US network TNT has dipped some toes into the science fiction waters with Falling Skies, a post-apocalyptic narrative set in the United States after an alien invasion. The aliens have settled in for an extended stay, killing all the humans they can get their hands on except for a small labour force of enslaved children, and our heroes represent the gallant resistance, fighting back against colonialism and striking blows for freedom. Just in case anyone missed the heavy-handed metaphorical references to the American Revolution, the central character of the piece is a former history professor who makes sure to bring up Revolutionary battles at every opportunity.
The show is, in two words, absolutely terrible; painfully overproduced and overacted, filled with swelling dramatic music that spurts periodically across the screen for no apparent reason, immensely clunky and wooden plotting. We can perhaps attribute this overwrought feel to the involvement of Steven Spielberg as executive producer, because it is a show that seems to be trying for a grand cinematic scale, but failing miserably because of budget limitations. You can practically hear the backdrops rustling in the wind as our characters look towards the battered skyline of Boston and pledge to return to wipe out their colonizers.
Military science fiction is an old and well-established genre with a lengthy and respected history, and Falling Skies is not a particularly remarkable entry in this lineage. As with Battlestar Galactica and Jericho, two recent post-apocalyptic visions of revolutionary resistance that met with mixed receptions, Falling Skies is a portrait of a glorified insurgency that invites viewers to identify with the insurgents resisting oppression, the freedom fighters, the barely veiled symbols of American exceptionalism.
Reproductive futurism is at full tilt in this particular entry into the genre, with constant reminders that everything we do, we do for the children. Tom Mason, noble history professor and righteous warrior, has three children, one of whom is living in enslavement, and the show rarely misses a chance to showcase some touching family moment or another as the surrounding characters smile indulgently and the music attempts to tug at the heart strings of the viewers. Mason and his fellow warriors must save the world for the children, you see.
The apocalypse in this case is interrupted by periodic pitched battles with the invading ‘Skitters,’ as the characters refer to the aliens, a commentary on their six-legged locomotion. Insurgent tactics like the use of explosives and ambushes come to the fore in the face of superior firepower as the characters fight for food supplies, attempt to liberate enslaved children, and raid abandoned armories for weapons only to be held hostage by racist outlaws who make a career of rape and pillage until brought over to the side of righteousness, or at least canteen cooking.
What is curious about this narrative is that it allows viewers to identify with insurgencies on Sunday nights, cheering for people fighting for their right to survive, while condemning them on Monday morning as they watch the news and hear about the latest car bomb in Kabul. The mass media is filled with images of insurgency and they are predominantly dehumanising and negative. We never see the children of insurgents, for example, and are never placed in their shoes, to wonder why it is that some resistors in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting so vigorously against US military occupation.
The media informs us via the news that we are the good guys, bringing liberation to those living in darkness despite the irrational resistance on the part of the nations we invade, while celebrating insurgent movements in primetime dramas. Most depictions of insurgency in fiction take place in an abstract science fiction and fantasy setting, like Falling Skies, but despite the change of venue it is very easy to draw parallels between the colonisers and the US military; the alien mechs to the military’s drones, the military’s aggressive and high-tech firepower to the advanced laser targeting systems used by the aliens. Many viewers fail to make those connections, however.
At the same time that Falling Skies is fundamentally a narrative of resistance to colonialism and the celebration of insurgency, one that specifically references US history and the nation’s complex traditional mythology about the Revolutionary War, it is one that does not challenge viewers in any meaningful way to make connections between the real world and the fictional one before them. Parallels with the US Revolution are evidently permissible as a reinforcement of cultural beliefs, but challenges to the existing status quo are not allowed.
Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, used itself as a political tool to comment on the ongoing wars and political situation, rather than allowing viewers to escape into an entirely fictionalised world. As viewers sided with the resistance, they were also encouraged to think about how invasion in the name of liberation might be viewed as oppressive, and the real-world insurgents seen primarily as caricatures in the media acquired more human identities and dimensions.
Falling Skies fails to entertain, on grounds of sheer bad quality on almost every production level, from sets to music. It also fails to challenge, providing no meat for viewers to latch onto and find something to engage with even if the show is, creatively, not very good. There’s nothing to draw viewers back for future episodes, unless they enjoy mawkish drama and watching the characters of colour be picked off, one by one, while a cavalcade of skinny blondes with bowie knives struts unemotionally across the screen.