As viewed through the eyes of a child, the alien invasion appears all the more frightening. It’s an absolute end to the safety and security of childhood in America as we now understand it, a piercing of the protective bubble all parents attempt to construct around their young ones.
Tom reminds his soldiers, for instance, that in human history there are many instances of inferior armed forces defeating superior ones, namely in the American Revolution, but also in Ancient Greece, and so on. “Ever the professor” (as another character notes), Tom is a unique and intellectual hero whose knowledge of history (and specificially military history) can provide hope in what seems a hopeless struggle. Wyle is good in the central role, and already I am enjoying the fact that Tom is not a physical superman, a law enforcement official, or a modern cowboy in mentality. Instead, he’s an able and believable surrogate for a lot of us in the audience: an everyman and family man faced with an extraordinary situation, trying to do his best.
In the second episode, “The Armory,” Tomn’s humanist perspective is matched and balanced by that of a criminal and warlord, John Pope (Colin Cunningham). In blunt terms, Pope informs Tom that he is using the wrong analogy. We’re not the early Americans fighting the Red Coats, Pope insists. No, we’re the American Indian, facing wave after wave of technologically superior, unstoppable white men. And we’ll share the same fate as the Indians too: extinction. It’s a terrifying thought, and this duel of philosophies makes for one of Falling Skies best and most chilling moments in the opening two hours.
Anti-social tendencies are downplayed here (in the first two episodes), and outlaws such as Pope are already in the process of being assimilated into the resistance by the end of the second episode. On a wider scale, man in Falling Skies has mounted at least a semi-organized defense against the invading Skitters, and is able to win small battles against this antagonist. As we’d expect from Steven Spielberg, the approach is a little more optimistic and a little less balanced than we get in the more nuanced (and so far more impressive) The Walking Dead.
As it was in War of the Worlds, the focus here is overtly on family matters. In the 2005 film, Tom Cruise had to protect his young daughter and keep track of his rebellious older son. Here, we’ve got Tom, his adult son, Hal (Drew Roy), his youngest son, Matt (Maxim Young), and Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) as a physician in the resistance who — from frame one — is clearly itching to play wife and mother to Tom and the Mason brood.
The focus here is on how the human family sticks together in a time of crisis, not how human foibles, even in times of disaster, pull it apart. In fact, Falling Skies opening episodes find time to celebrate young Matt’s birthday, and observe, with solemnity, his wish that everything could “just be like it was.” Sowhile Falling Skies and The Walking Dead share an obsession with the downfall of man, they boast vastly different approaches and perspectives on that downfall.
Basically, we are an occupied planet, and there’s certainly a subtext here about 21st century’s America’s role as occupier in foreign lands. There some impresive vistas of the alien “base” looming over abandoned American cities, and it’s impossible not to be reminded of our predator drone attacks when those alien ships fly by and indiscriminantly rain death upon those at ground level.
But after “Live and Learn,” “The Armory” stalls momentum quite a bit. The second episode concerns an attempt on Tom’s part to stake out a weapons depot. The mission goes awry and he ends up in the hands of John Pope, a criminal and nihilist. Instead of being about the alien invasion or the human response to it, the episode is about Tom and his allies maneuvering their way into freedom, and outwitting an enemy who, we soon suspect, will prove an ally. This episode is rather flat, emotionally-speaking, in comparison to the first hour, and doesn’t move the plot along significantly or even with much interest.
Still, it’s not necessarily clear sailing for this genre program. If the series grows too dark and gritty (as the scenario would seem to promise), viewers may not take to the series. And if the program remains so relentlessly upbeat in the face of human annihilation, it will sacrifice believability. In other words, Falling Skies is walking a very narrow line.
Here’s hoping it navigates that path well. The sky isn’t falling just yet…