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From ‘Extant’ to ‘Falling Skies,’ Steven Spielberg’s TV Aliens Have Bad Intentions

Steven Spielberg’s directorial resume was built in part on benign big-eyed aliens, with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977, and “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” five years later. That vision turned darker, obviously, when he remade “War of the Worlds,” but the latter film is hardly one of his seminal works.

Given all this, it’s interesting to see the current wave of Spielberg-produced TV series that contain an alien-invasion motif. Moreover, the methodical nature of the various threats reflects the inherent challenges in tackling such material within the context of an ongoing series, where world domination inevitably occurs not with a special-effects-driven bang, but with a parade of act-break-driven whimpers.

Yes, the aliens are coming, but given their nefarious intentions, they sure seem to be taking their sweet time about it.

Not only did ABC’s “The Whispers” join a Spielberg-sponsored aliens-among-us party already consisting of “Extant” for CBS and “Falling Skies” for TNT, but CBS’ adaptation of Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” has, in its third season, finally gotten around to disgorging some secrets, one of which is the dome’s alien origins.

Nor is this trend limited to projects graced with Spielberg’s imprimatur. The Eye network’s latest summer drama, “Zoo,” also deals with the potential annihilation of humankind, although instead of destruction raining down from above, the culprits in this case are our cats and dogs. And Fox’s most eagerly awaited arrival of the coming season is almost surely its revival of “The X-Files,” a program whose dense mythology ultimately turned on a massive conspiracy building toward alien colonization.

Part of this assault of invasions, obviously, is dictated by what the networks are buying, and one needn’t be a sociologist to see the post-Sept. 11 echoes in these disparate series, reflecting a heightened sense of paranoia about terror percolating among us in plain view, using science fiction as a handy prism to tap into those fears. Moreover, “Extant” and “Whispers” each reaches into the deepest recesses of our psyches by involving children, with Halle Berry having given birth to a half-alien baby in the former, and the latter’s unseen character Drill speaking only to kids, proving that even imaginary friends can’t be trusted.

As for “Falling Skies,” which is building toward its series finale, the show has always possessed a colonial flavor, with a brave band of humans fighting against the alien hordes. The TNT drama thus blends a patriotic message with a subtle commentary on the peril of foreign military adventures, casting these suburban human characters as the plucky insurgents.

In almost every case, these series began with considerable creative promise, and veered off course, at least temporarily. And part of that waywardness might stem from the fact that once you establish there are Things from another world that (in most of these cases) mean us harm, it’s difficult to get too caught up in more mundane considerations like plot exposition and relationships.

As with his features, Spielberg has obviously exhibited a TV appetite that’s as eclectic as it is prolific, in recent years ranging from the musical “Smash” to the spooky “The River” to TNT’s upcoming period drama “Public Morals,” all produced under his Amblin banner. Yet despite his blockbuster movie credentials, programs bearing his name have yielded plenty of creative and commercial failures, a reminder that TV executives’ sometimes star-struck relationship with feature talent hasn’t consistently yielded dividends.

Simply put, there is perhaps no more delicate balancing act than building a TV show around such a sweeping threat and then dragging it out on an open-ended basis. And while networks clearly remain drawn to big premises, the more mundane aspect of producing these cautionary tales is that unless they’re unraveled just right, even the end of the world doesn’t always feel like the end of the world.

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