Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: Earth: Final Conflict -- Clearing Gene Roddenbery's Table Scraps

The first-run syndication boom of the 1990s was a direct result of Paramount's twin Star Trek successes, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, which led to a whole host of syndicated hourlongs bombarding local stations to capture just a small piece of that mojo. By the late '90s, producers were turning to unfinished ideas that had been left behind by late Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, in hopes that his posthumous imprimatur would be enough to add a veneer of credibility. That's the landscape that birthed Earth: Final Conflict, based on a concept developed Roddenberry during the '70s, but which didn't make it to air until fall of '97.

Beginning life under the title "Battleground Earth" (eventually changed due to the similarities with L. Ron Hubbard's crap-tastic book Battlefield Earth -- later a crap-tastic movie), the premise of the skein, which got back-burnered thanks to Trek's big screen rebirth in the late '70s, was to chronicle the arrival of a sophisticated alien race on Earth, with a cast of human characters soon realizing these seemingly benevolent "Companions" aren't quite what they seemed. If that sounds familiar, it's probably because between Roddenberry dreaming up the idea and the finished product actually airing, Kenneth Johnson basically did that story in his V miniseries, with its fascistic "Visitors," on NBC in 1983.

Canadian-basesed Alliance Atlantis acquired the concept from Roddenberry's widow, the late Majel Barrett (who would appear in a recurring role), gave it a new title, and brought all the verve and passion you'd expect from low-budget syndicated TV. The amazing thing about Earth: Final Conflict, given the swamp of lowered expectations from which it emerged, is that it actually started out pretty strong. There were some compelling stories looking at the impact of an alien presence on Earth, and a likable leading man in Kevin Kilmer, as William Boone, special protector for the alien Taelons who's secretly working to uncover their hidden agenda. Here's the intro for the first season:

Love that theme music. Anyway, so that was the first year. Not necessarily groundbreaking, but pretty worthwhile in its own way. And then, the bottom fell out. I don't have any knowledge of the behind-the-scenes situation at the series, but for whatever reason they up and killed off Kilner's Boone at the end of the first year. The start of year two introduced a new lead, Liam Kincaid (played by actor Robert Leeshock), who was a human-alien hybrid trying to find the secret of his identity while also helping the resistance. But oh, just in case you got used to that status quo, they shuffled Liam off the board before long as well. Here's the second year's set-up:

And so it went over the show's entire inexplicable five season run. They kept moving characters, concepts, and even the core premise, in and out of play, presumably because Roddenberry's chicken scratch could only get them so far, and by the end you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who cared. I know I'd stopped watching looooong before it choked and gasped its way to a close in May 2002. As I recall, they even roped in Kilner again to revive his character for a few eps in the final season, but by then it was a whole lot of "whatever." I didn't even know when the show ended, and I have no idea if they wrapped things up, but here's the intro for the final year:

Now, Earth: Final Conflict lasted 110 episodes over five seasons, so it's hardly a failure in terms of raw numbers. But with the exception of the pretty-good first season, it was nothing short of a disaster, with a meandering, disjointed "arc" that had neither the consistency nor the creativity to make us squint hard enough to make the acting, effects, and production design any less lackluster. Nonetheless, it did well enough in the ratings to warrant another post-mortem Roddenberry syndie series, Andromeda, and I'm sure I'll have plenty to say about that one of these days. In the meantime, you can pick up the first season of Earth for next to nothing on Amazon. I recommend checking it out. And stopping there.

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