Gene Roddenberry used to call Star Trek a ‘Wagon Train to the stars,”’ says director Michael Grossman, taking a lunch break on the Santa Fe, N.M., set of Earth 2, the sci-fi show coproduced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment that NBC is launching Nov. 6 right here on Earth 1. ”But we are the definitive Wagon Train to the stars. (Our show is) about 16 people from the 22nd century stuck wandering on a planet like Earth who have no idea what to expect.”
Viewers expecting a Trek retread may be surprised. Flashy gizmos don’t predominate, and there is no single Shatner- or Picard-like star on Earth 2, only an evenly distributed galaxy of lesser-knowns and a trio of alien species.
The colonists, led by Devon Adair (Debrah Farentino, 34, David Caruso’s former flame on NYPD Blue), have crash-landed on the pristine planet because the original Earth is too polluted to be inhabitable. Story lines are democratically apportioned — and that makes the ensemble cast very happy. ”It’s like one big long movie,” says Antonio Sabato Jr., 22, the General Hospital hunk who, along with Loving’s Rebecca Gayheart, 22, made the switch from daytime soaps to hitch his wagon to the stars. He plays a Han Solo-style space pilot; she’s married to the colonists’ chief emissary to the Earth 2 aliens.
On an otherworldly New Mexican fall day, Gayheart and company are making their first on-screen acquaintance with their wacky new nonhuman neighbors. Designed by Oscar winner Greg Cannom (who did the makeup for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mrs. Doubtfire), Earth 2’s denizens make Ferengis look like regular fellas. The 6-foot-7 Terrians, who could pass for walking compost heaps, have a startling habit of popping out of rocks and can cause unsuspecting humans to be gobbled up by the ground they walk on. The Grendlers, who vaguely resemble the saggy-faced poet W.H. Auden, are scavengers, explains Grossman. ”They travel the world looking for things they can throw into their bags and trade for stuff.” And the Kobas, a third alien species, ”are the cute ones,” Grossman says. ”Fourteen inches tall, with big, cute eyes — elfish-type creatures that everybody wants to pick up and hug. Lovable, but potentially deadly. But I can’t tell you how.”
What Grossman will tell you is that the aliens are actors, too. ”The show is character driven, even down to the creatures,” he says. ”They don’t wreak havoc in a Star Trek-like way. They’re not just socks with faces painted on them.”
One Grendler, Jeff Deist, sits smoking a Camel Light grasped between enormous brownish-green fingers with disgustingly discolored nails and reveals what’s inside his head: ”See, the Grendler mask has 18 Servo motors, worked by two guys with remote-control devices. I can see through this two-square-inch TV screen, which is attached to a camera in a pinhole between the mask’s eyes, (while) they give me a whole bunch of expressions.”
Compared to the Grendler, Yoda was an old stone- face. ”If you think he’s beautiful now,” says Gayheart, ”you should see him when he’s all slimed up.” The crowning touch in the Grendler costumes is the viscous drool that drips from their squiggly lips.
It takes one to love one: Deist’s real-life squeeze is his fellow Grendler Lisa Ebeyer. ”Everybody on the set calls us the Grendlers,” says Ebeyer, ”so if we get married, instead of trying to decide whether to take Jeff’s name, we’re just both going to change our names to Grendler.”
Earth 2’s actors tend to behave a bit like the characters they play. ”Terrians can go into your brain and find out who you really are and help you,” explains Sabato. ”It’s a psychology thing.” Sure enough, sensitive Zen student Russell Werkman, who plays Terrian No. 2, is forever reading Jung between scenes. ”Terrians are Jungian archetypes, neither male nor female, born from rocks,” Werkman says, ”part mineral, part vegetable … Uh, I haven’t quite gotten what we are yet.”
Not to worry. Everybody on set is busy finding himself, as Earth 2 boldly goes where only suicidal fools have gone before — right up against Sunday-night ratings champ 60 Minutes. ”We probably have more discussion and conflict about scripts than any show,” says Grossman. ”But our innocence lends itself to the innocence of the characters. We’re having a ball!” And all species are invited.