Falling Skies: Aliens as Metaphor

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Falling SkiesWe watched the last of Season Two of the Falling Skies series last night. After a bit of research this morning, I learned I have two more seasons to watch and a fifth season has been scheduled. Something to look forward to. I wasn’t sure about how it would turn out, but the series has matured nicely, although one can’t say that about its politics.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s about American reaction to an alien invasion – one could say it is a drawn-out remake of War of the Worlds. The aliens, of course, have more advanced weaponry and technology and aim at world domination. And enslavement of the human race along the way. Falling Skies spices up the mix with a rich back story about the aliens I won’t spoil here. But at least by the end of Season Two, there’s no indication that anyone else on the planet has survived and formed a resistance. It’s solely an American underground.  One bridles at that.

My first impression was that it was Walking Dead with aliens instead of zombies. I personally didn’t care much for the Walking Dead series and didn’t manage to watch even the whole first season. But, as a scifi buff, Falling Skies caught and held my attention.*

The ostensible premise is straight out of H.G. Wells: high-tech aliens invade, destroy much of the planet’s civilization and infrastructure, and pockets of humans fight back. But there’s more to it.

Walking Dead, Falling Skies and their ilk are shrouded in a tradition of American conservative politics projected onto the screen, large or small. In some ways, they are allegories for the libertarian dream: the collapse of central government allows patriotic people to become self-governing tribes replete with Rugged Individuals: heroic, self-sufficient, insular, armed, and untaxed. It’s amazing how people who were mechanics, shopkeepers, nurses, athletes, even children turn into bold fighters so easily, so casually. Not much unmanly PTSD among these folk.

And it’s also the NRA’s wet-dream: Americans couldn’t survive against the invaders unless they had oodles of guns  – from revolvers to portable anti-aircraft weapons – lying around for the taking; in homes, ubiquitous abandoned gun shops and armouries. Guns save America, so the message goes. And only then because everyone who survives already knows how to handle them and can tell the difference between types of ammunition. Who needs training? It’s the egregious gun-toting, military (or paramilitary) characters who become the leaders and heroes. The rest are followers.

The aliens, of course, are metaphors – back in the Red Scare days they were metaphors for Communism. And sometimes, depending on time and place, for integration, for Germans, for immigrants, invasive species, colonialism, other religions, AIDS, socialism – for almost anything we’re taught to fear and loathe.

(Curiously, I didn’t read the same sort of isolationist fear in Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids novel: the blindness struck me as a metaphor for ignorance… but then I was only 11 or 12 when I first read it… perhaps I need to re-read it and see how it handles the political aspect.)

They were Communists-in-alien-garb when the Americans first filmed their version of War of the Worlds in 1953, at the height of the second Red Scare (aliens were also the metaphor for Communism in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, filmed in 1956). This alien (or zombie) metaphor is much more dramatic than simply making the Commies the enemy (as in the irksome and clumsy film, Red Dawn). You don’t want your enemies to be human and sympathetic, and definitely not risible, so transform them into something scary: zombies or aliens.

The overarching allegory here is also the American Revolution which has been mythologized so heavily in the US (recall the flag-waving tommyrot of Mel Gibson’s film, The Patriot) that  the fantasy has become part of the American psyche.

Walking Dead and Falling Skies are not-so-subtle in remaking that war in modern terms (the big, bad British as zombies or aliens…). Falling Skies, however, throws in some rather heavy-handed, libertarian political commentary about the War of Independence, spouted during the group’s stay in Charleston. And just in case you didn’t get the drift they drape a few very large American flags around to act as background in some shots.

When Communism collapsed in the 1990s, conservatives needed a different metaphor to scare people with. While the harridan spokeswoman of the uber-right, Ann Coulter, could shriek about the imminent threats of socialism (a word she doesn’t understand the actual meaning of), liberals, intellectuals and Democrats, they needed something more threatening. They needed an enemy that allows the creation of a heroic, xenophobic, misogynistic, gun-toting, individualistic, meat-eating, religious American. Aliens and zombies fit the bill nicely.

And there have to be lots of them. Not just one or a small band. One creature is just a single scary monster, like Wolfman or Dracula. They need to be populous enough to threaten not only lives but our whole Way of Life, in that capital-letter way. That way you can also make them metaphors for other culture-threatening elements that scare the conspiracy theorists: international bankers, global mega-corporations, GMOs, big pharma, big government, doctors-with-vaccination-syringes and so on.

And you can kill them without any political or emotional blowback. Our heroes casually wiping out a nest of sleeping enemy soldiers, or shooting unarmed human captives might create unease in the viewers. That’s what we’ve been brought up to expect from the Commies, or the Nazis or the Taliban, not brave, heroic and decent American soldiers. But do the same to inhuman aliens and zombies? We love watching their heads explode. Who mourns a dead zombie?

The main protagonist of Falling Skies starts our as a history professor. Family man, humble, intellectual. That  clearly couldn’t do. Having a professor as hero would turn the series into another Gilligan’s Island. He had to be transformed; a cathartic process that spat him out as a gun-toting, individualist libertarian. And the series does that.

There’s a couple of episodes in Season two when the ragtag “army” meets up with other survivors in Charleston where some of them are trying to piece a government together; a return to normality and structure. Our heroes will have have none of it, especially not the former history prof. They basically overthrow the fledgling government, put the military back in charge, and set out on their own again to fulfill the libertarian dream of independent tribes with guns. Run, of course, by men (rough, manly Men With Beards at that).

I love the special effects, the post-apocalyptic sets, the running battles and the action: the production quality is top-notch, but I do find the blunt thumping of the libertarian politics a bit wearying. Maybe it’s being Canadian that makes me snicker or gag.

I live in hope that in subsequent seasons it loses some of this parochial, uber-right patriotic perspective. I might have given up on the series sooner, but the inclusion of a skitter resistance late in S2 intrigued me and I wanted to see how this otherwise conservative ideology would handle that (I’m not sure it did so very well, by the way). But I’m willing to give it at least another season of viewing.

~~~~~

* When we had a TV connection, we often watched the Sci-Fi Channel. Scifi, as aficionados know, is pronounced “sigh-fie.” In 2009, that was rebranded; topped up with fake “reality” shows, fake wrestling and other pop culture detritus , then renamed in some puerile mispelling (word is the executives had problems with the silent c in science) as “SyFy” which aficionados pronounce “siffy” so as to distinguish it from science fiction. We stopped watching it around that time because the accelerating dumbing-down of TV was getting unbearable. I’m glad I gave up cable in 2012, because this channel would be the source of rants around the house every time I turned it on.

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