by Sarah Stegall
© copyright 1996 by Sarah Stegall
The premiere episode of “Dark Skies” is scary, thrilling, derivative, and predictable all at once. It is “The X-Files: The Early Years”, with more money than the original series from which it derives its raison d’etre. There are several significant differences, primarily of tone and approach, between “Dark Skies” and “The X-Files”, but essentially they take place in the same universe and, one
would swear, with the same cast of characters.
The premise is pretty simple: aliens really did land at Roswell in 1947, met with Harry Truman, demanded our complete surrender, and were shot out of the sky. Since then, the US government’s secret anti-alien strike force, Majestic, has been waging a silent, secret war against the would-be alien invaders, quickly dubbed Hive for their insect-like behavior. Some rather grisly scenes of “Alien”-
like insectoids being inserted into and vomited out of humans reinforces the revulsion we experience on seeing the aliens. And we *do* see them; unlike “The X-Files”, which teased us with shadows, blurs, and washed-out images through most of the first two seasons, we see these aliens right
from the start.
The series centers around the efforts of a clean-cut, likable young American, John Loengard (Eric Close), who in 1961 comes to Capitol Hill as an aide to a backwater Congressman. He is set to researching a project that documents UFOs in order to see if funding should be continued. His fiancee, Kimberly Sayers (Megan Ward), comes along and lands a plush job in Jackie Kennedy’s protocol office, which in the heyday of Camelot was like being asked to serve at Court. In the course of his investigations, the highly skeptical Loengard discovers that there is more to this UFO business than meets the eye. He is beaten, recruited, and co-opted into a war against the aliens. He is present when the aliens’ method of infiltration of the human race is made clear, and is horrified when Kimberly (in
a desperate attempt to rope this weak character into the storyline) is abducted and infiltrated as well. He defies his superiors both by saving his fiancee and by informing the President of what is going on, and winds up on the run both from Majestic and from the Hive. The leads manage to bring to the screen the nascent rebellion of the early Sixties: Eric Close looks and speaks like a cross between the young John F. Kennedy and Robert Redford, while Megan Ward, still cast in the self-effacing mode of Sixties women, shows a glint of Katharine Hepburn or even Eleanor Roosevelt here and there as she struggles with inner demons her beloved can only guess at.
But the strength of the series so far lies in J. T. Walsh’s compelling, menacing, and complex Frank Bach, the head of Majestic, or MJ-12. (Majestic, in the lore of ufologists, is the super-secret panel set up by Truman to lead the fight against invading humans.) Walsh, who admits to being as impatient as the character he plays, portrays a character caught between heroism and betrayal: he fights for his planet and lies to his fellow man, his President, to everyone. Walsh infuses Frank Bach with subtlety, menace, and even occasional warmth. One scene shows him tenderly kissing his children as they leave for school, and in another he cold-bloodedly writes off Kimberly as a casualty of war when she is en-Hived. He relentlessly pursues Loengard, whom he considers a loose cannon, and sneers into the phone when they speak, but he trusts Loengard enough to doubt his own right hand man on Loengard’s word alone.
There’s no pussy-footing around with this series; our hero starts out by interviewing Betty and Barney Hill, the grandparents of the abductee reporting phenomenon. Almost immediately Loengard is beat up and warned by Bach to forget what he has seen and heard. And within the next half hour Bach recruits him into Majestic. There’s no explanation offered for this turnaround, other than Bach’s apparent conviction that as long as Loengard has broken into Majestic, he might as well come to work for them. That’s like hiring the burglar as security guard. Creators Bryce Zabel and Brent Friedman forthrightly drag in the Kennedy assassination, the conspiracy theory of the century, as well as Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. The idea is to take the major points of our recent history and twist them a little bit, insinuating that the battle between human and Hive lies behind most of our upheavals. This battle also serves as a metaphor for the battle between the entrenched values of the Cold War, as embodied by Walsh, and the move towards more openness in society and government
that characterized the Sixties, and is invested in John Loengard.
If this is not the story of The Cigarette-Smoking Man and Bill Mulder (Agent Mulder’s father), I’ll eat my hat. Dark Skies purports to be about a young couple uncovering the cover-up of alien invasion of the earth. And that may well become the focus of the series over the next few weeks. But the pilot
episode is really the backstory of The X-Files. It’s the story of the Cigarette-Smoking Man, of his work with Bill Mulder, and of the breakdown of the ties between the two men when differing allegiances pull them into opposite camps. Bach is a deeply cynical Cold Warrior, with little patience for the starry-eyed optimism and cheerful naivete of the Camelot era or its royal couple. Or for their court. When an outraged Loengard tells Bach he can’t withhold information from the President of the United State, Walsh’s skeptical, world weary smile would do justice to William B. Davis’ own arrogant Smoking Man, who hides explanations behind cryptic smiles. Is it mere coincidence that Bach smokes (as the Smoking Man does) and Loengard drinks (as Bill Mulder does)?
What’s frightening to me about this series is that so much of it does NOT need to be explained. Ten years ago, a good hour of screen time would have been needed to acquaint audiences with “Roswell”, alien abduction, “Majestic”, and half a dozen other icons of ufology that “Unsolved Mysteries”, “Sightings”, and “The X-Files” have made common parlance. If the significance of these ufology icons was not apparent before The X-Files made them hip, they certainly have permeated our consciousness now so thoroughly that they have taken on a life of their own.
As for the rest of the series, only time will tell if Americans are willing to see their history rewritten before their eyes on such a flimsy premise. Humans are the animals who remember, and we are fascinated with our own history. We fight over interpretations of it as subtle as whether October 12 is Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Holocaust Day. The same audience that tuned in every week to see
“Quantum Leap” walk its hero through the defining moments of our recent past should find themselves on familiar ground here. But the emotional subtext is less personal, less compelling. Sam Beckett, like Ulysses, was only trying to get home again. Loengard and Kimberly are trying to expose a scandal and a threat. While I would like to think that the quest for truth is, in and of itself, compelling drama
(as it is in “The X-Files”), in this case it is not. I will wait to see if Zabel and Friedman can make “Dark Skies” more than a combination of “The Fugitive” and “Time Tunnel” with aliens. I will wait to see if Eric Close and Megan Ward can deepen and enrich the characters. But they’ll have to go a long way to match the cool charisma of a David Duchovny or a Gillian Anderson.
This show gets four ganglia out of five.