‘Falling Skies’: Season 5 is ‘‘Apocalypse Now’ on crystal meth,’ says showrunner

“Falling Skies” began as a loose allegory for the American Revolutionary War when the alien invasion TV show first aired in 2011. Humans are fighting on their own turf for independence from extraterrestrials. That analogy evolved, as the finale of season 2 gave viewers their first look at the Volm, a species of alien who act rather like the French do for the Patriots, coming to the aid of the Earthlings.

Say good morning, Vietnam, season 5. Showrunner David Eick describes the final season as “”Apocalypse Now” on crystal meth.” It”s a season of more moral ambiguity. It”s a season when characters push themselves to their absolute limits.

The entire series has blended elements of sci-fi, war show, horror and family drama, but for season 5 there will be more focus on “war tales” and “combat stories,” said Eick, the “Battlestar Galactica” alum who came aboard “Falling Skies” as showrunner for season 4.

The season picks up right where season 4 left off, a first for a “Falling Skies” premiere, instead of jumping ahead several months in the story”s timeline.

Ahead of tonight”s premiere, Eick talked to HitFix about that “Apocalype Now” approach to season 5, teased the answer to the big question of why the Espheni invaded, and explained why watching the show is “a humility party” for him. 

HitFix: Why did you decide to have season 5 pick up right where season 4 left off?

David Eick: It was really just a personal taste decision. I started my first season with the show jumping ahead several months to use the passage of time for dramatic material. Since I had already done that, I just didn”t want to repeat myself. I described the final season when I was initially pitching it to Mr. Spielberg as “‘Apocalypse Now” on crystal meth,” just a bat-out-of-hell pace with a great degree of humanity and soulful introspection as this counterpoint to the breakneck action and desperation and life-or-death stakes. The show was going to be moving like a locomotive, and I didn”t want to have to hit a reset button at the beginning of the season. I just wanted to start at a dead sprint.

How did Steven Spielberg respond to the “‘Apocalypse Now” on crystal meth” pitch?

His remark was “I think it”s very strong,” and then he proceeded to make the sort of suggestions that only he can make that elevate good stuff to great stuff. And we were off with his blessings and armed with his ideas. That”s what”s great about working with Amblin – you”ve got 800-pounds-of-gorilla Spielberg, who is still involved in the details of the show, which is not what I expected or not what has been my experience. That was a real pleasant surprise to see how passionate everybody who launched this show in the beginning remains, even five years in, and, therefore, how receptive they seemed to be to some pretty wild and unorthodox ideas as how to approach these characters in this last season.

Is Tom Mason one of those characters with a wild new approach? What”s the approach to him this season?

Tom has sort of a rebirth as a throat-cutting, almost bloodthirsty, kind of messianic type of leader who has dispensed with the niceties that used to accompany his leadership style. He”s now just going for pure warrior and realizing that he has to get to that place in order to win and that he needs to bring as many people with him to that place as he can. And to dance on a precipice of that sort of morality is a dangerous thing. Can you come back from this? Every great Vietnam movie wants to explore that. “Apocalypse Now” was a great touchstone for us this season.  The idea of: Can you push yourself to your moral limit but not so far that you can”t reel yourself back in when it”s all over? That was really the driving force behind this season.

That”s definitely reflected in the promo when Anne says, “I hope that when this war is over, each one of you can find your humanity again.”

Each character has their own version of holding on to oneself. So preserving that which makes the essence of their individuality and their own persona – it”s the kind of the thing you don”t have to think about holding onto, unless you”re pushing away from it in order to achieve something else. And I think everyone”s pulling away from their roots, pulling away from their morality, pulling away from their sort of moral bearings in order to achieve something so difficult they almost have to turn themselves into monsters in order to accomplish it, but just almost. So the battle of the season is to keep us on the right side of staying human in spite of finding our warrior inside.

There”s a teaser online that shows Pope not looking too good. Very bloody, big cut across his face. What”s that about?

It seemed to me that if we were going to explore our heroes pushing themselves to the moral brink, the only way to make that a truly cautionary tale would be to show what would happen if someone went over it, and that”s what unfortunately befalls Pope in this final season. Now, that”s not to say he”s irredeemable, and it”s not to say he”s the only one, but he does reflect or sort of carry that symbol this season of the cautionary tale of “there but for the grace of God, go I,” so to speak.

The big question that has yet to be answered, of course, is why did the aliens invade? What”s their plan? Are fans going to get a satisfying answer to that this season?

Yes. And the only clue I”ll give them is that in any great epic plan in any key turning point in history, there”s always something very personal at the root of it. To be true to the nature of what causes conflict between races, between cultures, you”ve got to preserve the reality that all wars on some level are personal. That is a component to what sort of gave rise to these attacks, but of course, there”s also a strategic component to it as well. So there”s a sturdy and not too contrived and very organic and kind of rational explanation for why the Espheni are here and one that also, as I say, rings very personally.

The answer to that big question – did you inherit all that, or did you get to make that your own?

There didn”t appear to be a terribly finite or specific resolution to – most pilots don”t have the entire five years of the series run figured out, although some do and others claim to, although it”s dubious whether or not they really did or didn”t change it significantly on the go. So it”s sort of immaterial whether there was or wasn”t. I certainly was given a great deal of flexibility, but I was also – as always, you want to be in tight collaboration with the folks of Amblin and at TNT. I can tell you it was a very agreeable and positive development experience from the standpoint of everyone being very happy and very on board with the final answer to the series in such a way that I think that those who were involved from day one feel like this is the right ending.

What did you learn on “Battlestar Galactica” that you”ve been able to apply to “Falling Skies”?

Well, certainly in this final season, the theme of the season, “find your warrior,” is really about going to that darkest place and pushing yourself to your moral limits so that you can achieve victory but still being able to reel yourself back in. We operated on that kind of razor”s edge a lot in “Battlestar.” Unlike with “Falling Skies,” that attitude was sort of there from the word go with “Battlestar.” I felt conversant in applying that sensibility to characters in “Falling Skies,” which had been kind of the cornerstone of the characters in “Battlestar.” So it was a fun opportunity to sort of apply certain tools and even borrow dynamics here and there that felt like they could apply to what we were doing this season. You needed to go to some bleaker places occasionally, so that”s why they bring me in, I guess.

On the other hand, with “Battlestar,” you never really had to – you could if you wanted to, but you didn”t have to make people heroic. “Falling Skies” is telling a different story. You want there to be heroes, and there”s a challenge in providing heroic moments, really creating and crafting true acts of heroism that are believable, that feel emotionally resonant and that have some application to your life, that feel inspired. Those don't grow on trees. They”re hard to do. That was a new thing for me. It was an opportunity and a challenge for me to think in terms of “Where is the good in people? Where do people surprise you by showing up when you least expect it?” We didn”t do a lot of that on “Battlestar.” Sometimes but not a lot.

For any “Battlestar” fans out there who not are watching “Falling Skies” yet, why would you recommend they tune in?

If fans of “Battlestar” had never seen an episode of “Falling Skies,” I would tell them to just watch season 5 because they would probably get a smattering of what they responded to in “Battlestar.” There”s more moral ambiguity. There”s more opportunities to see your heroes doing morally questionable things.  There”s I think a little bit more kind of contemporary reality to it.

What was the biggest challenge of working on this season?

Well, the challenge of any drama like this that walks the line between being both a genre piece and a traditional family drama/action drama is to reward the fans of the show who come with you and yet still prevent yourself from falling into the wormhole of getting so inside baseball that only nine people care about what you're talking about. You have to remain accessible, not because you're looking for new viewers necessarily. You just have an obligation to tell good stories in a thrilling and exciting way. You gotta service that while also ensuring that you're living up to the expectations of the sci-fi genre – speculative tales that have some kind of contemporary, allegorical value. I think I just defined science fiction. You gotta measure up to that too. It's really hard. One of these days I should do a show about a doctor or a lawyer just to exhale. I don't know how those guys do what they do, but I certainly think sci-fi is one of the greatest challenges just because the bar is so high.

Do you have plans for watching the premiere?

I've got a gaggle of kids, and they're all boys, so I usually watch it with them. It's a kick for them, and it's an opportunity for them to beat up on me about something I did wrong or a special effect that they don't like. It's a humility party for Dad.

The season 5 premiere of “Falling Skies,” titled “Find Your Warrior,” airs on TNT on Sunday, June 28 at 10 p.m.