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LOST IN SPACE title card

by Robert Hornak

The faddish and fun story of the Space Family Robinson, which happens to be the name of the comic book the show was first based on, one whose creators had to sue to rectify the ignominious swiping of the concept (perhaps inadvertently) by mega-producer Irwin Allen. Long story short, Allen got to keep the concept and the comic book got to change its name to the now-more-cash-creating Lost in Space. The show is a beloved totem from that golden time when the moon missions of old-school sci-fi overlapped with daily updates of real men in real space suits in real danger, flinging themselves around the planet in tiny intrepid buckets, stoking the imagination of an entire generation of Cold War kids and preying upon the fantasy-tinged optimism of dreamers. Surely from the vantage of the pilot episode in 1965, the show’s setting of 1997 seemed too far in the future for this to finally be happening – surely we’d be launching families into space by 1975!   Continue Reading »

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by Dennis Polifroni

Many years ago, my aunt died.  She had been suffering from an extremely aggressive form of cancer. She left behind a husband and two young children.  To call her passing a tragedy was to only walk into the funeral parlor for her wake. Family and friends were wailing in pain and grief over her death and, so often is the case, questions about why this death occurred ran rampant around the room.

Very surprisingly, my uncle, normally a very emotional man, was silent for most of the funeral.  He greeted each mourner with a hug, or a handshake, and a smile. For the life of me, and I was a wreck for much of the time involved, I was bowled over by this man’s grace and cement-like solidity.  His wife of many decades was laid out in a coffin like a jewelry display at a department store and, with all of the raw emotions splaying across the room, he didn’t budge, he didn’t cry, he didn’t scream out in despair.

On the third and final day of the wake, as the coffin was being closed in preparation for burial, I asked my uncle if he was ok?  He took my hand in a firm handshake and pulled me close for a hug. Continue Reading »

by Adam Ferenz

Not the first ever miniseries on American television, but perhaps the best. It may be somewhat dated today, a tad to the melodramatic side, but for the time, it was a necessary part of the maturation of American television. We meet Kunta Kinte as an infant, held by his father before the moon, which his father tells that infant “behold, the only thing greater than yourself” and this becomes the thesis of the series.

From the shores of west Africa, to the plantations of Virginia, the Carolinas and a farm in Tennessee, to the battlefields of the first world war, and the jungles of Kunta Kinte’s home, the series spans the centuries and globe in an effort to tell not just the tale of the Alex Haley’s maternal family, but to give an impression of what every African American descended from the chained days of slavery has experienced.

The second volume is no less effective, an epic of a family struggling to find their place in a land that is now home, without being their own. From the horrors of The Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, covering African Americans in the armed services in both World Wars, the struggles of black academics to make inroads in their chosen profession, Haley’s research into his family, and the slow pace of progress during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Next Generation is no less epic, and perhaps even more urgent than the original. Continue Reading »

by Adam Ferenz

This epic of northern English life, set between 1964 and 1995, focuses on the lives, loves and losses of a group of four friends as they experience the shifting tides of late twentieth century existence. While the cast is outstanding, each part perfectly matched with the correct actor, the scripts and direction are what will keep you coming back, for the characters are so well defined that once it is over, a viewer may well feel they have been forced to say goodbye to family.

British television has always excelled at the epic, short form serial. Examples, among others include Jewel in the Crown, The Forsyte Saga, Brideshead Revisited, GBH, and I, Claudius and while there have been others, before and since, few have ever had the cast, the vision, and the scope, of Our Friends in the North. In this cast were a young Gina McKee, Mark Strong, Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig. They were joined by Peter Vaughn, Malcolm McDowell, Alun Armstrong and David Bradley, among many others. Simon Cellan Jones, Pedr James and Stuart Urban provided the concise direction, while Peter Flannery delivered nine nearly perfect, thought provoking and absorbing scripts.

These are not characters you will always be rooting for, because each of them are nearly tragically flawed, perhaps none more so than Craig’s George Peacock, who goes from aspiring musician, to low level gangster to something else entirely, something this author will not spoil for those who have not seen it. Indeed, while there are elements of soap-Eccleston’s Nicky loses McKee’s Mary to Strong’s Terry in a rather sudden and stupid manner, which then begins decades of near misses-the series is largely focused on how the events of their lives and the decisions they make affect not only each individual but their families, and how the changing tides of social and political upheaval affect the decisions they make. Nicky,  for instance, becomes a journalist, while Mary eventually finds herself entering politics and Terry never quite keeps any of his many business ventures afloat long enough to feel secure. Continue Reading »

by John Grant

A train on the Chicago El clatters past the windows of the Independent News Service (INS). Within, investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is having his millionth stand-up row with his boss, agency manager Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland). Their problem is that the two men have entirely different worldviews: Kolchak will follow a story to wherever it might lead him, even if he discovers that at its heart lie ghosties or ghoulies or, anyway, something that goes bump in the night. Vincenzo, more pragmatic, just wants some usable copy he can file to head office.

The pair are old adversaries. They met in Las Vegas in The Night Stalker (1972), where Kolchak managed to settle the hash of a vampiric serial killer. Next time their paths crossed was in Seattle, in The Night Strangler (1973), where this time it was a seeker after the elixir of life whose murderous exploits had to be terminated with extreme prejudice. Needless to say, in both instances Kolchak had the adventures and the girl while Vincenzo had the office job and the (apparent) security.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak.

As often happens between old adversaries, they’re in a sense the best of friends. But at the same time they really, really can’t stand each other:

Kolchak: “What don’t you like about this hat?”
Vincenzo: “What’s under it.”
(from #7 “The Devil’s Platform”)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker first aired on ABC in 1974–5, which was fine for US viewers but not so very much use for me, because I lived in the UK at the time. It’s possible that either the BBC or ITV aired it over there soon after its ABC appearance, but my guess is they didn’t. I first became aware of the series in the early to mid-1990s, when it was my job to write a brief entry on each of the two TV movies for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), which I edited with John Clute; the even briefer entry on the series itself was passed along to our TV specialist, Bill Cotter.

So I was surprised to discover, on blitzing through the twenty episodes of the series more recently for the purposes of this countdown, that at some stage I’d watched them before—if not all, then at least most of them.

Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo.

The Kolchak/Vincenzo dynamic is a constant of the series. The series tried hard to build up similarly adversarial relationships for Kolchak with milksop fellow-reporter Ron “Uptight” Updyke (Jack Grinnage) and Monique Marmelstein (Carol Ann Susi), an intern of staggering incompetence employed by Vincenzo because her uncle’s one of the INS’s top management.

“Uptight,” who’s present in almost all the episodes, is merely an irritant for Kolchak, too slight a character to be anything more than verbose office furniture. Monique, on the other hand, represents a challenge to our hero . . . the challenge of how to get her out of his thinning hair whenever events start heating up. The character lasted just three episodes: #2, #3 and #6. (Rather confusingly, she was pitched from the INS at the end of #3 but then reappeared without comment for #6. We have to assume the episodes were aired out of order.)

Jack Grinnage as Ron Updyke.

Carol Ann Susi as Monique Marmelstein.

A further regular character was the elderly Emily Cowles (Ruth McDevitt); just to confuse matters, (a) “Miss Emily” is sometimes credited as Edith Cowles and (b) McDevitt’s first appearance in the series, in #1, was as a quite unrelated character, an elderly witness to a crime. “Miss Emily,” who sets the puzzles that the agency syndicates to its clients, eagerly aids Kolchak in his various subversive activities, because he’s a nice boy whom someone should take proper care of.

Ruth McDevitt as Miss Emily.

The episodes by and large follow a single format. There’s a murder or series of murders; sometimes an inexplicable disappearance instead. Vincenzo doesn’t think there’s much of a story there; Kolchak’s grizzled old crime-reporterly instincts lead him to think otherwise. There’s at least one knockout beautiful woman involved. The cop in charge of the case is hostile to Kolchak’s interference, but the journalist persists nonetheless—and discovers that the perpetrator of the atrocities is a witch, a werewolf, a ghost, a reincarnated Aztec demigod, a nigh-immortal Jack the Ripper, a visiting extraterrestrial . . . but never, never, never yer average Joe Schmoe human sociopath.

The solution to each case is thus a mindblowing revelation, and would hugely expand humanity’s view of the universe’s fundamental reality if ever it became widely known, but Vincenzo doesn’t believe it and spikes the story and/r the authorities anyway clamp down on it, so the world never learns of it. This reversal does nothing, however, to dampen Kolchak’s world-weary resolution when the next case comes along . . .

From this brief description of the formula, it’s obvious Kolchak: The Night Stalker can be seen as, so to speak, a dry run for the far more successful and better-developed series The X-Files (nine seasons 1993–2002, spinoff tenth and eleventh seasons 2016 and 2018). Chris Carter, the later series’ creator, acknowledged this, and indeed wanted McGavin to appear in The X-Files on a semi-regular basis as an elderly Kolchak. McGavin declined, though he did accept another occasional role, that of Arthur Dales, the supposed progenitor of the titular files.

For a series that has earned such a measure of cult fame, Kolchak: The Night Stalker had a surprisingly brief original run: just a single season of twenty episodes. (The episodes were aired at somewhat random intervals/times, too, which cannot have helped ratings.) A number of further episodes made it to varying stages of production but were left unfinished. Two of these—“Eye of Terror” and “The Get of Belial”—were later adapted as graphic novels by Moonstone Books, as has been the screenplay for a third Kolchak TV movie, developed but, again, never produced: The Night Killers, set in Hawaii, in which invading aliens, Body Snatcher-style, murder important personages and replace them with androids. (You can find the relevant page of the Moonstone Books site here.) Richard Matheson’s screenplay for The Night Killers has appeared from Gauntlet Press alongside those of the two earlier movies.

Two movies were produced by cobbling together episodes of the TV series:

  • Kolchak: Crackle of Death (1974 TVM), combining #6 “Firefall” and #10 “The Energy Eater,” and
  • Kolchak: The Demon and the Mummy (1975 TVM), combining #16 “Demon in Lace” and #17 “Legacy of Terror.”

In Kolchak’s concluding monologue for #20, “The Sentry,” there’s a sense of futility, as if McGavin were acknowledging that this was the end of the line, that the formula had delivered as much as could have been expected from it and indeed rather more: “Don’t walk, run to the nearest exit,” are his final words to us. The rumpled, rebarbative investigative reporter would be absent from our screens—aside from reruns, of course—for another thirty years or so, until the short-lived 2005 series Night Stalker attempted to breathe a new lease of life into him.

That series would, alas, be something of an audience disaster; it was pulled after just six episodes had been aired of the ten that were made. (All ten are available on DVD.) Yet again the Kolchak saga has reached its finish, dying with a whimper rather than a bang.

Or has it?????

As Carl Kolchak would be the first to remind you, death is not necessarily the end . . .

++++++

When Wonders in the Dark’s genial host, Sam Juliano, asked me if I’d like to contribute a piece on Kolchak to the countdown, my first instinct was to say no. I’d already said no to the idea of contributing to the countdown at all, since I’m even less informed about TV than I am about most other things. However, Sam knew how to lure me: sure enough, the thought of revisiting Kolchak proved to be just too tempting to pass up.

And, me being me, and thanks to a publisher pissing me around so that I had a bit of free time where I didn’t expect any, I went a bit over the top. I soon realized I was producing far, far too much stuff for a countdown entry. I decided accordingly to put my accounts of the two Kolchak movies, the twenty Kolchak episodes and the two Kolchak novels as a sort of archive on my own Noirish site, whose owner would be in no position to beef about all the space I was hogging.

You can find those individual discussions as follows:

The Movies

The Night Stalker (1972 TVM)
The Night Strangler (1973 TVM)

The Series Episodes

#1–#4
#5–#8
#9–#12
#13-#16
#17-#20

The Novels

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1973) by Jeff Rice
Kolchak: The Night Strangler (1974) by Jeff Rice, based on a screenplay by Richard Matheson

I was hoping to find the time to watch and report on the Night Stalker TV series as well, but then the publisher, breaking with centuries of professional tradition, stopped pissing me around, and since then things have been a bit harum scarum as I try to finish the book in question by what’s now a very tight deadline. Maybe one day . . .

—John Grant

Continue Reading »

 © 2018 by James Clark

 The truest way to the heart of Kelly Reichardt’s film, Wendy and Lucy (2008), may turn out to be its penultimate moment. This was not always my approach, as a reading of the Wonders in the Dark blog from February 15, 2012—A Dangerous Devotion: Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy”—would show. There I was intent upon engaging the protagonists of each work having risked everything (like Joan of Arc) for the sake of getting to the bottom of a dilemma unfortunately even beyond their very alert and brave powers. What, specifically, drives such souls to the brink of destruction?

There are ways of taking a closer look at the phenomenon, and Wendy and Lucy shows the way. Like Mouchette, a classic film figure under heavy fire, Wendy can no longer stand her emotionally violent, Midwestern blue-collar family and neighbors and their Rust Belt home base spanning Muncie and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Unlike Mouchette, the famous waif, she does not choose suicide as a meaningful change (nor is she destined to be immortalized by a forum of movie buffs). She hits the road with 500 dollars in savings from unspecified jobs, and a clunker supposedly capable of reaching that land of fool’s gold, Alaska. (Where others dream of gold, she—speaking volumes—dreams of a job in a cannery which, at least, does not resemble Indiana.) However, she does also bring a stunningly vast fortune in the form of her golden retriever, Lucy (a born retriever of buried treasures). Continue Reading »

by Adam Ferenz

This BBC landmark, based on the books by John Galsworthy, debuted in 1967 on BBC2, then a fledgling network, and was repeated, almost immediately, on BBC1, to increased ratings and continued acclaim, despite the shift to color. The series also found success as an import, presaging such works as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downtown Abbey. This was not just a massive commercial and critical hit, it cemented the BBC, particularly in the minds of US audiences, as the place for quality “highbrow” adaptations. That the series mostly still works is testament to the energy and conviction with which it was made. The parts that do not work, unfortunately, mar it enough to bear consideration.

Before continuing, the series has one of the most argued scenes in the annals of television, and that is the family scion Soames’s rape of his wife Irene after she refuses her husband’s advances for years on end, while carrying on an affair with another man. This rape, which is brutal, forms the backbone of much of the series moving forward, yet-realistically, given the times in which the story is set-Soames is never brought to justice. Instead, and somewhat unsettlingly, Soames becomes a figure of fun, and a curmudgeon the audience can identify with. It is difficult to describe how viewing this makes one feel since everyone will have different readings of the appropriateness of redeeming rapists. Yet, it is a cloud that hangs over the series. It does not, however, diminish the fine acting or storytelling otherwise found in this landmark work.

The series, of course, is about the changing circumstances of the Forsyte clan, and how the generations view one another. It is about the world around them becoming industrialized and how the end of the old ways of aristocracy and the new ways of pure capitalism intersect. It is, of course, also largely a soap opera, with plenty of affairs, failed romances, deaths and mysteries. Yet, it contains some humor, enough to ease what could become dreary proceedings. Much of this, in later episodes, is found with Soames, who seems to have both adapted well to a world of automobiles and telephones but still can’t grasp or manage blowing up a balloon. Continue Reading »