November 9, 2022

What I've been watching: October, 2022

Shows I’ve Watched:
Shows Next on the List:
Rocky Jones, Space Ranger
Surfside 6

It's often said that the appeal of classic television, at least in part, is due to the desire to recapture the sense of one's youth, whether it be childhood, college years, or some other significant memory. Watching the show takes you back to that time and causes you to release positive endorphins or whatever it is that's supposed to give you that warm feeling all over. And while there's undoubtedly truth to that, I think that explanation tends to be too easy. It doesn't account for the vagaries of human emotions, the environment in which one grows up, the—oh hell, why don't we just admit that everyone's different, and there's no accounting for taste, good or bad.

Take Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, for example. I know I'm old, but even I didn't see Rocky Jones in its original 1954 run. My first experience with the Space Ranger came on Mystery Science Theater 3000, in two compilation movies, Manhunt in Space and Crash of Moons, and while the riffing on both of them was great, it doesn't exactly provide the best platform for determining a show's quality. Fortunately, however, the miracles of technology (and YouTube) allow us to see the entire 39-episode series as it was originally broadcast: 12 three-episode stories, three standalone episodes, and no riffing. Rocky Jones may be for kids, but it holds up for adults as well.

Rocky and Vena
(artist's conception)
Rocky Jones takes place sometime in a vaguely-defined future, when inhabited planets have coalesced, much like Star Trek's United Federation of Planets, into the United Worlds of the Solar System. Responsible for policing the United Worlds is an interplanetary organization called the Space Rangers, the most famous of whom is our hero, Rocky Jones (Richard Crane). Rocky's sidekick is his co-pilot Winky, which, let's face it, is an awful name for a space hero; his replacement in the second series is named Biff, which is much better, especially when you're called on to engage the bad guys in a series of fist fights in every episode. (It's reassuring to see that even in the future, some things don't change!) 

Also as part of Rocky's team is the beautiful navigator Vena, who doesn't fight but does apparently help chart the course; Professor Newton, who in appearance and manor bears a distinct resemblance to William Hartnell, the first Doctor Who; and the professor's young ward Bobby, who's a precocious boy genius and otherwise has no backstory whatsoever. Overseeing Space Ranger operations is Secretary Drake, who has something of a father-son relationship with Rocky. (That's them in the picture in the heading.) 

While I wouldn't put Rocky Jones at the pinnacle of science fiction television, it does have a lot going for it. First, there's Richard Crane, who may not be a great actor but who makes for an ideal space hero. He speaks with authority and confidence (and even sounds like a pilot when he's talking with space control), can fight his way out of difficulty, and—most important, in terms of being a convincing leader—knows exactly how to handle his crew. He looks at Winky as a trusted and valued associate, even when he's often providing comic relief; doesn't condescend to Bobby, who really is smart, even if he's just a kid; and treats Vena with respect and a kind of big-brother affection. One of my complaints with Shatner's Captain Kirk is that, in my opinion, he doesn't always exhibit an intuitive and humane understanding of how to deal with his crew as individuals and has to be reminded of this by Doctor McCoy; it's a trait that supervisors often lack in handling their subordinates. Rocky, on the other hand, seems to know how to do this instinctively.

Keeping with the Star Trek theme, the show also offers an interesting alternative means of space exploration, relying on these small, four-or-five man rockets rather than the gigantic starships, and using manned space stations as hubs for intergalactic travel. The show may not have science on its side—that doesn't always appear to have been important to the writers—but from a practical matter, it strikes me as being both an expedient and economical way to deal with the vastness of space, and even in the future, someone's going to have to foot the bill for all this. 

And since I raised the matter of science, Rocky Jones is no better or worse than most shows, and it's a definite step above the space serials of the 1930s and 40s. (Hey, the rocket in Commando Cody flies through a space populated by blue skies and clouds!) It's true that the planets all seem to have oxygen-based atmospheres, but at least the crew goes through the motions of checking the readings first. And while the exotic aliens they encounter are all humanoid in appearance and speck colloquial English, they do have a universal translator just in case. At least the details weren't ignored completely.

Chief among those exotic aliens are two that bear mentioning: Bovarro, the ruler of Posita, who starts out being hostile to the Federation—I mean the United Worlds—but becomes a trusted ally. He's played by our old friend from Hogan's Heroes, John Banner, and it's always fun to see him turn up in something else. (And thinner!) Rocky's chief nemesis in the first season is the wonderfully snooty Cleolanta (Patsy Parsons), leader of Ophecius. She's always trying to make trouble for the United Worlds (got it right that time), a task complicated by the incompetence of her subordinates; she forever compares them unfavorably to Rocky, so much so that you suspect she'd be much happier with Rocky at her side, both in and out of the office. Whenever her underlings let her down; she all but looks into the camera with a "See what I have to put up with?" expression, and it's hard not to feel some sympathy for her.

One of the advantages of having been introduced to Rocky Jones through MST3K is that it keeps your expectations kind of low, which means you might be pleasantly surprised. The special effects are actually pretty good for the time, the adventures exciting for the most part; the moralizing kept to a reasonable level (unlike, say, some sci-fi shows we could name), and because the violence is limited to fighting—the Rangers carry weapons but they're never used, and nobody is killed—it's safe for kids without being boring for adults.

Would I pay for the Rocky Jones DVD? Well, I'm not sure about that. (On the other hand, I'd really like a model of the Orbit Jet!) But watching it on YouTube is a no-brainer, and I'm glad I did.

l  l  l

Having worked our way through 77 Sunset Strip, Bourbon Street Beat, The Roaring '20s, and Hawaiian Eye, we now come to the last of the Warner Bros. detective shows of the era: Surfside 6. And in this case, last does mean least, since by now the assembly line production of P.I. series with alliterative names set in exotic locations has clearly run dry. 

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, though, I'm not saying that Surfside 6 fails to give me pleasure and enjoyment, because it does. And I'm not sure, given the formula that applies to these series, that we could have done any better. However, as they might say at MST3K, the setup does have a few flaws, beginning with the cast—or perhaps I should say the number of people in the cast. 

(l-r) Cha Cha, Sandy, Dave, Daphne, and Kenny   
Unlike those other shows in the WB stable, Surfside 6 is built around three principals: Dave Thorne and Kenny Madison (Lee Patterson and Van Williams), partners in the Surfside detective agency, and Sandy Winfield II (Troy Donahue), a friend who hangs around the agency helping out on cases in the first season, before graduating to full-fledged detective in season two. They work from a houseboat that's been converted into a handsome office that doubles as living quarters for Dave and Kenny, address: Surfside 6. Berthed next to them in the harbor is the beautiful sociality Daphne Dutton (the criminally underused Diane McBain), who occasionally gets involved in their cases. The dock is across the street from Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel, where the obligatory singer, Cha Cha O'Brien (Margarita Sierra) works out of the Boom Boom Room.

As you might expect, this often results in cast congestion, even given the lead rotation that WB employs in their shows. Lee Patterson and Van Williams are very likeable; they're good at their job, tough when they have to be, and can convince you that you'd hire them. (Kenny came over from the aforementioned Bourbon Street Beat, where he was a law student graduating into the PI business, and it's a nice touch that the writers include the detail that he's now a full-fledged attorney). As an actor, Troy Donahue can often seem stiff, but I'll admit that he has a presence that adds up to being a star; as the least experienced of the trio, Sandy often gets in cases where he has a personal involvement, which sometimes leads to questionable decisions on his part—whether that's because of the writing, or it's meant to reflect that lack of experience, I'm not quite sure. Perhaps a combination of both. I should add that any time a P.I. gets involved with a former flame, it usually means trouble, especially—as was the case with Kenny in one episode—you mistakenly accuse her of murder. 

But then there's Cha Cha, by far the weakest character not only in this series, but perhaps in all the WB detective shows. Her presence compares poorly with Connie Stevens, Dorothy Provine and the Frankie Ortega Trio (the musical talent in the other WB detective shows); and the most she can be said to contribute is very lame comic relief. As far as I'm concerned, she can just cha cha her way right out, and give the extra screen time to Diane McBain; a WB regular, you'd think she'd get more visibility than she does. Daphne's not one of those dumb blonde socialites, even though she could occasionally use better judgements with men. She's not only more fun to watch, she's more fun to look at.

The point, as you may have figured, is that we don't really get enough of anyone (except Cha Cha; any time for her is too much), which means it's harder for the likability of the characters to paper over the holes in the plots. There are too many occasions when A doesn't logically lead to B, and you're left wondering if you might have missed something, even though you're pretty sure you didn't leave the room and you weren't thinking about anything else. Even if the writing wasn't the week spot in shows like this, it would be a problem; here, it's that much more noticeable. 

If this comes across as negative, it's supposed to—kind of. Compared to the rest of the WB stable, it's just not as good. Compared to non-WB shows—well, you might not be watching it if you weren't already into them. And maybe that's the point. If you loved 77 Sunset Strip, you'll probably like Surfside 6. If you liked Hawaiian Eye, you'll likely find Surfside 6 a fun way to pass an hour. And if you're looking for something to really challenge you as a viewer, you'll probably just keep on looking. As for me, it fits perfectly into the time spot I've given it, and that's perfectly fine with me.

l  l  l

We're more than halfway through the first season of Maverick, which means I've watched enough of it that I need to let you know, but not enough to draw a fair conclusion, and I think I'm going to return to it sometime in the future, after I've had a chance to talk about its various iterations.

Our hero, as things begin, is James Garner, impeccable as Bret Maverick, the gambler floating through the West looking for big-stakes games and getting involved in a fair amount of trouble along the way, all the while protesting that he's only interested in making money. He's joined in the eighth episode by Jack Kelly as Bret's brother Bart, after the producers discovered they couldn't keep up the pace of making weekly episodes; by rotating the stars, separate crews could be working on two episodes at once. This becomes a WB trademark, but viewers wouldn't have been used to it at the time, so for Bart's first few appearances, the episodes utilize the framing device of having Bret provide the opening and closing narration, as if to reassure viewers that, yes, he's still part of the series. Still, it goes to show that two Mavericks are better than one, and both Garner and Kelly carry their episodes with an easy charm.

Maverick has always been known for its whimsical and occasionally satirical look at the Western genre in general, and other Western series in particular. However, that was something of an evolutionary process, and we're not quite there yet. At this point, both Bret and Bart are closer to being traditional Western heroes, although as early as the first episode, "War of the Silver Kings," Bret's propensity for outsmarting rather than outgunning his adversary is evident in a convoluted scheme to outsmart the owner of a rival silver mine, something that would become a trademark of the series. "Relic of Fort Tejon," another early episode, is the first overtly comic episode, as Bret has to deal with a camel he won in a poker game, all the while trying to fend off a hired gun. I want to see more of this evolution, though. For instance, we've yet to see the show's famous spoofs of Bonanza and Gunsmoke, and we've only met two of the show's colorful recurring characters, Dandy Jim Buckley (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and Samantha Crawford (Diane Brewster), once each. 

James Garner famously left Maverick after three of the show's five seasons, having won a lawsuit against Warner Bros. freeing him from his contract, and the series would try to compensate for Garner's absence by introducing still more Maverick relatives, cousin Beau (Roger Moore) and brother Brent (Robert Colbert). By the final season, Kelly is left to go it as the lone Maverick, with some of Garner's old episodes rerun to fill out the inventory. When you think about it, that's actually not a bad idea, considering that it would have been a year or two since anyone saw them, and you wouldn't have been exposed to them via DVDs or binging back then.

What all this means is that I've done my due diligence by letting you know what I've been watching, but we'll return to Maverick in another season or so, when the series has become what it is, to give you a fuller picture. But as to whether or not you should dive in—by all means! It's enjoyable, whimsical, with two strong and likable leads, and fine performances by guest stars. It may well vie with Sunset Strip as WB's best. TV  


  1. For Your Information:

    - Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (space ranger ... space ranger ... spacedwes ranger ...) was part of a mini-TV empire run by Hal Roach Jr., who'd just taken over the family filmmaking business from his legendary namesake father.
    Roach Jr.'s TV partner (one of several he had) was Roland Reed, whose other series included My Little Margie (insert your own comment here); Rocky Jones was syndicated to local stations, usually in association with a sponsor; here in Chicago, it was Silvercup Bread, a Midwestern regional brand.
    Rocky's shortish run was due to some backstage production problems:
    - Scotty Beckett (Winky), the Our Gang alumnus, had some run-ins with the police that led to his departure after the first production cycle; his replacement was Jimmy Lydon (Henry Aldrich emeritus), who was much easier to get along with, but that's another story ...).
    - Maurice Cass (Professor Newton), he of the frizzy hair (which my brother and I got a kick out of in the '50s), died between seasons; his relacement was British-born Reginald Sheffield, who wasn't anywhere nearly as much fun ...
    - Rocky Jones was produced on film, with a slightly higher budget than the other space shows of the time, which were produced live.
    The key word here is slightly: the 1954 SPFX ran through the bucks pretty quickly, which is why Rocky had to close up shop after only 39 films.
    - As to the science behind the show: keep in mind that space exploration wasn't exactly on the front burner in 1954; everybody was pretty much making it up as they went along.
    If you've gotten around to reading Rocket To The Morgue (remember?), you get a fairly good picture of what science fiction was like circa 1940; when the mid-'50s came along, there hadn't been a whole lot of advances to that point - and that's another story (too) ...

    - Surfside 6 was the last of the 77 Sunset Strip clones from Warner Bros. TV, which was a bubble sucess for ABC, running two seasons against CBS's Monday comedy block.
    Interestingly, you seem not to have noticed two key elements of the WB formula, which are present in Surfside 6:
    (1) The Comic Associate, here represented by Mousie Garner (on leave from Spike Jones's City Slickers).
    (2) The Resident Cop, played in Season One by Don "Red" Barry as Lt. Snedigar.
    Barry left after Season One; he was succeeded in Season Two by Lt. Plehn, played by - Richard Crane (see how this all ties together?).
    It's going to take you awhile to get to Season Two (30+ episode seasons, you know), but patience is a virtue and all ...

    More later, if you like ...

    1. I do like, yes!

      I originally mentioned Mousie in the first draft (although without the City Slickers part; I didn't know that!) but he didn't make the final version. And I had no idea about Snedigar leaving after the first season. I wasn't very impressed with him at first, but he seems to be getting better as it goes along. But Richard Crane!!

  2. I very much enjoyed this post! As you noted, Surfside 6 had a lot of untapped potential and most of it revolved around Diane McBain. She could have carried a show on her own! She was grand fun as the bad rich girl in the movie Parrish and pretty impressive in the WB potboiler Claudelle Inglish. So sad that she's criminally wasted in Surfside 6.

    1. Thanks--I really enjoy her work in so many things. (I've heard she was in Playboy too, but of course I wouldn't know anything about that.) Would love to get a signed copy of her new book!

  3. I didn't mind Margarita Sierra (who sadly died at age 27 from a heart condition just a year after Surfside 6's demise) but I agree Diane McBain deserved more screen time. She was terrific in her MAVERICK appearances. I liked Surfside 6 a bit better than Hawaiian Eye but neither of those shows matched 77 Sunset Strip.

    Maverick isn't quite MAVERICK until its second season as you noted, but the final first season episode, "Seed of Deception", shows it hitting full stride. I think the sometimes maligned third season is underrated. Coles Trapnell had an impossible task, rebuilding a writing staff after Huggins, Marion Hargrove, Douglas Heyes AND Russell Hughes all departed. How could anyone live up to that? Yet the third season had a number of classics, with only a handful of clunkers. Unfortunately James Garner's departure was the fatal blow after that. Still, Jack Kelly kept doing a great job until the end even without good material to work with. That final fifth season is a fairly good rebound from the fourth, which was easily the weakest season.

    1. Agree that Sunset Strip was the gold standard of those shows. I also liked Bourbon Street Beat a lot--sorry that didn't last more than one season. I do appreciate the continuity they showed with Kenny, though, remembering that he'd been a law student in BSB.

      I've seen Maverick episodes from different seasons, but I'm looking forward watching it from the start and seeing it develop, as you mentioned with the second season. Garner and Kelly are a great team.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!