April 30, 2016

Tales from /lost+found 56: Selling Out

After decades of hearing gamers shout about how prerecorded video is “just flat pixels on the screen; pixels have no souls” (Actual quote from a comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.adventure thread), unlike on-the-fly rendered polygons, which, I guess, do have souls, it’s amazing and wonderful that full motion video has, in 2016, started to find itself a bit of a niche market among the indie game scene.

It’s 2016 and my favorite kind of video games have live action video, and my favorite thing to watch on the TV is other people playing video games. It’s a good thing I’m such a big fan of surrealism.

Doctor Who FMV game ebay page

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April 27, 2016

Thesis: The Prodigal Son (War of the Worlds 1×15)

I have nothing really against humans, but as a group, they stink. I say kill them all.

John Colicos as Quinn

Who’s the alien sculptor who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?

It is February 6, 1989. Pinko Commie Liberal Gun-Grabber Ronald Reagan, just a few weeks out of office, delivers a speech at the University of Southern California in the wake of last month’s Stockton school shooting in which he says, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth or home defense. But I do believe an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon nor needed for home defense.” Though, fun fact, an AK-47 is not a machine gun. Los Angeles will ban the sale of semiautomatic weapons the next day. As the week goes on, Ron Brown will become the first African American to chair the DNC, and Barbara Harris will become the first woman to be ordained a Bishop in an Anglican church. Isiah Thomas will be born tomorrow.

In Cold War news, the Polish government initiates the Round Table Talks with the Solidarity party. The Communist regime had hoped they could just co-opt the opposition by giving them a place at the table that would make them more invested in the status quo. Instead, it gave Solidarity the legality and legitimacy that would lead in short order to the collapse of the Communist regime in Poland.

The collaborative live album Dylan and The Dead is released. Their July, 1987 performance of “All Along the Watchtower” is fucking incredible. Tomorrow, Elvis Costello will release Spike, which includes his Paul McCartney collaboration, “Veronica”, also known as, “Probably the only Elvis Costello Song you can remember (Unless you’re like me and really like “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”. That same day, Roy Orbison’s final album, “Mystery Girl”, is released posthumously. Its highest-charting song, “You Got It” will hit number 9 on the charts in April. Phil Collins drops nine spaces this week, just barely hanging on at number ten. Taking his place at the top of the chart is Sheriff with “When I’m With You”, one of those great late-’80s power ballads that stretches the word “Baby” out to nine syllables over five seconds. Except that the song was actually off of a 1982 album, and the band had broken up back in ’85, and it’s one of the only chart-toppers of the era not to have a music video. There doesn’t seem to be any particular story behind this happening; it’s just the eighties.

Composer Joe Raposo died yesterday. His credits include the theme songs to Three’s Company, The Electric Company, and the recently-debuted Shining Times Station. But his most famous contribution to television music was his work for Sesame Street, which includes “C is for Cookie”, “(It’s not easy) Bein’ Green”, “ABC-DEF-GHI”, “Sing”, and the iconic series theme song. It’s also rumored that Cookie Monster was inspired (At least in the detail of having one particular culinary obsession rather than being a generic Glutinous Monster) by Raposo’s love of cookies.

Sky Television becomes the UK’s first satellite TV network. US network television is all new this week, including the epic Western miniseries Lonesome Dove. For the first time since 1978, a new Columbo airs, the series having been brought back and moved to ABC. “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine” pits the detective against an alleged psychic who murders a stage magician, with the complication that the psychic is defrauding the government into contracting him as a consultant. MacGyver gives us “Cleo Rocks”, which features the return of Teri Hatcher as the comedy peril-magnet Penny Parker and Mac’s arch-nemesis Murdoc, an internationally renowned assassin for the Bond-Villain-esque “Homicide International Trust” and infamous master of disguise. Only by “master”, I mean, “You can tell it’s him the first time he appears on screen even though he’s facing the other direction and only half in the frame. Friday the 13th The Series is a bit interesting this week. “Face of Evil” is a sequel to last season’s “Vanity’s Mirror”. An aging model finds a cursed compact, not recovered after its last appearance, and uses it to restore her own beauty in exchange for murdering or mutilating other models. This is odd, because in its last appearance, the compact’s powers were completely different, causing men to fall obsessively in love with the bearer. They try to spackle over this discontinuity by suggesting the compact’s power is actually to “give you what you want the most,” love for the lonely teenage girl, beauty for the vain aging model, which technically makes the compact way more powerful than pretty much anything else in the series, including the ones which can cause the apocalypse. Star Trek the Next Generation is “A Matter of Honor”, the one where Riker spends a semester abroad on a Klingon ship. I want to say I think I was underwhelmed by this episode when it aired. Over at Vaka Rangi, Josh focuses on the coolness of its 3-D Viewmaster adaptation, which is a fair cop. Even today with our smart phones and our occulus rifts, we haven’t quite managed to reproduce the awesomeness of adapting TV shows to the 3-D Viewmaster format.

This week’s episode is the first one I’ve watched on our new 65″ TV, which rendered it almost unviewable. Looks like I’m going to have to re-rip my DVDs. Last week aside, War of the Worlds has generally had a really impressive guest cast. This week is probably where it tops out with the first appearance of John Colicos. Colicos was an extremely talented and versatile actor best known for playing villains that were between “just slightly over the top” and “did somebody order the LARGE HAM?” John Colicos as KorIn the Star Trek franchise, he’s known for playing Kor, the Klingon commander from “Errand of Mercy“, a role he reprised decades later for three episodes of Deep Space Nine (His final scene has a bit I really love. On the pretext of seeing Worf off on a suicide mission, he asks if he has a message for his wife. Worf fumbles, assuming the senile old man has forgotten that his wife had died last season. Kor takes advantage of Worf’s confusion to drug him in order to take his place, and says, roughly, “Don’t worry, when I get to Klingon Heaven, I’ll tell her you miss her.”). John Colicos as KorBut what he’s really known best for in the domain of Science Fiction is a role he played back in a weird 1970s show. I am, of course, speaking of The Starlost, where he played the butch manly leader of an all-male society of butch manly men who mostly wrestled. Well, that and Battlestar Galactica where he played Baltar.

I’ll cut to the chase and tell you who he is right now. Colicos is playing “Quinn”, a reclusive artist known as the “Painter of Light”.

Something about the name "Kinkade" feels familiar. Wonder why...

Something about the name “Kinkade” feels familiar. Wonder why…

No, wait. The “Sculptor of Light”. Like this:

It's only a model.

It’s only a model.

Okay, so maybe actually more like “The Sculptor of Video Toaster Post Processing Effects”. But anyway, he’s also an alien.

Not just any alien, though. See, Quinn is something we haven’t seen before (Though I suppose there are shades of him back in the novelization with Xashoron). Quinn is a renegade: an alien on the run from and actively opposed to the advocacy. This is, on the face of it, unthinkable. Everything we’ve seen so far suggests that the aliens are utterly, unquestioningly loyal, being possessed of little capacity for independent thought to begin with, to say nothing of rebellion.

The explanation, rather straightforwardly, is that Quinn is insane. Specifically, he’s been living among humans for so long that he’s adopted human traits. He hasn’t exactly “gone native”, but the tension between his Mortaxan psychology and his human lifestyle has driven him “half-mad”: he admits as much to Harrison. And do you think John Colicos can pull that off? Yes, of course he can. This part was basically written for him.

What does he expect to find under that hat?

Does he think Quinn is hiding under the hat?

I mean, except for the bits where he seems to be channeling Shaft. I don’t know where that came from. But, inexplicably, he still pulls it off. We first see Quinn on the run from the NYPD. Or rather, from some people who wear NYPD uniforms and bear noticeable radiation sores. They’re briefly incapacitated by a blinding light from a device hidden under Quinn’s seemingly-dropped hat (Why they decide to gather around the hat and gingerly pick it up is hard to explain), giving Quinn time to take the chase to the rooftops. The first officer to reach him fails to make the jump to the next building and Quinn takes obvious delight in refusing his pursuer’s plea for help as he tries to pull himself up from the ledge. After stomping on the policeman’s hand, he watches with a smirk as the surviving aliens below watch their comrade decompose. Our first indication of Quinn’s complicated nature comes when he tosses off a one-liner: “To life immortal, sucker.”

At the Cottage, the gang is getting ready to head to New York, where they’ll meet with General Wilson to brief the UN on the alien situation. While he’s in New York, Harrison has something more exciting planned, though: he’s received a personal invitation to meet Quinn and an opportunity to buy one of his sculptures. Norton is floored, and even Ironhorse is impressed, even if he describes the infamously reclusive artist as a, “phony who sells art that disappears when the lights are turned on.”

When sales are bad I rent my studio out as a mosh pit.

When sales are bad I rent my studio out as a mosh pit.

Quinn’s limo picks Harrison up in New York, and the artist demands he wear a blindfold for the trip back to the studio in order to protect his privacy. He leads Harrison to a seat on a raised platform in a large, dark room that reminds me a lot of Jessica Morgan’s studio from Captain Power. His blindfold removed, Harrison is awed by “The Universal Truth”, an installation consisting of interwoven patterns of blue beams of light. It’s always a problem when you include a character in a work of fiction who’s meant to be a master artist, especially if the medium of your fiction is able to display the art. You can maybe get away with writing a famous painter or sculptor or musician into a book. But try writing a story about a world-renowned poet, and you’ll be expected to actually produce some competent poetry. The light-sculpture Quinn shows Harrison honestly is less “world-famous artist” and more “competent wedding DJ”. The other Quinn we see in this episode might be a bit lackluster due to the visual effects used to render it, but you can at least imagine that if you saw this holographic space scene hovering in the air in real life, it would be pretty neat. The Universal Truth is just night club lights. But Harrison’s impressed and that’s what really matters. He couldn’t possibly afford a work on this scale (Maybe the problem here is that the good part is off-camera?), but Quinn, whose attitude has shifted from brusque to playful, gives it to him as a gift, and throws in a metal bracelet identical to his own.

Quinn moves the topic of conversation to the possibility of alien life. Quinn: Tell me, Harrison, do you believe there’s life in outer space?
Harrison: How could I not?
Quinn:That answer reminds me of the little old Irish lady who, when asked if she believed in ghosts, replied, “No, but they’re there.”
Harrison asks if Quinn takes his inspiration from the stars. When Quinn answers that the stars are the source, “of imagination itself, and of life immortal,” Harrison realizes that something is up. I’m struggling here to remember if Harrison has ever heard the aliens say their catchphrase before. Maybe in “Eye for an Eye”?

John Colicos in War of the Worlds

It was a serious struggle to keep the number of John Colicos Crazy Eyes gifs in this post down.

Quinn reveals that he’d “made contact with aliens” back in 1953, near Harrison’s home town in California. I mentioned a long time ago that there are only two characters in the series who call Harrison “Harry”. Sylvia is one. Quinn is the other. He even mentions this: he apparently knew Sylvia and Clayton personally, which brings up the interesting possibility that Quinn played some role in Sylvia’s affliction. Quinn possesses a rare mutation which grants him immunity to Earth bacteria, and has lived, “Thirty-five long, lonely years, on a hostile, alien planet called Earth.” “You’re an alien,” Harrison realizes. Quinn gives him a fantastic crazy-eyes stare. “Oh, no, Harry. You’re the alien.”

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April 23, 2016
April 20, 2016

Antithesis: The Pied Piper (War of the Worlds 2×12)

In an old house in Paris, all covered in vines...

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. Rowan AtkinsonThe 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.

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. wotw21203There’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.

War of the Worlds

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.

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.

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. Dominic CuzzocreaThe 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. wotw21206The 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.

Tanja JacobsSuzanne 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.

Continue reading

April 19, 2016

“Common Sense” about North Carolina HB2

Last week, I caught part of an interview with a defender of North Carolina’s House Bill 2 on NPR. This is, just to recap in case you are from Mars or something, the infamous “Bathroom Bill”, which, in addition to forbidding cities from passing local laws protecting the rights of the LBGT Community, specifies that a person’s gender assigned at birth, as evidenced by their birth certificate, shall be the sole arbiter of which public rest rooms they’re allowed to use. In response to the passage of the law, businesses such as PayPal have cancelled plans to expand into the state, New York, California, Washington and other locations have forbidden non-essential travel to the state for government employees, and Bruce Springsteen has cancelled a concert there. Defenders have for the most part backpedaled from saying outright that this bill is about them seriously just wanting trans people to just cease to exist and insist that it’s really about sex offenders who would be “emboldened” to “pretend” to be trans in order to sneak into the ladies room and commit sexual assault, since, apparently, someone who wants to commit sexual assault is liable to say, “Gee, I’d really like to go in there and break the laws against sexual assault, but breaking the law against going into a ladies’ rest room is just beyond the pale.”

Anyway, I just want to vent a little bit here about the arguments being made in defense of this nonsense.

  1. On the boycotts: funny, isn’t it, how the same people who claim we should “vote with our wallets” cry foul when our wallets decide we want nothing to do with a bunch of bigots.
  2. On The Boss Specifically: How exactly does someone get into the mindset, “I really liked Springsteen until I found out that he strongly supports equal rights and opposes oppression, which is something about him I had hitherto never suspected because I have not actually ever listened to any of his songs.”
  3. Sayeth the defender, “Well those companies that are pulling out of North Carolina have no problem outsourcing American jobs to third world countries with far worse human rights violations!” Um. You know that’s not exactly flattering, right? New state motto: “North Carolina: We’re technically better than a third world police state.”
  4. Sayeth the defender, “Just ask any five year old whether a man should be allowed in the women’s rest room!” Leaving aside for the moment that a transwoman is not a man, are you entirely sure that the musings of a five year old should be the basis for public policy? Admittedly, my son is only four, but we’re still struggling to break him of the belief that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to wear the color blue, because blue is a “boy color”.
  5. Also, however he feels about bathrooms, my four-year-old has absolutely no problem walking around in mixed company naked from the waist down, so maybe you should actually ASK a five-year-old how bothered they are by this
  6. Also, my son uses the women’s restroom pretty much every single time he goes anywhere with his mother, and once she’s old enough, I’m quite sure there will be times when I’ll be taking my daughter to the men’s room, so I challenge this whole “Any five year old knows that men shouldn’t be in the ladies’ room” thing.
  7. Also, it’s only been like three years since people were making the, “If you ask any five-year-old, they’ll tell you that marriage is between one man and one woman,” argument.
  8. Actually, let’s go back and stop leaving aside the whole “a transwoman is not a man” thing. You show your hypothetical five-year-old a picture of Caitlyn Jenner and ask which restroom she should be allowed to use. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that your hypothetical five-year-old isn’t going to ask to see a birth certificate.
  9. While we’re at it, can we dispense (or “dispel” as former presidential candidate Marco Rubio would put it) with the repeated claims that these bathroom bans are “common sense”. Here’s a nice “common sense” adage for you: “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a duck, and flaps like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” If someone tells you they’re a woman, dresses like a woman, and wants to use the women’s rest room, it’s not “common sense” to demand to see a birth certificate before you let her take a leak.
  10. If anyone really thinks that a law requiring one to use the rest room matching the sex on one’s birth certificate is the only thing stopping sex offenders, perhaps we could just replace the Triangle-Stick-Person symbol with the bat-symbol, because criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, and won’t go into a bathroom if they think Batman is there.
April 16, 2016
April 13, 2016

Misspent Youth: Marley’s Ghost

hutzlersPreviously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Trends in shopping were changing, as they basically had been for at least a decade by that point, probably forever. The recurring theme of my disappointing attempts at recovering childhood wonder is that since I was a little boy, more and more things have consolidated, combined, and homogenized. If I were older, I’d be complaining about the demise of Hothschild Kohn’s and Hutzler’s (Fun fact: Hutzler’s is credited with inventing the concept of “everything has its own standard price that every customer pays rather than haggling”). But I’m not, so instead, I’ll complain about the demise of shopping malls.

The overwhelming trend in retail during the tail end of the 20th century and the first seventh of the 21st has been toward larger names and larger stores in smaller numbers. This has two primary aspects: the rise of the big-box — supergiant warehouse-style stores selling middle-to-low-end everyday goods — and the rise of the “Festival Center”, where two or three high-end specialty retailers open large, opulent showrooms.

These developments are both intensely, inherently suburban. That is, they are based around the assumption that you are going to drive to them, spend a lot of money in one place, pack your purchases into the back of your SUV (It’s always an SUV) and go home. And if you intend to buy more than one sort of thing, you mean to drive between them.

Shopping malls aren’t exactly urban, what with the need to place ten acres of building and forty acres of parking somewhere. But I think their existence is a sort of historical accident. Because shopping malls evolved directly out of the downtown shopping districts in cities. In fact, the whole concept of a shopping mall started out as “Hey, let’s put a glass roof over this narrow, shop-lined street to improve business on rainy days”. The modern fully-enclosed shopping mall first appeared right smack in the middle of the 20th century, pretty much immediately after the big postwar White Flight to the Suburbs, and I think you can make a pretty solid argument that the whole point of shopping malls was to give middle-class suburban (predominately white) folks the breadth and variety of shopping experience without having to venture into the Big Scary City. Which probably means I should boycott malls on principle as being Part of the Problem, but thankfully, the point is moot because downtown shopping districts pretty much died out thirty years ago when they converted the old department stores into condos and all the little corner stores got turned into antique shops and comically expensive restaurants. (I dislike suburbs in principle, but having lived in the Big City for a decade, I just don’t have the temperament for it. And if my moral opposition were worth cutting my life short for the good of the planet, there’s more efficient ways to do it than moving to a place where the stress would kill me)

So in this view, the shopping mall is essentially a little chunk of the city, carved out, sanitized, and plopped down in suburbia. Its downfall (Insofar as a downfall has actually happened and isn’t just in my head) came because, sixty years on, the suburb has become the default cultural model of middle-America, not the city, so a controlled emulation of the city is no longer as appealing. On top of that, in 2016, if I want to buy, say, boxer shorts, the Bloggess’s latest book, a new battery for my watch, the third season of MacGyver, and a Voyager-class Optimus Prime, I can get it done in one trip by going to the mall… Or I can get it done in zero trips using this neat little gizmo in my pocket. And in a couple of years, I’ll be able to do that and have my purchases brought to me by a robot.

Marley Station

The weirdest thing is the “Free Wifi” sign on the window. It’s like “What are you doing here, it’s 1988?”

What I’m getting at is that the writing was probably on the wall for the tiny little malls of my youth. The nail in the coffin is a subject of some considerable irony. It was called Marley Station. Named for the neighborhood on the outskirts of Glen Burnie and Pasadena where it stands, Marley Station was “the new mall” when it opened in 1987. It was exciting. It was shiny, and new, with marble tile and blue neon accent lighting, and a big glass elevator. And a movie theater! In a mall! I’d never heard of such a thing (the Annapolis Mall wouldn’t get a movie theater until some time after I moved to Baltimore). And a Friendly’s. With a faux georgian facade inside the mall. Oh, how we’d demand to go to Friendly’s. I’m pretty sure my parents hated it (Mom liked the ice cream, but not the food), but me and Kate loved it. My primary memory of the Friendly’s at Marley Station is my dad getting mad at yelling at the manager one time because it took something like an hour to get our food, and his was the only meal that came out hot. He’d ordered a reuben.

Ironically, the most charming thing about Marley Station isn’t even in the mall. Ann’s Dari-Creme, a ’50s-style hot dog stand, predated the mall, and somehow managed to remain in-place, situated between the lanes of the mall’s entryway. I’ve never actually been there. I always think I’d like to, but in the heat of the moment, can’t work out how to get in. But that’s because I’m an idiot: they’re doing perfectly good business. They will almost certainly still be there when Marley Station finally, mercifully closes.Marley Station, when it opened, was anchored by a Hecht’s and a Macy’s. The mall is a sort of abstract letter-M shape (I don’t know if that’s intentional), clearly designed to accommodate four anchors. There were two places near the center of the mall where the major corridor would just end at a blank wall. Later, they added a J. C. Penney, and eventually a Sears.

It was new, it was fancy, it was exciting. It had all the usual things too, the Kay-Bee Toys, the two bookstores (Waldenbooks and B. Dalton), the Boardwalk Fries, the inexplicable shoe repair shop, the Arby’s, where mom would order a roast beef sandwich and throw two thirds of it away for not being well-done enough (Mom has an animal protein allergy and can only eat meat that’s been cooked enough to denature it. I was thirteen before I found out that it was actually okay to eat beef that had even a trace of pink to it). It was cool enough that we didn’t really notice or care that it was choking the life out of the other malls. It was more convenient than driving to four different places anyway.

But like I said, retail was changing. The traditional mall’s days were numbered, at least as the dominant retail force. The small malls had two anchors. The big malls had three. Marley Station had four department stores. When Arundel Mills opened in Hanover in the fall of 2000, its design included space for seventeen large anchor stores. Only one of them was a traditional department store (A T.J. Maxx that kinda looks like it may have been there already and the mall just grew around it). The money wasn’t in a mall with a hundred tiny shops; it was in a Power Center with a dozen high-end luxury retailers, flanked by a couple of warehouse stores. And a casino.

I don’t know when exactly Marley Station entered into its decline. Probably right after Arundel Mills opened. Macy’s sold their original location to Boscov’s in 2006 when they merged with Hecht’s. Boscov’s went bankrupt two years later and closed most of their stores. The location is now a data center owned by AiNET, who’ve indicated that they’d like to buy the rest of the mall. I realize that this would entail gutting the place, but I really like to imagine them just leaving the mall exactly like it is but filling all the individual little store bays with racks of servers.

Former Friendly's at Marley StationThe mall has sort of drawn itself inward, if you can imagine it. The core of the place, the center court, still looks perfectly healthy, with the usual array of clothing stores and jewelry stores and stores for every major cellular carrier. But as you move away from that center court, the mall shows signs of evolutionary divergence, like an animal that got stranded on an island somewhere and is slowly evolving flippers to suit its new niche. On the AiNET side, the mall is largely vestigial. Its lower level features only two stores on that wing, an anemic video arcade and a really rather nice dollar store. The upper floor has a fitness place. Most of the rest of the space in that wing was leased by the casino over at Arundel Mills for training spaces. The Friendly’s facade still remains, but what’s inside now is, near as I can tell, a private collector’s model railroad layout.

The Macy’s end of the mall is less empty, but the character of the place is very odd. A large section of what were once small shops have been consolidated into a two-story gym. Marley StationThere’s an As Seen On TV store, and a place that buys gold. A bounce-house place for children’s parties. An inordinate number of hair places — salons, braiding, beading, and plucking. The shoe repair place is gone, but there’s a tailor. There’s a tag and title place. I’m pretty sure a tag and title place was one of the last businesses to leave the Severna Park Mall before its demise. Probably the weirdest thing (aside from the model railroad) is a large shop catering to racing enthusiasts. A big chunk of the place is NASCAR licensed gear, but the bulk of the store is taken up by an enormous slot car track, and it looks like a lot of their trade is in high-end slot car stuff.

 

When you look at it, it's like one of those optical illusions, only instead of a rabbit and a duck, it flips back and forth between 1987 and 2016.

When you look at it, it’s like one of those optical illusions, only instead of a rabbit and a duck, it flips back and forth between 1987 and 2016.

Once it opened, back in 1987, it promptly drove the other malls out of business. I think maybe even Annapolis felt the strain as they became the boring pedestrian “old mall” compared to the new, exciting modern two-story mall fifteen minutes up Ritchie Highway. But time passed and wasn’t kind. The mall has expanded a bit, but never had a major renovation: the only change to the design and decor in almost thirty years is that they don’t have built-in ashtrays. In 2013, Bank of America began foreclosure proceedings against the Simon Property Group, owners of the mall. The Woodmont Company was appointed receivers of the mall, to take care of it until the bank and the owners settle. They’re largely responsible for the mall hanging on as well as it has — under their management, the mall’s vacancy rate dropped from 66% to 15%, and they’ve done a lot of work to keep the place clean, well-maintained and decorated, which has probably spared it from turning into a creepy dystopian horror movie set like most declining malls.

They still hold community events at the mall, most recently, a Halloween party for children with Trick-or-Treating. The management company has affirmed that they’re focused on retaining their current tenants and attracting new ones, denying any interest in closing down and selling the retail space to AiNET. I don’t really know what the future is for Marley Station. Since, unlike the other malls we’ve stopped at so far, Marley Station still exists, it’s a bit easier to get information about it, though historical information is obviously harder to come by. Maryland independent filmmaker Dan Bell has been doing a series of videos on the dead malls of the mid-atlantic, and Marley Station is one of the malls he visits. Check it out. The southern terminus of MD-10 is less than a mile south. Route 10 is essentially a bypass for Ritchie Highway from Pasadena to Baltimore, meaning that Marley Station isn’t really “on the way” anywhere any more. It’s sort of out-of-the-way, set well back from the road on a section of Route 2 that’s much more residential and less built-up than Severna Park or Glen Burnie. And, though Macy’s, Penney’s and Sears are basically burned in my mind as the archetypical mall anchors, none of them are doing especially well (Sears, in particular, somehow managed to completely fuck up the internet age, somehow deciding, after more-or-less inventing mail-ordering basically anything, that the future of retail was 1980s-style department stores, and completely gutted their catalog business), and frankly, it’s a matter of time before one of them pulls out. Without anything in particular to serve as a big draw, the only retail future that really makes sense for it is to serve as a direct replacement for the extinct local malls it helped to kill off: a place to gather small, lower-end or specialty shops that can’t afford the overhead of stand-alone site.

To Be Continued...

April 9, 2016

Tales from /lost+found 53: It’s a…

Dedicated to Eric Bauersfeld, who probably deserves better than the same damned joke everyone else is making, but I gots what I gots.

In 2012, IDW published Assimilation2, in which The Doctor, Amy Pond, and Rory Williams teamed up with Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise to fight a dangerous inter-dimensional alliance between the Borg and the Cybermen.

In the universe next door, of course, Star Trek The Next Generation died without ever giving us the Borg and Doctor Who had been off the air for several years by 2012, making any such cross-over extremely unlikely.

But then, it’s not like comic books have ever let inherent unlikeliness stand in the way of a crossover.

David Hasslehoff in Star Crash/Star Wars/Doctor Who

Click to Embiggen

April 6, 2016

Thesis: He Feedeth Among The Lillies (War of the Worlds 1×14)

Cynthia Belliveau and Jared MartinThey’re — They’re hurting me. They’re putting something inside me

It is the week of January 30, 1989. Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney shuffles his cabinet. Over the course of the week, the Soviets will pull their last armored column out of Afghanistan, Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner will be overthrown by a military coup, and P. W. Botha will resign the presidency of South Africa for health reasons. Though his presidency had seen the legalization of interracial marriage and racially mixed neighborhoods, he remained a staunch supporter of apartheid and an opponent of the reforms made by his successor, F. W. de Klerk.

George Michael and Randy Travis win big at the 16th annual American Music Awards. “Two Hearts” retains the top spot on the charts, but there’s a lot of churn further down in the top ten: Paula Abdul, Bon Jovi, Tone-Loc and Tiffany are all in; Bobby Brown, Poison, Annie Lennox, and Michael Jackson are out. Her Alibi and Who’s Harry Crumb? premier this week, movies I mostly know from seeing their boxes on the shelf at the video place. WTTW-11 in Chicago demos HDTV to some members of the press, who are suitably impressed. The FCC would approve the technology almost two years later. PBS begins airing segments of the British children’s series Thomas and Friends intercut with new American-made framing segments as Shining Time Station, inexplicably starring Ringo Starr (For subsequent seasons, he’d be replaced by the even less explicable George Carlin).

In the second of their four time-travel episodes, Friday the 13th The Series gives us “Eye of Death”, about a antique murder-powered magic lantern which allows a shifty antiques dealer to acquire Civil War artifacts straight from the source. He ends up getting tele-fragged when they turn the lantern off as he’s coming back through. Star Trek the Next Generation gives us “Unnatural Selection”, which is noteworthy for the fact that it sure as hell seems like a straight-up rip-off of the original series episode “The Deadly Years”. Some scientists are rapidly aging to death, and it turns out that this is because they genetically engineered their children to have hyper-aggressive immune systems As Josh Marsfelder put it, the moral is basically, “Don’t tamper in God’s domain or else you’ll be stuck in a shitty knock-off of an original series episode.” I find it interesting, at least, for being, “The one where the Federation is explicitly and deliberately doing transhuman genetic engineering and everyone is cool with it, despite the fact that every single other time this comes up, the repeated theme is that humanity absolutely shits its pants over the idea of doing genetic engineering because of that thing that happened with Ricardo Molteban.”

Memories and imagination can be tricky. “He Feedeth Among The Lilies” feels large and important in my memories. An episode intended to set up future events and spin out character development. It’s supposed to have implications for the future. Multiple fan-writers went on to pen sequels to it.

But I went and watched it again and… Well, to sum it up, the plot of this episode is, “Harrison gets laid. It doesn’t end well.” It’s not bad, really, but it’s thin. Not a lot happens. The entire episode revolves around Harrison getting a girlfriend, and even that is curiously abbreviated. The alien presence is little more than foreshadowing for the not-at-all shocking ending — the only point at which it starts to feel like the same kind of show it has been so far is the very end. Its biggest sin, though, is that the whole thing is a heavily telegraphed slow-motion fridging, and we don’t even get to see the fridge opened at the end.

We’ve seen a few times already how War of the Worlds attempted to capitalize on collective neuroses that were part of the public zeitgeist at the time, even when they don’t quite fit in with the rest of the established continuity of the series. The cattle mutilations back at the beginning of the series, for instance: they don’t really make a lot of sense in context or lead to anything, but aliens mutilating cattle was a Thing that was popular in the tabloids at the time, so they felt compelled to tie it in. You may or may not recall that Satanic cults were mentioned in passing at the time, though only for the purpose of being tossed out as an alternate explanation to aliens. And we’ve run into the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of the 1980s in other places, up in the paragraphs at the tops of the articles where I talk about what else is going on in the world that week, and I hope that you’ve taken away from that by now that this stuff isn’t entirely unconnected. It isn’t a coincidence that you get these particular panics at these particular points in history: there’s something about living in this part of the 1980s that makes “My child’s teacher is secretly a satanist” or “Aliens are exsanguinating my cows” or “Dungeons and Dragons will make my children commit suicide” an attractive crazy thing to believe, moreso than, “My neighbor is a secret Soviet sleeper agent,” or “Dancing may lead to our children having premarital sex,” or “I saw Goody Proctor consorting with the devil”.

So why these particular paranoias here and now? You’ll probably have to ask a social scientist for the details, but I think some of it has to do with the winding down of the Cold War. We addressed the spirit of Glasnost back in “Epiphany”, and one of the things that struck me there is how fair-handed they were with the Soviet establishment — Major Kedrov is clearly coded as antagonistic, but it’s a respectful antagonism, one that’s heavily invested in maintaining the status quo. They’re on different sides, but they’re not really opposing each other per se. I’ve often said that nothing in the ’80s makes a lick of sense unless you realize that everyone was acting from the assumption that nuclear war was inevitable. I think what we see with these panics is a sense that western culture had grown “comfortable” with the persistent threat posed by the cold war — we were locked in this stupid, pointless, neverending struggle that was eventually going to kill us all, but so were they. It was familiar. The “real” danger was the danger of an unknown outsider tipping the balance. Once the cold war actually ends, things are going to shift — it’ll suddenly be a lot more popular to look back at stuff like Reagan deliberately antagonizing the Soviets in order to scare Americans into voting for him, and start worrying that the government might be actively Up To No Good rather than just hillariously incompetent, and we’ll see the public start taking a greater interest in conspiracy theories and shadow governments with stuff like The X-Files (It’s not like this hasn’t already started here in 1989, but it hasn’t really hit its stride yet), but that’s a story for another day.

Speaking of The X-Files though, whatever motivates them, in among the social worries in this part of the nexus is an increasing interest in alien abductions. Later this year, Whitley Strieber’s 1987 novel Communion is going to be adapted as a Christopher Walken film. Once again, alien abductions aren’t a thing which the Martians of the 1953 movie ever did, and it’s different in key ways from the alien possession used so far in the series, but in hindsight, we should have seen it coming.

The interesting thing about alien abductions is that they tend to a whole bunch of specific common elements — paralysis, missing hours, reports of having foreign objects inserted into one of two very specific places (the other one is the navel), being surrounded by quasi-humanoid figures with distorted proportions. Carl Sagan pointed out that if you eliminate the flying saucers, the same elements also come up in premodern reports of demonic attacks. If you’re a believer, you might take this as evidence that the reports are true, not random dreams or hoaxes, and that they’ve been going on even before the concept of extraterrestrial life entered the public consciousness. If you’re a skeptic, you might instead conclude that there’s something wired into the human brain that is inclined to generate certain patterns of hallucination given the right stimulation, onto which sufferers project additional details as befits their cultural context, be it aliens, or demons, or the fair folk.

War of the Worlds

See, Tim, I told you we should actually have someone prep the OR before we just rush in here with a bleeding patient

So this week, the gang from Mortax is going to try their hand at alien abduction and human experimentation in order to unlock the secrets of the human immune system. The opening scene finds doctors and paramedics shocked as they wheel a gravely injured patient into an operating room to find it’s been hastily stripped. Doesn’t really speak well of the hospital’s reputation that they were the first ones to notice. At the Land of the Lost cave, some alien candy stripers try cutting up a prisoner they’ve conveniently tied to a metal frame in a crucifixion pose, but the radiation means that he “spoils” too fast.

War of the Worlds

I guess this is supposed to be symbolic or something?

The advocates are wary about moving their experiments away from the safety of their cave, but this is counterbalanced by the better “selection” they’ll have on the outside: it turns out that the raid on the hospital also netted them an ambulance, which they can use as a mobile surgery to conduct experiments in the field.

And then, I guess, six months pass. There’s no interstitial titles or anything to indicate this, but the rest of this episode is going to require that the aliens have been doing field experiments on humans using this particular modus operandi for at least half a year.

By the sort of remarkable coincidence that has become part of the standard operating procedure for this show, Harrison and the gang are over at the safe house (The same one where they met Adrian in “Among the Philistines”) conducting interviews with alien abductees. Now, this episode is kind of threadbare plotwise, but there’s just a bit of that War of the Worlds wonderful weirdness around the periphery that I can at least enjoy. Carole Galloway and Graham BatchelorFor example, the first interview we see is with an older couple, Arnold and Pat Thistle, who consider it very important that Harrison understand that they’re good, respectable, upstanding Christians, and not the sort of lowlife perverts who go around getting abducted by aliens. It’s got a very nice “First paragraph of Harry Potter,” vibe to it, with the Thistles clearly more troubled by what the neighbors would think than by the fact that they met aliens. They also give the just shockingly wonderful and surprisingly accurate description of the aliens as looking like “A cross between a giant frog and a huge, slimy walnut.”

There’s some more interviews, either shown in-progress or by having the team review recordings. A man who was paralyzed during a motorcycle ride and experimented upon, a woman pulled from her car, and Karen McKinney, a sound editor who was attacked while jogging and left with a ten-hour memory gap and recurring nightmares. Mixed in between the interviews, the team reflects on their findings.

At first, I wasn’t crazy about the characterization of the regulars in these scenes, but it’s grown on me. Ironhorse, as usual, is pessimistic, but there’s clear character growth from his hardcore skepticism in the early part of the series. He had been supportive of the “Blackwood plan” (Harrison takes umbrage at the name, intended as it is to characterize the program as one of his flights of fancy) initially, but doesn’t think they’re learning anything they don’t already know: that the aliens exist, have three fingers, are slimy, travel in multiples of three, and are jerks. He thinks it would be a better use of their time to locate and interview veterans from the 1953 war and government employees from the period who might help them locate storage facilities like the ones in “The Second Seal”. Harrison actually concedes both that Ironhorse’s plan is a good one and that his own plan has been slow to yield new information: it’s Suzanne who takes the lead in defending the value of what they’re learning about the aliens, and even she doesn’t provide any examples of new information they’ve discovered.

I get the feeling that Suzanne is being written here under the assumption that she’s a psychologist rather than a microbiologist. I think she’s meant to be interested in what they’re learning about alien behavior from the abductions. And as the episode goes on, Harrison will defer to her expertise in conducting interviews. Harrison notes that everyone they interviewed described essentially the same experience — basically the classic “Close Encounter of the Fourth Kind” archetype of being paralyzed while out alone in the middle of nowhere by a bright light (A flashback shows it to be a something like a flashlight with a green triangular lens, possibly a callback to the device Harrison contrived in “The Second Seal”), laid down with inhuman figures hovering over them, and probed in one of the usual places. Weirdly, though, Harrison’s claim that all the interviews reported the same thing doesn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny: namely, the Thistles don’t report being paralyzed and probed. Their story involves the aliens “looking for something” using a “strange device” that’s probably similar to the vacuum-cleaner-metal-detector affair they’d had in “Eye for an Eye”.Suzanne suggests a psychological origin: mass hysteria. Curiously, it’s Ironhorse who shoots the idea down, due to the diversity of times and places where the incidents occurred.

There really isn’t enough going on in these scenes: it feels like the plot is just spinning its wheels. Nevertheless, they’re very good scenes for depicting how the team has really come together by this point in the series. One thing that’s very clear watching them is that the members of the Blackwood team have developed a comfortable working rapport with each other. While they still disagree on strategy and on how to interpret evidence, they’ve learned to respect each other’s opinions and methods. Harrison himself says that there’s no requirement that they all agree about every strategy and gives Ironhorse his blessing to pursue a different angle of investigation. Ironhorse, for his part, limits his complaints to the purely practical. He’d supported the plan initially, and has only changed his opinion because of how it’s been developing. And it’s kinda neat that at this point, even if it was Harrison’s idea, it seems like Suzanne’s taken more interest than he has — I get a distinct impression that Harrison himself is starting to lose interest in the plan at this point. Having everyone respectfully differ about priorities and understand and appreciate each other’s respective different working styles is something rare for the conflict-driven nature of adventure TV, with its long and august history of “He’s a gung-ho man of action / he’s an introspective scientist / How will they ever get along?” set-ups. It’s rare even for the show we’re talking about. And it’s going to get even rarer as television marches into the ’90s and the oppressive gravitational force of grimdark keeps whispering, “The good guys should all hate each other and not get along! That’ll make it seem so dark and edgy and exciting!” Yet at the same time, you can see this development here as prototypical of another, better form of maturation TV will undergo in the ’90s, in that characters are gaining the capacity to grow and change not just individually, but as a group.

Cut back to the Land of the Lost cave, where the advocates are characteristically worried about their progress. The alien nurses explain about how the ambulance they’ve heisted will speed things up, but the leadership is worried about how the humans keep polluting the planet and if they don’t take it over soon, the place might be too trashed to be worth the effort. An odd observation, with a bit of an edge to it in the, “Do we really have the moral high ground over the aliens, when we kill each other and destroy our own planet?” sense, though, as these sort of things often do, it falls a little flat the same way it falls a little flat when Doctor Who has Davros challenge the Doctor’s morality: dude, you’re basically space-Hitler, yes, we do too have the moral high-ground here. I think it would have worked better thematically, especially when we’re already working this, “Aliens thrive on radiation” angle, to have pollution be somehow beneficial to the aliens. Maybe have them come from a world that’s naturally warmer, so greenhouse gasses make the place more amenable. Of course, it wouldn’t be relevant in this episode, but it’s not like this scene has much of a point to it anyway, beyond giving the camera something else to show in what would be an otherwise long, unbroken sequence of Harrison thinking about Karen McKinney.

Cynthia Belliveau

If you or any member of your IM force is caught or killed, the agency will disavow all knowledge of your activities.

Because, for no better reason than, “She’s a traditionally attractive woman, in a very eighties sort of way,” Harrison’s come over more than a little bit smitten with one of the interviewees. This is part of the reason behind his decreased interest in the rest of the interview process: he wants to focus on helping her recover her memories. By which I mean he wants to bone her. And also help her recover her memories. But mostly bone her. He calls her up at four in the morning, wanting to meet. Fortunately, she’s just woken up from a terrifying nightmare and is in the mood for an early breakfast. Harrison, Karen and the elephant in the room discuss her problem. Beyond the nightmares, she’s deeply troubled by the gap in her memory. She’s had numerous physical and psychological tests done without learning anything, and you get the sense that she’s primarily afraid that she’s had some kind of psychotic break and might be mentally ill, and I’m getting increasingly uncomfortable about that elephant. Harrison proposes hypnotizing her.

Given that it’s 1989, and repressed memories being recovered under hypnosis is all the rage, and also that she’s allegedly trying everything and anything she can think of to unlock the secret of her missing time, you might imagine that she’s already tried that. But it’s also an alien invasion show, so of course it had never occurred to her that hypnosis is anything more than a parlor trick and none of her doctors have suggested it to her and what about that elephant? She consents to hypnosis.

Ironhorse dutifully repeats the same scene from Epiphany back in the lab where he frets over Harrison having slipped out in the wee hours without telling anyone, with the added complaint that Harrison blew off the morning’s interviews. Harrison turns up while he’s complaining to ask Suzanne to do a psychological assessment on Karen, because microbiologist. Norton’s only contribution to the episode is to ask if Karen is hot, and when he will get a chance to creep on a psychologically vulnerable alien abduction victim. This is probably karmic punishment for me having praised him so highly a few weeks ago. Then Harrison goes off to flirt with Karen some more, culminating in makeouts before bringing her back to the safehouse to be interviewed by Suzanne.

Suzanne starts out with ink blots, which Karen mocks, having been through all this before. She’s also snarky about Suzanne’s next cliche psychology technique, word association. But that one pays off creepily, because after going through all the standard “red/blue”, “apple/orange”, “sex/mother” stuff, Suzanne tosses out, “alien”, and Karen’s instinctive reaction is, “rape”. Which means it’s finally time to talk about the elephant.

Let’s step behind the [more] tag here because of there’s about to be a sidebar about sexual assault.

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April 2, 2016