Wednesday, December 17, 2008

One Step Beyond

When most people think of early science fiction and fantasy television they think of The Twilight Zone. I mean after all, it's an icon. The title and music "do! doo do do, do! doo do do" are common terms in our vocabulary to express an unusual or unexplainable event. And the show has been around for forty-nine years and everyone knows the plots of SOME of the episodes.

There's the guy who survives an atomic attack and has all the time in the world to read the books he loves and . . . OH! . . . breaks his glasses. Major bummer!

And then there's the woman who has her bandages removed after plastic surgery to reveal she's beautiful. But not to the eyes of the monsters who were serving as doctors and nurses. Wow, what a switcheroo!

When I was older, I loved the one about the old woman in the shack who had a tiny spacecraft crash into her roof. She got chased around by these tiny aliens, one of them cuts the heck out of her with her own butcher knife. At the end, we're surprised to discover . . . the little aliens are Americans! Double WOW! And like I said, I loved that episode when I was older, but boy, when I was younger, it scared the CRAP out of me.

And who can forget the moving slot machine chasing Franklin? FRANK-LIN! Very innovative stories and just look at Rod Serling! Look at him! Who could ever think of hosting a show like this?

Well, as it happens, there WAS a such a host before Rod on a show that came a year before The Twilight Zone. That show was One Step Beyond and it was brought to us by Alcoa who still makes the lion's share of aluminum around here. The host was John Newland and although his approach was different, he had many of the same subtle eerie-ness qualities. Deadly seriousness and the unmistakable impression of competence and believability.

The theme was a little lighter and the stories perhaps a shade gentler, but they could still be darn scary. Especially to a little kid who shouldn't have been watching them in the first place. The methodology was more a reenactment of actual events like something nowadays on the Discovery Channel or History Channel. But the music was haunting and used flawlessly to chill you just at the right moment. It really worked.

I find it interesting that this show debuted FIFTY years ago, a year before The Twilight Zone and then ran concurrently with it for another two years. But One Step Beyond never reached iconic status and no one knows what happened to John Newland. Well, I don't anyway.

So, what made the difference? Was
The Twilight Zone just a better show? It certainly had great writers. Some of the top science-fiction writers in the world contributed scripts. Maybe one show got more promotion than the other. But perhaps it just came down to Rod Serling himself. If you had the chance now, would you have dinner with John Newland or Rod Serling, presuming he would put the ever-present cigarette away? Who had the magic?

Sometimes the magic just happens. No matter how analytical you get, you can't parse out the sentences enough to see whether someone used better adjectives than the other. But when the magic happens, you recognize it right away. Still happens today.


Dave said...

John Newland passed away on January 10 2000 at the age of 82, from a stroke.

Leah said...

My two shows were Night Gallery (also Rod Serling, but in color) and Tales from the Darkside. Still little morality plays, just like twilight zone....

Dave said...

The first "weird" series I can remember from my early days was Science Fiction Theater. This was before Twilight Zone and made an impression on an impressionable young boy - me!