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When Aliens Attach
When Aliens Attack attempts to explain why aliens might invate the Earth, but do the show’s rationales make sense? (credit: National Geographic Channel)

When the skies fall: hostile aliens invade the small screen

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The National Geographic Channel recently aired a program that explores how the human race might respond if hostile aliens tried to take over the Earth. When Aliens Attack is apparently based on the book Alien Invasion: How to Defend the Earth by writer Bob Boan and Dr. Travis Taylor, a physicist.

Dr. Taylor states early in the program that he was working on a project for the “intelligence community” on asymmetric warfare, and “we got thinking about, is it likely that we would be invaded by aliens, and we decided that it’s very likely, and we needed a plan.”

I have some trouble imagining that the “intelligence community” believes that an alien invasion is very likely. Nevertheless I was willing to accept the premise and see where Dr. Taylor and his colleagues might take it. Unfortunately, little if any of this slapdash production rises above the level of recycled science fiction clichés.

I have some trouble imagining that the “intelligence community” believes that an alien invasion is very likely.

The program is further burdened by cheesy special effects, although this seems somehow appropriate given the nature of the underlying material. The invading alien ships look like slabs of concrete poured over TV antennas. One particularly ridiculous sequence shows an alien vessel zapping an American defense satellite with an electromagnetic pulse—which then rebounds like it’s been whacked by a baseball bat. Somebody in the Effects Department needs to review their Physics 101 notes.

More disturbing is the blatant use (or misuse) of interview footage from other programs, including news footage, taken out of context to make it look like the participants are talking about an alien invasion. Snippets of real speeches by President Obama and other public figures are cut together to make it sound like they’re responding to the actual arrival of hostile aliens. This is a cheap device that isn’t worthy of a production running under the National Geographic banner. The use of stock footage is often sloppy: over a reference to a telescope allegedly tracking the alien craft in deep space, we see a picture of the heliostat dome at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles – a dome that contains a flat mirror that reflects sunlight to an instrument below, not a telescope designed for imaging deep space.

Three possible motives are suggested for why aliens would want to make mincemeat out of Earthlings: Conquest, harvesting, and hunting. By harvesting, the producers are referring to our vast natural resources, particularly the chlorophyll and protein found in trees. Boxy alien spacecraft/dumpsters are shown Hoovering-up forests to extract their precious chemical compounds. So they came all this way for our trees. Really? A grad student in a university biochemistry lab can synthesize all kinds of proteins and other organic compounds from chemical building blocks found throughout the universe. One would think that aliens capable of crossing interstellar space could do the same.

In fact, anything a spacefaring species needs to thrive can be found in asteroids, comets, and the interstellar medium. Why go to all the trouble of conquering our planet? As for hunting, well, the Predator movies were certainly fun to watch, but it would take a tremendous amount of energy to get a hunter from another star system to Earth. Does anyone really believe that an alien civilization would invest the resources needed to achieve interstellar travel just to go hunting?

So what to do in the unlikely event ravenous alien hordes arrive? Fending off the invaders requires humans to go into guerilla warfare mode, working in small groups, employing the tactics of terrorists in the hopes that the aliens will eventually find ruling Planet Earth to be more trouble than it’s worth. This is a fair assumption if you buy the premise of the show, I suppose. In addition to guerilla warfare, one of the shows alien invasion “experts” informs us that a human breeding program would also be a top priority. Every fertile woman will have to get pregnant, as many times as conceivable (pun intended) in order to guarantee the survival of the race. This unexpected detour into Dr. Strangelove territory is mercifully brief.

Many astronomers have argued that advanced alien civilizations are necessarily benevolent—an overly aggressive species would wipe itself out before achieving interstellar flight. When Aliens Attack reasonably points out that predators tend to be among the smarter animals, and humans of course are highly predatory. Nazi Germany, after all, was the most advanced nation on Earth in the 1940s, but Hitler and his henchmen were anything but benevolent. It’s a fair point.

Though I’m dubious about the premise, the writing and acting of Falling Skies are generally first-rate.

But one would think that interstellar predators would be clever enough to come up with a better plan for taking over our planet and its resources. Just one approach that immediately comes to mind: genetically engineer a deadly pathogen that exclusively infects people and release it into our biosphere. Give the pathogen a year or two to decimate the human race, then send in the ships to take out any small pockets of humanity that managed to survive. No muss, no fuss. Uber-smart alien invaders could certainly come up with other inventive ways to take over the world less crude than bombing us back into the Stone Age. I wish the producers of When Aliens Attack had explored such ideas.

As implausible as it is, the traditional alien invasion scenario can still be the fodder of good drama. Falling Skies (TNT, Sundays) is a very good drama that uses this premise to explore the dynamics of people and families coping with a complex and dangerous new reality.

In a somewhat cloying prologue, a child’s voice describes the horror of the invasion over a montage of children’s drawings that depict alien machines crushing cities and military bases. The series begins after the invasion is a fait accompli. The surviving remnants of humanity are struggling to survive in the aftermath, and slowly formulating a plan to take back the planet.

Noah Wyle, of ER fame, plays Tom Mason, a history professor specializing in the American Revolution. Thanks to his academic expertise, he’s tapped as second in command of the 2nd Massachusetts, a 300-strong band of resistance fighters comprised of ordinary people who fled Boston when the invasion began. The series is closely modeled on the story of the Revolutionary War—perhaps a little too closely. The problem with replaying history is that we’ve all seen the movie before (with the possible exception of Sarah Palin). Nothing about the tactics of the resistance fighters, or the alien invaders for that matter, is surprising or particularly interesting—just colonial-style skirmishes with modern weapons.

Mason clashes with the leader of the 2nd, the crusty Army veteran Weaver (played by Will Patton) as he grieves both the loss of his wife, who died in the invasion, and his abducted son, who, along with many other children and adolescents, have been taken by the aliens. The children are not killed, but fitted with mysterious harnesses that appear to be more biological than mechanical, leaving them in a zombie-like daze.

Part One sets the stage, but in Part Two, written by Graham Yost (From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers) the series really takes off. Mason finds his abducted son, but discovers that the aliens aren’t the only enemy he has to contend with: a gang of ruthless criminals has their own idea of how to handle the monsters. By the time their ex-con leader informs Mason that the alien invasion is the best thing that ever happened to him, you believe it.

Though I’m dubious about the premise, the writing and acting of Falling Skies are generally first-rate. Like Battlestar Galactica (one of whose executive producers is also an EP on this show) the premise is simply intended to serve as a springboard for exploring the human condition in new and unexpected ways.

For a number of years, arguably beginning with the original The Day the Earth Stood Still in the early 1950s, science fiction film and television frequently portrayed alien visitors as wise but misunderstood messengers who came to warn us foolish humans to clean up our act or face dire consequences. In the past couple of decades the tables have turned. ET is a relentless killing machine, and ordinary people become the heroes as they courageously fight for survival.

This apparent cultural shift can’t be explained simply by the recession, the fear of another terrorist attack, or the various other threats that haunt our 21st century lives. There were plenty of serious threats to our lives and safety in previous decades. But government and business leaders were generally respected back then. Their shortcomings, whatever they were, rarely became public.

Maybe an alien invasion like the one depicted in Falling Skies seems like a satisfying kind of payback. The people who are busy screwing things up for the rest of us would finally get theirs.

Today a growing cynicism, fed by the increasingly glaring vices and dishonorable behavior of numerous public figures, pervades our culture. The banking collapse, and the subsequent devastation to our economy, has had few or no consequences for the financiers and politicians who made it possible. If anything, they’ve been rewarded for their reckless behavior. Wall Street is bailed out, but Main Street continues to suffer. And nobody believes that CEOs and elected officials really care about anything beyond their own narrow self-interest.

How are average people expected to react when a parasite like Bernie Madoff can steal billions of dollars over the course of decades, and the government agency (the SEC) that regularly audits his business is completely clueless that he’s running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history? Our political system repeatedly fails to resolve national problems, reach consensus on taxes and spending, or implement a long-term plan to reform burgeoning entitlement programs. Reason enough to despair that our democratic society is beyond repair, our leaders beyond redemption.

In this context, maybe an alien invasion like the one depicted in Falling Skies seems like a satisfying kind of payback. The people who are busy screwing things up for the rest of us would finally get theirs. At the very least, it would certainly shake up the status quo. But it might not bring all that much change, either. Chances are the executives at Goldman Sachs would get to our would-be alien overlords first, and offer them lucrative bonuses in exchange for a little inside-trading deal. Even if the invasion ultimately fails, I’m sure the good folks at Goldman can guarantee the invaders a fulsome golden parachute.