Director: Bill Travis
Writer: Ted Gershuny
Cast: Darren McGavin, Lenny von Dohlen, David Margulies, Joe Bova, Sheila King, John Bonnes, Dog Thomas, and Paul Sparer
Composer: Charles Morrow Associates, Inc.
Air Date: 11/17/1985
A mysterious man known as Mr. Smith (Lenny von Dohlen) approaches studio executive Gil Hurn (David Margulies) with an offer to renew Max Paradise, a short-lived and poorly received detective program starring the now washed-up Van Conway (Darren McGavin). Despite his initial skepticism toward Mr. Smith’s bizarre proposal, Gil decides to greenlight the project when informed of Van Conway’s participation.
“Distant Signals” operates on a somewhat goofy premise, namely that a race of humanoids would expend the time, energy, and resources to recreate a hokey noir series produced on Earth. The notion of a decades-old broadcast signal one day reaching an extraterrestrial civilization may, however, intrigue science fiction fans due to the implications thereof.
Though likely unintentional, the wooden performance of Lenny von Dohlen serves to reinforce the concept of an expressionless, enigmatic alien traveling halfway across the galaxy to orchestrate a reunion episode for an obscure, critically panned television show filmed during the 1960s. Especially worth mentioning, Mr. Smith reacts with utter indifference when forking over two million dollars’ worth of gold; yet provides an eloquent, emotionally compelling justification of the supposed brilliance behind a cheesy and long-forgotten serial—a contrast that exemplifies the ironic essence of Dohlen’s character.
By revealing a major plot twist through expository dialogue alone, “Distant Signals” fails to conclude in a poignant and satisfactory manner as intended. Also problematic is Van Conway’s sudden, inexplicable ability to connect the dots regarding Mr. Smith’s origin and motivations, thereby compounding the anticlimactic nature of Ted Gershuny’s narrative.
“Distant Signals” possibly contains a lesson on taking pride in one’s work. Specifically, the cast and crew of the fictional Max Paradise refuses, at least initially, to acknowledge any potential greatness in their own product only to be proven wrong in a most unusual fashion.
By combining poignant character interactions with a fascinating idea, “Distant Signals” will appeal to Tales from the Darkside enthusiasts. That being said, a number of corny and downright cringe-inducing moments are present in this episode.
Overall Quality: 7/10
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