1996: Looking back at DARK SKIES

Matthew Kresal looks into the Dark Skies.

"My name is John Loengard. I'm recording this because we might not live through the night. They're here, they're hostile and there are powerful people who don't want you to know. History as we know it is a lie..."
That voice-over opens most episodes of Dark Skies, a television series that ran for a single season on the US NBC network between 1996 and 1997. Yet despite lasting a mere nineteen episodes, it nevertheless remains unique more than fifteen years after it finished its sole season. That is thanks to a combination of things that made the series both unique and ahead of its time.

Covering the years between 1960 and 1967, Dark Skies features a strong combination of real history, period setting and UFO lore. Over the course of the series we learn that following the events at Roswell in 1947, a shadowy government agency called Majestic 12 began to fight a covert war with an extraterritorial intelligence called the Hive, bent on invading the Earth. As the series went along, the viewer learned that as a result of that conflict, a wide ranging series of events ranging from the 1960 U-2 incident to the JFK assassination to the Beatles first US TV appearance and beyond have all tied into that shadowy conflict, as have people ranging from Robert Kennedy to Henry Kissinger and Howard Hughes. Indeed, that line from the voice-over "History as we know it is a lie..." sums up the premise of the series rather nicely.

Nor surprisingly perhaps, the series makes strong use of UFO lore as a result. Well known elements and events such as Roswell, crop circles, cattle mutilations, abductions and the familiar gray aliens all come into play, with the series making its own twists on them. For example, those familiar gray aliens are in fact the hosts for the ganglian like creatures that are in fact the Hive, and its those creatures which seek to take over humanity as it once took over the grays. The series reveals within a short time that the Hive has in fact been implanting the ganglians in people for sometime, ranging from average citizens to members of Congress and indeed within Majestic itself. Not only does the series then make use of UFO lore but it also presents it in a way that's both original and intriguing.

Dark Skies shows us these events though John Loengard (played by Eric Close) who starts out as a young congressional staffer and ends up a soldier on the conflict's front line alongside his girlfriend and White House staffer Kim Sayers (played by Megan Ward). The two of them together sell the reality of the series as two ordinary young people caught up in extraordinary events that both bring them together and yet threatens to ultimately tear them apart. Leading Majestic is Captain Frank Bach, played expertly by the late character actor J.T. Walsh, determined to fight the secret war against the Hive at any cost. Walsh sells the reality of events by bringing a sense of authority to both Majestic and indeed the character of Bach. Through them and a strong supporting cast including Conor O'Farrell as Bach's right hand man Lt. Commander Phil Albino and Jerri Ryan's Majestic agent in later episodes, alongside real-life figures such as James F. Kelly as Robert Kennedy, we're given a window into this shadowy conflict and alternative history.

The period setting of the early to mid 1960s is also a big part of the show. Alongside the impressive sets for Majestic's headquarters with excellent period details and 1960s technology, the show features excellent costumes and recreations of period settings ranging from the halls of power in Washington D.C. to Cape Kennedy, Vietnam and across much of the United States. As a result, the series presents a large range of different locations and stories covering many aspects of the period from the Cuban missile crisis to the civil rights, the space race and much more. It's no wonder then that some have called the series "Mad Men for the Close Encounters set".

Something else that set Dark Skies apart was how it unfolded. Not only did the show incorporate all of the aforementioned elements, it developed both them and its characters across numerous stories arcs stretched across most if not all of what was meant to be a first season of at least five planned, which would have seen the series catch up with the present day, around the year 2000. In that regard the series was ahead of its time but unfortunately, like many things that are, it was also hampered by it. Scheduled on for early primetime slot on Saturday nights, the series was often preempted by sporting events and rarely managed to run for more than a couple of weeks consecutively before being pulled and than started again weeks later. In an era before DVR's and the ability to marathon shows where such things could be adequately developed in the minds of viewers, Dark Skies was unable to find the audience it either needed or deserved. In retrospect though, it gives the series something else that makes it all the more unique.

Despite all this, Dark Skies isn't perfect. Many of the early and middle episodes of the series following its pilot and second episode lean perhaps too heavily on the soon established formula of Loengard and Kim arriving somewhere where the Hive is active, Majestic following suit and the Hive being defeated in this attempt at least. The scripts themselves, more especially in some of the dialogue, are sometimes given into using clich├ęs and cheesy lines which can undermine some of the intriguing ideas in the episodes themselves, and there's also the occasional anachronisms that occur (such as in the third episode Mercury Rising which features the test of NASA's Saturn V rocket in 1964, something that didn't occur until late 1967). Yet perhaps nothing is more mixed in the series than the quality of the special effects which range from the excellent physical creations of the Grey's themselves to mid-1990s CGI effects which can see their quality range from good to near laughable.

For its faults though, Dark Skies remains a fantastic and intriguing series. Its combination of real 1960s history, period setting with all the era's trappings and its use of UFO lore continue to make it unique, while it also features strong actors and good performances that make use of those elements. It's a series that ended before its time and, thus, brilliant but canceled. 

Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.
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