Yesterday’s Tomorrows

March 11, 2010

In the 1980s, I tacked up a poster in my newspaper office. It promoted an exhibit at the Smithsonian: “Yesterday’s Tomorrow’s: Past Visions of the American Future,” which I never saw. The poster gripped me in ways I didn’t understand. Maybe it was the fanciful and futuristic scene from a world that never came to pass. Or my childhood love of Tom Swift books. Or the deeper idea that whatever we believe the future holds for us collectively and individually is always wildly wrong — except death.

Then the other day I stumbled upon a movie serial I had watched on TV as a kid, probably in the late 1950s. It had enthralled me like no other film. Made in 1935 and featuring Gene Autry in his first starring role, The Phantom Empire was a 12-episode science fiction western. A technologically advanced people from a sunken continent lived secretly 20,000 feet below the Earth’s surface. They watched the outside world via hidden cameras. When they ventured to the surface on horseback, they thundered into view through a camouflaged stone door in the side of a mountain. They had ray guns and robots, along with an aura of moral and intellectual superiority.

Looking anew at the series, available for free online and elsewhere on DVD, I can’t see why I was drawn to it so intensely. (A contemporary New York Times review sheds no light.) Then again, I can’t remember how I perceived the world a half-century ago. The appeal may have been purely voyeuristic: a people hidden but seeing everyone and everything they’re hiding from. Or the concept of an entirely different and superior civilization in our midst.

Skipping around the episodes, I saw a skyline from the underground world. I paused the video. It resembled the one in “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” but depicted in a hazy, flickering black and white. Like my childhood memories.