Falling Skies is a graduate seminar in why science fiction fails on TV

Seriously, last night's Falling Skies season finale was like a masterclass in fail. Pulled punches. Alien clichés, done badly. Characters with no purpose. And most of all, a story that seemed to be going nowhere. Spoilers ahead...

I've had profoundly mixed feelings about Falling Skies season three, which seemed to be trying to make a bunch of hasty decisions from last year's season finale work. Including the brand new aliens, the Volm. Plus putting an alien spin on Tom and Anne's baby. And then Hal having an eyebug, which spun out into Lourdes having an eyebug.

But last night's finale pushed the verdict pretty firmly over into negative territory, given how weakly most of these storylines were played out.

So in last night's finale, Tom and the gang attack the EspheniTower in Boston, while Dan and Pope mount a diversionary attack in Chicago — and it's ridiculously easy, and they win, and everyone survives. Because the all-conquering unstoppable Espheni have been reduced to five Skitters and a couple shuttlecraft, after Tom blew up a nuclear power plant. Okay then.

And then the Volm land in force, and they're going to kick the Espheni's asses for us. Until we find out that this is literally true — we're not just going to be relying on the Volm to do most of the fighting for us (which was the plan before they landed), they want to do all the fighting. With the humans relocated to a safe haven in Brazil. They are going to relocate the humans by force, until Tom says "human spirit of independence," and the Volm realize that humans are the only indigenous lifeforms they've encountered who fight back and have a concept of freedom and stuff. (Really? The ecosystems on those other planets, where nobody fights back, must be really weird.)

So they let Tom and the gang go, and Karen shows, up and Tom kills her, and then Maggie double kills her, and it's ridiculously easy. And then we find out that Anne and the baby are alive, except that the baby is now like six years old, because she's growing superfast like every other baby in science fiction. And the baby cures Lourdes' eyebugs, and it's ridiculously easy. And then everybody stands around and talks about how hard everything is going to be from here on out.

So pulled punches, I mentioned some above — the assault on the tower is one. The confrontation with Karen is another one. The fact that they get Anne back without having to fight for her or rescue her is a third. But the biggest and most fatal pulled punch is the Volm — all season, they've been basically ciphers, and there's been a huge flashing sign saying "Don't Trust These Guys" over their heads. And it turns out their big evil secret is... they want to protect us while they fight with their superior weaponry, numbers and equipment on our behalf. Basically, as near as I can tell, they really do plan to "liberate" the Earth, but they just want to do it themselves without any scrappy underdogs getting in the way.

Falling Skies is a graduate seminar in why science fiction fails on TV

And then they're incredibly easy to talk out of relocating the Second Mass to Boston. There's like one tense scene where Tom shoves Cochise's dad, and then they kiss and make up. The Volm are pussycats, basically.

We may find out next season that the Volm are hiding other stuff, and that's why they wanted the humans out of the way — Karen hints as much, and this show isn't subtle enough to just have her be lying — but the time to drop a big revelation and have them show some of their ugly side was last night, while we still cared. The whole season was building up to us finding out the Truth About the Volm, and it was a fizzle.

As for clichés? Let's see. Lourdes' eyebugs turn into drug withdrawal for no reason. The Volm were already a huge alien cliché, but when we finally see two members of their species interact, it's just clichepalooza. We get no clue how Volm society actually works, and instead just see super-stilted bland interactions. The "diversionary attack" thing is a cliché this show has done like three times this year. Karen as Overlord is straight out of V. And then the superchild who grows quickly and can fix all your plot problems? Ultra cliché.

Beyond that, this show just feels like it can't settle on a tone — we keep bouncing between good character-centric episodes, like last week's, and terrible plot-centric episodes, like this week's. So many of the plotlines this season could have been dealt with in one episode, like Hal's eyebug, so we could focus on character development and on getting one single plot that actually works — like the Volm and the Espheni grid could have.

So why does science fiction have such a hard time on television? Based on this season of Falling Skies, it seems like a huge part of it is that while television writing is experiencing a flowering of quality and fresh ideas in other areas, when it comes to science fiction people just automatically lean on the same handful of formulas that worked at some point in the past. There's an overemphasis on trying to surprise or shock the reader — there's another new alien! Tom's willingly getting on the alien spaceship! — but a de-emphasis on keeping your eye on the ball, storytelling-wise. There's a need to keep everything cozy, which means no member of the Mason family will ever be seriously hurt. Aliens are just stock characters — I can't imagine any TV show doing vampires as one-dimensional as the Volm were this year. The message is always "the human spirit is special," not anything new or interesting about learning to understand other cultures.

Falling Skies was never a great show, but in its first couple seasons it seemed to be trying to do something new and interesting with the post-apocalyptic/alien invasion genres, particularly in storylines about the harnessed kids. But this year, it tried to tell too many stories at once — most of them stories that had been told many times already — and turned into a stew of missed opportunities.