Thursday, June 7, 2012

Falling Skies, Season 1, Episode 1 & 2: Live and Learn

We intend to follow, recap and review Falling Skies season 2 when it starts on the 17th June. To bring us all up to date before then we'll have daily updates of all the epiosdes of season 1 starting today.

The show is introduced by a harrowing account of an alien invasion, of the ships arriving, shutting down technology and destroying the cities before invading and slaughtering and capturing the population with the military destroyed and civilians having to fight. It’s all told through children’s drawings and child narrators for an excellently effective emotional effect.

We move to a group of fighters scavenging supplies in a ruined city (Boston) coming under fire and attack from Skitters (the aliens which are multi-legged nasty looking things), the barricades are going down, several die and they describe the city as completely lost.

When they return the first thing a child asks is who they lost – dispassionately, like it’s a daily question like asking after the weather – and he’s answered in the same way. People live in a derelict camp, scraping by on scavenging.

With the city lost there’s a war council on what to do next – move away from the city that has been stripped bare and is full of hunting aliens – or stay, the last attractive because of the number of prisoners, including children that are “harnessed” by the aliens. It’s a choice between running and hiding and staying and facing the alien garrison before it’s reinforced. The leader is Jim Porter and he lays down the law – that the move out, spread out and hide. We seem to be following Tom Mason (a military historian and father of the child who was narrating at the beginning, he seems to have an older son, Hal as well) who is second in command to Captain Weaver’s division.

We see everyone packing up and preparing to leave, soldiers, doctors, mechanics – a variety of people all packing up, loading up and getting ready to move as well as the vast pile of books they have to leave behind. There are so many people I’m not sure if this is scene setting or character introduction.

There’s a supply problem, causing Tom to take 6 fighters and a truck to go find food – the whole column being too slow (and, according to Captain Weaver, too full of annoying civilians) to go together. Tension between Tom Mason and Weaver is high and raising higher, especially since Weaver is unwilling to give Tom’s foraging team any big explosive weapons. Anne (the doctor and friend of Tom) seems especially wary of the mission.

He assembles his team of Hal, Karen (his scouts on bikes), Dai, Karen, Click, Anthony and Jimmy (who seems to be a young teen).

We have some touching scenes again showing how much they have lost when Hal and Tom reflect on how things have changed – how he wouldn’t let Hal ride his bike at night without a light and now he’s giving him extra ammunition to go scouting. We also find the body of a child with a harness on his back that has been ripped partially away (which killed the child) – it’s an unpleasant alien thing that runs up his spine to the back of his neck. Tom Mason’s son, Ben, is missing and also has a Harness.

Speaking of, Hal has a close encounter of an alien kind, hiding down a river bank while a column of big metal warriors (mechs) stomps past (stealthy things they aren’t) followed by a chain of blank faced humans wearing harnesses. Including his brother, Ben Mason.

Hal and Karen rush back with the good news – Ben’s alive! He wants to launch a rescue party right now, never mind their mission for food. While the team backs it, Tom hears how many aliens there are and knows there’s too many even with his son captured. There’s a scuffle between Tom and Hal as Tom refuses to risk everything on a half-assed plan.

He makes a better plan for getting food. Food centres – shops, super markets et al – are often traps with aliens inside (very clever) so they have to be extremely careful. Tom also takes the time to boost everyone’s morale, throwing in his knowledge of military history to show that inferior forces can defeat a powerful enemy simply by making a place too difficult and too costly to occupy – the very essence of guerrilla warfare.

They scout the warehouse, it appears to be clear so they stealthily load the truck – until a Skitter surprises Hal – tom runs to the rescue but bullets don’t seem to do a lot to it – and likely even less to the big mech that joins the party. Thankfully the mechs have slow targeting lights before their gun fires. Big fight scene and the aliens are killed by C4 and Dai’s shotgun at close range.

They return with the food, all hero like and Tom Mason has a meeting with Captain Weaver about his living son, being held prisoner and harnessed and he wants to go back for him. Captain Weaver is not taking the column back and refuses to let Tom and Hal go either – tense showdown time! But an appeal to family works, and at killing more skitters.

And they have a little birthday party for Matt Mason, Tom’s son with Ann, Tom and Hal – who is extra sweet in digging up a present for his little brother when their father worries they have nothing to give him. Awwwww, yes it’s saccharine, still, awwwww, and then he shares it with the other kids. It’s a nice scene and a very human one

Later we follow the same forward team raiding for weapons from an armoury – they find mech tracks. To draw it out they throw a ball that encourages a dog to chase it – drawing the mech out. But Jimmy runs forwards to call the dog back to safety, attracting the mech’s attention. I’m not quite sure what the point of using the dog and the ball was, if they were going to engage the mech anyway. They run and abandon the depot.

The next day Tom reports to Captain Weaver (and some underscore that Jimmy’s a good fighter but he is 13) – who insists they go back again. Tom has agreed to scout the armoury and after that he can go find his son. But not before he has scouted it. Anne also confronts Weaver about all the houses being used by soldiers and fighters while all the civilians have to sleep in tents. Captain Weaver insists the fighters need the best night’s sleep (reasonable) but is utterly dismissive of Ann, the civilians and their concerns (very much not reasonable). It’s clear Captain Weaver sees himself as ultimate unquestionable authority. Here’s hoping something eats him. Some of the fighters refer to the civilians as “eaters” because they see them as doing nothing but consume – something Ann rejects since their labour fuels and supports the fighters. Tom Mason neatly straddles both lines.

Daily life continues as best it can in the camp, including school lessons, daily life – and raising the question why the Skitters, a 6 legged race of aliens, would create bipedal mechs. I sense foreshadowing. We also have hints of a love triangle between Hal, Karen and Lourdes, a civilian member of the camp. At least I’m guessing this based in Karen getting her back up whenever Lourdes comes around and makes not-too-subtle overtures to Hal (I really don’t think this series needs a romance storyline, really don’t – and certainly not if it involves 2 women sniping at each other over a man. Karen and Hal are apparently an item, so I suppose Karen does have a reason to be irked by Lourdes not-that-subtle flirting). Karen is also less than impressed by Lourdes’ faith in a world that has been so devastated.

Another powerful contrast are the homes, untouched but empty, and not abandoned so long that they’ve started to decay. They’re almost an obscene counterpoint to the deprivation of the camps and the ruins of the cities – brightly decorated, full of toys and posters and children’s decors. It’s a stark contrast.

Time to re-scout the armoury, leaving Jimmy behind this time (on the excuse they need someone stronger in case they find weapons, they do try and soften it as much as they can).

As they go in Click is shot by 2 arrows – they’re being attacked by people. Click dies but he shoots one of them in the leg before he goes. The rest are taken prisoner apparently by a racist survivalist group. Bigotry holds on in the dystopian future it seems. With a gun on Tom’s head, Hal reveals they’re part of the 2nd Massachusetts resistance – but it’s no surprise to the survivalists. They’ve been staking out the Armoury  - they want to hold them hostage in exchange for the big 50 calibre gun the army has – and send Hal to take the message.

In the down time waiting or a reply, Tom and Racist Group Leader have a discussion about historical parallels. And it turns out the Leader and his gang are having great fun looting and killing and fighting. But he does have some good advice about killing Skitters and they spend some time throwing topics back and forth to a background of worldbuilding

Hal arrives with his message to Captain Weaver, Mike another commander asks when they make the deal but Weaver refuses to make one – he’s convinced they’ll be bled dry if they do. He makes some sense – he’d love to fight them but they don’t know where they are, but he does it in his ultimate arseholish manner. Can something eat him already? He orders Mike to take Hal to a side room and keep him there, but Mike’s having none of that and gives Hal is weapon and lets him go. See, Weaver, winning friends and influencing people!

Annie goes with Hal to offer to heal the man who was shot which she does. The gang leader, not best pleased about not getting the gun, decides to go raid the 2nd Massachusetts. Faced with flares attracting alien ships and the raiding gang, Captain Weaver is forced to agree to their demands

At the gang leader’s camp, Maggie, the wounded guy and another have been left in charge of the prisoners. The wounded man shows that he’s a misogynist as well as a racist and demands Karen stand and twirl while he talks about raping her. Maggie has clearly had enough and shoots him and the other guard, making it clear she had been abused by them since she was grabbed by the gang 3 months ago – yes, I cheered for her.

Tom and co return to the camp and begin to shoot the rest of the gang. After killing a few of them he had a little conversation with the leader, pointing out that they’re the ones in the middle of the flares. The boss man gets in the car and drives off just as a ship comes by and bombs all his buddies into ash. He drives, stops his car and gets to stare down the barrel of a gun held by Captain Weaver (who hasn’t been eaten yet).

Meanwhile Ann leads all the civilians to the school the gang was using as a base where Weaver has some posturing for Mason for no damn good reason other than to show that he’s the man with the biggest brassiest balls (I hope something eats him already).

And it’s time for them to head out and find Ben, with Maggie joining to replace the dead Crick.

This pilot does an extremely good job of setting up the world setting and setting the tone. So we have a lot of scenes getting to know the characters, showing the human interactions and

One thing that surprised me is the acknowledgement of the trauma. Actually talking with the kids through their losses and their drawings. So many shows, especially dystopians, tend to just brush loss and grief under the rug – it makes for dramatic angsty scenes when necessary and is then pushed aside or heals on its own.

So many characters! I can barely keep up. I’m not sure yet who are the core characters and who are passing extras and who is background scene setting.

Similarly there are a number of POC (especially in the crowd scenes so at least the Grim Darkness of the Future isn’t all white as so often happens), but I’m not sure how many of them are background characters. Dai, Anthony, Mike and Anne are POC who seem to be prominent but they are in the orbit of the hero who is, of course, a straight white man (requirement in survival horrors) as most of the leadership also appeared to be. We’ll see how much of a role and what kind of role everyone plays in the future and whether we’re talking main plot lines or supporting cast

One thing that doesn’t make me hopeful is that, in looking for a suitable image for this, I ended up going for this abstract because all of the marketing group photos of the cast I found didn’t include most of the POC – whitewashed promotional material does not increase my confidence.

In the large group scenes we also see a number of elderly people, which is extremely unusual in a dystopian world. They don’t play a large role from what I’ve seen, but they exist. It’ll also be interesting to see the conflict between civilians and military develop and where that ends up especially with Captain Weaver’s autocratic rule.

While there are female characters and female soldiers, they seem to be a good deal less than half the population. When we consider the sexism in survival situations that sees women as delicate little flowers behind men, it seems odd that more men survived, doubly so when most of the military was destroyed, another male dominate force. Now we have civilians that have been drafted to fight I would expect a lot more female fighters – especially since 13 year old Jimmy is allowed on the front lines. In a dystopian fight for survival, it seems silly that male children are fighting but the majority of the women are either dead or non-combatants.

All in all, I like it – but I will be waiting for Weaver to get eaten.