Masters of Venus
R0 - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (26th July 2016).
The Film

“Masters of Venus” - 8 part film serial (1962)

Dr. Ballantyne (played by Norman Wooland) is a British scientist leading the build for the first rocket ship to fly to Venus at the Interplanetary Rocket Base. His two primary school aged kids Jim (played by Robin Stewart) and Pat (played by Mandy Harper, but credited under the stage name Amanda Cowell) frequently visit him at the base and are very knowledgeable about the spacecraft and the science behind it, as they have learned from their father. The base is guarded as there may be rivaling countries or groups of people who could steal or possibly sabotage the mission. Lo and behold, two mysterious men enter the premises with stunning ray guns to disable the security guards and scientists. Jim and Pat notice suspicion when they arrive at the gates of the base, which lead them on to a game of hide and seek from the two infiltrators. The kids and two astronauts Peter and Mike (played by Robin Hunter and Patrick Kavanagh) climb into the Venus rocket for safety, but that safe haven would prove to be temporary as the rocket blasts off directly to Venus.

The kids are able to call via radio to their father for help, but there’s no way to turn the rocket back and their straight shot to Venus is filled with danger such as asteroids, but when they arrive safely on the surface, they encounter the unexpected - civilization.

The space race was a reality in the early 1960s. By 1962, Sputik 1 was in orbit for a few years, Laika became the first animal flown to space (but didn’t survive), and Yuri Gagarin was the first man into space (who did survive to trip back). Apollo missions to the moon were a few more years away, but people couldn’t get enough of space with just the real world news - the cinemas and television were heavy on space travel. Science fiction films about space travel were hugely popular with big Hollywood productions such as “This Island Earth” (1955) and “Forbidden Planet” (1956) being classics of the genre - even if it meant there was more emphasis on “Fiction” rather than “Science”. Independent low budget production companies were also in the game with films such as “Missile to the Moon” (1958),”First Man into Space” (1959), and “The Angry Red Planet” (1959). Europe got in on the action with films such as the British film “Man in the Moon” (1960) and the German film “First Spaceship to Venus” (1960). Kids were certainly fascinated by the stories but for the most part they were silly fun with terror and fascination of the unknown. Special effects sequences and alien monsters were the highlights rather than any seriousness.

“Masters of Venus” was produced by the Children’s Film Foundation as an eight part movie serial played in theaters with a new episode every week for a two month period. Each episode was about 15 minutes in length and always ended with a cliff hanger ending to make the kids excited for more the following week. Each following episode would have a very short recap of the previous one, but would delve right into the action. The Children’s Film Foundation was a non-profit organization that made both serials and one hour features for children since 1951. (As of 2012, it is known as the Children’s Media Foundation.) Focused of educational programming for children, “Masters of Venus” was about adventure and spectacle but it also equally dealt with science and morals. Rocket ships, ray guns, space suits were drawing points for the children to see, while scientifically the kids were made as smart characters using wit and knowledge of science that they learned from their father into play - many times more adept to the situations than their adult counterparts. Morally there are similar themes to “The Day the Earth Stood Still” - people of earth are more concerned with power, control, and killing each other in the race to conquer. Whether it is war between countries or war between who will fly to space first - it is critical about human history and present at the time, and still valid to this day in the 21st century.

The themes are important and it is certainly a fun series to watch, but there are some questionable aspects that should be taken with a grain of salt. Wouldn’t an interplanetary rocket base be more heavily guarded than what looks like a gate to a small factory? Could kids easily enter the place on bikes even if they were the children of the lead scientist? Would office chairs really be installed in a rocket ship, even if they were “temporary” as the characters state? For the rocket, they seemed to have solved the zero gravity problem while flying in space with some sort of technology and it seems very convenient that they happen to have children’s size space suits in the rocket - just in case they thought of bringing the kids along for the ride! As science-fact as it was, the biggest issue may be the lack of space helmets on Venus - the astronauts wear masks for breathing, but why are their eyes completely exposed to the atmosphere? Maybe modern audiences are spoiled with more factual knowledge of space, but for the contemporary audience of British kids it must have still been fun, fascinating, and also very funny.

Out of circulation for many years, the BFI has restored the theatrical serial from the best surviving 35 mm elements for a home video release. The eight episodes are as follows:

- "Sabotage" (15:04)
- "Lost in Space" (15:11)
- "The Men with Six Fingers" (14:47)
- "The Thing in the Crater" (15:28)
- "Prisoners of Venus" (15:59)
- "The Killer Virus" (14:27)
- "Kill on Sight" (14:55)
- "Attack!" (17:16)


There is also a “Play All” function in which the total runtime is (121:46).

Note this is a region 0 PAL encoded DVD which can be played back on any Blu-ray or DVD player worldwide which has PAL capability

Video

BFI presents the eight-part serial in the original theatrical 1.66:1 ratio, in anamorphic widescreen in the PAL format. Mastered from the best surviving 35 mm elements, the prints have their good and bad points. Detail is quite good with the black and white photography, with film grain visible and is always stable. There are the minor specs and scratches still visible but at times tramline marks that stay on the middle of the screen for long durations. It’s not too bad but it can be distracting.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
BFI presents the audio in lossless 2.0 mono from the original elements. This also has its good and bad points. There are no pops and cracks in the soundtrack audio, but the audio is constantly tinny and scratchy. Dialogue is usually not hard to understand, but it lacks clarity on the whole. While good that lossless audio was provided, clarity is an issue on all episodes.

There are no subtitles to accompany the episodes. Considering the scratchy audio, it would have been helpful for BFI to include English HoH subtitles but none are offered. BFI used to subtitle everything on their DVDs and Blu-rays - not only the main features but the extras and even commentaries. On recent releases only the main features are subtitled.

Extras

Liner Notes
The inner inlay includes liner notes by BFI National Archive curator Vic Pratt. The essay consists of basic information on the production, some comments on the series, and about the transfer. The liner notes are not as in-depth as the usual BFI booklets. There are no cast and crew listing, no episode listing, no theatrical release dates as expected from the standard BFI release.

The liner notes are the only extra available and it is weak. Interviews with the child stars would have been nice to see. Robin Stewart who played Jim died in November 2015 so that would have been too late. Mandy Harper AKA Amanda Coxell AKA Mandy Dunn… why did she have so many names and according to the BFI biography/filmography, why did she play character named “George” in multiple productions? Quite a mystery there.

Overall

“Masters of Venus” is a fun piece of science fiction for children with a nostalgia element. You’ll have to suspend a lot of disbelief but the themes introduced still have a valid message to say about present day humanity. The BFI’s DVD set produces average picture and below average sound, along with nearly zero extras. Hard to completely recommend, but is worth a look.

The Film: B- Video: B- Audio: C- Extras: D- Overall: C

 


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