Friday, April 21, 2017

163. Beyond the Moon and 164. The Gypsy Moon

163. Beyond the Moon (1956)
164. The Gypsy Moon (1954)
Director: Hollingsworth Morse
Writer: Warren Wilson
From: Sci-Fi Invasion
The start of the Rocky Jones saga sees the titular space ranger travel to Ophecius and discover a plot to undermine the United Worlds. Then he discovers two planets traveling through the galaxy together, locked in both orbit and battle putting Rocky and the United Worlds at great risk.
And let us return once more to the endlessly soporific adventures of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Or not. Want to say not? Well, I already watched them, so, I mean it’d seem a waste not to.

Beyond the Moon and the unfortunately named Gypsy Moon are the first two Rocky Jones adventures comprising the first six episodes of the series and they’re kind of interesting for how they represent two of the goals of children’s media at the time: indoctrination and education, respectively.

Beyond the Moon introduces us to Rocky Jones and the setting of the United Worlds. Professor Newton has seemingly defected to the hostile Ophecius Group, but poly-linguist Vena thinks he’s been taken against his will. Rocky, Winky, and Vena go to Ophecius to find Professor Newton and his nephew Bobby. It turns out they are being held prisoner. Ophecius wants Professor Newton to replicate United Worlds’ technology for their forces. The leader, Cleolanta, hypnotizes Bobby and uses him as a bargaining chip against the Professor. She tries to capture Rocky as well, but the whole group escapes. They learn about a mole operating on the United Worlds and Rocky defeats him.

This first Rocky Jones story is a little dull, but not so bad as the some of the later ones. The big issue is how much it just drips with the 1950’s—casual sexism and Commie paranoia. The United Worlds are a pretty obvious stand in for the US and the Ophecius Group is the Soviets. On top of that, the whole story is built around two ideas: fear of the enemy within and that those who say they support the enemy don’t know their own minds. They may say they support it, may even make coherent arguments, but they either don’t believe or know what they’re saying.

Granted, this tracks with paranoia in general. Look at how quickly political criticism in the US reverts to labels of traitors or that the opposition doesn’t know what they’re actually advocating, regardless of either side’s politics. What its role in Rocky Jones highlights is how the media then was training kids to be ready for these kinds of arguments against the Soviets and Communists whereas today, in our culture of polarization and anti-politics, this rhetoric is directed at our fellow citizens.

In fact, watching all these pieces of Cold War culture, the US’ victim complex, the visceral need we feel to paint ourselves as embattled becomes clearer as does the way that narrative breaks down once you no longer have the ostensibly equal or greater threat to push back against. In Rocky Jones, the United Worlds has the technological edge, but Ophecius has the propaganda/domination edge. Neither side is in a place to pursue military action against the other so it has to be war by other means

In the age of the War Against Terror, we’re repeating those narratives of existential threats and enemies within, of competing world views and ideologies that allow no space for compromise, but there’s no easy symbol for villainy, no primary leader we’re pushing back against. The narrative of fighting terror is of liberating people from the oppressive forces that also co-opt them. Look at the way we talk about Syria—45 bombed an air base because of the suffering of Syrian children, but can’t allow Syrian children into the US because Syrians are the terrorists. Narratively, the very people we’re trying to save are the ones we mark out as the threats. When we think about the fact that this whole enterprise is being run by people who grew up on media like Rocky Jones, pieces of not-quite propaganda that instilled a narrative of a singular, massive force that needs to be pushed back against, is it fair to wonder if part of the global situation is due to the fact that the ruling class doesn’t understand what kind of story they’re in?

Hey, look at all the rabbits at the bottom of this hole!

So, this first one is interesting as a cultural artifact, as an example of kids’ media as moral instruction. The second one, The Gypsy Moon, takes the other route of desperately trying to convince the audience that the show isn’t just a crass attempt to sell Rocky Jones-branded toys to kids but is actually educational. It’s also the one that goes full-bore in giving the kid a role in the story so that kids can see themselves in the picture. Golly gee, what fun! Feed me Liquid Plumber!

Rocky and his crew encounter a strange atmospheric belt following a moon that’s drifting through space. That implies that there’s another moon traveling with it and they’re sharing an atmosphere. Boy, science fiction was fun before they worried about any of that science stuff! They encounter a plane within the belt that tries to attack them, but cannot follow Rocky’s ship into space. In hopes of learning what the moon’s situation is, Rocky and his crew land to try to talk to the inhabitants.

Meanwhile, and serving as the framing device throughout the movie, Bobby is being forced to read The Odyssey. He doesn’t want to because it’s poetry and what’s a Space Ranger need with poetry? Insert didactic defense of reading the classics, followed by overt references to The Odyssey with the story clearly being built around the events of the book.

So Rocky uses his ship as a Trojan Horse to enter the city, they travel to the companion moon where they face a Siren-like threat, and finally return home where Rocky is presumed dead so they disguise themselves to learn what’s really happening in town. All these elements are preceded by Bobby giving a, “Golly, this is just like in The Odyssey” speech laying out the plot points.

Make no mistake, this is peak “the Goddamn kid” material. His role is teeth-grindingly bad making the worst moments of Wesley Crusher shine with subtlety and sartorial brilliance. It’s a product of people who have contempt for or actively hate children writing children and I hope I don’t have to say it’s really awful.

Which is maybe what makes this the most enjoyable of the five (Jesus, five) Rocky Jones movies I’ve watched. I commented on the fourth one, Manhunt in Space here and the third and seventh ones, Menace From Outer Space and Crash of the Moons here. The Gypsy Moon is the only Rocky Jones movie that feels legitimately hilariously bad. Not only was I cracking up the whole way through, there were constant opportunities for really risqué, and I mean downright foul, riffing. Everything sounded like a double entendre and I couldn’t hold back.

In the end, they’re both recommends in their own way. Beyond the Moon is interesting in how naked the indoctrination is, how clearly it’s trying to prepare kids for a certain kind of thinking, but also how clearly it’s not thinking about that. The movie is this way because that culture was the air they were breathing—these are the kinds of stories you tell. Other stories, other ways of thinking about conflicts and relationships literally didn’t make sense. As for The Gypsy Moon, it’s begging for a savaging. I didn’t even mention that it has both legitimately good set design at different points and downright Dobbsian faces on some of the characters. It’s one to share with your bad movie friends.

Unfortunately, all the Rocky Jones material is under copyright, specifically in these film forms, although I can’t imagine anyone’s making any kind of money off them. Copies aren’t hard to find, though. GFE and all that. This should be the end of Rocky Jones movies for me. I don’t think any of the other movies are in the sets I have, although I do apparently have three of the four films in Alfonso Brescia's sci-fi series so look for a group post about those soon.

No comments: