It is November 13, 1989, a slow day in a big week. Prince Franz Joseph II of Lichtenstein dies and is succeeded by his son, Hans-Adam II. Yesterday, Brazil got around to holding its first free election after the fall of its military dicatorship in 1985, electing Fernando Collor de Mello, who would serve from 1990 until 1992, when he resigned in disgrace while facing impeachment. He is currently a member of the Federal Senate. Tomorrow, Namibia will hold elections for its constitutional assembly, leading to the adoption of its constitution and official independence from South Africa in March of next year. In South Africa proper, President de Klerk announces the dismantling of the Reservation of Separate Amenities act, the law permitting racial segregation in Thursday. It’ll be officially repealed next October. Lech Wałęsa, leader of Solidarity, Poland’s non-communist trade union which had evolved into a full-fledged opposition party during June’s partially-free parliamentary elections, addresses a joint session of the US Congress Wednesday. Wałęsa, an electrician by trade, would find himself the first democratically elected president of Poland the following year (Though the second president of the Republic of Poland, as the last head of the former communist state, Wojciech Jaruzelski, held the title until the election) and would serve until 1995, a couple of weeks after I did a report for my World Geography class where I said that he was basically a shoo-in for reelection. My bad. In other Cold War news, the Velvet Revolution breaks out in Czechoslovakia with a peaceful student demonstration in Bratislava, but more on that next time.
The Little Mermaid, Steel Magnolias, and All Dogs Go To Heaven open in theaters. Batman comes out on VHS. Roxette loses the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 to Bad English’s “When I See You Smile”, a song I can only assume was created to burn off all the leftover ’80s all at once since the decade was about to end. Breaking into the top 10 this week is Milli Vanilli with the song you’ve actually heard of. Star Trek the Next Generation airs “The Price”, a mind-numbing slog of an episode about the Ferengi trying to buy a wormhole and a telepathic ambassador seducing Deanna Troi, but at least it did provoke this revelatory comment about the nature of Troi and Riker’s relationship over on Vaka Rangi when Josh talked about the episode. Friday the 13th the Series airs “Night Prey”, which is about sexy, sexy vampires. Vampires were a recurring enemy in Friday the 13th the Series, but I only really remember the one from the first season, where they go back in time and inspire Brahm Stoker. Nothing of much note on network TV this week, though I do particularly recall Friday’s episode of Perfect Strangers, which guest starred James Noble (Most famous as Governor Gatling on Benson) as Larry’s father, in a plot involving the gang being trapped in a flooding basement as a result of Larry’s desperate attempts to elicit his father’s approval. It sticks in my head partly because of James Noble and partly because I particularly enjoyed the phrase, “I just want him to say ‘Well done, son,’ as something other than how he wants his steak cooked.”
So last week, War of the Worlds gave us an episode that did a lot to expand the world by introducing elements that seem important but will never come up again, and had a really terrible child actor. This week, it’s an episode that will expand the world by introducing elements that seem important but will come up again exactly one time, and has some pretty decent child actors.
“Loving the Alien” is primarily a character focus episode about Debi, and you can probably guess by the title what’s going to happen. Oh yes, Debi is going to snuggle with a Morthren. It is also, as you may again have guessed, long on reproductive futurism. Yes, it’s the “Daddy, what’s Vietnam?” of episodes, where children will pledge to break the cycle of war and violence while the adults use “for the sake of the children” as justification.
Knowing what we’re in for, we can at the least appreciate the craftsmanship of the arc between Debi and her new alien beau Ceeto. We’d better, because the other half of the plot is a bit of a mess, with the rest of the cast basically going around in circles and spinning their wheels in order to make sure everyone shows up at the climax at the same time.
This episode, by the way, is directed by Otta Hanus. Hanus, you may or may not recall, directed eight of episodes of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, including “The Ferryman“, “Gemini and Counting“, and “A Summoning of Thunder” — that is, Hanus directed the good ones (And also “The Mirror in Darkness“, but you can’t have everything). And this opening scene is more than a little Captain Power, fast-paced, violent, set in a crumbling urban sprawl, and pointlessly smoky. We’re going to see little touches of “Flame Street” later as well. I mentioned way back in “The Ferryman” that Hanus is most associated with children’s shows. Since Captain Power, Hanus had landed a regular gig on the Jerry O’Connell child-superhero series My Secret Identity. It’s fitting, then, that Hanus’s one contribution to War of the Worlds is its first child-centric episode — and the only one of the child-centric episodes to also be action-driven. If we were developing a theory of What Otta Hanus Is Good At As A Director, the balance of evidence seems to be “Directing young actors in heavily physical roles.” Because the physical acting from the child actors in this episode is really quite good. War of the Worlds, for an action-adventure show, has not been hugely great in its physical acting. Adrian Paul is perfectly fine, of course, as you’d expect (His weaknesses in this part have nothing to do with the way he uses his body), but Jared Martin is hit-or-miss and Lynda Mason Green is outright terrible in the action sequences, and the Morthren are all very deliberately stiff. We start out with mercenaries raiding the hideout of a resistance cell. We have resistance cells now. It’s not clear at first, but this is specifically a resistance against the aliens. There is an organized resistance against the aliens. They’re in friendly terms with the Blackwood group but aren’t apparently affiliated. I’m having a little trouble with just how weird this is. Does the general public know about the Morthren or not? There’s no organized governmental response, but it seems like that’s down to the government having been rendered so ineffectual or outright corrupt that they either can’t or don’t want to do anything about it. Which seems pretty over-the-top to me, but I’ll roll with it. Back in the pilot, Malzor referred to there only being “few” humans who knew about them, but in “Breeding Ground”, Gestaine didn’t seem to have any difficulty accepting the presence of aliens. We won’t be seeing this resistance cell again, and I’m not really clear on whether or not we’ll be seeing any resistance cells: there are organized groups who seem to be resisting something, but I can’t recall whether they’re clearly alien-fighters, or just an advanced form of street gang.
The Morthren are engaging the resistance this week using hired human mercenaries on the premise that
there’s going to be a lot of shooting in this episode and those glowsticks cost money it will keep their soldiers out of danger, and the authorities will assume it to just be gang violence. Everyone at the hideout is killed except for Jo, the teenage daughter of Marcus Crane, the resistance leader. That’s Mia Kirshner, an actual genuine famous person, and this is her first screen role. It is a fairly small part, but she manages to really impress in it. Jo runs to what she thinks is her father, but it turns out to be Ardix wearing the same kind of hat.
The other survivor of Marcus’s group is Marcus himself, as he wasn’t there at the time. In an interesting move, Marcus’s contact with Blackwood’s team is Suzanne. In fact, I’d even speculate that he was the contact she’d been going to see in “Seft of Emun”, except that it becomes clear later that Marcus and Blackwood have met. Marcus and Suzanne meet up in the Awesome Van because he’s found an alien weapon, and he wants to send Jo somewhere safe while the Morthren and their agents are out for blood.
Even in a modern show, this would be a little interesting, and back here in 1989, it’s a bit exceptional. Jo gets kidnapped at the three-minute mark. Marcus and Suzanne meet to discuss Suzanne taking Jo a commercial break later, and Marcus won’t discover that Jo’s missing for another twelve minutes (Not counting commercials). That might not sound like a big deal, but take a close look. When Marcus mentions his daughter to Suzanne, we already know it’s too late. And conversely, when the mercenaries raid the hideout, we don’t know who these people are or why they’re dying. We don’t know why the Morthren want to kidnap Jo, or indeed who she even is. Practically any other time you see this sort of plot, it would happen the other way around: you’d put the scene with Marcus and Suzanne first, so that we knew who Jo was and why the Morthren would want to kidnap her. And you wouldn’t spend twelve minutes with Marcus still thinking that Jo was waiting for him back at the hideout — you’d have them go straight back there in the next scene and have him spend those twelve minutes desperately trying to find his missing daughter.
It’s almost as though this episode is playing around with disparities in knowledge and perspective. It’s par for the course by now that we know the details of the Morthren plan before the heroes do, but this episode in particular gets very complex about who knows what and when. And I’d like to think that’s deliberately reflective of the episode’s theme, namely the reproductive futurism bullshit that the children can see what the adults can’t.
Back at the Morthren base, we get our first look at what the alien educational system is like. Young Morthren stand (We have not yet seen a Morthren sit at any point in the series) at devices that look like a hybrid of a Virtual Boy and those phallic feeding devices from last week. Questions are asked in rapid succession, and they respond by squeezing crystals in the handles of the device. It’s clearly meant to be showing them things to accompany the questions, but all we see is a fibrous yellow region in the center of the device. Incorrect answers prompt an electric shock to the user, as we see when a student who kinda looks like Jonathan Brandis botches questions about Mayan history and the length of the Venusian day.
No zaps for this week’s new named character, Ceeto, though: he’s easily able to answer questions about strategy at the “Battle of Miantes in the Lower Galaxy”, and about countering human atomic weapons, and even “How do you feel?” with so much ease that he gets bored with it and wanders off. Ceeto is played by Keram Malicki-Sánchez, an actor, new media pioneer, filmmaker and musician. At the time, he was probably best known in Canada for playing Zardip Pacific in the educational series Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness, wherein he played an alien robot who’d come to Earth to lean about nutrition and exercise. He meanders over to the cloning device just as Ardix is doing his Edvard Much pose to duplicate Jo. Personally, I don’t blame a 14-year-old boy for wanting to watch a writhing Mia Kirshner clad only on in an amniotic sac, but apparently the cloning booth is off-limits to students, so Ardix rats him out to Malzor. As you’d expect, Mazor disapproves of Ceeto’s independent nature and desire to learn things for himself rather than being fed information in a simulator, so he’s punished by being strapped, shirtless, onto a big green thing and tortured. to teach him discipline. The number of scenes with shirtless gurning teenagers in this episode has now exceeded the threshhold where I am starting to get seriously concerned as to whether it’s okay for me to be watching this, and there are going to be two more of them.
Parallelism demands that we transition to Debi having a nightmare in which masked surgeons hold her down and put a sheet of rubber vomit on her face. This is a great surreal horror scene of the sort we kind of expect out of Mancuso, but it’s also so oddly specific that I wonder if there wasn’t originally supposed to be another episode before this where Debi experiences something scary and medical-related. Though Blackwood and Kincaid try to comfort her, she goes on a tirade about how much she hates living in a sewer, and how they’re all going to eventually get captured, cloned and/or killed. And bless her for trying, but this dialogue is just way too weighty for Rachel Blanchard. You can almost hear the writers struggling to figure out what an angsty teenager sounds like and just utterly failing. Kincaid spouts grizzled loner platitudes about how they need to let Debi find herself and how Blackwood should teach her how to fight and survive on the streets, and how he was homeless at her age and he turned out fine (aside from the fact that he lives in a sewer.) While they’re having this little heart-to-heart, Debi loads her backpack up with guns and pepper spray and sneaks off. There’s a great look from her as she pushes the clip into her gun. Reminds me of Crazy Slasher Debi from “Terminal Rock“. I’m pretty sure last week’s episode was the first time Debi held a gun, and she’s clearly not fully comfortable with one yet (It takes her three tries to get the clip in), but you can see a pattern of escalation as the season goes on, and while there’s a lot I don’t recall yet to come, one thing I do remember is that Debi is going to actually shoot someone by the end of the season (She’ll fire a gun in this episode, but just to shoot the lock off of a door). I rather like the idea that Debi’s been left sort of profoundly broken by these events, and that what we’re seeing over the course of the season is Debi being slowly turned into a soldier.
The first half of this episode is heavily invested in establishing Ceeto and Debi as parallel characters, and so at the same time as Debi’s making her escape, Ceeto’s been watching Mana give the clone Jo her orders: she’s to find her father and through him, the weapon. Jo cheerfully promises to retrieve or destroy the weapon. Asked about her father, she speculates that her father might be useful to them as he might know how to find other resistance cells, then, incongruously, promises to kill him if possible. The scene is a little tonally weird, since Jo seems sort of lighthearted the whole time. With the exception of Father Tim in “No Direction Home” and Stephen in “Doomsday“, a common theme about the cloning process is that the clone retains the personality of the original, but with their loyalties firmly turned toward the Morthren. The original Jo has exactly one line of dialogue, and it’s just “Daddy!”, so we can’t really compare, but later, when clone-Jo interacts with her father, she’ll act kind of similar to the way Debi is a lot of the time: a teenage girl who’s hardened and a little broken from living a hard life in a vaguely cyberpunk dystopia. But here, she’s different. Maybe what we’re seeing is actually Jo’s personality from before the invasion and the societal collapse: Jo the way she would be freed from the stresses of living rough in a world that could try to kill her at any moment.
Anyway, Ceeto slips out after the clone and quickly finds his way to a street market that may or may not be same one from last week — the muppet vendor is still there, though now there’s a stall where you can buy pigs’ heads, chickens’ feet and whole rats. His acting all weird an alien attracts the attention of the Thompson Twins, who we’ll be seeing again later. Debi and Ceeto finally get around to meeting each other when she saves him from getting run down by a very slow-moving car. The music tries to tell us that the two have an instant and intense connection, though they themselves behave with all the awkwardness of a pair of sixth-graders at a middle school dance. Technically, I guess that makes it a realistic depiction of a couple of kids in their early teens forming an instant romantic connection.
Some other plot has been happening while this was going on, and that leads me to my big complaint about this episode. The normal laws of how television works say that when we cut from one scene to another, unless the narrative gives us some reason to believe otherwise, we should normally assume that time is still moving forward at the usual rate. You might show two scenes in series which are meant to occur at the same time, just because the camera can’t be everywhere at once, but in general, everyone has to travel through the same net amount of time.
And that’s where this episode gets sloppy. Because, like I said, about twelve minutes passed in audience-time from when we left Suzanne and Marcus to them arriving at the hideout to find everyone dead. Another five minutes pass before Marcus is reunited with what he thinks is his daughter at an abandoned theater. The next time the plot threads sync up is at the 20 minute mark, when Blackwood goes to comfort Debi some more and finds her gone, while the Morthren discover Ceeto’s absence.