Friday, January 7, 2011
The X-Files Before The X-Files
It's a long-standing tradition within the entertainment industry that when something is a hit--be it a novel, a TV show, or a movie--it should be ripped off repeatedly until it no longer generates a profit. In this post, I'm talking about The X-Files, which was a surprise sci-fi/horror hit for the Fox network back in the 90s. Shortly after it proved to be consistently popular, the other networks (and even Fox itself) tried to ride The X-Files wave of popularity by airing similar shows, shows such as Dark Skies, Prey, Mysterious Ways, Freaky Links, and Special Unit 2.
When asked about where he got his inspiration for The X-Files, show creator Chris Carter would often cite Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which aired on ABC during the 1974-75 season, as his show's direct spiritual predecessor. However, there were quite a few shows that pre-date The X-Files' premiere in 1993 that could have also served as its inspiration (and probably did). These shows featured a duo of some kind--male and female, or believer and skeptic, or both--and their adventures as they explore the strange, the scary and the supernatural on a weekly basis. Read on to learn more about five of these shows, listed according to the number of episodes produced (from lowest number to highest).
1. Title: Something Is Out There
Air Dates: 1988 - 1989
Number of Episodes Produced: A 2 part, 4 hour miniseries, followed by 8 episodes
Basic Premise: A rugged human cop Jack Breslin (Joseph Cortese) and a blond female alien Ta'Ra (Maryam d'Abo) explore the strange, the scary and the supernatural on a weekly basis.
Background: Like Kolchak, Something Is Out There started as a one-shot TV event that was later turned into a weekly TV show. Unlike Kolchak, Something Is Out There lacked a clear creative direction as a series that led to its quick cancellation, the fastest cancellation of all the shows featured on this list.
Something Is Out There was originally a TV miniseries that aired on NBC during May of 1988. It was about an insectoid, parasitic alien that was on a killing spree in Los Angeles, and the good, human-looking alien Ta'Ra and the human cop Breslin who team up to stop the bad alien. In short, Something Is Out There was a rip off of The Hidden, which touches of Alien and the 1982 version of The Thing thrown in for added effect. Nevertheless, what Something Is Out There lacked in comparison to The Hidden (namely, Jack Sholder's creative direction, a witty script by Jim Kouf, and a great cast headlined by Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Nouri), it made up for with some pretty decent kill scenes and an impressive alien parasite design by special effects wizard Rick Baker. As a result, the miniseries was a ratings hit, which prompted NBC to order a full series to be produced for the following TV season.
Unfortunately, with such a quick demand for a TV series and a limited budget to use, the folks behind Something Is Out There had no idea where to go next with its stories and characters. Early episodes featured Ta'Ra and Breslin investigating crimes that were unusual and vaguely supernatural, but that wasn't enough to draw much of a following. Unfortunately, by the time the series revisited the original storyline about aliens invading Earth in the eighth episode, the series was cancelled.
Available on DVD?: No, but you can watch the original miniseries and the 8 episodes on YouTube.
Trivia: Something Is Out There's creator Frank Lupo is no stranger to sci-fi and horror TV. His credits include Painkiller Jane, Werewolf, The Greatest American Hero, and the original Battlestar Galactica. Furthermore, for as derivative as it is of The Hidden, the Something Is Out There miniseries is vastly superior to the straight-to-video sequel The Hidden 2, one of the worst sequels ever made.
2. Title: Shadow Chasers
Air Dates: 1985 - 1986
Number of Episodes Produced: 14 episodes
Basic Premise: A stuffy British anthropology professor Jonathan MacKensie (Trevor Eve) and wisecracking tabloid reporter Edgar "Benny" Benedek (Dennis Dugan) explore the strange, the scary and the supernatural on a weekly basis.
Background: Given its deliberate sense of silliness, it could be argued that Shadow Chasers was produced to cash in on the popularity of Ghostbusters. Whereas X-Files used the conflict between skepticism and faith as a recurring source of character drama, Shadow Chasers used this conflict as the source of cheeky banter and absurd humor. Unfortnately, this show had two things going against it:
1. While ABC may have supported this series to cash in on Ghostbusters' popularity, Shadow Chasers just wasn't Ghostbusters.
2. Horror and sci-fi TV series frequently fail on mainstream network TV here in the U.S., so ABC's early cancellation a sci-fi/horror/comedy hybrid show such as Shadow Chasers was no surprise.
Nevertheless, for a show that didn't take itself too seriously, its episodes featured a pretty impressive roster of monsters such as killer plants, ghosts, zombies, witches, and aliens.
Available on DVD?: No, but you can watch video files of the show on the Shadow Chasers fan site.
Trivia: Believe it or not, this show was co-created by none other than Kenneth Johnson, the producer of memorable sci-fi TV projects such as V, The Incredible Hulk, and the TV version of Alien Nation.
3. Title: She-Wolf of London (a.k.a. Love and Curses)
Air Dates: 1990 - 1991
Number of Episodes Produced: 20 episodes
Basic Premise: A female American student-turned-werewolf Randi Wallace (Kate Hodge) and a male British professor Dr. Ian Matheson (Neil Dickson) explore the strange, the scary and the supernatural on a weekly basis while searching for a cure to end Randi's lycanthropy.
Background: Like Shadow Chasers, She-Wolf of London dealt with monsters and the supernatural in a more lighthearted way--think of a cross between Moonlighting and An American Werewolf in London. This series got off to a promising start, with 14 episodes shot in England. Unfortunately, production complications forced the series to relocate to Los Angeles and assume the new title Love and Curses. The re-titled series only lasted for an additional 6 episodes.
Then again, it probably didn't help that She-Wolf of London was part of the Hollywood Premiere Network, a package of syndicated programming produced by Universal Television that included two other shows. The Hollywood Premiere Network package was picked up by a very small number of syndicated TV channels, which ultimately led to its demise. After its cancellation, episodes of She-Wolf of London were broadcast on the then Sci-Fi Channel in the U.S. and on Sky One in the U.K. Because of this overdue shift in its distribution, She-Wolf of London probably got more viewers and better ratings after its cancellation than during its original broadcast under the Hollywood Premiere Network banner.
Available on DVD?: Yes.
Trivia: She-Wolf of London is also the title of a 1946 horror/mystery movie that, oddly enough, does not feature a werewolf. The series’ creators, Mick Garris and Tom McLoughlin, have done their fair share of horror and sci-fi movie and TV projects: Garris was involved with Masters of Horror, The Fly 2, Critters 2, and various Stephen King adaptations, such as The Stand, Desperation and Riding the Bullet, while McLoughlin contributed his talents to One Dark Night and Friday the 13th (Part VI of the movies and a few episodes of the TV series).
4. Title: Sapphire and Steel
Air Dates: 1979 - 1982
Number of Episodes Produced: 34 TV episodes, 15 audio plays
Basic Premise: Two "interdimensional operatives" Sapphire (first played by Joanna Lumley for TV, then played by Susannah Harker for the audio plays) and Steel (first played by David McCallum, then by David Warner) explore the strange, the scary and the supernatural in multi-episode adventures.
Background: Of all of the series featured on this list, Sapphire and Steel is unmistakably the oddest. Whereas The X-Files often featured situations and beings of extraterrestrial or supernatural origin, Sapphire and Steel featured obtuse stories that focused on time and time travel and many of the strange, abstract phenomena associated with such issues, such as temporal ghosts and pocket universes. It was also the most moody and mysterious series on this list--even more so than The X-Files itself--due in no small part because the title characters are just as enigmatic as the incidents they investigate. If X-Files fans had the question of "When will they?" for Scully and Mulder, then fans had the question of "What are they?" for Sapphire and Steel. Their origins were never specified; they weren't aliens per se, but they certainly weren't human either despite their outward appearances.
Other notable traits of Sapphire and Steel were that the stories take place in a very limited number of locations, and there were little to no special effects used in any of the episodes. This series heavily relied on clever writing, inventive camera work, and performances from the cast when telling its stories, and Sapphire and Steel delivered the goods in spades in each of these areas during the length of its run.
Available on DVD?: Yes.
Trivia: Sapphire and Steel has an amazing pedigree. Its creator P.J. Hammond has contributed his writing talents to shows such as Midsomer Murders, Torchwood, The Bill and Wycliffe. Even though she is largely known for her role in Absolutely Fabulous, Joanna Lumley has been involved in various fantasy, horror and sci-fi titles such as The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The New Avengers, James and the Giant Peach and Corpse Bride. David McCallum is currently on the hit CBS series NCIS and he has appeared in many sci-fi TV series throughout his career, including VR.5, Babylon 5, The Invisible Man, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
5. Title: Friday the 13th: The Series
Air Dates: 1987 - 1990
Number of Episodes Produced: 72 episodes
Basic Premise: Cousins Micki Foster (Louise Robey) and Ryan Dallion (John D. LeMay) explore the strange, the scary and the supernatural on a weekly basis as they search to return cursed antiques that were sold at their late uncle's store. (Product recalls can be a bitch, can't they?)
Background: Even though this syndicated series shares some narrative traits with The X-Files, it's more of a precursor to Warehouse 13, since each of the episodes deal with some kind of cursed object that has either has the power to kill or the ability to convince/require its owners to kill. It was also more violent and gory than most hour-long shows of its time.
Of the series on this list, Friday the 13th was the most commercially successful and was able to conjure up three seasons worth of possessed, killer antiques. You can check out this fan site for a complete list of episodes and the evil antiques they featured.
Available on DVD?: Yes.
Trivia: Even though this TV series shared its title with the slasher film series of the same name--they even shared the same producer, Frank Mancuso, Jr.--the commonalities between the two series largely end there. Mancuso has also produced the Species series of movies. One of the episodes, "Faith Healers", was directed by none other than horror legend David Cronenberg.