On the "original" Cowboys & Aliens

The great thing about being a film buff is that it’s obviously pretty hard to see everything.

Of course, there’s also the great discovery of finding something you’d never heard of, or running into something you’ve meant to check out, but never had the time to. 

I’m sure at one point I was aware of The Phantom Empire, but I have to admit I’m not as up on my cliffhangers as I used to be, and was amused to see the DVD for it in my local used CD/DVD place, and my local Frys.


Since many of this generation haven’t seen a black and white movie, or know what double-bills or the drive-ins were, I’ll just give a brief run down of cliffhangers just in case. 

Back in the day, the cliffhangers were like TV episodes, short little parts of a story that you’d pay to see every week, and they’d end with a “cliffhanger” at the end.

The term I’m sure came from somebody hanging off the edge of a cliff, leaving the audience to wonder how the hell are they going to get out of that? Well, you just had to come back next week and find out, and you did this for about three months or so until the story resolved itself.


The Phantom Empire rang a bell with me, because it starred Gene Autry, the famous singing cowboy who later in life owned the Angels baseball team. Empire was a western science fiction story, and it was around the time of the Flash Gordon serials, where Autry discovers an otherwordly underground society, complete with shiny metal helmets, robots that look like washing machines, and they already have advanced technology like TV and rayguns.

As the plot summary on IMDB tells us, the underground society of Mu, or Muranians, are going to be exploited by corporate greed because of their radium supply, and Autry has to ride in and save the day.


Checking out the series, which you can also view, I joked to myself, “Was this the original Cowboys and Aliens?” but it also rang another bell because the TV show Cliffhangers had a Secret Empire episode that was obviously based on Autry’s Empire. 

As we’ve discussed previously on TG about sci-fi and TV horror movies, Cliffhangers was a short-lived series that’s still remembered fondly by geeks of a certain age. Every week there were three separate episodes, The Curse of Dracula, The Secret Empire, and Stop Susan Williams.


Cliffhangers was produced by Kenneth Johnson, who has major geek cred because he gave us The Incredible Hulk TV show, the original V mini-series, Alien Nation, and he also created The Bionic Woman, and wrote for the Six Million Dollar Man. 

With Cliffhangers, Johnson was  obviously a little ahead of the curve because he paid homage to the cliffhangers he grew up with, right before Lucas and Spielberg hit pay dirt paying homage to the serials of their youth with Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

“George Lucas, Steve Spielberg and I had all grown up watching the same great Republic serials,” Johnson told writer Pat Jankiewicz. “It was only inevitable that we’d all gravitate to trying to recreate that same genre. Note that one of my heroes used a bullwhip before Indy!”