Wednesday, July 2, 2014

TV Reviews : Falling Skies and The Last Ship
Post-Apocalyptic Sunday on TNT

  Last Sunday marked the 2014 season premiere of one of my favorite shows – TNT’s post-apocalyptic alien invasion saga “Falling Skies”. Last year’s 10 episode season ended with the familiar crew of the remnants of the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment and their new alien allies (the Volm) in Boston destroying the invading Espheni’s radiated power grid that was keeping Volm ships off planet and threatening to destroy all life on Earth. Our hardy band of survivors then proceeded to head to their base in Charleston, South Carolina but not before lead character Tom Mason murdered the human-alien Espheni leader Karen and reunited with his love interest Anne and their months old daughter Alexis who now has the appearance of an six year old girl and is exhibiting strange alien powers. With the alien invaders seemingly defeated and the main villain dead, the only remaining plot line for the 40 week wait for the new season was the strange evolution of Alexis.

Pick your apocalypse...An alien invasion wiping out humanity...

  Since time travels differently in the world of Falling Skies than real life, the new season picks up three weeks after the old season left off with the regiment’s caravan finally arriving at the outskirts of Charleston. Unfortunately, right at that moment they are attacked by massive Espheni war ships that lay down miles of alien powered fences that divide the group into four sections and we pick up the action four months later (after a commercial break). The main group is trapped in a makeshift gulag that is patrolled by the six-legged Skitters (alien slaves of the Espheni) and has food dropped to them on a semi regular basis that the prisoners battle for like animals. Tom Mason is in solitary confinement in a guarded room but has found a way to leave his prison on occasion and mounts a motorcycle to become the mysterious ‘Ghost’ that has become a symbol of hope to the rest of the prisoners. Tom’s youngest son Matt has ended up in a highly regimented youth re-education camp where everyone wears hybrid Nazi/Boy Scout uniforms and are constantly brainwashed to believe that the Espheni are mankind’s friends and that the next step in human evolution is to join forces with the Espheni. Naturally, Matt is not taken in by the re-education and is recruiting allies among the youth for an eventual counter attack. Anne has morphed from a doctor to the leader of a band of soldiers that is searching for the rest of the regiment in general and her daughter Alexis in particular. And Alexis has aged 10 years in the four months and is now a teenager who has created a Utopian town where there is no conflict except a meeting with a giant alien mechanical robot that was disabled by a bolt of lightning which cemented Alexis’ god-like status among the residents of the town.

  During the episode we find out that except for a few dozen warriors the Volm have had to retreat from Earth in order to defend their base planet and that emboldened the Espheni to renew their attacks on the humans and that the gulags and re-education centers are all over the earth. The first episode had little action after the initial alien attack but was fast paced while still filling the gaps of the four month flash forward. With four separate storylines the rest of the season will have to be equally fast paced to bring it all together by the end of the 12 episode season. Last year's ending was very rushed with tremendous amounts of plot devices occurring between episodes (Tom sailing a one-man boat from Boston to Charleston after being kidnapped and escaping and the resistance and the Volm putting together a functioning train with a railway from Charleston to Chicago along with a battleship to take the massive Volm ray gun to Boston in the season finale. Last year the producers couldn’t bring even one storyline to a timely conclusion without resorting to gimmickry but there is a different production team this year that has hopefully learned and will be able to follow through on the ambitious start to season 4 and weave the four disparate storylines together.

  Sunday’s second episode continued on the four storylines from the season premiere with the prisoners in the Espheni ghetto taking the bulk of the hour as Tom Mason reveals himself to be the mysterious ‘Ghost’ and is taken up to the Epsheni mothership and told that the humans were being selected to become a new type of soldier to help the Epsheni battle yet a third and more powerful alien race that is yet unknown. The high production values of the show remain intact with the introduction of a new ‘hornet’ type of alien and the gulag scenes being shot in black & white to underscore the desolation of life in the prisoner camp which is in start contrast to the bare barracks of the re-education camp and the bright pastels of Alexis's peaceful town. The other major revelation is that Alexis is known by the other aliens as ‘The Hybrid’ and is developing powers akin to Dark Phoenix from the X-Men movies. Whenever Alexis even starts to get upset gale force winds and thunder gather while inanimate objects begin to levitate and explode. After 3+ years I find this show as interesting as ever and while I wish there were more than 12 episodes in a season I understand that there is no way the high production values could be maintained over a longer season.

  Before the season premiere of Falling Skies, TNT aired the debut of a new post-apocalyptic series “The Last Ship”. In this show the Navy Destroyer USS Nathan James is sent on a secret four month mission north of the Arctic Circle for two scientists to gather data while the crew believe they are testing top-secret weaponry. The scientists are attacked by Russian soldiers seeking ‘the cure’ and the crew discover that that 80 percent of the earth’s population has been infected with a deadly virus released by global warning of the glaciers, half are dead, and the rest are fighting for survival amid the collapse of all the world’s governments while the mission the ship was sent on was designed for the chief scientist Rachel Scott to get the original virus from the arctic permafrost in order to create a vaccine. After a brief communication with the remnants of the US Government and realizing there is no safe port for the crew, Commanding Officer Tom Chandler decides to disobey his last order to port in Florida and keep the 200+ members of his crew at sea while Dr. Scott creates the vaccine on the ship.

...or humanity wiped out by an ancient virus...The choice is yours on TNT Sunday nights

  The ship has a single helicopter and plenty of weaponry to start but the crew will have forage for supplies and presumably deal with other survivors weekly as they attempt to save the planet from the virus. In the first episode the crew boarded an Italian cruise ship to load up on fuel and food amid the infected corpses and lone survivor of the virus (who dies in moments). The virus is so communicable that everyone is wearing hazmat suits while on the cruise ship. When one crew member trips and breaks his helmet he immediately starts showing signs of infection and kills himself as he realizes he is going to die a grisly death and be the answer to a trivia question should the show make it big. It was a fairly slow moving episode but as an origin show it is to be expected since it must guide the viewers into the main plotlines as well as introduce the main characters.

  The second episode of The Last Ship has the USS Nathan James heading to Guantanamo Bay to gather fuel, food, and medical supplies where they meet up with more infected corpses and battle the remnants of the Al-Qaeda prison population in order to get off the island. It is revealed (only to the viewers, naturally) that there is a Russian speaking mole on board the ship and at the end of the episode the USS Nathan James is introduced to an ominous Russian warship who adds to the ominousness by telling Captain Chandler that ‘You have something I want’ in a very ominous ending. The episode itself was action packed and well-written with little time wasted on so-called character development. I'm not a big fan of character development and think the characters can be developed in action instead of using the concept as an excuse to halt the action in order to let the actors have some ‘emote’ time. Except for being on a ship and not in outer space this episode could easily have been written for the original ‘Star Trek’. Eric Dane as Commander Tom Chandler has many Shatner-esque qualities of a Captain James T. Kirk when he leads a team into ‘Gitmo’ and the way he told the ship to send a torpedo into a specific corner of a warehouse while negotiating with the Al-Qaeda terrorists reminded me of the ‘Deadly Years’ episode where the Enterprise is surrounded by Romulan warships but Kirk broadcasts to Star Fleet headquarters his intention to self-destruct the ship using the ‘Corbomite Device’ in order to trick the eavesdropping Romulans to retreat, allowing the Enterprise time to escape.

  Just like Falling Skies picks up new cast members among other survivors they meet (including the President of the United States in season 3) in episode 2 of The Last Ship the crew is joined by Jon Pyper-Ferguson best known for his role as master terrorist James Kendrick in the final season of Burn Notice. I wonder how a virus that is airborne and so virulent that bleeding sores appear seconds after infection won’t spread over the entire earth and kill everyone on the planet (including the ship's crew) in short order but as long as the ratings remain high (a 17 share and over 5 million viewers for the debut) I’m sure the writers will find a way to avoid that outcome. The debut was heavily publicized by TNT and without any alien action or spaceships or zombies or vampires or people running around with super-powers I’m not sure the show will have staying power. The next few weeks will tell the tale of the longevity of the USS Nathan James as the writers attempt to keep the episodes fresh without the help of new weaponry, alien creatures, zombies, etc... Although Falling Skies had just 3.7 million viewers in its 2014 debut (down from 4.2 in the initial 2013 episode) I’m much more optimistic about its chances for long-term survival. There is a loyal fan base and after this season there will have been 42 episodes produced. The show is getting to the point where only a few more seasons are be needed to get to syndication status where it can be shown on stations like USA Network, WGN, TNT, etc… and rack up fees forever. This makes the last few seasons of a show cost effective even if there aren’t ratings to justify continuing it.

  Even though I’m not very high on the prospects of ‘The Last Ship’ is seems to be well written and I think TNT made the right move by putting the show on Sunday nights. It doesn’t seem that many TV shows that are set in a post-apocalyptic scenarios survive (Jericho, Planet of The Apes, Revolution) past one or two seasons but the last two post-apocalypse series to air on Sundays (Falling Skies and The Walking Dead) have thrived. Maybe post-apocalyptic shows resonate with the people who work from Monday to Fridays. Just as an apocalyptic event like a virus or zombies or an alien invasion changes the world, the arrival of the work week changes the world of the leisurely weekend in what could be called a mini-apocalyptic event of having to work for a living. It could be that after watching some real post-apocalyptic drama on Sunday nights the thought of heading back to work on Mondays doesn’t seem as dire for working people and that’s what makes post-apocalypse shows on Sunday popular. I know if there were to be an apocalyptic event I’d much rather it occurs on late Sunday night or early Monday before I leave for work than Friday at 5pm.

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