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Night Stalker – Timeless (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 unaired episodes of Night Stalker are fascinating glimpses into what the show might have been.

Into Night was the show’s original second episode, brutally shunted from its original position when ABC decided that they did not want a show focusing on monsters. The version of Into Night that appears on the DVD appears somewhat cobbled together, hastily editted in such a way as to make the show’s second episode sit as its eighth. The result feels like something of a rough cut, a glimpse at the pressures bearing down on the production team to meet various network demands.

It's dead at night in here...

It’s dead at night in here…

In contrast, Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? feels like something completely different. These are episodes that were obviously produced while Night Stalker was still airing on ABC, but which did not complete production under the network’s supervision. While Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? are ver clearly part of the same show, they feel tangibly different. The two episodes are more horrific, more confident, and less pandering than what came before.

In many respects, the two episodes suggest that Night Stalker benefits from not having to air on ABC.

My word!

My word!

There are a number of obvious differences between the last two episodes of Night Stalker and the six that aired on ABC during the initial run. The most striking is that both Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? are genuine monster stories. They remain true to the idea of monsters as metaphors established in The Pilot, but are a lot more overt in their monstrous elements than stories like The Five People You Meet in Hell or Burning Man. The monsters in both Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? are metaphors, but they are also truly monstrous.

This is most explicit in Timeless, which is very much a vampire story in all but name. It is the story a creepy and predatory immortal who sustains herself by feeding on the young. Indeed, when Marlene Shields prepares to feed upon Reed at the climax of Timeless, she removes her dentures to reveal more jagged teeth. Those teeth are undoubtedly worn down by age and time, but they do recall the fangs of a hungry vampire. So does the emphasis that Timeless puts upon Marlene’s seductive prowess, a beautiful glamourous exterior hiding a decaying husk.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

There is something decidedly primal and archetypal about Marlene Shields as she appears in Timeless. Obviously, vampires are one of the most iconic monsters in popular fiction; although they predate Bram Stoker’s masterpiece, Dracula cemented the blood-sucking undead as a monster for the ages. Carl Kolchak made his television debut in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, an adaptation of an unpublished Jeff Rice novel that found the reporter hunting a vampire in seventies Las Vegas.

It is interesting how American vampire stories seem to find themselves drawn towards California. The framing sequence of Interview with a Vampire finds the eponymous interview taking place in San Fransisco. Blacula and Blade are very clearly set in Los Angeles. The X-Files set 3, its first traditional vampire story, in Los Angeles. Scott Snyder and Rafael Abuquerque’s American Vampire toured the country, but it began with (and introduced its characters in) a story set in Los Angeles.

Momma's boy...

Momma’s boy…

In some ways, this makes sense. Los Angeles is a city with its own clear cultural markers and identifiers, which Night Stalker has repeatedly acknowledged. One of those markers, as Into Night suggested, was an obsession with health and beauty. This obsession is perfectly understandable, given Los Angeles’ status as home to the country’s entertainment industry. As Elizabeth Kaye wryly noted in Back to the Suture:

We all know that within the Industry, the battle for eternal youth is not entirely frivolous given the grim spectre of lovelessness and unemployment that underlies it. Still, there is something distinctly rotten about its basic canon – youth is good, age is bad – and the way it elevates growing old to a moral issue and defeats anyone who is not a plastic surgeon.

Youthfulness and beauty are prized qualities in Los Angeles and California as a whole. Los Angeles is a city largely defined by Hollywood, an industry that is unabashedly (and unashamedly) predicated on physical appearance. It is a city where actors seem to have to repeatedly lie about their age, for fear of being cast in “older” roles from their thirties.

Growing old disgracefully...

Growing old disgracefully…

It is no surprise that California has developed something of a reputation in fields related to eternal youth. The city is widely considered a hub of the plastic surgery industry, with the west coast accounting for the highest proportion of plastic surgery in the country according to an American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ survey in 2008. This is to say nothing of San Francisco’s flirtation with cryonics. As such, California seems like the perfect setting for a modern day vampire story, given the importance of eternal youth and immortality to the vampire legend.

(This is to say nothing of the “vampires in the desert” tendency in American vampire films, whether From Dusk to Dawn or Vampires. While these stories are not explicitly set in California, they do position the modern American vampire in the context of the western genre. In many respects, this is a very clever aesthetic contrast, putting creatures traditionally afraid of sunlight against the harsh desert terrain. However, it suggests an interesting thematic overlap, between the vampire and core American ideals.)

She's all ears...

She’s all ears…

Timeless takes these familiar elements and works with them quite skilfully, offering an effective Los Angeles vampire story.  Of course, Marlene Shields is not an actual vampire, as much as the show might code her as such. Marlene is not afraid of sunlight, and does not thirst for blood. Instead, her immortality is sustained by the consumption of her victims’ pituitary gland, playing into the old association between the pituitary gland and aging of the human body. Certainly, Marlene is a messier eater than most classy seductive vampires.

As such, Timeless is a modernised vampire story. It is a vampire story without an actual vampire. As with Into Night, there are any number of elements of Timeless that consciously recall Squeeze, The X-Files‘ very first “monster of the week” story. This is no surprise; Squeeze codified the very idea of a “monster” on The X-Files, largely by taking the concept of a vampire and swapping the dependency on blood for a dependency on something else. In Squeeze, the killer fed on livers; in Leonard Betts, the killer fed on cancer; in Teliko, as in Timeless, it’s the pituitary gland.

A face/off...

A face/off…

Timeless has other similarities to Squeeze. Timeless also features a spate of killings, split over decades; Eugene Victor Tooms waited thirty years between killings, while Marlene Shields suspends her spree for thirty-five years at a time. Much like Mulder and Scully in Squeeze, Kolchak and Reed are forced to consult with the detective who worked the previous case. While Squeeze climaxes with the killer targetting Scully in her own apartment, Timeless has Marlene invite Reed over to her house so she might feed.

As with Into Night, this reference feels somewhat cyclical. Squeeze owed a substantial debt to Kolchak: The Night Strangler, the second television film to feature Darren McGavin in the title role. In that story, Kolchak discovers a sinister serial killer who is brutally murdering young women to maintain his immortality. The Night Strangler mirrors many of the plot elements of Squeeze and Timeless; the killer even takes an extended rest (twenty-one years) between various sprees.

Old hand at this...

Old hand at this…

In some respects, then, Timeless feels like a weird hybrid of the two original Kolchak television films. In a way, this feels entirely appropriate. After all, legal technicalities meant that Night Stalker was more of a direct relative of the television films than of the television series. As Frank Spotnitz explained on the commentary to The Sea:

One common misconception is that this is a remake of The Night Stalker TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And that is not the case. ABC/Touchstone, in fact, did not have the rights to that series. It was licensed to MCA/Universal. So, I was told from the beginning, “You are not allowed to use anything that is in that TV series.” Which is a shame, because I would have liked to have used some of the characters and music, paid homage to it more directly. So this is, in fact, a TV series based on those first two movies.

Timeless plays very much as an affectionate homage to those two films, stitching together key plot elements to tell a new story. It might seem indulgent at any other point, but the first season of Night Stalker has largely struggled to connect with its roots.

Paper of record...

Paper of record…

The parallels are striking, and quite apparent to anybody who has seen the two films in question. Marlene is quite close to a vampire, with her crimes being covered up by the authorities, recalling elements of The Night Stalker. However, Marlene is also a serial killer who attacks clusters of young victims (with long periods of inactivity) in order to retain her immortality, recalling elements of The Night Strangler. As such, Timeless plays like a weird Kolchak cocktail, blending together classic elements to help tell its story.

This is just an illustration of how distinct the unaired episodes of Night Stalker feel when compared the six episodes that were broadcast on ABC. The first six episodes of Night Stalker struggled to find a unique identity for the show, trying to find a distinctive voice for the horror series. It seems like a lot of the problems were down to a difficulty defining what exactly the network wanted from Night Stalker. Freed of the burden of network expectations, the series’ sense of identity becomes a lot stronger.

X-Ray of hope?

X-Ray of hope?

This is even true of Into Night, which is a disjointed and messy episode that nevertheless seems to understand what it wants to be. Taken together, Into Night, Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? tease something of an alternative to the version of Night Stalker that aired on ABC. They are not so much a continuation of the series that chose to follow The Pilot with The Five People You Meet in Hell, instead offering another take on the same basic ideas. The untelevised episodes play almost like a retool.

It is difficult to know exactly how far Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? were through production when ABC stopped caring about the show. It seems likely that the scripts were at least vetted by the network, and that some of the show’s production was guided by the network’s expectations. However, it seems quite clear that the final cuts of these last two episodes were fashioned without the input of the network. The shows likely made it through some measure of post-production without interference.

Going Psycho...

Going Psycho…

Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? are a lot scarier than any of the six episodes that made it to air. It feels like these episodes have been spared the cuts made by network executives and broadcast standards and practices. There is less clunky exposition, less drag as the characters explain and repeat the plot. The horrific scenes are edited in a way that makes them more intense and more terrifying, more visceral and more discomforting. In some respects, Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? recall the grimy horror of The X-Files.

This rawness is particularly notable in Timeless, with the episode offering some pretty heavy incest-related subtext to the mother-son relationship between Marlene and Aaron Shields. The tension between the two is quite obvious early on, when Aaron seems deeply uncomfortable with his mother dating another man. It becomes even more intense in a later scene as Marlene tries to sooth her son. There is more than one moment when it looks like the mother-son cuddling is about to turn into something more unsettling.

Mother knows best...

Mother knows best…

Incest is a deeply unsettling topic. It is also a subject with which network television has been historically (and understandably) uncomfortable. There are a handful of exceptions, of course; the resolution of Laura Palmer’s murder on Twin Peaks focused on the abuse she received from her father, while Lost revealed in incestuous relationship between brother and sister Boone and Shannon. Although, as Damon Lindelof conceded to USA:

“Our approach to that relationship was really inspired, oddly, by The Brady Bunch,” wrote Lindelof. “Boone was Greg, Shannon was Marsha and everybody knows that, left to their own devices, those two would totally do it. ABC was surprisingly cool with that episode … they found it a little icky, but they liked the idea that Boone was legitimately in love with Shannon and romantically jealous of her affection for Sayid [Naveen Andrews] as opposed to just expressing a desire to ‘protect’ her, which was kinda dull. It also didn’t seem that weird considering that they’d only been stepsiblings for a couple of years prior to the crash … It’s not like they grew up together.”

However, it is worth noting that Lost was very much successful enough to get away with a minimum of network meddling. (Even allowing for that, ABC had urged the producers to tone down on the genre elements going into the second season, and it is worth noting that Boone was killed off in the show’s twentieth episode, somewhat truncating that plot thread.)

Nightmares...

Nightmares…

Although ABC had broadcast the television movie Something About Amelia in 1984, the production process involved a long and tough battle with the network censors about what could or could not be shown. During his Elton H. Rule Lecture, producer Len Goldberg recalled his debates with Al Schneider, head of ABC’s Programme Practices, about how to frame the television movie:

“Okay, I know you, I trust you. I agree with you; it’s an important subject to explore. But only under certain conditions. You have to hire a recognised authority in the field to work with our authorities to be sure we do this in a valid manner. I won’t allow you to show incest on the screen. Worse yet, I won’t all you to see the father walk into the bedroom and close the door behind him, which is, I think, worse.”

This is how tetchy network television was when it came to an “important” treatment of incest. It seems quite likely a pulpier portrayal of incest on a less-than-popular show would find itself under a great deal of scrutiny. After all, Fox was more comfortable with Chris Carter’s “worthy” portrayal of incest in The Well-Worn Lock than they were with Glen Morgan and James Wong’s use of incest in Home, the episode of The X-Files famously pulled from syndication.

Something's rotten here...

Something’s rotten here…

(It should be noted that network television seems to have become a lot more relaxed in portrayals of incest in the years since, perhaps spurred by the success of cable broadcasters with the device in shows like Rome or Game of Thrones. In fact, recent years have seen quite a few reviewers and commentators decrying the sheer volume of incest appearing on American television. However, it is worth noting that Night Stalker feels curiously old-fashioned rather than cutting edge; it harks back to the nineties more than it calls to the future.)

This incestuous subtext is wonderfully unsettling, allowing Timeless to feel much edgier than it might otherwise be. It is certainly more uncomfortable than anything Night Stalker has done to this point. It is worth comparing the handling of infanticide in Malum to the portrayal of incest in Timeless. The broadcast cut at Malum goes out of its way to render the murder of a young child as inoffensively as possible, while even the implication of an untoward mother-son relationship in Timeless is more horrifying than anything else in the episode.

Lipstickin' it to the man...

Lipstickin’ it to the man…

After all, a lot of horror is less about what is actually portrayed than how that same thing is portrayed. It is easy to underestimate the importance of editing and framing in making something scary, in allowing the audience’s imagination to render them complicit in the horror. The first six episodes of Night Stalker are terrible at providing those sorts of scares, relying too heavily on exposition and dialogue; in contrast, both Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? are willing to let their horrors remain murkier and more ambiguous.

It is hard to say whether this improvement is directly a result of not having to pass the final cut of the episode through the network executives. Those sort of changes are often hard to quantify, with the addition of a line of exposition or the trim of a second of footage drastically altering the entire mood of an episode. It is entirely possible that Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? are just better episodes because the production team have had more time to acclimatise to the show and find their feet. These things are hard to measure.

It chives with the archives...

It chives with the archives…

That is not to say that Timeless is a perfect episode, by any measure. There are a number of clunky storytelling choices involved. Most obviously, the decision to have Reed identify with the first victim feels a little forced. The episode is trying to reinforce the sense of disconnect and anomie that runs through Night Stalker, but there’s never enough time to forge that meaningful identifications. As a result, it seems like Reed is identifying the victim based on little more than the fact that they are both attractive young professional women.

Night Stalker has had a great deal of difficulty defining its central cast. Kolchak might be a little mentally unstable, but that’s the closest thing that any of the primary cast members has to a personality at this point. Jain is largely redundant, Vincienzo is mostly used for exposition or plot expedience. Reed is the show’s second lead, but she lacks any real defining characteristics. Allowing her to identify with a victim is a nice way to develop her character, but Timeless seems to suggest that Reed’s character amounts to “attractive young professional woman.”

Reed-ing too much into it?

Reed-ing too much into it?

(Similarly, the climax of the episode feels rather dramatically unsatisfying, putting Reed at Marlene’s mercy so that Aaron can have a change of heart and kill his mother. It very much feels like Marlene and Aaron are the protagonists of Timeless, rather than Kolchak and Reed. Indeed, Kolchak does very little to actually advance the plot, beyond poking Aaron to action and providing exposition. This would not be as big an issue if Kolchak and Reed were more firmly defined.)

Still, allowing for these issues, Timeless feels like a more successful first season episode than any episode since The Pilot. Cementing the sense that these “leftover” episodes are more of an alternate first season than a continuation of the first season that aired on ABC, both Into Night and Timeless make a point to broaden the show’s ensemble by providing Kolchak with two potentially recurring resources. It is fun to imagine a longer-running Night Stalker that had time to make Jane Lynch’s scientist and Stephne Tobolowski’s archivist repeat players.

Oh, mother...

Oh, mother…

Timeless is perhaps the show’s strongest episode to this point, suggesting that Night Stalker actually benefited from no longer having to air on ABC.

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3 Responses

  1. I don’t know where to ask this, but will you be reviewing more DC comics and other media for the release of Superman v. Batman?

    • No worries. I am trying to build up a reserve of reviews for Batman/Superman. I’m thinking about doing Knightfall arc-by-arc. But time is ticking away. I’ve had a busy few months, and I’d want to do it right. I suspect you’ll see a handful of reviews, if not quite one-a-day. (Maybe two or three a week, but that’s a high estimate.)

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