|Colorized promo image of Tom Corbett.|
The concept for the series came from a blending of sources. Joseph Greene, a writer for various genres across various media, had conceived of a space-faring hero named Tom Ranger in 1946. He had written the character into a radio script along with his colleagues, Kit Koo and Bob Bradley. The script was submitted to Orbit Feature Services Inc. under the working title The Space Cadets, and later Space Academy, but it went unproduced. Greene tried again by adapting his characters into a syndicated newspaper strip in 1949, but it never saw production.
|Heinlein's Space Cadet.|
In 1950, CBS was looking to compete with DuMont’s popular series, Captain Video and His Video Rangers. Green saw an opportunity to give his Tom Ranger concept another go, but there was a slight hitch: in the interim, Robert A. Heinlein published a juvenile novel called Space Cadet in 1948 which featured concepts very close to that of Tom Ranger. Rockhill Productions, who Greene submitted one of his scripts to, was interested in developing the concept for their expansion into television. They purchased the rights for the term “Space Cadet” from Heinlein and used the connection to bolster publicity for the project. At the insistence of Rockhill’s Stanley Wolf, the title was expanded to Tom Ranger, Space Cadet. From there, Tom Ranger would go on to become Tom Corbett at the last minute.
Tom Corbett, Space Cadet was set in the 24th Century. Earth had become a commonwealth with cities combined into several megalopolises and had established colonies and outposts throughout most of the inner solar system called the Solar Alliance. The peacekeeping force charged with protecting the Alliance was The Solar Guard, who were also tasked with exploring the unknown and conducting scientific research. Cadets enlisted into the Space Academy with the hopes of joining the Solar Guard—provided they could cut the mustard both in skill and meeting the stringent discipline requirements of the Academy.
|The original crew: Roger, Tom and Astro.|
Cadets were grouped into units of threes with an emphasis on teamwork. Tom Corbett (Frankie Thomas, Jr., in his 30s at the time he was cast to play a teen) was the command cadet for his, which also featured Roger Manning (Jan Merlin) and Astro (Al Markim), and were directly overseen by Captain Steve Strong (Michael Harvey for the first 6 episodes, replaced by Edward Bryce when he had difficulty remembering his lines). Astro was an orphan born on the Venus colony with an extensive knowledge on rockets and their engines, making him the power cadet in charge of fueling the ship’s engines with radioactive material. Manning, while being a brilliant astrogator, was a brash and arrogant ladies’ man (an improvised line cemented his smartass personality) who initially harbored racist feelings towards Astro until they eventually worked through their differences. He served as the unit’s radar cadet. A 4th classification, Advanced Science Cadet, would sometimes accompany the unit on missions but typically stayed behind at the Academy doing research. Together, the cadets manned the spaceship Polaris.
|Ad featuring Dr. Joan Dale.|
Other characters included Commander Arkwright (Carter Blake), the head of the Academy; Dr. Joan Dale (Margaret Garland, Pat Ferris for 2 episodes), an instructor who developed the Hyper-Drive (a small bit of progressivism at the time); Major “Blastoff” Connell (Ben Stone), an incredibly strict member of the Academy who would had loved to expel the Polaris crew; Cadet Alfie “the Brain” Higgins (John Fielder, in his first role), science cadet; and Cadet Eric Rattison (Frank Sutton), Tom’s rival at the Academy.
Tom Corbett, Space Cadet made its debut on CBS on October 2, 1950. The series was written by Art Wallace, Albert Aley, Jack Weinstock, Willie Gilbert, Richard Jessup, Palmer Thompson, Ray Morse, Alfred Bester, George Lowther, Stu Byrnes and Thomas. Unlike Space Patrol, which had debuted months prior, Tom Corbett was more character-driven than action-oriented. Although it would take some liberties--such as creating the Hyper-Drive to allow for faster than lightspeed travel to distant locations--the series held closely to scientific accuracy (as established at the time) overseen by technical advisor Willy Ley; a German scientist and writer who became an expert on rocketry. As a result, the Polaris crew didn’t employ things like laser guns and didn’t encounter many aliens. Instead, the series was kept “grounded” with common, everyday situations familiar to the audience but set in space, and themes borrowed extensively from old westerns. The small budget and limited technology were a boon, forcing the scripts to be extremely focused and brisk in their pacing.
|A cutaway diagram of the Polaris.|
Tom Corbett became a smash hit, running 5 seasons. It received praise for its mature storytelling and innovative special effects. Tom Corbett had the rare distinction of being the first program to be broadcast across all four major networks during its run. The first season ran on CBS before moving to ABC for the next two seasons. The show was aired 3 days a week and was broadcast live for 15 minutes an episode. During the ABC run, three episodes would be repackaged and condensed into a 30-minute show with narration by Thomas to serve as a summer replacement for The Victor Borge Show on NBC Saturday nights. After an 11-month hiatus, Tom Corbett returned on the DuMont Network, airing alternate Saturdays as it shared the timeslot with Captain Video—the very program it was designed to compete against. 7 months later, the final batch of episodes would return to NBC on Saturday mornings. Despite the hiatuses, the show’s popularity remained strong.
|The diminutive T.J. joins the crew.|
After the DuMont run, Merlin decided he wanted to leave the show to avoid being typecast as a space cadet for the rest of his career. For the final NBC run he was replaced by Jack Grimes as T.J. Thistle; a cowardly cadet who tended to have a chip on his shoulder because of his short stature. The NBC run, sponsored by Kraft, featured a significant reduction to the already miniscule budget, further limiting the number of sets used and resulting in the removal of Jackson Beck as the long-serving narrator. When its popularity did finally begin to wane, the show was ultimately cancelled; however, it was strongly considered as late as 1957 to bring the show back to the airwaves.
|One of the newspaper strips.|
The show’s popularity led to a wealth of merchandising and spin-off opportunities. A comic strip ran from September 9, 1951 to September 6, 1953 drawn by Ray Bailey and primarily written by Paul S. Newman. Grosset & Dunlap, for whom Greene worked as an editor, published a series of 8 juvenile novels written by Carey Rockwell (believed to be the pseudonym of Greene himself). The books generally featured a lot of inconsistencies when compared to the television show, however Ley also served as scientific advisor for them. Saalfield Publishing Co. released a coloring book in 1952, and Wonder Books published a children’s book in 1953 called Tom Corbett’s Wonder Book of Space. From January 1 to June 26, 1952, a radio program aired adapting television episodes into a half-hour show twice a week with the cast reprising their roles. An album featuring several songs from the series was released by Golden Sound Records in 1951, as well as a recorded adventure in 1952 from Little Nipper Junior Records.
|The cover to Dell's Tom Corbett #9.|
Dell Comics began publishing comics based on the show in 1952. The first three adventures were featured in Dell’s tryout book for potential new series, 4-Color, in #’s 378, 400 & 421. Satisfied with audience reaction, Dell spun-off the series into its own title beginning with #4 and in an issue of Boys and Girls’ March of Comics with issue #102. As the show tapered off, Dell cancelled the title with #11 in 1954. Prize Comics took up the license in 1955 and published three more issues. In 1990, Eternity Comics reprinted the Dell/Prize comics as The Original Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, along with two of their own 4-issue limited series in a manga style. The Dell/Prize books were reprinted again in 2017 by PS Artbooks as part of their Pre-Code Classics series. Bluewater Productions (now Tidalwave Productions) went on to publish a new 4-issue series in 2009. Bluewater also partnered with The Colonial Radio Theatre on the Air to produce a dramatic radio version of their series.
|One of the View-Master slide images.|
Space Cadet Identification Badges and miniature spacemen, and a Strato-Treasure Hunt Game were made available with purchase of Red Goose Emery Oxford Shoes; one of the show’s sponsors. The spacemen were also available with John C. Roberts Shoes. During Kellogg’s sponsorship, a membership kit was offered through their Corn Flakes brand. They also rebranded their cereal Pep into Pep: The Solar Cereal, which featured cardboard cutouts of space cadet gear and a premium giveaway of goggles. When Kraft took over sponsorship, a Space Cadet Membership Kit was offered for .25 cents and a Kraft tab or wrapper. Among other merchandise was various tin and plastic toys made by Marx, including a pistol and playsets; metal lunchboxes made by Aladdin; a plastic space helmet from Plasti-Cole Products, Inc.; a costume from Yankiboy Play Clothes; a three-reel View-Master set; and more.
Tom Corbett had a lasting impression on science-fiction, as well as introduced the terms “space cadet” and “blastoff” into the lexicon that would become closely associated with the genre. Following the conclusion of the series, Rockhill came under possession of the IRS for failure to pay taxes. Direct Recordings, Inc. ended up purchasing Rockhill’s property from the IRS, including the rights to Tom Corbett. The remaining artifacts from the show retained by Wolfe were donated to the University of Southern California. In 1984, Greene gave his personal kinescopes of the show to nostalgia merchant Wade Williams, who also possessed a number of the half-hour, 15-minute and radio shows. In 1993, Thomas, Markim and Merlin were reunited to perform one of the old episodes as a radio broadcast for Friends of Old Time Radio. Thomas, who viewed the Corbett role as the role of a lifetime, requested to be buried in his space cadet uniform upon his death in 2006.
Excellent summary of the show's history, but two little nitpicks about the pictures. First, the photo you have labeled as "Tom, Astro and Roger" actually shows Tom, Astro and T.J. Thistle who replaced Roger when Jan Merlin left the show. Second, the photo labeled "Tom in his space suit" is actually an edited version where someone pasted Tom's face onto a photo of Astro in his space helmet, see the post from the Tom Corbett facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/320062871526365/posts/1017469338452378/ for details.
Also, if you're interested in a more complete episode guide, the book "The Golden Age of Telefantasy" by Alan Morton has a very detailed one that covers all the 15-minute serialized episodes as well as the self-contained 30-minute ones.
Thanks for the corrections! Always appreciate when fans point out any goofs that I can fix. And thanks for the book recommendation. I'll grab a copy as soon as finances allow.
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