by William S. Kowinski
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).
Invasion on ABC
Surface on NBC
Threshold on CBS
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
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
"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
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.
William S. Kowinski writes frequently for Insight from Arcata. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story continues at sfgate.com.