I’ve been catching up on the TNT series Falling Skies this week.
Although I’d been meaning to look at it for a while, I was prodded into action last week at Comic-Con, where despite my inattention and the fact I didn’t go to the Falling Skies panel, it kept cropping up in my peripheral vision. One early morning, while hiking over to the Hall H line so we could see the Spielberg Tin-Tin panel, I was handed a free Falling Skies-branded cup of coffee, which I took (of course). “What’s Falling Skies?” David asked. Later that day, we showed up in the Fulfillment Room to trade in our swag tickets for a The River-branded flashlight (mine broke immediately), only to feel jealousy toward the people holding Falling Skies tickets, who were given very nice black hoodies. “What’s Falling Skies, again?” David asked. And finally, while wandering around the exhibit hall, I craned my neck to see what was going on behind a large crowd of excited fans, only to catch a glimpse of Noah Wyle et al doing a Falling Skies signing. “Wait, *what’s* Falling Skies?” David asked.
I can hardly blame him for never quite catching an explanation, as my answers were always unmemorable and vague. “Something about an alien invasion?” I hedged, basing my entire answer on the title, a few promotional stills, and a memory of Noah Wyle looking determined and post-apocalyptic.
So post-Comic-Con, I sat down with the pilot, and quickly found myself five episodes in. It’s a genre I like, and Noah Wyle as Dr. Carter on ER has featured significantly on my TV-viewing experience, and Steven Weber makes an appearance as a heartless, pessimistic doctor. Not too hard for me to enjoy, in other words. But I think Falling Skies makes some particular choices that help propel it past “huh, aliens” and “hey, there’s not much else on TV right now” and lands it squarely in “oh, that’s kind of interesting.”
First, I like the decision to begin the narrative significantly after the aliens first arrive on earth, skipping over the early posturing and confusion and jumping straight into post-apocalyptic survival mode. It’s not an easy or necessarily obvious choice to make. Alien invasions are fun. That first moment where a geek hears a mysterious radio signal, a child points at enormous ships appearing in the sky, clips of newscasters talking over images of the ships above the Eiffel tower, the Sydney Opera House, downtown Hong Kong — these are all entertaining, familiar, and effective, and I love Independence Day as much as the next person. Still, skipping over that part has a few very useful consequences. The writers can no longer rely on those familiar crutches for the first episode, which means original storytelling and character development get a nice jump start. When the tropes of a genre like this are so well-established, the audience is always waiting to find out what will differentiate it from V, or episodes of Doctor Who, or Battle: Los Angeles, Skyline, War of the Worlds, etc. etc. Leaving out the part where everyone first freaks out that aliens have actually arrived, means getting to the interesting, post-invasion stuff faster.
(Note: This was a big problem with V, where the apparently-nice aliens clearly had an evil agenda, but the audience was stuck waiting for the fictional world to figure it out so the story could get a move on already.)
When you do make the choice to skip the actual invasion, of course, the next order of business is to have something potentially interesting to say about the aftermath and your band of plucky survivors. Falling Skies doesn’t stretch much in the plucky-survivor department: gruff former military guy, hot traumatized pediatrician, religious chick, teenagers-turned-soldiers, sad children, black guy with lots of guns, bad biker dude, pregnant lady, and of course, father and former history professor Noah Wyle. His is really the only character with an unexpected trajectory, and it’s pleasing to see that he can jump immediately into the role of a gun-toting militant without first having to pass through an awkward, academics-have-no-practical-skills phase. (Another benefit of jettisoning the classic invasion opening).
Where Falling Skies does little to advance the typical formula for apocalypse survival groups, though, it does make some smart choices about its colonizing horde. The “skitters” are a classic, reptilian model Alien Overlord: always good for the initial revulsion factor but lacking in long-term appeal without further development. Thankfully, Falling Skies immediately opens a few avenues for entertaining stories, the most important of which is to question the skitters’ motives. Too often you’ll run into alien invaders with little more than a Dalek-ian desire to exterminate, and for a television story that runs over several episodes, it’s helpful to give your aliens a little something extra. In this case, the skitters have a disturbing propensity for stealing human children and attaching them to alien harnesses for frightening, as-yet-unknown purposes. There’s also a great moment where a minor character points out that although the skitters themselves have six legs, they build bipedal robots. This small detail is just the sort of thing to elevate an otherwise basic invasion story — it’s simple, suggestive without being overly obvious, and it piques curiosity without telegraphing its purpose.
Falling Skies is perhaps most intriguing as a television show (as opposed to a movie, or the premise for a few individual episodes), and it uses a device that gives it an edge over a show like V, which had a similar premise but clearly lacked momentum. Especially in its first few episodes, Falling Skies uses an episode structure that most resembles the narrative formulas in video games, and I say this with admiration rather than disdain. The show faces a problem any serialized drama copes with — how to portion out the big story into small pieces, and how to make each of those pieces individually entertaining — and at least in the beginning, Falling Skies solves this by employing a mission formula much like Gears of War, or Mass Effect, or any number of other games. In order to tackle the Big Bad, protagonists must first complete some related, smaller-scale tasks, and the success or failure of these missions gives the episode shape while also developing the larger story. In one episode, Noah Wyle’s character Mason leads a raid on a motorcycle shop, because the survivors need more vehicles to scout the skitters efficiently, and this task facilitates the later mission of rescuing Mason’s son from a skitter patrol. After several episodes, the individual mission formula breaks down a little, but that’s all right: at this point, it’s done its job. I credit the video game mission structure for a significant piece of what differentiates the dynamic, perpetually-moving Falling Skies from V, a show that remained astonishingly static for too long.
I’m pleased Falling Skies was renewed for a second season. It’s exciting to see a television show take a familiar genre and freshen it up just a little, and it makes very good summer TV viewing. And hey, here I am saying that promotional materials do actually work, especially when they come in the shape of a free cup of coffee.