As humans, we’ve always looked toward the fantastic for our stories. Early on, it was monsters and the heroes who played them. Later, we invented superheroes to tell our stories. However, as technology progressed we made the push toward the stars and the world’s story-tellers collectively started to look up. Space captured the imagination of people everywhere and science fiction as a genre was born. But where did it really begin to gain traction and popularity?
Early science fiction and interest in space really began back in the 1800’s with Jules Verne’s From The Earth To The Moon and later, Orson Welles’ The War of The Worlds. However, the fascination of space within the mainstream media really took off with the lead up to the space race that began in 1957. America and the Soviet Union, right in the middle of the Cold War, were battling it out to see who would be the first to reach the stars. This drama had all the highlights one needs for a good story: good guys, bad guys, a previously unheard of goal, and a definite conclusion. It’s right around this time that the themes and ideas of space as entertainment left the realm of the novel and jumped into just about every facet of American entertainment.
One of the biggest sources of entertainment, especially for younger Americans during this time, were comics. At the time, EC Comics found a lot of success by supplementing their existing comic lines with sci-fi and space-central stories. Comics like Weird Fantasy told anthology-style stories with a huge range of styles and subject matter. It wasn’t long before these stories were catching up and eclipsing the horror stories of the past.
Some of the most enduring pieces of entertainment during this time are the television shows. Buck Rogers is one of the most well-known of these, which tells the story of a football player who has been transported to the 25th century where he joins an intergalactic war. Buck Rogers first hit screens in 1950 with a 30 minute program that appeared on ABC. Sadly, not a single episode of the original series exists today. It wouldn’t be until 1979 when NBC would revive the character with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. While Buck Rogers might be one of the names we know best, he was far from the only one. Other shows from the day include Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe, Space Patrol, Tom Corbett-Space Cadet, and Tales of Tomorrow. As time went on, these would transition into popular cartoons like The Jetsons.
Of course, what started with television shows quickly made its way to movies as well. The aforementioned War of the Worlds got a big-screen adaptation alongside feature films like The Day The Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, It Came From Outer Space, Invaders From Mars, and the all time classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These movies never made a ton of money as they had a relatively niche audience. The 1950 film Destination Moon is the most commercially successful of the genre, placing it at #79 in the highest grossing films of the decade. However, these movies did consistently make money because that niche audience was also exceptionally loyal, not unlike sci-fi fans today. Also, there is another factor to consider, one that helped further cement space as one of American’s favorite preoccupations: merchandising.
The 1950s is often known as the era of cowboys and space men and the toys of the day show it. Many of the most sought-after toys were tie-ins to popular tvs, comics, and movies. Commando Cody and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet had their own lines of toys that were snatched up by young fans of the show. The popularity of the “name brand” items led to a flood of the market of generic space toys as well: ray guns, robots, aliens and space men all filled the shelves of local toy stores. A few decades later, this would all come to a head with the Star Wars, arguably the most successful movie franchise of all time.
Today, space continues to be a prominent theme for storytellers and fills our TVs, televisions book shelves and toy chests. The freedom to explore new worlds with their own rules has a certain appeal that one simply can’t find in other genres. As long as there are undiscovered planets and strange aliens to encounter, we’ll continue to see shows and movies that use space as their focal point.