My wife and I have just finished watching two TNT summer TV series we were pretty hooked on, both on the premise of huge national and international catastrophes. One was Falling Skies, the other The Last Ship. The series finale for Falling Skies aired a week before the season finale of The Last Ship, which will continue next summer. In Falling Skies, evil space aliens, called the Espheni, have invaded the earth, killed a bunch of people, are kidnapping children (so they can turn them into Espheni), and taking over the planet. A ragtag band of American guerillas, led by a former history professor named Tom Mason (Noah Wylie), fight back. They call themselves the Second Mass (after Massachusetts), and are loosely tied to a larger paramilitary structure. On The Last Ship, a global pandemic has swept across the world. A single US Destroyer, the Nathan James, has been tasked with finding a cure, the key to which, apparently, is found in the Arctic. So a heroic doctor, Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra), and the ship’s heroic captain, Tom Chandler (Eric Dane), have to save what’s left of, you know, the human race.
The similarities between the shows are almost as interesting as the differences between them. For some reason, both shows seem to think that ‘Tom’ is a particularly heroic first name. Both Toms are played by actors primarily known for playing doctors. Noah Wylie was the hapless Dr. Carter on ER, while Eric Dane was mostly known as Dr. McSteamy on Grey’s Anatomy. Both have scruffy actors playing rogueish-but-heroic secondary characters–Will Patton’s Captain Weaver on FS is just a somewhat older version of John Pyper-Ferguson’s Tex on TLS. On both shows, the main character’s love interest is a doctor; Tom Mason marries Anne (Moon Bloodgood), while Tom Chandler is clearly majorly into Dr. Scott, though of course, that series is only in its second season. There’s time for that relationship to develop. If she survives–the season cliff-hanger involved her getting shot, by a weasel-y little creep who declared ‘sic semper tyrannis’ as he pulled the trigger.
Both shows were entertaining and exciting, and while the final episode of FS was pretty disappointing, the show did deliver lots of predictable-but-agreeable entertainment over its run. And the scrubbed and eager sailors are a little easier to make fun of than the unshowered masses of the Second Mass, so I think I like TLS a little better. But that ‘sic semper tyrannis’ line pointed to the larger problem of both series. Essentially it comes to this: on both shows, the biggest threat to mankind is posited as being essentially really bad guys. Not the virus, not the space aliens–both of which are bad enough–but villains.
On Falling Skies, the Espheni were plenty scary. They included big six-legged spidery things called ‘skitters’, plus big super-robot fighting machines called mechs, plus big hornet flying things, all under the control of really tall skinny aliens called ‘overlords’, which were eventually revealed to be under the control of a ruling spider queen. But we got alien help too, from two rival alien races, the Volm and the Dornia. Problem was, the Volm saw earth as a tiny unimportant skirmish point in their larger war against the Espheni, and didn’t really see fit to give humans many resources in our fight, and the Dornia are mostly extinct, and mostly communicate via dreams Tom has about his deceased wife. But the CGI was well executed, the acting was mostly passable, and we liked following the twists and turns of the plot. But, in addition to fighting off skitters and being bombarded by hornet-things, Tom Mason also had to worry about a angry human jerkface, Pope (Colin Cunningham). And at times, Pope was a bigger, or at least more immediate threat than the Espheni.
It’s even worse in TLS. In the first season, the intrepid crew of the Nathan James discovers an evil conspiracy to use human bodies to power cities. In the second season, Dr. Scott having found a cure for the disease, we learn that that small percentage of the small percentage of the population who are immune to it don’t want the cure distributed. They sort of like the power trip of being the Superior Race. And they have a nuclear submarine. ‘Sic Semper’ dude belongs to that loathesome crowd.
And I don’t doubt that a global pandemic/alien invasion would bring out the worst in a lot of people, just as it would bring out the best in others. It just seems to me that the biggest threat the human race would face, after we got the disease/aliens under control, would be something a lot more basic. Feeding ourselves. Not to mention basic stuff like drinking water and sanitation.
The fact is, the basic problem of any species on this planet is one we homo sapiens have basically solved; the problem of food. We have, over the years, developed an elaborate infrastructure devoted to the production, refinement and delivery of food. We don’t think about it, but grocery stores don’t really carry all that much food at any given time. A constant stream of food goes from farms to processing facilities to transportation hubs. Someone has to load it on a truck, someone else has to drive that truck, someone else has to unload it. Someone else shelves it, someone else sells it to you. Every. Single. Day. And any disruption of any part of that chain could be catastrophic. And those space aliens skittering towards you, or that infected neighbor stopping by to chat make for pretty serious food-supply-disruptions.
On both shows, there are scenes where the characters are, as they put it, ‘low on supplies,’ and have to stop in some city grocery store to restock. In reality, uh, good luck with that.
There was this one moment in FS when Tom Mason, having been zipped off sky-ward by a hornet alien thing, finds himself under the care of the daughter of an elderly farmer at his idyllic rural farm. And Tom is inspired, and thinks ‘this is the America we need to rebuild.’ It was a nice moment, this history prof basking in a Jeffersonian fantasy. He’d also know, though, that our history didn’t unfold that way; that we’re in fact way more Hamiltonian as we’ve evolved. And it got me to thinking; who would in fact survive? If our lives were disrupted by ETs or nasty microbes; who would actually thrive?
Well, small rural farmers. I mean, cities are complex triumphs of infrastructure and organization, and thus easy to disrupt. A pandemic killing 98% of everyone? Wouldn’t that just devastate cities? But in the wide-open places of the flyover states, pockets of folks would probably survive. And with the skills to continue to survive. Skills which, frankly, I lack. Along with most everyone i know. Ain’t that a pleasant thought?
TV requires photogenic, easily identified bad guys. To give our even more preposterously attractive heroes someone to battle. I liked both these shows, and will keep watching TLS, probably. But a show about reestablishing infrastructure and food distribution nets? That would be awesome! Actually, probably not. But it would make for a nifty board/video game, I think.