I named my personal Fanzine SPACE CADET after Robert Heinlein’s juvenile SPACE CADET first published in 1948, right? No. Though I read another of his juveniles in Grade school, RED PLANET MARS, and loved every page, along with Lester Del Rey’s MAROONED ON MARS, and Arthur C. Clarke’s SANDS OF MARS, I didn’t get around to reading SPACE CADET till my late teenage years. So my obsession with TOM CORBETT, SPACE CADET which originated in my childhood in the 1950s was not brought about by Heinlein’s book.
Must be the TV show then? It tumbled from network to network (CBS, ABC, Dumont, NBC) from October 1950 through to 1956, always broadcast live, sometimes 4 times a week, usually only 15 minutes long but with Saturday broadcasts often 30 minutes long. However, we didn’t get our huge B&W TV till 1955 or thereabouts, and I don’t recall CBC (the only channel) carrying the show. Indeed, highly unlikely, since the CBC had its own space adventure show SPACE COMMAND whose miniscule cast included James Doohan as a crusty, overworked space engineer. So I never saw the TV series.
In Canada that is. My brother informs me that while our family briefly lived in a rented house in Dayton, Ohio (my RCAF Dad taking a course at Wright Patterson Airbase) we watched SPACE CADET religiously. However I was a mere toddler at the time and remember nothing, at least consciously.
I always assumed the TV show was based on Heinlein’s book. In fact Rockhill studios originally put it together with the aid of Joseph Greene, who prior to Heinlein’s book had written a number of radio scripts with titles like SPACE CADETS, SPACE ACADEMY and TOM RANGER OF THE SPACE CADETS. Then, just prior to the series going on air, Rockhill purchased the rights to Heinlein’s book and all their publicity concentrated on promoting Heinlein since he was far better known than Greene. Heinlein had no direct input into the show, whereas Greene continued to shape its direction and characters, though I’m not sure if this was by virtue of his scripts or acting as a story consultant.
Could it be the SPACE CADET comic books? There were 14 in all, published from 1952 through to 1955. I own a couple now, but I never saw them when I was a kid, for I didn’t start collecting comic books till I was eight or nine, beginning in 1959. If any older kid in the neighbourhood had any SPACE CADET comics they certainly didn’t let me get my grubby little hands on them.
Likewise I doubt I ever saw the daily and Sunday newspaper strip written by Paul S. Newman and illustrated by Ray Bailey. It only ran from September 1950 to September 1953, and considering I was born in 1951 I was a tad too young to be reading the funnies in the newspaper. Besides, I would be greatly surprised if it was ever syndicated in Canada.
How about the eight hardcover books written by Cary Rockwell which were published by Grosset & Dunlop from 1952 to 1956? As a matter of fact, I own 6 of the 8, and they were given to me when I was quite young. I was reading them while I was reading the SEE JANE JUMP SPOT books in grade school and I must say I consider the latter a tad lacking in action and suspense. Indeed, considering what I was reading at home, I rather resented the level I was expected to read in school. If I was precocious in anything, it was in the ability to read.
There’s no doubt the SPACE CADET books were a huge hit with me. The adventures of Tom Corbett (Earthman), Roger Manning (Human colonist from Mars) and Astro (Human colonist from Venus) as they fought both Space Pirates and Cadet rivals in their bid to graduate with high marks from the Space Academy (a worthy goal, though it didn’t inspire me to make any effort at school, perhaps because Vincent Massey Grade School was decidedly lacking in spaceships and field trips to other planets) made a huge impact on my imagination. I identified with those guys. My only criticism was that there were no aliens, unless you included the dinosaurs living in the swamps on Venus. Still, dinosaurs were cool.
An interesting aside, Cary Rockwell, author of the SPACE CADET novels, was actually the same Joseph Greene who created the TV series. Consequently the question of whether the book series influenced the TV series or vice versa is completely irrelevant. In any case, though I loved the books, and am still very fond of them, they are not the origin of my fixation on SPACE CADET.
What then? Could it have been the TOM CORBETT SPACE ACADEMY PLAYSET released by Marx in 1953? It featured lithoed metal walls surrounding the academy tower, over 30 plastic figures of Space Cadets and aliens (!), possibly including robots, plus a rocket car, rocket ships, observatory, futuristic storage tanks and equipment, even furniture for the classroom.
I actually saw this thing, or rather, used to play with the sad remnants of one owned by a friend of mine (probably ‘inherited’ from an older brother). Only a few figures remained, but I remember the fun of popping their plastic bubble space helmets off and on as I pretended they were floating in the vacuum of space (seems they had a bit of a pressure problem). The Academy Fortress was usually implanted firmly in the sands of Mars (my sandbox) and frequently under assault by both plastic dinosaurs and metal Dinky Toys. Odd that the Martians had got a hold of Centurion tanks, Saracen armoured cars and other surplus British war material. Evidently the British Empire in its waning days had concluded some dastardly deal with the Martians! Be that as it may, this playset experience merely added to my obsession with SPACE CADET
I would love to own a perfectly preserved Academy Playset but one approaching that condition goes for hundreds of dollars on Ebay. Even individual figures can go for as much as $20. To make matters worse, clever sellers tend to break the set into lots, which must be very frustrating for bidders. You might outbid everyone else to win the plastic furniture, but lose out to a higher bidder on the aliens. In short, if you’re life’s dream is to own a perfect Space Cadet Academy Playset, be prepared to spend a heck of a lot of money.
So, what DID trigger my life-long love affair with Space Cadet? The 3d View Master set titled TOM CORBETT SPACE CADET with 3 reels of vivid, wonderfully evocative colour stereoscopic pictures of three dimensional dioramas created by one Florence Thomas circa 1952. They belonged to my brother, and I used to spend hours looking at them while still a toddler. Don’t think I was able to read yet, but I was certainly entranced by the glowing colours and exciting scenes. Fell in love with Mars. Fell in love with fifties style rocket ships. Fell in love with ruins. Fell in love with archaeology. Fell in love with museums. Fell in love with meteorites. All this from one View Master set!
In the first reel, titled THE MOON PYRAMID, the discovery of a tiny anti-gravity pyramid tip (or ‘Ben Ben’ as the ancient Egyptians used to call it, not that that has anything to do with this article) in the asteroid belt results in an expedition to the moon by our intrepid Space Cadets in their good ship Polaris. There they place the tip atop a truncated (rather small) pyramid, which promptly becomes transparent and reveals a globe of the planet Mars.
The second reel is appropriately titled THE RED PLANET. On Mars Tom Corbett teams up with Joan Dale, chief scientist of the Solarguard. They meet in “the native room of the Mars Institute Museum” which is devoted to artifacts of the long extinct Martian civilization. Their conversation – once I was able to read the booklet accompanying the reels – had the power to send shivers up and down my spine.
Tom Corbett: “We want to search the junction area of canals 7 and 19. We’re looking for clues to an ancient race who may have had the secret of anti-gravity. Perhaps they are the same race who built the great canals to lead the waters from Mars melting icecaps to the farm regions.”
Dr. Joan Dale, gesturing at an ancient model landscape: “This map fragment may narrow the search for us. Notice the pyramid. Once over 1000 feet high, it no longer exists. We know its former site quite accurately. We will hunt there first.”
They take a nifty flying scooter into the desert and eventually dig up a six-legged monolith with a depiction of the asteroid belt. A 100,000 vacuum tube computer named Mastermind figures out the exact asteroid to search for. At this point criminal masterminds (with fewer vacuum tubes no doubt) kidnap Dr. Joan and zip off to the Asteroid belt. The race is on!
In the final reel, titled MYSTERY OF THE ASTEROIDS, the Polaris chases the ‘pirate’ ship through the asteroid belt till both land on the asteroid they are seeking. The ‘pirates’ drag Joan into the first Alien ‘Time Tomb’ they find, only to get the crap beaten out of them by Tom, Roger and Astro. The Space Cadets are then thrilled to discover a cache of magnetic tape recordings preserving the history of the planet Varth, out of which the asteroid belt formed when the planet broke up. The Cadets trigger a ‘movie’ and watch pretty six-legged cat-like aliens floating about on anti-gravity gizmos. All the loot gets hauled back to Earth, and the secret of anti-gravity AND faster than light travel is revealed, along with the fact the Varthians (Varthites?), who at first fled to Mars, later went on to the stars and might still exist.
Dr. Joan has the last word: “I hope that someday, some distant tomorrow, we’ll meet them there out among the stars. Then we can say, ‘Thank you’!”
Recently I was able to purchase the Space Cadet View Master set through E-Bay. The images are every bit as good as I remember. Florence Thomas did an incredible job. The quality of modeling, the artful composition, the set design, the brilliant colours, all evocative of the bright, exciting future the fifties promised. So vividly did these scenes imprint themselves on my impressionable pre-school child’s mind’s eye back then that I still remember them as if they were scenes from movies, complete with motion and sound effects. My habit of watching movies as if I were actually present in the events taking place derives from the hours I spent devouring these View Master reels with all my heart and soul.
Surely modern CGI could bring these scenes to life in an animated short? In fact, I’d love to see a modern retro-style Tom Corbett Space Cadet TV series! And while I’m at it, I’d be quite keen to see some billionaire pay to have a replica pyramid placed on the moon, and a duplicate of the Martian sculpture implanted in the sands of Mars, both for far-future generations to puzzle over.
But climbing down the ladder of imagination to reality, at the very least I can credit this wonderful View Master set for kick starting my second childhood before my first childhood was fairly underway. Working on my third childhood now. Hope to reach my fourth eventually. How to stay young (and immature) your whole life long.