Let's be blunt: the dinosaurs and Jurassic yokels on Terra Nova might make a cocktail appetiser for the wicked six-legged alien "skitters" and death-ray robotic "mechs" that have already annihilated most of the human race by the time the new series Falling Skies even begins.
The adrenalin drought is finally over for sci-fi junkies as Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Television delivers a smart, epic and thoroughly entertaining alien-invasion series that crackles with tension and isn't afraid to wring an occasional tear from its audience.
Noah Wyle of ER fame trades his white lab coat for khakis as Tom Mason, a history professor with a head for military tactics, who finds himself thrust into a warlord role with a ragtag bunch of 300 survivors outside Boston after the aliens have decimated Earth's major cities and armies.
"The show starts six months into this devastating alien invasion that has killed 80 per cent of the world's population," says Wyle, "and eradicated the power grid and thrown those few survivors who are left into a 19th-century form of existence. Not having shown the arrival of these aliens helps us start with a very quick pace."
Surprisingly, the series eschews the wham-bam to open with poetic elegance and innocence — doing a gentle Ken Burns-style pan of kids' crayon drawings of death and destruction — as a child's voice softly speaks:
"I was in school when the ships came. They were really big, and we said that we weren't going to attack them with the nuclear bombs because they might have wanted to be friends. But they didn't want to be friends. Not at all. And then there was a bright light, and it's like, all electronics stopped working. Computers. Radios. Satellites. Cars. TVs. Everything. They blew up army bases, ships and navy submarines. And all the soldiers are gone. Now moms and dads have to fight."
It's enough to send shivers up the spine — and here, it does. The desperate survivors move in stealth about the suburbs, wondering whose room they're sleeping in tonight, as they come upon the family portraits, toy horses and sentimental mementoes abandoned in the empty homes. (And are the people who lived here even still alive?)
Returning to the shattered cities, as they must to forage for food, can see lives lost for a crummy tin of tuna. English muffins with warm butter are but a fading dream, now beyond reach. Children are given guns, when guns are available, to fight the spider-like skitters — and if they're really lucky, maybe a dry doughnut with a lit match in it for a birthday cake.
Falling Skies, created by Spielberg and Robert Rodat (screenwriter of Saving Private Ryan), knows how to let a story "breathe" and rely on visuals/symbols to do the work of a thousand redundant words (like when the chrome three-hoofed foot of a mech-killing robot crushes a delicate green seedling as it marches past, while herding a pack of captive children with centipede-like "harnesses" on their spines that turn them into obedient zombies). The popular series has already been renewed for a second season on TNT in the US.
Mason, now a widower with three sons (Hal, Ben and Matt), becomes the second-in-command to Weaver (Will Patton), the hard-nosed commander of the militia. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) brings a comforting, healing presence as a paediatrician; she lost her own family and now cares for the children. Oldest son Hal (Drew Roy) has become an amazing soldier for a teenager. Younger brother Ben (Connor Jessup) has been snatched and "harnessed" by the aliens, while eight-year-old Matt, who misses his mother, craves nothing more than a normal life.
Indeed, a half-hour of this post-apocalyptic drama accomplishes more than a half-dozen episodes of Terra Nova at a fraction of the cost. And the merciless, mysterious and mighty aliens rock.