Tuesday, January 25, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #129: Dark Skies: "The Awakening" (1996)

Dark Skies (1995 - 1996) has finally been released on DVD, and cult-TV fans have cause to rejoice and also, incidentally, to re-assess

As I've written here before, Dark Skies premiered in September of 1996, during the heyday of The X-Files and the same year that also brought audiences the wonderful Millennium

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." 

But the truth -- to use a loaded word -- is considerably more complicated.

Following the unprecedented success of The X-Files, American TV networks naturally began to green light genre series involving alien invasions, conspiracies, supernatural horror, the paranormal and the like (see: American Gothic [1995-1996], Nowhere Man [1995-1996], Strange Luck [1995-1996], Poltergeist the Legacy [1996 - 1999], The Burning Zone [1996 - 1997], Kindred: The Embraced [1996 - 1997], The Visitor [1997-1998], Buffy the Vampire Slayer,[1997 - 2003], Sleepwalkers [1997], Prey [1998], Brimstone [1998-1999], Strange World [1999], G vs. E [1999], The Others [2000]) and so on.

Two things about this; 

First, The X-Files has been on the receiving end of some negative backlash since 2008, especially since some audiences apparently didn't appreciate the second feature film. However, the above-posted list of genre programs that The X-Files paved the way for enunciates rather definitively, the importance of Chris Carter's initiative in the annals of cult TV history. 

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 a critical distinction there.

And today, I would also add the much-maligned Dark Skies to that list. 

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..

Now that this bit of business is out of the way, let's gaze at Dark Skies for what it is, rather than what it isn't.

The first episode of Dark Skies, "The Awakening," aired on September 21, 1996, and the two-hour pilot film was written by series creators Brent V. Friedman and Bryce Zabel. 

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.

Camelot: Days of Idealism.

Artistically speaking, "The Awakening" actually concerns two awakenings.  One is literal.  One is metaphorical. 

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.

In very short order, however, John -- now working as a Congressional investigator -- uncovers the existence of a shadow government acting without Kennedy's knowledge or blessing. 

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?
In charting the innocence, assimilation and (hopeful) redemption of John Loengard and Kim Sayers in the pilot film, "The Awakening," Dark Skies actually proves a perfect reflection of our times today, in 2011.  This is an age in which rampant fears about government and secret agendas are at their highest peak since, well, the 1990s and The X-Files

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.
What isn't so good about Dark Skies, a decade-and-a-haf later?  I've written before how disappointing I found it when Jeri Ryan's character was added to the series mid-way through to, essentially, replace Megan Ward's delightful Kim Sayers.  I don't blame Jeri Ryan -- a fine actress --but nor do I believe that the honorable John Loengard would hop in bed with her so readily while the love of his life is missing, and compromised by aliens.  That never did -- and still does not -- ring true.

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.


  1. I really missed Dark Skies not as a result of the critical backlash [God forbid we have more than one X-Files or popular genre series at a time], but because I was simply busy at that time in my life.

    I haven't really explored Dark Skies at all. I really enjoyed your coverage of it here and I like, as always, the fact you give credit where credit is due. You never instantly write off material with trite, cliche like writers covering for the monthly trade magazines. These are always well-reasoned assessments.

    District 9 may have had a spaceship hovering over the city of Johannesburg like spaceships in Independence Day or V but it was a brilliant movie because of its story and use of production. Maybe not a great analogy by me, but I get what you mean.

    Good to hear your assessment here and will certainly keep it in mind.

  2. I also missed this show the first time around thanks to the critical backlash that this was simply an X-FILES rip-off but caught up with it in syndication and loved it. I really like how they set in the 1960s and I thought the chemistry between the 2 leads was very well done. Plus, how awesome is J.T. Walsh? I've been a fan of his for ages and he was so good in this show. He is sorely missed.

    I am so stoked that this is finally on DVD and plan to pick it up ASAP.

    Awesome review, JKM.

  3. Missed it first-run, but that image of the alien ganglion will have me looking up that DVD set... and giving me a nightmare (or as Inga would say (Young Frankenstein), "a naughtmare"). Thanks for highlighting this, John.

  4. Hello, my friends,

    SFF: Thank you for your kind words. I have learned -- I hope -- to always give each film or TV show I review a fair hearing. I hope, I hope, I hope...

    Dark Skies looks and plays even better today than it did when it was broadcast, and I think you would indeed enjoy it, especially for some of the period details, and views of alien life. Your analogy between District 9 and V or Independence Day is perfect. It's not what the show is "about," it's how the show chooses to tell that story. On that front, I think Dark Skies has found itself an interesting and quality niche.

    J.D. Another Dark Skies fan, yay! Everything you wrote is correct: the chemistry between Close and Ward is strong, and J.T. Walsh is amazing each and every week. In a fairer world, he would have been nominated (or won...) an Emmy. He's a...force to be reckoned with in this show.

    Le0pard13: I do think you'll enjoy this one too. The pilot, especially, is superb. And I didn't mention it in the review, but the series even boasts a fun sense of humor. Knowing it would be compared to the X-Files, the writers have a character say "The truth is down here...third door to the right," or some such thing. Very funny; and a way to deflate the "rip-off" argument, I think.

    Thanks for the great comments!


  5. Grayson1:34 AM

    I haven't watched this either.

    I wonder if those critics who felt that Dark Skies was simply an X-Files ripoff were aware of just how The X-Files inspired the programs you listed it similarly took concepts and ideas from previous series and film. Most notable on the list are Twin Peaks and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Also the MOTW episodes are very reminiscent of certain episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Something successful can really inspire some great, original ideas that wouldn't exist without what came before.


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