One Step Beyond Season 1 Pleasantly Paranormal
By Kristin Battestella
On a whirlwind whim, I plunged into the First Season of the 1959 speculative anthology series One Step Beyond. Despite its shorter length and oft comparisons as the inferior, poor man’s Twilight Zone, this debut is a pleasant, thinking person’s spin on the unexplained.
Perhaps director and host John Newland (The Man Who Never Was, The Loretta Young Show) does introduce these twenty-two, twenty-five minute episodes in Sterling-esque fashion, but there’s none of The Twilight Zone’s depression or moody during the thirty second openings or ending tags – which claim these tales are real and based on true accounts. Although One Step Beyond begins with too many standard plots such as possession, ghosts or haunted houses, death, children trapped in mines, and even creepy dolls and Titanic tales amid the assorted paranormal phenomenon, there’s an entertaining, classy style to the irony. Some otherwise fine examinations on prophetic dreams, war stories, and executions may happen too many episodes in a row, but old-fashioned sophistication balances with the bizarre and unease. Nowadays we’ve probably seen all these plots before, but some outcomes are unexpected and even tender, innocent, or touching. Then scandalous talk of domestic unhappiness, alcoholism, and divorce or suggestive suggestions on abuse, rape, and family guilt, and surprising but now tame curses like jackass also standout along with fresh analysis on hypnosis, coincidence, synchronicity, clairvoyance, spirituality, Indian mysticism, Biblical parallels, and faith. Not everything is always explained or tidy at the end of each show, and this fact or fiction, believe it or not style might annoy modern audiences who expect complete clarification. However, it’s also pleasing to see television that leaves the viewer thinking on the how and why.
One Step Beyond creators/writers/producers Merwin Gerard (Mrs. Columbo, Daniel Boone) and Collier Young (Ironside, The Hitch-Hiker) and writer Don Mankewicz (I Want to Live!) would seem to have fine concepts and ideas without finish, but the stories are fleshed with enough drama, suspense, and fine casting to enthrall. Though it doesn’t seem as if One Step Beyond has as many stars as other anthology shows, there are a lot of recognizable faces from other classic television programs behind the scenes and onscreen. From Charles Beaumont’s (The Twilight Zone) penning of “The Captain’s Guests,” Ross Martin (Wild Wild West) in “Echo”, and Patrick Macnee (The Avengers) in “The Night of April 14th” to Cloris Leachman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) in “The Dark Room”, Beverly Washburn (Old Yeller) in “Premonition,” Mike Connors (Mannix) and Yvette Vickers (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) in “The Aerialist,” and Werner Klemperer (Hogan’s Heroes) in “The Haunted U-Boat,” there are plenty of stars anchoring the superior episodes. One Step Beyond gets better as it goes on thanks to prophetic circumstances and train suspense in “Emergency Only,” to close to home WWII fears in “The Dream,” and not often seen WWI inspiration in “The Vision.” Latent lesbianism and Carrie like pyrotechnics also stand out in “The Burning Girl” with Luana Anders (The Pit and the Pendulum), Edward Platt (Get Smart), and Olive Deering (Samson and Delilah). This episode is so pre-Carrie Carrie it’s shockingly Firestarter – a “Dirty, no good devil, witch” girl not allowed to dress up and go to the party by her angry, jealous, nutty dominating aunt because she “starts fires from within her” indeed. Of course, the episode calls the scenario a case of spontaneous combustion instead of pyrokinesis, but I guess we didn’t know much about either in the fifties!
Granted, some of these colloquialisms, dated dialogue, and bad fake accents hamper the more put on, substandard players and make for a stock company feeling on One Step Beyond. However, the sometimes goofy acting, melodramatic screams, and serious face contortions aren’t so bad as to make any episodes here in Season 1 unwatchable – although some contemporary audiences may find a few old-fashioned statements confusing or amusing: “When he has something to drink, he is gay.” On the other hand, of the time masochism is more uncomfortable. Women can’t drive and always get hysterical – but at least they are good looking! It’s understood that men are entitled to spend the night on the town with other women, but they can never believe the women telling them something is afoot. This doesn’t ruin One Step Beyond, but the mostly white casting, stereotypical Italian portrayals, and further racism are definitely noticeable today. African American or Asian characters are subservient porters or servants with hardly any lines or development –if they are seen at all – yet it’s surprising to see Nazi soldiers depicted somewhat sympathetically on early American television. Fortunately, there is a certain grace and chemistry with the smaller cast – often only two or three billed players – and the well plotted, intriguing, and speedy tales forgive any datedness. Actually, the lack of out there, science fiction tales, or pop music, and mid century references and other fad stylings keeps One Step Beyond from being irrevocably dated. Well, except for the separate beds!
The sweet classic cars, men in suits, old-fashioned nurse get ups, casual smoking and drinking, fedoras, old onscreen cameras, circus fun, and swanky furniture we do see on One Step Beyond, however, are indeed mid century cool. There’s even an early Ouija board plot appearance! Some period dressings, turn of the century settings, and WWI designs probably aren’t that accurate and reused set pieces and décor are apparent at times, of course. The large, ornately dressed sets, costumes, and American and British themes, however, suggest enough time and place for the atmosphere and mood – foreign, old world appearances, French and Spanish accents, and even nautical tales and The Blitz add further flair, too. I suspect what wide shots and special effects footage we do see is borrowed stock, but good fog and lighting seamlessly hide any reused material. It’s also refreshing to just have the one and two camera, over the shoulder, standard production letting scenes play out as intended up to the twists instead of today’s in your face CGI. I have to say though, what is this Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond sponsorship and titling?
Though available on several retro channels, in syndication, and thru streaming options like Netflix and Hulu Plus, public domain offerings varying in quality and incomplete compilation DVDs make viewing all three seasons of One Step Beyond difficult. Only One Step Beyond: The Official First Season is properly available, with the remaining episodes from Seasons 2 and 3 mostly elusive. Other best of compilations and volume sets do not have all the episodes, and erroneous listings and show inclusions or exclusions are confusing or downright infuriating for a completist. Fortunately, the speedy availability, short duration, and fine anthology quality of this First Season of One Step Beyond is a quick, family friendly fix for classic television fans and spooky audiences looking to get their bizarre viewing on – audiences of other anthology series should definitely take One Step Beyond.