The human race is doomed. That’s what I take away from the final episode of Falling Skies, in which the human race is saved in such a slapdash and unconvincing manner, you sense that everyone concerned felt as though humanity actually deserves to perish. God, this show. What the hell happened?
This past season of Falling Skies has actually made sporadic attempts to be more character-focused and get back to telling stories instead of just wheeling out endless weird plot devices. Perhaps because Warehouse 13 executive producer Jack Kenny had joined the writing staff, there were a few credible arcs.
In particular, Tom Mason abandons his previous reverence for human life and decides to be ruthless in pressing the final victory against the Espheni invaders (to the point where even Dan Weaver questions how Tom has changed.) And meanwhile, Dan Weaver is reunited with an old army buddy/love interest, and struggles to explain to her all the weird compromises with alien influences the 2nd Mass has made over the years (but she turns out to be an alien, so it’s all moot.)
And there were a few other arcs, like Pope “breaking bad” after Tom Mason’s callousness results in the death of Pope’s girlfriend Sara. And Anthony going spla after Deni is killed. And this guy named Marty trying to find redemption or something. Oh, and the alien named Cochise learns the human concepts of love and friendship.
None of those character arcs ever fully gelled or felt organic—and there was still too much “wacky alien interference of the week” in the mix—but they were there, at least. And last night’s finale paid off pretty much none of them in a satisfying way. Tom Mason does sort of nod at the camera in an early “campfire” scene and reference what an asshole he’s been, before dropping it. Marty dies heroically, as does that other cannon-fodder guy, and Anthony is really sorry and gets to survive. And Tom decides that he’s “done killing” and doesn’t shoot Pope—but instead leaves Pope to die, I guess.
(Side note: Feel bad for the guy who plays Dingaan Botha, Treva Etienne, who got downgraded from major character to walking plot device, to make room for Marty.)
Last night’s episode was basically just about getting the job done—literally. The “final battle” with the alien invaders consists of shooting down a swarm of cowardly hornets (who run away after a few of them are shot) and then sneaking through some tunnels full of alien eggs (in a scene cribbed from Aliens). And then Tom takes on the alien queen alone, and wins in the most unconvincing fashion. (Basically, she decides to suck his blood and he grabs the biological weapon at the last second, so his blood is full of alien poison. And then every single alien, including all the Skitters, explodes.)
The bastard offspring of Battlestar Galactica
Falling Skies failed to pay off thematically—and I’ll get to that in a minute—but it also annoys me from a simple plot standpoint. This was a show that went out of its way to make no sense.
Back in the first season, our heroes are basically up against the wall the entire time, scoring just one victory (rescuing Ben and a few other harnessed children, and getting the harnesses off.) And then, in the finale, they figure out how to use the un-harnessed Ben to screw with the enemy communications. They also figure out, at great length, how to melt down the enemy “Mechs” and make “Mech bullets,” which are dense enough to penetrate enemy armor. This advance feels at least somewhat earned, and it leads to an actual victory.
Yay, human ingenuity has paid off. Right? Except that in season two, the Mech bullets are gone, and Ben is never again able to pull off the stunt he pulled in season one. The Mech bullets are never even referenced again. In interviews, the series’ new showrunner explained that the humans are on the run in season two, and no longer have the ability to make these bullets—plus new showrunner Remi Aubuchon thought it was too easy if the humans have “magic bullets” to defeat the invaders.
But instead of “magic bullets”—that the humans created themselves at great length and at great cost, with their own resourcefulness—the human resistance fighters get a long series of alien interventions on their behalf.
First, there’s the “Skitter rebellion,” a group of rebellious alien fighters who join forces with the 2nd Mass. Then there are the Volm, a mostly benevolent race who give us super-awesome laser rifles (which feel way more unearned than the “Mech bullets” ever did.) Then Tom Mason and Anne Glass have a half-alien daughter, Lexi, who eventually turns to our side and uses her godlike powers to help us deal a crippling blow to the aliens, blowing up their power base on the Moon.
And finally, in this last season, a brand new race of aliens, the Dornia, show up, with almost no explanation. (They’re proto-Skitters, or something.) They save Tom Mason from dying in space after he attacks the Moon, and then they give him psychic warnings of danger, and finally they give him the super-weapon that takes down the alien queen.
(And let’s not even get into how disappointing it is that the Espheni have the traditional “queen whose death causes all the other aliens to die” weakness, which is the mainstay of all science fiction series that have painted themselves into a corner. And the queen chooses to come to Earth just as the Espheni defenses are at their weakest, and leaves herself unguarded apart from a big wall. I’m not sure I believe these aliens would manage to conquer a 7-Eleven, much less the whole Earth.)
So let’s review. Instead of letting our heroes have a weapon that they painstakingly forged themselves, Falling Skies decided to hand them a long series of alien benefactors who just miraculously turn up and save the humans’ bacon, over and over and over. By the time you get to the final episode, and the victory over the Overlords that feels so unbelievable that I almost thought it was an extended dream sequence, it’s the inevitable culmination of a series of creative decisions that sacrificed logic for expediency, over and over.
And it must be said: Falling Skies was the bastard offspring of Battlestar Galactica. The series’ first showrunner, Mark Verheiden, was one of BSG’s main writers, and its final two seasons were masterminded by BSG co-creator David Eick. Also prominently involved in the series were BSG writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle. (The other main showrunner, Remi Aubuchon, created the BSG spinoff Caprica, although he had envisioned it as a standalone show about artificial intelligence.)
And like BSG, Falling Skies started off as a clear-cut post-apocalyptic show about humans on the run from an utterly ruthless non-human enemy. But where BSG made at least a valiant effort to stay character-focused and keep its world consistent before slowly eroding into gobbledygook, Falling Skies gave into the worst excesses of BSG’s latter two seasons early on. The mysterious visions, the bizarre plot gyrations, the out-of-left-field twists just for the sake of twists, and the increasing reliance on quasi-deus ex machinas, all came from the worst pages of the BSG playbook. And the final two seasons really tried to unveil a larger mythos (about the Dornia and the Espheni and the Nazca lines) that was insultingly half-assed.
The sad thing is, Falling Skies was never a great show, but it had the potential for greatness.
Colonization and assimilation
At its root, Falling Skies was a show about colonialism, and how even resisting the colonizers forces you to assimilate into their culture. The act of resistance requires you to understand your occupiers, which is a form of cooptation, and meanwhile the enemy is turning your own children against you and claiming ownership over all the institutions and infrastructure that used to be yours.
The great innovation of Falling Skies was twofold: First, that it depicted the aftermath of a successful alien invasion, instead of showing the alien invasion in progress. As the show begins, the aliens have already won, more or less. And second, the notion that the aliens are capturing human children, putting alien tech onto their spines, and turning them into alien drones, was genuinely creepy and effective. Creepier still, some of the human children who are de-harnessed now identify with the aliens rather than their human parents.
The underlying theme of Falling Skies was always how humans were being changed and warped by contact with alien biology and cultures. Even if we miraculously drove the Skitters, Mechs and Overlords off our planet, we wouldn’t be unchanged—our environment has been reshaped by alien organisms, and our children are transformed. And then there’s the whole question of what fighting against these aliens has done to us.
Falling Skies was always at its best when it tried to grapple with these questions about humanity and how contact with the aliens has changed us. Even some of the later WTF plot devices, like Tom’s half-alien daughter, the eye-worm infilitrators, the “skitterized humans” and the Skitter Factory, seemed like new ways to try and get at the question of how contact with the aliens was changing us and our world.
Which is why the shots in the final episode of all the alien creatures just self-destructing, in unison, seemed so cheap and pointless. It felt like a thematic, as well as a plot, cop-out. Even if destroying the Espheni queen called all the other Espheni to die, why would her death kill all the Skitters and hornets and skitterized humans?
But that’s the thing about Falling Skies—in its first two seasons, it seemed like a show that was trying to stay grounded, push its characters to their limits, and ask the difficult questions. The show always teetered into Spielbergian sentimentality instead of living up to its premise, but it at least tried.
And that’s the other thing about Falling Skies—it always, even in this final season, had ambitions to be a character-driven show. (I haven’t even mentioned the Hal-Maggie-Isobel love triangle, which gets resolved in a few seconds of this finale, or Matt’s new love interest who apparently starts dating him offscreen. Or Anne Glass being randomly pregnant again, dying, and coming back from the dead thanks to magic alien tentacles.)
But they should teach Falling Skies in classrooms, because it’s one of the clearest examples I’ve ever seen of bad worldbuilding leading to bad characterization. After a while, nothing the characters do matters or makes sense, because the world isn’t consistent or thought-out. (I still think if eyeworms worked as well as they appeared to in season three, then every other human would have been eyewormed pretty quickly.)
Falling Skies started out as a gritty war drama, created by the writer of Saving Private Ryan, and it had some really interesting territory to explore about life under occupation. The Mason family felt like a real family, the aliens felt genuinely horrifying and unstoppable. But over time, it fell into the same pitfalls as so many other science fiction shows, and ended up being a show about nothing. And that’s really why the final episode left me feeling just depressed.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.