The X-Files

Dark Skies – A Review

dark skiesI confess, I’m a sucker for alien abduction. I loved The X-Files. I read all the alleged abductee accounts — though not, I confess, without a strong vein of scepticism. Hell, I even quite liked The Fourth Kind, and that’s a film with a list of flaws as long as my arm.

So to a certain extent, Dark Skies was preaching to the gallery.

Dark Skies follows a suburban Californian family, who begin to suffer a series of odd occurrences. Strange rearrangements of kitchen items, things going missing, and a child talking about a mysterious “sandman”. From there things escalate into the full blown abduction scenario, when it becomes apparent that the aliens are coming for someone.

It proudly proclaims that it is from the producer of Sinister and Insidious . I would, admittedly, be a little less proud of that fact — but Dark Skies will feel a little familiar to people who have seen those films. The plot follows the same twists, the same basic conceits — such as centring the danger around children, and communicating it through drawings, the wizened expert who explains everything ahead of the final act.

One of its main saving graces is that quite simply aliens are scarier than a death metal singer, and Darth Maul and Old Mother Hubbard (respectively).

The other chief problem with Dark Skies is just how forced some of the interactions and relationships felt. One argument in particular, presumably meant to show a family under stress, seemed so overblown from such an insignificant matter as to ring ridiculous.

Which covers the negative. What about the positive? Well, it is creepy. Quite powerfully creepy, actually. The lingering sense of powerlessness, even as the family hunker down for what they know is an odds-against battle, is almost palpable. It goes to the root of the whole alien abduction fascination, the horror of mystery, the utter futility but absolute necessity of resistence.

So too the aliens. Enough is revealed to steer clear of the “didn’t see the aliens” criticisms which dogged the likes of Contact and The Fourth Kind (a stupid criticism) whilst avoiding the disappointment of tipping its hand too far. It implied the right amount, leaving the lion’s share to my imagination — which is far better and far more experienced at scaring me.

Dark Skies was not a perfect film. It would have helped a lot if its makers could steer a bit further away from the conventions of the genre and the formulas of their own making. But overall, it frightened and it entertained, so it’s hard to argue it did anything but hit the spot nicely.

Save Our Sci-Fi

If the future of humanity does begin with a choice, I fear SyFy have made the wrong one.

So, earlier this week BSG spin-off series Caprica was cancelled. I’m not going to spend this blog entry moaning specifically about that, for two reasons. Firstly, I’m quite behind on the series, only a few episodes in, and thus haven’t decided whether it will meet it’s potential (but rest assured, the potential is there). Secondly, there are plenty of other people across the interwebs doing just that.

No, my complaint here is a more general trend indicated in the cancellation; that of good sci-fi television being cut short without being given a real chance. Or worse, being positively brilliant. Firefly is the obvious example, but far from the only instance.

I remember when I was growing up, the TV schedules were full of science-fiction. It wasn’t all good, but it was certainly there. The Star Trek Franchise was working its way through The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager (not to mention several films- some of them even good). The X-Files was giving us conspiracy theories and aliens being investigated by an FBI duo with a taste for sunflower seeds and interesting pronunciation of the English language. Babylon 5 was doing something, though quite what I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve never actually watched an episode. Stargate SG-1 was taking us to distant worlds through a bowl of jelly, with MacGyver as a tour guide.

And there were myriads of smaller, lesser-known sci-fi shows floating around. Five seasons of Andromeda, with Kevin Sorbo whizzing about as Hercules in space, for Christ’s sake. And five seasons of pseudo-philosophical nonsense with Earth Final Conflict (both, incidentally, mining the last vestiges of the late Gene Roddenberry’s imagination). If even these more obscure things managed to prosper, hopefully it will give you a hint of how strong the genre used to do.

Nowadays, they seem to struggle. Aside from the utter bollocks of Firefly’s cancellation (midway through one of the best first seasons I’ve ever seen from a TV series, of any genre), there are a host of similar cancellations littering the path. The demise of the mutated Stargate SG-1 and misguided spin-off Stargate Atlantis probably won’t be much mourned, but back in the 2003 outstanding Australian offering Farscape was given the chop too. Since then Dollhouse (Joss Whedon’s other sci-fi project) has been given its marching orders, lesser-known but still praise-worthy Denying Gravity was denied a second season, as was Flashforward (not a patch on the book, but still better than Lost by a wide margin). And that’s to say nothing of the countless great ideas which have undoubtedly been turned down.

What I think this amounts to, in my opinion, is a shift in the perception of sci-fi. It just doesn’t seem to be cool any more. The only science-fiction series that I can think of to have run its full course rather than being prematurely cancelled is Caprica‘s parent show, Ronald D. Moore’s sterling remake of Battlestar Galactica.

When you factor in the Sci-Fi channel’s bizzare and much-documented name change to SyFy, I think we have to accept that TV studios are not keen on the genre any more. The flagship genre representatives at the moment are X-Files lookalike Fringe (which is fantastic, and if they go anywhere near it with an axe I’m going to have to resort to violence), bold reinvention of the original franchise Stargate Universe, and the BBC’s reinvention of the Doctor Who franchise (which may be facing difficulties of a different sort, before too long). Of course, you have the V remake, but I think the less said about that diluted cat piss the better.

Is there a deeper root to this downturn? Are people not dreaming of the future any more? Do we not look up at the stars and dream of what could be out there? If you look at real world events, such as Obama’s attitude towards NASA, you might think so. I don’t know the answer to that one, but my favourite television genre seems to be under siege at the moment.

Hollywood has never gotten sci-fi. They’ve made token efforts, and sometimes done fairly well, but the extended possibilities of a TV series, of a long story arc, has always seemed the natural home of video science-fiction to me. If it’s going to be allowed to vanish from our screens, I fear not only for the genre, but for humanity’s approach to the future. Science-fiction is, to me at least, imagination incarnate. It is the ultimate “what if?”. And I think we really do need that.

Maybe you disagree, but all I’m really saying here is give sci-fi a chance.