Would it make you more inclined to watch Earth 2 if I told you I’ve come to think of it as science fiction for people who don’t have much use for science fiction?
Many of the problems people have with sci-fi — its reliance on hardware over human characterizations; its essentially male-nerd view of the future; its insufferable private-club vocabulary and atmosphere — have been directly addressed by the makers of Earth 2. Where Babylon 5 has tried to build another alternative universe to the Star Trek TV shows, Earth 2 has set a more viewer-friendly course: Understand the basic premise, and you’ll follow it anywhere.
So the premise is this: Two hundred years from now, our Earth has become nearly uninhabitable — too much pollution, not enough air. As a consequence, a generation of people have been raised in cramped, artificial quarters on space stations that circle Earth. This won’t do for Devon Adair, the center of this series, played with sleek authority by Debrah Farentino (Equal Justice, NYPD Blue). Devon decides to lead an expedition to a planet 22 light-years away that is said to have an Earth-like atmosphere, only clean and unspoiled. Space-age pioneers, Devon and her hardy band are enthusiastic, but not all that great as navigators: They crash-land on the planet that they want to colonize, but on the wrong side. Their spaceship in ruins, this group of earthlings sets off on a trek across Earth 2, to attain their goal while inevitably encountering some very strange creatures.
Earth 2 takes pains to make Devon Adair the most completely realized woman to appear in a sci-fi TV show. A single parent, she’s a steely commander, but we are also allowed to see her tender relationship with her young son, Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman), who suffers from the Syndrome, a disease unique to the space station. Farentino is completely believable in her maternal role, but she also gets to wear some very cool sunglasses and bark orders as a leader. The men in Earth 2 are, so far, a bit hazier: Soap opera idol Antonio Sabato Jr. (General Hospital) is a broody copilot who hasn’t exhibited much personality yet. Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption) is an ordinary mechanic who, rather inexplicably, is playing the leadership role that you’d expect Sabato’s character to have. And Sullivan Walker — so good as the father in the underrated, now-vanished sitcom Where I Live — is a half man, half cyborg required to speak stiffly and display no emotion in all-too-obvious homage to Mr. Spock.
Still, Earth 2 is a lot more engrossing than most hour-long adventure shows. Part of its charm is in the contrast between the luminous Farentino — possessor of the finest smile lines in prime time — and the gross-out aliens she encounters. The best of these are the Grendlers, snarly dudes who look like the Swamp Thing crossed with Don Rickles. The Grendlers snort and drool a lot, which gave my kids happy willies. In a highly eccentric, entertaining story arc, Tim Curry appeared as a renegade earthling with such a God complex, he reenacted a communion service with a few kneeling, supplicating Grendlers, offering his blood on a leaf for them to chew. It was creepily irreligious, with imagery a lot dicier than I would have expected on a Sunday night.
Earth 2 knows it’s up against 60 Minutes and is careful to woo viewers who don’t know from Mike Wallace — i.e., children — with subplots involving young Ulysses and the mechanic’s headstrong daughter, True (J. Madison Wright). The best of these story lines thus far involved some genetic samples that, when uncorked, rapidly grew into a horse that True wanted desperately to ride. The trouble was, the Earth 2 atmosphere made it impossible for the horse to stop growing, and so well, catch it in reruns; the girl-and-her-horse theme is a primal, powerful one.
It’s also the sort of theme that may well turn off the hardcore science-fiction fans NBC undoubtedly thought it would be attracting by scheduling Earth 2 before seaQuest DSV. But so far, Earth 2 has actually scored ratings comparable to seaQuest, and, in the shadow of 60 Minutes, has already established itself as one of the more enjoyable family shows on television. B+