Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"SeaQuest": Sci-Fi TV's Acquatic Classic

SeaQuest has become a cult-classic.

But getting there wasn't all that easy.

The first-run plight of show, which originally aired for a few seasons on NBC in the mid-1990s, may be compared to a man overboard, with multiple personalities, drowning without a life jacket:

Confused. Gasping for air. For anything thrown at him to save his hide. No matter what comes his way, he can't hold on. He loses his grip. He tries to stay afloat, but his nerves get the best of him. He becomes desperate for survival. Manic. Panic sets in. He makes all the wrong moves, instead of the right one. Whatever hope he has to stay afloat soon escapes him. The more he moves, the swifter he sinks, drowns...in a pool of his own impatience. Had he kept his head, remained calm, and confident that he would be saved, he would have be able to think clearly. Had his course of action remained steady, he would have moved full speed ahead. Instead, he loses his way, and perishes, never to be found again...except on some deserted island where he becomes worshiped by a small band of eccentric natives.

In like manner, SeaQuest took a no-expense-paid cruise, and ended-up paying through the nose. It started out strong, but lost its compass. Too many cooks were hired to fry the catfish. The ratings suffered. Big-time. The producers became desperate, lost faith in their ideas, and threw whatever they could in to making the show work..to save it. It became a hodge-podge of winning concepts. But mixed together, it was a lost cause, with multiple, though useless, functions. The changes were manic. Too much to swallow. SeaQuest suffocated in a sea of too many ideas. Too many DeLouises from one Dom. It reached for whatever might keep it above water. It's like someone unplugged the cork at the center of the sub. It sunk. No one paid attention to the simplest, yet most essential answer: they should have bailed out, as soon as possible. Cut the losses. Or stopped changing to please others. They should have believed in the initial concept. Remained consistent. But no one saw the forest through the seas. The show tunneled itself into the abyss of lost classics, 20,000 leaks under the TV.

In the end, SeaQuest failed, though not from lack of trying. Just focus.

It all looked good from the dock of the bay. It was Flipper meets Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. On Sunday nights. Just like the old days. Spielberg does Roddenberry, under water. Not Star, but Sea. No Trek, but Quest. Trek's Wesley becomes SQ teen-heartthrob Jonathan Brandis (who committed suicide in 2004) as Lucas. Trek's Dr. Crusher becomes Dynasty II: The Colby's British Stephanie Beacham. Trek's Kirk becomes Roy Schieder, and all that jazz, er, Jaws...light vs. Superman. Lois & Clark be specific...on ABC. Terri Hatcher vs. SQ's Staci Haiduk. Both vs. Angela Lansbury on CBS. But Mrs. Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, wins.

Yet all are renewed.

Ground control to major disaster...in the ratings. Except for Murder. She still writes big ticket. SQ's budget gets bigger. Demographics get higher. But ratings still low. More sci-fi plots. Blow up ship. Redesign. Entire show. Rename title. Change cast. Alter uniforms. Remix music. Move to Florida. Scheider's had it. Bring in Michael Ironside. Focus still murky. All three years. Manic changes. Appears desperate. Save the whales? Or the universe? Keep Darwin? No matter. Watership down. Audience at bay. Dive. Dive. Dive. Cancelled. Lost at sea, though still loved by hardcore fans, surfers, now on the Web.

1993: Big year for Sci-Fi TV. Deep Space Nine. Babylon 5. Time Trax. Lois & Clark. SeaQuest DSV, created by Spielberg and Rockne O'Bannon (Alien Nation, New Twilight Zone). After the pilot's second draft, and after hiring the staff to run the series (including producer Tommy Thompson), O'Bannon steps away to other projects. On the heels of Spielberg's success with the big-screen Jurassic Park, Sunday, September 12, 1993, 8PM SQ debuts, directed by Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back helmer Irvin Kershner. Viewers initially hooked by promos touting the Spielberg connection, but he's really not there. He's still too busy with promoting Park and Schinder's List.

But at least the special effects are awesome. An actual model of the ship is never created. It's all done with computer graphics. There are three Darwins - like there were two Darrins on Bewitched. But Darwin's theory doesn't hold up.

The series is budgeted at 1.3 million per episode.

It has familiarity written all over it. The entire concept screams Star Trek, submerged, with a twist of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. And that's what O'Bannon is specifically instructed to do. To make SQ, ST. And he really didn't want to come aboard, but when Spielberg calls, you answer.

In the meantime, there were separate agendas that needed to be catered to:

On the heels (if a decade or so before) of his not-so-well-received Amazing Stories, Spielberg was desperate for a TV hit.

Universal was longing to return to the glory days of its previous dramatic (Columbo, The Rockford Files) and sci-fi (anything Bionic) TV hits of the past.

NBC's Warren Littlefield needed to have a big hit under his wings.All of it mingled with shades of Trek should have spelled HIT. And with a commitment for 22 episodes, they couldn't miss.
But they did.

So whereas Trek had the United Federation of Planets, SeaQuest has the United Earth Organizations (i.e. UEO). But part of Spielberg's idea had to do with presenting a positive vision of the future...detailing how technology could allow humanity to not be chicken of the sea.

Unfortunately, from this perspective, storytelling became a problem.

The problem was, there was no conflict.

Fortunately, into the mix, swims Darwin, the talking dolphin, who squeals into the hearts of former Flipper fans.

But generally, the story(bored) went like this:

SeaQuest DSV, short for Deep Sea Vehicle (and reminiscent of Deep Space Nine?) is set in the year 2019, a time when underwater colonies and research outposts populate the oceans. The world's nations, as we know them today, no longer exist. A war occurred at the onslaught of the new millennium, and a new world order was created, producing a number of international confederations in the place of nations. World peace is now maintained by the UEO, which has the blessing of all the International Confederations. The crown jewel of the UEO's fleet is the SeaQuest. The big boat is a 1000-foot long submarine that is the most advanced design in the world.

Although it's a military vehicle armed with the latest in high-tech weaponry, its primary mission is one of ocean exploration. Roy Schieder, of Speilberg's JAWS fame, takes the helm as Captain Nathaniel Hal Bridger (a three-namer reminiscent of Captain James Tiberious Kirk?). Bridges is the maverick scientist who created the massive sub in the first place.

Others aboard:

Don Franklin as Commander Jonathan Ford, the ship's first officer. He was to have been the ship's captain until circumstances forced Bridger to be coaxed out of retirement (can anyone say Star Trek: The Motion Picture?).

Stephanie Beacham played Dr. Kristine Westphalen, the ship's doctor and head of the scientific team. A friendship between her and Bridger may have eventually led to romance had she not left the ship at the end of the first season (can anyone say sexual tension between Trek's Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher?).

Stacy Haiduk as hottie Lt. Commander Hitchcock, the ship's second officer, and the ex-wife of the SeaQuest's morale officer, Lt. Ben Krieg, played by John D'Aquino. As a result, Hitchcock and Krieg often find it hard to work together. In addition to being the ship's morale officer, Krieg always seems to have some scheme in motion to make money (and it's not always in compliance with regulations).

Royce D. Applegate as Chief Manilow Crocker, the SQ's head of security and an old friend of Bridger's (and very similar in look and sound to Scotty from Trek).

Ted Raimi (brother to Sam) as Lt. Tim O’Neill, the ship's communication officer who is fluent in many languages (and who reminds many viewers of Data from Trek).

Marco Sanchez as Michael Ortiz, the ship's sensor chief.

Two of the most popular personas on the show: Jonathan Brandis as Lucas Wolenczak and his mammal confident, Darwin, the talking dolphin.

Lucas is a teen techno-wizard/computer genius who often ends up saving the day. Fortunately for the rest of the crew there are some things that he knows nothing about which allows them at least a chance to provide functions. But one of the first things Lucas is able to do is create is a device allowing people to talk to Darwin. More or less abandoned by his parents, Lucas has in many respects become the adopted son of Bridger, whose own son died. (Ironically, Brandis made his acting debut in Poor Little Rich Girl, with Charlie's top Angel Farrah Fawcett. And in what became his breakthrough TV appearance, he appears in the SQ pilot with another former Angel, Shelly Hack.)

And so SQ debuts, and garners whopping ratings (28% share). Doubles Lois & Clark, its main competition. But as writer/producer Lee Goldberg says, "For all its grandiose pretensions, what the pilot finally came down to was a talking dolphin and Shelly Hack as a vengeful pirate. Yawn."

More episodes concentrate on Brandis, including one with 17-year-old Kellie Martin, late of ABC's Life Goes On (which once aired in the SeaQuest spot, if on another network). She plays lost waif in charge of a band of unruly underwater sea kids. It harkens back to the classic Trek episode, Miri, starring Kim Darby. It brings back Sunday LGO fans, if just for one night. But viewers soon tire of show. Following week, it sinks to 20% share, then 18, then 15, in month. 39% of its original audience has vanished.

Big issue: 2 sci-fi shows opposite 1 die-hard, in the form of Angela Lansbury. Both SQ and Lois & Clarkgear towards same audience, head to head. Neither emerges as smash. But LC takes lead. 58th vs. 73rd. Ratings, overall. Both vie for 18-to-49 year old viewers (the darling demos so attractive to advertisers).

Roy Scheider has bitter words for SQ. Though he favors a few episodes in this first season, including Devil's Window (in which Darwin grows ill) and Whale Song (in which Bridger resigns rather than go to war), Scheider speaks up when something's wrong. Normally, others think it. He says it. He gives an interview in which he badmouths the series. It's widely reprinted, and puts him in hot water with the show's producers and the network brass. But it's all overblown.

The article essentially prints all the negative statements, and ignores the positives, concentrating on a segment Scheider particularly despised. It's called Playtime, in which the SQ time-travels to the future where giant robots rule and only two children are left to seed humanity.

Scheider seeks to bring the show back down to earth. He wants it to remain action-oriented, but with no aliens and no time-travel tales. He wants it to be Jacque Cousteau. NBC wants him to be Captain Kirk (though they're a little late in supporting Trek - for it was this Peacock network that killed the original show three decades before).

Leslie Moonves, today at CBS, then at WB (which produced ABC's L&C), feeds the fire of competition for NBC: "We're seeing every sign that (L&C) is about to take off...We're not a hit yet, but we're on the cusp."

Meanwhile, everyone at NBC is on edge, though they put up a good front.

NBC's Preston Beckman says his network is happy with SQ, because ratings and demos are better than what NBC had in 1992-1993. "Putting aside what others' expectations were for the show, SQ has done what we hoped it would do – put us back in the game."

But who's fooling whom? The audience is bored.

So, mid-season, Beckman promises the episodes "will be more fantastic." New executive producer David Burke is hired to create major changes. Promises more stories with a sci-fi twist, see the gang out of the water and into the "upworld"; expect more realistic and fantastic underwater photography. New look kicks off with guest-stars like Moses. He usually pulls in ratings on a Sunday night for ABC on The Ten Commandments. Will big star Charleton Heston do the same for SQ? No. But he tries. He guest stars as a biologist who has the ability to abide underwater, and spends half his time tracking Lucas at a party where he almost loses his virginity. Heston fails to parley the sea ratings this time.

Familiarity continues to breed contempt. Episodes with William Shatner (Captain Kirk himself), Kent McCord (from Adam 12), and David McCallum (Man From Uncle, Invisible Man), all former NBC stars, fail to win viewers over.

Then, very drastic measures are under way, under water: The SQ team discovers an alien spaceship, buried underwater for a million years, but uncovered after an undersea earthquake. USA Today calls this segment the show’s "finest hour yet," one in which Lucas and Darwin play critical roles. The world may come to an end. And only SeaQuest can save it. But who will save SeaQuest?

Again, certainly not L&C. On opposite ABC, L&C concludes a two-part season-ender with Lois soon-to-wed suave villain Lex Luthor, with guest stars Beverly Garland and Phyllis Coates, TV's original Lois, as mother Lane.

No. It looks like it's all up to Jonathan Brandis. He receives an average of 4000 fan letters a week from girls who want to know what he does in his spare time, whether he's currently seeing someone, and how he enjoys working with Darwin. "Jonathan is Number 1," says Louise Barile, editor for Tiger Beat magazine. "Our readers love him to death." Even though by now SQ ranks in the 60s in the national Nielsen ratings, it's tops with teens, and NBC is impressed.

Meanwhile, Brandis is impressed with himself and his show. He's convinced that SQ is the Trek of his generation. "This is going to be such a hip show in 25 years," he says. "It's ahead of its time. Viewers of the future will find it really accurate and so much fun to watch."

That's very nice. But what about now? At the moment, no one's still watching.

Summer 1994, prior to the second season. Despite the low-season-to-date ranking of Number 82, NBC renews the show for a second year, says it's happy with its performance, due to the young demo thing. But the show is too distant. Too restrained. Viewers have a tough time making the connection. But apparently, that's being repaired. The spin-doctor goes into full cycle.

David Burke says they've now solved the production problems of this first year. Says being pre-empted added to the problem. Next year, he promises, "We will be competitive…Water is hard to photograph. A show like this should have blue sky and bright lights. Our opening episodes [from Season 1] had murky, dark water. The new episodes [for this Season 2] will be bright."
A move to shoot in Florida is to enhance the illumination. A blow to the ship, paves the way for an all-new SQ. It's a whole new world. Says writer/producer Lee Goldberg: "What saved SeaQuest was a budget-cutting move from LA to Orlando, and a promise to tackle highly-promotable, action-oriented storylines that would take place above and below the sea with a younger, more attractive cast."

Roy Scheider, Don Franklin, Ted Raimi, Marco Sanchez, Jonathan Brandis and Darwin all return. But this new sub is on a new night (Wednesdays, but at the same time, 8:00 PM, on a new location shoot, and with some new cast members). John D'Aquino and Royce Applegate are let go. Sexy Stacey Haiduk is gone (never to be seen again).

Stephanie Beachman jumps ship. Doesn't want to move to Florida.
The new cast and characters are younger and, for one reason or another, related to Dom DeLuise:

Rosalind Allen (fresh off of guesting on the Seinfeld seg in which George pretends to be a marine biologist who saves whales) as Dr. Wendy Smith, a biophysicist and psychologist with ESP.
Michael DeLuise plays crewman Tony Piccolo, a misfit and troublemaker. In order to get out of the stockade, Piccolo allowed himself to have an experimental operation performed on him which grants him gills and the ability to breath underwater (can anyone say Man From Atlantis, SubMariner, Aquaman?).

Michael's brother, Peter DeLuise, plays Dagwood, a genetically-altered janitor of the Dagger denomination. Daggers are genetically engineered people who are designed to battle in war. Dagwood possesses great strength and the ability to survive in conditions that would kill a regular human being. He's also a bit slow and naive.

Ed Kerr joins the crew as Lt. James Brody, a cocky weapons expert who had been assigned to the Dagger prison.

Kathy Evison comes aboard as Ensign Lorrie Henderson, a rookie whose first assignment is on the SQ.

These new additions are considered "young" and "pretty."

But these big (and arguably bad) changes translate into dismal debut. Only 12% share. Down 36% from previous year. Underwater cameras still produce blurred pictures. Murky plots. Lack of focus. Show continues descent. NBC brought down with it. SQ finishes fourth for seventh time in seven telecasts. Come December 1994, SQ anchored on ocean floor of ratings, with a mere 7%.
Overall, this second year fails to inspire. It's littered with mammoth crocodiles, trips to Atlantis, and murderous plants. Though the audience seems to like when Star Wars star Mark Hammill makes a guest spot in a segment called Dream Weaver (in which he plays blind, with no aliens in sight).

And darn it, the kids continue to love that Darwin and Jonathan Brandis. Brandis can't explain his own appeal, but attempts to decipher Darwin's. Dolphins are like young kids, he says. "They have mood swings, but they're also patient, smart and clairvoyant."

Meanwhile, Spielberg tries to raise morale. Drops by on the set, more often than he did last year in LA. Encourages the cast to bond. But that happens naturally. Due to the Florida move. Cast members call the experience weird. On the same set, but 3,000 miles away. Their lives change. Back in Los Angeles, they dispersed quickly, to their individual homes. In Florida, they become closer, go out together every night...to Pleasure Island. All the different clubs. Off-screen, everything's fine. Everyone's having a gas.

On-screen, they're losing fuel, fast. What was supposed to be a demographically correct cast of characters on a neato-keen submarine show still churns out to be a poor-man's kiddie show.
NBC decides to replace the show with two sitcoms, and put two new action hours on the air. One on Saturday nights, and another on Wednesdays. They settled on JAG for Saturdays, but Rolling Thunder, the show they had in mind for Wednesdays about a high-tech truck, was as Lee Goldberg says, "awful." So NBC hangs in there with SQ, because at least it's action oriented, and at least some viewers have already seen it. And they give it a renewal for a third season. 13 episodes. But they expect big changes for the next year (again!).

Patrick Hasburgh, Clifton Campbell and co-executive producer Carleton Eastlake bring in new staff, including Lee Goldberg and partner William Rabkin (both of whom worked on She-World in London, Sliders, etc.). The latter two are hired as the new supervising producers, replacing Lawrence Hertzog, who leaves to create and run Nowhere Man.

But the producers are still desperate for ratings, and grab at the sci-fi straws. They send the SQ sub across interstellar space to battle a civil war on an alien, watery world. It gets destroyed Again.

By now, Scheider has really had it. He's made his decision. He's not coming back next year. On regular basis. Only recurring role as Captain Bridges.

So the hunt is on for someone new at the helm for next year, and higher ratings. But they better do something quickly.

SeaQuest DSV now ranks at 57th for the season.

Fall 1995: From SeaQuest DSV to SeaQuest 2032. In the opening episode of this third season, the SQ shows up in an Earth wheat field and members of the crew are scattered across the world, with no memory of what happened. As Lee Goldberg puts it, "We didn't want to get bogged down in dealing with back-story from the previous season, particularly since it was so different in tone from the new direction of the series." As Daily Variety puts it, "Sailing into its third season and second format change, timeslot and title, SeaQuest 2032 retains the titular submarine, talking dolphin and junior crew member from previous incarnations with a [still] younger demographic. If this version tanks, which is likely, all things considering might consider converting the boat into a restaurant serving submarine sandwiches."

The viewers try to enjoy new theme music, and attempt to figure out the new year in the new title. 2032 leaps the show ten years into the future, from the first season, when it was set in 2018. Apparently, ten years in real NBC time calculates as 2021, while ten years in sci-fi time translates as 2031. Then NBC must have just added a year for momentum. Ten years into the future is supposed to justify a darker, more dangerous world, somewhat different than the previous two seasons (certainly distant from that bright Florida premise).

No, this third season world is on the brink of war, where the United Earth Oceans (once called Organizations) finds itself threatened by merging military forces.

The biggest change rests at the helm:

The producers hire Michael Ironside, late of ER (and sci-fi properties V, Scanners, Total Recall), to take command of their troubled submarine as Captain Oliver Hudson, a more "military" presence than Scheider's Bridges. And it doesn't hurt that his bald head may remind viewers of Trek's Patrick Stewart. But at first, the rugged, crag-faced Canadian actor turns the job down, flat. He sees problems that will not allow him to do the work he prefers. That was the problem with Ironside playing Dr. William Swift on NBC's ER. He doesn't want to repeat that scenario on SQ.

So Jonathan Banks and Terry O'Quinn are momentarily considered for as replacements for Scheider. But since Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment produces both ER and SQ, Ironside feels an obligation, so he bends. But not too far, 'cause the producers allow him to essentially run the show. They're desperate for structure. Ironside seemingly offers it, via his ideas and general concept. He condemns the surface world of SQ, and says the year 2022 looks vaguely like upper-middle class West Palm Beach, Florida (which it was). "It's arrogant to think the world is going to be in that kind of balance," he says. "And I think it's arrogant to go around saving the whales in a 47-minute TV format."

Ironside suggests a "corporate reality," in which multi-nations are even more influential, aggressive and imperialistic than some nations. Says the crew of the SQ over the last two years "looked like they were all on Valium." "I've never been in a work environment, artificial or real, where the people have had that much empathy for each other...the idea of drama is to have conflict."

So, after weeks of discussion, Ironside agrees to play Hudson, a career Navy man. Ironside, of course, has in-put into the character. He wants to have an adversary relationship with members of the crew and with characters in the stories. "As one gets resolved," Ironside explains, "I want to move to the next."

He also says the cast is not etched in stone. Characters are going to die this year. "There are a couple of people on whom the show is really dependent," he says. (Brandis as Lucas is now an Ensign.) "But the rest are up for grabs as the storyline dictates."

Those new grabbers include Elise Neal, who joins the cast as Lt. JJ Fredricks, a subfighter pilot with a "psyche implant," a device in her skull that keeps her from going insane, and allows her extra courage during dangerous missions.

And so it goes...In the third episode of this third season, SQ (now less interested in exploration than defense) is assigned to escort ships hauling valuable ore from "a desolate mining colony in the middle of nowhere" to various Asian destinations.

Other episodes have Hudson and crew battle a renegade admiral threatening to nuke the world because he considers peace a sickness...the crew takes on a fascist dictator, played by Michael York (of Logan's Run). Roy Scheider guest stars here in what turns out to be only one of his three appearances in this third year.

Meanwhile, too, the show continues to be pre-empted for magic Las Vegas specials, and the like.

Then, there's all that uproar from fans on the Web, specifically regarding SeaQuest 2032, but dating back to when the show first began to change hands...on deck.

It's the fans vs. the SQ producers, and the battlefield is the Internet. It was all taking place on alt.tv.sequest. Fans are writing online bibles to the show, and complaining about all the changes.
Even Rick Marin, a TV critic from Newsweek, gets in on the action. Tries to play mediator. Says it's all good for publicity.

Fan at the center of the debacle was Mary Feller, a passionately emitted SeaQuestian, who started voicing her concerns about the direction the show was taking in the middle of the first season…when the ship's crew was first forced to battle high-concept dangers.

But Feller, who abides insane Francisco, says she never envisioned tangling with the show's producers. She was merely partaking in AOL - and then CompuServe - forums, simply commiserating with other disappointed fans.

That's how he got the idea to write a petition in late 1994. Feller posted the petition, which advocated a return to the show's earlier premise of undersea explorations, on CompuServe and, soon, 400 people had signed it. So she went into all the online SeaQuest discussion groups, and garnered the support of AOL's SQ fans, as well.

Soon, Fellar new the fans needed a Web page to organize their movement to pressure NBC to revamp (or devamp) the show. She hired a freelance Web consultant to come to her house one night, and by 4 AM, she had a Web address.

Feller started getting support letters and other feedback from fans in Australia, Greece, and Spain. By Spring, she had collected 5000 signatures which she’s sent to NBC.

Soon, as Lee Goldberg recalls, he was "deluged with people telling me what a loathsome scumbag I was, a sniveling worm, and I would get lists of demands that you must do these 15 things or else."But the producers didn’t listen, and SQ's descent into the abyss continued.
Writer/producer Lee Goldberg sums up the show's demise, concentrating on the final year, waxing wishful about the potential for Deep Space Nine/Babylon Five arc storylines:

"During the final season of SeaQuest, I think we were achieving that complexity of character and story...while keeping each episode exciting on its own level. It's hard to get sucked into the complexity if you don't watch every week. Problem was, it wasn't possible for anyone to do that. SeaQuest 2032 never had a run of more than two episodes in a row before a week or more of pre-emptions until we were already cancelled."

This transpired during the production of the unlucky 13th episode, Weapons of War.

In the end, Goldberg says, "SeaQuest stayed on a year and a half longer than it had any right to, thanks largely to the perseverance of Patrick Hasburgh. Like Amazing Stories, it was purchased from Amblin with a full 22-episode commitment. Rarely due these full season commitments, whether to Spielberg or anyone else, work out. I think had SeaQuest been sold like any other series, based on its pilot, there never would have been a SeaQuest series."

"SeaQuest will not be remembered as a television classic," Goldberg concludes "(though it was certainly more watchable than [the original] Battlestar: Galactica). It will be remembered technically as a ground-breaking show for computer animation, and creatively as a hugely expensive mistake."

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Nobody Bit It Better" Than "Barnabas" on "Dark Shadows"

The theatrical release of the Twilight phenom transfers to DVD this week. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton prepare to partner once more - this time for a big-screen edition of Dark Shadows. This is as good a time as any to explore the astounding popularity of the original gothic Shadows story, which first appeared as a daytime serial that featured the iconic Jonathan Frid as pop-culture's first main love-lorn/torn vampire Barnabas Collins - an immortal character that arrived ages before Robert Pattinson's Twilight role of Edward Cullen (which may or not be a nod to DS Collins name), or for that matter, David Boreanz's Angel , which first found life on TV's heralded Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (and later, in a spin-off series of his own). And yes, of course, pre-DS, there was Dracula, etc. But it was Barnabas and his Shadows gang that was the first to both lovingly horrify and capture our imagination.

That sad, here now is a consolidated, but in-depth, look back at the on-and-off-screen machinations of the original Dark Shadows TV series.

Enjoy!


DIGGING DARK SHADOWS

Live performances. Rehashed ideas. Retold stories. Dead-on scripts. Turn of the Screw. Picture of Dorian Gray. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dracula. Frankenstein. The Wolfman. Even HP Lovecraft’s The Cthulhu Mythos. Actors play a piece from each. Working, temporarily, steadily. Stereotyped, indefinitely. Fallen movie stars, resurrected for the small screen. TV superstars yet to be born. Future TV angels, present spectres. Death. Divorce. Lawsuits. Murder trials. Daytime, nighttime drama - behind and in front of the camera. Shadows of things to come; dark, but clearly defined. TV stars return to the big screen. Convolution. Suffocation. Cancellation. Restoration. Nostalgic television actors replaced with unfamiliar faces (except maybe one). Reality mixes with fantasy in the past, present, future and parallel time, immortal.

Thus sums up the experience of Dark Shadows - one of TV’s most unique series - one which debuts on ABC, June 27, 1966 and continues to enjoy a kind of cult following once thought solely exclusive to the likes of Star Trek. (Or should that read, "occult" following?) It ends its original run on April 2, 1971 and - nearly four decades later - thrives on DVD and in the hearts of multi-generational fans.

Decades before, it introduces scary new American sex symbols, and canonizes untraditional saints in the church of classic TV. It’s the first alternative daytime serial, focusing on the lives of a bizarre troupe, instead of relatively regular ones (ages before NBC lets loose it’s a supernatural persuasion with the long-cancelled Passions in 1999). Its audience is rare among soaps - legions of counterculture teens replace their stereos with TVs. It becomes the first non-prime-time soap to be syndicated (eons before the onset of the all-soap channels). It premieres in a time littered with assassinations, illicit drug use, a sexual revaluation and a misbegotten war; lost souls pine to find themselves in another realm - an era rife with interest in sorcery and the occult. On prime time TV there be witches, genies and monster families.

During the day - when the undead are supposed to be asleep - a vampire rises consistently at 3:30 (and later 4) in the afternoon. His name is biblical, but he’s far from holy (at least in the conservative sense). The character is immortal, but the actor is middle-aged. He becomes a pop phenomenon that few people admit to watching, but one of whom all hold dear as their secret love. Then, the bat is out on the cad. He winds up on the cover of upscale magazines like Time and Newsweek. Before the term blockbuster becomes part of the movie-going vernacular, DS spawns a feature film for which hordes line up to see. A less-than spectacular sequel is produced, while the TV series moves forward, then finally succumbs to a stake in the hardcore of its appeal. Still, the show does not die. An updated prime-time addition arises in the early 1990s. Lunch boxes, books, memorabilia and countless followers refuse to gather cobwebs, and instead gather for bi-annual Dark Shadows Festivals…and not Conventions. For indeed there is a clear amount of joy associated with this darkly-premised TV classic, as its fans reach beyond obligation in their dedication to their favorite show, and rest upon it with true, perpetual celebration.

THE DAWN OF THE DEAD

It’s 1966. DS begins as a soft-focus Gothic soap, with slightly mysterious aura and a few minor ghost tales - a vision that haunts producer Dan Curtis in a dream - an idea that ABC buys into with eager immediacy. But it soon becomes a nightmare for the network. No one watches. It gets pelted in the ratings. Despite the presence of a famed former movie queen in the guise of Joan Bennett and the talented presence of stage-trained actors like Dennis Patrick, the Shadows begins to fade, to hit a brick wall, of sorts, before it even has a chance to rest upon one.

1967: Curtis entertains a second vision. He decides to go full-throttle with the "spook stuff," and creates a tortured bloodsucker named Barnabas Collins, portrayed with earnest torture by Jonathan Frid. Curtis breaks all the soap rules by instructing his writers to inject something scary into every script, every day. If the vampire-thing doesn’t work, Curtis decides, "…we could always drive a stake into its heart."

But there’s no need to take such drastic measures. The stakes, so to speak, are too high. The viewers love Barnabas, as he falls first for the kindly Collinwood governess Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) and then Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), the amiable waitress at the Blue Whale. Audiences reach 15 million, 90% of which are teens - in other words 13,5000,000. Originally intended for a mere 2 or 3 week visit, Barnabas instantly becomes a permanent resident of Collinsport, or specifically - Collinwood - the centuries-old mansion with eerie ancestral family ties to the past, namely Barnabas himself.

That’s right. He’s lived before - in the "old house," on the Collinwood grounds. The new house holds the descendents of today’s Collinwood family. But Barnabas is the one constant in all time periods…be it the 18th, the 19th or 20th Centuries, all of which are visited "at one time or another" on DS (circa 1795, 1897, 1966, 1969-71).

"Through the years," however, the 45-year-old Frid waxes apprehensive at portraying the frightful lug, the 200-year-old creature of the night that seduces America by day - with biting commentary.

No wonder the actor is nervous at first, about joining the cast. He senses something brewing. A hint of things to come, though he doesn’t know just what. He can’t put his finger on it. Meanwhile, he can’t put his fangs on right. Frid is so manic with anxiety during his first "necking" scene; he slips his fangs on upside down, and chews them to bits. Little matter. For the viewer, it’s love at first bite. They adore him, and the show - taped live every day - despite its awkward camera movements, off-stage wranglings, and flies resting upon many an actor’s nose. That’s part of its campy charm.

Frid tries to make sense of it all - this happy dilemma he finds himself in. "I suppose women see Barnabas as a romantic figure," he says years later. "Because I played him as a lonely, tormented man rather than a Bela Lugosi villain. I bite girls in the neck, but only when my uncontrollable need for blood drove me to it. And I always felt remorseful later. As to his appeal with the younger crowd, he says, "Youngsters…are looking for a new morality. And he is Barnabas. He goes around telling people to be good, then suddenly sets out and bites somebody’s neck. He hates what he is and he’s in terrible agony.

Just like kids today, he’s confused - lost and screwed up and searching for something. I’m a lovable and pitiable vampire. All the girls want to mother me."

THE YEAR FROM HELL

The show produces its most controversial storyline. It deals with the witch Angelique (played with panache by Lara Parker) - who originally put the curse of the vampire on Barnabas - her fellow partner in evil, warlock Nicholas Blair (Humbert Allen Astredo), and the big man downstairs, Satan, to whom both of them report. A cameo by the Devil himself provokes negative mail from viewers. Various interest groups and individual viewers are now convinced that DS is dangerous to the minds of children. Letter-writing campaigns are initiated, complaints from fundamentalist ministers pour in, saying the show is "leading innocent children down the rosy road to Hell." Even noted psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers states that the series is "indoctrinating our young people into dissociation."

Parents are apprehensive as their kids identify with Barnabas, a character who "bricks people" in between walls. Some church groups are especially offended when the person being sealed up is none-other-than an evil minister, the tenacious Reverend Trask (Jerry Lacy, today married to Julia Duffy, of Newhart). The DS writers opt to back off, labeling Satan, Diabolos…not the devil…but merely a devil.

In the meantime, the cast is dealing with demons of their own. Some actors are downright frightened, not by the show, but rather the fans. Strange presents arrive in the mail. A gift-wrapped box of live ants labeled Appetizer. A box of cookies to actress Donna Wandrey (Roxanne Drew) - cutout in the shape of tombstones and painstakingly iced with all the actors names.

While the debate rages on as to where the real evil abides, Dan Curtis begins clandestine negotiations with the suits at MGM. The show needs some new blood, in this case - a new monster, one with the hypnotic appeal of Barnabas. The werewolf Chris Jennings has become been popular, but DS craves someone more charismatic. The result is Quentin, a ghost (played by David Selby).

In the interim, a few actors grow impatient with their fading screen time, and scant character development. Joel Crothers (Joe Haskell) is so unhappy, he exits for another soap (Somerset). Alexandra Moltke - three years into her five-year contract of playing a once central character in the form of governess Victoria Winters - now complains about her diminishing role in the series. "Victoria is so dumb," she protests. "All I do is stand around saying, I don’t understand what’s happening. Jonathan (as Barnabas) has hypnotized me into eloping with him, tried to cut off my boyfriend’s head to stick on that goofy monster they made (Adam), even sent me hundreds of years into the past during a séance. And I still haven’t figured out that he may not be quite normal."

Never really satisfied with the limitations of her role, Moltke frequently requests to be given another character, a villainess, or at least someone with a dark side. The opportunity never arises. So she marries in real life a young lawyer named Philip Isles – a very Collins-like heir whose late grandfather founded the famous Lehman Brothers. Now she’s expecting. A pregnant Victoria Winters doesn’t do. She’s released from her contract. Betsy Durkin plays Vicky for a few weeks; Carolyn Groves for a few days. But it’s not the same. They’re never really accepted by the audience. The character of Vicky is never seen again.

But the audience can see through Selby’s spectred Quentin. The handsome DS addition is a feast for the eyes. He first appears as a ghost in present-day 1969, and Quentin’s Theme - heard every time he materializes, becomes a Top 40 hit. The show once again journeys to another period from the past. This time: 1897 - when Quentin is very much alive. He’s the womanizer of this era Collins family - and again, the viewers eat ‘em up, especially the female watchers. The Partridge Family has David Cassidy. Dark Shadows has David Selby. They both appear side-by-side on Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine. What’s more, Selby’s Quentin becomes just as popular as Frid’s Barnabas. And Jonathan couldn’t be more relieved.

THE MAYHEM OF THE MACABRE

1969: 20,000,000 viewers are now obsessed with Quentin, Barnabas and DS in general. The show’s popularity reaches mammoth proportions. Followers from every nook and cranny come out of the woodwork...even the woodwork from the White House. For on October 31st, Halloween 1969, Tricia Nixon gives a Halloween Party for 250 underprivileged children, and Jonathan Frid is invited.

Other invitations are accepted. DS cast members help to raise more than $300,000 for Muscular Dystrophy; 680,000 screaming fans show up at a Founder’s Day parade.

Grayson Hall (who plays Dr. Julia Hoffman - and who’s married to DS writer Sam Hall), Frid, and a young DS ingénue fear for their lives when rabid vampire fans attack the vehicle in which they are riding. This is it. Frid has had it. He needs a vacation. He demands time off. The writers comply…to deathly consequences.

Edward Collins (as performed by the late, great Louis Edmunds) discovers Barnabas’ secret…that he is indeed a knight of the living dead. For the first time in the show’s history, an all-out vampire hunt is underway.

Barnabas is then cornered and staked, which causes a riotous upheaval from fans.

As appeasement, the show introduces a storyline with the powerful Leviathans who rescue Barnabas. The time-line shifts once more, and Barnabas returns to 1969 - the present. But he’s cold and unfeeling - very unlike the Barnabas viewers first fell in love with. He’s free from vampirism, but seemingly more diabolical. It doesn’t register with the viewer. So he’s cursed again to suck blood, so the watchers can once again feel his pain. But the show turns too violent, and becomes a blood bath. He’s sucking people dry left and right. The fans are not happy.

Their dissent worsens, especially since David Selby has by now left the show (when Quentin exits Collinwood to search for a lost love). A Rookie-actress and future Charlie’s Angel (Kate Jackson) joins the cast as a ghost hoping to fill the void. But not even a later-day Goodbye Girl in the guise of Marsha Mason can capture the magic of Shadows gone-bye. The situation grows darker, when the Parallel Time episode arc begins. The show is different. The fans accept the time-traveling, the actors playing ancestors of the descendents they also portray. But the viewers aren’t buying the parallel universe bit, in which the actors play doppelgangers of the same-time characters.

The plots become confusing, even to the players. To top it all off, there’s a movie afoot.

House of Dark Shadows, the first of two feature films based on the TV series, goes into production. The cast films the movie and the television show at the same time. Everyone’s exhausted. Tempers fly during the scant five weeks all are given to complete the motion picture. Actors are shuttled from Manhattan, where the series is filmed, to Tarrytown, New York - 25 miles away - where the movie is being shot. The schedule is hectic, and the strain is showing up on both the small and large screens. What’s more, tests audiences object to the hanging scene with little David Collins (played by David Hennesy). So it’s clipped from the movie. But then, MGM thinks the film is too long. The suits request some editing, to size it down to 90 minutes, instead of 2-hours. Dan Curtis protests. But he has no choice. He succumbs, and the movie suffers, creatively. Yet the fans still line-up to see it - by the groves.

Still, all is not like it used to be, certainly not the TV show. For the like the new movie, it wreaks with violence. The charm and innocence at the core of Dark’s original appeal has been lost. As Jonathan Frid once put it, the film lacked the "naiveté of the soap opera. Every once in a while, the show coalesced into a Brigadoonish never-never-land. It wasn’t necessary to bring the rest of the world into Dark Shadows, which is what the film did."

Still, House of DS saves MGM from bankruptcy, and a second movie is ordered. This one, entitled, Night of Dark Shadows, is worse. It’s not even scary. Again, the blame is pinned on editing. Apparently, the film’s consistent storyline ends up on the editing room floor.

Back on the small screen, things aren’t much better. The Parallel Time story arc is killing the show. A time-travel trip to 1995 fails to rev up viewer engines. One last dabble into the occult serving as a possible saving grace. Once more, Dan Curtis borrows from another familiar tale. A curse storyline based on the controversial Shirley Jackson story called The Lottery. But there’s no winning numbers. Soon, the lights are out, and the Shadows are no more.

The series ends with wink-eyed words to the viewer spoken by Thayer David’s marbled-mouthed Ben Stokes: "There was no vampire loose on the great estate. For the first time at Collinwood, the marks on the neck were indeed those of an animal…and for as long as they lived, the dark shadows of Collinwood were but a memory of the distant past."

And despite thousands of fan letters that form a Bring Back Dark Shadows campaign, the lights go out, and newly-made Shadows fade to black.

That is, until some twenty years later.

THE DARK DESCENDENTS

1990: Five years before the fantasy 1995 time-line on Dark Shadows is to actually end the original series, a new DS shows up in prime-time in reality, once a week on NBC – not even its original ABC network. The characters are the same, but the actors are different. As with the two DS feature films and the last season of the first series, missing is the campy charm, replaced with too serious a take and rendering on the Collins family portrait. This new Dark is filmed with a big-budget, and not videotaped on a shoestring. The new DS is just plain no fun to watch, even with the respected Jean Simmons (of classic movie-lore, as well as sci-fi fandom via the Planet of the Apes).

None of it matters. The backlash begins.

It’s the Old Shadows Fans vs. New Shadows Fans. It’s like Original Trek vs. Next Generation. Fans of the first Dark are aghast with what they see - and don’t see - in the new Dark. Where’s Jonathan Frid? Who the hell is Ben Cross?

But then, something characteristically eerie transpires. The DS fans combine and begin to realize they any Dark, is better than no Dark. And a subtle cult following soon begins to take form for the new series.

But it’s too late. NBC cancels the series after six episodes, and Dan Curtis is left wondering if he should have instead taken this new Shadows into syndication.

THE FESTIVAL OF FRIGHTS

Cast reprise. So many are gone. Grayson Hall. Thayer David. Joel Crothers (who succumbs to AIDS). Others, are knarled in controsersy (Alexandra Moltke finds herself testifying in court over a scandalous marriage). Still others flourish in many an enterprise. David Selby finds a comfortable regular role on Falcon Crest. John Karlen plays a drunken dad on the Emmy-winning Cagney & Lacey. Kate Jackson goes on to be one of Charlie’s Angels, while we learn her former co-star Jaclyn Smith was once married to Shadows cast member Roger Davis. Kathryne Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans, Josette Dupre) discovers further fame as a frequent TV guest star (on shows like the original Police Squad TV series and Star Trek: The Next Generation), and becomes the official DS literary chronicler. Her former Shadows costar Lara Parker now writes Dark novels for HarperCollins, while she also continues to act. They all try to make it to as many DS Festivals as they can.

But the one fans still most eagerly stand in line to see is noneother than Jonathan Frid. The man who could not see himself in the mirror…the man who brought unanimous joy to countless DS fans throughout the world, throughout the ages.

This talented, now seventysomething, theatrically-trained thespian travels today with his one-man shows, titled variently, Jonathan Frid’s Shakespearean Odyssey and Jonathan Frid’s Fools & Fiends, each hearkening in some subliminal - and maybe direct - way, to the fact that Dark Shadows was indeed a hit show due to this…one man.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Andy" Was "Taylor-Made" For TV

Every episode of The Andy Griffith Show is preferred entertainment. The classic TV series originally aired on CBS from 1960-1968, begat a sequel (Mayberry RFD, CBS, 1968-71), may still be seen in reruns (across the board on TV Land), and is available on DVD. The show's steller cast shines in any decade: Andy Griffith (as Sheriff Andy Taylor), Don Knotts (Deputy Barney Fife), Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee), Ron Howard (Opie), and a host of regular and semi-regulars that appeared through its superior eight-year run.

There are four episodes, in particular, that remain favorite from my Griffith observatory:

1] Andy Saves Barney's Moral, in which Knotts' iconic Deputy Fife looks like more than his usual fool self due to his flighty legalities.

2] The Clubmen, in which Andy and Barney meet with the members of an exclusively private men's association, and only one of them is invited to join.

3] Mr. McBeevee, in which Andy is convinced that his young son Opie's new friend is merely illusory.

4] Barney and the Cave Rescue, in which Barney leads a rescue attempt to save Andy and his girlfriend (and Opie's teacher) Helen Crump (Anita Corsaut), both of whom are snared in a rock-ridden cavern, after an inner-land-slide.

McBeevee holds several heart-tugging moments, several between Andy and Opie, and in one in which Andy professes to Barney and Aunt Bee that, "I believe in Opie." Meanwhile, Moral and Clubmen display the true bond between Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife, which was the central relationship of the series. In each of these segments, Andy's diplomatic integrity and generous spirit of friendship and/or family shines brightly. Coupled with Cave, these Andy tales showcase high comedy, homespun appeal, and solid interaction between the main characters.

Still, if I must select my ideal segment, I must go into the Cave Rescue. Directed by actor Richard Crenna (who was the original choice for Darrin on Bewitched), and written by Harvey Bullock, Cave caters to several agreeable Andy elements, with style and distinction.

As the episode begins, Barney looks goofy as he inaccurately coins the proprietor of Mayberry's financial institution a pilferer. Chagrin, the Deputy picnics with his gal Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), Andy and Helen, all of whom decide to explore one of boys' childhood stomping grounds: a spooky cave. A rockslide ensues. Andy and Helen are trapped.

By the time they free themselves, Barney has arranged a mammoth rescue endeavor, involving two mean-spirited townsmen who had publicly humiliated him. Rather than further embarrass the Deputy, Andy and Helen reenter the cave and feign near-death.

The rescue works, Barney is looked upon with monumental respect, and his character is restored.

The core of The Andy Griffith Show's appeal is held together in Cave with emotional, psychological and yes, even physical strength (Barney and the town's finest work their tails off during the rescue).

Andy's affection for Barney is taken to new heights, as he infringes on the cooperation of his significant other, in the form of Helen. (Mostly before, he saved face for Barney, solo.). Not only does this enforce Andy's bond with his right hand man - and best friend, but solidifies his relationship with Helen, who proves her devotion to her Sheriff/boyfriend by going the distance (albeit, back into the cave).

Yet there are other fine bonding moments to adore within the Cave, specifically, towards the close of the segment, when Thelma Lou shares her pride in Barney What-a-Guy Fife with Helen, who seconds the notion, in reference to Andy. Helen never lets on that she and Andy really did not need to be saved, thus displaying her fondness for Thelma Lou with Andy-like discretion and poise.

Yet my favorite scene in this, my favorite episode, is when Helen and Andy venture to Helen's house in order for her to shift out of her dirty clothes (which she changed back into once she and Andy learned of Barney's massive rescue maneuvers, via the radio airwaves). As Andy initially waits in Helen's living room (which is decorated with doilies and big '60s furniture), a nostalgic, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, inner-home cozy feeling seeps through the television, and begins to permeate into our real-life parlors.

We actually feel like we've been transported into Helen's abode...back to a simpler time, basking in the tranquil effects of that ol' Mayberry magic. Combined with Barney's pristine lunacy, and subsequently acquired legitimate (though unnecessary) courage, Andy's discretion and his "in-no-real-physical-peril-but-Barney-needs-me-to-be-in-trouble" heroics, Helen and Thelma Lou's prodigious support for the men in their lives (and despite the non-extensive use of the then-billed Ronny Howard's youthful intelligence as Opie and the central exclusion of Frances Bavier's amiable Aunt Bee), in my eyes, Barney and the Cave Rescue beams as The Andy Griffith Show's finest half-hour.

But I'm sure you have your favorite Griffith gander, too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ted Bessell: "That Guy" on "That Girl"

It's been a little over a decade since Ted Bessell passed away. On that day, October 5, 1996, the entertainment industry - and the world - lost to a heart attack a beloved and talented human being.

The versatile actor, producer and director was best known as the fictional Newsview newsmagazine writer and boyfriend Don Hollinger to Marlo Thomas' Ann Marie on TV's classic That Girl sitcom (ABC, 1966-1971), which is now available on DVD. But he's also forever remembered as just a great guy.

Shortly before Bessell died, That Girl was scheduled to be honored with an all-star tribute in Los Angeles at the Museum of Television and Radio on October 11, 1996. Instead, the remaining cast and crew from the show, including Bernie (The Love Boat) Kopell (who played Don's best friend and co-worker Jerry Bauman), mourned the loss of their friend whom they affectionately referred to as Teddy.

Bessell (believed to be 61 when he died), was accessible, such that he was unaffected by his celebrity, and came to grips with his Hollinger persona - by which he first felt stereotyped (but which would later bring him sentimental emminence). After That Girl folded, it was a challenge for him to win other roles and be at peace with the character. "Donald Hollinger made me a name but took away the heart of me," he said in 1989, when he labeled the part a creative "imposition."

Yet, with its original renewed interest and affection shown to That Girl on Nick and Nite and TV Land, Bessell began to realize his importance and endearing contribution to television's grand Hall of Fame.

I was scheduled to meet with Bessell with regard to his then-assignment as director of the Bewitched feature film, which at the time was being soley produced by Penny Marshall's Parkway Productions. The first time I telephoned Bessell's office, it was he who answered the phone. I explained who I was and, though he sounded extremely busy, he took the time to chat a little bit about Bewitched, and we set up a time to meet for lunch.

Unfortunately, our meeting never took place. For shortly after our conversation, he was gone.

However, the lingering impression of his complete lack of arrogance lingers on. And I remember thinking at the time, "Well, of course he's down to earth. Anyone who could have played so consoling, warm-hearted and supportive a character as Don Hollinger, with such credibility - would have to be as sincere in real life."

In fact, my fondest memory of Bessell rests with me first seeing his on-screen character's initial meeting with aspiring actress Ann Marie in That Girl's pilot. Thinking she was under assault (when she was actually filming a commercial in Hollinger's Newsview building), Don, with his brief case as a weapon, came along and slammed Ann in the head. After she explains the situation, and seeks to further generate an already-stressful situation, Don realizes his mistake and labels himself, "Captain Dumb Dumb."

The line was priceless, and Bessell's delivery of it was done with all the charm and likability that any one actor could muster. At that moment, Ann fell in love with Donald Hollinger, along with the rest of us.

As Marlo Thomas herself once noted, "Our show was called That Girl, but we all knew that guy was the success."

Had Ted Bessell lived, not only would the Bewitched feature film have taken quite a different turn, but the big-screen adaptation of That Girl - with Bessell and Thomas reprising their small-screen roles, would have become historic: It would have been the first time that a classic TV series would have transferred to the big screen with its original stars - in a sequel format.

And Bessell was very much looking forward to the movie. "I wanted to see happened to those characters," he told me. And though the original Girl sitcom completed its run with Don and Ann engaged to be wed, Bessell envisioned the couple finally exchanging vows. "They would have remained friends," he said. "And I think they would have gotten back together again. He probably would have married, and she might have done well as an actress."

Of the potential motion picture pairing of he and Thomas, Bessell relayed to TV Guide, "As long as we're still alive and kicking, I think it's a mistake not to do it."

Instead, it became a mistake that Bessell left us way too soon.

That Girl may still one day make it to the big screen. But, of course, it just won't be the same without Bessell's pairing with Thomas. And with regard to Bessell's involvement with the Bewitched feature film, his good friend Penny Marshall (a classic TV star in her own right, as one of the brilliant guiding lights of Laverne and Shirley), was devastated upon learning of his death. "He was a great force behind a lot of creative people," she said at the time.

Good souls usually are.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Animated Edition of the Original Star Trek

September 15, 1973, 9:30 AM, Saturday morning: Star Trek returns, albeit within an alternative universe. An animated universe. A real animated universe.

Before The Motion Picture initiated a theatrical film series; before The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise embarked on the small screen, Trek fans were treated to a kaleidoscopic version of Gene Roddenberry's initial celestial hike-oriented series.

Save for Walter Koenig as Mr. Chekov, all of The Original Series performers supplied their voices for The Animated Show. Back on the beaming Enterprise was Classic Trek's titled triad consisting of William Shatner's sturdy Captain Kirk, DeForest Kelley's fervent Dr. McCoy, and Leonard Nimoy's discerning Mr. Spock.

Also on board: George Takei (as Mr. Sulu, the trusted helmsman), Nichell Nichols (Lt. Uhura, the elegant communications officer), Majel Barrett (the Spock-adoring Nurse Chapel), and James Doohan ( as the miracle working Chief Engineer Montgomery Scotty).

Roddenberry drafted the successful Filmation animation company (Fat Albert, He-Man), helmed by producers Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott, and associate producer/director Hal Sutherland, who worked for Walt Disney films like Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Long-time Trek veteran DC (Dorothy) Fontana was then slated as story editor/associate producer, Ervin Kaplan was pegged as background director, and art director Don Christianson was enlisted, as were approximately 74 artists and animators.

Two early notions for The Animated Show were proposed. One had the Enterprise crew take-part in episodes from their pre-teen youth. The other partnered the adult crew with adolescent compeers. Both of these concepts were quickly vetoed at the speed of light, when it was determined to furnish the well-known band of Classic Trek regulars as they were originally drawn-out.

Gene Roddenberry, also known in Trekdom as The Great Bird of the Galaxy, did not receive an immense amount of currency for producing the picturesque rendition of his galactic TV kingdom. He appropriated only a $2500 consultant's salary for each segment, yet treated the project as absolutely, one-hundred-percent Star Trek. The resplendent Enterprise consequently exploded in Trek lore, and continues to ignite traditional Trekkers and novice Trekkies alike.

The Animated Show's first season story editor and associate producer, DC Fontana (who had been story editor and writer on The Original Series) offers two central reasons for the drawn-out Star's premiere glow:

"First of all, Filmation was extremely interested in doing Star Trek as an animated series. But they wanted to do Star Trek. That's the only reason Gene Roddenberry agreed in any way, shape, or form was that it would be Star Trek. It might be animation. It might be only a half an hour. It might be on Saturday morning, but's its going to be Star Trek.

"Secondly, when they went to NBC, the network was very open to the concept. They had Saturday morning shows, but nothing like this. Possibly by that time [1972], NBC had remembered the demographics for the original Star Trek, which were exactly what they wanted them to be. Unfortunately, by the time they realized that fact, they had cancelled the show. Star Trek had been off the network for three years."

Soonafter, Paramount, Filmation, and Gene Roddenberry combined their efforts, and an NBC Star began to form once more; a concept of which would not display condescending tones. "We weren't going to talk down to the audience," sustains DC Fontana.

Trek toon director Hal Sutherland (who guided each of its 22 episodes) remembers Roddenberry's negotiations with the network, in particular, which possibly bridged the show's successful foundation. "One of the stipulations that Gene rallied for," Sutherland says, "was that NBC was to have no creative in-put whatsoever."

The hue-filled Star installment received a variety of colorful reviews which were always "in the pink."

Cicil Smith, writing in The Los Angeles Times on September 10, 1973, thought the animated endeavors of the Enterprise were out of place on Saturday morning and likened it to "a Mercedes in a soapbox derby." Smith suggested that NBC move the show to prime time and commented that the network "never understood the appeal of the live program," and probably would choose not to reschedule. He described the animation as above the usual quality found on TV with "magnificent effects which could never be achieved on a sound stage."

One critic writing in The Chicago Tribune suggested that "fans of Star Trek be referenced correctly as fanatics," and mentioned they were in "full cry nationally, complaining that the animated Star Trek was being called a kiddie cartoon."

Tom Zito, of The Washington Post, had reviewed a number of Saturday morning children's programs, and found the animated Trek to be, as Spock might say, "fascinating." Yet Zito also questioned whether or not the potential youthful viewership be able to comprehend the program's themes.

In the end, they did, and The Animated Show went on to distinguish itself from other illustrated fare of the time. As Roddenberry told an interviewer for Show magazine in the early 1970s:

"I just didn't want space cadets running all over the Enterprise saying things like, Golly gee whiz, Captain Kirk -- you know, like Archie and Jughead going to the moon."

It was this concern for the show's maturity level (and NBC's previous shabby treatment with The Original Series) that motivated Roddenberry to seek creative control. "There are enough limitations just being on Saturday morning," he said. "We have to eliminate some of the violence we might have had on the evening shows. There will probably be no sex element to talk of either, but it will be Star Trek and not a stereotype kids cartoon show."

"We can have a spaceship 40 miles long if we want," he told The Los Angeles Times shortly before the Animated debut. "We can use grotesque characters, like [Mr. Arex]. It costs no more to blow up a planet than to have a couple of guys talking..."

Filmation's Norm Prescott then countered with the drawbacks:

"A drawing can't do what an actor can. We can't read the thoughts of a character in his eyes, in the tightening of he jaw, in a wary glance. We can't have lengthy dialogue scenes."

Still, other children's fare of the day could not compare with Trek's animated universe. With the exception of Sid and Marty Kroft's Sigmund and the Sea Monster, most of children's programming was animated when the tooned Trek debuted. Everything-else-kiddie extended from past and then-present live-action prime-time series like Emergency, My Favorite Martian, Jeannie (loosely based on I Dream Of Jeannie), and The Addams Family.

The color-imaged Trek outdistanced them all, from superior writing to top-notch almost-on-screen talent. In addition to the regular crew, new characters were created, including Mr. Arex (who replaced Mr. Chekov), a three-armed, three-legged native of the planet Edoa, and Lieutenant M'Ress, who was humanoid, though very much a feline personality from the planet Cait. The voice of Arex was supplied by James Doohan, and the vocal chords of M'Ress came from Majel Barrett, who would later donate audio time as the Computer for The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager.

The lucid Enterprise encountered a variety of beings, such as Cyrano Jones (from More Troubles, More Tribbles), the Orions (a hostile alien race introduced with The Pirates of Orion), and Kulkulkan (a god who came alive in How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth).

The engagement of an illustrated Star not only permitted the inclusion of splendid alien character and vessel visuals, but the exclusion of the inedible, insulting monstrous plots ordinarily associated with youth-oriented programs of the era.

"Doing the show was a very enjoyable experience," says Filmation founder, Lou Scheimer. "We had a wonderful working relationship with Gene, and we were very proud of the series. It was the first sci-fi show that we transformed into animation. Superman doesn't count, because we adapted it from a live-action TV show, that was adapted from an earlier film series, which was adapted from the comics.

"We had a history of adapting programs from other media, and I always wanted to do Star Trek. When we finally did it, I was thrilled. You could watch the episodes and relate them to real life, which I thought was important, especially since a major part of the audience consisted of youngsters. It was closest to what children's television could be," Scheimer says, "if Star Trek had truly been a children's show."

"We won the Emmy for children's programming," explains, "which seemed absurd to me at the time. The Star Trek we did wasn't a kid's show by definition, it was adult programming. That Emmy was the only one we ever received, and it seemed wrong. That doesn't mean it didn't deserve the Emmy, because it did. It's just that Star Trek was the most mature show that we ever did, and that includes Fat Albert, which was specifically geared towards youngsters."

There was never really any concession given to the age of The Animated Show's available audience on Saturday morning. The stories were literally an extension of The Original Series, only with more latitude.

"We were allowed a broader scope to do more interesting visuals," Scheimer says. "We didn't have the same restrictions that came with producing the live-action show. It didn't make any difference to us which planet we were on," Scheimer deduces, "it was all just paint. Yet each one of the stories had a message, which was Gene's goal from the beginning."

For example, with Larry Brody's The Magicks of Megus Tu, Queen Trekker Bijo Trimble says Roddenberry sought to explore the search, not for Spock, but for God.

Trimble (who initiated the famous letter campaign that kept Trek on track for its third year on NBC), recounts that an initial Magicks moment referenced a "blinding flash of light." "And that," states the Mother of All Star Trek Fans, was considered "unacceptable" by network broadcast standards.

A Megus memo circulated, and read, in part: "Blinding flashes of light are reserved to God."

No one character actually said, "Holy cow! The ship exploded into a blinding flash of light," Trimble clarifies. "The writer merely indicated to the artist what kind of explosion he had envisioned."

No matter.

The network censors were not happy, and the blinding reference had to be dimmed. The idea of "finding God," Trimble reveals, was changed to "finding magic." But by the time Star Trek V: The Final Frontier became accessible to Trekkers, she concludes, "going to the center of the Universe to meet God was considered acceptable."

Not surprisingly, Gene Roddenberry's relationship with Filmation had been infinitely more productive than his association with NBC.

The animation studio had established a unique arrangement with Roddenberry, initiated a special production unit, and closely worked with the Star creator who, as Hal Sutherland upholds, was eminently satisfied with the direction in which the animated Enterprise was soaring.

Roddenberry, however, was also extremely concerned that the colored Star not be a travesty, and that it duplicate The Original Series as much as possible.

"We were limited, of course, to our budget [$75,000 per episode], compared to that of the original show," Sutherland explains, "but at the same time, there were things we did with animation, that the original series could never have accomplished with the limited technology available at the time."

The director says Roddenberry went over each script with continuous revisions. "It was very frightening at first," he confesses. "We had sixteen weeks to produce a script after it was commissioned, which was okay until we started getting new scripts every week. Gene was a perfectionist, but we had to meet that deadline."

Sutherland eventually sat down with the Kirk-architect, had a cup of coffee, and urged, "If we don't finish up pretty soon, we won't be able to make the first airdate." "Okay," Roddenberry replied, "You just tell me when I'm out of time."

"And that was that," Sutherland declares. "We met the deadline."

Nevertheless, the director remembers "a lot of flurry going on" in the attempt to reproduce the designs and schematics of the live-action Enterprise, bridge, and characters. So much so, that Filmation had to develop a peerless stock system that would adhere to the character quality of The Original Series.

"There were not a lot of animated artists in Hollywood who were used to portraying human figurers," Sutherland explains. "They felt better suited with the more stylized Disney or Hanna Barbara approach, which was common at the time. People with good knowledge of the actual human anatomy were scarce in the animation field. We had to configure a huge catalog of different angles for each character. Once we did that, we went ahead and hired the best artists we could find."

If the show is watched closely, the same heads and faces may be seen in various angles, and are repeated from episode to episode. "It was never done in an obtrusive way," Sutherland explains, "because we tried to keep the cutting pace going. But sometimes we'd have Kirk with the same profile, doing different walks in different shots. A lot of those shots were modeled after some live action scenes of the original series, and then converted to animation. All of it was tightly planned on storyboards, which I pre-sketched myself, and then handed over to other artists for clean-up."

Hal Sutherland cannot recall an episode of The Animated Series that he "didn't like." Yet he claims he performed an inadequate first-season job with the show's nationwide premiere episode, entitled, Yesteryear; a time-excursion tale dealing with the death of a pre-teen Spock's pet.

"I couldn't do anything with the camera or the action on that one," he determines. "The pacing of it was quite different, and I was very surprised. I couldn't reach a stride of some excitement. It was a very emotional story, not an action story. And that was just my impression at the time. You would get all caught up in the momentum of what was happening on the show."

"Because we were trying to reproduce the feel of the live show," he goes on to say, "we were very conscious of what we could do with the special effects. We wanted to see something startling and different on the screen. And I felt that some of the younger viewers would have difficulty understanding the story. It may have seemed somewhat tedious, and less action-packed. But so much for what I know, because it's become one of the most popular of the animated episodes."

Not only that, Yesteryear went on to obtain a Filmcon Award for its writer, DC Fontana, who says the segment evolved from an idea beyond the central Trek philosophy.

"I thought that we had to present some form of Saturday morning sensitivity," DC deciphers. "We had to be aware of children in the audience. What I really wanted to do was a story about how things die. Animals die. Pets die. If you're lucky, parents and grandparents die only when you're ready to deal with it. I wanted to address that same issue, get a message to the kids, and somehow involve a pet. Because, sometimes, pets are kept alive more for the owner than for the animal. That's kind of a heavy message to be laying on kids. But I thought we displayed it in an intelligent and sympathetic way."

NBC, on the other hand, was somewhat tense about the story when it was first proposed. And it was Roddenberry who ran to Fontana's defense.

"Don't worry about it," The Great Bird told NBC. "Dorothy will handle it. Trust her." "He backed me up all the way," Fontana reports, "and to the best of my knowledge, there was never any complaint about the fact that a pet was euthanized on Saturday morning television."

Such a development was "quite effective," adds Lou Scheimer. "Not only did it deal with something that was hardly ever dealt with before on Saturday morning, it was very moving and touching, and much more than just another science fiction story. It was a very human story. We used alien people and animals to tell a very human story, which is what Star Trek is all about, and why the animated version succeeded."

Friday, March 06, 2009

Happy 20th Anniversary to "Seinfeld"

Part 1: A LOOK BACK IN LAUGHTER

I shudder to think what we, the hipsters of the self-effacing 21st Century, would be if not for the chronicles of the on-screen comedian named Jerry Seinfeld (portrayed, of course, by the real life word-witt, also named Jerry Seinfeld) and his earnest band of pals: Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Kramer (Michael Richards) and George (Jason Alexander).

More than likely, we would be substantially less hip and self-effacing.Since this year marks the 20th Anniversary of the debut of the pilot for Seinfeld, then called The Seinfeld Chronicles, it's time to celebrate this monumental series.

Seinfeld was co-created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, of Curb Your Enthusiasm (on which the four seasoned Seinfeld actors will be reuniting, playing themselves). The series rang in a freshly cool period of television parody with class and distinction, initiating a new Golden Era for the small screen. It detached itself from the rules of typical humor, substracted the situation from situation comedy, and brought to the living room viewer an extraordinary sense of humor, truth and dare. Nary a contrived plot to establish, never a syrupy moral lesson to deliver in a tidy 30 minutes, Seinfeld helped us laught through subway muggings, rude waiters, bad dates, and just plain bad luck.

Though this show about nothing presented unlikable characters, the performances by the actors was nothing but likable. And though the one major rule of no hugging between characters was strictly enforced, Seinfeld refused to ignore touchy subjects and, instead, hit them straight on.

The series was the first comedy to address and hire the handicappped and various minorities in honest roles, minus the usual preach television storylines. It chose not to mangle social issues or ills, but it injected a well-needed breath of fresh laugh into topics such as dwarfism, death, mental illness, contraception, personal hygiene and other once unspeakables on weekly comedy shows. In each instance, intolerances and ignorance stuck out like sore thumbs, as the show was filtered with sophisticated, highbrow, literate Woody-Allen-esque half-hours ("these pretzels are making me thirsty").

In one episode titled, The Lip Reader, Jerry befriended a woman who just so happened to be deaf, a character played by the Oscar-wining actress Marlee Matlin (Children of A Lesser God), who also just happens to be deaf. Upon their first meeting, he thought she was continually ignoring him. He became frustrated, and finally belted out, "What are you? Deaf?"

To which she replied, "Bingo!" with forthright, unaffected confidence. In the end, it was Jerry who was shown to be impaired, with a severe lack of sensitivity (a personal quirk for which each regular cast member of Seinfeld was frequently taken to task).

With it's unequaled comic home delivery, Seinfeld prescribed a perspicacious memorandum:

Laugher is indeed the best medicine.

With its satiric dose of reality, Seinfeld appropriately needled us, refused to insult our intelligence...permitted us to actuate the positive...to not only ignore our differences, but to help us concentrate on what makes us all the same (We all like to laugh, don't we?).

Jerry, the character, was a very funny guy, whose personal observations were so keenly universal that you actually pictured, if not personally remembered, them happening to you.

There was the time, early on, when Jerry was confronted by the Dragnet-like librarian Mr. Bookman (Philip Magnolia Baker Hall, in a brilliant, Emmy-winning performance) in search of a way-over due Tropic of Cancer.

In another segment, Jerry stuck it to a rude rental car reservations clerk, and allowed us to bond with him in this all-too familiar position?

"I know how to take a reservation," the clerk would say.

"I don't think you do," Jerry would reply as the voice of Everguy, with witty aplomb, a twinkle in his eye, and perspicacious appeal - not the overt, unattractive sarcasm that later took hold of his form.

The entire cast of Seinfeld would perform in character, in an otherwise, staged, but real (realistic) situations. They each voiced words we all dream of saying to ill-mannered workers of any front desk - and they did so with style. Elaine was cynical, but adorable. She was the tough, but sweet gal-pal who would scream only once and a while. And we'd understand her frustration. George was the neurotic, cheap-but-lovable imp. Kramer the frantic voice of the show.

The gallant dash of self-awareness that each of these characters presented on Seinfeld indeed mirrored the nothingness of our lives, gracefully showcased with a balanced blend of poised pessimism, reality and comedic genius, and maybe helped us to recognize our imperfections. In all, Seinfeld was - and remains (forever in reguns) a healthy shot in the funnybone.

So, Happy 20th Aniversary, Seinfeld!

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PART 2: THE ALTERNATE ENDING

To further commemorate the golden anniversary of Seinfeld's debut, herenow please find my own take on how the series could have ended:

FADE IN: Jerry's apartment. Morning.

We see Jerry tossing and turning in bed. He's dreaming of the previous nine years of his life. His parents in Florida. George. George's parents. Elaine. Kramer. Newman. Mr. Bookman, the library detective. The virgin. The low-talker. The close-talker. The puffy shirt. Teri Hatcher's hot Sidra ("They're real, and they're spectacular!"), and all of the other eccentrics he's come to know.

He awakens, and wonders aloud, "What's it all mean?" He thinks a second more, and "Eh…it's probably nothin'."

That evening, George, on a whim (but really because he's bored), decides to set Jerry up on a blind date.

"This could be the one," George tells his best friend.

"Yeah," Jerry replies with a measure of apprehension, "maybe it's time."

"You've got to meet this girl," George goes on to say. "You won't believe your eyes."

"But I'm really not concerned so much with my eyes, as I am with hers," Jerry says. "As well as her nose, her mouth, and various other pertinent body parts and districts."

He thinks a moment, and then asks Geroge, "Is she good lookin'?"

"Good lookin' doesn't begin to describe her," George returns. "As a matter of fact, she's indescribable. Without description. This girl cannot be described."

"So, she's undesirable?" Jerry jokes.

"Come on," George insists, "give her a chance."

Jerry gives in. "Alright. Alright. One chance, and one chance only."

"Thank you, Sir," George replies.

"And by the way," Jerry warns, "this is your last chance."

We then hear the strum of Seinfeld's theme guitar and cut to the following Saturday. George arranges for Jerry to meet this mystery woman at Monks, the gang's home-away-from-home for the last near-decade. At the allotted time, the woman walks in. To Jerry's and our utter surprise, it's Elaine.

Both Jerry and Elaine who, of course, once dated, feel duped by George.

But we kind of like it.At first, they laugh. Next, they become a little angry, then begin to discuss how meeting this way (and anything that could develop from it) may have its perks.

"Hey," Elaine figures, "I've done worse."

"Well, I haven't," Jerry jokes. "This is as bad as it gets."

On that note, Kramer rushes in with Newman and his little acting friend, Micky.

"Then again…" Jerry adds.

"Guess what?" Kramer screeches.

They all look at him, as if to say, "Yeah…??"

"I've been pegged by a Hollywood producer to star in my own TV sitcom," Kramer reveals.

"Oh, you're pegged alright," Jerry says."

And I've got a supporting role," adds Newman."

Really pegged," Jerry adds.

"Me, too," says Micky.

"Pegged like you wouldn't believe," Jerry adds once more.

Kramer explains: "I play a character named Mr. Fix-It Doctor, which also doubles as the show's title. He's a plumber-slash-psychologists who knows all too well how to drain the pipes and emotions of others. And it's about the funny situations that stem from there. The premise is really out there."

"And I'm outa' here," Jerry interjects.

"You and me both," Elaine chimes in.

CUT TO:

George's apartment. We see him watching TV on the sofa. There's a knock at the door. It's Susan, his thought-to-demised fiancée.

"You can't be here," George states in shock. "You're dead!"

"No so, George," Susan replies. "Not so."

"But the poison glue from our wedding invitations? What about that?"

"All a lie," Susan replies. "I lied, George - and I learned from the master."

"Of my domain?"

"Bingo."

"So now what?"

"I tell you what. We're getting married. That's what."

Back at Jerry's apartment, Jerry and Elaine are in the living room. They've just returned from their date. And as it turns out, sparks have indeed flown. They retreat into Jerry's bedroom.
The next morning, the two decide they've always been in love, and to marry.

As we view their bliss, we CUT TO George's distorted face.

Then to Kramer, Newman and Micky flying to LA.The screen goes black.

We hear, "Cut!"

The lights go on. We see Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer reassembled in Jerry's apartment.

The CAMERA RETREATS.

The living room is really a TV set. There's the production crew. The audience."

See you later, Jerry," George says, walking off to one side of the set. But it's not George, the character saying this to the TV Jerry, but Jason Alexander, the actor, saying this to the real Jerry.

"Good night, Jason," Jerry replies, adding, "Julia…Michael," as in Luis Dreyfus and Richards.

All these years, Seinfeld has really been a show-within-a-show.

And that arc of episodes, in which Jerry and George create their own sitcom for NBC?

Well, those outings really displayed a show-within-a show-within-a show premise.But wait - there's more. The screen goes black once again. The lights reappear. We're back in Jerry's bedroom. The show. The no-show. The show-within-a show. The show within a show within a show.

All of it was…"nothing but a dream."

We think.