Created by Steven Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment, and co-produced by Universal Television, “Earth 2” aired in 1994 on the American NBC network; it was a fascinating and intelligent (but now little seen) science fiction series about an expeditionary spearhead of human colonists, and their attempts to settle a potential replacement planet in advance of a space fleet of refugees arriving from a dying Earth, 22 light years away from home. Although it lasted for only one season of twenty-one episodes before falling ratings saw to its inevitable demise and cancellation, it played a key role (along with other mid ’90s shows such as “The X Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer) in helping to pave the way for the much more sophisticated storylines and character arcs we’ve since become accustomed to in modern fantasy TV dramas such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Lost”. The series producers were coming off of shows such as “The Wonder Years” (Mark Levin) and “Law & Order” (Michael Duggan) rather than other Sci-Fi series, and perhaps that’s why “Earth 2” tended to emphasise its ensemble cast’s character interactions and their complex motivations, based around the development of conflicted inter-relationships between the settlers as the season progressed, rather than showier, overtly special effects-dependent material. Although it’s often remembered simply because it was the first mainstream science fiction show of its kind to feature an authoritative female commander, this is ultimately a series about the moral, philosophical and political issues involved in the process of colonisation, with a series mythology which makes many recognisable references to the interactions that have taken place between colonisers and native peoples throughout Earth’s history, not least in the history of the settlement of America itself. There’s also a strong ecologically based-dilemma inherent in the set-up – for if eco systems are indeed interconnected webs of organisms evolving together, how does the ‘invading’ outsider-coloniser ever begin to fit in?
Set in the year 2192, the series posits a future in which the Earth has now become so polluted that it is largely uninhabitable, and most of humanity has shifted to living above the planet in huge orbiting space stations. War and conflict have been ‘abolished’ here, but at the cost of a strictly hierarchical society run by an elitist body called simply ‘The Council’, in which the rich get to choose the genetic program their children are born with and the lower classes are expected to toil as indentured maintenance workers to pay off debt incurred by their ancestors. Criminals are ‘mind-washed’ and made to serve society as benevolent tutors to the children of the rich, and those who choose to become pilots on the expeditionary craft sent out to scout for other habitable worlds, have to get used to taking so many cryogenic naps for years on end during their lengthy trips, that they are literally hundreds of years out of synch with their surroundings. Despite an air of enforced harmony, all is not well on-board the vast stations, though: many of the children who are born on them, and who have never even been to Earth, have come down with a mysterious autoimmune disease known as The Syndrome - and none of them ever live much longer past the age of nine. Yet the Council refuses to officially even acknowledge The Syndrome’s existence.
When her own son, Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman), comes down with this Government-denied sickness, a privileged member of the elite called Devon Adair (played by Deborah Farentino – queen of the prematurely cancelled US series!) who’s family (ironically) made their fortune constructing the very space stations she’s now fleeing from – organises the Eden Project: a plan to lead hundreds of spacecraft across 22 Light Years of interstellar space on a quest to settle an Earth-like planet known as G889. The Eden Project will take the families who have children like Ulysses who are suffering from The Syndrome, to live on the surface of this new planet - which has a natural environment similar to Earth’s - in the hope that exposure to its biosphere will help cure them of their chronic illnesses. However, the Council is against the whole plan for initially unexplained reasons, and after they discover a bomb has been planted on board their ship, Adair and her crew sneak away before the expected launch date and before the Council authorities have a chance to stop them. They wake twenty-two years later in orbit around their potential new home, but the ship crashes (a later episode establishes the crash as deliberate sabotage) on the wrong side of the planet - thousands of miles away from the mapped terrain on which Devon planned to found the Earth colony that was to be known as New Pacifica, and without access to much of their cargo or supplies. The surviving colony members and the stranded ship’s crew vote to make the long westward journey to New Pacifica on foot – a trip that will take them several years. As they make their way across the surface of this new planet, the various members of the group (many of whom were either Council officials or ship’s crew who never intended hanging around for long, as well as the original prospective settlers) gradually come to learn more about themselves and each other, but more importantly about this strange new world and how it differs from their own.
The planet is home to several species, which include: a race of hulking troll-like creatures known as Grendlers – scavengers and natural-born traders who enjoy collecting junk, and manage to horde most of the settlers’ possessions, including samples of human blood which they happily discover gives them an hallucinogenic high in small doses! There is also a race of tiny gremlin-like critters (who look a bit like mini-ETs) called Kobas, who look cute, but have detachable poisonous claws which can induce a death-mimicking paralysis in their victims, although they are only aggressive when threatened. Most mysteriously of all, an underground tribe of creatures called Terrians are the key to the success or otherwise of the colonists’ faltering attempts to make this world their home. Soon after they crash on the planet, the Terrians kidnap Ulysses, but when he is eventually returned to the group, the child is completely healed of any trace of The Syndrome! Eventually, it becomes apparent that the planet itself is, in a way, sentient - and that the Terrians are more like its hive-like defending antibodies rather than just another evolved species; they communicate telepathically in a dreamscape dimension with the aid of a special kind of natural glowing rock with neural properties; and they have no sense of the past, future or present. In a later episode, the survivors register extreme electromagnetic disturbances attended by a blinding white light in a cave system which proves to be a portal for travelling thousands of miles across the planet’s surface. Furthermore, the Eden team eventually discover that the Council has secretly had an interest in this world for some time, which is why they originally tried to sabotage the expedition ship.
Now, perhaps the idea of a series in which a group of disparate survivors crash-land in a strange exotic wilderness location which turns out to have mystical properties of inter-connectedness and a will of its own, as well as what turns out to be a rich hidden history of previous attempts to settle the place that have been made by various factions, some of whom turn out to still be living there, and who then try to manipulate the survivors … well, maybe this does all sound a little familiar? If so, then you probably stuck out all five seasons of “Lost”! When the first series of “Lost” aired, there were a couple of lone voices in the wilderness who tried to claim that it was merely a rip-off of “Earth 2”. It was probably always more the case that any long running series about crash survivors that has a fantasy theme involved will eventually hit on the same plot elements, but it is uncanny how similar the two shows eventually became, and not just because Lost’s Terry O’Quinn is a recurring guest star across the whole series. We don’t get flashbacks here, but the series does tend to pitch each episode from a different main character’s perspective, with some element of their pasts being brought to light and then eventually resolved through addressing a problem encountered during the journey to New Pacifica; conflicted love-hate relationships form between some of the main characters, who have very different backgrounds, and one of the most likeable members of the regular cast turns out to be a spy, originally planted in the camp by the Council who now want Devon’s child Ulysses because, not only has he been cured by the Terrians, but he also now forms a bridging link between humanity and the planet itself and is therefore the key to the Council’s plan to remove the Terrian life-forms from the land altogether (something they have previously been unable to do without the planet dying and becoming inhospitable to all life).
This side of the series is inspired by a highly embroidered version of the Gaia Hypothesis, but “Lost” took up a similar theme with its storylines about failed island pregnancies and various guardians of the island attempting to protect it from outside exploitative forces, etc. By the time we get to the electromagnetic tunnel portals of light; the strange visions mediated by the island’s dreamscape network; the discovery of an abandoned set of bio-domes that long ago once housed a group of experimental biologists; and a whole episode set sixteen years in the future, in which a grown-up Ulysses time travels in order to contact his mother in her past, the similarities have become too acute to ignore!
Yet the one thing about the show that still seems to set it way ahead of its peers is the courage it displays in its willingness to allow its main characters to not always come across in a wholly positive light; indeed sometimes they’re capable of being downright unlikable. There’s the token whining, annoying, cowardly character of course, in the form of Council official Morgan Martin (John Gegenhuber,) who’s utterly dependent on his doting wife Bess (Rebbeca Gayheart), who worships the ground he walks on despite his inveterate selfishness. Naturally, Bess becomes more resourceful and Morgan becomes more likable as the series progresses, his selfishness taking on more of a comical aspect as his better qualities also begin to emerge. Other characters who are ostensibly the ‘heroes’ of the show, such as injured space pilot Alonzo (Antonio Sabàto, Jr.) and Devon’s mind-washed tutor to Ulysses, Yale (Sullivan Walker) are often shown to harbour negative characteristics also (some hidden, some not so hidden) - but each comes through in the end a better person with a clearer understanding of their past. Even Devon’s devotion to Ulysses can often seem negative, cloying and overbearing; one gets the feeling that if this rich, privileged former mandarin of the space stations weren’t leading this group, she’d probably be founding the intergalactic version of mumsnet.com. The working class tough guy Danziger (Clancy Brown), an indentured worker aboard the space stations, who only took the job on board Devon’s chartered craft to pay for the upbringing of his young daughter True (J. Madison Wright) is sometimes prone to shoot-now-ask-questions later posturing. There’s an extraordinary episode late in the run called “Survival of the Fittest” in which Danziger is involved in, and has to make amends for, a decision that a starving scouting party makes which is ethically dubious despite the fact that it saves all their lives. The Eden project’s doctor, Julia Heller (Jessica Steen,) has to work hard to fit in with the rest of the group; her genome was selected from birth by the Council to predispose and tune her for a career as a medic, but her loyalties and her unquestioning obedience to the Council come to be conflicted through long-term association with the Eden group. There are also moments when as a group, the survivors make decisions which are ethically dubious or when they risk becoming an unthinking mob: such as after their decision (when they discover one of their most respected members has been a spy all along - and it is genuinely an unexpected and shocking revelation), to leave a member of the group behind, alone and unprotected in a hostile alien environment.
The series consistently generates interesting dilemmas, imaginative multi-episode plotlines and engaging backstories for its main cast. The lion’s share of the budget seems to have been spent on the feature-length pilot, which gets all the expensive-looking spaceship CGI effects that still look quite passable today. The animatronic Koba looks just enough like a cross between a tiny ET and the Gremlins to attract the kiddies (although the creatures don’t appear very often after the pilot episode) and the ever-drooling Grendlers are enjoyably eccentric, gruff, belligerent but comical antagonists throughout the series, eventually achieving some degree of sympathy and poignancy, their lumbering interactions disguising an semi-intelligent race of uncomplicated but feeling creatures. The score by David Bergeaud rather dates the show with a fairly generic adventure movie orchestral style of musical accompaniment, but the intricate arcing plot and complex characters are still worth investing in.
Unfortunately, the series ends on an unresolved cliff-hanger (although perhaps the episode that is set in the future fills us in on enough background information for us to figure how things pan out anyway) but this is most definitely still worth a look if you’re a fan of fantasy drama that combines depth and challenging characterisation with strong, weekly adventure-based entertainment.
“Earth 2” is released by Medium Rare Entertainment in a five disc set featuring all 21 episodes. They mostly look fine, although some of the episodes feature noticeable artefacts at times, perhaps because some of the discs have as many as five episodes crammed onto them. The only extras are a few deleted scenes in raw footage form, and some out-takes and bloopers. This is a delightful series though, which really should have survived longer than it did.