Dark Skies – the TV series

Science fiction has played a fairly large role in my life. I got into Star Trek when Next Generation started, some shows I watched as a kid before that, I remember that Return Of The Jedi was shown regularly on Christmas Eve for several years. And of course, many shows and movies since then.

The X-Files came out in 1993, and I watched a bunch from the first 2 or 3 seasons. Some of the concepts were pretty interesting (the one that’s stuck in my mind from its first airing in England is Soft Light).

I heard more than remember, that The X-Files was a bit flip-floppy on the subject of aliens.  “Yes, they exist!” “No, it was a hoax in that previous episode!”

Dark Skies came onto TV in 1996, kind of marketed as “like The X-Files”, or “for people who like The X-Files”, or something like that. But while some of the marketing may have given the impression of  a cheap ripoff of The X-Files, Dark Skies had a very different premise.

There wasn’t the “monster of the week” stuff. There wasn’t the “are aliens real?” question: that is answered very early on: yes they are real. No wavering on that point.

Another big difference in concept, is that Dark Skies is a period drama. It starts very early in the Sixties. I believe each season was supposed to be about a decade, then turn real-time when it hit the present-day.

The producers had really done their homework into UFOlogy: significant events, people, accounts, associated phenomena like Men In Black (who were in the first version of the pilot, but the studio insisted on their clothes being changed to gray because of a forthcoming Will smith/Tommy Lee Jones movie), Majestic 12, and so on.

The producers also knew ways to make their setting seem real. In organisations, people who work there often have shorthands and acronyms for things, and we see that sort of thing in the show.

The historic setting and the detailed research gave the producers two timelines, one of historic events and the other of UFO sightings and events, and the stories could come out of where both lined up. Plus, of course, references to events outside the setting of the show (Roswell, for one), and to other things going on at the same time, whether related to aliens or to the story (Project Blue Book as one example, the official US Government investigation into the flying saucer/UFO phenomenon).

John Loengard is the main character, and as a good entry point into the story he starts off as a complete outsider, and finds his way into being an insider. In this great clip from the pilot episode, he’s still adjusting from his ’60s Man On The Street self:

As the show goes on, we find John and Kim (his girlfriend) walk very wiggly paths as to their relationship with Majestic, their uncovering of the aliens’ agenda, and significant ’60s people and events.

There’s an episode that veers dangerously close to being a clip show, but in a twist that I really appreciate, some of the flashbacks aren’t what really happened!

The cast is great, in particular I’d like to call out Eric Close as John, Megan Ward as Kim Sayers, Jeri Ryan as Juliet Stewart (from her explosive entrance mid-season, a few months before she showed up on Voyager), J.T. Walsh brings a lot of gravity with his portrayal of Frank Bach, Conor O’Farrell as Phil Albano and Tim Kelleher as Jim Steele.

The soundtrack works well, too, with the use of period music.

The show’s title sequence won an Emmy, and is really cool. It’s interesting to note that the first regular episode after the pilot, has a slightly different theme to the rest of the season: “History is a lie”, which got changed to “History as we know it is a lie”. (actually, the differences between the pilot episodes are interesting as well: a lot was reshot. And the original pilot music was done by Mark Snow, who did The X-Files, strengthening the comparison, and the second pilot was done by Michael Hoenig, who did the rest of the series).

It’s a big “What If” story: UFOs were regularly in the news in the ’40s and ’50s, and even afterwards. What if there really is something to that, what if those in power (even if in power behind-the-scenes) knew about it, and what if the public never got told? How could the truth then completely change our understanding of events?

Much as I like the show, it does have its flaws. Like, sometimes it seems like episodes wrapped up a little too neatly. Then you wonder: is it from the show being a product of the ’90s, before things started getting messier, or is some of it from the influence of the optimism of the ’60s, which the show tried to bring across even more than the paranoia of the ’60s (which is still present).

Also, there’s something about the episode Ancient Future: the Native American/alien tie-in perhaps may not have been cliche at the time, but seems to be very much so now, and the pastor who has a crisis of faith, only to end up with a strong faith in… nothing specific… doesn’t really work. But then, I did like things about that episode, such as the projected future.

I still like this show, even now, almost 19 years later.

For a show about conspiracy theories, some of the history of the show itself gives conspiracy-minded people lots to have fun with.

NBC gave the show the biggest publicity campaign it had ever given a show – and then moved the show all over the schedule, and pre-empted it for sports and other events, so even those who wanted to see it had a hard time finding it (unless you watched it on Channel Four in the UK, like I did).

The pilot was released on VHS. This had a purple case. The first two regular episodes (Moving Targets/Mercury Rising) were also released on VHS, I only ever saw it in the larger rental-style box (I used to have quite a collection of ex-rental videos…). The next two episodes were also allegedly released on VHS. I’ve seen a picture of the case (green, IIRC), but I never saw it in a store, and never saw it in a catalogue (a friend ran a  store, and had a big catalogue of VHS tapes that could be ordered – DS volumes 1 and 2 were listed, but not vol 3).No more were released.

When DVDs became popular, consumers were asking for a DVD of the show. The producers went to the studio and said “We know music clearances can be a pain, we can change the music if you like.” The studio replied and said “No, we don’t think that will be a problem.” Next thing we knew, the studio decided not to release the show on DVD, because of “music licensing costs”. Eventually, the producers managed to get the show released on DVD by Shout! Factory, with all the original music intact.

I’d like to see the show revisited now, with the episodes less stand-alone and clean, more of that messy vibe that’s been running through shows like Babylon 5 season 4, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica/Caprica, Stargate Universe. Have a clear idea of where you’re going, but more threads that spread out over more than one episode. And we want to find out who else is Hive!

Today, the Dark Skies Facebook page has had a run of posts, including one that starts:

“DARK SKIES — the classic NBC cult-hit — could be rebooted!

Sony TV is finally talking to the creators about bringing back the series”.

I really hope so. I’ve been looking forward to finding out what happens – and given the way things were going for humanity by the end of the ’60s, what happened to set the Hive back in the meantime. And find out what else is wrong about what we know.

Check out their Facebook page, and the clips on their YouTube playlist. Give them some support, hopefully you’ll be hooked, too!

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