Archive for 2003

Afterword to “Richard Matheson’s The Kolchak Scripts”

Aug-??-2003
Afterword to :Richard Matheson’s The Kolchak Scripts”
Chris Carter

Much has changed in the thirty years since I sat trembling in my parents’ family room watching “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” on network television, not the least of which is network television. Codes, norms, mores, what traffic will allow; even vampires might not recognize themselves as the multicultural, conflicted MTV fashion plates they’ve become. Janos Skorzeny, The Night Stalker himself, would be hard pressed to get himself cast on The WB.

Thanks to the new technology, what scares us has also changed. Where once danger lurked in the shadows, computer generated images now leap out in a nonstop phantasmagoria. The sum effect being we’re not that easily scared anymore. Strangely enough, it’s new technology that scares us more than anything these days (and, of course, the unseen and unintended ways it might be used against us).

So what makes “The Night Stalker” and its manic sequel, “The Night Strangler”, worthy of our attention–and gushing fandom–after three decades of sophistication and progress? Well, it’s hardly the chill thrills I felt so long ago. Watching now, the once frightening confrontations with the vampire Skorzeny seem repetitious and stagey, more entertaining as relics of past innocence (the scariest thing about Skorzeny’s leering and growling bloodsucker now is his haircut). Dr. Richard Malcolm’s zest for eternal youth doesn’t seem quite so underground as it once must have, his methods only slightly more horrifying and macabre than some Beverly Hills plastic surgeons. (I know, Malcolm killed people, but do you know where all that collagen that’s being so freely injected is coming from?)

For me, what makes “The Night Stalker” and “The Night Strangler” stand the test of time is the antic, inexhaustible, ever-flappable character Carl Kolchak. As conceived and written by Jeff Rice and Richard Matheson, Kolchak is an American original who prefigured a whole generation of investigative journalists and media busybodies. Dustin Hoffman’s Carl Bernstein included. Wonderfully performed and embodied by Darren McGavin, Kolchak is a thorny and lovable square. In his seersucker suit, with his salesman’s tenacity, he’s more than just a pushy reporter, he’s uncool. And yet–he always gets the girl, because he’s smart enough to listen to them, and they all know he has the heart of a pussycat. More importantly, Kolchak does exactly what the star must do: he lights up the page and the screen; he keeps you wanting more of him.

Thirty years have passed since I sat watching Kolchak barge into his boss’s office, trying hysterically to convince him of the truth that was out there. I should hope the characters of Mulder and Scully seem so inspired in their pursuit thirty years down the road. In a throwaway line in “The Night Stalker” script, Richard Matheson has the scrappy Kolchak pay a debt to Ben Hecht, a tip of the hat for paving the way for him. I’d like to do the same for the creators of Carl Kolchak.

Edinburgh News: Final chance to find out if truth is out there

Mar-21-2003
Edinburgh News
Final chance to find out if truth is out there
Miranda Fettes

IT became one of the greatest cult phenomena of the 1990s, re-defining science-fiction and bringing the bizarre world of the supernatural to mainstream television.

For many loyal followers, trailers for the series, warning that “exposure means addiction”, lived up to their promise, and it has even been dubbed television’s “existential adrenaline rush”.

And, whether you are a phile or a phobe, few people would deny that in the nine years and nine series since September 19, 1994, when it first hit our television screens, THE X-FILES has enjoyed a remarkable degree of success.

With enigmatic allure, the series broadened the boundaries of sci-fi appeal to a new dimension, successfully straddling different viewer groups.

Now with the final episode of the final series being broadcast on BBC2 this Sunday night, the series has eventually exhausted itself and will be consigned to televisual history. And, whether or not the formula simply became a touch tired and stale, it will likely survive as essential cult viewing when the repeats are screened for decades to come.

But just what made The X-Files boldly go where no sci-fi programme had before — and survive? And is the truth really out there?

From the start The X-Files was more than just green Martians, robots and flying saucers — and more, indeed, than simply the sexual chemistry between FBI agents Mulder and Scully — the pair who investigated the cases other Bureau agents couldn’t solve — although that, as Alistair McCleery, a professor of literature and culture at Napier University, admits, was one of the principal drawing factors.

“David Duchovny was a new handsome actor and he extended the normal audience for a science-fiction programme. It’s generally males between the ages of 16 and 35, but David Duchovny attracted a larger representation of female viewers. The X-Files had the same kind of audience profile as were watching Friends and Sex and the City,” he explains.

“Secondly, the teasing relationship between Mulder and Scully attracted a lot of people who wouldn’t have watched something that was purely a science-fiction programme. The ‘will they/won’t they?’ relationship between the two eventually ended up in a song by Catatonia.

“Thirdly, Christopher Carter gave the audience little bits of fragments with the constant suggestion that behind those fragments was the complete picture. In that, there was an implicit promise that one day we would know the truth; that all these little teasing fragments that he gave would somehow come together in a final solution to the whole thing.

“Fourthly, it had very high production values, partly because they filmed it in Canada and had much lower charges than if they had filmed it in Hollywood. There was a slickness about it which made it attractive to a wider audience who demand that high production value in their programmes, whereas science-fiction fans are perhaps more willing to tolerate lower production values in exchange for stimulating ideas. It wasn’t full of creaking sets like an old Dr Who adventure.”

As for its cult status, he explains: “It keyed into a widespread distrust of government and a sense that there were all sorts of things going on behind the scenes that they weren’t being told about; when the nature of government was secrecy rather than transparency.”

Mark Percival, a lecturer in media and communication at Queen Margaret University College (QMUC), agrees that the series crossed previously uncharted territory. “That was what was fascinating about it,” he says. “The scripts were uniformly intelligent, very sharp, very engaging and noticeably better than most contemporary science-fiction shows. Chris Carter was something of a genius in that respect. It owed a lot to cinematic scripting, it was that sharp.

“The unusualness of the casting helped. Gillian Anderson was unusual in that she wasn’t the typical blonde bombshell female lead; she was smaller, slimmer, more intellectual, and definitely not blonde.

“It was very much of its time: the conspiracy theory fed into a collective paranoia that everyone had about authority through the 90s and I think that was very important in making it work.

“Unlike the fantasy shows like Star Trek, it quite often didn’t resolve the story at the end of the show. The viewer was left to make their own mind up and that doesn’t happen very often in American fantasy TV shows.

“It used some of the conventions of science-fiction but it recombined the elements in a completely novel way. It broke some of the format rules and the characters were immediately engaging and slightly eccentric.”

Yet Prof McCleery says the four reasons for the show’s success are the same four reasons behind its demise. “The series had become stale, repetitive and no longer offered people the eye-opening challenges that it did,” he says.

“You lost Duchovny, you lost the relationship between Mulder and Scully and people became aware that all the clues that Chris Carter was giving didn’t add up to anything.

“David Duchovny got fed up working in Canada when he lived in California and New York, so the very fact that they were able to produce such a good programme because of the relative cheapness of Canada eventually led to the star leaving.”

Duchovny himself says he grew tired of the show after the fifth series, by which time he felt the formula had worn a bit thin. “You cannot say it died anything but a natural death,” he has said.

And Gillian Anderson is similarly relieved to see the show drawing to a close. “I think it’s good to finish now,” she says. “We had a great run, but we’re getting out at the right time when the show is still a hit. It would have been terrible to overstay our welcome.”

According to Prof McCleery though, the gaping void left when Mulder quit the show was never filled.

“Once David Duchovny left, the writers found themselves in all sorts of difficulties and the audience figures began tailing off dramatically,” he says. “They tried to replace him with Robert Patrick as Agent Doggett but it didn’t seem right that he had the same kind of relationship with Scully as Mulder had.

“So they introduced a new woman character to provide a Mulder-Scully relationship for Doggett, but then there was the awkwardness of having two women protagonists in the programme. When the film came out, rather than giving us the answers, all we got was more fragments and no solution, and people began getting a bit cheesed off with the programme.

“All these things have a shelf-life and you do after a while get a sense that the writers, the cast and the production crew maybe feel they’ve been doing it a bit too long and it has to come to an end — and that feeling of it going on too long maybe communicates itself to the audience as well.”

He adds: “The programme traded on the idea that if we watched long enough, we’d get the full picture, but there was no full picture — and maybe that is the irony that Chris Carter is laughing at: that we have all been watching, waiting for the truth, and I suspect the last programme will end without any real resolution of all the elements that have been in it over the years.”

Percival is a step ahead of the rest of us though, as he was in Canada last year when the last episode aired there.

So is the truth really out there? “The double last episode doesn’t really resolve everything,” he says. “It leaves a certain number of things hanging, which leaves it wide open for a possible movie.

“There are a number of flashbacks in the last episode where you see some classic moments from early on in the show’s history.

“Even if you’d lost interest in the series in the last couple of years, watch the last one because Duchovny figures throughout.”

While he is not giving anything away, Percival says the last episode throws up some big surprises. “There will definitely be a couple of things that you will not expect to happen,” he confides, with a secretive — and knowing — smile.

And, says Prof McCleery: “The X-Files has a core audience who will be devoted to it for the rest of their days. Just as there are men in their 50s who are devoted to DR WHO, so too in 20 years’ time there will be people who talk about The X-Files with great passion.”

“The Truth”, the last ever episode of the X-Files, will be shown on BBC2 at 10.45pm, Sunday