June 29, 2016

Deep Ice: What is this world coming to? (C. Thomas Howell’s War of the Worlds 2, continued)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

With great hair comes great responsibility

With great hair comes great responsibility

In 1986, Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Martin formed a hip-hop duo known as “The Fresh Force Crew”. By 1987, they’d changed their name to “Kid ‘N Play”, and would go on to release three albums, two of which would go gold. Their extravagant hair, big personalities, and positive, poppish-style put them in the sweet spot of R&B/hip-hop music that wasn’t too scary for white parents in middle America to let their children listen to. They would go on to land two number one singles on the Billboard Rap chart. After DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince passed on House Party, Kid ‘n Play would go on to star in the first three films of the franchise, and Class Act, a film loosely based on The Prince and the Pauper. The duo also featured in a single-season NBC Saturday Morning Cartoon, a short-lived Marvel comic book, and made guest appearances on Sesame Street and Square One TV.

Chris Martin went on to found a multimedia company, and later became a professor of Hip-Hop and Music Studies, first at North Carolina Central University, then later at Florida A&M; Chris Reid would make guest appearances in numerous ’90s sitcoms, and go on to do voice work.

And also this.

wow201This is Pete Silverman. I think he’s ex-military — there’s a reference to him having lost his unit, but it’s hard to follow in context, and unclear whether he’s talking about the first or second invasion. This invasion wave seems a little mismanaged. The aliens opened their “time hole” four days ago, and as of right now, they seem to be coming down as single isolated Squid Walkers who just kind of roam around sucking people up. In a few minutes, they’ll actually invade in force with hundreds of walkers, but these first few aren’t acting like a reconnaissance party, and there are indications that the aliens have been abducting people continuously for some time.

It’s another symptom of War of the Worlds 2 being a disjointed clusterfuck: if you follow George through the story, there’s a moderately heavy low-action adventure story about a desperate man trying to rescue his son during an insidious, long-term alien invasion that is conducted as a series of small, continuous raids over a long period of time — at least a few days, possibly much longer — and focused on abducting individual humans one at a time. But then there’s all those other characters we met in the boring exposition section: Victoria, Dave and Major Sleeveless. They are fighting an alien invasion that is sudden, rapid, and widescale, takes place from beginning to end over the course of no more than a day, and is based entirely around the aliens blowing up piss-poor CGI recreations of easily-recognized world landmarks. The two halves of the story don’t flat-out explicitly contradict each other, but the structure of the plots aren’t properly compatible, meaning that it comes completely out of nowhere when they crash into each other.

Pete enters our story by waking George as he dozes in his truck after a long night of searching a city for a convenient Squid Walker. Maybe it’s the same city where the base is. Maybe not. I mean, the skyline is the same, but it’s also obviously the same neighborhood in the same city where the opening scene with Shackleford and Sissy was filmed, but that’s absolutely not the same place. Pete frantically warns George to leg it, as there’s a Squid Walker just around the corner. wowa212Instead, George hops out of the truck, grabs a shotgun that he just happens to have (I have no per se objection to George having a shotgun. Given that he seems to live in an isolated cabin in the woods in a society that lacks basic infrastructure, it makes a lot of sense for him to have taken up hunting. But I do take some issue with the gun simply appearing in this scene without explanation or introduction, especially given that it’s unlikely he had it at the base), and starts shooting at the walker, daring it to zap him.

The walker’s teleport beam is clever enough to leave the shotgun behind when it beams him up, but thankfully does not go full Time Hole*[I always refer to the time travel mechanism from the Terminator series as “The time hole”. By a remarkable coincidence, this movie actually does feature a thing called a “Time Hole”, though it’s got balls all to do with time] From Terminator and force us to spend the rest of the movie with C. Thomas Howell in the buff.

He wakes up inside a walker, accompanied with a slight motion blur visual effect to suggest his disorientation. His display of badassery has earned Pete’s respect, even if it didn’t buy him enough time to escape. George is the last to recover of the prisoners, who also include a woman I initially mistook for Sissy and a man in clerical collar whose tone and body language suggest that he’s in the middle of a psychotic break, but that may just be bad acting. George explains that this isn’t his first time inside an alien ship, but before they can plan an escape, something weird and psychedelic happens and the screen goes gray and swirly. Possibly this is related to the inexplicable bit rot that happened to my hard drive last week.

I wasn't going to bother including it because you can barely make anything out, but it felt like it'd be cheating to just say it goes all weird and psychedelic for a bit.

I wasn’t going to bother including it because you can barely make anything out, but it felt like it’d be cheating to just say it goes all weird and psychedelic for a bit.

The aliens arrive at the base. Kinda. We see one guy on lookout from a stack of gutted cars get teleport-zapped, but they never actually attack the base in force or anything. There’s never even any sense of urgency from the scientists that their location might be in danger, and the aliens certainly aren’t shooting the place up. Major Sleeves is loading up the jets with plague missiles and demanding that Dave and Victoria get the shields working so they can go to space and shoot at the mothership. One thing that’s curious about both movies is that we never actually see whether or not normal human weapons can take out the alien craft. In the first movie, the aliens basically rout the military before it can organize a full-scale response. We rarely see anyone engage an alien ship in a fire-fight, and when we do, it’s limited to infantry with small arms. In the second movie, the human resistance has armed itself strictly with biological weapons and they don’t engage the walkers themselves, saving their weapons for the mothership. There’s some implication of invincibility to the walkers, but we never get to see it. The utter inability of human weapons to defeat the alien craft is a common theme in adaptations of War of the Worlds, but isn’t actually in the original. There, probably in deliberate parallel to the experiences of European Imperialists invading less technologically advanced lands in basically the whole rest of the world, the weapons of the locals could defeat individual tripods, given the opportunity. It was just that the Martians’ destructive power was so much greater that it hardly made any difference if you could take out the occasional tripod: they’d blow up your cannon and six others before you got your second shot off. They launch without the shields, hoping Victoria can email the upgrade en route. The pilots are surprised when their ships lift off on their own — the major didn’t feel the need to tell them about the autopilot until this moment. Not teaching your pilots how to operate their craft ahead of time seems like an unsound tactical move.

Victoria announces the approach of two dozen alien ships, though I suspect a lack of communication between the scriptwriter and the visual effects department, because the alien attack force looks much, much larger. Why they’re all congregating over a city that’s already half-demolished and largely abandoned, I’ve no idea. They don’t seem to be especially interested in attacking the Free Forces Base or the fighter squadron itself. I mean, yes, they take some shots at each other (Major Sleeveless has to shout at his men to hold their fire and save their munitions for the mothership), but it’s less like they’re going after each other and more like taking potshots as the two sides pass each other. More Frogger than Missile Command.

One of the few notes of surprising competence is that it's night in Paris, evening in London, and daytime in the US.

One of the few notes of surprising competence is that it’s night in Paris, evening in London, and daytime in the US.

It’s also more or less at this point that a montage shows us the aliens attacking the rest of the world, played here by terrible CGI models of Paris and London, neither of which look like they’ve seen even close to the devastation that Washington showed in the opening recap. Given how quickly the lines of communication collapsed in the first movie, they maybe could have gone with the idea that the first invasion was limited to the US. The rest of the world would be plunged into an economic crisis that might have precluded anyone making preparations for a second wave, but wouldn’t have faced the infrastructure collapse that turned the US into a third-world country. But there’s nothing in dialogue to suggest that, and George’s opening monologue certainly doesn’t support it. There’s one building in one shot that has a scaffold around it. So maybe they were trying to say that the rest of the world got similarly demolished, but they went hard to work spending the past two years rebuilding, while the US was tearing the sleeves off its collective shirts and setting trash cans on fire because “building new infrastructure” is not really a thing the United States does these days.

It's nice to see Tim Hines's CGI London footage get more work.

It’s nice to see Tim Hines’s CGI London footage get more work.

Back inside the Squid Walker, or in the alien mothership, or, I don’t know, somewhere, George and the others have been strapped in for alien nomming. In time, it will be explained that the aliens aren’t actually consuming the human blood they take at the moment: those pesky microorganisms still render it lethal. But the aliens are dicks, so they’re still extracting blood from their victims, and just placing it in storage while they work out how to build a lifestraw.

I think we all pretty much knew this was going to happen at some point in this movie.

I think we all pretty much knew this was going to happen at some point in this movie.

The blood extraction process involves “filtering” — this doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense the way it’s explained, but it sounds like maybe they pump you full of something to decontaminate you while extracting your blood, but the process doesn’t work well enough yet for the blood to be entirely safe for human consumption? This process involves the aliens sticking an IV in your arm, putting a sheet of fake vomit over your face, and shoving a rape tentacle down your throat. Because I really, really needed to see C. Thomas Howell and Chris Reid deep throat some alien wing-wang.

They are saved from a fate worse than appearing in a Chuck Tingle story (Hugo-nominated Molested by the Man-Meat From Mars no doubt) by Sissy. Who is here for some reason! She rescues Pete, George and the girl from the previous scene who I’d mistaken for Sissy, and it’s still hard to keep them straight. Aside from Kim Little, every female actor in this movie looks, sounds and acts basically the same.

I woulda done an animated GIF of Unnamed Woman Eaten By Wall Vagina, but there's too much fog in the scene for it to compress well.

I woulda done an animated GIF of Unnamed Woman Eaten By Wall Vagina, but there’s too much fog in the scene for it to compress well.

Sissy peels them out of their confinement and promises to help them escape, cautioning them not to touch the walls. Not-Sissy pretty much immediately disregards this warning, touches a wall, and gets eaten by it. Sissy leads our heroes to a different wall… And tells them to throw themselves at it. Pete finds these instructions contradictory. But after Sissy vanishes into the wall, George decides that it’s better than nothing and follows.

After an interminable amount of teasing us that they won’t manage it in time, Adam authorizes Samus to use the Varia Suit Upgrade Victoria uploads the shield code to the fighter squadron basically the second they cross into the mesosphere, allowing them to make it the rest of the way into space. No sooner do they get to the mothership, though, when a time hole opens up. Why does the mothership leave now, right in the middle of the invasion? What are the squid walkers on Earth planning to do without it? What’s it going to do back on Mars?

War of the Worlds 2 laughs at such pedestrian questions. The fighter group gives chase, flying into the Time Hole before it closes. Finding themselves under siege (nominally, at least) with the Earth’s entire defense force having just disappeared into the time hole, Dave suggests that he and Victoria get drunk. I’m going to assume, “and fuck” was omitted because they weren’t sure if Victoria was meant to be George’s love interest or not.

Pete and George inexplicably find themselves in the abandoned city from the first scene. Pete’s relieved; George just wants to get back to the alien ship to find his son. George is pretty consistent through the middle part of this movie about not giving a fuck about the larger issue of the alien invasion and just wanting to find his son. It’s one of the few nice character touches in the movie in how it avoids the more traditional B-Movie Sci-Fi trope of the scientist obsessing over ScienceTM-Exclamation-Point to the detriment of those around him until he has his big character awakening moment at the climax and finally decides to put his loved ones ahead of his work. George is perfectly prepared to let the world burn if it gets him his kid back. Pete makes several references to PTSD, suggesting George is suffering from it, but also claiming it himself when apologizing after an angry outburst.

They find a truck that won’t start. Suggesting that his military skills and/or street smarts can find a way to start it in spite of an apparent dead battery, Pete pops the hood, to discover that the battery isn’t so much “dead” as “absent”, as is the engine. Being very thick, they do not work out the significance of this. They eventually catch up with Sissy, who takes them back to Shackleford, who is gravely ill by now. He offers them moonshine and exposition.

This is their reaction to finding the truck's engine compartment empty. Because providing an actual truck with no engine would have broke the budget,

This is their reaction to finding the truck’s engine compartment empty. Because providing an actual truck with no engine would have broke the budget,

In addition to what I’ve already said about the aliens filtering and bottling blood, he tosses in the extra explanation that rather than juicing them along with everyone else, the aliens are pulling captured children aside for experimentation to improve the filtering process. Why children in particular? Because we need an excuse to get George back to Alex. He also drops the incredibly obvious revelation that they’re not on Earth, but in a simulated environment on Mars. This being why there’s no resources and the truck had no engine. Shackleford and Sissy were among those taken in the first invasion, two years earlier. Why exactly they’d recreate a truck with no engine is a mystery. Why the refugees who lived in the city weren’t using the many fine empty buildings for shelter instead of living on the street is a mystery (It would have been cool if the buildings turned out to be hollow shells because the Martians only copied what they could see from the cameras on their ships. But the buildings do turn out to be whole inside). How people have been surviving without supplies for two years is a mystery. Why, when we see a street torn up later, there are clearly water and sewer lines running under the fake pavement, is a mystery. This movie is very mysterious. To prove his claims, Shackleford has Sissy take them into one of the buildings, where, behind an emergency exit door, they find an alien corridor (This is conveyed via reaction shot. Actually having a door open into the alien set was outside the budget). Sissy panics and runs off, never to be seen again. Bye Sissy!

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June 25, 2016
June 22, 2016

Deep Ice: This is madness (C. Thomas Howell’s War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave)

wow200It is March 18, 2008. Three mortar shells detonate near the US Embassy in Yemen, killing two. Presidential Candidate Obama delivers his “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia, addressing race relations in America in response to recent “controversies” surrounding his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In other news this week, David Paterson becomes governor of New York following the resignation of Eliot Spitzer over a prostitution scandal. Paterson is New York’s first African-American governor and the nation’s first legally blind governor. The world economy continues to fall apart in the wake of the housing bubble collapse. The stock market takes a big hit in the wake of an emergency bailout of Bear Stearns, though the decline is cushioned a bit by their proposed sale to JP Morgan Chase. The Fed plans to dramatically cut its rates this week. The dollar is down, oil and gold are up. Pakistan’s parliament elects its first female speaker, Fahmida Mirza. Western China suffers a 7.2 earthquake. My parents have their thirty-seventh anniversary.

The top spot on the Billboard hot 100 this week goes to Usher with “Love in this Club”, which shot fifty spots up the charts from last week. Flo Rida, Chris Brown, Rihanna and Sara Bareilles round out the top five.

This week’s Power Rangers Jungle Fury is “Dance the Night Away”, because it’s four words and for some reason the showrunner since 2005 has had this thing where he makes all the episode titles have the same number of words as years he’s been in charge. The History Channel removes two words from its name, and the other from its content. Over the weekend, ABC Family aired The Cutting Edge 3: Chasing the Dream, the second of three highly improbable sequels-sorta-but-more-like-remakes to the 1992 theatrical romcom. ABC proper debuts Miss Guided, a midseason replacement about a high school guidance councilor which received vaguely favorable reviews but not a huge amount of viewership. It’ll be gone for good in a month. FOX airs the third and final episode of their new comedy-drama, The Return of Jezebel James before having the remaining episodes sent upstate to a farm where they can run and play all day. Carole King guests on The Colbert Report. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart comments on future-president Obama’s speech, saying, “At 11 o’clock AM on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults.” Jeffery Sachs is his guest.

BBC Four gets its highest-ever ratings when it airs The Curse of Steptoe, a drama based on the making of the iconic comedy series Steptoe and Son (Better known on this side of the pond as the inspiration for Sanford and Son). Series 4 of Doctor Who will premiere in two weeks with “Partners in Crime”.

Enchanted, I Am Legend, The Seeker, Love in the Time of Cholera and Atonement are released on home video.

Also this.

Only the finest Powerpoint technology.

Only the finest Powerpoint technology went into these titles.

You guys. Srsly, you guys. Oh em gee. You know how I said that The Asylum’s War of the Worlds would have been better had it been worse? Turns out I was mistaken. Or not. I’m not sure. In 2008, The Asylum decided to let C. Thomas Howell direct and star in a sequel to their 2005 mockbuster.

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was The Asylum’s first mockbuster. It was early in the process of them finding their characteristic style and lacks the over-the-top revelry in audacity that would come to define them. Rather, it’s a movie that wants — desperately at times — to be taken seriously. It’s incredibly, painfully, nonsensically earnest. They made several more non-mockbuster films in the following time, but here is a brief recap of the mockbusters they made in the intervening three years:

So it’s probably fair to say they’d figured out their wheelhouse by now. War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave is basically nothing like its predecessor. Where the first film was, inexplicably, a somber meditation on the grim desperation and loneliness of war, War of the Worlds 2 seems to be the result of someone looking in the wastepaper basket the morning after an orgy between left-over bits of Stargate SG-1, Independence Day, Battlefield Earth and a little bit of The Matrix.

It’s hard for me to know how to approach this movie. You remember how years ago I tried to review Zardoz, and I got about as far as Sean Connery in a diaper and was just like, “Nope”, because the whole movie is such a mess that the basic act of writing it all down in a linear medium like prose is going to make it sound way more coherent than it actually is?

War of the Worlds 2 is no Zardoz, but what it is is all over the place. The first movie might have made a serious miscalculation in what they decided the story should be about, but at least they made one. This movie has four or five movies’ worth of concept all just sort of tossed in with very little sense of rhyme or reason. The individual parts — well, they aren’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but most of them are at least coherent. But they add up to an incoherent mess, rather than a story with such mundane things as a beginning, middle and end.

A little montage of the first movie gives us the very few details that are relevant to the sequel: Earth got invaded, then the invaders died. C. Thomas Howell’s voice-over makes an interesting shift to the tone of the novel’s ending, though:

But as we searched the internet and waited in line for our soy lattes, they needed only one thing to survive: our blood.
But as they harvested, there was something they hadn’t planned on: we fought back. All the world’s armies, all the Earth’s inhabitants down to the smallest microbe joined together to drive them back where they’d come from.

You’d normally expect that the odd non-sequitur jab at latte-drinkers was something in the vein of the artilleryman character, berating wimpy liberals who couldn’t fight back like real manly men, but instead, the message he gives is one of unity. Unlike the traditional presentation, where man and “all his defenses” failed, only to be saved by bacteria, they instead present the alien defeat as a united effort, the Earth as a whole coming together to drive off the invaders. That’s quite a nice, otherworldly idea, sorta Final Fantasy-ish… And they do balls-all with it.

TransformersTransmorphers! Robots in disguise! More than meets the eye! TransformersTransmorphers! Robots in disguise!

TransformersTransmorphers! Robots in disguise! More than meets the eye! TransformersTransmorphers! Robots in disguise!

The opening montage shows the hexapod walkers from the first film, but those won’t be reappearing. The new design demonstrates that the visual effects guys actually read the book this time, as they’re tripods now. The humans will refer to them as such (Though they more often use the term “squid-walker”) even before the second wave arrives, so chalk it up to a retcon. The CGI is better, in a strictly “Three years of industry developments in what commodity 3d rendering technology can do” sort of way, but it’s offset by a lot of more adventurous FX shots, such as the tripods straddling buildings. Also, they can fly. As the name implies, the squid-walkers have also become more cephalopod in design rather than insectoid. In flight, they seem to have been inspired by the sentinels from The Matrix. We don’t see the aliens themselves at all, and the humans never refer to them as being a distinct thing from the tripods: the squid-walkers themselves are described as being alive, but the dialogue goes back and forth on whether the walkers are themselves the intelligent beings running the invasion, or if it’s just that the alien technology is organic in nature. It seems like maybe the aliens aren’t discreet individual organisms but some kind of amorphous colony-creature made up of “brain” nodes and purpose-grown techno-organic machines, but it’s inconsistent.

The toxic green mist doesn’t appear in this movie. Maybe it just wasn’t relevant to the parts of the invasion we see, but the increased emphasis on aliens “harvesting” humans would likely preclude it. The beam weapon is mostly similar to what appeared in the first movie, but rather than skeletonizing its victims, it’s revealed to be a kind of teleportation ray, vacuuming up humans into a storage compartment in the walker. This… Comes across a lot faster than I think they meant to. I mean, I got it right away, but I think it’s supposed to be a surprise when we see people alive later after being shot.

The movie wastes no time revealing the new tripod. The very first post-montage scene finds one attacking a town that is run down, but more in a “2008 economic crisis” sort of way than a “Two years after civilization was routed by an interplanetary war” sort of way. Everyone seems to be living on the street in tents and shanties rather than in the abundant unoccupied buildings, because reasons.

Everyone’s very upset when the squid-walker appears and zaps first a child, then who I assume is the kid’s mom, and there is a general panicked flee, but no one actually seems surprised that the aliens have returned. In a coherent movie, would be the first part of a subtle build-up to a big twist later. But this movie is such an incoherent mess that you’ll either figure it out way too early or not at all, and in either case, it doesn’t really make much sense.

It’s here that we meet two minor characters that the movie thinks are major characters. Their names are Shackleford and Sissy, and they have no backstory and we will only see them a couple of times. I think Sissy might be Shackleford’s daughter, but I don’t think they ever actually say so. There’s something indeterminately “off” about Sissy, which is one of the few things in this film which actually will become clear later. She’s fearful; he’s resigned. They must have some previous arrangement set up because without any need to exposit about what they’re doing, he takes out a syringe, draws some of her blood, and injects himself with it. Against her protests, he runs off to get himself teleport-zapped.

Also, Shackleford kinda looks like the result of an alien breeding project involving Mark Ruffalo and Cliff DeYoung

Also, Shackleford kinda looks like the result of an alien breeding project involving Mark Ruffalo and Cliff DeYoung

We’re doing okay so far, aren’t we? I mean, it sounds like we’re doing okay. This scene builds up a little sense of mystery, a little suspense. We’ve got the impression that society is still in the early stages of recovery after the previous invasion. We’ve established that the aliens are back. We don’t know the deal with Shackleford and Sissy yet, but if you come in knowing at least the gist of The War of the Worlds, you can reasonably guess that they’re trying to exploit the alien weakness to microorganisms. So maybe this movie is going to be about Shackleford trying to find a virus that will defeat the aliens once and for all. Or maybe Shackleford will be the MacGuffin, and our actual hero will have to mount a daring rescue to retrieve him from the aliens.

Except that none of that happens. This scene isn’t indicative of the state of the Earth. Shackleford only appears one more time. What we learn about Sissy doesn’t add up. Heck, Shackleford doesn’t even accomplish the thing he just set out to do — there’s no indication he actually does get himself captured here.

Our only two returning characters from the previous movie are George Herbert and his son, Alex, still played by C. Thomas Howell and his son Dashiell. The elder Howell is the only actor in this movie who can do anything that even vaguely resembles “acting”. His son is spared from being utterly awful only by the fact that the two have a very natural rapport with each other.

George and Alex are living in a cabin in the woods… Somewhere. The last movie made a concerted effort to namecheck vaguely realistic geography the filmmakers almost certainly had only read about in books. This one is completely groundless, geographically. It’s settings are all “somewhere rural”, “somewhere urban” or occasionally, “somewhere Martian.” Two years after the invasion, the world is in a state of what wikipedia charmingly calls, “peaceful anarchy”. The details of this new world are pretty sketchy. It doesn’t seem like infrastructure or government have been reestablished; everyone’s pretty much on their own. There’s some sort of remnant of an organized military, but it’s not clear what actual authority they have. There’s no signs of any kind of organized government except for the fact that George carries “food coupons” which apparently have value.

I have no sense of why the world is the way it is, either. Remember, the war ended two years ago. Stopped dead. Certainly, given the scope of the devastation, you wouldn’t expect the rebuilding to be complete by now, but it doesn’t seem like it’s even started. It’s as though no one’s actually interested in putting civilization back together: they’d all rather just go live in the woods and scrounge for dented cans of ravioli (It’s George’s birthday, and Alex scrounged him one as a present. George appreciates it, but is upset that his son was off scrounging in the big scary world without escort).

But maybe it’s just because they’re in America. Maybe in this universe, the GOP won in ’08 and they decided to cut taxes by not having a country any more. We do see a shitty CGI “Recognizable landmarks of the world getting destroyed” montage later in the film and it seems like London and Paris have been completely rebuilt.

Conspicuously absent from this scene of domestic tranquility is George’s wife, Felicity. They never say what happened to her. She’s only mentioned once, and only in enough detail to imply that she died. Alex never mentions her at all.

Their scene of domestic tranquility is shattered when George’s bicycle-powered radio starts squealing out a strange distortion which apparently is supposed to be the same thing he heard on the radio right before his truck died in the previous movie. Only it’s not, and the explanation he gives later has nothing to do with it. But it convinces him that the aliens are back and he’s got to go warn the, uh, I don’t know, “authorities”, I guess. He locks Alex in the basement with a can of soda, half a bag of chips, the last double-A batteries for his Game Boy, and his watch, then sets off for… Somewhere.

Remember this skyline for a few paragraphs.

Remember this skyline for a few paragraphs.

“Somewhere” in this case is “Free Forces Base and Lab”, a fortified encampment in a city that was either built out of recovered scrap like piles of wrecked cars and sheet metal, or actually just was a junkyard before they look it over. To gain access, he shows a laminated, government-issued ID card, which, again, suggests that the infrastructure to make things like machine-printed, laminated government-issue ID cards still exists, but phones and public utilities and sleeves do not (it’s coming). I really do think maybe the idea is actually that civilization is way less “collapsed” than it seems, and it’s just that it’s Trump’s America and no one wants to put civilization back together.

I think she also played "Second Female Character" in the first movie

I think she also played “Second Female Character” in the first movie

He meets with Dave and Victoria to show them his findings. I won’t go as far as to say that Kim Little, who plays Victoria, is a terrible actress who obviously only got the part because she’s married to David Michael Latt. I can’t tell: she might actually be fine, except for the fact that she’s affecting this ridiculously fake southern accent that’s so thick that Lawrence Olivier couldn’t emote convincingly through it.

What follows is, not making this up, a solid ten minutes of the thickest expospeak bullshit since Star Trek got cancelled. The whole scene is a continuous clusterfuck of nonsense. Many individual lines of dialogue make sense — I kinda suspect they are simply cribbed directly from Wikipedia articles — but it’s rare for any two lines to be consistent with each other, or indeed have anything at all to do with each other. Highlights include a “diagramatic cipher that allowed us to steal from the Squid Walker technology”, and “the Schwartzchild effect,” as well as these bullet points:

  • The scientists are translating the alien language, but they “need a key”, because alien languages work just like substitution ciphers. Also substitution ciphers work such that if you don’t have the key, you can still figure out the gist of things.
  • George has detected a “shift in matter” four days ago which indicates that the aliens have created a wormhole in orbit. After trying out “wormhole”, “vortex”, and “Einstein-Rosen Bridge”, they will eventually settle on calling it a “time hole”.
  • The aliens are from Mars, by the way. I know we all assumed this, but the last movie never came out and said it. Weirdly, they explain that they never actually saw the aliens coming to Earth from Mars: they used their “time hole” to get here. Which means that the humans have absolutely no basis for knowing the aliens are from Mars.
  • Dave is keeping his former boss in the closet. She pumped herself full of diseases in order to create a “concoction” that they hope will magically turn into a super-virus that will kill the aliens. While this concept will come up again, its presence here is entirely irrelevant. Also, viruses do not work that way.
    • Is this a thing? I see a lot of zombie stories which also play the “We mixed a bunch of viruses together and they fused to form zombie juice” card.
  • In the past two years, they’ve built a fleet of fighter jets enhanced with alien technology, which mostly works except that they aren’t sure if they can survive leaving the mesosphere because they can’t get the shields working without the cipher key, and as we all know, the exosphere is a kind of energy barrier that you need shields to breach.
  • These scientists like to end sentences with, “Or so I thought.”
wow206

Also, this urban fortification has an adjacent desert. Are we still in Virginia?

They give him a tour of the inside of a Squid Walker, which is basically just torn rubber sheets, and looks kinda like the inside of the ship from the Doctor Who serial “The Claws of Axos”. The ship is controlled by a lump in the middle which Victoria describes as a “conduit to a vortex generator, or so I thought,” which is weird, because they only just learned about the whole vortex-generating thingy a minute ago. Turns out that it’s actually a, “UHF frequency modulator. Comparatively speaking.” Also, later it’ll be an alien brain that is connected to the central hive-mind of all aliens. It’s like this movie was written by throwing Wikipedia into a Cuisinart.

I'll be honest, I was expecting it to look more like genitalia.

I’ll be honest, I was expecting it to look more like genitalia.

So the transmission that George heard turns out to be the alien wifi password, and plugging it in lights the alien brain thing up. And also makes all the alien-enhanced jets lift off and hover around, to the surprise of the military commander, Major Kramer. Kramer allegedly met George shortly after the invasion and the two became friends. He looks like the kill-crazy soldier who is going to fuck everything up, especially since he’s dressed in a wife beater and a Class A Army uniform jacket with the sleeves ripped off. But he turns out to be a total mensch who does at least one useful thing.

Sorry, all wardrobe had left was "Mad Max Villain"

Sorry, all wardrobe had left was “Mad Max Villain”

Blessedly absent is the bit where no one wants to believe the aliens could possibly be back and George gets shunned until it is too late. Indeed, everyone seems to have pretty much expected the aliens would come back eventually, and find George completely convincing. George’s relationship with the others is inconsistent: he’s on friendly terms with Kramer and Dave, but hasn’t been to the base recently enough to know about any of their work, or to have met Victoria, and Kramer doesn’t know about George’s wife. Dave invites George to come live on the base (and Kramer does the same a few minutes later), mentioning that there’s a school there for Alex, and I can’t figure why he hasn’t done this already. It would make perfect sense if he’d been holed up at the remains of his old observatory: big telescopes aren’t portable, so you’d have him opting to stay isolated to do his work. You could have some character tension with George conflicted between staying at his telescope to watch for aliens and taking Alex to be with other children. But they’re living out in the woods and his telescope is a dinky little portable model even smaller than the one he had in his backyard last movie. The findings he presents suggest that he does have access to a network of telescopes, though. So maybe the cabin is near a large telescope array, but that’s the sort of thing you’d want to show, and maybe tell us about.

George rushes home to collect Alex while the others make preparations for war. George runs out of gas on the way and has to barter with some rednecks in a pointless scene that takes way too long. As a result, he arrives just in time to see Alex emerge from shelter and get zapped by a Squid Walker. Because of course he did. It’s not like the aliens who came here for absolutely no reason other than to abduct humans for juicing would stick to the major cities and population centers. Obviously they would show up and send a single walker out into the woods three hours from what passes for civilization to abduct a single child and pointedly ignore his dad who is a couple of yards away.

George does the Long Night of the Soul thing where he cries and yells at God and compares himself to Job while organ music plays in the background. But fortunately for George, the little audio montage that plays of him remembering conversations with his son accidentally includes one of the lines of exposition from the base scene, prompting George to realize that his son was not vaporized, but teleported up to the mothership, so he sets off for what looks like the same town from the first scene, to get himself zapped.

We’re roughly a third of the way through the movie at this point, and basically, it gets a lot less dense from here on out. Given all the ’80s media I consume, one thing I can safely say about this film is that, for its many flaws, it’s very modern in structure. Which is to say that unlike ’80s movies, which tended to spend more than half of their runtime on build-up and only have the aliens or pirates or Nazis show up for act 3, they basically load all the setup into the first third of the movie, and the next hour is going to be pretty consistently action and adventure. I mean, it’s not like they have a whole lot of time to waste on buildup given how many largely-unconnected plots they’ve got going on.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m going to take a little break here before continuing with the story next time. For all I complain about the movie being incoherent, I can look back now and see that basically every plot development which happens from here out has already been set up. And the weird thing that means is that what’s wrong with this movie (what’s most wrong with this movie, at least; bad acting and bad CG are the low-hanging fruit) isn’t a lack but rather an abundance. There’s just too much. The movie suffers badly from a lack of focus. What I said about the technobabble scene is really a microcosm for the movie as a whole: individual threads of plot are often coherent and make sense, but there’s just so many of them, and they’re all just tossed together with no sense of what the various components have to do with each other or whether they belong in the same movie.

The most egregious example is when Dave shows off the sick scientist in the closet. Why does he think George needs to see this? What does he reckon an astronomer will gain from seeing that they’re giving people the plague in the hopes of magically creating an alien-killing superbug? The Doylist answer is that the act 3 resolution will lean on the fact that George already knows that infecting people with a bunch of diseases is a plausible way to create a super-bug that will defeat the aliens. I mean, it isn’t — it’s just not, sorry, but at least I am convinced that the movie thinks it is. The Watsonian reason Dave thinks George “has to see” it is… Because shut up. The first half of the movie is full of thing after thing after thing that happens for no reason better than, “Because the second half of this movie will require it to have happened.” It’s not so much set-up as justification: it feels like the movie really begins thirty minutes in, and the first part is someone’s fanfic written after-the-fact to explain away all the deuses-ex-machina.

So there’s just one thing left this movie has to do to get all its ducks in a row, one more piece to position on the playing field. We’ve met all the major characters at this point save one. He’ll appear immediately after the break. If you’re familiar with the casting in Asylum films, you might know that most of their films, in addition to their regular staple of actors, include one “big name”. Not a big big name, at least a name there is a good chance you’ve heard of. Someone who was way better known 20 years ago than they are today, who probably took the job just for the trip to whatever sunny location they were filming in. Bruce Boxleitner. Lance Heinrikson. William Katt. Lou Diamond Phillips. Lorenzo Lamas. Greg Evigan. Judd Nelson. This film is no different, though there is perhaps a slightly lower chance of you recognizing the name. Our last major character is Pete, played by Christopher Reid.

Oh yes, of course, it's this guy.

Oh yes, of course, it’s this guy.

Don’t recognize him? Here, let me try this one:

I realize that if you did not recognize him before, you probably aren't the sort of person who'd recognize early '90s rap duo Kid 'n Play even in their classic 'dos, but at least I tried.

I realize that if you did not recognize him before, you probably aren’t the sort of person who’d recognize early ’90s rap duo Kid ‘n Play even in their classic ‘dos, but at least I tried.

This is going to be… Interesting.


  • War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave is available from Amazon.
June 18, 2016
June 15, 2016

Monty Hall and the Door of Probability

I felt like writing something else this week. As it happens, no episodes of War of the Worlds aired during March of 1989 or 1990, and I’d planned to insert a gap of a few weeks in my own schedule there, to cover things like the Asylum movie and ALF and maybe the final episode of Webster. But there’s two more episodes of season one and one more of season two before that happens, and I feel like digressing now instead.

The Monty Hall Problem is a probability puzzle that’s in a class of problems that are unusual in just how ridiculously hard it is to make your brain believe the right answer despite how simple it is. When columnist Marilyn vos Savant presented the correct solution (With the caveat that the specific phrasing of the puzzle she used contained a significant point of ambiguity) to the puzzle in a 1990 column for Parade magazine, she was inundated with thousands of letters — many from PhDs — insisting she was wrong. Many of the writers were real assholes about it. Ridiculously famous mathematician Paul Erdős, famously, refused to believe the correct answer, even with formal mathematical proof, until he saw the result verified in computer simulation. I happened to overhear some people discussing the puzzle recently, and as usual, someone got it wrong and could not be convinced of the right answer.

The puzzle is this:

You are a contestant on $FAMOUS_GAME_SHOW. The host, $WELL_KNOWN_TELEVISION_PERSONALITY presents you with a choice of three doors. Behind one of these doors is a BRAND NEW CAR(!), while behind the other two are goats. You are asked to select one of the three doors. After you have made your selection, the host opens one of the unselected doors, revealing a goat. He offers you a choice: open the door you initially selected and claim the prize behind it, or switch your selection to the remaining closed door. What course of action should you choose?

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia If you haven’t already heard this one, you almost certainly think that it makes no difference whether or not you switch: the car is equally likely to be behind either door. But given that, whether or not you possess the comparatively rare gift of statistical literacy, you almost certainly possess basic English literacy to have worked out that if that were the answer, this would hardly be a famous brain teaser.

The answer, of course, is that you should always switch. The probability that switching is the right strategy depends on certain assumptions not present in the way I phrased the question, but there’s actually only one non-standard assumption you can make where switching is a bad idea (The one where Monty is an asshole and wouldn’t have opened the door had your initial choice been incorrect). Well, okay, switching is also a bad idea in the non-standard assumption that you’d rather win a goat than a car. Fair enough. My family already owns two cars, but zero goats. Some people think that clarifying the standard assumptions also makes the analysis more intuitive, but I don’t: the assumptions primarily impact the question “What’s the best general strategy on this game show?” rather than the question-as-asked, “What do you, the player, do next?”

These assumptions, for clarity, are:

  • Monty always opens a door and offers a switch
  • Monty never reveals the car when he opens a door
  • If the player’s initial choice is the car, Monty chooses the door he will open at random

That third one in particular I think just makes things more complicated. It’s necessary to close a loophole where you might be able to deduce some extra information from which door Monty opens: if Monty has a preference for lower-numbered doors, then Monty opening door number three means you should absolutely switch — but, crucially, you should still switch even if he doesn’t. The other two conditions don’t actually apply in the specific case specified, since Monty did open a door and didn’t reveal a car. Removing them can reduce the probability that you should switch, but not below 50:50.

That’s why those assumptions are so often claimed to make the problem easier to understand. But the thousand letters to Marilyn don’t bear this out: most of the letter-writers intuited those constraints but still got it wrong. Marilyn herself suggested that the problem would be more intuitive if you cranked the numbers up: make it a million doors, and have Monty open 999,998 of them. Do that, and the magical power of big numbers makes your brain change the question it’s asking from “Which door is the car behind?” to “Did I choose right the first time?”. But it turns out that when you increase the numbers, people are more likely to switch, but they still don’t believe the probability changes.

I’ll spare you the formal proof of the answer for the moment. The reason I’m writing this is that I wanted to share with you how I came to believe the answer. The math of the answer, I got right away. The problem was, it didn’t feel right. It felt like a glitch in the Matrix, or like Scotty’s solution to the Kobyashi Maru: a weird math thing that didn’t map to reality, like imaginary numbers. Or real numbers, for that matter.

I had a hard time explaining this to people. And by “people” here, I’m taking some liberties, because I mostly mean “mathematicians”. They couldn’t read it any way other than, “I don’t understand the math.” But I understood the math. What I couldn’t understand was reality.

But that million-door variant of the problem reminds me of another probability question I used to have a hard time with. The flipped coin question. Imagine you have a fair coin, and you flip it nine-hundred-ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred-ninety-nine times, and it comes up heads each time. What are the odds that it’ll come up heads on the next flip?

I find it completely intuitive that the answer is ½. And when you phrase it the way I did, I hope most people agree. But there’s a whole family of similar questions where the math is exactly the same, but people will fall prey to a gambler’s fallacy and become convinced that the coin is due. It’s all about the law of averages: a tossed coin coming up heads a million times in a row is astronomically unlikely. One more heads flip, and it will happen. Therefore, the odds of getting that last heads flip must also be astronomical.

That’s ridiculous, of course. But the usual explanation for why it’s ridiculous never felt quite satisfying to me: “Because how could it not be 50:50? It’s not like those past coin flips have some magical power to change the probability of the next one.” It’s true, but it doesn’t address the “law of averages” thing that makes it feel wrong.

The answer that satisfied me is this: your belief that getting a million heads in a row is astronomically unlikely is arbitrarily privileging the number “a million”. Because it’s big and round. Because you know what else is astronomically unlikely? Flipping heads nine-hundred-ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred-ninety-nine times in a row. And you’ve already done that. The punchline is this: how much more astronomical are the odds of a million heads compared to the odds of nine-hundred-ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred-ninety-nine? Exactly twice. The way I look at it is this way: you’ve already used up most of the “unlikely” getting the first nine-hundred-ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred-ninety-nine heads. And the “amount” of “unlikely” you’ve got left to get to a million is exactly fifty-fifty.

Credible mathematicians would say I’m being obtuse. It’s fifty-fifty because each coin toss is an independent event with independent probability and that’s the end of it. But there’s the rub, right? Why is each coin toss “independent”? Mathematically, each coin toss is independent because the probability of flipping heads on flip N+1 is the same regardless of the outcome of flip N. But this is just begging the question (And for possibly the only time in my life, I think I am using the phrase “begging the question” in its pedantically correct sense): the odds are the same because the flips are independent, and the flips are independent because the odds are the same. Remove the abstraction of mathematics, and you get at a more reasonable explanation: the flips are independent because a coin, being a slug of metal, neither remembers nor cares what the outcome of the last flip was.

What always made me uncomfortable, then, was the context switch: the simple answer can be expressed as elegant, pure, abstract mathematics, right up until you get to the bit where we simply have to take for granted that coin tosses are independent events. It just feels wrong for math to throw up its hands at that point and say, “Because it’s a coin, dumbass!” Especially when you frame it in a context like, “We’re one flip away from a million heads in a row,” because “A million heads in a row” sure doesn’t sound like an independent probability. On account of it isn’t: P(one million) = 2-1,000,000; P(one million|999,999)=2-1.

And indeed, once I made the mental switch to the notion of having “already used up” the improbability, the whole thing made a kind of actual sense to me, rather than just being a series of mathematical formulae that I knew on account of I’d read them in a book and remembered them. That coin isn’t due: it whittled away at the improbability slowly, over the course of the previous almost-a-million flips. Put another way, if you do the coin-flip experiment in 21,000,000 parallel universes, there’s only one where you get heads a million times, and many where you don’t — but if you know that you got the first 999,999, then you aren’t in most of those universes: you’re in one of two (Or maybe both of two. Quantum mechanics is weird).You can apply that paradigm to other things as well. Larry Niven once famously declared that an ear of corn was more likely to father a child with Lois Lane than Superman was, meaning that out of all possible universes, a Kryptonian would be sufficiently genetically similar to a human for cross-breeding to be possible in an infinitesimal percentage of them. But this fails to consider that it’s already an infinitesimal percentage of said universes where Kryptonians would be sufficiently similar to humans that Lois would even be willing to try (You may, as the mood strikes you, include or exclude those universes where Lois is just Into That Sort of Thing). It’s not “tiny number out of nigh-infinite number”, it’s “tiny number out of very-slightly-less-tiny number”.

Let me get back to Monty Hall. I slipped the key observation to the problem in a few paragraphs back without calling attention to it. Did you catch it? People get the Monty Hall problem wrong because they don’t approach the question that was asked. Most people hear the problem and approach it as “Which door is the car behind?” But that’s not the question that was asked: the question was “Should you switch?”, which is to say, “Did you pick the right door on the first try?” The answer to that question is very obviously, “Probably not.”

Where I always got hung up was the idea that the solution lay in what you knew when you made your initial choice, versus what you know afterward. People kept trying to explain it to me that way, and it just sent me astray, thinking that the glitch in the Matrix lay somewhere in the vicinity of, “Had I known it wasn’t door number 3 when I chose door number 1, I’d have chosen door number 2 instead.” But that’s nonsense.

Here’s the magic thing, and why I don’t think that restating the standard assumptions about Monty’s behavior actually helps people understand the paradox. What Monty does has no impact on the input to the question. Monty isn’t giving you actual new information you can use to make a better guess, as people think. If he were, then it reduces to just making a new guess and this time it’s out of two rather than out of three, and, yeah, the odds are even. But what Monty is actually doing by opening a door is nothing more than distracting you from the actual offer he’s made: switch, or not-switch.

Here is when I finally “got it”, when I finally moved beyond understanding the math to actually seeing how the physical reality of the problem worked, and stopped thinking it was some kind of weird Schrödinger’s goat thing. Let’s just remove Monty from the equation altogether:

You are a contestant on $FAMOUS_GAME_SHOW. The host, $WELL_KNOWN_TELEVISION_PERSONALITY presents you with a choice of three doors. Behind one of these doors is a BRAND NEW CAR(!), while behind the other two are goats. You are asked to select one of the three doors. After you have made your selection, the host opens one of the unselected doors, revealing a goat. He offers you a choice: open the door you initially selected and claim the prize behind it, or switch your selection to the remaining closed door bet against yourself: your door will remain closed, and instead, you’ll get what’s behind both other doors. What course of action should you choose?

I submit that this variation is mathematically identical to the standard problem (plus or minus one goat). All Monty’s doing when he opens one door is finding a misleading way to explain that your choices are between “Get the car if you picked right initially” and “Get the car if you picked wrong initially”. That’s all you’re being asked. And there’s no variation of the assumptions where what you’re being asked it to “pick again with new information”: you’re only ever being asked whether you think your first guess was right or wrong. In some of the variations, Monty’s behavior might be encoding a hint about the answer to that question, but it’s never changing the question. For all mathematicians like to say that the problem is people not understanding probability, it’s actually a problem of people not understanding the question.

Remove the obfuscating detail of Monty opening one door and offering to let you have the other, and suddenly, it all becomes clear: the second choice is not to pick a door, but to reject one. That’s why switching wins two-thirds of the time.

And hey, worst case, you get two goats.

Image by Mark Katzenberger. Some rights reserved

Image by Mark Katzenberger. Some rights reserved

June 11, 2016
June 8, 2016

Synthesis 7: I must’ve called a thousand times

wotw11605Somehow, I’d forgotten that. I remembered, of course, that both seasons had done an episode where the alien plot involved using their technology to built a Blotto Box (an apocryphal General Mischief Device capable of destroying telephony equipment over the lines), but what’s really surprising is that both seasons specifically did an episode where the alien blotto box plot is largely secondary to a character-driven plot about a guest character who’s suffering from severe mental trauma leaving their familiar surroundings and trying to get by out on the street with no support system or companionship.

I mean, that’s weird, right? Two times they had this very sci-fi idea of using Science-Flavored-Bullshit to esplode telecommunications equipment remotely, threatening the entire communications infrastructure, and two times the actual episode is an intimate affair focused tightly on the guest characters. It didn’t escape notice at the time. There were complaints about “The Defector” being essentially the same plot as “The Meek Shall Inherit” on that mailing list thread I pretended not to understand at the end of the Antithesis article.

Normally, this is the point where I start talking about how, despite telling basically the same story, the approach is radically different from one season to the next because the first season is set in an ’80s world of optimistic resignation to a sudden apocalypse, while the second is set in a ’90s world of grimdark pessimism about a malingering one. But the truth is, once you get beyond the conceptual level, these two episodes really aren’t telling the same story at all. Kemo’s engram, for instance, remains a recurring and persistent threat throughout the episode: it actually keeps killing people after its first appearance, and unlike the Mortaxan weapon, it actually kills named characters with whom the regulars interact. From the point of view of the Blackwood Project, all that the aliens do in “The Meek Shall Inherit” is to delay Harrison’s attempts to place a long-distance data call and try to steal a truck (Come to think of it, they never actually learn why the aliens are in the truckyard). There’s your excuse for no one noticing the similarities between first and second season plots: the humans frequently end first-season episodes with only a partial understanding of what it was the aliens were up to.

Charles McCaughanThe whole plot with Sylvia is entirely unlike the one with Kemo. Kemo’s story arc is really far closer to “The Prodigal Son“. He’s an outcast from his people, ostracized for being a “freak” and a “half-breed”, and now he seeks to undermine his own people’s leadership to bring the war to an end. But for all that the second season is supposed to be more grim and dark, Kemo, obviously, is the sympathetic one, while Quinn is delightfully, ostentatiously villainous. I could imagine either character returning later in the series as an ally, but Kemo would do so as the legitimate, “noble villain changes sides and demonstrates a way for human and alien to live together in harmony” while Quinn would clearly be more, “unscrupulous villain enters an alliance of convenience while plotting his sudden yet inevitable betrayal.”

But “The Meek Shall Inherit” remained the more obvious point of comparison for most viewers, and the reason for that has to do with the expectations of the target audience. Here’s the operative question: what are these respective episode about?

How you answer that question depends a lot on how you approach the show. And to illustrate that, let me vaguely recall an argument I had years ago with someone who didn’t think that the modern incarnation of Doctor Who was nearly as good as the original. His argument was that the stories were childishly simplistic, and to illustrate his argument, he summarized that the first-series episode “Dalek” thus (More or less):

A Dalek from the time war is found by a rich asshole. It escapes, killing a lot of people along the way, and then commits suicide for no good reason.

By contrast, he offered up an explanation of the first-season serial “The Daleks”:

The Doctor tricks his companions into exploring a technologically advanced city where they are captured by the Daleks. Since they are also dying of radiation poisoning, Susan braves the jungle outside to find medication and meets the peaceful Thals. The Thals try to make peace with the Daleks but are ambushed. In order to retrieve a missing component of the TARDIS, the Doctor manipulates the Thals into fighting the Daleks, with one party braving a dangerous passage guarded by horrifying monsters. The Thals defeat the Daleks just in time to stop them from irradiating the planet.

Obviously, asserted the fictionalized straw-man version of my interloquotor, the original series story was far more deep and complex, while the modern story was a triviality. But, of course, most people who have actually seen the 2005 episode would find that first capsule summary, while strictly technically accurate, misleading to the point of dishonesty. So let’s try another one:

dalek

That’ll buff out.

A Dalek from the Time War is found by a rich asshole. For the first time, we see the depth of the Doctor’s post-traumatic stress over the events of the war when the sight of a living Dalek throws the peaceful man into an actual murderous frenzy. While said rich asshole demonstrates that his own inhumanity is comparable to that of the Daleks, the Dalek demonstrates a surprising grasp of human psychology by manipulating Rose into touching its casing, so that it can use her temporal energies to restore itself. However, it gets more than it bargained for when, as it tries to escape, it finds itself compelled to act on human motivations and from a human sense of empathy. Rose’s prompting helps the Doctor to realize that his animosity toward the Dalek undermines his most core values. In the first appearance of one of the longest-running recurring themes in the series, a Dalek who breaks free of its insular Dalek mindset is driven inescapably toward its own destruction, and it ultimately begs to be euthanized, rather than continue to live in its altered state.

And contrariwise, you could give a far less sympathetic summary of the 1963 story:

No one will be seated during the thrilling "sitting around" scene.

No one will be seated during the thrilling “sitting around” scene.

Everyone goes exploring a spooky alien city and then they get captured and sit around slowly dying for an hour before they escape. The Daleks shoot some guys and everyone runs away and then they spend another hour arguing about what to do next. Then there’s this random cave crawl that’s just there to waste half an hour and then they defeat the Daleks mostly by shoving them.

I mean, okay, the unsympathetic read of Serial B is still longer than the unsympathetic read of episode 1×06. So is the three hour ordeal of actually watching the thing. Neither version of either description is per-se wrong, but they reflect very different ways of addressing the question, “What’s this story about?”

There’s any number of ways to characterize the difference. “Literal” versus “Literate”. “Frock” versus “Gun” (This is a much looser fit than the others). “Hard” versus “Soft”. “STEM” versus “Humanities”. “Rational” versus “Emotional”. “Masculine” versus “Feminine”. Which terms you like to use will almost certainly come down to which side of the schism you’re on, since almost all of the pairs implicitly assume one side or the other to be “more” right.

It is a simple fact of life that “traditional” Science Fiction, what’s generally considered the “golden age” stuff is in large part not actually interested in telling stories. I’ve had this proclaimed to me proudly by fans of it: “Proper Science Fiction, not that baby stuff for girls and humanities majors, isn’t about people, it’s about ideas and science!” The great thrust of “traditional” science fiction is predicated on the assumption that what makes a story good is not the way in which it is told or that it induces catharsis or meets an emotional need in the reader, but rather rests solely in the cleverness of its ideas and how logically they are spooled out to their conclusions. I’ve said before, I think, that structurally, an awful lot of “traditional” sci-fi stories are more akin to jokes than narratives: they consist of a vestigial narrative which exists not to function as a narrative normally does, but to organize a lengthy setup which culminates in a punch-line, and the merit of the story hangs solely in how clever the punch-line is. For a science fiction story, the punch line is usually something like, “It was Earth all along” or “Turns out he was in Hell the whole time” or “And then the aliens eat them” or “No, John, you were the demons. And then John was a zombie.

I follow the site 365 Tomorrows, which publishes a short science fiction story every day. Most of them are “traditional” sci-fi (to the point that walking through their archives you’ll occasionally hit a run of stories that are shockingly racist or sexist in a really old-school way, particularly some form of “Basically the Vietnam war straight up happened again. Only in space this time.”), and that’s cool. I can enjoy the odd bit of traditional sci-fi, especially if it’s short. A few weeks ago, they ran possibly the most egregiously “traditional” story I’ve ever read, banal enough that I’m surprised terrible people didn’t nominate it for a Hugo. Your unsympathetic capsule summary would be, “The author is very proud of having realized the first thing they tell you in intro to Astronomy, about how traveling in space is traveling in time and really wants to explain it to you.” Less vaguely, one character simply expositions to another the scientific principle on which their job works, which he for some reason doesn’t already know.

I’m getting a little away from myself here. The point is, the appearance that “The Meek Shall Inherit” and “The Defector” are substantially similar derives primarily from choosing to construct the answer to, “So what’s this episode about?” from a very traditionally sci-fi point of view: they’re both about an alien plot to take over human telecommunications systems and blow them up. And yet, through a really weird coincidence, the other thing that the two episodes have in common is that they aren’t really about that after all.

So where do we find ourselves? Somehow, we’ve stumbled back into the thesis that haunted us all the way through Captain Power: we are watching a show — two shows, really — implode because they’re haunted by the future. It is 1989 and 1990. The science fiction trends that will carry us into the 1990s aren’t here yet. The audience for a show like this in 1989 and 1990 just aren’t prepared for the answer to “So what’s this episode about?” to have so little to do with the Big Sci-Fi Alien Idea.

Here, then, is the weirdest thing of all. For once, I don’t get to compare two episodes across the season and say, “The basic story is the same, but the two seasons take a completely different approach”: this time, it turns out that, while they started from the same Big Sci-Fi Alien Idea, the basic story is completely different, and yet, for whatever reason, both episodes approach it in the same way: as a side-story that exists primarily to set the stakes for an episode that is primarily a character drama.

June 4, 2016

Tales from /lost+found 61: Famous Last Words

You know, I’ve been at this for over a year now, and I’m starting to wonder if it’s actually worth the effort, given that my readership is still in the tens of… ones. I mean, I enjoy doing it, but if it’s just me and like three other people doing it, is it really worth staying up till one in the morning struggling with photoshop while trying not to drop the baby?

Anyway, a copy of next year’s Doctor Who Annual had the good fortune to fall through a wormhole, so I reckoned I might as well share with you half of this page titled “53 Amazing Facts About the Doctor”

Text below the fold…

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Click to Embiggen

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June 3, 2016
June 1, 2016

Thesis: The Meek Shall Inherit (War of the Worlds 1×16)

It’s not the cold. It’s something else.

Ann Robinson as Sylvia Van Buren

Hey Bob, you think doing a jigsaw of space might trigger the nice old lady’s space-alien-centric anxiety disorder?
Eh. I’m sure it’s fine.

It is February 13, 1989. An insider trading scandal breaks in Japan involving the Recruit company, implicating many government officials. Chairman Hiromasa Ezoe is arrested and the scandal will eventually lead to the resignation of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita among others. Tomorrow, Ayatollah Khomeini issues a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, prompting years of occasional assassination attempts and talk show appearances. The first GPS satellite is placed in orbit. Wednesday will see the first election in Sri Lanka since 1977 after a violent campaign season. It’ll also see the Soviet Union finish pulling its troops out of Afghanistan, having learned the hard lesson that you should never invade Afghanistan. Thursday will see investigators announce that the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster was caused by a bomb hidden in a tragically named Toshiba Bombeat tape player.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15172672Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl album, released, as you’ll recall, last week, makes it onto the Billboard top five albums. Since Traveling Wilburys Volume 1 is still on the charts from last year, this makes Orbison the first artist since Elvis to have two top-five albums at the same time despite being dead, a feat not repeated until Michael Jackson died in 2009. Ukeleleist and frequent crossword puzzle clue Tiny Tim throws his hat into the ring in the New York mayoral race. “Straight Up” and “When I’m With You” trade the top two spots on the hot 100. Sheena Easton, Samantha Fox, Rick Astley and Information Society enter top ten, unseating Phil Collins, Def Leppard, Taylor Dane, and Karyn White.

Friday the 13th the Series airs “Better off Dead”. Cursed syringe lets you transplant brain tissue. British TV gets its first LGBT talk show, Channel 4’s Out on Tuesday (later retitled Out). US TV is still all new in prime time, but nothing I particularly remember. Ted Danson hosted Saturday Night Live last Saturday, Leslie Nielsen will host this coming one.

That coat.

That coat.

Also on Saturdays, as I’ve neglected to mention so far, is the short-lived Spencer for Hire spin-off A Man Called Hawk. I mention it because the titular character is played by Avery Brooks, who would go on to play Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Hawk’s habit of addressing his mentor by the moniker “Old Man” would carry over, as, eventually, would his shaved head and goatee.

But Deep Space Nine is far off in the future for right now. Star Trek the Next Generation gives us “The Measure of a Man”, a courtroom drama in which Captain Picard must prove that Data is sufficiently a Real Boy to be allowed to go on living rather than being dissected for study so that Starfleet can start mass-producing android slaves. At the time, I remember rather liking this. I would, in later years, go on to like procedural dramas, plus it’s just adorable that when he thinks he’s leaving, Data packs a little miniature hologram of Tasha Yar. Later, I would sour on the episode. It would become increasingly bothersome that in the 24th century, we could still be having big court cases about whether or not a person was deserving of basic human rights, and whether or not it was okay to enslave someone. Especially when Star Trek Voyager did almost exactly the same legal drama (Though I’ll admit, I loved the sadistic legal twist in that one where the court stuck it to the cartoonishly evil publishing company by declaring that, while they were unwilling to expand the legal definition of “person” to cover holograms, they were willing to expand the legal definition of “artist” so that a hologram could hold a copyright). Also, the stupid nonsensical bullshit of Riker being press-ganged into prosecuting the case against his will for the sake of “conflict”. Later still, I read what Josh Marsfelder had to say about it at Vaka Rangi. Even if he wasn’t completely sold, his general approach closed the loop for me. Star Trek makes way more sense once you realize that the Enterprise is the only place where people actually earnestly hold to the ideals the rest of the Federation only presents as aspirational goals in order to make themselves feel better about being pragmatic capitalist-informed soft-imperialists. I feel a much greater kinship to the Enterprise crew once I came to realize that they’re the people who missed the memo about which of the things we all purport to believe are really just lies we tell ourselves to not feel like monsters.

This week is a special treat. It’s the final appearance of Ann Robinson as Sylvia Van Buren, and her role this week is considerably more substantial than her previous appearances. This episode really makes the case for her being a major character in the series moving forward, and I can only assume that it’s down to nothing more than the fact that we’re into the final third of the season that we don’t see her again after this one.

“The Meek Shall Inherit” is not an episode that ranked particularly high in my radar before. I mean, I remember it being “fine”, but not really anything special. Under closer scrutiny, it holds up well. Or maybe I’m still just pissed about “He Feedeth Among the Lilies”. Like “The Prodigal Son”, I feel like this episode was supposed to air earlier in the season, before “Among the Philistines”, and probably before “Choirs of Angels” and “Dust to Dust” as well. There’s no direct evidence either way for whether it fits before or after “The Prodigal Son”, but my gut instinct is that it goes before that one as well, if only to amplify Harrison’s surprise when Quinn name-drops Sylvia.

The script is by legendary Star Trek alum D. C. Fontana. If you were to put all the scripts for all the episodes of War of the Worlds side-by-side and asked, “Which one of these do you reckon Fontana wrote?”, this is hands-down the one you’d pick. Basically everything that goes right in this episode is part of Fontana’s wheelhouse. It’s not hard to guess that the writer who gave us our most powerful insights into Mr. Spock, and a somewhat surreal reflection on mortality and the character of Pavel Chekhov would also be the writer to give us a more complex and substantial view of Sylvia Van Buren than “mad prophet”.

The plot proceeds along several tracks at once, a more complicated mode of storytelling than has really been typical for the series so far. Only of of the tracks — the one about Sylvia — is really properly good though. The alien plot doesn’t really stand up to any significant contemplation, but is at least well-integrated, unlike the early-season episodes which too-often had the alien and human sides of the plot fail to interact until the last moment. Ironhorse gets the third major plot thread. It’s an interesting thread with good character moments, but it is for the most part tangential to the main story: you could really have slotted it into pretty much any episode so far in the season equally well. For a story focusing on Sylvia, Harrison is curiously bracketed. He and Suzanne do have a minor plot-thread of their own, but it’s entirely subsidiary, just “While actual stuff is happening, Harrison and Suzanne try to find Sylvia.” Norton makes a strong showing early in the episode, but quickly fades into the background.

Millennials don’t realize this, but those old corded phones from the ’80s actually were inflatable.

The episode starts out nice and strong, with an artfully done montage of people in a geographically nonspecific neighborhood displaying how dependent 1980s American culture is on telephony: a man in a phone booth making demands into a payphone about some kind of monetary transaction. 911 dispatchers directing emergency services. A big-haired teenage girl gossiping about, and I quote, what, “Bobby told Johnny that Linda told Cindy,” while her parents admonish her to get off the phone. It’s a strange and wonderful scene to look at now: there’s very little they need to communicate to the audience in explicit terms, because if you lived in the ’80s, the idea of a teenage girl ignoring her family to spread vague gossip via a wired land-line telephone, or of a junkie trying to arrange his next fix from a phone booth — of there being such a thing as phone booths — would be so straightforwardly obvious that it just takes flashing a few quick signifier to get the message across. And yet, in 2016, those are concepts as utterly alien as the phrase “Yahoo Serious Film Festival”.

Intercut with this montage is some linemen working on the phone lines. The reveal that they’re aliens is delayed until after the montage, and for once it actually works. We’re expecting something to happen, but until it actually does, it’s not clear if the linemen will prove to be the cause, or the victims. They activate an electronic device that features as its centerpiece a triangular crystal similar to the space ship starter from “Dust to Dust” (By which I mean “It’s clearly the same prop”). We cut back to the phone users, who are treated to a painfully loud noise and error signal. The teenage girl casts away the handset just before the entire telephone melts into the countertop. The man in the phone booth is less fortunate: the entire booth explodes with him inside it.

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In the cave, one of the Advocates disdainfully questions the utility of their newfound ability to blow up telephones. Another explains that, what wit humans being social animals, creating massive disruptions to their communications will have an outside effect on human society and leave them vulnerable to other forms of attack. It’s interesting that the advocates speak of humanity’s social impulses with such smug disdain. The very clear implication is that they consider it a weakness the extent to which humans rely on interacting with each other rather than being self-sufficient isolates. But that’s a very strange position for the aliens to take given that their own society is so tightly constructed around triads. More than that, the alien culture is strictly hierarchical, to the point that it’s been a recurring theme that soldier-class aliens are unable to complete even fairly simple tasks without explicit guidance from leadership, and we saw the last time Ann Robinson guest starred that even the Advocacy becomes severely impaired if the bond between the three of them is damaged. It would have made more sense for the aliens to have aimed their derision at the weakness of human communications infrastructure, rather than the basic fact that humans rely on communications: it certainly would have squared well with what we know about aliens for them to find it laughable that humanity would use such a vulnerable means for something so important. The alien linemen report that they can implement the attack more widely, but require an additional power source. The advocates advise that they’re working on it.

In a night scene, we’re introduced to Molly Stone, our major guest star this week. She’s a street person, and seems to suffer from some kind of mental illness that makes her unwilling or unable to speak. At least, it’ll seem that way until she pretty much drops it halfway through. While she scavenges for food in a trash can, another homeless person, a somewhat older man called Pollito — pretty much a straight-up cartoon hobo from a depression-era short — admonishes her for using the ineffectual “silent bit” rather than contriving a spiel to elicit donations from passers-by. As an example, he approaches a passing couple, begging for change as the cold weather exacerbates his old war-wound. When they brush him off, he announces, “People don’t take care of their vets anymore. That’s why I dodged the draft.” Oh good. He’s going to be the comic relief homeless person. Joy.

Fortunately, he doesn’t last long. He meets up with some friends around a barrel fire, and the offer of alcohol entices him into the shadows, where an alien possesses him. Molly, following at a distance, sees it happen and flees in terror. The next day, after a series of events which will not be covered in this show (and honestly, are probably too tangential to the plot to be worth bothering with, but maybe some kind of quick recap would be nice), Molly ends up as a “charity case” at Whitewood. Nurse Hamilton — the same one we’ve seen in Sylvia’s previous episodes — brings Molly into a common room to show her around, but Molly becomes agitated when the nurse tries to relieve her of her bundle of possessions.

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Sylvia is as lucid as we’ve ever seen her, and she’s going to remain largely that way for the bulk of the episode. Fontana takes her cues for writing Sylvia less from her first appearance in “Thy Kingdom Come”, and more from “To Heal the Leper”: rather than being constantly off-kilter, Sylvia’s condition is presented as manifesting in the form of isolated episodes, something akin to a panic attack, which punctuate long periods of normalcy. Outside of her attacks, she seems generally normal. She does show some anxiety later in the episode, but nothing out-of-line with the fact that she’s an elderly woman in an unfamiliar city, hunting aliens. If anything, she copes really well with being so closely involved in an alien plot, and with learning of the aliens’ terrifying ability to absorb human hosts. Over Nurse Hamilton’s complaints, Sylvia takes charge of Molly, offering to show her around and help her relax into her new setting.

Rather than boring us with that, though, the episode switches over to its B-plot. Or C-plot, depending on how you count them. A figure in black approaches The Cottage under cover of twilight. The figure is able to slip past the security and makes it as far as the living room without setting off an alarm, but the ever-vigilant Colonel Ironhorse appears from the hallway and overturns the invader with a flying kick. A scuffle ensues, and despite a few tense moments, Ironhorse emerges the victor, restraining his assailant and unmasking h—

Until I freeze-framed it, I did not realize just how creepy Ironhorse looks in this shot. Also, I'm pretty sure her hair is not regulation.

Until I freeze-framed it, I did not realize just how creepy Ironhorse looks in this shot. Also, I’m pretty sure her hair is not regulation.

Holy crap, it’s a girl! What a twist! Really, there are few better ways to properly demonstrate twenty-seven years of media progress than by the fact that here in 1989, it was meant to be a shocking twist that this character we have never seen before, never heard of before, don’t know what their game is, and have no sense of their role in the narrative happens to have zero Y-chromosomes. Also that we weren’t supposed to notice the hips or breasts until she gets unmasked.

But who is this strange woman, and why has she broken into the Blackwood Project headquarters? “Not bad, Coleman. Not good either. You made as much noise springing that lock as you would have setting off a flare,” (Are flares known for their noisiness?) Ironhorse admonishes. Yes, this was the traditional “Characters go on a dangerous mission and blow it, only for the shocking reveal that the whole thing was a training exercise designed to showcase the character flaw the episode will focus on them overcoming,” trope, as seen in Star Trek II, the Tomb Raider movie, Power Rangers, and pretty much every episode of the ’90s X-Men cartoon.

That said, its use here is a little bit off-label; normally, you’d frame this with a known-hero character getting defeated by a seeming-villain character: the Enterprise destroyed by Klingons, the X-Men cornered by Sentinels. If you’re introducing a new character, you’d generally frame the scene, as it is here, with the new character as an attacker, but you’d focus the scene on the established character, making them seem legitimately threatened, and ultimately defeated. Typically, you’d include a third character, the “big boss”, who arranged the whole thing as a way for the new character to prove themself, but leading to animosity between the new and established characters that would serve as the source of character tension until the climax. But this episode isn’t going to be about Ironhorse feeling inadequate because he got beat up by a girl until she saves his butt in the climax (More’s the pity: what actually does happen in this episode is close enough to being that plot that I wonder if it was in an earlier draft). Ironhorse bests Coleman. Not trivially, but there’s never any serious doubt that he’s the superior fighter. Neither is there any substantial plot about Coleman needing to prove herself as the rookie on the team: she’s just another minor character, really. There’s a little nod toward Ironhorse having some kind of character arc around needing to work past his reluctance to accept Coleman due to her gender, but it’s dispensed with quickly. I’m certainly not complaining that Ironhorse recognizes that any issues he has about women in combat roles are his problem, behaves like a professional and just sucks it up, but it leaves this side of the plot feeling disconnected from the larger story.

We get more of an explanation for what’s going on with this training exercise when Ironhorse dismisses Coleman for the evening and heads down to the lab. He’s assembling a special-forces team, dubbed “Omega Squad”, to handle direct confrontation with the aliens. In aired order, of course, we’ve already seen them, back in “Among the Philistines”. I’m a little hard-pressed to think what specifically would prompt this right now — maybe the events of “The Good Samaritan”, or Ironhorse’s complete failure to usefully leverage the local police in “The Prodigal Son”, if that one was meant to come first. But any of the first six episodes seem like they’d provide much better justification for giving Ironhorse his own private on-call unit, so why is this only happening so late in the season? Candidates for the team were selected based on a psychological profile Suzanne compiled for him. I’m going to have to go back at some point and see if I missed a line somewhere, because they seem to have settled on the idea that Suzanne is a psychologist and I have absolutely no recollection of this fact having been introduced at any point.

When Ironhorse challenges the accuracy of Suzanne’s profile, she counters by accusing him of being unwilling to believe, “a woman, any woman, has any place in a special unit designed to provide, quote, tactical backup in case of a major altercation with aliens, unquote.” Ironhorse dodges the accusation, but maintains that the other candidates are too rebellious. Suzanne insists that her profile is perfect for the mission as described. “How can you say that?” Ironhorse asks, “I mean, who’d you model this profile on, Rambo?”

Lynda Mason Green gives what is, in my opinion, her single best line delivery in the entire series, and, in a tone of utter innocence, says, “Why no, Paul. I modeled it on you.”

While this has been going on, Harrison and Norton are struggling with the phone system. Harrison “can’t save the world” until Norton can work out a way to connect to the mainframe at the Pentagon. And since this is 1989 and your normal TV audiences haven’t heard of ARPANET, the only way for one government facility to network with another government facility is via a dial-up modem (presumably with an acoustic coupler) over plain old-fashioned AT&T long distance service. Only that small-scale test the aliens carried out a day and a half ago, despite their limited power supply, somehow took out all the long-distance lines on the west coast. Norton can’t even route around the trouble by bouncing the call over to Hawaii and back through Toronto. Jokes about the phone company ensue which probably don’t really work unless you’re old enough to remember when it was just “The Phone Company” and not “Phone Companies“.

It’s the next day before connectivity is restored. Alongside this is a bit that strikes me as very D. C. Fontana. Norton’s coffee-fetishism resurfaces for the first time in months as he entreats Harrison to try a new blend he’s cooked up. In 1989, we’re still in the early stages of the proliferation of second-wave coffee. Starbucks has only recently started serving brewed beverages, so we’re still in the stage where it’s more about defining and appreciating specialty coffee, rather than the social experience of the coffeehouse. The Pacific Northwest, where we’ve presumptively located our gang is certainly the right geographical region for a nacient coffee-snob (Though remember, Norton was based near LA prior to the events of the pilot). Norton’s coffee snob credentials are meant to be part of his lovable quirkiness, and in that vein, I think it helps more than hurts that he’s a coffee-snob as written by someone who isn’t a coffee snob — no proper self-respecting coffee-snob would be working from canned grounds and a Mr. Coffee Automatic Drip brewer. And he probably wouldn’t have used too much chicory either. Norton’s curiosity gets the better of him and he snoops on internal phone company traffic, learning that the damage has been attributed to, “saboteurs unknown”. It’s pretty thin evidence, but Harrison agrees that this is the sort of show where if your milk goes sour before its sell-by date, it’s probably aliens, so he advises him to keep looking into it. They also make some snide remarks about eco-terrorists, the presumed default “more likely” culprit, which they dismiss since the saboteurs failed to go public with demands.

Like Norton’s coffee, this is a minor element that hearkens back to earlier in the series. Specifically, a slightly ramped-up bit of ’80s zeitgeist brought up as though it’s perfectly normal. We saw it before with cattle mutilations, LARPers going postal, biological warfare experiments killing “all those people”, even insurgent student groups taking over a nuclear waste depot. This show presumes a world that’s really unstable. Where if the phones don’t work one day, your first thought would be, “Oh, it’s probably a group of radical students protesting political prisoners in Antarctica.” What is less clear, because you and I are in the twenty-first century looking back, is that to a greater or lesser extent, that’s just how the ’80s were. Satanist cults sacrificing children in daycare, cities in the midwest becoming ghost-towns due to accidents at nuclear research labs, the occasional high-ranking military officer absconding with an ICBM and declaring himself the king of St. Louis, these weren’t things that ever actually happened, but they were things that were thinkable as real scenarios. To the point that we were all kinda surprised when they didn’t happen. Maybe even a little bit angry — and we’d see that anger manifest in the ’90s with the rise of Grimdark and with conspiracy theories becoming more mainstream.

But I’ve meandered away from the plot, which has been moving on its own during the phone outage. At Whitewood, Molly witnesses Sylvia having an attack. Nurse Hamilton has her sedated and refuses to call Harrison, as, “We’ve been bothering Dr. Blackwood far too frequently.” Once again, we see the weirdly casual strangeness of this world. It was established back in “Thy Kingdom Come” that the staff knows that her episodes coincide with natural disasters: she predicted the Mt. St. Helens explosion. But they’re treating her here like she’s — well, like every misunderstood character with precognitive powers in a work of fiction is treated by mental health professionals. They assume the crazy old woman ranting about three-fingered aliens just needs to be strapped down and sedated. As the drugs kick in, Sylvia drifts off, muttering pleas for someone to believe her. Unnoticed, Molly whispers her first line of dialogue: “I believe you.”

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