That shockingly loud sound you hear is TNT’s Falling Skies taking a turn for the darker, tilting, nay falling with breakneck speed towards storylines so gritty and apocalyptic that it finally feels like you are in the midst of a good, honest-to-God, full-blown catastrophic alien invasion.
Gone are The Happy Masons and the Whistling Souls of the 2nd Mass. of seasons 2 and 3, replaced, in a chaotic, bloody battle that happens within minutes of the start of the episode, by a series of grim, besieged and almost overwhelmed splinter groups of survivors for whom long languid horse rides through the countryside and relaxing if rowdy nights at Pope’s makeshift Charleston HQ bar are a distant thing of the past.
In their place are laser-fenced ghettos, in which food and the basic necessities of life are scarce to non-existent, a Darwinian battle of the fittest, or in the case of John Pope (Colin Cunningham), the most conniving and selfish – he manages to assemble a cosy den replete with generator, couch and black and white TV showing Gilligan’s Island – from which escape seems damn near impossible.
Or grim, Nazi-inspired re-education camps in which the young of planet Earth, including a quietly rebellious Matt Mason (Maxim Knight), no longer harnessed, dress in paramilitary khaki and recite endless empty propaganda spiels that praise the goodness of the Espheni and the new era of harmony, cooperation and advancement that beckons if only human will buckle down and forgot this whole resistance nonsense.
Both are chilled to the bone creepy in their own ways, a sign that the Espheni have foregone the shock-and-awe tactics of the first few years of the invasion, which let’s be honest have not produced the desired outcomes, in favour of more covert, psychological practices designed to slow wear the human race till they are yet another subservient member group of a imperialist galactic empire that seems more intent on genocide than the advertised peace, love and mung beans of blissful togetherness.
Not everyone is ensnared in their twisted PR web or caught in brutalist camps with an angry and vengeful Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood), determined to track down MIA hybrid daughter Lexi (Erika Forest/Scarlett Byrne), leading an exhausted group of fighters including Anthony (Mpho Koaho) and Deni (Megan Danso) and engaging in ye good old guerrilla tactics.
The odds of Anne recognising her daughter though, should she stumble across her and there’s a fair bet she eventually will, are minimal with Lexi changed in the four months between the original battle and the present day into a grown up blond-haired steely-eyed sweet-mouthed cult leader of sorts, a far cry from the child her mother once knew.
She is running a Utopian hippie colony of sorts, smack bang in the middle of a ruined city, an oasis of calm seemingly untouched by the genocidal war being waged just outside its walls.
Into this bizarre blip of peace and tranquility in a radar filled with threats of death and destruction has fallen Ben Mason (Connor Jessup), Maggie (Sarah Carter) and Lourdes (Seychelle Gabriel), the latter two convinced that everything Lexi claims to be true is exactly true – the honest to goodness, cross my heart and swear to collude possibly with the alien enemy truth.
Ben isn’t so sure and frankly I’d put my money on his intuition which in this case is spot on and ringing alarms the size of Texas if anyone cares to listen.
No one will of course, and so it’s up to Tom (Noah Wylie), son Hal (Drew Roy), Tector (Ryan Robbins) and a mentally worse for wear Dan Weaver (Will Patton), missing daughter Jeanne (Laci J Mailey) and reasonable chunk of his sanity initially, to attempt to try and save the day.
Tom naturally is the epicentre of this effort, sneaking out of his isolation cell (really just a decaying room in a dilapidated apartment building) in full head scarf and sunglasses disguise as a fair apocalyptic approximation of the Ghost Rider – everyone including Pope gives him a wide berth so fearsome is his reputation, one borne of Skitter taunting on a nightly basis as he rides around the ghetto compound – as he probes the defenses of their prison.
He hasn’t quite figured out how to escape just yet, nor have Hal or Tector been able to successfully short circuit the vivid- green crackling laser fence, a sign that the easy victories of the past are a thing of the past.
And that my friends is what made this first episode of season 4 just a thrilling delight.
The 2nd Mass weren’t simply scattered to the four winds, they were, a minor success or two aside, largely without an adequate response to the overwhelming presence of the Espheni who seem to have dug into their freaky weapon arsenal for giant crustacean-shaped ships that circle constantly above the camps, with a flying version of the Skitters diving down from time to time to grab another human victim.
In one fell swoop, the writers, and new showrunner David Eick (Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, meaty, grim shows both) have transformed the happy-go-lucky the world of Falling Skies into one lived in the nightmarishly dark shadows, where a simple jingoistic confidence that “We will win!” is no longer enough.
Far from it in fact.
Taking Star Wars: The Empires Strikes Back as his template, Eick has rent the 2nd Mass. asunder, torn down its cosy certainties, plunging every last man, woman and child into exactly the sort of horrific situations they should have been facing long ago.
It has reversed in one episode the palpable sense that Falling Skies had lost its way in season 3, giving the show a robust, gritty feel lacking previously.
Why even the Volm – Cochise (Doug Jones) makes a brief appearance outside the ghetto’s perimeter fence to talk to Tom – last season’s Big Alien Hope are of little to no use, reduced to a guerilla-like presence around the Earth, their force away fighting other battles against the Espheni.
In short, there is no magic bullet, no easy solution, the obstacles are many and the options so very few, and while Tom and the others haven’t given up hope completely, it’s obvious that the battle to win back the Earth is no longer the optimistic walk in the park it appeared to be but one or two episodes ago.
And with that one single but profound change, Falling Skies is a show re-born and transformed.
Bring on the rest of the season and don’t lost your nerve Mr Eick – it’s paying huge dividends already.
* Here’s the thrilling promo for next week’s episode “The Eye” …