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Missing SF on late night TV

February 23, 2009

I was looking at the titles on my DVD shelf the other day and it occured to me that the first time I’d seen a number of the classics of SF cinema was on late night TV.

Remember the time when there were a lot of independant local or regional stations? Before the cable networks started to form in the late 80’s and the rise of the specialty channels in the 90’s? Twenty years ago and for a couple of decades before that, it wasn’t unusual for stations, especially those that weren’t network affiliates, to try to add movies as late-night programming to keep people watching a little longer, and some of them were savvy enough to figure out that geeks were likely to be up, or would stay up to watch the SF movies that just weren’t being shown during primetime.

As a teenager in the greater Vancouver area in the mid-late 80’s, I was lucky enough to get KSTW out of Seattle, which had “Sci Fi Friday”. (cue the receding multi-coloured graphics in the background and a strange, beating, almost videogamish bassline beneath the announcer’s voiceover) Every Friday at midnight (the girls in my junior high weren’t into guys who read or watched SF, or guys who read, for that matter, so yeah, I was home Friday nights) I’d flick on my little 13-inch Zenith and tune in to be schooled in science fiction and fantasy cinema. “Sci Fi Friday” introduced me to the great stuff like “Alien”, “Blade Runner” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. And for all of the good, there was much, much more of the bad: “Robot Monster”, “Tobor the Great” and “Invasion of the Star Creatures” (What, you don’t remember this early 60’s piece of crap about a plot by alien amazon women commanding giant carrot monsters that gets foiled by two Abbot & Costello-wannabes? I don’t blame you. It’s not worth remembering. It’s kinda unfortunate that it’s stuck in my head.) to name just a few. But even the garbage had its purpose, if not for a few laughs at its expense, then to illustrate how the genre could go wrong and how these mistakes would be repeated in later years.

Sadly, that was the end of the late-night TV SF cinema era. It wasn’t long before infomercials took hold, completely wiping-out programming in favour of desparate grasps at cash, in part motivated by the formation of cable networks that didn’t want to leave room for something that wasn’t exactly the same in every station in every region aimed at the broadest possible audience/lowest common denominator.

During the 90’s, the idea of late-night SF cinema was given a satirical resurrection through “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”. The show, where Joel and his robot companions would heckle old SF movies, shorts and commericals, gained cult status and even got its own movie into national theatres – a re-release of “This Island Earth” with the MST3K treatment. But while the show (through DVDs and websites with its old recordings) and its imitators still have fans, it’s faded from pop culture consciousness.

These days, if you want to dig up old SF (the good or the bad), there are plenty of sites around the web, and of course there are movie rooms at cons. But it’s just not the same.

Watching these films at a con with other fans is cool, without a doubt. It’s especially conducive to giving one that sucks the MST3K treatment. But con-viewing doesn’t give the same feel of watching on your own TV in your own room, or basement.

And sure, there are SF specialty channels now – the Sci Fi Channel in the US and Space in Canada (I’m not sure about the situation in other parts of the world), but, speaking at least about Space, they just don’t do the job. Space’s programming is primarily TV show-based, even later into the evening. Despite it’s genre focus, late-night programming in recent years is primarily infomercials. And while the channel does run movies during the weekend in specified time slots, they tend to be films from the past 10 years. You certainly wouldn’t see anything from the 50’s or 60’s. Most of the films tend to be reruns of the same stable of movies they’ve been showing for years now, unlike the old late night SF features that had so much old material to draw from they rarely, if ever, repeated themselves.

As for the internet, how many movie sites, especially ones specializing in old SF movies, are out there on the net? Probably quite a few, I’m guessing. Where would a new SF fan, young and just trying to figure out the genre(s) start? For that matter, where would an older fan start when looking to dredge up old memories? It’s like walking into a mall full of restaurants when you’re looking for a snack. Too many options. Sure it’s good to have a choice, but there’s something to be said for the old late-weekend-night single or double feature format where you could get a steady, reliable diet of the stuff without having an overload of selections.

Sure you never knew from week to week whether the movie would be good or bad (unless you gave any credibility to the number of stars the movie was given in your tv guide’s synopsis – if you even read your tv guide). but that was part of the fun. Hell, not checking the tv guide at all and being surprised with the title of what they were serving up on a particular Friday was part of the fun too. You never knew what you were going to get (no, leave the Forrest Gump jokes alone).

The timing was part of the appeal too. Online, you can view these flicks anytime. But was just something that felt right about sitting back at the end of the day in a dark room with the blue flicker of the TV, a can of coke (maybe a beer swiped from dad’s beer fridge) and a bowl of pretzels or popcorn, clicking over to the independant channel at midnight and letting the show start. The late night viewing set you apart from everyone else watching “LA Law” or whatever during primetime. Appropriate, since as an SF fan you were probably a little apart anyway. When the flick was over you could step out onto the back deck in the chill night air for a minute and look and the stars and dream. Late night was the geek’s time. It was your time. And it was cool.

Late night TV SF movies brought all of these elements together. And it’s too bad it’s gone.

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