I don’t think Falling Skies is the show to end all shows, but it does satisfy a craving I’ve had for a look at alien invasions that don’t just consist of a traumatic invasion that’s easily repulsed once humans figure out the aliens’ fatal weakness. Instead, it dispenses with the history of the invasion in a monologue by a group of children in the first minute and a half of the pilot: “I was in school when the ships came. They were really big. And they said we weren’t going to attack them with a nuclear bomb because they might want to be friends. But they didn’t want to be friends. Not at all…They blew up army bases, ships, the Navy, submarines, and all the soldiers are gone…Now the moms and dads have to fight…They kill parents. And they put harnesses on kids.” And then the show moves swiftly and efficiently into the question of what happens to individual humans and human society when it’s on the brink of extinction.
There are fairly obvious compromises. A criminal can be a useful addition to society if he knows how to cook, bringing some solace to everyday life — and if he’s developed a better theory of fighting the invaders. We’ll tolerate deviant behavior by doctors if they lead to medical innovation that can be an effective response to new threats. Shreds of normality, like a skateboard, can unify entire communities. Thank God America manufactured so much canned food.
But one of the things that’s most interesting to me so far is the debate over whether academic knowledge and theory or military expertise matter more in the current environment. That conflict’s embodied by Tom Mason (Noah Wyle, finally finding a decent outlet for his penchant for playing bookish action heroes), a military history professor, and Captain Weaver (Will Patton), an actual veteran of both the armed forces and the military reserves. Mason’s not a fantastic commander: he gets his squad captured, he brings back an alien prisoner of war without a sense of whether it’ll be feasible or wise to hold one, and it’s not necessarily clear that his theories about whether the Skitters (as the invaders are known) can be harassed off Earth the same way the British were harassed out of the colonies during the Revolutionary War carry water. But Mason does understand that in order to win, the human survivors need more than a military campaign, telling one of his fellow survivors, “I think civilians are a liability and a hindrance. I also think they’re the best motivation we have to fight.” When he has to choose what books he wants to take with him, he picks A Tale of Two Cities.Weaver rather profoundly doesn’t understand that, complaining, “There’s too many of us. If it was just the fighters, we could stretch our provisions,” and bitterly declaring to a doctor who suggests it might be wise for the long-term stability of the group to make sure everyone gets a chance to sleep indoors sometimes, not just the soldiers, that “If they want the protection of my soldiers, they can minimize their whining and be grateful for the oatmeal.” It’s also not clear that he has a viable long-term plan to deal with the Skitters, either. But even though he’s callous about the need for societal cohesion, Weaver knows how to organize people at least into the basics of maneuvers and teams, and he’s probably right to be suspicious of Pope, the captured convict who knows how to cook. At some point, this little fledgling society’s going to need order as well as compassion and innovation, and while that’s undervalued now, it seems like Weaver will be the only person who’s actually prepared to provide it.
I don’t know that there’s a direct relationship between the debate Falling Skies is setting up and questions about how to successfully prosecute the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, the Americans are the invaders in those conflicts, much like the Skitters, and academics both with military experience and without have played a variety of useful and unuseful roles in the debates about how to prosecute them and the likelihood of success. But that question of what level of irritation it takes to get an invader out of your country is an interesting one. It’s not clear what it’s going to take for us to decide to completely get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s not clear what it would take to expel the Skitters either.