castle pilotIn this postmodern television landscape, a lot of shows are attempting the meta; Castle does meta as well or better than any show on TV. At the moment there are four books available (in the real world) by fake author Richard Castle about fake detective Nikki Heat, based on fake detective Kate Beckett, which have real reviews on Amazon by the likes of real mystery writer James Patterson. There are also a couple of books featuring Rick Castle’s earlier character Derrick Storm, and a comic book, Palace, about (if I have this straight) an actor who played a detective on TV and then used the knowledge gained to become a real detective. Can Nathan Fillion, private dick, be far off? Continue reading

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?

John Doe

John Doe debuted in 2002, airing on Friday nights at 9pm on Fox, a timeslot that is apparently where perfectly good sci-fi shows go to die.

The show opens with a square-jawed, naked man (Dominic Purcell, more recently of Prison Break, and so much cuter with hair) stumbling confusedly around an island. A few quick cuts and horror movie-style sound clips later, he is plucked out of the ocean by a fishing vessel off the coast of Seattle. Despite speaking Khmer and being able to tell the date and time, down to the second, by the position of the sun, he doesn’t know who he is or how he wound up in the water. As the audience, we’re as lost as the character.

Walking aimlessly down the street, Mr. Square Jaw notices a scar or a brand of some sort on his neck (which, although this show came first, reminds me of those marks the characters on Heroes used to find on themselves in Season 1.) It’s sort of a C-shaped thing with a couple of slashed through it. For reasons not yet explained, he sees only in black and white.

The nameless man quickly discovers, as do we, that he is a genius, or a human encyclopedia, or both. He puts his uncanny smarts to work in short order, first dazzling a crowd at a library by answering any question they can imagine. And, I may be over-thinking this, but there is an overhead shot of the library desk and the crowd around it that vaguely resembles the scar.

He gets himself a social security number and names himself John Doe. Before long, John is on his way to financial largesse, putting his brain to work on horse races and foreign currency. But wait, there’s more! Not only is he a brainiac, he’s musically talented, and soon stumbles into a gig playing piano in a bar. So we’re thinking he’s going to land on his feet.

At last through the set-up, we’re vaulted into action when John sees a missing little girl on TV, and her photo is the only thing he sees in color. Figuring that must mean something, he offers his services to the local police. The cop in charge of the missing person’s case lets him help pretty much right off the bat, while maintaining the requisite skepticism.

The mystery unfolds, with John seeing key people and items in color. The question that propels us through is, will John find the girl, or will the girl help him find himself?

With the forensics skills of Temperence Brennan, the learning ability of Chuck Bartowski, and the looks of – wow, I don’t know who – John has it all, as a character. The supporting characters come off as superficial, like the head-scratching cop and the really annoying-yet artistic-young woman who works at the bar with John. Everyone else introduced in this episode is a throw-away.

This isn’t the official pilot of John Doe. There was an unaired version with a different cast. But this one finds the balance needed for an action/sci-fi pilot between giving us enough to be intrigued but not enough to know what the hell is going on. Other shows have done this successfully, only to nosedive (Dollhouse, Journeyman, Defying Gravity) and this show’s fate was no better. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, predating themore successful shows referenced above. Or perhaps it got sucked into the great black hole of cop show stereotypes. I haven’t watched beyond this episode, but if it ended up being just another mystery-of-the-week show, the originality of the premise may not have held up.