When I was in junior high, I spent my Saturday nights (or was it Friday? Junior high was a long time ago) watching an odd little sci-fi show called Earth 2. I came across it accidentally while browsing through Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” options a few months back, and out of nostalgia, I decided to give it a try. It has aged surprisingly well, unlike some of the other shows I’ve revisited through the power of Netflix. (I’m looking at you, Seaquest DSV.) Here’s a little recap for those of you who’ve never heard of it or have sadly forgotten its existence.
The Show: Earth 2 was an hour-long science fiction drama that ran from 1994-1995 on NBC, starring Debrah Farentino and the dreamily-voiced Clancy Brown, although at the time, all the girls were hot for Antonio Sabato, Jr. The first half of the season was wildly popular, but viewership dropped off dramatically after the hiatus. It was cancelled, leaving loyal viewers stuck with one of the worst series ending cliffhangers this side of… well, I’m hard pressed to think of anything worse. I won’t spoil the details, but prepare yourself for either disappointment or a lot of fanfiction. To add insult to injury, the network had two unaired episodes from earlier in the series that it decided to run out of order after the series finale, without any explanation. (More on that later.) Suffice to say, fans were furious.
The Premise: Around two centuries in the future, mankind has pretty much destroyed the earth. All but a few miners and other poor, unconnected people live in giant space stations orbiting the planet. One of the latest generations of children who have been born and raised only on the station developed an incurable, degenerative autoimmune disease called only The Syndrome, that doctors and scientists attribute to something nebulous like “lack of fresh air and sunshine.” (My father would be amused. He was always telling me to go outside and blow the stink off.) An expedition is put together to investigate and colonize Planet G889, an apparently uninhabited earth-like planet many light years away – The Eden Project. (Hence, Earth 2.)
Due to some shenanigans that I won’t spoil for you, the first ship destined for G889 crashes, and the show follows a small but diverse band of survivors from the advance team. These include the head of the research team and her son, who has The Syndrome, along with the pilot and rank and file crew members who were contracted out of the mission and folks in between, all with varying socioeconomic levels and personal backgrounds. They are left to negotiate this new planet and its strange days, landscape, and native flora and fauna as they attempt to travel from the crash site to the site of New Pacifica, where a later ship was supposed to join them a year later. Strange and interesting things happen on their journey, including an ongoing story arc with the native Terrians, their relationship with the land, and their/the planet’s miraculous ability to heal The Syndrome in the young boy.
Why You Should Watch Earth 2: The premise of the show should be enough of a hook to get you to add this to your Instant Queue right now! At least, it’s a plenty interesting enough story for sci fi enthusiasts like me. But if sci fi is not usually your cup of tea, there are a few other reasons you should consider exploring this show. First, Earth 2 was the first science fiction television series to feature a woman in the position of commander. That’s right. Not one of the myriad incarnations of Star Trek or any of the hundreds of more popular sci fi shows to have been on the air over the past sixty years, but Devon Adair – a character in some one-season, mostly forgotten blip on the radar of a show – broke that glass ceiling. She does a pretty good job of working with the members of her team under some truly difficult circumstances. It would be easy to give up, given the situation, but she never loses sight of the primary goal of getting to New Pacifica. She works extraordinarily hard to run the operation like a true team, taking the other survivors’ suggestions under consideration and encouraging their contributions and strengths as individuals. But at the end of the day, she is still commander, she also exercises some skill in laying down the law when necessary. This is something I didn’t really when I watched it as a kid, but the show’s portrayal of a woman not just in charge, but competent in her position is something rare on television even now. My husband and I are currently working our way through Stargate Atlantis, and I am confident that you wouldn’t have Elizabeth Weir without Devon Adair coming before her in Earth 2.
On the whole, this show has really strong female roles. The team’s doctor is Julia Heller, a young woman barely out of training who steps up to challenge in keeping the team as healthy and safe as possible in pretty dangerous circumstances. She is brilliant (although, she reminds us that she’s been genetically engineered to be so) and manages to develop remedies and solutions to serious illness, injury, and accidental poisoning in-the-field without an adequate lab or resources. Surprisingly, one of my favorite characters this time around was Bess Martin. Bess grew up on the surface of Earth as the daughter of a miner, but she married well above her standing to the mostly selfish low-level government employee Morgan Martin. When I watched the show as a kid, I mostly noticed her ambitious side and disliked her by association because of her whiny husband. But having lived on a planet, Bess proved to be a real asset to the team, and there’s a lot more going on under the surface than I was able to catch as a twelve-year-old. The series as a whole is quite egalitarian in its treatment of gender roles and the expectations of the survivors and their contributions to the team.
Beyond the neat little footnote about the commander and other strong women, the show tackled a lot of complicated social and political issues over its 21-episode run. In one episode, the team deals with the ethics of abandoning a fellow team member because of a traitorous act, taking the subject of in-group trust and ethical punishments head on. In another, a small scouting team is stranded far from camp and runs out of food; they have to deal with the decision of whether or not to eat a creature they know to have higher intelligence. In another, Dr. Heller grapples with the ethics of performing experimental medical procedures on a child. In several instances, they encounter the remnants of what was once a penal colony on G889 and are confronted again with questions of trust and punishment, as well as indirectly with what happens when you drop dozens of violent criminals on a planet far from home and let them loose on each other. Over and over, the Eden team must come to terms with the native population and their impact as non-native species on the lives habitat of those species. Some of it is a little heavy-handed, but more often than not, these weighty matters are very well-integrated into the story.
Notes: In the DVD and on Netflix’s watch instantly run, the two final episodes are placed out of order. You’d think after the uproar following airing them that way, NBC and Universal would at least fix it for the DVD release, but no. If you decide to pick up the series, I’d recommend watching them in the proper order. Depending on whether you consider the pilot as one episode or two, there are either 21 or 22 episodes in the season. For ease of this explanation, let’s say it’s 21, since parts 1 & 2 of the pilot were originally aired together as a two-hour block. Episode 20, Natural Born Grendlers, belongs somewhere early in the series. I probably would have slipped it in some time after 5 (A Memory Play). It definitely comes before 12 & 13 (Better Living Through Morganite, Parts 1 & 2). I’m not sure why they held off on showing it, as it’s a nice bit of character development for Bess. Episode 21, Flower Child, comes pretty late in the series timeline-wise, around the winter thaw. I’d probably put stick it in between 18 (Survival of the Fittest) and 19 (All About Eve). It’s certainly anticlimactic and doesn’t make sense in the timeline as the last episode watched, though! PS, for the Tim Curry fans, he’s in a four episode arch early in the series. I had completely forgotten about that!