Well that was harder than I expected.
As much as I might want to pretend that the second season of War of the Worlds is its own independent show, it’s incredibly clear here that this is a sequel to something: a lot of the structure and setup of “The Second Wave” doesn’t make any sense except with the knowledge that there’s a previous series. That said, it’s very much a sequel rather than a continuation. It’s just about possible to view season 2 as a later part of the same story as season 1, but only if you presume a lot of time to have passed. The thing “The Second Wave” is a sequel to isn’t the actual first season of War of the Worlds, but rather a slightly bent hypothetical version that retains the broad strokes of the aired first season, but also implies a number of differences both specific and broad. If this had been a real attempt at a “distant” sequel, a la Star Trek the Next Generation, you’d either want a clean break, with new characters and fewer ties to the past, or, alternatively, if we’re going for something like a “Distant Finale” or in-canon time-skip, a la Dawson’s Creek, Dollhouse, One Tree Hill, or Glee, you’d want there to be flashbacks later filling in the major gaps. With War of the Worlds, you’d want there to be an episode where something forces Blackwood to relate some of the tumultuous events that made the world go to hell. That’s not going to happen.
Mancuso, of course, didn’t think it was realistic that “our world” could lie 35 years in the future of the 1953 movie. The implication, then, is that the dystopia is the world as it was left by the invasion. But it’s interesting to observe here that the Morthren never claim credit for the state of the Earth. If anything, they instead take it as an indictment of humanity. Later on, Mana and Malzor will reflect that humanity’s destruction of the environment is making the world more amenable to their species. If you do want to force the two seasons together into one, perhaps the key might be the central observation I made during “The Resurrection”: that their world appears to be a sort of collective neurosis. Perhaps we can posit that the season one world is, if not already collapsing, very much on the brink. But the same shared neurosis that makes humanity reluctant to acknowledge the war is also preventing them from taking a particular interest in the immanent collapse of civilization. Something, we could propose, occurs between the seasons that forces the scales from everyone’s eyes. There’s evidence in the second season that the affluent and influential still retain a very ’80s sort of lifestyle, shutting out the poverty and social disorder of the lower classes. It could well be that the first season setting was every bit as dystopian as the second, but that we too are being shielded from the worst of it. And if that stretches your suspension of disbelief too far, just consider how much of the poverty, homelessness, mental illness, exploitation and despair in your own world you choose not to see.
I used to re-watch War of the Worlds from time to time from my off-air tapes, but I don’t think I’ve done it in close to a decade now. I bought the DVDs as soon as they came out, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t watched the second season in that format. This time through has really been a revelation. The very first thing you notice switching from season 1 to season 2 is how completely different the visual texture is between seasons. Very simply put, season 1 looks and feels incredibly 1980s, and season 2 does not. I don’t know if season 2 was shot on film — that would be unusual to be sure, but it certainly has a grain to it and a depth of field I associate more with film than tape. The lighting is completely different and the visual style is far more cinematic. The hair and fashions are also radically, almost shockingly different. Suzanne is the most obvious example of this: compare her shoulder pads and big hair in “The Resurrection” to her appearance in “The Second Wave”, and it’s like night and day.
The other big revelation on this watching is just how rough-around-the-edges “The Resurrection” is. The audio is terrible. The direction is terrible. Most of the characterization is terrible. Lynda Mason Green is terrible. I don’t even know what’s going on. Everything’s working much more smoothly in “The Second Wave”, as well it should be, since these actors have a year’s worth of experience working off each other by now (Except for Adrian Paul, who, as I noted, doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s doing here. Seriously, he acts like a 14 year old being hassled by The Man). On a purely technical level, “The Second Wave” is the superior episode, which I wasn’t expecting at all.
It’s not a rout though: “The Resurrection” scores more highly on several fronts. The plot is rather more dense, with two parallel lines through much of the story as Harrison and Ironhorse follow different paths. There’s a bit of that in “The Second Wave”, with Blackwood and Kincaid following a parallel path to Ironhorse and his men at the alien stronghold, but there’s much less to it, really just a plot contrivance to allow for the rescue of Ironhorse. “The Resurrection” also spends a lot more time with the regulars, giving very rich character scenes to Harrison, Suzanne and Ironhorse (Norton gets less focus, but even he does get to introduce his wheelchair and talk about coffee). By contrast, Suzanne and Norton are barely characters in “The Second Wave”. Even Blackwood is only a minor player after his rescue at the punk club. And while Kincaid is important to the story, we don’t learn much about him yet.
You could say that’s to be expected, of course, since “The Second Wave” isn’t a pilot, no matter what contrivance I’m blogging it under. We already know Harrison, Suzanne, Ironhorse and Norton. We met them way back in “The Resurrection.” But did we? The Harrison Blackwood we met in season 1 was a weirdo academic, and kind of a jerk, and an inexplicable ladies’ man. By “The Second Wave”, he’s a grizzled ’90s anti-hero who’s comfortable with a gun. There’s nothing in the episode to suggest that he’s a scientist per se — he knows a lot about the aliens, but nothing that falls clearly outside “stuff a seasoned alien-fighter might want to learn about his enemy”. Same for Suzanne. There’s no indication of their specific roles on the team, and as the second season progresses, there won’t be very much emphasis on it. That’s definitely a black mark against the second season. The first season followed in the popular action-adventure tradition of the four-person superhero team, with each character having a clearly defined role. Ironhorse was the muscle, Suzanne the expert in biology, Harrison the expert in all other forms of science, Aquaman to stop the levees from breaching, Ma-Ti to talk to the animals (Y’know, for all the flack that the power of Heart gets, Ma-Ti’s powers allow him to communicate telepathically at a distance, manipulate animals into serving him, literally make the bad guys stop and realize they’re being jerks, and to some extent mind control people into switching sides. By contrast, the only thing the fire ring can do is act as a flame thrower, and because it’s a kids’ show, he can’t even use it to just immolate Looten Plunder and be done with it. Wheeler is the one with the useless power), and Norton the dispenser of Plot Tokens whenever the narrative gets bogged down by calling them up to tell them what the supercomputer had just churned up. There’s far less of this in the second season, and while the characters aren’t exactly fungible, their respective roles in the various episodes tend to center more around temperament than skill.
The characterization isn’t nearly as distinctive in season 2 as it is in season 1: the characters are all much more similar to each other. Funnily enough, though, at the moment, this works to season 2’s advantage and season 1’s disadvantage: Blackwood, Kincaid, Suzanne and Debi might all be one-note characters, but they’re at least consistent in “The Second Wave”, rather than a disparate bag of quirks and mannerisms. But that victory for season 2 will be short-lived. As the seasons go on, we’ll get greater context and coherence out of the season 1 characters that will at least try to bring them together into developed characters, while we won’t see the same growth out of the season 2 versions.
The ironic thing about the character changes between the seasons is that the real show-stealer of “The Second Wave” is Ironhorse. I’ll put it out there from the beginning: this is Richard Chaves’s best performance in the series. That’s doubly amazing given that he’d effectively already been fired. I don’t think anyone would have blamed him if he’d phoned this one in (For example, Philip Akin, while delivering a perfectly adequate performance, doesn’t bring any of Norton Drake’s trademark season 1 “charm” (As to whether he’s actually charming in season 1, your mileage may vary. I used to think so, but I’m increasingly uncomfortable with that coffee thing)). There’s a couple of episodes in season 1 that spotlight him heavily, but Ironhorse is never exactly a dynamic character. In fact, more than anything, it’s the core of his character not to be dynamic, but to be stalwart. Season 2’s Ironhorse is much more at ease with his teammates. In his very first scene, his frustration with Blackwood for going off on his own is clearly as much about concern for his friend as for security.
Insofar as these seasons are sequels to the 1953 movie, they take very different approaches. The first season’s connection to the film are more straightforward and more obvious, though they don’t run especially deep. They obviously retain more of the iconography of the movie — the three-fingered hand, the war machines, references to Clayton Forrester and the alien orientation around the number three. The religious aspect is retained in the biblical allusions which lend their names to the first season episode titles, but it’s hard to see its influence in anything else.
Before this watching, I’d have said that the second season severs its ties to the film almost completely. After all, the aliens are humanoid now, their technology organic, and they travel by some form of teleportation rather than rocket cylinder. But at the same time, we’ve got this very beautiful reversal of the climax of the movie, with the aliens having, in an entirely literal sense, brought their own god with them. Direct biblical references may be gone, but instead we get an actual holy war. In the episodes to come, the Morthren will even directly engage with and criticize Christianity explicitly.
The aliens themselves are, of course, completely different. There’s some fanon that wants them to be diagetically different species, with the first season aliens a slave race of the second, but nothing in the text comes close to supporting that. We will indeed eventually see it made absolutely explicit that the Morthren’s original form is the same as the first-season aliens. Moreover, as I am contractually obligated to mention, The Eternal Spirit of Morthrai was, in earlier drafts, called Immortal rather than Eternal, its name a reference to the first-season alien catchphrase, “To Life Immortal,” which I haven’t mentioned yet because they haven’t said it yet (One of the advocates says “We will live life immortal,” but it’s not a catchphrase yet). No, the first season aliens have simply been rewritten. But what a rewrite. Although we see several first-wave aliens awaiting execution wearing radiation-scarred host bodies, and Blackwood notes the lack of telltale scarring on the first Morthrens he encounters, there’s no direct references to the first wave’s ability to possess human hosts, and the way Malzor and Mana speak about the cloning machine implies pretty directly, even if it doesn’t say it outright, that the ability to impersonate humans is something new. If you hadn’t watched the previous season, your assumption would be that the humanoid first wave aliens were just using an inferior form of the process that made the second wave humanoid (Which is, of course, the position I felt compelled to pretend to hold in my Antithesis article).
More importantly, the characterization of the aliens is entirely different. The alien obsession with threes is gone in the second season (I wonder, now, if they deliberately meant to exclude any trinitarian parallels, given their emphatically non-Christian religion), and the alien leadership has changed: rather than a triumvirate advised by a council, Malzor seems to be some kind of high priest. But more than that, we get a level of insight into the second wave Morthren that we never see out of the season 1 aliens. Sure, we often see aliens in the first season discuss their plans, strategize (Why isn’t this word in Firefox or Chrome’s spellchecker? It’s not just me. Google turns up about half a dozen other people complaining about the red squigglies under that particular word), and occasionally complain about their losses. But it’s all purely expository; there’s no sense of there being any kind of culture or personality to the aliens. It’s all “We will destroy the humans by doing X,” then later, “The humans prevented us from doing X. We must try another plan.” Malzor and Mana, on the other hand, come off as actual characters. Psychopaths, to be sure, but very distinct individuals.
Given how transparently the first season aliens are meant to represent the Red Menace of communism, the cultural shift for the Morthren is pretty radical. The first season aliens embody American stereotypes of communists: collectivists whose individuality is wholly sublimated to the will of the group. The aliens themselves literally come in groups of three, and their ability to function is sorely diminished if one of the three is incapacitated. The second season aliens, on the other hand, are not simply more individualistic, but are kind of profoundly so. Malzor and Mana don’t get along a lot of the time, and the Morthren lack empathy not only toward the humans, but toward each other, finding the entire concept worthy of derision.
If the first season aliens draw from the tropes of 1950s sci-fi movie monsters, the second season ones are much more influenced — and this should really come as no surprise — by slasher movie villains. They’re two radically different approaches, and each has merits. Abstractly, I absolutely think the first season concept is more interesting. It drives home the idea that these are aliens, who think differently than we do and approach problems differently. The second season aliens are far more mundane. Their plans tend to boil down to, “What’s the most perversely cruel way we can think of to murder people?”, making them far less “alien” and far more like a
cyberpunk author GMO manufacturers GOP presidential candidate unsub from Criminal Minds. But on the other hand, I don’t think that the first season aliens are realized as well. And I’m not sure you can realize that sort of “utterly alien” as well in this kind of show. If you had something closer in style and framing to the tradition of the War of the Worlds novel, with distant aliens we rarely see in the flesh, working to a plan we don’t ever get a full handle on, who basically swoop in, slash, burn, and move on, it could work. But the aliens in this show are much more up-close and personal, frequently needing to pose as humans and interact with them. Neither season tends to leave the audience in the dark about the alien plans. They both prefer the general structure of the Columbo-style “Reverse Whodunnit”, where the aliens announce their plans to the audience in the opening scene, leaving the episode’s mystery down to how our heroes will discover and thwart them.
The thing about the Reverse Whodunnit is that it works by putting you in the mind of the villain. From the audience’s point of view, the “good guy” is technically the antagonist: the villain is the one trying to accomplish something, and the hero is the one trying to stop something from being accomplished. And that’s not the kind of story where you want your villains to be utterly irascible.
While I might not agree with Paramount’s decision to take War of the Worlds away from the Strangises and give it to Mancuso, I can absolutely see why they did it. Watching them back to back like this, the deficiencies of “The Resurrection” are pretty obvious. As much as I love it, season one just doesn’t look like the way TV is going to look moving forward into the ’90s. Season two does. Season one — and this is going to be an ongoing problem — literally looks and feels like the people who are making it don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t mean basic incompetence (Though there’s a bit of that too): it’s like they don’t know what kind of show they want this to be. There are elements of an A-Team or Airwolf-style team action adventure, but there’s also some very gruesome brutality (Which is a thing in syndicated TV at this point in history. War of the Worlds is contemporary with Friday the 13th The Series, of course, as well as the Nightmare on Elm Street-inspired anthology series Freddy’s Nightmares, and the Tales From the Darkside spiritual successor Monsters, and Tales From the Crypt is going to start up contemporaneously with season 2), and these strange forays into black comedy that never work (the show is funny on occasion, but never during those moments when it’s explicitly trying to have “a funny scene”). The second season, while not as ambitious or interesting, is a lot more focused and has a more even tone and coherent feel for it.
Based on just these two episodes alone, season 2 seems more professional, more competently made, and more modern. “The Second Wave” is just plain better television than “The Resurrection”. With the next two episodes we’re going to look at, season one’s “The Walls of Jericho” and season two’s “No Direction Home”, both shows start to settle down into the style and format they’re going to follow for the remainder of the respective series. That’s where, I hope, we’ll start to really see some of what made that first season so impressive.
- War of the Worlds: The Complete Series is available on DVD from amazon.com