I recently saw the trailer for the film The 5th Wave based on Rick Yancey's 2013 novel. The story is set during the 5the wave of an alien invasion; subsequent waves have been increasingly devastating. In the first wave, the invaders (called the Others), shut down our power grid. In the second wave, they use kinetic bombardment to destroy heavily populated coastal regions with tsunamis. In the third, they unleash a lethal virus.
I've seen this story before.
In 2011, the Discovery Channel series Curiosity had an episode on alien invasions hosted by Michelle Rodriguez. It featured interviews with physicists and military analysts. They believed the first strike would be an EMP to knock out our electronics. The second would be to bombard the coasts with heavy objects to generate tsunamis...
Yeah, I've seen this story before. I recognized it the instant I saw The 5th Wave's trailer. My immediate reaction was to say that Yancey was unoriginal, talentless enough to base his premise on something from TV. However, I'm not entirely innocent of this myself, something I'll tell you about another time.
I have no real reason to sneer at Yancey's story, especially because I haven't even read it. And if the premise comes from a documentary series, so what? The battle plan he follows is sound, but the story is more important.
The Battle of Stalingrad is another example. Harry Turtledove reimagined it in his World War novels with the Battle of Chicago putting Americans against invading aliens in a house-by-house fight to the death. It can be said that the opening scenes of the series Falling Skies showing human survivors desperately struggling to survive in post-invasion Boston was inspired by the same event.
My point is this: just because someone discusses a topic in a documentary series, doesn't mean it's untouchable territory. For the record, Yancey's fourth and fifth waves perpetrated by the Others has brainwashed human children hunting down survivors. Curiosity didn't have that. I know I'm starting to nitpick at it like the debate between McDonald's and McDowell's - the Big Mac versus the Big Mic, and the golden arches versus the golden arcs - but the matter comes down to what a writer can do with a particular idea and how they can spin their own blanket out of the same yarn. If Yancey and I both approach that same Curiosity episode, we'd come up with different stories set in that same predicament. If we both were asked to write an Apollo 13-like tale, again, we'd have too different stories. I definitely wouldn't write for the young adult crowd. I'd want to give the elderly nightmares.