Friday, February 26, 2021

Falling Skies S1 E1: Live And Learn

"History is full of inferior forces creating so much trouble that the invading army leaves... our revolution fought right here... Red Sox/Yankees '04."

If aliens were British regulars and a makeshift rebel army of civilians the militia spearhead that merged with the Continental Army of the American Revolution (1765-1783) you might well imagine Falling Skies (2011-2015).

You can imagine this thanks to creator Robert Rodat who placed viewers in his fictional wartime world with an obvious, appreciable love for war history. Rodat had previously penned two unforgettable, extraordinary war films in Steve Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) with Tom Hanks and The Patriot (2000) starring Mel Gibson, the latter of which echoes the kind of spirit of 1776 found in Falling Skies' post-apocalyptic alien invasion.

The alien apocalypse that is Falling Skies is offered a re-assessment/re-appreciation here by Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic with a brief look at the five season series (2011-2015) as the show arrives at its 10th Anniversary. Damn, where does the time go?

Falling Skies, Season One, Episode One, Live And Learn, arrives as of this writing at roughly the ten year anniversary marker. The series, executive produced by Steven Spielberg (having worked with Rodat on Saving Private Ryan), still looks as good as it did upon its alien arrival. The effects work for the mech and skitters is appreciably better than Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) thanks to advancements in the technology by the time the series arrived. Additionally Falling Skies benefits from a considerable reliance on prosthetics, animatronics, practical effects and make-up work for the aliens throughout the production like the best science fiction that goes that extra yard and pays attention to the details. John Carpenter's The Thing all those years ago or Guillermo Del Toro's Blade II are two fine examples.

The science fiction drama is not only filled with solid and thrilling special effects in fits and starts, but Live And Learn has all of the emotive hallmarks and character magic with which Spielberg had become known. It's all quite effective here in the series epic yet intimate pilot and is more successful than most Spielberg forays into science fiction TV (Taken, Seaquest DSV).

The sweaty, inferior, rabble of civilians including a history professor, led by by Noah Wylie as Tom Mason, is kept/framed in perspective in terms of history and overcoming the overwhelming odds of superior forces. The aliens may have utilized electro-magnetic pulse weapons to kill the power grid, but the survivors remain committed to survival despite the odds. This is David versus Goliath in science fiction.

The entry not only reflects on historical odds, but pays tribute to the kinds of underground insurrection efforts portrayed in science fiction film like James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) as armed militias formed to battle Skynet. Like those wildly exciting segments sequences are expertly materialized and brought to fruition here in the series.

Still, Falling Skies is as much a character and relationship drama as it is an exciting war of the worlds-style alien siege. Like LOST (2004-2010) or apocalyptic zombie epic The Walking Dead (2010-present) and other compelling science fiction dramas, Falling Skies never lets character or story drama play second fiddle to the effects work. This is easily one of the best alien arrival science fictions ever to be created for serial television and this sub-genre has not been easy to get right.

Seeing Falling Skies again reminds me just how good it was in its first season. It has aged incredibly well and it gets a lot more right than it does wrong. This is gripping science fiction entertainment with strong character beats. For fans of alien science fiction this is an essential pilot to live and learn for yourself if you haven't already.

Director: Carl Franklin (One False Move, Out Of Time). Writer: Robert Rodat (The Patriot).

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Fear The Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season

"The whole time you had me thinking I was broken, but I wasn't. I'm not. I was just... adapting."

It's a tall order for a spin-off to reach the heights of its parent series, but, like the characters fighting for survival in it, Fear The Walking Dead (2015-present) is adapting too. 

The Walking Dead (2010-present) moves along at an almost freight train-like pace filled and tension-filled to the hilt. Gripping stories and pacing combined with truly exceptional casting to embody a host of amazing characters to fill moments alternating between action and allowing yourself breathe make it some of the most compelling television to ever grace the small screen.

Fear The Walking Dead may have big shoes to fill. In its second season (15 episodes) the series continues to carve its own path with, frankly, a very different cast of characters and set of dynamics and circumstances centered around three actual blood families.

The series also moves us down the west coast of America and into a Tijuana-centric landscape south of the border in Mexico. The series is truly enriching in a very different way for all its unique Latino-based location shooting and its fairly Latina-based supporting cast. That Mexican flavor makes for a very different series, at least for its second season here.

In much the same fashion that TWD disseminated and dispersed its fantastic cast of characters into various corners of Georgia by Season Three and Four, FTWD casts its core ensemble into disparate warm winds under a hot Mexican sun for four distinct storylines in Season Two. Now segregated each faction must learn to survive in a radically different way following the break down of events in FTWD's first season (6 episodes). Those stories are often interesting and perhaps more subtle than TWD, but the cast pulls off the post-apocalypse or apocalypse-in-progress uniquely making for an enriching, rewarding result for us to follow in this second examination of the walking dead world. This is how you build a real world mythology.

Unlike the second spin-off, The Walking Dead: World Beyond (2020; 20 episodes), which I have affectionately dubbed World Beyond (Bad), FTWD continues to hold its own with strong performances from Kim Dickens, Cliff Curtis, Frank Dillane and Reuben Blades. Some of the other supporting characters begin to cultivate and strengthen their own respective characters to deepen the series.

Unlike the land-locked location shooting of TWD, there is something special about the water-based residence entwined with the latina landscape of FTWD that makes for a wonderful experience for the eyes. Like its parent series or a series like LOST on that island, the location of the series lends an important component of the series' personality.

FTWD is still recommended. It may not be as strong and perhaps a little more unfocused than that first season and/or TWD, but it still continues to impress and packs quite a bite.

Some of the final episodes of Season Two are particularly savage. The transformation the new world/ walking dead universe forces upon, by all standards, our ordinary people, proves the zombie apocalypse brings out the worst in many of us and even sometimes the best in us or the worst even from the best of us. Despite all good attentions the forces of our environment dictate our behavioral response and offer us a picture of the worst of humanity in Robert Kirkman's influenced and inspired world more often than the best. Despite the best of intentions there are variables and events that force our hand and the instinct to survive can sometimes reveal the basest of human behavior.

There are some truly disturbing moments and some real lessons about the savagery of humanity. How we choose to respond in that environment proves that we don't always have the best choice when it comes down to sheer survival.

Fear The Walking Dead intelligently walks that line of a civilization turning just like those very people embodying this new zombie space. Essential for fans of The Walking Dead.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Lost In Space S1 E9: The Oasis

"The land shrivels under its blinding heat, and the conservation of water has become the greatest problem."
-John Robinson writing in his journal about the family's trials lost in the unknowns of space-

"You know I read somewhere once that people like Dr. Smith are called injustice collectors. Most of them are very nice when they're not collecting."
-Maureen Robinson (with a commentary that's easily applicable to the woke operatives of cancel culture today)-

Every great science fiction series is deserving a water shortage entry. Water is a vital resource as humans can only endure without it for approximately three to four days, far less than a food shortage. Without water we perish. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation S1 E18 Home Soil dubbed humans "ugly bags of water." When it comes to the theme of water deprivation, Lost In Space delivers perhaps one of the strangest but still entertaining tales.

Stargate Universe (2009-2011) did it with its own episode dubbed fittingly Water (S1, E6) and Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) also did it with its equally appropriate and obviously themed title Water (S1, E2). There have been others. The water deficiency theme/convention is often repurposed in science fiction and reconstituted into a typically engaging survival story. Just add water. These stories somehow often feel revitalized and interesting and fresh in their respective stories in terms of survival.

The Oasis captures the struggling family on a new frontier of their own, space, and the survival of the Robinsons is rendered in the spirit of Swiss Family Robinson.

In Lost In Space, Season One, Episode 9, The Oasis, writer Peter Packer (The Derelict, Welcome Stranger) returns for his third time with first time Lost In Space director Sutton Roley. Roley would deliver four in all, three in Season One (Wish Upon A Star, One Of Our Dogs Is Missing) and one in Season Three (the popular 15th entry The Anti-Matter Man). All are exceptional entries in the series including this one whilst he worked on three episodes for Irwin Allen's Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea (1964-1968).

Packer packs a giant punch in The Oasis effectively channeling Irwin Allen's love for spectacle. Allen has always been a fan of bigger and better and here Packer channels his inner Allen lending us a look at what would one day be Irwin Allen's next big series Land Of The Giants (1968-1970), a technical feat of imaginative effects work that suffered immeasurably from a lack of character. Thankfully, Lost In Space did not suffer the same fate.

In The Oasis we find a very large Bloop and Dr. Zachary Smith upon eating some forbidden fruit. Smith would play large again in Land Of The Giants (1968-1970) episode Pay The Piper (S2, E17). Oddly, this strange magic space fruit has other designs. This fruit plant can not only grow living tissue but apparently non living tissue as Smith's clothing grows exponentially larger along with him. Science may be in question here, but hey this is the vast unknown of outer space and we have seen stranger things. I'm sure there must be some plausible explanation however preposterous.

With regard to big Bloop, actor Janos Prohaska created and wore the monkey suit, a rather unreal frightening, nightmarish creation of an oversized monkey.

It’s rather clear it’s a suit and to live in the moment we call that the suspension of disbelief and we enjoy the artistry of the thing. This monkey was no less impressive than the suit found in Ishiro Honda's King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962), or his King Kong Escapes (1967), but it was obviously a suit. Funny enough, Prohaska appeared as some variation of a monkey or ape in The Outer Limits (S1 E5 The Sixth Finger), Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea (S4 E7 Fatal Cargo), Land Of The Giants and Gilligan’s Island. He also worked in Star Trek as the Horta and other monsters (source: the wonderful Irwin Allen's Lost In Space Volume 1: The Authorized Biography Of A Classic Sci-Fi Series by Marc Cushman). This guy went ape for the genre!

Apart from the questions of size Packer does a splendid job with continuity of mythology building. Once again the family is at the peril of the planet’s radical temperature changes as first evidenced in There Were Giants In The Earth (S1, E4) and The Hungry Sea (S1, E5). Packer remains true to those aspects of the series.

So there are problems with the episode. That’s not an illusion, The Oasis concludes its initially strong entry with a giant Smith and his enormous outfit too. The bold Allen had proudly, but oddly, referred to Lost In Space as a series that would also take into account science and that was absent and completely omitted here. There wasn't even a hint of explanation. Likely, it was an omission by design for budgetary reasons. It was also not likely the network would have a naked Jonathan Harris running about in 1965. I mean exactly what could cover that thing for the kids? But again this is space and fans of the series, even today, will look past the lack of logical science and simply enjoy the entry as entertainment and sheer magic of epic proportions.

One of the most recognizable aspects to The Oasis is not just the physical changes applied to Smith's size, but his character. It was a nice metaphor for the modifications and alterations to a once intended serious character.

The series witnesses for the very first time a truly child-like, cowardly Smith. It’s not pretty, but it would make him tolerable to the Robinson family as evidenced here and of course endearing in a warped way to viewers going forward. We ate it up. Both Robot and Smith were being literally transformed into more agreeable characters right before our very eyes beginning with the episode's classic shower sequence.

Prior to transformation the cast are given ample time to shine as they explore their consciences opposite Smith. So again, Lost In Space always has its wonderful character moments.

In the end The Oasis may be best remembered for the fantasy of its Irwin Allen odyssey into an early iteration of the Land Of Giants, and it's an entertaining prelude at that. But like an oasis this would not be the show's last foray into fantasy, though in many ways this feels a bit like the first time Lost In Space goes there.

Though we should be grateful Smith didn't decide to lay down inside the Jupiter 2 before transformation that could have been ugly.

The Oasis definitively lends evidence to the changes being made to Smith's character as witnessed by his overreaction and flair for the dramatic, fittingly as we see small Dr. Smith make a mountain, like his character, out of a mole hill. In The Oasis he begins to resemble his untrustworthy, but oddly likable curmudgeon.

Writer: Peter Packer. Director: Sutton Roley.