Curiously, this past decade the entertainment industry seems to have been gripped by an Armageddon and post-Apocalyptic fever that almost rivals the Cold War atmosphere I experienced growing up. But instead of atomic mutants and doomsday threats based on the real possibility of nuclear war, it’s end-of-the-world scenarios that are rooted in science fiction and fantasy that now dominate the industry. Well, that and the reality show—which still counts because, as I understand it, it’s one of the first signs of the Apocalypse.
On television, maybe it began with “Jeremiah,” a short-lived Showtime series that aired between 2002-04 and featured survivors of a “big death” that took out almost every adult, leaving the world to children, now grown up. Or “Odyssey 5,” a series in which a group of astronauts gets a chance to go back in time and prevent the destruction of Earth that they witnessed from space. Later came “Lost” (2004), which seemed a combination of the reality show “Survivor” and a scenario that drew heavily on Apocalyptic elements. Now, everywhere you turn there are people looking to survive in a world that’s been ravaged by . . . you name it. In “The Walking Dead” (2010) it’s people trying to survive a zombie plague; in “Falling Skies,” a popular TNT series, it’s the aftermath of an alien attack that has decimated humankind and sparked a resistance movement among survivors.
Years from now historians will probably link the decade’s Armageddon/Apocalypse mania to September 11 and the Bush rhetoric (“If you’re not with us, you’re against us”) and polarizing policies that recreated a Cold War atmosphere. Or scholars will point to the world financial crisis that had everyone worrying about their own doomsdays, while environmentalists will turn to global warming to explain the apocalyptic attraction.
Whatever the theory, “Falling Skies: Season 1” is representative of the times, but it’s also entertainment worthy. And it has the backing of executive producer Steven Spielberg, who also was involved with “Terra Nova,” the now-cancelled show about humans who go back 85 million years to try to give a dying Earth a second chance. Gasp. So . . . close!
So why am I bothering you with all this? Because nothing occurs in a vacuum—least of all sci-fi shows. Fans of “Lost” will recognize some of the same character structures in “Falling Skies”—the nice guy white-collar professional who’s drafted into leadership because of his intellect; the long-haired bad boy who was less fit for polite society than he is for this fight; the older guy who is a sage of sorts; the pregnant woman; the “others”; and a multi-racial cast. And the whole survivalist plot is something we’ve seen before.
The setting is Massachusetts, where the American Revolution caught fire. In “Falling Skies,” an alien attack that may or may not have afflicted the entire country, has decimated the Boston area, and presumably the nation’s military and federal leadership, because it’s left to “irregulars” to mount a resistance. In command of the 2nd Massachusetts Militia Regiment is Captain Weaver (Will Patton), who takes orders from Porter (Dale Dye) and tries to balance recon-and-resist tactics with the reality that the 2nd Mass is also charged with protecting a contingency of civilians who have fled their homes and are now moving with the military wherever the aliens aren’t. They’re both a resistance movement and a mobile refugee camp, dependent upon teams who make commando raids on food stores just to survive.
The focus is on Tom Mason (Noah Wyle, “ER”), who was a history professor specializing in military tactics at Boston University when the aliens attacked. He’s named second in command, but like all the rest he comes to the movement with battle scars already. In Mason’s case, he lost his wife to the aliens and is missing a son (Connor Jessup as Ben). Now, he finds himself torn between wanting to serve and wanting to protect his boys: teenage Hal (Drew Roy) and the youngest, Matt (Maxim Knight).
I personally like that the story begins in media res, with the surviving humans dodging lights from overhead alien ships and trying to avoid both the “skitters” (creatures that look like Mr. Waternoose from “Monsters, Inc.,” but with a “Predator” head) and the two-legged droids that prowl the perimeters, impervious to bullets. This season the irregulars try to figure out how to kill the aliens and their bots, while also trying to figure out how to save the children who have been "harnessed" by the aliens."
Moon Bloodgood is the female lead and love interest as Dr. Anne Glass, a pediatrician who’s the only doctor the 2nd Mass has got. It’s hard not to think of the Evangeline Lily and Matthew Fox model as her relationship with Tom unfolds. And it’s hard not to think of the Others at several junctures, or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at another. But the concept of the “harnesses” that the aliens put on the children they’re trying to round up (why the children?) is kind of cool. We have seen most of this before, and there’s one jaw-dropping moment that has you thinking, Really? Likewise, not all of the actors are equally adept at making you believe them and their situations, and the writers put a few too many history lessons into the mix.
We get it, already. It’s like the American Revolution, but with skitters instead of lobsterbacks, and Noah Wyle instead of Noah Webster.
But you know what? Though the characters may be stock, the “message” a little heavy-handed, and the survivalist plot something we’ve seen before, “Falling Skies” still grabs you from the start and holds onto you throughout the whole 10 first-season episodes.
Total run-time is 450 minutes. Since it’s a serial drama I won’t list the episodes—too much of a giveaway. They’re housed on three single-sided discs in a bi-fold cardboard and plastic case, which, unfortunately, has one disc tucked under another.
I’m curious to see what this looks like in HD, because the DVD video presentation, while generally solid, gets a little muddy in dark scenes, and the edges are indistinct. The palette is muted, but the skin tones and colors look natural. I’d also like to see how much detail and grain there is, by comparison. As is, the DVD is of pretty standard quality for a recent release. “Falling Skies” is presented in 16x9 widescreen. That’s the short version. The long version is that it’s “presented in a ‘letterbox’ widescreen format preserving the ‘scope’ aspect ratio of its original theatrical exhibition enhanced for widescreen TVs.”
The audio is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with an additional audio option in Brazilian Portuguese and subtitles in ESDH, Latin Spanish, French Parisian, and Brazilian Portuguese. With a decent (but not dominant) bass and a nice timbre, the soundtrack is so proficient that the only complaint I have is that, like so many other contemporary films and TV shows, the action is recorded SO MUCH LOUDER than the dialogue, and this means you’ll be toggling back and forth or else listening to the dialogue in whisper mode.
Included here is a sneak peek at Season 2, an “Animating a Skitter” (4 min.) feature that shows how the aliens were drawn and brought to life. Then there’s a panel from the San Diego Comic-Con 2011 featuring the cast and crew (21 min.) that’s lively and energetic, with Debra Birnbaum moderating, and two three-minute featurettes that feel like promos: “The Unknown” (about the idea of an alien invasion) and “The Second Mass” (about the resistance). But I would have preferred a more detailed look at the Revolutionary War “Second Mass” and other Second Mass’s in history, since the hero is a history prof and wants to teach us all a lesson.
Finally, there are two episode-specific commentary tracks featuring director Greg Beeman, writer Mark Verheiden, and actor Wyle. They’re for the last two episodes of the season: “Mutiny” and “Season Finale: Eight Hours.” Both are worth a listen, but they’re pretty average.
“Falling Skies” drew 6.9 million viewers for Season 1 and was basic cable’s Number 1 new series of 2011, according to Nielsen Media Research. My teenage son was one of them. He loves the series, and thankfully kept his mouth shut as the family watched the DVDs of Season 1.
Despite some heavy-handedness and familiarity, “Falling Skies” is done well, with enough personal drama and believable special effects to make you want to keep watching right up until the season finale cliffhanger . . . and beyond. And while there are a few violent parts, the producers have done a nice job of deemphasizing bloodshed and graphic elements, so as to make this TNT series as family-friendly as shows about fighting aliens can get.