1988 Sci-Fi Miniseries SOMETHING IS OUT THERE Lands on getTV
Did you grow up watching 1950s and ‘60s sci-fi movies? If you did – either in their original run or on TV years later – three things are probably true: you have great taste; you like giant bugs; and you’ll enjoy Something Is Out There.
Originally broadcast on NBC over two nights in May of 1988, Something Is Out There was a rarity for its time: a lavishly produced science fiction thriller made for primetime television. Thrills and chills were a staple of made-for-TV movies during the 1970s and ‘80s, but most telefilm directors had to be creative on limited means. With a budget equivalent to $16 million in today’s dollars, Something Is Out There pulled out all the stops, attracting prestigious behind-the-scenes talent that would make any genre fan weep with joy.
If you’re going to make a movie called Something Is Out There, you should probably start with the Something. Here it’s a shape-shifting “xenomorph” pursued by an extra-terrestrial scientist (Maryam d’Abo) and a human cop (Joseph Cortese). To create the practical, non-computer-generated monster, producers Frank Lupo and John Ashley chose Rick Baker, a makeup artist who’s earned more Oscar nominations than any other. For special visual effects they tapped John Dykstra, one of George Lucas’s collaborators in the formation of Industrial Light & Magic. And, as if the creature guy from An American Werewolf In London and the effects guy from Star Wars weren’t enough, the miniseries is written by Battlestar Galactica veteran Lupo and directed by Richard Colla, who helmed the theatrically released BSG pilot film in 1978.
Something Is Out There also impresses in front of the camera. D’Abo was fresh off her star-making “Bond Girl” turn in The Living Daylights, opposite the underrated Timothy Dalton as 007. Cortese was a familiar face from movies and TV (and is probably best known today for appearances on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia). The supporting cast was equally solid: George Dzundza (Law & Order), Gregory Sierra (Barney Miller), Kim Delaney (NYPD Blue), and veteran character actor Robert Webber (juror 12 in 12 Angry Men) in his final major role. John O’Hurley also turns up as an alien who acts so much like Peterman you’ll expect him to fire Elaine.
Don’t let this upscale pedigree fool you, though, because Something Is Out There is really an homage to classic “B” sci-fi films (especially in its first half). It’s got everything you remember from your favorite Creature Features: hyper-masculine hero; gorgeous female alien; intergalactic romance with odd mating protocols; aliens who don’t understand Earth customs, but speak fluent English; and monsters masquerading as humans. Think The Thing From Another World meets Invasion Of The Body Snatchers by way of Alien.
In PART ONE of our story we meet Jack Breslin (Cortese), a grumpy detective who just happens to be engaged to the daughter (Delaney) of the police commissioner (Webber). While investigating a series of brutal killings, Jack discovers something suspicious: the victims have had organs harvested from their bodies within seconds of death. Then he discovers someone suspicious: a beautiful blonde who keeps showing up at the murder scenes. When he finds Ta’Ra (a’Abo) snooping around his apartment, Jack gets her to spill the story in a convenient flashback.
Just weeks earlier, Ta’Ra and dozens of other humanoid scientists had been serving aboard an orbiting prison trawler called the Angelon. Most of the incarcerated were harmless, drug-addicted clones, but the most dangerous captive – the one who had the potential to destroy the entire galaxy – is the one who escaped. After the massacre of her fellow crewmembers, Ta’Ra chased the xenomorph to Earth in a shuttle craft that crash-landed in the California desert. Jack offers to help her find it and kill it, and an unusual, transplanetary partnership is formed. Imagine The X-Files, but with Mulder as the skeptic and Scully as a superhuman space lady.
Jack and Ta’Ra finally confront the monster at the end of Part One, and it looks just like…a giant bug! Of course, an eight-foot-tall arthropod can’t just roam the streets of Los Angeles without being noticed. (Hollywood Boulevard, maybe.) Luckily for the xenomorph, it can transport from person to person, disguising itself within its host. Much of the miniseries is spent questioning who the monster may be inhabiting at the moment, and it’s this domestic paranoia that feels most reminiscent of classic space operas. When your movie has to be both horrible and economical, what better option is there than to make your “monster” look like the guy next store?
Things get messy in PART TWO as the parasitic bad guy begins busting out of one body after another and leaving huge messes on carpets all over L.A. If you watched Something Is Out There as a kid, this may be the part of the story you remember most vividly, as the classic “B” vibe transitions into the more contemporary “body horror” audiences loved in Alien and its first sequel. In fact, the title creature in Aliens is also referred to generically as a xenomorph (which translates from Greek as roughly “strange shape.”)
It’s all delightfully silly, pulpy fun. Nowadays you can’t channel surf without tripping over a starship’s worth of ponderous, CGI-heavy sci-fi action shows. We’re not complaining, but the charm of Something Is Out There isn’t just about the special effects, it’s the playful chemistry between Cortese and D’Abo and the retro mood it evokes.
Can Jack and Ta’Ra save the world or will we all turn into giant bugs? Tune in to getTV this month and find out (assuming your segmented appendage can still operate the remote).
The two-part Something is Out There miniseries airs back-to-back on Sunday, April 16 at 5:50 pm ET/2:20 pm PT, Wednesday April 26 at 9 pm ET/6 pm PT, Thursday April, 27 at 1:10 am ET/10:10 pm PT, and Sunday, April 30 at 3:30 pm ET/12:30 pm PT. For more information, visit the getTV schedule.