Monday, January 31, 2011

John Barry (1933 - 2011)

More sad news today.  The press is now reporting the passing of John Barry, aged 77, one of the cinema's greatest composers. 

John Barry will be long remembered for his scores to almost a dozen James Bond films, including From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), Diamonds are Forever (1970), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Moonraker (1979), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985) and The Living Daylights (1987).

But outside the world of 007, John Barry also earned several Academy Awards for Best Original Score.  His scores for Born Free (1966), The Lion in Winter (1968), and Dances with Wolves (1990) were all recognized with Oscars.

And genre enthusiasts will also recall John Barry scores that should have won Oscars, but did not, namely the gorgeous, emotionally-affecting Somewhere in Time (1980).  Barry also composed the distinctive scores to such fantasy and sci-fi films as the remake of King Kong (1976), Star Crash (1978) and another underrated Barry masterpiece, The Black Hole (1979).


(CNN) -- Film composer John Barry has died after an award-winning career spent writing the score for many movies, including 11 James Bond films, a friend said.

Barry won Academy Awards for his work on "Dances with Wolves" in 1990 and "Out of Africa" in 1985. He also won for "The Lion in Winter" in 1968 and "Born Free" in 1966, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was nominated in 1992 for his work on "Chaplin" and in 1971 for his work on "Mary, Queen of Scots."

He also wrote the theme songs to 11 James Bond movies, according to United Agents, the agency that represented him.

"There was something elegantly effortless about the way John created seemingly simple tunes that were in fact very complex," said David Arnold, a friend and fellow Bond composer. "The fact that these tunes went straight to your heart is just more evidence of the man's genius."

When I pen these tributes to great film artists, I often conclude with the thought that the best way to honor those who have died is to remember and experience their life's work anew.  With John Barry, this is also true, and the talented artist leaves behind a vast, incredibly impressive body of work.

So today, I shall listen to Somewhere in Time, and remember how beautifully and emotionally John Barry expressed a love that could survive the mysteries of time itself. 

John Barry will be missed, but his music and life's work, like that love affair in Somewhere in Time, will endure.

Thank You!

Dear Readers,

I just want to thank all of you for expressing concern and worry for the Muir family over the weekend, as we dealt with an unexpected medical emergency. 

I appreciate very much the outpouring of love and support during a difficult time.  Everyone here is okay right now, and hopefully things will continue to get better this week and beyond.

Best,
John K. Muir

Sunday, January 30, 2011

From the Archive: Paul Dooley


John's note: I conducted this interview with comedian Paul Dooley in 2003, while I was researching my book, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company. The subject of the interview was the cult kid's show, The Electric Company.

Interview with Paul Dooley

Paul Dooley may be best-known to contemporary audiences as the cantankerous father-in-law of Larry David on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, or perhaps as a semi-regular in director Christopher Guest's repertory company, in comedies such as Waiting for Guffman (1997) and A Mighty Wind (2003). However, three decades ago, the acclaimed actor, talented improviser, and respected graduate of Second City played another important role: he "turned on" a generation of American kids to the joys and rewards of reading as the head-writer of the PBS education series The Electric Company during its initial season.

Recently, Dooley, who has guest-starred on TV series as diverse as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (as a Cardassian!), Seinfeld, Tales from the Darkside, Grace Under Fire and Millennium ("The Well Worn Lock"), shared his recollections about The Electric Company, and his behind-the-scenes effort to promote literacy while entertaining the youth of the 1970s.

Muir: How did you come to be involved writing The Electric Company?

Dooley: Well, I didn't know it until years later, but Carl Reiner recommended me for the job. Carl appeared on Sesame Street, as many celebrities did during the first year or two, like my friend, Carol Burnett. They would come on and recite the alphabet or count to ten, just a little short thing they could film in a half-hour and then leave. So when Carl was there, he was asked by the producers if he knew any good writers in New York, because they were trying to put together a new show. He said, 'Paul Dooley's a funny guy, and he lives here.' And I never knew this until the job was over! Twenty-five years later, I finally got to say 'thanks.' I met Carl at a writer's guild screening of a movie and stopped him and said 'I heard you recommended me for The Electric Company years ago.'

Muir: Why do a follow-up TV series to Sesame Street?

Dooley: The producers wanted to address actual reading problems, not just A B C, 1 2 3. They began to realize from Sesame Street that kids were learning from it and wanted more. They were doing it so well after one season of Sesame Street that they had the alphabet; they had their numbers. They also learned things like fairness and morality. The producers started to go further and began to do short words and syllables, and then realized there was a need for another show. Sesame Street was for ages three to six, and our show was from six to nine or ten, just when you are learning to read. Research showed them that this was something that kids were ready for, and could make a difference.

Muir: How did work on the series begin?

Dooley: They had funding of seven million dollars for the first season. They didn't know what would be the title, the format, the cast, or the writing. They didn't know how any of that would work. So they made a decision to have some experimental writing done. They brought in seven writers to work on it, and I was one of them. I thought when they asked me to do it that it was a six week job, and that they got a hold of me because I was known in New York as a writer of radio commercials. I spent a great deal of time in the advertising business right out of Second City. First, I was hired to take copy and make it better. Then I'd spike it up with humor or character or even timing. And after a while I realized they were only paying me as an actor when I was writing the whole thing!

Muir: So your experience in writing and performing in radio ads was a plus on a childrens' show?

Dooley: Well, with children you tend to do short segments because of the attention span, which was why Sesame Street had short pieces, animation and songs. So it was similar to commercials in some important ways.

Muir: So the group of seven began imagining the new series...

Dooley: Well, we all wrote in this kind of limbo for six weeks. Then, at the end of that time, the producers came to me and said they'd like me to sign a contract and be the head writer for the first season and supervise the material and be in charge of the shape of it. Which immediately made the other six guys hate me, because we had been peers. The reason that the producer told me he thought I was the guy to do it was that the other folks had written sketches that just seemed to be in limbo and could be used or not used, and had no cohesion or shape to them. They didn't mean anything in aggregate. But totally unconsciously, what I created was a scene with a character who could be brought back once a week.

Muir: In fact, you created several of that series' most memorable and colorful characters. How did Fargo North, Decoder come about?

Dooley: I have a penchant for names, particularly pun names, so I named a guy Fargo North, Decoder. I was in a meeting with several reading experts who were giving a crash course in reading techniques, and we had to teach reading to the audience, so we had a lot to learn. The experts used a lot of twenty-five dollar words like"encode" for reading and "decode" for reading. So I was sitting next to another writer who was a friend of mine and I wrote in the margin of my notes, "Fargo North, Decoder." Just a little riff, you know. He told the producer about it the next day and he said to me, 'That's a funny idea, let's do something with it.' So I figured he [Fargo] could be a word detective and I kind of based him on Inspector Clouseau, a guy who was tripping over his feet all the time. And then it turned out that almost every sketch I thought of could be used as a running character.

Muir: Tell me about another of your characters, J. Arthur Crank.

Dooley: He was a guy who calls up to complain. I named him J. Arthur Crank based on J. Arthur Rank. And of course, no kid is going to know J. Arthur Rank, and most of their parents - if they were under thirty - weren't going to know him either. But I think it didn't hurt anything, and had a ring to it. And the few people who did hear it and knew Rank would think it was cute. He was a crank caller and instead of just calling him Crank, I called him J. Arthur Crank.

Muir: You've hit on one of the delights of The Electric Company. It was educational and funny for the kids, but there were also little jokes in there that only the adults would get.

Dooley: we did things for the adults that kids might not get, but it didn't cost us anything. The Electric Company had a hip-ness about it. We were told never to look or sound anything like Sesame Street. We didn't want some six-year-old kid to say, 'I'm not going to watch that, that's just like Sesame Street! That's for little kids!'

Muir: You also created a very famous character -- played by the actor Morgan Freeman, before he was a star.

Dooley: Easy Reader. He was based on Easy Rider, but he was a junkie for reading, and that was Morgan Freeman. And the counterpoint of the junkie for reading is the Count on Sesame Street. He could not stop counting. To a fault. So I made a guy who would not stop reading to a fault, and that was Easy Reader.

Muir: Where did the idea come from to call the series The Electric Company?

Dooley: The reason we called it The Electric Company is that the first name we made for it had the word eclectic in it. The producers kept saying that were were going to be very eclectic in our reading techniques, phonics, all these different things, so we would kid around with the word eclectic. Like, 'did you pay the eclectic bill?' And eventually, somehow, we called it The Eclectic Company, and then The Electric Company.

Muir: And the theme song took it from there.

Dooley: Joe Raposa wrote this wonderful opening song. I said 'Let's suppose it is The Electric Company, what would you write? What kind of song would you have? And he wrote some great lyrics. 'We're going to turn you on, we're going to give you the power'...And it was terrific.

Muir: Other elements of the show also utilized the motif of electricity

Dooley: A lot of those things I thought of -- like having a hand come in at the end of the show and turn on the light bulb -- because we called it The Electric Company, and that tied it together. I created the line which said: 'Electric Company gets its power from the Children's Television Workshop,' based on Sesame Street, which said things like 'brought to you by the letter A.' I found a bunch of things to hang it on, which made it seem unified.

Muir: Do you ever feel like you've covertly educated a generation?

Dooley: We had this charge that if you make the show entertaining for the parents as well as the kids - if they sit with the kids - not only will the kids learn something about reading, but the parents might learn something they don't know either. Plus, if they sit with the kids, the kids are more likely to watch, and it becomes a family thing.

Muir: You left The Electric Company after one year as head writer...

Dooley: Yes. I worked on the first season and then went back to my real career. I was doing a lot better [financially] when I didn't work for them, because they had a pretty low salary. I was making four or five times as much by working on commercials. I did enjoy it, and it was challenging and rewarding. I said to my wife at the time, 'Finally, I'm doing something with comedy techniques for good instead of evil!'"

Saturday, January 29, 2011

From the Archive: Brian Johnson (February 2001)


John's note: I conducted this interview with award-wining special effects guru Brian Johnson (Space:1999, Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, etc., in February 2001, via e-mail.  The subject was Space:1999, and the occasion was the new release of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series on DVD.

Interview with Brian Johnson



John:  After twenty-five years, the world finally seems to hve caught up with Space:1999 in some senses, with stories about the program running in The New York Times, Cinescape and TV Guide. And the series is being released on DVD. Did you know this day of re-assessment would come, and is there a sense of vindication?

Brian Johnson: I always tried to make Space:1999 a quality show in terms of visual effects. Vindication is not the word. Quiet satisfaction is probably nearer the mark.

John: Have you seen the DVDs?

Brian Johnson: I haven't, though I would like to. Every dog has his day, and the show deserves some extra acclaim. We all gave it our best bang for the buck.

John: I know you've mentioned that DVD is a different format than Space:1999 was originally intended for, and that the format throws off your "wire threshold." What exactly does that mean?



Brian Johnson: The resolution of TV images was low in those days. We had a margin with which we could view our dailies and say "That will never be seen on TV." I never re-shot stuff if I thought we couldn't improve the action, and it didn't show wires when projected at 25-30 frames per second, not rock and rolling and freeze-framing the way people do now, just to see how a shot is done. Wires were a bloody nuisance - I hated them. As often as possible, we avoided them.

John: If you were to do a new Space:1999 today, would you in any way change the look of the series? Do you see a role for CGI in a new Space:1999?

Brian Johnson: I would change everything - but not completely. The Eagles would be subtly changed with better undercarriage systems and "bits" on. The Moonbase could do with a spring clean, but not too much. I liked the launch pads. The planets would be much better now. I would use a huge amount of CGI work. I would shoot digitally and make subtle camera moves to enhance production values.

John: The Eagle may be one of the most beloved and believable spaceship designs in TV history. Can you tell us how you came to design it?

Brian Johnson: I was in my "modular" design mode in those days. I reasoned that it made sense to make Pods that were interchangeable. The command pod could serve as a lifeboat, Eagles could be "chained" together, etc. I sketched the basic idea and got Michael Lamont (then a draughtsman/art department) to draw up the full scale 44" plans. I then added sections and thickened tubes until it looked "right." The final cladding was added, and then the different scale versions were finished to match the 44" model. My basic ideas came from looking at dragonflies and insects of all sorts. I copied nature to some degree - I think it made the Eagle believable.

John: Moonbase Alpha?

Brian Johnson: Moonbase Alpha was an unashamed homage to Harry Lange, Tony Masters and Stanley Kubrick from 2001, with my own ideas too.

John: One of the things that constantly amazes me about your work is how the miniatures of Space:1999 blended so seamlessly with the live action. How did you manage to coordinate the live action with the miniatures on so tight a schedule?

Brian Johnson: I was always about ten days behind the Main unit live action shooting, so Keith Wilson would do his thing. I tried never to interfere with his imagination, and we used the Main Unit shots as keys to our establishing shots. The trick was to "lag" the Main Unit. Also, editor Dave Lane was just the best at using everything we shot.

John: What was the one thing you wanted to do on Space:1999 that you never had the opportunity to do?

Brian Johnson: Motion controlled moves and such, but we didn't have time or money. We had just started to build our first motion control system, but it was cranky and slow.

John: At the time it aired, Space:1999 was roundly criticized for being mystical and anti-science. What do you think about such criticisms?

Brian Johnson: I have to confess that I was never really moved by the concept of Space:1999. I find the most exciting sci-fi ideas are those that obtain some semblance of reality. Frankly, the Moon traveling through space (other than in the company of the Earth) is dumb. We would have stood a better chance if we had been an Asteroid Mining Company, or something. I could have really gone to town in terms of visuals. We had good writers and good directors, and yet we never really got to know the main characters. It was all a little superficial. However, I am being picky here, and in its time, it did push the frontiers a bit. I think TV politics had something to do with the demise of the series.


John: What were the primary strengths of Space:1999, in your eyes?

Brian Johnson: Quality and attention to detail. A whole slew of superb actors who lifted some of the more esoteric storylines. Good directors like Charles Crichton, who, because of his background, was given the weakest scripts.

John: The primary weaknesses?

Brian Johnson: We didn't really progress as we went from Series 1 to Series 2. I still feel the first series had the best stories. The whole Maya thing was just a gimmick, though Catherine was superb, and we took on board an established American script advisor who led us away from the audience we had already established. I don't know what figures were charged for each episode, but I think the quality we put out allowed a much higher figure to be charged than was actually the case. If the unit cost was less, we might have gone on for years. Hopefully on an asteroid, not the Moon!

John: Any thoughts on the fans?

Brian Johnson: I'm always amazed by the enthusiasm and loyalty shown by so many different types of people. From the absolute nutter through the sci-fi buff, to the cerebral. Even Mums have a lot of nice things to say about the show - maybe it kept their kids quiet for an hour or so. I also do not have the retention of memory for lines in the script that many fans can recite, ad infinitum. I'm always flattered by the nice things they say about Eagles and Moonbase Alpha.

Friday, January 28, 2011

From the Archive: John Newland



John's note: This interview with John Newland, director and host of One Step Beyond, was conducted in the year 1999, as I was researching my book, An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond.  Mr. Newland -- a true gentleman and great talent -- passed away in 2000.

Interview with John Newland

John Newland came of age as a theatrical artist just as television developed into a national obsession.

Perhaps the foremost leading man of the 1950s, Newland guest-starred on programs such as Playhouse 90 (1956-1961), The Loretta Young Show (1953-1961), Kraft Television Theatre (1947-1958), Climax (1954-1958), Suspense (1949-1964), Studio One (1948-1958), Robert Montgomery Presents (1950-1957), Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), Science Fiction Theater (1955-1957) and Inner Sanctum (1954).

Though Newland is best remembered for his role as the host of One Step Beyond and its syndicated sequel, The Next Step Beyond (1978-79), he also had a long and distinguished career as a TV director, helming episodes of Police Woman (1974-1978), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), Dr. Kildare (1961-1966), Star Trek (1966-1969), Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-1973), The Sixth Sense (1972) and Wonder Woman (1976-1978).

He also directed the memorable (and chilling...) TV movie starring Kim Darby, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973).

The following interview focuses on the production of One Step Beyond:

MUIR: How did you come to be involved with Alcoa Presents, the series known now and forever as One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: Producers Merwin Gerard and Collier Young were my friends, and we had done other shows together. We came up with idea of doing a program called Fantasy, a series that would highlight fantasy one week, horror the next, science fiction the next, and so on. But all those things had been done before, so we decided to focus on psychic phenomena instead. There were so many sources to call on for stories, and we had Larry Marcus, a formidable writer, and I would direct the episodes.

MUIR: And that was how the pilot "The Bride Possessed" came about?"

NEWLAND: Yes. We made "The Bride Possessed," and it had enough visual appeal to make the series seem worthwhile.

MUIR: Do you recall how much it cost to make the pilot (in 1959)?

NEWLAND: Around $30,000 dollars, I believe. We shopped it around, and Alcoa liked the show, so it became our sponsor.

MUIR: One of the things that made One Step Beyond so unusual was that many of the episodes were based on reported accounts of the paranormal, "based on fact," as it were. "Night of April 14" concerned a psychic web surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. "The Day the World Wept" reported President Lincoln's precognitive dreams of his own assassination, and "Earthquake" and "Eye Witness" told of people who forecasted real life natural disasters, such as the quake of 1916, or the volcanic eruption at Krakatoa.

NEWLAND: That's right. The stories had to be real, and there had to be proof, either anecdotal or published. Of course, we got some letters from people who said I was the Anti-Christ for pursuing this kind of thing. Ivan Klapper was our consultant, and it was just as the narration said. [He breaks into the series narration here - and it's a little uncanny to hear the voice coming through my phone]: 'Explain it? We cannot. Disprove it? We cannot. We are simply inviting audiences to explore the unknown.."

MUIR: How long did it take to film the average episode of One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: Three days. We'd work for five days a week, stop for two days to take a breather, and then start shooting again. We had a spectacular crew.

MUIR: And the budget per regular half-hour show?

NEWLAND: Between $30,000 and $50,000, I believe.

MUIR: And the shows were mostly shot inside. In the studio, right?

NEWLAND: We shot on the MGM lot. And we had access to their vast costume department, which meant that we could do period pieces.

MUIR: Were you allowed to improvise dialogue, or re-write any of the teleplays on the set, or were the stories pretty much filmed as written?

NEWLAND: We didn't need to improvise. We had good actors, good movement and good dialogue. We had four cameras, and the benefit of vast experience.

MUIR: Did you have complete creative control in your directing choices?

NEWLAND: I had a totally free hand...and a lot of help too! Henry Berman [editor of the series] was a major reason for the success of One Step Beyond. After lunch on any given day of shooting, he would approach me and let me know what he thought he needed in order to deliver a satisfactory cut.

MUIR: What kind of advice did he usually have?

NEWLAND: He would say: 'I need a two-shot here, John,' etcetera. And usually his recommendation was something that would have never entered my mind. Cutters are very helpful to directors, and I always listened to Henry and placed stock in his advice/

MUIR: What were your feelings about Harry Lubin, who wrote the creepy signature music of One Step Beyond? That theme, "Fear" still gives me shivers whenever I think of it....

NEWLAND: Harry was a very articulate man, and a great composer, and he really loved the idea of the show. I think the music reflected his genuine interest and feel for the material. When an album of his work on One Step Beyond was released many years later, it was quite successful.

MUIR: Since One Step Beyond was an anthology, you had the opportunity to work with a variety of famous performers. Can I ask about some of your memories of the actors who appeared on the show?

NEWLAND: Sure.

MUIR: Suzanne Pleshette appeared in "Delusion," the premiere of the second season. She played a duplicitous nasty girl, and the recipient of a blood-transfusion of a character played by Norman Lloyd. What was your impression of her?

NEWLAND: She was one of the best actresses I ever worked with. Period.

MUIR: In the print I saw of that episode, there was an abrupt cut as soon as Norman Lloyd began to strangle her. Was that a network-imposed cut, or did I just see a bad print?

NEWLAND: Well, I'm sure I told Norman to strangle her good. I don't recall if that cut was a result of the network asking us to change something.

MUIR: Any thoughts on William Shatner, who you worked with again on Star Trek? He appeared in "The Promise" as a German bomb expert, and gave a very sensitive and restrained performance....

NEWLAND: He's a charming actor, and a hard-working actor. I thought he was adorable, and he has been an excellent friend to me. I thought he gave a terrific performance in "The Promise.

MUIR: "The Visitor" was a deeply moving episode about how marriages can change over the years...with a psychic twist, of course. It featured a very young Warren Beatty as a man in his twenties, and then as the same character - but in his fifties. What was he like to direct?

NEWLAND: Warren was a friend. Of course he was a nobody back then, but Joan Fontaine [his co-star in "The Visitor"] wanted him for the part. I thought he was quite charming - and good in the role. He was dating Natalie Wood at that point, and she would come over to watch the dailies to see how he was holding up. He wasn't in [old-age] make-up that long, and it wasn't severe.

MUIR: Christopher Lee appeared in "The Sorcerer," just as he was becoming an international star for his portrayal of Dracula.

NEWLAND: Oh, he was funny and charming. He makes his living being spooky but he's really got a great sense of humor.

MUIR: How did you feel about the fact that you were always on-screen, in every episode, as the series narrator?

NEWLAND: That was a necessary selling point. Having me as an "established star" of television at the time, helped get the show sold.

MUIR: Part of your job, as I recall, was to hawk aluminum products for your sponsor, Alcoa. Was it ever awkward being their pitch-man?

NEWLAND: That was just part of the business. They were happy with my work, and I was happy with their money. It was a good relationship.

MUIR: While you were shooting the first season of One Step Beyond, you had an interesting encounter with Rod Serling, is that correct?

NEWLAND: I knew Rod, and he knew me as a director, and he was a splendid person to work with, and a real supporter. He called me up and asked me to meet him for drinks. Well, once we were at the bar, Serling told me he was going to be producing and writing an anthology series of his own. He assured me that The Twilight Zone was going to be pure fantasy, with no discussion of proof or psychic powers.

MUIR: Why do you think he wanted to tell you that?

NEWLAND: Because he was a class act. He just wanted to let me know in person that he wasn't going to rip us off.

MUIR: Any favorites among the 96 episodes of One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: I liked "The Devil's Laughter" [ a story about a criminal who kept escaping the noose by luck]. The story was good, I liked Alfred Ryder's performance, and felt engaged by the storyline.

MUIR: Least favorite?

NEWLAND: The one about the vine in Mexico.

MUIR: That was "Blood Flower," about an American professor being possessed by the spirit of a Mexican revolutionary whose blood had spilled on a plant...

NEWLAND: It was a dumb, silly concept. The pits.

MUIR: One Step Beyond had a location shift for the last part of its third season. Thirteen episodes were filmed in Great Britain.

NEWLAND: That was my idea. We thought it would be a little boost to the show. Great Britain offered good actors, good locations, and good settings. We sought permission from Alcoa, and they okayed it.

MUIR: What was ABC's general response to One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: They were very enthusiastic. The show always won its time slot. Alcoa was even more enthusiastic. It was a solid success.

MUIR: How much interference was there from Alcoa and the network?

NEWLAND: These were the days before Proctor and Gamble. We had a totally free hand.

MUIR: Do you know why the series was cancelled?

NEWLAND: We'd done 96 episodes, and there was the inescapable feeling that we were no longer the new kid on the block. The show was still drawing high ratings, but the decision was made that we needed to make room for new product.

MUIR: Okay, you know I've got to question you about the episode called "The Sacred Mushroom." This remains one of the most notorious episodes in network TV history, because you are seen on camera literally sampling mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties in a California laboratory. In your own words from the beginning of the show, "the story featured no actors, no script." Basically, it was a travelogue to Mexico to experiment with these mushrooms. What was going on with that story?

NEWLAND: That was our most popular episode. It was a spooky trip. We landed in a tiny airstrip in Mexico near a mission. From there, it was a donkey trip of four days to reach the village. It was a dangerous journey, but we got phenomenal footage.

MUIR: That portion of the episode involved Dr. Barbara Brown (a neuro-pharmacologist), David Grey (A Hawaiin spiritual leader), Dr. Jeffrey Smith (a philosophy professor from Stanford) and Dr. Andrija Puharch sampling a mushroom called "X," given to them by a local with doctor called a brujo. The peyote was supposed to enhance psychic abilities, and it was pretty damn unusual to see people getting high on TV in 1961, wasn't it?

NEWLAND: Alcoa told us that the show was so bizarre, that we don't dare put it on the air.

MUIR: So how did you salvage the episode?

NEWLAND: Well, Puharich asked me to take the mushroom, and I was game, so we took a camera crew and drove to Palo Alto and Puharich's laboratory. Once there, I had three cameras rolling the whole time, and I told the cameramen to just keep shooting until we ran out of film. We decided to shoot and shoot and shoot and see what happened.

MUIR: Did you feel anything strange when you sampled the mushroom?

NEWLAND: I felt light-headed...and a sense of well being...the stuff was distilled. It was very powerful, but not poisonous, so I didn't have any trepidations.

MUIR: Were there after-effects?"

NEWLAND: I had flashbacks and hallucinatory moments for about a month.

MUIR: But nothing psychic or paranormal happened?

NEWLAND: No. Not a grain.

MUIR: I guess I should ask you then, have you ever had a psychic or paranormal experience?

NEWLAND: I've not had a single experience. I'd like to have one, and if I were offered one, I'd certainly jump at it instantly.

MUIR: Going back to "The Sacred Mushroom," your involvement with Puharich in the lab saved the show for broadcast.

NEWLAND: Alcoa saw it and considered my testimony "proof enough," to air the show. As I said, it became our most popular episode.

MUIR: In 1978 you embarked on a syndicated sequel to One Step Beyond called The Next Step Beyond. It only lasted a season, and at first was shot on videotape.

NEWLAND: It was very inferior quality. We thought videotape was the medium of the future, but the results were not what we had in mind. We switched to 16mm halfway through the series to try to improve its look, but by then it was too late.

MUIR: With revivals of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, has there been any serious thought about another new One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: We talked about doing all kinds of revivals, even recently, but as The Next Step Beyond proved so dramatically, you just can't go home again.

MUIR: Is there any message you would like to share with fans of One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: Thank you for your years of interest and belief. I am very grateful.

MUIR: And lastly what is your ultimate, final take on One Step Beyond, forty years later?

NEWLAND: It was the best production I ever worked on, period. It was the best time I had working in this industry, and it was the most creative and satisfying atmosphere in my life, both personally and professionally.

Please Stand By...

Hello, dear readers,

Because of a medical emergency in my family, I won't be blogging for the next few days at least. 

I hope to return here soon, with new reviews of THX-1138, The Matrix and other great cult movies.

In my absence, I'll be setting the old blog here on "automatic" to post  material from my writing career archives, mostly interviews.  First up: an interview with One Step Beyond host and director, John Newland conducted in 1999. 

I hope you enjoy reading this archival material until I can get back on the job.

Be well, and be safe.

Warmest wishes to all,
John Kenneth Muir

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #129: Dark Skies: "The Awakening" (1996)


Dark Skies (1995 - 1996) has finally been released on DVD, and cult-TV fans have cause to rejoice and also, incidentally, to re-assess

As I've written here before, Dark Skies premiered in September of 1996, during the heyday of The X-Files and the same year that also brought audiences the wonderful Millennium

At the time, skeptical critics promptly termed Dark Skies a rip-off of The X-Files after looking at the superficial similarities between series, namely "conspiracies" and "aliens." 

But the truth -- to use a loaded word -- is considerably more complicated.

Following the unprecedented success of The X-Files, American TV networks naturally began to green light genre series involving alien invasions, conspiracies, supernatural horror, the paranormal and the like (see: American Gothic [1995-1996], Nowhere Man [1995-1996], Strange Luck [1995-1996], Poltergeist the Legacy [1996 - 1999], The Burning Zone [1996 - 1997], Kindred: The Embraced [1996 - 1997], The Visitor [1997-1998], Buffy the Vampire Slayer,[1997 - 2003], Sleepwalkers [1997], Prey [1998], Brimstone [1998-1999], Strange World [1999], G vs. E [1999], The Others [2000]) and so on.

Two things about this; 

First, The X-Files has been on the receiving end of some negative backlash since 2008, especially since some audiences apparently didn't appreciate the second feature film. However, the above-posted list of genre programs that The X-Files paved the way for enunciates rather definitively, the importance of Chris Carter's initiative in the annals of cult TV history. 

In a span of roughly five years The X-Files inspired no less than a dozen other horror-oriented genre series, some of which became legitimate cause celebres and hits themselves, namely Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Others became respected cult programs with devoted if small audiences (American Gothic, Nowhere Man).

Therefore, it is both fair and accurate to state that these high-quality programs capitalized on the success of The X-Files without, necessarily, ripping off The X-Files.

There's a critical distinction there.

And today, I would also add the much-maligned Dark Skies to that list. 

There's no doubt in my mind that this program was green-lit and given a prime-time berth because of the success of The X-Files.  There's also no doubt in my mind, however, that Dark Skies was an original, visually-distinctive, and highly-involving initiative.   The series features a great, growling regular performance from the late J.T. Walsh, and also some very rewarding, very intricate plotting across the span of the catalog's nineteen hour-long shows..

Now that this bit of business is out of the way, let's gaze at Dark Skies for what it is, rather than what it isn't.

The first episode of Dark Skies, "The Awakening," aired on September 21, 1996, and the two-hour pilot film was written by series creators Brent V. Friedman and Bryce Zabel. 

The episode -- which today plays more like a full-fledged feature film -- was directed by none other than Tobe Hooper, the cinematic rebel and surrealist who helmed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Eaten Alive (1976), Salem's Lot (1978), The Funhouse (1981) and Poltergeist (1982). Here Hooper brings his trademark sense of visual aplomb to the pilot; both vividly capturing a sense of period detail and stylishly ramping up the shocks and suspense inherent in the series premise.


Camelot: Days of Idealism.

Artistically speaking, "The Awakening" actually concerns two awakenings.  One is literal.  One is metaphorical. 

As the Dark Skies mythology begins, President John F. Kennedy is inaugurated in Washington D.C. and the age of Camelot officially begins. 

Two enthusiastic, idealistic American youngsters, John Loengard (Eric Close) and Kim Sayers (Megan Ward) trek to Washington to begin a new life; to live the life of service imagined in President Kennedy's address of fifty years ago.  They ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.

In very short order, however, John -- now working as a Congressional investigator -- uncovers the existence of a shadow government acting without Kennedy's knowledge or blessing. 

One organization in that conspiracy -- Majestic -- is aware of an alien invasion in progress, and is steadfastly keeping that knowledge from the President and his new administration (apparently because Ike didn't trust the Kennedys.)

This is John's "awakening" from the reality of Camelot; his awakening from what he believed to be American history. 

On another level entirely, John's experience is one that mimics the journey of real-life idealists everywhere in this nation.  I imagine Tea-Baggers are learning it the hard way right about now; even as the Obama admirers learned it after the 2008 election.  That lesson is, simply, you don't change Washington D.C.  Washington D.C. changes you.

In "The Awakening," John Loengard begins his journey as a just, idealistic crusader, out to save the world.  Before long, he is "recruited" into the ranks of Majestic by the cynical, jingoistic, hard-nosed commanding officer of that outfit, Captain Bach (Walsh).  In a characteristic bit of cynicism, Bach tells John that Loengard's "faith in the power of Congress...is charming." 

Then John asks Bach who "appointed" him "God" and Bach answers, amusingly, "Ike."

Soon John is keeping secrets from his lover and fiance, Kim, involving himself in the blackmailing of a Congressmen, and operating entirely out of reach of governmental oversight.  He becomes -- almost immediately -- "assimilated" into corrupt Washington D.C. culture. John realizes this truth, and doesn't particularly like it.  He has joined a "very exclusive club," he states, one that "operates by its own code, and above the law."

At the same time -- and as interesting artistic counterpoint -- the aliens attempt to corrupt and assimilate Kim, "implanting" the beautiful young woman with an alien ganglion so she can spy on John and Majestic for them.  She too has been corrupted by an un-American agenda.

The solution to this crisis is simply to flee.  John attempts to hold fast to his ideals -- after a rousing, nighttime visit to the Lincoln and Washington Monuments --  by escaping from Majestic.

After freeing Kim from alien control with an untested "A.R.T" (Alien Rejection Treatment), the disillusioned duo gets in their convertible and head off for the homeland. On their way to an undisclosed location, John and Kim get a message to President Kennedy about Majestic and the alien invasion.

The next day, Kennedy is assassinated. 

And the Dark Skies pilot doesn't really make it clear at this juncture whether Majestic was behind the assassination, or the aliens were.  How's that for "dark skies?" 

Are the aliens our true enemies, or are we our own worst enemies?

Singularity: an offer of Utopia. Or is it just Socialism on a cosmic scale?
In charting the innocence, assimilation and (hopeful) redemption of John Loengard and Kim Sayers in the pilot film, "The Awakening," Dark Skies actually proves a perfect reflection of our times today, in 2011.  This is an age in which rampant fears about government and secret agendas are at their highest peak since, well, the 1990s and The X-Files

So Dark Skies lands on DVD at a time when some Americans already believe an alien is living in the White House, and that he is transforming our country into something monstrous.  I disavow that belief, of course, but what Dark Skies achieves with chilling efficiency and incredible imagination is the implication that every major event in America since 1947 (the Roswell landing) is the result of alien interference, or, perhaps just as scarily, Majestic push-back.   

Or as the series puts it, "our history is a lie."

In this pilot episode alone, the Dark Skies creative team finds alternative causes and motivations for the capture of U.S. pilot Gary Powers after his famous U-2 flight, the Kennedy assassination, the Betty and Barney Hill alien encounter, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Amazingly, the Dark Skies "version" of reality seems entirely plausible, and chilling.  Everything has been thought out in a way that seems consistent and oddly believable.

The most cinematic and compelling sequence in "The Awakening" arrives about mid-way through, when Loengard goes to Idaho to investigate newly-formed crop circles.  He encounters an implanted farmer, and survives the farmer's attempt to murder him.  Back in D.C., however, the alien ganglion escapes via the farmer's mouth (!), and attempts to find purchase in another human being.  This grotesque moment makes for a harrowing, violent and rather gory set-piece.  Both the scene on the picturesque farm and the later scene in the lab are shot with enormous skill. Without exaggeration, you feel like you're watching a big budget movie here.
A ganglion makes an unwanted appearance.
What isn't so good about Dark Skies, a decade-and-a-haf later?  I've written before how disappointing I found it when Jeri Ryan's character was added to the series mid-way through to, essentially, replace Megan Ward's delightful Kim Sayers.  I don't blame Jeri Ryan -- a fine actress --but nor do I believe that the honorable John Loengard would hop in bed with her so readily while the love of his life is missing, and compromised by aliens.  That never did -- and still does not -- ring true.

Also, watching Dark Skies this time around, I also can't help but note how flat the voice-over narrations are in "The Awakening," both in terms of writing style and Eric Close's delivery.  A perpetual joy of The X-Files remains Chris Carter's poetic manner of expression, and Duchovny's heartfelt delivery of that poetry.  Here the heroic voice-overs mostly seem to state the obvious, and in an obvious, deadpan manner too.  You could take them out of the show and lose nothing.  Eric Close is great in this role, as he is in another cult classic not yet on DVD, Now and Again, but the voice-overs in "The Awakening" are weak.

But Dark Skies has enormous virtues too.  The period details are rich, lush, and superbly realized (well before Mad Men came along), and the focus on "revising" our national history makes each and every episode a compelling, stimulating experience.  Aliens involved with the Ed Sullivan show and the Beatles?  Alien invaders interacting with Charles Manson?

I also enjoy the carefully-constructed lingo or "tech" of the program, with procedures such as "cerebral eviction" being mentioned often.  It's clear, just from the pilot alone, that tremendous attention was paid to the idea of building a consistent and believable universe.  A shame that universe was never given a fuller hearing on network television.

In short, Dark Skies works today not because it capitalized on the success of The X-Files, but because of strong production values and storytelling.  The program skillfully guides audiences through a history we think we know and then surprises us with some outlandish -- but utterly fascinating -- alien lore. 

This is one cult series I would love to see revived and started anew today (perhaps on HBO or AMC).  This DVD set is the silver lining in in cloudy skies, all right, but a modern Dark Skies re-boot (still set in the 1960s - 1990s) would be a real glimpse of the sun.

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