As part of my research on colonization stories, a friend recommended Earth 2 to me, claiming it was a better Terra Nova — though I think that was mostly nostalgia talking, on his part. It’s an old 90s scifi show that follows the journey and settlement of a small expeditionary group that travels to an Earth-like planet in an attempt to find a cure to an illness afflicting young, station-born children. I watched the pilot and then read the Wikipedia summaries, and I have to admit that while I liked the first half of the pilot, by the end I had decided not to continue with the series.
I didn’t expect to love it — like the original Spartacus by Kubrik, I was mostly watching this to get a sense of what my genre forebears had done. I think that to be a part of a literary tradition, you need to understand what came before. I would no more write a colonization novel without having at least tried to watch Earth 2 than I would write urban fantasy without tackling Interview with a Vampire. That said, I didn’t hate it, and I did learn a lot.
A Product of its Times
A lot of what makes Earth 2 impressive is very specific to the 90s: it pioneered many things we take for granted. There was very little hand waving: It was one of the first science fiction shows of the era where the characters actually had to come up with non-magical solutions to their problems. When someone got injured, they stayed injured. A female leader and a single dad weren’t characters you saw very commonly back then; Devon Adair predates Captain Janeway.
The Token Black Criminal mostly just made me shake my head and sigh, but I was happy when I read that he later turns out to be just another conscientious rebel. For the era, playing with preconceptions was an important step forward.
I can forgive what looks like racism for the same reason I can forgive Adair for being so unbearably obsessed with her son’s well-being that she was a terrible leader. It’s sexism in retrospect, but in context, she was one of the first female leaders on television. Of course, they softened her drive by attributing it to Mama Bear Instinct. That’s the only time it’s acceptable that a woman be strong, right? For her male child?
The Question of Character
I could look past that stuff and chalk it up to the times, but my real problem was that I only really found one character sympathetic at all, and he was … bland (the mechanic). I liked the Charming Rogue pilot well enough at first, but when he was the one who could communicate with aliens via a dreamscape, I was a little turned off. The government guy was craven, the doctor was weak, the little boy was kind of annoying, and while I liked the little girl at first, she swiftly turned into the token bad decision-maker. The old guy was a violent, selfish jerk with no sense of fairness. The mother grated on my nerves like whoa because while her goals were apparent and admirable, she had nothing else really going for her.
So by the end of the first episode I basically wanted to slap 80% of the cast, and the other two didn’t compel me, I just didn’t outright hate them.
I like characters to be well-rounded, and have flaws, but they need to grip me in some way. I didn’t mind that each of the Earth 2 characters had flawed personalities. In Penny Dreadful — which I really enjoy and am super bummed it got cancelled — all the characters (with the possible exception of the young gunslinger) have deep character flaws that should make them unlikable, but you can still root for them. I wasn’t rooting for anyone in Earth 2 and I think that was its fatal flaw.
I did learn a lot about the importance of a sympathetic character, and had a great time analyzing Earth 2 with my boyfriend, so it definitely wasn’t a waste of time.
What’s the Big Idea?
I thought the premise was compelling, and they absolutely gave the protagonist a strong goal and motivation. I liked how they handled the sentient aliens — and I really liked that they gave more than one group of sentient aliens. I thought they way they handled the government opposition was a little heavy-handed but it was one of the early exemplars of corrupt government interfering with a life-saving operation, and I liked that the first episode “ticking clock” was very front-loaded instead of coming into play for the climax. It was a nice subversion of the norm.
The problem there was that the Earth 2 seemed to rely on subversions a lot, and sometimes it wasn’t as successful. The trouble with a “but wait!” storytelling method that relies on twists is that you have to hook your reader, or in this case viewer, long enough for them to make it to the twist. Earth 2 didn’t do that for me — though I was curious enough to skim the Wikipedia entry, so I suppose that’s something.
But a good premise isn’t enough to carry a whole book. The characters matter a lot, and Earth 2 crystallized that for me.