It is October 10, 1988. Over the weekend, a fire caused $2000 in damage at the Seattle Space Needle and Felix Wankel, inventor of the rotary engine, died. A new ATF regulation passed in 1986 comes into effect, requiring hard liquor labels and advertisements to state their percent alcohol by volume instead of or in addition to the more traditional system of “How much do you have to water it down before using it to douse burning gunpowder” (I’m not even making that up. “100 proof” originally meant “Not too watered down to give to sailors, as evidenced by the fact that you can pour it on gunpowder and still get the gunpowder to burn,” which by a remarkable coincidence, is about 57% ABV, which in US usage is rounded to 50%, meaning “proof” is just twice the ABV, but keep in mind when drinking abroad that in the UK, proof is 7/4 the ABV, so 100 proof is 7% stronger). Billboard’s new chart isn’t out yet, leaving “Love Bites” at the top. MacGyver‘s a repeat, but ALF is new, a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, with a guardian angel showing Gordon how much better off everyone would be if he’d never moved in with the Tanners. Friday the 13th The Series airs “And Now The News”, wherein Ryan and Micki track down an old-fashioned radio which dispenses psychiatric advice in exchange for frightening listeners to death.
War of the Worlds airs its second episode, “The Walls of Jericho”. This is a pretty uneven episode. The first half has a lot of the same first-time-jitters I found so grating in the last episode. In fact, despite the fact that there’s an explicit six week time gap, the first half of this one feels like a very direct continuation of the first episode’s story. “The Walls of Jericho” is basically about two things. In one plot, the Blackwood Project tries to justify its continued existence, while in the other, the aliens try to assure theirs. It’s kind of a plot-Voltron, with the first half of the episode floundering as the two plot threads limp along, but then for the last half, the two halves of the plot join up and form a giant plot-robot of awesome.
The title sequence is a simple montage of clips from the pilot as Harrison sets up the premise via narration, but at it’s end, the screen fades to black, over which a line of the episode’s dialogue is played. This week, it’s John Vernon announcing, “They sure don’t die pretty, do they?”. What’s been cut from the DVD is an intertitle afterward showing a poorly rendered CGI alien hand reaching up over the top of a globe.
Ironhorse is getting antsy and wants to get on with his life, to which end he’s started unsubtly suggesting that maybe the aliens all died when they blew up their war machines, since they haven’t heard any more out of the aliens since then. The rest of the team is less optimistic and has been working on studying Forrester’s research.
Suzanne presents her theory about how alien possession works. She describes it as a combination of osmosis and “cell-phase matching”, a term which, so far as I can tell, she made up in the previous episode. She has a little flash animation to demonstrate the process, in which a triangular alien cell ejaculates its innards into a human cell, whereupon the little triangular bases of the alien DNA wrap themselves around the human DNA helix, which kills the host cell but gives the alien access to the host’s memory, because that is how memory works I guess. They have the good sense to keep it pretty vague, but there are some pretty sizeable gaps in the explanation, like the handwavey bit where they pretend that the description they give — which I guess isn’t too far off from how gene therapy works — could end with an intact alien consciousness possessing the memories of the host. I think there’s an implication here that the aliens lack any sort of fixed internal organs, and rather than having a single brain, their cognitive processes are sort of distributed through all of their cells. Which, okay, neat sci-fi concept, nice potential for a Golden-Age style story where an alien survives getting cut in half but ends up schizophrenic because the halves of his mind diverged while he was healing. But how you get from there to absorbing the contents of a human brain I’ve no idea (also, it’s not clear why aliens would be susceptible to bullets if their bodies are made entirely of undifferentiated tissue). Also, no one ever talks about the question of what happens to the bulk of the alien’s biomass.
When Suzanne lets it slip that, although the aliens require radiation to remain active on Earth, they’re still vulnerable to deleterious effects from prolonged radiation exposure, Ironhorse jumps to the conclusion that even if any aliens had survived the battle at Kellogue, they must have all died since. He summons General Wilson for some more exposition.
Meanwhile, cattle mutilation! My minimal research suggests that the late ’80s was not exactly a big time for Alien Cattle Mutilation Stories. It was a big thing in the ’70s, given a signal boost by stuff like Satanic Panics (I always hear that phrase as part of a Schoolhouse Rock song: Satanic Panic, what’s your mechanic? / Mutilatin’ cows and sacrificin’ babies!), with good upstanding white Christian folk afraid that legions of satanists were exsanguinating livestock in rituals to awaken the beast, then died down for most of the ’80s, and had a resurgence in the ’90s that probably peaked around the time South Park premiered. The whole notion is based on a number of real-life incidents of cows and other livestock found dead, drained of blood, and with unusual wounds. Such events have been attributed, in order from most to least likely, to particular combinations of predation and scavenging, punk kids screwing around, convoluted insurance scams, pervs making really disgusting homebrew sex toys, cults other than satanic, cryptids such as El Chupacabras, satanic cults, aliens researching HIV, aliens with really kinky fetishes, aliens just fucking around with us, and spontaneous bovine inversion.
In any case, “aliens mutilate cattle” must have still had enough cachet in the mass media in 1988 that it seemed reasonable for it to be a Thing Aliens Did, because our introduction to the B-plot comes in the form of a comic relief hick farmer calling the local sheriff because his cows have been mutilated. Unfortunately, the local sheriff is of the “comic relief useless backwoods sheriff” archetype that I assume they’d have gotten Don Knotts or Alan Hale Jr. for if they’d been available, and he reckons it was probably just a wolf, despite the fact that wolves would usually eat some of the cow rather than just draining its blood. He helpfully suggests that the farmer hold a barbecue.
It is, in fact, aliens. Of course it’s aliens. As Suzanne discovered, while exposure to radiation neutralizes Earth bacteria, it also affects the aliens’ metabolism, causing their body temperature to eventually rise dangerously high. They’ve been out exsanguinating cows because… Okay, honestly we should all be grateful that they don’t go into the details of why bathing in cow’s blood helps with the whole metabolism thing.
Even the advocacy themselves are affected, with one of them already weakening and the other two looking decidedly Dawn of the Dead. He’ll be sidelined by the next scene for a cow-juice bath. One of the recurring themes in this show is that the advocates have very little patience or respect for the scientist class. They spend a good long time berating a scientist to his face about how long he’s taking to come up with a solution and how he needs materials to make stuff with rather than conjuring it out of thin air. I guess that maybe I’d be bitter too if my scientists had failed to notice that the planet we were about to invade was MADE OF POISON. The scientists have come up with a long-term solution to the heating problem in the form of refrigerated suits, but because Earth’s chemical composition is different from their own planet, they don’t know how to manufacture the plastic sheets and tubing they need, nor how to build the equipment to extract and liquefy nitrogen from the atmosphere using locally-sourced materials, so they’ll have to steal it.
The robbery of a plastics factory is depicted by way of having a cliché hard-nosed cop with the chief breathing down his neck about the paperwork investigating the scene. The only surviving witness speaks only Chinese, but fortunately, they’ve got an Asian guy on their crime scene crew who remembers just enough of his ancestral tongue to muddle through a translation. But since the cliche old Chinese woman just tells a story about the place being invaded by “dragons”, the investigation doesn’t go anywhere. This scene is basically more of the series’s trademark “black comedy”, and I am at least happy that they’ve gone for something more wry than the redneck humor they used twice in the last episode and once already in this one. It still doesn’t quite work, but it comes closer. The writers have a nasty habit of trying way too hard to be funny, and it hardly ever works. The scenes explicitly coded as “humorous” are far and away the least funny things in the show.
For instance, while all this comic relief has been going on, Uncle Hank has shown up at the cottage to demand Harrison justify his existence. John Vernon is far and away the best thing in this episode, and it makes me really sad that he becomes an entirely off-screen character after this. For all I am totally on board with the Harrison-Ironhorse dynamic being the thematic and emotional center of this show, I would also totally get behind restructuring the show with General Wilson as the “Brigadier”-character.
Richard Chavez plays Ironhorse as professional, intense, and no-nonsense, constantly grating against Harrison’s very different style. Their dynamic is a little bit reminiscent of the myriad cop shows about a pair of partners who don’t get along, where one of them is very by-the-book and the other isn’t, and one of them has a normal name like “Smith” or “McCoy” or “Johnson” and the other one’s name is a compound word at least part of which sounds like a building material, like “Slaterock” or “Steelbrick” or “Ironhorse”, and the title of the show is something like “Steelbrick & Johnson”. Ironhorse is a little bit Drill Sergeant-y, and that makes him sometimes just a bit silly because, though it’s in the opposite direction, he’s far enough over the top that he’s almost as much of a weirdo as Harrison.
John Vernon, on the other hand, plays General Wilson by just bringing way more gravitas than this show could possibly merit. Seriously, if you got him, Walter Cronkite and Martin Sheen in a room together, their combined gravitas would probably collapse into a black hole. He’s a bit Santaesque as he greets Debi, gracious to the Mr. Kensington, the groundskeeper, who he addresses by rank despite his long retirement, and respectful to Harrison even as he hands him his walking papers. A series of scenes each lead into the next as the gang apparently tour the estate.
The sequence is cut together kind of awkwardly. Wilson arrives, greets Debi and Kensington, and Harrison, openly suspicious about the General’s intentions, proposes to show him, “What he’s getting for his money.” Then bam, they’re in the lab talking about what they’ve learned about the aliens. Then Wilson asks Harrison about his theories regarding alien-related memory loss. Harrison is caught off-guard by the question and seems uncomfortable trying to answer it, so then we cut to them on outside on the patio.
Harrison’s explanation amounts to little more than a superficial description of the problem: people who have had alien encounters have a hard time remembering them, often requiring hypnotic regression therapy. This was, of course, a hot topic in paranormal studies, what with alien abduction narratives having a popularity boost from the publication of Communion the previous year. Harrison proposes that the effect might be due to a combination of an alien ability to affect human minds with a normal human psychological defense mechanism that suppresses memories of alien contact. Wilson gets a reflective expression and muses that he’d seen a lot of action during the 1953 war, but is unable to recall a single detail of it.
And then later, they’re sitting around the fireplace at night. General Wilson tells them a bit of the backstory of the cottage’s elderly caretakers, Mrs. Pennyworth and Kensington, who, despite their unassuming appearances, had been extremely valuable to the Allies while undercover in Berlin in the forties. I kinda get the impression that they want to imply that they’re basically retired John Steed and Emma Peel. He also muses on the history of the cottage, which had over the years been home to various scientists, diplomats and defectors. Norton is the first to cotton on to the fact that they’re being evicted. Wilson is very gracious and heartily thanks them for their service, but accepts Ironhorse’s conclusion that the aliens were either all killed at Kellogue or died shortly afterward from radiation. When Harrison challenges him on his assumptions, the General becomes suddenly angry and defensive, seemingly way out of proportion.
General Wilson’s anger, strange as it seems on its own, justifies the otherwise also very strange scene that preceded it. The implication, and I wish they’d been explicit about this, is that, even knowing what’s going on, Wilson is affected by this “alien amnesia”. His brain simply doesn’t want to register the aliens as an ongoing threat, and when Harrison tries to force him to, he defends himself by angrily shutting him down.
Like I said, John Vernon is great here. It’s almost like he’s visiting from another, very different show, one that’s more serious and less action-oriented. I think that may in fact be part of this show’s MO: little vignettes with guest characters that kind of feel like War of the Worlds has smacked into some other show in a a different genre. They’ve already done it twice in this episode: first, a little drive-by with a show about a quirky rural community with goofy law enforcement, then a hard-biting cop show, and it’s going to happen one more time before we’re done. This one, the military drama about the old soldier, is the only one that really works.