The first images seen in TNT's new drama series "Falling Skies" (airing Sunday nights at 9 p.m.) are glimpses of children's drawings, as you hear their voices talking of the wide-awake nightmares they have witnessed with their own eyes. The horrors in the images are mingled with their small, sad voices; some are choked with tears, some are opaque with shock. These are children of war.
But this is not a war between earthly nations. The Earth has fallen into the clutches of a particularly ruthless conquering extra-terrestrial force, one that seems to have the annihilation of the human race as its ultimate goal. There are those survivors, however, who have decided that they will not let the horrible memories be the last ones their children have.
"Falling Skies," created by "Saving Private Ryan" screenwriter Robert Rodat and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, is the kind of action-packed science-fiction thriller that summer audiences would usually associate with the big screen, brought weekly into living rooms instead.
Former "ER" star Noah Wyle has his best role in years as Tom Mason, a former history teacher who has been thrust into a military leadership role because of the invasion. Tom's eldest son, Hal (played by Drew Roy), fights by his father's side, while youngest boy Matt (Maxim Knight) longs for a return to the way life had been before the aliens came.
Everyone wants that, of course, but there are disagreements on whether or not the aliens -- some of which are six-legged nasties called "skitters," some of which are two-legged robots referred to as "mechs" -- can ever be defeated. Early in the first hour of the two-hour pilot, Tom is named as second-in-command in a hundred-soldier unit dubbed "the Second Massachusetts," after the original Revolutionary War militia, which has the overall task of shepherding 200 fellow refugees as they attempt to find an undetermined safe haven. Tom, along with a half-dozen others, are also tasked to perform scouting missions and supply runs, always wary that their next mission could be their last.
It's during an early scouting trip that Hal happens to see another of his brothers, Ben (Connor Jessup), along with several other children, being marched by his position. All of the youngsters possess the same dead-eyed stare. The aliens, for a reason no one knows just yet, are gathering up children and putting a kind of neurological shackle on them. Tom, now armed with the knowledge that Ben is still alive, finds that he has his own mission beyond his assigned duties - bring his son home.
The show's scope is ambitious, that's for sure, and with a big price tag and plenty of cool special effects shots of alien spaceships and technology, along with a number of action set-pieces, it might have been all too tempting to put the dialogue and characters on cruise control. Thank goodness that's not what happened here. "Falling Skies" is crisply written and energetically directed, with several splendid performances. Wyle is very believable as a scholar and father who is doing his level best to keep it together for his children and for the others who are depending on his leadership. Will Patton, as commanding officer Captain Weaver, is suitably gruff as a military man with an urge to stand and fight, but under orders to protect the civilians in his charge, which means constantly being ready to retreat. Moon Bloodgood also turns in a sharp and appealing performance as Dr. Anne Glass, a pediatrician who is now constantly on call as the only medical doctor the group has at its disposal.
So far, "Falling Skies" is absolutely terrific and I'm really looking forward to the next episode. This might not be just great summer TV, it has the potential to be great TV, period. Three and a half stars (out of four).