Monday, February 25, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 49: Earth 2 (1994-1995): "First Contact"

The 1994-1995 NBC sci-fi series Earth 2 commences with a voice-over narration from protagonist, Devon Adair (Deborah Farentino). "My earliest memories of the Earth were stories," she notes wistfully over views of our planet, moving into a description of life on future Earth (and in Earth orbit...) in the year 2192 a.d. Most of the human race has moved to the "stations," a cluster of orbital satellites where life is "ordered, efficient" and "sterile." So much so that a new disease, "The Syndrome" has sprung up among the next generation of children. The Syndrome is caused not by a virus, but by the "absence of what nature can provide," a byproduct, we are informed, of sterile, artificial life.

This has become a personal crusade for Devon Adair because her eight year old son Ulysses is afflicted with the Syndrome. Those who suffer from it don't live past their ninth "Ullie" is rapidly running out of time. Earth science doesn't even acknowledge the presence of the disease...

In "First Contact," the two-hour premiere of the series Earth 2 (created by Billy Ray), the viewer sees Devon Adair engineer an escape from Earth, which apparently is ruled by a totalitarian-style "administration." An escape wouldn't be necessary, actually, if not for the machinations of the malicious government. You see, Devon has already been planning an official voyage to the star system G889 with 250 "Syndrome" families in tow as colonists. A planet in that distant solar system, New Pacifica, is wild, untamed and natural. Just the way Mother Earth used to be. Boasting a "habitability rating of 83," New Pacifica holds the promise of a cure for the Syndrome, but the voyage is not an easy one. To achieve this "second chance," the colonists must go into suspended animation (or "cold sleep") for the unheard of spell of twenty-two years...

But on the morning of the launch, Devon's colony ship intercepts a secret but official news transmission, one that reports the accidental destruction of their vessel upon leaving the station. In other words, the government is planning to kill Devon, Ulysses and all the colonists, rather than allow a colony to spring up (out of Earth control...) on distant New Pacifica. Devon orders an immediate launch to circumvent this eventuality and a search is begun on the colony ship for hidden explosive devices. The colony ship escapes the Stations (and detonates the bomb in space...), and begins the long, quiet journey to that distant world. Unfortunately, the hasty nature of the departure has serious repercussions: the team doctor is not aboard ship during the escape, meaning Dr. Heller - the most junior medical member of the staff - is put in charge. Devon doesn't quite trust her.

Twenty-two years after the daring escape, the crew of the advance ship is awakened from cold sleep during a disaster. Orbit around New Pacifica has been achieved, but something has gone drastically wrong, and the ship begins to buckle under the strain, losing whole cargo sections during flaming re-entry. The crew makes for the life-pods (in a harrowing and well-done action scene that seamlessly blends fine camera-work with beautiful special effects), and heads for the planet surface.

There - in the untamed wilderness - with scant supplies and little time to set up a colony before the families arrive, a new life begins for these pioneers. The series characters in addition to Devon Adair include a cyborg tutor named Yale (Sullivan Walker), a "cold sleep" pilot/jockey named Alonzo (Antonio Sabato Jr.), the colony ship engineer, Danzinger (Clancy Brown), the rookie doctor, Heller played by Jessica Steen (whose chromosomes are "skewed" to the medical arts), Zero - a robotic sentinel, Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman), and a shadowy government man, Martin (John Gegenhuber). During the first episode, these explorers get a taste of what is to come on their new home. They meet cute-but-dangerous wild animals (with poison claws...), begin to experience strange dreams about their new home, and encounter the indigenous population: mysterious "native" beings called Terrians who possess what seems a primitive culture. As the tag line for the show announced, "This Time, We Are The Aliens."

I remember watching Earth 2 on NBC -- where it lasted just one season and 21 episodes -- back in the mid-1990s and enjoying it well enough. However, watching it again in 2008 I was surprised to see how well the pilot/2-hour episode stands up. The special effects are actually very convincing. I was expecting a terrible CGI-fest because as much as I like the 1995 series Space: Above and Beyond, the space effects there have aged very, very poorly. In that program, greenscreen set-ups were obvious and poorly composited (down to green matte lines) and the spaceships had all the requisite (lack of) detail and realism of 1990s era video games. I guess Earth 2 had a higher budget, because the space effects in the pilot are downright stunning and still pack a punch. The make-up on the Terrians is still very effective (and menacing...) and the only effect which fails is the cute little moppet from New Pacifica, which looks like a gamma-ray mutated Kermit the Frog. Still, a weak effect here or there doesn't ruin the overall spell of a compelling, carefully-crafted production.

Also, the opening hour of the pilot, featuring the escape from Earth and then the crash at New Pacifica, is a model of effective, suspenseful storytelling. One can gaze at the government conspiracy and detect the influence of The X-Files (the big genre series of the nineties...) but that's just a minor sub-plot. Instead, Earth 2 actually gives the viewer something special and relatively unique: A "Wagon Train" series set on another planet. It's a futuristic Western (not unlike Firefly...), about bold explorers settling on a distant world. There are the "Indians" in the form of the Terrians, and on this show, "Back East" is actually solar systems away. The pioneers of New Pacifica must countenance not only the savage natives, but the vicissitudes of nature (storms, flooding, etc.), another convention of the Western. Despite this deliberate and interesting overlay of the Western genre, what impresses most about Earth 2 is that it is markedly devoid of cheesy, familiar and overt "sci fi" touches so often shoe-horned into major television series. The sets are utilitarian (more a child of Alien than Star Trek), the costumes are realistic, not polyester uniforms or space pajamas, and even when there are the expected derivative touches, like a robot named Zero, it is not a cheesy personality who wants to be human, but rather a useful device. In a nice visual joke, the wagon train on hand here is...a Hummer. But not today's Hummer (as on the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica), rather a futuristic (and convincing) variation. What if Lost in Space had taken its premise of planetary exploration seriously, without camp? Earth 2 answers that question. Also, for a nineties production (the dawning age of irony and snark), it is sort of anti-post-modern, all-but devoid of cultural references and allusions. In other words, Earth 2 is a straightforward series about exploration, and one suitable for the entire family.

I also appreciate that this series features no jump gates, star gates, wormholes or warp drives. It sticks to the (current) reality that interplanetary space travel is time-consuming, dangerous and requires human beings to remain in suspended animation for a long duration to survive the trip. In essence, what I'm saying here is that there is a believability factor in the technology and storyline of this 90s series that is commendable ad in some sense, unique. Also, you don't get the feeling watching Earth 2 that it fetishizes hardware (particularly guns - as in one current sci-fi franchise), and nor does it feel the need to constantly preach about contemporary issues of gravity here on Earth. Even the environmental message of Earth 2 is delivered in relatively non-judgmental terms. The vistas on New Pacifica - beautiful natural landscapes - get the point across as well as any character hectoring about wasting resources or destroying the ecosphere..

Finally - and I realize this has been commented on before in other forums - watching Earth 2, you have to wonder about the similarities it bears to a current (and popular) genre series, Lost. In Lost, as you will recall, a plane crashes on a remote and perhaps mystical island, where another "tribe" (The Others) already lives. There, a diverse group of survivors are forced to reckon with the mysteries of the locale and cohere as a group. In a sense, that's also the plot of Earth 2, right? Only it's not an island; it's an entire planet. And think about it: the planet in Earth 2 boasts restorative powers (for Ullie, for instance), just as the island in Lost cures John Locke of his paralysis and frees him from his wheelchair. Similarly, there are multiple groups of survivors in both series, with the "Tailies" on Lost, and the other life-pod survivors on Earth 2. Bickering married couples also appear on both shows in supportig roles, Kim and Sun on Lost and Morgan and his wife, played by Rebecca Gayheart, on Earth 2. Just a thought, but perhaps this one season wonder from the early Age of Clinton was a bit more influential and important historically than I had previously given it credit for.

Which isn't to say that Earth 2 doesn't have weaker moments. Some of the music is over-dramatic and maudlin, and the pilot includes some groaners in the dialogue from time to time (in the first hour, the latter comes in the form of a voice over about Ullie "slaying" his monsters. Ugh.) Also, I like the performances (so far). I haven't seen Farentino in anything lately, but she makes for a strong and intelligent presence here. I know that Devon Adair preceded Captain Janeway by about four months historically, but I appreciate that Adair grows into the role of leader on Earth 2 and doesn't need a "rank" like captain for others to follow her. She's a leader because that's who she is as a human being...and it's something she only begins to realize as the series goes on. This approach feels very natural, and very different from Star Trek.

Watching the pilot for Earth 2, I had the fleeting thought that if I ever had time, I should really go back and watch all twenty-one episodes and really pay attention this time. The only thing that prevents me from doing so (besides how busy I am at the moment...) is the fact that I know the series ends on a down-note with an unresolved cliffhanger. If I end up liking the series as much as the pilot, that would be a real buzz-kill...

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