July 29, 2015

Grapevine: They Live

Roddy Piper in They LiveI have come here come to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.

Some images and phrases worm their way into the zeitgeist so powerfully that they completely eclipse their often-forgotten origins. The Sicilian proverb “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” or “I reject your reality and substitute my own,” from the 1985 film The Dungeonmaster (Even then, it’s probably a misquote of The Doctor from The Deadly Assassin). Or Kris Kristofferson’s 1969 song “Me and Bobby McGee”. Stay Asleep.

A lot of people have a strong knee-jerk negative reaction when something undergoes major changes in adaptation. I get that, but it’s not a reaction I share. If anything, I think I prefer it when remakes go pretty far afield: it’s like, here’s a new thing that is a lot like that old thing you liked. Don’t get me wrong: Jem and the Holograms is going to suck so hard anyone in its direct path will need to be treated for exposure to Hawking radiation. But it’s not like anyone is going to say, “Yeah, the big problem with the 1998 Lost in Space movie is that they strayed too far from the source material.” When a remake or adaptation goes off the rails, it’s hardly ever because they “changed too much”: it’s far more likely to be because what they changed it to was a bad idea, or because the source material wasn’t amenable to adapting. Obey.World War Z doesn’t suck because they changed it; it sucks because there was no way in hell adapting a pseudo-documentary into an action film was ever going to work (Or, as one critic put it, “They took an unfilmable book and turned it into an unwatchable movie”). The screenwriter for The Seeker may well have bragged that he didn’t actually read the book (Why do they do this? My best guess is that it’s because in Hollywood, the last thing you want to be accused of is being uncreative. To a Hollywood mind, “I read the book carefully and tried to make a faithful adaptation,” is essentially the same thing as, “I’m an unimaginative hack who plagiarized a beloved author.”), and yes, it’s a shitty, shitty, unwatchable movie. But y’know what? Back when I read The Dark is Rising in sixth grade, it seemed very strange and wrong to me, having been educated largely by ’80s films and children’s TV, that all six signs of the circle were actual, literal, physical things, and there was no twist where one of them was something abstract and existential like “love”.

Raintree Sci Fi Shorts Anthology series edited by Isaac Asimov

Speaking of sixth grade, it was round and about 1990 or 1991 when I started consuming a series of science fiction anthologies published by Raintree and edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Harry Greenberg and Charles Waugh. Work 8 hours. Play 8 hours. Sleep 8 hours. Each anthology had a loose theme, though there was a lot of overlap. I remember, on average, about one story from each of them. From After the End, there was a Bradbury story about an automated smart-house happily going along its daily routine, unaware that its owners had been incinerated by a nuclear explosion some time earlier. Time Warps, one of two time travel-themed books, had a story about some scientists who destroy the universe by using a time machine to create a paradox. The one I remember from Thinking Machines was about an automated, self-maintaining car that roamed the highways long after its passengers, unable to unlock the doors, had all died inside, though it turns out it also contained Arthur C. Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God and Frederic Brown’s The Answer. Marry and Reproduce. The Immortals contained a story of a scientist who discovered a formula that granted immortality, but caused total paralysis. Travels Through Time contained Asimov’s take on the several billion science fiction short stories where a time-traveling William Shakespeare flunks a freshman Shakespeare class. Another Bradbury story in Children of the Future, this one about schoolchildren on Venus who lock an unpopular girl in the closet so she misses the only hour of sunshine in seven years. The volume about Mad Scientists ended with Von Goom’s Gambit, in which an unlikable chess-player discovers, based on the popular sci-fi notion that the human brain is a computer, a series of moves that configures a chessboard as a binary computer program that crashes the human brain. He is eventually murdered by a cabal of respectable chessmasters who decide that the one thing they really can’t stand is a smart ass. No independent thought. The way I was able to find these anthologies when I went looking for them a couple of months ago was by checking out the publication history of the Philip K. Dick story I remembered from Bug Awful, where a time-traveler brings acid butterflies back in time while trying to sort out why the future is devoid of human life.

But the book I remember the best was Tomorrow’s TV. Like and Subscribe. I remember three stories from the predictably mercenary anthology in which people who wrote books warned readers that TV would be the cause of our civilization’s destruction. I wonder if anyone ever wrote a short story where books turn out to be evil and epic poetry is portrayed as the only wholesome, non-civilization-dooming means of education and entertainment. Tomorrow’s TV contained Jack Haldeman II’s A Scientific Fact, based on the popular but almost certainly false notion that the human brain permanently records everything it ever sees, so once a generation of people grow up watching TV, those years of 30 frames per second causes a massive echolalia epidemic when everyone’s brains get full. Watch more TV. Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian tells of a man who’s arrested and carted off to a mental hospital on the assumption that anyone who prefers to go out for walks instead of watching TV must be insane.

The final story in the anthology is Ray Nelson’s Eight O’Clock in the Morning. It tells the story of George Nada. Eight O'Clock in the Morning Illustration by Greg HargreavesAfter participating in a hypnotist’s stage show, he accidentally wakes up all the way and realizes, with the sudden clarity of a character in a golden age sci-fi story, that Earth is under the thrall of the four-eyed reptilian “Fascinators”. Not unlike The Silence, something about the Fascinators’ physical appearance compells humans to obey and not notice them as they order humanity to “Stay Asleep“, “Obey the government,” and the like.

Yeah. It’s They Live. This was the first time, I think, that I became actively aware of how much something could change in adaptation. Or maybe not. It depends on when I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which may have been a few years earlier. John Carpenter’s They Live is even more liberal in its adaptation of the source material than Victor Flemming’s The Wizard of Oz, enough that I wasn’t 100% certain until a few years later, when I re-watched, looking out for Ray Nelson’s name in the credits. Bookmark this site.

Back in 1988, the point in the narrative where when I saw They Live, I didn’t like it much. I was nine, and the subtext went straight over my head, so it seemed like it was just a big dumb action movie with clunky dialog and violence of the mundane “people shooting each other” sort I never really cared for. I liked Eight O’Clock in the Morning, which is shorter and being a golden age science fiction story, is based entirely around having a clever twist at the end.

The movie is inspired not just by the story itself, but by “Nada”, a very straight 1986 comic book adaptation by Nelson and Bill Wray (Though the aliens are rather more Lovecraftian than ReptilianEight O'Clock in the Morning). It stars pro wrestler Roddy Piper as a drifter (Credited as “Nada”, but I don’t recall anyone actually saying his name) who comes to LA looking for work. Unlike the story, the movie takes the very ’80s approach of spending for fracking ever to get started. All glory to the hypnotoad. The first thirty minutes is just Nada going to work, making friends among LA’s homeless, and purposefully ignoring any sort of social commentary while little bits of foreshadowing happen in drips and drabs thanks to a local street preacher, pirate TV broadcasts, and Nada’s friend Frank making observations about the disappearance of the middle class and how much harder it is for a working man to get by than it ought to be.

The plot finally, mercifully, gets going when a church full of weirdos (Including the foreshadowing street preacher) gets raided and demolished by The Man, and this leads to Nada getting a pair of the sunglasses they’d been stockpiling. Rather than hypnotic control that’s broken by “waking up”, in They Live, the aliens broadcast a signal from a TV transmitter which interferes with human vision. Tell your friends to read A Mind Occasionally Voyaging. The sunglasses filter out the effect, though this has the side effect of rendering the world black-and-white, (The implication is that the aliens are colorizing reality, a subtle dig at Ted Turner, who, just a few months before this movie was released, had nearly been lynched when he announced plans to colorize Citizen Kane).

They Live

And then, more padding. Five minutes of Nada wandering through LA, seeing that every billboard, sign, and product label is really a hidden message to obey, consume, and worship money, and that practically everyone who looks affluent or successful is actually a large-eyed skeletal creature. Conform. He finally spends enough time calling people ugly that the overlords cotton on and two alien cops attempt to arrest him. We’re a little shy of the halfway point of the movie, though the equivalent part of the short story is only 40 lines in, and we’re still on the first page of the comic. In the film version, Nada kills the cops and steals their weapons. In the other versions, the aliens are more subtle. Rather than confronting George face-to-face, the local police chief, identifying himself as George’s “controller” calls him on the phone and orders him to die of a heart attack at eight o’clock the next morning.

They Live

Hiding from the cops, Nada ducks into what turns out to be the bank from every movie that has a bank robbery scene, where he utters the line destined to enter public consciousness when Duke Nukem steals it in 1996. Being all out of gum, he shoots the place up, discovering in the process that the aliens’ gold watches are secretly teleportation devices and communicators.

George Nada has a go at waking up his neighbor by shouting at her and slapping her. While the short story is terse enough that this might not imply any more violence that one would use to rouse someone from a stupor, the comic version is graphic and sexualized and horrible, with the neighbor, nipples visible through a sheer, form-fitting dress, sent flying, because it’s the ’80s and a comic book, and graphic, sexualized brutality toward women is just a thing that happens. New War of the Worlds posts on Wednesdays.

John Carpenter wisely elected to deescalate the violence in the film version. Nada hijacks a young cable executive, Holly, and forces her to help him escape his pursuit. He tries to persuade her to try the sunglasses, but she refuses, pointing out that regardless of what she sees, since she thinks he’s insane, she’d just lie and tell him whatever she thought he wanted to hear. He turns his back on her for a moment, and somehow, she’s able to throw him through a plate glass window. We’ve established that she’s human, so there’s absolutely no justification for her being able to do this, beyond, “It’s an action movie. Tossing a grown man through a sheet of plate glass is really easy even if you’re much smaller.” New Doctor Who posts on Saturdays. She very calmly and dispassionately calls the police, though the camera lingers on his dropped sunglasses as foreshadowing.

Nada finds another pair of sunglasses in a trash truck near the church and tries to persuade his friend Frank to put them on. Frank, who has been watching TV and assumes Nada is a psychopathic spree killer, refuses in the form of a six minute long fight scene between the two of them. This is basically the climax of the film: six minutes of Roddy Piper and Keith David beating the snot out of each other. They Live: Keith David and Roddy PiperTwice now, the plot of this film has come down to Roddy Piper’s desperate quest to get someone to try on a pair of sunglasses. Call your mother. She misses you.

Once Nada’s beaten Frank badly enough that he can force the sunglasses onto him, they mill around for another five minutes walking off their injuries, check into a motel, and make gay jokes about sharing a room. A resistance leader recognizes Frank’s glasses and invites them to a meeting.

The resistance serves very little purpose in this movie other than to facilitate a huge exposition dump. Re-Elect Mayor Lutsky. The meeting is five minutes of Frank and Nada milling around as resistance members explain how the aliens are using Earth the way the US uses the third world, that there’s a human elite who help the aliens in exchange for wealth and power, how the gold watches work, how pollution and wealth inequality are all the fault of the aliens, and how the mostly-human cops are scouring the city for the resistance, having been told that they’re communists. They Live: Keith David and Roddy PiperGiven that the resistance wants to kill the wealthy, reduce income inequality, and ensure that the working class gets their fair share, technically, I think they are communists. Also, they get a pair of contact lenses to replace their sunglasses, so that we can see the actors’ faces for the showdown. Also, Holly shows up, having presumably tried on Nada’s sunglasses. Then the army or the police or the aliens or something storm the place and kill everyone except for Holly, Frank and Nada.

Nada and Frank escape when Frank’s watch creates a portable hole that dumps them into some passages. They get to attend a meeting of human collaborators, celebrating their profits, and run into a homeless man from early in the movie, now a wealthy collaborator (We can probably assume he’s the one who sold out the church). Assuming them to be fellow collaborators, he shows Frank and Nada an intergalactic spaceport (for no reason other than that it looks cool) and a cable news studio where aliens broadcast their control signal.

They Live

All three versions of the story eventually lead the hero to this news studio, though the motivation and plan is different. In the film, the resistance leader had mentioned the possibility of blowing up the transmitter for the alien control signal, and Frank thinks this sounds like a good idea. In the short story, the plan is not so straightforward, since the mind control seems to be an intrinsic property of the aliens. We are your friends. George assumes that the aliens will realize what’s happened and place him back under control when he fails to die at the appointed moment, so he determines that his only chance to stop them is to act quickly. George notices that the aliens are unable to control him if they show any sign of fear or uncertainty. He calls the police chief back and announces that he’s found a way to wake people up and plans to liberate the planet — as soon as word spreads among the aliens, they all reflexively fear him, rendering him immune to further control. They LiveHe heads to the TV studio in order to interrupt a live broadcast.

They shoot their way up to the roof, pursued by soldiers with, for some reason, Ghostbusters PKE meters. They meet up with Holly on the way, who shoots Frank in the head once Nada is around the corner. Yes, Holly is a collaborator. A twist which would be a shocking betrayal if Holly had been in more than three scenes. Nada shoots her, then shoots the transmitter, and a moment later, is shot himself by a police helicopter. Nada dies flipping the bird as the transmitter explodes, and the film ends on a montage of clips as all around Los Angeles, people start to notice the aliens who surround them and dominate their media, including an alien Siskel and Ebert complaining about the tastelessness of directors like John Carpenter. Eight O'Clock in the MorningWe close on a scene lifted directly from the comic adaptation, where a naked woman (The only nudity in this movie. I assume it was a last-minute bid to get an R-rating because back then, it made you more marketable) Bring back Firefly. looks down from the TV at the man she’s riding to see that he’s an alien.

The short story’s ending is similarly bittersweet, but with a better twist. George shoots an alien newscaster (With a dart-gun he’d taken from an alien earlier), then, with the newscaster still on-screen, orders humanity to wake up while imitating the Fascinators’ “croak”.

It was George’s voice the city heard that morning, but it was the Fascinator’s image, and the city did awake for the very first time and the war began.

Eight O'Clock in the Morning Comic Adaptation

George did not live to see the victory that finally came. He died of a heart attack at exactly eight o’clock.

There’s a fair bit of violence in the short story. It’s easily overlooked because Nelson is pretty terse particularly when it comes to description, but George Nada murders an alien wino by beating his head in with a brick, slits the throats of two more, and shoots several. Eight O'Clock in the MorningIn fact, it seems likely that some of the guards he kills in the TV studio are human, as he mentions not wanting to do it (The comic omits that part). There’s also a scene where he finds a clutch of alien children and goes all Anakin Skywalker on them. This is all rendered pretty gruesomely in the comic.

The film is curiously much less violent. Its biggest action scene is the fistfight between Nada and Frank. And while Nada might have a higher body count, running around Los Angeles with an assault rifle, it’s curiously bloodless carnage. Follow me on Twitter @lraszewski. Even Nada’s own death is bloodless, despite him catching a half-dozen rounds from a machine gun. Moreover, Holly is the only human Nada kills — the film frequently cuts in Nada’s POV to assure us that his other victims are all aliens. Even Holly, he only shoots in self-defense, as she’s holding a gun on him. For that matter, Nada never even kills any aliens who aren’t directly threatening him.

The other big thing about the film, of course, is the political angle. There’s no real hint in Ray Nelson’s story about why the aliens are doing this. The aliens have conquered the Earth because that’s just what aliens do. Go back to sleep. They appear to occupy all walks of life. Several of the aliens Nada kills are clearly working-class or poor. There’s no clear end to which they’re manipulating humanity, other than the desire to live unmolested and occasionally eat humans.

Other than a handful of alien soldiers, the aliens from They Live are all presented as wealthy elite. More than that, they’re presented as directly responsible for the downfall of the middle class, the stagnancy of wages, unemployment, pollution, income inequality, in short, they’re basically space-Reagan. They Live is basically turning the bourgeois into aliens so that they can get away with saying, “And therefore we should hunt down and kill the wealthy.” If you like this article, link to it. This is possibly the most communist Big Dumb Action Movie I’ve ever seen. Television replaces religion as the opium of the masses. Every good or even sympathetic character is a laborer — heck, there’s even a strong element of “The biggest obstacle for the working man is the way the bourgeois manipulates them into fighting each other instead of working together against the true enemy,” which Frank basically says outright to Nada early in the film, and is brought home when they spend seven minutes beating each other up. I have no idea how John Carpenter got away with it.

But as is always the case, there’s a serious risk you run when you wrap your social commentary in a fantastic setting. They LiveBy making his bourgeois class into space aliens, Carpenter is effectively absolving humanity: it’s not our fault that our consumer culture is impeding material social progress, or that we passively sit back and allow 90% of the world’s wealth to concentrate in the hands of one percent of its population: we’re being mind-controlled by aliens. We don’t need sweeping systemic changes — you don’t even need a revolution: the actual revolutionaries get squashed in less time than it takes Nada to put sunglasses on Frank. What you need is one dude with a shotgun and some one-liners.

I am not a big fan of communism. Paul is dead But I think that the communist critique of capitalism has a lot of truth to it. And a big part of that critique is that the abuses and failures and waste and suffering that comes out of capitalism aren’t the result of the people at the top being evil skeleton-faced space aliens: those problems are inherent to the system. You can’t have a completely non-abusive capitalism, because it won’t be competitive with abusive ones. The best you can ever do is to manage your externalities. Find something you can abuse that doesn’t mind. Or, more historically, find something you can abuse that won’t fight back.

And that, curiously enough, brings us back to War of the Worlds. Because what’s the original War of the Worlds but a science fiction parable that seeks to ask, “Okay, Victorian England. You like sailing all over the world and conquering less advanced cultures with your superior military technology. How would you feel if someone else did that to you?” And here’s my twist ending: They Live may borrow the structure of its plot from Eight O’Clock in the Morning. But at a fundamental level, this movie is really John Carpenter’s War of the Worlds. It’s a spiritual reimagining, updating Welles’s fundamental question for 1980s America: “Okay, Chicago-School Neoliberal (A term which, in America, you have to explain, because “neoliberal” uses a definition of “liberal” that is completely the opposite to the one typically used in political discourse. Short version: privatize everything) America. You like flying all over the world and setting up sweatshops, strip-mining natural resources and keeping the third world in poverty to provide low-cost consumer goods and vastly enrich your monied class. How would you feel if someone else did that to you?” Next week, back to War of the Worlds with 1×06: The Second Seal.


  • They Live is available on DVD and streaming from Amazon.
  • Nada was originally published in 1986 by Eclipse Comics, and can be read in its entirety here.
  • Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson can be read here.
  • Stay asleep.
July 25, 2015
July 22, 2015

Antithesis: Breeding Ground (War of the Worlds 2×05)

War of the Worlds: Julian Richings and Patricia PhillipsIt is October 30, 1989. Tammy Faye Bakker moves into a motel to stay near her husband, who was sentenced to half a century for fraud last week. Smith Dairy of Ohio brings all the boys to the yard with a world-record 1,500 gallon milkshake. The prolonged Battle of the Bay finally ended Saturday when the Oakland Athletics won game four. The second national tour of Les Misérables will move from LA to San Francisco on Wednesday. Friday, hundreds will gather in Sofia, Bulgaria to demand democratization.

This is Janet Jackson’s last week at the top of the charts with “Miss You Much”. By Friday, she’ll have swapped places with Roxette. Opening in theaters this week is Valmont, the second movie in the past eleven months based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Unlike last year’s more successful Dangerous Liaisons, which was based on Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play, this one is adapted directly from the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos, which, fun fact, is the very first thing I ever bought on Amazon, on March 14, 1999. I’d just seen the play and really liked it, plus I was really into epistolary novels. MacGyver, 21 Jump Street and Alien Nation all air new Halloween episodes. CBS reruns last year’s Garfield Halloween special. NBC shows a special called The Wickedest Witch starring Rue McClanahan and Burgess Meredith, which has, as far as I know, never been shown since.

Star Trek the Next Generation offers up “Booby Trap“, an episode that is very good if you are watching it in 1989, but less good in the light of next year’s “Galaxy’s Child“, which recasts it from a story in which Geordi falls in love with his ship via a holographic avatar to one where Geordi creates a holographic simulacrum of a real woman because he’s a nerdy mechanophile who can’t handle Real Girls (made worse still by later repeated implications that the Real Leah Brahms is destined to leave her husband for Geordi because his creepy stalker approach works, for they are fated to be together). It’s pretty much always Halloween for Friday the 13th The Series, which airs “Bad Penny”, a sequel to last season’s “Tails I live, Heads you die”, featuring a magic coin that can trade one person’s life for another’s.

War of the Worlds is curiously un-Halloween-themed with “Breeding Ground”. At least “Terminal Rock” had people in fancy dress. That said, there’s something very sci-fi horror about “Breeding Ground”, in a particularly Outer Limits sort of way. Certainly, it’s the farthest they’ve tacked in the direction of actual horror so far, and the result is an episode that’s tonally very rich. It’s also an episode that’s important in the ongoing storyline — the events of this episode will be referenced again later in the season (also in last week’s episode, as they must have aired them out of order). There’s a particularly strong showing from some of the characters, a sympathetic antagonist of sorts, and some nice detail fleshing out the world.

But at the same time… I don’t know if it’s all that good. The weak spot this week is the regular cast, and that just does not bode well. Jared Martin in particular is well off his game. More than that, their involvement in the plot is utterly superfluous. In many ways, this episode would be better if you just cut them out and retooled this as an episode of one of the half-dozen horror anthologies that have sprung up recently. The action of the story is tremendously thin, just enough to serve as a cursory skeleton for showcasing societal collapse and body horror. It’s not that the plot itself is weak: it’s more like the wrong parts of it are happening to the wrong people.

While the aesthetic of this episode is straight-up horror, the plot is more that of a tragedy in the classical sense. It is, specifically, a story about a noble character who finds himself in a situation where a personal flaw allows external factors to twist his noble traits to inevitable disaster. It even observes the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action for the most part, and the parts that don’t are the weakest.

The fallout of this that the same character is, depending on your point of view, the protagonist, the villain, or the victim. This episode, much more than the others, feels like it’s written partially under the assumption that the Morthren are supposed to be the heroes: the ones engaged in the noble work of trying to assure their survival in a hostile world. As with so many things in this show, it’s a very interesting conceit, but it’s setting the show up for failure when there’s so much else in the show determined to depict them as ’80s horror movie villains.

War of the Worlds: Gerard Parkes as Dr. GestaineThis episode, wisely, puts us one step removed from actually siding with the aliens by introducing a patsy. This is our tragic “hero”, Doctor Emil Gestaine, played by Gerard Parkes (Who you may remember for playing “Doc” in Fraggle Rock and its highly controversial feature film adaptation, The Boondock Saints). He is, to all appearances, a skilled and compassionate doctor, once considered the top man in his field. The Morthren have sought him out because the survival of their species relies on them being able to breed on Earth, and for reasons which they do not go into, this requires they find a way to implant “seeds of the Eternal” into human hosts.

When we open, Doctor Gestaine is performing one of these implantations, using one of those three-fingered tongs we noted last week to shove a glowing “seed” into the back of some dude who probably just came in to get his tonsils out. Gestaine will later justify his actions in the name of the scientific knowledge humanity stands to gain. His other motivation is more immediate: he’s suffering from a degenerative illness which they’ll eventually explain as the result of his time on a medical team trying to save the victims of biological warfare experiments run awry (Because it’s a punk-rock dystopia. Of course the government is running secret biological warfare experiments and releasing them on their own people). The Morthren have provided him with a treatment, in the form of a test tube of red liquid with some green pith on top.

War of the WorldsDenis Forest and Catherine Disher only get a few minutes of screen-time this week. Instead, it’ll be Ardix and Bayda doing most of the heavy lifting. There’s a great shot of them in shadow which feels very X-Files. The implant doesn’t take, and and the host’s back explodes, but not before he has time to run down a hall in the filthy, broke-down hospital, right past Harrison Blackwood and hide behind a plastic sheet for the sake of discretion before his back explodes.

Blackwood, fortuitously, had been on his way to visit Gestaine, an old friend, in hopes of scoring some megacillin (the Canadian brand name for benzylpenicllin, an injectable form of penicillin used for treating syphillis (and other things, but that’s the first thing on every list I’ve found), but which I bet the writers just used because it sounded like it means “Penicillin, only moreso, because it’s the future”), since Suzanne is sick, though she’ll be perfectly fine the next time we see her. There’s a small scene near the beginning establishing Blackwood’s trek to the hospital which has some nice world-building. A radio in the background mentions rioting “on the east side”, which the newscaster attributes to the “rash of unexplained droughts” back in “Doomsday“, which this episode is clearly meant to be set no more than a day or so after. It’s still raining, hard enough that the downspouts are overflowing. Also, Blackwood’s wearing the same shirt. Debi, updating Kincaid on the day’s news, mentions that, “Another senator skipped bail.” Kincaid’s bought morphine on the black market, which pleases Blackwood though no one says why especially, so I am going to assume that a drug problem is part of Blackwood’s Rugged proto-’90s grim anti-hero shtick. Blackwood’s quest is motivated by Kincaid’s failure to bring home any antibiotics, which he seems strangely glib about, despite how seriously the other three react. Blackwood is so taken aback by this that he hugs a random patient (Seriously, that guy he’s hugging in the animated gif just appears out of nowhere and vanishes in the next shot) then winds up a pay phone to call Kincaid (Yeah, phones wind up. It’s the future).

So the aliens need a new victim to experiment on. Fortunately, a few scenes earlier, we were introduced to Kate Barrows (Helen Hughes She’s got a long resume, but only one thing jumped out at me: she was one of the ghosts in the pants-crapping horrifying (but somehow only if you are a small child) 1985 French-Canadian movie The Peanut Butter Solution), an elderly woman, a former exotic dancer, whose apartment suggests that she’s living in the past, surrounding herself with old magazines and posters, even a weird black-and-white cardboard standee. But she seems happy enough, singing along to an old Victrola as she dances around her apartment. Her spirits aren’t even brought down by the fact that she’s behind on her bills, uninsured, and desperate for a welfare check that hasn’t come because the welfare office is on strike (Because societal collapse). What does get her down — lays her flat out on the floor even — is that she’s also got a bad ulcer that Gestaine can’t legally operate on because she’s poor and this is a dystopian future.

War of the Worlds: Helen Hughes as Kate BarrowWhile she’s waiting to die in the fifth floor “People we’re going to let die because they’re poor” ward, Ardix and Bayda find her and decide, for reasons they don’t explain, that she’d make a good replacement victim. Gestaine wants none of it after their previous failure, but gives in the second Ardix waves that pith-covered test tube in his faceWar of the Worlds: Julian Richings and Gerard Parkes, on the condition that, “This time, we’ll do it my way.”

By “his way,” he means that he’ll fix Kate’s ulcer, and while he’s in there, he installs a glowing alien baby-seed in her uterus. While he’s doing that, Blackwood and Kincaid break into the morgue. Because it’s the future and human life is cheap, the morgue keeps bodies not in refrigerated vaults, but hanging from the ceiling in plastic baggies. A rare moment of amusing banter:
Kincaid: Oh God, I hate these places.
Blackwood: By the time you’re in one, you won’t care any more.
Blackwood scrapes something that looks like a green slug out of the first victim’s body while expositioning to Kincaid about Gestaine’s past. Back at the base, Blackwood examines the sample under a microscope and determines that it’s a fusion of human and alien cells — the first evidence they’ve ever seen of the aliens having the ability to combine their biology with the native population. Suzanne notes that the aliens have tried this before and failed. This must be a reference to an event in the unseen backstory about General Wilson’s alien-fighting team. It’s a bit annoying that they don’t follow up on this, since it’s rare for anyone to talk about the events before the destruction of their old HQ.

Also worth noting is that this scene answers two of the questions I’ve raised in the past. First, we learn that Harrison is some kind of biologist, as he’s able to identify the tissue by visual inspection. I probably should have guessed from the fact that he habitually carried a sample vial around with him in “Doomsday” (Though not this week, as he has Kincaid take one from the morgue. Maybe he hasn’t had a chance to clean the one he used last time). War of the Worlds: Lynda Mason Green as SuzanneA biologist and a chemist seem like a very realistic pairing to be working on an alien-fighting team, and it’s surprising that a TV show like this wouldn’t have gone for something flashier and less realistic. The second thing we have absolute confirmation on now is that Debi knows about the aliens, as she’s the one who draws the conclusion that they’re trying to cross-breed. Pity, that could have made a good episode in itself.

The gang makes plans for the now instantly cured Suzanne to go undercover as a candy striper (This is the Future, so those old-timey nurses’ caps are back in) while Ardix and Bayda try to be friendly and comforting to Kate, who’s instantly about six months pregnant. They come off really creepy instead, though Kate doesn’t notice. Gestaine has passed the aliens off as federal researchers, who paid for her medical care in exchange for participating in their experiment. Kate is alarmed for about ten seconds and then is cool with it.

That right there is one of the biggest weaknesses of this story. Kate is the victim in all this. She’s the one who’s had her body violated against her will, who’s suddenly found herself pregnant, well past childbearing age, with an alien baby, been taken advantage of by a doctor she’d trusted, and is being kept a prisoner. No one is ever going to actually give her any consideration, ask her her opinion, or respect her decisions. Worse still, aside from one cursory nod at the end, the plot is going to do its darnedest to make Emil Gestaine out to be the victim in all this, the well-intentioned doctor who’d made a great sacrifice to help humanity, who’d been preyed upon due to his one weakness (The illness he acquired trying to save people, natch) and and ultimately destroyed by his choices and his circumstances. When Blackwood confronts him, they even give him a big hero speech where he tries to take the moral high-ground because, “I come down here every stinking day of my life, to fight a war against rape, murder, disease and despair.” It takes serious balls to position yourself on the anti-rape side right after you’ve forcibly impregnanted a non-consenting woman. What the fuck, War of the Worlds?

Blackwood hijacks the ambulance when they try to move Kate to the alien base for the delivery. Kincaid, predictably, wants to give Kate an abortion (without asking her of course), and the others sort of tacitly agree, even though they really want to study the implantation process and learn what they can about alien biology. They make a point of sending Debi out of the room while they discuss this, though they have no qualms about talking right in front of Kate.

Malzor and Mana show up in order to get in the contractually required scene where they bitch at each other. Mana considered the plan too risky and hates the idea of using humans as hosts, while Malzor takes her reluctance as a lack of faith in the Eternal’s ability to look out for his own. War of the Worlds: Gerard Parkes as GestaineGestaine gives up Blackwood in exchange for his life and arranges a meeting in which he fesses up about his condition and his work with the aliens (One nice facet of Gestaine’s tragic flaw: he hints that his interest in a cure for his condition may be more about his failure to save the Georgetown victims than about saving his own life). Blackwood notes the rash that’s spreading over Gestaine’s hands and neck as evidence that their cure may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

There is an ambiguous cut to Malzor declaring, “We have contact,” which either refers to the fact that the Morthren are about to spring a trap on Blackwood, or that they’ve done something to Kate Barrow, as we cut over to her suddenly waking up and clobbering Suzanne with an ultrasound wand to make her escape.

Kincaid saves Harrison from ambush by splattering a soldier’s glow-sticks across what might be an old Chevy Vega (though I can’t imagine what a Chevy Vega would be doing in The Future), they stop back at the shelter to find Suzanne, then hit the streets looking for Kate, basically to keep them from outrunning the plot before Kincaid suddenly realizes without prompting that she’d obviously just go back to the hospital.

Gestaine confronts Ardix, who confirms that he’ll eventually build up a tolerance to their medicine. It’s not clear how on-the-level Ardix is here. He claims that they had no way of knowing how long the medication would be effective, and that they hadn’t actually said he’d get a permanent cure. He seems like he’s implying that they did the best they could and weren’t deliberately screwing him over, and suggests that Gestaine should be “glad for the moment we gave you.” And despite realizing that Blackwood was right about the aliens, Gestaine is still willing to go along with them for as long as the alien medicine will keep him going.

Kate delivers the baby in the traditional “more or less like real life but cleaner and faster” way. War of the Worlds: Julian Richings as ArdixThe camera makes a point of not letting us see the baby at this point. Ardix and Malzor both look briefly alarmed, but it’s hard to tell with Julian Richings and Denis Forest. They may actually be trying to look proud or happy or something. Gestaine takes one look at the little alien and does the traditional tragic catharsis, “My God, What Have I Done?”

Having been delayed by a car-fight against more soldiers, Blackwood and Kincaid arrive at the hospital to find the aliens gone and Gestaine dead on the floor in a pool of blood. It may just be that the director needed a way for them to see that he’s dead, but I’ll note that Gestaine wasn’t vaporized by an alien weapon. And if you look close, I think there’s a scalpel in his hand. I’d take that to mean that he killed himself in remorse, though I guess it’s also possible that he took a swing at Ardix and just got shoved head-first into something. After lingering a long moment to let us take that in, the show finally remembers Kate, who’s still alive, crying for her baby. They’ll return to her in the penultimate scene, sitting quietly in her darkened apartment to indicate the soul-crushing despair she feels. Or whatever. Too little, too late, I’m not buying that she’s a real character with feelings and motivations. I’m half surprised they didn’t just shove her in a refrigerator given the way the story has treated her more like a plot token than a character so far.

War of the WorldsThere’s a weird coda before that, back at base where Kincaid comes in like Rush Limbaugh’s Santa Claus, as black market drugs are available again. Suzanne, Harrison, and Debi all look so happy to get big old bottles of pills. Well, thank God they resolved that whole “black market drugs are in short supply” plot thread. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night.

We end with Malzor presenting the baby to The Eternal. Malzor gets a little weepy and sentimental, and why not. He holds the child aloft, Lion King-style, to reveal… A perfectly normal human-looking baby. So… Gestaine took one look at a perfectly normal human-looking baby and decided to off himself? I give up.

War of the WorldsThis episode almost works. There’s a lot that’s good about it. Gerard Parkes is great, as you’d expect. And the things it sets out to do, it does well: there’s a compelling tragedy going on around Emil Gestaine. You’re probably bored by now of listening to me go on about how fantastic Julian Richings is, but this is probably his strongest episode. He’s fantastically creepy, particularly in an “uncanny valley” sort of way, where he acts like someone who has only ever observed human behavior from a distance and is just going through the motions. Watching him try to be comforting to Kate, he’s horrifying. Even more impressive is his Mephistopholean manipulation of Gestaine, striking this balance between friendly and threatening, sincere and deceptive.

But then it drives straight into a big old brick wall of wrong. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast aren’t in nearly the same form as Parkes and Richings. This is a Kincaid-lite episode, so we’re stuck with mopey-passive Kincaid rather than one of his other personalities. Jared Martin spends a lot of the episode just being ineffectually angry. Gestaine is a once-great physician who is now performing unethical experiments on people and has already killed at least one person. This ought to be easy. But when Blackwood confronts him, it’s as though his only argument against what Gestaine is doing is “You’re working for genocidal aliens.” This is the place where you always have the, “You used to help people! You took an oath! You betrayed Shiva!” speech, but instead, Blackwood just tells him, “This is a war, but you’re on the wrong side.” He makes it about sides rather than what it ought to be about.

And what it ought to be about is that without her consent, Gestaine performed a dangerous, unethical medical procedure on an unwitting woman and impregnated her. Kate Barrow, who is (going by her actress) seventy-one years old, wakes up from surgery pregnant. This bothers her for approximately thirty seconds. She’s being attended by the two creepiest people she’s likely ever met, but she never gives any hint that she notices this. Within a few hours, she’s at least second trimester. This should be horrific. This should be a story about someone who finds their body being taken away from them, who has a something growing inside her, who is being lied to and deceived and used and manipulated by mysterious, creepy Stepford smilers. This should be Rosemary’s Baby.

The tragic victim in this story should be Kate Barrow, and Kate alone. Not the fscking guy who did this to her.


  • War of the Worlds: The Second Invasion is available on DVD from amazon.com
July 18, 2015
July 15, 2015

Thesis: Eye for an Eye (War of the Worlds 1×05)

War of the Worlds 1x05 Dunking BoothMartians on motorcycles.

Happy Halloween! It is October 31, 1988. Hope you’re not planning on Trick-or-Treating in Cleveland: it’s only 19° out, the coldest it’s ever been in October. Despite the weather, Indianapolis trounces Denver 55-23. Veteran actor/producer John Houseman dies at 86. Yesterday, that little drama Philip Morris and Kraft had been playing out came to a close with Philip Morris raising their offer to $106 a share, the largest merger at that point in US history not involving an oil company. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis will marry tomorrow, and on Wednesday, Robert Morris, a Cornell graduate student, will unleash the first well-known internet worm.

“Groovy Kind of Love” will maintain the lead position on the charts until Saturday. On TV this week are a haunted house episode of MacGyver, guest starring Teri Hatcher as one of Mac’s recurring goofy friends with a penchant for getting into trouble, and a bunch of shows I’ve never heard of. Doctor Who begins “The Happiness Patrol” on Wednesday, an incredibly scathing and incredibly camp satire of the Thatcher administration which is my sister’s favorite serial and is widely hated by Doctor Who fandom, because the monster of the week is a sadistic robot made out of candy, and Doctor Who fans rather notoriously can’t take a joke. Friday the 13th the Series airs “Symphony in B#”. Ryan gets involved with a violinist whose crippled mentor is using a cursed violin to restore his musical abilities. Said violin is, of course, powered by murders committed using its switchblade bow. Seriously, I’m starting to think I should be reviewing that show instead of this one, but I doubt anything I could say improve upon the one sentence capsule summaries. It’s like Dario Argento and Stephen King playing Mad Libs.

The astute among you may have realized that we are fifty years to the day from when early John Houseman collaborator Orson Welles may or may not have terrified the nation with his adaptation of War of the Worlds. It would be kinda sorta utterly remiss to let the occasion go uncelebrated by the current incarnation of the franchise. Accordingly, this week’s episode of War of the Worlds will take Harrison and the gang to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

There’s never any indication that there’s an in-universe version of the 1953 George Pal film in War of the Worlds, though it’s a popular fan theory that a feature film docudrama was produced starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, which later would help feed the collective neurosis leading to widespread alien amnesia.  They aren’t the first ones to try out the idea. Possibly the most famous example is 1984’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, in which the alien warlord John Worfin hypnotized the young Welles to disclaim his initially factual reporting on the arrival of the Red Lectroids in Grover’s Mill as a work of fiction. You have to stretch the documented facts more than a little to make the concept work (For example, to explain why an actor/director in New York would go down to the middle of New Jersey — a trip that takes two hours using roads that didn’t exist in the thirties — during the time slot where he’d been doing his theatrical presentations for weeks and try his hand at journalism under an assumed name), but it’s all in good fun.
Aliens being fooled by the broadcast also comes up a lot. It happens in an episode of the cable series Perversions of Science (Think The Twilight Zone with pay cable nudity. The one I mostly remember is about a billionaire who has a sex change and goes back in time to fulfill his lifelong dream of boning himself), the movie Spaced Invaders, and is subverted in the Doctor Who audio drama “Invaders from Mars”, where the Doctor talks Welles into a repeat performance to convince invading aliens that Earth is already being conquered by a more powerful invader (It doesn’t work because Welles congratulates himself on a hot mic).
For the 1938 radio play, though, War of the Worlds decided to go with the literary agent hypothesis, that Orson Welles really did witness an alien invasion, and his supposedly fictional dramatization was part of the cover-up.

I hope you’re ready for another tonal whiplash episode, because “Eye For an Eye” is going to stride through some extremely goofy territory. I’m still on the fence about the humor in this show. The big problem with it is that it doesn’t usually work. But they’re trying at a time when the emerging trend for science fiction on TV is that it must be SRS BSNS — Star Trek, actually quite funny in its original incarnation, pretty much completely loses its sense of humor for this part of its history, and will really only get it back on Deep Space Nine (when, I assume, they were allowed to occasionally be funny because half the time, the show was so damned grim that without the occasional comic relief episode, the audience would all commit mass suicide). In general, War of the Worlds works best when they either minimize the comic elements, or when they maximize them. The worst episodes are the ones where they waffle on it, unwilling to commit one way or the other.

War of the Worlds 1x05The episode opens with a biker gang leading a funeral procession through the town of Grover’s Mill on the anniversary of the infamous Orson Welles broadcast. One biker stops to reassure the worried local cops that they only mean to bury their friend in the a graveyard outside of town, and won’t cause any trouble unless provoked. Meanwhile, the town is preparing for their annual War of the Worlds-themed town fair. A gang of elderly men watch in disgust and grouse about what a travesty the whole thing is. The gang is led by Flannery, a 1938 veteran, played by character actor Jeff Corey (You may remember him as the leader of the planet StratosJeff Corey in Star Trek in the Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders”. The one other role he had that sticks in my mind was as a senile judge in an episode of Night CourtJeff Corey in Night Court).

The biker gang are, of course, aliens, as we learn when we hear them speaking alien as they throw a drunken party at the graveyard. Yeah. The aliens hang out drinking been and dancing and carousing and having a good time, speaking alien. There’s an implication that they’re taking their cover stories seriously to avoid suspicion. That would tie in nicely with the idea of the aliens going to behave-like-a-human training camp as we saw last time. War of the Worlds 1x05But then there’s the fact that they’re speaking alienese, and walking around in broad daylight scanning the ground with a device that looks and sounds like what would happen if a vacuum cleaner, a metal detector and a chainsaw had an orgy.

They call home to let the advocates know they’ve found what they’re looking for, a war machine left behind in 1938, but it’s going to take them a while to dig it up, what with the town cops keeping an eye on them. Rather unusually, the advocates don’t complain about the ineptness of their soldiers. Instead, they leave it up to their best judgment, then go off for a stroll to complain about how much work this whole invasion thing is. “No one ever said war was easy,” one of them remarks.

Harrison, Suzanne, Ironhorse, and Debi arrive in Grover’s Mill on assignment from General Wilson. Wilson’s own (off-screen) research has dug up some buried files revealing that a real invasion took place in 1938. Debi: This place is great! They’ve got pony rides and everything!
Harrison: Good news, Colonel.
Ironhorse: What?
Harrison: Pony rides.
They’ve driven up (This show is geographically more sound than Captain Power, but apparently the Blackwood Project has their own wormhole system, since they drive everywhere. They use the same three cars in basically every episode, Norton’s Awesome Van, Suzanne’s Bronco, or, as in this episode, a Chevy Caprice. It’s heavily implied that the Cottage is somewhere in the northwest, maybe northern California, the aliens are operating out of the Nevada desert, two weeks ago, they were in Montana, and now they’re in New Jersey. That’s an awful lot of driving.) to interview anyone they can find who remembers the invasion and, according to Ironhorse, “Pay tribute to those brave, but forgotten veterans who fought in that great, historic battle.”

So here are two things I love about that line: first, it is ridiculously overblown, and second, it is perfectly in character for Ironhorse, based on everything we’ve seen so far (particularly how he acted toward Sylvia). In a lot of ways, that line sort of sums up the tone of this show, two scientists and a soldier talking about the brave veterans of a forgotten war, in the middle of a town’s fair while three portly, bearded guys in the background practice saying, “We shall sell no wine before its time,” for the Orson Welles impersonation contest.

War of the Worlds 1x05 Orson Welles Impersonators

While they recap basically the exact conversation about alien amnesia they had with General Wilson back in episode 2, there’s a whole lot of background silly going on in the town fair. Offscreen, emcee for the Orson Welles contest tells an unseen woman that she looks like a “likely contender” for the competition. The PA announces that there’s nothing wrong with the blue ice cream, “despite rumors to the contrary,” and later indicates that someone left a baby at the hot dog stand. A bit later, the announcer will disappoint the crowd by dispelling rumors that Bruce Springsteen will be performing. A little person in greenface is mocking competitors at the Martian Dunking Booth. And there’s a guy in the background who is almost certainly not Alan RuckWar of the Worlds 1x05 Guy Who Looks Like Alan Ruck, but really looks like him.

Suzanne and Debi don’t really serve any purpose in this story. It’s nice to see Rachel Blanchard back for the first time since “The Walls of Jericho”, but her only practical impact on the plot is for Suzanne to leave right before the climax to take her somewhere safe, because that they couldn’t think of anything for Suzanne to do in that part, and they could just as easily have sent them somewhere else for a week for all the difference it makes.

Or maybe I’m being too hard. There are some nice character moments out of the pair: Debi talks about missing her father and being unhappy about her parents’ divorce. There’s no follow-through on that yet, but it’s coming eventually. War of the Worlds 1x05 Lynda Mason GreenWe also learn that Suzanne used to be a softball player in her youth, as evidenced by the unbelievably shitty overhand throw she uses at the dunking booth. And Debi asks Suzanne if she believes in aliens — Suzanne’s answer is vague but consistent with the first half of the pilot in that she claims to accept aliens as inevitable given the size of the universe, but doesn’t say anything specific about aliens on Earth. I hadn’t really thought of that much, but given the nature of their work at the Cottage, of course Debi wouldn’t have been told what they were doing. And now I look back and notice that Debi leaves the room back in the pilot between Ironhorse telling his Ancient Astronauts folktale and his conversation with Harrison about the potential historicity of it. It’ll be interesting moving forward to see how much Suzanne is willing to let Debi into the loop. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Debi’s one of the few characters to outright question the existence of aliens. People have questioned and doubted the presence of aliens here on present-day Earth, and people have doubted individual reports of alien encounters, but so far, Ironhorse is the only person to have actually challenged their existence directly. Everyone else just seems reluctant to address the question.

While Debi and Suzanne are bonding, Harrison and Ironhorse head down to the local trademark-friendly equivalent of the American Legion to interview three of the four remaining members of the 1938 militia, who are happy to be taken seriously for the first time in half a century. War of the Worlds 1x05They mention the gooseneck weapon on the fighting machine, and complain about Orson Welles, and how his broadcast trivialized their contribution and convinced the country that the whole thing had been a hoax. Later on, Harrison will interview an elderly librarian, still obviously smitten with the young Welles (She describes him as “slender”. Welles was indeed slender in his youth, but its mention here is probably more for ironic humor, since by 1988, the popular image of Orson Welles was heavily influenced by the fact that he did not need any makeup to play his final film role, Unicron, the planet-sized robot in Transformers The Movie), who will explain that Welles had been hired by the government to create his radio play to “protect the people”. The fact that Welles had allegedly come to town with government advisors to conduct interviews and research before making his play seems to conflict with the implication from the veterans that they’d, “Been waiting 50 years to tell our story.” It also makes the timeline more convoluted: Welles couldn’t have been reporting the events live. Rather, his broadcast was a fictional play, just one that was based loosely on real events. Another conclusion we can draw is that the “real” battle couldn’t have taken place on Halloween (and therefore this episode isn’t taking place on its anniversary): the real battle must have taken place some time earlier, to give Orson time to drive down, conduct interviews, and produce a radio play. Okay. It still makes sense that Halloween itself would be a good time for Harrison and his team to come for a visit rather than the “real” anniversary, since the town fair makes a good cover for them to walk around asking people about aliens in 1938.

The coincidence of the aliens showing up the same day is hard to swallow on its own. It would be easy to justify — perhaps the downed ship transmits a signal on the anniversary of its arrival because of mumble mumble planetary alignment. But this thing of just having the Blackwood team and the aliens coincidentally show up in the same place at the same time is incredibly contrived, and it lays bare the way that the universe is being created ad hoc: of course Harrison and the aliens are pursuing the same alien-related thing out in the world at the same time; the world for this show is being created one alien-related thing at a time. Fortunately, they won’t lean too much on the worst kinds of coincidences like this very often. You will still see a lot of “An old friend of mine just mentioned that there’s a creepy new guy at his office with radiation sores all over his face”-type setups, but I don’t find those as forthrightly contrived as “It just happens by dumb luck that we’re both in town the same weekend.”

Ironhorse concludes that the 1938 invasion had been a reconnaissance mission ahead of the main invasion fleet. At no point do we actually learn anything specific and new. The militia allegedly brought down the single war machine — with great difficulty and with great sacrifice — but there’s no indication of how they might have actually accomplished this, given that the war machines have otherwise been portrayed as completely indestructible from the outside.

I would like to postulate that the 1938 war machine was a different design, perhaps a tripod as described in the radio play, without a force field and susceptible to heavy artillery fire provided it doesn’t have time to shoot back. But while this has been going on, the alien bikers have unearthed the buried war machine, and it’s identical to the movie design. War of the Worlds 1x05 Buried War MachineIt’s a much better recreation of the 1953 Al Nozaki design than we saw in the pilot, with proper proportions and shot from a more favorable angle. The open hatch is extremely faithful to the original design, though given the way the ship is buried, it would have to be on the dorsal hull rather than the underside. Since the ship is still partly buried, you could still propose that the covered part of the ship might be a different design, though the ’38 veterans still describe it as a “flying saucer”, and the aliens refer to it as flying (Of course, in the 1953 movie, we’re explicitly told that the war machines don’t fly, but rather use “electromagnetic legs”. I’m inclined to take this as purely a terminology thing. When Clayton Forrester says that it isn’t flying, he means that it’s not using propulsive thrust or aerodynamic lift. But the machines do move through the air without direct support from the ground, which is probably within the bounds of the dictionary definition of “flight”. I’ll even go as far as to propose why they’re willing to call it “flying” in 1988 but not in 1953: the modern hovercraft was invented in 1959. The question of whether what a hovercraft does counts as “flying” is debatable, with the consensus answer appearing to be “sorta”.), so tripods are right out.

To the advocacy’s dismay, the ship’s flight capability is beyond repair. The trip isn’t a wash, though, since a quick test of the the heat ray (They call it “the beam”) proves it functional. The visual effect of the beam is even closer to movie-accurate here than it was in the pilot. We see them vaporize a car, which satisfyingly generates white and red overlays then ceases to exist, leaving blackened ground in its stead. The sound isn’t quite as good as last time, though, with the “THRUM THRUM THRUM” as the weapon charges sounding decidedly wrong. After complaining about how they have to do all the thinking, the advocates order them to dismantle the beam and bring it back. If any humans notice them, I swear I am not making this up, they are to, “remind the puny Earthlings how our death ray works.” That is freaking beautiful, man. Puny Earthlings.

But you have to get up pretty early in the morning to put one past an elderly, possibly senile man in Grover’s Mill. War of the Worlds 1x05A few biker aliens made the ill-considered decision to stop by Flannery’s prize rose bushes for a snack, and he’s onto them now, having seen the 1938 “Martians” (That’s a nice touch. The Grover’s Mill militiamen are the only people who ever refer to the aliens as “Martian”) feed similarly. His friends are disinclined to believe his tales of “Martians on motorcycles,” because of Flannery’s informed habit of embellishing the story of his own contribution to the 1938 battle. And besides, the aliens of 1938 were in their natural form, so this is the first the veterans have heard of the aliens being able to “disguise” themselves. Harrison and Ironhorse also seem unconvinced, which is a bit of a wall-banger given that they know that (a) the aliens are indeed back, and (2) can possess human bodies.

All the same, Flannery’s friend Harv agrees to go with him to reconnoiter the biker encampment. War of the Worlds 1x05 John IrelandHarv is played by John Ireland, another veteran character actor, the first Vancouver-born actor to be nominated for an Academy Award, best known for Spaghetti Westerns and his affairs with several young starlets like Tuesday Weld and Natalie Wood (There’s a scene in the 1948 John Wayne film Red River where he and Montgomery Clift compare the size of their… sidearms as a cheeky joke about Ireland’s reputed endowment). Also, kinda looked like George R. R. Martin in his later years. Joining Flannery turns out to be a bad move for Harv, as he’s possessed by an alien when he stops to take a leak.

Harrison and Ironhorse regroup with Suzanne and Debi for a disgusting lunchWar of the Worlds 1x05 Green Food of green-dyed “Martian” themed diner food. Harrison explains what “slop” means to Debi. He also lets slip that Norton is on the way, having had the Awesome Van air-lifted by usurping Ironhorse’s requisition powers. Ironhorse is so bothered by this that he sticks Harrison with the check and runs off, a surprising reversal, since the way Harrison’s been characterized so far, you’re primed to expect any sticking-with-the-check bit to run the other way.

I guess Norton getting air-lifted patches the geographical oddity I mentioned earlier, but keep in mind, the others arrived in one of the same three cars we see every episode without apparently having been air-lifted. Ironhorse tries to bawl Norton out for leaving him on the hook for a “presidential priority” request. Norton, as you’d expect by this point, responds by flirting. He’s even brought presents. “Oh, I brought Dr. McCullough’s microscope and laser spectroscope, and I brought your picture of John Wayne.” His tone is also flirty with Suzanne. This is one of the few scenes out of this show that Leah was in the room to see, and she found Norton’s tone kind of weird and creepily over-the-top, particularly that he’s flirting in the context of being told that Suzanne is going to go examine biological samples. She’s not wrong. Norton’s flirtatious manner hasn’t aged well. In 1988, the bar was in a different place, but in 2015, I’m leaning toward calling it sexual harassment. Norton’s one saving grace, such as it is, comes down to the fact that he seems to be pretty egalitarian with regard to who he’ll flirt with. I will therefore spend the rest of this review series looking for excuses to ship Ironhorse and Norton. There’s at least one real good one around the middle of the season.

Also, not to lay too fine a point on it, but they never actually say why Norton has flown all the way out here and what they need him to do that requires him to be out in the field. Or why he didn’t come with them in the first place. Nothing’s happened yet from their point of view, so why go to the trouble of having Norton flown out? Continue reading

July 11, 2015

Tales from /lost+found 15: In Which the Hoff is Hassled

As you can tell by the color of the paper, this is the sixth revision of the shooting script for the Doctor Who fortieth anniversary special. Numerous rewrites were required to accommodate David HasslehoffHasselhoff’s insistence that his character not come off as “a total poindexter”. Transcript below the fold.

Script page from a hypothetical Doctor Who starring Hugh Laurie and David Hasslehoff

Click to Embiggen

Continue reading

July 8, 2015

Antithesis: Terminal Rock (War of the Worlds 2×04)

Rachel Blanchard  in War of the WorldsIt is October 23, 1989. After waking up to Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis return to Earth at the end of a five-day mission that included launching the Galileo space probe, which would explore the moons of Jupiter six years later (You ever stop and think about how space works? That a mission to explore Jupiter in 1995 must of necessity be based on 1989 technology? New Horizons is just now close enough to Pluto to take better pictures of it than Hubble, using technology that predates iOS, Android, the Nintendo Wii, and Windows Vista). Frustrated by partisan gridlock, Time magazine asks if Government is dead. A plastics factory in Texas explodes, killing 23. In anticipation of Halloween, Garfield runs a week-long series which reveals that the entire series is the delusion of a dying cat cat as it slowly starves in a long-abandoned house. It is one of the scariest fucking things ever, and it is part of Garfield, a comic which is, under normal circumstances, improved by removing its main character. Tomorrow, game three of the World Series will finally be played, having been pushed back a week on account of the earthquake and the Reverend Jim Bakker will be given 50 years for fraud. Oh, and since we kinda care about such things, communism falls in Hungary.

George Harrison’s Best of Dark Horse is released, one of the first four CDs I would own, on account of I had no taste and thought his cover of “Got My Mind Set on You” was good (The other three were Phil Collins’s “No Jacket Required”, Billy Joel’s “Storm Front”, and Belinda Carlisle’s “Her Greatest Hits”. Don’t judge me, I was ten). Janet Jackson retains the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Madonna, Warrant, and Mili Vanilli slip out of the top ten, making room for Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator”, Expose’s “When I Looked At Him”, and “Cover Girl” by New Kids on the Block.

There’s a bit of a panic going on in America about ritualistic child sexual abuse by satanic cults (Satanic Panic, What’s your mechanic?), which has led to a number of high-profile court cases, and high-profile convictions of day care operators, several of whom may possibly have even committed some of the crimes of which they were accused (For example, at least one of them, years after his conviction for satanic ritual child sexual abuse was overturned, was arrested for old-fashioned non-satanic, non-ritual child sexual abuse, which he wouldn’t have been able to do had he been convicted the first time on actual evidence rather than trumped up hysteria). This motivated CBS to do a movie of the week yesterday about child sexual abuse at daycare centers called Do You Know the Muffin Man? with Brian Bonsall and Pam Dauber, based loosely on the McMartin Preschool Trial. The McMartin trial would end without any convictions in 1990, on account of basically all the testimony turning out to be fabricated, coerced, unreliable, or physically impossible, the primary accuser being mentally unstable (And, by 1990, dead for four years due to chronic alcoholism), and the district attorney playing fast and loose with evidence laws. TV this week is mostly new. Mission ImpossibleDallas, Alien Nation, and the like. MacGyver is a repeat for some reason. Newheart too. There is no episode of Friday the 13th this week. Doctor Who will show part one of “The Curse of Fenric” soon. It’s the one with viking vampires fighting the Red Army in World War II Northumberland. Star Trek The Next Generation airs “The Bonding“, Ron Moore’s first TV writing gig. Moore would go on to be one of the major creative forces in ’90s Trek, before going on to reboot Battlestar Galactica. And I have mixed feelings about him because “The Bonding” is great, and he pretty much saved TNG when it was floundering, but his gender politics are a little dicey and his abject disdain for utopianism and preference for grim, gritty, “realism” is basically everything I hate about the ’90s.

If you liked me rambling on about punk rock without actually having a proper background from which to speak during the cyberpunk episode of Captain Power, you’re in luck, because “Terminal Rock” is exactly what you think it is. This is the episode of War of the Worlds about punk rock, and how punk rock music is turning our children into dangerous, violent hooligans, exactly like you’d expect from a show made by The Man.

One of the many elements of the Satanic Panic I was mentioning before was some trumped up fears about subliminal and backmasked Satanic messages embedded in popular music. In 1988, serial killer Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez claimed to have been inspired by backmasked Satanic messages hidden in AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (The band responded to the allegations with, “We do not hide our Satanic messages. We called the album Highway to Hell.”). We have of course seen the popular conception of mind control via hidden messages in music before, when we were talking about Probe. The technique has been largely debunked as a practical matter — you can influence behavior with hidden messages, but not nearly as effectively as you can influence behavior with supraliminal messages: whispering “Smoke!” and showing a single frame of a cigarette once a minute in a film might increase the chances of the viewer jonesing for a cigarette, but what works a lot better is just to have attractive people in the film smoke without trying to hide it.

“Backmasking” is the technique of hiding messages by recording them backwards, such as the famous “Paul is dead” urban legend. The technique was, surprisingly enough, discovered shortly after the invention of sound recording by Thomas Edison himself, who observed that when he cranked his wax cylinders backwards, “The song is still melodious in many cases, and some of the strains are sweet and novel, but altogether different from the song reproduced in the right way.” Its association with Satanism goes back equally far: the very first sound recording ever made was later discovered to contain a backmasked invocation to summon the daemon Azal, as revealed in the 1971 documentary Doctor Who and the Daemons. Accordingly, the plot of this episode centers around leveraging the cultural zeitgeist. The Morthren have a go at harnessing the Power of Rock by cloning a “charismatic” musician and embedding a violence-inducing signal in Punk Rock.

The first thing you may notice, or rather, the first thing I noticed, since it’s not as obvious if you’re not watching along, where “Doomsday” copies the religious aspects of “No Direction Home”, “Terminal Rock” is basically the same plot as “Doomsday” minus the religious angle. Yes. Four weeks in and we’ve spent half our time saying, “Just like last week…” If anything, “Terminal Rock” is even more similar to “Doomsday” than “Doomsday” was to “No Direction Home”. As I said last time, it feels sort of workshoppy, like every writer in the room was given the same general outline, and they filmed all three variations on the theme.

Now, it is probably worth mentioning that this episode probably wasn’t intended to air directly after “Doomsday”: there’s a reference to the events of next week’s episode, and it ends on a note that seems like it’s hinting at plots from later in the season. So it’s not like they actually set out to do basically the same episode twice back-to-back: clearly, they meant to do basically the same episode with a different one in the middle.

War of the Worlds: Terminal RockThis week, the Morthren are having some trouble (ten dead soldiers, Mana claims. She wants to move.) with The Scavengers, a leftover gang from the extended cut of The Warriors — their thing is mohawks and face painting inspired by the racism episode of the original Star Trek. It’s not clear that they have any formal organization, but they can be stirred to action by the music of the “Terminal Band”, a punk group led by a dude named “Ripper”, because dystopia. He wears a sequinned apron instead of a shirt, and basically screams exhortations to violence while the band plays from inside a thunderdome-style (Wait for it) steel cage.

He orders them to go out and be violent, and it just so happens that Ardix is driving by at just that moment with a new Morthren character, Sol. Ardix is badly wounded when the Scavengers trash the car and orders Sol to get them out of there before he dies. Ardix will spend most of the episode bundled up in a blue and green amniotic sac quilt recovering from his head wound, which is a shame because this plot would be perfect for him. Instead, Sol will be filling the role Ardix took last week. He’s fine, really good as a villain, but he’s just not weird enough for this show. Paul Bettis was a pretty prominent theater actor in Toronto, and though his TV and film resume doesn’t amount to much, I suspect that has more to do with time and place than anything else: he’d make a great “suave corporate”-type villain in a mid-80s adventure show a la The A-Team or Knight Rider. Julian Richings in War of the WorldsBut he’s entirely too human for War of the Worlds: he never displays quite as much stiffness as the others, he’s too comfortable when he interacts with humans, and he’s even kind of charismatic.

What follows is an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the matching scene in “Doomsday”: Malzor complains and passive-aggressives at Mana. Mana passive-aggressively reminds him that he was the one who picked Earth to invade (which would imply the Morthren are fairly long-lived since these are, remember, the tail end of a fleet that first invaded in 1953), and suggests using humanity’s “weakness” to their advantage by manipulating the violent street gang into acting as their enforcers. Last week, Mana explained to the clueless Malzor that the Bible could be used as a “blueprint for human control,” and that they could redirect human faith to their advantage with fake miracles. This time, Sol tells him that the humans use music as a rallying point, and they could manipulate human violence to their own ends by manipulating the music. Last time, we had that great little eye-roll from Mana when Malzor failed to quite get it. This time, it’s a great scoff of disgust from Malzor at the idea of Punk Rock music. Impersonating a Suit from a Major Label, Sol discreetly abducts sequin-apron punk.

While Sol is off cloning him, Mana builds a device that can embed a signal into punk music. One neat thing in this scene: she uses a tool that’s basically a set of three-fingered tongsCathrine Disher in War of the Worlds. If these are indeed meant to be same aliens as the 1953 movie, the manipulator is presumably based on the natural form of their hand, suggesting that in their human forms, they now require assistive technology to use their own equipment, which has some interesting implications for the nature of their technology: in her natural form, would Mana be doing this kind of work — detailed technical work of the sort a human would do with, say, a soldering iron or a screwdriver — with her bare hands? We’ve already seen that the alien weapons look like they grow out of their bodies. Perhaps all of their technology is normally extruded out of themselves.

In the interest of keeping the narrative together — War of the Worlds is not atypical of the period in the way it intercuts between two plot threads, though it’s perhaps a little ahead of the curve on keeping the scenes short and shifting focus a lot — I’ve focused on the Morthren side of the narrative so far. But while this has been going on, Blackwood and his team have been working through a plot of their own. Like the Morthren plot, it’s structured much like their plot in “Doomsday”. Instead of suffering from heat exhaustion, this week, Debi’s suffering from being a thirteen year old girl: she’s annoying everyone by listening to a recording of the Terminal Band. Everyone wants her to turn it down, but Kincaid takes it the worst, storming off for some “space” because having to share his underground hovel with people is really interfering with his hip, cool “lone wolf” lifestyle.

So for the second week in a row, Debi is the catalyst that prompts Kincaid to go off Lone Wolfing it up, and much like last week, he decides to visit a woman he’s got a nebulous backstory relationship with. This time, it’s Rose (or maybe Rosa. It’s hard to tell. Kincaid calls her “Rose,” but she’s listed in IMDB as “Rosa”, and I think that’s what her brother calls her. Either “Rose” is a pet name, or it’s down to Adrian Paul mumbling, because this is one of his Mumbly-Angsty-90s-Anti-Hero episodes), who is maybe an out-of-work mechanic, I’m not sure. The scene is pretty vague, with Kincaid acting all shy and coy like a socially awkward teenager, because Adrian Paul has not yet learned how to play a world-weary loner haunted by his past.

It’s hinted here, but only becomes clear much later, that Rose was Max’s girlfriend, which makes it seem like it ought to be way more awkward than they play it to have Little Johnny Kincaid flirt awkwardly with her while he plays with her laundry. Adrian Paul in War of the WorldsIn between flirting and Kincaid acting like a shy teenager afraid his voice is going to crack, Rose fills the audience in on how the Scavengers have been terrorizing the whole quadrant (It’s the future. Cities have quadrants now.), which is bad for business. Worse, she thinks her angry, disaffected teenage brother Larry might be hanging with them. We know her fear is justified since he was visible in the crowd shots back in the first scene, and also because he’s plastered Terminal Band posters all over their trailer. He turns up to be all angry and disaffected at Kincaid because he’s a delinquent and also because he feels abandoned by Max. He makes some threats that he could not possibly back up against a trained ex-special-forces mercenary (Admittedly, unless you’d actually seen Kincaid in an action scene, you’d probably assume he was kind of a wuss given how he acts) and storms off.

Then Kincaid bones his dead brother’s girlfriend. It’s a very natural progression as the scene plays out, a sort of, “Hey, you seem angsty and detatched and stressed out and insecure. We’ve been standing around flirting for ten minutes. Whaddya say we go do something comforting and unitive?” but given that he’s boning his dead brother’s girlfriend, you’d normally expect there to be a little more introspection here. You’d expect a little angst — not Kincaid’s usual mopey teen angst, but some more adult, “Am I betraying by dead brother by boning his girlfriend?” angst. Adrian Paul and Shannon Lawson in War of the WorldsThe actual lovemaking is your typical delicious early ’90s cheese (Technically proto-’90s, since we’re still in ’89, but what have you) set to a synth pretending to be a saxophone, with lots of slow-motion shots of them rolling over while covered to the shoulder blades, lots of neck and shoulder kissing, a silly shot where she nibbles his cheek too hard and he recoils in pain, and the famous L-shaped bedsheet that covers her to the neck but him to the waist. It all looks very effortless and very romantic and more like an advanced form of slow dancing than anything that might involve an orgasm.

When his post-coital flight instinct kicks in, Kincaid offers to go check on Larry and scope out the club where the Scavengers hang out. Which means that for the third week in a row, the heroes just kind of luck into the Morthren plot. Showing a rare bit of foresight, it’s occurred to Malzor that one of the possible fail-states of Mana’s plan is that the Scavengers end up more violent than ever, but not under their control, which would leave them even worse off than they are already. So he’s ordered a pilot program. Sorta. The actual test changes so many of the parameters of the actual plan I’m not sure what they’re testing. Sol and the Ripper Clone return to the club and give a bunch of the band members these glowing insectoid dealies and tell them they’re basically super-hi-fi earphones, like a bluetooth headset out of eXistenZ. War of the WorldsThe ear-bugs deliver a weapons-grade dose of subliminal mind-whammy, such that Ripper can then turn them out on the streets as soulless killing machines. For reasons that will be acknowledged but never actually explained, they also get superpowers. Suzanne will later determine that the implants cause massive brain damage, but keep the victim alive and able to kill, even in spite of massive injuries. It’s an interesting sci-fi plot, but I’m not at all clear on why this would be a good test for their actual plan. As luck would have it, Kincaid is the first person the test subjects come across, and only barely manages to successfully murder these teenagers. Indeed, he has to shoot one of them in the chest twice just to incapacitate him. Sensing that something is Up, he brings the dying punk back home with him for Suzanne to examine.

Kincaid and Blackwood go off to check on Rose, leaving Debi to assist Suzanne.They find that Larry’s painted himself red and white, roughed up Rose, and run off to the big Terminal Rock concert and subsequent murderous rampage. Kincaid makes rather extravagant threats, but Rose insists that Larry’s a good kid who’s just fallen in with a rough crowd (Keep in mind, Larry isn’t being mind-controlled by the aliens yet. He will never be called to account for this. Grr.), and Kincaid agrees to go retrieve him before violence breaks out.

Dylan Neal in War of the WorldsHey, look! It’s our old friend Dylan Neal, young Johnny Power himself, as “Scavenger 1″ (Not a bad Future Force callsign), the bouncer at the club. He comes down hard on Larry, questioning whether he’s got what it takes to really be a Scavenger. But he backs down (and even looks kinda worried, like he hadn’t expected him to take it that far) when Larry assures him that he’ll happily murder his own sister for the crime of not being a Scavenger.

Malzor is pissed that they’ve misplaced one of their victims, and wants to call the whole thing off. Mana throws it back in his face that she didn’t want to do the test in the first place, and besides, technically the test was a success since it turned the subjects into controllable killing machines, even if they did all end up dead. Still, Malzor’s worried about someone finding the missing ear-bug, so Mana turns the power up.

Debi is surprisingly chill about helping her mom. She shows the same sort of quietly shellshocked horror at the dying teenager as she did to obvious clone Stephen last time and the deaths of Ironhorse and Norton before that, but I get the impression she likes feeling useful. It’s sort of strange, but at this point, they haven’t really made it clear how much Debi knows about the aliens. I mean, this is a world where an alien invasion was world news forty years ago, but it seems from what Malzor has said that hardly anyone knows that the aliens have come back. Due to her age and the implied secrecy of General Wilson’s team, she probably would have been told some kind of cover story as of the pilot. If she’s found out since, it would have to be off-screen, which is dramatic weaksauce, given that four episodes in, we’ve never seen someone react to learning that there’s an alien invasion going on. But perhaps there’s a “These people we’re fighting are aliens,” moment coming later in the season for Debi. We’ll see. For that matter, I wonder what became of Debi’s father. I assume Suzanne is a widow; if she and Debi’s father were merely estranged, it stretches the imagination past the breaking point to propose that Suzanne would sooner take her daughter to hide in a sewer base while fighting aliens than to just send her off to live with her dad.

She’s out of the room fetching equipment when Mana remote-activates the implant. With the power turned all the way up, the punk recovers from his sucking chest wound and tries to garrotte Suzanne with a piece of plastic tubing. Debi returns while Suzanne is struggling and pulls the alien device from the punk’s ear, killing him.

Adrian Paul and Jared Martin in War of the WorldsAt the club, Blackwood pulls a gun on Dylan Neal while Kincaid kicks another Scavenger bouncer in the junk, then incapacitates him with a weird Star Trek TOS-looking attack that involves gently karate-chopping both sides of his jaw at the same time. For no reason I can discern, Blackwood puts on a pair of sunglasses before they head in. No clue why; he just takes them off again a few seconds later. Inside, Ripper (who is now dressed like Kingpin from The Tribe) is singing, “We’ll take what’s ours / We’ll take what’s ours / Scavengers! / Take the streets / Take the streets / Scavengers!” and really whipping the Scavengers into such a fury you just know they’re going to go out there clinking beer bottles together and starting fights with the Gramercy Riffs. The embedded signal is supposed to be ramping up their violence, but they don’t actually seem noticeably more violent than they were back in the first scene, which is a bit of a problem with depicting the basic premise of “We’ll make violent, unruly delinquents be violent, unruly, and delinquent.”

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July 4, 2015
July 1, 2015

Grapevine: Alien Nation

Alien Nation DVD setI have an intensely stupid confession to make. Back in 1989, when I found out that there was a weekly TV series starting up based on Alien Nation, I purposefully avoided it because I had the movie Alien Nation confused with They Live, which I hadn’t liked (I like it better now, though possibly not as much as the story it’s based on, “Eight O’clock in the Morning”).

I mean, actually, I hadn’t really liked Alien Nation either. The movie is basically Lethal Weapon crossed with Trancers (the first one, when it was trying to be a serious, gritty science fiction action film, not the rest of the franchise were they just went nuts with delicious Low-Budget Science Fiction Cheeze), and that’s not really my thing. But neither did Kenneth Johnson when Fox approached him to make the show. The thing about the movie is that, looking back on it as an adult, there isn’t really all that much reason for there to be aliens in it. It’s a movie about a white cop who has to set aside his bigotry when he’s partnered with a black alien cop in order to bring down an illegal drug smuggling operation and avenge his slain former partner (who, presumably, was two days from retirement). Yeah, sure the drug in question is an alien steroid and it makes addicts turn into The Incredible Hulk, and sure, the head of the drug ring dies by dissolving in seawater, and sure, the partner gets drunk on sour milk, but why bother? The first scene of the movie is basically District 13, but then it just turns into a buddy cop movie — there’s no serious exploration of what it means for humanity to make extraterrestrial contact at all, let alone in the form of three hundred thousand permanent refugees, and we learn basically nothing about the alien culture. It’s a technically proficient movie with good makeup and good acting and solid writing, but there’s just not enough of an idea behind it to justify its existence when there are already one 48 Hours, one Lethal Weapon, and two Beverly Hills Cops by this point.

The Hidden video coverDo you get the feeling that Buddy Cop Shows were hot right now? Cagney and Lacey had just ended its run in May of 1988, and Miami Vice would end its a year later. In the Heat of the Night premiered in ’88. I’ve already mentioned more than once that the first season of War of the Worlds feels at times like it’s trying to be a Buddy Cop Show about alien-hunting. Alien Nation would premier on Fox about a month before the second season started up. 1988 also gave us the Treat Williams/Joe Piscopo film Dead Heat, a buddy cop film with zombie cops, A year earlier, we had the Kyle MacLachlan buddy cops-but-one-of-them-is-an-alien film The Hidden. Dolph Lundgren would have a Buddy Cops vs Aliens film in 1990 with I Come in Peace.

It’s reductivist and misleading and probably insulting to pretend that the past is simply a failed draft of the present. But it’s equally true that the present didn’t just spring fully formed into existence one day out of nowhere. And more to the point, when we look back on a history full of failures — failed TV series, if you’re me, but, y’know, it’s a metaphor — we should recognize that a lot of the time, things don’t fail because the people involved were stupid or backward or ignorant. Rather, they were caught up in an impasse between the world they actually lived in, and the world that was coming into being. That tension basically ripped War of the Worlds in two. I like to say that the past is haunted by the future, mostly because I take a certain pleasure in contradicting Derrida. The past is full of things that don’t work because they don’t belong there. Captain Power failed because 1987 was not the right place to do that kind of show. War of the Worlds failed because 1988 was not the right place to do a protracted Cold War metaphor and 1989 was not the right place to do a protracted religious extremism metaphor. Here, at the tail end of the nexus, there’s a concerted drive to make the next big Buddy Cop Science Fiction Action Adventure. And it doesn’t work in 1989, because we all know what the next big Buddy Cop Science Fiction Action Adventure is going to be: 1992’s Mann and Machine.

No, wait,1993’s The X-Files. Sorry. Freudian slip. No idea where that came from.

So Johnson wasn’t especially into Alien Nation, but there was one scene he liked where alien cop Sam “George” Francisco is with his family. So he decided to retool the whole thing from Lethal Weapon with aliens into In The Heat of the Night with aliens, with the focus being less on buddy cop action, and more on how human and alien cultures interacted and influenced each other, particularly highlighting mutual distrust and the hollywood-friendly sort of racism that is explained away as the work of uninformed or malevolent individuals rather than systematic hegemony woven into the structure of society at all levels. Depending on who you ask, it kinda sounds like that was a big part of what Rockne S. O’Bannon was shooting for when he wrote the script to the movie, which makes plenty of sense given his resume (He’s the Farscape guy, in case you didn’t know), but I don’t see much of that in the finished product.

It’s cult science fiction television in the late ’80s, so of course the handling of racism is going to be primitive and hamfisted and built around simpleminded platitudes written by middle-class college-educated white guys who know approximately balls about being on the receiving end of social injustice that comes down too hard on the side of, “Oppressed populations should just be patient and trust the system to work this all out eventually, and above all, try not to freak out the white folks.” What do you expect? Science fiction has a long history of being about social commentary, yes, but it also has a long history of being awfully superficial about it, and also of being heavily skewed toward middle-class college-educated white guys who know approximately balls about being on the receiving side of social injustice. Like, every time Star Trek tried to be all deep and literary, they just took another swing at doing Moby-Dick (Did you know Moby-Dick is hyphenated? I didn’t) in space. Don’t get me wrong, Moby-Dick is a classic. But the fourth time you rip off a work of literature typically taught in middle school, people should stop calling you deep.

What’s memorable about Alien Nation isn’t the social commentary, but the level of detail that went into depicting the alienness of the aliens. We’re not all the way to Farscape levels here yet, but there’s definitely more thought gone into them than Star Trek‘s approach of “Pick an existing ethnic stereotype and glue gumball-machine toys to their nose.” The backstory to the series is that in 1988, a gigantic, crippled space ship landed on Earth, carrying a quarter-million alien refugees. These aliens, the Tenctonese (also called, depending on how racist you are, “Newcomers” or “Slags”) were a genetically manipulated slave race that had overthrown their masters. We never learn anything about these masters, since it wasn’t where the show wanted to go and also because the Tenctonese didn’t really know much about them either as they were a shadowy and distant sort of overlord, acting through intermediaries.

Once the Tenctonese work out that they can’t fix the ship, the US government, kind of unbelievably, naturalizes the lot of them and declares them US citizens with the full rights and responsibilities thereunto. They all go through immigration, where bored INS workers give them all stupid names like “Oliver Clothesoff” and “Sam Francisco” (“Passive-aggressively give the foreigners stupid names as a life-affecting joke” is possibly the most realistic thing about how the whole event is treated), and most of them move to Los Angeles, where, yeah, they face racism and bigotry, but not, say, rioting in the streets by armed religious extremists determined to exterminate the abominations from space or anything like that (There’s a cult right at the end of the series who tries to commit genocide using a bioweapon, but, again, we’re just talking about a small group of extremists, not, as happens to minority groups in the real world, serious elected officials suggesting we should round them all up and execute them, or at least give them a different and lesser set of de jure rights from straight white Christian male human people). It’s very much romanticized in the vein of the stories we like to tell ourselves about the struggle of late-19th century immigrants from Europe, because those stories have happy endings that don’t involve, “And a hundred and fifty years after they gained citizenship, you still had regular incidents of cops shooting their unarmed children in the streets and facing absolutely no legal consequences for it.”

Physically, the Tenctonese are fairly close to human in form, superficially. They’ve got slightly bulbous heads with spots instead of hair (the spots are also erogenous zones), which fade when they’re mentally incapacitated. They’ve got a third biological sex (nominally counted as male) that facilitates reproduction but doesn’t contribute genetic material. Salt is caustic to them, while arsenic is a condiment. They can’t eat cooked food. Sour milk is an intoxicant. They’re more susceptible to poisons due to their faster circulatory systems. Because they were genetically modified for manual labor in harsh conditions, they’re a bit stronger than humans on average, and, because TV sci-fi loves evolution but does not have a clue how it works, they can apparently evolve over the course of a generation or two to adapt to a new environment. Humans and Tenctonese can’t interbreed, but it’s implied that this might change a few decades down the road (A human-alien hybrid hoax is the plot of one of the post-series movies, and in one of the post-series novels, a Tenctonese woman is impregnated by a human, but the fetus is non-viable). Also, cross-species relations require special training to avoid severe injury. They’re sexually liberated — the worst judgment you’ll get out of them is that they think treating sex lightly is childish. Same-sex and inter-species marriages are accepted (Remember, this is the eighties. I would so love to see the dissenting opinion in Heywood Jablome v. California to hear how Alito tried to explain that a Newcomer marrying a human was totes different from Loving v. Virginia). Oh, and the menfolk carry the young for part of the gestation cycle, seahorse-style, mostly because we as a TV-viewing culture find the concept of a pregnant man hilarious. Relevant to a cop show, they have no fingerprints, their eyes change color when embarrassed, and their feet swell under stress.

But all that’s the sort of thing you see all the time in science fiction. In fact, I think at least half of them turned up in Star Trek Enterprise. What I think really set Alien Nation the series apart from most shows in the genre is the detail it puts into the alien culture. Yes, they have their own spoken language, which is, par for the course, pretty clearly English with all the words swapped one-for-one with an invented lexicon (Which, it turns out, is mostly mispronounced Russian with some clicks thrown in). They’ve also got a written language which is kind of neat because it’s cursive (a rarity for invented Sci-Fi writing systems) and kind of resembles an EKG. But most interestingly, they’re not a monoculture. They totally could have gotten away with them being one, what with the whole, “This is the first generation that hasn’t lived under an extremely oppressive regime stunting their societal evolution” thing. But the Tenctonese are a pretty varied culture. Many assimilate fully into human society, others don’t. They’ve got more than one religion — at least four big ones, near as I can tell, with smaller sects and cults. You’d normally expect that even if a writer did deign to give an alien race more than one religion, they’d be a pretty much random assortment of faiths, probably thinly veiled equivalents of the most popular Earth religions. And while there certainly are obvious parallels to Earth religions, what’s even more prominent is the sense that these religious traditions evolved together and informed each other. We’re told that the ancient Tenctonese were a matriarchal society, and while their modern society is at least as egalitarian as ours (probably a bit more), there are still artifacts of that preserved to varying degrees in their various religions. The oldest religion is a form of goddess worship, and strictly matriarchal; the newer but now more prominent Celinist faith practices a form of hero worship with a backstory vaguely similar to Christianity, and its traditions aren’t strictly matriarchal, but its clergy remains predominantly female. Some of the religions have some practices in common as well, like the dreamcatcher-like artifacts they place near their beds, and gift-giving traditions (Never give a Newcomer cut flowers, especially when they’re sick. They would prefer something that hasn’t been, y’know, murdered in the prime of its life). There are elements of their culture that reflect their history of slavery as well: they really dig clowns, what with professional entertainers not being something they ever had access to before. But they find slapstick distasteful, since Moe Howard slapping his brother for incompetence isn’t as funny to someone used to being brutalized for every failure. This being the first generation of Tenctonese in a long time that were able to choose their own mates, a lot of them have trouble adjusting to the freedom to date, and resort to dating services and taking “love potion” drugs.

Alien Nation the Movie

You may by this point have noticed that I haven’t really talked about the show itself, or its characters or its plots or anything like that. Like I said, I didn’t watch it at the time. The show is set around 1995, when the Tenctonese aliens have integrated themselves into human society enough that they’re just starting, in limited numbers, to find their way into positions of wealth and influence (Though they still don’t have the vote for some reason, that not having just happened by default by virtue of them all having been naturalized as US citizens in the backstory). The majority of them, of course, are still living in ghettos and doing manual labor — a role for which their biology gives them certain advantages, and as you’d expect, creates tension with blue-collar human communities whose jrrbs they’ve taken. The human lead is Matthew Sikes. In the movie, he’s played by James Caan, but for the series, the role goes to Gary Graham, who you may know as Ambassador Soval, the Vulcan buzzkill from Star Trek Enterprise, or from his leading role in the 1990 stop-motion giant-robot mecha gladiator movie Robot Jox (A film notorious for the way that it just completely stops dead about three seconds after its climax). He’s your typical Archie Bunker-style good-hearted-bigot who starts out obnoxiously racist, but very quickly turns around and limits himself to microaggressions that the audience is supposed to find cute, but which in reality would get you a visit from HR. As you might expect given the genre, he eventually develops a comfortable rapport with his Tenctonese partner George, and they become close friends, in spite of the fact that even by the time the series ends, he still has a freak-out when George is promoted to a superior position, even as he gets romantically involved with his Tenctonese neighbor.

Alien NationThe other male lead of the series is Sam “George” Francisco, played by frequent-’90s-sci-fi-guest-star Eric Pierpoint, taking over for Mandy Patinkin. He’s a family man (Sikes is divorced, in accordance with cop show tradition, with an adult daughter), with a son and a daughter (He gives birth to a second daughter near the end of the season). His wife, Susan, is played by Michelle Scarabelli, which is why this article goes here, instead of closer in time to when the show began or ended its run.

Much like the movie, the individual episode plots tend to be straightforward police procedural stories with a sci-fi twist. But in contrast to the movie, in the series, these are backed up with a B-plot that focuses more on Tenctonese society and the process of integrating with contemporary American culture, with the two plots tending to converge at the end when some detail of the B-plot’s examination of Tenctonese culture proves the key to unraveling the crime George and Sikes are investigating. Also, compared to the movie, the crimes tend to be a bit more “alien”: rather than simply chasing alien drug dealers or alien murderers or alien bank robbers, George and Sikes go after humans murdering Newcomers to sell their blood or organs on the black market, or serial killers who reenact Tenctonese mythology, or try to prevent an escaped Overseer from signaling the former slave-masters in space. Even when they do have a straightforward murder plot or a straightforward drug ring plot, there’s a greater emphasis on the particulars of Tenctonese culture and Tenctonese-human racial tensions that are at work. There’s also a recurring villain in the form of the “Purists”, human anti-alien extremists who, by the end of the series, release a biological weapon that threatens to exterminate the Tenctonese.

What I said before about shows that failed because they happened at the wrong time is particularly true for Alien Nation. The show had a loyal fanbase and wasn’t a failure by any of the usual metrics, in fact, it was one of the few shows FOX had that year which actually made them money. The 1989-1990 season wasn’t a financially successful year for the fledgling network. This was the year that introduced the network’s powerhouses: Married… With Children, The Simpsons, and COPS, but it would take another year or so for those to start really bringing in the money. FOX decided to go all-in, and canceled all of their dramatic series: 21 Jump Street and its spin-off Booker were out (Jump Street would survive one additional year in first-run syndication), along with an adaptation of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders and Alien Nation. The 1990-1991 season would see FOX fill out its lineup with sitcoms, sketch comedy and documentary-style true crime shows. Beverly Hills 90210 would be the only drama to air on FOX until the network added a Tuesday night lineup in the fall of 1992, and it would be another year before any of them were actually successful.

By 1994, management had changed at FOX. The network had gained proper respectability with a major network realignment and picking up Monday Night Football. The X-Files was heading into its second season, and though The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. hadn’t survived, they still had faith in this whole Science Fiction Action Adventure thing, so their lead-in to The X-Files would be the new superhero show M.A.N.T.I.S. (which, coincidentally, featured Gary Graham in a supporting role), and, caving to fan demand, the scripted second season opener for Alien Nation was retooled into a TV movie, Alien Nation: Dark Horizon, a direct continuation of the first season cliffhanger. Four more Alien Nation TV movies would air between 1995 and 1997, and FOX would keep on trying to make a go of prime time science-fiction action-adventure well into the next decade despite the fact that only The X-Files managed to last longer than a season (Dark Angel managed two, but this could not possibly have been on any merits other than Jessica Alba).

In addition to the movies, Pocket Books published an Alien Nation series of eight novels plus a novelization of the movie. The series was written by pretty much exactly the people you’d expect for this sort of thing: Peter David, Alan Dean Foster, KW Jeter, LA Graf (A pseudonym for the writing team of Julia Ecklar and Karen Rose Cercone), and Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. If you’re like me, those names will be pretty familiar from Pocket’s Star Trek novels of the ’80s and ’90s. Three of the books were based on unproduced second-season scripts, two of which were later adapted into the first two TV movies, though the books and the movies diverge considerably. Malibu Comics also produced six mini-series and a one-shot based on the series.

In 2009, SyFy announced its intention to completely ignore the trends of the past decade and reboot Alien Nation as a dark-n-gritty cop drama more in line with the tone of the movie, with Tim Minear writing, but by 2014, the channel had remembered that it was run by a bunch of morons who actually kinda hate science fiction, and development was halted in favor of more reality shows about ghost hunting and professional wrestling.

And that would be the end of the story if I were faster about writing this blog. But back at the end of March, FOX announced that, due to their love of sweet, sweet feature film franchise dollars, they were going to work on a feature film reboot of the franchise, starting with a film based around the initial arrival of the aliens. Which, honestly, I think is a dumb idea. The interesting thing about Alien Nation was always that it told the story of aliens integrating with human society; the story of their arrival is more interesting as background than as the story itself. But they’re shooting for a multi-film franchise, since that’s where the money is, and you always need to start a franchise with an origin story, because the audience might be confused if they don’t actually get to see this version of Peter Parker get bitten by a radioactive bat after his space pod crashes in Kansas following the destruction of his planet from super-soldier serum when his parents were killed by a mugger.

There’s something to the concept of Alien Nation that seems determined to keep coming back. Why now? Well, if I’m being cynical, perhaps it’s a matter of people being really eager for a narrative where we’ve got a minority underclass made up of former slaves and their descendants, but it’s not the majority’s fault, so they can safely pat themselves on the back for deigning to extend them any sort of civil rights at all. Which of course leaves us with the question: why would they go back to the origin story now when surely this would be the perfect time to do a story about a good and noble Human Cop who singlehandedly roots out the FEW BAD APPLES WHO TOTALLY ARE NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF MOST COPS who’s brutal toward Newcomers and shoots an unarmed child?

It sounds like FOX may have missed the point, but I bet the second movie will be really good.


June 29, 2015

A brief observation on gender

Note: Numbers exclude performers in adult media.

  • Number of people whose gender I have determined by observation of their genitals: 1
  • Number of people whose gender I have determined by their chromosomes: 0
  • Number of people whose gender I have determined by assuming their self-reporting (Or that of their representative) to be correct: All the rest of them