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Thirty-Minute Jaunts to the World of the Unknown: The Story of ONE STEP BEYOND

By John C. Alsedek:


“The amazing drama you are about to see is a matter of human record.

You may believe it, or not.

But the real people who lived this story . . . they believe it.

They know.

They took that . . . one step beyond.”


There’s a story about how, just before The Twilight Zone premiered in 1959, Rod Serling asked John Newland, host of the popular ABC anthology series One Step Beyond, out for drinks. Serling did it because he wanted to tell Newland about The Twilight Zone and explain that while he was a big fan of Newland’s show, he wasn’t trying to rip him off. For his part, Newland couldn’t have been more gracious about the whole thing, and the two of them had a fine time. When I started writing this, I wondered if the story might be apocryphal, since I couldn’t recall the source. But then I remembered that the source was a book about the series, and the account came from John Newland himself. So, it did happen—though in truth, Serling probably needn't have bothered. Because while the two shows did have some surface similarities, they differed dramatically (ahaha- pun!) regarding their respective core concept.


To me, One Step Beyond always felt more like the middle ground between The Twilight Zone and the anthology program we talked about last time, Science Fiction Theatre. And if you really want to get granular on this, it should have been John Newland taking Boris Karloff out for drinks, because One Step Beyond bore no small resemblance to the unaired 1958 Karloff anthology The Veil! I’m mostly kidding, as I have no idea if Newland, creator Merwin Gerard, or producer Collier Young even knew of the existence of The Veil, which never completed filming its first season due to its production company (Hal Roach Studios) going bankrupt. Still, both shows featured on-camera hosts who introduced tales purportedly adapted from (or at least inspired by) true-life events. But where the earlier Science Fiction Theatre stuck to, well, science, both One Step Beyond and The Veil focused on the supernatural/paranormal.


I keep referring to One Step Beyond as One Step Beyond, but its proper name was initially Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond. The show was sponsored by the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), and while the "Alcoa Presents" part of the title was found to be a bit unwieldy and was soon dropped, Alcoa remained as a sponsor throughout the show’s three-season run, with Newland doing promotional spots on a curious, shimmering set suggestive of Alcoa’s product, aluminum.


One Step Beyond premiered on January 20, 1959, with "The Bride Possessed," which was pretty much exactly what the title stated: a tale in which a new bride is possessed by the spirit of a murdered woman who wants to bring her killer to justice. It was a hit, and the show (promoted as focusing on "true events") soon found a devoted audience. A bit surprisingly, it also garnered some hate mail for host Newland, who was accused of being "the anti-Christ" for presenting paranormal stories involving real-life tragedies such as the sinking of the Titanic and the death of Abraham Lincoln.


Whether or not one thought John Newland was the anti-Christ, it was hard to deny the power of One Step Beyond, and no small part of that power emanated from the creative team. Newland himself handled the bulk of the directing duties (he directed all but two episodes), while Gerard and Young wrote scripts, joined by the likes of future Emmy winner/Oscar nominee Larry Marcus and a pre–Twilight Zone Charles Beaumont. And the casts; much like The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond featured a whole host of up-and-coming stars, including Warren Beatty, Charles Bronson, Cloris Leachman, Yvette Mimieux, Elizabeth Montgomery, Donald Pleasence, William Shatner, and many others, including one I didn’t know until I started researching this: Sir Christopher Lee, who starred in Episode 92, "The Sorcerer."


As for the subject matter, it’s fitting that One Step Beyond took over the Tuesday 10 p.m. schedule spot previously held by the police reality show Confession, because One Step Beyond styled itself as a bit of a reality show, presenting 30-minute docudramas based on real events. Ghosts, premonitions, witchcraft, and astral projection were just a few of the phenomena the show touched on, finding an entertaining balance between fact and fiction. On at least one occasion, though, One Step Beyond was a little too factual. For the episode "The Sacred Mushroom," Newland traveled to a small town in Mexico to acquire a sample of the titular mushrooms—and he did indeed ingest them on-camera, experiencing psychotropic effects that lingered for a month! Audiences loved it, and though One Step Beyond never quite cracked the top of the Nielsen charts, it built a devoted fanbase.


Still, regardless of how skillfully crafted a television series may be, the end comes sooner or later. For One Step Beyond, the end came on July 4, 1961, when the series aired its 96th and final episode. It wasn’t a victim of sinking ratings; in fact, the ratings were still strong, and ABC was prepared to renew One Step Beyond for a fourth season. Rather, it was the decision of Newland and co. to bring an end to the show. The reason? They were running out of material! One Step Beyond had prided itself on basing its stories off true events, and when they found themselves beginning to recycle ideas and veer more toward pure fiction, they decided it was time to fold up the tents. And so, One Step Beyond became part of television history.


Buuttttttt . . . that wasn’t quite the end.


When cable television exploded in the mid-1970s, One Step Beyond, along with contemporaries such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, found themselves being discovered by a whole new generation of viewers. As a result, the original One Step Beyond team decided to get the band back together to create a new version of the show entitled The Next Step Beyond. Newland returned as the host, looking pretty much the same save for white hair and glasses. Collier Young returned as producer along with newcomer Alan Jay Factor; Newland and Factor handled directorial duties, while Merwin Gerard served as story editor.


Unfortunately, lightning would not strike twice. Produced strictly for syndication, The Next Step Beyond was hamstrung by tight budgets ($92,000 an episode—less than a third of what a contemporary like Space:1999 was spending), which meant no A-list guest stars, no elaborate sets or costumes, and shooting on videotape rather than film. I went back and watched a few; they weren’t bad, and it was fun seeing familiar faces from my childhood like Mark Goddard (Lost in Space) and Lawrence P. Casey (The Rat Patrol) turn up in episodes. But pretty much all the ones I perused took place in modern suburban homes, and it got to be very samey very quickly. The Next Step Beyond never found an audience, which makes sense in retrospect: why watch tepid remakes of old One Step Beyond episodes when the original was still airing regularly? The Next Step Beyond was canceled after just 25 episodes and has barely been seen anywhere since.


On the subject of anthology programs, how do you think one would construct the ultimate anthology program? That’s the subject next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!

 

SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.

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