Make no mistake: The 1996 TV series Dark Skies isn’t particularly good. In fact, in some episodes, it’s downright terrible, a perfect storm of all of the worst things about science-fiction drama in the ’90s. Some of its 18 episodes—particularly an early, awful one focusing on The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show—turn into a weird mélange of bad celebrity impersonations, lackluster drama, and the kind of stock footage that plays under a late-night infomercial selling a CD package collecting the greatest hits of the ’60s. Surfing! Drugs! Vietnam! All get cursory mentions that utterly miss what made the culture of the ’60s vibrant and revolutionary.
And yet the central idea of Dark Skies is so potent and fascinating that the series is able to get away with a lot of utter dross. Focusing on young government employee Eric Close and his girlfriend Megan Ward, the series charts Close’s gradual descent into utter paranoia, as he realizes that aliens aren’t just visiting Earth, they’re actively colonizing it. The series begins with Close as an idealistic Kennedy acolyte, and hits many of the expected historical beats from there, but only through a skewed, funhouse mirror. Race riots in Mississippi? Been there, done that. But in a version where an alien overmind is preaching that if it’s allowed to take over, there will be no more racial strife, because everyone will be part of a singularity? That adds some intriguing shades to the expected storyline.
The series’ best invention is its alien race, known as The Hive. At first, it just seems like the audience will be put through the normal X-Files-y paces, with the usual grey aliens abducting people and performing strange experiments on them. But over the course of the two-hour pilot (directed by Tobe Hooper, no less), it’s revealed that the Greys are a once-proud race conquered by a race of cephalopod-like beings called Ganglions, which park themselves directly on the brain stem and control their hosts’ actions. Now, the Hive is set on conquering humanity. How many of our number has it infected? Who knows, but the number grows larger daily.
This isn’t a new plotline by any means, but Dark Skies uses the idea of the Hive and the tragic history of the Greys to its best advantage. Need to goose a scene and make it scary? Have one member of the Hive send a Ganglion shooting out of his mouth toward an unwary human being. Need to account for all manner of weirdness, including a cow giving birth to a human being? Reveal it as part of a master plan thought up by the Hive. Need to make Close lose all sense of bearing? Take nearly everyone away from him and put them in league with the Hive. It’s a stunningly easy and effective villain, and every episode spent puzzling out the history of the alien race is great fun.
On the other hand, the series’ actual history is often deeply flawed. The show is set in the ’60s, and creators Bryce Zabel and Brent Friedman planned to take the show through the timeline until it matched up with “real time” in 1999, but the series didn’t last long enough. Zabel and Friedman coyly hinted at the time of the series’ airing that all this might be real, that there might be a real-life analogue to Close who was feeding them information, but the DVD just reveals that they were very good at plotting out famous bits of UFO lore and matching them up with historical events. (Their use of the New York City blackout is particularly ingenious.)
But the use of that history is often like a textbook example of just how Mad Men got doing a period piece right, where nearly every other TV show got it wrong. The celebrity impersonators are glaringly awful, to the point where the show often uses onscreen titles to identify famous people, and the use of historical irony is painted on way too thickly throughout. Zabel and Friedman likely sold the show as a cross between The X-Files and The Wonder Years, and it often plays like the worst possible version of that crossbreeding experiment. (The X-Files influence is particularly pervasive, right down to the music, which is essentially a direct rip-off.)
And yet Dark Skies remains worth watching, particularly as it shakes off its early growing pains and gets into the back half of the season. The Hive are refreshingly complex villains, the Greys keep becoming more and more tragic. Zabel and Friedman, their hands forced by low ratings, gain a certain courage in their insanity and start doing the kinds of wild plot twists Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams would come to be known for years before either of those men turned Angel evil or revealed John Locke could walk. What played as desperation at the time now plays as if the series was simply ahead of its time. Characters are agonizingly forced to go Hive. Major players die. Babies are born, taken by aliens, and grow into prepubescent kids. It takes a while, but Dark Skies becomes such a wild ride with such a rock-solid premise that most who watch it will be anxiously awaiting the inevitable SyFy remake.
Key features: Zabel, Friedman, Close, and Ward drop by for two intriguing commentaries. The package also includes the international version of the pilot (released in theaters overseas), a featurette on the show’s production, original network promos, and a never-before-seen promo for a prospective season two that would have moved the action to the year 1997.