Carl Kolchak is a bit of a god to me, and has been since I met him in the early 1970s. ABC is making a new version of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” and I am very keen to see it, but the girl at ABC says the ABC pilots (unlike the CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and WB pilots) have not quite yet gone out to radio and online press (that’s putting us in our place, by grouping Ain’t It Cool with radio!), even though “Stalker” is all over the Bittorrents and has been for weeks.
Young Warren Ellis, who created “The Authority” and “Global Frequency” (among many other fine things), is a bit of a god to me. My favorite comic-book author not named Alan Moore. He’s more than a bit of a god to “Buffy” creator Joss Whedon, and you’ll learn more of this in about two weeks, O my brothers.
Would it not be cool, then, if Warren Ellis were to somehow review the pilot of ABC’s new “Night Stalker”?
Oh! Hey! What’s this?
Meant to mention that I saw the pilot of the NIGHT STALKER remake over the weekend.
THE NIGHT STALKER was originally a TV movie written by Richard Matheson, based upon the novel THE KOLCHAK PAPERS by Jeff Rice, and starring Darren McGavin. It was the most-watched TV movie ever, of its time.
(And they still say genre stuff doesn't work on American TV.)
There was a sequel, also written by Matheson, THE NIGHT STRANGLER. They were terrific pieces of television. Matheson was a fine writer, and McGavin, then some fifty years old and mostly doing bitparts and failed shows echoing his previous status as a TV star (70-some episodes of MIKE HAMMER and the like), caught a new lease of life as the rumpled, funny, stubborn and slighty sleazy Carl Kolchak. (Pronounced Coal-Shack, kinda).
It turned into a TV show that only ran one season, featuring McGavin but without Matheson. It was broadly dissed as a "monster of the week" show, and the contortions the show took to get Kolchak into different locales to offset this got faintly ridiculous -- I remember one set on a cruise ship. But McGavin was always a watchable actor, and the show is remembered fondly by some.
Darren McGavin appears in the pilot: the McGavin of THE NIGHT STALKER is CGI'd into the newsroom of the paper the 2005 version is working for. Three seconds. McGavin unfolds his arms, gives that easy, knowing grin. In those three seconds, sadly, he's a more interesting presence than Stuart Townsend as Carl Kolchak.
Townsend isn't a bad actor. He's playing it flat because the new version of Kolchak isn't an unlucky journalist falling foul of the fantastic. The new version is a man on a mission. His wife -- and we're treated to a flashback of them as the most charmless married couple ever -- was eaten by The Supernatural, and the FBI (?) fingered him for the crime. They couldn't prove it, but they still like him for it, and his mission is to find the Spooky Toothy Stuff that really did eat his wife and unborn child. He uses his role as a journalist to investigate the fantastic, which, it seems, the FBI Man In Black covers up just as soon as Kolchak puts a light on it. So he's pursuing Kolchak for the crime he thinks Kolchak committed, except that he's in charge of covering up the things that might prove Kolchak didn't commit the crime. With me so far? Gooood.
THE NIGHT STALKER was one of Chris Carter's inspirations for THE X-FILES. As you can see, Frank Spotnitz, one of Carter's longterm partners on THE X-FILES, is the showrunner of THE NIGHT STALKER.
Spotnitz clearly sees the "monster of the week" trap, and is building in an overarching storyarc for the series, the suggestion of what Joss Whedon fans would call "the Big Bad" and what videogamers would call "the level boss". The foundations are laid down pretty sloppily, without any focus, but that might work to Spotnitz' advantage later on. On the other hand, "all these people were killed by the same thing and have the same mark. Except they probably weren't, and some of them don't" is really just asking for a slapping. We come away thinking that either Kolchak is a whackjob or that the writer is.
My copy's very dark -- I don't know if it was shot that dark, but it seems to be several degrees over the line from "using the dark to make things scary" and well into "I can't see a fucking thing" territory. When the light's let in, the attack sequences are actually pretty sharply done, if overlong and given to a couple of clanging fucking cliches that five minutes' extra thought would have gotten rid of -- if as many people died in showers as they do on TV, they'd be fucking banned by now.
But, Christ, the thing's flat. Emotionally dead Carl Kolchak, lumbered with a backstory that the original TV movies never needed to make them magnetic pieces of television, is just not a watchable character to me. Given the backstory, the portrayal makes sense -- and, you know, this is all just my opinion, you may well disagree and be perfectly right to do so. Maybe TV really is ready for a character whose most dramatic expression is a wan half-smile.
(No, I tell a lie. He gives a sardonic laugh when he learns the young black woman he tricked out of a story is the senior crime reporter on the paper he's just joined. Yeah. Nice touch, guys.)
But even when they give Townsend (two) cocky lines, he dials down the delivery. He slides much more easily into occasional moments of quiet malice, which makes me wonder if Townsend isn't just seriously miscast. There's no reason why they should have gone for a McGavin Mk 2, but he's just not funny when the dialogue says he is.
A friend of mine in the TV business said that Michael Madsen should have been Kolchak. Wouldn't that have been brilliant?
There's no life to him. Pick your reasons as to why, but it was really kind of tough to sit through 44 minutes of of this blank, characterless, mumbling lead. The dialogue was perfectly serviceable without ever once lifting up off the ground. With people like Aaron Sorkin, David Milch and David Chase (one of whose first jobs was as a staff writer on, yes, THE NIGHT STALKER) working in TV, you'd think the bar had been clearly raised just a little higher -- that it was okay now to have people speak well, with rhythms and sparks. Especially newspaper people.
I really wanted to like this. I was really up for seeing Jeff Rice's shit-out-of-luck reporter reimagined for 2005 television, with all the sophistication and accumulated skills and freedoms that connotes. But this is just dead. It's a damned shame. Being a pilot, the next episode could be radically different, and I'll watch it. But I don't hold out a lot of hope.
On the other hand, they did at least get it on the air, unlike another genre show based on printed fiction that I could name. So fair play to them for having the gift and cleverness to get a piece of strange on the air.
In other news, I caught the new STARGATE SG-1. Him from FARSCAPE is in it, playing a confused pilot. I spent the whole episode feeling sorry for the poor bastard actor. And her from FARSCAPE is in it, dressed as a 90s porn star. Which was, you know, okay.
(Herc? You can have this if you want it, usual copyright notes apply, and a link to warrenellis.com would be nice.)