Wednesday, January 16, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK #46: Prey: "Existence"

"We've just been bumped down the food chain."

That was the tag line for ABC's short-lived science-fiction/horror TV series from 1998. Entitled Prey, the series was created by William Schmidt and featured a pre-stardom Debra Messing (of Will & Grace fame) as intrepid Sloane Parker, a geneticist at Whitney University's Department of Anthropology. In the first episode, she discovered that a hostile new species - a lookalike species - was gaining power in North America.

"Neanderthals ruled for 300,000 years," the first episode of Prey (entitled "Existence") reminds viewers. "They must have thought nothing would ever stand in the way of their dominance," lectures Sloane's boss, Dr. Ann Coulter (no, not her...). She also informs the audience that "two species cannot occupy the same ecological niche at the same time."

This warning means that homo sapiens and the new species, known as homo dominants, are bound for a clash. Throughout the thirteen hour-long episodes of Prey that aired from January 15, 1998 to July 9, 1998, that's precisely what happened, with Sloane, her assistant, Dr. Ed Tate (Vincent Ventresca) and one of the dominants, Tom Daniels (Adam Storke) investigating the history, evolution and plans of this new threat to mankind.

It is learned in "Existence," for instance, that not only do the dominants Walk Among Us, but they may have originated from what Sloane describes as "environmental disruption," in particular global warming. She describes the phenomenon as being one that's been occurring for a hundred years, not a decade. Paging Al Gore! We also learn that the homo dominants share less in common with humans than we do with chimps. There's just a 1.1 gene differentiation between humans and chimps, while there's a 1.6 differentiation between human and dominant. Sloan and Ed also find out in "Existence" (to their dismay) that there are at least six of the dominants somewhere in Southern California...and many of them are murderers and monsters like the serial killer Richard Lynch.

Prey originated in the Golden Age of X-Files-spawned television. You remember, don't you? The epoch of Dark Skies (1996), Sleepwalkers (1997), The Burning Zone (1997), Strange World (1999) and the like. None of these series lasted very long, though some (like Dark Skies and Prey) showed tremendous promise.

Over the course of Prey's dozen or so episodes, Sloan grew close to Tom Daniels, and learned that the dominants were utterly lacking in human emotions but had ESP ("Discovery"), and were bent on the total domination of the human race. One episode, "Progeny" gazed at the issue of high school violence just months before Columbine. Yet Prey was truly prophetic in the sense that it forecasted the pervasive Age of Terror fear that the person beside you is actually a scary "other," not a sleeper agent, insurgent or suicide bomber, but a malevolent extra-species agent out to get you.

Prey was an efficient horror initiative because it focused on the ultimate apocalypse scenario for our species, mankind's involuntary replacement at the hands of superior beings. Yet those beings are not aliens or monsters, as is typical for the genre, but rather personifications the process of evolution, Mother Nature herself. Since Darwin and his theories are the incipient force behind Prey, the series raised provocative questions about survival of the fittest, our own prehistory (we supplanted the Neanderthals 40,000 years ago, why shouldn't the same happen to us now?) and of course, our own assumed destiny as the dominant life form on the planet.

Each episode of Prey handled these ideas well, and in extremely entertaining fashion, making it a series which ultimately obsessed on the nature of humanity. For instance, emotions do not exist in the Homo dominants. Does this fact reveal that emotions are actually destructive, an impediment to human survival, and therefore a quality to be bred out of our successors? Or does the lack of emotion in the new species signal the fact that Homo dominants represent a blind alley, genetically speaking, a creature less perfect than the one who came before?

Such notions of evolution are played out here on a stage filled with paranoia. The Homo dominants look like us, so they can infiltrate government agencies, hospitals, schools, law enforcement and the like, and do grave damage to human institutions. Prey thus remembers that the one essential fact of human existence is that all persons stand alone and separate inside their own head. We do not know what other people are thinking because we are individual, lonely organisms who depend on clumsy tools like the written word or spoken language to convey ideas. Prey exploits this fact by putting its protagonists into situations where it is difficult, if not impossible, to guess who is "the real enemy." To coin a phrase, Sloane can trust no one. At least not without conducting a DNA test first.

Given such a contemporary, relevant premise (in the War on Terror Age), Prey's only big flaw as a genre initiative was that it was ahead of its time.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting show - certainly the best thing that Debra Messing ever was in, but the show suffered from the now-common disease of "X-FILES SYNDROME" - a lot of buildup but next to no payoff.