Tuesday, September 12, 2006

60s TV

Lara Parker from the 1960s soap opera, Dark Shadows, was in town a couple of weeks ago and I got to see her. During a Q&A session she was asked about the popularity of the show. She replied that she was sure that every adult watching it was watching for the camp value.

I don't think so. Granted the show has a lot of camp when viewed today. The same is true with Star Trek which turned 40 last week. This was not true when the shows were new.

Dark Shadows is best compared with a stage production and it comes off well. It was one of the first shows to make extensive use of blue screen and other photographic tricks. As with a stage production, the viewer has to suspend disbelief and just not notice that someone moved a tombstone or that sunsets in Maine always look the same.

During the same Q&A session she gave a different opinion of the appeal of the show. Jonathan Frid who played Barnabas had a great deal of trouble learning lines quickly. This was made worse because he was in more episodes than anyone else. During filming, Frid often stumbled over lines and always seemed in a near-panic. On film (tape) this gave the character a nervous tension that you could feel. The same thing happened with other actors to some extent. (Note, I have seen Frid performing live, using rehearsed material and he is a riveting actor.)

Parker also pointed out that the show lifted plotlines from the classics. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dorian Grey, the Lottery, and a Lovecraftian thing all appeared in some form or another. The show also gave a major twist that most of these monsters were sympathetic. You wanted them to survive, not die.

As for Star Trek, it has not aged all that well. Since it is nearly the only show from its generation to still play regularly it is easy to forget how typical most of its weak points were. Everyone overacted on TV, not just Shatner. The fight choreography was done by people who usually did westerns (the staple of TV at the time).

At the time, people seldom died on TV shows. Star Trek was a pioneer in showing that space can be dangerous but they couldn't kill off stars so it usually fell to the extras in red security uniforms to take one for the show.

What made Star Trek unusual was how seriously it took science fiction. Lost in Space premiered the same week but within a couple of months it had gone from a serious show to a campy parody of one.

It was also unusual in taking on issues of the day. Sometime this was heavy-handed and embarrassing (the white/black and the black/white aliens) but more often it was enlightening. It also showed a positive future that was still recognizable. The United Nations grew into the Federation of Planets which was effective, possibly because it had its own fleet of starships. The Cold War was echoed by friction with the Klingons and the Romulans.

Also, unlike the later versions of Trek, Kirk spent most of his time saving people from outside threats. There was more at stake in the average episode of the original series than later ones.

Still, when watching TV's first inter-racial kiss, I find myself wondering if Shatner is about to knock Nichols's wig off.

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