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“We came to this planet a group of strangers. And now we head out, still strangers, but united toward a single purpose, braving this new land. Four days ago, aliens landed on a distant planet, and we are them. Now, we struggle across an unknown planet, an uncharted world, looking all the while for that moment when we must fulfill our promise, and wondering what will stand in our way.”
–Devon Adair

We’ve all heard the old adage “History repeats itself,” but have we really ever thought about it?  My grandmother used to say that she believed humans were destined to live history over and over again until we got it right, but so far we hadn’t.  Perhaps she was on to something…

The 1994 series Earth 2 started with a world that definitely hadn’t gotten it right quite yet.  In the year 2192, much of mankind was living in giant space habitats, orbiting humanity’s birthplace.  Previous generations had pretty much used up their homeworld in terms of natural resources and livable space.  Although great stations had been built to house most of the people, the youngest generation, born in the sterile controlled environment, was soon discovered to be suffering from “The Syndrome”.  Physically weak and unable to even breathe without extensive technical support, these children typically didn’t live past the age of nine.

The mother of one of these children is Devon Adair (Debrah Farentino).  She is a wealthy builder of the very stations which may have contributed to this new malady, and dreams of a better life for her son, eight-year-old Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman).  Distraught by guilt over her possible role in the advent of “The Syndrome”, she decides that the disease was caused by “an absence of what nature can provide — an absence of Earth”.  Against the wishes of the planetary government, she organizes The Eden Project, colonization of a world 22 light years away.  In all, 250 Syndrome families and crew enter “cold sleep” (suspended animation) for the journey to planet G889, braving the unknown to build the colony they hope will become “New Pacifica”, and creating what they hope will be their brand new world.

Unfortunately, the mission goes awry, and the colonists are forced to leave the space station early (due to sabotage by the tyrannical Earth government).  Then they must hazard a crash landing on G889, with many of the people in the advance party arriving on the opposite side of the planet.  Devon, and those others stranded nearby, decide to make the journey back to the intended site of New Pacifica, in the hopes of finding their lost comrades.  Having few of their original supplies, their harrowing trip through unknown territory begins.

Danziger and daughter True

Others on the trek include John Danziger (Clancy Brown) and his daughter True (J. Madison Wright).  John is a former worker (read: slave) on one of the space stations, and becomes a protector of the group, while True ultimately develops a bond with Ulysses (“Uly”, for short).  Yale (Sullivan Walker) is a cybernetically-altered former prisoner, now a tutor to Uly whose memories have been erased.  He’s beginning a different life on the new planet (although not with the approval of all the colonists).  Unwillingly along for the ride are Morgan and Bess Martin (John Gegenhuber and Rebecca Gayheart, respectively).  Morgan is a lower-level functionary for the government who had no knowledge of the sabotage, but is now the only apparent representative on-site.  His relationship with his wife Bess is rocky, to say the least, but with a fresh start (but no preparation) she’s ready for a new adventure with the colonists (much to Morgan’s chagrin).

Antonio Sabato Jr. as Alonzo

Dr. Julia Heller (Jessica Steen) is a genetically engineered human, youthful in medical experience and yet the only doctor around for the stranded colonists.  She starts to develop a relationship with  Alonzo Solace (Antonio Sabato, Jr.), the “cold sleep” pilot who helped the colony ship get to G889.  Alonzo’s “dreams” become important windows into the native populace of the planet, uncovering some of the mysteries the colonists have to face in their adventures.

“This time, WE are the aliens….”
–Promotional tagline for the series

A Terrian, one of the natives

The indigenous population and their relationships with the newcomers are complicated at best.  Contact is made with the Grendlers, traders who scavenge for anything of value.  We learn of the mysterious Terrians, who communicate their essential connection with the environment through Alonzo’s dreams.  Kobas seem like friendly leather teddy bears, but react violently to protect themselves.  Although they may seem strange to the humans,  it is no wonder the natives feel threatened.  It is we who are the invaders

And humans are definitely a threat… especially when it’s discovered that the Earth government (known as the “Council”) has been using G889 as a penal colony, much like Australia was used in the old world.  To cover up their hidden prison, the Council was willing to sabotage the colony ship… and perhaps one of the colonists is an agent for the Council, so the threats aren’t just from the unknown planet.  Our people have brought the enemy with them….

“On this planet, we are a new generation of pioneers, moving westward as fast as we can, trying to outrun our own dangers – I’d like to think danger is less likely to hit a moving target.  And while I push us forward, I can’t help thinking of the one danger we can’t outrun – the danger within.”
–Devon Adair

Yale

The reference to Australia and the old world isn’t the only parallel to our history.  In some ways, Earth 2 is reminiscent of the colonization of North America.  History saw various peoples from Western Europe sail across the Atlantic to settle in this new land of what became North America.  Many of those colonists were just as desperate to find a new life as Yale (with his criminal past) and John Danziger (who sought freedom far away from a life of indentured service).  What those long-ago pilgrims found here after their journey from Europe was a land already inhabited by an indigenous race, the Native Americans.  They found new customs, unfamiliar ways of living, and a raw and untamed world, just as the New Pacifica colonists did on G889.  And, as both old and new groups discovered, their past lives were something they couldn’t completely get away from, no matter how different their “new world” was.

Braving a New World

You could easily make the case that both the colonization of America and the later westward movement of the early settlers both have parallels in the travels of Devon Adair and the future New Pacifica residents.  While many wanted a new, fresh start, old ways warred with both new ideas and newly encountered cultures.  When one of the colonists is found to have been an informant for the Council, the rest of the group has to decide what to do.  Killing them is abhorrent to most, but stranding them along the route is hardly merciful… and yet, the resources are scarce and there is no infrastructure for dealing with major transgressions against their new society.  Leaving one type of social order, good or bad, means having to set up another… which could also be good or bad, depending on the specifics.  Earth 2 dealt with these issues, plus ones of racism, fear of the unknown, and even mystical belief.

“In the last 200 years, we’ve formed some pretty good theories about the origins of emotions. Now, halfway across the universe, we stumble around on this new planet finding that we know so little about what makes us human – what makes our hearts shiver with grief, our chests pound with fear, and why is it that a species so different from us can possess these same feelings we hold so essential to humankind.”
–John Danziger

While literary science fiction has long handled major social issues, science fiction on television has lagged behind.  Unlike Star Trek:  Voyager (which premiered at approximately the same time), Devon Adair was the leader of this errant colony because, quite frankly, she had the necessary skills to be a leader.  Her gender was never an issue, whereas much was made in the press about the first female starship captain to lead a Star Trek series.  While many female leads on television up to that time had existed, their characters always had an element of sexual attraction as part of their makeup.  Debrah Farentino certainly was not unattractive by any means, but her character of Devon was there because she was the leader, no more, no less.

So, Earth 2 was a great series, and its premiere garnered great ratings.  But airing on Sunday nights, often delayed for odd times due to NFL Football, meant even dedicated viewers had trouble accurately finding the show.  The continuing plotlines meant audiences had to follow along, because situations and characters would change over the course of a couple of episodes.  And the mysteries of the indigenous races on planet G889 were, at times, almost as inscrutable to the audience as they were initially to the colonists.  NBC didn’t help matters by airing episodes out of order.  Although Earth 2 was nominated for 3 Emmys (winning one), ratings went down, until the final episode aired late the next spring to only 9% of the Sunday television audience.  Despite hope for a second season (and ending the show on a cliffhanger), television viewers never learned if the colonists ever made it to New Pacifica to start their new lives.

DEBRAH FARENTINO (Devon Adair) has been featured in more one-season series that you can count on one hand.  She had regular roles in Hooperman, Equal Justice, EZ Streets, Total Security, and Wildfire, before becoming a recurring player in longer running shows like Eureka and Wildfire.  She’s also an accomplished stunt driver, trained in performing precision auto maneuvers.

JOEY ZIMMERMAN (Uly Adair) has grown up in the acting business, having been nominated for Young Actor awards five different times.  He starred in the Halloweentown series of Disney movies, and has become an avid swordsman, challenging Earth 2 co-star Clancy Brown to a match at a convention.

CLANCY BROWN (John Danziger) is best known to genre fans as The Kurgan, villain in the original Highlander movie.  He was also seen in the HBO series Carnivale, and in a pivotal role as a brutal prison guard in The Shawshank Redemption.  He’s much more often heard in numerous animated shows, the voice of Mr. Krabs in SpongeBob SquarePants, Lex Luthor in various Superman-related series, and Raiden in Mortal Kombat.

J. MADISON WRIGHT (True Danziger) had a brief but stellar acting career, having been specifically cast by producer/director Steven Spielberg in Earth 2.  While she had other guest roles, she gave up acting a few years later and moved back to Kentucky with her parents.  At the age of 15, she was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, which required a heart transplant.  Although healthy for a few more years, she passed away of a heart attack at the age of 22.

SULLIVAN WALKER (Yale) portrayed Dr. Huxtable’s colleague as a recurring character on The Cosby Show prior to his adventures on Earth 2.  His career has turned to theatre, where he was featured on Broadway in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.  He’s currently active in efforts to assist fellow Caribbean actors in their professions in America.

JOHN GEGENHUBER (Morgan Martin) guested on Star Trek: Voyager, Seven Days, Murphy Brown, and Mad About You.  He’s currently working with the Open Fist Theatre Company in Los Angeles, coordinating their educational outreach program, in addition to acting and directing in various productions there.

REBECCA GAYHEART (Bess Martin) jumped from Earth 2 into a recurring role on the original Beverly Hills 90210.  She was later a regular on Wasteland, Dead Like Me, and Vanished.  Gayheart should have been featured in the Firefly article on this site, as she was originally cast in the role of Inara.  But creative differences led to her being replaced after only one day of filming, and her scenes were reshot with new actress Morena Baccarin.

JESSICA STEEN (Dr. Julia Heller) actually has been featured here previously, for her role as Pilot on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.  She was also a regular in the short-lived series Homefront, and was featured in the movie Armageddon.  She’s currently appearing in the successful Canadian series Heartland.

ANTONIO SABATO, JR. (Alonzo Solace) is a soap opera heartthrob, originally appearing in General Hospital for three seasons before making the jump to prime time.  A regular on Melrose Place, he later returned to his soap roots in both The Bold and the Beautiful and General Hospital:  Night Shift.  He was also the winner of the short-lived competition series Celebrity Circus, likely due to his grandfather and mother both having performed under a Big Top.

Earth 2: Building a better world for our children

Earth 2 was released on DVD in 2005.  Sadly, there are no extras, but at least the series can be enjoyed in its entirety, complete with the never-resolved cliffhanger ending.  (Of course, it would have helped tremendously if NBC had aired the episodes in order, instead of the cliffhanger ending airing before two other episodes that had no mention of it!!)  Interestingly, a few college thesis papers have been written using the show as a significant reference point, talking about Earth 2 and “The Gaia Hypothesis” (illustrated by the relationship between the Terrians and the environment); and also the nature of fans to want closure, and their desire to write their own “fan fiction” conclusions to unfinished sagas (specifically, Earth 2).  A great FAQ on the series can be found here.

“I’m the queen of critically acclaimed failed television series.  After all these years in television, I never have known a series to go more than one year.  I’ve got friends who have been on shows for five years and I go, ‘What’s that like?”
–Debrah Farentino

There are no guarantees, in television or in life.  Earth 2 ended after 22 hours of episodes, with uncertainty about what would happen to the brave souls who set out towards an uncharted world and a fresh start.  Much like their ancestors who set out for the New World, or made the trek across unknown territory in the hope of better lives, their story had no ending already planned.  While the characters could hope for the best, it was the journey which made them stronger, exposed their weaknesses, and melded each of them into the mothers, sons, fathers, and daughters of the future.

While parts of humanity may never change, it is in the challenge of discovery and the desire for a better life that we find the better parts of ourselves.  Earth 2 helped us, by showing the historical process that made our lives great and our world greater, sometimes despite our own foibles.  It reminded us once again that, no matter how dangerous the journey, exploration is not just into the unknown world around us… but into the world we create for ourselves and those we love.

Vital Stats

21 episodes aired (one 2-hour pilot and 20 hour-long episodes) — none unaired
NBC Network
First aired episode:  November 6, 1994
Final aired episode:  June 4, 1995
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  Sunday nights for Earth 2, which as noted caused problems with sports delays.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

A visit into our future, and the challenges awaiting those brave enough to dare the unknown.  Much like the hardy souls who made the voyage to the New World from Europe, or trekked across the plains in search of hopes and dreams, these particular settlers hoped for a shining new way of life while confronting wonders (and dangers) so very different from themselves….

Five quotes:

“Four days ago, aliens landed on a distant planet, and we are them.”

Our people have brought the enemy with them….

…old ways warred with both new ideas and newly encountered cultures.

“…finding that we know so little about what makes us human…”

…exploration is not just into the unknown world around us…

Our old world was no longer a home.  It was time to find a new place, and a new way to live.  Revisit that journey right here on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“I’m about to take you on the greatest adventure of your life.  You’ll probably never even thank me for it.”
–Austin James to Michelle Castle, in the pilot of Probe

The mysteries of the universe... in a grain of sand

By any estimation, many of the investigators on television have flashes of brilliance.  Whether it’s street smarts, understanding people better than most, or just plain book knowledge, heroes on television use their brains to figure out the most impossible mysteries.  But when it comes to putting together the clues, their level of intelligence pales in comparison to Austin James, the lead character of a 1988 ABC television series called Probe.  And Austin James was either the smartest man in the world… or he was justifiably crazy.  And no one could really tell  which description was true… except maybe Austin himself.

Parker Stevenson starred as Austin James, a scientist and inventor with an intellect that would make most geniuses jealous.  He set about each week to discover the answers to offbeat mysteries, aided by his assistant/secretary Michelle Castle (Ashley Crow).  Known as “Mickey”, she was the duo’s heart paired with Austin’s intellect.  They were drawn into the strangest of stories, detailing unusual, scientific crimes and odd situations that only Austin’s brainpower might be able to understand… and only Mickey might be able to lead him to, through the unpredictable maze of human behavior.

Austin had started a company, Serindip, designed to be a home for the most cutting-edge scientific developments of the era… and then he walked away from it.  He lives in a combination workshop/lab, sleeping in a cabinet (which he refers to as an “isolation chamber”).  Mickey, of course, doesn’t understand any of this, but she’s never met anyone quite like Austin.  Rather than return to her previously humdrum life, she takes on the role of assistant to either the most brilliant person she’s ever met… or a certifiable crazy man.  She’s just not sure which yet.

“What do you use for a heart?  A pocket calculator?”
–Mickey, to Austin

Back at Serendip, Austin has left Howard Millhouse (Jon Cypher) in charge.  Howard is trying to hold the place together, but would like the attention of Austin at the think-tank, given Austin’s formidable intelligence and what he could offer.  (Besides, it IS Austin’s company in the first place!).  But the more pressure Howard puts on Austin to be part of the organization he created, the more Austin tries to find other uses for his time… like solving practically impossible murders.  Austin’s fellow scientist Graham McKinley (Clive Revill) also is employed by Serendip, but is much less able to think “out-of-the-box” like Austin.  The friction between the two also serves to force Austin into directions that wouldn’t always be considered “normal” by most.  But then, “normal” wasn’t what Probe was all about.

Probe was a co-creation of mystery writer William Link (of Colombo and Ellery Queen fame) and prolific science fiction/fact author Isaac Asimov.  Both men wanted to show that the modern mysteries of our scientific and technological world could be just as entertaining as a traditional parlour mystery, just moved forward into the new millennium.  Their result was a show featuring the most intelligent person in the world, solving some of the most amazing puzzles ever created.

“If they want something, I can tell them. I’m certified.”

“Certifiable….”

“I mean, I’m certified by the federal government.  They had some people test me, and found my memory system to be five times better than the best computerized data directory and retrieval system.  So, listen to me.  I’m certified.”

–Austin claiming his genius, while Mickey admits her disbelief

Austin is, to most observers, kind of peculiar.  He was a man who had no use for money, or fame, or any of a myriad of things that many hunger for.  He had few of the motivations of most men.  To him, knowledge was all… and anytime there was a mystery, it was then Austin was finally moved to action.  For a man to whom the intricacies of the world could be reduced to equations buzzing around in his head, a true puzzle was that which seemed not to have a rational answer.  Like Sherlock Holmes, he may have not been understood very well, but that was no knock on his adeptness at figuring out impossible situations.

Mickey:  “Admit it.  There could be things out there completely beyond anyone’s understanding.”

Austin:  “I can name you one.  Murder.  I’ve never understood it for a second.”

When people were murdered on this show, you couldn’t just round up the suspects like a traditional Agatha Christie mystery.  Especially when the suspect in the pilot turns out to be a computer program run amok.  Or, as in a later episode, when an advanced ape is being framed for killing one of its handlers.  These were unusual stories, with an unusual hero at the forefront.

Probe could very easily have resulted in a television series that was dry and far over-the-head of most people, but the creators realized that problem early on, and set out to fix it with humor.

“We had to go back and reshoot about a third of the pilot for a number of reasons.  It was too strong, it was too intense… the fun of it went out of it, and the fun of it couldn’t go out of it because it wasn’t a serious show, it was a fun show.
–Alan Levi

Austin was played by the familiar and likeable Parker Stevenson, but the character of Austin James, as developed, was SO “out there” that he wasn’t the most relatable lead on television.  The character’s attitudes came from advanced science and knowledge of facts (Austin had attended college at age 10), but the very intelligence that made him sought-after as the creator of the Serendip consulting organization was also the very same thing that kept him from being part of it.  His skills at interacting with people were almost non-existent.  That’s why he needed Mickey, even if she didn’t always understand his behavior.  He came off to those around him as arrogant, or aberrant, or sometimes just plain crazy, although he was none of these things.  But extreme intelligence in a world of “average” looks that way to the average.

“Why do you enjoy tormenting people so much?”

“Because when I torment them, I get what I need.  Answers.  It’s nothing personal.”

–Mickey and Austin, talking about his brisk approach to other people

The problem with this approach to a television series is the “average” person — exactly the person television executives hope will tune into their shows.  While Link and Asimov hoped to improve the usual ordinary fare with more enlightened mysteries, and to show there was still some fun to be had in their solving, many took one look and said “I have to think?  No thanks.” Probe only lasted a month and a half, despite its strong pedigree.  As an early spring show, it tried to appeal to an audience that liked to be challenged… and it found, instead, an audience merely wanting to be placated.  (And some thought Austin James was crazy….)

“Part of the challenge to us as writers was, we had to have a mystery that the smartest man in the world would look at it and wouldn’t immediately know the answer to it… and it also had to be a mystery that, once we figured out the answer, people in the audience could also understand without having to be lectured for about half an hour.”
–Writer James Novack

Perhaps the creators aimed a bit too high… as the modern-day success of the cable series Monk has shown, audiences will respond to a character who seems a bit far afield, if they can recognize parts of themselves in the portrayal.  But on Probe, the lead was, almost by definition, light-years ahead of the normal person, while Adrian Monk is portrayed as someone both gifted and cursed with his condition.  Monk was once “normal”, while Austin never had been, and perhaps that led to a bit of distance for that “average” viewer.  Monk presented a more acceptable “crazy”.

Austin James NEVER turned his mind “off”.  He even commented once about someone interrupting his few hours of sleep every day, because even then, he was using his mind to puzzle out some conundrum.  Many thought he was nuts (or at the very least abnormal).  As presented on Probe, he was the hero we were meant to identify with, albeit flawed somewhat emotionally.  But the important thing is, without the knowledge, he wasn’t even “average”, and if I’m going to have a champion to cheer for on a show, it’s one with brains and a little help in the heart department rather than one with much lesser intelligence.  Because, those with brains are always seeking more — and those with less are satisfied with enough.  I’d rather have more….

“But it was complex stuff. . . it wasn’t the kind of show in which a viewer could get up during the middle of it, get a sandwich and think, “I’ll catch up when I come back.”  Viewers had to work at watching the show, and perhaps that was a bit too much to ask.  Maybe that’s why they tuned into Cosby instead.”
–Parker Stevenson

The Cosby Show was the number one series on television at the time, so ABC had to take some risks in trying to challenge it.  But ABC did Probe no favors in its promotion.  They touted the involvement of Asimov significantly to the press, believing it to be a significant selling point for the series.  (Asimov had written over 200 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and this was his first significant journey into the realm of television.)  Unfortunately, a great many people took this as meaning the show was simply too highbrow, too focused on the intelligence the viewer brought to the table, and didn’t tune in.  The advertising made the show out to be either “silly” science fiction (in the vein of much earlier television) or “too intelligent” and something that would be better found on Public Television.  Truthfully, Probe presented a much more accessible adventure, if only more of the public would have sampled it.  But they didn’t, and unfortunately that led to the demise of Probe after seven episodes.  The series was many good things, but it almost certainly was not what most people thought it to be originally.  Like Austin James, Probe was sorely misunderstood. 

PARKER STEVENSON (Austin James) first came to fame (and teen idol status) as Frank Hardy, one of the sleuthing brothers on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries.  Other regular/recurring television roles included North and South Book II, the original cast of Baywatch, and Melrose Place.  His birth name is Richard Parker, but he was forced to change it when another actor by that name was already registered with the Screen Actors Guild.

ASHLEY CROW (Michelle “Mickey” Castle) was a regular on both short-lived series Champs and Turks.  She’s best known by genre fans as Sandra Bennet, the wife of the man known as HRG (for “Horn-Rimmed Glasses”) on Heroes.  She’s set to play the grandmother of the lead character Cassie on the new CW series The Secret Circle this fall.

JON CYPHER (Howard Millhouse) was a fixture on television in many series, including Knots Landing, Dynasty, and the soap opera Santa Barbara.  He played Police Chief Daniels for the entire run of Hill Street Blues, and appeared as the General to Major Dad.  He was also active on Broadway, especially in musical like 1776, Man of La Mancha, and Big:  the musical.

CLIVE REVILL (Graham McKinley) is originally from New Zealand, although he’s played everything from British to Chinese to Russian in his lengthy career.  A Shakespearean actor of some note, he’s also been in numerous comedy films. earning a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the movie Avanti!  He will be seen on this site again for his role as the wizard Vector in the series Wizards and Warriors.

Mickey and Austin

Probe has never been released on DVD, although episodes are available, in chunks, on YouTube.  (I’d recommend using the link provided, rather than looking for them yourself, because the majority are listed under the specific episode titles and NOT found when doing a search for the Probe TV series.) Those who posted the episodes run a site called Probe Resurrected, home to lots of information about the series, including quotes from various episodes and links to further information, as well as fan fiction and more.

There’s a very fine line between genius and crazy, a line that’s very hard to see by many.  Those who live on the edge of that line often are asked to justify their behavior to others.  In the pilot episode, there’s a running bit about Mickey having to prove her intelligence by coming up with a limerick about Austin, and her final result at the end of the episode reveals volumes about this odd, highly intelligent, and perhaps crazy man named Austin James.  It goes like this:

“There once was a wizard named James
Whose genius exceeded all claims.
He could solve out of hand
All the problems of man
And tell you it’s all just a game…”

If that’s not a great description of Probe, then you’ll never understand any other.  It’s just crazy smart fun.

Vital Stats

7 aired episodes (a 2-hour pilot and six hour-long episodes) — none unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  March 7, 1988
Final aired episode:  April 14, 1988
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Up against The Cosby Show, it aired on Thursday nights at 8/7 Central.  The only mystery Austin James couldn’t solve was how to beat Cosby in the ratings.

Comments and suggestions welcome, as always

–Tim R.

Clever SF writer Arthur C. Clarke once famously said that any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.  While this might be true, it doesn’t lessen in the least the mystery of more modern tech, and the crimes which can be created with its use.  It takes an extremely smart person to figure out such things, and separate magic from science… and fortunately, the smartest man in the world loves impossible mysteries. But is he also the craziest?

Five quotes:

“I’m about to take you on the greatest adventure of your life.  You’ll probably never even thank me for it.”

“What do you use for a heart?  A pocket calculator?”

…the modern mysteries of our scientific and technological world could be just as entertaining as a traditional parlour mystery…

His skills at interacting with people were almost non-existent.

There’s a very fine line between genius and crazy…

A show from 20 years ago, but cutting edge for its time.  It was co-created by another SF writer, but based completely in fact.  Read about the series which celebrated cleverness above all, featured this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

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