Sometimes it’s just a similar premise. Sometimes the resemblance is uncanny. But every now and then a TV episode can’t help but recall another. In Double Takes, we explore the doppelgangers of television, the unshakable connections between them, and the illuminating distinctions.
Around the time Charles Manson came to Los Angeles to get famous, Jack The Ripper took off. Not that Jack the cultural figure had ever been as elusive as Jack the man. As horror maven Kim Newman puts it, he’s the most filmed uncaught serial killer of all time. But toward the end of the Psycho decade, a wave of Ripper-centric entertainment mounted. Jack was the boogeyman of a late-night TV movie stitched together from episodes of Boris Karloff’s previously unaired anthology series The Veil, a historical icon in Peter Barnes’ play and Peter Medak’s film adaptation of The Ruling Class, a villain on a two-part Get Smart. And he was the spirit of slaughter possessing a pair of doppelgangers.
As the Summer Of Love faded to winter, two writers found themselves tangled up together with Jack The Ripper. “Tied in a knot,” as Harlan Ellison puts it in his landmark sci-fi anthology Dangerous Visions. Published a week before Halloween 1967, the collection features two stories about the unknown murderer of five women on the streets of Whitechapel in the fall of 1888. The first, by Psycho author Robert Bloch, is a pseudo-sequel to a canonical work of Ripper lore. Bloch’s 1943 tale “Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper” casts the killer as an immortal who fled London but left a trail of bodies tracking his progress well into the 20th century. Long an admirer of the story, Ellison pitched, in Bloch’s words, “What about Jack The Ripper in the future?” When Bloch submitted his story, Ellison was once again so taken with Bloch’s Ripper he pitched Bloch a sequel, this one written by himself. Both men’s stories—Bloch’s a snakebite and Ellison’s the paralyzing aftermath—and the background information appear in Dangerous Visions. What’s less well known is what came next. Within three months of the anthology, NBC and CBS, respectively, broadcast two episodes of TV following Jack the Ripper in the future: Star Trek’s “Wolf In The Fold” and Cimarron Strip’s “Knife In The Darkness.” One was written by Robert Bloch, the other by Harlan Ellison.
Produced by Star Trek’s increasingly overworked secret weapon Gene L. Coon, “Wolf In The Fold” was Bloch’s third and final script for the series. On a visit to pleasure planet Argelius, which seems to be nothing but bars and brothels connected by foggy cobblestone alleyways that a certain slasher might find psychically triggering, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy, sly and wry, are hoping to rehabilitate chief engineer Scotty. He was recently involved in an accident caused by a woman that resulted in a concussion, and if the situation is not addressed swiftly, it’s feared that Scotty may suffer from (in 22nd-century medical terms) “total resentment toward women.” Basically Kirk and McCoy are trying to set him up with a dancer, but not because he’s their bro. This is strictly professional. Unfortunately, that dancer becomes the first victim in a series of stabbings reminiscent of Jack The Ripper, and Scotty keeps being found in a fugue state at the scenes of the crimes holding a bloody knife.
Cimarron Strip takes Jack the Ripper to a more immediate future. The show’s setting—a sort of no-man’s land in what is now northern Oklahoma, circa 1888—struck Ellison as a plausible hideout for Jack The Ripper, and one with the familiar squalor and libertinism to incite him to more killing. Hence, “Knife In The Darkness,” a hushed, shadowy cycle-of-violence story snappy with dialogue and heavy with mood. As a long night unfurls, more and more women are found stabbed to death, and it’s up to Marshal Jim Crown (Stuart Whitman) to catch the killer.
More than any other genre of television fiction, serial killer stories like these risk exploitation. The starting point is a man getting away with murder for a while and a handful of women corpses. It takes care to resist the easy narrative, to avoid glamorizing evil or perpetuating the idea that women are disposable. “Wolf In The Fold” and “Knife In The Darkness” make a staggering comparison in that regard: Goofus makes sweeping generalizations about women! Gallant writes women with personality!
Consider the opening sequences. Both start with a woman who is soon to become victim number one dancing before a gaggle of lustful men, and both conclude with her walking off into the foggy night, chased by a stalker to her end. Directed by Trek regular Joseph Pevney, “Wolf In The Fold” even opens with her seducing the camera, a sort of “Great Train Robbery” gunshot appealing to the Jack The Ripper in all us men, an idea both Bloch and Ellison address in Dangerous Visions. But “Wolf In The Fold” is too blunt an object to point in any direction, least of all the clumsily incriminated audience. The dancer, Kara, isn’t named until she’s a corpse. She gets two lines, both delivered like she’s Ginger Grant in sleepy Marilyn mode, and then it’s off to the slaughterhouse. That’s when Kirk and McCoy reveal their plan to get Scotty’s head screwed on straight again, as it were. The whole episode is like that. It’s punctuated with sexist trivia like “Women are more easily and more deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species.” And the women are mostly footnotes in this story of the men of Argelius, the suspects, the persons of interest, and the killer.
The opening capsule of “Knife In The Darkness” is more The Wire than SVU. “This is a season for good will,” rasps Marshal Jim Crown. On the outskirts of town, everyone’s dancing and drinking: Josie (Jennifer Billingsley) in red, Shadow Feller (Ron Soble) the Cherokee, a cowboy named Tal St. James (David Canary). But as Josie dances with some other guy on a giant stump, Tal’s smile thaws. Finally he can’t take it anymore. He cuts in, and the revelry continues. Next it happens to another cowboy, Bladgey (George Murdock), getting possessive from the sidelines. He cuts in on Tal and plants one on Josie, and in the ensuing tussle, she’s the one who gets knocked off the stump to the ground. If the men notice, they don’t show it. One draws a knife, and that’s when the marshal breaks up the fight and tells the men to walk it off. Almost wordlessly, Harlan Ellison and director Charles R. Rondeau (whose evocative direction Ellison would later savage in L.A. Weekly) introduce some of the episode’s characters, the gleaming knife imagery, and some of the ideas of the episode in miniature: Lust arouses men’s latent violence; women are the ones who suffer for it; men’s response to suffering women is to avenge them with more violence; and in this barely governed semi-state of nature, the law just might not be up to the task of saving victims and punishing criminals.
The next scene is Josie’s walk back to town pursued by a killer: shaky shots of her legs running and his skulking, her running through a foggy corridor, his shadow moving up the wall, eventually her collapse behind a wall and his hand over her mouth. “Knife In The Darkness” is a slasher film that leans toward the victims instead of the slasher. After Josie’s death, the town is in a pall. Everyone at the saloon is on edge, the cowboys are turning on each other, and the surviving women are left to fend for themselves. Jim tells the journalist Francis (Randy Boone) not to look at Josie’s body, but he does, and he comes back sickened. Later Jim forces a local to take in the image of a murdered woman, partly out of anger and hurt over her death and partly out of desperation to impress upon the man the horror of the situation. Rondeau spares the audience, mostly, but the grisly sights common to crime procedurals are treated with the utmost gravity here. Ellison is deft enough to deliver the thrill of the chase without diminishing the sadness of the slayings. This isn’t just a screw-tight thriller. It’s a tragedy.
Meanwhile the men keep slipping into acts of violence. Some locals take it upon themselves to find the bad guy, and it doesn’t take much to put an innocent man in their sights. Jim mock strangles Francis to get him to stop writing about him in the paper. Everyone’s got a knife, partly to spread suspicion, but partly to explore the cycle of violence. A murder makes the men feel helpless, so they lash out. The Ripper killings aren’t just about a lunatic and some women. They ripple throughout the town, spreading injustice, murder, and fear. “Wolf In The Fold” spares a line for how the murders are being felt by society: Locals are wanting to close Argelius to outsiders, threatening diplomacy and trade in the region due to its being the only spaceport around. But it otherwise ignores the consequences of murder. The victims’ loved ones are involved primarily as persons of interest. By contrast, “Knife In The Darkness” is nothing but dominoes falling.
The male gaze, that is the tendency of a camera subject to be presented not objectively but rather through a man’s perspective, is exemplified in a snippet of Kara’s opening dance. She’s just bent over backward undulating in Scotty’s face, and after a close-up of him on cloud nine, there’s a cut to her dancing from the neck down, objectified by the camera, just body parts. Director Rondeau understands what it means to do that to someone. He presents only one woman in such cut-up terms, and it’s after she’s actually been hacked up, now just a bloody arm hanging above her scattered red shoes. While she’s being murdered, Marshal Crown is interviewing his first suspect, a knife sharpener by the name of Peddigrew (Don Hanmer). It turns out Peddigrew’s afraid to go back to jail, and after some more prodding, the marshal gets him to reveal his dirty secret.
Jim: “Peeping Tom?”
Peddigrew: “It’s harmless.”
Jim: “Maybe not tonight.”
He’s taken the male gaze to a criminal extent, and the marshal tells him point-blank that it’s not harmless just to look, at least not to the extent that he looks. Hannibal Lecter would lecture him on what it is to covet. The endpoint is physical violence.
“Wolf In The Fold” underlines that point when its second victim, Starfleet Lieutenant Karen Tracy (Virginia Aldridge), beams down to help. She’s basically a redshirt, one of the extras in Starfleet uniforms who take up space to make a mission seem plausible. But the women’s uniform is a miniskirt, and Karen’s comes down to her wrists. As soon as she arrives, you know she’s next, and you know she’s next because of that skirt. It’s not an appeal to the Jack in all of us so much as the TV viewer in all of us, but it’s an unsettling moment of self-consciousness nonetheless, to catch yourself targeting this woman for death because her skirt is too short. It’s knowing touches like this that suggest the episode could be something with a little more time and care.
As Cimarron Strip was CBS’ stab at the 90-minute Western, “Knife In The Darkness” has an extra 25 minutes on “Wolf In The Fold” to spin a satisfying yarn, but the problem with the latter isn’t that it’s too short. It might be too long, given its apparent discomfort with the simple premise of Jack The Ripper apparently framing Scotty for more murders in the 23rd century. It’s not much of a thriller, as the question of Scotty’s complicity keeps the murders so far off-screen that we only ever see the aftermath. It’s not even a mystery, introducing persons of interest in a fly-by scene focused more on exonerating Scotty than cracking the case. It’s less a whodunit than a Scotty-didn’t. Each act introduces some new twist that takes us further and further from the conceit: the ancient Argelian empathy séance, the incredibly futuristic Enterprise lie-detector, eventually a ghost in the machine of the ship’s computer. Which is a great idea for a Star Trek episode, just maybe not the one about Jack The Ripper in space. From the way it lumbers and lurches, there’s nothing wolflike about it.
But the ghost in the machine gets back to Bloch, a writer of genre fiction whose submission to Dangerous Visions describes the child’s bedroom of the future along with all the barbaric torture implements its occupant plays with. “Wolf In The Fold” has the ideas to power fascinating science-fiction. It just doesn’t have the commitment. Bloch imagines a completely hedonistic society, which would have to outsource its administration. But are the dancers at the night clubs working simply for the love of the game? Bloch imagines a society evolved toward enlightened pleasure might still have ancient penalties on the books for ancient crimes. But are there no Argelians who take pleasure in the pain of others? He imagines Jack The Ripper in the 23rd century not merely fleeing from town to town but planet to planet. But how has Red Jack eked out a living on Argelius for so long without adding to his body count?
In the end “Wolf In The Fold” isn’t really a Jack The Ripper tale, let alone a horror. Rather, it’s a groovy late ’60s trip, floating away from specific horrors into a battle of fear versus joy, or at least 23rd century laughing gas. Its Ripper is a non-corporeal lifeform of pure evil who feeds off fear. He—it—preys on women because, according to Spock, women generate more terror for it than men. Even taking that explanation at face value, stripping Jack of his own sex—transforming the slasher into a specter—reduces him to the point that he’s unrecognizable.
So does defeating him. Part of what gives Jack The Ripper his artistic immortality is that he wasn’t caught. With absolute knowledge we’d be able to pinpoint exactly which Victorian madman was responsible for which murders and what happened to him afterward, and the explanation would surely be less exciting than whatever Bloch, Ellison, and company could conjure. But Jack The Ripper endures because Jack The Ripper got away. To best him is almost a violation. Maybe it’s another case of the Bloch-Ellison feedback loop. Ellison’s Dangerous Visions submission, with Jack as “The Prowler In The City At The Edge Of The World,” defeats him with far future technology. But Ellison’s Jack was a man of the 19th century out of time. The Ripper of “Wolf In The Fold” is timeless.
“Knife In The Darkness” does identify the man responsible for the Cimarron City killings, but it doesn’t confirm he’s Jack The Ripper. In the end, the killer is run out of town back to where the episode started—that giant stump Josie fell from—it’s too late for the marshal to interrogate him. So Ellison preserves the Ripper’s anonymity and his evasion of authority. It’s powerful to see Marshal Crown overmatched by the evils in his midst. He’s too late to save the women slaughtered by Jack The Ripper, and he’s too late to save a victim of vigilante justice. The best he can do is clean up afterward: track the killer, eliminate suspects, lock up the vigilantes. Jim participates in the plot, exerts his will, and at least manages to chase the Ripper out of town. However, saving the day is out of his reach. In that, “Knife In The Darkness” is a strong subversion of the typical TV Western with its heroic patriarchs. But it’s as true as can be to the enduring horror of Jack The Ripper.