Season four of the TNT sci-fi television series, Falling Skies, has began filming Oct. 3. For sci-fi writers this is welcome news, since it means that the genre we love to write about still has a ready, willing market. As someone who enjoys the alien invasion genre, I was quite interested in the show. I had the opportunity to catch episode one of season 3, only to be immensely disappointed by the poor writing, the lack of conflict and element of danger, and also the lack of character development that never went beyond the surface. Not wanting to make a final decision, I finally made some time to start at the beginning, with season one, episode one.
Falling Skies starts six months after the alien invasion, and follows a group of ragtag American resistance fighters, who attempt to win freedom from the invading creatures. The lead fighter, played by Noah Wyle, is a former history professor, who uses his knowledge of the past to fight against the current alien threat. An interesting concept. No doubt the idea of starting after the invasion was probably well thought out by the writers/producer team. To some it might be redundant—seen one invasion, seen them all. But from a writing perspective, the invasion does matter and, for this writer, caused missed opportunities for character development and connection. Here’s why.
Applying the hero’s journey, many stories usually start with a period of “everyday life,” that is, life as it occurs everyday for a character. In the movie version of The Wizard of Oz, for instance, this is the moment we see Dorothy on the farm, her run in with Mrs. Gulch, and so on. The next step on the journey is what’s often referred to as the “inciting incident.” It is the tragedy that ultimately turns the everyday world upside down and is the catalyst for the next step, the “call to adventure,” or the moment the hero decides to accept his/her role in the adventure. For Dorothy, the inciting incident is the tornado—it turns the farm (literally) upside down, and is the catalyst that puts her on the journey—the journey and call to return home. The moment she decided to start the yellow brick road, she is accepting her call to adventure, and begins to take her first steps on the path to succeed. This starts the end of the first act.
In Falling Skies, the first two steps are missed, picking up at the end of the first act, when the hero(s) are taking their first steps on the journey. It’s important to see “everyday life,” because it is how the viewers learn about the characters, and ultimately come to root for them. The invasion, thus, would be the inciting incident, the catalyst for changing the everyday world upside down. But we never see the everyday. We miss out seeing Noah Wylie teaching a history class on the Battle of Bunker Hill, for instance, where we might see first-hand his knowledge of history, or his compassion and ease with his students. Mostly, the “everyday life,” portion often presents the hopes and dreams of a particular character. So if we saw the hopes and dreams of this history professor prior to the invasion—like say a vacation with his family—then once the invasion hit, the viewer would see this dissolve, and then a connection of support is made.
As episode one of season one picks up after the invasion, many of these natural opportunities were missed, or worse, they were told to the viewer, rather than shown. Even the invasion is told through children’s drawings (done with an obvious skilled hand no less) as a means to inform the viewer. It’s called exposition, and slows the story down.
I believe a time will come in the show’s run that they will go back and film an invasion episode, or one-off movie, if not for the practicality of it, but because there is still a story to be told here. For me, without knowing who the characters are before the invasion wrecked their lives makes for a dull show, and forced scenarios of sympathy—like a lost son, among other typical and cliche turns to try to win the audience. Again, this is from a writing perspective, a means to illustrate opportunities to improve—although, at four seasons, it looks like Falling Skies is doing pretty good, even without the invasion.