You will help us bring a new age to this planet
Stand back, I’m going to use SCIENCE!
It is January 16, 1989. If you were born today, you’d be able to drink at my wedding. Last Friday, the UK was hit by a massive outbreak of the Jerusalem computer virus, a popular 1987 computer virus which triggers on Friday the 13th. Václav Havel is arrested today in Prague, which is sure to nip this whole democracy thing in the bud for Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union announces their plans to launch a manned mission to Mars. I wonder if they’ll beat the Americans there. The rest of the week will see the Solidarity party legalized in Poland, George Steinbrenner receiving a presidential pardon for illegal campaign contributions to Nixon, and the Stockton Schoolyard Shooting, in which a guy shot up a school in California, killing five and wounding 32. This was back when such things were considered unusual and shocking and prompted the sitting Republican president to issue an executive order banning the importation of assault rifles (for which he was not compared to Hitler). A backward, primitive time when we didn’t consider the systematic murder of children just a small price to pay for assuring the freedom of, for example, a bunch of rednecks to intimidate and threaten in the name of seizing public lands for their own use, yes, I am pissed.
Ryan’s Hope ends its run on TV. Romance/Romance (Starring Scott Bakula) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ close on Broadway. Bobby Brown takes the top spot on the Billboard charts with “My Prerogative”. MacGyver this week is “Deadly Dreams”, an episode featuring Dr. Zito, a Hannibal Lecter-inspired recurring villain (We’re still a few years out from the Silence of the Lambs film, but the novels Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs are already out, as is Manhunter, the first film adaptation of Red Dragon). Zito is played by W. Morgan Sheppard, a guy who you should keep in your back pocket for Kevin Bacon Game competitions given just how many franchises he’s appeared in, including Max Headroom, Star Trek and Doctor Who. He never appeared in anything War of the Worlds-related himself, so far as I can tell, but his son voiced Adrian Paul’s brother in Goliath between appearances in Supernatural, Star Trek, Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica. After MacGyver is the premiere of a TV-movie about Ryan White, a teenager who developed AIDS as a result of a blood transfusion for hemophilia. The importance of Ryan White in changing the attitude of the American public about the AIDS crisis can not be understated, firstly because it got the American public to actually start doing something about it, and secondly, because it calls out what assholes the American public are, since the vast majority of them were perfectly happy to let AIDS kill as many people as it liked so long as it limited itself to the gay community, drug addicts, and poor people in Africa. But you get one photogenic presumed-straight middle-class white boy, and it’s war.
There is no episode of Star Trek the Next Generation this week. Friday the 13th the Series gives us “The Sweetest Sting”, which, as you’ve probably guessed, is about bees. My god. And not even in the way you’d think: rather than straight-up killer bees, these are vampire bees who can transfer life force between people by stinging. Here is an additional bee joke, because I can.
See, you thought I was gonna make a Nicholas Cage joke here, didn’t you?
This week’s War of the Worlds is an odd duck, in strangely good way. It succeeds on a lot of the levels that War of the Worlds usually doesn’t, while the show’s usual wheelhouses of dark comedy and strong guest characters are… Not absent, but perhaps pushed to the side for a bit. Instead, we get what’s really a pretty darn solid and coherent science-fiction plot, and a very traditional A-B plot structure that you wouldn’t be surprised to see in an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation or Deep Space Nine.
The A-plot is, at long last, a Suzanne-centric episode. Stylistically, a traditional SCIENCETM-based story in the mold of, say, British Science Fiction of the ’50s and ’60s (I recently was watching a Let’s Play and the host got to talking about early Doctor Who, and suggested that there was a trend in British Science Fiction of the ’50s and ’60s to build their stories around the concept of “Uh oh, something’s happened involving aliens. Let’s go back to the lab and science the shit out of this for an hour.”). Her plot is primarily a science-mystery, the show’s first real attempt at what’s sometimes called “competency porn”: a visual showcase designed around the simple demonstration of someone doing their job well.
The B-plot is another foray into “Harrison isn’t himself due to adverse influence.” That didn’t go well last time, but this time, he doesn’t act like a drunk fratboy and rough up Suzanne. Instead, we get to see Harrison much more vulnerable in a story that has very direct and obvious analogues to drug addiction and recovery.
It’s not like we haven’t had plots that decompose into an A and B side before. But so far, it’s mostly been a decomposition between the aliens pursuing their goals and the humans pursuing theirs in opposition. The aliens stay more toward the edges in this one. There’s no mystery for the audience as to what their plot is, but there’s very little showcasing of them actually pursuing it. Instead, we’ve got two groups of characters who are pursuing largely different things at the same time, in parallel, really only coming together at the end, when their combined experiences help to put together a larger puzzle. It’s just so easy to imagine this story happening not with Suzanne and Harrison, but with, say, Beverly Crusher and Riker. Or Jadzia Dax and Miles O’Brien. Or even Seven of Nine and Harry Kim.
We open with some aliens in the Land of the Lost cave cutting an album. It’s not very good, just them chanting “We are the travelers / We are your friends / We need your help / Believe in us,” over and over. Using their broken oscilloscope and toy cassette recorder technology, this is converted into a subliminal embed.
Because, oh yes, we are doing one of my favorite Sci-Fi plots, subliminal mind control via music. We’ve got shades of Probe and even a bit of Max Headroom mixed in here. Equipped with their subliminal embed, the aliens, who’ve adopted the forms of three of the most eighties-looking record company suits they can find and go to visit famed New Age musician Billy Carlos. He’s right in the middle of composing an otherworldly, ethereal piece that, I only just noticed, kinda sounds like a prog-rock remix of the Doctor Who theme. Far as I know, there’s no publicly available clean recording of the whole thing, which is a shame, because it’s a nice piece of music. It’s similar in style to the end theme of the show, though slower and more spacey. Billy Carlos is played by legendary Australian rocker Billy Thorpe, who also did the score for the whole series. His work for War of the Worlds doesn’t sound much like the stuff for which he’s best known, though you can maybe hear little hints of it in “Children of the Sun”.
Carlos objects to the suits showing up before he’s ready, and they respond by murdering him. The female suit, presumably the leader, replaces the outgoing message on his answering machine to say, in a sexy voice while looking straight into the camera, that he’s on tour. They replay the song he was working on, integrating the embed. This seamless mixing consists mostly of the female alien repeatedly ordering the others to crank the volume and she starts grooving to the music. The way the scene is shot gives it a very otherworldly feel that comes off as kind of Tales from the Darkside to me.
I’ve been impressed by the guest cast a lot with this show. This week isn’t the strongest outing in terms of performances, but it’s still an interesting roster. In addition to Billy Thorpe, we’ll be meeting Jan Rubes later as Dr. Von Deer. Rubes is an accomplished character actor who would go on to a recurring role in Due South, but you might know him for playing Daniel’s grandfather in the Stargate SG-1 episode about crystal skulls. Our aliens this week are played by Alex Carter, John Novak and Heidi von Palleske. Palleske’s got a solid acting resume through the ’90s up to today, but her acting career is overshadowed by her accomplishments as an activist against the export of asbestos, the use of which remains legal in Canada (Quebec was the world’s third biggest producer as of 2009), though mining finally ceased in 2012. Alex Carter mostly plays cops, agents and other government-heavy-types, such as Sheriff Logan in Point Pleasant, Lieutenant Lindo in Lincoln Heights and Detective Vartann in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. John Novak is best known for his voice work, including the English dubs of Death Note, and Gundam Seed, as well as Ninjago, but he also had a recurring live-action role on Stargate SG-1 as Colonel Ronson, the first commander of the Prometheus. And, in a move that might help you win at the Kevin Bacon game, he’s also one of the doctors who assists Grace in the hospital scene in the Doctor Who TV Movie (Since we’ve had so many already this week, free bonus Kevin Bacon Game tip: there’s an episode of Star Trek Continues that guest-stars both Colin Baker and the third Yellow Power Ranger).
In spite of what I said about this episode having a good, solid plot, we do still start out on the usual, “By an amazing coincidence, the heroes just happen to show up in the right time and place to get involved in the plot.” Harrison and Suzanne turn up at the lab of one of Dr. Eric von Deer. Suzanne’s been corresponding with her old professor for the past few months and he’s agreed to work with her over the weekend in the hopes of developing a means to block cell-phase matching. Von Deer is apparently an expert in the subject, which is a neat trick since as far as I can tell, “cell-phase matching” is a made-up term.
Since von Deer is a stereotype absentminded-professor, he’s completely forgotten his commitment to Suzanne in the face of some work he’s been obsessing over. He agrees to let her poke at his research to see if she can find anything useful and to give her the occasional spare moment.
In case there was any chance that the audience might be experiencing undue levels of suspense, that track Billy Carlos was laying down in the last scene has been playing for the entire duration of the scene. Once she takes her ear-plugs out, the receptionist had explained to Suzanne and Harrison that von Deer had been listening to it on repeat full-blast for the past month. Von Deer explains that he’d known Billy as a child and had been gifted with an advance-copy of the artist’s latest album.
No one in the world should really be surprised that Harrison is into the weird, new-agey synth vibes of Billy Carlos. He finds that, “his complex chord structure and his tonal progression — they tune my mind and stimulate my imagination.” Ecstatic to meet a fellow fan, von Deer gives him a copy of the tape. He feels the need to explain that he has a bunch of spares in case he breaks one. Then the RIAA rappels in and beats the crap out of him for music piracy.
Von Deer having multiple copies of the same tape is meant to be a character quirk, I think. To mark him as weird and nerdy, because who’d have more than one copy of the same tape? It’s not like it’s just good sense because playing an audio cassette continuously for a month absolutely will wear it out, which is why I no longer have a working copy of Laura Brannigan’s Best Of album. Later, we’ll find out he also wears two watches. Basically, they’re pushing the whole “Absent-minded science nerd” archetype with him. I bet his closet is full of identical copies of the same suit too. Surprised he doesn’t have a bow tie.
A limo pulls up outside as Harrison is leaving, and apparently just sits there looking sinister for like three hours, because it’s still there when we return to this location hours later. In the mean time, Harrison returns to the Cottage and tries to do some work while grooving to his new Billy Carlos album. This is a nicely subtle scene because they never come out and say what’s happening, but you can tell from Jared Martin’s performance that something is going on with Harrison, as he gets increasingly flustered, then something seems to “click” for him. Another nice touch here is that neither Harrison nor Dr. von Deer do any sort of mind-controlled-zombie thing. If anything, Harrison seems invigorated, with a little spring in his step as he pops down to the lab.
My IronDrake shipping is momentarily paused while I try to work out how Richard Chaves gets his watch to stay halfway up his forearm like that.
Ironhorse and Norton are busy looking at computer models that Norton hopes will let them eventually locate the alien base when Harrison pops in and tasks Norton with, “a career’s worth of work,” digging up pre-1953 DoD files to find evidence that something humanity did might have provoked the first invasion. Ironhorse is scandalized by the mere suggestion, but — correctly — no one overreacts at this stage, since it actually is a perfectly reasonable thing to research, particularly if there’s a possibility that, say, the isolation of pure folic acid (first done in 1945) posed an existential threat to the aliens (Or, y’know, that other thing that happened in 1945, but we’ll get to that). As a side-note, I’m glad to see Ironhorse and Norton casually working together in the background of this episode, even though the real meat later is going to be Ironhorse and Harrison inspiring a whole bunch of hurt/comfort fics.
In von Deer’s lab (Which is nicknamed “The Pit”, seemingly as set-up to a joke no one ever gets around to telling. Probably the same one from the pilot novelization), Suzanne immediately abuses her mentor’s hospitality by poking around in his computer files and setting off a security alarm, necessary for some “government work” he’s doing. I don’t think that a security lockout that triggers an alarm on someone else’s terminal in real time if someone just happens upon a particular file while doing a mundane search for relevant information is either a realistic or useful security precaution — either Suzanne ought to have had some way to know she wasn’t allowed to access that data before it got to the point of raising an alarm. But hey, ’80s computers.
Before they can get into it over the matter, the record company aliens decide to come in, after, I assume, spending the past few hours just sitting around in the limo. Von Deer leaves Suzanne in the lab while he meets with them. They challenge him about Suzanne’s presence in a very threatening way, but he assures them that she isn’t a threat. This show is getting progressively better at communicating things subtly, without lapsing into traditional Sci-Fi exposition dumps. Which is all the more surprising because they insist on structuring the show such that we always know the gist of the alien plan ahead of time. Without repeating what von Deer must already know at this stage, it becomes clear that they’ve convinced him they’re a peaceful race that seeks to uplift humanity once he’s developed a vaccine that will protect them from Earth bacteria, but they’ve got to operate in secret for fear that human governments will imprison and dissect them. Von Deer is completely convinced of their good will in spite of the way they keep doing over-the-top villain-talk stuff to tap-dance around their intentions rather than just plain lying: they keep repeating how they’ll “bring a new age” to Earth, or how they’ll “change humanity’s destiny”, or how “you will be baked. And then there will be cake,” or how Darth Vader killed his dad. Their performance isn’t just down to the subliminal music, though. The female alien is flirting pretty hardcore with the elderly scientist, including a sensual throat massage (not a euphemism) as she teaches him to pronounce alien words.
Anyone else think this looks like a cutscene of you getting berated after losing a life in an early ’90s FMV rail shooter? Just me then?