commandocodycoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1953, 361 min. (12 episodes), Black-and-white
Olive Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe probably owes his existence to Flash Gordon.

In the early ‘50s, baby boomers woke on Saturday and Sunday mornings to discover not just cartoons and new programs, but syndicated, recycled black-and-white shorts and serials that were made decades earlier to be shown in theaters—features like The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, and yes, Flash Gordon.

When Republic Pictures noticed that youngsters were hungry for more of the old Flash Gordon serials, they decided to create a TV series that would look like one of those early Flash adventures or several of their own, like King of the Rocket Men (1949) or Radar Men from the Moon (1952). The interesting thing about Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is that while it commandocodyscreen1looks like an old movie serial, it was made for television, and as such, it lacks the cliffhangers that end every serial. These episodes are more self-contained, despite a narrative arc that also stretches across all 12 included here: Enemies of the Universe, Atomic Peril, Cosmic Vengeance, Nightmare Typhoon, War of the Space Giants, Destroyers of the Sun, Robot Monster from Mars, The Hydrogen Hurricane, Solar Sky Raiders, S.O.S. Ice Age, Lost in Outer Space, and Captives of the Zero Hour.

Though it was made in 1953, Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe has the look and feel of the old Flash Gordon serials. Even now, without knowing anything about the production, you’d swear that it was made in the ‘30s. That in itself is an achievement—though Commando Cody doesn’t have the same range or production values. The cast is smaller, the budget isn’t as big, there aren’t as many villains or costumed aliens of different kinds, and the sets aren’t as elaborate.

commandocodyscreen2But Commando Cody is just as campy and still fun. Though it was made for children, many families might enjoy it now because, well, what’s not to like about a man with a bulky metal mask and jet-pack who can fly through the air like Superman? Or hydrogen hurricanes, magno-force rays that can tilt the Earth on its axis, freeze rays that will remind you of playing freeze tag, and a thought-control chair that looks like a cross between a barber chair and an old Victorian parlor chair? Or robots from Mars? Or any number of gizmos and gadgets that might inspire your kids to head for the craft table and make a few of their own. Some of the fun comes from seeing how low-budget and low-tech some of the props are.

It’s hard not to laugh at Commando Cody’s atomic-powered rocket ship, which he unclogs at one point using a plunger-like device, and which has standard-issue office chairs with seat belts. When the camera tilts and the men lean back on their seats to give the appearance of “lift-off,” your family will probably crack up, if yours is anything like mine. And the top-secret headquarters for Commando Cody? You don’t have to look too carefully to see that they filmed it in front of a southern California apartment building complex and just propped a phone and two guards in front of one entrance. It’s funny too to watch Commando Cody leave his “decompression chamber” and walk on top of his stratosphere-bound rocket ship, leaning over an exhaust that looks more like it came from a giant firework pinwheel than a jet-propelled aircraft.

In Flash Gordon, the planet Mongo’s emperor, Ming the Merciless, caused natural disasters all over Earth as a first step toward conquering the planet, and Flash took off in a rocket ship with two others to thwart him. In Commando Cody the plot is similar. Commando Cody (Judd Holdren) is somehow appointed Intergalactic Sky Martial (though it’s unclear who actually appointed him) and his activities are so top secret that even viewers can’t be told. But we do know this: a cosmic ruler from another planet known simply as The Ruler (Gregory Gaye) has spies on Earth who are transmitting information to him and helping him carry out his own plan to conquer Earth. But not if Commando Cody can help it . . . with the help of his assistants Ted Richards (William Schallert) and Joan Gilbert (Aline Towne), with Richard Crane replacing Schallert midway.

The acting, as in most serials and B-movies, is no great shakes, but there’s just enough science fiction in here to make it interesting, and plenty of low-budget props and scenes to make it unintentionally funny. Commando Cody could easily serve as a warm-up for family movie night, with the installments spread out over a dozen weeks as originally intended. Yes, you can watch the episodes on YouTube, which is where the screen grabs come from, but the audio-visual quality on this two-disc set from Olive Films is far, far superior.