When the aliens conquer Los Angeles, they flood the city with drones, hire human collaborators, and drop giant walls from the sky to split the city into four parts. There's a mandatory curfew, punishable by death. Crossing the wall is illegal. Hundreds of thousands at least die in the carnage. Among the survivors, families who are split up across the vast city during the day cannot reunite. Around the world, as this scene plays out in city after city, the death toll rises to the hundreds of millions. After the conquest, the aliens establish a select group of humans as privileged overseers, trusting in our selfishness and fear as motivations for keeping our fellow humans in line.
It works. In Colony, the science-fiction show making its way through a third season on the USA Network, alien confidence in the dark side of human nature is rarely disappointed. As a result, the show offers a compelling and often disturbing story about fascism, violence enabled by technological superiority, and the destruction of families when powerful forces erect walls. Individuals may survive, even a family might hang together, but only by paying horrific costs.
Throughout the show, the alien presence remains understated, limited mostly to drones and a few other pieces of tech. Instead, Colony focuses on a family trying to survive and stay together in a collapsing world. Will Bowman (Josh Holloway, of Lost fame) and Katie Bowman (Sarah Wayne Callies, from Prison Break and Walking Dead) have three children, one of whom has been trapped on the other side of the wall in Santa Monica by the alien invasion. Will scans as a clichéd ex-military, ex-cop paterfamilias willing to do anything to protect his family, but he provides an important foil to the more interesting Katie, who has secretly joined the resistance and is helping to plot and execute terrorist acts aimed at destabilizing the regime.
When I spoke by phone to the show's executive producers, Ryan Condal and Wes Tooke, they didn't reveal much about their five-season plan for the show. Instead, we talked about the ways in which their main characters have developed under oppressive circumstances, as well as the veins of history into which the writers are tapping. This season, for example, the show has moved out of Los Angeles, dropping the Bowmans into a paranoid and politicized resistance camp that Condal and Tooke tell me is very loosely based on Fidel Castro's Comandancia de la Plata camp in the Sierra Maestra.*
The two say that they were first drawn to a sci-fi occupation story through the movie Casablanca and its dramatization of life under the Nazi regime and their Vichy collaborators in French territory. Condal and Tooke say they are "interested in the gray, human types torn between morality and trying to survive." Condal can imagine someone writing sci-fi in which a character like MacGregor, the resistance leader, might be a straightforward hero or inspirational leader, but that would betray the show's essence. MacGregor may be "smart and charismatic," Condal explains, "but he's not driven by pure intent. Revolutionary leaders are dangerous people. We're trying to frame science fiction in a way that plays like historical fiction. That's what attracted us to the show."
Both Tooke and Condal are clear that their intent is not to produce topical political commentary. While Condal admits that President Barack Obama's use of drones was on his mind as they crafted the key manifestation of alien force, the two certainly had no idea in 2014, when they conceived of "the wall," that President Donald Trump and his promises to "build the wall" would become so prominent in American political rhetoric. As Tooke says, "You have to be really careful because the production cycle of the show is so long. You would be writing [at least] nine months before air. If you're trying to be specific, you're going to look slow, dated. Beyond that, there's not a great value to lecturing people."
Condal agrees. "Good science fiction holds a mirror up to society. Sometimes that mirror is more of a direct reflection than others," he says, but warns viewers about narrowly fixating on analogies to contemporary American politics. "This kind of stuff is going on in the world all the time."
Of course, the show isn't purely grim storytelling. "There are good, wholesome people to be found," Condal tells me, but he says that he writes with the assumption that, "On the whole, humans act in self interest." This general atmosphere of cynicism makes the show's sporadic moments of self-sacrifice or true heroism all the more compelling. I was especially taken with the plot arc of the character of Jennifer McMahon (Kathleen Rose Perkins), a former dating website executive who's now running surveillance for the Occupation. As tensions escalate in season two, she becomes obsessed with surveilling the Bowman family, but she never turns them in. I keep expecting her to place her interests over theirs—if only so the Bowmans can stage some heroic escape. Instead, she simply watches, protects them, and eventually chooses (a mild spoiler) to sacrifice herself instead. Good storytelling about the choices faced by fascist functionaries seems especially useful in the current moment. One would like to believe that some courageous individuals with the power to destroy families will choose not to, even if it costs them.
The future of Colony isn't assured. USA has not picked up a fourth season yet, but they should. There's a lot of smart sci-fi on television right now, but Colony is one of the best examples of the genre. Westworld, The Handmaid's Tale, and The Expanse all engage themes with obvious relevance to contemporary society while offering propulsive storytelling and high production values. Colony, I think, has flown a little under the radar. The show's commitment to exploring the dynamics of oppression, and the complexities of violently resisting oppression—all seen through the tribulations of the Bowman family and their lives in the L.A. "bloc"—is unusual on American TV. If it takes sci-fi to help American viewers to empathize with occupied peoples, so be it.
*Update—June 11th, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify the production roles of Ryan Condal and Wes Tooke.