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The Times Union (Albany, Ny)
November 3, 1994, Thursday, Three Star Edition: Accent, Pg. 1

Wagon Train' In Space

By Jay Bobbin

Its arrival is a bit overdue, but the last fall series to make its debut intends to take science fiction to a new place, literally.

Starting with a two-hour premiere Sunday, NBC's futuristic adventure "Earth 2" from Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment firm, which also turns out the show that normally will follow it, "seaQuest DSV" focuses on a certain handful of people among the many residents of an enormous space station,forced to live there 200 years from now, after the depletion of Earth's resources have made the planet uninhabitable.

Led by a woman (played by Debrah Farentino, seen last season on "NYPD Blue") whose physically challenged son (Joey Zimmerman) can't survive in the station's sterility, the small group secretly sets out on a trek to a distant planet that could serve as a new home for mankind.

Among the others on the journey are a hot-shot pilot ("General Hospital'' alumnus Antonio Sabato Jr.), a master mechanic (Clancy Brown) and his daughter (J. Madison Wright), a scientist (Jessica Steen, formerly of "Homefront"), a wise cyborg (Sullivan Walker, previously of "Where I Live") and a duplicitous government representative (John Gegenhuber) somewhat reminiscent of the Dr. Smith character on "Lost in Space."

Once the travelers reach their destination, though, they find a variety of unexpected perils that may prevent them from fulfilling their self-appointed mission; among the dangers are those posed by alien creatures, which have been designed by Oscar-winning effects master Greg Cannom ("Bram Stoker's Dracula").

"One of the elements of this that we think is kind of fun," says co-executive producer and co-creator Carol Flint ("China Beach"), "is that even though (the central characters) think they're stuck with very little, what to them is old-fashioned looks pretty cool to us. When they are bemoaning the fact that they have these crummy old solar-powered vehicles, we've never seen anything like them before. Things that our audience knows about today will all be very new to the characters, and what to them is very standard will be the unknown to our audience."

An implication of the premise of "Earth 2" is that present-day environmental warnings were not heeded, but fellow creator and executive producer Mark Levin ("The Wonder Years") maintains, "We're more interested in entertaining than sending messages. We really want the stories to come from the conflict between our characters and their emotional lives, but the message will be there; it's in the subtext that Earth was soiled, but we're not going to reiterate that from week to week and do a story that elucidates that."

That notion will be conveyed in part by the relatively barren setting of the show, which actually is New Mexico, which Levin considers an ideal location "because of the scale of the environment there, because of its proximity to Los Angeles, and because of the weather. Everything there was suited to our vision of the show."

That site also suits Farentino, who muses that "Being out in this environment, it sure beats pantyhose in a courtroom," a reference to her past role on the series "Equal Justice" as a lawyer.

"Driving to the set one day, I saw a thunderstorm to the left and blue sky to the right. For us as actors, this has been just extraordinary. It's so character-driven. This is one of the few projects where you take a woman with a child and see her growth, and through a wonderful adventure. We begin in a certain place and immediately, within the first act, land somewhere else and are thrown into this new environment."

Though "Earth 2" would seem an appropriate companion piece for "seaQuest" in NBC's Sunday lineup, another of its principal creative forces "Law & Order" alumnus Michael Duggan asserts that it wasn't a network mandate to have the new series be that.

"This was an in-house Amblin idea that was really a one-sentence pitch: 'What would it be like if we had a show that revolved around a 'Wagon Train'-type story on another planet?"

With that, co-star Brown adds that the keynote of the "Earth 2" saga is "simply survival, much like it was in the settling of America, and that brings with it a lot of moral problems and ethical issues. That reduces it to a real visceral level, and that's really what I like."