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Night Stalker (Review)

A new version of Night Stalker from the team behind The X-Files should have been a slam dunk.

Frank Spotnitz was a veteran of The X-Files, the longest serving member of the writing team beyond Chris Carter himself. He had assembled a murderer’s row of X-Files talent. Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan were veterans of the show, producing some of the show’s best episodes. There is a strong argument to be made for either writer as the strongest staff writer on The X-Files. Spotnitz was also able to bring along Tom Schnauz, who had struggled with his scripts for Lord of the Flies and Scary Monsters, but had done great work on The Lone Gunmen.

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More than that, Spotnitz had pulled a great deal of the behind-the-scenes talent had made The X-Files such a television classic. Daniel Sackheim had directed multiple episodes of The X-Files and had been a driving creative force on Harsh Realm. Rob Bowman had graduated from television to feature films, but returned to helm the show’s second episode. Spotnitz even drafted director Tony Wharmby, who had made a great impression with episodes like Via Negativa. There was considerable talent involved in the show’s production.

On paper, Night Stalker sounds like a slam dunk. Many of the great creative minds of The X-Files offering a modern reimagining of a beloved genre property that had been a huge inspiration; for the character of Carl Kolchak, it seemed like things had come a full circle. What could possibly go wrong?

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It is tough to assign blame for Night Stalker. The default narrative in American network television is to blame the network for the failure of a show. In a way, this builds off the idea of a television producer as auteur, as an artist working with a blank canvass; any attempt to hem the artist in is treated as an attack upon the artist. Anybody with any familiarity with network television – even as an outside observer – can rhyme off dozens of stories of terrible decisions made by network executives that negatively impacted on shows that might otherwise have found an audience.

This even happens with popular and successful shows. It was ABC that decided that David Lynch should reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s murderer early in the second season of Twin Peaks. It was ABC that fired Brooke Smith from Grey’s Anatomy, which attracted considerable discussion about how networks approach gay characters. ABC even tinkered with the behind-the-scenes workings of Lost, vetoing particular script decisions. These are all popular and successful shows. Imagine what network executives do to shows that aren’t working.

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To be fair, most television viewers don’t have to imagine. They have witnessed first-hand. Given that creating television involves a massive commitment of resources, it makes sense that those committing the resources – those paying the bills and scheduling the show – should have some input into the creative process. However, those network executives seldom understand the shows in question. Consider UPN’s desire to have boy bands play on Star Trek: Enterprise or Coolio’s guest appearance on Space: Above and Beyond.

All of these horror stories explain why television networks have become convenient bogey men when it comes to television production; stories told in interviews and commentaries tend to portray network executives as lumbering giants with no real care or insight into the shows with which they tinker. After all, network executives are tasked with seeing dozens of hours of prime-time television drama or comedy each and every week. A producer is only responsible for delivering a single half-hour or hour.

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There is certainly enough blame to be apportioned to the network in the failure of Night Stalker. As with so many stories about executive meddling, it seems like the network never really understood the series. ABC made it clear to director Frank Spotnitz that they did not want a television series about monsters. They made this clear by burying the would-be second episode Into Night (about a mummifying water-sucker) in the second half of the season, replacing it with the more generic “captive serial killer” story of The Five People You Meet in Hell.

Given that ABC had commissioned Spotnitz to develop a weekly television series based upon the cult classic reporter-cum-monster-slayer, this seems like a rather odd request. Carl Kolchak had been introduced in Kolchak: The Night Stalker hunting a vampire in Las Vegas; it made sense that he might brush up against a monster or two. Even if ABC was unfamiliar with the character in question, the show’s most high-profile legacy was The X-Files, a television series which had even nicknamed its standalones as “monster of the week” episodes.

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Trying to produce a Night Stalker reboot without monsters was akin to trying to produce a Star Trek spin-off without aliens or a Law & Order series without criminals. It could probable be done, and would make for an interesting academic experiment, but it does not make for satisfying television. After all, part of the appeal of using an established brand is the idea that the brand comes with a particular set of identifiers and some internal logic. The use of a familiar (or familiar-ish) name is a promise to audiences of what they might expect.

Stripping away those identifiers (particularly a key one like “monsters”) renders the process of adaptation somewhat self-defeating. Of course, Carl Kolchak was hardly a household name, but The Night Stalker had made no small impression on pop culture. The weekly television series had lasted less than a full season, but it was reasonably well-known to a generation raised on syndication. Even if audiences did not arrive with expectations, what was the point in calling the show Night Stalker if it abandoned so many essential parts of the original’s identity?

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This identity crisis is confounded by the fact that the show struggles to figure out what to do with a show about monsters that cannot actually feature monsters. The result is a run of bland and generic episodes; it is not too hard to imagine The Five People You Meet in Hell and Burning Man reworked as episodes of a police procedural. Although there are supernatural elements in episodes like Malum and The Source, they are consciously downplayed. Even the “zombie bikers” of The Sea are much more interesting in theory than in practice.

While the “no monsters” edict is the most obvious (and explicit) example of the show changing to accommodate the whims of the network, there are several more subtle indications in the way that the episodes are edited. Quite frankly, the first six episodes of Night Stalker are not very scary, despite the fact that they deal with some pretty heavy themes. The Five People You Meet in Hell features characters murdering their own families, while Burning Man features people burning alive and Malum features a demonic child who is murdered by another child.

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However, the first six (really, eight) episodes of Night Stalker feel rather bland and generic. The show is leaden and awkward, as if desperately trying to edit any truly scary content out of the episode. The cuts are awkward and forced, particularly when it comes to delivering exposition. The flashbacks featured in Malum and The Sea feel like they are pandering to the audience, doubting the viewer’s ability to keep up with the show as it progresses. Given that Night Stalker is a horror show, it is important for the series to be scary.

(Although it is hard to blame the network for this lack of horror, it makes a certain amount of sense. The network pushed the show away from horror and towards a more conventional television drama. In contrast, the two most unsettling episodes of Night Stalker are the two most insulated from the network. The incest subtext in Timeless and the abuse subtext of What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? are more discomforting (and effective) than anything in the previous eight. In fact, the teaser to What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? is the show at its most intense.)

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These problems were compounded by the decision to schedule Night Stalker on Thursday nights with no promotion. The show was airing opposite CSI, a television juggernaut. More than that, the changes that the network made to the show only made Night Stalker seem more like a generic rip-off of CSI. Episodes like The Five People You Meet in Hell and Mallum have a very strong procedural element to them, even beyond the time that Kolchak spends in an interrogation room. Night Stalker felt like a pale imitation of the tried and tested show against which it was airing.

However, this narrative feels a little too simplistic and straightforward. The network is the default bad guy when it comes to stories about failed television shows, the production team often cast as misunderstood artists. The reality is often more complex. After all, it was NBC who had suggested to Gene Roddenberry that the crew of the Enterprise should be more racially and socially diverse, despite the myths that Roddenberry might like to spin about the production of Star Trek. Networks are not always evil and insensitive, and producers are not always artistic geniuses.

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If the “no monsters” edict is one reason why Night Stalker doesn’t feel like a true successor to the classic adventures of Carl Kolchak, there is one other major factor. Kolchak himself does not feel like a spiritual successor to his earlier self. With the casting of Stuart Townsend, the addition of a sceptical partner, and a convenient tragic back story, this version of Carl Kolchak feels a lot more like Fox Mulder as played by David Duchovny than Carl Kolchak as played by Darren McGavin. That decision was entirely down to Frank Spotnitz.

It is hard to be too harsh on Townsend, given the show wrapped after only ten episodes. It can take an actor a while to settle into a role. His work on What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? is easily his best performance as Kolchak, if not some of the best work of Townsend’s career. However, Night Stalker presents a more bland and generic version of Carl Kolchak. Spotnitz has talked about wanting to cast Ted Danson or John C. Reilly; while it could be argued that either (or both) would have been beyond the show, it still sounds much more exciting than the show as it ended up.

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Similarly, Night Stalker struggles to find its footing in those early episodes. It often feels like a pale imitation of The X-Files, but certain stylistic choices (and the lack of any true monsters) also make the show feel like a pale imitation of early Millennium. It often feels like the show lacks a distinctive voice, something that makes it stand out from the host of shows influenced by the work of Ten Thirteen. (It is particularly worth contrasting Night Stalker with other spiritual successors of The X-Files like Lost or Alias or Fringe.)

The mythology feels fairly generic. It is very familiar territory for Spotnitz, engaging with big themes of good and evil that resonate with the writer’s work on The X-Files and Millennium. However, none of it really pops out. The Pilot is simple, but effective. However, The Sea and The Source fail to make a compelling argument for Spotnitz’s vision of what the show could be. The show hints repeatedly at the idea that Carl Kolchak might be an ambiguous figure or an anti-hero, but these hints at moral complexity feel painfully dated in a post-Sopranos world.

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Again, perhaps the show was cancelled before it could really demonstrate the potential of that particular thread. What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? does a much better job of demonstrating the protagonist’s “edginess” than the blatant set up in The Sea or the laboured analogies of Burning Man. Had the rest of the first season followed the trend set by What’s the Frequency, Kolchak?, there might be a case to be made for Night Stalker as some sort of lost classic. It is very hard to judge a show after only a handful of episodes.

At the same time, Night Stalker does feel very outdated, particularly in the context of 2005. The show does engage with the politics of the time in terms of theme and content; Three is an episode that is very much about the culture of fear that existed post-9/11, while Burning Man and The Source touch on media ethics during the War on Terror. However, the show’s basic storytelling feels remarkably like that of The X-Files. There is a central mythology running through the show, but it is spread amongst standalone episodes. (“Monsters of the week”, without monsters.)

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The Pilot, The Source and The Sea are mythology episodes in the way that The X-Files had mythology episodes. There is a mythology episode opening the season, and a mythology two-parter just in time for Sweeps. While other episodes engage with Kolchak’s history – including The Five People You Meet in Hell, Into Night and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? – none of them advance the plot in any meaningful way. Even allowing for all that, the mythology-heavy episodes like The Source and The Sea feel like they are stalling (rather than advancing) the plot.

Again, Night Stalker does not fare particularly well in comparison to the other spiritual successors to The X-Files. While Lost would find itself subject to criticisms about failing to explain its central mythology, the show is careful to make sure that things are constantly moving. Even in the early episodes, before the mythology of the island is laid out, the show very consciously and carefully plays out the politics of the survivors on the island. There are recurring threads and plot beats that carry from episode to episode in a way that makes Night Stalker‘s pacing feel leaden.

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At the same time, there are some interesting ideas here. Most obviously, the final two episodes of the season are fairly strong. Timeless is a little clunky in places, but it would make a great second episode to the show. What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? is legitimately good television. Given the way that the show eventually panned out, it is impossible to know whether this improvement was evidence of a learning curve for the writing staff or simply proof that Night Stalker worked a lot better when freed of the burden of airing on ABC.

Spotnitz also does a nice job capturing a sense of place. The X-Files and Millennium offered a tour of mid-nineties America, visiting small towns and big cities to offer the breadth of the American experience. In contrast, Night Stalker is very consciously rooted in Los Angeles. The show is engaged with that particular place, making the city something of a character in the series. It helps that Spotnitz made a point to shoot the series on digital video, allowing the production team to capture the city in darkness.

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Los Angeles is a fascinating city, and Night Stalker very consciously anchors itself in the surroundings. Kolchak lives in one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. He drives his car through the desert late at night, watching the highways unfold ahead of him. The Charles Manson haunts The Five People You Meet in Hell, while the city’s social strife lingers in the background of Three. The city’s fascination with eternal youth makes it the perfect setting for a pseudo-vampire story in Timeless. It is interesting to wonder how that connection may have deepened had the show gone on.

Night Stalker is not a lost classic. In fact, it is hardly even lost; it feels like something of an incomplete monument. The DVD set features episodes that did not air on television and scripts for shows that never made it into production; Frank Spotnitz very generously discusses his plans for the show at length on the commentaries. Instead, Night Stalker feels like a rough sketch of something far more interesting. It is a ghost of The X-Files and Millennium lingering on into the twenty-first century, watching as its spiritual successors outpace it.

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