You can have fun with FX’s new big-budget SF show Falling Skies by playing spot the reference. It’s so stuffed with nods to other shows that it becomes a commentary on the state and visual style of filmed SF in the early part of this most scientifictional century.
(Spoilers ahead. Break left. Engage thrusters.)
The theme of alien invasion is one of SF’s core tropes, of course. It’s been with us since Wells. Steven Spielberg’s recent adaption of the story is the jumping-off point for this new show, which begins after the aliens have successfully landed and taken over. They are after our children, as the 456 were in Torchwood: Children Of Men. They take control of the kids with the use of insectile parasites, which we’ve seen in everything from Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters to Stargate. The purpose of this takeover isn’t clear yet, but hey, it’s the first episode.
The alien adversaries share a genome with the prawns from District 9, and have the same tentacled mandible and strangely kindly eyes. All three of ’em. Their mech ground troops are Robocop-style Ed-209s with Tron highlights, even down to the backward-kneed legs that have been shorthand for not of this world ever since the astonishing transformation scene in David Twohy’s under-rated The Arrival (which was last the last time Charlie Sheen did anything of worth). The mech’s weapons range and fire using the multiple beam technique we know and love from Predator. The alien ships are old-style flying saucers with Cylon styling.
Talking about Galactica brings us on to the human side of the story. We have a ragtag bunch of refugees running from an uncertain fate, undermanned and undergunned yet vowing revenge. We have tension between military and civilian personnel. We even have a tough, grizzled Colonel Tigh analogue in Will Patton’s character, all gravel voice and no goddamn compromise.
SF, like all genres, is defined by a set of symbols and storylines. And none of what I’ve said is necessarily a criticism. But in Falling Skies, the references come so thick and fast that the informed viewer is a tad overwhelmed. It also means that the story and characters feel a bit thin in these early stages. There’s a lot of scene-setting and exposition, grim faced discussions starting “As you know…” in dusty bunkers. But the fight sequences, when they finally arrive, are fast and fun, and there’s a lot of money up on screen. Fox have identified their audience, and are making sure they are satisfied. If nothing else, there’s one hell of a good drinking game in episode one alone.
There’s also a lovely moment that clearly shows what the human race have already lost. As the refugees prepare to leave their hiding place and hit the road, the Noah Wyle character is drawn to a massive pile of abandoned books. He picks two up, and chooses one to take with him. Verne gets cast aside in favour of Dickens, not on literary merit – but on how much each book weighs. It’s a cleverly made point about what we have to leave behind in moments of crisis, and how we make those choices. For one moment I thought he might pick up an HG Wells book. But even for the makers of Falling Skies, that reference might have been a little too on the nose.