Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stopped watching Falling Skies

I'm near the end of the third season of Falling Skies, a TV show about an alien invasion.  I'm not sure why I'm quitting thirty episodes in, but quitting I am.  It's just bad science fiction.

It's awful in basically three ways - the aliens, the social interactions between the humans and an honest assessment of effects of an alien invasion on human beings.

First off, the aliens.  They're done very poorly.  They're supposed to be this species that goes around the universe conquering planets.  BUT their primarily foot soldiers are unarmed.  Sure, they're physically impressive, but they're unarmed.  They also have no vehicles, they march everywhere on their feet.  They have mechs, but it takes them literally five seconds to target someone, which means if a person moves from cover to cover the mechs can't hit them at close range.  The mechs have missiles, but their destructive abilities are very limited - maybe a three meter blast radius, maybe two, not big at all.  The aliens have air superiority, but the planes on the show all move slowly and their bombs have a very limited blast radius.  Also, aircraft is rarely employed.  The aliens, in theory, possess nuclear weapons in abundance but don't use them - even though their latest plan is to build a planetary force field that will irradiate the planet, so in my eyes any hesitation to use nuclear weapons is . . . weird, to say the least.

The aliens also have lousy sensors.  Human sensors can detect people in the open from space.  Despite the fact that these aliens were able to find a habitable planet from at least trillions of miles away, they can't detect where large concentrations of humans are located.

The aliens do have some interesting technology, particularly in the realm of mind control, but they seem unwilling or unable to use it on a large scale.  So their mind controlled sleeper agents don't spend all their time spreading around the tiny mind control devices.  They also have rat-sized vermin-like weapons capable of chewing through concrete and steel that were used once, despite them being quite effective in their one appearance.

So, despite coming from the depths of space, they don't look high tech, really.  Their mechs are not particularly impressive by the standards of armored vehicles - they're slow, don't have that much firepower and have poor accuracy with their weapons.  They are routinely defeated by machine guns on civilian trucks, which is sort of like a World War 2 tank being defeated by a charging knight.

They have air superiority, but their planes are rare, slow, fly low to the ground and are underarmed.  I mean, even if the aliens hesitation to keep using nuclear weapons has a point, there are far more powerful bombs than the ones the aliens use - we have all manner of quite powerful, non-nuclear bombs.  Where are the alien thermobaric bombs?  The totally unarmed nature of their infantry is also simply baffling, as is their total lack of even trucks.

I understand the two big reasons for doing this - the first is money.  Animating planes with incredible firepower, badass mechs, the aliens with mindblowing weapons, so forth and so on, would be incredibly expensive.  Pacific Rim cost $190 million to make, after all.  This is a TV show.

But I don't think that's the real reason.  I think the real reason is the general problem with all alien-invasion fiction - giving the aliens the gear that they would actually have would make human resistance preposterous.  If the alien infantry were not only tough, fast and agile, but also armed with rapid fire, accurate weapons that could penetrate all cover, the idea of fighting them would be preposterous.  If a single enemy mech could destroy an armored battalion, fighting them would be silly.  If the alien aircraft could do hypersonic flybys dropping thermobaric weapons that could level the countryside, fighting them would be impossible.  If you're going to make a TV show about an alien invasion, you've got to make it possible to fight the aliens - giving them the actual technology that you'd need to travel the stars would make this narratively impossible.  They putting lasers in space that zap every human they see, with ground penetrating sensors and equally outlandish devices, while plausible, wouldn't be very narratively interesting.

So this kind of media always goes the other way.  What you do is make the aliens absurd, you give them this superficial gloss of having advanced technology but they always end up having inferior technology.

Another way the show fails, for me, is the social end of things.  The human rebels are . . . curiously tolerant of serious crimes.  Even taking away the instances of alien mind control, one of the characters is a murderer and a thief who had betrayed the human rebel group more than once.  Why isn't he executed?  Sure, he's brave and hates the aliens, but he's scum.  It is common emergency situation practice to execute looters and murderers.  So where's the tribunal and bit of rope?

It's not just that one dude, either.  At one point, they confronted a group of humans collaborating with the enemy that was giving human children to the aliens to be enslaved. I actually tried for a few minutes to imagine a worse crime, but came up with nothing.  What's worse than that kind of treachery fused with enslaving children to alien overlords?  Jesus.  That's horrible.  But for some reason, these traitors and slavers weren't given the rope.  It's baffling.

Most recently, some characters were robbed by a bandits and . . . the bandits were given a pass.  Because these bandits had been robbed and one of their number killed by other bandits, it somehow rationalized their banditry?  Where I come from, two wrongs STILL do not make a right.

I suspect this one is just because they don't want to show how awful this sort of thing gets.  I understand that.  A show about humans executing other humans for their crimes would be pretty dark.  But there's a way around it - don't tell those kinds of stories!  As it is, the idea that the traitorous slavers should get a pass is insane.  It makes no sense.  But that sort of thing happens over and over, again, in the show.  There is nothing that anyone can do, it seems, that merits serious punishment, but they keep making shows about people doing things that are just beyond the pale.  But they don't have to make those kinds of characters and situations.

The other thing that drives me a little crazy is the parochial nature of the human resistance.  They talk about the United States as though it is the world.  They make almost no references to other countries, much less the idea that they might have their own highly effective resistance groups.  So, when the show starts out in Boston, the idea that there might be Canadian rebels never occurred to anyone.  They have made great effort to talk to human groups in California, but not the Caribbean.  Ugh.  They say how they're fighting for the human species, but it's all America, really.  Once again, the world needs us to save them!

While I understand the reason for this - Americans are highly nationalist so a TV show made in the US is going to reflect that nationalism; we mostly do believe we exist to save the world - but I don't like it.  It's childish.

The third area the show sorta sucks is the way the humans react to their conquest.  They are very plucky!  This is the least sin of the show, but when so much of the rest of it stinks this is like salt on a wound.  I understand that a show about the psychic effects of conquests would be very dark, regardless of how plausible those effects would be - and media tends to go too far, one way or the other, with this.  So in Falling Skies, the crushing weight of conquest and the murder of over ninety percent of the human species and the effects on the human psyche are generally ignored.  It is depressing subject.  But in something like The Walking Dead, everyone is just so awful to everyone because they believe its the end of the world, to an equally absurd extent.  No one grapples with these demons in TV shows - they either defeat them easily or are overwhelmed by them altogether.

Again, I understand why media does this - the shows exist to tell stories.  Falling Skies isn't about the psychological trauma of conquest and the existential futility of fighting an enemy you can't beat; The Walking Dead is only about these things.  But when combined with the other issues with Falling Skies, like I said, it is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Are there good things about the show?  I've seen 28 of them and . . . well, uh, not really?  A few of the performances are good, but with a cast this large it's hard not to get at least a FEW such performances (Ben and Maggie are my favorites).  But Noah Wyle as Tom Mason, history professor turned rebel leader, is pretty flat (and the character arc is the heights of silly - how many times does a dude need to get captured, really?) and I don't know if it's her name or performance but . . . Moon Bloodgood?  Tom Mason's eldest boy, Hal, is such a vapid pretty boy that my soul hurts - so when the show treats him like he has character it sorta makes me die inside, a little.  (Also, he played lacrosse at his snobby private school, which . . . not only has Archer associations but, uh, let's face it, that's the sport that snobby private schools keep so spoiled rich white brats can feel athletic even when they can't make the cut for the football or basketball teams - who are filled with poor kids given scholarships to boost up the team's chances to make state with athletes who would otherwise never be seen in a private schools.)  The effects would be considered amazing twenty years ago, but are "meh", now, and it isn't like the music is going to win any awards.  

Which begs the question of why I watched the show.  I think I want to like sci-fi more than I do, sometimes.  I want there to be a good alien invasion show.  The guy who comes closest to what I want is David Gerrold, but I find his books altogether unreadable.  (He is a sci-fi writer of the pedant school - he spends entirely too much of his time, writer-wise, having characters confidently give long-winded explanations about The Way the World Is and then uses his narrative authority to insure the grandiose pronouncements are True.  I don't like this kind of writing when I agree with what the person is saying; it is sloppy and lazy, I feel.  I prize the ability for an author to have the characters and situations of the work demonstrate whatever it is the author wishes to say.  If you are just going to tell me, write a goddamn essay.  It is, unsurprisingly, even worse when I disagree with the author, as I do with Gerrold.)  But the narrative opportunities of alien invasion literature seem, to me, to be a fertile field for so many reasons that I want to like such media, even though I'm nearly uniformly disappointed by it.

1 comment:

  1. I think that Battlestar Galactica was not bad at steering between the extremes of Everyone is Awful and Everyone is Forgiven. But one of their running themes there was trying to maintain a core of law and order against this eroding pressure of crushing enemy force. One of the things that made the show occasionally hard to watch but ultimately rewarding for me was that they periodically handled treasonous crimes, and neither gave everyone a pass nor indiscriminately pulled the trigger without judicial process.

    Anyway, you know this, but it seemed relevant here, hehe.