?Before you get your torches and pitchforks and start typing your angry emails, hold up a second — we at Topless Robot love The X-Files. We’re not saying it’s bad at all (although everyone can probably agree it was not without its problems). However, we are saying that NBC’s short-lived Dark Skies, which debuted in 1996 and only lasted one season, could be considered to have improved upon The X-Files in several ways — and because of that, it deserves another look and a place in the pantheon of solid sci-fi.
We got our hands on the newly released (as in yesterday) Shout Factory set which is jam-packed with all the episodes and tons of extra features and we think this series about John Loengard and Kim Sayers traveling through 1960s America to investigate appearances of an alien invasion force called the Hive demands your viewing attention. With more twists and turns in a season than a lot of other shows have in a lifetime, Dark Skies grabbed our attention for many good reasons — and here they are. And yes, we realize that arguing the difference
between a nearly forgotten show that only lasted 19 episodes and one of
the longest running, most beloved science fiction TV series ever
created won’t win us many friends on the geekernet, but just hear us
out. What have you got to lose?
11) A Bigger Budget
Have you gone back and watched the first season of X-Files lately? It looks like shit. We’re guessing there was a huge difference between having a show on NBC than one on Fox back in the day and that comes through in the visuals. Dark Skies has a crisp feel that makes it feel more timeless. Of course, being set in the past thankfully avoids some of the awful ’90s fashion captured in shows like X-Files, so that helps too. The series also features some solid practical effects on par with those in X-Files. The aliens all look great and even the CGI effects look pretty good for the time.
10) It’s Mulder and Scully Mark II
We love Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as much as the next geeks, but let’s be honest, they’re not the easiest characters to like. He’s a sad sack porn freak with way too many sister issues and she’s a frigid cerebral type who refuses to accept the weirdness she’s surrounded by at seemingly every turn. They grew on us after a while and their complexities made for interesting viewing, but John and Kim immediately popped off the screen. Sure, it’s easier to like nicer people in extraordinary circumstances — they’re a young couple who accidentally wind up in a world of alien intrigue they never even knew existed and wind up on the run trying to spread the truth to the world — but as the series goes on we do get to see them both as heroes and people driven by a desire to reveal the truth about the alien invasion. Also, not for nothing, but avoiding all that “will they, won’t they” nonsense makes the series feel less melodramatic.
9) The Truth Is Actually Out There
While Mulder struggles to find out the truth about the aliens who supposedly abducted his sister when they were kids for years and years and years and years, we already know the truth in Dark Skies right off the bat. Aliens exist. Several kinds in fact, but it’s the Hive — scorpion-looking bugs that crawl into a persona and take control of their bodies — who are the real bad guys here. Franklin Roosevelt saw them land, ordered the spaceship shot down over Roswell and created Majestic to track down and destroy the aliens in secret. Instead of playing on the reality of the situations the leads find themselves in, the focus of the show is stopping the threat and spreading the truth of these events. In fact, the show itself is presented as a modern day Loengard’s attempt to spread the truth through a television series. It’s a bit meta, but a pretty interesting concept.
8) It’s a Period Piece
You won’t mistake Dark Skies for the spot-on accuracy of Mad Men when it comes to period-specific TV, but by placing the series in the ’60s the writers not only separated the show from the competition and made the whole thing feel more timeless, but also put the action smack in the middle of one of the craziest decades in this country’s history. Nearly every episode takes advantage of a historical event, connecting dots like the Kennedy assassination and the Civil Rights Movement along with plenty of other events like the Beatles first appearance on Ed Sullivan to the Hive plot to control the world. The creators of the series even alluded to the idea that this might all be the truth and even pitched the show as a way to spread the word on what really happened through a fictionalized account to make it more palatable to viewers. Whether you buy into that or not, there’s still enough to keep us interested in a time well before cell phones when society was literally changing with each assassinated world leader.
7) The Female Lead Is a Believer
One of the most irritating parts of The X-Files is how every week Scully would refuse to believe in the existence of whatever bizarre being they were investigating, get hard evidence at the end of the episode (usually by being attacked by it), and then show up next week just as skeptical that Sasquatches might exist even though she was assaulted by a Loch Ness monster the week before. In Dark Skies, Kim Sayers believes, because early on she was abducted and had a Hive alien placed inside her. Majestic assists in removing it, but the experience leaves her with a better sense of the aliens’ plans, almost like a sixth sense. Pretty much anyone could take John’s place, but Kim is the really important one. And, in later episodes, when Majestic get their hands on John, she’s not one to be messed with as she takes the leader of Majestic’s wife hostage in exchange for her partner.
6) It Doesn’t Meander
From the two hour pilot directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) to the very last episode, Dark Skies rarely lets up the tension. A big reason for this is, instead of going the procedural route, the series takes on a “heroes on the run” mentality in which they travel the country doing what they can to stop the alien invasion. Even within the series’ short run, there were several changes in the format that kept us interested. The first episodes seems like it’s going to set up a show where Loengard workds for Majestic, but instead he winds up on the run with Kim working sometimes at odds and sometimes with Majestic. Things get even crazier as the series approaches its finale.
5) It’s Intricately Plotted
The series creators Bryce Zabel and Brent V. Friedman not only seem to really believe in aliens existing on earth and their influence throughout history (or at least they’re fantastic at making you think they are), but they also did their homework. According to the booklet that comes along with the DVDs, they compiled a timeline of real world events from 65 million B.C. to 2020 A.D. (some of which you can see inside the DVD cases) and used it as their guide, noting strange events and explaining them with sci-fi elements. It’s a tightly woven epic that could have gone on to be a real classic had it gotten another season or two. By tying itself into history the show takes on bigger stakes in its attempt to reveal the “truth” of history. You cannot pretend Chris Carter had the backstory of The X-Files so clearly defined (or if he ever has).
4) No Monsters of the Week
We’ve got no problem with the monster of the week format. It worked for X-Files and Buffy, but we’re glad that Dark Skies went a different way with the concept behind this series. While our heroes do wind up facing a Hive threat in nearly every episode which brings about its own set of problems and mysteries, the series has more of a “heroes on the run” feel with John and Kim deal with the aliens in all their forms which include a former Majestic agent intent on killing them and Majestic itself. By sticking specifically to aliens and not getting into wider monster territory, the overall story stays focused and clean.
3) It’s Not Stupid, Though
We obviously don’t think X-Files is dumb, but after all this talk of the clear premise, the knowledge of the alien invasion from episode one, and the lack time-consuming subplots to nowhere, we don’t want anybody to think Dark Skies is straightforward or obvious. It has plot twists and turns along with the best of ’em. The best example is that the traditional Gray aliens also make several appearances in the Dark Skies universe. In fact, the first alien we see is a Gray, but it turns out to have been infected by the Hive. It’s aliens within aliens! We find out in later episodes like “Ancient Future” and “Shades of Gray” that they’re actually a benevolent race which wanted to help humans instead of killing or experimenting on them.
2) There’s Still a Sexy Redhead (Plus…)
Like the rest of the geek community, we’re big fans of redheads in science fiction. While Megan Ward’s locks aren’t quite as fiery as Gillian Anderson’s, she has a girl next door quality and a warmth that Scully lacked. As if Ward wasn’t enough of a visual incentive to watch, the last eight episodes feature a sexy, ass-kicking Jeri Ryan in her first breakout role.
1) Hell, Even the Clip Show Is Entertaining
A show like Dark Skies has a lot going on which means, even if you’re watching episode after episode on DVD, there’s a lot of details you might not be able to absorb. So, when the “The Warren Omission” came along and mixed new footage of the characters testifying in front of the Warren Commission with flashbacks to what the characters are talking about. It’s a nice info dump that raises the stakes of the show while giving real life politicians like Gerald Ford, Robert F. Kennedy and more some time to shine.