Monday, June 20, 2011

Falling Skies -- Alien Occupation TV Done Right?

The vast majority of "Alien Invasion" SFnal storylines follow a very familiar pattern. The aliens arrive, sometimes pretending to be friendly. The aliens attack. The aliens defeat us. We keep fighting. For some reason, either because of some gimmick or because of human tenacity, the aliens are defeated/leave. We all rejoice.

This pattern is used in H.G. Well's "War of the Worlds," Edgar Rice Burroughs' "The Moon Maid," Larry Niven's "Known Space," Jerry Pournelle/Larry Niven's "Footfall," Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers," L. Ron Hubbard's "Battlefield Earth," etc., and too many movies and television shows to list. The fact that it is formula doesn't mean that it isn't good. It is a tried and true formula that allows for narrative excitement while also allowing for a cathartic happy ending. When done extremely well, it also allows for sfnal commentary on modern human affairs.

The new TNT series "Falling Skies" is the latest television addition to this storied tradition. In "Falling Skies," the aliens have already invaded, destroyed most of the world's large cities, and crushed the military might of Earth. All that remain are ever increasingly small bands of humanity. Groups that get smaller as the aliens begin scanning for smaller and smaller communities. In the first episode, we are informed that the aliens are now tracking and attacking communities of 500 citizens and may soon move on to communities of 300 people. When the aliens encounter communities, they kill all the adults and capture the teenage children in order to put the teens in "mind control harnesses." The overall purpose of the harnesses is unknown, but hinted at. The aliens have established permanent bases, in the form of large structures, and their flagships have left our world to unknown locations. The initial shock and awe of the alien assault is over, "Falling Skies" is a tale of occupation and resistance.

"Falling Skies" follows the struggle of one band of the human resistance. That community includes a number of key players.

Porter -- the former military officer who believed that his fighting days were over and must now command a group that has all too few fighting men and women.

Captain Weaver(Will Patton) -- the military man who wants to take the fight to the aliens, and who resents the "civilian baggage" he is responsible for -- forgetting why it is that soldiers fight in the first place.

Tom Mason (Noah Wylie) -- a former professor of American History who has a deep knowledge of military history, but lacks practical experience in the art of war. He has read his Caesar, but had not used a firearm before the invasion.

Anne Glass (Blood Moongood) -- a pediatrician turned omni-doctor, who must minister to all the medical needs of the community.

There are a number of other important players, but Mason, Glass, and Weaver form provide a nice conflict triangle for the first two episodes. Weaver is solely concerned with preparing for combat, Glass is concerned with the health of the community, and Mason tries to balance the needs of society with the necessities of war.

Professor Mason provides the lens through which the narrative of the show progresses. He believes that the struggle of the survivors against the aliens is analogous to the American Revolution and believes that if we fight hard enough that it becomes a more expensive/difficult for the aliens to remain than the benefits they gain from occupation, then they will leave. It is Mason who describes the strategy needed in a way that exactly mirrors the traditional sfnal alien invasion tale. It also happens to mirror George Washington's strategy against the British.

The first episode is an engaging introduction to the stakes of the series. The survivors need food, and they need to find out why the aliens are capturing human children. Mason, and a small squad of the resistance, backtrack into the area the community is fleeing to find food and to see if they can locate any harnessed children. It is hoped that they can rescue the children, and find out what the harnesses are for. So far, all attempts to remove the harnesses from children have resulted in the death of the child and no increase the understanding of their purpose. The episode is engaging, and hints that "Falling Skies" can be an occupation/invasion story of the best kind.

It is in the second episode where the edges begin to fray, and the show risks becoming a retread of previously explored narratives -- and uninteresting narratives at that. In the second episode, "The Armory," the resistance is exploring an Armory in pursuit of additional weapons. They soon discover that there are more dangers than the alien "Skitters" that wander the post-invasion landscape. There are also wandering marauders who are on holiday from 80s post-apocalyptic narratives. The marauders of "The Armory" are led by the morally ambiguous ex-con John Pope (Colin Cunningham) who has found that the lawlessness of the post-invasion world suits his brutal nature.

[rant]Why is it that we always have to have the "morally ambiguous leader of wasteland marauders" in these stories? Can't we just do without them? Maybe have the morally ambiguous threat, or even sinister threat, lie hidden in the civilian population rather than as a leader of a roving band of maniacs.[/rant]

As disappointing as the John Pope narrative is, all hope for a good series is not lost as the upcoming third episode adds some interesting narrative conflicts. "The Armory" also includes some good character growth in the Weaver, Mason, and Glass characters.

I have pretty high hopes for the show. I also have a prediction regarding why the kids are being harnessed. I think that the children are being harnessed so that they can become the "pilots" of the alien's dreaded Mechs.

"Falling Skies" combines many elements of past human/alien conflict stories, including some similarities to the "Tripods" trilogy/quadrology of books by John Christopher. In fact, it is the fact that "Falling Skies" has tropes from so many of my favorite alien occupation stories, rather than just one series, is one of the key reasons I have hope for the series. It seems as if the writers of the show are steeped in the tropes of the genre and are comfortable using them, rather than thinking they are reinventing the invasion genre.

I eagerly await the next episode, "Prisoner of War."
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