Falling Skies: The Complete First Season
The TNT show "Falling Skies," set to premiere its second season on June 17, is both a sci-fi action adventure series and a family drama. The two genres coexist uneasily, and not always successfully, in the ten episodes of the first season, which are now available on DVD, but both elements of the series do have a way of engaging the viewer over time.
The series, created by Robert Rodat (screenwriter of the Steven Spielberg-directed "Saving Private Ryan;" Spielberg lends his services as producer), starts off in the middle of a resistance effort against an occupying alien force. It’s possible, bit by bit, to piece things together over the course of Season One’s ten episodes: Six months earlier, aliens arrives in vast mother ships. Human beings, no doubt primed by moves that imagined benign extraterrestrials (ahem, Mr. Spielberg, that’s you; clever bit of self-reference there, perhaps?) hold off on a first strike against the visitors. Mistake! Before anyone quite grasps what’s going on, the aliens have opened fire, destroying Earth’s major cities and infrastructure and obliterating the world’s military forces, along with about 80% of the population.
Now the mother ships have moved on and an occupying force has been left behind. (For what purpose? We don’t know yet; this is one of the mysteries the series pokes at on occasion but has yet to probe.) The survivors are left to fend off six-legged shock troops called "skitters" and big, roving, robotic killers called "mechs." The skitters have a nasty habit of stealing children and putting organic-looking "harnesses" on them, forcing them to serve as slave labor and built ginormous base stations that tower over the ruins of once-great cities. For Tom Mason ("ER"’s Noah Wiley), this is a matter of some personal concern since his middle son, Ben (Connor Jessup), a kid of about 14, has been taken, harnessed, and put to work as a drone.
Tom is, or was, a professor of history, so he has an encyclopedic knowledge of warfare throughout the ages. He’s always offering his insights on how a ragged band of insurgents like the 2nd Massachusetts, the impromptu militia he now belongs to, can fight off the aliens, who are more numerous and whose technology (much of it surprisingly primitive) is still functional, unlike most human machines. (The resistance fighters do manage to get a few motorcycles working, however, lending the show a bit of panache.)
Tom spends much of the first season dividing his time between helping plan a major offensive against the aliens’ Boston base and serving as a go-between to ease tensions between the soldiers and the civilian survivors. (There are a number of parallels between this show and the much better written "Battlestar Galactica," but the military vs. civilians theme is the most prominent.) Tom also has two other sons he strives to keep safe. Hal (Drew Roy) is 16, dark-haired and brooding, a natural babe magnet. Matt (Maxim Knight) is only about 10, but he’s self-possessed and hard-headed, just as junior heroes on sci-fi shows tend to be, whether it’s Will Robinson from "Lost in Space," Wesley Crusher from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," or Lucas Wolenczak from that other Spielberg TV sci-fi drama, "SeaQuest."
At least, unlike the others from those earlier shows, Matt’s not an insufferable little genius. But he does have a penchant for hanging around with the show’s resident bad / good guy, a guy named John Pope (Colin Cunningham), who, with his wont for off-the-cuff nicknames and his long greasy hair, seems to be a reincarnation of Sawyer from "Lost." (Even for a show that wears its influences on its sleeve, Pope is a little too transparently of a type.) If anyone is the irritatingly unlikely genius in this ragtag ensemble, it’s Pope; he’s a gourmet cook and he knows how to build sophisticated explosives. That makes him invaluable to the resistance, if only he can be trusted.
The leader of the 2nd Mass is a fellow named Weaver (Will Patton). His is an even more tiresome character; Weaver strives to be a hard-ass, but never quite pulls it off. (Losing the ponytail would be a good start.) He’s flawed in many predictable, televisual ways, none of them very interesting. Patton’s performance saves the character from being nothing more than an exasperating cipher; we can only hope for some real development there in the second season. (And why, oh why, does Noah Wylie keep playing characters that rub up uncomfortably against superiors named Weaver--the name of the chief of the ER played by Laura Innes on Wylie’s previous series?)
The leader of the civilians (or at least their mot effective advocate), other than Tom, is Dr. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood), a pediatrician thrust into the difficult role of sole medical provider for the 2nd Mass and the civilians under its protection. (She also serves as a pioneering alien anatomist when Tom captures a live skitter for her to study.) Like Tom, Anne has lost her husband; unlike Tom, she has also lost her children. The two seem tailor-made to fall in love, and before the season is over that seems to be exactly what they do.
On a show like this, where recurring characters are built into the fabric of a season with the intention of killing them off later, it can be hard to tell which characters are in for the long haul and which are fodder destined to be sacrificed to the ratings gods. But two other characters stand out as prospects for survival over multiple seasons: Rick (Daniyah Ysrayl), a harnessed teen rescued, and de-harnessed, by Mason and his people (the twist: Rick wants nothing more than to be reunited with the aliens, and sees himself as one of them), and Margaret (Sarah Carter), a tough chick (and likely romantic interest for Hal) who used to run with Pope (for whom she is also, in the fashion of "Lost’s" long-running love triangle, a likely love interest: Already, he seems to adore her; she seems to loathe him; but how does she really feel?).
Season One tries far too hard to be a family drama, and though it’s well produced, doesn’t seem to have the budget to live up to the epic adventure series it wants to be. The CGI is good for TV, but it’s still noticeably fake, sometimes more so than others. The military operation the show spends ten episodes leading up to is murky and poorly organized, or at least inadequately portrayed. And there’s a sudden twist that literally drops from the sky at the end of the last episode, providing a cliffhanger that fans of "The X Files" will groan in aggravation to see recycled here. And yet: I, for one, will be watching come June 17; the show isn’t great, but it is entertaining and possesses glimmers of intelligence that might, with time, help the show blossom into something better.
The DVD set’s special features are pretty run of the mill. The featurette "Animating a Skitter" goes behind the scenes to show us how the show’s FX team goes about rendering the alien beasties in CGI (and, on occasion, with puppets). It’s informative, but the throbbing soundtrack doesn’t manage to make it exciting. Another featurette, "Behind the Scenes," is similar, but more general in focus. Both have the feel of commercials run on TNT to promote the show, as does "Unanswered Questions" Season 2 Sneak Peek." (Not much sneaking or peeking here, actually. For the real scoop, you’re gonna have to tune in on June 17.)
"Falling Skies Panel: San Diego Comic-Con 2011" is straight-up documentary footage of the show’s stars and producers in discussion and Q&A. A number of episodes also feature forgettable audio commentary options.
Series fans will want to buy this because that’s what fans do. Casual viewers might drop $40 just to be able to catch up, fill in the gaps, and be ready to jump in when Season 2 commences.