Sunday, April 5, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: Distant Signals

"Distant Signals" foretells the likes of Galaxy Quest and "When Aliens Attack," the Futurama episode in which the Omnicronians threaten the Earth until they see the end of an episode of Ally McBeal stand-in Single Female Lawyer. It's not horrific in the slightest, but it is pretty clever and kind of touching in its own, low-key way.

"Distant Signals" centers on a failed TV show from the 1960s called "Max Paradise," a detective show about an amnesic played by Van Conway (Darren McGavin) and written by Gil Hurn (David Margulies, the mayor from Ghostbusters). The show was cancelled mid-season; Hurn has moved on while Conway is a boozing bartender. Out of the blue, they're approach by the mysterious Mr. Smith, who says he represents wealthy investors who want to finance the show and complete it's run, to wrap up the storyline. To show he's serious, Smith pays in gold.

Smith's true nature is fairly obvious, even though he always appears human looking in a suit. The episode has fun hinting at what he really is, mainly through little slips in his understanding of human behavior, mispronouncing words ("Vitt-a-mins" instead of vitamins) and not understanding slang (when asked if the gold bars are hot, as in stolen, he says touch them. It's a bit predictable but amusing.

There's not much in the way of conflict - Smith is essentially a walking deus ex machine - but "Distant Signals" works because of its theme. Writers, and other artists for that matter, develop their ideas, but they can't know with complete certainty who their work will speak to or how they will take it. To Hurn, "Max Paradise" was a cliched cop show, a hokey job for hire, but Smith tells him the audience he represents considers it high art, a drama of great meaning and importance. A show that no one on Earth remembers is loved and cherished by aliens who want to see the story resolved. Hurn is stunned anyone cares about the show, but as Smith tells him, "When you wrote it, you cared."

Meanwhile, the show offers a comeback for Conway. Afraid, kind of bitter, he initially refuses, and at his first reading, he storms out, convinced he can't do it, but Smith does ... something to help him with his addictions, and the show is completed. A guy who couldn't be a star on Earth discovers he's an icon beyond the stars.

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