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An impressive crowd at Comic-Con International on Friday afternoon got a first look at “Falling Skies,” the TNT series from executive producer Steven Spielberg that’s billed as “the event of the year.” Although the alien-invasion drama doesn’t debut until summer 2011, a curious audience filled the room to get a taste of what awaits.
Marc Bernardin, contributing editor of io9.com, moderated the panel, quickly introducing the stars Noah Wyle and Moon Bloodgood and executive producer Mark Verheiden.
Before the discussion officially began, Bernardin introduced a teaser clip of the show that lasted less than three minutes. “Falling Skies” looks as anyone would expect with Spielberg at its helm: a slick, well-produced show that emphasizes human drama but does not skimp on the action. Ominous spacecraft are seen in glimpses, and humans are clearly in disarray, including a child who acts as the narrator, describing when aliens plunged Earth into chaos. The aliens are never clearly seen, surely delaying the surprise of the big reveal. The production values are above par, closer to a motion picture than a cable series.
With the lights in the room back on, Bernardin asked the actors about their characters. Wyle, best know for his role on “ER,” plays Tom, a college professor with a family that has been nearly destroyed by the alien invasion. His wife was killed in the initial invasion, and one of his three sons is missing. Tom taught American history, and that knowledge is key to him becoming a leader. He begins as a cerebral character but transforms into someone more physical as he seeks to lead those in his charge to safety while fighting back against the invaders.
Bloodgood, known for her part in “Terminator Salvation,” plays a pediatrician, a motherly type who lost her husband and child in the invasion. A romance between her character and Tom is obvious, but the relationship works against their instincts, as they feel they should be grieving for their lost loved ones.
Bernardin asked how “Falling Skies” makes the aliens scary. Verheiden, a producer on “Heroes” and “Battlestar Galactica,” said it was more about exploring how real people would cope with the situation, albeit one rooted in fantasy, but one with emotions common to anyone in a challenging, even life-threatening, situation. The story is also about people holding on to their humanity when faced with insurmountable odds. In this way, the aliens may not come across as scary elements on their own, but they provide a device with which to explore the characters through conflict. If the humans lose their humanity then the aliens win.
The main story takes place six months after the alien invasion, not during the invasion itself. Eighty percent of the world’s population has been destroyed and the survivors are trying to take their world back while trying to stay alive. The world’s power grid and dependent technology has been knocked out, thrusting the humans into something like the 19th century. The invasion and destruction of so much has acted as a reset button, with the survivors forced to start over.
Another important theme in the series is the loss of innocence. A decision must be made regarding whether children should enter the fight, with adults weighing a desire to protect them against the need for extra hands in the war against the aliens. Tom’s youngest child is 8, so this is a theme that quickly becomes important.
Bernardin posed a more lighthearted question, asking the actors the first item they would grab in the event of a real alien invasion. Wyle answered, very quickly and curtly, “Duct tape.” Bloodgood was stumped but blurted, “Underwear.”
The next question was who they would want from real-life on their team. Laughing, they all agreed on Samuel L. Jackson. Next they said Bruce Springsteen who, they said, had become a bit of an inside joke because a lot of the people involved in the production said they would like to have him fight with them against aliens.
Asked what their characters were sad to have lost in the invasion, perhaps intended to draw a response about a material object, Wyle said Tom was most sad to have lost the future that he imagined for his family. No one on the rest of the panel could trump that answer.
Bernardin next asked what makes this series different from other projects. Bloodgood said she enjoys working on science fiction projects so much because they never get old. She doesn’t have the chance to get lazy when working.
Bernadin opened up the panel to questions from the audience. One eagle-eyed fan had noticed from the clip a supermarket called “Shop Smart,” and asked if it was an inside joke, referring to the slogan from the store in “Army of Darkness.” However, the panel said it was not intended that way and they seemed surprised that anyone would make the connection.
The next audience member asked how much is left to be done on the show. So far, the pilot is complete, and they are well into working on the series.
The show was originally going to be called “Concord,” drawing a strong connection to the American Revolution. However, the producers thought that it might be too limiting, as the show goes well beyond a comparison to a military conflict.
An audience member asked if there will be a struggle for leadership. There will, indeed, be drama in this area, coming from the conflict between the regular people and those who are in charge. In “Falling Skies,” Tom is the leader of the civilians and the fact that he often finds conflict with military leaders will be a basis for some of the action. Another theme will be the miracle of people pulling together, and the humanity that people in a difficult situation can find within each other.
Verheiden said the show is planned so that the producers know how it will end and what they need to do to get there, but the real fun will be in what happens along the way.
The visual effects will be spectacular when need to be but they will generally act to build toward something rather than just being visually exciting for the sake of itself.
The last question from the audience addressed the temptation to give up under such incredible circumstances. Wyle said that as long as Tom has something to live for, like his family, he will never consider giving up. Bloodgood said her character has been running away from her life for so long that if she had to face what she has lost she might die. So she puts herself into the relationship with Tom.
Bernardin showed the teaser clip once more then drew the panel to a close, which was met with a round of enthusiastic applause from the audience, who may have just gazed upon their new favorite show starting in summer 2011.