1995 was a major turning point in my association with pop culture. It was the year my family first got satellite TV, and while this meant I finally had access to television besides three channels of varying degrees of snow for the first time ever, it also meant the end of my association with Star Trek for five years.
I’ve of course told this story a lot, but it bears repeating one more time. In the 80s and early 90s, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had an unusual direct-to-syndication deal, whereby they would be included as first-run series as part of a syndication package local affiliates of the major national networks could bid on to fill gaps in their programming schedule, which would otherwise include stuff like game shows or reruns of popular series from past decades. For those outside of the US, in this country our national networks have local regional partners for every municipal area, and while they all get the network’s primetime shows, stuff like local news and weather will be different station to station. Back in those days the syndicated shows were different too, which could lead to weird things, like, say Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine competing with each other (and sometimes even reruns of each other) because two different local affiliates for two different networks decided to air them both in the same timeslot. It…wasn’t always the best system, let’s say.
But even though I only had three channels, it never bothered me. I’ve never been a huge TV person (partly because of this), so I didn’t care. I had PBS, cartoon shows and Star Trek. What more could I possibly want? But all that changed in 1995 with our shiny new satellite dish. And while it was certainly exciting to have so many new channels to explore, it came with a serious price. In the mid-90s, the satellite provider my family used didn’t offer local channels, instead providing a generic national version of PBS and the networks with no regional content whatsoever. This included syndication, so that was the abrupt end of my association with Star Trek on television, I thought forever (while Star Trek Voyager was sold as an exclusive to UPN, Paramount’s ill-advised attempt to make a network to compete with ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, UPN wasn’t included in our satellite package either until Voyager had ended. In fact, we didn’t get UPN until midway through Enterprise‘s first season).
This also means that 1995 is where I drop out of Vaka Rangi’s narrative, effectively for good. I’ll pop by to check in on Star Trek every so often over the next half-decade (usually with a somewhat baffled and concerned expression on my face) and it will always be something I default to saying I broadly like, but my fever for adventure At the Edge of the Final Frontier will be nowhere near this intense again. My passion will briefly return to flashpoint levels once TNN picks up Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns in 2000 and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine DVD box sets are announced three years later, but I’ve already talked a lot about that in the Next Generation section. I’ll also have an Indian Summer romance period of sorts with Enterprise‘s first few seasons, and then the 2009 movie will kickstart a period of nostalgic self-reflection and contemplation that will eventually lead me, well, to Vaka Rangi and Eruditorum Press. But here in 1995, that all may as well be a lifetime away. From this point on, my interests will take me elsewhere.
But I won’t leave without sharing one last examined memory with you. I want to show you where I went after Star Trek.
Upon getting my shiny new satellite dish, the places I gravitated to first were Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and The Discovery Channel. Cartoon Network helped foster my love of animation and animation history (a project unto itself), and Nickelodeon was fun because I got to see what youth culture out in the real world was like (this was back before Nickelodeon made cartoons) but The Discovery Channel was great because it was the first time I had ’round-the-clock access to documentary nonfiction. I absolutely ate that up, and the kinds of shows I watched there are still the shows I prefer to watch if given the opportunity today (also, we were speaking earlier about Multimedia CD-ROMs and I can’t tell you how many Discovery Channel-branded interactive CD-ROM suites I had. None of them worked properly, of course). Though I liked the history and archaeology programmes (remember, I had long been a fan of Robert Ballard’s oceanography work), my absolute favourites were the nature documentaries. Perhaps it’s because of where I grew up, but the natural world has always been one of my oldest loves and it’s something I try to be mindful of every day. The quiet, informative and relaxing tone of those old documentaries were really compelling to me not just as educational tools, but as media sensory experiences.
But alongside all these new documentaries and cartoons I was watching, I also naturally saw a lot of commercials. There were commercials of all sorts, of course, but some of the earliest ones I remember seeing in crystal clarity on my 80s CRT thanks to my satellite service were for movies coming out in the summer of 1995. And they were certainly a weird bunch: There was Outbreak, a movie about the CDC fighting a pandemic that I think involved brushfires and was an action movie for some reason, the third Die Hard movie (I hadn’t seen either of the first two), Unzipped, an…unexpected documentary about supermodels and the fashion industry, Congo, a movie based on one of Michael Crichton’s earliest works that, in hindsight, was made probably just to compete with Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park movie (which I had seen, or was at least well aware of thanks to my interest in paleontology) Judge Dredd (which Eruditorum Press readers most assuredly know more about than I do) and Batman Forever (I’ve already written about my history with the two Tim Burton Batman movies, and you can say what you will about the two Joel Schumacher ones, but I’ll tell you what: The trailer for this one at least was a trip and a half at the time). And then there was Species.
Of all the movies that came out that summer, only one truly managed to capture my imagination, and that was Species. I recognised Batman, of course, and I was interested in Congo because it was about an African rainforest and gorillas and had a female lead and that seemed cool, but Species was what I was really interested in and Species was what I wanted more than anything: That film absolutely lodged itself in my psyche from the trailer alone and it’s never really left. Perhaps you’re familiar with Species and its…reputation, and, if so, I’ll let you decide for yourselves what you think that says about me. But at the time I thought Species was simply mesmerizing: I could tell from the commercial it was science fiction, and since the only science fiction I really knew in 1995 was Star Trek and perhaps the odd video game, Species was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The title and the trailer both evoked zoological and natural history themes, and, given what I was getting more into in 1995, that definitely caught my attention. And then of course, there was everything else about it.
I want to handle this as delicately as possible without implicating myself in any direction, but it’s impossible to talk about Species without talking about sex and sexuality. And believe me, we’ll get to the meat of that in due time. To start with, I’ll just say I definitely noticed the sex (as profoundly unsexy as that first trailer is in a lot of ways: It tries to sell the movie as a 90s thriller on par with everything else that came out that summer, which it is. Sometimes.) and that was certainly part of the reason I was so interested in the movie, but not for the reasons you probably think I was. In spite of its reputation, most of what’s sexy about Species is actually what it doesn’t show and conveys only through implication: It leaves the bulk of that kind of stuff to your imagination, and I maintain the movie is generally speaking more nuanced and subtle then it gets credit for being. I suppose I intuited the sexual themes in Species the same way I did Jadzia Dax’s sexuality in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and was subconsciously drawn to it that way.
Species also had a truly formidable-looking female lead, and I’m not talking about Marg Helgenberger.
I can’t remember if I saw Species that summer or not (I can’t see how I would have): It *might* have been one of the rare movies we got second run at our little village cinema, back when we still had one, but I’m sure I would never have dared go see it even if we did. Even then I knew this was something I probably wasn’t “supposed” to like as much as I was starting to think I probably did. Most of my understanding of Species at the time was derived from watching the trailer whenever it showed up during commercial breaks and making educated guesses about what kind of movie it was and what it was trying to say based on what little information I had. And that commercial really was the bulk of what I had: I wasn’t getting science fiction magazines anymore at this point, and even though Species was the big tentpole sci-fi movie of 1995 and was heavily profiled in all of them, I never knew that until years later long after I got the Internet, mostly doing research for this project, in fact.
Either way, for better or for worse, this where my interest in science fiction led me for the next several years. With no new Star Trek to watch, it turned out to be Species that more or less defined how I viewed science fiction and my experience with the genre from 1995-2001. It kind of became a closet fandom of sorts for me. In fact, Species was so influential on my critical development that it shaped how I reread Star Trek after I went back to it. It’s more a topic for the sequel (which I will not be covering) because it came out the same year, but remember that Star Trek Phase II book Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens wrote? You know, the one that had the complete original script for “The Child” included as an Appendix? Yeah, that came out the same year as Species II. I was *absolutely* comparing and contrasting those two, and they sort of…cross-pollinated each other in my mind. Over the years, I would occasionally catch glimpses of Species and its sequels on the Sci-Fi Channel where they would show up as weekend shlock features every so often, always with more than a slight twinge of embarrassment at having done so. But it wasn’t until much later that I actually got to watch the movie all the way through from a critical perspective and fairly evaluate what it did and didn’t do: I knew Species was going to have to be a major milestone for Vaka Rangi from the very beginning, and thankfully, it’s really not bad. Wonky and full of plot holes, but not bad.
As some of you may know, Species is very intimately connected to the Alien series. Some would call it a spiritual successor to the original Alien, others would call it a shameless ripoff. Which of the two it is I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves. I personally think it’s a little bit of both. In fact, knowing I was absolutely going to have to cover Species once I hit 1995 is the reason why I even bothered to look at Alien and Aliens as part of Vaka Rangi in the first place, even before I remembered the Tasha Yar-Private Vasquez connection, because to really understand what this movie is doing (or trying to do), you need that context. If you’ll recall, the big thing that was special about the original Alien (and significantly less so its sequels) is that it was a sexual horror movie: It takes Western culture’s hangups about sex, as well as its patriarchal oppression, and throws all that back at it in the form of a lumbering penis monster. It *literally* shoves it back down its throat. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon said his primary goal was “to make the men in the audience uncomfortable”: Alien is a movie that shows how monstrous rape culture is by turning rape culture into a monster.
And Species is a sexual horror movie too, just like Alien. In fact, I’d argue it’s more one than any of the Alien sequels or franchise films and comes the closest of any of them to being a true follow up to what that first movie achieved. Species had a very painful and difficult birth, even by Hollywood standards, and some of this does blunt its effectiveness: It has a tendency to be laughably incoherent at points and it does basically go off the rails spectacularly in its final act, but when it’s good it’s really good and gets at some truly compelling ideas. The cornerstone of the whole film is Sil, played first by a young, pre-Dawson’s Creek Michelle Williams, and then by Canadian model-turned-genre queen Natasha Henstridge, in her debut performance. Sil is the result of a covert government experiment to genetically engineer a new life-form out of human and alien DNA (no, not that kind, but you wouldn’t be too far off in thinking so). Her handlers get cold feet though, and decide to “terminate the experiment” (read: gas her) at the start of the movie. Needless to say, Sil doesn’t take that well and breaks out, going on the lam to survive and setting off a nationwide manhunt.