August 27, 2011

Superman Saturday: Science! goes crash

Oh yes. It's Saturday, and that means it's time to sit back and appreciate all things old, cheesy, and low-budget. Real life took priority last weekend, but to make up for it, this week we have a Superman Saturday Triple Feature, comprising an entire story from the radio's Adventures of Superman.

In our last episode, Superman had just saved the Silver Clipper train from certain doom at the hands of the Wolfe and his henchman, Keno Carter. Now, back in Metropolis, Clark Kent has earned himself a permanent job with the Daily Planet thanks to his breaking the railroad sabotage story in his first week on the job - indeed, his first week on Earth!

However, instead of a shiny Employee of the Month plaque on the wall, Clark has earned himself an enemy and a bomb threat, from none other than the shadowy figure behind Keno and the Wolfe—the Yellow Mask! Since his plot was foiled by a reporter, he plans on taking his revenge in true super-villain style: blowing up the entire newspaper. By 6 o'clock the next evening, the Daily Planet building will be rubble . . .

Episode 7: The Atomic Beam Machine (1940/02/26)

Listen!

As police scour the Daily Planet for bombs, in a deserted part of town, Dr. Sven Dahlgren is entertaining an "unexpected visitor" in his laboratory. He warns Professor Schmidt not to touch the windows or metal fixtures, as the laboratory is electrified. Dahlgren has received threats due to his latest invention: an atomic beam that disintegrates matter by canceling the atomic forces holding it together. Dahlgren, sick of violence, wishes his weapon of mass destruction to be used only for peaceful purposes, so he is keeping it a closely guarded secret. Except, of course, for unannounced visiting professors, to whom he is all too happy to demonstrate it by vaporizing a drinking glass and a small steel ball (both of which disappear with the sound of breaking glass).

Suddenly, Prof. Schmidt, whose voice actor sounds like Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, reveals himself to be none other than the Yellow Mask, threatener of great metropolitan newspapers! Pulling a gun on Dr. Dahlgren, he steals the machine, announcing his intention to use it to become "supreme ruler of the universe"—no doubt twiddling his mustache as he says it. Mwa-ha-ha! Dahlgren calls for help from his manservant Michael, who arrives too late.

Back at the Planet building, the police have found nothing. It's 4 pm, and with only two hours left until the Yellow Mask makes good his threat, Perry White introduces Clark Kent to his nemesis, whose initials are L.L. No, it's not Lex Luthor. It's Lois Lane, girl reporter! Right from the start she is unimpressed with Clark. When his super-hearing detects a low-flying plane outside, she takes him for a yokel unused to the sounds of an urban environment where there is no shortage of aircraft flying overhead. White then sends Lois out on a job. "A good job?" she asks, hopefully. "No," he replies—Dahlgren has called the paper to report the theft of his machine, and White wants an interview.

Clark suggests to White that the building be evacuated, but White doesn't want to look stupid if nothing happens. Apparently he's not too worried about looking stupid if something does. Just then, the phone rings. It's Dahlgren, and he wants to warn White that the Yellow Mask had threatened a paper when he stole the machine. (Too bad it didn't cross his mind to warn them the first time he called.) Suddenly the phone line goes dead. Clark realizes that the threat against the Planet isn't a bomb: the Mask intends to explode the building with Dahlgren's machine, and the plane he heard was probably spying out the area. Lois might be in trouble. Enduring some ribbing from some jealous Planet staffers, Clark ducks into a locker room and changes into Superman, jumping out a window and flying off to rescue Lois and Dr. Dahlgren.

Ah, yes, the 1940s, back when scientists worked for the good of mankind instead of scrabbling for grant money, and a tweed jacket, mustache and pipe earned you instant respect. Dr. Dahlgren isn't merely involved in science; he's into Science!, which creates wonderful technology out of pseudoscientific handwaving and little-understood technology like "atomic power" and "infra-gamma rays." The Scientist! is hopelessly optimistic, and even when he creates devices of enormous destructive power, he cannot conceive of them being used for evil purposes. (Alfred Nobel invented dynamite as a safer alternative to pure nitroglycerin for blasting; supposedly, he actually couldn't imagine that someone might want to build bombs with it.) It's notable that this episode aired in February 1940, in between the two seasons of the New York World's Fair, which celebrated all kinds of technological wonders.

Will Superman reach Lois in time?

What danger lurks at Dr. Dahlgren's laboratory?

Will the Yellow Mask return to steal the user manual?

Stay tuned to find out!

Episode 8: Fuel (1940/02/28)

Listen!

As this episode begins, we overhear a radio conversation between the Yellow Mask and Michael, Dr. Sven Dahlgren's servant. Aha! This explains why Michael was so useless in the previous episode: he's been working for the bad guys all along!

Lois Lane has arrived at Dr. Dahlgren's laboratory as well, where she is interviewing Dahlgren about the theft of his atomic beam. Fortunately, he assures her, the machine is useless: it turns out it was loaded only with two of the steel cylinders needed to power it, which Dahlgren had used up in his demonstration for "Professor Schmidt"! Dahlgren has apparently invented an atomic-powered weapon that is powered by steel. Surely this Science! is wonderful stuff. Dahlgren still has an older version of the machine and a supply of cylinders, which he keeps in a wall safe in a strong room of his laboratory. Lois thinks all this heavy security will "certainly make a story." For a man worried that his invention could be perverted into a weapon of mass destruction, Dahlgren sure likes to blab about his security arrangements.

Superman arrives at Dahlgren's lab, somehow recognizing it because Lois' car (which he has not seen before) is parked outside. His super-hearing, which can hear radio waves, hears another conversation between Michael and the Mask. "Who's Michael?" he wonders. He changes back to Clark Kent and knocks. Lois, thinking Clark has come to horn in on her story, is peeved. Dahlgren reassures Clark that the Daily Planet is now safe. Clark asks if Dahlgren knows anyone named "Michael," and Dahlgren identifies him as his servant, before going to get his other machine from the safe for a demonstration.

Lois chides Clark for what she perceives as cowardice, running away from the Daily Planet in the face of certain death. Clark tries to call the office, but (as Lois snarkily reminds him), the phone doesn't work. Clark then discovers that the phone lines are cut—and, since Michael is working for the bad guys, now they know, too, that the stolen machine won't work.

Suddenly, the steel doors to the strong room close tight! Clark and Lois overhear the voice of Dahlgren warning Michael to stay away from the safe, before there is an explosion. Clark sends Lois to get the police, and with her out of the way, makes short work of the steel doors and revives Dr. Dahlgren. Michael has blown the safe and escaped through a hole in the wall with the cylinders. Just then, the Yellow Mask's voice is heard, through a Dictaphone system built into the wall. (Apparently Michael has bugged the entire laboratory.) He reminds Clark Kent that it is 5:30 pm, only half an hour to certain doom, and "the Yellow Mask always keeps his word."

I've got relatively little to say about this episode. It seems a bit like filler, basically setting up the resounding conclusion in the next show. If you're observant, however, you may have noticed that although the Yellow Mask threatened to blow the Daily Planet "into a thousand fragments" two episodes ago, he has only just now obtained the necessary means of doing so—with only 30 minutes to spare. Say what you like about him; he's got chutzpah.

Will Lois bring help in time?

Can Superman save the Planet?

Will the building explode with the sound of breaking glass?

Don't miss the resounding conclusion . . .

Episode 9: Threat to the Planet Building (1940/03/01)

Listen!

Only 30 minutes left until the Daily Planet building is destroyed by atomic Science! Dr. Dahlgren's servant has escaped the laboratory with extra ammunition for the Dahlgren atomic beam. And on the way out, he has also grabbed Lois Lane, who was told by Clark Kent to go for the police. (Way to go, Clark!). The Yellow Mask decides to keep her for insurance: if Clark tries to interfere again, Lois is dead. They head for the airport.

The explosion at the lab has attracted the police, so it turns out Clark actually put Lois in danger for nothing. To avoid them, Clark runs to an upper floor, changes to Superman and flies out yet another window, heading for the Planet building to warn Perry White to evacuate it. Meanwhile, White takes a phone call from the Yellow Mask: he is holding Lois Lane hostage, and if anyone tries to stop him, Lois will "leave my company without a parachute." Just then Clark arrives. Learning that the Mask has Lois, he immediately tells Perry to call a nearby airfield and have a plane warmed up; he is going to be there in eight minutes. Again, he ducks out of sight and transforms into Superman, and not having time to open a window, commits another act of property damage by crashing through one.

I wonder whether contemporary audiences spotted the irony of Superman flying to an airfield so that Clark Kent could hire an airplane to chase the Yellow Mask?

It's five to six, and the Yellow Mask, Michael, and Lois are in a plane over the Daily Planet building. Michael spots another plane following them. It is, of course, being piloted by Superman, intent on scaring them off. With two minutes remaining, the Yellow Mask instructs Michael to descend upon the Planet building. "Please observe, Miss Lane, once again the whine of the atomic generators," he gloats, as he powers up the Dahlgren Death Ray of Peace. (For the record, Science! sounds like a small electric shaver.) With the other plane almost on top of them, the Yellow Mask makes good his threat and throws Lois out of the plane—just as Superman perpetrates an act of destruction upon his rented plane, ramming the Mask's plane with his own, then diving over 1000 feet to rescue the plummeting Lois.

Oh, heck yes.

The next day, at the Daily Planet, Perry White tells Lois that they all owe their lives to Clark Kent: he crashed his plane into the Yellow Mask's and jumped out at the last minute, parachuting safely to earth, just as Lois did.

Read that again. The staff of the Daily Planet think Clark Kent went kamikaze on another airplane in mid-air, then parachuted to safety.

This is what the "mild-mannered reporter" tells people to cover up the fact that he's Superman.

A lot of the fun of this radio series comes from the "mystery man" aspect of the Superman mythos that was still current in the early 1940s: Superman is a kind of urban legend, and he wouldn't "go public" for a few more years. Right now, Clark Kent has to change into Superman secretly, while dismissing his existence publicly. So he has to come up with a lot of excuses for his sudden disappearances. Sometimes—this being an ur-example— the excuse is less plausible than just admitting he's Superman.

Anyway, back to the story at hand. Lois doesn't remember the parachute, vaguely recalling being snatched in mid-air by a man in a red cape. As Clark arrives at the office, she gives him the cold shoulder. White informs Clark that nothing of the Yellow Mask was found in the wreckage of his plane. Just then, a call comes in about a fire at the Sterling Building. There's a girl trapped inside. Clark Kent quickly rushes off to see if he can help . . .

Was this the end of the Yellow Mask?

Can Clark arrive at the Sterling Building in time to save the girl?

Will he have to reveal himself as Superman?

Or will he just make up another daring feat of bad-assery?

Find out next week!