Falling Skies


Falling Skies returns for its second season in a couple of weeks so it’s a good time to revisit how the TNT series began. When it debuted in the summer of 2011, carrying an Executive Producer credit from Steven Spielberg, I — and probably many others — had high hopes. (Remember, this was before the harsh lesson that was Terra Nova.) I couldn’t help but compare it to The Walking Dead, which had left us hungry for more six months earlier. Each centers on a band of survivors toughing it out after an apocalyptic event, and each story centers on a family man assuming a role of responsibility within the group. That’s where the similarities end. If you’re going to compare the two, Falling Skies will inevitably lose. So, yeah. Don’t do that. Continue reading

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Dr. Who: The Eleventh Hour

Dr. Who Eleventh HourI have a confession.

I’ve never watched Dr. Who. I have a passing familiarity with who The Doctor is and what a TARDIS is, mainly via geek osmosis (geekmosis?), having a lot of friends and Tweeps who are fans. I’ve caught bits and pieces of a few episodes since it began airing on BBC America, but the whole thing seemed too overwhelming to try and jump in mid-stream. I mean, the show is in the Guiness Book of World Records as the longest running science fiction show and its lead has been played by eleven different actors. Where do you start?

You start, I’ve discovered, with The Eleventh Hour.

This is the first episode of season 5 (of the show’s modern incarnation) and the introduction to Matt Smith as The Doctor. It functions very much as a pilot, and I highly recommend it to any Doctor Who virgin. It is a continuation from the end of season 4 and includes many significant updates and references for loyal viewers, but you don’t have to know that to enjoy it.

It’s action-packed from the first moment. The Doctor–in this case a gangly 20-something in a shirt and necktie–clings precariously to his police call box, hurtling across the London night sky, narrowly missing Big Ben. He crash lands in the backyard (the garden, as they say in the U.K.) of a young red-headed Scottish girl, just as she is praying to Santa Claus for someone to fix the crack in her bedroom wall. He climbs from the box, soaking wet and demanding an apple. Though these two characters have never met, neither is the slightest bit shy about speaking his or her mind.

“I’m the Doctor,” he announces. “Do everything I tell you, don’t ask stupid questions, and don’t wander off.” Though the girl, Amelia Pond, (Caitlin Blackwood) isn’t a particularly docile kid, she’s game to go along with whatever he says. They banter like a brother and sister as they bounce around the kitchen trying to find something he likes to eat. From this we learn that the Doctor is not himself. He has just acquired a new body, which he is still getting used to, and he’s not even sure of his own tastes. This is part is not explained but, according to Wikipedia, The Doctor regenerates a new body when mortally wounded; a convention that protects the show against jumping the shark even after 5 decades.

The Doctor and Amelia inspect the crack with the help of a gadget that’s something like a Swiss Army laser pointer (an iconic Doctor prop known as the Sonic Screwdriver). The crack is a crack in the fabric of the world and, though it, an alien being is searching for an escapee called Prisoner Zero. Before The Doctor can catch Prisoner Zero, though, he has to secure a glitch with his police box, explaining to Amelia as he climbs aboard that it’s a time machine. He makes a heartfelt promise that he will return in five minutes. She packs a suitcase and plops down on top of it to await his return.

These first 15 minutes is an absolute delight. It has fun, fairy tale-like air with a hint of foreboding; that crack is scary, especially when considered through the eyes of a child. And her complete acceptance of The Doctor as her friend and protector is completely endearing.

The Doctor returns in daylight and runs to the house. We’re led to believe a few hours have passed. Then, wait, it’s six months. There are clues that it’s longer–the house looks a bit worse for wear and the foliage has grown up in the yard. But he said five minutes. Inside the house, a police woman whacks The Doctor with a cricket bat and handcuffs him to a radiator. Her outfit is a little to sexy to be believable as a standard issue police uniform, and she eventually admits that it’s a “kiss-o-gram” costume.

Here we find the twist that–if you somehow have not seen the show since Matt Smith took on the role of The Doctor–just might take you by surprise. Ready?

This cheeky young woman (Karen Gillan) is Amelia, and twelve years have passed.

“I grew up.”

“You never want to do that.”

Caitlin Blackwood and Karen Gillan are real-life cousins, which brings a true family resemblance, and both girls just light up the screen with their charisma. The monster-of-the-week arc provides a wealth of background about the characters and the world of the show. The escaped alien is still living in her house. Its jailer has resumed an active and aggressive search for it, spurred by The Doctor’s return.

It is revealed that Amelia, now going by Amy, held out hope for the return of the man she called “The Raggedy Doctor” for years. She told friends and neighbors about him, drew pictures of their adventures, and even role played their relationship. It’s enough to break your heart, but the action doesn’t stop long enough.

The aliens are about to incinerate the Earth if Prisoner Zero is not handed over, so The Doctor and Amy, with help from her boyfriend and a couple of neighbors, must scramble to save it.

The Eleventh Hour has everything a pilot needs: a great episode arc, along with a hook into a season arc; characters we want to get to know better; enough back story to pique curiosity without slowing the pace; and endless possibilities for where the story can go–quite literally in this case.

Did I mention I recommend it? It’s available on Amazon if you need to catch up.

The X-Files

XFilesPilotLooking back at The X-Files, which premiered in 1993, it’s almost impossible not to compare it to a hundred other shows to air since. As a huge Bones fan, I’m most inclined to look for parallels to that show, and many have been drawn. Yes there’s the female-skeptic/male-believer duo, which apparently, was unusual in 1993. But upon re-watching, the X-Files pilot strikes a tone that is all its own.

The pilot opens, as many crime shows do, with a murder. But this is not two drunk kids having a frolic in the woods when they stumble onto a body. Instead, we witness a scene that, if you happened to just turn it on at that point, you might mistake for the climax of the episode. The victim displays absolute terror as a bright light appears over a ridge and a figure emerges from it. Cut to the police investigating the scene. We are briefly introduced to a detective who recognizes the victim as a classmate of his son, class of ‘89. Only after the crime of the week is established do we meet our protagonists.

Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is an FBI agent who is brought into the office of one of her superiors, where she is properly introduced to the viewer. She was recruited out of medical school to the FBI, where she has worked for two years. She is clearly a trusted member of the team, as they are asking her to check up on another agent with an established high-profile career who takes an interest in classified files. As she is briefed on her new assignment, a tall, silent man–who will later be known in X-Files lore as Cigarette Smoking Man–stands by…smoking a cigarette.

Scully heads to a cramped basement office to meet this volatile agent, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). Mulder is painted as eccentric, but he’s not Walter Bishop eccentric. In fact, with his boyish charm he could be described as a cross between Walter and Peter Bishop. Later, his celebratory reaction at realizing that he and Scully just jumped through nine minutes is reminiscent of Dr. Emmet Brown. He’s a likeable character, as is Scully, but the immediate tension between them feels forced. It’s understandable that he is defensive toward her; he believes she is there to spy on him. Her defensiveness isn’t so easy to understand. We can assume the writers are going to work up some sexual tension between the two.

Legend has it that Scully had a boyfriend in the original script, possibly increasing the stakes. here is a hint of sexual tension when Dana strips down to her underwear to show Mulder some bumps on her back, after which they sit around and talk by candlelight. The scene reveals some of each character’s vulnerabilities. But there is no witty, flirtatious back-and-forth; just two people getting to know each other.

As one might expect, this work has personal meaning for Mulder. His sister was abducted, he believes by aliens, as a child, and the record of the case was covered up. It’s predictable, but you have to have your personal connection. (Bones’ mom was murdered, Olivia Benson was raped, Kate Beckett’s mom was murdered, Veronica Mars was raped… I could go on.)

There is something unique about this pilot, however. The episode overall has the feel of a true crime television special, putting into a realm of freakiness above normal network drama. Opening with the subtitle, “The following story is inspired by actual documented events,” and then using typewriter text to denote times and places add to this effect.

The plot, which involves mysterious deaths of several former Oregoneon high school classmates, gets relatively complex. Personally, I find the casting of all these middle aged white guys with receding hairlines confusing; I couldn’t keep straight the detective, the medical examiner, and the coroner. That being said, the show really is story-driven. There are no shots of gorgeous bodies and scenery like in the CSIs or any slapstick, such as sometimes works into Bones or Castle.

The detectives more or less solve the case, only to learn that all the paperwork they file on it immediately disappears. The show ends with the Cigarette Smoking Man taking the one piece of surviving evidence and filing it away deep in the Pentagon archives. This scene sets up the show for a long time to come.

Perhaps the lines that best encapsulate where we’re headed are when Scully asks, “Do you have a theory?” to which Mulder answers, “I have plenty of theories.”

Roswell

Although it spent its 3 seasons with less than stellar ratings, Roswell not only helped put the WB network (now the CW) on the map as a destination for teen girls, but paved the way for another show about an attractive high school student from outer space.

Roswell was based on a series of books called Roswell High, and the title itself serves as back story. The name of the New Mexico town is synonymous with UFO cover-ups. We all know what happened there in 1947. Don’t we? Seriously, do you know what happened? Because other than a vague idea of something about a crater, I didn’t. There may or may not have been an alien crash landing and the U.S. government may or may not have conducted autopsies on the victims. Read more about it here.

Even supposing the viewer knows nothing about Roswell, the show spells it out visually right away. We open with teen narrator Liz (Shiri Appleby) writing in her diary, introducing herself via voiceover. “Five days ago I died,” she says. “After that things got really weird.” Intriguing, if a bit cheesy. Then we find her at work in the Crashdown Café, a 50s-style, UFO-themed diner.

 Liz and Maria (Majandra Delfino) are waitresses in schlocky theme uniforms complete with antennae. They clearly enjoy messing with truth-seeking tourists. It’s a special occasion in Roswell, the day of the Crash Festival. Presumably that’s a day when the residents cash in on their fame. (However, this is set in September and the Roswell “incident” happened on July 8.) Isabel points out that the dopey looking Max Evans (Jason Behr) keeps staring at Liz. Indeed, he is the first to spring to action when she is hit by a stray bullet fired during an argument between customers.

Max runs to Liz, where she has fallen to the floor bleeding from the abdomen. He places a hand across the wound, healing it. He breaks a bottle of ketchup and instructs Liz to say she broke it. He and his friend speed off in a Jeep before the authorities arrive. A pair of nosy tourists start poking holes in Liz’s story with the sheriff. Sheriff Valenti (William Sadler), we see, has his suspicions. He takes note of two empty Tabasco sauce bottles on a table where the boys were sitting.

We next meet Liz at school. She’s kind of a plain Jane, a good student, and for some reason dating a douchebag who is—big surprise—Sheriff Valenti’s son. She confronts Max and he admits with almost no reservation that he is an alien. He swears her to secrecy, but in no time she has dished to Maria. Playing a friend of Liz’s is Colin Hanks, but we don’t get to know much about his character yet.

We get to know two other aliens, the only others, Isabel (fresh-faced Katherine Heigl) and Michael (Brendon Fehr, aka Jared Booth on Bones). They put Tabasco sauce on everything; definitely a detail that is going to get them in trouble. Alarmed by Max’s revelation to Liz, the alien trio debates whether to flee. We get just enough details to understand their background. They were the only survivors of a crashed spaceship. They have been raised by regular human families for the past 16 years. Prior to that, they were in some kind of hibernation.

Mid-way through, the Liz voiceover returns unexpectedly and unnecessarily. It’s as if the vehicle we’ve been cruising along in hits a big puddle of teen romance molasses. It may be moments like this that led the show’s creators to focus more on the science fiction as the show progressed.

The plot then plunges from character description into a plot where Liz and the aliens have to outsmart the Sheriff. Though it seems the most natural thing for the aliens to leave town, that wouldn’t leave much of a television show. So we know they’re hanging around. We’re left to see how Max and Liz will get together—because of course they will—and how the aliens will continue to allude the authorities. The pilot balances the mystery and the romance pretty well, so if you like either you might just tolerate the other.