My previous post on Space Pirate Captain Harlock was sparked by the following comment on film historian Bill Warren’s Facebook page (anything to give me an excuse to watch cool sci-fi movies on Netflix):
Yes, I know this is set in the present, STAR TREK in the future and STAR WARS in the past, but this and almost all space-set movies and TV shows are set in pretty much the same consensus future of spaceships that zip all over the galaxy without any relativity-created time problems; almost all aliens, even CGI aliens, look like humans with different colors and a few glued-on facial differences. Plenty of ray guns/blasters/phasers etc., gravity, air and temperature pretty much Earth-normal. This consensus future was developed from about 1935 to 1955 in published science fiction.
But has anyone traced its development, investigated who introduced what? I presume Doc Smith, Edmund Hamilton, John W. Campbell Jr. (as an editor), Heinlein, Murray Leinster and others were major contributors–but who else? And what did the various writers introduce?
I agree with Bill’s central point:
Most space opera is just naval stories set in space, sometimes with submarines, sometimes with aircraft carriers.
I’d say Edgar Rice Burroughs and other writers of books like Gulliver Of Mars got the ball rolling in the late 19th / early 20th centuries by telling essentially great white hunter / cowboys vs Indians on another world stories. Most sci-fi of the classic pulp era (which I’ll peg as between 1920-45) was in terms of plot simply a military or pirate or exotic land adventure story with sci-fi trappings.
Malcolm Jameson’s Bullard of the Space Patrol series drew quite heavily on his naval experience (and to good effect; it’s much better than the typical space opera of its era). Likewise Ed Hamilton’s Captain Future was (essentially) Doc Savage & friends in space.
A certain common language sprang up because most sci-fi devices were analogs of real world devices. As another post on Bill’s page points out, many of the pulp space opera writers were also grinding out pulp adventure / detective / sea / Western stories for the same publishers. They quickly developed a set of tropes that casual readers could quickly grasp.
The language and syntax of the genre evolved out of what stuck after it was flung on the walls of the collective consciousness by these pioneering wordsmiths.
But I think attention must be paid to Buck Rogers (which admittedly took a while to get space borne but once it did never looked back) and Flash Gordon, which featured cultures very similar to those on Earth, just ramped up to the nth degree. Those comic strips probably did more to influence what mainstream audiences thought of as “sci-fi” than anything else of the era.
Flash Gordon was about a planet that enters our solar system and nearly collides with Earth; once Flash & co reached Mongo pretty much all if their adventures were confined to the surface. The stories became interstellar only much, much later. Buck started on Earth, jumped to Mars and the other solar system planets, then went interstellar after WWII.
The comic strip versions of Buck Rogers and his better drawn / far more badly written imitator Flash Gordon pretty much set the visual look of pulp space opera (albeit Buck often did stories set in space were zero-g was a plot factor). In this instance I would say it was the failure of ability on Dick Calkins’ part and the failure of imagination on Alex Raymond plus the casual reader’s inability to grasp something they had never seen before that helped shape the consensus universe Bill refers to.
Remember, the pulp publishers were in it for the money only and if it didn’t sell they’d replace it in a heart beat; their writers deserve credit where they succeeded in breaking thru this monetary barrier and introducing genuine imaginative material among all the pulp trope dross.
Special credit needs to be given to editor John W. Campbell of Astounding Stories (later re-titled Analog). Campbell was a savvy editor who could negotiate the shoals of publishing while protecting and guiding his writers and artists to produce higher and higher quality work. The shadow Campbell cast on sci-fi of the era was tremendous, and he is one of the single most influential figures in the entire field.
Astounding, through Campbell and his associated writers, wielded a heavy influence on sci-fi films in the early 1950s. The Thing From Another World is based on Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”; Destination Moon, while officially based on Robert Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo, was certainly the by-product of Campbell’s editorial crucible; The Day The Earth Stood Still was based on Harry Bate’s “Farewell To The Master” originally published in Astounding; and Forbidden Planet is about the closest thing to a bona fide Astounding Stories movie one could hope for.
Forbidden Planet looks pretty much like a standard Astounding Stories tale of the era: Smart writing, super-science, standard space opera gizmos, psionic menace. Star Trek closes the loop for us. It certainly picked up on those elements, but not in a way that can easily be traced back directly to Forbidden Planet.
Star Trek is actually not all that far removed from Tom Corbett, Space Patrol, or Rocky Jones insofar as they are all about quasi-military organizations engaged in interstellar exploration and combatting alien menaces; better written and less hokey, to be sure, but I think most early TV space opera plots could be re-written as workable Star Trek episodes.
And that actually is what ties the consensus space opera universe together, the fact that by the early 1950s the tropes were well established enough for casual TV viewers to easily grasp them, yet at the same time remain serviceable enough to sustain a far more sophisticated series later, finally kicking space opera into the mainstream once and for all.
 Current popular space opera that shall remain nameless here until the studio that produced it does the right thing to the family of Jack Kirby.
 Though I’d say Doc Smith was lightyears beyond Star Trek and Star Wars in the aliens dept.
 H.G. Wells being the major exception, but even then not always.
 Blaster = gun, spaceship = aircraft / battleship / submarine depending on story, space patrol = navy and / or Texas rangers, etc.
 The novels that the comic strip are based on were yellow peril stories with a Rip Van Winkle twist; Buck didn’t leave the planet in the books and not on the funny pages until the strip had been around for several years. A nice thing about the comic strip was that Buck negotiated a peace with the Han Empire that had conquered North America, returning American sovereignty while at the same time addressing the empire’s concerns — rather progressive for pulp fiction of that era!
 On the plus side, Mongo is pretty much the only sci-fi planet with different climates, environments, and cultures; everything else tends to have a single planet-wide cultural / environmental standard (case in point, the otherwise excellent Dune).
 The now virtually forgotten Brick Bradford began as an adaptation of When Worlds Collide but quickly abandoned the source material.
 I’ll give a nickel to anybody who can show Calkins ever understood what a vanishing point was.
 Raymond was a superb draftsman, excellent at layout and anatomy, but all his alien cultures looked like whatever movie he saw that week with the occasional ray gun or Art Deco rocket tossed in for variety. He left Flash Gordon around the start of WWII and came back after the war with the truly remarkable Rip Kirby, a savvy post-war private eye series that stands the test of time far better than Flash Gordon ever could even though it failed to garner the same cultural impact.
 And that’s not counting minor films like Project Moonbase (written by Robert Heinlein) or Dune Roller (based on the short story of the same title by Julian May) from the 1960s, blatant ripoffs like The Brain From Planet Arous (taken from Hal Clement’s Needle) or The Brain Eaters (stealing from Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and getting caught), or obviously the various movie / TV versions of Dune, all of which were shaped to one degree or another by exposure to Campbell’s school of thought. Hell, we can even throw in Battlefield Earth into the mix while we’re at it…
 Lost In Space, conversely, clearly did lift a lot of visual inspiration from Forbidden Planet.