Author’s note: For the benefit of those who haven’t read my first post on this series, in these “Antithesis” articles, I intend to review and analyze the second season of War of the Worlds The Series under the self-imposed fiction that the first season of the series does not exist, and that this is an entirely new show with no antecedent other than its loose connection to the 1953 movie.
It is October 2, 1989. Over the weekend, Glen Frey and Don Henley performed on-stage together for the first time since 1981 and the US Post Office issued a stamp with a Brontosaurus on it, prolonging the century-old conflict over whether or not there’s any such thing as a Brontosaurus. Yesterday, Denmark legally recognized civil unions of same-sex partners, the first country in the world to do do. The guys who sing on behalf of Milli Vanilli top the charts with “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” better known as “The Milli Vanilli Song that isn’t Blame it On the Rain“. Cher, Madonna, Janet Jackson and Warrant also chart. TV is all new this week, with ABC showing MacGyver ahead of Monday Night Football, ABC airing new episodes of Alf and The Hogan Family ahead of a TV movie about domestic abuse survivor Tracey Thurman, which would leave its star, Nancy McKeon, typecast in the public consciousness for years.
Star Trek the Next Generation
is still in reruns, starts its season with “Evolution“, the one that doesn’t have a damned clue how nanomachines work, running in many markets in a 7 PM time slot on Saturdays. At nine on many of those channels is the final season of Friday the 13th The Series, which, strangely unrelated to its namesake, documents the adventures of an antiques store owner and her partner, who track down cursed objects sold by the former proprietor. Mostly antiques that provide some boon to their owner in exchange for a human sacrifice, like a murder-powered cradle from the Titanic that can cure sick babies. Looks like the first few episodes aired out of order, as the actual season opener will air next week in a special two-hour block. The episode that airs this week is meant to be the season’s third, “Demon Hunter”, which will pit newly-promoted-from-guest-star Johnny Ventura against a demon summoned by a murder-powered cursed dagger.
Over the next week, independent stations who buy content from Paramount will air “The Second Wave,” the first episode of Frank Mancuso Jr.’s Sci-Fi action-adventure series War of the Worlds, sometimes syndicated abroad as War of the Worlds: The Second Invasion.
The basic concept is a little bit complex: in an alternate near-future, society has collapsed due to a failed alien invasion some time in the past. The aliens have now returned from space to complete their conquest, opposed by the last survivors of a now defunct government alien-fighting taskforce.
The opening title sequence is interesting. The art style of the sequence reminds me a lot of the model work in Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Kind of artsy and unusual for a US action-adventure series of this era. Almost all American TV shows use a montage for their title sequence. The last action-adventure I can think of that didn’t is Knight Rider, and even that still had a couple of short clips integrated to put faces to the names in the credits. The only other adventure series airing at the time to use a purely “artsy” title sequence I can think of is Star Trek the Next Generation.
This one starts with the world blowing up. A world, I guess, perhaps it’s not meant to be clear which. The remainder of the sequence is a fly-by view of a dilapidated city shrouded in fog, devastated by rioting. Over the theme music, a news reporter describes the scene:
There’s rioting breaking out through the city. Fire is continuing to burn everywhere. Troops are shooting people. My God, I…I don’t know why! There’s a woman dying in front of me, and no one’s helping her! There are conflicting reports about who or what started the chaos. Will someone tell me what’s happening? This is madness! What is this world coming to?
The words are original, but the style, the content, and the delivery are all very reminiscent of Orson Welles’s 1938 adaptation. The sequence culminates with the destruction of a monument — a statue of Revolutionary War-era soldiers being shattered and pulled to the ground. Cracks in the pedestal resolve into the series title.
After this, we’re treated to a very fake-looking late ’80s computer rendered purple and brown planet, spinning in space. It glows red, then explodes unconvincingly. We cut to a very fake-looking late ’80s computer rendered Earth, which darkens visibly as a shadow grows across it. Symbolism!
We cut to a dystopian urban sprawl full of filthy urchins, barrel fires and left over smoke from every outdoor scene in Captain Power. Announcements of a police curfew are audible, and between buildings we can occasionally see what looks like a military cordon. A dateline tells us that this is “Almost Tomorrow”. Driving through the sprawl is our hero Harrison Blackwood. He’s a scruffy-looking, bearded type in a battered Cadillac. He stops at a pay phone to inform his friend, Suzanne McCullough, that he’s on his way to a secret meeting with a “General Wilson”, who they haven’t heard from in some time.
The next few scenes give hint at the background for these characters. Harrison and Suzanne, Suzanne’s daughter Debi, a wheelchair-using computer programmer named Norton, and a special forces unit commanded by Colonel Paul Ironhorse are part of some sort of secret organization that fights aliens. A bit like Torchwood by the look of it, only with less sex and exactly the same amount of killing off cast members. Their headquarters appears to be concealed under a McMansion where the team lives. There hasn’t been any alien activity for some time, and it’s got them antsy, and even worse, their leader, General Wilson, has gone missing. Norton is tracking unusual weather patterns — lightning strikes without rain, occurring at regular intervals, which we can assume to be some kind of interstellar transporter beam bringing the aliens to Earth.
I kind of imagine this team as being kind of analogous to Stargate SG-1. Harrison seems to be the expert on aliens, probably the Daniel Jackson analogue. Ironhorse is obviously O’Neill. Suzanne, I imagine, is Samantha Carter by default. We don’t know much about her role on the team yet, but she carries a gun despite being a civilian. Maybe she’s local law enforcement who some how got tangled up in this? That would also make her kind of similar to Gwen Cooper from Torchwood. General Wilson would presumably be General Hammond. Norton seems like the “mission control” character, so Walter maybe?
Meanwhile, an abandoned power plant is full of people with slicked-back hair in gray coveralls. Off to one side, naked people covered in K-Y jelly are being hosed off and issued gray coveralls. These, of course, will be our aliens for the piece, the Morthren. Two of them are marked out as leadership by their even more slicked back hair and the fact that their coveralls have shoulder pads and epaulets. They’ll later be identified as Malzor, played by Denis Forest, and Mana, played by future Forever Knight costar Catherine Disher. They make their way to a kind of giant green snotball thing with three people inside, naked and covered in K-Y jelly. Seriously, there is so much personal lubricant used in this episode that anyone trying to have an orgy in the Toronto area the week of filming would be totally not-screwed. They burst out in a weird parody of birth, and are carried away to be hosed off, except for one slimy nude chick who sticks around so that Malzor and her can exposition a bit: their planet, Morthrai, was just destroyed in a “light storm”. But their god, this kind of giant floating one-eyed brain-jellyfish-cthulu thing called “The Eternal” is on his way here right now, and is going to make Earth into a “new” Mothrai. The Eternal appears in the flesh a bit later, and speaks to Malzor in whalesong for a bit.
There’s a good sense of weirdness to the aliens here, but also a fair amount of depth: Malzor and Mana agree that humanity is a pestilence and are looking forward to slaughtering mankind unpleasantly. But while Mana seems to actively take pleasure in committing genocide, Malzor sees it more as a means to an end. Malzor, for his part, is much more interested in punishing the survivors of the first, failed invasion. Malzor also shows a lot of trepidation around the Eternal, like he’s scared of something, or perhaps just desperate to please. It’s a decided contrast from the very strong, determined attitude he shows when giving orders. In religious terms, Malzor seems very inwardly focused, most concerned with maintaining the purity of the faith — punishing traitors and heretics, as it were, while Mana is more outwardly focused, interested in conquest and punishing those outside the faith. In a way, she’s also interested in conversion, as we’ll soon see when she reveals the “weapon” she’s been building. There’s signs of friction between the two as well. Mana even complains to another alien, Ardix, that Malzor is too interested in punishing their own and not enough in committing genocide. Which is not to say that Malzor is completely disinterested in wiping out the humans: his first priority is to take out General Wilson’s team: Blackwood is, it turns out, walking into a trap.
Blackwood nearly misses falling into the trap, though, as his meeting with Wilson is in a punk rock bar in a bad part of town, and he nearly gets himself murdered in a knife fight with a street tough before two aliens show up in army uniforms to escort him out. He very nearly gets into a car with them when Adrian Paul pops up and shoots them. When shot, the aliens bleed the contents of green glow-sticks. Once dead, their faces and bodies sort of collapse inward, then quickly dissolve into dust. Their weapons seem to grow out of their bodies; they sort of appear in their hands without them apparently taking them from anywhere, and look sort of like large eyeballs with a long tendrill that extends from the back and wraps around the arm. They can fire small red blasts which maim, or larger green ones which vaporize their targets, as demonstrated by the wino who evaporates when Adrian Paul dodges a shot.
Blackwood notes that the aliens have changed: they decompose differently, and he’s surprised that the soldiers didn’t show physical degeneration. We’ll get a better understanding of what he means when we watch Malzor supervise some executions. The Morthren were not originally humanoid, it seems. Some of the first wave soldiers retain their native form, a brown, leathery creature with a single eye and three-fingered hands that look vaguely related to The Eternal. The second wave has perfected the reconfiguration of their bodies into human form, but the human-form survivors of the first wave all show severe scarring, sores and other indicators that their bodies are deteriorating.
Adrian Paul’s character. John Kincaid, gives Blackwood a gun and introduces himself as a former soldier who had been working for General Wilson on covert missions. Just before Wilson vanished, he’d sent Kincaid on a mission that had turned out to be an alien trap. Kincaid suspects that aliens have infiltrated the chain of command and are responsible for Wilson’s disappearance. When they return to base, we further learn that Kincaid had once been in Ironhorse’s unit, but had been given the boot because Ironhorse is a no-nonsense by-the-book sort of guy who didn’t take kindly to Kincaid’s maverick-renegade-bad-boy thing. Ironhorse softens a bit toward him when he learns that his brother Max was killed in the last mission.
Norton is able to locate the abandoned power plant by judicious use of computers and science and something to do with the lightning, and Ironhorse decides to immediately go in with a couple of commandos. About thirty seconds after he leaves, Kincaid decides to secretly follow, and Blackwood tags along. While they sneak in through the roof and witness the execution of the first wave survivors, Ironhorse goes in through the front door, guns a-blazin’. I guess that the idea here is that the first wave were a more straightforward, traditional military target, and that Ironhorse is not used to facing an enemy whose tactics rely more on deception and stealth. They’re immediately detected by a small flying orange thing, a drone camera that sends images back to a stretched membrane where Malzor observes and orders only Ironhorse — it’s noteworthy here that Malzor knows both Blackwood and Ironhorse by name — to be taken alive.
I think there’s a bit of a misstep here, as Ironhorse’s squad is so thoroughly routed that rather than conveying the greater threat posed by the second wave, it just makes the good guys look like a bunch of idiots. Like, one of Ironhorse’s unnamed sidekicks basically just shoots sort of randomly at nothing until his gun jams, and is vaporized while he tries to fix it. I think there’s an element of “Kincaid is more of a badass than Ironhorse,” that they’re trying to work in here, because Ironhorse, even with help, isn’t able to dispatch a single Morthren, while Kincaid easily killed two. Once his men are dead, Ironhorse is shot by Malzor himself, with the less-deadly “small red zaps” setting of his eyeball-tentacle-gun-thing, which leaves him paralyzed and in great pain, possibly dying.
We’re treated to a lingering shot of Ironhorse gurning painfully on the ground as Malzor gloats before Ironhorse is stripped to his underwear and placed in Mana’s “weapon”. Like the rest of Morthren technology, it looks decidedly organic, kind of gelatinous and green, covered in a stringy white webbing kind of like orange pith with no obvious controls and no real shape per se, just a rough lump with cavities and hollows. Though barely able to move or even breath, Ironhorse begs for the sweet release of death. Malzor promises him death, but not until he’s served their ends. The machine requires one of the Morthren to donate energy from their own bodies, and Mana volunteers, standing in an arch in the middle of the machine. Her eyes roll back and she experiences great pain from the process. It’s fairly obvious from the way the machine is shaped — two coffin-like chambers connected by an arch — what the point of it is, but the scene is intercut with Blackwood and Kincaid’s stealthier intrusion to increase the suspense. We finally get our reveal as a perfect duplicate of Ironhorse awakens in the second coffin, covered in yet more personal lubricant.
This, I guess, is the gimmick of this series, the twist that will make this second wave far deadlier than the aliens our heroes had been fighting before: they possess the ability to create copies of humans who are utterly loyal to their cause. They make a special point of just how perfect these copies are: not merely a mind-controlled zombie, the clone thinks of himself as legitimately Ironhorse. He has Ironhorse’s memories and his personality, his same approach to duty. The only change is that he considers Malzor his “commanding officer”, and is unquestioningly loyal to the Eternal. Malzor orders him to destroy his base, delete their records, and kill the team, and he accepts this as his duty with no real sense of malice, just the explanation that, though they were his friends, “That was a long time ago. I see them for what they are now.” The original Ironhorse is in a bad way, his skin ashen, his breath catching, his body wet with sweat or possibly leftover personal lubricant. It’s hard to tell if his condition is due to the cloning process or from being shot earlier. The last time I watched this, I’d assumed Malzor had only shot him with a stunning weapon, and it was being cloned that had left him with severe flu-like symptoms, but on this watch, it seems like there’s a continuous degradation of his health from the moment he was shot, so perhaps Malzor’s weapon actually did wound him severely. Later in the series, they’ll clarify that clones are created physically perfect, so Ironhorse’s injuries wouldn’t have been reproduced in the clone. Malzor and Mana consider putting him out of his misery, but opt to keep him alive for now, in case they have any issues with the clone and need to run off another copy.
Not long after clone-Ironhorse leaves with a couple of Morthren soldiers in stolen uniforms, Kincaid and Blackwood find the original Ironhorse, abandoned inside the cloning machine. In accordance with the laws of how people talk when they’re gravely injured, Ironhorse is able to just vaguely mutter through clenched teeth about how they “Made a copy,” and orders Blackwood and Kincaid to, “Stop the Other.” They ignore his protests to be left behind, instead finding him one of those gray coveralls and trying to sneak out with him. They trip an alarm and have to shoot their way out, but because Blackwood and Kincaid are named characters, they have far more luck than Ironhorse’s troops at dispatching aliens.
Faux-Ironhorse easily gains entry to the compound by getting his sister’s birthday right on the second try (It’s a feint, making us think the clone has exposed himself to the guard at the gate, but he plays it off as testing the guard’s vigilance, thus demonstrating that, unlike so many clone imposter stories, this clone really does know how to act like the real deal) and makes his way to their lab, where he plants explosives on the monitor of Norton’s computer. Meanwhile, for no clear reason other than dramatic pacing, we intercut with Debi, who’s woken up in the middle of the night and is wandering around the house looking for a punk rock cabbage patch kid doll. Norton interrupts Not-Ironhorse, who acts very suspiciously evasive in spite of all the setup about how perfect a simulacrum of the real thing he is. Norton, though, is apparently not good at picking up on that sort of thing. Aluminumhorse gets worried when Norton mentions Blackwood and Kincaid’s mission, and tries to usher Norton upstairs to talk about it, but Norton notices the explosives, which alert him to the fact that something’s up. But they don’t put him on the defensive enough to stop him from turning his back on Not-Ironhorse in order to take a phone call from Blackwood. Norton barely has time to disbelieve his coworker’s shouted warnings that Ironhorse is a clone before the Ersatz Colonel rips the phone cable out of the wall. He lets Norton slowly wheel himself back toward the elevator before shooting him twice. Pity Norton doesn’t have a voice-controlled wheelchair or something; if he’d had a free hand, maybe he could have fought back. Norton falls from his chair and is left for dead as the clone finishes setting the explosives. But Norton revives, and with great difficulty manages to stretch his arm out to an alarm button on the side of a desk. The clone issues the coup de grace and starts a five-minute timer.
Blackwood, Kincaid and the two remaining guards engage the clone’s Morthren entourage outside the building. With the guards providing cover fire, Blackwood and Kincaid make their way inside. Once again, Ironhorse’s soldiers seem shockingly bad at this, as another one makes the fatal mistake of emptying his clip at nothing, only to be shot while reloading. The blast only clips him, though, so he’s incapacitated but not vaporized. The increasingly unwell real Ironhorse, despite being almost unable to stand, emerges from Kincaid’s A-Team van and uses the injured solider as a human shield while he proceeds to kill the aliens single-handed from a dozen yards away with a pistol at night. I take back what I said before about Ironhorse being less of a badass than Kincaid. In fact, I think now what they’re going for with him is a “Right soldier, wrong war,” sort of deal, where we’re supposed to accept that he really is indeed an epic badass, but he’s the wrong style of epic badass for a grimdark proto-nineties anti-hero renegade action-adventure: he’s more clean-cut, rocking nicely parted hair and mom jeans, and this crisis calls for the kind of badass who has stubble and wears a leather jacket, like Blackwood.
Woken by the alarm, Suzanne grabs her gun and searches the house for Debi, but finds Norton’s body instead, just a few seconds ahead of Blackwood and Kincaid. They explain the situation, then join the search for Debi. Clone Ironhorse: You won’t leave, will you? You’ll stay and die because you won’t leave one child behind. That’s why we’ll win.
Blackwood: That’s why you’ll lose.
Clone: You’ll never know, Blackwood.However, the clone has already located her, and is holding her in a sitting room. When the others arrive, he calmly explains that he’s set them up the bomb, and that they have just about enough time to escape, but that he intends to keep Debi with him. He taunts Blackwood with the notion that their unwillingness to save their own lives at the cost of a single child is why humanity is doomed to lose the war. Blackwood rejects this, claiming it as a strength rather than a weakness. Suzanne attempts to appeal to the “real Ironhorse”, which serves only to enrage the clone, who shouts, “I am Ironhorse! There is no other!”
Which as you’d expect is the real Ironhorse’s cue to turn up and tell him off. Now, it has been standard in a scene like this since at least the 1960s for the showdown between a character and their evil twin to involve lots of expensive split-screen effects and the tense scene where they have to work out who’s who by something only the original would say or know.
That does not happen here. Avoiding the game of “Spot the Imposter” is, frankly, the right move here, since one of them has been slowly dying for the past half hour and the other one is holding a gun to a twelve-year-old’s head. In context, there’s not really any way to set up a split-screen shot. The real Ironhorse can barely stand, let alone walk over to confront his doppleganger directly, and besides, the whole point of the scene is that no one can get close to the clone without endangering Debi. But it still feels slightly wrong. Knowing as we do that this is a comparatively low-budget production, you can’t help thinking that they’ve cheaped out by never allowing both Ironhorses to share the screen. Indeed, it’s not just “They don’t share the screen.” The clone is in full health, well-groomed and dressed in military uniform, while the original is pallid, disheveled, and soaked with sweat in a gray coverall. Richard Chavez is the only actor in the episode to get two costume changes, which means that the scenes of Ironhorse in uniform were shot at a different time from everything else. Thus, Ironhorse, real and fake, only appears in uniform on-screen with Debi, Norton, the Morthren, and other soldiers. Tight camera angles are used to play it down, but even in the long shots, you only see the real Ironhorse’s face when no one else is on-screen.
They do a good job with Ironhorse, all things considered. He doesn’t get a huge amount of dialogue, but what he does is revelatory: he’s portrayed as a fairly complex character. We see him wear three costumes, and in a sense, there are three Ironhorses. We see him first in civilian garb, pensive about their mission, but at ease and on a friendly basis with his coworkers. If he wasn’t referred to by rank, it might not be clear at the outset that he’s a soldier. Clearly, he’s been working with the team for some time, and everyone’s comfortable with each other. There’s a certain “dad” aspect to him early on: Blackwood doesn’t want him to find out about his clandestine meeting in the first scene, and the impression is that Blackwood is like a teenager sneaking out after curfew. Later, we see Ironhorse the soldier. This is the least attractive version of Ironhorse, and I think some of his portrayal is a misstep. Both the original and the clone are shown to be obsessively mission-focused. Just as the clone is perfectly willing to sit there and get blown up in order to complete his mission for the aliens, the real Ironhorse asks to be left behind in order that he not slow the others down. He has absolutely no reluctance to sacrifice himself for the mission, which is probably a positive trait, but even the real Ironhorse comes off as callously unconcerned about the fate of his men: the men don’t matter, only the mission. The third Ironhorse is what remains after he’s been mortally wounded and cloned by Malzor, and he is a synthesis of the Dad and the Soldier. Like Soldier-Ironhorse, he’s willing to sacrifice himself for the mission, but this is an Ironhorse who has nothing left to lose, and here, he really shines. The Soldier got his men killed and himself easily captured. The Third Ironhorse guns his way past the aliens despite his injuries to confront his clone. “Good work, brother. Now we can die together,” the clone says, “There’s symmetry to that. We are the same, after all.”
I think this may be the thematic heart of the episode. While the clone is a perfect copy of Ironhorse, he’s a copy only of Ironhorse the Soldier. Maybe that first battle was really foreshadowing: Ironhorse-the-Soldier loses the battle because he’s outflanked. He’s so mission-focused as to have tunnel vision. And correspondingly, Clone-Ironhorse, focused only on his mission, openly mocks Blackwood and the others for the fact that they care about each other. The Soldier views the world narrowly, and does not think in terms of the power of the connections between people. But Dad-Ironhorse does. And this is why he alone recognizes what neither the clone nor even the Morthren do.
“Not the same,” says the true Ironhorse. “But linked. Linked.” To Blackwood, he says, “It was good working with you,” then, “Debi, close your eyes.” There is only a momentary flash of recognition from the clone. Blackwood shouts. And Ironhorse puts his gun to his chin and blows his own brains out. The clone drops dead instantly, thrown back as though shot himself. The glazed survivors run from the house mere moments before a very well made but not especially convincing (I know it sounds like I contradicted myself. I mean it looks like a very good model, even though it does not look like a real house) model explodes.
The episode closes with its only daytime shot. These are rare enough in the series that I sometimes forget that the sun still exists in this world. While back at the alien base, Malzor, with a look of desperation, swears that humanity is insignificant vermin, Blackwood, Kincaid, Suzanne and Debi survey the wreckage of their destroyed home. Blackwood says a few words of eulogy for their fallen friends, and Kincaid gives Ironhorse a postumous salute while swearing himself to complete the mission Ironhorse had given him.
Wow. It’s a very strange and interesting twist to start out so far in the thick of it here. Ostensibly, of course, this series is a sequel to the 1953 movie, but there’s nothing at all in this episode that really harkens back to that specifically. The closest we come is some vague similarity in what’s presumably the natural form of the first wave invaders. But there’s this very rich backstory they imply with a whole cast of characters who had clearly been important in the past, but won’t be appearing in the rest of the series: Norton, Ironhorse and General Wilson.
The basic structure of the plot isn’t all that unusual; start off with the heroes at the apex of their power, only to be cut off at the knees in the first episode so that the series can be structured with the heroes as a resource-poor resistance. GI Joe Retaliation comes immediately to mind. Or Andromeda. Star Trek Voyager in a sense. Or, and I remember literally nothing else about this show, Ulysses 31. It’s also a popular in the variant where it happens at the beginning of a sequel, in order to back down from the potentially drama-killing godlike powers the protagonist acquired at the previous climax: the entire Metroid series, for example, or the Power Rangers season openers in the Zordonic era.
It’s kind of opulent the level of detail they put into the backstory. I think the goal here is to really sell the idea of this as a world that’s been at war with aliens for a long time. There’s a sense here that everyone is kind of tired of fighting. It also lets them get right on with the story, dispensing with the traditional first episode of every alien invasion show, where we spend forty minutes with the lead looking crazy and trying to convince an unsympathetic government of the threat. By having Wilson’s taskforce (Interestingly, they’re referred to as the “Blackwood Project”, though I don’t see anything to support the idea of him being in charge. He seems much more like the rogue bad-boy type who the others have to keep in line and only tolerate because he gets the job done) pre-exist, we can get straight on with telling a new story in this world with a ready-made cast of people who don’t need to have aliens explained to them.
And as an extension of that, it makes sense that they’d introduce and kill off seemingly-major characters in the first episode. While it’s a trope that became very popular in the late ’90s (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and became kind of a favorite trick for the BBC in the 21st century (Survivors, Spooks, Torchwood, Outcasts), it isn’t something I ever remember seeing back here in the ’80s (Blake’s 7 had the decency to wait until the second season to start murdering its cast), which makes it even more effective. In plot terms, they want a small ensemble, the core cast of four: Blackwood, Suzanne, Debi and Kincaid. Kincaid is introduced as a new character that is a question mark for the others. But it wouldn’t be very realistic to have Kincaid show up and join the existing team of two adults and a tween. It makes much more sense that if there’s a global alien threat stretching back for decades, there would be a larger team addressing it. So we introduce the characters of Ironhorse and Norton (and the off-screen General Wilson), and do a darned good job of making them feel like fully fleshed-out characters well integrated into the lives of the others. And then, y’know, fridge them (The term “fridging” may not be strictly appropriate, as they’re both men, but since they’re also both visible minorities, at least some of the same broader unpleasantness does still apply).
Ironhorse is really the breakout character of the episode, and that’s unfortunate. The setup is very similar to the fate of Robert Patrick in the first episode of Stargate Atlantis, the by-the-book soldier, who, like Ironhorse, dies horribly due to the big bad aliens, leaving the roguish bad-boy he didn’t get along with in life in charge of the defense of the group of alien-fighting scientists who’ve been cut off from their government and military support and now have to survive and fight the alien threat on their own with limited resources. Huh. Never noticed that before. But, of course, Robert Patrick is sort of notorious for playing men of few words, and in Stargate Atlantis, he isn’t given nearly the screen time of Joe Flanigan’s Major Sheppard.
The balance is very different here; Ironhorse gets the most focus out of all of the characters. Suzanne and Debi are essentially cardboard cut-outs. Norton edges them out narrowly because he gets a noble death, but that’s pretty much all he does. Blackwood and Kincaid see a lot of action, but we don’t really get any insight into their characters. Perhaps a bit more about Blackwood than Kincaid, who is really a total cipher at this point. That will change as the series goes on, of course, but it’s a very odd choice. Normally, when you use the setup where a new member joins an established team in your pilot, we learn about the new guy first, and he acts as our lens to learn about the group, but that’s inverted here. Kincaid is a mystery to Wilson’s team and he’s a mystery to us; we will be learning about him along with Blackwood and Suzanne, rather than learning about Blackwood and Suzanne along with him.
The acting is a mixed bag. Jared Martin is pretty good as a rough-and-tumble more mature sort of action hero. The action sequences don’t really suit him, but he’s very good at conveying intensity and determination. Adrian Paul’s Kincaid is… Not great. I will probably arouse some ire for saying this, but while Adrian Paul is a fantastic physical actor, he’s kinda terrible at dialogue at this stage in his career, and will be for a long time yet. He actually has a pretty great voice, but he’s reluctant to use it: his delivery is stilted and he mumbles most of his lines. His whole performance is kind of reluctant, in fact, slouching and receding in many of his scenes. He plays Kincaid as the sort of guy who stays to the back and keeps his head down, a double problem because it both jars against the way the character is written — as a rebellious loose-canon — and also because it completely fails to show off Adrian Paul’s strengths.
Lynda Mason Green is adequate as Suzanne, but not great. Her role is so small that it’s hard to get a feel for it, but it involves a lot of panicking at things. Her closest thing to a big scene is when she’s pleading with the clone to release Debi, and she’s kind of trying too hard. I think I would have preferred Catherine Disher in this role. Speaking of whom, there’s the Morthren. Mana isn’t hugely interesting at this point, but it is interesting that we see seeds of dissent between her and Malzor, given that the dominant trope in alien invasion series is to depict the aliens as utterly uniform and unshakingly loyal. Right now, you could see Malzor evolving into a more sympathetic character with Mana eventually becoming the “Big Bad” that deposes him. She’s colder and more aggressive than the others, and takes the most relish in the idea of exterminating humanity. The only real problem I have with her performance, and this is mine and not Catherine Disher’s, is that it’s 2015 and I have a three year old, so every time she speaks, I’m just hearing Queen Sarah Saturday.
Denis Forest is really great in this role. As an actor, he was mostly known for playing, for want of a better term, weirdos. For the most part, weird and pathetic losers. Contemporaneously with War of the Worlds, he’s guest starred as various weird and pathetic losers (wielding murder-powered magic antiques) in Frank Mancuso’s other show, and he’d played a weird and pathetic loser in some other show around that time too. That actually shines through here. Most obviously, in his scenes opposite The Eternal. It’s not tremendously easy to act against a post-production-inserted floating brain-jellyfish that speaks in whalesong, and his performance in those scenes is most striking in its contrast with the rest of his performance: he comes off as not simply reverential, but desperate, pleading, and a little slimy (Not that everything in this show isn’t slimy. Why did they feel the need to dress the sets and extras like post-apocalyptic Double Dare?). But there’s more to his character: facing the survivors of the failed first wave, his zeal for punishing their failures feels a lot like it comes from the tradition of scenes where the weird, pathetic loser suddenly gains power and takes cruel vengeance against jocks, cool kids, bullies, or women with self-respect. And yet, you’ve also got an almost tender scene where he comforts a newly arrived alien. Unfortunately, the writing is going to go a little off the rails as the season progresses, with the relationship between Malzor and Mana eventually pulling a 180 in a last-ditch attempt to make her a more sympathetic character. This essentially destroys Mana as a credible character, which is unfortunate because the place they end up with her is a good place to take a character, and it would have been a strong role for Disher had it been written that way from the beginning, and it would have worked if they’d committed to it earlier. The way they grow Malzor’s character is surprising, but not exactly a derailment. It’s not where the character seems to be heading at first, but there are hints both here and throughout the season that there’s something wrong about him, so when he eventually suffers what seems like the Morthren equivalent of a psychotic break, it’s not out of nowhere.
Honorable mention to Julian Richings, who plays the as-yet-unnamed alien scientist Ardix. He never rises above being a supporting character, but he does show up a lot, and he’s the most alien of the bunch. Richings plays very otherworldly, alien sorts of characters a lot of the time, to the point that I kind of have a hard time buying him in roles where he plays a normal human being: Styx in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Death in Supernatural, a cult leader in Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, a mutant theater owner in X-Men, an alien in I Was a Sixth Grade Alien, a Kryptonian in Man of Steel, the guy who gets veg-o-matic’d in the first scene of Cube, and there was a minor campaign to have him replace Matt Smith on Doctor Who, which I can just about see but only because I read a lot of fanfic in the nineties (Basically, every time someone in the nineties proposes what what we need is a Doctor who feels properly alien and weird and otherworldly and maybe a bit like the thin man from Phantasm but without the evil, though they don’t know it, they’re basically saying Julian Richings should get the job). He doesn’t do much in this episode, and he seems largely neutral on alien strategy, but he really nails “alien” here.
The plot of this episode is solid. Because they chose to begin the series in medias res, we avoid a lot of the usual pitfalls of the Sci-Fi Action-Adventure pilot episode: being way too heavy on exposition and taking way too long to get started. We learn just enough of the status quo ante bellum that we can appreciate what a major upheaval has just happened. There are weaknesses, of course. No one in the narrative is in a position to explain why the world is such a crappile now. We see very little of the extent of the societal collapse at this stage, which is fair because it’s a side-show to the real plot, but that first scene with Harrison driving through the ghetto, complete with military cordon and punk rockers and homeless urchins and barrel fires comes off as disconnected to the rest of the plot. It has to be there because it would be weird to spring “Oh and the world is an Escape From New York-style hellhole,” on us in episode two, but it should be integrated better. What’s tantalizing about it — and this is related to the lack of explanation we get — is the sense that this apocalypse didn’t result from some specific cataclysm, but rather has just been a slow decline in keeping with the general trend of many of the 1989 audience’s own social anxieties: there’s no war or plague or global catastrophe, just the never-ending cycle of economic downturns, recessions and ever-increasing concentrations of power and wealth. Which is doubly weird because this is, remember, a world with a global alien invasion as backstory. As the series goes on, there’s going to be an increasing number of plot holes and character derailments. We can see one example here in the form of the missing General Wilson: they never do resolve the question of what’s become of him. The fact that Kincaid thinks his last mission was a set-up seems to imply that Wilson had been cloned, but of course, that conflicts with what we’re shown on-screen, that Ironhorse is the first cloning subject. Moreover, if, as seems inevitable, the Morthren are behind his disappearance, why all the run-around with cloning Ironhorse and attempting to capture Blackwood? If they can get to WIlson, surely it would be easier to just had a Wilson clone denounce them as traitors and order them shot. Obviously, future plot developments could have salvaged this. In fact, it feels like that’s being set up here, but Wilson never appears in the flesh and is rarely if ever mentioned past next week’s episode. All the same, the story makes sense and works as a story on the whole so far.
But what’s much better than the plot, though, is the style and thematic elements. There’s more than a little Max Headroom in the look and feel. It’s alien influence rather than corporate corruption that leads to the bizarre techno-sadism stuff, but it’s got the same class tension, the same punk rock apocalypse visual motifs and the same neo-noir direction.
Of course, the big new thing which War of the Worlds the Series adds to the mix of alien invasion media is the fact that the Morthren brought their own god with them. This is kind of remarkable when you think about it. At least in popular culture, at this point in history, technologically advanced aliens were pretty much limited to atheism, with maybe the very occasional foray into vague theism or gnosticism (Technologically unsophisticated aliens could get away with a wider variety of faiths, often crude parodies of western misunderstandings of tribal Earth religions). This is, as far as I know, the first example in western live-action television of alien invaders who are deliberately styled after religious extremists. Years later, this would become a big thing in Sci-Fi tv, of course — elements of it would turn up in Babylon 5, and later in Andromeda, and even Doctor Who. Stargate SG-1, and Battlestar Galactica would be built entirely around it. And as in most of those examples, the alien god is unquestionably a real entity (As to whether it’s actually divine, I note that the Eternal never actually does anything. Whether by choice or necessity, it’s influence is limited to giving orders). It’s also a very alien alien religion, which differentiates it a great deal from those later shows — the Cylon religion in Battlestar Galactica is basically just Abrahamic monotheism with the serial numbers filed off, and Stargate SG-1‘s theosophy boils down to “Buddhism (Ascended Ancients) good; Northern European (Asgard) and Celtic Heathenism (Lantian Ancients) good; Mediterranean Paganisms (Goa’uld) bad; Abrahamic monotheism (Ori) bad.” But the only tenets of Morthran religion we’re told of are extreme xenophobia and a fetish for physical perfection. We get very little sense, though, of what the Eternal’s agenda actually is. It speaks only in uncaptioned whalesong, and there’s evidence as the series progresses that the aliens may be misinterpreting or misrepresenting some of what it’s telling them.
Remember that this is, at least on paper, a sequel to the 1953 George Pal film. That’s easily forgotten given that the show dispenses with all of its predecessor’s iconography (One imagines that the series would be a lot shorter if they’d brought one or two of those 1953 war machines with them, but the introduction of the Morthren suggests that the destruction of their world was more sudden and violent than they’d expected, and they’d been forced to leg it). But there’s an element of that film that is very important here: the big change which George Pal brought over the adaptations that preceded his is the reliance on religious themes and motifs. The resolution of the war in the film is, in essence, that mankind prayed for a miracle, and (a) God sent once. Turnabout is, apparently, fair play. On a thematic level, in this sequel, the aliens have returned and this time, though they lack invincible war machines, if in the last war, humanity won because God was on our side, this time, the aliens have literally brought a god of their own. In some senses — and the Morthren will explicitly view it this way — this War of the Worlds is now a war of the gods.
On top of that, there’s this rather lovely thematic thing which, though I’ve watched this show several times, I really only picked up on this time around.
Malzor and Mana consider killing Ironhorse once the clone is made. They don’t realize that the clone and the original are linked. But Ironhorse does. The clone takes it as evidence of humanity’s weakness that they won’t leave a child behind to die. I think these things are connected, and what they come down to is this: the Morthren philosophy does not value the connections between people. This is reinforced by Malzor’s gleeful execution of the first wave. As the series progresses, the theme of humanity being defined by the relationships between people is one that will feature prominently. The Morthren individualistic isolation will also remain an important factor in multiple ways. It will be more honored in the breach than the observance among the aliens themselves, with the forming of emotional, interpersonal bonds featuring several times as an occasional failing in individual Morthren. At the same time, many of the aliens’ schemes involve either direct attempts to isolate and alienate humans, or to prey on humans who are already isolated and alienated in society.
Perhaps on reflection, the Morthren religion isn’t all that alien after all. With its emphasis on demonizing and hating the other, it’s complete lack of mercy toward even its own adherents who fail to toe the party line, its systematic devaluing of interpersonal connections, but its absolute emphasis on a direct, one-on-one personal relationship with their god, their complete lack of empathy toward those outside the tribe, their lust for conquest, their unshakable assurance of their own moral superiority, their easy acceptance of authoritarianism, and their conviction that it’s okay to despoil even their own planet for resources since god will just give them a new one, it kinda seems like the Morthren might actually be based on Christian dominionists.
I mean, aside from the giant floating jellyfish-cthulu-brain.
- War of the Worlds: The Second Invasion is available on DVD from amazon.com