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February 5, 2001:
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Music and Storytelling of the May Sweeps

by Christopher Walsh

Okay, how much TV did we all watch this past month? How much did we wish, afterwards, that we had watched? At least as far as TV is concerned, if it's crap, it's still free, and it's still eminently easy to tune out (neither of which could be said for Twister). And in the quest to remember what was wheat and what was chaff in the special events and their music, TV is still worth talking about.

Robin Cook's Invasion

The only reason I watched the first half of Invasion is because I was recording it on an unfamiliar VCR for someone I know, I couldn't figure out how to set the unit's timer, and I had decided simply to press "Record" at 9:00 and "Stop" at 11:00. In other words, I was being lazy. Well, even for someone like me who will forgive most anything if there are hot enough babes in it (this had Kim Cattrall and Rebecca Gayhart), this miniseries was probably Exhibit Z in how hard it is to do science fiction credibly on television. (Forgive them, for they know not what they do.)

Again, as with The Beast, we get fairly cool computer-generated special effects in service of a story on par with creative typing. Robin Cook, by the way, first wrote the story for the miniseries and then wrote the novel, perhaps sensing that there was no point in trying to stuff a novel's elaboration into a four-hour chunk of TV sweeps time. The acting was of the ridiculously standard "we're possessed by aliens, so we're stiff" mode that's been a cliche for decades. Luke Perry probably can portray someone with a brain?he's at least effective as an archaeologist in the opening of the wondrous The Fifth Element?but he doesn't do that here. And anyone who complains about the stylish SF series Babylon 5 having overwritten dialogue should watch Invasion and see how much worse such writing can be.

Rockne O'Bannon, who wrote Invasion's script, has yet to demonstrate for a second time the promise he showed on his New Twilight Zone work from 12 years ago. On his Zone script "Wordplay," O'Bannon used science fiction as a tool, to explore how a man felt overwhelmed by a society he didn't understand. Here, like in the film Alien Nation and the series SeaQuest DSV (which he helped to create, but then left before it premiered), he uses science fiction as a popular and commercial seasoning of otherwise overcooked ideas; it's as if he's been saying, "Hey, this sci-fi stuff is a hit with the kiddies." When it works logically, yes. When it's used cynically, it shouldn't, Independence Day notwithstanding.

Invasion's composer Don Davis is slowly raising his profile in feature work, going the route of small films by young filmmakers. The audience-polarizing Bound has been his first big calling card of this sort; I am criminally lacking in my knowledge of Miklos Rozsa, but was Davis's music meant as a Rosza tribute? (Or was it more a reference to hard-boiled 1940s films in general?) In the meantime, he continues to work concertedly in television, mostly for NBC's recent science-fiction-ish miniseries The Beast, Pandora's Clock, and now Invasion. For each of these, Davis has had the potentially thankless task of trying to translate symphonic power to a frequently electronic ensemble (which, as noted about The Odyssey, can turn ridiculous), but on each project he has created a sound that successfully grabs your attention, which is the modest goal most TV music aims for.

Invasion has a slamming musical opening with interesting electronic percussion, and this sounds offbeat enough to make the audience sit up and take notice. There was fairly standard foreboding music throughout Part I, as more and more people become infected and turn stiff. Having not seen more, there's not much more I can say about this program. (At least Davis's music was used in the promos and commercial breaks.)

As with The Beast on Varese Sarabande, Don Davis will get a soundtrack album of Invasion's score, courtesy Super Tracks, where this music might be able to stand on its own. (And someone who has HBO might want to see how Davis fares on the recent cable-film Weapons of Mass Destruction.)

The Shining

Horror, as Stephen King writes in his non-fiction work Danse Macabre, is an inherently conservative genre. Characters descend into a special hell where all is twisted and deviant, but some of the people always conquer this darkness and escape into the light of normalcy. It is this release back into the world of love and the nuclear family? though with always a hint that the evil survives?that is so satisfying about a decently told horror tale. King has used this idea to advantage throughout his career, and it is a story progression that most horror stories, even the Friday the 13th crap, follow.

The above is both apropos to why the finale of the TV version of The Shining works like gangbusters, and in a different way why Stanley Kubrick's film with Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall worked its own awful magic. The ABC miniseries works reasonably well during its first four hours, with strong work from Rebecca DeMornay as Wendy Torrance and effective acting by the child who plays Danny, but it wasn't making much of an impression on me. It was in Part III that the show hit its stride, and I think one key to this is when Steven Weber comes into his own playing the tormented Jack Torrance. Whereas Nicholson's performance was that of a nut?though admittedly one of the great nuts in horror film history?Weber, at the end, conveys a sense of both the possessed madman who is attacking his loved ones with a croquet mallet and the family man who is horrified at what he is doing while he does it. Weber's struggling with demons was his most effective acting moment. In the end, he lets himself die in a boiler explosion, which stops the hotel's evil forces while his family escapes.

Having Jack vacillate between Evil and Good, and choose Good, probably follows the original novel (which I haven't read). The miniseries?ending ten years later when Danny graduates from high school?plays to the sense of a normalcy that is both restored and heightened: (duh, SPOILERS AHEAD) Danny, using "the shine," can see his dead father watching him proudly. This is the return to the light that horror normally plays to, and it's a wonderful moment, the most affecting in the miniseries. The hint that Evil never disappears occurs, too, as we cut back to the ruins of the hotel, where a sign announces its coming restoration.

Kubrick's intention, however, was much different. He deliberately changed the ending (and included the famously awful shot of Nicholson in the snow) to deny the audience a return to happy normalcy; he wanted viewers to leave the film feeling uncomfortable and unhappy. One critic suggested once that Kubrick portrays the events in the hotel as a microcosm of the horrors committed in the name of Manifest Destiny; this might explain why Kubrick added Native American references and motifs to the film. If so, the message is that there are horrors for which we as a society have yet to atone. I have enjoyed both renditions of The Shining, the new one because it successfully follows the horror-tale formula and the first one because it so successfully violates that pattern.

As to the music?well, it was fairly standard action-horror business. Written by Nicholas Pike, who previously scored Sleepwalkers for King and director Mick Garris, the music augments the horror with a few themes cropping up here and there. Two choral motifs add to the supernatural feel at the hotel, while a piano theme used early on seems almost a nod to "Tubular Bells." However, the end result simply feels shapeless, mainly marking time and saying "this is horrible," and not doing so very distinctively. (There are even shrieking strings straight out of Psycho near the end!)

Again, the music is reasonably effective?and again, one can at least try to imagine better scores, as I did with The Odyssey. As the hotel's evil spirits conjured up images of the big band era?including such tunes as "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and "I Can't Get Started"?one possible scoring approach occurred to me: is it possible to write evil big band music? Remember, the same team that produced this miniseries also produced The Stand, which had one of the best unexpected scores to a TV program in years?some of W. G. Snuffy Walden's best work. The filmmakers knew that what Stephen King has called "that big old 16,000-track John Williams thang" would overwhelm their story, and Walden complied by writing for a small rock-and-blues ensemble with occasional orchestra (orchestrated, by the way, by Don Davis). Something similarly offbeat might have worked better for The Shining.

To Be Continued with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea...

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