Colonization is No Joke: Earth2

Another week, another televisual corpse to dissect. This time, I’ll stick the scalpel in the fascinating, frustrating world of Earth2, a show that—with a little more luck and a few different choices—could have been big time. I mean that sincerely. Earth2 had a whole lot going for it—cool concepts, writing, good budget. It’s one of science fiction TV’s more unfortunate casualties. It lasted a single season, fall of 1994.

As the rewatch-in-one series continues, I find that in almost every show I review I think of Battlestar Galactica and Lost, two recent shows that got things epically right and epically wrong. Earth2 has more than a little in common with both. As with those shows, there’s a large central cast in a hostile environment, survival hangs in the balance, and there’s a mix of sci-fi and mystical fantasy woven into the plot. In fact it becomes less science and more fantasy as the show goes on. Earth2 even has a few future Losties are in the cast.

Refresher course: Earth is a scarcely inhabitable place, pocketed with mines. Most of the human race lives on space stations. Life on stations has caused a sickness known only as the Syndrome, which I guess is like a really horrible case of rickets, fatal by about age nine. A group of explorers, led by Devon Adair—a wealthy woman and mother of a Syndrome child, who we later learn is the descendant of the space stations’ designer—leaves as an advance party to scout a new Earth-like planet, in hopes that the new environment can cure her son. Her crew includes various citizens, a cyborg and indentured workers paying off ancestral debts. Immediately, they face a threat of sabotage, leave ahead of schedule and then after 24 years in a hibernation sleep, awake near the new planet only to crash land due to yet more sabotage. On the planet, they struggle to complete their mission of being an advance party for further colonists, all the while dealing with the fact that the place isn’t uninhabited, they have a few dubious individuals in their midst, and no one knows entirely what to do.

In a sense, you could say there’s not much new about the show. It’s one more step in the Great American Post-Colonial Rationalization process, in which sci-fi plays an ongoing role. At least, in this case, the creators of the show were clearly aware of its “wagon train to the stars” heritage and made overt parallels to the pioneers and early European settlements in the west. They knew just what they were drawing from. But originality isn’t necessarily what makes a science fiction or fantasy show memorable. More often, it’s meaningful character growth and a thoroughly realized setting that matters most. Earth2 had both.

Most episodes center around Devon Adair (Debrah Farentino)—who financed the mission and acts more or less the overall leader—and John Danziger (the ever-awesome and generally threatening Clancy Brown) who is something like the leader of the workers. Adair’s son Ulysses has the Syndrome, which upon contact with a strange sentient, mystical life form they call Terrians, becomes cured. Danzinger’s daughter True is a rougher sort than Uly, not to mention downright duplicitous at times. And she screams a lot. There’s Dr. Heller, who is part physician and part spy, and Alonzo, who is part Terrian interpreter and part eye candy. Yale, a cybernetically enhanced, mind-wiped former criminal (sort of) acts as a tutor and quasi-religious figure. There’s also the cowardly, pessimist Morgan and his far more optimistic and disproportionately attractive wife, Bess.

Class distinctions become more evident as the show goes on. There are eugenic overtones with Dr. Heller and the people she works for, as well as the indenture I mentioned before. Also, it’s mentioned in one of the early episodes that only the wealthiest families had Yales. Whether this makes them property or very pricey employees is hard to say. Later, Yale refers to “working” for the Adairs, but it looks a whole lot like a very cozy form of slavery.

What Earth2‘s premise lacks in class equality it more than makes up for in gender equality. It seems that in this world, and in the concept for the show itself, gender is not a big deal. It’s rather remarkably well balanced in this aspect, in terms of identity, social standing, authority and so forth. So, that’s cool. That said, it’s strictly heterosexual on Earth2, which I think is a lost opportunity.    

The Best and the Worst: It’s much easier to determine the strongest and weakest episodes in an episodic show, but in Earth2 the overall arc is of far greater importance than the individual episodes. So I’m at a bit of a loss to determine the winner and loser. Still, I’ll give it a go. For the worst, I’m going with “Brave New Pacifica.” In this episode, a lot of stuff happens that doesn’t seem to matter or make sense. Grendlers—a race of generally peaceful grunting little scavenger rhino frog troll thingies—become thirsty for blood, there are a lot of spiders, and there’s a time-dimension tunnel mini warp hole across the planet. Any of those elements could be made into something interesting. You’d think, for example, that when everyone is freezing their asses off in winter, the fact that they can instantly zoom across to the seaside might be something of an advantage, yes? No. The tunnel doesn’t make another appearance. Nor do the blood thirsty Grendlers, who it turns out were influenced by the positive or negative sides of the tunnel. Did I mention it affects emotions? Yeah, because that makes perfect sense. All in all, it’s a throw-away episode.

The best? Just as hard to choose but I’m going with “Life Lessons,” an early episode. I think in general the writing fluctuated throughout the season, but is strongest early on when there was more well thought-out science fiction elements and fewer instances of mysticism. It’s not that I don’t think they can mix. It’s just that the mystical stuff gets a little dues ex machina for my tastes. “Life Lessons” has a good villain: Gaal. He’s a melodramatic, unctuous, conniving and murderous conman with sexual predator overtones. Plus, he’s Tim Curry. Beat that! He claims to be a shipwrecked astronaut though, as we soon find out, he’s actually part of a previously unknown penal colony. Like the creep he is, he befriends a lonely girl, True Danziger, the daughter of the crew’s main engineer and mechanic. Preying on her need for attention, he manipulates her into betraying her own father. Though Curry goes over the top with drama some times, all the episodes with him are fun because he’s eeeeevil. And it’s pretty bold storytelling, I think, to show a manipulative predator like him without a sudden happy resolution where the bad guy goes away and the innocent child is fine. At the end of the episode, True hasn’t figured out that Gaal is a bad guy. She’s still fooled, and still his ally. And it’s disturbing.

What Happened?: One theory is ratings. Ratings always come up when a show gets axed. And it was clearly an expensive show, but last time I checked, Amblin has a few bucks. Another reason I’ve read about is that the second season died because of internal disputes regarding plot direction. These may all have been factors. But I want to focus on another problem, a subtle problem that I couldn’t quite place until five episodes in.

This show has no sense of humor.

It’s not that there’s no joy, or that it’s perpetually dark and dismal. But opportunities for levity arise and vanish. In the episode “Water,” (my runner-up for best episode) I finally figured that out. There’s a scene in which Adair and the elder Danziger are bound together and trying to get to a canteen. The scene is more than a little sexually suggestive, as her trying to drink the water from the canteen between his legs (or close to that) is a whole-damn-obvious lot like she’s giving John a happy happy joy joy with her mouth. Now, on Firefly, this would have been a funny and sexy scene. Imagine Captain Tightpants and Inara in this position. Okay, okay, now stop imagining. It’d be funny, right? Flirtatious and giggly. But Adair and Danziger? Not funny. Kinda hot in a distant and dispassionate way. But not funny.

Humor is a major factor in every major science fiction show I can think of. It’s absence leaves Earth2 feeling strangely sterile.

All in all I would have preferred a funnier show—though not a comedy—with a greater focus on sci-fi elements and less mysticism. Still, I recommend it. There are a lot of cool details, a few brilliant scenes, and over-all, I applaud the effort.

Jason Henninger lives in the former Spanish colony of Los Angeles, where he thinks he has a sense of humor. 


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