I’ll explain… Now.
It is October 7, 1988. In the six months since Captain Power went on hiatus, the Governor of Arizona was impeached and removed from office. Sonny Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs. The Soviet war in Afghanistan wound most of the way down, proving for what surely will be the last time that it is stupid to get involved in a war there. Windows 2.1 was released. A third of Yellowstone National Park burned down. A NASA scientist testified before the US Senate that man-made global warming was a thing that was happening. The upcoming presidential race is whittled down to Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush. The Iran-Iraq war ended. Tom Browning pitched a perfect game. The Summer Olympics were held in Seoul. “Terminal Man” Mehran Karimi Nasseri got stuck in Charles de Gaulle airport, where he would remain until 2006. Space Shuttle Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39, the first shuttle launch since the Challenger Disaster two and a half years earlier.
Magnum, PI ended its run, as did The Facts of Life, Jem, Max Headroom, Cagney and Lacey, St. Elsewhere and Punky Brewster. Family Feud returned to TV. Denver, the Last Dinosaur, China Beach, Just the Ten of Us, Garfield and Friends, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, Fun House and Monsters premiered. George Michael and Steve Winwood are the only musicians to hold the top spot on the billboard charts for more than two weeks.
More locally, I started fourth grade. This doesn’t seem quite right in my memory, the way everything lines up, but I can’t really dispute the evidence of the calendar. I remember fourth grade a lot better than I remember the years before it. We read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The Westing Game and Tolliver’s Secret. I made a really fancy volcano for science class. There was a standardized test we had to take and one of the reading comprehension passages was about the Black Death, which is where I learned literally everything I know about Y. Pestis to this day. I had a spiral notebook where I’d design marble race courses based on a game from LoadStar.
And, of course, I was eagerly anticipating the return of two shows: Star Trek the Next Generation and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Cheerios had run a contest for a cameo in an episode in the former where you got these stickers with pictures of the actors on them. I got Geordi LaForge and Wesley Crusher, but I traded the Wesley with my friend Shelly for one of the Enterprise-D, which you could redeem for a tiny little 4-inch Enterprise-D model, which I still have the back half of.
Of course, as we all know now, only one of those shows was destined to return to the airwaves that fall, and it was–
/dev/reality0 REBUILD COMPLETE. REMOUNTING RW. PLEASE ENJOY REALITY. WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE
— pretty obvious that it was going to be Star Trek. It took me quite a while to realize that Captain Power wasn’t coming back. I mean, the internet wasn’t a thing the way it is now, so unless you read entertainment-focused media (Which back then would have probably meant either TV Guide or the actual industry press), when a minor show died, you didn’t so much hear about it as just never see it again. I do remember at one point asking my parents when it was going to come back, but I don’t recall if they had an answer to give me.
My squirrely sense of time is an issue here. According to IMDB, Captain Power aired on Sundays and Star Trek the Next Generation on Mondays. But I’m absolutely sure they aired back-to-back. Syndication is, of course, funny like that. And the most sense it makes is to assume that Star Trek and Captain Power both aired on Mondays in my viewing area. Now, my sort of gut feeling is that they both actually aired on Friday, but that’s just because my memories of Star Trek are tangled up with eating pizza, which was obviously a Friday night thing (At a guess, I would imagine that Pizza on Fridays evolved out of a half-assed observance of Lenten fasting). But the more I talk about it, the more I suspect there may have just been a period when we moved pizza night to Monday to accommodate watching Star Trek on the color TV in the living room. Which of course eventually evolved into having all our meals at the coffee table, but that was still years away.
This whole lead-in is because according to IMDB, the second season of Star Trek the Next Generation aired on Saturday nights. Now this doesn’t make any sense at all, because I’m absolutely 100% certain of what show aired right before it, and IMDB gives that one as airing on Mondays, and this time, I have twenty-five-year-old off-air VHS recordings of the original airings with the commercials left in to back me up. (I also have some old forum posts which suggest, at least in one viewing area in California, they did air back-to-back, but on Sundays).
In any case, I’m pretty sure that I was half-expecting to watch an episode of Captain Power in the fall of 1988 when I saw something else instead…
Did you know they made a TV series out of Blade Runner? No? Well, that’s okay, because you wouldn’t really, unless you had actually watched it. Because in 1999, a Canadian production company decided it wanted to make a TV series based on Blade Runner. But they couldn’t get the rights to Blade Runner, so they went and did it anyway. And since Blade Runner was based on a book by Philip K. Dick (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), and Phillip K. Dick had also written a book (“We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) which had been adapted as a movie called Total Recall, which they could get the rights to, they called their Blade Runner adaptation Total Recall 2070 instead.
I mention all this because in 1988, I kind of suspect that Sam and Greg Strangis wanted to make a TV series based on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but couldn’t get the rights, so they did it anyway and called it War of the Worlds instead.
As you may have guessed by the way I’ve been telegraphing it for six months, I really like War of the Worlds. Which is sort of weird, because as a novel, it encapsulates about three fourths of what I hate about golden-age Science Fiction: a total disregard for character and plot, total reliance of exposition dumps, and an interest more in proving the author’s thought his science all the way through than in telling a story. And yet, I really like War of the Worlds. And even though back in 1975, George Pal couldn’t manage to get a TV continuation of his 1953 film, in 1988, veteran producer and production manager Sam Strangis (best known for his work on the Adam West Batman series, The Brady Bunch, and more other shows than I can name) and his son Greg Strangis (Whose resume is a bit less august, but still contains some high-profile entries such as Falcon Crest and Eight is Enough) were somehow able to get Paramount on-board with the idea of bringing War of the Worlds to the small-screen when Paramount’s first choice, a big-screen remake helmed by George A. Romero, didn’t pan out.
Only the really weird thing about it is that a pretty huge part of its premise revolves around something with absolutely no antecedent in the 1953 movie, or indeed in any part of the War of the Worlds canon. Here, I’ll let our hero explain:
In 1953, Earth experienced a War of the Worlds. Common bacteria stopped the aliens but it didn’t kill them. Instead they lapsed into a state of deep hibernation. Now the aliens have been awakened, more terrifying than before. In 1953, the aliens tried to take over the world. Today, they’re taking over our bodies.
So there’s that. Framed as a direct sequel to the 1953 film, the 1988 TV series only really draws from its predecessor in a superficial sort of way. There’s one offhand reference to General Mann and the classic manta-style War Machines appear a grand total of once (maybe twice). Ann Robinson reprises her role as Sylvia Van Buren for a few cameos, but they couldn’t swing Gene Barry: Clayton Forrester is implied to have passed away. Which is a bit odd, as this was Ann Robinson’s first acting gig since 1960 (Well, not quite: earlier that same year, she’d also reprised the role of Dr. Sylvia van Buren in the obscure sci-fi-horror-spoof Midnight Movie Massacre), while Gene Barry was still active in the ’80s (And would star in a revival of his 1960s series Burke’s Law a few years later). But there’s very little depth to the relationship with the source material: if they’d simply declared that this was an original IP about an alien invasion, you’d end up changing very little. This series is about subversive alien infiltrators who seek to secretly undermine and conquer human civilization from within by killing humans and possessing their reanimated corpses.
That puts it firmly in the tradition of alien invasion classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Invaders or They Live or a dozen episodes of Doctor Who, or the past season’s Star Trek the Next Generation mini-plot-arc, or later stuff like First Wave, Stargate SG-1, The Host, or Seinfeld. But, curiously, not The War of the Worlds. The War of the Worlds is about humanity being faced by a global invasion by an unstoppable force commanding technology nearly beyond human imagining. War of the Worlds the Series is about a secret war waged by intelligent but resource-poor invaders who operate through subversion, infiltration and conversion. Somehow, they’ve managed to find a concept that has even less to do with the 1953 movie than George Pal’s 1975 pitch.
Now, you might straight away think that there is, at least, a really interesting twist in the fact that this a show set in a world that has a thirty-five-year-old alien invasion in its history. But to make things even more bizarre, this first invasion is curiously walled off: there’s a strange conceit that the human mind just doesn’t like knowing about aliens, and so a kind of mass hysteria has caused everyone who wasn’t massively and directly involved in the war to suppress those memories.
That’s a fascinating idea, of course: look what Doctor Who did with it (Okay, not much, really, since it gets demoted to a joke after “Day of the Moon”, but still). But again, they don’t actually do anything with it: it’s just there to justify setting their nominal War of the Worlds sequel in a world that isn’t visibly different from our own world.
But everything I’ve said so far might lead you to believe this show isn’t any good, and that’s not true at all. In fact, this is one of my favorite shows of the period — it was kind of old for me back in ’88, but in the mid ’90s, it aired regularly as part of what The Sci-Fi Channel called the “Sci-Fi Series Collection”, a rotation of science fiction series from the ’70s and ’80s that hadn’t made a full season (and were thus normally not candidates for reruns in syndication). Plus War of the Worlds, which had two seasons.
To me, War of the Worlds the series represents a little microcosm of the transitional phase between the “Long ’80s” and the “Long ’90s”. There’s elements of The A-Team, Airwolf, MacGyver, and even maybe a bit of Doctor Who and Knight Rider in the setup: a small cadre of experts working together from a secret government base to thwart the aliens.
The team is headed by Dr. Harrison Blackwood, adopted son of Sylvia and Clayton. Pseudocanonically, he’s a child in the crowd that gathers around the crashed war machine at the end of the movie — a clip of this was in the original airing of the pilot, but was cut for syndication and the DVD. Blackwood is a bit of a weirdo, a new-agey crunchy-granola-type who will ruin your lunch if he catches you eating meat, uses a tuning fork to meditate, and has a MacGyver-like aversion to guns, TV-speak for him being a pacifist (Though he has no problem murdering aliens with a home-made flamethrower or setting electrocution traps. It’s just guns he dislikes.). He’s played by Jared Martin, who’s best known as Dusty on Dallas, but he also did guest appearances as villains on Knight Rider and Columbo (And, coincidentally, played a new-agey weirdo armed with a tuning fork in fellow “Sci-Fi Series Collection” staple The Fantastic Journey). These days, he’s primarily an artist who works in mixed-media encaustics. It’s really cool stuff, kind of reminiscent of ninteenth century impressionism, but based on photographs, which makes everything look both unreal and at the same time hyper-real.
The “muscle” on the team is Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse, played by Richard Chaves. He’s probably best known for this role, being the break-out star of the first season, but you might know him as “Poncho” from Predator. The cast is rounded out by Lynda Mason Green as biologist Suzanne McCullough and Philip Akin as computer expert Norton Drake. Green was fresh off a stint playing opposite Sarah Polley and Barry Flatman in an adaptation of Ramona, while Akin had been and would continue to be a familiar face in TV and movies made in the Toronto area, later landing a regular role for a season of Highlander the Series and turning up as the evil government heavy in the last scene of Cube 2: Hypercube.
As the opening narration explains, the basic outline of the series is that the aliens from 1953 (No longer identified as Martian. There’s a fanon explanation that they’d used Mars as a staging area for the invasion, but this isn’t confirmed on-screen) had been presumed dead, their bodies placed in storage for thirty-five years, when accidental exposure to nuclear waste neutralized the bacteria that had stopped them before. The Blackwood Project, armed with a supercomputer, an unlimited budget, and Ironhorse’s elite “Omega Squadron” was charged with investigating alien activity and stopping it, a task complicated by the aliens’ newly-revealed ability to physically absorb themselves into human host bodies.
There’s a whole host of ’80s goodness baked into that premise, and that’s before we even think about looking at the hairstyles. First off, of course, there’s an indictment from practically the first scene of nuclear power: don’t store your nuclear waste next to your preserved alien corpses, it warns, or you’ll unleash a new invasion. As the aliens possess a certain resilience toward radiation (and indeed need it to avoid falling comatose), there’s a bit of an environmental theme (One of the few themes that persists into the second season).
The aliens themselves are one of TV’s most straightforward examples of using aliens as a stand-in for communists — Red Scare Communists, not real-world communists who just wear a lot of gray and complain about the bourgeois a lot. They eschew notions of individuality. They hide among us as sleeper agents. They conquer through subversion and conversion. They are ruthlessly efficient. They hate God and Apple Pie and Mom.
The character of Blackwood very clearly draws from MacGyver, and the dynamic between him and Ironhorse is like a little microcosm of the cultural tension between the political left and right in the ’80s. The show is very clear that Harrison’s liberal, pop-Buddhist philosophy is abstractly “right”, but at the same time, his idealism and flights of fancy make him “weak”, often needing to be “bailed out” by Ironhorse and his “Rar! Kill anything different!” militarism. I think it embodies a very Reagan-era idealized concept of conservatism as the “respectable”, “fatherly” position that keeps us safe, and liberalism as hip and rebellious, dangerous in its irresponsibility, but the only ones who can actually solve the big problems. The rapport that develops very quickly between the two of them makes it clear that, though both are loathe to admit it, Ironhorse knows that Blackwood is always in the right morally, while Blackwood knows that Ironhorse is keeping them all alive. (This is not, I think, a tremendously accurate notion of how politics was in the 1980s, but I think it’s a good representation of how popular culture at large thought about it).
The most obvious parallel to the relationship between Blackwood and Ironhorse, though, comes not from the actual ’80s, but from the temporally-confused “Seventies, or was it the Eighties?” of UNIT-era Doctor Who, with Blackwood as The Doctor and Ironhorse as the Brigadier. Once you’ve said that out loud, it’s hard to stop seeing it: the setup for War of the Worlds feels like early Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who. Just on a surface level, the Blackwood Project and its mission is basically the same as UNIT’s, the hero is a polymath genius and a bit of a weirdo. Suzanne combines elements of Liz Shaw and Jo Grant (Like Jo, there’s a bit of nepotism involved, as their military benefactor, Ironhorse’s superior, is her uncle). But the trappings have been transposed to the America of the 1980s: Glam Rock and Spy-Fi have been replaced by New Wave and Action-Adventure.
For me, Sam and Greg Strangis’s War of the Worlds is the last great ’80s adventure series. One final stand for a mode of storytelling that I associate very closely with the days of my youth. And what that means, probably more than anything else, is that it is an optimistic adventure. Our heroes are straightforwardly heroic — Ironhorse and Blackwood are very different sorts of heroes, but neither one of them is a 90s-style dark-and-gritty antihero. Our villains are equally straightforward: yes, they’re fleeing a doomed home world, but their utter contempt for humanity never makes a stab at suggesting that humanity might be in the wrong here. And yet the show never quite crosses into straight-up cartoon morality.
And it embraces a sense of techno-utopianism that we also see out of, say, Star Trek the Next Generation, if you’ll believe it. As I mentioned, the aliens clearly represent communism, but at the same time, I think you can argue that they also represent the sins of our past that hold us back as a society. On the literal level, of course, they are a movie monster from the 1950s brought back in the present day to threaten humanity. But also on a symbolic level, they are brutal. They are xenophobic. They are puritanical. They are racist. They are willing to despoil anything for their own gain. They thrive on radiation, and are thereby associated intimately with both environmental pollution and also the horrors of nuclear war. In short, they embody a set of concepts, ideals and tropes that represent the very human and man-made threats that, again, by popular conception of the 1980s, not only hold our society back, but threaten to destroy it.
And though the war is, in keeping with the way weekly television shows work, never won, its tides never fully turned, all the same, week after week, the scientists of the Blackwood project manages to thwart the most immediate dangers presented by the aliens. Science, says the show, assisted by by the extremely judicious use of military force, can save us (And is it a coincidence that the military is represented by a Cherokee man — a representative of a people who had already faced genocide at the hands of technologically superior invaders?). From the aliens, but also from ourselves. To put a cherry on top and bring us full-circle with the aliens-as-communists thing, not once but twice, the key to stopping an alien plot is for the Blackwood team to work side-by-side with Russians.
So that’s why I love this show. And that’s why I’m going to take you on a trip through it. The last great adventure show of the ’80s. Of course, the ’80s themselves have a bit more time left; they won’t really end for another four years or so, time being weird like that. It might be more accurate, what with the communism thing and all, to say that it’s more the last great adventure show of the Cold War era. Because if this is a show that’s informed by Cold War sensibilities, it can’t possibly be irrelevant that here, in October 1988, we are just over one year away from the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And that might just shed some light on the strangest thing about this show. Which is what happened next…
To Be Continued…
- War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.com