viewers who have seen a good number of chapter plays on DVD is that this HD release looks much better than any other serial that I can recall. The contrast is great, the image is clear, and the detail is very good. There is a bit of natural grain, which there should be. Those who have been burned when purchasing serials released by public domain companies and getting washed out marred video will be very happy with this.
Having said that, this serial does reuse a lot of footage (as was the case in the 50's) from earlier Republic productions and those sections aren't as crisp and clear. It's understandable; they just chopped out a scene from some dup of a serial and spliced it in. There's a slight shift in video quality when they splice in older material, but it's never distracting and it undoubtedly looked that way back when this was first making the rounds back in 1950.
Like the video, the DTS-HD two channel mono track is excellent when compared to other serials that have been released. The dialog is clean and clear, the audio effects come out well. No complaints here.
Unfortunately, there are no extras at all on this release. A series of trailers from this and other serials would have been good, and a commentary track over the first episode would have been wonderful. All we get is a menu with the choice between playing the whole serial and selecting a chapter.
Though it's more of a TV show than a serial, Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is a lot of goofy fun. With some decent production values when compared to the other SF shows that were airing at the time and a likable set of characters the program/serial is filled with sci-fi action that is sure to please fans of this type of entertainment. Add to that the beautiful picture, and you have a set that comes Highly Recommended.