by Mark Phillips
After 14 years of laying dormant, Brent V. Friedman and Bryce Zabel’s prized creation, their NBC TV series Dark Skies, finally resurfaces on January 18, 2011 in a complete series DVD boxset. To mark the occasion, we thought it would be fun to look back and see what critics initially thought of the series when it premiered.
The New York Times observed that space aliens were working over-time during the 1996-97 TV season. ETs were plastered all over the X-Files, Dark Skies and Star Trek: Voyager, for starters. One Hollywood special effects company claimed, "Last season everyone wanted dinosaurs. This season everybody wants aliens!"
When it was announced that possible life had been found on Mars in 1996, there were two different reactions. Actor Ray Walston, known as the friendly alien in the 1960s TV series My Favorite Martian, was horrified when he was approached by a major TV network to speak about the news. "Would you believe that they wanted to sandwich me in as comedy relief as two of the world's most distinguished scientists evaluated this momentous discovery?" said the 73-old actor to The Tennessean newspaper, aghast. "Of course I said no! I can't tell you how much I wish I had never done that series."
But conversely, the creative minds behind TVs new alien drama Dark Skies, faced with breaking news about "harmless microscopic bugs" found on the red planet, were overjoyed. "It's like this news dropped out of the sky, just for our show," co-creator Bryce Zabel was quoted as saying. Zabel and Brent Friedman created NBCs Dark Skies and as Entertainment Weekly noted, the series was "rolling out the red carpet for its new Martian friends." This discovery would be worked into future episode promos and stories. The very premise of Dark Skies was unique for television. It centered on sinister extra-terrestrials and how they were shaping history (specifically events in the 1960s, the decade in which the series took place), while two young people, John and Juliet, new to working in government (played by Eric Close and Megan Ward) tried to expose and thwart the invaders. The show was part of NBCs sci-fi Saturday, which included The Profiler and the Pretender.
When cast member JT Walsh (who played Major Bach) was asked if he believed in aliens, the amiable actor said no but admitted that he found the topic "of considerable interest." He agreed to do the series because, "science fiction is not a bad platform for the imagination." But what really concerned the actor was not aliens but the changing values and bad effects of materialism in our society. "You don't have to see spaceships and ghosts to know that there is a whole new series of real problems coming our way," he cautioned.
The problem for some critics were Dark Skies' summer promos. They claimed the commercials were exploiting the recent alien-invasion movie hit, Independence Day. The Rome News-Tribune said it was curious how the Dark Skies producers wanted to escape the extra-terrestrial shadows cast by Independence Day, "but you sure wouldn't know it from the TV advertisements aired during the Summer Olympics on NBC, which are all too eager to capitalize on Independence Day." But co-creator Zabel didn't flinch. "The comparison game is fine in that it drums up business, but I've been working on Dark Skies for a decade."
The writer-producer noted that Independence Day was about "aliens kicking down the front door with ray blasters. Our series is about aliens trying to come in through the back door, with guile and stealth. That is a lot scarier. This show is very much like The Fugitive or The Invaders - one man knows a dark secret and nobody believes him." Zabel, who believed that a real flying saucer had landed at Roswell in 1947 (instead of a weather balloon, as claimed by the government) told journalist Dennis Anderson, "I've read enough death-bed confessions, enough documents and enough eye-witness testimony to feel pretty strongly about it."
The Rome News-Tribune concluded that Dark Skies was, "about a couple of nice kids in a bad jam, sort of like John Boy Walton and his girl meet the monsters." But Zabel stressed that the series "has a chance to be an action show with heart."
The Independence Day parallels kept rearing their multi-million dollar profile. Entertainment Weekly's Bruce Fretts caustically noted, "NBC is shamelessly piggybacking by using promos likening Dark Skies to Independence Day. Yeah, it's just like Independence Day, except without all of those expensive special effects, which were the only good thing about Independence Day."
But Ohio's The Vindicator admired NBCs promotional chutzpah. "Seldom has a TV series been in a better position to piggyback on the buzz from a big movie - the enormous box office wake of Independence Day." One NBC executive was ecstatic. "We may have stepped into something really great here!" admitting the chatter about Independence Day and Dark Skies was a coincidence of happy timing. The Vindicator also praised NBC as having, "the best promotional team on television," whose Dark Skies promos were spiking nation-wide interest in sinister extra-terrestrials. The paper revealed that upcoming Dark Skies' promos would contain veiled references to Independence Day, including one that went, "America was forced to strike back against an alien invasion this summer. Guess what? It didn't work."
Critics screened the pilot of Dark Skies that summer but the reaction was mixed. Jay Handelman, in the Sarasota Herald- Tribune, called the premise "weird" and suggested viewers may be more comfortable with a less scary NBC show, The Pretender. Florida's The Gainesville Sun said that Bryce Zabel really believed that something 'not of this world' had landed at Roswell in 1947 and "if you like that idea, you'll love Dark Skies."
Ted Anthony of the Associated Press found it "an eerie drama" while Spokane's The Spokesman Review reacted more tongue-in-cheek. "Dark Skies is a serialized thriller and the producers say that it shows, 'historical American events can be connected to an on-going extra-terrestrial invasion.' In other words, Tony Orlando and Dawn can at last make sense!"
Reaction to the pilot continued. "It's downright sinister,' said The Palm Beach Post. Tom Jicha of The South Florida Sun said, "It serves up a feast for paranoids. It has an intriguing premise and validates the X-Files philosophy of trust no one. It skids off on a wild tangent of its own. If you lack a fertile imagination, then Dark Skies is not for you."
On the negative side, Hal Boedeker of The Orlando Sentinel observed, "The series is implausible every step of the way...it is stupefying and a throwback to outlandish horror movies." Of NBCs entire Saturday night horror line-up that season, he added, "It's a night fraught with boredom." The Santa Rosa Press Democrat didn't take any of it seriously. "The Jokesters are calling NBCs Saturday night line-up, all of them X-Files knock-offs, as 'Must-Flee TV.' Are these shows scary? Actually, NBCs frighteningly bad new situation comedy, Suddenly Susan is NBCs scariest show this fall."
The Wichita Eagle liked what they saw, calling Dark Skies, "a creepy drama....think of it as alternative history, not to mention a ripping good yarn. It's absolutely fascinating, one of the best bets this fall."
John Martin, of The Providence Journal, found the pilot film full of shadowy suspense. "It's an electrifying winner." The Washington Times was dismissive: "It all crash lands." The Washington Post found the premiere to be, "a unique and disturbing thriller."
Brief critiques of the pilot ranged from "promising" (The New York Times), "an ambitious sci-fi drama" (The Chicago-Sun Times), "Infantile" (The Orlando Sentinel), "Hokey" (The St. Paul Pioneer Press), "Sometimes tense" (The Colorado Springs Gazette) and "if you are going to rip off The X-Files, then do it with the style of Dark Skies." (The Palm Beach Post). It was called "Must scream TV" by The St. Petersburg Times. Robin Dougherty of Knight Ridder news watched all three NBC sci-fi shows on Saturday night and remarked, "None of the three shows' pilots is terrible but each one proves that The X-Files occupies a Twilight Zone of inspired writing and cult appeal that is difficult to duplicate."
The New York Daily News' Eric Mink followed the show with interest. "Dark Skies has shown the most promise [of Saturday's trio of genre shows] although it has yet to approach, much less match, the sheer quality of X-Files. It is more intriguing than a mere X-Files rip-off but it is less clever and sure of itself than X-Files is. But it is ambitious and its execution level has been high."
The South Carolina Sumter paper and The Associated Press got to the point with a concise consensus: "Scary!" The Rocky Mountain News asked, "The unanswered question is whether Dark Skies can live up to its entertaining premise." As the series went on, some comments were unusually insightful. Writer-producer J. Michael Straczynsi (creator of Babylon 5) analyzed TV science fiction in an interview with Kinney Littlefield of the Catoosa County paper. "In the past, television saw SF as a kiddie genre," he said. "Now the industry is seeing that you can do adult science fiction stories. The more SF shows that are done correctly, the better...On one level, Dark Skies is very well done. But on another level, when someone uses John F. Kennedy's assassination and funeral to tell the science fiction part, my skin crawls. The writer in me thinks that nothing should be sacrosanct but the citizen in me sees some things that should be left unexploited."
Brigid Schulte of Knight Ridder noted that Dark Skies and The X-Files had created "a new and powerful enemy, worse than Godzilla, worse than the Soviets...it has turned a democracy by and for the people into a corrupt cabal that has turned against its citizens. Now, movies, television, the Internet and pop culture are virtually exploding with conspiratorial plots starring Washington D.C. as the heavy." But Bryce Zabel made no apologies, telling her, "These are paranoid times."
Liam O'Coileain of U. K's An Phoblacht had only seen the pilot episode in January 1997 but he looked forward to future segments. "The pilot was heavy on conspiracy theory, boasting impressive special effects but somewhat lacking in character development and dialog. Set in the 1960s, Dark Skies begs, borrows and steals unabashedly from many previous incarnations. It's sort of The X-Files meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Independance Day meets JFK ...one of its major selling points is that major events in world history, such as the U.S. space program, Civil Rights movement and even Beatlemania, will be tied into the stories. There is enough in the first episode to make one want to tune in for next week's show."
Eric Mink, of The New York Daily News, who had praised the pilot, followed the series loyally. "It is absolutely delightful in the way it combines interlocking twists of history and frequent gross-out scenes. There is also fine melodramatic acting, including the always chilling JT Walsh." Mink observed that while Dark Skies, The Pretender and The Profiler "all give Saturday night the creeps, Dark Skies is by far the best of the three. It comes closest to capturing the creepy flavor of The X-files. It has impressively yucky special effects with generous helpings of space-based paranoia."
John J. O'Connor of The New York Times explained, "Dark Skies reinterprets historical events of the last few decades as being directly connected to an extra-terrestrial invasion that has been covered by the government. Dark Skies makes Oliver Stone's flights of paranoia look like mental health pamphlets...it plugs into just about every loony alien myth that defies constant debunking."
As critics had fun evaluating this strange new TV series, the Dark Skies cast liked playing in their bizarre sandbox. "I really enjoy doing this show," Megan Ward told journalist Ian Spelling. "It's fun as an actor because you're dealing with fantasy. You're trying to get yourself and the audience to believe something you've never seen before is real....the special effects take a lot of time but they look great."
But as the 1996-97 season went on, the reality of the ratings, borne from corporate America and not from outer space, began to darken the skies for this new thriller. Ratings surveys in September 1996 placed Dark Skies as number 60 out of 130 shows. In early October it was down to 69th place. By the end of October it ranked 82nd, and by mid-November it was 83rd. Bob Hope's NBC Christmas special pre-empted Dark Skies one night and the 93 year-old comedian received, according to The New York Daily News, a 16 rating share. This was 34% higher than the ratings for Dark Skies the week before.
Meanwhile, some critics could not get off The X-Files bandwagon. Frederic M. Biddle of The Chicago Tribune said, "Dark Skies makes sense out of the unexplained and tragic and that is the most appealing of wish fulfillment fantasies but this series smothers it with a relentless, none too imaginative, literal-mindedness. Despite NBCs eagerness to glom onto the ratings and hipness of The X-Files, Dark Skies ignores the rich ambiguity of its rival."
As the season drew to a close, Dark Skies briefly rose to 71st spot in the January ratings but was back down to 93rd by March. Variety predicted, "Dark Skies will go dark" when the series sank to the bottomless depths of 113 place in the April 1997 ratings.
As rumors and eventual cancellation set in, the critics circled around for a last look. Kevin Thompson of Cox News Service called Millennium and Dark Skies "the two most disappointing shows of the year. Both had promising, knock your shoes off pilots but unfortunately Dark Skies got dumber and dumber every week." South Carolina's The State had a similar gripe. "Dark Skies is a dumb science fiction series that kept coming up with these wonderfully ridiculous storylines that were hard to resist not laughing at."
Entertainment Weekly's Bruce Fretts felt, "Megan Ward's winsome charms were wasted on this NBC mis-fire." Warren Epstein of The Cedartown Standard put in a wry epitaph: "This weird bit of science fiction revisionist history is now history."
The Catoosa County news said, "Dark Skies didn't seem to be America's cup of tea this season. The UFO conspiracy show completed the season with low ratings and a not too startling finale. The setting for that was the summer of 1967, where drug guru Timothy Leary was advocating tuning out. Hey, that's what most of us did when it came to this series." Nevertheless, the same paper had listed the Dark Skies finale as a television highlight for that week.
Faye Zuckerman of The New York Times was on the cheering side, calling the series in general, "a suspenseful hour." Eric Mink, of The New York Daily News, provided the most genuine obituary, titled, "Exit Skies - The Thrillology is gone." Mink said, "It is the end of the line for the little SF series that tried but couldn't...it goes out, not exactly in a blaze of glory but as with most of this series' episodes, with some glaring goofiness, a bit of an ominous wink and a taste of promise that was never quite fulfilled. The finale episode took a few delicious potshots at TV and technology, including having then -California Governor Ronald Reagan as the target of an alien abduction...but the episode was undercut by some ridiculous scenes of John and Juliet masquerading as hippies to track down bad acid (another alien plot) during the 1967 summer of love. The fact that Donny Most, Ralph from Happy Days, played Timothy Leary pretty much said it all. And so we bid a fond farewell to Dark Skies. It was, in the end, a nice try."