Friday, November 5, 2010

LSD on NBC! (A Looong TV History Lesson!)

Dum-De-DUM-Dum!
The mid-1960s was a highpoint for sci-fi and fantasy television programming. Never before had there been as much “fantastic television” in prime time – nor would there be again, at least until very recently.

Indeed, the 1966-1967 TV season is (and will likely always be) my favorite of all time. Sadly, for the enthusiasts of such programming, virtually all of it would be gone by end of 1968, with only a scant few stragglers “keeping the flame” until 1970.

I believe I can pinpoint the exact date when the change began to take place… January 12, 1967 – with the premiere of DRAGNET 1967 on NBC. (Available on the DVD collection: DRAGNET 1967: Season One – released in 2005.) Cue the show’s announcer, George Fenneman:

The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

Jack Webb’s DRAGNET 1967 was an updated revival of the prior incarnation of the series (1951-1959) with Webb reprising his role as Sergeant Joe Friday with new partner Bill Gannon, played by Harry Morgan (later of M*A*S*H*).

As if to let you know, right out of the gate, that this wasn’t… um, “your older brother’s” DRAGNET, here’s Joe Friday:

A powerful NEW DRUG, capable of producing weird and dangerous hallucinations, had found its way onto the streets of the city. It had fallen into the hands of juvenile experimenters. We had to try and stop it.”

That “new drug” happened to be LSD!

Stop, for a moment, and try to process this in the mindset of the times.

We’d just left behind the black and white “comedic styling” of I LOVE LUCY and FATHER KNOWS BEST. We’d transitioned into color broadcasting, with such shows as VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, BATMAN, and STAR TREK taking full advantage of the new visual potential now available to the home screen.

And, abruptly, here comes Jack Webb with the stark truth of the drug problem facing America’s youth. Specifically focusing on the new menace of LSD.

Webb drives the point home with dialogue by a police chemist (played by 1960s Filmation Batman animated voice actor Olan Soule) who informs us that LSD was developed in 1938 Switzerland, is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, and comes in two forms – liquid and powder.

Soule’s character goes on:

It’s new. We can’t be sure about physical addictions but, one thing we’re certain of – in every case so far, every one of the individuals has had a psychological dependence on it. Now, you tell me which is worse!”

Hampering Friday and Gannon – and law enforcement officials everywhere – is that, at the time this “true story” is supposed to have taken place, there is NO LAW covering the sale and use of LSD.

Over the course of the tightly scripted half hour, in response to the alarming rise in LSD use, both Federal and California state laws are passed, classifying LSD as a dangerous drug. Friday and Gannon leap into action – and hope is implied for citizens everywhere.

Make no mistake; I am not mocking this superb episode of DRAGNET 1967. Its message was powerful for its time and, honestly, remains so today – even if the nearly fifty-ish Webb tends to come off a little too stiff and clipped.

In fact, I would wager that this was the FIRST TIME much of mainstream America may have even heard of LSD – and both Webb and NBC are to be commended for devoting airtime to this very serious subject – especially when the “more fantastic” was the television order of the day.

NBC quickly followed DRAGNET 1967’s success with Raymond Burr’s IRONSIDE – and that would signal the great proliferation of cop shows that would debut over the coming seasons.

Both DRAGNET and IRONSIDE were (and to this day remain) two huge favorites of mine, but I can’t help but wonder if the death knell for sci-fi / fantasy television was first sounded on January 12, 1967. …Damn those kids and their LSD!

As a total digression, a copy of the DC comic book MY GREATEST ADVENTURE can be glimpsed during the episode.

In direct contrast with DRAGNET 1967’s episode “The Big LSD”, let’s see what other popular series of the time were up to that same week…

Tuesday, January 10:

THE INVADERS (ABC) would also premiere with its pilot episode “Beachhead”. Architect David Vincent stumbles upon alien invaders, and would spend the next season and a half trying to convince our disbelieving world of the threat.

Wednesday, January 11:

BATMAN (ABC) “The Zodiac Crimes”. Part One of a rare THREE PART Batman camp-adventure, where The Penguin teams up with The Joker. You can see the “formula” needed variation by this time.

LOST IN SPACE (CBS) “The Questing Beast”. The bumbling Don Quixote of Space, well played by Hans Conreid, arrives on the Robinsons’ planet with the aim of fulfilling his noble quest.

Thursday, January 12 (Same Night as DRAGNET 1967: “The Big LSD”):

BATMAN (ABC) “The Joker’s Hard Times”. Part Two of the THREE PART Penguin / Joker team-up.

STAR TREK (NBC) “The Squire of Gothos”. Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are victims of “Trelane”, an omnipotent but naughty alien “child” – superbly played by William Campbell.

Friday, January 13 (Was last night’s DRAGNET premiere “Bad Luck” for all these shows?):

THE TIME TUNNEL (ABC) “Visitors from Beyond the Stars”. In 1885, predatory aliens destroy an Arizona town – leaving it to become an old western “ghost town”.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (NBC) “The Deadly Smorgasbord Affair”. Napoleon Solo goes LITERALLY “solo”, as Robert Vaughn does this episode WITHOUT co-star David McCallum! Solo travels to Scandinavia to keep a “Suspended Animation Device” out of the hands of THRUSH. Actor Robert Emhardt plays the villain – in a role that looks as if it were CREATED for Victor Buono. Emhardt was good… but Buono would have been PERFECT!

THE WILD WILD WEST (CBS) “The Night of the Feathered Fury”. In one of those great coincidences, while we didn’t get Victor Buono in U.N.C.L.E., we DO get him in TWWW – and on the SAME NIGHT! James West and Buono’s Count Manzeppi vie for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone!

Sunday, January 15:

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (ABC) “The Heat Monster”. A malevolent entity, made of pure fire, is trapped below the arctic ice cap. Enter the Submarine Seaview.

And in the midst of ALL THAT, comes DRAGNET 1967 and “The Big LSD”! How’s that for perspective? Your thoughts are always welcome!

5 comments:

Bruce Kanin said...

Joe,

I remember the 1960s DRAGNET well - no nonsense from the straight-shooting stars. (This tradition was somewhat carried on by Jack Lord in his mega-hit HAWAII FIVE-O.)

And you're right - in the midst of all sorts of fantasy shows ranging from spies to superheroes to sci-fi comes Jack Webb.

He and his TV series (and I mean that in the plural sense, since DRAGNET wasn't his only vehicle) were akin to that time-honored technique of imagining ball players to calm oneself down when...

Ooops - this is a family blog, no?

Great point, Joe, re: a transition happening at that point in television, from, as said, fantasy-type shows to more serious-minded stuff.

I think, too, that this was a reflection of what was going on in America at the time. After all, the 60s began with the Camelot Administration (Kennedy) that, due to an unfortunate assassination, became what was still a progressive and somewhat liberal administration (Johnson).

But by the mid/late 60s this was slip-sliding towards a more conservatively-run government under Nixon.

So you had the fantasy world of open-minded and progressive politicians (the Kennedys, Johnson, Humphrey, etc.) giving way to no-nonsense Nixon & co. (that is, until they pulled THEIR version of nonsense in the 70s that led to their demise!).

Sounds like TV paralleled this, to an extent.

Loved your summary of TV series and episodes on at the time! Ah - M/UNCLE in its 3rd season and STAR TREK in its first.

Wotta time!!

Regards,

Bruce

Joe Torcivia said...

Great points all, Bruce!

Even though the resultant shift in TV programming would probably have been the same, the impact of CONTRAST would have been considerably lessened if Webb and DRAGNET 1967 led off with a story about bank robbers, kidnappers, or white collar crime… instead of LSD!

It was that particular contrast of a “new” and very dangerous drug (far from TV’s usual subject matter of the day) with “Squires of Gothos”, “Heat Monsters”, and “Questing Beasts” that I find so fascinating.

Um, not that I don’t love “Squires of Gothos”, “Heat Monsters”, and “Questing Beasts”, you understand! :-)

I should also mention that first DRAGNET – and soon thereafter IRONSIDE – both started first as TV movies and quickly moved on to series.

THAT was the beginning of a trend, too!

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

Interesting observation. AS A WHOLE, the era of "fantastic TV" extended through at least 1969 (cancellation of STAR TREK), it just wasn't as dominant.

Chris

Joe Torcivia said...

1970, if you take it to the end of LAND OF THE GIANTS.

But, 1968 was the year most of it “went away”, and TV and pop culture as a whole was all the worse for that!

Mark Lungo said...

I vaguely remember the 1960s Dragnet; I caught a few reruns in syndication when I was a kid. The show has become notorious for dealing with the hippie counterculture in a less-than-understanding manner; see some of the criticism at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Dragnet, for example.

I've seen a handful of Ironsides as well. The one I remember best was an early episode called "The Man Who Believed", in which Ironside sets out to prove that the death of hippie folksinger Samantha Dain (played by Marcia Strassman, the future "Mrs. Kotter") was murder, not suicide. I still have a minor crush on poor, doomed Samantha...