Sgathaich: The Phantom Empire

sgathaich bannerLet’s go far back, to an age long since gone, before TV – to film serials. Those precursors to TV shows that were shown at cinemas. Tales of epic silliness, cheesy Sci Fi costumes and lots and lots of silly hats.

Released in 1935 by Mascot pictures, The Phantom Empire stars singing cowboy Gene Autry who runs Radio Ranch and performs on the radio daily or they lose the lease to it (a clear plot detail to try and add some additional tension).

Gene Autry The Phantom Empire

The ranch is also home to others most importantly children Frankie Baxter and Betsy Baxter who, after an unusual encounter in the Plains near Radio Ranch, formed a club based on the strange riders they saw, The Thunder Riders….. Which just so happens to be the name of the riders from the secret underground civilization of Murania that is beneath them.

Things are complicated when the clearly bad guy science team (this was the 30s, mad scientists were the standard depiction in media, more so than the regular ones) led by Professor Beetson wants to have complete access to the land to find uranium (probably to sell to more evil people to hit orphans with) by preventing Gene from playing on the radio. This is done not by knocking him out and locking the door (which according to the plot would work) but by framing him for murder! And unknown to these parties the Queen of Murania also wishes to stop Gene from playing to decrease interest in the land and thus lower the risk of the surface world finding her kingdom!

So yeah you have a musical cowboy and his child sidekicks battling the criminal professor and a secret underground civilization complete with robots that wear cowboy hats (I love old sci fi). And an even more secret plot to start a revolution and dethrone the queen… for some reason I don’t know I don’t think they ever explain that bit well. It results in the even more evil revolutionary villain having a death ray (because of course they do).

Each episode starts with a small summary of some of the characters and relation to recent events. The early episodes mainly have Gene dealing with the machinations of Professor Beetson, though not knowing it, while being watched by the underground queen. We do get the parts where they try and stop them  but the main plot is the immediate dealing of the framing of Gene for murder. It’s when Gene is taken to the underground kingdom the plot does tend to pick up as you get much more the zany retro Sci Fi stuff. Of course most episodes also have to find a way to have Gene perform on the air as to keep Radio Ranch afloat ,as well as a cliffhanger ending to each episode just like most serials do, followed by a slight re-editing of said cliffhanger at the start of the next episode showing how they survived.

The serial ends with the revolution and the bad guys death ray malfunctioning resulting in destroying the whole civilisation, and rather than lament the loss of countless lives just sing a happy song again… oh and the professor being arrested but by that point he doesn’t really matter.

Given my current 12 weeks of isolation it was fun watching silly things like this, though I did find the singing cowboy part of the plot and the requirement for the broadcasts rather irksome. It seemed  off that with criminal professors and an entire underground kingdom ready to have a revolution they felt the need to add that element in too. But then it was a very different time in the mid 30s and it was America too. Still these sorts of things are always enjoyable to watch.

Rating: spear spear spear


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  1. I watched this whole serial over successive Saturday afternoons in the early ’80s when PBS used to have a program called “Matinee at the Bijou”, which included a serial, a cartoon, a Pathe’ newsreel, and then a feature presentation.
    Thank you for the pleasant review/

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