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Carl Kolchak is the father of modern TV
By Bert Ehrmann
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Fort Wayne Reader
As this year’s Emmy Awards drew to a close one thing became apparent; the American television audience is really into a drama about a group of plane-crash survivors stranded on a desert island. Not only did the series Lost win seven Emmy awards but also, and probably more importantly, its second season opened with a whopping 23 million viewers, an all-time high for the year-old drama.
But how does a series like Lost come to be in a television landscape ruled by reality shows and cop dramas? To understand the ancestry of Lost, take a trip to the ABC television landscape some 30 odd years ago.
In 1972 a television movie-of-the-week called The Night Stalker aired about newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin – the dad from A Christmas Story) following the trail of a vampire in Las Vegas. A few years later the movie became a series entitled Kolchak: The Night Stalker, with Kolchak doing battle with the unknown week-after-week — be it moss-men, devil-dogs or insane computers (David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, also got one of his first writing gigs with Kolchak, but that’s another story).
But the series didn’t do all that well in the ratings and was canceled after just one season. And Kolchak would have remained in that netherworld where unsuccessful shows rot in purgatory except that a modern television series drew much of its overall plot and ideas from The Night Stalker.
In 1993 The X-Files began, and series creator Chris Carter freely admitted that The Night Stalker heavily inspired his series. While Kolchak dealt with an unbelieving newspaper editor and police officers never quite buying his wild explanations of vampires and werewolves, Mulder and Scully were forced to deal with a more overt government conspiracy trying to keep the truth from the public.
It’s been several years since new episodes of The X-Files have aired, and several more since any good episodes of The X-Files aired. But it’s apparent that The X-Files is a little more than just “inspired by” The Night Stalker. It’s more of an update to the show – nearly the same characters and plot set in modern times. But unlike Kolchak, The X-Files was extremely successful, lasting eight seasons, spawning a theatrical film and numerous video games, and making loads of money for all those involved.
In the wake of The X-Files, many shows tried to clone that series “look and feel” (overt conspiracies, men hiding in the shadows, the creepy unknown…) but none of these other shows lasted very long. Nowhere Man, Dark Skies, Millennium and PSI Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal came and went usually after just a few seasons on the air, sometimes lasting less than one.
It would take the launch of Lost, a few years after the end of The X-Files, to reignite the public’s love of the unknown. Lost took the themes of The X-Files and twisted them into something new, unusual and unique. Characters investigating the unknown set against the backdrop of a conspiracy were gone, replaced with characters ensnared within the unknown with an unseen conspiracy trapping them on an island that may or may not exist in our reality.
In the ultimate odd twist of fate, a revival of The Night Stalker is currently airing on ABC entitled, simply enough, Night Stalker. Except that the revival show bears more than a passing resemblance to The X-Files. This time believer Carl Kolchak (Stuart Townsend) is joined by skeptic reporter Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union) mirroring the Mulder and Scully relationship from The X-Files. Their cases are set against a shadowy government agency trying to keep what they discover under wraps. Sound familiar?
So, Kolchak: The Night Stalker is both the father and grandfather of current Night Stalker. Which is pretty sick and twisted when you really think about it.