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Night Stalker – The Sea (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.

One of the interesting aspects of doing a long-running pop culture project is the subtle shifts that you can see taking place over time.

The realities of media consumption change over extended periods; in response, the methods of media production also change. It is not too hard to imagine a world where Night Stalker would have been cancelled by ABC six episodes into its run, ending on a cliffhanger with the remaining four episodes buried for all eternity. Television would have moved on to its next reboot, its next new launch, and the cycle would have continued. Night Stalker would have been dead and buried, even more of a genre curiosity than it is now.

Fenced off...

Fenced off…

There was a time when Night Stalker would have been consigned to history. At best, it might have been a footnote in Frank Spotnitz’s filmography, a point of reference in interviews and conversations about how mainstream American television treats science-fiction history. Had Night Stalker appeared (and been so promptly cancelled) even ten years earlier, it would probably be a curiosity on the IMDb pages of its cast and crew. The name would resonate with genre fans, and t would casually be dropped in career overviews. But it would largely be lost.

However, the reality of television had changed by the twenty-first century, the explosion in home media ensuring that even a six-episode failure like Night Stalker could receive a neatly-packaged DVD release and remain easily accessible to the generations that followed. In some respects, this feels like the worst thing that could have happened. The biggest obstacle between Night Stalker and the status of “cult classic” is ease of access to the show itself; the readiness with which the nostalgic refrain of “cancelled before its time” might be rebutted by simply buying the DVD.

A blast from the past...

A blast from the past…

To be fair, Night Stalker would likely have received a DVD release at some point in the future. Even if the show had been buried in the mid-nineties, cancelled and never heard from again, it seems entirely possible that the series would have been unearthed and released on home media at some point. Failed one-season wonders like American Gothic and Earth 2 managed it. (Although it would appear that Strange Luck and V.R. 5 did not.) Harsh Realm got a nice home media release, likely off the strength of Chris Carter’s brand.

Home media has always tended towards genre fare, because fans of cult properties tend to be more invested (and more willing to invest) in their obsessions. This is why Star Trek was able to sell its first four shows beginning-to-end (repeatedly) on VHS. All seven episodes of the cult one-season German television show Raumpatrouille are readily available on DVD, despite the fact that even many science-fiction fans are oblivious to the show’s existence. Meanwhile, more mainstream shows like Spenser: For Hire and The Simpsons have had their lines suspended.

News kids on the block...

News kids on the block…

At the same time, there is something quite striking about seguing directly from cancellation into a DVD release. It seemed like the launch of the Night Stalker DVD got almost as much press as the launch of the television show, at least among the geek press. Frank Spotnitz doing interviews with Collider, CHUD and Horror.com while he was joined by Stuart Townsend and Gabrielle Union for a signing at the West Hollywood Best Buy. Given the show had been yanked from the air in the middle of a cliffhanger, the atmosphere was relatively upbeat.

There was a palpable sense that this was possibly the best outcome for the show. Night Stalker would not be lost to obscurity. It would not be forgotten. It would have a very immediate after-life, lingering on in the hearts and minds of fans. The production on the DVD was quite impressive, including interviews and commentaries that were designed to flesh out the world of the show and expand upon how Frank Spotnitz had approached the relaunch. There was even a PDF of Darin Morgan’s unproduced script for The “M” Word included in the set.

Everybody chips in...

Everybody chips in…

Spotnitz was conscious of the DVD as an opportunity to help set the narrative of the show, devoting considerable effort to offering a sense of closure and resolution that was not possible in the episodes produced (let alone the smaller number of episodes broadcast):

What I tried to do in the commentaries was talk as much as I could about what the show was really about, where we were going, what the mark was on Kolchak’s wrist, who that guy was in the pilot that was standing outside of the house in the beginning. I really tried to reward people who were buying the DVD, who were probably frustrated at having these questions asked and not hearing the answers.

It was a nice gesture, but also some conscious mythmaking. In some ways, it is interesting to contrast Spotnitz’s response to the cancellation of Night Stalker with Carter’s response to the cancellation of Harsh Realm.

Brace(let) yourself...

Brace yourself…

Carter is notoriously reticent to talk about the story details of his work outside the work itself, to the point that his secret oral history on the hidden bonus track on the soundtrack to The X-Files: Fight the Future remains the most detailed “official” explanation of the mythology that exists outside the narrative itself. Although Carter participated in commentaries and behind-the-scenes features on his sadly truncated show Harsh Realm, he devoted relatively little time to answering questions or resolving dangling plot threads.

In contrast, Spotnitz is quite eager to articulate the internal logic of Night Stalker, to spell out the finer details of where he had hoped to take the mythology in the episodes ahead. His commentaries offer in-depth explorations of the mark on Kolchak’s wrist, the shape outside the home in The Pilot, and even a few twists and turns beyond those later revelations. Spotnitz makes a very convincing case that he had a clear vision of where he wanted to take Night Stalker in the long run.

File it away...

File it away…

It is interesting to wonder how much of this could be considered a response to the criticisms that had built up around The X-Files and which would become a staple of the broader discussion of any long-running genre show, an attempt to beat back the inevitable suggestion that Spotnitz had no idea where he was taking the mythology or where he wanted to take it. After all, Night Stalker arrived as Lost entered its second season, the point at which critics were began to wonder if the writing staff on that hit show were simply “making up as they go along.”

Still, it is hard not to feel like the immediate release of Night Stalker did the show something of disservice in the long term. Cancelled by a major network that clearly didn’t understand it after only six episodes, Night Stalker sounds like it should have the makings of a cult classic. One of the most enduring narratives of genre television is the idea of a worth show gone before its time. Glanced from a distance, Night Stalker seems perfectly suited to that description. It is a cult property with a fine pedigree, but well outside its comfort zone. In theory, it is a perfect fit.

Field work...

Field work…

There is just one tiny problem with all this. Despite the fact that it meets so many of the criteria for the status of “beloved lost classic”, the simple fact of the matter is that Night Stalker is not very good. The show has no idea what it wants to be, or how it wants to be it. It takes a unique premise, only to realise it in the blandest way possible. It invites comparisons to both CSI and The X-Files, but without a distinct identify that might help to distinguish it. It is a show that should be very good, but isn’t. Releasing the show on DVD so quickly makes that all the more evident.

Perhaps Night Stalker would have a better reputation if it were not so readily accessible, if the myth of its premature cancellation were allowed to grow unencumbered by the easily verifiable fact that is not a particularly entertaining television show. Perhaps it might have been for the best if Night Stalker were allowed to develop a cult following, its name whispered on message boards and dropped in interviews, its reputation only enhanced as it became less of an object and more of a memory.

Fain-ing interest...

Fain-ing interest…

After all, this is arguably what had happened to its inspiration, The Night Stalker. A show cancelled before its first season finished, it had cultivated a mythology that had made it surprisingly influential in the industry. However, despite the show’s reputation, even Frank Spotnitz acknowledged that it was not very good:

Well, I’ll be honest, I said yes because I loved the old TV movies and it wasn’t until I said yes, and really sat down to watch them again and watched the first series that had been done, that I really had to figure out why I was doing this. (Laughs) Because as much as I loved those first two TV movies, when I watched the series I started to realize how many problems there were with this concept.

Spotnitz is quite gentle in his criticism; it is quite clear that he loves the character and his show, even if he acknowledges that it may not have been as good as the idea of it had been. The Night Stalker did not receive a DVD release until 2005, the year that Night Stalker launched. The show survived in syndication, but its relatively meager episode count meant it was still a fringe product.

Shell shocked...

Shell shocked…

The fact that The Night Stalker had taken so long to arrive on DVD and to become readily accessible to casual audiences meant that it had time to develop a cult and reputation that did not necessarily reflect the objective quality of the work in question. The Night Stalker is not the only example. Doctor Who showrunner would land himself in hot water when an interview from his time in fandom revealed similarly iconoclastic views about the classic BBC television series. As with Spotnitz, his criticisms were affectionate, but sincere.

After all, it is interesting to wonder how much of the nostalgia and fandom for Patrick Troughton’s tenure on Doctor Who is rooted in the simple fact that so little of it still exists. After all, many of the episodes during his time in the lead role consist of archetypal “base under siege” stories. Attempting to watch (or, given that many of his stories only exist as audio recordings, listen) to Troughton’s tenure in order can be an exhausting experience. Fatigue and repetition set in, the plot beats and set-ups becoming more and more familiar.

On the cards...

On the cards…

(One of the big surprises on the discovery of (thought) lost copies of Troughton’s The Web of Fear and The Enemy of the World was that the former was much weaker than its reputation and the latter much stronger. Although The Web of Fear had been built to an almost mythic status within the show’s fandom, but it turned out to be a fairly generic monster story quite similar to the other surviving stories from his era. In contrast, The Enemy of the World had always seemed like an outlier and an oddity; available to watch for the first time, it seemed fresh.)

As such, it is interesting to wonder whether the prompt release of Night Stalker on DVD deflated its chances of developing a reputation as a lost classic or a hidden gem. Certainly, there is no dramatic upswing in quality in The Sea, directly following The Source. If anything, the cliffhanger of Kolchak behind bars and Jain facing certain death is much more satisfying than the closing sequence of Kolchak monologuing about the show’s themes over some nice shots of the sea and the sky.

Shedding light on the matter...

Shedding light on the matter…

The Source and The Sea represent Night Stalker‘s first (and only) two-parter. They are very consciously structured as a “mythology” episode in the style of The X-Files. The Source even premiered as part of November Sweeps, replicating the technique that The X-Files had employed of putting a focus on the mythology at a point when it was thought that the most people would be watching. The Source and The Sea engage with threads dangling from The Pilot, whether the mysterious mark on Kolchak’s wrist or the character’s instability.

There is something very old-fashioned about all of this. In its defense, Night Stalker is cutting edge from a technical perspective; the show is shot on digital and looks quite impressive. However, the show’s plotting and structure hark back to the nineties and beyond. The show adopts a “case of the week” structure with minimal continuity from episode to episode. The central mystery is propelled only in designated episodes, with The Source and The Sea expanding upon the death of Kolchak’s wife and his paranoia for the first time since The Pilot.

Jain's pain...

Jain’s pain…

Although not really developed in the five episodes between The Pilot and The Source, Night Stalker has a very clear mythology behind it. In fact, Spotnitz had designed the mythology into the show, going so far as to outline his longer-term plans to ABC before they would commission the series:

You try to get a very clear idea of where you’re going, and what the series is about. But then you have to be flexible about all the stops along the way, because you don’t know what actors you’re going to find, or what’s going to happen in the news that might affect your storyline, and you don’t know how many years you’re going to be on the air. In the case of Night Stalker, ABC actually required that I tell them what the mythology was. I had to write a top secret, five-page document, before they would order the series. It explained what was in the pilot, where the series was going to go, and what the last episode would be. So I had a very clear sense of what that show was about, and I have to say, I really felt like I had a particularly rich mythology to pay out. It was particularly disappointing that it got cut short.

Night Stalker has all the elements of a mythology, with The Pilot quite keenly setting up plot points and character beats to be expanded upon down the line. Agent Bernie Fain is obviously set up to be a recurring character, while Kolchak’s scar is an obvious hook into a larger mystery.

Saving their hide...

Saving their hide…

At the same time, there was a sense that Spotnitz was somewhat weary of over-committing to the mythology. In contemporary interviews, he reflected, “The thing that I wonder is how many of these shows can people keep in their heads at one time. So many shows now have a mythology that you’re expected to keep track of.” This explains the decision to keep the structure that defined the nine seasons of The X-Files, with a Chinese wall dividing the standalone episodes from the larger mythology.

This approach to storytelling already felt dated when The X-Files was retired in 2002. One of the most frustrating aspects of the ninth season was watching it undo a lot of the good work of the eighth season, eschewing the loose serialisation of the final third of the eighth season in favour of a more rigid divide. There were a lot of problems with the show’s final mid-season mythology two-parter Provenance and Providence; among those problems was the sheer outdatedness of the format, a desperation in the attempt to go back to what had worked.

Mark his words...

Mark his words…

The face of network genre programming had changed, even while The X-Files was on the air. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel had taken the loose serialisation of The X-Files and edged it just a little further, more readily allowing serialised plot points to bleed over into the standalone episodes. The year before Night Stalker debuted, ABC had scored a massive hit with the highly serialised Lost, which melded together standalone flashback episodes with broader series-wide themes and the serialised narrative of life on the island.

There were ripples of Lost‘s influence to be felt in the 2005-2006 season, with shows like Surface and Threshold feeling quite similar in execution. By 2006, American network television would be saturated with genre television shows aping the blend of episodic storytelling and serialisation that had made Lost such a hit. The first season of Heroes would do a very good job, even if later seasons floundered. Jericho would attract a small (but devoted) fanbase that would save the show from cancellation at the end of its first season.

First (re)port of call...

First (re)port of call…

Although the biggest wave of imitation was yet to come, Night Stalker felt curiously old-fashioned and outdated. From a simple narrative perspective, Night Stalker seemed like a show stuck in the mid-nineties. It was a pale imitation of The X-Files that existed in a world already two iterations more evolved. Had Night Stalker been a mobile phone, it would be impossible to find a charger for it. The fact that it was shot on digital and released on DVD is almost surprising, given how old-fashioned it is in its storytelling; Night Stalker feels like it belongs on VHS.

This is particularly true of its protagonist. As “mythology” episode, The Source and The Sea advance Kolchak’s arc. In particular, the two episodes strain hard to suggest that Kolchak might not be everything that he claims to be; that he might be dangerous or reckless, that he might be single-minded and untrustworthy. Agent Fain spends most of the episode chipping away at Reed’s trust in Kolchak, suggesting that perhaps Agent Fain is not the antagonist that he appears to be.

He's got this locked down...

He’s got this locked down…

Spotnitz was quite proud of this idea, implying in interviews that Kolchak is not a clear-cut television hero:

I really got excited when I started thinking about Kolchak as a character who you thought you knew, but you may not know. As somebody you presume as good because he’s the hero of the television series but then these questions start coming up that make you reevaluate whether he really is good or not.

That was where the series was going, a series of reversals where you’re not sure which way is up. Is Carl really bad or he actually good? I don’t know if you got to see the second part of the two-parter yet [on the DVD] but that’s a real shocker, the ending of that episode because you leave it thinking, “Oh my God, Kolchak actually is evil.”

It is a great idea for a television show like this, and a provocative idea for a remake of a cult classic. (And more interesting than Townsend’s casting suggests.)

"Woah... and I thought the network was aggressive?"

“Woah… and I thought the network was aggressive?”

As with a lot of the discussion around Night Stalker, there is a sense that the potential is far more exciting than the execution. The Source and The Sea keep nudging the audience (and Reed) to doubt Kolchak. The crime reporter is becoming increasingly reckless and unhinged, taking massive gambles that could have catastrophic consequences for those around him. He puts Jain in mortal danger by sending him to the Korean market alone; he runs the risk of destroying The Beacon with his unverified journalism.

Indeed, The Source and The Sea even hint at a more nuanced version of Agent Bernie Fain than the character who appeared in The Pilot. The first episode of the show suggested that Fain was going to be a one-note antagonist, a character so fixated upon proving Kolchak guilty that he would cast everything aside. Fain was not so much a character as a walking source of dramatic tension. He was blunt, he was crass, he was short-sighted. He was a villain who happened to carry an FBI badge. He was also a waste of John Pyper-Ferguson.

The Source and The Sea tease the idea that Fain might actually be a fully formed character. He might be a little obsessive and aggressive, but he might also have good reasons to believe that Kolchak is a danger to himself and to others. Indeed, The Source suggests that Fain is an old friend of Vincienzo, so the character’s belligerence toward Kolchak could be written off as an over-zealous attempt to protect a former colleague from an error in judgment. The Source and The Sea allow Fain to spend time with Reed, and to outline his case.

Fain’s case is not particularly innovative or insightful. It is nothing to makes the audience doubt Kolchak in any real sense. The audience intuitively understands that it is far more likely that Kolchak’s wife was murdered by a monster than murdered by her husband for the insurance money, because Night Stalker is a show about monsters (even if it is rarely allowed to show them) rather than murderous insurance fraud. However, if Kolchak profited from his wife’s death, Fain’s case makes sense.

(It also makes sense of some of the show’s background details. Kolchak lives in Case Study House #22 and drives a vintage car. Very few crime reporters can afford that, as Reed reflects. “I always wondered how you could afford that house in the hills,” she concedes. While the audience knows better than to take this as proof that Kolchak had a hand in his wife’s death, the fact that he has used the insurance money to build this obsessive and bleak life for himself would add an extra layer of tragedy to everything.)

The problem is that The Source and The Sea refuses to commit to any of this. Kolchak’s decision to send Jain to the Korean market has no consequences; Jain is already a character who is largely redundant, killing him would streamline the cast and add tension. Kolchak’s lies about his source don’t bankrupt The Beacon or cost Vincienzo his job. Instead, they help the newspaper find its integrity again. What little credibility and character development Fain undergoes is thrown aside incredibly quickly and without any real hesitation.

Although The Source and The Sea hint at the idea that Kolchak might not be a completely good guy, the two episodes ultimately decide to afford the character the best of all possible outcomes. None of the gambles he takes have any negative consequences, none of his poor decisions come at a price. As a result, The Source and The Sea let him off the hook. The closest The Sea comes to hinting at character ambiguity is when Kolchak is attacked by the horde of zombie bikers, and they let him go for some mysterious reason. (Related to the mark on his wrist.)

Again, Night Stalker feels curiously out of touch with the television around it. The fact that a bunch of zombie bikers decline to execute the hero is not a sign of moral ambiguity, it is a narrative copout. Night Stalker arrived more than half a decade after The Sopranos had ushered in the age of the television antihero. The Wire had been on the air for over three years. While these were cable shows, the influence was bleeding into the mainstream. The Shield had debuted on FX in 2002. Even House had appeared Fox a year prior to Night Stalker.

Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty and Vic Mackey are all television characters who can inspire debate about how “evil” they might be; how compromised, how violent, how selfish. Carl Kolchak does not measure up to these characters in any real way. Indeed, Gregory House seems like a much more ambiguous television character than Carl Kolchak. Part of that is down to casting (imagine Night Stalker with Ted Danson or John C. Reilly), but the writing is a factor. The Sea might have given Carl Kolchak an “edge” in the eighties or nineties, but television had moved on.

The most interesting aspect of The Source and The Sea is ported over from Burning Man. In many ways, Burning Man was a stock “he who fights monsters…” story that layered on some vague foreshadowing relating to Kolchak’s darker side. However, that fairly generic plot allowing the show to engage with the newspaper setting for the first time. Given how much Frank Spotnitz and ABC had changed in adapting Night Stalker, the decision to preserve the newsroom setting was interesting. In 2005, the trope of the investigative reporter felt almost anachronistic.

However, Burning Man used the newsroom setting to tell a story that felt very closely tied to the political realities of 2005, focusing on a veteran reporter’s ties to the political establishment and the increasingly incestuous relationship between government and media. Given the larger debate taking place about the media’s complicity in propagating lies and mistruths in the lead-up to the Iraq War, Burning Man managed to make the newspaper setting the most interesting aspect of Night Stalker. Or, it would have, with a tighter focus.

The Source and The Sea seems to recognise the power of these themes. After all, Night Stalker is a show that is firmly anchored in the “culture of fear” that had been created by the War on Terror, fashioning those abstract fears into literal monsters. While the metaphor was occasionally hamstrung by the show’s inability to feature actual monsters, it was clear that Spotnitz was trying to use Night Stalker to reflect the twenty-first century as skilfully as its predecessor spoke to the seventies.

The Source and The Sea are at their most interesting when exploring the relationship between Fain and Vincienzo, with the authorities hoping to treat the newspaper as a partner in their endeavour and leveraging favour in return. “We’re willing to play ball,” Fain assures Vincienzo. “Give The Beacon exclusives all the way down the line on this thing.” When Reed discovers the deal Fain is trying to make, her primary concern is not related to professional ethics. “What’s Fain offering in exchange?” she asks.

It is a nice story hook, even if it seems strange that a story about journalistic ethics and collaboration is the most compelling aspect of an episode about zombie bikers murdering drug lords. However, The Source and The Sea are a little bit too clean-cut in how they address these points. There is no sense of creeping compromise that accompanies such transgressions in the real world, no truly difficult decision. As with the larger questions about Kolchak’s integrity, The Source and The Sea offer easy answers to tough questions.

In the closing scene of Burning Man, Vincienzo made the decision to let a story stand, even though it had been largely fabricated to suit the agenda of the FBI. It was a decision that compromised Vincienzo and The Beacon, but which felt entirely true to the cultural moment. Vincienzo had to answer to higher authorities, and those authorities cared little for journalistic integrity. It recalled the darker endings of The X-Files, the recurring sense that Mulder was destined to only ever get so far up the hill before being cruelly pushed back.

The Sea allows Vincienzo the easy way out of this moral quagmire. After a botched stakeout nearly kills Kolchak and Reed, Vincienzo stands up to Fain and refuses to cooperate. He gets a big speech about the importance of the media, warning Fain, “You answer to the public, which is exactly what this paper will make sure that you do by publishing what we know, when we know it.” It is a brave and principled decision for Vincienzo to make. It should be a fist-pumping moment for the audience. But it’s not.

The reason that the moment doesn’t land is because there are no consequences. Vincienzo is not fired by the company’s board for jeopardising an important relationship. Vincienzo receives no pressure from anybody in authority to comply. The Sea assures us that this is a risky decision through awkward exposition, but it never feels risky. It never feels like there is anything at stake. Vincienzo dodges the bullet as easily as Jain does at the Korean market. It is an unsatisfying cop out, one that undercuts any future sense of risk to a character in the opening credits.

The Source and The Sea might fit that old cliché of a young television series cancelled just as it reaches its best episodes. The Source and The Sea are arguably the strongest episodes of Night Stalker to this point. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much.

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