The Professor and the Aliens
Noah Wyle may not have that elusive quality known as "star power," but he's dependable. As Dr. John Carter, the longest-running character on ER, Wyle showed how he could shape and develop a character, bringing it to life from a few words of well-written text. But when he began starring in those pleasant but ultimately unmemorable Librarian films on TNT (you know, the ones with hokey subtitles like Quest for the Spear and The Curse of the Judas Chalice), it was clear that he did not have the star power to make a weak piece seem better than it really was.
Some actors are simply better suited to series TV, and Wyle might be one of them. That's why, after those blah Librarian films, I was pleasantly startled by his star turn in the new TNT series Falling Skies. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Graham Yost (Justified) and created by Robert Rodat (who wrote the pilot from an idea he co-conceived with Spielberg), Falling Skies has a strong pedigree. Even so, the final product, while visually impressive in the beginning, wears a bit thin storywise in later episodes. But it's Wyle's measured performance that keeps you watching, even as he recites exposition in the most ham-handed way possible. Or is it his character who's ham-handed? Honestly, it's hard to tell. That's a compliment.
Wyle plays Tom Mason, a professor of military history who is trying to keep his family alive after an apocalyptic alien invasion. In voiceover, children recount the invasion at the beginning of the series, with one missing detail: why the aliens have invaded. The only thing anyone knows is that the aliens – huge, sticky-looking creatures that are a cross between a spider and an undersea reptile – seek human children and youth for some mysterious need.
Mason's wife was killed during the invasion, leaving him to care for his eldest son, Hal (Drew Roy), and youngest son, Matt (Maxim Knight). Middle son Ben (Connor Jessup) is believed dead – until Hal thinks he's spotted him while on reconnaissance. Mason and Hal decide to rescue Ben, and this is what propels the series forward. However, because they are members of a group of resistance fighters called the Second Massachusetts, they are compelled to put their personal needs behind those of their militia. Not easy, especially for the impulsive Hal.
And this is where the ham-handedness comes in. When the group is weary or when emotions flare, Mason offers snippets of U.S. Revolutionary War history and other famous battles in world history to remind everyone to keep their eyes on the prize. It's an interesting juxtaposition, aided by the fact that the alien invaders are not presented as technologically or intellectually superior to humans (they're just bigger and uglier). But the manner in which Mason offers his history lessons is as engaging as someone reading aloud from a poorly written history textbook. With all the creative capital of the series creators, there isn't a more inspired way to do the same thing? Actually, that opportunity is lost in the character of John Pope (Colin Cunningham). An ex-con and the leader of a gang living outside the resistance, John is also a student of history. His swagger and nihilism put him at odds with Mason and the resistance, but when he waxes historical, you can't help but enjoy every ornery word. His scenes are energized and often very funny.
I've only seen the first six of the eight episodes, but it's clear that the revelation of what drives the alien invaders is supposed to be stunning. Let's hope. Because even with Wyle's reliable performance leading the way, it will be annoying if the reveal doesn't match the big tease.
Moon Bloodgood (Terminator Salvation) and Will Patton (Armageddon) also co-star. Falling Skies has its two-hour premiere Sunday, June 19, at 8pm on TNT.