There was a time when the name Steven Spielberg was a byword for quality, probably sometime prior to June 28th 2001 (Sidebar: My film critic friend would like to refute this argument by presenting Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can and the Terminal… I believe my point stands unmolested by his argument), but now it seems the esteemed director will put his name to just about anything, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull anyone?
Well this year three shows have debuted bearing the much valued name Spielberg, Falling Skies, Terra Nova and The River…
All three shows have a great premise. Falling Skies deals with humanity in the aftermath of an alien invasion, true, it’s not a unique idea but it’s one that TV often fails to explore, or at least well. Terra Nova combines a failing humanity with time travel and a fresh start in a world populated with dinosaurs. While the River follows in the footsteps of the great and oft lamented (by me) Harper’s Island and tries to spin out a horror story aboard a nature documentary ship sailing down the amazon.
Kudos on the premises. They’re great, they all sound like they’d be fantastic shows… but they aren't and here’s why.
Falling Skies fails in so many regards. It is clichéd, stocked with cardboard characters that fail to be interesting. It suffers massively from it’s illogical mythology. The alien ships hunt by heat signatures, we know this as they have been drawn miles out of their way by simple flares. But they can’t spot the heat signatures of a group of 300 people travelling together?
Meanwhile Terra Nova simply throws away it’s great mythology by setting itself up as a soap opera that just happens to feature dinosaurs. A group of humans has travelled to a parallel earth (thus explaining away any ecological inconsistencies) and has set up a new civilisation, a fresh start for Humanity.However, it is still as corrupt as the one left behind and it bears a striking resemblance to the culture of today despite being set nearly 150 years in our future.
The interesting part of the Terra Nova plotline is the formation of a new civilisation in a hostile environment. However the writers just skipped right past that and had the civilisation already there. Upon arrival our heroes are able to go to the market and pick up anything they want, they don’t need to struggle for survival, in fact life is so dull for them that they must immediately seek out trouble. This is of course a group of people who haven’t seen the sun in decades, who have barely eaten and have basically lived in a police state all their lives. Their sudden expulsion into a world of colour and magic is presented as so mundane you’d think all they’d done was pop round to the neighbours for a cup of tea.
So much potential, so much promise, so little payoff. This show feels like the short lived BBC series Outcasts, which suffered from the same slow, uninteresting plotlines. Both shows could have really pushed some boundaries and told some interesting stories, but both were very disappointing in the end. It’s hard to screw up time travel and dinosaurs but it’s not impossible.
Finally The River. I mentioned Harper’s Island earlier, which despite the nonsensical conclusion, succeeded in spinning an hour and half slasher movie into a tense and engaging 13 episode series with interesting characters and a plot that, while one-note in many senses, was well carried throughout the show (up until the last episode… obviously). The River attempts to do the same thing, spinning a horror movie out for 8 episodes as a family searches for their father who went missing six months earlier.
The show starts off well and manages to be engaging at first, even if there are huge issues with the development of the plot. For example, Lena turns up, out of the blue and finds the family who have just lost the signal from Emmet’s beacon and she tells them she has found six possible locations for the ship. Five of them are empty. Now, wait, on the whole of the amazon, a ship that has been missing for 6 months can’t only be in one of 5 locations! If it’s been missing for 6 months it could be on one of 5 continents, probably hoping not to be found.
However, these leaps of plot are easily forgiven by what follows. Unsurprisingly the family finds the ship, in the sixth location (surprise, surprise) and to their astonishment there is something still on the ship, sealed in the panic room, the door to which has been welded shut.
Obviously logic dictates that they have to open it, it is unclear exactly what the monster is that they release by doing this is, all we know for sure is that it kills at least one of the crew and will continue to hunt them throughout the show. However, here’s the real problem. If you come across a monster and you seal it in the panic room with a blow torch then you probably have the time to… I dunno, write a note!! Even the hospital staff in The Walking Dead found time to scrawl “do not open” on the doors. Welding takes a long time, comparatively to writing at any rate, so there really is no point in doing it if you aren’t going to explain why so other people don’t come along after you and UNDO IT!!
Of course the plot continues in an equally ridiculous fashion as our heroes fail to turn back, despite clear reasons to do so, including a supposed visitation by the spirit of the man they are hoping to find alive… if he is alive HOW CAN HIS SPIRIT VISIT YOU! Am I asking for a non-ridiculous “supernatural thriller”, no, but it needs enough basis in reality and logic to hold you in it’s world. Harper’s Island worked because the characters weren’t stupid, by the time it was apparent there was a killer on the island it was already too late for the characters to leave, but even then they didn’t stop trying.
You can’t feel sorry for a group of characters who are killed because they are too stupid to know any better!