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TORONTO — Personal apocalypses take place all the time in high schools, but a disaster of another magnitude stalked the halls of John F. Kennedy High on the set of the new TNT series Falling Skies in October: alien invasion. The fictional campus was dotted with the shells of burned-out cars and crude barbed-wire fences, helpful for warding off marauding invaders.
Next to some lockers the actors Noah Wyle and Will Patton, rifles over army-fatigued shoulders, watched on a monitor as their characters bickered over how best to attack an alien base. When the scene ended, Wyle ran his hand over his wiry beard and murmured, “I look like my childhood rabbi.” This drew chuckles from a few milling extras, dirty faced and bedraggled, looking how you would expect resistance fighters to look when 80 percent of the world’s population has been wiped out by extraterrestrials.
Alien invasion, of course, has been an enduring pop culture genre at least since 1898, when H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds. Since then it’s been recast on screen in many shapes and sizes, often as an anxious metaphor for the fragility of civilization or the evils of colonization or the Cold War.
In this crowded landscape Falling Skies has the good fortune to be linked to perhaps the strongest extraterrestrial brand in the world: Steven Spielberg. As an executive producer Spielberg helped conceive the series three years ago in a brainstorming session with executives from DreamWorks television and Michael Wright, programming chief at TNT.
“His unique take was that it shouldn’t be about the invasion, but set six months after, and a handful of people have survived,” Wright said. “What if there was a great mystery around the invasion? What if it wasn’t just that they showed up to simply blow us away, but they were here for a purpose about which we were not informed?”
As a result Falling Skies (the two-hour premiere will be shown at 9 p.m. Sunday on Buckeye CableSystem’s Channel 16) follows the slow-reveal, mystery-upon-mystery template that’s become the standard for sci-fi television series since Lost. Spielberg invited Robert Rodat, who wrote the screenplays for Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, to sign on as executive producer. On the phone from Cambridge, Mass., Rodat recalled that he was given a simple premise to flesh into a pilot: “Aliens invade, capture kids, kill adults.”
Out walking at 2 in the morning with a friend, ruminating about the job, Rodat stood on the North Bridge in Concord, looking at Daniel Chester French’s statue The Minute Man. He said he suddenly saw the show “as an allegory for the American Revolution: noncombatants against a vastly overwhelming military force,” he said.
Rodat has three young sons, and he created a main character with the same. “I took the path of least resistance,” he said, laughing. “All the locations take place between where I live and where I drop them off for school.”
Wyle plays Tom Mason, a history professor in Boston whose wife dies during the invasion. Because of his knowledge of military history Mason is appointed second in command of the 2nd Massachusetts, a resistance regiment protecting a group of civilians that includes two of his sons. The third boy has been abducted, and aliens have seared his spine to a “harness,” a many-tentacled metallic slug that appears to lull kids into a supplicant army.
“I was interested in a hero who’s a warrior statesman,” Wyle said on the set, where between scenes he played chess or read the book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker. After 15 years on ER Wyle had not been looking to return to the grind of episodic television. But when TNT sent him several pilots that he liked, he laid them out and called his 7-year-old son into the room.
“I said: ‘Owen, do you want your dad to be a policeman, a lawyer, a high school teacher, or an alien fighter?’ He looked at me like I was an idiot.”
The first season sets up a potential love story between Mason and a doctor played by Moon Bloodgood. But the show’s central relationship is between the professor and Patton’s gruff, commanding Captain Weaver. “I’m the humanist, and he’s the warlord,” Wyle said. “I was interested in this idea of hitting the reset button on society, having to start from Square 1. The first season is about negotiating that line between a military dictatorship or a democracy, which is relevant today.”
“On another level,” he added, “it’s pure escapist entertainment. It’s just fun to watch guys shooting machine guns at aliens.”
Balancing aliens with brainy story lines is a signature of Mark Verheiden, a writer and co-executive producer on the series Battlestar Galactica who joined Falling Skies after the pilot.
Spielberg was, by all accounts, deeply involved in the production, giving notes on scripts, visiting the set, and weighing in on creature design. For one thing, he insisted that the harnesses be slimier and less mechanical. (As it happens, Spielberg is also a producer on three alien movies this summer: Super 8, Cowboys and Aliens, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon.) “He knows every alien that’s ever been made, and more than anyone else on the team understood that God is in the details,” Rodat said.
Falling Skies contains Spielberg’s usual themes of childhood innocence and threats to the family unit. These relationships are essential, Verheiden said, adding, “I love science fiction, but if the human story isn’t great, if you’re not compelled by the characters, it doesn’t matter how great the aliens are.”
Wright said Falling Skies is an important addition for the network, which will lose its biggest hit, The Closer, in summer 2012.
“It’s a different genre for us,” he said, noting that “everyman shows” with “cops, doctors, and lawyers” are the bread and butter of TNT. Though the network has not officially renewed the series — “It’s television; we have no hubris,” Wright said — a new group of writers already has been enlisted for a second season, mostly in anticipation of the long lead time required to create the aliens.
Speaking of which, Wyle speculated on their enduring appeal, his rifle across his lap. “Maybe in fractious times people need reassurance that when things go really, really badly, something kicks in — that post-9/11 spirit, the unity after Pearl Harbor,” he said. “We start listening to what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’”