Sunday, May 31, 2009

Before Bond, Before Blofeld: The Roots of Spy-Fi

By Wesley Britton

Since 2000, spy collector extraordinaire Danny Biederman has been showing his fascinating collection of “Spy-Fi” artifacts at places ranging from CI headquarters to the International Spy Museum to the Queen Mary. Visitors to such venues have seen the original shoephone from Get Smart, the sleeve gun from The Wild Wild West, and the pen communicator from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Then, in 2004 Biederman published a coffeebook paperback, The Incredible World of Spy-Fi: Wild and Crazy Spy Gadgets, Props and Artifacts, From TV and the Movies (Chronicle Books). This collection of Danny’s photographs demonstrated that after all these years, you don’t have to be a spy fan to fondly remember the then cutting-edge technology of the “Spy Renaissance.”

Certainly, the 1960s is the decade most noted for “Spy-Fi.” After Goldfinger’s laser-cannon cut down the doors of Ft. Knox in 1964, the large and small screens were filled with secret agents both employing and battling the futuristic science dreamed up by script writers. The Avengers took on “diabolical masterminds” that could control the weather, build cybernauts, and shrink John Steed down to size. The men from U.N.C.L.E. took on THRUSH which, if novelist David McDaniel got it right, stood for the “Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjection of Humanity”—emphasis on the technology, whether created or stolen by all those international evildoers. When James Coburn became Our Man Flint in 1965, he battled baddies who weren’t merely out to blackmail the super-powers for ransom; they wanted the world to bow to their utopian designs under threat of weather controlling technology. Two years later, In Like Flint sent the agent into outer space a decade before James Bond took Holly Goodhead around the world one more time in Moonraker (1979). Perhaps “Spy-Fi” reached its 1960s apex in The Prisoner when, each week, Number Six battled technological attempts to break down his stubborn humanity.

Then came the ‘70s, and we saw 007 finally go under the sea and into space, bionic agents saving us from aliens and Bigfoot, and then following decades gave us computer nerds getting zapped with new tech from VR5 to Jake 2.O to Chuck. However, the roots of all this weren’t in the ‘60s. “Spy-Fi” had been there all along, beginning in the earliest of spy novels and silent movies which established the tropes of secret agents vs. technological advancements in warfare:

a. the mad scientist out for world domination, whether for himself or larger entity;

b. the more naïve scientist who finds himself the victim of his own experiments and becomes an unwitting pawn by friends or enemies of his/her country;

c. the attempts by nations or corporations to create powerful weapons to give them the advantage in global or regional conflicts.

Battling the Huns

The origins of “Spy-Fi” were in the first years of the 20th Century when British novelists dramatized the growing fears of the German threat before World War I. There was William Le Queux whose “Duckworth Drew” stories were precursors to later adventures focused on new technology as when he encountered an "electronic eye," an Italian device that detonated mines. Edgar Wallace wrote a
number of serialized stories like Code No. 2 (April 1916) which anticipated future technology including a computer-controlled hidden camera and infrared photography. Not surprisingly, the influential John Buchan also veered into speculation about the future. In Mr. Standfast (1919), the heroic Richard Hannay posed as a pacifist to uncover a German spy planning to destroy the English army by releasing anthrax germs on its mainline of communications.

During this very imaginative and rarely realistic period in spy fiction, secret laboratories churning out new explosives and
chemical weapons were part of the Victorian silent movie melodramas. In short films primarily made for female audiences,
little girls and their older counterparts had to help out their beloved lovers and fathers threatened by evil “Hun” agents
working for the Kaiser and his legions. Occasionally, these efforts bordered on science fiction. For example, In the 15
episode serial, The Black Box (1915), a detective invented a device allowing him to see who is calling him on the
telephone. In The Secret of the Submarine (1916), the hero and heroine cheated the Japanese out of a device that could
extract Oxygen out of water.
Hollywood favorite Marion Davies starred in one of the oddest of such stories, The Dark Star (1919). Davies played a girl
who has memorized secret plans held in a supernatural relic that had fallen from space with mysterious powers. Jennifer
Garner would encounter similar threats almost 90 years later.

One movie ahead of its time was The Eleventh Hour (1923) about a Secret Service agent foiling the plans of a blackmailing
Prince to steal new explosives. Like future masterminds, mad Prince Stefan had a secret submarine, a hidden wireless
cabinet, airplanes, motorboats, deadly lions and one device popular in the period, secret trapdoors. In the main, most stories
featured secret formulas on paper; the “Macguffin” wasn’t usually the device itself, but rather a description hidden in some
private code.

Still, fantasy found its way into unexpected places. Long before The Wild Wild West fused the Western, SF, and espionage, Ghost Patrol (1936) featured a government agent looking for looters who prey on crashed airplanes. Turns out, there's a mysterious ray coming from a radium mine that's taking down the planes. Singing cowboy Gene Autry took a turn at such fare in his first serial, The Phantom Empire (A.K.A. Gene Autry and the Phantom Empire, 1935). In the story, considered one of the first science-fiction serials, Autry discovered an underground civilization 20,000 feet beneath his Radio Ranch. Technologically advanced, these survivors of a lost continent use radium for ray guns and early television.

Nazis and Reds

In the run-up to and during World War II, most spy fiction was in a more realistic mold, with fantastic stories reserved for children’s radio programs. Superman, Tom Mix and The Shadow were among many heroes called on to serve as counter-spies on the home front. One film predecessor to similar movies of the 1950s starred Peter Lorre as a baron in Invisible Agent (1942). In the WWII propaganda picture, Lorre's character was a Japanese agent who's trying to shake down the son of the Invisible Man for his invisibility serum. This set the stage for four TV series with transparent secret agents, although all starred leads on the side of the angels. As described below, more invisible bad guys would return on the large-screen—after all, what better spy gimmick than being unseen?

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two terms were coined to define what followed—the Cold War and the Atomic Age. While the massive destruction of modern warfare in World War I had shocked the planet, the new reality of both nuclear weapons and the power of atomic radiation placed technology in the forefront of espionage fiction. Suddenly, films with plausible scripts included threats of nuclear annihilation from simple uranium hidden in wine bottles in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) to the more fantastic idea of third parties capable of nuclear blackmail as in Thunderball (1965). With no relationship to espionage, films in the mold of Frankenstein (1931) like The Fly (1958) dramatized what can happen if scientists fly too close to the sun. Likewise, giant monsters in B movies with big apes, giant insects, or Godzilla—whatever he was—seemed cautionary parables about larger consequences if science is not kept in check. You didn’t need an atomic bomb to make the point—any unusual device would do in the hands of those with dark agendas.

For example, imaginative “Spy-Fi” of this era included Dick Barton, Special Agent (1948), the first of a movie series starring Don Stannard as the character created for radio. In the first film, a disillusioned scientist planned to poison England's water supply. In Dick Barton Strikes Back (1948), Barton defeated a scientist (Sebastian Cabot) planning to destroy the city of Blackpool with an atomic ray gun. Finally, Dick Barton at Bay (1950) had Barton rescuing a kidnapped scientist and his daughter when spies want his death ray machine. During the 1960s, that synopsis would fit countless Euro-spy flicks starring a host of would-be Sean Connerys.

The Children’s Hour

During the McCarthy Ear, as with WW II, the more fantastic spy stories were designed for children. On radio, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy became Armstrong of the S.B.I.. For one 1950 season, Jack became a counter-spy for the Scientific Bureau of Investigation. On television, both British and American youngsters could see super-spies like Atom Squad, a cheaply produced 15-minute science-fiction TV series aired weekdays at 5:00PM EST. Broadcast live from the studios of WPTZ in Philadelphia, the title referred to a secret government agency dealing with threats to the planet from evil doers and mysterious technology like weather-controlling machines or giant magnets that could disrupt shipping. In the same mold, Captain Midnight was originally a radio serial airing from 1938 to 1949 before becoming a TV program from 1954 to 1956. While the 39 episodes were overtly science-fiction adventures for the young, the stories shared the same tone of anti-Communism as in adult-oriented 1950s Cold War dramas. Over half of the Captain’s escapades dealt with enemy agents, national defense, military technology, and despots planning to rule the world.

More expensive productions included The Invisible Man (1958-1959) with live actors saving England from Communist agents. More known for its novelty than scripts, the show takes its historical place as the first spy show produced by Ralph Smart, the producer who followed with Danger Man two years later. In 1959, The World of Giants was another live-action children’s effort. The most expensively made series of its day, the 30 minute black and white World of Giants was inspired by the success of the 1957 film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, along with a plethora of other tiny people B movies. In this case, it was an American FBI agent scurrying under doors and lifting up heavy telephone receivers.

Dr. Mabuse

But not all “Spy-Fi” was targeted to youngsters in their living rooms. Before Bond, one popular film series began with director Fritz Lang's 1922 Doktor Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler). While interesting ploys were used by the mad doctor, hypnotism wasn’t really a SF trope. But Lang directed two sequels, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse [1933] and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse in 1960. The 1960 project interested him as he wanted to use new film techniques and say new things about the times. After the atomic bomb, civilization could be destroyed and, in the rubble, a new realm of crime could be built up.

Thousand Eyes has Dr. Mabuse running his criminal empire from the Hotel Luxor. As with Ernst Stavro Blofeld who’d debut in 1963, His face is unseen as he gives orders leading to the takeover of a corporate empire using murder and blackmail. As with the later Bond films and the sci-flavored technology they inspired in countless imitations, the mechanical devices show the omnipotence of the evil doctor, especially his surveillance gizmos allowing him to watch his prey. He had seemingly overriding power including TV cameras in every room in the hotel, and can thus regulate as well as survey movement. But, as with Bond, this power turned out to be illusory--one good man can overcome a fiend.

New directors took up the series beginning with Return of Dr. Mabuse (1961), and science-fiction had a more prominent role in the scripts. This German-made production had FBI agent (Lex Barker) and Interpol agent (Gert Frobe, Goldfinger himself) after the doctor who’s out for world domination again using invisible assassins. Perhaps the best sequel to illustrate what the new movies were all about is The Invisible Horror (A.K.A. The Invisible Dr. Mabuse, 1962). IN this tale, Mabuse (Wolfgang Preiss) was after "Operation X," a device so secret it was said to be more important than super-bombs or rocket ships. Turns out, it’s a device that can make him invisible. FBI agent Joe Como (Lex Barker) was also after the secret project a mad professor invented who hid in a lab. After an accident disfigured him, he created the machine so he can be with the unwitting love of his life, an actress (Karin Dor, later to star in You Only Live Twice). For most of the film, Barker tries to convince West German policeman Gert Frobe that Mabuse actually exists while Dor wants someone to believe her, that an invisible man is haunting her theatre dressing-room and giving her invisible kisses. Worse--the mad professor is watching her bathe--it's when he moves a bath towel that Barker finally nabs him. Now, this was humor for adults.

Once more, Peter Van Eyck and Klaus Kinski starred in Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse (1963) with and Wolfgang Preiss as the evil doctor again using hypnoses to control police and politicians. The run ended with The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse (1964) with Interpol agent Major Bob Anders (Peter Van Weyck) sent to protect the secret death-ray mirror the evil Dr. Mabuse (Claudio Gura) is after. By this time, two James Bond movies had debuted—Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963). While the final scenes of Dr. No set the stage for, well, all the fantastic stages of hidden retreats for megalomaniacs, it wasn’t until You Only Live Twice (1967) that the 007 films became overtly “Spy-Fi.” So Dr. Mabuse must be considered a series more precursor to Bond rather than one of many series to come influenced by the world of Sir James.

The Meaning of it All

Admittedly, this short overview might indicate that early “Spy-Fi” was primarily seen in media geared for juveniles and therefore of interest only as historical artifacts in entertainment history. However, a number of issues arise from these sometimes primitive projects that first brought together espionage and science fiction.

One reason such fare is largely forgotten today is that technology marches on—if the adventures are based only on imaginative gimmeikry, which often becomes quickly antiquated, there’s little for future readers or viewers to enjoy. At least, “Saint” creator Leslie Charteris was concerned about this in 1966 when he claimed he worried about issuing new editions of his Saint books. In his “Forward” to the new publication of his 1931 Alias The Saint, Charteris wondered if he should update the old tales. He admitted the archaic telecommunications and transportation technologies in The Saint’s early adventures had changed significantly. In a similar “Foreword” to his 1965 edition of The Saint Overboard (1935), Charteris said his Jules Verne-like machines used by mad scientists were outdated as quickly as the books went to print, making his futuristic aqualungs and bathyspheres commonplace and uninteresting thirty years later. So Charteris said he was reluctant to bring out new editions thinking readers would be better served by new books with new settings and new topical references.

But Charteris learned new readers would indeed be interested in these yarns because They featured a memorable character who, like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, transcended his times. Good storytelling can be admired long after the “Macguffins” have lost their novelty.

In addition, “Spy-Fi” was often a mirror of public concerns, especially after the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb and put Sputnik into orbit. In my first book, Spy Television (Prager Pub, 2004), I noted:

To a large extent, the “Spy-Fi” TV series of the 1960s and later were also extensions of the monster and space alien films of the 1950s, often cautionary fables about technology in the new Atomic Age. Likewise, secret agents contended with mind and body switches, artificial intelligence machines gone amok, genetically enhanced plants or animals, miniaturization rays, and deadly laser beams. Before worries about biological warfare became headlines after the September 11, 2001 attack on America, TV spies had long fought terrorists of every stripe employing artificially enhanced diseases as weapons. Long before The X-Files and the 2001 version of The Invisible Man employed new twists in cryogenic stories, spy shows used the old motif of artificial immortality to resurrect Hitler, transfer scientist’s minds into robots or computers, and seek out real and bogus Fountains of youth. Ironically, after September 11, much of this imaginative speculation seemed prophetic. For example, when news accounts reported powders carrying anthrax germs were found in mailed envelopes in October and November 2001, this author immediately recalled this had been one `Macguffin in a 1969 Avengers story, "You'll Catch Your Death."

In “Spy-Fi,” Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was as influential as Ian Fleming, at least in terms of the goals of modern madmen. Super-villains were typically “zealous puritans intent on cleaning up social decadence” and earthly corruption by destroying humanity to have the species progress. Villains in series like The Wild Wild West were often social activists to the extreme, as in one terrorist wishing to use tidal waves to destroy polluters.

Each week, independent, freewheeling secret agents brought down such egomaniacs with Utopian designs for reshaping and controlling the world. Private investigators solved crimes against man; realistic agents solved crimes against society. But secret agents opposing SF masterminds fought crimes against nature. In the 1950s, this allowed writers to portray Communism as a force against nature, particularly human nature. This theme reached its height in The Prisoner when its 17 episodes were designed to be cautionary parables about the rights of free minds in a world seeking conformity and enforced order. Even in the shows created for pure entertainment, themes that warned of the dangers of ill-used technology, chemical, and biological tampering with genetics and the environment took the spy out of the sometimes claustrophobic Cold War atmosphere into wider vistas of adventure. And, as Cawilit and Rosenburg noted, the technological trappings allowed for ambivalent parables about the meaning of new gadgetry. Whatever devices secret agents had were used up before the final confrontations when one man stood alone against machinery that filled volcanoes. If technology was the deciding factor, Blofeld and his imitators would have won. (note 1)

From another perspective, Martin Willis once claimed the new emphasis on overheated technology had much to do with the return of James Bond in the person of Pierce Brosnan. Willis claimed the Bond series had always portrayed a 007 who had an ambivalent relationship with technology. This was shown in the popular "Q scenes" when Bond first demonstrates mastery over the gadgets before famously showing disrespect for them by destroying them in one scene or another. When Daniel Craig took on the mantle, it might seem the Bond people had decided “Spy-Fi” had run its course. No “Q” scenes in the Craig films; the evil “Quantum” wants international power by way of controlling natural resources. So—has “Spy-Fi” really run out of gas? What might we expect in the future?

“Toys vs. Boys”

By the dawn of the Twenty-First Century, a debate over the uses of new technology and espionage was a concern within the actual intelligence community. By 1998, the central debate was whether the emphasis should be “toys vs. boys,” that is, should technology supersede the place of agents in the field? This interest in “toys” in both fact and fiction seemed appropriate on a number of levels. In the post cold war era, the intelligence services of many nations monitored the manufacturing, sales, and purchases of advanced weaponry by countries such as Pakistan, Korea, Iran, and Iraq. At the time, satellite reconnaissance capabilities seemingly made the task easier. As the new millennium approached, drawing from old science-fiction stories, the NSA was working on computers integrating biological entities including bacteria used to build transistors. Such machines were planned to be able to reproduce themselves, combining electronic components with DNA. As Frederick Hitz put it, Will Smith's Enemy of the State (1998) was set in a world of computer hackers where stealing financial information and manipulating data are all taken for granted. In other words, the cutting-edge was now expected, not surprising.

Despite all this, with unintentional irony, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 25, 2001 that the new war on terrorism was being fought with “antique weapons.” On September 11, 2001, counter-terrorist experts like Jeffrey Beatty claimed the teams who destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the pentagon used “Low tech, high concept“techniques which turned commercial planes into bombs. As many later noted, the 19 terrorists might have been primitive technologically, but were well-organized, sophisticated agents who were masters of espionage tradecraft.

What all this means is that a once sub-genre in entertainment is now part of popular culture and the imaginations of real-life “Q”s are now focused not so much on creating new weapons, but rather means to foil those who know terror and devastation don’t require sophisticated high-tech. Surveillance and counter-surveillance are now center stage because countries like North Korea and Iran look to very real, and very old, technology to assert their place in international affairs. It seemed appropriate that on May 28, 2009, viewers of CNN saw “eye-in-the-sky” photographs of North Korean nuclear facilities; the following day, President Obama announced the creation of a new “Computer Czar” to oversee the security of U.S. government computers, especially in response to the ongoing threat of Red Chinese infiltrations.

Perhaps we’ve gone beyond “Spy-Fi.” If Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) on Fringe is any indication, mad scientists may now be more useful than fearsome. With creators like J.J. Abrams merging old formulas with new twists (Alias, Fringe), perhaps a new tradition is just around the corner, something that won’t remind us of invisible cars or weather-controlling machines that pale as opposed to such forces as Global Warming.


1. I freely admit 90% of this article drew from my first three books on fictional espionage. Many of these points and ideas are developed in great detail, especially in Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction (2005.) These books, by the way, include the citations that might lead readers to my original sources.

2. Another example of “Spy-Fi” that didn’t really fit this overview was the “Stainless Steel Rat” stories that Harry Harrison first began publishing in 1957 in Astounding Science Fiction. My analysis of this series, “Espionage Around the Galaxy: The Spy-Fi of Harry Harrison” is posted at in the “Features” section.

For many more features on fictional and factual espionage, check out the offerings at—

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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