Arrow (2012-Present) – It Shouldn’t Work but It Does!

Arrow is a weird one. It is the creation of Greg Berlanti, a specialist in family melodramas such as Everwood and Brothers and Sisters, but it is a superhero story with some really dark, horrorish elements. It also seems to be part of a larger shift for Berlanti, who has  gone into superheroes big time with No Ordinary Family (with which I can see the connection back to his earlier work) but also the Green Lantern film and its follow up, and reports of a new series with DC’s The Flash.

In Arrow, Oliver Queen has been stuck on an island for the last five years, after his ship went down in those uncharted waters in which the super-rich like to hang out. But before his discovery of the island, when he and his father are fighting for existence in their life-raft, the old man has persuaded Oliver to right his wrongs back at home and has then committed suicide. Which all leaves Oliver rather traumatized. Oh, and did I mention that Dad was also a super-rich industrialist who seems to be mixed up in some super conspiracy and has left a list of the people involved in his evil plan… Well, actually, it turns out to be the evil plan of John Barrrowman, but more of that later.

Once back in the bosom of his family, Oliver quickly sets about punishing the evil doers using athletic and archery skills that he has picked up on the island. So what we basically have is a lot of family dynamics and vigilante violence, which makes for a very odd, but hugely enjoyable, series that tries, unconvincingly, for a post credit-crunch social conscience.

In addition, the backstory of Oliver’s hellish time on the island, which is called purgatory or something, is told in flashback, so that the series feel a bit like Lost in reverse – everyday life punctuated by flashbacks to a weird island where God-knows-what is going on.

And then there is the fourth unlikely ingredient – a cast that seems to have been collected from BBC’s early Saturday night schedule. The evil super-villain (and closet archer) is played by John Barrowman, who may have been Captain Jack on Torchwood but also appeared on seemingly endless Saturday night talent shows with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Graham Norton. Also, Oliver’s new Dad, or rather the man who is now married to his mother, is Colin Salmon, who was previously a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing (that’s the original BBC series that Dancing with the Stars was based on).

I know I should think the whole thing doesn’t hang together but I find it strangely compelling and not just because of Willa Holland, who plays Oliver’s teenage sister, Thea – she was also Mini Cooper in The OC a while ago – and she is clearly the most intelligent and perceptive character in the entire series. She has a sharpness and a spikiness that is hugely welcome in the show, and I simply can’t wait for the point at which she gets her own superhero identity. In fact, I am surprised that it is taking them so long, the whole series feels ripe for her to replace Oliver and carry the show on her own!

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Falling Skies – Paedophiles from Outer Space

Falling Skies is a SF-horror-family melodrama that is produced by Spielberg, which is supposed to be a positive recommendation but ends up being its greatest problem. The series concerns a world invaded by aliens in which a brave band of resistance fighters mount a spirited opposition to the enemy.

The hero is played by Noah Wyle, nice guy Carter from ER, who plays an ex-history professor, Tom Mason, who is second in command to Will Patton’s hard-bitten veteran, Captain Weaver. It is nice to see a positive representation of an arts and humanities academic these days, and the history professor bit is no accident: Mason’s main function seems to be to provide endless comparisons between the resistance to the aliens and the American Revolution, while also being the nice liberal family man. The result is often nauseatingly patriotic, particularly in a post-911 context.

However, the aliens are not really not British colonialists, nor ‘Islamic terrorists’, but rather paedophiles from outer space. It is not just that Wyle is a nice family man, who seems to spend as much time worrying about his kids as fighting the extra-terrestrial menace, but that the aliens are after our children. They slaughter the human adults but seem to have a  thing about the children. Instead of trying to wipe the child out, the aliens keep the kids alive in groups and spend huge amounts of time devising schemes to whisk the moppets away from their parents.

And once they have the little cherubs (these are Spielberg children), they penetrate them from behind – no, really! They have these things that most characters refer to as harnesses, which are attached to the children’s backs and control them. But they don’t look much like harnesses. Instead, they have tentacles that penetrate the flesh and fuse with the spinal cord.

Once penetrated by the harness, the kids are under the control of the aliens and even develop a bond with their abuser. At one level, this is identified as a kind of addiction, so that, if the harness is removed, the children go into shock and die, at least until a procedure is found to cure this problem. But even then some children still long to be back with the aliens and the feeling of ‘being loved’ that the aliens gave them, but that their parents seem to be incapable of providing. On the other hand, some children, such as Noah Wyle’s son, develop an extreme anger at their abusers, clearly suffering for a case of deep-seated guilt and self-disgust that manifests itself in a case of ‘protesting too much’.

Of course, most of this isn’t new. The parasite on the back is clearly a borrowing from stories that go back to Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, an alien invasion narrative that preceded Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Heinlein’s novel even has includes the victim’s sense of dependence upon its parasite; their suicidal responses to its removal; and even the traumatic guilt and self-disgust of some survivors.

But Heinlein’s aliens ride on the upper back, just below the neck and between the shoulder-blades, while the alien parasites in Falling Skies cover the entire length of the spine right down to … well, I will leave it to your imaginations. And Heinlein’s alien’s are slug-like creatures, while these aliens (while seeming to be biological-technological hybrids) look awfully like the insect creatures from Cronenberg’s film of the William Burroughs novel, The Naked Lunch, both of which have clear homosexual subtexts…

None the less, for all its neurotic concerns with children, and with paedophiles – let us just take a moment to remember that most victims of child abuse are victimized by close family members who profess to love and protect them and that ‘stranger danger’ is phenomenally rare – the series does have a lot going for it. Visually, it has a really gritty and realistic look that is quite at odd with the sugar-sweet sentiments elsewhere, and its also got a terrific cast. Noah Wyle is always a pleasure to watch, even if he is not terrifically well cast here, but Captain Weaver is played by Will Patton, who is a character actor that brings an air of gravitas to the proceedings, and (most of the time) even succeeds in undercutting the more annoying elements of the series. By season two, he does get to spend more time worrying about his own kids, but we also have a great appearance from one of my favorite television character actors, the truly wonderful, Terry O’Quinn. You know, John Locke, from Lost! God, I could write a whole entry on Terry O’Quinn, but as usual, he appears in a role that uses his rather odd ability to play characters that seems to be a nice, normal everymen but also suggest the menacing possibility of something dark and/or tyrannical underneath…. I will say no more. For now.

Season two also starts to complicate the aliens. It turns out that not all aliens are the same … surprisingly.

But the bad aliens still want our children …

I read somewhere that Falling Skies has been described as a cross between Jericho and V but I have to say that for all its gritty, end-of-the-world feel, this series is no Jericho. If you haven’t seen this tragically canceled series, do so immediately. And that is an order. It may not be strictly fantastic television – it carefully avoids any overt sf or horror trappings – but it is also a post-apocalypse epic, so I think I might do an entry on it. And there are no creepy aliens hanging around the playground in this one!

Next Week: Jericho: An Apocalypse of Biblical Proportions