Watching “Falling Skies”

Falling Skies at Comic-Con 2010

Image by starbright31 via Flickr

WARNING: SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN UP TO EPISODE SIX OF FALLING SKIES AND WANT TO; DO NOT READ ON!

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Earth has been invaded by strange, six-legged creatures from outer space. Everything that we rely on has been destroyed and mankind is forced to flee the cities we knew and learn to work togther again in order to survive. Not only are we homeless, hungry, and confused; but to make matters worse our alien colonisers are capturing our children and using them as zombie slaves to do their bidding.

The premise of Steven Spielberg’s new sci-fi drama Falling Skies is intriguing and thought-provoking, but unfortunately its execution leaves something to be desired. While the sets and costumes are all recognisable and realistic, the characters themselves are not.

Now I’m not sure if their incompetence, short-sightedness and inconsistency is supposed to be an intentional comment on the dysfunctional collaborative nature of our blinkered society (and it is true that lots of humans working together are often Very Stupid) but in this case they just don’t make sense. Why wouldn’t you capture an alien as soon as you could in order to interrogate/dissect it? Why would you only collect heavy, inflexible, tinned food instead of something versatile like maize (or, perhaps, grow your own)? How long did it take you to work out that if you disable a creature with six legs it will then stay still long enough for you to shoot it in the head? Why didn’t you talk to the alien when you had the chance? In short, didn’t any of you watch science fiction programmes before this happened??

What doesn’t help is the episodic nature of the series – and yes, I am aware that a series consists of episodes. What I feel is a let-down is the lack of continuity between episodes. Events occur in one which have no bearing on the next. In Episode 4, for example, the refugee camp’s surgeon dies and the pediatrician working with him stabs an alien to death. In Episode 5, nobody mentions the death or the surgeon, not even to say what a bugger it is that they lost someone so useful; and the pediatrician is unable to defend herself against a human. Hell, the progatonist’s son’s girlfriend was kidnapped by aliens in the second or third episode and he hasn’t mentioned her since! What happened? Did they just forget?

It is as though the status quo is reset at the end of every episode so that the characters can deal with new events without having to acknowledge what went before. This gives the overall impression that they are not learning or experiencing anything and so the series trajectory feels very slow and flat.

The events do not have further-reaching consequences and the characters merely react to what is happening to them this week rather than growing on their own as a result of what happened last week. I can see how in certain dramas – Stargate being the obvious example – that the episodic approach works. It keeps things fresh, there is always something new to deal with, and there are no major twists to our characters’ statuses – we know they will be back to fight another day. But that is because the characters in Stargate do reset the status quo each episode: they return to Earth. And their time dealing with events is limited, as they only have so much time to spend on alien worlds before they need to go back home. That’s the deal: they travel on short trips to other planets but they always have to come back to what they know.

The problem with Falling Skies is that this is not the case. The entire world has changed as a result of alien invasion and so have everyone’s roles. So this inability to learn from their mistakes, or acknowledge past events makes the viewer feel as though they are merely watching something unfold from a distance and that they are disconnected from the characters. We have not had time, as yet, to see them not reacting, but simply acting.

I think the writers have missed a trick here, as this could be a brilliant thought-experiment: what would we, the urban masses, do if all our electronic comforts were taken away and life became a fight for survival? How would we go about organising ourselves? But these decisions have been taken away from us as viewers. Six months have already passed since the invasion and, predicatably, the military have taken control; shipping civilians from safe place to safe place and on the way gathering as much ammunition as possible for the frequent firefights that take place. There is very little concern for character development, personal reactions (save that of “Bring me back my children”) or societal changes. Women (mostly, apart from the edgy one – and there is only one) do the cooking and the healing; men (even the professors) do the fighting, and the civilians do what civilians do best: stay anonymous and take up all the space.

This is not to say that there haven’t been some lovely Life After Invasion moments, but just that there have been too few so far. The children’s schooling takes place in abandoned classrooms, with the world’s previous high-flying scientists and professors extolling the virtues of learning and exploration to dislocated teen and tweens. It’s lovely to see what the writers think we should teach: how important science and exploration are, how we can rebuild ourselves using education and ingenuity, not merely facts with no bearing on the real world. Baby showers and birthday parties are thrown, and communities are still seen to be thriving – although the how of this is unknown. These are all well and good, and nice to see, but in such short bursts feel a little cliche and easy. The few moments of civilian conflict are solved by military types shouting a lot, and those who do break the rules have so far had their comeuppance. There has been no room to really consider what could happen, and in place of this complex society we could be seeing, we are shown mostly action scenes; shooting and fighting aliens without much thought as to what to do next.

I can see that there has been some attempt to reinstate the human aspect, and the action scenes are punctuated by moments among families. But due to the static nature of the series so far, these family scenes seem schmaltzy and overall they mostly detract from what could otherwise have been an excellent, modern-day War of the Worlds.

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