At the time, skeptical critics promptly termed Dark Skies a rip-off of The X-Files after looking at the superficial similarities between series, namely "conspiracies" and "aliens."
In a span of roughly five years The X-Files inspired no less than a dozen other horror-oriented genre series, some of which became legitimate cause celebres and hits themselves, namely Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Others became respected cult programs with devoted if small audiences (American Gothic, Nowhere Man).
Therefore, it is both fair and accurate to state that these high-quality programs capitalized on the success of The X-Files without, necessarily, ripping off The X-Files.
There's no doubt in my mind that this program was green-lit and given a prime-time berth because of the success of The X-Files. There's also no doubt in my mind, however, that Dark Skies was an original, visually-distinctive, and highly-involving initiative. The series features a great, growling regular performance from the late J.T. Walsh, and also some very rewarding, very intricate plotting across the span of the catalog's nineteen hour-long shows..
The episode -- which today plays more like a full-fledged feature film -- was directed by none other than Tobe Hooper, the cinematic rebel and surrealist who helmed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Eaten Alive (1976), Salem's Lot (1978), The Funhouse (1981) and Poltergeist (1982). Here Hooper brings his trademark sense of visual aplomb to the pilot; both vividly capturing a sense of period detail and stylishly ramping up the shocks and suspense inherent in the series premise.
As the Dark Skies mythology begins, President John F. Kennedy is inaugurated in Washington D.C. and the age of Camelot officially begins.
Two enthusiastic, idealistic American youngsters, John Loengard (Eric Close) and Kim Sayers (Megan Ward) trek to Washington to begin a new life; to live the life of service imagined in President Kennedy's address of fifty years ago. They ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.
One organization in that conspiracy -- Majestic -- is aware of an alien invasion in progress, and is steadfastly keeping that knowledge from the President and his new administration (apparently because Ike didn't trust the Kennedys.)
This is John's "awakening" from the reality of Camelot; his awakening from what he believed to be American history.
On another level entirely, John's experience is one that mimics the journey of real-life idealists everywhere in this nation. I imagine Tea-Baggers are learning it the hard way right about now; even as the Obama admirers learned it after the 2008 election. That lesson is, simply, you don't change Washington D.C. Washington D.C. changes you.
In "The Awakening," John Loengard begins his journey as a just, idealistic crusader, out to save the world. Before long, he is "recruited" into the ranks of Majestic by the cynical, jingoistic, hard-nosed commanding officer of that outfit, Captain Bach (Walsh). In a characteristic bit of cynicism, Bach tells John that Loengard's "faith in the power of Congress...is charming."
Then John asks Bach who "appointed" him "God" and Bach answers, amusingly, "Ike."
Soon John is keeping secrets from his lover and fiance, Kim, involving himself in the blackmailing of a Congressmen, and operating entirely out of reach of governmental oversight. He becomes -- almost immediately -- "assimilated" into corrupt Washington D.C. culture. John realizes this truth, and doesn't particularly like it. He has joined a "very exclusive club," he states, one that "operates by its own code, and above the law."
At the same time -- and as interesting artistic counterpoint -- the aliens attempt to corrupt and assimilate Kim, "implanting" the beautiful young woman with an alien ganglion so she can spy on John and Majestic for them. She too has been corrupted by an un-American agenda.
The solution to this crisis is simply to flee. John attempts to hold fast to his ideals -- after a rousing, nighttime visit to the Lincoln and Washington Monuments -- by escaping from Majestic.
After freeing Kim from alien control with an untested "A.R.T" (Alien Rejection Treatment), the disillusioned duo gets in their convertible and head off for the homeland. On their way to an undisclosed location, John and Kim get a message to President Kennedy about Majestic and the alien invasion.
The next day, Kennedy is assassinated.
And the Dark Skies pilot doesn't really make it clear at this juncture whether Majestic was behind the assassination, or the aliens were. How's that for "dark skies?"
Are the aliens our true enemies, or are we our own worst enemies?
|Singularity: an offer of Utopia. Or is it just Socialism on a cosmic scale?|
So Dark Skies lands on DVD at a time when some Americans already believe an alien is living in the White House, and that he is transforming our country into something monstrous. I disavow that belief, of course, but what Dark Skies achieves with chilling efficiency and incredible imagination is the implication that every major event in America since 1947 (the Roswell landing) is the result of alien interference, or, perhaps just as scarily, Majestic push-back.
Or as the series puts it, "our history is a lie."
In this pilot episode alone, the Dark Skies creative team finds alternative causes and motivations for the capture of U.S. pilot Gary Powers after his famous U-2 flight, the Kennedy assassination, the Betty and Barney Hill alien encounter, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Amazingly, the Dark Skies "version" of reality seems entirely plausible, and chilling. Everything has been thought out in a way that seems consistent and oddly believable.
The most cinematic and compelling sequence in "The Awakening" arrives about mid-way through, when Loengard goes to Idaho to investigate newly-formed crop circles. He encounters an implanted farmer, and survives the farmer's attempt to murder him. Back in D.C., however, the alien ganglion escapes via the farmer's mouth (!), and attempts to find purchase in another human being. This grotesque moment makes for a harrowing, violent and rather gory set-piece. Both the scene on the picturesque farm and the later scene in the lab are shot with enormous skill. Without exaggeration, you feel like you're watching a big budget movie here.
|A ganglion makes an unwanted appearance.|
Also, watching Dark Skies this time around, I also can't help but note how flat the voice-over narrations are in "The Awakening," both in terms of writing style and Eric Close's delivery. A perpetual joy of The X-Files remains Chris Carter's poetic manner of expression, and Duchovny's heartfelt delivery of that poetry. Here the heroic voice-overs mostly seem to state the obvious, and in an obvious, deadpan manner too. You could take them out of the show and lose nothing. Eric Close is great in this role, as he is in another cult classic not yet on DVD, Now and Again, but the voice-overs in "The Awakening" are weak.
But Dark Skies has enormous virtues too. The period details are rich, lush, and superbly realized (well before Mad Men came along), and the focus on "revising" our national history makes each and every episode a compelling, stimulating experience. Aliens involved with the Ed Sullivan show and the Beatles? Alien invaders interacting with Charles Manson?
I also enjoy the carefully-constructed lingo or "tech" of the program, with procedures such as "cerebral eviction" being mentioned often. It's clear, just from the pilot alone, that tremendous attention was paid to the idea of building a consistent and believable universe. A shame that universe was never given a fuller hearing on network television.
In short, Dark Skies works today not because it capitalized on the success of The X-Files, but because of strong production values and storytelling. The program skillfully guides audiences through a history we think we know and then surprises us with some outlandish -- but utterly fascinating -- alien lore.
This is one cult series I would love to see revived and started anew today (perhaps on HBO or AMC). This DVD set is the silver lining in in cloudy skies, all right, but a modern Dark Skies re-boot (still set in the 1960s - 1990s) would be a real glimpse of the sun.