Have you ever stumbled across, as an adult, a TV series or movie you used to watch as a kid? Sometimes it fills you with a sense of nostalgia to re-connect with the scenes you remember seeing while you were growing up, but sometimes the experience can also be a rude awakening: can you believe that this sort of thing actually used to entertain you? What were you thinking? There’s always a chance your experience will end negatively instead of positively when re-discovering something from your past that you used to know and love.
Recently, I was able to catch up, via the magic of online streaming, with a TV show I watched on the SciFi (now SyFy) Channel during my impressionable years as a young teenager, ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ (streaming for free on the NBC app; available for purchase on the Amazon, Apple+, and Google Play apps). To be clear: when I watched the show in my youth, I was watching it in syndication; the show enjoyed its original short-lived run from 1974-1975, building off the success of two made-for-TV movies about the titular character, Carl Kolchak, a reporter with a penchant for investigating stories of the strange and paranormal. Fortunately for me, my current experience “catching up” with the show was every bit as rewarding as I remember my original viewing experience was.
If the premise of the show sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it is: this series served as the inspiration for one of the most beloved television series of the 1990s (and 2010s!), ‘The X-Files.’ Chris Carter, creator of ‘The X-Files,’ has stated in multiple interviews that ‘Kolchak’ influenced him greatly, and even paid tribute to that series in many episodes of his own. In fact, he asked Darren McGavin, the actor who played Carl Kolchak, to reprise the Kolchak role in an episode of ‘The X-Files,’ but McGavin declined, preferring to let the character stay in the past. McGavin did, however, agree to appear in the show as retired FBI Agent Arthur Dales, the “father of the X-Files;” his turn on this show in 1999 ended up being McGavin’s last time ever on a TV or movie screen, as he passed away in 2006.
As for ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker,’ the series followed the “monster of the week” format, with each episode giving Kolchak a new, fantastic person or creature to contend with. In my favorite episode, titled “The Zombie,” Kolchak is drawn to investigate a gang member killed by a rival gang, who apparently keeps rising from the dead (the police have buried him multiple times) to exact his revenge by killing members of the rival gang. No major spoilers here, but the explanation turns out to be pretty well grounded in reality, and of course, the conclusion of the episode is left a little open-ended for the fun of it. Witty and full of charm, this episode is an excellent example of how sharp, unique story-telling can easily drive a show to be significantly above-average.
What, you want to hear more about the “twist” of the episode? Look, I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but suffice it to say that the explanation of what the zombie is and how he came to be is equal parts common and uncommon, if you can believe that. Extra kudos go to a television series that incorporated heavy elements of the fantastic and fantasy fiction at a time when, really, no one else on TV was doing so because they were afraid it wouldn’t work. Granted, ‘Kolchak’ only lasted for one season, but in retrospect, it was a significantly ground-breaking show, even if it was criminally underrated in its own time.
The show’s creators did a really good job of making each week’s story seem very grounded in reality – quite a feat for an entire series that revolved around the supernatural. The explanation for why or how things happened in the show never seemed overly incredulous. All of the actors seem very committed to the parts and characters they are portraying, especially McGavin, playing the role of Carl Kolchak with a relish and flair of an actor who truly wanted the audience to have fun alongside his character. A decade after ‘Kolchak’ went off the air, McGavin would show the same zeal as he cemented himself into the minds of movie-goers as the over-the-top father in ‘A Christmas Story,’ but this series will always be known as the first truly “breakthrough role” for him.
Granted, being a TV series set in the ‘70s, the budget for ‘Kolchak’ was fairly miniscule, so the creative team did what they could with what was available to them. For example, in “The Zombie,” most shots of the zombie are quick cuts, but we do get a few quality shots of some pretty gruesome looks as his decaying form. It’s the editing of this episode that helps truly engage the viewer: there is so much story packed into 50 minutes, I really felt like I had been watching for more than an hour – and I mean that in a good way! The story flowed well and the viewer is immediately engaged in Kolchak’s world from the get-go, and it makes for a very satisfying viewing experience.
‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ was a television series that was truly ahead of its time, and ultimately this is probably what doomed it to a one-season run before its cancellation. It is a testament to the solid nature of its premise and characters that, not only does the series live on via a DVD collection (and a surprising amount of full episodes widely available on YouTube), there has also been a second TV series to bear its name in 2005, along with novels, short-story anthologies, and a comic book series all based on the world of the original Night Stalker. Plus, it’s just a really cool name to say.