Cliffhangers: The Secret Empire
In February 1979, NBC premiered Cliffhangers, an hour-long series made up of three serialized dramas: Stop Susan Williams, The Secret Empire and The Curse of Dracula. Every week, a new 20-minute “chapter” of all three serials would be presented, each of which would end in a shocking cliffhanger to be resolved the following week. Despite high hopes for the series, Cliffhangers debuted to low ratings and was off the air after 10 weeks, leaving one episode unaired and two of the three serials incomplete.
Of the three serials making up Cliffhangers, The Secret Empire was arguably the most unusual. Set in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1880, it starred Geoffrey Scott as U.S. Marshal Jim Donner, assigned to investigate the theft of gold shipments. A mysterious group called the Phantom Riders appeared to be responsible for stealing the gold. The Phantom Riders turned out to be raiding parties from an alien city called Chimera, located deep beneath the Earth’s surface.
The basic plot of The Secret Empire was very similar to a 1935 film serial called The Phantom Empire. It had Thunder Riders and a subterranean alien city called Murania. It also had singing, courtesy of star Gene Autry, whose character was a singing cowboy who owned a ranch and had a radio show. The story involved a scheming scientist hoping to make a fortune by plundering Murania’s radium as well as an attempted revolution against the city’s queen. In 1940, the serial was edited into a film called Men with Steel Faces.
The Secret Empire did not have singing. It did feature an interesting production choice: the scenes set above ground were broadcast in black and white while the scenes set in Chimera were broadcast in color. Geoffrey Scott described his role as “the type of character Gary Cooper might have played. He’s a simple man with a job to do, which is to apprehend and [sic] gang of gold robbers. Actually, I see the part as a combination [of] Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and Gary Cooper” .
Reviewing the premiere episode of Cliffhangers for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Lee Winfrey called The Secret Empire the “least successful of the three and looks as if it may not work.” She felt the serial was “hard to follow because it is hard to tell whether we are supposed to be in the old world of Billy the Kid or the future world of Buck Rogers. The producers should have tried to do either a cowboy story or a science-fiction show, but not both at once” .
Like the other serials, The Secret Empire began with story already in progress, a gimmick intended to remind viewers of true film serials. The February 27th episode of Cliffhangers began with the third chapter of The Secret Empire, in which Donner was wounded while escaping from the Phantom Riders. Returning to town, he was patched up by Millie Thompson (played by Carrlene Watkins), who despite not having a medical degree was considered by most to be a pretty good doctor.
Donner had stolen a strange key from the Phantom Riders and Millie found a similarly strange projectile in Donner’s shoulder where he had been shot. A young orphan named Billy (played by Tiger Williams) told Donner he’d seen the Phantom Riders near the rocks outside of town. So that’s where he went and that’s how he found the elevator that descended deep into the Earth and brought him to to a vast, majestic city.
Right away, Donner found himself in the middle of things. Using his trusty whip he saved a woman from two men. Her name was Maya (played by Pamela Brull) and she was the daughter of the former ruler of Chimera, who had been overthrown by the evil, wheelchair-bound Thorval (played by Mark Lenard). As the two attempted to escape the vicious Shadow Guards, Donner was shot with a strange ray that instantly froze him. As he fell from a staircase, the first chapter came to end with the first of many cliffhangers.
Donner survived and soon learned more about Chimera. Its people came from another planet. Maya’s father, Demeter, had been overthrown by his brother Thorval and was believed dead. Thorval ruled Chimera with the help of a device called the Compliatron, which gave him the power to control the minds of his subjects. The Compliatron was powered by gold, which is why the Phantom Riders were stealing gold shipments on the surface world.
But there were many still loyal to Demeter who hoped to overthrow Throval. Known as the Partisans, thanks to special amulets they were not affected by the Compliatron. Thorval’s daughter, Tara (played by Diane Markoff), attempted to use her own Compliatron on Donner to turn him into her slave and developed something of an attraction to the surface dweller. Donner then joined forces with Maya to help the Partisans.
Thorval hoped to extend his rule of the surface. But Chimerans could not breath on the surface without special equipment and they had to wear heavy cloaks to avoid the harmful ways of the sun. Back on the surface, Billy tried to tell the townspeople what had happened to Donner. But because he had a reputation for telling tall tales nobody believed him.
As the series wore on, the story got more complicated. Donner was attacked by a strange creature later revealed to be named Taz, loyal to Maya. After being recaptured by Thorval’s men, Donner was sentenced to death by being thrown into a pit but escaped with the help of Princess Maya, who couldn’t bear to see him killed. Maya was captured by Partisans and Donner escaped back to the surface where he hoped to stop Thorval by cutting off his supply of gold.
Instead, Donner ended up in jail after disguising himself as a Phantom Rider. Billy, meanwhile, had been captured by Phantom Riders and was sentenced to death. Maya, thinking Donner was dead, helped Billy escape but the two were nearly killed by a giant spider in the depths of Chimera.
Thorval, eager to get the gold he needed to carry out his plan, partnered with Jess Keller (played by Peter Breck), a corrupt, power-hungry mine owner who agreed to provide gold in return for his own Compliatron with which to control Cheyenne and beyond. Billy and Maya made it to the surface where they reunited with Donner and Millie. The four then find themselves trapped in a mine collapse during which Maya’s breathing apparatus is destroyed.
Who should show up to save the day? Maya’s father Demeter, long thought dead but instead exiled to the surface. Donner, Maya and Demeter were able to sneak back into Chimera where they learned that Thorval had succeeded in neutralizing the Partisans with his Compliatron. It was up to Donner to find a reversal unit that would free the Partisans.
(Tara, desperate for Donner’s affection, had altered her appearance entirely in the hopes of attracting him. Mid-way through the series Stepfanie Kramer took over the role of Tara).
A total of 12 chapters of The Secret Empire were produced. Only ten were broadcast, however. The 11th and final episode of Cliffhangers was never aired in the United States, leaving the last two chapters of The Secret Empire unseen and viewers left with a cliffhanger that would not be resolved the next week: Donner apparently dead and Thorval’s plan to enslave the surface underway.
The unaired episode of Cliffhangers included the last two chapters of The Secret Empire and the final chapter of Stop Susan Williams. The remaining serial, The Curse of Dracula, had concluded in the final episode aired. In the penultimate chapter, Donner was revealed to be alive and in possession of the reversal unit. The Partisans were freed. Jess had delivered his gold as promised and was give a Compliatron. And Millie and Billy journeyed to Chimera.
The final cliffhanger once again saw Donner on the brink of death. As the last chapter got underway, Donner turned the tables and survived. But Jess had a working Compliatron on the surface and gleefully set about robbing a bank. Demeter confronted Thorval but allowed him to escape with Tara and an aide in a spacecraft. Chimera was finally freed from Thorval’s control. Billy stayed behind, adopted by Maya, while Donner and Millie returned to the surface.
Although both Stop Susan Williams and The Curse of Dracula were later edited into made-for-TV movies, The Secret Empire was not.
2 Winfrey, Lee. “‘Cliffhangers’ copies old movie serials.” Boca Raton News. Knight-Ridder Newspapers. 2 Mar. 1979: 9A.
Originally Published February 15th, 2005
Last Updated June 5th, 2013