August 2005

Kolchak Is Back!
Media Commentary By John Kenneth Muir

John K. Muir's Encyclopedia of Superheroes was picked by NY Public Libraries as a Top Ten Reference Work for 2004/5

Remakes are definitely the rage these days, from the world of the cathode ray tube to the silver screen. Just last year, the Sci Fi Channel "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica and the BBC unwrapped a re-do ofDoctor Who. Today, there's another interesting remake on the horizon for autumn, 2005. X-Files producers Frank Spotnitz and Daniel Sackheim will present a prime-time remake of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75) this season for ABC, to air on Wednesdays as a companion to the blockbuster Lost. This news is perhaps the most supreme of ironies, since X-Files creator Chris Carter has often stated that Kolchak was the inspiration for the adventures of Mulder and Scully in the first place. Now, to quote a certain Sith Lord, that circle is complete.

The original Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a spin-off from two highly-rated TV movies of the early 1970s, The Night Stalker (by Jeff Rice) and its sequel, The Night Strangler. In both movies and the TV series, a down-on-his-luck reporter, Carl Kolchak—played by the amazing Darren McGaven—would repeatedly encounter, investigate, and combat supernatural creatures such as vampires, werewolves, succubi, and the like while feverishly writing breathless stories for a seedy wire service at the INS building in metropolitan Chicago. The series bowed on Friday the 13th of September, 1974 (the same night, incidentally, that the TV spin-off of Planet of the Apes also began its brief run). Sadly, the series garnered lackluster ratings and lasted a meager twenty episodes, but it has had an amazing after-life and still occasionally airs on the Sci-Fi Channel schedule. I, for one, await my DVD box set...

Anyway, the Night Stalker series was a freaky and amusing roller coaster ride, simultaneously odd, campy, and more than a little compelling. Supported by Darren McGavin's lunatic performance, it's still a gutsy, go-for-the-throat viewing experience. Although Stephen King slammed the series in his book 1981 book Danse Macabre (on page 237), noting that he suspected "people tuned in" because they "couldn't believe how bad this thing was, and kept tuning in on successive nights to make sure that their eyes had not deceived them," others have assessed it far more kindly. Some even consider it a classic. "The series brims with ideas and was ahead of its time in many respects," TV Zone noted in November 1992, while critic David Bianculli of The New York Post enthused that Kolchak was "sort of like Sam Donaldson as a ghostbuster."

What I always admired (and still do...) about Kolchak: The Night Stalker was the lead character's persistence; he was eternally a man fighting City Hall. Lest one forget, the series aired in the aftermath of Watergate, when Washington Post investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein were still considered national heroes, and so this funny little investigative reporter represented the best qualities of journalism. Kolchak was determined to uncover the truth and report it, often over the objections of the rich and powerful. Nearly every episode featured a clash between Kolchak and some authority figure, whether it be a police captain or a city politician or...a vampire, and I just loved that. We need more journalists like him today.

The series was also a lot of fun because Kolchak—even though he was the central figure of the series—was essentially a coward when confronted with the monster of the week. Audiences had little reason to assume his competence killing monsters, so things were always a little...hairy. In the episode "Zombie," for instance, Kolchak had to crawl his way out of a station wagon in an auto salvage yard, pour salt into the mouth of a slumbering Haitian zombie, and sew up the ghoul's mouth. Well, about half-way through this procedure, the zombie awoke. After this jolt, Carl screamed and retreated, running for his life and totally unable to complete the task. That was the beauty and terror of Kolchak: the Night Stalker. He was just an average Joe dealing with extraordinary and scary things.

The new Kolchak drops the character's name from the series' title and will star handsome (and slightly conventional...) Stuart Townsend as this beloved reporter. It will give him a female partner named Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union), and also a complex back-story. It seems that Kolchak's wife died about 18 months ago under mysterious (read: supernatural) circumstances and now the F.B.I. considers Kolchak the prime suspect. For Carl's part, he is certain that a supernatural conspiracy is afoot, and is determined to expose it.

In one respect, it's disappointing the new series is establishing a back mythology for a character so many people already dearly love. Kolchak doesn't need a back-story. An unfortunate element of current Hollywood (TV and film) is this obsessive need to put every story element into an easily-understandable box. With rare exceptions, like the marvelous Lost, productions these days take no chances that something might be left ambiguous. So today, viewers must understand precisely why Kolchak hunts supernatural creatures, and why this task is personally important to him. I appreciated the original concept when it was more like life— utterly random and totally inexplicable. Kolchak could happen around a corner and meet a succubus, so big deal! Who knew why it was happening? Pat psychological explanations are boring and contrived, in my humble opinion.

Yet, I do understand why Spotnitz and Sackheim have selected this route. The conspiracy backdrop worked splendidly on The X-Files, and viewers today expect an overall story arc rather than stand-alone, "monster of the week" stories. As the original was a product of its context—the disco decade—so is this Night Stalker part and parcel of our current era. For me, the show will be a marvelous success if it simply succeeds on one front. I want it to return serious, scary entertainment to television. I miss The X-Files and the chills it generated so purposefully and artistically every Sunday. I'll give this new Night Stalker the benefit of the doubt, but only if it tells dramatizes good, frightening stories, and gives audiences a bad case of the creepy crawlies.

So let's tentatively welcome Stuart Townsend to the Kolchak party, even though Darren McGavin will be missed. I just hope that the producers remember why the press is important in modern America. Kolchak could teach reporters (especially those in the White House Press Corps...) a lesson or two about investigating monsters.