Tune in Next Week is an ongoing feature, examining serials one chapter at a time. You can watch Chapter Two here.
First things first: that Foreword, with its scrolling text crawling into eternity, looks awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Almost every serial would have had some kind of recap at the beginning of chapters, either in the form of static title cards, scrolling text, or voice over, to catch up audiences who might have missed or forgotten previous installments. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the recap to be clearer about the plot than the actual film, so they’re often helpful to me, even if I’ve just watched the previous chapter! This specific format, however, with the illusion of text scrolling on a slanted surface to disappear in the distance, is primarily associated with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (released the following year), so yes, it was a natural choice for George Lucas to borrow it when recreating the look and feel of the serials for Star Wars. (The label “Episode IV: A New Hope,” which caused so much speculation and wrangling over continuity, was added for the 1981 rerelease, by which time it was clear that the movie was part of a larger saga, and in its small way it cements the illusion of stepping into a story already in progress.)
When we left Buck Rogers, Buddy Wade, and Wilma Deering at the end of “Tomorrow’s World,” they were on their way to Saturn to seek assistance in their fight against Killer Kane and his forces on Earth. Fired upon by members of Kane’s patrol, they appeared to be burned up by sudden entry into Saturn’s atmosphere. However, as we see at the beginning of “Tragedy on Saturn,” they are able to bail out with “anti-gravity belts” and make a safe landing on the surface of the planet even as their ship crashes. Saturn, as we see it, is a barren, rocky world, not too different from the canyons around Los Angeles in which many Westerns and science fiction pictures were filmed. (Note the matte painting used in the wide shot: it’s hard to be sure, but I hope that’s not supposed to be Earth hanging so visibly in Saturn’s sky.) Kane, whom we see in a luxurious headquarters back on Earth, instructs his men to follow the ship down and confirm that the pilots who broke through his blockade are dead.
There follows some cat-and-mouse as first Rogers captures two of Kane’s men, and then the remaining two turn the tables on him. Some serials were marked by inventive and exciting fight choreography, but so far this isn’t one of them: it’s all managed pretty sloppily. In any case, Rogers, Wade, and Deering are taken to the patrol ship as prisoners; Kane has instructed that they be forced to give up the secret location of the Hidden City, the remaining base of those who hold out against Kane’s criminal reign of terror.
All the Earthlings are surprised, however, by a Saturnian soldier backed up by a squad of monstrous “Zuggs.” We know that he is more than he seems, since Philson Ahn, who plays him, is featured in the opening credits as “Prince Tallen,” and he is later shown ordering Zuggs and guards around with plenty of authority. I suspect that Tallen is going to be one of those characters who appear first as an adversary but later join the heroes.
Forced to follow Tallen, they are taken by underground monorail to the Council of the Wise. We get a little more detail about the situation on Earth. Kane has previously been described as a “super-racketeer,” with Dr. Huer explaining that since the men of the twentieth-century failed to stamp out lawlessness, the criminal element became too powerful and now runs the planet. The Hidden City, of which Dr. Huer is the leader, is the lone holdout against Kane’s power; those in the Hidden City refer to Kane as “Killer Kane,” but to those loyal to him he is simply “the Leader.”
And here we have that perennial bane of science fiction world-building, the tribunal of talking heads. The Council of the Wise, led by Aldar (Guy Usher) could almost be the platonic ideal of the hooded elders who sit in judgment: all we need is an echoing pronouncement of “Guilty. Guilty. GUILTY!” for it to be complete. Fortunately, the political wrangling is kept brief and mostly limited to practical affairs.
Rogers makes his case to the Council to join Huer’s cause and help the Earthlings rid themselves of Killer Kane, but the isolationist Council wants no part of foreign conflict. Seizing on this, the patrolman characterizes Huer’s cause as rebellion, and asks for Saturn’s help in stamping out the “revolutionaries.” Rogers’ response to this, “if it’s revolutionary to protest against brutality,” is a good line, and emblematic of the way serials and pulps would often dance around political issues of the time without naming names, but it is to no avail: the Council of Elders agrees with Kane’s men and sentences the “rebels” to imprisonment.
Cleverly turning the tables on the guards, however, Rogers is able to commandeer one of the underground cars, and even after Tallen cuts the power Buddy figures out how to use the ray gun to power the car far enough for them to escape. The same ray is used to stun the Zuggs guarding the Kane patrol’s ship, and the three heroes take off to return to Earth.
As another aside, I’m not crazy about the sled-like ship designs. Obviously we’ve been spoiled by the outer space dogfights in Star Wars and movies that followed it, and I don’t expect that kind of technical accomplishment in the 1930s, but even in repose Kane’s ships are just ugly.
The complications aren’t over yet: the ship is linked by radio to the remaining patrol ship, and the patrolman uses it to take control of the ship in hopes of crashing it. Rogers destroys the radio, freeing them from remote control, but leaving them unable to communicate with Huer and Air Marshal Kragg in the Hidden City, who, upon seeing one of Kane’s ships flying straight toward the secret entrance and unable to raise anyone on the radio, reasonably conclude that Rogers was forced to give up the secret location of the City’s entrance. Kragg orders the giant gates of the City to be opened and then slammed closed on the approaching ship: smash!
Will Buck, Wilma, and Buddy recover from their crack-up? Or will Dr. Huer and Marshal Kragg take up the lead as mismatched buddy cops–in space? Tune in Next Week to find out in Chapter Three, “The Enemy Stronghold!”