Sunday, December 04, 2005

"So Who Are The 21st Century Aliens? Who, or What, Are We So Afraid of Now?"

Alien TV Invasion Framed
TV shows us that the aliens we fear might be ourselves

By William S. Kowinski
The San Francisco Chronicle

     There's something different about this season's new TV shows: the emphasis on fear. Each major network introduced a new series about sinister alien invasions: "Invasion" on ABC, "Surface" on NBC and "Threshold" on CBS (which is in jeopardy of extinction after moving to a new night).

     They follow Steven Spielberg's version of the very first space alien invasion story, H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" last summer. It was a blockbuster hit.

     So what's under the surface of these invasions? What are we on the threshold of? The 1950s?

     That's when the template for alien invasion drama was set, amidst the suppressed hysteria of the early atomic age and the Cold War. Although disguised in genre sensationalism, their correspondences to the sources of paranoia were pretty much one to one. Soviet bombers and missiles might come without warning to destroy from the sky; so do space aliens. But communists also subvert from within, fellow Americans could be fellow travelers and your neighbor might be a spy. So "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" led a subgenre of aliens taking over the minds and bodies of humans.

     So who are the 21st century aliens? Who, or what, are we so afraid of now?

     The terrorist is the obvious alien. "There can be no doubt that, even subconsciously, 9/11 is a thematic undercurrent in our show, for sure," said Threshold producer Brannon Braga.

     But the obvious may not be the whole story. These shows imply other possibilities. With ancient and Biblical antecedents, the fear of nature and natural forces perverted by human actions has been a science fiction theme from "Frankenstein" to "Soylent Green" and "The Day After Tomorrow." In the 1950s, it was expressed as the monster created by nuclear radiation mutations (giant ants, locusts, spiders, etc.) or awakened by atomic explosions (Godzilla.) All three of these shows suggests variations appropriate to our contemporary Zeitgeist.

     "Invasion" began with an alien-induced hurricane in its first episode, aired while the Katrina catastrophe was unfolding. "Surface" reveals alien life forms living in the sea. Our easily resurrected fear of ferocious animals may combine with stubbornly repressed suspicions of climate change distortions, undoubtedly enlivened by this year's record-breaking hurricane season.

     When we feel alienated from our own planet, we fear some well-deserved Revenge of the Earth. Even Spielberg's alien machines emerged from the ground instead of falling from the sky as in the original Wells.

     In "Threshold," the invasion is also a subversion. Its unseen aliens rearrange the DNA of human victims by means of a "signal" manifested as sound. Genetics is our generation's Dr. Frankenstein science, and the mating of the biological and the electronic -- viruses and computer viruses -- demonstrates another aspect of our paranoia: it is often about what we don't quite understand.

     These aliens apparently attempt to transform us into versions of them, proposing a kind of Close Encounter of the Fourth Kind: We have met the alien, and he is us. We probably suspect that endangered species, for instance, might very well see us that way.

     But more than the subjects, the style of these new shows may reveal what we find so fearful. They maintain many of the conventions of the genre, including near-naked babes in jeopardy. But in most alien invasion films, plumbing the mysterious nature of the aliens took up a third of the story at most; the rest was the action of defeating them. In these, investigation is itself at the center of the action.

     The extended mystery of these shows suggests we don't really know what we are afraid of. Is it the wrath of nature, or the revelation that confidence in our government's ability to aid us in disaster is a fantasy? Is it terrorism, or the war on terror? Global warming, or a global pandemic? The fear of illness, or the fear of being unable to afford needed care? Rising energy prices, a wobbly economy, an administration in crisis and mountains of national and personal debt -- -there's plenty to be anxious about.

     The world is getting smaller, and Americans are becoming more isolated and perhaps more xenophobic. Within the nation, the specter of a religious litmus test for a Supreme Court nominee, and the revival of a debate over teaching evolution exactly 80 years after the Scopes trial emphasize long-standing and perhaps intractable conflicts in worldviews. We seem increasingly divided by income, lifestyle and outlook. Who we think the aliens are may depend on who we think we are.

     Paranoia in the Cold War seemed partly caused by our lack of control over sudden and complete destruction. Today it might be that we need to understand the complexities of whatever threatens us before we know what to do.

     One thing seems fairly certain about these new alien invasion shows: they won't include close encounters with any cuddly E.T.s Among their forbearers were two popular mini-series on cable, "Taken" and "The 4400" (now a series), which strung out the mystery of the aliens' nature but finally revealed them to be benign, if not beneficent. That's not likely to happen with these three.

     What we see as we huddle around our TV sets reflects our anxieties and our deep need to define them. But the fear is out there.

* Special Thanks To Christian Macé

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