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HTF DVD Review: Dark Skies: The Declassified Complete Series

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#1 of 2 Todd Erwin

Todd Erwin

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Posted February 08 2011 - 11:34 AM

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Dark Skies: The Declassified Complete Series



Studio: Shout! Factory
US DVD Release Date: January 18, 2011
Original Broadcast Year: 1996-1997
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 900 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo)
Subtitles: None

Movie: 3 out of 5
History as we know it is a lie.

With the success of The X-Files on FOX, NBC greenlit a UFO show of their own in 1996, to be broadcast as part of their Saturday night Thrillogy (The Pretender and Profiler would round out the evening). Created by Bryce Zabel (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and M.A.N.T.I.S.) and Brent V. Friedman (Gemini Division and Valemont), Dark Skies suggests that the Roswell incident in 1947 began a ripple effect that altered history from that point forward, merging alien cover-ups with the Kennedy assassination, introducing American television audiences to a new take on government conspiracies.

The story-arc of this first (and only) season is rather epic, starting in 1961 as John F. Kennedy begins his presidency. Congressional aide John Loengard (Eric Close) and his girlfriend Kim Sayers (Megan Ward) arrive in Washington, D.C., two innocents who are about to stumble onto a secret war being waged between humans and The Hive, a race of parasitical aliens. Loengard is eventually recruited by agency head Frank Bach (J.T. Walsh) to join Majestic-12, a secret government agency tasked with fighting the war and keeping it hidden from the public. The season winds down in 1967 during the Summer of Love with a cliffhanger. Along the way, John and Kim encounter historical events and figures. Many are interesting, such as the investigation into 3 missing (and eventually murdered) Civil Rights workers in Mississippi, the Vietnam War, the Hive using their ability to count cards at Howard Hughes’ Desert Inn casino in Las Vegas to help finance the war, revealing what Jack Ruby said to investigative reporter Dorothy Kilgallen that lead to her apparent suicide, and even an explanation for cow mutilations. But others are a bit of a stretch, such as Jim Morrison (with the help of his movie camera) assisting John and Kim in investigating the death of a friend that leads to a cover-up of The Hive polluting the ocean, using the backdrop of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan to uncover a plot to use subliminal messages in advertising triggered by a Beatles song, and the inclusion of Colin Powell on a covert mission in the Soviet Union. The series also commits one of the biggest sins, the inclusion of a “highlights” episode, using clips from previous episodes to pad a story (episode 12, The Warren Omission).

For a series of this vintage, the visual effects overall are above-average and many hold up rather well today when viewed on a 56-inch display. But CG has come a long way since this show first aired, and it does not help that the effects were rendered on video in standard definition (a typical practice in the day as a way to cut costs). The production values are rather high and are well-maintained throughout the run, with good use of period costumes and set design as well as stock footage.

The casting is a bit of a mixed-bag. Close is good, for the most part, as the once-innocent Loengard, when using his charm and good looks. This was an early role for him, and he does seem a bit stiff at times, and unfortunately his character’s meltdown in Burn, Baby, Burn is almost laughable. Ironically, Close would later play the patriarchal alien in Steven Spielberg’s epic miniseries on UFO’s and government cover-ups, Taken, before finding fame on the CBS series Without A Trace. Megan Ward’s Kim Sayers is almost a thankless role if it weren’t for Kim’s ability to detect Hive operatives. She plays the faithful girlfriend who is along for the ride rather well, but her character’s arc in the later half of the series feels out of place, and I wonder what would have become of the character if the series had continued. The real joy of the series is getting to see two brilliant character actors playing the type of roles they are best known for. The late, great J.T. Walsh, as Frank Bach, and Conor O’Farrell as Majestic’s head of security Lt. Commander Phil Albano, are completely believable as military bureaucrats who will do anything to get the job done, regardless of the cost. Although their characters are somewhat unlikeable, you can understand where they are coming from and agree with some of their actions. It should also be noted that Jeri Ryan was added to the cast for the last eight episodes as a Soviet spy on loan to Majestic, likely to try and boost the sagging ratings. Her presence as Loengard’s partner in the last few episodes lend some credibility to Close’s portrayal. Like Close, she would later find herself on a science-fiction series, Star Trek: Voyager. Finally, an uncredited Gregory Harrison lends a hand as the narrative voice of John Loengard.

In the end, like so many series on network television these days, Dark Skies was a victim of its network’s time slot and impatience to grow an audience. As cable networks matured, the broadcast networks soon discovered that Saturday evenings were a dead zone, and today schedule re-runs of crime dramas, movies, reality programming, and news magazines. Of course, it could also be that the Hive control the Nielsen ratings.....

Video: 2.5 out of 5
Dark Skies is presented on this 6-disc set in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Because the series was posted on standard definition video, there was likely not much that the folks at Shout! Factory could do with the masters they were provided with by Sony Pictures Television. There seems to be a lot analog noise in the picture, and some occasional stuttering, almost like dropped frames. This was noticeable when played back on my 56-inch Toshiba DLP display through a Playstation 3, Panasonic BD-60 Blu-ray player, and Pioneer DV-578A DVD player, as well as my Windows 7 PC through Media Center, and a Toshiba 24-inch TV/DVD combo. Those shots with the stuttering exhibited the same issue when used as clips in the included documentaries, so I attribute that to the master tapes. Colors are consistent, and contrast is acceptable. This is likely about as good as the series is going to look.

Audio: 2.5 out of 5
As with the video, the audio is about what you would expect from a broadcast network prior to the HDTV revolution. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track, encoded at 192 kbps, does its job and nothing more. Dialogue is, for the most part, intelligible, although I did notice some distortion at times, as well as some poor on-set recording that was never cleaned up in post production. The soundstage is front-heavy, with some directional effects used occasionally.

Special Features: 3.5 out of 5
As Shout! Factory often does, they have loaded this boxed set with some interesting bonus material.

Disc One:
Audio Commentary with Bryce Zabel, Brent V. Friedman, Eric Close, and Megan Ward on The Awakening: The series creators and two lead actors discuss the making of the pilot, how influential director Tobe Hooper was to establishing the look for the series, and the differences between this US version of the pilot episode versus the original International Version (included on Disc Six).

Disc Five:
Audio Commentary with Bryce Zabel, Brent V. Friedman, Eric Close, and Megan Ward on Bloodlines: The series creators and two lead actors discuss the story and character arcs of the series, and how Zabel and Friedman tried to use this finale to shop the series to another network and what would have likely happened if they had been picked up for a second season.

Disc Six:
International Pilot (1:32:43): For the curious, the international pilot is included here. Most of the changes were made due to some casting changes in early episodes.

Signal To Noise: Uncovering Dark Skies (54:34): A 3-part retrospective on the making of the series with Bryce Zabel, Brent V. Friedman, Eric Close, and Megan Ward. What is very interesting is how the series was researched and pitched to the three major networks.

The Dark Skies Glossary (23:06): Bryce Zabel and Brent V. Friedman discuss the terminology used in the series.

Original Sales Presentation (3:38): Essentially a trailer for the pilot and eventual series.

Original EPK (3:25): A behind-the-scenes look at the series, produced in 1996. This was obviously taken from an old analogue source, as the video has a lot of noise and the audio has a low hum.

Season Two Proposal (2:51) The other bonus materials in this set infer that this quickly-cut trailer using scenes from season one to tease other networks into possibly picking up the series from NBC. Based on the condition of the video used, this is more likely a recreation.

Network Promos (4:27): A collection of 12 promos used by NBC to promote the series in the months and weeks prior to the debut.

12-page Booklet: Shout! Factory seems to be one of the few studios that still create insert booklets for their DVD and Blu-ray releases. The included booklet contains a replica of the cover letter by John Loengard that accompanied the network pitch, as well as concept artwork and an essay by Bryce Zabel (with blacked out text).

Overall: 3 out of 5
Shout! Factory continues to show how to release cult movies and television shows on DVD with this 6-disc set. Although the audio and video presentation may be lacking due to the source materials available, it is good to see another cult series licensed to an outside studio treated with some respect by involving the creators of the series in preparing this for release. Conspiracy enthusiasts who may have missed the series during its initial run in 1996-1997 will likely enjoy it, and fans of the show (and there are quite a few) will be delighted to own it.



#2 of 2 Adam Gregorich

Adam Gregorich

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Posted February 10 2011 - 07:58 PM

Thanks for the review Todd.  I don't recall watching or even hearing about this when it was on.  I never cared for the X-files, but do like Sci-Fi and history, so I think I might enjoy it.  I'll have to see if I can stumble onto an episode and see if I like it.