‘Dark Skies’: Revisiting the best conspiracy of the 90s

Of course…now disco makes sense!

By Paul Mavis

Right now seems a particularly fertile time to indulge in conspiracy theories and alternative history narratives, so what better time to revisit NBC’s cult sci-fi series, Dark Skies. A few years back, Shout! Factory released Dark Skies: The Declassified Complete Series, a six-disc, 19-episode collection of the one-off 1996 NBC show. A deliriously paranoid goof that weaves an ever-expanding net of half-truths, suspicions, and outrageous conjecture over historical events such as the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and the Watts riots, Dark Skies‘ proposition that our “true” history of the last 60+ years is underwritten by a super-secret government battle against an invading alien force, is music to my conspiracy-lovin’ ears.

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Filled with enough conjecture and supposition for a hundred Geraldo specials, Dark Skies should have been a rousing success for NBC back in 1996…if it had been on HBO instead. Unfortunately, a poor time slot and an unfair comparison to the better-rated The X-Files doomed this show from the start. Too bad, because it’s a dizzy little thrill ride, with cockamamie conspiracy theories bumping up against gross-out alien infestation scenes every five minutes or so, all filtered through an alternative history lesson (or is it?…) that should delight whack jobs like me who can’t get enough of this stuff.

Dark Skies 01

The set-up. Camelot, 1961. Young, fresh-faced Congressional aide John Loengard (Eric Close) has arrived in Washington, D.C. with his pretty fiancé, Kim Sayers (Megan Ward), an equally ambitious college graduate who eventually secures a job working for Mrs. Kennedy at the White House. John, underutilized as an office gofer, presses his supervisor to give him more responsibility, and he’s subsequently rewarded with a new title: Congressional investigator. Assigned to look into possible programs that his Congressman boss could safely cut for the upcoming budget, John is given the task of looking into “Project: Bluebook,” the government’s public front for investigating UFO sightings.

Dark Skies 02

A skeptic when it comes to “flying saucers,” John interviews Betty and Barney Hill (Lee Garlington and Basil Wallace), and after hearing their sobering tale of abduction, begins to think twice about recommending “Project: Bluebook”‘s defunding. However, a terrifying nighttime visit by black ops Naval officers, led by Captain Frank Bach (J.T. Walsh), sends a different message to John: defund “Bluebook” and forget everything about flying saucers…or lose your life. John, the incarnation of JFK’s “New Frontier” spirit of openness in government (hee hee), decides to track down Bach’s history, discovering the mysterious operative had connections to the infamous 1947 Roswell, New Mexico incident.

Dark Skies 03

Threatening to expose Bach, John is taken to the ultra-covert “Majestic-12” headquarters, and shown the secret of the ages: the frozen corpse of a “Gray,” an alien visitor who crashed at Roswell. History as John knows it, is now a lie, and very soon, he’ll see how cataclysmic events in recent American history, given a safe spin for the public, are in fact the ripple effects of this first visitation of alien life forms, and Majestic’s fight against them. From that moment on, John, and soon Kim, will be drawn into a waking nightmare world where Majestic battles the secret alien invasion for the very soul of the planet, with Kim paying a particularly high cost for her involvement.

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Dark Skies 04

I deliberately left the above synopsis vague, because I didn’t want to give away too much for those readers who just want the general drift of the series. However, it’s next-to-impossible to discuss Dark Skies in any depth without revealing some of its fun secrets, so if you haven’t seen the show, and you don’t want it ruined for you, I recommend you stop reading and buy Shout!’s set. Otherwise, you were warned….

Dark Skies 05

As my loyal seven readers know, I’ve always been upfront in admitting I love conspiracy theories and alternate histories (the crazier, the better), having grown up in the golden age of such musings during the 70s (I have posters for every Schick Sunn Classic movie made, pal), and that I’m fairly open-minded about UFO sightings (I know I saw something one night, man…). So I’m coming to Dark Skies fairly receptive to its message. I caught a few episodes of the series back in ’96 when it ran–rather erratically–on NBC, remembering best the gory, disgusting “cerebral eviction” sequences, where the “Ganglion” parasites were ripped out of people’s heads, or coughed up like particularly troublesome hair balls.

Dark Skies 06Dark Skies 16

Watching Dark Skies from beginning to end here, it’s a particular treat to see how well creators/writers Bryce Zabel and Brent V. Friedman cleverly created a framework where anything that happened in our history could easily be plugged into this epic struggle between “The Hive” and Majestic-12. Creating a sort of “unified theory” application of many of the alien and abduction theories out there, along with all the serious-to-screwy conspiracy theories about events like JFK’s assassination and Vietnam woven in as the results of this battle, Zabel and Friedman weren’t content just to say aliens are here and they’re trying to take us over.

Dark Skies 07Dark Skies 17

Building layer upon layer of their subtext, they first create the novel twist of having the “Grays” we’re all so familiar with (the aliens with the big head and eyes) be revealed as not our conquerors, but slaves themselves, infected with the hideous “Ganglion” who directed the Grays to visit, threatening Earth with destruction if President Truman didn’t unconditionally surrender at Roswell, prompting the U.S. Army to blast their saucer out of the skies (a cool addition to the Roswell mythology). From there, Zabel and Friedman go one step further and complicate the relationship between Majestic and the rest of the U.S. government, showing how Majestic’s overreaching independence makes it almost impervious to outside control, oversight represented by “truth-teller” John, who insists his mission is to honor JFK’s spirit, and reveal all to the American public–not just the presence of the Hive and the Grays, but also Majestic’s sometimes nefarious practices.

Dark Skies 08Dark Skies 18

Within that framework, then, any historical event can be simply plugged into the Hive conspiracy without difficulty…and with increasing paranoia. A good example of this comes in To Prey in Darkness, where the suspicious death of columnist Dorothy Kilgallen is connected up with the great Eastern seaboard blackout of 1965, both of which Dark Skies says were engineered to cover up the theft of stolen film footage from the Battle of Roswell. Dark Skies is littered with these kinds of speculative connections, delighting the viewer with “spot the historical reference or character” moments while we appreciate how neatly they’re worked into the Hive/Majestic battle for supremacy (what other show could believably work in such diverse historical events as the Beatles’s first U.S. concert, Howard Hughes’ obsession with Communism, and Colin Powell’s early military career under a crazily believable umbrella concerned with aliens taking over the world?).

Dark Skies 09Dark Skies 19

Even better are the fun, unsettling associations created in the viewer when this Hive/Majestic theory is grafted onto iconic historical events. A good example comes in We Shall Overcome, which centers around the disappearance of three civil rights volunteers in Meridian, Mississippi during 1964’s “Freedom Summer,” when we’re asked not only to feel (kind of) sorry for J. Edgar Hoover (!) when he’s blackmailed by Majestic over his sexuality, but also when we’re presented with the sight of a supposedly-benevolent black preacher nursing Ganglion babies as the head of the local Hive in the basement of his church (when he frightens the recalcitrant white racist, showing who’s really in charge around those parts, it’s a deliciously perverse moment).

Dark Skies 10Dark Skies 20

Listening to the two commentary tracks included on Shout!’s set, featuring the producers as well as the two lead actors, Zabel and Friedman postulate that a bad time slot and unforgiving The X-Files supporters doomed Dark Skies from the start–certainly two valid factors in the show’s one-season run. Airing at the single-most “family friendly” time slot on the networks’ schedules–Saturday nights at 8:00pm–it’s difficult to comprehend what NBC was thinking, putting on a show at that time slot that showed slimy, Alien-like spiders being ripped out of people’s skulls, or slithering out of their mouths (when I watched it back in ’96, I remember hustling the kids out of the room pronto; nobody was going to find any “cerebral extractions” over on CBS’ Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman). And certainly there was a lot of negative snarking from X-Files boosters who saw Dark Skies as merely an opportunistic rip-off (a male/female team, looking into extraterrestrial goings-on). However, after watching the entire series in one sitting, you can see other cracks in the production that may also have contributed to people tuning it out.

Dark Skies 11Dark Skies 21

First and foremost, the show’s fundamental (and dramatically solid) conflict between truth-teller John and secret-keeper Bach, is compromised by two big missteps: linking John’s idealism to JFK’s and that whole fabricated “Camelot” nonsense, and the casting of Eric Close as John. After the two-hour series pilot, when Robert Kennedy (James F. Kelly) pledges his full (covert) support of John and Kim’s efforts working against the Hive and Majestic, the myth that was “Camelot” is invoked as some kind of moral base line for the rest of the Dark Skies activities–a spurious conceit that didn’t fool anyone in 1996, when the manufactured, phony mystique of the Kennedys had long since been exposed.

Dark Skies 12Dark Skies 22

It just isn’t credible to watch a series that says, “the truth is overrated,” and that postulates that everything we know in history books is a lie…before it goes and uses an equally false pop culture conceit like “Camelot” as some kind of truth indicator. I was hopeful in episode six, Inhuman Nature, when the producers have RFK weaken, abandoning John when threatened with exposure over his (filmed) affair with Marilyn Monroe. Unfortunately, the producers right this “wrong” by having RFK (citing again his brother’s supposed unimpeachable honesty) regain his integrity and backbone in the final episode, casting the deciding vote to “fire” Bach from the head of Majestic. Think how much more impact the John character would have had, if John’s belief in JFK and RFK had been destroyed like all the other lies of history, leaving him without ideals, without beliefs, stumbling in the dark while the Hive closed in on him.

Dark Skies 13Dark Skies 23

As for Close, he certainly fits the physical role of an idealistic Kennedy booster; with his toothy grin and his thick hank of hair, he could be a Kennedy himself. However, that John disappears almost immediately in Dark Skies, to be replaced by an “obsessed” John whose paranoia rapidly spins out of control. That John…Close can’t pull off here; he’s just too even-tempered, too in control, too placid emotionally to convey a character going off the deep end. And that throws off the scenes with legendary J.T. Walsh. He smokes Close in their every encounter, as “everyone’s favorite scumbag” Walsh slits his eyes and delivers one devastating retort after another to the blinking Close.

Dark Skies 14Dark Skies 24

If you listen carefully to the commentary track, one of the producers almost comes right out and admits that Close was chosen to satisfy NBC (darker, tougher Josh Brolin apparently was the first choice). That’s a match-up I can see; as it is here, it doesn’t play as well as it should. That’s why it’s such a relief when kick-ass Jeri Ryan shows up; no wonder she got the lion’s share of attention from fans and critics when she was inserted mid-way into the series at the insistence of NBC, to perk up ratings. Close benefits somewhat from the series’ turn towards action and sex, when he gets to shrug off the Camelot baggage and become more of a straight-forward espionage agent/soldier (he moves and sounds right in the ‘Nam actioner episode, White Rabbit). His chemistry with the soft, pretty Ward is good during the early Washington scenes (I’m not so sure Ward pulls off the evil Hive-infected Kim, though), but he’s clearly enjoying hanging out with the sexy, tough Ryan later on (their Bloodlines episode is terrific, with Ryan and Close delightfully hippied-out for their final go-around). Luckily, the strength of the show’s infectious (sorry) premise paves over any temporary potholes in the road when it comes to the individual performances.

Dark Skies 15Dark Skies 25

According to the producers, when it became known that the consistently low-rated series wouldn’t continue on NBC, Dark Skies‘ production company suggested time-forwarding the series into the present-day (1997, that is), like the original Battlestar Galactica‘s second season, in an effort to save the show and find a new network. It’s an intriguing idea, one that might have suited the performers better, and one that would have lowered costs significantly (since all that expensive, pitch-perfect 1960s period production design could be jettisoned). Come to think of it…couldn’t that be done today with Dark Skies? With an increasing number of puzzling UFO sightings occurring now on a seemingly routine basis (and in front of thousands of urban witnesses, it seems), and interest in conspiracy theories unabated, maybe the time is right to bring back this clever gem.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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