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Night Stalker – Burning Man (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

As with Three, it feels like Burning Man has some clever ideas masked by an ineffectual execution.

With ABC’s increasingly frustrating “no monsters” edict, Night Stalker creeps closer and closer to a more generic procedural. In some respects, episodes like The Five People You Meet in Hell and Burning Man suggest that the show’s aesthetic leans closer to that of Millennium than The X-Files; this a show increasingly preoccupied with notions of human (rather than supernatural) evil. It is worth noting that Millennium struggled in its own first season with how best to tell these kinds of stories.

Waxing lyrical...

Waxing lyrical…

Burning Man pushes the show closer to Millennium than ever; the superimposed words that appear over Kolchak’s opening and closing narration always evoked the opening credits of Millennium, but Burning Man even features a few of the quick flashes that were so exciting and innovative in Millennium‘s portrayal of evil. Burning Man also trades on the same rich hellish imagery that ran through Millennium, from the threat of hellfire to the demonic shape of the eponymous killer’s figurines. Burning Man even focuses on a forensic profiler.

However, the actual plot of Burning Man is fairly generic. The classic “he who hunts monsters…” story has become something of a genre staple, to the point where it is almost expected in stories focusing on forensic profilers. The primary plot of Burning Man evokes both Lazarus and Grotesque, both X-Files episodes that somewhat prefigured Millennium. It is a stock plot, with little to elevate it. The most interesting elements of Burning Man unfold in the background, as the show engages with its newsroom setting for the first time.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

In many respects, Burning Man is a logical extension of those “infectious evil” stories that were threaded through The X-Files. In the world of Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, it seems like anybody on the planet is susceptible to contamination and corruption from outside evil. This is literalised in the power of the black oil at the heart of the The X-Files‘ mythology, but it also appears in many of the show’s stand-alone episodes; perhaps most thoroughly discussed in Empedocles.

The problem with Burning Man is that it offers little new or exciting to those sorts of stories. It cannot match the mood and atmosphere of Grotesque, and it lacks the emotional weight of Empedocles. The plot of the episode is very linear and very familiar. Most genre fans will be able to successfully identify the serial killer and his motivations based on nothing more than their familiarity with this sort of story. The episode’s main plot has a single twist in it, but that twist can be seen from the moment that Kolchak and Reed speak to Lisa Panero.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

“For ten years he’s chased that monster,” Lisa Panero advises Kolchak and Reed of her husband’s tireless pursuit of the Terrormaker. “He’s paid enough.” That single line telegraphs pretty much the entire arc of the episode, which would not be a problem if Kolchak wasn’t so slow to catch on or if doug Panero were a more interesting character. It is a shame, because director Tony Wharmby handles the material very well. The devils are a suitably morbid image, as are the horrific deaths and Kolchak’s nightmarish flashes. It just isn’t enough to excuse a rote plot.

Similarly, Burning Man makes an effort to tie its primary story back to Kolchak and his own obsession with the murder of his wife. How far will Kolchak go to find out what happened? Will he lose himself in the pursuit? Night Stalker has stripped away a lot of what made Carl Kolchak so interesting in the first place, replacing him with a generic young leading man and a stock tragic back story. However, if there are still interesting things that might be done with the set-up. The loss of a partner might be a cliché, but only because it can be an effective emotional hook.

"It was a nice piece of work, Terrormaker. You shouldn't have signed it."

“It was a nice piece of work, Terrormaker. You shouldn’t have signed it.”

However, Burning Man is just a little heavy-handed in its dialogue and exposition. As with The Pilot, there is a sense that the characters are regurgitating thematic bullet points from the writers’ board. “Keep chasing monsters, and one day they’ll be chasing you,” Reed advises Kolchak, obviously having missed the edict from ABC. “You spent so long looking for answers, that when you found them, you lost yourself,” Kolchak accuses Panero. In his closing monologue, he ponders, “Should I ever look into the eyes of the monster I’m chasing, whose eyes would I see?”

To be fair, it is interesting to wonder how far Kolchak would go for answers. What lines would he cross? If Kolchak exists in a world where monsters and the paranormal exist, does that mean that Kolchak might be able to resurrect his beloved wife? If Kolchak could be reunited with his love, what wouldn’t he do? Of course, it seems highly unlikely that the protagonist of a major network television show would be allowed to do anything truly unforgivable, but it is perhaps the most interesting thread dangling from the show’s central premise.

Monster man...

Monster man…

After all, the show’s recurring theme concerns the capacity for evil within the human heart; whether that evil is rooted in fear or anger or greed. Kolchak is driven by his loss and his pain, that is what drives him; quite literally in the framing sequences that often feature Kolchak cruising through the city of the desert in his car. It seems highly unlikely that Night Stalker would have pushed any of these ideas to their logical conclusion, but the idea of a protagonist who hunts monsters for his own agenda rather than the greater good is a compelling hook.


Night Stalker has already hinted quite heavily at the idea that Kolchak is tied into this interconnected web of monstrous evil. The Pilot suggested that Kolchak carried a visual signifier of his connection to that evil on his wrist. Burning Man ties it back to his own capacity for monstrous behaviour. Indeed, the mark on Kolchak’s wrist could be seen as a visual reference to the biblical “Mark of Cain.” Spotnitz has shown a fondness for biblical and religious imagery during his time working on The X-Files and Millennium, so it seems appropriate.

Pump up the volume...

Pump up the volume…

As Harold Fisch explains in Cain as Sacred Executioner, the material workings (and even the appearance) of the “Mark of Cain” are decidedly ambiguous:

The “Mark of Cain” was in one sense a mark of shame, but in another sense the sign of a privileged status, almost that of a priest. In the rabbinic tradition, the sign is variously interpreted, so reflecting the ambiguity. One view is that it was leprosy, a sign of ignominy, another that it was a horn which grew out of Cain’s head, making him something like a unicorn; another view is that it was a letter of the divine Name on his arm bestowing on him a special dignity.

Given all the “hellfire” and biblical imagery already running through Burning Man, it seems like a reasonable appropriation of religious lore to add thematic weight. It just feels somewhat under-developed.

Arrested development...

Arrested development…

Sadly, the most interesting aspects of Burning Man are pushed firmly into the background. One of the more intriguing aspects of Frank Spotnitz’s Night Stalker reboot was what hasn’t changed about the core premise of the show. After all, Frank Spotnitz chose to radically retool the character of Kolchak from the ground up; he changed the character’s age and back story, incorporating the show’s protagonist into a larger tapestry of supernatural evil. ABC decided that they did not want the show to be about monsters, which obviously dramatically changed the premise.

With all of that going on, the strongest connection back to the original character was the idea of Carl Kolchak as a newspaper reporter. That was the one constant between Darren McGavin and Stuart Townsend. Spotnitz had considered transforming Kolchak into a television reporter, but decided to keep him in the newsroom. For a show premiering in late 2005, as the newspaper industry was staring into a massive crisis of relevance in the internet age, that was a very strange storytelling decision.

Heated discussion...

Heated discussion…

Certainly, Kolchak and Reed seem more actively involved than most crime reporters; they are instrumental to the resolution of most of the cases they cover. However, even on a broader cultural level, it could be argued that news paper reporters had lost their cultural cache in the days since The Night Stalker. As played by Darren McGavin, Carl Kolchak arrived at a fortuitous time:

In a way, the character is very much of his time, a hero for the post-’60s era of conspiracy movies like The Parallax View and Three Days Of The Condor. It was also produced during a period characterized by Watergate and the real-life heroics of the reporter team that brought down a crooked president. “A reporter is paid to find out things, whether he wants to know them or not.” That’s how Kolchak defines his job, and it’s a line that would sound very strange coming from a reporter some years later—say, during the buildup to the second Iraq War.

The original television movie premiered five months before the Watergate break-in. The sequel, The Night Strangler, premiered shortly before the sentencing and as the scandal was about to go public. The weekly television series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, premiered just over a month after Nixon’s resignation. Carl Kolchak clearly spoke to something in the cultural zeitgiest at that moment in time.

"We probably should have brought torches, right?"

“We probably should have brought torches, right?”

In many respects, Darren McGavin’s talk on the character spoke to a particular moment in the national consciousness. Carl Kolchak was a crusading reporter who might exorcise the demons haunted the American landscape in the fading twilight of sixties idealism. Even the White House seemed haunted; Alexander Haig spoke of a “sinister outside force” that had affected the infamous Nixon tapes. Haig was speaking metaphorically, but most of these monsters tend to be metaphors. Kolchak spoke to that cultural moment as a journalist.

However, that cultural moment had faded. At the turn of the twentieth-century, Carl Kolchak no longer resonated as a crusading reporter. The idea that a newspaper journalist might change the world was quaint and outdated; reserved for the nostalgia of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, filmed on the same camera that was used to film so much of Night Stalker. It was almost easier to convince audiences that monsters existed than it was to reassure them that a reporter might vanquish them.

Bloody murder...

Bloody murder…

Night Stalker is a show very much rooted in the Bush presidency. This was quite clear in the fixation upon secret societies and the fascination with the culture of fear in Three. For all that Spotnitz is updating a classic television series, he is also quite keenly attuned to the national consciousness. In some ways, this commentary and engagement can seem heavy-handed. The mad arsonist in Burning Man literally operates under the name “Terrormaker”, in case audiences don’t detect the strong smell of the War on Terror over the accelerant.

In fact, Burning Man seems as keenly attuned to the War on Terror as Frank Spotnitz’s script for Jump the Shark had been over three years earlier. Burning Man features a series of biological terrorist attacks committed upon citizens that recall the anthrax attacks of late 2001. Years after the broadcast of Burning Man, it would turn out that the anthrax attacks were most likely the work of Bruce Ivins, an employee of army defense labs who orchestrated the attacks to settle his own scores. As such, some of Burning Man seems quite prescient.

Devilish plan...

Devilish plan…

However, Burning Man is most insightful in its portrayal of veteran reporter Howard Gorn. Gorn is literally writing the book on the “Terrormaker” case, but he seems curiously disinterested in new information or anything that runs counter to his own interpretation of events. Over the course of the episode, it quickly becomes clear that Gorn has his own investment in the case. He is acting as a mouthpiece for the FBI and their account of events; an account that runs counter to the public interest, given that a former member of the Bureau is implicated in the crimes.

“He’s just going along with it,” Reed observes. “Following the company line.” Jain expands upon that, “In return for access to the FBI.” It a shocking betrayal of journalistic integrity, but one that is all the more shocking for Vincienzo’s willingness to let that slide. “I’m letting the story stand,” he advises Kolchak and Reed, to their surprise. Gorn’s approach to journalism is a betrayal of everything for which the profession stands, but Burning Man offers no easy resolution or trite answer.

Gorn to be bad...

Gorn to be bad…

In a way, this reflects twenty-first century media realities as surely as Kolchak spoke to the ideals of the Watergate era. Burning Man unfolds in the aftermath of the Iraq War, at a point where journalists had largely trumpeted the official line of the Bush administration. Their coverage helped convince the public to sign off on costly foreign intervention, predicated on lies and untruths. Judith Miller was just one example:

Miller is a star, a diva. She wrote big stories, won big prizes. Long before her WMD articles ran, Miller had become a newsroom legend—and for reasons that had little to do with the stories that appeared beneath her byline. With her seemingly bottomless ambition—a pair of big feet that would stomp on colleagues in her way and even crunch a few bystanders—she cut a larger-than-life figure that lent itself to Paul Bunyan–esque retellings. Most of these stories aren’t kind. Of course, nobody said journalism was a country club. And her personality was immaterial while she was succeeding, winning a Pulitzer, warning the world about terrorism, bio-weapons, and Iraq’s war machine. But now, who she is, and why she prospered, makes for a revealing cautionary tale about the culture of American journalism.

Miller spoke to the modern realities of American journalism, with many commentators and pundits retroactively holding her to account for everything that happened as a result of her betrayal of objectivity and impartiality. Interviewing Miller, John Stewart wryly commented, “I believe that you helped the administration take us to, like, the most devastating mistake in foreign policy that we’ve made in, like, 100 years… but you seem lovely.”

Those other reporters? They're just jelly...

Those other reporters? They’re just jelly…

Whereas the romantic myth of Watergate positions journalists as idealistic crusaders who stand in opposition to government abuse of power, the reality is not always that simple. The legacy of the Iraq War only highlights this. In his biography, titled The Prince of Darkness, journalist Robert D. Novak frankly acknowledged his ties to the Bush administration:

Karl and I had grown close since he began plotting Bush’s path to the presidency as early as 1995. In four decades of talking to presidential aides, I never had enjoyed such a good source inside the White House. Rove obviously thought I was useful for his purposes, too. Such symbiotic relationships, built on self-interest, are the rule in high-level Washington journalism, though journalists seldom are as candid about them as I will be throughout this book.

Novak’s involvement with the Plame Affair led many to write him off as “a political tool.” However, high-profile failures on the part of journalists like Miller and Novak spoke to a larger cynicism about how exactly journalists do their jobs and who they actually serve. Howard Gorn is not responsible for horror on the scale of the Iraq War, but he speaks to the same betrayals of principle that made the government’s deceptions possible.

(Pro)file it under "a" for "adequate."

(Pro)file it under “a” for “adequate.”

As such, Burning Man engages with the idea of Carl Kolchak as a reporter for the first time. In Burning Man, Kolchak’s profession is not just a background detail used to explain how he gets involved in these strange cases; it is very much something with which the plot directly engages. It is a clear sign that Night Stalker is not trapped in the early seventies, that producer Frank Spotnitz is using these familiar elements to speak to this particular moment in time. It is one of the smartest touches in the show’s entire ten-episode run.

Unfortunately, it is very much confined to the background. Gorn last appears in a scene with Reed, before she discovers his corruption. The character never gets a chance to properly defend himself, as the plot shifts its focus back the more mundane “contagious evil” plot thread. Howard Gorn’s betrayal of his journalistic responsibilities become a background detail rather than a focal point for discussion. It is a shame, as William Lucking is perfectly cast as grizzled and cynical old beat reporter who has sold his ideals to the highest bidder.

It figures...

It figures…

As with Three, Burning Man is not a good episode of television. However, it does have some interesting ideas and demonstrates considerable potential. It is just taking a while for Night Stalker to measure up to that potential.

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