Death in Space (1974)

When Colonel Cliff “Rocky” Rhodes (ubiquitous ’60s biker flick stalwart Jeremy Slate), commander of an astronaut crew, mysteriously disappears through an airlock during a mission orbiting 250 miles above the Earth, it appears to be a simple case of suicide . . . or was he murdered? In the vastness of space, and with their communications array damaged, only one of his crewmates can be the murderer. Who among the crew had a reason to kill Col. Rhodes?

Back on Earth, in Mission Control, George Maharis (TV’s Route 66; Murder on Flight 502 and SST: Death Flight), Cameron Mitchell, and Sandy Kenyon (The Doors tome Down on Us) work on the case while Susan Oliver (yes, the Green-skinned girl from Star Trek) frets as the put-upon wife. The ship’s crew stars Star Trek alum Robert Walker, Jr. (“Charlie X”), TV actor John Carter (The Andromeda Strain; fellow TV flick Earth II), and William Bryant, whose long TV career began in the ’50s and lasted into the late ’80s. Margaret O’Brien, who stars as Mrs. Rhodes, won an Oscar for Outstanding Child Actress* for Meet Me in Saint Louis (1944), starred in Jane Eyre (1943), The Canterville Ghost (1944), and continues to work in television and indie films. She’s currently in production on her 75th project, Love Is in Bel Air (2021).

Sadly, as I fondly as recall this flick, the adult screenwriter in me today sees this as a Bechdel test failure: why not have either Susan Oliver or Margaret O”Brien in a meatier role as an astronaut? Well, this is set in the same present-day Apollo-Saturn V-Skylab era that’s just a few nautical miles down the equator from Marooned (1969) penned by Martin Caidin of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973) fame. Men ruled the stars back in the Kennedy-era and women didn’t conquer space until the far-flung “future” in Project Moonbase (1953), Gog (1954), King Dinosaur (1955), and Angry Red Planet (1959) — even though they were stuck wearing sensible corked-wedged mules and smart black ballet slippers to go with their waist-tailored and pegged flight suits, and smart gauchos with knee-high boots. And screaming and imploring men to “do something” and shoot everything in sight.

But I digress. Again. . . .

Is the odd-looking “New Line” log on the box the same studio later acquired by Turner Broadcasting and merged into Warner Brothers? Your guess is as good as ours.

So . . . why are we here reviewing another Cameron Mitchell (Space Mutiny) sci-fi epic?

Well, it’s another “TV Week” at B&S About Movies . . . and all of that talk concerning Cameron Mitchell and his family’s galactic oeuvre for Allan Sandler and Robert Emenegger’s Gold Key Entertainment — which we discussed at length in our previous review of the studio’s 1981 release, Lifepod — got me to thinking of this ABC-TV movie obscurity (part of the “Wild World of Mystery” shingle) originally broadcast on June 17, 1974. Since I was Apollo crazy and still into my Matt Mason toys, I remember watching Death in Space when it first aired, then again in a post-Star Wars world during a late-night, local UHF-TV rebroadcast — pre-VCR (damn it).

Now, if you know your sci-fi the way we know you do, then you know the whole “murder mystery in space” plotting of this ’70s galactic progenitor was done to a lesser and lesser effect with the Canadian TV romp — which also aired in the U.S. as a first-run Showtime movie — Murder in Space (1985), and the Viacom/CBS-TV production Murder by Moonlight (1989) that, to make it all the more confusing, aka’d in the home video realms as “Murder in Space.” Courtesy of their respective directors, Steven Hilliard Stern (The Ghost of Flight 401 and This Park is Mine) and Michael Lindsay-Hogg (the Beatles “What If” flick Two of Us), and respective stars in Michael Ironside and Martin Balsam, and Brigitte Nielsen and Julian Sands, both films also ran as overseas theatrical features. The effects, sets and costumes are fine, but look cheap in the post-Star Wars environs and each feel like Battlestar Galactica: TOS (we’re reviewing that telefilm-verse this week, look for them) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century two-part episode rejects.

Mattel’s Major Matt Mason courtesy of SyFy Wire. Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks have been trying for years to get a feature film made.

Sadly, like Don Kirshner’s lost-to-the-ages TV rock ‘n’ roll horror, Song of the Succubus, the only known surviving copy of the English language print of the Agatha Christie-inspired space mystery of Death in Space is stored at the Library of Congress. Never released in an English-language VHS (as far as our research indicates), this Charles S. Dubin-directed telefilm was, however, issued as a dubbed VHS throughout Europe (which is where our image comes from).

In spite of the “Red Scare” blacklisting frenzy of the 1950s (along with Dalton Trumbo, the Award-winning writer of Roman Holiday and Spartacus; the subject of the Brian Cranston-starring Trumbo), Charles S. Dubin, fortunately, was able to build a prolific resume (mostly for CBS-TV) consisting of over 100 series (including 40-plus episodes of M*A*S*H; a few Kung Fu episodes) and TV films dating back to the early ’50s. Making his first bow in the sci-fi genre with the one-season anthology series Tales of Tomorrow, he made his feature film debut with the early rock ‘n’ roll flick Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll (one of five films starring famed disc jockey Alan Freed).

William Bryant starring in the much easier to find King Dinosaur (1955).

Of his many TV movies, Dubin’s best known are his take on Cinderella (1965; starring Ginger Rogers!, Walter Pidgeon!, and Celeste Holm?) and Murdock’s Gang (1973; Janet Leigh), with the best VHS-distributed of them — courtesy of William Shanter starring (more Star Trek connections!) — being The Tenth Level (1976). That same year he directed his second and final feature film: the car-crashin’ hicksploitation romp, Moving Violation** (1976). And, if you’re a TV movie airline disaster connoisseur (Did you check out our last “TV Movie Week” back in December dedicated to those films?), he directed the Arthur Hailey-penned (Airport) International Airport (1985) starring Gil “Buck Rogers,” aka “The Polish Sausage,” Gerard.

The western-bred scribe behind the Brother typewriter is the one and only Lou Shaw, who not only tweaked the dialog on the U.S. version of Hannah, Queen of the Vampires, aka Crypt of the Living Dead (1973), and wrote The Bat People (!), but many-an-episode of Lee Major’s The Fall Guy*˟, as well as an aborted attempt to turn Westworld into the series Beyond Westworld (and Dubin directed the failed series version of Logan’s Run!).

Image Left: Robert Walker, Jr. from the Euro-VHS of Death in Space courtesy of todocoleccion.net. Image Left: ABC-TV promotional still of Jeremy Slate courtesy of Worthpoint.com.

Sigh . . . what I would give to see this faded childhood memory, again, that I’ll always pair with almost-the-Six Million Dollar Man Monte Markham’s The Astronaut (1972). Mill Creek Entertainment or TV distributor Park Circus (Do those Lane Caudell flicks in your library, too, Park Circus) needs to get in touch with the Library of Congress and get this one out on DVD or on the air of the national retro-channels Antenna or Cozi. Other lost TV movies I want to find — that are not uploaded online, anywhere — are the Adam West-starring Curse of the Moon Child (1972) and the ABC-TV “Wild World of Mystery” entry Distant Early Warning (1975) starring Micheal Parks.

Ah, those hazy, snowy memories of TV yore that haunt your ol’ analog memory cores — and reviews that connect Oscar winners to Star Trek guest stars and the guy who wrote The Bat People. You gotta love ’em.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

* Read the tale of Margaret O’Brien’s stolen and 40-years returned Oscar at The L.A Times.
** Check out our “Hicksploitation Month” round-up of reviews.
*˟ Check out our “Lee Majors Week” tribute, which includes a review of The Six Million Dollar Man.

And be sure to look for our “Space Week” review tribute to Lifepod, this week.