Thursday, September 16, 2021

Falling Skies S1 E9: Mutiny

"The aliens can't kill us fast enough, we have to do it for them?"

"Unless we stick together and fight the aliens as a group we're as good as dead."

The opening shots where survivors of the 2nd Massachusetts watch a cartoon film and laugh and express joy amidst dark days is one of pure Spielbergian-like magic. With Spielberg's executive production credit and the spirit of his guiding hand it's clear there is an inspiration here lending itself to what amounts to a very professional affair as science fiction TV series go.

I once wondered if Falling Skies had the potential to reach a larger audience as a science fiction. The fact viewership resulted in a modest affair with gradual degradation in those numbers over five years was unfortunate. This is a series big on character interaction and human drama, a slow burn at times perhaps, but one that continues to develop and satisfy with every intimate, but cinematic-looking entry. Kids, adults, families laugh together in one of those moments of pure relief amidst the alien apocalypse. What Falling Skies did right and did well was, yes, sometimes capture humanity at its worst, but with equal amounts of time displaying humanity at its best, a rare thing today, as we see demonstrated here in Falling Skies, Season One, Episode 9, Mutiny.

The overarching concern of body transformation hangs in the air for the spine-spiked son of Tom Mason. Ben's state continues to infuse elements of horror into the science fiction saga. Further the science fiction elements continue to be explored through the character and other elements that evolve surrounding the alien physiology and mythology. Despite harness removal Ben is clearly still connected to the Skitters on a biological level in a hive-like capacity. "I don't know what I am."

In District 9 (2009), Wikus van de Merwe is tainted by a kind of alien goo and forced to transform into an alien "prawn." Ben's existence echoes fears of that physical transformation.

Mutiny is indeed threatening as Tom continues to joust with Dan Weaver over "responsibility." The title intentionally reflects the focus on humanity's failing within the entry of which we must overcome if we are to survive.

Drug elements interfere with the episode's story as well to further complicate matters. Science fiction seems to delight in exploring aspects of drug addiction by substance abusers (think Babylon 5) and the viewers are none the better for it with what is a truly tired convention (for me).

John Pope, played by Colin Cunningham (Stargate SG-1), delivers one of the more interesting character arcs by way of the human face of villainy. "Do you actually think for a second that humankind has even a hope in hell in this war to end all wars?" The dynamic explored between Pope and Maggie is also a mystery and intrigues as first established in The Armory (S1 E2).

Weaver concedes to the wisdom of Porter selecting Mason to be second-in-command (S1 E1 Live And Learn).

The entry closes as the 2nd Mass prepares for a battle that feels dramatically like the last stand.

Mutiny stays on task and focused regarding the subject of its title and the character growth is indeed solid as the series moves toward the Season finale with this solid penultimate affair. Thankfully, writer Joe Weisberg brings his character grasp and dramatic sensibilities to the emotional charge at the core of Falling Skies building us to the season climax.

Writer: Joe Weisberg (The Americans). Director: Holly Dale.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Falling Skies S1 E8: What Hides Beneath

"We're taking this fight to them."

The biggest sci-fi reveal regarding what lies beneath in Falling Skies, Season One, Episode 8, What Hides Beneath is the harness buried deep within a skitter suggests the skitters themselves may not have always originally been skitters. The suggestion that harnessed kids will ultimately transform into skitters lends the series a bit of the old body horror concepts. These ideas have been mined to great effect in television (Doctor Who's The Ark In Space; okay maybe bubble wrap is not the best example) and film (Pandorum, District 9). Through the character of Ben Mason the transformation by the harness has manifested itself in physical attributes regarding strength even if appearances, apart from the Godzilla-like ridges on his back, seem rather normal. His endurance and is greater than that of the average human being.  The harness has had a significant effect on Ben Mason's stamina and pain receptors around the localized spike remnants.

The entry also underscores the fact that the harness appears to impact each child differently. How and why appear to be undetermined. For example, Ben informs Rick he hates the Skitters, but Rick confides in him the Skitters will return for them demonstrating a loyalty to the aliens following his harnessing.

The episode also begins to lay the groundwork for the season finale as the 2nd Massachusetts plans to take the war to the immense structure looming above them in the skyline.

What Hides Beneath moves us away from the dark, two-part territory of human betrayal that was Sanctuary and marches the human resistance toward the alien fight and season finale.

Alongside understanding the effect and impact on human physiology by the alien harnesses members of the 2nd Massachusetts make efforts to understand the alien weapons tech (making penetrating bullets from confiscated alien metal) as well as the structural integrity of the massive alien vessel as they prepare for a confrontation.

Upping the science fiction elements of the Falling Skies series What Hides Beneath introduces a new alien species overseeing the Skitters. Tall, lanky, alien creatures are spotted giving instruction to the Skitter workers.

Like the villain of Terry Clayton, Blair Brown (Fringe) guests as Sonja, a human interloper in cahoots with the alien insurrection, furthering the component of human betrayal rank within humanity. I'm reminded of the unhealthy divisions happening across the country by media and corporate interests today.

A Skitter is dissected to discover what lies or hides beneath. As they dig deep they discover a harness and the realization the Skitters may in fact have been something other than Skitters once upon a time. It appears the transformation process is happening to Earth children.

The episode reveals Weaver lost his daughter in an effort to remove a harness and his rage is fueled by revenge while Tom Mason's journey is one of hope.

The men spot a harnessed Karen Nadler with the lanky aliens. She is serving her alien masters and working with the human turncoats.

What Hides Beneath provides viewers a touch of mystery and intrigue for Falling Skies.  What were the Skitters once upon a time?  What are we to make of this new alien species?  What lies beneath the formerly-harnessed Rick and Ben for their future? Falling Skies continues to leave us intrigued with the proceedings with equal parts drama and action.

Why are the aliens here? What do they want? Are they merely world conquerors? Sanctuary may have been short on aliens, but What Hides Beneath more than compensates giving us one of the most enticing sci-fi heavy episodes of the season, the first of four written by Mark Verheiden.

Writer: Mark Verheiden (Battlestar Galactica).
Director: Anthony Hemingway (Battlestar Galactica, True Blood).

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Fear The Walking Dead: The Complete Third Season

"Fear what you become."

With Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) well on its way to establishing its own world within a world (of The Waking Dead franchise), it arguably still feels like it has some work to do.

Fear The Walking Dead The Complete Third Season continues successfully ground its look in an almost Tex-Mex flavor with the world gone mad along the southern border. Could that be more appropriate right now? Unfortunately, this season seems flat, feels misguided in its direction and in general as lifeless as a zombie.

Even this series with its unique identity can't be saved by its much heavier reliance on a more global modern soundtrack (versus the American rock and folk stylings that populate the Georgia appeal of the parent series). The music does its part to set the series apart from the original.

As a series it's fairly steady, but by no means the kind of appointment television so well configured for The Walking Dead original. The aforementioned series is adept at juggling various story lines with aplomb and does so with a plethora of fascinating characters. FTWD is deficient in this department drawing upon a small circle of cast members. The same cast that showed much promise in the first season dries up in the third season as lackluster and uninteresting. The series material is simply not as compelling as the parent series or even its own thrilling starter season. Some characters have not been as fleshed out (pun intended) as one would have hoped based upon that first fairly strong six episode opening salvo. This may explain why things get changed up so radically for the show in the upcoming seasons. It stands to reason.

There are missteps here. In fact, FTWD derails beyond allusions to illegal immigration woes just to be topical. The preaching goes further. At one point, "white man" goes to war with native Americans and you begin to actually forget there's a zombie apocalypse at all. The messaging gets a little stronger and the writing lazier. The Third Season begins to falter for FTWD after a resoundingly solid start with its last two seasons. 

At times the third and weakest season to date feels like a nod to the reservation-themed drama of Longmire (2012-2017) though never anywhere close to that good. Cowboys or ranchers versus Indians complete with the left-leaning political messaging. Yeah, yeah preach it! This had quickly deteriorated into a very boring apocalypse.

TWD was masterful at warring tribalism in the zombie aftermath. It was nail-biting intensity. FTWD literally turns to actual tribalism (which explains the terrific promotional art for the season; the best thing about it) with an Indian vs white man theme for a good portion of the festivities. Unfortunately there isn't a single interesting character or compelling baddie to rival the likes of The Governor or Negan from TWD to be seen. Additionally, with a lower than average zombie quotient and less than compelling characters played by average actors with less than stellar material it's no wonder the series was heading for a major shake-up. This was simply not very convincing material.

Even leadership by a main character that was previously a high school student while adult men and women listen on intently just doesn't hold water. The adults in the room on TWD made sense at least even if there were bruisers sitting on the sidelines waiting for direction. Some of these people don't have the weight to be believed or even want to follow. Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes commanded attention and could hold an audience in a room. Maggie was a credible leader too. There are just some tough sells here which simply don't help sell entirely weak material and concepts from the get go.

Despite being a true struggle to get through this poorly conceived season it was still apparently enough to manage the show's consistent renewal and that's fantastic news for fans of The Walking Dead Universe.

What's on display here was a slog for this writer and fan of the original. It's a real shame too because that first season had the right idea. By contrast, parent series TWD was appointment television. You couldn't wait to see the next episode. FTWD never quite got there. It was closest during Season One and then Two, but Season Three leaves one nonplussed, disengaged even bored at times. By the time this writer reached the mid-point of the season it was almost hard to believe the themes and storyline were greenlit to go forward in this way. How many more episodes do I have left?

With some resolutions to this rather tenuous, precarious scriptwriting completed, could the second half at least improve the third season of FTWD? The answer is perhaps marginally, but it's still pretty bleak in a bad way. It's a befuddling place to be and even more bewildering considering the showrunner, Dave Erickson, handled the first three seasons. Well, sadly, this third season takes it off the rails in terms of quality.


Clearly some saw the writing on the wall for a change in showrunners and an overhaul. Additionally, character arcs have been underwhelming with one of the best being killed off at the beginning of the season rather arbitrarily (did that actor have the wisdom and foresight to get out?).That character's departure was unexpected, underwhelming, sudden, inexplicable, anti-climactic and weak in the writing department. That actor couldn't have saved this hot mess. I can't help but wonder if there was a reason for that and if this season wasn't simply lacking from the very start. Kim Dickens, as much as I like her, just doesn't have the material to lift the series like an Andrew Lincoln or even a Melissa McBride. The latter being that damn good. There's no one (writers or actors) here capable of elevating the material and concepts to the level of even some of The Walking Dead's weakest material.

Matt Fowler of IGN felt Dickens made the series better and allowed for the series to even best The Walking Dead. Laughable. Not a chance in hell. This season proved, if anything, it was in dire need of better casting and better writing. The dry, arid landscapes of the show's setting are wonderful, but the material is subpar and it was a relief when the season was over.

This third season needed a real infusion of ideas and an installation of some considerable characters with weight backed by some stronger writing and performances at this point. If I was a betting man I might have thought FTWD was heading the way of the dodo bird if things didn't improve (and fast), but it's hard to guess what gets greenlit and cancelled. There is no rhyme or reason to it.

Once again, it's something of a head scratcher to see a season so poorly conceived just die on screen and without much zombie love for good stretches of the season. It just never seems to capture the energy of its first two seasons and especially of parent TWD. It's incredible to think some of the finest series in television with so much more on offer are cancelled prematurely and yet, alas, there it is, FTWD, still shuffling along. The series remains afloat thanks to the lifeblood of a thriving franchise. Let's hope they can turn things around with the Fourth season.

How ironic the tagline for this Third season warned "fear what you become." Uh well, yeah, hell, that's exactly the problem with this season of FTWD.