One Step Beyond

Shows like One Step Beyond and the better-remembered Twilight Zone are, in many ways, the entertainment ancestors of The X-Files, Fringe, and numerous other science fiction series featuring a mystery-of-the-week. So it’s informative to explore where sci-fi (or SyFy) television came from. Although the show doesn’t appear to be widely known, it had a reboot (The Next Step Beyond) in the 70s has been available on DVD since 2009.

One Step Beyond hit the airwaves in January 1959. In the episodic dramas of today we generally follow along with investigators as they try to solve the mystery at hand. Back then, we just had things laid out before us by a narrator. John Newland, who was a well-known actor and director at the time, claims that these stories are true. Whether we’re really meant to believe that is unclear. Newland introduces and concludes each one with measured gravitas. He’s not given to flashlight-under-the-chin mellowdrama. Each half-hour episode tells a single, stand-alone story, with different characters every time. It doesn’t matter much which order they are viewed in.

Episode 2 actually seems like it might have made a better pilot than Episode 1. (It’s possible it was the episode that sold the series.) Episode 2 is about the sinking of The Titanic, and various premonitions people–real or fictitious–had about it. With such a well-known and captivating event at its center, one would think this episode would have been idea for capturing an audience. That being said, I’m here to look at Episode 1, “The Bride Posessed.” The title itself is a bit of a spoiler, but it’s a fairly original tale.

We open with a rather cheap wedding reception in a tavern. The boisterous guests all seem to be friends of the groom, Matt (Skip Homeier), and we learn that the bride, Sally (Virginia Leith) is newly transplanted to California from Louisiana. There’s a bit of suspense about whether a certain wedding guest might get surly, but nothing comes of it. Perhaps this is an attempt to set the audience on edge for what’s coming.

As the couple drives away from their reception, Sally is asleep. When she wakes up, she begins directing Matt where to drive, giving explicit detail, even though she has supposedly never been here before. She becomes increasingly frantic to get to a particular location, eventually taking the car and leaving him stranded. Matt enlists the help of a policeman, who accompanies him to find Sally in an abandoned house. The officer explains that the previous resident recently committed suicide by jumping off of a nearby cliff, the name of which we heard Sally mention in the car. As things unfold, it becomes clear that the dead woman, Karen, has posessed Sally in order to report that she was, in fact, murdered.

We’ve seen stories of people who returned from the dead to solve their own murders, and stories of people posessed by demons, but this is a little different from either. Sally’s head doesn’t spin around; there is no blood or gore whatsoever. We never even meet the accused murderer. The story is primarily told from the point of view of the groom, watching his new wife thrash and scream with frustration when no one will listen to her. One exception is when we see though Sally’s eyes; in perhaps the most spine-tingling moment of the episode, she looks into a mirror and the reflection is that of Karen.

Resolution comes when the dead woman, through Sally, leads them to the murder weapon used to bash her head in. Sally falls asleep again and wakes up as herself. (One wonders what kind of anxiety this man is going to experience everytime his wife dozes off.)

Though it may not be suspensful or action-packed by today’s standards, “The Bride Posessed” hooks the viewer by asking them to wonder “what if?” That is really why we watch science fiction, is it not?

The Donna Reed Show

Remember how, for a while in the 80s, the 50s were super cool? I guess it was brought about by Back to the Future, possibly Grease 2, and most definitely Nick at Nite. I was all about that trend, dressing as a “50s girl” for Halloween complete with saddle shoes, and I wanted to be Mary (Shelly Fabares) on The Donna Reed Show.

Some pilot traditions remain unchanged for decades. This one opens with the getting-ready- in-the-morning sequence. The teen daughter, Mary, and younger brother, Jeff, are complaining to their mother over breakfast about how little they see of their pediatrician father. The tone seems pretty naturalistic. In fact, the dialogue is a little rambly by today’s standards. But I can imagine a viewer in the 1950s thinking “Gee whiz, this is a regular family like mine.”

Mr. (Dr.) Donna Reed practices medicine out of his home. In this episode, Donna (whose last name in the show is Stone) wants Dr. Stone’s colleague, Bo, to cover his practice for the weekend so that the family can take a much-needed holiday. Bo and Donna are a little flirty, and if this were on the air today, we would swear they were destined for a hook-up.

Dr. Stone has to cancel the vacation so he can testify for a friend in traffic court. Right away, Donna is off to see the friend in question and solve that one. A pattern is staring to form; Donna is a meddling wife. The men around her tend to fall for her charms. Next, the joke is on Donna when it turns out she is supposed to host a luncheon over the weekend in question, once again putting the family plans in jeopardy. Her husband forgot to give her a phone message, a deed she punishes by making him fix his own dinner. They solve that conundrum, only to run into another one in the form of a sick patient. Donna meddles some more, and that’s solved. Finally, their weekend is cancelled once and for all when Jeff comes down with Chicken Pox. The moral is that all the meddling in the world can’t stop the everyday challenges life throws at parents.

The pilot gives broad brushstrokes of the family and their lifestyle. Through it all, Donna is never wrong, never admits a mistake. It doesn’t look as if the problems of the Stone family are going to be serious ones. While the show is filled with corny jokes and laugh tracks, it’s not all that funny, either. The main characters are so sweet and charming, we can anticipate that the conflicts will arise from other families doing bad stuff. Really, the Stones aren’t much different from the Huxtables or the Seavers. Donna Reed wasn’t breaking new ground at the time, either. Leave it to Beaver and several other family sitcoms were already on the air. That being said, there is obviously something timeless about this show, or we wouldn’t still be watching it.