I don’t keep track of what cable network Nickelodeon does these days (I don’t have children), but even with the new logo I can’t imagine that the channel has altered much from the manic “no adults in the room” style that it started to specialize in during the mid-‘80s. That was the point when Double Dare and its profusion of goo heralded a rethinking of the channel’s former “education-and-imports” format it had used since its launch in 1979.
That’s right: for people who weren’t watching Nickelodeon during its debut years of the early 1980s, it may be hard for them to believe that the mega-children’s brand was originally educational programs done in the mold of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and most of the show were imported from Canada and overseas English-speaking countries. Nickelodeon had very little original programming in the early years, and it purchased UK and Canadian shows to fill out its schedule. Some of these shows did break the educational format, such as a number of bizarre animated shorts and the trippy parody Brit-toon DangerMouse (which attracted many adult fans). And then there was the oddball Canadian sketch comedy starring a mostly young cast, You Can’t Do That on Television!, which proudly contained no educational content at all and instead dumped slime on people . . . The Shape of Nick to Come. (And borrowed, no doubt, from Bunny Rabbit pouring ping-pong balls on Captain Kangaroo.)
That newborn Nickelodeon was at the bottom rung of the ratings, but it really was a strange place, weirder for not actually trying to be weird. But why am I bringing up the cable network here, on Black Gate? Don’t I have Conan pastiches to shred apart?
The reason I bring up Nickelodeon at all is that hiding in the shadows of its young years was a genuinely creepy dark fantasy and science-fiction program called The Third Eye. It ran for only a brief time on the network, but I’m amazed how much I recall about it. Aside from DangerMouse, it’s the only show I remember fondly from my time watching the network when I was in elementary school. It was smart, clever, and scary. Kids who would later grow up on Goosebumps have no idea of what genuinely cerebral terrors they missed out on.
Like much of Nickelodeon’s early programming, The Third Eye was a show consisting entirely of overseas imports. Like a sort of mind-warped Masterpiece Theater for the juvenile crowd, it served as an umbrella for television miniseries from the UK (and one from New Zealand). Only five series ran on the show: Children of the Stones, produced by Welsh television station HTV in 1976; The Haunting of Cassie Palmer, produced by TVS in 1981; Under the Mountain, produced by Television New Zealand in 1981; Into the Labyrinth, the first season of three produced from 1980 to 1983 by HTV; and The Witches and the Grinnygog, produced by TVS in 1983.
The only new material shot for The Third Eye was the opening, which uses Rod Serling-esque narration over shots of children standing in fog and laser lights. The announcer ponderously tones with Outer Limits joy: “Somewhere in the crowd, sometimes you find someone very special. Someone who sees light in the dark. Someone who hears the unheard. Someone who understands the mystery. Sometimes, there’s someone who sees with a third eye.”
I watched all of the series shown on the program when it first aired except The Witches and the Grinnygog, which only appeared at the end of the run when had stopped watching the channel. Each series is strongly imprinted on my memory because of their willingness to travel to some dark and frigthening places with its young heroes and heroines. The show emphasized psychic powers, but of course the series themselves, never conceived to have any link to one other, had wildly variant tones. Their unity was in their intelligence and a respect for the minds of their young viewers.
Into the Labyrinth is the lightest and most adventurous in tone of The Third Eye’s miniseries. It uses an episodic structure with young heroes repeating the same formula in each installment as they try to obtain a magical object called “the Nidus.” One of the writers on Doctor Who, Bob Baker, co-created the show, and there are many similarities in style between the two, although Into the Labyrinth isn’t obviously trying to achieve camp comedy. The action remains within a cavern system, where three children move through different time periods at each “turn of the labyrinth,” trying to obtain the Nidus in the different forms it takes and return it to the sorcerer Rothgo (Ron Moody from Oliver!). Opposing them is the witch Belor (Pamela Salem, who played Miss Moneypenny in Never Say Never Again), who wants to obtain the Nidus but cannot touch it herself. The show contains the catchy line, “I deny you the Nidus!”, which I occasional shout out and hope somebody will know what I’m talking about. So far, no luck. Maybe I should try it in the UK.
I can credit Into the Labyrinth with introducing me to the idea that “Civil War” wasn’t something that only applied to a U.S. conflict between the North and the South. When the children arrived in a time period which they declare “must be during the Civil War,” I was a mite bit confused. What were people wearing Three Musketeers costumes doing wandering around in a cave during the Civil War? Then it dawned on me: England had a Civil War as well! Any country can have a civil war! This was, ahem, eye-opening to me when I was nine years old.
Children of the Stones was the show I found the most elliptical and hardest to grasp at the time; it might be called a child’s version of The Wicker Man in its setting. It deals with megalith stones and time circles, and reading descriptions of it today make me want to seek out the regionless DVD and take a fresh look at it. I believe this one shot right over my head, unfortunately. Perhaps it wasn’t even aimed at children in the first place, which would make it getting onto Nickelodeon a sneaky piece of subversion.
The Haunting of Cassie Palmer is, relatively, a much simpler work. Based on a novel by Vivien Alcock, it features a thirteen-year-old girl who inherits her mother’s psychic powers and accidentally attaches a grim spirit named Deverill to her. Deverill is a truly terrifying presence in his quiet way, but the resolution to his story I remember finding extremely moving. Sadly, there is no commercial release available of this program.
Of all The Third Eye’s programs, it’s Under the Mountain that I remember the most, and only briefly dashing around the ‘net has informed me that it had a strong affect on many viewers who saw it as children in New Zealand, where it was the first science-fiction program filmed for the New Zealand television. Its source is a novel by Maurice Gee, one of the country’s most famous authors, and visits the popular concept of twins as the psychic heroes. Theo and Rachel Matheson go to stay with their uncle and aunt near a lake in Auckland after their mother’s death. They find themselves in a battle between weird tentacled alien creatures who can make themselves look human, and a “kind wizard” figure named Mr. Jones who originally trapped the alien beasts beneath the mountains of Auckland centuries ago.
Under the Mountain scared the hell out of me when I first saw it: the aliens, often in the guise of the Wilberforce family, are horrific as they transform, even with the limitations of the special effects of ‘80s television. A scene of one of the aliens, disguised as a police officer, trying to break into a house to reach the Matheson twins while starting to revert to its natural state stands out in my mind to this day. The musical score is also impressive, and the build of the chase and increasing danger over the eight episodes is thrilling. I was on the hook for the whole run.
Under the Mountain was remade last year in New Zealand as a theatrical film—which only reached DVD in most territories—starring Sam Neill as Mr. Jones and featuring visual effects by Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop. I haven’t seen this new version, although I’ve read that most viewers found it pale compared to the low-budget terror of their childhood memories. I’ve already ordered a copy of Gee’s novel, however, and maybe I’ll get around to the new movie after I read that.
Thinking about The Third Eye makes me wonder if children today are getting properly scared with their fantasy and science-fiction programs today. Do they have to resort to mature entertainment to find the right sort of terror? Are we doing the youngest generation a disservice by not providing them with freaky low-budget British programs pitting kids against evil sorcerers, ropy aliens, creepy Welsh villages, and the grim undead who simply won’t leave? Some doctoral study needs to look into this right away, or a whole generation might miss out on important disturbing dreams.
And yes, I do have Conan pastiches to shred apart.