I recently enjoyed a barbeque at the Connecticut home of a former student and his wife. The topic of backyard wildlife came up, the most fearsome being the largest snapping turtle they had ever seen, although they assured me that a mountain lion had also been reported in Connecticut. That lead to the topic of guns, and my host reminded me that his grandfather, a former Marine, still sleeps with a handgun under his pillow. “Loaded?” I said.
“Of course. Not much use if it’s not loaded.”
His wife expressed—at least to my mind—a correct abhorrence of household guns. Yet even though one’s chance of being shot increases significantly with gun ownership, nothing seems able dim the American romance with firepower.
You can catch a glimpse of America’s ballistic soul on “Falling Skies,” the popular new summer series on TNT produced by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks USA. Always clairvoyant when it comes to the American zeitgeist, Spielberg may have caught the cadence of the Tea Party. In the winsome words of one youth, “Just remembering, what was it? Seven or eight months ago, you wouldn’t let me ride my bike over to Julian’s at night because I didn’t have a bike light. Now you’re offering me extra ammo.”
Why is that? The show’s premise could not be more trodden. Aliens have invaded earth, though in this series one searches in vain for their presence beyond American borders. Who cares about the rest of the planet? They have landed on American soil! All electronic devices have been instantaneously disabled. The child-voiced prologue explicates: “computers, radios, satellites, cars, TVs...everything!” The only thing standing between us and them are guns, handed out to anyone who can use them, even a 15-year-old Dickensian waif named Jimmy (Dylan Authors).
We might have been able to defend earth if we had nuked the “Skitters” when we had the chance, but the federal government wavered. Given that the series is set in the immediate future, one can only surmise that the aliens arrive before the 2012 election, when American foreign policy was still under a misguided policy of “Ask questions first, then shoot.”
Standing at the center of “the resistance” is American History Professor Tom Mason (Noah Wiley, who played Dr. John Carter on "ER"). In addition to wielding a rifle, his job is to put this catastrophe into perspective. “If we can hurt them, they’ll leave. History is full of inferior forces creating so much trouble that the invading army leaves. The Athenians at Marathon; the Scottish at Sterling Bridge; and our revolution fought right here, Red Sox, Yankees, '04. We can beat them.” The series divines a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan American desire to be the underdog. Why do we always have to be the Goliath? Or rather, why don’t others see that, even if we appear to be an imperialistic empire controlled by the unfettered interests of capitalism, we’re still the honorable and lovable New England patriots who first stood up to the British?
To underscore that point, the resistance, made up of refugees from Boston, is called “The Second Massachusetts.” In the opening scene, a female soldier laments, “South Boston, South Boston, South Boston. They’ve got South Boston!” Clearly the apocalypse is upon us, though it’s hard not to wonder if the folks in Kansas are even aware that we have been invaded. This is a show about having to flee the cities; rural folk are evidently of little concern.
Professor Tom is a rifle with a heart. Two of his sons are with him, one unfortunately not yet able to wield a weapon. A third has been “harnessed” by the Skitters. But the professor is only second-in-command: Captain Weaver (Will Patton) is the real military man. An Iraqi war veteran, hard enough to keep the civilians moving, he refuses to go back to search for Tom’s captured son. For him, civilians are “too many, too slow.” He calls them “eaters,” because they contribute nothing to defense. One doesn’t need superior alien intelligence to know that somewhere in the first season, crusty Captain Weaver will sacrifice himself for another, showing that beneath that scabrous exterior beats a silky warm heart.
By far the most interesting character is John Pope, a villainous profiteer. The actor Colin Cunningham graces the role with a glee not seen since Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” When reminded by Professor Tom that Americans won their revolution, he mordantly asks if that’s “the right—what do you call it—analogy? Instead of us being the Colonials and the aliens being the Redcoats isn’t it more like we’re the Indians and they’re the never-ending tide of humanity coming in from Europe. How’d that work out for the Indians?” In episode three, when allowed to accompany the resistance, but without a gun, he responds, “Unarmed? What am I, Canadian?” Fortunately for the resistance, but regrettably for the viewer, his chest also conceals a noble heart.
At its best, science fiction resets the human condition so that we can see our own humanity in a new a light. “Falling Skies” borrows heavily from Syfy’s “Battlestar Gallatica” (2004-2009). The robotic bipeds, which the aliens use to pursue the patriots, appear to have been rented from the same studio. Fortunately, they are poor shots. In fighting robots made by humans, “Battlestar” posed the better philosophical question: will we eventually become the victims of our own technology? “Falling Skies” falls back upon a more familiar trope. These aliens are reptilian, and one never has to ask about the humanity of reptiles. We know from Genesis itself that they are pure evil, the apotheosis of the alien. Rack and load! Or in the words of Tom Mason: “Retreat, regroup, return, revenge.”
This is not to say that there aren’t some good questions already raised in the series premiere. A young woman who “was in the church on the corner praying” is challenged for believing in a God who clearly wasn’t there when needed. One can see the American psyche still struggling to reconcile American exceptionalism and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. In the second episode, hoping for some shreds of information, parents hold up pictures of their missing children. I suspect the series will resolve its theodicy the same way Americans always do: God allows our enemies to take advantage of us so that truth, goodness and the American way will triumph, leaving no doubt as to the Almighty’s love of the U.S. of A.
Not having seen how the series plays out, I can’t help but to wonder—on the basis of future clips—if the alien “harnesses” on the children reveal a Faustian bargain. Are they to be given something like immortality in exchange for perpetual servitude? If so, the series will accurately express a contemporary apprehension of the God/world relationship: human autonomy.
Put another way, is there room for a God who tries to come between America and her guns?