Wednesday, 22 June 2011

#21 Falling Skies: Don't Mention The War

We’ve not really done any alien invasions in this blog so far. There’s a reason for that. While this blog was never intended to be exclusively about zombie apocalypses, I did want to stick to Earth-bound apocalypses. Not that I don’t enjoy alien invasions as much as the next nerd, but they seem to pose a different set of questions to the ones we’ve been looking at here. Zombie apocalypses, as well as other post-apocalyptic fiction such as The Road, The Time of the Wolf, or The Stand, are about the end of civilisation. The protagonists are looking at a time where there will be no new art, no new technology, no future generations writing the history of the time they live in.

Alien invasions are rarely truly apocalyptic- even War of the Worlds seems to jump back to a comfortable status quo remarkably quickly after the Martians all get wiped out by bacteria- but even when they are apocalyptic, the story isn’t about the end of civilisation, it’s about our civilisation being crushed by a bigger and more powerful one.

However, watching Stephen Spielberg’s Falling Skies I found it demonstrated some good points about what not to do when creating a post apocalyptic storyline. As I’ve said before, the Internet has more than enough people being snarky and slagging things off, and so as a rule I only write about works that I happen to really like- apart from when I don’t.

Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I have a longstanding grudge against Stephen Spielberg. In my last year of university I wrote a dissertation on War of the Worlds and how over the last century various people have adapted it to suit the politics of the time. Spielberg brought out his adaptation- full of juicy Iraq War imagery and post-9/11 imagery, about a month after my dissertation was due in. That Spielberg hasn’t put that much effort into making this series all that different from his War of the Worlds means I’ve got plenty of opportunity to use up all those left over dissertation theories.

Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds: The TV Series
So, let’s start off by saying Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over this. On the surface this is a very gritty and dark looking portrayal of humanity’s last stand against alien invaders, but it’s spliced all the way through with the sort of saccharine moments you’d expect from the man who can’t bear the idea of secret service agents pointing guns at Alien-napping children.
This picture has brought more hits to this site than any actual blog entry
You’ll see plenty of tropes and ideas reused from his War of the Worlds film. The main character of the series is a history professor- we know he’s a history professor because he keeps comparing events to things from history, and if that’s not a big enough hint, every five minutes a character has to roll their eyes at him and say “Ever the history professor!” Because he’s a history professor. He professes history, is what I’m saying.
"I'm a history professor!"
Spielberg uses his history professor character that is a history professor to repeatedly make a point he also made in War of the Worlds, that no occupying force can ever be successful- here citing the American Revolution against the British as an example. Here, as in War of the Worlds, this comparison raises some interesting comparisons considering Spielberg’s vocal opinions on other occupying forces. Here however, a character,  who I think is supposed to be a loveable anti-hero despite being both a racist and possible rapist, finally poses the shockingly obvious counter example to that argument that really, any American ought to be completely ashamed of not thinking of- That the aliens aren’t the British trying invade the United States, they’re the first settlers invading the home of the Native Americans.
"I already knew that, because I'm a history professor!"
It’s About What You Don’t Say
One thing that struck me about these opening episodes of Falling Skies however, and the reason that I thought it deserved a blog, is that the world building, the way the series tried to introduce us to the circumstances of the characters and the rules of the world they lived in, was clumsy in such a way that it actually highlighted how to do it well.

It’s been said before that readers of science fiction are also pretty good at reading historical fiction.
"I read historical fiction, because I'm a history professor!"
Both modes of fiction require you to be plunged head first into a world with unfamiliar technology, etiquette, language, and even history. This is a skill useful for reading anything that isn’t set in the same period and culture that you happen to be living in- it’s as true of space opera and sword and sorcery fantasy as it is of Victorian family saga or wartime romance. Not many of these works will start off by giving you a potted history of the culture you’ll be reading about or seeing, you have to pick up the cues as you go along. In historical fiction, you either have to figure out the bits you don't understand by their context, or read the whole book with wikipedia open to one side- and using a wiki isn't an option with a new piece of science fiction (Oh wait!)
One of the ways to do this is to look to what people aren’t saying- because those are the things everyone takes as given.

Looking at it another way, if on a typical day in Britain you hear someone say “Wow! This country’s really rainy isn’t it?” you will automatically think one of a small number of things, either “This person’s new to Britain” or “This person has been away from Britain for a while”. We love complaining about the weather in this country, but saying “Britain gets a lot of rain” is something nobody feels the need to say- it’s a given.

Likewise, if you watch the news or listen to people talking about 9/11, you’ll find people can talk about it for a very long time without ever saying what 9/11 actually is. 9/11 was such a huge event, seen by everyone, with repercussions felt worldwide for the whole of the last decade. We don’t need to tell one another what it was.

So, here’s the problem with Falling Skies- they’re six or seven months into the planet’s occupation by an advanced alien army. There are conversations I’m willing to give a pass on- the moment when two characters look at a huge alien structure and swap theories on how they would destroy it feels like a conversation they’ve had many times before (and then history professor walks up and says how he’d destroy it with a Trojan Horse, which is a thing he learned from history, being a history professor).
"Yeah, I'm a history professor."
I’m also okay with the opening scene, where children use drawings to tell the story of the alien invasion- this seems like the sort of exercise a teacher would set to try and get their kids to deal with a massively traumatic event. Plus, kids would tell you at length and in detail about that one time they saw a red car.

However, other scenes grate. There is a scene where characters are waiting to get their weak oatmeal and talking about how they would really like a steak, or pie, or some other delicious thing. You could see this happening a few weeks after the invasion, when food starts to run low. When you’re six months into a period of prolonged famine and rationing however, the guy who goes on at length about how he really wants a burger is the guy who everyone hates.

"You know where they had better food? That's right! History!"
Saying “I wish there was more food” when you’re looting an empty convenience store is... well, duh? Even the kid (who you will remember, I was lenient with about the opening) saying “I wish everything was back the way it was” just felt like it wasn’t something you would say if this was a reality you’d been living with for over half a year.

Having people who live in the middle of an alien occupation explicitly saying “Gee, I wish we didn’t live in the middle of an alien occupation” feels as genuine as us saying on a near constant basis “I’m going to use this glowing rectangle to talk to other people who have glowing rectangles!”

A great contrast for this is Game of Thrones (which, having not read the books yet, I strongly suspect is heading in a zombie apocalypse like direction). Throughout the opening episodes of Game of Thrones the viewer is made constantly aware that this story is set in the aftermath of a larger, more dramatic story. Cryptic mentions of The Mad King, The Winter and The Dragons hint at huge events, but nobody every directly narrates these events to the viewer, they are just a background to the character’s more present concerns.

Perhaps an even better example is Spielberg’s own E.T.

E.T. is a powerful story about divorce- the character of E.T. is based off of Spielberg’s own imaginary friend “who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn't feel I had anymore." The divorce is present in every single scene of that movie, in the way the kids deal with each other and in the way the mother acts, but at no point do we ever get anyone really talking at length about the divorce. Everybody in that family knows there’s been a divorce, but now they have day to day stuff to deal with.

I feel like much the same attitude should be had towards a global apocalypse.

Okay, drinking game time.

Do the characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building? Sadly no, they're on the run for most of the two hours.

Are the people coming to rescue you incompetent or more dangerous than the zombies? Well, the history professor seemed to thinking he was making a really insightful point by saying that you know, looking after the civilians is important, he knows that, because he's a history professor. So let's say one shot.

Is mankind the real monster? After the special effects are used up in the first hour of the pilot, they're forced to throw in some evil humans that can be mostly defined by words spelled R-A-*-I-S-T, so take a shot.

Are the zombies walking dead who move slowly and can only be killed by destroying the brain? No zombies, but everyone seems to agree headshots are the only way to kill the aliens, so one shot.

Kiddy zombies? Well, I say no zombies- there are slaves that are controlled by weird spikey worm things on their backs, and a lot of them are kids. Yeah, take two shots.


  1. I'm off to night school. To take a history class. :)

  2. This series is terrible and even a person like myself who's English could work out that it was actually filmed in Canada, because the dates on the war memorial they were standing in front of were 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.


  3. I didn't like the reference to 'Scotland vs the British' at Stirling Bridge. Half the time 'England' is treated as synonymous with 'the UK' and then, when it was 'England and Wales' we get 'the British.'
    argghhh. 'Britain' as a political expression in 1297 seems a stretch.
    From the history professor from Boston....
    ...from the History Professor who has so much to say about military history. And at the same time, when comments about bleeding an occupying power white, no reference to Vietnam or a couple of other places which might leap to the front of ones mind before say, 1297 and the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
    Oh, I am not trying to antagonise or provoke anyone from Scotland with this comment. Merely the silliness of an example from a professor in a TV show about an alien invasion who has to sidestep several centuries to find an example suitable for a North American TV audience.