Friday at WonderCon in San Francisco, TNT previewed its upcoming series Falling Skies, a sci-fi drama starring Noah Wyle (ER, The Librarian) as a father of three who fights to keep his family together following the occupation of Earth by an alien force. During the presentation, co-executive producer Mark Verheiden, writer Melinda Hsu Taylor and actor Drew Roy discussed the creation of the series and its underlying themes.
Attendees were given a 12-page comic book prequel from Dark Horse that introduces protagonist Tom Mason (Wyle), a history professor turned survivor in the wake of an alien invasion. Taylor, a self-professed comic geek, called it a "special kind of thrill" to work on the project. New pages are released every two weeks on TNT's website. When the story is complete it will be published as a graphic novel, with its final pages leading directly into the first moments of the TV series.
Falling Skies began as a discussion between executive producer Steven Spielberg and TNT Executive Vice President Michael Wright. "They always wanted to do something together, and the idea came up to do a science fiction show," Verheiden recalled. "They brought in Robert Rodat, who wrote Saving Private Ryan." While Rodat provided the pilot script that pits human survivors against an alien race referred to as "The Skitters," Verheiden and Taylor joined project as it went to series.
"It's a show about the human race trying to deal with the aftermath of an alien invasion," Verheiden said, discussing why the concept appealed to him. "Our show starts six months after the invasion, which is different from other shows. The military has been taken out, so we're left with family men, mothers. It's a learning curve."
That learning curve was evident in the first clip: Beginning with a child's drawings and recollections of the initial attack, we find it is Tom's middle son Matt (Maxim Knight) telling the story. The scene cuts to Tom and Hal (Roy), his oldest son, running from alien mechs, the seemingly robotic servants of the Skitters. The older Masons are also pushing a food cart, which they are forced to abandon before diving into a barricade. When that line of defense proves no match for the mech, Tom and Hal duck into the ruins of a shop. There, they see several Skitters surround a female survivor. As they escape the area with Captain Weaver (Will Payton), the group sees an alien spacecraft launch a bomb into the city.
"Early on, there's a character played by Dale Dye who puts [Tom] as second in command to Weaver," Verheiden said. Tom joins a militia to combat the aliens, but it's an uneasy position for him. "For Tom it's important to hold onto as much of a normal life as he can. He wants his sons to be able to grow up 'normal.'"
Although Tom has a difficult time adjusting to the militia, Hal quickly excels at it. For Roy, that process began when the show's weapons master told him to choose his guns. "They took us aside and we shot thousands of rounds," he said. By the end of the season, Roy said, he and Wyle could clean their guns blindfolded. Taylor added that the comic would reveal how Hal found his weapons.
Post-invasion life is not all guns and targeted strikes, though. Hal will also have a healthy does of "normal life" in the form of romantic involvements. A second clip showed Hal and a girl about age trying to find some quiet time in a house where the group has holed up. Before they can kiss, Tom barges in and discusses attacking the Armoury (which just happens to be the name of the two-hour season premiere). When the girl announces she would like to go as well, men from the other rooms shout their interest in the mission. As Tom leaves the room, he notes the thin walls and gives the young couple an odd look.
"He interacts with two different girls [in the pilot]," Roy explained. "You'll see that one is closer to his heart." The panelists suggested Hal might meet other girls in the course of the season.
Hal, and the audience, also will be introduced to the Skitters, and quickly. "We never wanted to be coy with the aliens," Verheiden said. "There's no reason for them to hide from us."
However, deciding to show the aliens early and often created unique challenges. Although the aliens began as purely CGI creations, the production used every technique to realize the creatures -- including putting stuntmen in Skitter costumes.
Roy noted that the physical presence made it easier for the actors to portray their interactions with the aliens. "In the beginning, we had no idea [what the aliens looked like]," he recalled. Eventually, the Skitters became a reality for the cast even when they existed entirely on computer.
"As a science fiction fan, I was thrilled," Taylor said. "I am glad they made that choice [not to hide the Skitters]."
The aliens and their mechs diverge in appearance; while the Skitters are six-legged, the mechs are bipedal. When asked about the difference, Verheiden replied, "Oh, you noticed that. There will be developments of all of these things as we go on. Prodded for more information, he said, "Keep your eyes on the Skitters."
One aspect about the aliens revealed in a third clip and the preview comic is their interest in human children. The video showed Tom and a few others attempting to save a group of kids, including Tom's son Ben (Connor Jessup), from Skitters. They approach a mech-patrolled site where the children, controlled by spine-like armor on their backs, are clearing away debris. One of the other men spots his own son and tries to get him, but the child doesn't respond. A mech approaches, forcing Tom to use explosives earlier than planned.
The panelists didn't reveal what the aliens are doing with the children, but Taylor noted, "There is an age range. Hal is a target because he's the right age." She specified that the Skitters are looking for humans between the ages of 12 and 18.
During the audience Q&A, the group was asked what allegorical content the show might feature. Taylor related that the show was originally called "Concord," in reference to the American Revolution and the battle against a more organized and advanced occupying force. "[It's] the struggle for independence," she explained. "Common men called into these roles of combat or survival." That's a recurring theme in the series.
Verheiden fielded the next question about the biggest challenge facing the characters, and the writers, beyond the aliens themselves. "It's complicated all around. It's a world without communication," he said. "It's a team effort [by our staff] to create a world that was invaded by aliens."
A third audience member of the audience asked how large of a budget they had for the series. Verheiden deadpanned "Enough" to the laughter of the crowd.
A final clip was shown featuring Tom and Dr. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) in a makeshift infirmary discussing the monotony of their old lives. Anne asks Tom what the plan is for their existence now. "Revenge," he replies.
Asked why survivalist fiction is so popular, Taylor offered a pragmatic answer. "I think on an advertising level -- to be the most cynical and business-like about it -- people feel like 'Oh, zombies! Oh, aliens! I can sell that!'" she said, but then switched tracks to a more philosophical answer. "There's always a commentary in science fiction and it's just a way to get people into the room and then tell a great story."
"When you peel back the layers of civilization and your just trying to survive, suddenly there aren't political arguments; you don't have a lot of racial arguments," Verheiden added. "I think we want to believe that if we were faced with overwhelming odds that we might drop all the arguments we have and gather as people. I think there's a real sense of hope in the show."
Falling Skies premieres June 19 on TNT.