Thursday, January 3, 2013

This Guy Is Full of Green Light: A Review of "Golden Years" (the original episodes)

You may or may not be familiar with Golden Years, the four-hour movie written by Stephen King that is available on DVD.  I get the sense that it is not terribly widely-seen.  I might not be right about that, though; my senses have been known to fail me.

Either way, even if you are familiar with the movie, the odds are pretty good that you have no idea it is an abridged version of the original version: a seven-part series that aired on CBS in the summer of 1991.  The first episode was a two-hour broadcast, so all in all, eight hours of the series were aired.

The version available home video is shorter by about 135 minutes; in other words, the equivalent of three hours' worth of the broadcast episodes were cut out, including the original cliffhanger ending (which was replaced with an alternate ending intended to provide at least scant closure).

I had not intended to post this article yet.  However, I'm working -- slowly; too slowly -- on another post that covers all of the Stephen King-based episodes of television that have been produced (ranging from The Twilight Zone to The Dead Zone to Haven), and as a part of that I wanted to include some brief plot summaries of what happened in each episode of Golden Years.  Problem was, I couldn't remember, nor could I find episode summaries anywhere else.  Granted, I didn't look all that hard; but still.
This led to me rewatching the episodes so that I could type up brief plot summaries.  That led to plot summaries that were nowhere near as brief as I intended, and seem wholly too long for the post they were originally intended for.

What to do?

Naturally, the thing to do is to just post them on their own, in a separate post.  And here that post is.  I apologize in advance for not covering the differences between the home-video cut of the "movie" and these episodes; that'll happen at some later date, down the line.  But since that version is easily obtainable, any King fan ought to readily be able to watch that version.  Therefore, detailing the changes seems less crucial than detailing a bit about what happens in the original episodes themselves.

Here goes!

Episode 1 (airdate 07/16/1991)

You might be wondering: how, dear douche sir, are you so privileged as to have access to the original episodes, whereas the rest of us do not?  

Glad you asked.  I've got a VHS tape that has all of the episodes on it from when I taped 'em way back in the summer of 1991, as I was getting ready to enter my senior year of high school.  It's one of my prize possessions, and I had somebody burn the episodes onto a DVD a few years back.  So, yeah, that's my less-than-humble story for the day.  Hey, look, I'm single and overweight and likely to remain both as I approach forty; I gots ta take my little victories where I can get 'em at this point, y'all.

The first episode was scripted by King and directed by Kenneth Fink, and begins with Harlan Williams riding his bicycle to work.  He is a janitor at Falco Plains, a military-run scientific research facility in New York State.  Williams is approaching his 71st birthday, and his job is in jeopardy because he recently failed the eye exam portion of his annual base-administered physical.  Major Moreland, an unctuous bureaucrat, wants to fire him, but Williams insists on his right to retake the exam, so he narrowly avoids the shitcanning that has obviously been headed right for him.

He is less successful in avoiding the explosion that is heading right for him: he is injured in the blast emanating from the laboratory of Dr. Richard Toddhunter, who is attempting to find a way to regenerate human tissue for use in helping wounded soldiers return to the battlefield quickly.  Toddhunter is responsible for the explosion, having ordered his two assistants to proceed with his experiment despite having a warning red light on one of the lab's sensors.

Harlan's husband, Gina, is visited by Terry Spann, Falco Plains' head of security.  Spann brings Gina to the base's hospital, where Gina finds her husband laid up in a bed, but apparently none the worse for wear.  Later, however, she will notice that his eyes are glowing green; this is apparently a side effect, but nothing to be concerned about.  Gina seems less than convinced by this assertion; she's probably right, what with the series having been written by Stephen King and all.

Meanwhile, Spann and the base's leader, General Crewes, question Toddhunter about his involvement in the blast.  They suspect he's not being terribly truthful with them, but they don't have much in the way of proof.
Before long, a new contingent of bureaucrats arrives on the scene with questions of their own.  They are led by Jude Andrews, a high-level operative of The Shop (the same dangerous black-ops scientific research agency that served as the villains on Firestarter).  Seems Spann used to work for The Shop, too, and was Andrews' partner.  When asked how close they were, Terry says they were as close as it got: "We used to kill people together," she says grimly.

Doesn't take long for Andrews to up his body count once on the case.  A Lieutenant who overheard the dying words of one of Toddhunter's assistants could implicate the mad doctor, and that, apparently, would run contrary to the agenda of The Shop.  So Andrews kills the man and reports back that he has done so.  Reports to whom?  We do not know.

Harlan, meanwhile, retakes his eye exam, and passes with flying colors.  And that's not the only weird thing: Gina notices that his hair is turning from white to brown again...

Nobody circa 2012 is likely to mistake Golden Years for top-flight television, and if they do, you should probably not trust them very much.  The production is a bit on the low-rent side, no doubt about it, although the television landscape was a very different animal in 1991 than it is today.

The apt comparison is to judge Golden Years against other tv dramas from 1991, and on that score, I think it holds up reasonably well.  The acting is mostly fine; Keith Szarabajka is good as Harlan (and is aided by old-age makeup that still looks great in 2012), as is Frances Sternhagen as Gina.  Felicity Huffman is a good, solid, sexy, severe Terry Spann, and I've seen a few other people note that she seems almost to be a template for Dana Scully, who was still two years in the future on The X-Files.  It's a skin-deep comparison, but I can see how the comparison gets made.

I also like Ed Lauter as General Crewes.  R.D. Call makes for a menacing Jude Andrews, although his American accent seems to be a bit too slippery for him to keep hold of consistently ... which is really odd, considering that's he's American.  Not sure why he sounds like a Brit trying to keep a rein on his American "r"s, but that's exactly what he sounds like.  Despite that, he's really good.
Less good: Stephen Root, who plays the annoying Major Moreland, and Bill Raymond, who plays Dr. Toddhunter.  Both are kinda campy and over the top, but since that seems to be on purpose on account of the roles having been written that way, let's cut them both some slack, shall we?

Episode 2 (airdate 07/18/1991)

The second episode was written by Stephen King and directed by Allen Coulter.  [IMDb lists Michael Gornick as the director, but don't you believe it; it says "Allen Coulter" on the episode, and that's evidence enough for me.]  [P.S. -- IMDb also lists titles for the seven episodes, but those appear to have been concocted by somebody who had no affiliation with the production.  Rocky Wood has verified for me via email that the original screenplays, which he has read, have no episode titles.]

Coulter had only been directing about three years at that point, and had episodes of Monsters and Tales from the Darkside to his name; presumably, it was his association by producer Mitchell Galin -- who worked on both of those shows -- that got Coulter hired for this job.  He would go on to direct two more episodes of Golden Years, and after that, things eventually heated up for him a bit: he did three episodes of Millennium, and one of The X-Files, and then got himself a job directing episodes for HBO.  Eight episodes of Sex and the City, two of Rome, one of Six Feet Under, and, most importantly, a solid twelve of The Sopranos, which makes him one of the key contributors to one of the great television shows in history.  Among his episodes: "College," which is generally considered to be one of the very best.

Lately, Coulter has directed six episodes of Boardwalk Empire, and for cinemas, he directed the excellent movie Hollywoodland, which starred Ben Affleck and dealt with the sad life of Superman actor George Reeves.

Here, Coulter's talents are obviously undeveloped, but nascent; it's cool that such an important director cut his teeth on King material.

The plot for this episode:

Dr. Ackerman meets with Dr. Akins, the eye doctor who performed the re-exam for Harlan; Akins tells him all about how he'd been ordered to fake a passing grade, but ended up not needing to, on account of how Williams passed with flying colors.  Unbeknownst to the two doctors, the fellow at the next table over in the coffeeshop is recording their conversation; he later takes it to Jude Andrews.  Andrews then pays Ackerman a visit, and tells him to spill the beans, whatever beans he's got; and make sure not to leave anything out.  Ackerman does just that; Andrews promises that if he finds out Ackerman has held out on him, he'll be back to perform some radical dental work ... with a power drill.  Andrews later pays Akins a visit, too, and shoots him through the forehead.

Meanwhile, Gina confronts Harlan about his advancing condition of incipient youthfulness.  Harlan at first tries to bluff Gina into thinking it's not as serious as it seems, but it doesn't work, and he admits that a scar -- one he got when he was 67 -- has gone away completely.  There is no denying it: physically, he is getting younger by the day.  Gina tells him he has to go see a doctor, even if it's only Ackerman.

Harlan goes, and of course, Ackerman reports the details of their meeting back to Andrews.  Ackerman tells Andrews that Williams is getting younger, not merely in empirical ways (such as the lightening color of his hair, and the disappearance of his scar), but in less easily-explainable ways; he likens it to the process by which, when he was younger, fewer people every year carded him when he bought alcohol ... except, in Williams' case, in reverse.  Speaking of Harlan, he sees Ackerman meeting with Andrews, and -- correctly -- suspects the worst.  He goes home, and tells Gina to pack a bag and be ready to go on the run when he gives the word.

Elsewhere in the episode, Andrews visits the place where Reddings' body is being kept.  Reddings was one of Toddhunter's assistants; he died, obviously, but not before glowing green for a while and losing certain scars that he had had for years.  Terry discovers the body -- which she planned to use against Toddhunter -- is missing, and is none too pleased.  She's also none too pleased by a visit she receives from the annoying Major Moreland, who suspects -- both rightly and wrongly -- that chicanery and hanky-panky lie behind Williams' success at his eye exam do-over.  Terry promises the Major that she'll inform General Crewes of his concerns.

Harlan visits a beauty parlor and asks them to dye his hair ... white.  Back at home, he's feeling frisky, and he and Gina dance.  He twirls her around, and seemingly causes a twinge in her back.  "I can't keep up with you," she says, sadly.

And that's the episode.

It's a fairly good one.  The performances continue to be solid, especially Szarabajka, Sternhagen, and Call.  The scenes between Andrews and Ackerman stand out; King clearly relishes writing dialogue for Jude Andrews, who reminds me just a wee bit of Alexis Machine, the character "George Stark" wrote about in The Dark Half.

Bonus points to this second episode for airing on my birthday!  I turned seventeen that day.  Seems like forever ago.  (And stirring up a little agita on the subject seems thoroughly appropriate given the subject matter of the show itself.)

Episode 3 (airdate 07/25/1991)

In this episode:

Terry is awoken in the middle of the night by an informant, who calls her to let her know that Dr. Akins has been murdered.  She visits the scene of the crime, and puts two and two together: Jude Andrews is eliminating people who know about Harlan Williams' curious age problem.  She calls Crewes and lets him know about her suspicions, and tells him her plan: she wants to grab Harlan and Gina and go on the run with them.  Why?  Because she likes Gina, and doesn't want her to end up in a ditch with her throat cut.

She pays the Williamses a call, and convinces them to trust her and go with her.  She gets them out not long before Andrews arrives, but she's left him a message: "Just like old times," signed with the initial "T" inside a heart.  Andrews recalls the "old times" she is referring to: her blackmailing him to keep him from killing someone.  Jude brings in an associate, Fredericks, and the two of them begin liasing with local and state law enforcement, trying to locate the fugitives.

The fugitives, in the meantime, have set a course: they are, at Gina's urging, heading for Chiacgo.  Their daughter, Francie, lives there; she, apparently, has been involved with nearly every unpopular anti-government movement imaginable since the late sixties, so she ought to be able to help.  Terry agrees, and then decides they need to ditch their car (since it's presumably being looked for) for another.  Her solution: she steals them a hearse.

Fredericks has gotten a list of all vehicles reported stolen anywhere near where Terry's car was found, though, and the episode ends on Andrews intuiting that she's is responsible for the hearse that was reported stolen at the same mall.

As a production, this isn't a bad episode; all of the acting is good (with the exception of a weird and pointless crime-scene photographer character), and things move at a good pace.  There are a lot of logical problems in the screenplay, though.  Like the first two, this episode was scripted by King himself, and he wants us to believe that Andrews would be coming to kill Gina and kidnap Harlan, but that killing a crime-scene photographer would take precedence over that.  So Andrews kills Akins, then -- in the same night -- kills the crime-scene photographer, then goes back to his motel and chills out until the next morning.  Then, he gets back to it and heads for the Williams house.

Why would Andrews not immediately go for Harlan and Gina?  Wouldn't it make more sense to conduct that operation under cover of night, rather than wait to do it on a nice, clear morning?

Even more senseless: Terry's plan to steal a hearse.  She rationalizes it by saying that nobody would think to look for them in something as gaudy and noticeable as a hearse.  That's good logic, except for the fact that the hearse's owner is likely to report it missing, and it's going to be very easy to be on the lookout for a stolen hearse.

That's just sloppy writing on King's part.  I say "sloppy"; really, though, it's downright awful writing, as is Andrews' erratic approach to cleaning up this problem for The Shop.

Otherwise, though, this is a fairly good episode.  It was directed by Michael Gornick, who had previously directed Creepshow 2.

Episode 4  (airdate 08/01/1991)

The fourth episode begins with Dr. Ackerman calling Crewes in a panic, insisting that he needs protection from Andrews, who -- obviously -- will be coming to kill him.  Crewes tells Ackerman to get a grip, and the doctor realizes that he's going to have to protect himself, so he decides to steal a bunch of paperwork and make copies of it, presumably so that he can have some leverage against Andrews.  In so doing, he turns into a bumbling idiot; he runs into doors, trips over his own feet, stutters, and generally seems like a nincompoop.

All for naught, too; he gets in his car to leave Falco Plains, and the car promptly explodes.  Jude, watching from the shadows, has struck again.

His real quarry, meanwhile, has decided to pull into the barn on an apparently deserted farm and give their stolen hearse a paint job.  It's now a Christine-esque shade of red that would undoubtedly catch every eye on the road.  Remind me to never allow Terry Spann to be in charge of taking me on the lam.  She's made more than a few moronic decisions here, but let's not blame her; let's blame Stephen King, who is clearly not cut out to be a rogue government agent.

There is yet another tender scene between Harlan and Gina in which she expresses dismay at the entire situation, not without merit: this time, she's upset because she feels old for the first time.  See, because she and Harlan were aging together, she never actually felt the weight of their years, whereas seeing him growing younger by the day is only making her feel more and more decrepit.  King is better-suited to the mechanics of an emotional scene like this than he is to the mechanics of evading capture by state-sanctioned killers.  That's not to say the scene is perfect; the dialogue is clunky and repetitive, and if not for decent acting, it wouldn't work terribly well at all.  Still, there is a core of emotional truth to it that definitely feels like King's skills as a novelist came briefly to the fore.

That is certainly not evident in a horrible scene involving Toddhunter.  One of his new assistants approaches the mad doctor to tell him that preparations of some sort -- they are not explained -- are ready.  Toddhunter tells him, "Do it now!"  The man is about to respond, but Toddhunter cuts him off to tell him how time is tip-tip-tapping away.  He starts hollering "Tip-tippy-tap!" and "Do it now!" and so forth, and the actor goes so far over the top that he threatens to enter Bronson-Pinchot-in-The-Langoliers territory.  He doesn't quite get there, but it's close.  It's an embarrassing scene, and you can bet your life that director Allen Coulter doesn't have it on any of his demo reels. 

Later, Toddhunter has a better scene, in which he visits his father's grave.  His watch has stopped working, and while he is speaking to his father, he digs up a metal box, which houses a bunch of other dead watches; he puts this new one with the others.  This dude is clearly nuts, and thankfully, this scene shows us a bit of that in a useful, non-annoying fashion.

Jude visits Crewes and informs him that, as per the DSA, he is now in charge of the investigation and manhunt surrounding the Williams case.  Crewes is not too pleased about this; he's even less pleased when he discovers that he is barred from leaving the base.  Andrews packs up his shit and abandons his temporary office at the local police station, which for some reason pisses off the sherriff or the constable or whoever the guy is.  In an additional bit of WTF, Andrews is wearing a black t-shirt during this scene that reads "Let Go and Let God."  Huh?!?

While they're chilling out at the conveniently abandoned barn, Terry and Harlan have a talk, in which he wonders what their chances are.  Terry tells him that when she was at The Shop, everyone told her that John Rainbird was the best; but she thinks Andrews is better, so if he's after them, they don't have much of a chance at all.  Yay, a Firestarter connection!

A few scenes later, Terry concocts a plan: if Harlan and Gina can get themselves arrested for shoplifting, and get put in the care of the local law enforcement, they could then use their one phone call to get a lawyer and thereby get some protection of the legal variety.  It's not a bad plan, but later, they all come to the realization that if Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't safe in the hands of local police custody, then a small-timer like Harlan Williams definitely wouldn't be safe. 
It's interesting to consider how different the implications of this scene are from the novel King published twenty years later, 11/22/63.  Here, clearly, King is playing into the paranoia of the times.  Golden Years as a whole feeds off of that paranoia; Andrews counsels Ackerman at one point that perfect paranoia is perfect awareness, and this show is so paranoid that it wants us to believe that not even the government can trust the government.  Golden Years came only four years after the publication of The Tommyknockers, in which one character constantly thinks of untrustworthy governmental powers under the umbrella "the Dallas Police" (clearly, a Ruby / Oswald reference).  Two decades later, in 11/22/63, King had swung all the way around to be convinced that Oswald had acted alone, and, by implication, that Ruby had, too.  I'm conflicted, personally; both sides have their persuasions.  I'm not taking a stance, and it doesn't bother me the way it apparently bothers some that King's mind on such topics has changed over the years; but it is interesting.

The episode ends with a scene in which our heroes pass a wreck on the side of the road.  At Gina's insistence, they stop to see if they can help, and of course, the first cop who stops by recognizes the trio and tries to apprehend them.  Terry, always the genius, steals the policeman's cruiser.

I guess we'll find out how that plan works out next week.

This is not a particularly good episode, what with Terry's constant stupidity and Toddhunter's over-the-top insanity.

Episode 5  (airdate 08/08/1991)

This was the final episode that King scripted personally, for those of you who may be interested in such things; you may also be interested to know that another Stephen (Stephen Tolkin) directed it.  Then again, you may not.

As the episode opens, Ohio State Troopers have found the stolen police cruiser, and are coordinating their plan of attack with Jude Andrews (who is still at Falco Plains).  This scene goes on for what feels like ten minutes, and if you as a viewer do not figure out that the car is empty about nine minutes and forty-five second before the State Troopers do, then you, sir (or madam, as the case may be), are an idiot.  Jude Andrews is not an idiot, so I'm not sure what his excuse is for not immediately realizing that Terry and her lambs would hardly be sitting in a stolen police cruiser in the middle of a field, waiting to be found.  Let's not blame Jude; let's -- again -- blame Stephen King, whose writing has not been tip-top in these episodes.

Finally, though, somebody has at least half a good idea: Gina and Terry get on a bus (which conveniently stops in the middle of nowhere) to head for Chicago, and Harlan splits apart from them to hitch-hike his way there.  Going to Chicago isn't a good idea, of course; it's bound to be only a matter of time before Andrews figures out that Harland Gina's lone daughter might need to be observed, but since it took King five episodes to figure that out, it took all of the characters the same length of time.

But boy, they all seem to have figured out at once that looking into the Williamses personal life is in order.  Crewes has Moreland bring him Harlan's file; he shreds it, then browbeats Moreland into hacking into the government's Central Records computer to delete the digital version.  Andrews has been thinking after the cockup with the State Troopers, and is trying real hard to figure out his next move; he eventually comes up with "Moreland!" and then we're off to the races.  He calls one of his goons, Burton (played by the same actor who played Doakes on Dexter decades later), and tells him to get into Central Records and get Williams's file.  Unfortunately, Moreland is a few steps ahead of him.

Now, let's pause for a moment and give King some credit where it is due.  Doing so requires going on a tangent, so here goes: there is a scene in the 1994 film Clear and Present Danger that involves two opposing characters trying to simultaneously gain access to files on a computer.  I remember that when the movie came out, this scene in particular was hailed for being a new type of on-screen suspense, and I also remember thinking, "Hey, Golden Years did that three years ago!"  Granted, the novel Clear and Present Danger came out in 1989, so maybe King was cribbing from Clancy; given how voracious a reader he is, it seems likely that he would have read the Clancy novel.

Either way, considering how relatively obscure computers were in pop culture circa 1991, you've got to admire King for placing a scene like this in this series.  It seems laughably dated now, but it didn't seem that way at the time, and regardless of whether Clancy beat him to the punch, King deserves credit for being as forward-thinking as he was here.

Speaking of being forward-thinking, Terry apparently isn't; she's only now, in episode five, gotten around to explaining to Gina that what's happening to Harlan is the result of a scientific experiment into regeneration.  Really?  This has been going on for days and days, and Gina is just now finding out that it's all about regeneration?  That strains credulity a bit.

So does the scene in which Toddhunter is preparing to conduct a new experiment of some sort, only to realize that he needs some patch cable to finish hooking his system up.  We get not one, but TWO scenes in which Toddhunter tries to get his cables in order.  What the fuck?!?  Is he settig up a surround-sound system, or working on a government experiment?  Both of these scenes are played for laughs, but elicit none; no intentional ones, at least.

The episode ends with a scene in which Harlan, having successfully gotten a ride from a long-haul trucker, falls asleep in the truck's cab while the trucker natters on.  Harlan's eyes begin glowing green; the trucker doesn't notice, because he's busy freaking out over how the truck's electrical systems are going haywire, Close Encounters-style.  He pulls the truck over, and then, suddenly, the sun rises; time has apparently gone haywire, too, almost certainly as a result of something harlan is unconsciously doing.  Everyone else on the road pulls over and gets out of their cars, understandably freaked out.  The truck driver finally notices Harlan; "This guy is full of green light!", he hollers at everyone around him.

Sure enough, he is.

The green light, by the way, cannot help but make me think of The Tommyknockers.  It's probably coincidental; but then again, The Shop did show up at the end of that novel...

This is a decent episode, certainly better than the previous one.  There are some bad scenes, and the plot by King is really rather poor.  However, the final scene ends things on an intriguing note; it's a big right-hand turn, and an effective one.  Most of the acting continues to be good, too.  I was especially impressed here by R.D. Call, who does a good job of making Andrews a compelling figure even when King is saddling him with out-of-character moments of stupidity.  I'd say much the same for Felicity Huffman, too.

Episode 6  (airdate 08/15/1991)

The penultimate episode of the series is the first to not have been scripted by King himself; instead, the teleplay comes courtesy of supervising producer Josef Anderson, who based it on a story provided by King.  I've never been able to find any info on note on the production of this series, so anything I would have to say on the subject of why Anderson, and not King, scripted the sixth and seventh episodes would be sheer speculation.

So: let's indulge in some sheer speculation, shall we?

First off, I don't think anything nefarious ought to be read into it.  Most television series have a stable of writers, all of whom collaborate on each others' work via the "writing room" process.  In some cases, a head writer (or two or more head writers) may dictate -- sometimes with collaboration from their junior writers, sometimes without -- the overall direction of the story.  Often, the head writer will write a story outline -- which can range from being a couple of paragraphs of general-idea-type stuff to being a full-blown, beat-for-beat telling of the story complete with stage directions and dialogue.  Every show is different, as is every head writer.  Once the junior writer has completed the teleplay, it typically will go back to the head writer for review and revision, and it is very common for the head writer to make massive changes.  The head writer's name will not always appear on the credits for the revised version of the teleplay, either; if anything, it is more common for their names to not appear.

I've got absolutely zero proof that something like this happened on the final two episodes of Golden Years, but it seems like the logical conclusion to me, especially given the "based on a story by" credit King receives.  There is also very little discernible difference in the way episode six feels, as compared to episode five.

In short: this feels like it was written by the same person who wrote the first five episodes.

Directing duties this time around were handled by Allen Coulter, who had much better work ahead of him.

Howsabout a plot summary?  Here goes.

The episode opens with Crewes and Moreland outside an airplane hanger, having a conversation about how Moreland's wife wants to do it more than once a week, whereas he absolutely cannot stand the thought.  They are talking, of course, about square-dancing; this scene is painfully unfunny, and I'm going to choose to believe that Josef Anderson is to blame, and not King.

Terry and Gina are getting close to Chicago, but unbeknownst to them, the guy behind the counter at a diner recognizes them and calls the appropriate authorities.  Jude has come up with a plan to find Harlan; he and Burton visit Billy the simpleton janitor, and there is an excruciating scene in which Andrews silently suffers through Billy's inability to focus.  Eventually, though, he finds out that Harlan and Gina have a daughter named Francesca in Chicago.  (Billy also tells him about a couple of sons, but Andrews intuits that because Francesca is blind, that's where her parents are headed.  Okay, then...)

Maybe this is the 2013 in me talking, but ... was it really that difficult to find out info about somebody in 1991?  Does it seem as if a shadow agency like The Shop ought to have been able to figure out who the Williamses' closest family members were much, much more easily than is being depicted here?  I'll grant you, in this age of computerization, such things are taken for granted, so maybe I'm just not doing a good job of projecting myself mentally back a couple of decades.  If so, by all means, somebody point me toward the error of my ways.  (By the way, yes, I realize that Moreland hacked the computer and erased the info.  But shouldn't Andrews have thought of the possibility of Williams running long ago, and already had the info in his back pocket?)

Terry and Gina reach Chicago, and Terry sees a guy in a suit and sunglasses standing outside the bus depot.  She correctly guesses that he must be from The Shop, and so she coerces a group of conveniently-placed -- and incredibly poorly-costumed -- football players to go and rough the guy up.  This provides enough of a distraction for Terry and Gina to get away.

Back at Falco Plains, Toddhunter has assembled a team of new assistants, all of whom are working like bees.  One of them informs him that power is at 80%, and that they can't proceed any further without approval from Jude Andrews.  Toddhunter pitches a fit, and storms out.

Meanwhile, Harlan goes to a diner and is flirted with shamelessly by Margo Martindale, who is understandably put off by the fact that he goes into a fugue state and his eyes start glowing green.  Guess those hot-cross buns'll have to wait for another time.

Terry and Gina break into Francie's apartment while she's away, and when she comes back she is immediately distrustful of this pig who's with her mother, and of the story the two are telling her.  Harlan shows up, and his face feels different enough that Francie starts believing them, and quick.  She and Terry even manage to bond a bit over talking about what Harlan was like as a father.  Apparently, h was the type of dad who was always donating to charities and supporting the little guy, and when his daughter started taking part in radical protests, he was proud of her.  Terry correctly assumes that Francie's frustration lies in the fact that her father gave her nothing to rebel against.

Crewes, with the doltish Moreland along for the ride, lands in Chicago and there is a terrible scene in which the two of them interrupt a pilot -- who brought in the plane Andrews was on -- and a stewardess in mid-flirt.  They take the two hostage and lock them in a room, where their randiness seemingly offers enough of a distraction that Crewes feels no particular need to worry about them.  (There is an occasional tendency in Golden Years for characters -- ranging from minor ones like the pilot and the stewardess to major ones, like Moreland and Toddhunter -- to behave in ways that seems wholly divorced from what we might reasonably call "normal human behavior."  King's character writing is a genuine strength in his prose; in his screenplays, he sometimes seems to be another writer altogether, and one who has never even met an actual person.  The disconnect is sometimes startling, as in this scene with the randy pilot and his equally randy stewardess.)

Andrews and Burton are being escorted by a couple of other Shop agents to Francie's apartment.  They are pulled over by local policemen, who are incredibly belligerent, especially once they find all the automatic weapons.  This delay will prove to be crucial.  It allows Crewes enough time to get to Francie's apartment and tell everyone they need to get moving pronto.

They do, but not quite fast enough.  There's a shootout in a parking garage.  Francie's seeing-eye dog, Whitney, gets killed while attacking Andrews; Terry gets winged, and Andrews' cheek is grazed by a bullet.  A nameless Shop goon also goes down for the count.  Despite the bloodshed, our heroes escape, but Andrews knows he's basically got them; all he's got to do is tighten the noose.

A great deal of this episode is utterly ham-handed, both in terms of conception and execution.  The touches of humor are almost totally misguided.  There are still a few good, grounded performances (R.D. Call as Andrews, Erik King as Burton, Harriet Sansom Harris as Francie) to help, thankfully.  The long characterization scene between Terry and Francie is good, and Francie herself feels very much like a King character.

The episode overall, though, is more than a bit on the weak side.

Episode 7  (airdate 08/22/1991)

The final episode of the series arrives, under the direction of Michael Gornick.

The teleplay is once again by Josef Anderson, from a story by King, but it's worth pointing out that there are two different versions of the episode: one which ends on a cliffhanger (complete with a "To Be Continued..." title card) and one which offers a resolution.  The ending with the resolution was apparently aired in foreign markets, once it became apparent that the series would not be renewed by CBS.

I would speculate that the studio mandated that King and Anderson write and film an alternate ending that could be used to provide closure, and therefore make the project seem like a more attractive option for home video and for reairings on cable.  We're not concerned with that alternate version much here; that'll be the subject of a later post that examines the differences between the original episodes and the home video version.

The episode begins with Terry and Crewes stealing a car, and then cuts to Moreland, who is still back at the airbase.  He's in the cockpit, pretending to be a fighter pilot.  This man -- this character -- is a grade-A buffoon; one of the worst characters in King's canon, without a doubt.  In another scene, two more of the worst King characters ever meet: Toddhunter and Billy the janitor.  Toddhunter is bereft of assistants, so he enlists Bill's annoying help.  Both of these actors are still working, and have worked steadily in the last two decades; I suspect neither is particularly proud of the performances they gave on this series.  Bad acting notwithstanding, Toddhunter's experiment is a success: he makes a clock run backward, and then disappear.  Hooray...?

Francie knows a place where they can all hide; it's a house of hippies.  One of the hippies goes by the moniker "Captain Trips," so any King fan worth his salt knows this fellow is probably no damn good.  Sure enough, he turns out to be an informant, and he sells our heroes out.  Before long, The Shop has set up shop on the street where the hippies live.  Moreland, who was discovered at the airbase, has been brought along for the ride, and he's melting down big-time.  He's quite concerned that the appropriate paperwork hasn't been done.  Think of a slightly less obnoxious Craig Toomey (from The Langoliers) and you're on the right track.

Gina's been clutching her heart and looking pale a lot lately, so you figure something bad is going to happen there.  Harlan seems to sense it, too, so he dances with his wife for a while, and when they wake up the next morning they have a final roll in the hay.  Keith Szarabajka and Frances Sternhagen are good in these scenes; they have a dry sort of chemistry, and while it doesn't work as well as you sense everyone wants it to work, it works better than it probably has any right to have worked.

Moreland finally snaps, and runs outside to start shouting about how this whole operation is most irregular and can't be tolerated.  Andrews shoots him dead, and before long the assault on the hippie-house is on.  Gina has a heart attack, or something, and Harlan won't leave her; Terry -- who seems upset to an out-of-character degree -- and Crewes reluctantly abandon the "old" man, and make their escape (offscreen) through a big storm drain that the house somehow connects to.  Harlan walks outside carrying Gina's body, and is tranked by Burton; he passes out cold, but not before he tries to bite Jude's ear off.

Terry and Crewes regroup, and for no real reason that seems all that plausible to me, decide to return to Falco Plains and try to rescue Harlan.  Toddhunter, meanwhile, has visited his father's grave again, so that he can monologue a bit and dig up one of the watches he'd previously buried.  As the episode ends, Harlan is in bed at Falco Plains, his eyes glowing green while he is under sedation.

To Be Continued...

This episode, like much of the series, is just not particularly good.  There are occasional moments in which the plot almost begins to work, and some of the acting is good.  However, all of the scenes involving Moreland are awful, and "Captain Trips" is a fairly lousy character as well.

One major issue I have has to do with the character of Francie.  She was introduced in the previous episode, seemingly as someone who would be of major importance.  She's in this episode, too, but disappears after a couple of scenes; she's headed for Wisconsin, where she knows someone who can get them all fake IDs and new lives.  There is a scene in which Terry and Crewes are -- prior to the assault on the house -- trying to figure out their next move, and they mention going to meet up with Francie in Wisconsin, so it seems likely that if the series had continued, they'd have met up with Francie again eventually.  However, given how adamant she was in the previous episode about going with her parents, I'm not sure it makes a bit of sense for her to take off for Wisconsin at the first available opportunity.  This smells to me; specifically, it smells like someone was unable to figure out how to keep Francie alive during the assault on the house, but knew she would need to be alive for something later on in the story.

Sadly -- or not so sadly, depending on your perspective -- we never got the rest of that story.  As I mentioned earlier, there is an alternate ending that offers at least some resolution, but it is clearly a rush-job, and does not seem like something King would have written naturally.  Instead, it seems like an exercise; "alright," some studio executive says to King, "if you had a gun to your head and had to end the series definitively in two minutes, how would you do it?"

It doesn't work, either.  The cliffhanger is unsatisfying, but it at least seems like a natural progression.

Everyone's mileage will vary on this subject, but for my tastes, I'd rather be left with an unfinished work than with an unfinished work that has a hastily-composed ending stapled onto it.

Alas, since the original episodes remain unavailable commercially, the stapled version is all that most King fans have.  It may be that that is King's preferred version; he's had very little to say about Golden Years in the years since, so far as I can tell, and it would be foolish of me to assume that he isn't basically okay with the hoe-video cut of the film.  Maybe he isn't; but then again, there's no proof to back it up.

My final take on this series is that it is mostly a mediocrity.  The production values are slight, the acting occasionally bad, the structure of certain scenes ill-considered.  However, the concept -- a man has a science-powered accident and begins aging in reverse, then has to go on the run with his elderly wife to keep them both from being killed -- is a solid one, and King managed to create a few good characters.  It'll never happen, most likely, but I'd love for him to sit down and write the whole thing as a novel one of these days.

In a way, the other work within King's canon that Golden Years reminds me of the most is The Plant, that famously unfinished novel that King published online in several installments.  The extant material is known as Book 1, "Zenith Rising," but there do not seem to be any particular plans to complete the story, and what we have is good, but doesn't end in anything even vaguely resembling a satisfying, conclusive manner.  Golden Years, in some ways, is a similar case: both stories represent Kingus Interruptus, and while it stands to reason that his career has seen a large number of works that withered and died on the vine, these are perhaps the only two cases in which they did so publicly.

As such, they both represent an intriguing insight into what a failed King story looks like.  There are remarkably few of those; for the hardcore King fan, that, perversely, makes them rather compelling, in their own strange ways.

Or perhaps that's just the lack of sleep talking...


  1. I missed the original broadcast. I remember watching the first episode and not being at all impressed or intrigued by the show.

    I have the DVD and it is okay. It is like Stephen King on autopilot. Not great, but not bad.

    1. Oh, I think parts of it are pretty doggone bad.

      Well, actually, let me amend that statement; parts of these original episodes are pretty doggone bad. However, a lot of that probably was cut for the abridged version. I don't remember that version well enough to say for sure whether some of the more egregious scenes survived into the final home-video version.

  2. “King's character writing is a genuine strength in his prose; in his screenplays, he sometimes seems to be another writer altogether, and one who has never even met an actual person. “

    Ha – that is the truth, isn’t it?

    I didn’t watch this when it originally aired and have been reluctant to view the footage-compromised version that’s available. (In this respect, Golden Years is a bit like the Magnificent Ambersons of King’s catalog – though that’s thankfully been sorted out in recent years. It’s amusing to compare these two wholly-dissimilar works, but I just mean re: the unavailable footage) So while I can’t comment on the series itself, these plot summaries and observations are entertaining on their own.

    Intriguing connections to Tommyknockers via the Shop and green-light biz. And the paranoia. I sometimes wonder if the paranoia of that era of King was just a result of his unsettled unconscious. It further makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with me that I find myself nodding along with it vs. his more-well-adjusted recent statements re: government/ JFK, etc.! But although I often position myself more in line with his The Shop/ Dallas Police thinking, it’s encouraging to discover he shrugs that stuff off as he goes on. Perhaps the same will happen to me, and I’ll chuckle over my 2012 ideas. Either way, like you say, it’s interesting to compare and contrast his approach to such things then and now. I’m currently in the middle of “Under the Dome” and have been thinking about such things, specifically.

    “Kingus Interruptus” is a great umbrella-term. Thankfully, for us voracious consumers of King, only The Plant and this would seem to fall under it; otherwise it’d make a great title for a book, if there was more of it to consider.

    Is there a King cameo?

    Cliff Claven’s Mom is in a lot more King-adaptations than I ever suspected. I guess only 3 or 4, but that’s 3 or 4 more than I remembered, when I started in with the re-reading/re-viewing.

    1. There is indeed a King cameo: he plays a bus driver who gives Terry a bit of sass at one point.

    2. "I sometimes wonder if the paranoia of that era of King was just a result of his unsettled unconscious. It further makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with me that I find myself nodding along with it vs. his more-well-adjusted recent statements re: government/ JFK, etc.!"

      I think what you're talking about is just a case passive reading where the mind should be more alert, as I think it should be in a book like 11/22/63.

      To me that book is an intersting specimen in the King cannon, and I don't want to give the wrong connotations when I use this word, so I'll clarify what I mean when I call that book "Almost Schizoid."

      For record, no, I think King is Schizoid, however to me that book is proof that he's definitely conflicted about his own beliefs.

      Again this is something I've explained before. I'm convinved King is conflicted about his earlier Sixties self because it was from the excesses and "Dark Half" (in you will) of that decade (the Fred Hampton, Charles Manson, Weatherman aspect) that his "Bachman" side emerged (the drug abusive/alcoholic behavior).

      Now, going on what little I've learned from my own encounters with psychology, I think King deeps down still believes a lot of his own Sixties ideals, including the belief of a JFK conspiracy (for proof, seem mass mark. paper. edition of final DT book page 743), yet his confliction comes from his awareness that that's where his drug/alcohol problems came from.

      My own opinion is that if you had a square head on your shoulders then the Sixties were pretty much okay, there's a lot to like in the "idealism" of that decade, and you know it all just came from the Beatles.

      To be continued.


    3. continued from previous post

      However, if like King, you brought along a lot of pre-existing neurotic issues or emotional baggage, well, there could "deleterious side effects." I think the problem isn't the Sixties or JFK so much as King's own problems stemming from the fact that his Dad did a walkout and deprived his son of a stable childhood.

      At the risk of sounding snarky, I'm sorry but I got to say it...

      Congrats Mr. Donald King, you've succeeded in turning our favorite author into a part time "Basket Case!" Mozeltov, you Moron.

      I'm sorry if that came out wrong, yet I'm convinced King's Dad really is the one to shoulder the majority of the blame for King's emotional issues.

      The irony is I think he's also the one who made King turn to horror as outlet for dealing with these issues. Suffice it to say, I think in many ways the Sixties and Fifties are the "real" Dark Tower running through all King's fiction. And I think below the surface King is still as much of a hippie as always, I just hope he knows a difference between "idealism", rational, logical skepticism and paranoia.

      On a parting note, here's this music video a ran across one day. I couldn't help thinking about King as I watched it.

      Sorry if the outburst was uncalled for.


  3. I have fond memories of watching this show back in the summer of 1991, but after reading your piece I have no desire to seek out the abridged verion.

    I was sixteen when the show aired, and I remember looking for a novelization of the series at the bookstore. I needed closure. I wanted to find out what happened to Harlan.

    To this day, whenever I hear the Bowie song, I think of old men with mustaches.

    1. Hah!

      Me too, actually. I'd never heard the song before then. And you know, I have to say, I still find myself wondering why I'm not a bigger Bowie fan. I love the songs of his that I know, but I've never been able to find the resources to become a hardcore fan. Maybe someday...

  4. This question is sort of off topic inasmuch as it goes back to the cannon question.

    I was just wondering where would you place a peripheral outlier like the Alan Wake video game.

    Possibilities for it's inclusion:

    Stephen King is mentioned at least twice in the game.

    The main character in the game lists King as a childhood influence.

    In fact, the opening line of the game is:

    "Stephen King once wrote that "Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there's little fun to be had in explanations; they're antithetical to the poetry of fear."

    Whether King actually wrote or said that, or whether the line is apocryphal, the fact is the Alan Wake series takes place in a world featuring a fictional version of King.

    So here's the question, should this be enough to include it in the King-verse?


    1. I'd say no. But I'm not familiar with the game (apart from merely having heard of it), so my opinion is not a well-formed one.

  5. The original series is now available on Netflix streaming.

    The Terry Spann/Dana Scully resemblance is too striking to be purely coincidental. Not the personality, of course - Dana is far more reserved and cerebral. If Terry Spann had been paired with Mulder, she would have 1) quit, 2) killed him or 3) slept with him before the end of season 1, maybe all three.

    Felicity Huffman appeared in the X-Files episode "Ice" early in season 1. So did at least 11 other "Golden Years" cast members in other episodes, including principals Keith Szarabajka, Ed Lauter, and R. D. Call; maybe that shouldn't be surprising, given the number of X-F eps.

    1. Very cool about the original series being on Netflix!

      I'd totally forgotten Felicity Huffman (and the others) were in "The X-Files." "Ice" is a pretty solid episode, as I recall.