Falling Skies Ahead

Last month, TNT premiered Falling Skies,  the new Dreamworks sci-fi series executive produced by Steven Spielberg about survivors of a modern-day alien invasion.

Unlike what its teaser commercials suggested, Falling Skies’ pilot did not feature the typical initial alien arrival, contact and pyrotechnic invasion scenario. Rather it begins several months after the aliens (called “skitters”) have wiped out the world’s armies and have laid waste everywhere. This is clearly not Independence Day  or even Battlestar Galactica in terms of big budget effects scenes. This can be disappointing for some but it’s a different take and risky, while also being budget conscious. And it largely works.

Why? It’s a good hook for audiences who have to be able to catch up with what is going on. Here’s the skinny, the show takes place in and around Boston and focuses on the efforts of a ragtag group of civilians, soldiers and recruits who form a militia group called the Second Massachusetts to fight back against the aliens. Apparently the humans in the show are just as much in the dark as the viewer is when it comes to knowing who the aliens are or why they came to Earth. To its credit the show gives out adequate morsels of information about the situation and characters to keep you interested.

Jumping into the middle of the premise helped draw me into the characters’ storyline since everything wasn’t laid out. Unfortunately, this approach was used to a much greater effect in AMC’s excellent series The Walking Dead.  That show had more engaging and memorable characters. Also, at times Falling Skies gets a little too preachy or sentimental. Additionally, some of the military stuff seems far-fetched specifically when it comes to logistics (having soldiers sleep indoors but not civilians? Nice way to sow resentment, plus doesn’t that leave civilians more vulnerable to the aliens?).

As the main character of the show, it falls on Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a widowed history professor and second in command of the militia group,  to be the reason why audiences tune in. He’s got an interesting story, his wife was killed recently by aliens and one of his three sons has been kidnapped and turned into a zombified slave for the aliens through a horrifying biomechanical device attached to his back (in the show, children are being taken by the aliens and turned into a labor force through these devices). So his driving focus is to rescue his son. Yet it can be a challenge to be invested in Mason. I think it’s because sometimes he comes off as too moral, too optimistic while everyone around him is all doom and gloom. He spouts off analogies about history showing that invading forces are always repelled by indigenous populations but no one seems to take him seriously when he does that, not even histwo other sons. This doesn’t quite gel with the survivor mentality that pervades many of the show’s characters.

But in Falling Skies’ defense the characters are already becoming more fleshed out. Mason has shown a grittier side, and it appears that he probably projects this image for his children’s sake (though being that his youngest son already wants to join him on missions makes me wonder how successful Mason is, but I get the feeling that will be explored). Also, some of the other characters are beginning to stand out. Chiefly Moon Bloodgood’s Anne Glass, a pediatrician who becomes the group’s chief doctor and moral compass, Will Patton’s Captain Weaver, the no-nonsense commanding officer of the group who struggles to keep his people (and especially Mason) focused on the larger goal of winning the war, and Colin Cunningham’s John Pope, an ex-convict and former gang leader who was captured in the pilot for kidnapping Mason and others in exchange for weapons. In lots of ways, Pope comes off as a loose but effective cannon in the same vein as was Michael Ironside’s Ham Tyler in V.

The production values are remarkably good, effectively conveying a destroyed landscape that just barely resembles towns and cities. I also like the attention to local detail in regards to Boston’s geography which adds authenticity. The special effects are top notch and a blessing considering how poor they were in some recent TV shows.

It’s really great that the skitters are shown to be non-bipedal creatures, a rarity for TV shows, and are an excellent special effect. However, the mechanical soldiers that the skitters use look more like obvious CGI. Many scenes are too dark and sometimes hard to follow. But it does add to the tension that’s sometimes felt in those scenes. Perhaps it’s to hide the budgetary constrictions but hopefully this will change in the future.

On the whole, I think Falling Skies is a good, entertaining show with potential. The growing pains are obvious.  It doesn’t hit the ball out of the ballpark like The Walking Dead did but it feels like a solid score. At this point early into the series, making a final judgment is premature however I’m devoting time to keep watching and see how it plays out, and that’s a good sign.

J.L. Soto

Images courtesy of TNT, cast photo by Frank Ockenfels