[9 June 2013]
Falling Skies has an uncommonly military focus among sci-fi television shows. While this premise shows up regularly in big screen spectacles, and humans battling aliens is its own subgenre when it comes to novels, other than the two versions of V, it’s an idea that’s rarely been tackled on TV.
Watching Falling Skies, it’s easy to see why this sort of thing is unusual. The show needs a large special effects budget to create impressive battle scenes and squads of aliens too. That’s easier to do in a two-hour film than it is on a weekly series, even one that only runs 10 episodes a season. Going into Season Three, though, Falling Skies is handling such monumental visuals with aplomb. The primary aliens, the multi-legged reptilians nicknamed Skitters, look deliciously creepy. The invaders (now given an official name, the Espheni) also have newer, more powerful mechs this season, and while the CGI robots don’t fit as seamlessly into the landscape as the Skitters, they still look very good. Finally, the humans’ new alien ally from the Vohm race, called Cochise, is played by creature specialist Doug Jones in what appears to be a practical costume, which makes his interactions with humans, speaking English and looking into their faces, entirely convincing.
As the new season begins, however, Cochise’s presence brings up a host of issues for our human heroes and for the show’s plotting. He claims the Vohm are here to help the humans because they hate the Espheni and are working to eradicate them wherever they can be found. Colonel Weaver (Will Patton), who started a bullheaded commander but now often serves as the show’s compassionate center, is suspicious of the Vohm’s motives, especially after the Espheni have been defeated. Tom (Noah Wyle), now the president of the makeshift US government in Charleston, South Carolina, doesn’t feel able to make guesses about that future.
The problem posed by the Vohm is a perfect illustration of how complicated Falling Skies has become. Back in the first season, the show was relatively straightforward. Aliens invaded, destroying cities and infrastructure the world over. The humans were desperately fighting back in any small way they could, while also dealing with the aliens’ abductions of human children and teens to use for brainwashed slaves (those Skitters). Season Two made the sides less defined with the prospect of some Skitters rebelling against their Espheni masters and instances of the Espheni mind-controlling other humans. Now seven months after the Season Two finale, Tom finds himself both commanding the military and trying to lead a civilian government. He also has to deal with his three sons—including Matt (Maxim Knight), who is finally getting a chance to make a difference in battlefield situations—while finding time for his new wife Anne (Moon Bloodgood) and their newborn baby.
The expansion into a galactic conflict is a direction that Falling Skies has been heading in since late in the first season. With the prospect of secret Espheni mind control still threatening, questions regarding who can be trusted are thorny and keep the story pleasingly off-kilter. Even in the show’s action sequences, various protagonists run into others, both harnessed by the Skitters and seemingly normal, and have to make quick decisions about how to proceed.
These action sequences remain the show’s greatest asset. The new season’s early episodes find Tom and Weaver leading an assault on an Espheni outpost, another on a converted nuclear power plant, and defending New Charleston against the aliens. Each sequence is well composed, well edited, and exciting, and each is significantly different from the others. Colin Cunningham’s Pope, always the show’s cynical wild card, really is particularly good in the upcoming fourth episode, when tragedy strikes a member of his berserker squad.
It’s when the show slows down for conversations that it runs into problems, getting bogged down in soapy drama and sci-fi tropes. Matt’s new subplot has him not liking school and not seeing the point of attending. His older brother Hal (Drew Roy) is stuck in a wheelchair in the wake of the Season Two finale. This seems like an excellent, challenging twist for a character who’ been largely one-note to this point, but the show immediately backs off on this idea by declaring that there’s nothing physically wrong with Hal’s legs. No, disappointingly, it’s all in his head and once he gets over the mental block, he’ll be able to walk again. And Anne, who used to be the doctor for the Second Mass military unit, is now stuck in a weak story involving her baby acting strangely.
These plot slow-downs have to do with the New Charleston setting, which is doing the show no favors, leeching momentum from the humans’ mission. Now that Tom’s in charge, he no longer has to fight to get his way, not so good for a character who always thinks he knows best. Worse, this leaves Weaver marginalized, an advisor who doesn’t have enough to do.
Even the guest stars appear stymied. Terry O’Quinn is still around as the defeated former president Manchester, but even after Tom tasks him with heading up the hunt for a mole, Tom can’t be bothered to stop and listen to what Manchester has discovered. Robert Sean Leonard shows up as Roger, a brilliant, obsessive scientist, giving a great performance that’s wholly different from Wilson on House. But the show immediately starts leaning on him as a crutch. Roger is the reason the New Charleston underground has electricity! He can tell Tom exactly where to set the charges to blow up a nuclear power plant without it melting down! Need a DNA test? He’ll give you a list of materials to find and then he’ll have the results within 24 hours! It’s a little much, no matter how brilliant he’s supposed to be.
Still, when Falling Skies is clicking, it remains a very entertaining show that fills a niche. There’s plenty of sword fighting on TV now, thanks to the success of Game of Thrones, but very little contemporary military action. An underdog force going up against difficult odds is exciting on a week-to-week basis, even if the humans aren’t quite the underdogs they used to be.