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BENIGN OPPRESSOR: Taelon representative Da'an is the friendly face of occupation on 'Earth: Final Conflict.'

Aliens Bearing Gifts

What would we do if the invaders came? Gene Roddenberry's series 'Earth: Final Conflict' explores resistance and collaboration.

By Michael S. Gant

WITH THE arrival of the new Star Trek movie, the half-life of creator Gene Roddenberry's ideas is approaching 20 years. Thanks to his heirs and fans, Roddenberry hardly seems gone, even though he passed away in 1991. A man with a fertile, sky-sweeping imagination, Roddenberry left us more than Kirk and company. His casual jottings, shepherded by widow Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, resulted in two TV shows: Andromeda and Earth: Final Conflict.

Andromeda starred Kevin Sorbo—enough said. But Earth: Final Conflict, which ran on the Sci-Fi channel for five years, from 1997 to 2002, was a cut above: cheesy in production values, risible in its dialogue but thought-provoking in its extended story arc. In short, not exactly Battlestar Galactica but a damn sight better than First Wave, Farscape or (shudder) Tripping the Rift. After a frustrating absence from reruns and DVD, Season One was released this week on a five-disc set from Universal.

The premise is laid out with admirable concision: "Three years ago they came, forever altering the future of humanity." In the nearest of futures, the aliens have come to us, instead of waiting for the Enterprise to go to them. Call it a pre-emptive strike.

The extraterrestrials, known as Taelons, consist of pure energy but can manifest themselves in androgynous human shape, albeit with bulgy, veined bald heads, Spockian ear extensions and well-stuffed purple jumpsuits. Indeed, they look a bit like Teletubbies. Cuddly and nonthreatening, they arrive bearing great technological gifts that can heal the sick, end all wars and even eliminate annoying air travel with instantaneous teleportation.

Their media-genic representative is soothing Da'an (Leni Parker), who extends his/her long fingers in a Buddha-like gesture and plays Mr. Rogers to the cranky Zo'or (Anita LaSelva), a kind of outer-space Dick Cheney (come to think it, maybe the ex-veep really was an alien).

Dubbed the "Companions," these apparently benign invaders fascinate, and divide, the people of Earth. The government signs on to the Taelon agenda; it's the best stimulus package ever. But there are doubters, among them police commander William Boone (Kevin Kilner), military agent Lili Marquette (Lisa Howard) and billionaire Jonathan Doors (David Hemblen), who assemble as an underground resistance movement seeking to penetrate the Taelons' real purpose for showing up on our doorstep unannounced.

The show distinguishes itself by allowing for a very murky set of hidden and cross purposes among its leads. Boone has taken a job as a Companion Protector, the better to infiltrate their headquarters. But that job includes being injected with a Cyber-Viral Implant, which subtly changes brain chemistry and function. (The position also includes a nasty bioweapon called a Skrill that attaches to the forearm like a giant earwig with a grudge.) Boone's fellow protector is Ronald Sandoval (Von Flores), who appears at first to be a prototypical Quisling, more than eager to do the Taelons' bidding, but who harbors his own secret motives. Boone himself often clashes with the hard-line approach of the resistance.

As Battlestar Galactica brilliantly proved in its episodes on the Cylon-run New Caprica, occupying powers (analogy alert: the United States in Iraq) will never be happily accepted. Public-approval ratings waver as the Taelons begin to show their true colors with hidden experiments on humans, dangerous viruses unleashed on Earth and increasingly high-handed behavior.

The Taelons themselves, despite their connection to a "commonality," often pursue personal gain. Da'an favors an equal-footing relationship with the Earthlings, while Zo'or considers them pawns in a larger game of species survival. Ultimately, the answer lies in some kind of evolutionary merging.

In the best sequences, Da'an and Zo'or display a lot of the same instincts for backbiting and petty bickering as their supposedly inferior humans. Zo'or continually undercuts Da'an initiatives in a game of office politics that looks straight out of a Dilbert cartoon. Scoring a minor organizational-chart victory at a synod meeting, Zo'or flashes a smug grin, while Da'an, meekly acquiescing, seethes just beneath the surface (we can tell from the ways crackling blue electric lines spark across his forehead, as if a migraine were on its way).

I don't want to oversell the series. The acting can sink to the lower rungs of syndicated hell—Barrett-Roddenberry is especially stiff as a doctor. The dialogue traffics in inanity: "What did you do after the tentacle grabbed your face?" Kilner's head exceeds in size even that of Jay Leno's; Howard's Lili sports a Louise Brooks bob framing perpetually pursed chipmunk lips. The best one can say is that William Shatner's thespian legacy lives on.

Despite its gimcrack special-effects, acting and production values, Earth: Final Conflict really does raise some fascinating questions about what we would do on that day when Arthur C. Clarke's third law comes true and a significantly advanced civilization drops from the skies and presents us with magical answers to all our problems. Would we throw rose petals in their path, even while suspecting that they might just be fattening us up for the slaughter? Would we mount a successful resistance movement? And how far would we go to fight back?

EARTH: FINAL CONFLICT; five discs; Universal Studios; $39.98

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