‘Mysterious Doctor Satan’: a serial in 15 chapters
There was a period of time when I watched a lot of serials. Sadly, many of them were second-rate efforts. So I decided to treat myself and watch one of the top-rated serials of all time, Mysterious Doctor Satan. And, yes, the quality shows right off the bat. You get a full 15 chapters, here. And no economy chapter!
Originally planned as a Superman serial, Republic couldn’t secure the rights, so they rewrote the script and our hero became The Copperhead! No need to throw out a perfectly good script, after all.
So often, serials open with various scenes of mass destruction followed by whirling headlines that proclaim “Unknown power sabotages industries.” Not so, here. This opening is more like a real movie than a serial. Our story opens as a man is shot and killed outside an office building in Capital City. Shot at the order of Doctor Satan to prevent his meeting with the governor.
Bob Wayne, our hero, shows up as the dead body is being removed. He is there to meet with his guardian, Gov. Bronson. Apparently this state, whichever it is, can’t afford a governor’s mansion, because all we see is a small anteroom with one secretary and the governor’s office.
Origin of The Copperhead
The governor reveals that Bob’s father, who died when Bob was just a baby, was not only his best friend but was also the hooded vigilante known as The Copperhead. He gives Bob the copper-mesh hood of The Copperhead and the small copper figure of a coiled snake that The Copperhead used to leave behind as his token. Bob is stunned.
After Bob leaves, the governor has another visitor. An unexpected visitor. An agent of Doctor Satan. He hands the governor a note that mysteriously bursts into flames after it is read. The note spells his doom. The strange visitor shoots and kills the governor. Bob, returning to the governor’s office, captures the murderer after a furious battle.
The police arrive and place the murderer in custody. They hear his confession. Beneath his shirt he shows them a strange device strapped to his chest. It’s his “control disc” by which Doctor Satan talks to him. Corbet, the captured murderer, informs police that Doctor Satan’s next victim is to be Professor Thomas Scott, the inventor. For revealing this secret, Doctor Satan kills Corbet via remote control, right in front of the police and everybody!
But who is Doctor Satan, and why did he want the governor dead? Why does he want Prof. Scott? The police are puzzled. Bob Wayne decides to take it upon himself to solve the crime. But not as Bob Wayne. As… The Copperhead! Yes, Bob Wayne decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and become that mysterious masked crime-fighter The Copperhead. His first task is to aid Lois Scott, the inventor’s lovely daughter, in preventing the kidnapping of her father.
Doctor Satan is played by Edward Ciannelli, who appeared in hundreds of movies and television programs. I fondly remember him as the High Priest of Karnak in The Mummy’s Hand. We first see Doctor Satan in his laboratory, working on his robot. When one of his underlings informs him that the murderer has been captured by the police, Doctor Satan views the scene at police headquarters by means of his remote television device.
Throughout this entire film, Doctor Satan views various events by means of his remote television. Audiences in 1940 must have had only a cursory understanding of television technology. And this serial certainly didn’t do anything to enhance that understanding. Even though there’s no camera to pick up the picture, somehow Doctor Satan can view all these events remotely. Ah well, I guess I should just enjoy the show and stop asking so many questions.
It turns out that Doctor Satan is after Prof. Scott’s “remote control cell” which he needs to complete his robot. So, what’s his plan? Well, as Doctor Satan puts it, “with an army of remote controlled robots, I can control the nation’s wealth.” He doesn’t want to take over the country. He just wants the money!
Doctor Satan sets out to board the train, enroute from Washington. Bob Wayne also boards the train, and for the first time dons the copper mesh hood of The Copperhead. The Copperhead mask covers his entire head, down past his neck. This certainly makes it mighty convenient for David Sharpe, the stuntman who replaced actor Robert Wilcox during the many fight scenes in the serial.
No cliffhanger cheats!
A terrific cliffhanger occurs at the end of chapter three. Bob and Lois are trapped beneath the sea in a diving bell, when depth charges go off. The seams in the metal shell begin to leak, the glass porthole shatters and water floods the compartment. At the beginning of chapter four, the two are saved by the laws of physics. There’s no cheat here. No “they jumped out of the way in time” type resolution. A very satisfying solution to last week’s episode.
This is one of the rare serials that contains two female protagonists. Usually there’s just one. And maybe a female villain, to boot. But in this one, there’s Lois Scott, daughter of Professor Thomas Scott, and there’s also Alice Brent, Prof. Scott’s secretary. Lois gets most of the screen time, but Alice isn’t just window dressing. In chapter three, she saves the day when a gang of cutthroats take over the ship belonging to Prof. Scott. She climbs up, grabs a rope and swings down, feet-first into the gang of hoodlums. She wallops one thug over the head with a belaying pin, then grabs up a pistol and holds the entire gang at bay. Wow, that’s moxie. And she’s not even the “lead” female!
Doctor Satan’s thugs capture reporter Speed Martin. Doctor Satan injects him with some strange hypnotic drug. “You will do as Doctor Satan has said.” He sends Speed to Prof. Scott’s home with a video camera and a remote controlled bomb strapped to his chest. Prof. Scott must accompany Speed back to Doctor Satan’s headquarters, there to give him the remote control design plans. Otherwise Doctor Satan will detonate the bomb remotely. Hey, wait a minute. I thought Doctor Satan needed Prof. Scott’s remote control cell because he didn’t have his own remote device. But, his bomb has one. So, why… Oh, never mind. Just enjoy the show, and stop asking so many questions.
Doctor Satan’s henchmen finally succeed in abducting Prof. Scott. They take him to Doctor Satan’s waterfront laboratory. There, Prof. Scott meets face-to-face with Doctor Satan and his robot. And there, Doctor Satan will put Prof. Scott under the influence of his hypnotic drug to force him to build his remote control cell. It’s up to The Copperhead to rescue Prof. Scott and save the nation from the evil genius of Doctor Satan. And sure enough, just like clockwork, he successfully completes the job by chapter 15.
The famous Republic robot
Let’s talk about Doctor Satan’s robot! Yes, this is the same one that appeared in several other Republic serials. And at the beginning, until the remote control cell is completed, it’s controlled by a panel of buttons on the laboratory desk. This is a 4- by 12-inch panel with two rows of six buttons on it. Except, when we get a closeup, it only has one row of seven buttons. Another continuity error. Oh, just enjoy the show, and stop being so picky.
The buttons are marked “main switch,” “bath,” “cave,” “cellar,” “tunnel,” “trap door” and “robot.” When Doctor Satan pushes the “robot” button, a panel in the wall slides aside, revealing the seven-foot-tall metal monster. It steps forth and kills a henchman who was turning traitor to Doctor Satan. Later, he pushes the same button and it returns again to its alcove.
I keep wondering how Doctor Satan was able to control that robot to do his bidding with only the single button on that control board. Seems like he’d at least need three: “come in,” “go back,” and “kill.” But somehow, this robot seems to know what Doctor Satan wants. Perhaps some sinister mental control that Doctor Satan has perfected? Ah, the mind boggles at the possibilities that aren’t spelled out in this serial.
But wait! The mystery is solved at the beginning of chapter six. Prof. Scott saves The Copperhead from the marauding robot, by running over to that panel and pushing the “robot off” button. Yes, now there’s a “robot off” button! Situated in between the “cellar” and “trap door” buttons, right where the “tunnel” button used to be, now instead it’s a “robot off” button. So I guess the solution to the mystery is obvious. Doctor Satan has perfected a new invention: changing buttons! Yes, somehow, he can reprogram the buttons and make them perform different functions. Why didn’t I think of that before? Oh, because… It’s a cheat! That’s why! Oh, just enjoy the show, and stop being so picky.
Chapter seven sees the robot finally finished. Prof. Scott, under Doctor Satan’s hypnotic control, has completed his remote control cell and installed it in the robot. To test out the longer range of this control device, Doctor Satan sends his robot to break into the vault at the Ferndale National Bank.
The mechanical monster sprouts a tube from its right claw, something that was never there before. This tube spews sparks, and we assume this must be some sort of acetylene torch. Using it, the robot cuts through the vault door and makes off with a bag of loot. When a bank guard tries to stop it, the robot aims the sparking tube at the guard. He falls down, overcome. So, maybe it’s not an acetylene torch. Maybe it shoots a poisonous gas. Or both. Okay, just enjoy the show and stop being so picky.
Doctor Satan is now $100,000 richer. And one henchman poorer. Did I mention that one of his crew was shot down at the bank by the cops? But thugs like that are easy to find. So easy, that I bet he shows up again in a later chapter, wearing a different hat. Bit players, you know. And who’s going to notice… Hey, just enjoy the show and stop being so picky!
And the man inside the robot suit? Ron Stephenson, who knows a lot more about these things than I, assures me that it was stuntman Tom Steele inside. Steele also did double duty in this chapter play as an uncredited truck henchman. Which brings up an interesting question. The chapter five title: Doctor Satan’s Man of Steel. Was this an inside joke… Man of Steele? Tom Steele? Or a strange coincidence?
The cliffhanger to chapter 10 has The Copperhead falling from a great height. You actually see his body falling, so there’s no possibility of a cheat next week. (Like, he falls on a ledge.) The solution was ingenious, but a slight cheat. In the recap, we see that The Copperhead grabs a rope as he falls. When we saw the falling body at the end of chapter 10, there was no rope in the picture. But when we see the same scene in chapter 11, a rope is present. A cheat? Yeah, I guess technically. But what kid is going to remember from a week previously that there was no rope in that falling scene that lasted all of one second total? No, I don’t think so.
Chapter 11’s cliffhanger is another good one. The Copperhead falls through a trap door into a steel cell in which the walls are closing together. I’m sure no kids could have anticipated how he escapes the next week. And it was pretty clever. He leans out of the barred cell window and holds his cigarette case as a mirror. He shoots the controls for the crushing wall by viewing the reflection in the cigarette case. See kids? And adults told you that cigarettes were bad for your health!
The payoff comes, as always, in the final chapter. Yes, chapter 15 is a whirlwind of action and excitement. Bob Wayne removes his Copperhead mask and reveals his true identity. And Doctor Satan meets his doom at the hands of his very own mechanical robot. Serves him right!
Don’t ask how the robot got back to Doctor Satan’s laboratory. The last we saw of the robot in chapter 14, it was safely tucked away in Lois Scott’s care at Prof. Scott’s workshop. But somehow, the one-and-only robot is back at Doctor Satan’s, in the next chapter. And it deals a just reward to the evil Doctor Satan.
The music playing behind the opening titles reminded me very much of the Captain Marvel music. Not surprising, since Cy Feuer did the scores for both this one and Captain Marvel the following year. Good stuff, there.
One cool serial
This is one cool serial. There are sliding panels and secret passages, underground mines, killer robots, remote control mechanisms and strange elements. Let’s not forget Doctor Satan’s pneumatic pistol which noiselessly shoots a deadly poisonous dart. The 15 chapters just seemed to fly by. And before I knew it, the whole serial was over. It was a fun experience, and I think you’ll like this one, too. Check it out on YouTube or on DVD or even an old VHS tape, if you have one. You won’t regret it!