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Monday 9 December 2002

Half-Taken: a review of the first five episodes of a ten episode miniseries

Steven Spielberg Presents Taken
A Sci Fi Channel miniseries, December 2 - 13, 2002

by John Shirley

Halfway through this miniseries, a UFO debunker goes from finding perfectly reasonable earthly explanations for UFOs to being a stone Believer with a capital B. When you find out your own brother is half alien, itíll do that. The irony is remarked upon in the series. I myself am a UFO debunker, a skeptic dismissing alien abductions, the Face on Mars mythology and so-called alien implants. I published a probably-unpopular article in UFO Magazine, a piece called "Masters of the Scams", debunking the Masters of the Stars UFO video — the best image of a "real flying saucer" they had was an airplane, blurred, and visually manipulated with a trick involving rewind. Iíve appeared at UFO events asking uncomfortable questions from the stage, to the outrage of Believers. I think the "crash at Roswell" was the Mogul high-altitude spying project and nothing more, and I think Kenneth Arnold saw a blurred flock of pelicans. So I was not inclined to like Taken, which re-plows, yet again, the most familiar UFO mythological ground. But the show converted me into a Believer — in this miniseries. I have never seen convincing evidence that aliens are visiting us, but I confess that producer Steven Spielberg and series-creator/writer Leslie Bohem have successfully abducted my suspension of disbelief and implanted in me a desire to see this miniseries to its conclusion. And I acknowledge the irony.

Bohem may have sold the series because itís rooted in Spielbergís favorite decade, the 1940s, and in his favorite war, the second big one. The tale begins not at Roswell, but during World War II when bomber pilots saw "foo fighters," inexplicable blobs of light that followed their craft around. This happened in real life, but itís likely an atmospheric phenomenon, related to ball lightning. In Taken itís the aliens, of course, dogging the aircraft and sky-jacking a bomber right out of the sky, so that the Grays can do implant experiments on the crew. All the crew but one man waste away and die — the bomberís pilot, one of Takenís many protagonists, doesnít know heís got an implant, not for years, till it eventually shows up in himself and his son, Jessie. Jessie has inherited his fatherís suitability for alien monitoring and experimentation: genetics lurks behind most of the locked doors of this story. Later, thereís a UFO crash at Roswell, replete with little gray aliens, the classic Whitley Strieber critters. The military covers it up, but a young officer named Crawford — who has a penchant for telling gullible women "you are the moon and the stars to me" — sees this as an opportunity to rise in rank and power. If he can put himself in charge of this epochal alien project, heíll soon be advising the president. A principal character, Crawford is a thoroughgoing antihero, who blackmails his commanding officer into giving him his job, marries the unfortunate commanderís daughter to consolidate his control, ruins her life, murders a young girlfriend to keep her quiet about the aliens, eventually murders his own wife to shut her up too. Heís unlikable but fascinating and weirdly sympathetic — we sense that heís tormented at times by his own ruthlessness. The likable counterpoint is Russell Keys, our bomber captain, who by degrees recaptures lost memories of having killed aliens in his escape from his initial abduction, and pieces together his classic abduction scenarios, complete with lost time and probings.

The aliens are engaged in an inexplicable effort to breed their own kind with humans — to what ultimate end we donít yet know — and one of their number escapes from the crash, changes his form to seem human, and cohabits with a lonely young local waitress, Sally, who got into a bad marriage, impregnating her...somehow...and spawning a human child with telepathic abilities. He escapes just before Sallyís human son turns him over to Crawford. But Crawford returns to her years later to romance her and confirm his suspicion that her youngest son is an alien. He breaks her heart and forces her to send the alien-human halfbreed into hiding, which turns her older son against him — and as the years pass the older son becomes the debunker-turned-believer who tries to derail Crawfordís career. Crawford meanwhile gets involved with the debunkerís sister — who also has a bad marriage. Bohem seems obsessed with women caught in bad marriages, trapped with vile men. Crawfordís wife, the waitress, her daughter, all trapped with awful men.

All the familiar elements are here, most of them found also in The X-Files and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and many other productions, but Taken gives them interesting twists and plays them out more engagingly and lucidly than the cryptic X-Files ever did:

...As a small boy, Jessie is enamored with a sort of "Wind in the Willows" book featuring a cheerful squirrel. One night, that squirrel, talking and man-sized, appears at his window and invites him off to adventures in his fantasy land. The boy follows his magical pal out into a delightful landscape, and up into his tree-house...which then begins to glow, with the familiar clinical shine of alien spacecraft. This original twist on the abduction scenario, a nightmarish violation of innocence, resonating of child-molesters, is one of the most chilling in the whole genre — and beautifully animated it is, too.

...The Starman-like romance takes a dark turn, as the alienís clinical ruthlessness is revealed.

...Taken gives us an interesting twist on the alien implant concept when one such implant unravels into a little metal centipede and gives off an unknown emanation, making a room full of soldiers go brutally mad.

...A Blair Witchy/Stephen Kingís Tommyknockers sort of segment about a failed alien-human crossbreed attempt in Alaska features the usual absurd connections people arrogantly make between Indian mythology and aliens, but it becomes an interesting character study of local people traumatized by confused, deformed half-alien children.

Taken is also agreeably set apart by its multi-generational structure, with episode five bringing us from the 1940s into the Ď80s. We see characters age, and adapt, become drug addicts and beat addiction, meet sweethearts, marry and have children, who then become part of the alien-encounter saga, in a believable, nicely fleshed out way. Most of Takenís characters arenít strikingly original — an addicted Vietnam vet, an heroic pilot, an idealistic young journalist — but theyíre played out with nuance and believability. Except for the guy playing a German scientist with the worst German accent ever, Takenís characters are interpreted by good, sympathetic actors.

Voice-overs are usually unnecessary, even irritating. But in Taken, for me at least, the voice-overs setting up each segment work very well, and most of them are remarkably well written, some showing genuine wisdom. A few are themselves some of the better television writing of recent years.

The storyís internal logic is only occasionally porous. Why did Crawford have to murder the girl who found the saucer fragment? And why beat her to death? It was dramatized so that we were caught up, we were shaken — but you had to wonder what his thinking was. And we wonder why Crawford has to struggle to get the presidentís attention for his project when the president has seen the alien bodies, knows the spacecraft are around; surely it would be given some priority. Would Sally the waitressís daughter really fall for Crawfordís son Eric — whoís nearly as ruthless as his murderous dad? Can all these Air Force personnel be as ruthless as theyíre portrayed, sacrificing people to experiment right and left? (Though it gives us a chance to enjoy Matt Frewer as an eccentric, gleeful Area 51 researcher.) Other story twists seem to serve the writer more than the logic — but Takenís considerable momentum carries us through.

The series can be chilling, surprisingly violent, and thatís always fun, but itís the civilian characters that make it work. Spielberg and Bohem — and the various directors, which include Tobe Hooper — draw believable character motivation and dialogue. They manage to keep us caring about these characters. Their confusion, their awe, their suffering, all seem real — theyíve made us Believers.

Watch for the second half of Taken, reviewed here next week...

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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