And now, the conclusion…
While Harrison and Suzanne have been patiently waiting in the woods outside an alien-infested ghost town, Ironhorse and his sidekick have been tracking the “terrorists” using the more conventional means of interviewing drunken rednecks who show up at police stations with wild stories of hairless gorillas or people speaking in tongues. I like the way this plot is set up. As I said before, the direction, the audio and a lot of the acting in this is terrible, but the actual structure of the show is really fantastic. You basically have Harrison and Suzanne in one plot pursuing one track, while Ironhorse and Sgt. Reynolds are in an independent plot pursuing another track, both converging on the same place. I wonder if there were plans early on for Reynolds to be a regular character, because he works well enough as someone for Ironhorse to order around. He’s the one whose job is to dismiss the crazier parts of the story as drunken fantasy, while Ironhorse stays overly intense and military. Instead, Reynolds is going to buy it later in the story, which I guess kinda presages Jessie in the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Ironhorse and Harrison finally collide after his nap, when Delta Squad catches them in the woods near the ghost town. Harrison isn’t able to persuade Ironhorse that he’s making a huge mistake sending his men in to raid the place, and it turns into a bug hunt. Game over, man, game over. After a few minutes of dutch angles as Delta Squad is systematically murdered by aliens, Ironhorse decides it’s time to have a crowning moment of badass as he rushes in with a grenade launcher and manages to kill half a dozen aliens before he’s dropped by a three-weighted bola. He manages to get off one more good shot, which is snatched out of the air by a possessed redneck, though he just stands there staring at it until it blows up in his hand. A second bola restrains Ironhorse’s arms, forcing Harrison to come to his rescue on an ATV. Unable to find Suzanne after their escape, they dig in for the night, then search the re-abandoned ghost town in the morning, fearing she’s been taken. Fortunately, Harrison refers to her as “uptight”, which, in accordance with the laws of dramatic necessity prompts her to come out of hiding to chew him out over it. We also get our first look at what happens to the aliens when they die, as Ironhorse’s kills of the previous night have melted into white, foamy puddles dotted with human remains. There’s certainly some unreality to it — the identifiable human bits all look more than a little like discarded disguises from Mission: Impossible, but rather than looking cheap and fake, the rubbery skin and lack of blood or organs serve to reinforce the sense that the human victims have been, in essence, hollowed out and taxidermied.
Ironhorse is finally willing to believe that there’s “something” weird going on, what with the bolas and the terrorists melting when shot, but he still maintains that, “I don’t believe in ghosts and I sure as hell don’t believe in aliens from another planet.” Keep in mind, he is literally the only person in the show who has come right out and said he doesn’t believe in aliens.
They meet with General Wilson again, who plays really coy. He rambles a bit about how little they know about the capabilities, resources, intentions and strategies of their adversaries, then insists that their eyewitness reports still don’t count as “evidence”, especially as Ironhorse still thinks it’s just terrorists with magic powers. But then he does a weird about-face and admits that, yeah, it’s aliens. In exchange for being discrete about it, Wilson hires Harrison, Suzanne, and Norton and gives them unlimited funds, a secret base, their own private supercomputer, and Ironhorse.
At this point, they strike the sets, fire the minor cast members, and pack everyone up for a government property called “The Cottage”. This is about the one-hour mark of the show, and there’s a big transition at this point. It wouldn’t surprise me if the last third of the episode was filmed much later. The supporting characters vanish: Charlotte, Harrison’s colleagues, Ironhorse’s subordinates. Rachel Blanchard gets some lines. There are subtle shifts in characterization too, with Harrison becoming less of a jerk and Ironhorse being more personable and less shouty. And Norton’s got a mild Jamaican accent for a few scenes. Perhaps at this point they told him to tone it down, and it was mild enough that they didn’t need to redo it?
Ironhorse provides concierge service for Harrison and his team, following them around to make sure they don’t need anything. Norton falls instantly in love with having his own personal Cray. Suzanne laments about the difficulty of engineering a radiation-resistant bacteria. Suzanne: Someone sure spent a fortune.
Ironhorse: Well, the government wants to see that everyone’s happy, doctor.
Suzanne: Now all I have to do is find, no, better yet, create bacteria that is impervious to radiation, lethal to aliens and absolutely harmless to humans. Maybe I could just cure the common cold in my spare time.
Ironhorse: Well if you find yourself with any spare time, doctor, you must be doing something wrong. Have a nice day. Harrison has a very mild freak-out when he discovers that they’d decided the set they built for his office in the first half of the pilot was too expensive to tear down, so the government inexplicably decided to painstakingly recreate it in ever detail at the cottage (“I have two offices which are absolutely, disconcertingly identical,” is a cost-saving measure I have seen a handful of times in the history of TV). Ironhorse is confident that their stay here will be a short one, since the aliens lack significant resources, weapons, or numbers. It’s a reasonable conclusion for anyone to draw, particularly someone whose role in the show is mostly to be a reasonably-minded military man who is nearly always wrong because he thinks he’s in a world where the laws of probability are more powerful than the laws of dramatic necessity. But it seems kinda cold given what happened to Delta Squadron a few scenes ago.
Debi, who I would not blame you for having forgotten, turns up again to complain about having to move and leave all her friends, because they’ve forgotten that she’d already moved once this week and is not nearly charismatic enough to have made any new friends yet. Then she sees that they keep horses at the compound and is instantly okay with moving here and wants to take riding lessons. Because she’s a little girl and little girls are fickle and shallow, amirite? Oh, the hilarity! Debi isn’t much of a character this season, existing mostly just to occasionally pop up and complain about things, and once or twice to be a peril monkey. It’s hard to justify the character’s existence at all. She seems like one of several elements of the show that don’t serve any real purpose, but which they keep coming back to for some reason. My best guess is that they were concerned the show was tacking too dark, and wanted something to lighten the mood a little. Debi is here to be a character that the rest of the cast can show their softer side around. For example, that evening, they all gather around the fireplace, and Ironhorse, who spent most of last week’s segment barking orders, tells an endearing folk story from his native american heritage as a sort of ghost story for Debi, which is so cute that I forgot to check my watch and make a note of how long it took them to get around to having Paul Ironhorse dispense a bit of native american folk wisdom, in keeping with the fact that as of 1988, Graham Greene is the only indigenous person of the Americas who is allowed to hold a speaking role without breaking into folksy native wisdom. And that’s just because he only had like three lines of dialogue.
It is, at least, a plot-relevant folk tale, about his grandfather, a shaman, (because every native american has a shaman grandfather) encountering
some prime grade-A Von Daniken bullshit an ancient petroglyph depicting what might possibly be an astronaut. Once Debi’s gone to bed, though, he dismisses the story as, “Indian folklore, nothing more, nothing less.” There’s just a hint in his expression, though, that he might have some regrets about the extent to which he’s forsaken his cultural heritage. This is a theme with Ironhorse’s character that will come up perhaps as many as two more times in the series.
While Team Earth does some endearing team-building exercises, Team Alien has moved into
an abandoned nuclear test site in a cave in Nevada a leftover set from Land of the Lost complete with matte painting, where they prepare their next move, namely, “Justify a cameo from those martian war machines from the movie which literally everyone watching this show has been waiting to see, and is going to be kind of disappointed when they show up for thirty seconds then are never seen again.”
The plot kind of spins its wheels for five minutes to make it look hard. Norton isn’t having any success decoding the alien transmissions until Harrison reminds him about the alien fascination with the number 3, citing the three-lensed optics and three-craft battle groups from the movie, as well as the three-weighted bola from the ghost town battle. Then Harrison compliments Suzanne on her work in a scene that is weirdly out-of-nowhere flirty. There will be a couple of hints throughout the series of the possibility of romance between Harrison and Suzanne, but they’re fortunately rare, and this is the last we’ll see of Harrison the Sex God for this episode.
Harrison’s hint about threes pays off, when Norton is able to decipher the alien transmissions by interpreting them as numbers in base 3. Norton: Look, the top line is two to the seventh power. The bottom line’s to the third. Now, two to the seventh is a hundred and twenty-eight, and two to the third is eight!
Suzanne: But what do the numbers represent?
Norton: Well am I supposed to do everything around here? How am I supposed to know what it represents? Well, I say he’s able to decipher the message, but what he does is reveal that when you consider the signals as numbers in base 3, they come out to be… numbers. Suzanne offers the possibility of it being a code, but Ironhorse, quite insightfully, points out that the numbers are small and not prime. Crossreferencing the numbers against Doctor Forrester’s records, though, they’re able to convert them to map coordinates, which Ironhorse recognizes as the location of Kellogue Air Force Base. While his first instinct is to send in the cavalry, Harrison cautions him that the alien plan must be something more subtle than a frontal assault, prompting another wheel-spinning scene where Harrison talks Ironhorse through a sort of guided meditation to help him use his military expertise to guess at the alien plan.
Ironhorse reasons that the aliens must be planning to arm themselves. Harrison reveals that he knows about the extremely secret “Hangar 15”, for which the mythical Wright-Patterson Building 18 is a cover. General Willson confirms that three alien warships are indeed stored in Hangar 15 at Kellogue.
Because keeping it on the DL is still standing orders, rather than alerting the base, Ironhorse gives Suzanne and Harrison some BDUs and sets up a cover story about special ops survival training. There’s an awkward “comedy” scene where Ironhorse humors an air force general who gets wood at the prospect of a pending war in the middle east (A… Pending… War… In… The… Huh. Weird. This show takes place so long ago that when it aired, the US wasn’t at war in the middle east).
Meanwhile, an alien possesses a helicopter pilot and heads for Hangar 15. The Blackwood team fortunately arrives first and locates the alien ships. From Forrester’s notes Harrison works out the code to open the hatches on the ships. Aside from the small triangular control panel he uses, the hatch looks largely identical to the movie. The “bad bad guys” (Because, as they are, technically breaking into a secret facility, even unpossessed soldiers would be liable to shoot them) arrive just as our heroes are finishing their sabotage, planting explosives inside each craft.
Ironhorse confronts the possessed Sergeant Reynolds, leading to the obligatory scene where Ironhorse pleads with a character who has had at most six lines to remember their deep and long-lasting connection. I mean, come on Reynolds, remember that time Ironhorse told you how his superiors were breathing down his neck? Good times. Fortunately, Suzanne’s been lugging around a fire extinguisher full of engineered radiation-resistant bacteria, and hoses him down.
Reynolds drops, to everyone’s relief, but revives a moment later. Harrison finds a more pragmatic use for Suzanne’s bacteria tank, and beat the hell out of Reynolds with it. He’s forced back, but then shudders and emits alien choking sounds as the bacteria continues to weaken him. Suzanne will never try a bacterial weapon again over the course of the season, though she will continue to work on one. That might seem curious, given that this early version seems like it does work. On the other hand, though, this version of the bacteria can only be delivered at close range, takes time to work, and it’s not even clear that it would actually kill, rather than just weaken. Ultimately, this version of the weapon is substantially less effective than just shooting them. And ultimately, this is the course they choose here, with Ironhorse mooting the question of the bacteria’s efficacy by shooting Reynolds.
Harrison, Ironhorse and Suzanne run from the hangar as the alien craft come on-line, and we get our first look at them in action. Oh my. Look, as I mentioned in my discussion of the movie, when they reused the manta design for the movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars, they had to rebuild the models from scratch, and they did a damned fine job. Here, thirty-five years later, these are… Well, they’ll only be in it for a bit.
The general design is right overall, but it’s almost like a Super Deformed caricature of the original. The proportions are way off. The manta body is too large relative to the gooseneck. The shape of the cobra head is altogether wrong, being far too round. The bulbous sections — the lens at the front of the cobra head and the green forward dome and wingtips — are stretched out and don’t seem to fit right. And the footprint of the manta body is elongated as well. It’s kind of bizarre that they’d get it all so wrong. There’s no sign of the invisible-leg effect the movie used. Instead, they’ve added a purplish glowing texture to the undersides which I assume is meant to indicate the propulsion mechanism. The rest of the visual effects around the war machines are better, though. The heat ray effect looks very film-accurate, as does the skeleton beam, though both seem to just strike up explosions when they hit things. The sound effects are also slavishly right, the rattlesnake ambient noise, the thrumming as the heat ray prepares to fire and the spitting sound of the weapon are all clearly lifted from the movie. A downside to this is that the audio quality doesn’t match the rest of the show: there’s something not unlike a vinyl hiss that underlies the sound effects. The bell-jar force fields even appear as the ships break through the roof, and look very accurate to the movie, aside from being a tighter fit around the machines. The compositing isn’t great. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s 1988 and they don’t look like something out of Captain Power, I would have assumed they were computer generated. Like in the 1953 movie, their movement is really really smooth, but here it looks fake. If they’re models, they are quite clearly not moving around miniature sets, but rather were greenscreened in, and in most of the shots, all three ships are exact images of each other, like someone just whipped out the clone tool in photoshop. They’re shot at unflattering angles too. While the movie tended to film them from somewhere around forty-five degrees from the front with the machine centered at eye-level, here they’re shot almost exclusively from below, so that most of what we see is the underside, with the cobra head sticking out awkwardly over the bulbous forward dome. They look approximately correct when viewed dead-on, that angle playing down most of the bizarre proportioning, but they’re rarely filmed that way. There’s a long sequence of the war machines chasing Harrison, Suzanne and Ironhorse down a road, firing more or less at random in their general direction where the angles makes the war machines look like they’re roughly the same size as Volkswagens.
The humans eventually throw themselves into a drainage ditch to cower, where Harrison cynically reminds Ironhorse of his former skepticism. Ironhorse checks his watch and declares the timer on the explosives to expire… Now. Cut to a picture of an entirely quiescent block of plastic explosive. The heroes look on in horror as the war machines continue their advance, then, just as one prepares to fire its heat ray, it begins emitting strange sounds. The underside of the machine burns away and an underimpressive explosion effect is superimposed over the machine as it explodes. The force fields on the remaining machines flash visible as the fireball washes against them. A second later, the machine on the right also explodes. We get a close-up on the third machine’s destruction, which is done in more detail and looks a whole lot better. For this one, you actually see the ball of sparks and fire stopped dead inside the force field until the field dissipates as the machine is blown apart. Debris from the exploding machine is thrown outward, the gooseneck in particular sailing over the heads of the humans. “Watch a little fast, Colonel?” Harrison asks as they rejoice in their success.
Later, at the Cottage, the team shares a drink as Ironhorse expositions how General Wilson will have the entire incident written off as terrorist activity, which Norton notes is, “A lot closer to the truth than they’ll ever realize.” Suzanne is just thankful that it’s over. Once again, in accordance with the laws of drama, this calls for the camera to pull in close to Harrison, standing just outside on the patio, looking out at an inexplicably foggy matte painting of some trees. He looks over his shoulder and wryly asks, “Is it? Is it really?”
Back in the Land of the Lost, the alien advocacy muses on the need to improvise to continue their conquest of Earth. In the caves below, three alien hands type on a Commodore 64. I’m not sure what the point of that last bit was. It almost seems like they’re setting up the idea that there’s dissent in the ranks, with an alien doing something out-of-view of the advocacy. In the greater context of the entire season, I suppose it could just be a visual representation of the fact that the aliens will continue to scheme and plot on a weekly basis until some time in April, but the way it’s shot, with the camera lingering on the advocacy until they leave, then a slow pan down to reveal the fourth alien — the only one we’ve seen who’s alone — feels, especially after this show has relied so heavily on very traditional TV tropes in its framing and pacing (Note how many times I’ve mentioned things being “in accordance with” the rules about how to tell stories on TV), like exactly the setup you’d do if the fourth alien is going to turn out especially important.
What I said about Jared Martin’s first scene in this episode turns out to kind of be a microcosm for the pilot as a whole. I want to love this. I remember loving this. But I’m thirty-six now and I’ve finally developed a critical eye. And this suffers from some hardcore first-time jitters. The audio is terrible. Harrison’s portrayal is ill-considered for the first two-thirds. Norton’s accent is ill-considered. Ironhorse has two modes, shouty and genial, and either one would be fine, really, but without some justification explaining the link between the two, it seems a little Jekyll-and-Hyde.
And then there’s Lynda Mason Green. Look, it’s 1988, and the odds of television writers giving us a good, strong female scientist are… Not good. It seems like her “thing” is that she can convey a wide range of emotions through smiling. Like, she’s got a happy smile, and a smug smile, and a chagrined smile, and a pained smile, and a snarky smile, and a wry smile, and a sly smile, and a frustrated smile, and even an angry smile. You know what role I bet she could nail? Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But not this. There’s also hints of an attraction between Suzanne and Harrison, the last vestige of Stupid Sexy Harrison from part one that lingers into part two. It’s never remotely convincing.
But it’s mostly rough edges that will get milled down as the show progresses. What won’t though, is an annoying failure to commit. This show has a fair number of bad ideas, but it has even more good ones. But what’s consistently annoying is that they never get around to following through on anything. The first part of the episode seems like it’s establishing Pacific Tech as the primary setting, with Charlotte, Gutterman and Jacobi as recurring characters, and it seemed like they were trying out a format that would see Harrison and Suzanne as a kind of proto-Mulder and Scully, traveling the country to investigate aliens, while Ironhorse and Reynolds would be off in their own plotline, using different methods to follow a parallel track, only meeting up at the climax, with Harrison and Ironhorse as only uneasy allies. But then they do an about-face: after Harrison and Suzanne set out for the confrontation at the ghost town, none of the supporting characters are ever seen again, none of the sets from the first half of the episode are reused, and our major characters are rarely apart.
There are other weird points. Two consecutive Ironhorse scenes involve the same setup of “Drunken comedy relief rednecks have an alien encounter they are unable to convincingly explain.” These half-assed attempts at comic relief are going to recur throughout the series, and they never work. There was — I am not making this up — a plan to have a series-long running gag about a child forced to travel the country with his possessed radioactive zombie parents. Thankfully, they didn’t follow through, but I hope you can see the problem. It’s like they can’t quite decide how much they want the show to be horrific and how much they want it to be lighthearted. And also, there’s this whole strange element of no one seeming to remember the 1953 invasion. And yet, hardly anyone has trouble believing it — no one says, “I think I’d know if there had been a global invasion,” or “Let’s just get out a history book and settle this.” It’s just incomprehensible, unless you take my interpretation that everyone’s developed a severe neurosis about it. But there is, again, no follow-through. They will mention the fact that no one remembers two or three more times, but it will never occur to anyone to actually investigate that. And the whole series is like that. There’s hardly anything in this season that builds off of things that happened earlier, but there’s a lot of things that feel like they ought to. They keep introducing concepts and teasing things, but they never get around to paying them off. It’s one of the problems we saw with Captain Power, where they’d spend so much effort setting things up for the future that it got in the way of the present. And like Captain Power, the fact that this show didn’t get a second season, means that all those setups came to naught.
The next episode will see the series start to settle down into the structure it will follow for the rest of the season. We’ll start to see a lot of the rough edges get filed down. As to the larger issues, time will tell.
- War of the Worlds: The Complete Series is available on DVD from amazon.com