Friday, December 3, 2010

Captain Z-Ro!

This is a TV show I'd never heard of until I got hold of the Mill Creek Sci-Fi TV collection. There are twenty-four episodes (of a total of twenty-six I gather) on this collection and it's a fairly impressive effort.

Captain Z-Ro is a time and space traveler with a sprawling installation hidden somewhere on the Earth (though it looks like it's on the Mars or some other planet to me) and he and his team use elaborate equipment to monitor history and even travel back into time. They also have a rocket ship they use to orbit the Earth and even travel to the Moon in one episode. Captain Z-Ro and his boy sidekick Jet meet up with such historical figures as Christopher Columbus, Genghis Kahn, William Tell, Leonardo Da Vinci, Ferdinand Magellan, Benedict Arnold and many others.

As it turns out Captain Z-Ro and his travels have proven key to certain historical events developing as we have come to know about them. If it all sounds a bit like Doctor Who, then you'd be right. It has that feel to it, especially the earliest Who episodes. These stories are intended to be somewhat educational and so have a pedantic quality to the scripts, filled with background on the figures encountered. But I'd have to say the scripting is pretty dang good.

Roy Steffens writes the show and plays Captain Z-Ro. He also shows up in about every episode as some henchman or small bit character in addition to his title role. So this is his show, make no mistake. There are other regular actors who recur throughout the series. Jet is in pretty much every episode and as kid actors go, he's not bad. He gets put into some pretty hairy situations as the series unfolds.

If you wanted to pick at this show, I'd have to say that sometimes the pacing is a bit tedious as they make the most of their sets. These early sci-fi shows really maximize the use of their props getting the most for their money. Each time Z-Ro travels back into time there is an elaborate process that requires just about every gizmo in his lab to get touch or twisted.

What impressed me most about the series was the range of stories they told. Many are straightforward history lessons with a bit of sci-fi twist to them, but some are pure sci-fi adventure and others are more or less slapstick comedy. The Robin Hood episode in particular seems to have been played almost completely for laughs and they do a decent job at ripping off some good sight gags.

One laugh I got as a Kentuckian is that in the episode featuring Daniel Boone, there is a stock shot of the landscape of "Kentucky" and it's pretty obviously a mesa from the Southwest of the United States, there's nothing remotely like that around where I live. There are also some painful racial stereotypes in this one, but nothing too harsh. The Native Americans talk in that broken way they always do in these things but they are presented pretty positively, but the Asians in some other episodes are all afflicted with that hideous lisp and that cringing posture straight from the B-movies. It's regrettable, but given the era understandable.

Here's a clip of Captain Z-Ro talking to his fellow "Z-Men".

The lack of funds shows up as it does on most of these old shows. Tiny cramped sets with curtains making a multitude of locations at least look vaguely different. Some of the episodes are set outside in what appear to be local parks and such. Overall the production values are pretty decent given the time period and I'm sure the meager budget.

My favorite episodes are the ones featuring Blackbeard the Pirate which is a rip-snortin' time travel adventure with some fun twists and turns, an episode in which Z-Ro becomes confused by the Aztecs for an ancient god, and one called "Moonglow" which has Z-Ro and his team follow a flying saucer to the Moon and in whch we discover that aliens are aware of his work and approve. It's some clever stuff.

If you can find these cheap, I'd highly recommend them. Here's a glimpse of the show's opening and the opening scene of the "Moonglow" episode.

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  1. Captain Z-Ro was referenced on two episodes of Quantum Leap...which is pretty clever when you realize how similar the premises are between the two shows! In one episode of QL, Scott Bakula becomes the kid sidekick of his childhood favorite tv show, and in the very last episode of the series he sees the opening credits of Z-Ro on tv, a tip of the hat to its inspiration. In fact, this is how I first heard of the earlier show.

  2. Thanks for the info. I can't say I was much of a fan of Quantum Leap. The actors were dandy but somehow the concept never seemed to work for me. I probably never gave it a real chance.

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