Review by Art Schmidt
I dig summer shows. I like the trend the last several years of having a small set of summer shows on television that are quirky, different, and give you something to do on the few (!) days you aren’t out biking, vacationing, lounging by the pool or sizzling at the beach. And few summer shows since Monk debuted have grabbed my attention the way Falling Skies did.
As for the premise of this TNT series, which ran for ten episodes through the summer, it has some promise. The series starts approximately six months after the invasion, and the aliens have already kicked a large portion of the world’s ass. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when first learning about this, after all what’s an Earth Invasion story without the invasion part! But really, we’ve already had this past year Battle L.A. (standard alien army invasion), the newly re-spun V (standard aliens subverting human society from within), Super 8 (standard kids find aliens and save earth/it/both), and the Death Eaters invading Hogwarts (non-standard AWESOME!!!). So, I guess we’ve seen enough invading to slake that thirst for a while. Besides, the departure from the norm hinted at the potential of something new and innovative, and I bought in.
As far as standard science-fiction goes, it has several of my favorite sci-fi elements in it. Let’s go down the list, shall we?
1. Aliens Invade Earth? Check! A staple of mass-market science-fiction fare since its birth in the 1940s, this plot device comes chock-full of good, accessible dramatic elements.
– Humans being killed and persecuted? We humans can relate!
– Fighting against Earth’s military? Hey, we know someone who’s actually in that military!
– Taking over an Earth city? Hey, we ate at the Chili’s in that city once!
– Aliens blowing up famous landmarks? We know their significance and feel some emotion when they crumble (at least, we used to before ID4 and the host of movies that followed it blew up every major landmark known to man on a near-constant basis).
Irrelevant Tangent Warning: If ‘Blockbuster-Demolition-Fatigue’ isn’t already a term, then I just coined it. “What’s the matter, dude?” “Major BDF man.” “Bummer dude.” It even sounds like a mildly uncomfortable disease. Copyright 2011 🙂
BTW, you won’t get demo-fatigue from Falling Skies. If anything, there is a lack of combat and a deference for the human drama of the situation (more on that later). Just when you think there is going to be a big firefight or a confrontation with armed aliens, it doesn’t happen (like I said, more on that later). And then, when the humans argue amongst themselves, you might expect more bloodshed. But again, things are left un-resolved (Hey! I said more on that later!) Fine, Mister Bossypants.
2. Futuristic Weapons and Gizmos? Check! The alien invaders do not have hand-held weapons as we’ve come to expect; however, they have mechanical bi-pedal robots that escort them around and pack an enormous amount of firepower. They reminded me of the ED-209 from Robocop, but more sinister-looking and taller. Another departure from the norm, and after all, that’s what makes good Sci-Fi! At least, it’s a good start. The aliens also have biological devices that they use to control Earth children, as well, which the humans call ‘harnesses’, and this gives the aliens a form of telepathic control over the wearer. Oh, and one of their ‘mother ships’ landed in the middle of downtown Boston, and we’re told similar massive ships landed in most other major cities world-wide.
They serve as a base of operations for the Skitters and the airships, but what else are they for? What goes on inside? No one knows (yet)! Pretty cool stuff.
3. Space travel? Well, given that the series follows the Earth-bound human remnants who barely have working internal-combustion engine vehicles, there hasn’t been anything going on in space. Yet. However, given the cliffhanger ending (NO SPOILER) we may see some next season. ‘Nuff said.
4. Hot chicks? Check! Sorry, I meant highly intelligent, self-sufficient, alien-butt-kicking women who also happen to be attractive. Let’s face it, the guys in these things can look like average joes and they’re fine as long as they have a gun or can use a keyboard, but the gals have to be attractive. Seven-of-Nine. Number Six. Counselor Troi and Doctor Crusher. Zoe and Kaylee. Starbuck. Even President Roslin (a.k.a. First Lady Whitmore) qualifies as a cougar. Admiral Cain and Kendra Shaw, Replicants Rachael and Pris; the list goes on.
Falling Skies has done its part to keep the stereotype alive, casting not two but three very nice looking young ladies in the three female lead and supporting roles.
Moon Bloodgood (Terminator: Salvation, Burn Notice) is the militia unit’s resident doctor and main love interest of our hero, Tom Mason, played by an uncomfortably-scruffy Noah Wyle (ER, The Librarian TV movies, Donnie Darko). Sarah Carter (Shark TV series, Final Destination 2) plays Maggie, the standard tough-as-nails gun-toting chick with a chip on her shoulder and a secret past. And finally Seychelle Gabriel (The Last Airbender, The Spirit) plays the young Lourdes, assistant to the (Blood)good doctor in her duties, and with a secret crush on Hal Mason, Tom Mason’s oldest son played by Drew Roy (Secretariat, Hanna Montana TV series).
Plenty of drama abounds with these characters and the male leads, which brings us to…
5. Human drama? Check, but with an asterisk. We all know that shiny space ships, flashing lasers and leather-clad women will only keep an audience’s interest for so long. There has to be something going on with the characters other than fighting and dying. And that’s where Falling Skies starts to go amiss. All of the building blocks appear to be in place for some good human drama. The aliens are kidnapping children, some of whom belong to the folks in our little band of survivors, and the aliens are turning them into slaves. There is a small militia group protecting a larger civilian group who want more freedom and better conditions; the militia leadership is keeping the best for themselves. There are good guys and there are not-so-good guys, like the aptly-named John Pope, the self-centered opportunist with the potential for a heart of gold played well by Colin Cunningham (Stargate: SG-1, Elektra) who loves nothing more than devising ways to kill the ‘cooties’, as he calls the aliens.
Irrelevant Tangent Warning: Note to the Writers: Please stop making Pope call the aliens ‘cooties’. It’s not funny or cute after the first time. It makes Pope’s character who has otherwise shown himself to be quite clever and cunning suddenly seem like a third-grade drop-out. Then again, ‘Skitters’ isn’t much better…
Then there’s the leader of the 2nd Mass, Captain Weaver played by Will Patton (Armageddon, The Postman, Remember the Titans). The character has so much of the semi-crazy my-way-or-the-highway military man in him that it makes the few times he softens up (assisting in a breech birth!) seem weird and uncomfortable.
Like all new shows, the series is trying to find its footing, figure out what works for these characters and their strange situation and what doesn’t, and where they can take things that is fascinating and new without being strange and unwatchable. And they’ve stumbled a few times, and succeeded a few more, and I’m definitely tuning in next summer to see where things go from here. But the one major issue that ran through the entire first season is that there is no real sense of danger or urgency about the characters or their activities. They talk like the aliens are bad-ass, they conquered every country and every military on the planet, but you just don’t feel any of that fear, any of that menace.
Sure, when the aliens show up they fight and run, but when there are no aliens on screen the characters almost act as if the aliens can’t show up. They aren’t on edge, and though they walk briskly from place to place they don’t seem to understand that ALIENS HAVE TAKEN OVER THE ENTIRE WORLD! That’s the one major thing that has bothered me since the second episode; the characters don’t act like they are in near-constant danger of being captured or killed. It’s as if the aliens are in the city, and the humans are in the country, and that’s just fine with everyone. The civilians, the militia, everyone; they all just seem like things are hunky-dory and they’ll go attack the aliens when they’re good and ready.
In the last episode (MINOR SPOILER ALERT!) Mason and Weaver are standing inside Boston, alone and on foot, looking up at the aliens’ mother ship / headquarters. Mason aims an RPG at one of the smaller airships and hits it; an RPG which is not heat-seeking nor remote-guided, by the way. The damaged ship crashes into the mother ship and explosions begin inside of it. Two guys, alone, standing on the street where any alien could easily pop their heads off. Attacking the larger-than-an-aircraft-carrier mother ship. With an RPG. And they only had the one rocket.
I thought for a moment I was back in 1993 playing Doom on my 486 PC. I cringed as the characters laughed, and the explosions continued for a few seconds. Thankfully, the entire structure did not come crashing to the ground, because I would have immediately put a permanent block on my DVR for anything with the term ‘Falling Skies’ in it. Luckily, the show saved itself, at least in my eyes.
And yet, the two characters continued to stand there, smiling and talking about how they gave the aliens something to remember. As they did so, I thought about how the U.S. military would have immediately dispatched Apache attack helicopters full of armed marines to trace the smoke trail of that RPG back to its source and eliminate the enemy within minutes, if not seconds. You know, the U.S. military that these aliens over-powered with their even-more-advanced technology and weapons.
The one thing Falling Skies desperately needs in its sophomore season is someone running around screaming “The Sky is Falling! The SKY is FALLING!!” I’m no chef, but the producers might try throwing a little chicken in with all of that ham.