USA’s Colony was a rare dystopia that tried something newAugust 5, 2018
At San Diego Comic-Con last month, the USA Network went all out promoting their newest show, a series adaptation of the popular anarcho-dystopian Purge movie franchise, with a delightfully satirical “Purge City” activation. At the same time, away from the promo-heavy celebrations, though, the network was quietly putting its elder dystopian offering out to pasture: that Saturday, Deadline reported that USA had canceled totalitarian-alien-invasion drama Colony after just three seasons.
Co-created by Ryan J. Condal and LOST alum Carlton Cuse, the series explored a future in which mysterious, technologically advanced aliens have invaded earth, dividing it into walled-off “colonies” to extract the planet’s resources, including human labor. Its cancellation is a shame: while the recent deluge of dystopian science fiction out of Hollywood has certainly produced plenty of clunky, lazy photocopies of better ideas, Colony was an underrated gem that ventured beyond the YA-adaptation safety net and experimented with the genre. While the risks it took weren’t always winners, the show was often innovative in genuinely surprising ways — to say nothing of fact that the people making it, from directors like Olatunde Osunsanmi (Star Trek: Discovery, Falling Skies) and Roxann Dawson (Star Trek, The Americans, House of Cards) to a writers room full of rising new talent, was a truly diverse and adventurous crew of creatives. Without Colony, the sci-fi TV landscape is far less interesting.
The series follows former FBI agent Will Bowman (Josh Holloway, a fellow LOST veteran), his wife and rebel spy Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies), and their three children, as they navigate the delicate dance of survival in Host-occupied Los Angeles. No one knows who the Hosts (colloquially referred to as “raps,” or raptors) are, or what they look like; instead, citizens are surveilled and controlled by a combination of the Hosts’ AI drones and a cadre of human military (Homeland Security, AKA the Redhats) and governmental collaborators (Proxies) promised special treatment and safety known as the Transitional Authority. Together these forces patrol the bloc, aggressively rationing resources and threatening any resistance against the occupation with death, or worse, lifetime condemnation to The Factory, an ominous work camp looming in orbit over the planet where toxic radiation that ensures human prisoners suffer long, slow, and painful deaths in service of the Hosts’ mysterious plans. An underground human Resistance has nevertheless (and perhaps obviously) blossomed since the Hosts’ arrival; rebel schemes comprise the majority of the tension on the show, often when Katie, a ride-or-die operative, clashes with her husband, a former line-toeing patriot having a hard time navigating his new job as a Redhat mole.
The premise was always familiar. With strains of everything from The Man in the High Castle and The Terminator to District 9 and The Walking Dead, Colony operates within well-worn dystopian tropes. (Totalitarian government! Hypersurveillance! Killer robots! The Resistance!) Characters often delivered clichéd monologues, and sometimes the plot felt downright predictable. What made Colony compelling, though, was the moments when it built on and transcended that framework, balancing subtle emotional stakes with shocking high-concept CG — and the fact that there was no source material whatsoever that could have hinted for fans at where the story was going next. The villainous alien overlords are completely invisible; it’s not even clear at first whether they exist at all, and aren’t just a smoke-and-mirrors ploy by power-hungry humans to subjugate a terrified population — let alone whether they’re organic beings.
That obfuscation left the uncertainties and fears of human beings front and center. Alliances between collaborators and resistors were constantly made and broken, and loyalty often only went as far as it could keep you alive — largely because “doing the right thing” often ended up being a messy proposition at best. (The Bowman children learned this the hard way, growing up and into adolescence in a suddenly terrifying world where failing to tell the difference between “nice” and “good” can have lethal consequences.) Collaborators like Alan Snyder (played delightfully by Peter Jacobson, of House fame) are not evil or sadistic; they’re simply fearful and unable to abide the unknown, leading them to occasionally aid their fellow humans when it feels safe (or at least helps them retain a shred of integrity). Not even the robotic drones seem to be consistent; one second they’re targeting and literally vaporizing a human trying to escape — an unexpected and violent feat of CG that made me gasp the first time it happened — the next they’re failing to register the existence of his companion at all. Then, in season two, the stakes are thrown even further into chaos when it becomes clear that the Hosts might not be the worst of what humanity might be fighting for its survival.
As the family bounces from one community to the next, from the rich, soft, collaborating elite to the hardened, traumatized guerilla rebels out in the woods, the characters demonstrate how mistrust, incentive, and betrayals can shape people caught in a state of constantly building trauma. (It was LOST with fewer confounding mythologies, fewer acrobatic plot promises.) What The Walking Dead has done with the zombie genre, Colony was trying with dystopia, exploring the political microcosms and moral transmutations that evolve and persist in the face of seemingly never-ending apocalypse. As Katie tells her teenaged son Bram, who expresses confusion about who they’re fighting toward the beginning of Colony’s third — and now final — season: “Same enemy we’ve always been fighting. The real war isn’t against the raps … it’s against ourselves.”
It’s unclear what prompted Colony’s cancellation, although it’s not too hard to guess. According to Deadline’s report, the show’s ratings started quite strong, only to gradually decline, first after the show was moved to Wednesday nights for season 2, and then when it was forced to shift its storyline for season 3 to accommodate a new filming location (Vancouver) after failing to obtain a crucial California tax credit. Plus, there’s the more obvious, age-old reason: SFX-heavy sci-fi is expensive, and with The Purge on the horizon, USA no doubt made the cut in anticipation of whatever that new franchise investment will eventually cost them. Sci-fi fans can only hope that the decision won’t discourage other TV networks from taking more risks like Colony in the future.