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Review #2566: Falling Skies 1.1/1.2: “Live and Learn/The Armory”

Posted on the 22 June 2011 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: J.M.

For any new TV series, the most important this is establishing the characters, the setting, and the plot. In your typical alien invasion series or movie, this usually begins just prior to the invasion and covers the actual invasion itself and the dramatic heroism of those who are at the forefront of stopping the invasion and turning the tides. But “Falling” Skies takes a different tack, focusing on the smaller scale story of the individual costs of the massive invasion all while dealing with the mundane issues of survival.

Review #2566: Falling Skies 1.1/1.2: “Live and Learn/The Armory”

We are introduced to the basic outlines of the attack by a child’s narration, which only highlights one of the more unique choices in terms of building the setting: the prominence of children. There are instances both noticeable and subtle: the centrality of father/son relationships, the ‘harnessed’ children, and several instances of lingering shots on children playing, amongst others. While it is certainly not the most detailed plot device, it’s a nice touch to differentiate between it and other similar shows. The introduction is the only part of the episode that is spent on info dumping about the invasion. The rest of the episodes focus on the survivors and their tenuous position as they retreat from Cambridge into rural Massachusetts to avoid the attraction of the skitters and their partners, the mechs.

The main character is former history professor Tom Mason, who unlike other alien invasion heroes is actually the subordinate: not only to Colonel Porter (who has one of the baddest ‘staches on television), but the ambivalent Captain Weaver. This uncommon choice is also well-executed because it wasn’t overwrought: Porter stated his reasons for putting Weaver in command of the 2nd Massachusetts, and Tom accepted them graciously, but with obvious disappointment. While it remained a point of tension throughout the rest of these two episodes, it never became melodramatic and remained within the realm of what could be expected out of a similarly organized military force.

The lack of melodrama was refreshing not just to issues like command, but family and personal tragedy as well. Most of these characters have lost just about everything: their homes, their families, their sons and daughters, their mothers and fathers; but they don’t whine and complain. They understand what is going on and shoulder the burden with a great deal of poise. Part of that comes from the fact that they’ve managed to survive like this for about six months. An excellent example of this is Tom’s relationships with his sons. All three of them have experienced a tragic loss in Tom’s wife and his sons’ mother.

But they aren’t the Winchesters from “Supernatural”: there are no daddy issues here. I do not intend to bash on the Winchesters’ damaged father/son dynamic, but it was refreshing to see a family that was healthy despite all the chaos and insanity that went on around it. The choice of setting the series six months after the invasion allows us to see the still-raw emotion, but the healing process is well underway. One caveat that needs to be mentioned is the ridiculous ‘love triangle’ between Hal, Tom’s eldest, Karen and Lourdes: this attempt at overt drama fell ridiculously flat. I could almost feel the actor’s embarrassment through the television when they were on screen together.

As the characters and their situation are developed as they flee from Cambridge, we are introduced to the aliens and some of their actions. Some people have been criticizing the fact that we don’t know anything about the aliens. However, the characters have no reason to know hardly anything about them. The skitters didn’t exactly come down and start buying people mimosas before they started nuking major cities and enslaving the surviving children. That being said, the concern is legitimate: the writers need to develop a strong alien threat to help maintain the broader tension in the show. It would be to easy to hand wave them away.

We are also introduced to a portion of the remainder of society, the more traditional outcasts who revel in the loss of order. This little merry band of skitter-hunting racists are led by the interesting character of John Pope. In many ways he is the opposite of Tom: while they both came from similar background and have similar levels of intelligence, Pope is warped by the lack of strong familial connection. I for one am glad they captured him, I have a feeling he will become a useful foil to Tom and I will be watching their relationship.

The first two episodes did an excellent job of setting the stage for the series by establishing the immediate concerns and the broader questions about the alien presence on Earth while maintain the strong focus on family. While the pace will likely need to pick up to hold audience interest, this was more than a serviceable beginning. Hopefully the writers will be able to build on this solid foundation.

Rating: 8/10


Contributor: Henry T.

Written by Robert Rodat (Part I); Graham Yost (Part II)
Directed by Carl Franklin (Part I); Greg Beeman (Part II)

I like that “Falling Skies” doesn’t try to go beyond what it is. The writers know what they have and don’t try to do too much with it. The opening sequence best demonstrates this, as some children describe the alien invasion of Earth and lay down some of the specifics of the show itself. It is done quickly and through crude drawings that have the dual task of getting exposition out of the way and adding a bit of a creepy tone to the world that the audience is watching for the next two hours. This much is clear: The aliens wiped out much of humanity, leaving the bare bones to run and hide and fight whenever they can. But there remains little hope, at least on the immediate horizon. There’s also the question of what the aliens intend to do with the “harnessed” kids, though the early answer to that seems to be slavery for some unknown reason.

Review #2566: Falling Skies 1.1/1.2: “Live and Learn/The Armory”

The two-hour pilot episode also lays out the general template of the series. The small band of human survivors are running from the invading alien army, which consists of spider-like “skitters” and armored, robotic “Mechs” on the ground and small airships that patrol the skies. Among the large amount of humans running in eastern Massachusetts is Tom Mason, a college history professor who is basically the hero of the story. It’s very convenient that he teaches military history and the other characters acknowledge and make fun of him for that fact. Mason often makes allusions to historical battles where the smaller fighting force will prevail over the more favored opponents. I don’t know if this is going to continue through the run of the series because it became labored throughout the pilot. I hope the writers don’t use it as a crutch.

Anyway, the two parts of the episode each involve a small mission for the military portion of the group to take back from the aliens. The first part involves getting into a warehouse of food and the second part involves taking an armory full of weapons. Each building is heavily guarded by a skitter and a Mech so it’s often wrought with danger and they provide the action sequences for the pilot episode.

I would hope that, like Professor Mason spouting off historical war analogies, the writers don’t stick with this particular template for very long. The action sequences do work on a visceral level and the aliens are plenty scary. The skitters wear some kind of body armor that requires close-range head shots to kill and the Mechs can only be destroyed by explosives that I doubt are in large supply with humanity’s ragtag army. Mason proves to be competent in matters of combat so it makes sense that he would be in charge of protecting the civilian population they have. He sometimes clashes with Weaver, the army veteran who is in charge of the military portion.

I liked that Mason seems caught in the middle of it, part of him wanting to protect the civilians and his two children and another part of him wanting to go full-on soldier with Weaver and the army. At least, that’s how I read it. I suspect this is an issue that is in the background now but will be explored as the series goes on. One day, Mason is going to have to choose a side. He can’t straddle either for too long.

That actually proved to be the more interesting part of the pilot to me. There is a growing conflict within humanity between the military and civilian portions. It seems like the military is usurping the rights of the civilians under the guise that they’re doing everything they can to survive right now. Something as innocuous as living arrangements (the soldiers get the nice housing with comfortable beds while the civilians get tents outside) are in the background right now but will continue to fester until everyone has no choice but to deal with the problem. It could turn out that the humans do more damage to themselves than the aliens could ever do.

Right now, the civilians are only being represented by Anne, a doctor in the group, but I think she’ll be joined by more and more individuals who will see the imbalance for themselves. If this sounds familiar to long-time genre fans, it’s because “Falling Skies” is run by Mark Verheiden and he was a writer on “Battlestar Galactica”, a show that mined a very similar conflict between civilians and the military. Here’s hoping the writers do keep that going for a while.

This show has that influence as well as a host of others including “Lost”, “The Walking Dead”, and Steven Spielberg’s “War of The Worlds” among them. The “Lost” influence showed up in the second part of the pilot when Mason encounters a group of savages who hold him hostage and for ransom. The group that Mason is a part of is organized and trying to keep whatever vestiges of humanity they have left, while Pope’s small band of outlaws are only out for themselves and prey on anyone who crosses their paths. Mason manages to extricate his team from the situation but keeps Pope alive to join the good guys. It’ll be interesting to see how Pope’s lawless philosophy clashes with the order that Mason represents.

There also remains the issue of Mason’s teenage son who has been captured and “harnessed” by the aliens. That promises to continue to clash with Weaver and his run-and-gun style in the future. Again, “Falling Skies” isn’t trying to do too much and it’s a fun series that doesn’t tax your brain too much. The one thing that I appreciated was that the pilot didn’t get too grim with its tone like “The Walking Dead”. It has a goal (or several) in mind and is slowly working its way towards it, becoming a solid entry into the genre in the process. The pilot just has the burden of introducing the world and characters and nuance becomes lost after a while. If they can keep the formula changing so that it doesn’t get stale, so much the better.

Grade: 8/10

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