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Night Stalker – Into Night (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.

Night Stalker was cancelled after only six episodes had aired.

The Source was the last episode broadcast during its initial run, closing the show on a cliffhanger. There were four additional episodes produced, but not aired on ABC. There were also two more scripts written, but not produced. While the six episodes of Harsh Realm that had been produced but not aired felt reasonably coherent and finished, there is something very different about the final stretch of Night Stalker. Harsh Realm was not finished, but it felt oddly complete.

Oh, it's a crime scene alright...

Oh, it’s a crime scene alright…

The final stretch of Night Stalker after The Source has a decidedly rough and unpolished quality to. Everything after The Source takes on the feeling of a rough draft, occasionally intriguing but undoubtedly incomplete. As packaged on the DVD, it all feels like bonus content: Frank Spotnitz elaborating on his plans for the show, the .pdf of Darin Morgan’s script, even the final four episodes. It has become a cliché to compare modern television to a novel, but perhaps the best comparison for Night Stalker is a comparison to a studio album.

If that comparison holds, everything after The Source has the feel of a second disc or a reissue. Linear notes, rough cuts of tracks that did not make the original release, snippets of demos that informed the work. The DVD of Night Stalker is not as interested in concluding or wrapping up the show as it is elaborating or expanding upon it; offering a glimpse into its production and context for its decisions.

Nothing to report...

Nothing to report…

Into Night is perhaps the most obvious example of this. It is a rather curious episode in many respects. It was originally intended to occupy the second slot in the production order, directly following The Pilot. Even if this were not confirmed by the DVD extras, it is obvious from the structure and rhythm of the episode. Into Night is not a story that follows The Sea. It is a story that takes place early in the show’s run, largely existing to establish and codify boundaries and roles that were left ambiguous in The Pilot.

After all, Into Night devotes considerable attention to how Night Stalker works; or, rather, how Carl Kolchak works. The teaser explains how Kolchak gets his scoops, listening to police radio as he cruises in his car, a fact suggested in The Pilot but largely dropped in later episodes. Later, the episode explains how Kolchak gains access to crime scenes, a procedural detail that later episodes largely gloss over. Later still, Into Night explains how Reed gets information from the police and how Kolchak manages to get lab tests run despite just being a reporter.

Invested in his investigation...

Invested in his investigation…

Into Night even embraces the whole question of what exactly Kolchak publishes, given he is encountering seemingly paranormal phenomena on a weekly basis. Night Stalker would understandably have difficulty presenting The Beacon as a credible publication if it published Kolchak’s stories “as written”, and so there is an extended sequence later in the episode where Vincienzo edits Kolchak’s article line-by-line. It can be inferred that this happens with great frequency, explaining why The Beacon is more credible than The Weekly World News.

These are all very much “nuts and bolts” questions about how exactly the world of Night Stalker is supposed to work. Similarly, there is a lot of time spent on developing and deepening the relationship between Kolchak and Reed; which seems strange in the wake of their bonding in The Sea. Early on, he asks, “You’re bothered, aren’t you? That I got the story last night instead of you?” Later, he reflects, “You don’t trust me, do you?” This is very much about setting up a dynamic that has been treated as the status quo for six episodes to this point.

His leads all dried up...

His leads all dried up…

Even the episode’s production speaks to its original place in the season. Into Night is written by Frank Spotnitz, the producer responsible for developing the show and who is credited on the big “mythology” episodes of the series. It makes sense for the showrunner to write the first two episodes back-to-back, as a way of setting tone and mood for the season ahead. Chris Carter wrote the first two episodes of The X-Files, the first two episodes of Millennium and the first three episodes of Harsh Realm.

Given that the first season of a show is largely about finding an identity, it makes sense for the writer with the strongest sense of that identity to lay as much foundation as possible. Identity has been something of an issue for Night Stalker, with too much of the show feeling like reheated leftovers of other better (or more accomplished) shows. Night Stalker looks and feels a lot like The X-Files, Millennium and CSI. It is very hard to find much in the show that feels distinct or unique.

No Jain, no gain...

No Jain, no gain…

Into Night feels very much like an attempt to solidify certain aspects of The Pilot, to acknowledge them as essential to show’s identity. Although not as driven by the mytharc as The Source or The Sea, Into Night does make a point to reference the show’s mythology. The opening teaser has a “previously” section that draws exclusively from The Pilot, drawing attention to the strange mark on Kolchak’s wrist. Although Into Night adds little in the way of answers, it does stress that the answer is important.

The episode marks a segue from The Pilot into a looser “monster of the week” structure by suggesting that Kolchak’s efforts to solve his wife’s murder will serve as a bridge to standalone cases that are only fleetingly connected to the larger mythology. “I told you, I think these strange deaths are connected somehow,” Kolchak asserts at one point. When Reed challenges him as to how they are connected, he responds, “I don’t know.” It is a way to let the show drift away from the character-defining tragic back story of The Pilot into a more episodic structure.

Hey kids, it's Jane Lynch!

Hey kids, it’s Jane Lynch!

That said, The Pilot and Into Night do very little to help that bigger issue of identity. Spotnitz’s first two scripts do little to galvanise the first season of the show. In fact, the two episodes feel quite removed from the episodes that followed. The archetypal monster featured in The Pilot and the water-sucking mummy-maker of Into Night feel quite distinct from the Charlie Manson wannabe of The Five People You Meet in Hell or the mad bio-terrorist of Burning Man. They feel more paranormal and unreal than the overarching tone of the first season.

Then again, this is perhaps part of the problem. It seems likely that one of the reasons that Into Night was buried at the tail end of the season was because it featured a water-sucking mummy-maker. ABC were quite candid about their discomfort with building Night Stalker around monsters, and had consciously tried to steer the show away from more paranormal plotting. Of course, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask why the network greenlit a show about a monster hunter in the first place, but that is a question for another time.

Mummy!

Mummy!

Indeed, Into Night offers its own twist on what must have been happening behind the scenes, as Frank Spotnitz found himself trying to produce a show about a monster hunter without any actual monsters. As Vincienzo reads over Kolchak’s story, he very thoroughly revises the initial draft to strip out anything that makes the story seem unusual or odd. It is a sequence that seems like wry self-commentary, based on the fact that Spotnitz was facing similar restrictions behind the scenes.

Kolchak explains the issues that Vincienzo’s edits are causing to the story, his refusal to acknowledge the paranormal at the heart of the narrative damages the flow of the drama. “You can’t take that out, it explains what killed these people,” Kolchak advises Vincienzo, a sentiment familiar to any writer who has had to face down an overzealous editor’s pen; whether in print or in a television editing bay. “That explains what the compound does!” Kolchak protests. Vincienzo simply responds, “Strips people’s bodies of water… do you know how ludicrous that sounds?”

Dude needs to hydrate...

Dude needs to hydrate…

One might easily imagine a similar conversation unfolding behind the scenes, with ABC responding incredulously to the more surreal and supernatural elements of Into Night. Certainly, the episode feels decidedly more “ludicrous” than most of the other first season episodes. It is perhaps the most intriguing scene of the episode, resonating as it does with the larger issues facing the first season. Just as Kolchak finds himself working within impossible constraints, so too does Frank Spotnitz.

(Of course, any such inference is purely coincidental; the scene was scripted and written at a point where Into Night was planned to be the second episode of the show, serving to explain to the audience what exactly Vincienzo does within the framework of Night Stalker. Nevertheless, subsequent developments lend the scene an ironic resonance; the fact that the scene appears as part of an episode directly affected by these constraints only serve to make the irony all the more delicious.)

Mos def high def...

Mos def high def…

Into Night was pulled because of ABC’s reluctance to turn Night Stalker into “the monster show”, pushing the episode back for more generic and procedural episodes. As Frank Spotnitz explained on the commentary to The Sea, the decision to bury Into Night reflected the network’s discomfort with monsters:

I have to say the network was never entirely comfortable with the supernatural component in these stories. So I was always looking for ways to disguise them. Very early on, we discovered they weren’t crazy about monsters, so the episode Into Night – which is one of the bonus episodes here – was originally intended to be episode two, but actually got broadcast, because it dealt with a man who could turn you into a mummy. And you’ll see that two of the deleted scenes have to do with the introduction of Alex Nyby, which we had to rejigger because the air date of episode two had been postponed.

The result is an episode that feels curiously out of place, an awkward fit at any point in a rewatch of the show. The shift in broadcast order meant that Nyby was already introduced in Three and had already appeared again in Malum by the time he was to be introduced in Into Night.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

As a result, the production team very consciously (and awkwardly) edit the sequences between Kolchak and Nyby in Into Night. Much is made of Kolchak’s confidential source in the first half of the episode, which makes no sense if Reed and the audience already know about Nyby. However, the episode inserts a clunky exposition-laden scene between Kolchak and Reed after she discovers Nyby is the source, an awkward effort to smooth over the continuity issue by affirming that Reed knows about Nyby. (Despite the strong suggestion she did not earlier.)

There is something very rough and unfinished about how Into Night is put together. While it is apparent that the production team tried to avoid causing continuity issues or dissonance, the episode frequently feels less sleek and smooth than earlier episodes of the show. It feels like a lot of the episode’s production was left undone, only to be revised months after the fact. Nyby’s scene is very carefully edited, clearly sutured together from separate shoots. The sound mixing in certain scenes feels “off.”

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

Into Night has the quality of an episode constructed from discarded raw materials, but without the time or budget to fashion necessary connective tissue. The episode is a mess, but not in a way that reflects particularly poorly on the production team; it feels like a lot of effort and thought was put into how the episode should work, albeit using very limited resources. To continue the belaboured album analogy, Into Night is an abandoned studio demo released as part of a reissue or deluxe edition; it is a work in progress that never progressed.

As with a lot of the material beyond the initial six episodes, Into Night feels like a draft of something rather than a finished product. It feels almost like a teaching tool, a glimpse into the workings of Night Stalker beyond what appeared on ABC; an intermediate phase sitting somewhere between Darin Morgan’s unfilmed script for The M-Word and a fully-finished piece of television. Into Night feels like a chapter of the show’s troubled and ill-fated production history more than an episode of television.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

At the same time, it is very clearly an episode of Night Stalker, with Spotnitz’s script fitting in tone with the rest of the show. As with the rest of the season, Night Stalker feels somewhat fuzzy and undefined. The idea of a mutant attacking white-collar workers in the safety of their offices feels like a blatant homage to The X-Files. It recalls the basic premise of Squeeze, the show’s first (and arguably definitive) “monster of the week” story. Indeed, The X-Files would return to Squeeze repeatedly, in episodes like Teliko, Leonard Betts, Patience and Badlaa.

(Of course, there is something quite appropriate about this. Squeeze itself owed a debt to Kolchak: The Night Strangler, a similar story about a monster driven to kill to feed its immortality. In many ways, Spotnitz’s script for Into Night serves to bring the reference a full circle. It is worth noting that the monster featured in Into Night attacks his victim by placing his hands around their necks; Kolchak is very much investigating a night strangler who is dressed in the trappings of Eugene Victor Tooms.)

Worked to death...

Worked to death…

However, Into Night feels more than just nostalgic. It feels curiously out of touch with the times around it. This is obvious as early as the teaser, in which a pair of staff working late start hearing strange noises. Naturally, one of the two decides to step outside to investigate. “I’ll be right back,” he teases. It is a line that is extremely hard to take seriously after Scream. To be fair, Into Night offers a very slight twist on the premise – it is the person who remains behind who is brutally murdered, while the person saying the line is murdered on his return. But it is not enough.

At the same time, Into Night is very consciously tied to Los Angeles in the same way that episodes like The Pilot and The Five People You Meet in Hell are tied to the city. While the idea of a monster preying on office workers staying late taps into a broader sense of anomie, there are a few specific details of the episode feel specifically rooted in the California aesthetic. Most pointedly, Kolchak and Reed deduce that the killer is looking for a particular kind of victim. “He needs healthy victims,” Reed speculates at one point, explaining why he doesn’t kill drunks.

Suck it up...

Suck it up…

In some ways, this plays into the myths that have built up around Los Angeles and California. In popular culture, Californians are portrayed as healthier and fitter than many of their fellow countrymen. For example, the May 1959 issue of Cosmopolitan described the state as something approaching an idealistic utopia:

In California, the boys and girls grows grow bigger and more beautiful. They are longer of leg, deeper of chest, better muscled than other American youngsters. Even their feet are bigger.

Part of this undoubtedly ties back to the fact that California is home to the country’s largest (and perhaps the world’s most ubiquitous) entertainment industry. Through Hollywood, California sets standards for beauty and youth; the entertainment industry’s fixations upon those twin attributes bleeding across popular portrayals of the state.

All the news that's fit to print...

All the news that’s fit to print…

As with virtually any other facet of American life, California frequently seems to be a pioneer in healthy living. The state is associated with all sorts of healthy outdoor activity, from surfing to skating to hula hooping. Any number of health-and-beauty conscious fads and innovations can be traced back to the state; from the invention of the nicotine patch to the recent fixation upon almond consumption. California is generally regarded as a trend-setter in the area of public health, passing bike helmet laws and banning smoking in restaurants.

As such, there is an effective irony in the idea that the region’s fixation upon healthy living should actually make it the ideal stalking ground for a predator like the antagonist of Into Night. The implication seems to be that even Californian office workers are in prime physical condition; even something as innocuous as accidentally attacking an alcoholic is enough to throw the episode’s monster. There is a sense that the story of a serial killer choosing his victims for their health would not resonate as effectively if the story were set in New York or Boston.

Reflections...

Reflections…

It is not as strong a connection as the decision to base a character upon Charlie Manson in The Five People You Meet in Hell, but it does feel like a little detail that adds texture to the show’s Los Angeles setting. One of the biggest differences between Night Stalker and The X-Files or Millennium is the fact that Carl Kolchak is largely tied to a single city; it is nice to see aspects of that city inform various plot points, even in a passing (or tangential) way. Into Night is not quintessentially Californian, but it is rooted in the show’s setting.

Into Night doesn’t work as an episode of television. It feels curiously unpolished and disjointed when compared to the earlier shows. It feels like an “extra”, more of a curiosity than a finished episode. There are a lot of different pieces that might have added up to a functioning Night Stalker episode, but the connective tissue is simply not there.

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