Dark Skies is one of the more difficult programmes of the current US season to produce. It may not be set in a galaxy far far away, relying on strange technology and new alien races every week, but unlike Babylon 5 or Star Trek: Voyager, Dark Skies has little in the way of permanent sets and must find new locations each week to shot in as substitutes for different locales -along with duplicating the fashions and artefacts of American popular culture in the Sixties.
The only permanent sets to be found at the production offices are the dark and rather barren precincts of Majestic, consisting primarily of a large conference room with a circular red table backed by glass windows and old fashioned venetian blinds. Beyond the windows are the nondescript rooms that appear as labs and filing areas at Frank Bach's secret organization.
The rest of the odyssey of John Loengard and Kimberly Sayers has the actors and crew scramble to different parts of Greater Los Angeles for each episode. Since this must stand in for everywhere from New York City to rural Mississippi, there are the attendant problems of concealing inappropriate background features, not to mention constantly transporting lights, cameras, costumes and other equipment.
"From a visual standpoint, we spend a great deal of time researching the episodes," says Greg Melton, the series production designer. This particular week was relatively easy, because John and Kimberly are supposed to be visiting old friends in 1964 Los Angeles surfing culture settings. "Usually we are trying to replicate New Mexico or New York, which just adds to the problems in addition to getting the period right. This is truly a road show."
The biggest problem Melton has is getting locations that are "containable and controllable". That means getting them to look right without getting into redecorating three blocks of Pico Boulevard. "On a TV schedule this gets very difficult to do, and very cost prohibitive," according to Melton. And it is a challenge new to him, since the current episode, The Last Wave, is just his third since joining the staff.
In his first story he had to look at eleven different houses before finding something suitable to serve as the Sayers family home in Denver. This can turn into a surprising amount of work when it comes to having to conceal modern appliances like microwave ovens and modernistic light fixtures.
The more obvious period aspects -like clothing and automobiles- are actually relatively easy to arrange given that this is the headquarters of the film industry. "Our costume designer, Darryl Levine, is able to obtain most of that, but sometimes he will need some reference or we will need to design something special."
When it comes to transportation there are experts available. Tell them the era and they will know what models came out when. "The cars are probably our strongest visual element when it comes to selling the period. It's amazing what happens when you clear off the street of modern cars and pull in the period cars -it's 50% there already."
It all has to be organised quickly, because Melton usually doesn't get the requirements for a script more than eight days before shooting must begin. "Occasionally a few scenes have so much effects work, and so little outside referent that we build something here and shoot it. For the last episode, set in the Mississippi delta, they find these alien plants growing in a basement. Real basements are almost impossible to shoot in -you can't get the lights and equipment down there. Unshootable interiors we will build here. That one had effects in it, there was a shootout in it- we had to do those scenes here."
Since his previous job was working on Tales From The Crypt for HBO, and then a new spinoff series called Perversions Of Science, the pressure is quite different. Those series are almost entirely shot on soundstages. "One of the biggest transitions for me is that I now spend probably two and a half days in a week driving around in a van just scouting locations."
Speaking of which, today's work is at Hollywood Cemetery, an old establishment from the early glory period of the silver screen that is now squeezed between Paramount Studios lot and an Hispanic business zone. The Dark Skies movable feast has virtually commandeered the whole place, including the very atmospheric mortuary itself. Unfortunately, most of the shooting is going on outside, where Megan Ward must confront a rather strange young man dressed all in black who has been filming Kimberly Sayers' movements with a hand-held camera. This will turn out to be a pre-Doors Jim Morrison, who is a Nietzsche-spouting film school misfit at this moment in 1964.
The day is overcast and cold by Los Angeles standards, barely wobbling to a high of 60. Ward dives back into a heavy coat and sports gloves between takes, while the crew stand around layered in sweatsuits, leather jackets and ski caps, as though expecting a blizzard to break out momentarily. The only place to sit besides two chairs for the actors are tombstones and marble benches until we can go inside the mortuary for a key scene revealing that a dead friend's body has been mysteriously taken away.
But first, Ward must film scenes driving the car of the week -a huge Chevrolet convertible that doesn't like the temperature any more than the crew and it keeps stalling out, while a black hued crowd of extras pretending to be mourners keep going through their motions in the background, like a flock of choreographed crows.
Finally, we are able to sit for a chat in the chapel while the technicians set up in the rotunda. Megan is newly married in real life and enjoying graduating from playing more girlish roles to a character her own age who becomes a reluctant action heroine after surviving being implanted with an alien ganglion. But the location work is tiring.
"It helps dramatically, and it is so interesting to discover all these places, but it is so impractical. Were always fighting to catch the right light, sometimes you have to drive far away, so it's just not practical. It makes for eight very long days for each episode. Our lives are totally at the disposal of Dark Skies, because you cannot schedule anything else with confidence. Something may happen and you'll have to come in to make up for something that didn't turn out right. So it is a very ambitious show in that sense."
Ward co-starred with Kristen Cloke in the short lived series Winnetka Road, before Cloke became a fan favourite in Space: Above And Beyond, and she knows that comparisons with Gillian Anderson are almost inevitable now for any actress cast in a series dealing with aliens, but she has her own reasons for signing on as Kimberly.
"The pilot gave me a chance to that strong, independent thinking young woman. To portray a woman of the Sixties is very fascinating and, because the show is so complex, I knew I'd be challenged on many levels. There aren't that many parts that come around for woman that are like that."
Indeed, her character probably goes through more changes in the early episodes of Dark Skies than does Eric Close's role as John Loengard. Kimberly starts out as a somewhat liberated woman by the standards of 1962, but she goes from being thrilled to work in Jackie Kennedy's press office to totting a gun and tracking down agents of the Hive.
"Kimberly starts out wanting to find out who she is, challenging the boundaries and refusing to get married, then she gets victimized and sucked into this whole world. She didn't really volunteer for it -she didn't have a choice. She has to draw on that strength and use it to become this hero."
"On the other hand, emotionally, she wants what she rejected before: she wants to get married, she wants to have a family and she doesn't want to live this life any more. The tables have completely turned on her. She wishes now that she could just have her mother's life, but she can't and she can never turn back."
So Kimberly is not just Mary Tyler Moore armed with a .38 Special. "Want happens to her is really tragic, but I think there is an adventurous side to Kimberly that allows her to continue to participate in these events. She has to be a bit of a daredevil at heart, because if she isn't, the world's going to end. It's always a balance making these character qualities real and believable, then relating them to the situations and how they can change the future."
That longing for a normalcy that's no longer possible may surface most in the episode Inhuman Nature, when Kimberly fights to save a child nurtured inside a cow by alien technology. That willingness to form an unlikely family "shows that they have become somewhat accustomed to the odd and the strange," says Ward. "I think it is in Kim's character to believe the child is not alien and to look for its purity. It's indicative of their compassion. They want to save the world one person at a time."
Eventually, both John and Kimberly have bittersweet encounters with their own families, who, understandably, have a difficult time accepting the peculiar lives they are living. "For both of them, we learn we can never go home again, as much as we may think we can shield our loved ones from knowing the truth. It is a slow process of people becoming individually volunteers in the resistance."
This process of more and more people being affected and making a choice is part of the series' overall conception. They form a corps of those who have experienced the truth and survived it. More will also be done with the idea that Kim retains a vestigial connection to the Hive which gives her intimations and clues to what they are saying or doing. "We learn that when two Hivers are communicating telepathically, I have a buzzing sensation, because of a latent tendril left inside my brain," says Ward, "Even though I can't hear what they are saying."
Ward has some ideas about where she'd like to be heading. "The writers have slowly made Kimberly stronger and stronger, and I like that because she would never have known how to behave this way. As long as she continues to progress, to be challenged each week, I'll be happy."
"But I wouldn't mind seeing them do really wild, crazy things. Instead of a persistent problem-solving couple, take them up into the ship, to really influence history instead of being victims of history and circumstance. They don't really tell me too much, but as long as I have something active to do, and it's a natural progress of human behaviour. I think she's become a bit angry at this life they have to live."