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Here there be dragons . . .

Praise the Lord, from the earth,
ye dragons and ye deeps.

No other mythological animal is as universal as the dragon. The realm of the dragon may be earthbound, airborne, or a creature of the sea, and its demeanor and significance varies from culture to culture as well. In the West, the dragon is often an evil killer, a target for knights errant to slay, while in the East, the dragon is venerable and respected. In both cultures, dragons are often guardians of unknown treasure.

However, few Christians and Jews are aware of the dragons of God in the Hebrew Bible. The King James version of the Old Testament translated both the Hebrew words ten and tanin as “dragon”, resulting in nearly two dozen mentions. Ten simply was a mistranslation, which most modern versions correctly render as “jackal.” Tanin is much more complex. Sometimes it's clearly a land creature, and seems to be merely the plural of ten, but other times, it refers to a magnificent, mythological beast of the sea, powerful, mighty, and wild beyond words. Tanin is often paired with the Leviathan which God shows off as something He's really proud of... The modern translations that render this super-beast tanin as “crocodile” or “hippopotamus” miss the point completely. These are God's dragons.

Surface, produced, written and directed by Josh and Jonas Pate, is probably my favorite of the new first-contact series, (although Invasion is nearly tied with it). It has great characters, and sometimes jaw-dropping action, and beyond that, Surface includes things usually neglected in sci-fi action stories, like humor and charm, which it deftly uses to make its jolts even more shocking. In Surface, contemporary humanity is encountering the presence of dragons all over the planet:

  • In South Africa, a lighthouse is knocked down by a huge creature in a fog after a deafening roar.
  • In the North Pacific, a US Navy submarine is found thousands of miles off course, its crew missing.
  • A small boat in the Gulf of Mexico is swallowed by an enormous pair of jaws that suddenly break the surface and take it whole.
  • A massive sinkhole causes an enormous whirlpool in a small lake in Texas, draining it, and pulling down a boat.
  • A Cuban fisherman and his son see hundreds of meteor-like stars falling into the sea.
  • A boy in Madagascar discovers one of the missing US submariners on the beach.

A few persons have lived to investigate the mysterious happenings. Laura Daughterty (Lake Bell) is a California marine biologist who discovered an enormous and unknown marine vertebrate rising from an undersea thermal vent on the ocean floor. Soon afterwards, her work is shut down and increasing pressure is brought to stop her investigation, escalating into being framed for murder. Rich Connelly (Jay R. Ferguson) lost his brother when spear fishing by an offshore oil rig on the Louisiana coast. When his brother shot at a large creature in the water, it dragged him down to the depths, never to be seen again. Miles Bennett (Carter Jenkins) is a North Carolinian teenager who discovered a mass of strange eggs floating in the sea. After taking one home, he raised one of the creatures by himself, keeping its existence a secret. When it could no longer be hidden, it nearly killed an officer who attempted to capture it.

The dragons of Surface don't breathe fire, but they manipulate electricity in a way vastly different from electric eels and rays. Their electromagnetic pulses can kill prey, fry every piece of electronic equipment on a boat, or, when in groups, even cause lightning strikes and violent thunderstorms. Their natural habitat seems to be the undersea thermal vents of boiling water, but they are adaptable enough to survive for days on land in temperate climates. At this point it's uncertain whether they're intelligent or not, extraterrestrial or not, or generally hostile or not.

Surface has acknowledged debts to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Rich Connelly parallels Roy Neary of Close Encounters. The scene where Rich's wife left him was just as funny and sad as its inspiration in Close Encounters, and like Neary, Connelly becomes obsessed with a picture he can't get out of his mind. The boy-with-his-alien story which spanned several episodes was clearly inspired by E.T. Even though these influences were obvious, they were so well-done it was like experiencing the magic of Spielberg's original classics again for the first time.

Courage and faith required

But Surface is no mere rehash of Spielbergian sunshine. It's an intelligent, suspenseful drama, smoothly creating, developing and dropping story lines as needed for the overall plot. One character whom I was certain was going to be a regular was suddenly murdered. The obligatory government conspiracy in the background may not be the government after all. Miles' pet dragon is gone, but he is coming into contact with the creatures again in a more realistic environment. And Rich and Laura were last seen in an improvised deep-sea submersible under 1400 feet of water, with their cable to the surface broken, falling into the vent they were exploring, while a leak develops. It's rare that the small screen is actually able to create thrills that make you gasp, but Surface does.

Surface even addresses the spiritual side of its characters. For Rich, a Christian, understanding what has happened to his brother has become an obsession. Not only does he have visions of craters (the undersea vents) but some of his visions convince him that his brother is alive and is trying to contact him. Before beginning the dive with Laura in their boiler-turned-diving bell, Rich led her and the captain of the surface vessel in prayer. When the submersible lost contact with the surface and began falling into the abyss, he urged Laura to stay calm, saying, “this is all part of what's supposed to happen.” Talk about faith!

The dragons of the Hebrew Bible symbolized the power of God in the depths. A dangerous, awe-inspiring part of Creation, that requires faith and courage to approach. Here there be dragons.

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Introduction | Surface | Invasion | Threshold | War of the Worlds
Still photographs © 2005 NBC Studios.