February 10, 2016

Synthesis 5: The Rhythm is Gonna Get You

Jared MartinWell you’d certainly think Harrison Blackwood would bring this up when the Morthren try to subvert punk rock to control violent teenagers.

Or maybe not, I guess, if it’s too painful a subject. You can defend it not coming up pretty easily, I think. Besides, no one works out the role the music is playing until the climax, and we don’t have any scenes afterward where Blackwood would have a chance to reflect on how they’d tried this before. It’s easy enough to imagine that while Kincaid’s off with Rose and Larry at the end, Blackwood’s gone back to the shelter and is telling Suzanne all about how similar this is to what happened with von Deer and how proud he is of himself for not giving in to his addiction.

For that matter, the critical scene in “Terminal Rock” is that Blackwood suddenly notices that something’s affecting his behavior, looks around, and seems to just intuit that it’s the fault of the music. How does he come to that conclusion? Well, maybe it does indeed make sense that, as someone who’s been through it before, he’s more conscious of what it feels like when an alien audio embed is manipulating his behavior.

Jared MartinSo what’s considerably more interesting to look at, just like our last Synthesis post, is how different the two episodes are in their approach.

I like subliminal audio embeds as a sci-fi plot device, in case you haven’t worked it out. Probably just one of those nexus things where that episode of Probe and that episode of Max Headroom and these two episodes of War of the Worlds hit when my brain was in the right place for it to make a lasting impression. Looking back over my notes from the past twenty-five years, I see that I wrote similar plots into an X-Files fanfic I wrote when I was twelve and a Knight Rider fanfic I wrote when I was sixteen and a Kids Incorporated fanfic I wrote when I was eleven and that novel I completely failed to finish when I was twenty-seven. In my youth especially, before I took a psychology class and a phenomenology class, I was attracted to the idea that the human brain could be treated like a computer and be “reprogrammed” by surreptitiously poking zeroes and ones into it (This may also hearken back to the short story “Von Goom’s Gambit”, which I mentioned tangentially back in my essay on They Live).

The most obvious point of contrast is probably that, while “Choirs of Angels” has the aliens use subliminal embeds for a targeted campaign against one person to manipulate them into solving their medical issue, while in “Terminal Rock”, they’re targeting a group of people, which, as I said last time, is far and away the more common plot. Come to think of it, there’s a very straightforward comparison between “Choirs of Angels” and “Breeding Ground”. Both feature an old colleague of one of the heroes. In both cases, the aliens can’t just clone/possess him outright due to his poor health. In both cases, the patsy is convinced that the aliens have something to offer that will benefit humanity.

Watching “Choirs of Angels” right after “Synthetic Love” has me thinking of another thing too, because there’s a very ugly trend that emerges when I look at “Terminal Rock” and “Synthetic Love” in close proximity. Because when “Choirs of Angels” has the aliens embed their message in the prog rock of Billy Carlos, they might be poking fun at record label execs, but there’s really no judgment passed on the musical style itself. Its aficionados, Harrison and von Deer, might be a little peculiar, but they’re respectable, laudable characters.

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February 8, 2016

Because otherwise the wrong lizard might win

I don’t know about you, but I thought the most impressive moment of Saturday’s debate was when the republican presidential candidates all agreed to remove their human masks and reveal their true faces underneath.

It all started when Marco Rubio suffered from a system glitch that caused him to just repeat the same sentence over and over. By way of explanation, he unexpectedly peeled off his skin to reveal himself as a robot, to the surprise of absolutely no one.

Not to be outdone, Ted Cruz immediately removed his own face, showing the audience that he was, in fact, a lizard person. Experts believe this bold move may help him in the New Hampshire primary, as the revelation was met with optimism from the crowd. Said one audience member, “He always seemed like such an asshole when I thought he was human. But as lizards go, he’s actually kind of warm and personable, relatively speaking.”

Less-well received was Governor Jeb Bush’s desperate attempt to claim some of the spotlight by shedding his skin. The move backfired when the audience discovered Bush to be literally empty inside, his thin, pinkish outer layer concealing only a void. Dr. Ben Carson was the next to doff his human disguise, shocking the audience, who had not anticipated that he would turn out to be a tall stack of cats wearing a suit. After the debate, a Carson campaign staffer commented, “We’re as surprised as everyone. I think we’d all assumed that Dr. Carson’s true form would be a man-shaped Jello mold. But it kinda makes sense when you really think about it.”

It had been widely speculated before the debate that should Donald Trump ever remove his human facade, he would be revealed as an eldritch horror, more hair than man, and that the very sight of his true form would drive all who gazed upon it irretrievably mad. His comments in the debate advocating torture did little to quiet these suspicions. Everyone was greatly relieved, therefore, when he removed his own face, revealing only another, slightly smaller Donald Trump underneath.

The most surprising move of the evening, however, came from Governor Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor removed his mask and fat-suit, showing his true form to be Old Man Withers, owner of the haunted Atlantic City amusement park, who had engineered the entire presidential campaign as a distraction to a complicated insurance scam in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The Christie campaign released a statement post-debate explaining that Governor Christie, “Would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those snooping kids.”

Governor John Kasich of Ohio was reportedly “disappointed” that no one noticed his own revelation. Cameras did not catch Kasich’s unmasking, on account of none of them were pointed at him.

Political commentators are eagerly awaiting this Thursday’s Democratic debate, to see if the candidates will attempt to match their GOP rivals. There is widespread speculation that Hillary Clinton will reveal herself to be some sort of amorphous darkness. Experts are divided over whether Senator Sanders will turn out to be the anthropomorphic embodiment of the denied and deferred hopes and dreams of the younger generation, or just Justin Bieber in old-age makeup, shamelessly trying to illegally seize the presidency for Canada.

February 6, 2016
February 3, 2016

And it’s not like I let him watch The Walking Dead or anything.

Scene: After dinner. DADDY is loading the dishwasher.

DYLAN
My friend at school likes zombies.

DADDY
Oh?

DYLAN
Are zombies scary?

DADDY
Yes

DYLAN
Why?

DADDY
Because they eat people.

DYLAN
That’s scary. You should run away from zombies.

DADDY
Yes, generally.

DYLAN
Unless you want to get eaten. If you want to get eaten, you should hunt for zombies.

DADDY
I suppose so.

DYLAN
Or if you want to kill zombies. But for that, you need a sword. Or arrows.

DADDY
Um… Yes?

FIN

Thesis: Choirs of Angels (War of the Worlds 1×12)

You will help us bring a new age to this planet

Lynda Mason Green

Stand back, I’m going to use SCIENCE!

It is January 16, 1989. If you were born today, you’d be able to drink at my wedding. Last Friday, the UK was hit by a massive outbreak of the Jerusalem computer virus, a popular 1987 computer virus which triggers on Friday the 13th. Václav Havel is arrested today in Prague, which is sure to nip this whole democracy thing in the bud for Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union announces their plans to launch a manned mission to Mars. I wonder if they’ll beat the Americans there. The rest of the week will see the Solidarity party legalized in Poland, George Steinbrenner receiving a presidential pardon for illegal campaign contributions to Nixon, and the Stockton Schoolyard Shooting, in which a guy shot up a school in California, killing five and wounding 32. This was back when such things were considered unusual and shocking and prompted the sitting Republican president to issue an executive order banning the importation of assault rifles (for which he was not compared to Hitler). A backward, primitive time when we didn’t consider the systematic murder of children just a small price to pay for assuring the freedom of, for example, a bunch of rednecks to intimidate and threaten in the name of seizing public lands for their own use, yes, I am pissed.

Ryan’s Hope ends its run on TV. Romance/Romance (Starring Scott Bakula) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ close on Broadway. Bobby Brown takes the top spot on the Billboard charts with “My Prerogative”. MacGyver this week is “Deadly Dreams”, an episode featuring Dr. Zito, a Hannibal Lecter-inspired recurring villain (We’re still a few years out from the Silence of the Lambs film, but the novels Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs are already out, as is Manhunter, the first film adaptation of Red Dragon). Zito is played by W. Morgan Sheppard, a guy who you should keep in your back pocket for Kevin Bacon Game competitions given just how many franchises he’s appeared in, including Max Headroom, Star Trek and Doctor Who. He never appeared in anything War of the Worlds-related himself, so far as I can tell, but his son voiced Adrian Paul’s brother in Goliath between appearances in Supernatural, Star Trek, Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica. After MacGyver is the premiere of a TV-movie about Ryan White, a teenager who developed AIDS as a result of a blood transfusion for hemophilia. Batman in Amazons AttackThe importance of Ryan White in changing the attitude of the American public about the AIDS crisis can not be understated, firstly because it got the American public to actually start doing something about it, and secondly, because it calls out what assholes the American public are, since the vast majority of them were perfectly happy to let AIDS kill as many people as it liked so long as it limited itself to the gay community, drug addicts, and poor people in Africa. But you get one photogenic presumed-straight middle-class white boy, and it’s war.

There is no episode of Star Trek the Next Generation this week. Friday the 13th the Series gives us “The Sweetest Sting”, which, as you’ve probably guessed, is about bees. My god. And not even in the way you’d think: rather than straight-up killer bees, these are vampire bees who can transfer life force between people by stinging. Here is an additional bee joke, because I can.

Oprah. Bees. My god.

See, you thought I was gonna make a Nicholas Cage joke here, didn’t you?

This week’s War of the Worlds is an odd duck, in strangely good way. It succeeds on a lot of the levels that War of the Worlds usually doesn’t, while the show’s usual wheelhouses of dark comedy and strong guest characters are… Not absent, but perhaps pushed to the side for a bit. Instead, we get what’s really a pretty darn solid and coherent science-fiction plot, and a very traditional A-B plot structure that you wouldn’t be surprised to see in an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation or Deep Space Nine.

The A-plot is, at long last, a Suzanne-centric episode. Stylistically, a traditional SCIENCETM-based story in the mold of, say, British Science Fiction of the ’50s and ’60s (I recently was watching a Let’s Play and the host got to talking about early Doctor Who, and suggested that there was a trend in British Science Fiction of the ’50s and ’60s to build their stories around the concept of “Uh oh, something’s happened involving aliens. Let’s go back to the lab and science the shit out of this for an hour.”). Her plot is primarily a science-mystery, the show’s first real attempt at what’s sometimes called “competency porn”: a visual showcase designed around the simple demonstration of someone doing their job well.

The B-plot is another foray into “Harrison isn’t himself due to adverse influence.” That didn’t go well last time, but this time, he doesn’t act like a drunk fratboy and rough up Suzanne. Instead, we get to see Harrison much more vulnerable in a story that has very direct and obvious analogues to drug addiction and recovery.

It’s not like we haven’t had plots that decompose into an A and B side before. But so far, it’s mostly been a decomposition between the aliens pursuing their goals and the humans pursuing theirs in opposition. The aliens stay more toward the edges in this one. War of the Worlds: Alex Carter Heidi von Palleske, John NovakThere’s no mystery for the audience as to what their plot is, but there’s very little showcasing of them actually pursuing it. Instead, we’ve got two groups of characters who are pursuing largely different things at the same time, in parallel, really only coming together at the end, when their combined experiences help to put together a larger puzzle. It’s just so easy to imagine this story happening not with Suzanne and Harrison, but with, say, Beverly Crusher and Riker. Or Jadzia Dax and Miles O’Brien. Or even Seven of Nine and Harry Kim.

We open with some aliens in the Land of the Lost cave cutting an album. It’s not very good, just them chanting “We are the travelers / We are your friends / We need your help / Believe in us,” over and over. Using their broken oscilloscope and toy cassette recorder technology, this is converted into a subliminal embed.

Because, oh yes, we are doing one of my favorite Sci-Fi plots, subliminal mind control via music. We’ve got shades of Probe and even a bit of Max Headroom mixed in here. Equipped with their subliminal embed, the aliens, who’ve adopted the forms of three of the most eighties-looking record company suits they can find and go to visit famed New Age musician Billy Carlos.Billy Thorpe in War of the Worlds He’s right in the middle of composing an otherworldly, ethereal piece that, I only just noticed, kinda sounds like a prog-rock remix of the Doctor Who theme. Far as I know, there’s no publicly available clean recording of the whole thing, which is a shame, because it’s a nice piece of music. It’s similar in style to the end theme of the show, though slower and more spacey. Billy Carlos is played by legendary Australian rocker Billy Thorpe, who also did the score for the whole series. His work for War of the Worlds doesn’t sound much like the stuff for which he’s best known, though you can maybe hear little hints of it in “Children of the Sun”.

Carlos objects to the suits showing up before he’s ready, and they respond by murdering him. Heidi von Palleske in War of the WorldsThe female suit, presumably the leader, replaces the outgoing message on his answering machine to say, in a sexy voice while looking straight into the camera, that he’s on tour. They replay the song he was working on, integrating the embed. This seamless mixing consists mostly of the female alien repeatedly ordering the others to crank the volume and she starts grooving to the music. The way the scene is shot gives it a very otherworldly feel that comes off as kind of Tales from the Darkside to me.

I’ve been impressed by the guest cast a lot with this show. This week isn’t the strongest outing in terms of performances, but it’s still an interesting roster. In addition to Billy Thorpe, we’ll be meeting Jan Rubes later as Dr. Von Deer. Rubes is an accomplished character actor who would go on to a recurring role in Due South, but you might know him for playing Daniel’s grandfather in the Stargate SG-1 episode about crystal skulls. Our aliens this week are played by Alex Carter, John Novak and Heidi von Palleske. Palleske’s got a solid acting resume through the ’90s up to today, but her acting career is overshadowed by her accomplishments as an activist against the export of asbestos, the use of which remains legal in Canada (Quebec was the world’s third biggest producer as of 2009), though mining finally ceased in 2012. Alex Carter mostly plays cops, agents and other government-heavy-types, such as Sheriff Logan in Point Pleasant, Lieutenant Lindo in Lincoln Heights and Detective Vartann in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. John Novak is best known for his voice work, including the English dubs of Death Note, and Gundam Seed, as well as Ninjago, but he also had a recurring live-action role on Stargate SG-1 as Colonel Ronson, the first commander of the Prometheus. And, in a move that might help you win at the Kevin Bacon game, he’s also one of the doctors who assists Grace in the hospital scene in the Doctor Who TV Movie (Since we’ve had so many already this week, free bonus Kevin Bacon Game tip: there’s an episode of Star Trek Continues that guest-stars both Colin Baker and the third Yellow Power Ranger).

In spite of what I said about this episode having a good, solid plot, we do still start out on the usual, “By an amazing coincidence, the heroes just happen to show up in the right time and place to get involved in the plot.” Harrison and Suzanne turn up at the lab of one of Dr. Eric von Deer. Suzanne’s been corresponding with her old professor for the past few months and he’s agreed to work with her over the weekend in the hopes of developing a means to block cell-phase matching. Von Deer is apparently an expert in the subject, which is a neat trick since as far as I can tell, “cell-phase matching” is a made-up term.

Since von Deer is a stereotype absentminded-professor, he’s completely forgotten his commitment to Suzanne in the face of some work he’s been obsessing over. He agrees to let her poke at his research to see if she can find anything useful and to give her the occasional spare moment.

In case there was any chance that the audience might be experiencing undue levels of suspense, that track Billy Carlos was laying down in the last scene has been playing for the entire duration of the scene. Once she takes her ear-plugs out, the receptionist had explained to Suzanne and Harrison that von Deer had been listening to it on repeat full-blast for the past month. Von Deer explains that he’d known Billy as a child and had been gifted with an advance-copy of the artist’s latest album.

No one in the world should really be surprised that Harrison is into the weird, new-agey synth vibes of Billy Carlos. He finds that, “his complex chord structure and his tonal progression — they tune my mind and stimulate my imagination.” Ecstatic to meet a fellow fan, von Deer gives him a copy of the tape. He feels the need to explain that he has a bunch of spares in case he breaks one. Then the RIAA rappels in and beats the crap out of him for music piracy.

Jan Rubes in War of the Worlds

Von Deer having multiple copies of the same tape is meant to be a character quirk, I think. To mark him as weird and nerdy, because who’d have more than one copy of the same tape? It’s not like it’s just good sense because playing an audio cassette continuously for a month absolutely will wear it out, which is why I no longer have a working copy of Laura Brannigan’s Best Of album. Later, we’ll find out he also wears two watches. Basically, they’re pushing the whole “Absent-minded science nerd” archetype with him. I bet his closet is full of identical copies of the same suit too. Surprised he doesn’t have a bow tie.

A limo pulls up outside as Harrison is leaving, and apparently just sits there looking sinister for like three hours, because it’s still there when we return to this location hours later. In the mean time, Harrison returns to the Cottage and tries to do some work while grooving to his new Billy Carlos album. This is a nicely subtle scene because they never come out and say what’s happening, but you can tell from Jared Martin’s performance that something is going on with Harrison, as he gets increasingly flustered, then something seems to “click” for him. Another nice touch here is that neither Harrison nor Dr. von Deer do any sort of mind-controlled-zombie thing. If anything, Harrison seems invigorated, with a little spring in his step as he pops down to the lab.

Richard Chaves and Philip Akin

My IronDrake shipping is momentarily paused while I try to work out how Richard Chaves gets his watch to stay halfway up his forearm like that.

Ironhorse and Norton are busy looking at computer models that Norton hopes will let them eventually locate the alien base when Harrison pops in and tasks Norton with, “a career’s worth of work,” digging up pre-1953 DoD files to find evidence that something humanity did might have provoked the first invasion. Ironhorse is scandalized by the mere suggestion, but — correctly — no one overreacts at this stage, since it actually is a perfectly reasonable thing to research, particularly if there’s a possibility that, say, the isolation of pure folic acid (first done in 1945) posed an existential threat to the aliens (Or, y’know, that other thing that happened in 1945, but we’ll get to that). As a side-note, I’m glad to see Ironhorse and Norton casually working together in the background of this episode, even though the real meat later is going to be Ironhorse and Harrison inspiring a whole bunch of hurt/comfort fics.

In von Deer’s lab (Which is nicknamed “The Pit”, seemingly as set-up to a joke no one ever gets around to telling. Probably the same one from the pilot novelization), Suzanne immediately abuses her mentor’s hospitality by poking around in his computer files and setting off a security alarm, necessary for some “government work” he’s doing. I don’t think that a security lockout that triggers an alarm on someone else’s terminal in real time if someone just happens upon a particular file while doing a mundane search for relevant information is either a realistic or useful security precaution — either Suzanne ought to have had some way to know she wasn’t allowed to access that data before it got to the point of raising an alarm. But hey, ’80s computers.

Before they can get into it over the matter, the record company aliens decide to come in, after, I assume, spending the past few hours just sitting around in the limo. Von Deer leaves Suzanne in the lab while he meets with them. They challenge him about Suzanne’s presence in a very threatening way, but he assures them that she isn’t a threat. This show is getting progressively better at communicating things subtly, without lapsing into traditional Sci-Fi exposition dumps. Which is all the more surprising because they insist on structuring the show such that we always know the gist of the alien plan ahead of time. Without repeating what von Deer must already know at this stage, it becomes clear that they’ve convinced him they’re a peaceful race that seeks to uplift humanity once he’s developed a vaccine that will protect them from Earth bacteria, but they’ve got to operate in secret for fear that human governments will imprison and dissect them. Von Deer is completely convinced of their good will in spite of the way they keep doing over-the-top villain-talk stuff to tap-dance around their intentions rather than just plain lying: they keep repeating how they’ll “bring a new age” to Earth, or how they’ll “change humanity’s destiny”, or how “you will be baked. And then there will be cake,” or how Darth Vader killed his dad. Their performance isn’t just down to the subliminal music, though. The female alien is flirting pretty hardcore with the elderly scientist, including a sensual throat massage (not a euphemismJan Rubes in War of the Worlds) as she teaches him to pronounce alien words.

John Novak and Alex Carter in War of the Worlds

Anyone else think this looks like a cutscene of you getting berated after losing a life in an early ’90s FMV rail shooter? Just me then?

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January 30, 2016

Tales from /lost+found 43: Death is a stupid asshole.

Yeah, I wasn’t going to keep doing this, but I said to someone, “I was worried it was turning into a running gag,” and they said, “Yeah, but is it funny?”

I don’t know either. But people have been trying to work out if Abe Vigoda was dead for longer than I’ve been alive. Exactly what I wanted to be reminded of right around my birthday.

Cover blurb below the fold.

Abe Vigoda, Glen Frey in Doctor Who

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January 27, 2016

Antithesis: Synthetic Love (War of the Worlds 2×09)

Remember kids, yellow drugs are bad. Blue drugs are good.

Remember kids, yellow drugs are bad. Blue drugs are good.

Happy new year! It is January 15, 1990, which is, it is really weird to think about, twenty years and one day before I get married. We’ve been away for a while, so let’s see what we’ve missed. Gorbachev met Pope John Paul II and two days later officially declared the Cold War over. East Germany amended its constitution, permitting political parties other than the Socialist Unity Party to run the country. Egon Krenz resigned as head of state and the SED dissolved a few days later. Václav Havel became the president of Czechoslovakia. Civil unrest broke out in Romania, and unlike all the other communist countries that were collapsing at the time, the Romanian government decided to double down rather than back down, ordering protesters to be shot. On December 22, the military abruptly switched sides. On Christmas day Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife were given a quick show-trial then summarily executed by firing squad.

In January, Turkmenistan, though still communist and not yet independent, held the first partially-free elections in the Eastern Bloc since Poland last year. Poland, by the way, withdrew from the Warsaw Pact at the beginning of the year. Demonstrations in Lithuania presage its independence in March, and protesters in East Germany storm the Stasi headquarters. Martial law in China, imposed after last year’s Tiananmen Square protests, is finally lifted on the tenth.

In non-Cold War news, David Dinkins was sworn in as the mayor of New York and Douglas Wilder as the Governor of Virginia. The US invaded Panama over Christmas break. Strongman Manuel Noriega surrendered on January 3. Mission STS-32 launched Space Shuttle Columbia into space for the tenth time. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is closed to visitors on account of how far it’s leaning.

The Billboard chart-toppers since we’ve been gone have been “Blame it on the Rain” by Milli Vanilli, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, and “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins, which remains the incumbent for its fourth week. “Pump Up the Jam” is also on the chart this week, as “Don’t Know Much” by Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville. New on the top ten this week is “Just Between You and Me” by Lou Gramm, one of those songs I find hard to remember from its title (It’s the one whose chorus goes “Even if heaven and Earth collide tonight…”).

Mr. Bean premiers on Thames Television. The Simpsons premiers on FOX. Bart Simpson is in fourth grade and Maggie is a nonverbal infant. Free Spirit, one of those “high-concept” sitcoms I’m so fascinated by gets its plug pulled after fourteen episodes. I remember nothing of the show whatever and it seems to be utterly unremarkable except that it was Alyson Hannigan’s first regular TV role. Square One TV starts its third season. Everything on TV is new this week, but largely unremarkable. Last week’s MacGyver is another of those ones where Mac gets whacked in the head and hallucinates himself into the old west or something. Without looking it up, I think it may be the one where he gets a wooden Swiss Army knife.

Star Trek the Next Generation takes the week off, but the preceding two weeks gave us “The Defector” and “The Hunted”. I remember “The Defector” pretty well. “The Hunted” I am pretty sure is exactly the same plot they would recycle for at least one of the later series. Possibly more than one. And possibly an episode of Stargate Atlantis too. Friday the 13th the Series returned last week with “Mightier than the Sword”, about a cursed pen that compels people do whatever they’re written as doing. So like that John Candy movie Delirious only not funny. It’s noteworthy because Micki straight-up murders the bad guy at the end. This week is “Year of the Monkey”, and involves a set of those see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil monkey statues.

If you were hoping that after my very long break, I’d have something brilliant and insightful to say about this week’s episode of War of the Worlds, you’re going to be disappointed. I went through this a couple of times, but all I can come up with is that it’s a confused mess. On the most superficial level, it seems like it’s got something to say — the incredibly banal and underwhelming message that, “Drugs are bad, mmkay?”, screamed from the rooftops. But it spends much of its run-time undermining its own message, and never manages justify or quantify its own moral stance. It’s not even a fully coherent Space Whale Aesop (A speculative fiction morality tale wherein the fantastic elements undermine the moral lesson by giving it an air of fantasy that renders it inapplicable to the real world. Such as, “Don’t torture space whales.”) because while it seems to be going for, “Drugs are bad because aliens,” the actual alien drug is the least harmful thing in here. Except when it isn’t. I don’t know. Maybe I missed a page or something.

“Synthetic Love” tries to be an important episode to the mythos, and completely fails in this regard. Specifically, this is the only time we’re given insight into how the world came to be such a crappile. And man alive is it heavy-handed. There’s been hints, sure: Debi mentioning a senator skipping bail, the talk last time about the soil being infertile. But they’ve never actually come right out and claimed a causal relationship with the collapse of civilization until now. A voice on the TV in the background of the second scene of this episode is going to come right out and say that the economy has collapsed, and the welfare system has collapsed, and social services have collapsed, and it’s all the direct result of the legalization of narcotics four years earlier.

The government announced the final collapse of the welfare system. Rumored for the past month, the official shutdown of all welfare operations will begin at midnight tonight. The plight of millions of unemployed and homeless has reached unmanageable proportions, and the administration attributes the origin of the catastrophe to the legalization of narcotics four years ago.

You don’t say. Well, first-off, I guess we’re meant to understand that War of the Worlds is set at least four years into the future. Probably at least eight since it’s hard to imagine anyone seriously believing George Bush would end the War on Drugs. The TV voice makes a particular point that it was assumed that taking drugs out of the hands of the gangs and giving them to the corporations would make things better but has not. No reason is given for this. No reason is ever given for this. Okay, our motif here is grimdark punk-rock dystopian, so maybe it just goes without saying that corporations are evil and corrupt and make everything worse. I can get behind that, sure, but if you want to actually claim that corporations are worse than street gangs, I think that’s not something you can just handwave. Utterly missing from this discussion is any sense of “how” or “why”. Because it feels for all the world like this episode wants us to believe that drug legalization is the cause of the current state of affairs, and is just hoping we don’t remember that the previous episode told us that one of the attendant problems with this collapse is that they can’t get food to grow in the soil, and a few weeks before that they told us about bio-weapons testing on civilians. Because drugs, I guess.

There’s a note of triumphalism in it, sort of like you often see in religious end times stories — a sense of, “Take that, hippie scum! You thought legalizing drugs would make things better but this entirely fictional story about aliens proves you’re wrong!” Like all triumphalism, it doesn’t really care about the substance of the argument it’s dismissing. It takes for granted that if drugs were legal, nearly everyone would do them, become addicted, and turn into a drain on society. But for all that’s a very right-wing argument, it seems like the narrative’s sympathies are clearly with the addicts, and it strongly agrees with the idea of treating drug addiction as a public health crisis rather than a criminal one. If anything, addicts are depicted foremost as victims of corporate greed.

And yet, the big drug corporation is also painted sympathetically. They do try to do the right thing, and there’s indications of a social consciousness and sense of social responsibility that perhaps they wanted to seem fake, but don’t come off that way. Certainly, if we’re supposed to take away the message that it’s all the fault of Evil Corporations, we shouldn’t have Blackwood speaking approvingly of the narcotics-industry-run free rehabilitation clinics. Which he does.

You know what it reminds me of a little? Way back when I was talking about Max Headroom, one of the things I had noticed was that their critique of capitalism was subtly neutered: the system as a whole stank, to be sure, but it was always the fault of a discrete set of bad actors. A handful of sociopaths who’d wormed their way into positions of trust. Not like out corporate overlords, who totally want to do the right thing, and totally would on balance, if only they weren’t beholden to the advertisers and the shareholders.

Come to think of it, there’s a distinctly Max Headroom vibe to the look and feel of this episode. If “Night Moves” had kind of a Soap Opera feel to it, “Synthetic Love”, despite lacking any of the overt trappings and signifiers of it, feels weirdly cyberpunk. There’s no cyberweb or NuYen or Street Samurai, but there are elements of corporate plotting with overly elaborate plans which have been calibrated for maximum nastiness despite the fact that they could not possibly accomplish any sort of practical goal beyond increasing human misery (It’s even explicit that the drug companies aren’t profitable! It’s not even “They destroy lives, the environment and civilization to turn a profit.” They do all those things at a loss!). But I don’t just mean the plot: there’s been other plots that would lend to a Max Headroom episode (“Night Moves”, “Terminal Rock” and “Breeding Ground” all come to mind), but it would require a substantial rewrite to actually tell the story in that mode. Much more than any other episode so far, you could imagine this one ending with Edison Carter airing his “live and direct” expose on rehab clinics. You can pretty much use Edison, Theora and Bryce as drop-in replacements for Kincaid, Blackwood and Suzanne.

Except, of course, that Max Headroom had a sense of humor, and could revel playfully in the perversity of its setting, while War of the Worlds is more interested in just bringing us down. You’ll notice that there’s no analogue of the Max character in War of the Worlds. I think I would be a lot more forgiving of this show if it were more fun instead of just an endless tragedy parade. Having an element like Max to provide cynical commentary on the situation would also help with the fact that the heroes don’t actually do anything this week. Blackwood and Suzanne spend the entire episode doing chemical analysis, and Kincaid’s role is primarily to serve as a witness. They have nothing to do with the outcome of the story — everything would unfold in exactly the same way had they been omitted. For Max Headroom that sort of thing worked, since Edison’s power in that series wasn’t his ability to intervene in the plot as it unfolded, but to be there at the end with his camera to expose the truth. The truth-exposing part just doesn’t happen in War of the Worlds, and Kincaid isn’t much of a “watch but don’t interfere, and make sure you document everything” character anyway.

The aliens have invented a new drug called “Crevulax”, which sounds almost five percent more like the name of an alien from Doctor Who than like an actual drug. Allegedly, it fixes personality disorders and causes instant euphoria — we see it instantly calm someone who’s violently psychotic.

War of the Worlds

This dude looks like he’s about to ask Lenny to tell him about the rabbits, the girl is obviously terrified… And this is considered a great success

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Ooh, I bet the effects are only temporary and when the withdraw kicks in, you become ultra-violent or explode or something.” You know what would have been a better plot than the plot of this episode? That thing you just said. No, we never see any evidence that there’s any negative side effects to taking Crevulax. Which is not to say that Crevulax isn’t secretly evil: it’s rather predictably so. But, based on what we actually see, it does work. Really well. But it’s somehow bad for some reason.

I guess maybe you could claim that Crevulax suppresses all violent instincts to the point where it leaves people unable to defend and take care of themselves, in a sort of Clockwork Orange or Serenity way (Or even closer, the Doctor Who serial “The Mind of Evil”). I’d say that fits best with the balance of the facts (Malzor does mention that pacifying the humans is one of their goals, though he seems to be in it mostly for the money this time). But no one ever says so or shows us this in action. You’d want there to be a scene where the Crevulax test subject gets jumped by street toughs or something and Kincaid has to save him because he’s completely unable to protect himself. But no, we’re just expected to take it for granted that Crevulax is bad because (a) aliens and (b) drug.

Vlasta Vrana as Laporte

Only lighting one side of his face and having him always hold a snifter of brandy is the full extent of how they convey that he’s evil.

Malzor, operating again under the pseudonym of “Mr. Malcolm”, signs a lucrative deal with the head of Laporte Pharmaceuticals to distribute Crevulax via their charity free drug rehab clinics. I guess to replace methadone. Laporte is instantly convinced that Crevulax will turn around his company’s projected 13% loss this quarter though an aggressive policy of “giving it away for free”. Laporte’s plan seems to be:

  1. Give Crevulax away for free
  2. ???
  3. Profit

Sure, okay, “the first one’s free” is standard drug-dealer MO. But once again, they never actually say that. Far too much in this episode is predicated on the idea that the audience will just go along with “Drugs are bad, mmkay?” Legalizing drugs will be bad because instead of the narcotics industry running like a business, businesses will run like drug cartels. Only without making any money because you can’t make legit money on drugs, because drugs are bad, mmkay? That murders will go up (42% according to The Exposition Channel) with legalization because drugs make people murderous. For that matter, the whole “Corporations are bad, mmkay?” thing is also something we’re meant to take on faith, given that Laporte never knowingly does anything evil and tries to make things right when he learns the truth.

You could probably say that Laporte ought to have been more suspicious and kicked “Mr. Malcolm” to the curb for being so transparently slimy and evil, but it’s not like he actually trusts Malzor beyond what he demonstrates firsthand in the Crevulax tests. Heck, he goes behind Malzor’s back to have Crevulax analyzed because he’s suspicious. The worst thing he does is to agree to Malzor’s terms when he claims that they’ll need a regular supply of “test subjects” to “calibrate” the Crevulax formulation process.

Yeah, about that. Crevulax is people, in case you haven’t figured it out. I shouldn’t play down the fact that this is evil and all, but it’s a very bush-league sort of evil. The aliens are killing a small number of people for the purpose of making a drug which legitimately seems to help people in very dire need. That’s sort of an “essay topic for freshman ethics class” kind of evil, not what you’d expect from either a secret alien invasion story or a giant evil corporation story.

Adrian Paul

Kincaid demonstrates how to Just Say No to Freddie Mercury

The hook to get our heroes involved this week, insofar as they’re involved, is a guy called Mr. Jimmy. He’s yet another of those “Old friends of Kincaid with a problem” that we’d seen before in “Terminal Rock” and “Seft of Emun”. He’s got one line of dialogue that hints that maybe he became addicted to drugs due to chronic pain from an old leg injury, which is all we’ll learn about his backstory. We watch him try unsuccessfully to buy “a gram of rock” at a fortified pharmacy (Perhaps we’re meant to understand that the drug companies’ unprofitability stems from them relying on a product that actively hinders the buyer’s ability to hold down a job?), then almost get beaten up by a loan shark in a bar. Fortunately for him, Kincaid’s just sat down to a bottle of whiskey, hold the shot-glass full of pills.

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January 23, 2016

Tales from /lost+found 42: You will know it is time to turn the page…

These things are basically the reason I learned to read by the time I was three. Far as I know, there never was a classic-era Doctor Who Read-along book. This has now been corrected.

I know what the more cynical among you might say about the design of the Cybermen. But obviously, it’s not just a shameless rip-off of Iron Man. There’s a bit of Star-Lord in there too.

Click to Embiggen

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January 20, 2016

Synthesis 4: Raised on Biggie and Nirvana

Jared Martin, Rachel Blanchard, Lynda Mason GreenSo yeah. As many times as I’ve watched this series, somehow this is the first time I’ve noticed how much “Among the Philistines” prefigures “The Second Wave”. And not just in the broad strokes of “The aliens manage to get an agent inside the Cottage.”

“The Second Wave” begins with Blackwood going to a meeting set up by General Wilson which turns out to be a trap set by the aliens to capture him. That’s basically what happens in the first half of “Among the Philistines” as well, though in a slower way: Harrison and the gang are sent to a meeting with Adrian, who turns out to be an alien infiltrator.

Once the Blackwood team starts working with Adrian, we cut back to the Advocacy in their cave. One of them has sent a transmission to the council in anticipation of their success. Another cautions the first about getting ahead of himself because of the risk they’re taking on if the plan fails. It’s unusual to see the Advocates disagree on strategy — the only other time we’ve seen it was when one of them was sick. But there’s similar scenes in “The Second Season” of Malzor assuring the Eternal of their success, and the recurring element of tension between him and Mana over strategy.

It’s the third act of “Among the Philistines” where the parallels become really strong, though. In both, Ironhorse and his troops are sent off to a location they’ve discovered by studying alien transmissions, and in both cases, it turns out to be a trap. In both cases, Ironhorse is forced to breach security to get back into the Cottage when it’s been locked down in his absence. In both cases, there’s a climactic fight in the basement between Norton and an alien agent — for that matter, both episodes feature a fight between Norton and Ironhorse, though in very different contexts.

Even more specifically, both fights feature a member of the team dying at the elevator door. Philip AkinAnd in both fights, Norton is knocked out of his wheelchair, but manages to pull himself to something he can use to strike back: the wiring box in “Among the Philistines”, the alarm panic button in “The Second Wave”. Furthermore, both episodes feature a scene where the good guys would be able to safely escape the situation, except that Debi has gone and gotten herself into a position to be imperiled by the infiltrator, and someone’s got to risk themself to extricate her. And, finally, both episodes end with sombre survivors commemorating their fallen colleagues.

Despite their similarities, though, the two episodes are polar opposites in tone. Because their plots hit so many of the same points, this particular pair of episodes serve to highlight spectacularly just how different in tone the two seasons are. In both episodes, Norton is brave, and clever, and more competent in a fight than Ironhorse anticipates. But in “The Second Wave”, that’s not enough to save him (If you’ve got a good memory, I actually did make a crack about how Norton might have survived if he’d had a voice-controlled wheelchair. I did this totally not remembering the episode where he’d survived a similar fight by having his voice-controlled wheelchair ram the alien). In both episodes, Ironhorse is a brave and determined soldier, but in “The Second Wave”, he doesn’t manage to avoid falling into an ambush.

War of the Worlds Season 2 Title SequencePart of the difference is that Norton and Ironhorse (and Blackwood, for that matter, given that he only evades capture himself due to Kincaid’s intervention) all seem a little bit dimmer in the second season. Ironhorse lets himself be led into a trap. Norton fails to recognize the clone’s intentions until it’s too late (In fact, Norton here lacks all the traits which “Among the Philistines” showcased, which certainly gives credence to the unpleasant theory that Mancuso just didn’t see anything to the character of Norton beyond “cripple”). But even more, Frank Mancuso’s War of the Worlds is set in a world that’s just downright nastier. That much you can see from the title sequence. Remember the episode of Friday the 13th from two weeks ago? Basically an old episode of The Twilight Zone rewritten to be nastier. That’s basically Mancuso’s approach here too. What happens when you remake “Among the Philistines” in a grimdark world that cuts you no slack?

Turn LeftYou know what else it reminds me of? “Turn Left”. The antepenultimate episode of the fourth series of Doctor Who. A minion of the Trickster (a powerful extradimensional villain from The Sarah Jane Adventures who specializes in modifying history to sew chaos) creates an alternate reality around the Doctor’s companion, Donna Noble, where she never met the Doctor. Without her intervention, the Doctor is killed by the events of the second Christmas special. As a new timeline unfolds, Earth faces many of the same crises as in the third and fourth series, but with more tragic outcomes as the Doctor’s many friends on Earth are forced to sacrifice themselves to minimize the impact. By the nominative “present day” of the series, Great Britain is rapidly devolving into a police state with deliberate parallels to Weimar Germany after the destruction of London.

I bring it up because I think the general sense of that episode is that it’s not merely the absence of the Doctor himself which changes the outcome of the situations. The casts of the Doctor Who spin-offs The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood are sacrificed resolving events which, in the primary storyline, were resolved not by the Doctor himself directly, but by others who’d been influenced by his worldview. The altered timeline is shaped not by the Doctor’s actions but by his narrative gravity: it is a general recurring theme of Russel T. Davies’s take on the character of the Doctor that his presence in a story alters the nature of the narrative, creating, to oversimplify things, a more optimistic world, where people are a bit more prone to listening to their better angels and outcomes trend toward the better rather than the worse. In other words, the Doctor is the antidote to grimdark (One could be more specific: it is the gestalt between the Doctor and his companion which exerts this narrative gravity, for, in the major theme which Stephen Moffat carried forward when he took over the show, the Doctor seems to lose this power when he is alone).

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January 19, 2016

Program Note

From my Askimet stats:

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So yeah. I think the amount of spam incoming may be once again edging up to the point where it’s causing my (admittedly somewhat flakey) web host’s database server to crash.

To keep my blog on the air, I’ve dialed the spam retention window WAY back. So if you happen to comment and it gets flagged as spam, it might no longer exist when I go to check on it. Sorry for the inconvenience.