Terra Nova – Beware, Corporations Are Stripmining Your Past!

Terra Nova is a science fiction series with monsters. Sometime in the future, the ecosystem has gone kaput but a rift in time has handily turned up which allows people to travel back millions of years to when dinosaurs ruled the earth but American corporations (a far more vicious predator) have not yet been invented. So when Chicago cop, Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara), falls foul of the law (his family decide to have a baby in defiance of the new quota system), he manages to escape into the past along with his family and a host of other ‘pilgrims’.

Given that time travel only works one way in this series (until a plot turns up that allows it to work both ways), he can’t be sent back to the future where he pay can for his crimes and the authorities in the new Jerusalem find that his skills as a cop come in very handy: nobody in the future, it seems, had thought of sending cops into the past but have rather thrown all their energies into sending back scientists and soldiers…

Anyhow, once in the past, the Shannon family settle down to a nice life (this is a Spielberg production), although luckily there are some issues to disrupt their idealized domestic arrangements. First, the past into which they have been dropped is full of dinosaurs, many of which are unfamiliar and/or unpredictable, so there are lots of opportunities for them to munch on the humans and threaten the homestead. Second, there is a political conflict going on in the past. The settlers are led by tough military man, Nathaniel Taylor (the wonderful Stephen Lang), who is in conflict with the ‘sixers’, a group of rebels who live outside the compound and are trying to undermine it. Worse still, his estranged son is out there too, and he is writing on rocks!!! Honest, I kid you not – it is really mysterious.

Of course, with Stephen Lang in the role of Taylor, his intentions are already deeply suspect. After all, Lang is an actor that has built his reputation by playing psychopaths and his casting in the show is clearly supposed to remind one of his evil commander in the mega-hit, Avatar. Taylor’s suspect character is also emphasized by the casting of O’Mara as Shannon, given that the younger actor has a history of Oedipal time-travel narratives and played Sam Tyler in the American version of Life on Mars, in which he was pitted against Harvey Keitel’s Gene Hunt.

But (SPOILER ALERT) it soon transpires that Taylor is not a bad man, and is actually trying to protect Eden from the sixers, who are in league with evil corporations back in the future (along with Taylor’s wayward son): the corporations plan to strip the past of its resources and ship them into the future. Clearly, this is not a show that has any interest in the paradoxes of time travel.

Of course, the irony here is that the show is itself a virtual strip-mining of the past. It is a Frankenstein’s monster that has been made up out of earlier objects of popular culture, as are many of Spielberg’s projects. There are bits of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, bits of Avatar (except that here there are good and bad colonialists – pilgrim family settlers are good and strip-mining corporations are bad – but more of that later), and of course the homestead, the sixers and the new Eden start looking a lot like something out of a western. Oh, and Jim is a Chicago cop, so a lot of the plots are straight out of a cop show.

Furthermore, as should have become abundantly clear, the whole thing is a literal rip-off of the American story itself. Terra Nova is the new world; the pilgrim settlers are, well, pilgrim settlers; the new world is an explored Eden that doesn’t feature the pesky problem of the ‘indians’ – this time, the settlers have really got there first and have laid claim to virgin land that really hasn’t already been settled by others.

Of course, I am not complaining about the show’s plundering of the past – what text doesn’t work with the languages that surround it – but it is all a bit too obvious and contrived. Great popular culture makes the old into something new again; this makes something old into something that is all a bit too familiar. In both senses of the word. If it is too reminiscent of other things, this is partly because the show all a bit too comfy and cosy. In fact, unlike the western, in which the frontier is both opportunity and danger, and often feels quite bleak and tough, the world of Terra Nova, despite its monstrous dinosaurs and rebel sixers, all feels a bit to easy.

And of course part of the reason for this is that the show is far too concerned to operate as a family show. Its plots are all about the Shannons as a family, and even Taylor starts looking increasingly like a rather cantankerous grandad. In fact, it starts feeling a lot like Lost in Space, the TV series not the bewildering film version. Well, Lost in Space without all the weirdness that the Robinson family was forced to confront!

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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

Made-for-Television Horror Films

The made-for-television horror film is an odd object. It gets a fairly dismissive treatment in Greg Waller’s essay on the subject (in his collection American Horrors) where he claims that it is preoccupied with the ‘child-less, married woman, twenty to twenty-five years old, who is before all else identified as a wife’ or the figure of the ‘psychic investigator’. Of course, the latter type is a rather strange one to take issue with as it includes examples like the rather wonderful exploits of figures such as Carl Kolchak, the protagonist of Matheson’s truly wonderful made-for-television horror film, The Night Stalker, which most people agree to be a classic (and not just a classic of television horror but of horror more generally)!

The former type is also interesting but in a different way; and is based on an explicit preference for stories that do not ‘overwhelmingly adopt a narrative form based on the personal adventures of an individual protagonist or small group’ and in which ‘the horror is [not] localized, identified as a single incident’. However, this preference is also a gendered response. In other words, this response relies on an established options between the public and the private, in which the public is seen as ‘properly social and political’ while the private is ‘relegated to the realms of “escape”‘, the realms of the ‘localized’ and the ‘individual’. However, as Angela Partington claims, such a distinction is ‘a consequence of the critic’s class and gender-specific notions of’ politics, a notion that is quite at odds, for example, with ‘experience of working-class women’ for whom the social and political are experienced as precisely ‘private and emotional’ and vice versa: the ‘private and emotional’ are therefore deeply social and political.

Furthermore, such a position seems to oddly reject precisely those kinds of narratives that one might see as heirs to a long tradition of female Gothics. Consequently, if Waller is right about its prominence within made-for-television horror film, this category would benefit from a lot more discussion, and I hope to return to this in later entries. However, I am not at all convinced that made-for-television horror films are dominated by such types and, even if they are, there are still a wide range of other types.

The Night Stalker and its sequel, The Night Strangler, were examples of the psychic investigator, as was The Possessed, a rather weird made for television horror film in which James Farentino plays a mysterious figure who wanders the earth confronting evil and finds himself battling dark forces in a girl’s school. However, there was also a series of classic horror adaptations produced by Dan Curtis. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula (again written by Matheson) the terrifically tragic Jack Palance starred as the respective monsters, while The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw were built around other actors.

It should also be remembered that Stephen Spielberg started off in television and that his first film, Duel, was a made-for-television horror film (yet again written by Matheson) that was only given a theatrical release after its reception on television. The film tells the story of an ordinary man who, while traveling across country in his car, is menaced by a mysterious truck.

In short, there is a rich and diverse body of work within the made-for-television horror film. Some examples, such as The Possessed, are preposterous but fun. Others such as Duel or The Night Stalker are acknowledged as classics. And yet others, if Waller is right, represent a prolific, if largely forgotten, body of female Gothics.

Of course, the made-for-television horror film is very different from the made-for-television mini-series which I will discuss on another occasion but is another rich tradition that includes examples such as The Dark Secret of Harvest Home and numerous adaptions of Stephen King novels including Salem’s Lot (twice), It, The Tommyknockers, The Stand and The Shining. But that is for another day.