Falling Skies’ Mark Verheiden reflects on how TNT’s new Steven Spielberg-produced alien invasion drama takes on new dimensions in today’s troubled times.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
Falling Skies’ co-executive producer Mark Verheiden insists there are no overt analogies intended to today’s times in TNT’s new alien invasion series, but from the atomic panic of the ‘50s through today’s post-9/11 America, there’s always something uncannily potent about the metaphorical mirror this archetypal sci-fi genre presents. From the war on terror to the economic collapse to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, real-life events in America resonate throughout Skies’ expertly done dramatic narrative.
Executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, the new series is somewhat unique to other alien invasion shows because the siege is over. America has already been sacked. Indeed every major capitol around the globe is under alien control. No rule-flouting young U.S. pilots kickin’ ass and armed to the teeth with cutting-edge war gadgets. Here the American protagonists are led by an older, pencil-necked professor Tom Mason (Noah Wyle). They are humbled, scavenging for food, scattered amid rubble, living as guerilla fighters. In a rich role reversal, the Americans in Falling Skies have returned to their ragtag, revolutionary roots while the enemy is the technologically loaded, heavily armored alien force that at times reminds one of modern America’s drone-driven, satellite-targeted war machine.
While the show debuted in June as cable’s top new series launch for the year and is already rumored to be set for a second season pick up, Verheiden, a veteran of the sci-fi shows Time Cop, Battlestar Galactica and Heroes, will be leaving the writing staff to work with Akiva Goldsman on Ron Howard’s Dark Tower project. He spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the mostly unplanned resonance the show has to current events and the power of classic narrative.
The alien invasion is such an iconic pop cultural archetype. In some ways it can be a kind of barometer for what’s going on in the world. Are there any resonant strains you’ve consciously been working with here in 2011?
Photo: © 2011 TNT
Noah Wyle in Falling Skies.
We were very conscious of that, [but] I hesitate to say we were doing anything analogous to current events specifically. We were really looking to do a show in a way that echoed more the films of the French Resistance or even Saving Private Ryan – the idea of having a small band of people gathering against an overwhelming force. Of course you can connect that to terrorism and things that are happening in the real world; the idea of an alien force coming and changing the way you function as a society certainly has analogies in American life right now – but we were more interested in telling a story about how people gather, how people react, in both good and bad ways, in those kind of situations.
In the show there are people who want to come together protect their families and each other, and then there are people who make very bad decisions about how to handle the aliens.
This television era has been somewhat defined by shows using narrative contrivances to freshen the form. This show, behind the special effects, relies on classic character development and a great, solid storytelling approach. Is that the mantra in the writers’ room?
The decision was made early on, for example, not to do flashbacks. We decided that we wanted to play this in real time. If you find out something about a character’s life, it comes out in present narrative.
And we wanted to create characters where we start at one place and then, in following through the journey of their struggle with the aliens, we see both what turned them into the people that we initially met and what changes come over them as the story progresses. So rather than do the tricky stuff where you show the flashback to the ex-wife or whatever, that all comes out of story. It was a decision to let the characters evolve in a straightforward way and not use – “gimmick” is probably not the right choice of words because I enjoy those tricks too as a writer – but with Falling Skies we decided to do pretty classic narrative.
It almost has a refreshing feel to it because there aren’t any of those tricks going on.
I’m glad you appreciate it. One great thing about writing television in general, and TNT in particular, TNT did not want just an alien invasion show. It wasn’t going to be just battles. They were interested in exploring the characters and the relationships and how people react and find hope in the gravest and darkest of times.
What that mandate brought to the show was that we could slow things down. We could sit in those characters and really explore them. As we get deeper into the show, a few hours in, we really start exploring where these people came from and what made them into who they are. That evolution and the fact that TNT allowed us to slow things down and really sit in that world was a lot of fun.
To what extent are you conscious of budget limitations when writing a show like this?
You have to be cognizant of budget, and you have to understand the realities of producing television. We had a generous budget, but this is a very ambitious show. We have two different aliens – one’s totally CGI, one’s sort of CGI. When we were in production in Toronto, we had no standing sets, we were all on location, and we were shooting pretty fast, so the show had to be designed to understand those production realities. Given that, we had an incredible production team that was able to pull things together and get an amazing look.
We have aliens and battle scenes and spaceships, all this stuff that’s very complicated to do even with large amounts of time. We picked our battles on location and in the writing. You try to tell the best story possible, but understand there are limitations. You always push production as much as you can, and fortunately they really stepped up on this show, and it looks amazing.