Thursday, January 12, 2012

Episode 6: Firefall

Episode 6: Firefall aka The Doppleganger
Original Airdate: 11/8/74
Guest Starring: Philip Carey, Madlyn Rue
and Fred Beir as Ryder Bond/The Doppelganger
Written by Bill S. Ballinger
Directed by Don Weis

Famed conductor Ryder Bond unwittingly creates a doppleganger when he cuts off a funeral procession. Suddenly, everyone he knows is going up in smoke. The doppleganger is coming for Bond, not to mention the pesky Carl Kolchak that keeps getting in his way.

PE: Firefall was one of my favorite rock groups of the 1970s (who can forget Just Remember I Love You, You Are the Woman, and Strange Way?) so I was itchin' to see what could be done with a quintet from Colorado and a Chicago monster magnet. Maybe the drummer sells his soul to the devil to slap the skins like Keith Moon?  Alas, I was way off base.

JS: I will never understand how you survived the 70s.

PE: Right off the bat, I liked this episode. It's so unlike the first five in that the structure is wonky. Sure, there's the obligatory opening shot of Kolchak sitting somewhere telling us we're never going to believe what he just saw, but then it goes from a gangland killing to a maestro cutting off a hearse in traffic to a spontaneous combustion (albeit done with $1.95 worth of special effects). Where the hell is this thing going and can it possibly tie all these threads together? Not quite...

JS: Who would have guessed that cutting off a funeral procession could lead to the creation of a doppleganger that would proceed to burn up everyone you know on its way to getting to you. While Ballinger does his best to tie the pieces together, it's a bit convoluted to say the least. What are the odds that Bond (who wasn't even driving the car!) cut off Frankie Markoff's hearse. And that Frankie was a music fan. And that we'd be debating this all almost 40 years later. But I will say this - I thought the first burnt toast victim was very effective.

PE: Biggest problem with this episode is the paltry two minute screen time afforded Patricia Estrin as "international music groupie" Felicia Porter. Why couldn't this 11 on a scale of 10 been given a "Kolchak's new friend" role so that we could freeze-frame more of her? I know I've complained about the formula of Carl's gal pals but I would have been willing to forego my criticisms for Ms. Estrin.  If classical musicians really had groupies that looked like this, I'd have learned the cello in high school. Her death must have been particularly nasty as it elicited one of the worst screen screams I've witnessed. I wonder if the censors were coming down on this show at the time and that's why all we got was a big black cloud and a faint glimpse of... a pile of charred toast?

JS: Estrin was certainly spontaneous combustion-hot, the likes of which we haven't seen thus far in this series. And Peter, you'll be pleased to know that she went on to become a high school teacher in Woodland Hills, CA (which, as Mister Bradley will point out, is Richard Matheson's neighborhood). She also appeared in Act of Vengeance (aka Rape Squad), which came out a few months before this episode aired.

PE: Well, then, it's high time I finished high school! Another actress woefully underused this episode is Carol Ann Susi, in her final appearance as Monique Marmelstein. There are a couple of throwaway scenes and not a whit of Marmelstein humor. But the humor's kept to a minimum in the entire episode. This is just about the most unfunny Kolchak yet. No standout debates between Kolchak and Vincenzo either.

JS: As a consolation, Ron Updyke is finally given a little bit more to do this time out.

PE: The only LOL-exchange you'll get is this one:
Updyke: I played the french horn
Kolchak: I would have guessed that.
JS: What, no love for the guy who watched Estrin burn? "I was in Nam. I never saw anything that bad." Or how about Maria, the fortune teller's, "Terrible to be broke and superstitious at the same time." I have to admit that I was a little disappointed to find out that Maria is not going to be a recurring character.

PE: Kolchak seems to be in quite a jam when Ryder Bond's doppelganger traps Carl in a burning room. The reporter's way out? He opens the door and steps out of the room. It's revealed later that Bond's shadow is a 1970s answer to Freddy Krueger, a demon that can only kill you when you're asleep (but what about the guy who combusted while driving? And Felicia couldn't have fallen asleep that quickly!).

JS: Yeah, I wasn't quite clear why he started burning things around Kolchak, rather than Kolchak himself. And while I wasn't particularly fond of the double-exposure effects, I thought the bit of the doppleganger in the church windows was quite creepy.

PE: Yep. The best bit with the doppelganger is in the church scene where the evil spirit keeps pulling a Kilroy up in a high window. Only Ryder Bond can see his spittin' image up there though, so the cops think he's gone nuts. The faux Bond looks more like a mischievous child than a combustion-happy devil. I thought the writer might tie in that evil child-like grin with Frankie Markoff's arsonist son but Ballinger went a different, not altogether satisfying, route.

JS: While I have no problem suspending my disbelief about the kinds of things Kolchak experiences, I had a hard time with his (whilst completely sleep deprived, mind-you) single-handed exhumation of Frankie's body in relatively short order.

PE: Latest police head honcho Sergeant Mayer (played by Philip Carey, who once was a "Man in the Cage") wouldn't be picked out of a line-up of "well-developed Kolchak adversaries." He has none of the forcefulness of William Daniels or even Sea Captain Wells, giving Carl only a few half-hearted "Kolchak!"s and even sitting in a church pew with Carl and Ryder. Would Claude Akins have shown so much patience? I think not.

JS: I actually liked the fact that Kolchak was able to take a cop head-on for a change—Mayer never seems to get the upper hand. And it's always nice to see David Doyle, who most people probably associate with Charlie's Angels, but I always remember as the Vincenzo-like newspaper editor to Elliot Gould's Kolchak-like reporter in Peter Hyam's excellent conspiracy thriller Capricorn One.

PE: I give this one an extra typewriter for busting out of the formula but it's not a very stimulating experiment. It's telling that I don't remember ever seeing this episode (and I did see every one of them on first run) as it would have put me to bed early on a Friday night.

JS: I also enjoyed seeing the 70s-era arcade full of pinball and other electro-mechanical games that even I can remember from the years before the Space Invaders landed...

PE: Bill S. Ballinger wrote seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and a so-so Outer Limits called "The Mice." He also wrote some top-notch crime fiction in his day. We'll see one more Kolchak script by Ballinger.

JS: I also wanted to point out that Jerry Fielding, who scored this as well as the last episode, was a noticeable improvement over Gil Mellé.

PE Rating:

JS Rating:

Next up... Kolchak faces a disciple of The Devil!


  1. Ryder Bond is also one of the first Kolchak "allies" to survive -- meaning people who believe what Carl tells them. Pity that Carl never enlisted his help again when he encountered a gang of assorted ghosts in later episodes such as "Chopper" and "The Knightly Murders." (You might also recall Fred Bier as hapless astronaut-to-be Steve Crandon from OUTER LIMITS' "The Man With the Power.")

    The quick flash of Kolchak digging up Frankie Markov's grave is actually cribbed from "The Zombie" (note the bouncing flashlights).

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. ***Sorry for the deleted comment. I wish you could go in and edit your posts here****

    And here I thought I was the only one who lusted after the girl in the brown bikini. Patricia Estrin fans unite!

    The thing that scared me most about this episode as a kid (again, first run in 1974 when I was seven years-old) was the church scene. Those shots of the doppelganger tapping and knocking and smiling that evil smile gave me nightmares. Glad to see you boys enjoyed that bit of business as well.

    I too love the arcade scenes. Was that a real arcade, do you think? Or did they simply drag some arcade games onto a set and create their own 70's arcade? Pretty brutal (sans blood, of course) the way the mob guys stroll into the arcade and pop a cap in Frankie's ass. Also weird that there are no kids in the arcade, but I guess it was more of a drug front than an actual arcade for kids so no big whoop.

    I like the part with lady and the little dog.

    Thanks to this episode I learned what the word "doppelganger" meant. I also learned what spontaneous combustion was. Thanks, Kolchak!

    It should be noted that those ever popular freeze-frames (that everybody loved so much in "The Werewolf") are back when Ryder bond cuts off the funeral procession. Presumably the freeze-frames represent the exact point when Frankie's spirit enters Ryder Bonds body (that sounds perverted and wrong).

    I thought the burn effects were really gruesome and disturbing as a kid. I still do.

    Cool episode with an off-beat "monster". Big thumbs up!

  4. Doug - It took me a minute to realize those initial freeze frames weren't a DVD playback issue. :)

    As for the arcade, if this were being made today, I would assume a producer wanted to surprise his kid with some arcade games, so he had them written in to the episode so he could take them home when the show was done. It looked like a set to me, but perhaps someone else will know for sure.

  5. @ DJS ~ Great call on the grave digging scene being snatched from "The Zombie" episode. Well spotted!

  6. @ John ~ Oh, there's more freeze frames a comin'. Get psyched!

  7. John, this one's practically a Matheson reunion with his "Steel" director, Don Weis, overseeing Fred Beir from another of his TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, "Death Ship"; David "super hotfoot juice" Doyle from THE STRANGER WITHIN; and Philip Carey from SCREAM OF THE WOLF, for whose PHILIP MARLOWE series Matheson reportedly wrote one or more scripts, although I've never been able to substantiate that. And that's not including hottie Estrin! Beir was also memorable as Nancy Cunningham's brother, Raymond, on THE ODD COUPLE. I love the scene of Doyle torching the Christmas tree, which looked like it was straight out of Q's workshop.

  8. Matthew, I thought sure you'd point out Madlyn Rhue's stunning turn on the Star Trek episode "Space Seed," starring our greatest acting treasure, Wm. Shatner.

  9. Offbeat and original, signaling a successful second wind for the series ("The Devil's Platform" is even better). Question: Was this one of the episodes re-edited into a funky KOLCHAK syndication feature? I seem to remember there were a few of these (THE DEMON AND THE MUMMY comes to mind), and if I'm not mistaken, McGavin provided new, linking device voice-overs. I'm sure we'll be hearing about those bizarre combos as we go along...

  10. Crackle of Death was a combination of this episode and "The Energy Eater."

  11. I think it was only the two combo movies (so using 4 episodes).

    One thing we didn't explicitly touch on re the "Kolchak world." It may be part and parcel of the wisecracking newspaper comedies of the 1930s, but to me it always conjures up GUYS AND DOLLS - that is, how practically every character is "on the make." By that I mean they're all either susceptible to a bribe (morgue attendants, pinball joint owners), a payoff (tearoom gypsies, monk tipsters) or are looking for some other sort of "favor."

    Kolchak, of course, is the chief operator. When an apartment manager can't be bribed, he'll con him with stories making him seem like a building inspector, a colleague of the police, etc.

    In the end, we're surprised when he goes to someone for information - and they simply give it. (But then what fun would that be?)

  12. Sorry, Jack--other than Matheson's one episode, "The Enemy Within," I am by no means a STAR TREK expert (or "Trekspert," as I call them). I've never even seen many episodes of the original series, although I have them all on DVD now and will work my way gradually through them, and am almost completely unfamiliar with the sequel series. But I did see all of the movies, for better or--more often--worse.

    grgstv338 is right, there were only the two faux films, which (considering how ineptly they were compiled) is two too many.

  13. Hey, enuf wise cracks about the special effects already. Just be thankful this isn't Dozier-afied!

  14. I agree, because A) Like OUTER LIMITS, they did what they could with what they had, and B) As a result, it's part of the show's unique charm.

  15. Universal TV trivia: Apparently the plaque seen in the opening credits of Season One THE SIXTH SENSE (the one with the Biblical quotation about visions) makes a cameo appearance in "Firefall"; seems like a truncated version of the original shot. We'll see even more props and footage from U-TV fantasy shows in "The Devil's Platform" (in Tom Skerritt's lair, if memory serves...)

  16. The most impressive scene for me was the amazing fact that the file room of INS was in the men's room! I managed offices for decades in NJ and never saw the file records in the bathroom. As Bette Davis would say, "What a dump!"

    I was glad to see that Kolchak was dealing with a better class of people than usual, like concert conductors, muscians, the world of classical music. Much better than the usual prostitutes and low class bums. I like a classy show like THE NIGHT STALKER.

  17. Of course, Carl was back in the next episode...none the worse for wear. But, how was he able to resolve his arrest (presumably for arson)?

  18. Does anyone know who played the kid in this episode?

  19. Actually, this episode was okay, although not one of my favorites. The combination of spontaneous combustion, a doppelganger, and not being able to go to sleep for fear of being taking over was bizarre but worked all right.

    Unfortunately, the Kolchak shows were starting to fall into a very predictable pattern by this point:

    1. Kolchak narrates into a tape recorder: you're not going to believe this one.

    2. Monster of the week claims a victim.

    3. Kolchak goes to crime scene only to be chewed out by everchanging police lieutenant/ commissioner/captain/chief,etc.

    4. Various scenes in the newsroom trading quips with stock characters, Ron, Emily or Vincenzo. Vincenzo tells him to get off the case for some reason which never makes any sense.

    5. Visit to experts /museum/gypsy to find out how to kill the monster.

    6. Obligatory comic scene with Vincenzo, usually at Vincenzo's expense.

    7. Kolchak kills the monster with a pointy stick or the flash in his camera, but all evidence is destroyed.

    Rinse and repeat.