In an old house in Paris, all covered in vines…
It is February 5, 1990. Two really big things in the news this week. On the second, as part of his strategic, “For the love of God, please don’t let our decades of racist oppression lead to us all being massacred the way we really, really deserve,” plan, F. W. de Klerk promised to release Nelson Mandela from prison. He’ll make good on it this coming Sunday. Wednesday, the Soviet government will vote to allow opposition parties in the USSR, giving up their legally mandated monopoly on power.
In entertainment news, Future-Parallel-Universe-Doctor Who Rowan Atkinson marries makeup artist Sunestra Sastry. The marriage would last until 2015. The 1960s game show Supermarket Sweep is reincarnated by Lifetime. Network TV is all new this week, including a new MacGyver where Mac takes on Yakuza interference with the logging industry, and a new Columbo directed by and guest-starring Patrick MacGoohan, the fourth of his five appearances in the series. Friday, CBS will use its Special Presentation bumper for the last time to introduce The Bradys, a shockingly ill-considered revival of The Brady Bunch as an hour-long drama. Leah Ayers replaced Maureen McCormick, who’d recently given birth and wasn’t available for filming. The show’s kind of a bummer, with Marcia battling alcoholism, Bobby being crippled in a car crash, and Peter getting into an abusive relationship. It quietly vanished after six episodes. I remember that we made a real effort to watch it, but just could not bear it.
Michael Bolton retains the top spot on the charts for one more week, but Paula Abdul’s hot on his heels, leaping over Rod Stewart’s “Downtown Train” to land in the number 2 position this week. “Janie’s Got a Gun” hops into the top ten, displacing Phil Collins’s “Another Day in Paradise”. Star Trek the Next Generation this week is “Deja Q”, which is the one where Q gets turned human and hijinks ensue. I recall liking bits of it at the time, but Josh Marsfelder makes a sold argument against it. I think the failure of this episode is that there’s a tension among the writers over Q’s status as a trickster god archetype, and whether, to simplify it a bit, he’s Loki or he’s Coyote (Anansi is probably a better fit here, but I’m more familiar with Coyote), and this episode ends up having him be neither. This is the episode where he pretty much transitions from “Otherworldly trickster god” to “Picard’s wacky uncle with godlike powers”. Friday the 13th The Series presents “Repetition”, which is kind of a cross between one of the more outlandish episodes of CSI and one of those French farces. A reporter accidentally runs over someone, but he happens to have one of those useful cursed artifacts that lets you raise the dead in exchange for killing someone else. And since he’s a decent sort and doesn’t want to kill anyone, he proceeds to go on a murder spree in order to resurrect each subsequent victim. It ends exactly the way you know it’s going to, with him offing himself to break the cycle.
This week’s episode, as is the recurring theme for this series, is weak on plot and storytelling, but strong on style. The plot is thin and the characters pointlessly obstructive and evil for no reason other than “Because you need bad guys in this part of the story,” and the lead characters are bracketed off for most of the story, but there’s some interesting visuals and a great, almost dream-like, atmosphere. In many ways, it feels more like an episode of, say, Tales From the Darkside than War of the Worlds. And for once, the style they’ve picked to go over the substance actually works.
To follow up our last episode’s cavalier disregard for the history of the franchise, this week, we have a direct sequel to an earlier episode. War of the Worlds scoffs in the face of your foolish attempts to fit it to any sort of master narrative.
This Chtulu Mythos crossover with 2001: A Space Odyssey is confusing.
Unfortunately, the episode it’s a direct sequel to is “Breeding Ground”. Yes, we’ll be bringing back the the alien child, born of a human woman who was marginalized in her own story because fuck 1980s screenwriting. After a flashback to Malzor doing the Lion King bit at the end of “Breeding Ground”, we see that the baby, who is two months old according to Mana, has rapidly aged-up to the equivalent of a nine-year-old human, who they’ve named “Adam” out of their cultural love of symbolism. I’ll allow it because we’ve already established that the Morthren get a kick out of mocking Christianity, though it’s not really a theme they’ve followed up on in a while.
There’s another issue implicit in this as well: child actors. Joel Carlson plays Adam. He’d previously appeared in the 1989 movie Communion, and would go on to appear in Superboy as an alternate-universe version of young Clark Kent. And he’s not great. Not aggressively awful, but stilted in a way that doesn’t feel intentional, and he’s got a twee lisp on top of it. There’s one other speaking child part, the rest are all just dead-eyed extras. Mana reckons that the reason Adam is so sullen and withdrawn and his “energy grows lower each day” is that his “human side” isn’t getting the human interaction it needs. They hadn’t really been clear on Adam being part human before: my assumption back in “Breeding Ground” was that, like the others, he’s fully Morthren, but has been outwardly engineered to look superficially human. But now it seems that Adam is something different. His behavior reminds me a lot of the clones: physically “perfect”, psychologically human, but with Morthren loyalties and a Morthren value system.
So they’re going to send him off to boarding school, where interacting with other dead-eyed child actors will hopefully perk him up. There’s a place called “The Creche” outside the city, “Where this society has focused its efforts on improving itself.” Malzor has a secondary motive in sending Adam there as well: the Creche has information that the Morthren can use. It strikes me odd that Malzor is the one here — throughout the episode, really — who’s pushing the scientific agenda, while Mana is more concerned with Adam’s wellbeing, even to the point of giving her superior a stern talking to about pushing him too hard. This might be a rare piece of foreshadowing to where her character goes at the end of the season, or maybe the writers just forgot which character was which. You never can tell with this show.
Oh no! That car only saw him with ten seconds and the length of a city block to stop. Clearly there was no way to avoid a collision!
We cut to a guy named Martin Daniels (Oddly, IMDB lists the character as “Paul Daniels”, but he’s not credited that way nor is he ever referred to by any name other than “Martin”) having an argument with his wife about their son’s prospects. The child, Patrick, is a prodigy, and dad wants to ship him off for special schooling and discipline and no fun, while mom wants her child to be a child and do fun child things. When she threatens to leave him and take Patrick with her, Martin calls her a bitch and roughs her up. Unfortunately, Patrick sees this and flees, and, as basically always happens in this sort of story, runs straight into the path of a delivery truck. A keen eye might have caught that this scene is strangely well-lit and not especially post-apocalyptic, and indeed, the smash-cut reveals that we’ve been watching the night terrors of a slightly older Martin, who’d been dozing in his office until his past guilt roused him. He’s drawn to the window by calls of, “Daddy! Daddy!” from outside, and sees Adam standing in the driveway, but for a moment, he sees not Adam, but Patrick.
If you work in a place that looks like this, the only research you should be doing with children should involve determining if they have sufficient “Attitude” to fight monsters using giant robots.
He immediately thinks to call Suzanne, because… Okay, I don’t know. Suzanne was friends with his now ex-wife. For some reason, he reckons that her expertise will be relevant. Maybe the show’s forgotten that she’s a microbiologist and thinks she’s a PI? Not that I blame them, since it’s only come up once in passing. It takes him a week to get hold of her, this being one of the disadvantages to living in a sewer in a post-apocalyptic urban dystopia.
He, “wasn’t about to turn him over to the police,” and I think by now we’ve seen enough of how this world works to accept that without further explanation. He gives her Adam’s photo and fingerprints and asks her to help him find out who the kid is. Adam has no discernible social skills and won’t speak (I’m calling him “Adam”, but at this point, he hasn’t told the humans his name yet), but he reminds Martin of his dead son. Suzanne agrees to help.
Before meeting Adam, Martin gives her a quick tour to help establish how atmospheric and creepy the Creche is. He takes her to the Creepy Room “Imagination Chamber”, a room decorated in a sort of Salvador-Dali-does-Alice-in-Wonderland style with a large ravine in the middle.
Possibly I should have picked a room that did not already look like it had been badly stitched together in photoshop to try out my new panorama plugin.
Here, we meet the other two scientists at the Creche. “Billy” (I don’t recall him having a last name) is a sort of Vincent Schiavelli-wannabe who contributes little to the episode. The other scientist participating in their torture of an infant is Ms. Ghoulson, which is pronounced “Goalson”, except, presumably, when she’s not in earshot. She kinda looks a little like Daily Show contributor Kristen Schaal, and is basically the grumpy adult character from a children’s breakfast cereal commercial who does not approve of children eating fun and exciting non-bran-based cereals.
They’re running an experiment where Billy coaxes an infant into crawling toward him in spite of the ravine between them. There’s a silent, tense moment where we’re meant to fear that the baby is going to fall in before the reveal that the pit is covered by a transparent panel (Which clearly isn’t there in the long shots) — they even intercut a reaction shot of Suzanne taking a little gasp, because apparently she reckoned they were indeed actually trying to coax a baby into walking over a cliff, but only objects when the baby actually does it. The experiment here is clearly based on 1960 Gibson and Walk “Visual Cliff” experiment. The big difference, of course, is that the goal of the Visual Cliff experiment was to determine when infants develop depth perception: virtually all normally-sighted infants will either refuse outright or display extreme reluctance to crawl out over a cliff to get to their mother. Initially, it was assumed that this meant that depth perception developed around the same time as crawling, since smaller babies would happily wiggle themselves over the cliff. Later experiments with heart-rate monitoring showed something more complex: infants as young as three months noticed the cliff, it just didn’t affect their behavior. The conclusion researchers drew was that the ability to perceive depth develops very early, but it’s only much later that an infant develops the concept of falling, and is able to appreciate that crawling off a cliff is the sort of thing that might result in them having a bad time. Whatever the interpretation, the version shown here is has been twisted to do something very different, essentially, “Let’s see if we can break this small child of innate in-built behavior and teach them to like being gaslighted.” Deeply disturbing, but pretty in-keeping with this episode’s motifs. They explain this as a trust exercise: in order to ensure that the students will accept the accelerated teaching program, they train them from birth to blindly trust their teachers, even to the point of, for example, crawling into an open pit on command. I will note as the episode goes on, it takes very little coaxing for the children at the Creche to turn on their teachers, so I have to reckon that these trust-building exercises have not actually been subjected to any sort of efficacy testing.
Having thus established how creepy and unpleasant the Creche is and showing us the big conspicuous visual cliff and the shiny Russian revolver hanging on the wall, Martin and Ms. Ghoulson takes Suzanne to the playground — sorry, “recreation area” — to meet Adam. They’ve spent hours trying to get through to him, without getting him to talk or participate in physical activity. Even his classmate Julie (Lisa Jakub, an actually competent child actor, who’d go on to appear in Mrs. Doubtfire and Independence Day, but the part is too small here to really appreciate her acting), can’t entice him to try playing ball. Mrs. Ghoulson snaps at the other children to stand back, and proceeds to look utterly scandalized when Suzanne dares to try speaking gently to him and being nice, and looks utterly horrified when this prompts him to tell her his name and actually interact with her. When Suzanne asks if he’s feeling okay and whether he’s hungry, it’s more than she can stand and she snaps at Suzanne that, “He’s fine and he ate a short time ago!” Bran flakes, no doubt.
Suzanne counters that the kid looks sickly and needs to rest, but now that he’s talking, Martin immediately decides to forget about all that crap about building trust and shit, and strap the kid in to run experiments on him. There’s a little disconnect here in that it seems like Martin has already decided that Adam is Special, hence his determination to learn his secrets and test his powers. But it’s not at all clear why he’d think that at this point, since we’ve established that Adam has thus far refused to participate or interact in any way, so there shouldn’t be any evidence so far that Adam is anything other than one of the tn Martin is trying to lift humanity above. In fact, you’d really expect someone like Martin to be dismissive of Adam, interpreting his lack of social skills and unwillingness to talk as evidence of some sort of mental defect, only to have him later shocked by the reveal that Adam is actually highly intelligent. Instead, Martin knows there’s something special about Adam from the beginning for no clear reason.
The test is a pretty straightforward “Strap him in a chair and make him do math problems” affair, in which Adam demonstrates an understanding of Laplace’s Equation. Laplace’s Equation is a second order partial differential equation that’s useful in a whole bunch of science-related fields because it describes harmonic functions which can model the difference in potential energies between different points in space, which lets you do stuff like describe gravitational fields, electrostatic fields, and heat transfer. And yeah, second order partial differential equations are hard. But we’re talking “Undergrad-level physics” stuff, not “Wile E. Coyote, Super-Genius” levels. Certainly a heck of a feat for a child, but I don’t know if it would realistically be drop-everything-and-freak-out impressive in a place that regularly deals with child prodigies. Martin is blown away that a nine-year-old could possibly do work so far in advance of his own students, and Mrs. Ghoulson calls his knowledge of algorithms, “Above genius level.” Or rather, his knowledge of “ahl-goo-rheezim”. It’s not like she has a fake German accent the rest of the time or anything, it’s just this one word the pronounces utterly bizarrely.
Suzanne is troubled by the way they’re treating this strange and possibly traumatized child and pulls Martin aside to demand an explanation. He vaguely explains that, “The public can’t even begin to understand,” the work they do, but that he believes, “All children should be tested to see where they fit in.” Because Children Are Our Future. Oh goodie. Reproductive Futurism. Don’t worry, they don’t get into it too deep. The salient point is that Martin is dangerously obsessed and up to something vaguely sinister, even though they never actually expand on what these vaguely sinister goals might be.
Suzanne suggests that maybe Martin doesn’t actually want Suzanne to find Adam’s family and he doesn’t deny it. Which is fine and all, except that now we’ve got a big plot hole in the area of what she’s doing here in the first place. When Suzanne arrived, he gave her Adam’s picture and fingerprints and told her he wanted her to find Adam’s family. Now, it seems that he doesn’t want that at all, so why did he go to the trouble of tracking her down? There’s still an open question of why Martin would contact Suzanne even for tracking down Adam’s parents. Why does he think Suzanne would be particularly good at this? They’re not especially close, so it’s unlikely he knows the details of her current circumstances — that she lives with a roguish ex-military type and a roguish action-scientist who are good at knocking heads and getting access to hard-to-find information via their 31337 network of contacts and strippers. And given that the Creche has highly-placed government backing, Martin should have official contacts of his own through which he can make inquiries, which would make a lot more sense than him asking Suzanne for help, given the direction her investigation is going to take. Thematically, it might make sense that he sought her out because (for reasons that I can’t explain) he thought her particular skills might let her get through to Adam and coax him out of his shell. Except that doesn’t work either, not only because there’s nothing we know about Suzanne that would suggest she’s especially good at that sort of thing (And even if she did turn out to secretly be a child psychologist in her spare time, it beggars the imagination to suppose the Creche didn’t already have one of those on hand), but more directly because everyone at the Creche seems outright resistant to actually letting her do anything to reach out to him.
What would make a lot more sense to me would be if he’d reached out to Suzanne immediately after finding Adam, but something had changed in the week it took his message to get to her. If, say, Adam had remained nonverbal but had done something to indicate his intelligence. Or if he’d been given a medical examination that revealed something unusual about his biology. But it’s clear that they’ve only just discovered how intelligent Adam is, and the alien aspects of his biology are only going to be discovered later. There could have been an interesting angle here, with Martin being actively conflicted between a genuine desire to help Adam and his scientific obsession. But I don’t really feel it. There’s no sense of Martin struggling or changing over the course of these scenes, so it’s as though he’s just nonsensically decided to undermine his own plans by inviting an outside agitator to come interfere in his work, and it’s just dumb luck that her unconventional, “Say hi to the kid and ask him how he’s doing,” approach paid off.
Pressed by Suzanne, Martin admits the truth: the students at the Creche were genetically engineered. Suzanne seems to take this in stride, but then reacts with a look of horror when he refers to them as, “test tube babies”. Probably just a poor editing choice to compose the reaction shot that way, but the clear implication is that the phrase “test tube babies” can be safely tossed out to generate simple, visceral revulsion. Which is a big fuck-you to a smallish number of eleven-and-unders who might possibly be in your audience.
Blackwood has only a passing knowledge of the Creche, and Suzanne fills him in on the details, describing the students as, “The most unhappy kids I’ve ever seen.” Seems like a stretch. I mean, the baby seemed happy enough. The older kids were maybe a little glum, outside on a cold, overcast day, dressed in red berets and herringbone longcoats that kinda read “French boarding school” to me. But they didn’t seem any unhappier than the mundane kids in the first act of any story where the dull gray lives of prim and proper schoolchildren in a repressive educational setting have their lives turned upside-down by a whimsical, quasi-supernatural new student, hippie teacher, or nanny with demonic powers. In fact, possibly the coolest thing about this episode is the way its horror aspects are juxtaposed with tropes and trappings more often associated with whimsical children’s stories. It’s called “The Pied Piper”, but it’s also a bit Peter Pan, but coupled with bits and pieces of, say, Frankenstein and maybe a little bit of “It’s a Good Life”. One of the many weak spots in the plot is that Suzanne never elaborates convincingly on her objections to the Creche. We know it’s a sinister place because it’s heavily coded that way, with Martin’s clear obsessiveness, Ms. Ghoulson’s cereal-villain attitude, and the creepy Salvador Dali room. But that’s all motif: there’s never any concrete reason given for it. It could just as easily turn out that there’s nothing wrong with Blake-Holsey High the Creche and this is really a story about not judging by appearances.
Suzanne personally and the narrative at large both assume without question that the people at the Creche are up to no good, and up to no good in a more specific way than is ever really addressed. At first, Suzanne’s concerns run less to the children being an affront to nature and more to them being abstractly mistreated. But that “abstractly” is a problem. What we see of this “mistreatment” doesn’t go beyond standard boarding school story cliches, and the complaints you could actually make based on what happens on screen you could equally well level against Hogwarts (Personally, I think there was far too little “Angry parents sue Hogwarts out of existence over the cavalier maiming of their children” in that series).
There’s a strong sense that Martin has some specific and nasty end in mind with his genetic manipulation, rather than the abstract, “Make humanity better,” but that’s the only end we’re ever given. When he and Suzanne come to words over it, he’ll talk about humanity’s desperate need for, “minds capable of correcting 2,000 years of mistakes,” but then he’ll meander into the concept of customizing, “a child’s appearance and personality like ordering a meal from a menu,” which… I mean, it’s kinda tangential to the whole “Saving humanity from its past mistakes” thing. Is he looking to make a load of money selling designer babies? Or is this a traditional mad science thing where he’s just obsessed with what’s scientifically possible and isn’t thinking about the consequences? The gobsmackingly obvious answer would be that he’s trying to “resurrect” his dead son by inventing a form of genetic engineering that would allow him to have another child with all the same traits as Patrick. But that isn’t in here, and in 1990, the sci-fi answer to reincarnating a dead kid is “cloning”, not “genetic engineering” (The story changes when you get to the 21st century and start to understand things like epigenetics and the fact that differences in the prenatal environment mean that a genetic duplicate of a person won’t necessarily resemble the original much more than any sibling).
Suzanne doesn’t come right out and give him the “Tampering in God’s domain,” speech, but she does fixate on the word “manipulate”. She gets close to actually hitting on a good point: that Martin is a control freak. His desire to control his Patrick’s life indirectly led to his death, and now he wants to manipulate and control a generation of children from the genetic level to mold them in his own perfected image. But rather than zero in on it, Suzanne sticks to trite platitudes about how humans weren’t meant to be perfect or how he treats people like machines or how terrible it would be if no one had a cleft palate.
And I’m not saying that genetic engineering for the purpose of “improving” humanity is okay or anything, but, especially from a character like Suzanne, who’s meant to be a scientist, I expect her argument to be based on reason rather than leaning, as it almost entirely does, on the assumption that the audience will just viscerally agree that genetic manipulation is Unnatural-therefore-Wrong. Because that is an immensely privileged argument to make, with its implicit assumption that there is a hard-and-fast line between treating diseases and deliberately “perfecting” humanity. Are we to say, “Harlequin Ichthyosis is sufficiently horrible that it’s okay to cure it using gene therapy, but a strong genetic predisposition toward obesity is just a trait and we shouldn’t tamper in God’s domain… Even though that genetic predisposition drastically increases the chances of an early death”? Or maybe, “If it can be controlled by traditional medical means, then you can’t use genetic manipulation, and it’s just tough cookies if when you’re thirty, they repeal the ACA and you can’t pay for your antidepressants any more”? The closest Suzanne comes to an actual rational argument rather than a simple visceral, “designer babies are unnatural” is her claim that, “there’s no way to predict the long-term effects of this,” which just seems like a lame counterargument.