It Came From the Idiot Box

Small-screen sci-fi: TV themes

It Came From the Idiot Box

If you were lucky enough to have a television in your backyard bomb shelter on September 16, 1963 – the Havana-happy Russkies having almost gone apocalypto on us a mere 11 months prior – then ABC's 8pm broadcast probably scared the hell out of you. With a hazy sine wave fluxing across your Philco, an ominous voice intoned: "There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission."

Though neither Nikita Khrushchev nor Orson Welles was pulling the nation's collective gullibility strings à la War of the Worlds, the broadcast turned out to be something even more unsettling: The Outer Limits, a sci-fi anthology series created by producer Leslie Stevens and Psycho-scribe Joseph Stefano, featuring a parade of doomy, often nihilistic sci-fi teleplays from the likes of writers Harlan Ellison and Stefano himself.

It Came From the Idiot Box

What grabbed viewers then and continues to do so now was Dominic Frontiere's chilly, minimalist opening theme that – coupled with Vic Perrin's stentorian voice-over – heralded the arrival of serious speculative storytelling on the tube. The Cold War wasn't over. It had just moved on to the cathode ray and gone interstellar and omnidimensional.

Televised sci-fi has always gotten a bad rap (Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek and the latest, finest incarnation of Battlestar Galactica notwithstanding), and for good reason: The Invaders was dull, Lost in Space was geared toward Bill Mumy's little sister, and Harlan Ellison's justly forgotten The Starlost today plays akin to mainlining Aldous Huxley's soma.

Yet while science fiction on the teevee floundered, what almost always accomplished the incremental construction of emotional unease were the shows' opening themes. Unlike the batty dialogue, clichéd social commentary, and papier mâché sets of Kirk-era Star Trek, it's Alexander Courage's giddy, hopeful, fearless theme that's lodged in the collective unconscious.

Compare that to proto-Brit-rocker Ron Grainer's stridently alien theme from the longest-running televised program in the world, Doctor Who, and you'll discover why this perpetually intriguing program has survived so many iterations. It's all-electronic for one, but in a way that conjures a sense of rapid forward motion, propulsive, dizzying, sleeking through time and space like the TARDIS.

Then there's Kolchak: The Night Stalker: not specifically sci-fi but with all the elements in place, including Gil Mellé's nerve-jangling theme to the short-lived series. Three up, three down: deadpan-alley disgrace notes to Darren McGavin's phantasm-fighting reporter, Carl Kolchak, forever feuding with irascible editor Tony Vincenzo, and making Mulder and Scully look asleep by comparison. An entire generation of pubescent planeteers positively lived for this darkest of Friday night lights, and thanks to Mellés' whisper-to-a-scream theme, we still do. Take that, Marshall McLuhan.

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The Outer Limits, Doctor Who, Kolchak: The Night Stalker

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