Yesterday, I discussed Rod Serling’s horror anthology series Night Gallery and the way studio and network interference gradually destroyed the program. Today I’m going to tell you about the result of that network and studio interference. Night Gallery’s failure gave us Ancient Aliens.
By late 1972, the writing was on the wall for Night Gallery. The network had cut the program from an hour to half an hour, and both NBC and the production company, Universal, ordered the show to feature more monsters, more mayhem, and more “promotable” stories; in other words, nothing too challenging for audiences. The new direction was failure, and the miserable run of duds for the final season ground to an ignominious end in May 1973 (production had ended some months earlier), when the final episode groaned its way to a sclerotic conclusion.
Serling had become disenchanted with the program, referring to the third season as “shit,” and he publicly disavowed any responsibility for the show that bore his name (its official title was Rod Serling’s Night Gallery). He had written twenty scripts for the second season, but contributed just four in the third. As the last episodes aired, the studio began repackaging the show for syndication, chopping up and butchering episodes to fit into half-hour slots. When that failed to produce enough episodes for syndication, they added 25 truncated episodes of the 1972 Sixth Sense series to the package, but to make them fit with Gallery, they paid Serling handsomely to film new introductions for these episodes. Serling essentially blackmailed them for cash, knowing they couldn't syndicate without his intros. With that he washed his hands of the Gallery, and network series.
This meant that in late 1972, he was ending his series commitment and open to suggestions for his next project. His longtime producer, Alan Landsburg, came to him with some excitement, babbling about ancient aliens to a skeptical Serling. Landsburg convinced Serling that ancient astronauts were real, and he proposed a project to bring the story to the masses. In his 1974 book, In Search of Ancient Mysteries, Landsburg presents his conversion to ancient astronautics as his own sui generis brainstorm, but in fact Landsburg had seen an Oscar-nominated 1970 German documentary about Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, probably in the English dubbing made in Britain. Landsburg’s proposal wasn’t so much to rewrite history as to make good money reediting the documentary for American audiences with Serling as the narrator. He called the new version In Search of Ancient Astronauts, and it aired on NBC on January 5, 1973, two days after a new Night Gallery episode. Two sequels followed in 1975: In Search of Ancient Mysteries and The Outer Space Connection.
Serling was no stranger to ancient astronauts. He knew about them from fiction, especially the works of H. P. Lovecraft, which he had read and loved years earlier and which were also a major influence on Night Gallery thanks to both his and Gallery producer Jack Laird’s fandom. Therefore Serling was primed to accept the message that aliens had once visited the ancient earth. Even so, he initially thought the idea suitable only for fiction (not unlike, say, his reverse-ancient astronaut script for Planet of the Apes) until Landsburg provided “evidence” in the form of the Nazca lines to convince him.
With Serling’s familiar voice lending the awe any mystery of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery to ancient astronauts, In Search of Ancient Astronauts and its successors were ratings successes. The programs propelled sales of von Däniken’s books and helped make him a 1970s celebrity. With no actors to pay, documentaries made for cheap programming. Therefore, Landsburg made plans to turn his documentaries into a television series, and he wanted Serling to continue as narrator. Serling, however, died in June 1975, and Leonard Nimoy, who had acted in and directed for Night Gallery, stepped into the role. The series, called In Search of…, ran from 1976 to 1982 in syndication. (The series, along with the Landsburg-Serling documentaries, are scheduled for DVD release in October.)
The NBC documentaries and the In Search of… series drove public interest in ancient astronauts and prehistoric mysteries. More people watched the NBC specials than would ever read ancient astronaut books (there were only three networks and PBS for most TV viewers in those days), and the TV shows gave credibility to von Däniken’s ideas, despite PBS’s Nova making a valiant effort to discredit the idea by adapting a BBC Horizon episode.
Without the failure of Night Gallery in its third season, Serling likely wouldn’t have had the time or inclination for In Search of Ancient Astronauts. Without the participation of one of the network’s stars, NBC would have been much less likely to air the documentary, or for audiences to watch it. Without the documentary, von Däniken’s book sales would have been much less robust, his star much dimmer. Without a celebrity author and TV credibility, the ancient astronaut theory might have faded into just another weird idea on the lunatic fringe.
Instead, von Däniken’s residual fame led to a Chariots of the Gods documentary special on ABC in 1996 (to compete with NBC’s successful documentaries advocating Atlantis and creationism), a spate of cable TV documentaries in early 2000s, and the History Channel’s 2009 Ancient Aliens documentary, which in turn served as the pilot for Ancient Aliens: The Series. In an ever-more-fractured television landscape, appeals to the fond memories of popular old ideas were a shortcut to ratings. If only NBC and Universal had left Night Gallery to its devices, we might have had more quality classic horror and no Ancient Aliens.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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