Wednesday, January 25, 2006

MUIR BOOK WEDNESDAY #9: An Analytical Guide to Television's One Step Beyond, 1959-1961

I guess every author has written a book or two that he or she wishes received more attention. In the late 1990s, I composed a series of "analytical"-type guides to science fiction TV series, including ones on Space:1999, Battlestar Galactica, Blake's 7 and Doctor Who. Some of these books earned very positive attention, and some proved extremely controversial with fans, but all sold astonishingly well (and many have gone to second and third printings, and release in softcover).

But one book I wrote that got little attention at all (though Filmfax did call it "the definitive" book on the series) was my final installment in this unofficial monograph series: An Analytical Guide to Television's One Step Beyond, 1959-1961, a study of the once-popular paranormal TV anthology. The book gazes at a black-and-white series which ran for three seasons and 96 episodes (all hosted and directed by the late John Newland), and which focused exclusively on supposedly true stories of the paranormal.

I've always wondered if the book didn't garner that much notice at the time of its release in 2001 simply because a lot of young folks today don't remember the series, even though it was once revered as a genre-heavyweight, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

Anyway, I thought that for my ninth Wednesday looking at JKM Books, I'd focus on my forgotten literary child!

Here's a sample from the introduction:

Have you ever stayed awake into the wee hours of the night and turned on your television set only to discover a smiling and good-natured (but sardonic) face staring back in stark shades of black-and-white photography? Have you ever listened, spellbound, as this mellifluous-voiced "guide to the world of the unknown" informed you, straight faced, that the events you were about to watch unfold were "a matter of human record?" Have you ever felt your heart skip a beat as you then witnessed the "personal record" of a character who survived a terrifying and perplexing experience in the world of the paranormal or the inexplicable? If the answer to any of these questions is affirmative, then you have already taken a small step beyond. Now take a giant one...

for the uninitiated, the preceding paragraph revises and re-phrases the inaugural narration from of television's true classics, the horror/paranormal anthology series known as Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond (1959-1961).

Your guide to the world of the unknown was none other than Golden Age TV star John Newland, veteran actor of every notable TV production from that era, from Tales of Tomorrow (1951-53) to The Loretta Young Show (1953-61). And for three remarkable seasons and 96 half-hour episodes on ABC television, this noted performer conducted prime-time audiences through a twisted dark alley that most viewers had never envisioned: a voyage into the shadowy universe of paranormal and psychic phenomenon.

Long before Chris Carter's The X-Files made such sojourns a commonplace venture, One Step Beyond led viewers through gripping human ordeals concerning core parapsychological concepts such as ESP, clairvoyance, reincarnation, precognition, poltergeists, apparitions, automatic writing, spirit possession, out-of-body experiences, Bigfoot sightings and even, on one occasion, alien abductions.

Before this unique anthology series was finished unspooling, it had also dramatized for amazed audiences the mysterious psychic web that surrounded the sinking of the Titanic ("Night of April 14"), examined premonitions about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln ("The Day the World Wept: The Lincoln Story"), studied the world's foremost psychic investigator ("The Peter Hurkos Story"), recounted a peculiar true story about a phenomenon in Chico, California ("Where Are They?") and even conducted a "hands on" study of the psychoactive properties of hallucinogenic mushrooms ("The Sacred Mushroom").

Today, this TV series might accurately be described as a little off-kilter; in conservative 1959 it was positively "out there."

Each half hour segment of this imaginative black-and-white anthology TV program was unique, not only for its highly unorthodox content, but also for its distinctly eerie atmosphere. Effectively directed by Newland, One Step Beyond remains a textbook example of low-budget, economical horror filmmaking at its very best. With intense performances from the likes of Cloris Leachman ("The Dark Room"), Warren Beatty ("The Visitor"), "Jack Lord ("Father Image"), Christopher Lee ("The Sorcerer"), Donald Pleasence ("The Confession"), William Shatner ("The Promise"), Louise Fletcher ("The Open Window") and Yvette Mimieux ("The Clown"), One Step Beyond was impecabbly performed, as well as intelligently crafted.

And coupled with the timeless, chill-inducing music of composer Harry Lubin, the overall impact of One Step Beyond's many paranormal excursions was a sense of pure terror, a case of the creeps so bad it would not go away.

...A prime purpose in re-examining One Step Beyond conerns its oft-noted claim that its stories are based on documented and authentic cases of the paranormal and the inexplicable. Indeed, much of One Step Beyond's horrifying texture stems from this remarkable claim of accuracy and realism. The stories are frightening enough as mere drama, but buttressed by the claim of being "true," many episodes linger in the consciousness like unending nightmares.

This author has learned that many episodes of One Step Beyond do indeed report the "facts" of famous parapsychological incidents, if not the exact personal details (which were often rearranged for purposes of drama and pacing on the TV series). Additionally, One Step Beyond shepherded its core concepts (possession, reincarnation and the like) with a special care, accurately reflecting the literature of parapsychology of the day (and for the most part, of today as well).

Because One Step Beyond respected its audience and demonstrated this highly unusual dedication to accuracy, this reference book shall return that favor. It will honor One Step Beyond, by - wherever relevant - noting the research (and the cases) supporting One Step Beyond's claim that it is based on matters of "human record."

...Why were so many characters in One Step Beyond modern Cassandra figures, doomed to know the future but never to be believed? Why were so many of the characters who faced psychic phenomena also battling to save their marraiges? Where were so many of the protagonists recovering alcoholics or mental cases on the mend? These and other questions will be addressed as One Step Beyond's assumptions about people, psychic phenomena, drama and television are investigated. John Newland's personal feelings and remembrances about One Step Beyond have also been including in the following text, thanks to Newland himself, who, shortly before his death, granted a rare first person-account of the creativity, hard work and fun that went into producing this television classic.

...So let's take that giant step...

An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond
is available now! If you've got the dough, and you remember the show (hey, I rhymed...) then seek it out.


  1. Joe Maddrey2:48 PM

    I recently rented the first five episodes of "One Step Beyond" from Netflix and was impressed. I also just finished reading your book "Terror Television," and I'm adding the "Millenium" series to my Netflix queue. Thanks for the recommendations!


  2. Thanks for writing Joe! Glad you enjoyed the eps of One Step Beyond (it's a forerunner to your own series, my friend!). You're in for a treat with Millennium. Give it a little time (like the first 20 episodes)and you'll be hooked.

  3. Anonymous9:32 PM

    I too am a lifelong fan of this rarely remembered program. I vividly recall one especially chilling episode staring Billy Mumy as a farm kid in Utah, or maybe South Dakota. At the start of the episode he's found atop a butte, a really high one with almost vertical walls he could not have scaled on his own. When asked to account for himself, the kid claims he was placed up there by his "friend." Later on in this same episode, Billy's not so little buddy shows up at the farm and takes a monster bite from a side of beef he finds hanging in the smokehouse. At episode's end, the townspeople chase the entity through the woods smack dab into a cliff side. The mob finds tracks but no monster. The creature has apparently passed right into the rock. Do you remember that one? It was one of the weirdest of the lot, and at the time scared the B-Jesus right out of me.

  4. frumious3:17 PM

    I hope I don't appear to be taking the cheap route around buying a book, but I have one speccific question, about one particular episode of a series which I have personally researched, and found disturbing facts. Perhaps in talking to John Newland, this may have come up.

    It is the Lincoln episode of OSB. The first story about Ward Lemon's account of Lincoln's premonition of his own death and seeing the body lying in state is, if you'll forgive me, "dead on" the money. (¢:=

    The second story about the newspaper editor in Elgin, Pa. has problems.
    There is an Elgin in northWEST, not northeast PA; it is (and was) a tiny town which NEVER had a newspaper. The librarian in the next town was "interested" but had never even heard of the story. There are stories of "premature" accounts of the assasination, but not there (St. Joseph, Minn., "Whig Press", Middleton, NY) . (Ironically, there IS an Elgin, Illinois, which figures in Lincoln's life.)

    Finally, the "other tenant" of Peterson's rooming house, across from the Theater, where Lincoln was taken (and died) is patently false. (I.e. hearing sobbings in that Lincoln room BEFORE the assasination.) There is an excellent book, "The last 24 Hours of Abraham Lincoln" which meticulously details the tennant of that room, and all his activities before, during, and after the assassination and its aftermath. No sobbing. Nothing surreal, Fortean, or paranormal.

    My one question is: If the credibility of the series was as critical as it obviously was, why did Newland & Co. risk it this episode? Were they deluded?

  5. Anonymous4:53 PM

    There is an Elgin, PA:

    Elgin is a borough in Erie County, Pennsylvania, United States. The population was 236 at the 2000 census. It is part of the Erie Metropolitan Statistical Area.

    And one in North Dakota, and more than a dozen other Elgins in the U.S.

    As far as any of these Elgins having a newspaper...I have not researched it but be careful about making statements. Some of this series writers took liberties, as all "based on fact" theatre does, but much of it went to some length to get it right.

    Some of these episodes were well docomented in such books as written by Frank Edwards (see "Stranger Than Science," for example), and others who wrote about strange occurances and facts.