Friday, January 11, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 45: The Next Step Beyond (1978-1979): "The Haunted Inn"

"The dramatization you are about to see is based on an actual investigated and documented case of psychic phenomenon. It is...the next step beyond."
-Opening narration for
The Next Step Beyond

The original One Step Beyond, a paranormal anthology which ran on network television from 1959-1961, remains one of television's classic ventures: a stylish, beautifully-shot and impeccably written) creepfest. Hosted by the late, great John Newland (who also directed all 96 installments of the show), the series always attempted to present its stories of the paranormal in accurate fashion (while still allowing for dramatic license).

Some of the great One Step Beyond episodes include 'If You See Sally," about a trucker picking up a strange young girl on a lonely road by thick of night. Or "Night of April 14," concerning the web of psychic events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. Or "The Haunted U-Boat," or "The Clown," or the truly outlandish (and utterly disturbing...) "Ordeal on Locust Street," which concerned...well, I can't tell you because that would ruin it.

Despite the artistic and popular success of this black-and-white series, not many viewers recall that almost twenty years after the premiere of One Step Beyond, John Newland was back on the air fronting a sequel or follow-up series, a 1978 effort that ran in syndication for one season, entitled The Next Step Beyond.

Unfortunately, this sequel had a meager budget ($92,000 per half-hour installment), and could not afford to shoot on film. Instead, the still-distinctly imperfect medium of videotape was recruited for the series. This was a severe blow to the look, atmosphere and feel of the series, a true and lasting pleasure of the original. In an interview with me for my book An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond, Mr. Newland spoke to me about the video-taped look of The Next Step Beyond. "It was very inferior quality," he readily acknowledged.
"We thought videotape was the medium of the future, but the results were not what we had in mind. We switched to 16mm half way through the series..."

Another problem with The Next Step Beyond was perhaps more serious in nature: the stories were -- for the most part - remakes of tales already dramatized on One Step Beyond.
"The remakes were a bad idea," Newland admitted to me. "We thought we could fool the audience, and we soon learned we couldn't."

It was for these reasons that John Newland counted The Next Step Beyond as the most disappointing experience of his long and auspicious Hollywood career. Fatally flawed by a cheap look and stale narratives, the sequel to a genuine treasure was a series that pleased no one...and then disappeared entirely from view; not granted even a cursory second hearing in reruns during the heyday of cable stations such as the Sci-Fi Channel.

One of the few episodes of The Next Step Beyond that was not a remake was "The Haunted Inn," written by Harry Spalding and directed by Alan Jay Factor. It stars James Keach as a wandering painter named Chris Stabler. As the episode opens he is on a road trip in a rural area - near "the crossroads" - but he misses his exit by sixty miles and is subsequently given directions to a nearby inn by a mysterious woman wearing a white dress. He proceeds to the inn, and promptly heads into what Newland's narration terms "an area of experience denied to most of us. He will find it by turns intriguing, puzzling, moving and eventually threatening, shocking and terrifying. It will leave him with a memory that will haunt him the rest of his days."

At the Inn, Chris is welcomed by a gaunt, creepy innkeeper named Peter Combs, and the other two guests staying there: an elderly ghost story writer named Mrs. Argus and lovely Lucianne...the very woman in white who directed him to the inn, but who enigmatically claims to have never met him before.

By night, Chris has trouble sleeping because he keeps hearing the raucous sounds of partying in the inn. When he goes to check on those rowdy guests, however, he learns there is no one there. There is no party...or so it seems. Investigating later, he and Mrs. Argus come across physical evidence of a party (overturned chairs and so forth), but actual party guests.

Chris and Mrs. Argus continue to hear the strange sounds as the days progress, and Chris decides to take Lucianne and get out before something dangerous happens. He invites Mrs. Argus to join them, but she wants to stay. "I've never actually seen a ghost," she says. "I have to see what I have to see."

His last night in the Inn, Chris is visited in his bedroom not by the lover he expects, but a transformed Lucianne: a milky-eyed terror, a cackling demoness and apparition. Chris flees the supernatural siren and the inn after he spies the innkeeper - also with dead white eyes - strangling Mrs. Argus.

Chris goes to the police, who report to him that the Inn burned down several years ago. It once belonged to a wealthy young woman who liked to throw wild parties there. She committed suicide after one such event, and the townspeople - tired of the drama - torched the inn. It's been nothing but cinders for years. So Chris was staying in...what?

The episode's kicker: the sheriff and Chris find Mrs. Argus's twister body; her face frozen in an expression of sheer terror. She was murdered by an apparition, the ghost she just had to see for herself...

There are other episodes of The Next Step Beyond which are more accurate to the details of paranormal literature, but none which go for balls-to-the-wall, visceral horror like "The Haunted Inn." The goal here is simply to scare and there's something about the cheap look of the videotape and the simplicity of this "ghost story" that works in tandem to create an occasionally unnerving half-hour. Not a great show, but a decent one. And sadly, it's probably the best The Next Step Beyond ever got.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

SyFy Portal Visits The House Between!

Sy Fy Portal's Marx Pyle just published an in-depth interview with me on the subject of my returning online sci-fi series, The House Between at the popular genre web site. Here's a snippet of a "Conversation in The House Between":

It doesn’t have the budget of some of the more popular Web series, but it does have heart. It also has on board Muir, best known as an award-winning author of more than 20 reference books covering film and television including "An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith," "The Encyclopedia of Superhero on Film and Television," "Horror Films of the 1970s," and "Terror Television."

Last year, however, Muir decided to take the plunge and try his own hand at creating a TV series by avoiding the middleman and airing it on the Internet..."

Check out the rest of the article!

Star Trek Blogging: "The Naked Time"

Stardate 1704.2: The U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701) orbits distant Psi 2000, an ancient world on the verge of breaking up. The crew's mission: to recover the planet-bound science team, and monitor the disintegration of the planet.

Unfortunately, the landing party (consisting of half-Vulcan science officer Spock [Leonard Nimoy] and Joe Tormolen) discovers that the entirety of the science team is dead...and dead under very odd conditions indeed. 

One woman has been strangled. An engineer is dead at his post, frozen to death because life support was de-activated, and another man died in the shower fully-clothed. 

Tormolen unwittingly brings this unique form of "space madness" back to the starship after removing a protective glove (to scratch his nose...), and coming into contact with a contaminated console.

This "disease" spreads rapidly aboard the Enterprise as Captain Kirk and the others see "hidden personality traits forced" into the open among their comrades. 

This symptom means that Mr. Sulu (George Takei) becomes a swashbuckler. 

This means that Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett) confesses her undying love to Mr. Spock. 

Even the logical Mr. Spock is infected too, lamenting the fact that he could never tell his mother that he loved her. Kirk is not immune, either.  He admits the personal cost he's paid to serve as captain of the Enterprise, not the least of which is his isolation from the men and women he leads.

"No beach to walk on," Kirk muses wistfully.

Soon, events spiral out of control. A contaminated Lt. Kevin Riley commandeers Engineering  and shuts down the engines. This means that as the planet breaks up, the Enterprise can't escape orbit. Scotty (James Doohan) proclaims dramatically that he "can't change the laws of Physics" and re-start the engines cold.   

Things look grim until Kirk snaps Spock out of his crying jag.  Once rational again, Spock realizes that there is a formula for cold engine start up, one that has never been tested.  

In the end, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) finds a cure for the disease, and the Enterprise barely escapes Psi 2000 as it cracks up, utilizing a dangerous new intermix formula which generates a time warp. 

"The Naked Time" (By John D.F. Black and directed by Marc Daniels) is not just an exciting Star Trek story from early in the series' historic first season, but the prototype and creative wellspring for much of episodic science fiction television. 

In essence, "The Naked Time" finds a useful plot device -- here an alien molecule/disease that acts on the human blood stream like alcohol intoxication -- by which the writer can excavate the hidden, buried, or repressed facets of the lead characters. This is important because there are things that characters will never realistically reveal to others, all things being equal. 

All things aren't equal, here, however, and the characters reveal new, deeper shades.

Star Trek went back to this "Naked Time" well at least a few times over is three seasons, with variable results. "This Side of Paradise" employs alien spores to give Spock a love story, to great emotional effect. 

Oppositely, the third season's "And the Children Shall Lead" uses Gorgon-powered evil tykes to reveal that Uhura is afraid of aging, and expose Kirk's fear -- again --  of losing command. That episode is generally considered one of the worst of the seriesStar Trek: The Next Generation went boldly where the original series had gone before in a story called "The Naked Now" in 1987, which revived the threat (alien disease) to vex the crew of the Enterprise-D.  Ironically, the disease there seemed to reveal less diverse behavior among the crew; basically that all the women on the ship (Crusher, Troi and Yar) were sexually-deprived.  The answer to this deprivation, amazingly, was more suppression.  Captain Picard opined in the episode's coda that they would make a fine crew "if" they could "avoid temptation."

Another facet of "The Naked Time" that bears repeating: technically, it's the first time travel episode on the classic series. 

Spock develops a formula that sends the Enterprise back in time three days, or seventy-one hours.. In the final scene, he says to Kirk that time travel is now longer a theory but a reality. Kirk opens up the door to a whole bunch of stories by replying "we may risk it some day." 

Ironically -- despite the overt set-up here -- follow-up Star Trek time travel stories utilized a different method of time travel all together: a slingshot around the sun at high warp velocities. This technique appeared in "Tomorrow is Yesterday," "Assignment: Earth" and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Focusing on the episode itself, "The Naked Time" expresses something unique and very individual about the series, and this may element prove the dividing line between adherents and detractors. 

Specifically, all the havoc in the episode commences when Tormolen takes off a glove to scratch his nose, and is contaminated by the infection. Some people will complain about this plot point. They'll ask: how did a man ascend to a position of authority on board the U.S.S. Enterprise, after presumably rigorous training in Starfleet, and then turn around and do something so stupid, so thoughtless, so reckless? I sympathize with those literal-thinkers who have a problem with this. 

However (and this is where I fall on the subject), the glory of the original Star Trek (and one largely sacrificed to catsuits and soap opera plotting in later generations), is the continuing recognition of mankind's foibles. 

Humans do make mistakes from time-to-time, and many stories in the original Star Trek canon are possible only because humans do something wrong, or reckless, or silly. I happen to appreciate this facet of "The Naked Time" and Star Trek. I believe that even when we reach the stars, we'll still be the same flawed creatures we are today. That doesn't make us bad. As Kirk would say, it just makes us human.

What else happens in "The Naked Time"?

Well, Nurse Chapel alludes to some kinky rumors about Vulcans. "The men from Vulcan treat their women...strangely," she muses with a look that suggests she wouldn't mind playing the willing victim if Spock were her victimizer. This is another reason I love the original Star Trek series: it can be downright perverse and kinky.

We learn from Kevin Riley that there's a bowling alley on the Enterprise. That's a little strange. So TV doesn't survive past 2020 in Star Trek, according to "The Big Goodbye," but bowling thrives into the 23rd century?
Nimoy is terrific in this episode. No surprise there. He has good writing on his side, of course, but he brings a lot to the table. I love how Mr. Spock attempts to hold himself together by quoting multiplication tables. There's something very right about that: the logic of Math/Order trying to hold down the chaos of emotional distress. It doesn't work, but it's a noble attempt.

Finally, "The Naked Time" reveals another element of Star Trek that disappeared after this generation: the captain's undying love for his ship. "Never lose you," Kirk says here, while under the influence. He's referring to the Enterprise, and talking about her like she's his lover.  His passion for the ship borders on obsession.  
In the original series, the Enterprise was a main character, and a love for this particular ship by Kirk and others is an element that informed many of the best stories. 

One might contrast this obsession with Captain Picard's blase response at the destruction of the Enterprise D (paraphrased) in Generations: "I'm sure this won't be the last ship to carry the name Enterprise..." 

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

CULT TV BLOGGING: Star Maidens: "The Proton Storm"

This week on Star Maidens, in a script penned by John Lucarotti (who wrote several fine episodes of the original Doctor Who in the 1960s), Liz (Liza Harrow) and her (male) assistant Rudy are held hostage by Octavia pending the release of Shem and Adam on Earth. Fulvia (Judy Geeson) is unhappy when a deal can't be reached with the fugitives from Medusa and Earth's Dr. Evans, but Octavia terminates the mission and decides it is time to return home. "What can you expect of a planet ruled by men?" She asks rhetorically.

Which means that Liz and Rudy get their first (involuntary) peek at the advanced world of Medusa. Once there, the Earthlings are separated and Liz is treated like royalty while Rudy is relegated to the barracks in the men's quarters. "You mustn't concern yourself over a mere male," Fulvia suggests to Liz. "To love a man is to give him power over you. And he will only abuse that."

Rudy finds that the men's quarters are pretty rudimentary, and that the servants spend most of their time playing an extra-terrestrial variation of Chess. "The rules are simple," explains Octavia without cracking the slightest hint of a smile, "The Queen is never captured." Rudy also learns that men once ruled on Medusa, during an epoch that Fulvia refers to as the planet's Dark Ages. Back then, there was nothing "but wars, violence and greed." Since women took over the planet, Medusa has - by contrast - seen centuries of peace and progress.

While Rudy and Liz learn the ways of Medusa, on Earth Shem and Adam state their conditions for returning home. Shem wants a full pardon from Octavia and his old job back (aim high, brother!), while Adam wants no less than equal rights and equal opportunities, a request which Octavia finds "rebellious."

Hoping to reunite with Adam, her former domestic, on Earth, Fulvia steals the Nemesis and plots a trajectory back to Earth, but a Proton Storm is directly on her course, somewhere between "Jupiter and Uranus" (snicker, snicker...). The storm is raging at "destruction point," but Fulvia decides they'll just have to "ride it" (more snickering...).

From Earth, Shem helps Fulvia safely navigate the deadly proton storm, but when Fulvia lands on Earth, Adam still can't bring himself to forgive his mistress, and runs off into the wood like - in the words of my Kathryn - a "three year old."

As opposed to the last episode of Star Maidens I watched ("Nightmare Cannon"), this one isn't overtly high camp, and is played rather seriously. I've noticed that matters seem to pick up dramatically on Medusa, whereas most of the stuff occurring on Earth just seems ridiculous. For instance, why is Dr. Evans - an egghead - negotiating with alien leaders? Wouldn't the British government like to be in on that action? Kathryn was more concerned with technical aspects of the episode: during a scene involving Evans gazing into a scanner/communication device, he, Shem and Adam all seemed to be looking in different places. Oopsy.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Trailer: The House Between 2.0

The House Between Mark II

The Lulu Show (my production company...) is gearing up at warp speed for the much-anticipated re-launch of The House Between - my low-budget, independently crafted web sci-fi series. The first new episode, "Returned" goes live on Friday January 25, 2008 and in anticipation of that date, there's a whole lot of activity going on.

Foremost among these, our web-page has been re-designed and looks gorgeous. The new site features links to Season One episodes, but also to a new section of highly-detailed cast-and-crew interviews. I've enjoyed reading these, and think you might too. Here are some entertaining snippets.

This is from Rick Coulter's
interview. He's my DP and Sociology expert:

RICK: "...THB is about earth and the humans that occupy it, but it's about these things seen through the filters of television and film. Some days the house is a comedy; some days it's a horror show or sci-fi episode, and other moments are straight drama. (Many of the TV and film references are beyond me). Arlo/John who has lived inside this place for a very long time has gradually come to realize that culture, either THB culture, or media culture can be manipulated. (See season 2.)

John has admitted that the five characters are all aspects of his own personality; a personality that is surely the product of media socialization. The characters are never seen entering the house and they never leave the house, they just manifest inside this box and the story begins. The male characters representing Capitalism and Science/Objectivity and the female characters representing Religion and Mysticism/subjectivity do not define John; in fact, none of these things would be associated with any part of his core personality.

These are only subjects that come through the grid and which he dissects, manipulates, critiques, or uses in the analysis of his primary interest- media studies. Arlo, the androgynous character, represents chaos, youthful energy, imagination, and creation. Arlo, who's been in the house the longest, is John. He has positioned himself in the kitchen, the only room with electrical appliances. In fact, one of these appliances actually gives birth to Arlo (the oven). The incubator that nurtured John is obviously the TV..."

Here's my Lighting Co-Director Kevin Flanagan's assessment of the meaning behind the show:

KEVIN: "It is an alternative to a lot of the things that recent sci-fi series and shows have done or still do...which is to say, it feels like a reaction to a lot of what circulates as contemporary sci-fi. It is independent, talky, lo-fi...private, and slightly amorphous. It won't give you any easy moral idioms or fortune-cookie answers. Then again, it has a heart and soul to it, but I think that the heart and soul are identified by the viewer, and not necessarily fixed by the producers."

And here my producer, Joseph Maddrey describes Season Two:

JOE: The more time we spend with these characters, the deeper we see into them. Season two is gut-check time. While the most reprehensible actions of the characters in season one could be attributed to knee-jerk impulsiveness, the violence of season two reveals these characters at their most basic, primal levels... suffice it to say, it's not always pretty. Season two is season one's bigger, badder, older brother who came here to do two things: chew bubblegum and kick ass.

There are funny stories, exciting factoids and other goodies in these interviews, so I hope you'll dig deep into the web site and check everything out in anticipation of Season Two.

The trailer for the The House Between 2.0 will be up shortly...

GameCulture Journal Issue # 4

The fourth issue of the scholarly periodical GameCulture Journal is now available for download here.

This time out, the magazine focuses primarily on genre book reviews. Gamer Theory by McKenzie Wark, Half Real: Video Games Between Real and Fictional Worlds by Jasper Juul and Neo-Baroque Aesthethics and Contemporary Entertainment by Angela Ndalainis are among the works surveyed by staff and guest writers.

I also contributed a book review to this issue, of Brett Weiss's impressive (and very detailed...) Classic Home Video Games, 1972-1984; A Complete Reference Guide.

GameCulture Journal is devoted to a philosophical, aesthetic and historical examination of video games and video game culture, and you'll also find in this issue an intriguing interview with Wallflower Press's Editorial Director, Yoram Allon. Co-editor Bobby Schweizer has penned an impressive and in-depth look at Castlevania II as well.

There's no cost to download GameCulture Journal, and there's oodles of good writing here. Check it out.