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!