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Starlog Issue #213 (April 1995)As the pioneering medicine woman of "Earth 2," Jessica Steen keeps secrets while saving lives.
by CRAIG W. CHRISSINGER
Look beneath the skin of Dr. Julia Heller of Earth 2 and you'll find a complex human being. She's someone struggling to juggle her duties as a medical professional on a frontier world with her forced obligations as an uneasy government liaison i.e. spy for the Council, the ruling body of the TV show's space stations orbiting the original, nearly dead Earth. For Canadian-born actress Jessica Steen, it's a meaty but unexpected duality for her character after a foggy beginning.
"Initially, I approached Julia with great confidence about who she was," says Steen. "She was involved with Dr. Vasquez, who developed the theory for the Syndrome, which affects children on the space stations."
"But then it got foggy because they took the whole Vasquez issue out. I wondered if Vasquez was still part of it. Why wasn't he on the advance ship with me? In an early script, we got a recorded message from Vasquez aboard the colony ship and his wife was standing beside him. Without him, it got murky as to why I had given up my life on a space station, and said goodbye to everyone and all the professional perks of being a doctor to go on this massive, endless journey. I wasn't really sure what my responses were to everything that we dealt with in the first few episodes, because we didn't have a history. It felt like it was: just skating, because I really didn't have the grounding that I prefer when I'm working."
The revelation that Dr. Heller was an unwilling agent for the government is a welcome aspect of the character, helping flesh her out for Steen. "It became a much fuller picture. The fact that I was a liaison for the Council is a bigger job than just being a doctor. Once I got something to sink my teeth into and my characterization became fuller, I felt more confident. It certainly made me worry about the first bunch of episodes, because I wondered whether things I had done during them reflected this coming revelation. Maybe I shouldn't, but having it come out of nowhere kind of made me frightened. How prepared was I to be a spy before I left? I wondered if I was a bad guy or just a good guy caught in a bad situation. Are my intentions honorable or am I truly nasty?"
In Earth 2, the original Earth can barely sustain human life, and most people live instead on crowded space stations. When Devon Adair's (Debrah Farentino) son Ulysses becomes afflicted with the Syndrome believed to be caused by the stations' sterile environment Devon organizes a group of colonists to settle on a planet 22 light years away. Opposed to the mission, the Council plants a bomb aboard the advance ship when red tape can no longer delay it. The ship crash-lands on G889, where Julia reports back to the Council on the group's activities and contacts with the native life forms, especially the mysterious Terrians.
Despite being a government agent, the doctor isn't privy to all of the Council's decisions, actions and knowledge. "If I'm a bad guy, then I should be savvy to many of the things the Council has been doing, but the way it has been described to me is that I was not supposed to be on the advance ship, but on the colony ship. All of these things are coming as new information to me, like the penal colonists, their knowledge of the Terrians and the bomb. Of course, I'm resentful toward the Council. They casually sent me off with no regard for my life. The fact that I'm not privy to all this information means Julia comes from a more innocent place and her intentions can be honorable. Suddenly, Julia is being asked to do these things on the planet by Citizen Reilly that go way beyond her duties.
Obviously, if I have known about the bomb, I would have to be some kind of kamikaze idiot not to have wormed my way off of the advance ship. And then I should have known more about the Terrians, because as Reilly said, 'We've known for years that the Terrians possess a quality that keeps the planet alive.' there are definitely details that they've known that they haven't told us. If I had been a very valuable spy, I'm sure they would have valued my life more and kept me informed."
In a unique twist, it is through Julia that most of the Council's knowledge and motives concerning Earth 2 are revealed. "A lot of the notion of the state of the Council comes from my conversations with Reilly," she states. "In 'Redemption,' we find out the Council is testing five planets for resettlement and this planet is the most promising candidate. They've given Devon years of red tape to deter her, but primarily they didn't want the general population to know this planet existed, and was so promising and so similar to Earth, because then there would be a mass exodus. That's why they tried to bury it in red tape and put Commissioner Blalock in charge of it. As Reilly tells me, Blalock went too far. He was a loose cannon and was put out to pasture. I guess Blalock planted the bomb because he didn't want to report back to the Council that he hadn't done his job. They don't want anyone on G-889. They have their whole plan set up and running, and they don't want interference from the Eden Project.
"It turns out that their way of testing is to jettison prisoners criminals like Gaal [Tim Curry] from the space stations onto the planet. These people are doing the legwork for the Council. The Zeds, which came into play in 'Redemption,' are sent out to collect information from the penal colonists and 'thin' out their numbers. The Zeds have been jettisoned here as well because they're super android soldiers who have gotten out of hand. So, they've sent a bunch of slightly over-the-edge folks to do the leg work on the planet, play guinea pig, and see how it is for all of us."
Despite her obligations to the Council, Julia considers her Hippocratic Oath her primary concern in all actions. When Reilly asks her to harvest a gland from Ulysses Adair's brain because he's beginning to exhibit Terrian traits in "Church of Morgan," she protects Devon's son by telling a lie. "My job is doctor first and liaison second. I've told Reilly that and I've put myself in front of danger rather than put Uly at risk. This whole expedition is because of this tiny, sick boy. He gets healed by the Terrians, and I'm suddenly supposed to sacrifice him to find out how he's connected to our survival on the planet. It's a really tough decision.
"In 'The Enemy Within,' she tries to make Morgan Martin [John Gegenhuber] privy to the whole thing. She thinks she can convince him to be on her side and to explain to the government that we cannot just take the planet and control it. The Terrians are very important it's beyond government. It's not ethereal or the second coming, but it is so out of our hands. It just seemed to Julia to be such a monumental discovery and an environmental miracle. If she can just convince Morgan and they go together to the Council, this company man should be able to explain what I alone could not. But he won't go for it, so I deal with him."
Her actions have repercussions on relationships with other survivors. In fact, Dr. Heller is expelled from the group, and the only one who will go after her is pilot Alonzo Solace (Antonio Sabato Jr.) a relationship begun in "Water" as he begins to recover use of his broken leg. "He has picked up enough of her intentions from their interactions that it's worth it for him to get her," she reveals. "We've definitely developed a rapport, and it's also a lot of instinct on his part. The doctor part of me has shown through the most to him, so to him, I'm a doctor first and a spy second.
"They've developed this relationship, and it's not an easy or a comfortable one. She's very uneasy about the way it comes about, and it's very unnatural to her. Because he's the injured party in the crash landing, she has to deal with him a lot. His leg h as become a nightmare. I came up with leg braces, then physical therapy and trying different pills like plasma DNA to build up his strength. He isn't the kind of guy that Julia would be drawn to on the space stations. They just wouldn't have hooked up because they're not of the same clique. She tries to keep everything under control and has a very good understanding of who she is; he's much more raw. He's just going by the seat of his pants, and is very confident and macho. When he speaks to her or calls her on things, that catches her off-guard. She's drawn to him because he's so much easier with himself than she is. That's very intriguing."
On the other hand, Julia has no natural rapport with Devon at the mission's beginning, having to earn her respect as a medical professional. "In the pilot, there's resentment on Devon's part simply because I'm the one who's there, I have little experience and I'm not the person she wanted. And Julia doesn't like the disrespect. She says, 'I am capable of doing this job and you are immediately assuming I'm qualified.' There's a level of respect where we are now and it's a healthy relationship, which is why this whole government spy bit blows Devon away. After all the time she has spent building up her confidence in Julia, this comes out of left field. It's important to Debrah and me that it's established that we have this respect now and we're a team in the care of Uly.
"This whole spy thing has made it very difficult for Julia to keep her loyalties clear and execute the job that she must do because of an ultimatum. Julia's redemption is important. By the end of 'Redemption,' Devon says, 'And we're glad to have her,' and I'm back in good graces."
Julia Heller may have little practical experience as a doctor, but she does have one advantage over others training in the field she has been genetically engineered to be predisposed toward the medical sciences. "Much of her genetic enhancement at this point is instinct," Steen remarks. "I have the information, but I don't have the tools or the knowledge of the local flora and fauna. It's helpful, but now I have to take whatever I know and try to make it practical. "I can see that the genetic enhancement would have been a way to determine success you would have a focus, a profession and an income determined. It set her at an advantage over others, and it became something she got a lot of flak about and people even resented. She's driven to prove herself to be a good doctor despite this unfair advantage.'
Julia soon proves herself to be skilled as a physician on a brave new frontier, "Her confidence is based on the Vasquez issue, because she initially would have worked hand-in-hand with him. The fact that the real doctor Devon has been working with all along isn't there does put pressure on Julia. It's almost like being the understudy. Although you may know the lines, be well prepared and have gone through rehearsals, you're still on shaky ground.
"When I see the Terrians, I'm at square one with them. Reilly says we've known about them for years, but nobody told me. When the Koba zaps Morgan and he has lost his heartbeat, I'm just stupefied. I don't know that the Grendlers' saliva will become the answer to the plague that we encounter from other landing survivors, or that the Terrians can walk into a tent with a handful of soil, drop it on Uly and he gets better. It's a new world and I don't know everything, but I'm certainly trying to keep up."
Not everyone in the group reacts well to the native creatures, while Julia naturally is curious about them and respects their existence. "She has an absolute fascination about them, especially in the pilot when we see them and Morgan begins shooting. Julia says, 'You idiot. We're the aliens here.' We have to have respect for them. We come to know through Alonzo's dreams that the Terrians fear us because we've been there before and they feel threatened. I see them as being shamans and very much a part of the Earth. They are very, very curious about us initially, but the penal colonists being there blew all our chances for an amiable first contact. The Terrians are healers and are at one with the Earth. They're in the food chain, the web, and that's something that we aren't."
Although not all of Julia's equipment made it safely to the planet, she does have a few tools to help her treat the ill and injured. Her chief tool is a diagnostic glove, which gives vital signs and much more. "Gosh, the glove does everything from dishes to windows," Steen jokes. "It's the 'handy glove!' What I know of the glove is that it can take a heart rate, pulse, EKG, temperature and test for things. I do so much with it and yet often times I find it doesn't speak to me. I know that the fingers can scan, detect, find, locate and probe. It is just a fabulous, must-have, don't-leave-home-without-it kind of thing, and it does so much. Primarily, the glove is a scanner of body functions and vital signs. It also gave Morgan a jolt of electricity when his heart was in arrest.
"I have a lot of other little gizmos that I use to take skin samples and spinal fluids and things. If someone has a virus, I have to take samples for my fabulous microscope that does all sorts of fun things. And the sedater comes in awful handy, too. We zap all sorts of things with it."
Serving as a doctor is important to Steen, but episodes dealing with Julia's undercover government work have provided the actress with a chance for the action and personal drama she enjoys. "I'm into stunts and, of course, the drama too," she comments. "That's why I've liked these couple of shows. The decisions have been rough for Julia and it has been intense. Although the virtual reality stuff is very draining to do because your eyeballs burn, it's hot and very claustrophobic, it is the most focused work that we've done. I like it. Terry O'Quinn [who plays Reilly] and I have had lots of dialogue and interaction. That's what I really like. I find it very difficult to do snippets of things, because you have to keep the pace up and it's all out of order. So, I've enjoyed the stunts, V.R. and the location shoots."
While she was a cast regular on the syndicated SF series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and now works on Earth 2, the actress, who enjoys kayaking and rock climbing, has never been a big fan of the genre. "I'm not an SF person by nature," she admits. "The future is always portrayed so negatively and bleak. It's all angular, burnt-out, grey and metal. It almost always looks like we blew it. That's the science fiction part to me about Earth 2 that we would get a second chance."
Thinking back to her days as Jennifer "Pilot" Chase, one of the Soldiers of the Future on Captain Power, Steen has mixed feelings. "Captain Power was a weird job for me. I was young and I got bamboozled into doing it. It was frustrating on an acting level because we sometimes had the corniest stuff to say. In many ways, I was angry because I knew Captain Power was geared toward children and it was going to make piles of money at Christmas selling all these interactive toys to all those kids. I felt there was this huge moral obligation as TV program makers, and as babysitters and teachers. I felt guilty about shooting everybody all the time and all that firepower. That made me very uncomfortable. The Soldiers of the Future were the faction out there trying to get Lord Dread and all his pasties, and curb all their actions. So, yes, we were the good guys, but overall, it was a show about selling toys, shooting and running around.
"I was amazed, once we were well into production, the mail that I got from all over the world, saying how my character was so influential, so important and how she had a good impact on their daughters. It was such a learning experience for me, because I'm not a good sport about Captain Power. And yet the mail showed people were seeing a great deal of good in it, and they valued my character because she tried to prevail in this situation. I was young, and it taught me to see how valuable your work can be."
Thinking of the happier aspects of Captain Power reminds her of Earth 2. "It's a monumental undertaking to fathom what an entirely different world would be like. First, there are the space stations, which are our history and where we came from. That's enough of a task in itself, but to go to a whole new planet and try to see it for the first time is a major task. What do you focus on? The fatigue? We must be exhausted from wagon-training along, walking and carrying stuff, and packing and unpacking. And then there's this constant awe of everything we're seeing. It's so beautiful, so different."
For Jessica Steen, the biggest challenge of Earth 2 is making a statement about the condition of the original Earth and trying to get people to change their habits before it's too late. "I'm in awe of the beauty in which we work. This is Earth 1 and we still have a chance to watch our step and clean up our act. If we show enough beauty, maybe it'll become more important to the people who count."
Pondering her first venture into science fiction, the 1986-7 syndicated attempt at interactive TV, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, Jessica Steen remembers being upset by the show's built-in merchandising aspects. "It seemed that there was so much negativity and anger, and the future was post-apocalyptic. My involvement was political and an agent/casting director thing. I wasn't happy about it, but I learned a lot, made some good friends, and had a good time with that group.
"I'm almost tempted to go back and look at all the tapes of the episodes. We went through all these stories, and I often was sitting in the cockpit as Pilot. There were all these buttons and levers. I was thinking, 'What does this stuff do?' And they would put all these words together that looked like they had gone through a big, fat dictionary of long words. I wasn't fully savvy to the work or the concept. I would go, 'Beep, beep. Oh, beep.' and then take out my proton spanner, which was a Black & Decker screwdriver. I just shook it over here and it would do all sorts of stuff. I was thinking, 'Oh, come on.'You have to suspend your disbelief when you do science fiction. You really have to believe what you're doing.
"The series had its many fans. "In the letters we got, people remarked that we had put a lot of thought into how this all came about, what our roles were and how the Soldiers of the Future operated. And I've had people come up to me out of the blue and say, 'Wow, we were the biggest fans.' I was surprised because to the, it was all rubber rocks and stuff.
"The mail taught me that people see things that I might not. There would be whole frat houses that wrote in. I thought, 'Get a life. guys. Aren't you supposed to be playing football or something?' I didn't realize what they were seeing because I never really watched the shows with any focus. It was only from my bad-sport position that I saw it. I'm not belittling the people who watched because they saw things in it that I didn't see. It's my job to find those things because you have to value everything in which you involve yourself."
Looking for the good in Captain Power the Toronto native remembers the actors with whom she worked. 'Tim Dunigan, who was Captain Power, was a great guy," she remarks. 'We had so much fun because there we would be, sitting in these ridiculous suits. We we re all in spandex and high leather boots and gloves, and we were very sort of Power Rangerish. We would spend hours and hours on set just boiling hot or freezing cold in our suits, and we had a howl laughing at all the situations we found ourselves in. We had a great time. When we would power on, I would go from my fatigues, which were pretty cool, and suddenly I would have these huge conical gold boobs that came out of nowhere. I was asking, 'What happens when I power on? I seem to have become this robust gal.'
"We did a fair amount of stuntwork with a lot of squibs and explosions. The computer-generated images were very difficult. We had to do a lot of blue screen stuff. Peter McNeill was Hawk and he would have to spend days strapped up and flying around in his suit. He was dangling from the ceiling for hours in front of this blue screen. It was painful to watch. And Sven Ole-Thorsen [as Tank] was dressed in this huge costume just like a tank. He was hilarious, but he could barely move. And we always had to react to these nasty metallic birds of Lord Dread's. They would fly around, wreaking havoc on us while we stood there, fearful of a little tape 'x' on a grip's stand. We would cringe and have to freeze. It was hilarious."
At the series' end, Jennifer "Pilot" Chase was killed off. While fans were upset, Steen was steeled for the event during her whole Captain Power tenure. "I knew from the beginning that I was going to die, and I was ready," she says. "When I signed on, I s aid that if I was going to do this series, I wanted to be killed off at the first season's end, and they agreed. I didn't want a commitment for five years, so it was according to plan. It's just that the toys didn't sell at Christmas and that was the show 's end, too. I was prepared for the death, and I liked the way it happened. It was very touching and heroic how Pilot runs back in and saves the whole base camp. People were upset by it because I was the only regular actor on the show who was female."
After leaving Captain Power, Steen had a co-starring role as Linda in Homefront. Most people know her from that critically acclaimed drama series, but she occasionally still runs into a Captain Power fan. "I gave all my toys away just this past year. I had a whole pile of stuff and I was moving.
I saved a couple of my action figures. That was always a hoot to me because, of course, they went with the silver and big gold boobs version of Pilot. The show comes up at the weirdest times. You just never knew what people thought since Captain Power was syndicated and it wasn't a huge hit."
Craig W. Chrissinger
"CLARIFICATION: Jessica Steen reminded us that the photo of the Captain Power & the Soldiers of the Future characters (published in #213, page 50, as part of a Power sidebar to a Steen interview) does not actually picture Steen and the syndicated TV series cast. That's really an early publicity photo - apparently done to promote the Power toys and then later sent to Starlog and other media outlets as part of the series' press photographic material. STARLOG regrets the mislabeling."
NOTE: Many of the pictures that were in this article can be found in the picture gallery (Earth 2 publicity stills). (from Starlog #216, page 21)
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