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Night Stalker – The Source (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.

The Source was the last episode of Night Stalker to air on ABC.

Night Stalker died an ignominious death, especially considering that ABC had actively sought out producer Frank Spotnitz specifically to reboot the classic series. After six episodes, aired over seven weeks, Night Stalker was quietly retired from the schedule. The series did not survive its first Sweeps period, dying a quiet death before it could even reach the Christmas hiatus. Although ten episodes had been produced, ABC opted not to broadcast the four remaining stories; instead, they filled the slot with an episode of Primetime Live focusing on Anna Nicole Smith.

Night falls on the Night Stalker...

Night falls on the Night Stalker…

To be fair, the odds were heavily stacked against Night Stalker from the beginning. The realities of twenty-first century television have made it increasingly difficult to launch a new show. Audiences seem more fickle than ever, and networks can no longer afford to grow audiences over time. With more sources of media competing for the attention of eager young audiences, there is seldom time to fix something that does not work out of the gate. It has become increasingly common to just ditch a dysfunctional show at the first sign of trouble.

At the same time, it is hard to mourn Night Stalker as a forgotten classic that was cut down in its prime. The series’ limited ten episode run suffered from a host of identity anxieties and uncertainties. The series had trouble finding an audience, but it also seemed to have trouble finding itself. While The Source and The Sea might represent a step in the right direction, they are perhaps too little too late.

Zombie bikers from hell!

Zombie bikers from hell!

Network television is an interesting and often contradictory medium. In many respects, television is a vibrant artform. It is a medium associated with live and dynamic entertainment; news and sports coverage are typically live, but even the bulk of television drama is still produced on a weekly basis. As a rule, roughly one week of production time produces a single episode of weekly television, meaning that television remains more rooted in the present than other media with longer production cycles. Television has the potential to be of its particular moment.

At the same time, television is also a deeply conservative medium. It is a medium predicated on the idea that past successes worked for a reason, and the emulation assures a greater chance of return than innovation. With those weekly schedules and audience expectations, trying to something new or exciting or untested represents a major risk. There is an urge to keep television production relatively simple and straightforward, avoiding unnecessary complications or potential problems.

Tough call...

Tough call…

There is an argument to be made that network television took a long time to adapt to the realities of twenty-first century broadcasting, to properly process declining audiences and to figure out how to stay relevant to contemporary viewers. The major networks like ABC, NBC and CBS all struggled in their own way through the new millennium. Each network found its own successes, but it seemed like it was a lot hard for a television series to just “get along” like it might have in the eighties or nineties.

This was reflected in a number of different ways. Audiences are declining, particularly the coveted 18-49 bracket. Average monthly viewing time is decreasing. Half of broadcast television viewers are now over fifty-four years of age. Even old reliable television fixtures witnessed a decline in audience figures at the turn of the millennium: news, sports, sit-coms. There are a wide variety of reasons for this; the rise of the internet, streaming, DVDs, cable networks, etc. In some ways, it could be read as part of the larger decline of the mass market.

Riding shotgun...

Riding shotgun…

However, the point is that the realities of television broadcasting in the twenty-first century are radically different than they had been towards the end of the twentieth century. This has led to a number of larger trends in television production. Most notably, the average number of episodes produced by a television series has dropped dramatically over the past few decades. Part of that is undoubtedly down to the trend towards shorter broadcast seasons, but it is also attributable to the fact that more network shows are being cancelled earlier in their runs.

Between 1955 and 2013, it was estimated that only 25% of shows were cancelled in their first season. However, the numbers had already begun to change at the start of the twenty-first century. In 2012, it was estimated that 65% of new shows were cancelled in their first season, well above that one-in-four figure over the longer term. The volume of weekly television increased in the new millennium, with many industry analysts speculating that 2015 represented “peak TV” with over four hundred scripted shows broadcast. That is a lot of churn.

Time to settle the Bill (Scully)...

Time to settle the Bill (Scully)…

To be fair, the era of “peak TV” found the face of cancellation changing. Slowly grasping the realities of modern television, networks have begun to pull away from outright cancellation in recent years. Pundits noted, for example, that the major broadcast networks were relatively slow to drop the axe on under-performing shows in the early 2014-2015 season. Similar observations were made at the start of the 2015-2016 season. In recent years, networks have grown less prone to knee-jerk cancellations.

In the modern television market place, the major networks often simply decline to renew shows (or pick up a full season order) as they burn off produced episodes. There are a lot of reasons for this, the most obvious being that overnight ratings are no longer the be-all-and-end-all of American television. It is possible for a show to find an audience outside its prime-time slot, and allowing the series a chance to find that audience is just a shrewd business decision. It is interesting how dramatically the rules of the medium have changed in the intervening years.

Piecing it together...

Piecing it together…

Much like the eighth season of The X-Files, Night Stalker landed in a rather odd lacuna in the history of television. With the flexibility of modern television, David Duchovny’s limited availability for the eighth season might not have been as big a deal as it was at start of the millennium. However, the realities of television production meant that Chris Carter did not have the option of slowing production or cutting the episode order to keep Duchovny and Anderson on board. The shape of the eighth season was dictated by the realities of the medium.

Similarly, the cancellation of Night Stalker reflects the realities of its own time. These days, when under-performing cult shows like Aquarius and Hannibal are allowed multiple seasons on a major network (on a Thursday night schedule!), Night Stalker would at least be allowed to air all ten of its initial episodes. However, this was not feasible in the context of November 2005. The ratings were bad, and the network was panicked. The decision to cancel the show was made quickly and decisively, ending the series in the middle of a two-parter.

You've be Fained...

You’ve be Fained…

The fact that Night Stalker ended its run on a cliffhanger with a resolution that was already in the can demonstrates just how little ABC cared about the possibility of salvaging anything from the show. When asked if retiring the show on a cliffhanger was a cynical ploy to boost DVD sales, producer Frank Spotnitz candidly replied:

You know, I don’t even know if when the people that make those decisions realized they were pulling it in the middle of a two parter. I think what really precipitated their haste was that we were in November sweeps, and they thought that we were going to get another week of low numbers, so they wanted to yank us off for something better. They did yank us off for a Primetime Live special that didn’t do any better. In fact, it did worse. That was particularly frustrating, because I think that second part of the two-parter was one of the best episodes of the series.

ABC did not care about any potential life for Night Stalker after that sixth episode, treating its disappointing ratings as a situation in need of immediate (and desperate) damage control. It is a situation not unlike the cancellation of Harsh Realm, where the network’s knee-jerk response to underwhelming performance was simply to cast the show aside as quickly as possible.

Oh, I've seen this one...

Oh, I’ve seen this one…

Of course, the cancellation seemed all but inevitable from the outset. ABC had not been particularly supportive of the show since its inception. Although the network had commissioned a show based on a cult television series featuring a monster hunter, the executives had instructed Spotnitz that the series could not feature any actual monsters. As a result, the series wandered into fairly generic territory, feeling more like a bland procedural with a hint of the paranormal than something as delightfully bizarre as its own inspiration.

Given how much Frank Spotnitz and ABC actually changed their source material, it is interesting to wonder if the name Night Stalker was itself a burden to the show. Certainly, it never felt like ABC had any idea what to do with Night Stalker. Every indication suggests that the network would have been a lot more comfortable with a more routine procedural thriller, one that owed more to the tone and aesthetic of CSI than a weird seventies horror show about a grumpy investigative reporter-cum-monster-slayer.

ABC wasn't in the market for this...

ABC wasn’t in the market for this…

In postmortem interviews, producer Frank Spotnitz would argue that the odds were stacked against Night Stalker from the outset:

We had enormous obstacles to our success, starting with the time slot. As soon as we got picked up, it was like, “Oh, good news: you’re going to be a series! Bad news: you’re going to be on Thursdays at 9 PM opposite CSI!” And that’s probably one of the worst time slots you can get. And, then, over the course of the summer as we were going into production, we discovered that the network wasn’t going to buy any paid advertising for us whatsoever. So, the only comfort we took was that we had a great lead-in in Alias, which hopefully would bring a lot of eyeballs to our show. Finally, when Alias went on the air, as you probably know they had a really disappointing season they didn’t get the audience they used to get. And as the research later showed, the audience they did deliver wasn’t compatible with our audience. So, when you don’t have a good time slot, you don’t have any paid advertising, and you don’t have a good lead-in, it’s very tough to succeed. And I made the argument pretty strongly to the network that, “Look, this is a really strong show. You’ve got a lot of assets here. Look at these other things as reasons why it’s not performing in the ratings.” And I really believed that argument was persuasive and that it would prevail right up until the day we got cancelled. That’s my take on why the show didn’t succeed.

These are all fair points, suggesting that Night Stalker‘s days were numbered from the moment it was conceived.

Juking it out...

Juking it out…

One of the more interesting aspects of media production is that failure is not always measured in strictly commercial terms. Cancellation is not always the absolute judgement on a television show’s worth, just as poor box office returns do not always banish a film to cinematic limbo. It is possible for cancelled shows and failed films to find audiences and champions, to linger in the consciousness. After all, the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker did not finish its first season either, and it was hugely influential.

However, it is very hard to argue that Night Stalker was a success in any true sense. In many ways, the commercial failure of the show was all but assured from the decisions made before the show was broadcast, but the series itself grapples with its own identity. Six episodes into the first season, Night Stalker has done a good job outlining its core themes and objects of interest, but has done nothing to make those ideas interesting to the audience. Night Stalker is a show that lacks a sense of self and identity, despite its clear sense of purpose.

On your bike...

On your bike…

Too much of the first season of Night Stalker feels sanded down and smoothed over, a show desperately afraid of alienating or provoking its audience. Night Stalker could likely never have succeeded in the Thursday night slot opposite CSI, but it found itself competing for the same audience because of decisions that had consciously been made by the production team. While comparisons with The X-Files were inevitable, comparisons with CSI were invited by the positioning of stories like The Five People You Meet in Hell, Burning Man or Malus.

Even within The Source, there is a sense that Night Stalker is not entirely comfortable with its own identity and sense of self. In terms of tone and content, there is little to distinguish Night Stalker from the wealth of investigative procedurals flooding the airwaves. The Source opens with a bunch of bikers brutally murdering a bunch of drug dealers, and leads to a manhunt for a fugitive across Los Angeles that suggests all manner of questionable behaviour at both the FBI and the DEA.

The source of all his problems...

The source of all his problems…

To be fair, The Sea retroactively adds a number of paranormal elements into the mix. Just where is Kolchak getting these phone calls from? Are the bikers really zombies? However, these elements are consciously downplayed in favour of blander and more generic story beats. Just about any television show could do a story about hunting down a fugitive in a race against time. John Pyper-Ferguson even appeared in F. Emasculata, an episode of The X-Files using the same basic template. However, F. Emasculata wove that fugitive story into the show’s core themes.

Instead, The Source chooses to devote its attention to stock scenarios. The fugitive stumbles into a Korean shop, where he becomes embroiled in a domestic drama that involves a widow and her suitor. The detour into this soap opera plot thread demonstrates all the worst tendencies of Night Stalker, a sense that the show is consciously pandering to a hypothetical audience that is somehow watching Night Stalker and uninterested in anything vaguely paranormal. The result is a cringe-inducing attempt at domestic drama.

FBI guy...

FBI guy…

The relationships involved in the Korean market subplot are at once incredibly over-complicated and frustratingly cliché. Dae inherited the market from her deceased husband, but she lacks the business acumen to keep it operational. Seung is a successful doctor with obvious romantic affection toward Dae, putting Dae in a position where she is forced to face the prospect of marrying without love to keep her business afloat. It is very melodramatic, even before the guy fleeing a band bikers who just killed a drug lord intrudes.

The basic set-up would be cliché enough, but The Source somehow manages to devote far too much time to the plot thread without any appreciable pay-off. Most of the background information about Dae and Seung is provided in an expository monologue by Dae, which feels stilted and unnatural. More than that, it is hard to feel particularly sympathetic toward Dae when she forces Seung to translate the fact that she “does not love him” in front of their guest. It is extraordinarily passive-aggressive, but The Source plays it as tragic.

White out!

White out!

To be entirely fair to the production team, it seems like at least some of this is down to how the episode was edited. On the commentary for The Sea, Frank Spotnitz explained that the script fleshed out the supporting characters in a bit more depth:

This is something that got cut out of the script. In part one, we learned that her husband had been killed by a police officer by mistake, so she had a lot of antipathy towards the cops. Which added another dynamic to that moment, which you wouldn’t know, because that scene was cut.

While the inclusion of this detail would have done little to alleviate the awkward soap opera dynamic at play, it would have added a bit more nuance to the drama. More than that, it would have played into Night Stalker‘s suggestion that the city is an inherently hostile (if not downright predatory) and disconnected environment.

Dial it down...

Dial it down…

As with episodes like The Five People You Meet in Hell, Burning Man or Malus, the episode is burdened by awkward exposition. It seems as if the production team do not trust the audience to keep up with the plot or to figure out what is happening without the most blatant dialogue or music cues. Even small personal interactions are overwhelmed by the soundtrack, helpfully informing a viewer of the already heavily implied subtext. “You husband would not have approved,” Seung warns Dae. “My husband is not here,” Dae responds. Ominous music sting!

There is a distinct lack of subtlety in how Night Stalker conveys information to its audience. The X-Files was an astonishingly visual show, often counting on its audience to follow its internal logic through quick visual cues or symbolic logic. Although the show could occasionally be accused of being obtuse, the production team ensured that the series was accessible. The X-Files only rarely condescended to its audience, at least in its peak years. With Night Stalker, it feels like the show takes every opportunity to over-explain itself to its viewers.

Nothing to report...

Nothing to report…

This is most obvious in the sequence where Perry considers whether or not she can trust Kolchak – whether the character is having a nervous breakdown. Eschewing the quick flashes used in Burning Man, the episode instead opts for extended clips wiping across the screen in the style of Malus. Not only is this approach incredibly lazy, it also looks surprisingly clumsy for a prime-time network television show in 2005. More to the point, it would seem like these clips would have been better integrated into the “previously…” segment that opens the episode.

The episode’s set pieces don’t really work either. The opening attack upon the drug lord feels rather bland and generic. The murder of Agent Richard Walton to a dissonant jukebox soundtrack feels like a curiously limp attempt to invoke the discomfort that Glen Morgan and James Wong brought to episodes like Home or Owls. There is something very bland about how Night Stalker is edited. For a horror show, it seems afraid to be scary; there is nothing particularly unnerving about these sequences, even though they should be horrifying in theory.

Good luck, Skipper.

Good luck, Skipper.

There are good ideas here. The central hook of Kolchak showing up at the scene of a grisly multiple murder as the bodies are still cooling suggests a weird hybrid of Vince Gilligan Tithonus and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. While The Source sees the show continuing the exploration of modern media that began with Burning Man, it seems like The Source sets up interesting questions about the voyeuristic nature of Kolchak’s work (and his quest) that it never really addresses. Kolchak might meditate on fear, but he works in an industry commodifying death.

If The Source and The Sea want to add ambiguity to the character, it seems like touching upon the more predatory aspect of his quest and his profession might be a better way of interrogating the character than just having Fain lie to Reed about him. Again, there is a sense that Night Stalker is too generic for its own good. The Source and The Sea suggest Kolchak might not be the purest hero on prime-time, but only in the safest and blandest of ways. Even when trying to upset expectations, Night Stalker strives not to surpass them.

Lighting the way...

Lighting the way…

With The Source, the show died as it lived. Professional, but predictable; sleek, but safe; mostly unembarrassing, but largely unremarkable.

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