Thesis: The Walls of Jericho (War of the Worlds 1×02)

John Vernon in War of the WorldsIt is October 10, 1988. Over the weekend, a fire caused $2000 in damage at the Seattle Space Needle and Felix Wankel, inventor of the rotary engine, died. A new ATF regulation passed in 1986 comes into effect, requiring hard liquor labels and advertisements to state their percent alcohol by volume instead of or in addition to the more traditional system of “How much do you have to water it down before using it to douse burning gunpowder” (I’m not even making that up. “100 proof” originally meant “Not too watered down to give to sailors, as evidenced by the fact that you can pour it on gunpowder and still get the gunpowder to burn,” which by a remarkable coincidence, is about 57% ABV, which in US usage is rounded to 50%, meaning “proof” is just twice the ABV, but keep in mind when drinking abroad that in the UK, proof is 7/4 the ABV, so 100 proof is 7% stronger). Billboard’s new chart isn’t out yet, leaving “Love Bites” at the top. MacGyver‘s a repeat, but ALF is new, a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, with a guardian angel showing Gordon how much better off everyone would be if he’d never moved in with the Tanners. Friday the 13th The Series airs “And Now The News”, wherein Ryan and Micki track down an old-fashioned radio which dispenses psychiatric advice in exchange for frightening listeners to death.

War of the Worlds airs its second episode, “The Walls of Jericho”. This is a pretty uneven episode. The first half has a lot of the same first-time-jitters I found so grating in the last episode. In fact, despite the fact that there’s an explicit six week time gap, the first half of this one feels like a very direct continuation of the first episode’s story. “The Walls of Jericho” is basically about two things. In one plot, the Blackwood Project tries to justify its continued existence, while in the other, the aliens try to assure theirs. It’s kind of a plot-Voltron, with the first half of the episode floundering as the two plot threads limp along, but then for the last half, the two halves of the plot join up and form a giant plot-robot of awesome.

War of the Worlds The SeriesThe title sequence is a simple montage of clips from the pilot as Harrison sets up the premise via narration, but at it’s end, the screen fades to black, over which a line of the episode’s dialogue is played. This week, it’s John Vernon announcing, “They sure don’t die pretty, do they?”. What’s been cut from the DVD is an intertitle afterward showing a poorly rendered CGI alien hand reaching up over the top of a globe.

Ironhorse is getting antsy and wants to get on with his life, to which end he’s started unsubtly suggesting that maybe the aliens all died when they blew up their war machines, since they haven’t heard any more out of the aliens since then. The rest of the team is less optimistic and has been working on studying Forrester’s research.

War of the Worlds The SeriesSuzanne presents her theory about how alien possession works. She describes it as a combination of osmosis and “cell-phase matching”, a term which, so far as I can tell, she made up in the previous episode. She has a little flash animation to demonstrate the process, in which a triangular alien cell ejaculates its innards into a human cell, whereupon the little triangular bases of the alien DNA wrap themselves around the human DNA helix, which kills the host cell but gives the alien access to the host’s memory, because that is how memory works I guess. They have the good sense to keep it pretty vague, but there are some pretty sizeable gaps in the explanation, like the handwavey bit where they pretend that the description they give — which I guess isn’t too far off from how gene therapy works — could end with an intact alien consciousness possessing the memories of the host. I think there’s an implication here that the aliens lack any sort of fixed internal organs, and rather than having a single brain, their cognitive processes are sort of distributed through all of their cells. Which, okay, neat sci-fi concept, nice potential for a Golden-Age style story where an alien survives getting cut in half but ends up schizophrenic because the halves of his mind diverged while he was healing. But how you get from there to absorbing the contents of a human brain I’ve no idea (also, it’s not clear why aliens would be susceptible to bullets if their bodies are made entirely of undifferentiated tissue). Also, no one ever talks about the question of what happens to the bulk of the alien’s biomass.

When Suzanne lets it slip that, although the aliens require radiation to remain active on Earth, they’re still vulnerable to deleterious effects from prolonged radiation exposure, Ironhorse jumps to the conclusion that even if any aliens had survived the battle at Kellogue, they must have all died since. He summons General Wilson for some more exposition.

Meanwhile, cattle mutilation! My minimal research suggests that the late ’80s was not exactly a big time for Alien Cattle Mutilation Stories. It was a big thing in the ’70s, given a signal boost by stuff like Satanic Panics (I always hear that phrase as part of a Schoolhouse Rock song: Satanic Panic, what’s your mechanic? / Mutilatin’ cows and sacrificin’ babies!), with good upstanding white Christian folk afraid that legions of satanists were exsanguinating livestock in rituals to awaken the beast, then died down for most of the ’80s, and had a resurgence in the ’90s that probably peaked around the time South Park premiered. The whole notion is based on a number of real-life incidents of cows and other livestock found dead, drained of blood, and with unusual wounds. Such events have been attributed, in order from most to least likely, to particular combinations of predation and scavenging, punk kids screwing around, convoluted insurance scams, pervs making really disgusting homebrew sex toys, cults other than satanic, cryptids such as El Chupacabras, satanic cults, aliens researching HIV, aliens with really kinky fetishes, aliens just fucking around with us, and spontaneous bovine inversion.

In any case, “aliens mutilate cattle” must have still had enough cachet in the mass media in 1988 that it seemed reasonable for it to be a Thing Aliens Did, because our introduction to the B-plot comes in the form of a comic relief hick farmer calling the local sheriff because his cows have been mutilated. Unfortunately, the local sheriff is of the “comic relief useless backwoods sheriff” archetype that I assume they’d have gotten Don Knotts or Alan Hale Jr. for if they’d been available, and he reckons it was probably just a wolf, despite the fact that wolves would usually eat some of the cow rather than just draining its blood. He helpfully suggests that the farmer hold a barbecue.

It is, in fact, aliens. Of course it’s aliens. War of the Worlds The SeriesAs Suzanne discovered, while exposure to radiation neutralizes Earth bacteria, it also affects the aliens’ metabolism, causing their body temperature to eventually rise dangerously high. They’ve been out exsanguinating cows because… Okay, honestly we should all be grateful that they don’t go into the details of why bathing in cow’s blood helps with the whole metabolism thing.

Even the advocacy themselves are affected, with one of them already weakening and the other two looking decidedly Dawn of the DeadWar of the Worlds The Series. He’ll be sidelined by the next scene for a cow-juice bath. One of the recurring themes in this show is that the advocates have very little patience or respect for the scientist class. They spend a good long time berating a scientist to his face about how long he’s taking to come up with a solution and how he needs materials to make stuff with rather than conjuring it out of thin air. I guess that maybe I’d be bitter too if my scientists had failed to notice that the planet we were about to invade was MADE OF POISON. The scientists have come up with a long-term solution to the heating problem in the form of refrigerated suits, but because Earth’s chemical composition is different from their own planet, they don’t know how to manufacture the plastic sheets and tubing they need, nor how to build the equipment to extract and liquefy nitrogen from the atmosphere using locally-sourced materials, so they’ll have to steal it.

The robbery of a plastics factory is depicted by way of having a cliché hard-nosed cop with the chief breathing down his neck about the paperwork investigating the scene. War of the Worlds The SeriesThe only surviving witness speaks only Chinese, but fortunately, they’ve got an Asian guy on their crime scene crew who remembers just enough of his ancestral tongue to muddle through a translation. But since the cliche old Chinese woman just tells a story about the place being invaded by “dragons”, the investigation doesn’t go anywhere. This scene is basically more of the series’s trademark “black comedy”, and I am at least happy that they’ve gone for something more wry than the redneck humor they used twice in the last episode and once already in this one. It still doesn’t quite work, but it comes closer. The writers have a nasty habit of trying way too hard to be funny, and it hardly ever works. The scenes explicitly coded as “humorous” are far and away the least funny things in the show.

For instance, while all this comic relief has been going on, Uncle Hank has shown up at the cottage to demand Harrison justify his existence. John Vernon is far and away the best thing in this episode, and it makes me really sad that he becomes an entirely off-screen character after this. For all I am totally on board with the Harrison-Ironhorse dynamic being the thematic and emotional center of this show, I would also totally get behind restructuring the show with General Wilson as the “Brigadier”-character.

Richard Chavez plays Ironhorse as professional, intense, and no-nonsense, constantly grating against Harrison’s very different style. Their dynamic is a little bit reminiscent of the myriad cop shows about a pair of partners who don’t get along, where one of them is very by-the-book and the other isn’t, and one of them has a normal name like “Smith” or “McCoy” or “Johnson” and the other one’s name is a compound word at least part of which sounds like a building material, like “Slaterock” or “Steelbrick” or “Ironhorse”, and the title of the show is something like “Steelbrick & Johnson”. Ironhorse is a little bit Drill Sergeant-y, and that makes him sometimes just a bit silly because, though it’s in the opposite direction, he’s far enough over the top that he’s almost as much of a weirdo as Harrison.

John Vernon, on the other hand, plays General Wilson by just bringing way more gravitas than this show could possibly merit. Seriously, if you got him, Walter Cronkite and Martin Sheen in a room together, their combined gravitas would probably collapse into a black hole. He’s a bit Santaesque as he greets Debi, gracious to the Mr. Kensington, the groundskeeper, who he addresses by rank despite his long retirement, and respectful to Harrison even as he hands him his walking papers. A series of scenes each lead into the next as the gang apparently tour the estate.

The sequence is cut together kind of awkwardly. Wilson arrives, greets Debi and Kensington, and Harrison, openly suspicious about the General’s intentions, proposes to show him, “What he’s getting for his money.” Then bam, they’re in the lab talking about what they’ve learned about the aliens. Then Wilson asks Harrison about his theories regarding alien-related memory loss. Harrison is caught off-guard by the question and seems uncomfortable trying to answer it, so then we cut to them on outside on the patio.

Harrison’s explanation amounts to little more than a superficial description of the problem: people who have had alien encounters have a hard time remembering them, often requiring hypnotic regression therapy. This was, of course, a hot topic in paranormal studies, what with alien abduction narratives having a popularity boost from the publication of Communion the previous year. Harrison proposes that the effect might be due to a combination of an alien ability to affect human minds with a normal human psychological defense mechanism that suppresses memories of alien contact. John Vernon in War of the Worlds The SeriesWilson gets a reflective expression and muses that he’d seen a lot of action during the 1953 war, but is unable to recall a single detail of it.

And then later, they’re sitting around the fireplace at night. General Wilson tells them a bit of the backstory of the cottage’s elderly caretakers, Mrs. Pennyworth and Kensington, who, despite their unassuming appearances, had been extremely valuable to the Allies while undercover in Berlin in the forties. I kinda get the impression that they want to imply that they’re basically retired John Steed and Emma Peel. He also muses on the history of the cottage, which had over the years been home to various scientists, diplomats and defectors. Norton is the first to cotton on to the fact that they’re being evicted. Wilson is very gracious and heartily thanks them for their service, but accepts Ironhorse’s conclusion that the aliens were either all killed at Kellogue or died shortly afterward from radiation. When Harrison challenges him on his assumptions, the General becomes suddenly angry and defensive, seemingly way out of proportion.

General Wilson’s anger, strange as it seems on its own, justifies the otherwise also very strange scene that preceded it. The implication, and I wish they’d been explicit about this, is that, even knowing what’s going on, Wilson is affected by this “alien amnesia”. His brain simply doesn’t want to register the aliens as an ongoing threat, and when Harrison tries to force him to, he defends himself by angrily shutting him down.

Like I said, John Vernon is great here. It’s almost like he’s visiting from another, very different show, one that’s more serious and less action-oriented. I think that may in fact be part of this show’s MO: little vignettes with guest characters that kind of feel like War of the Worlds has smacked into some other show in a a different genre. They’ve already done it twice in this episode: first, a little drive-by with a show about a quirky rural community with goofy law enforcement, then a hard-biting cop show, and it’s going to happen one more time before we’re done. This one, the military drama about the old soldier, is the only one that really works.

While they’re packing up, after a bit of needless vague flirting between Harrison and Suzanne, Norton’s computer pings on crime reports about the cow and plastic thefts. He’s hacked into a national crime network database, you see, which seems like strange behavior; if it’s a national crime database, shouldn’t they be able to just, like, buy a subscription? At any rate, Ironhorse is unimpressed with their evidence, and gets angry at Harrison for failing to accept his gutfeels over science, and tells them to get on with packing up and buggering off. Harrison and the others realize they need something more concrete, but at least get as far as theorizing that the plastic sheeting might be for decontamination suits.

More or less while all this is going on, the aliens try to steal a bunch of liquid nitrogen from a rocket fuel depot in a town called Jericho, because we need a justification for the biblical reference in the title. War of the Worlds The SeriesTheir plan is thwarted by an electrified fence, which one of the aliens tries to climb, and subsequently melts, messily. I imagine that even if they’d gotten through, they’d have run into problems with liquid nitrogen being non-combustible, very unreactive, and of a low energy density, and therefore not being a particularly good rocket fuel, and therefore not stored in large amounts at a rocket fuel depot. Unless you’re making bottle rockets. (Technically, liquid nitrogen is sometimes used in rocketry, not as a primary propellant, but for guidance thrusters. So it’s not entirely impossible they might have found some there, but still. I seem to run into the idea that liquid nitrogen is combustible surprisingly often in sci-fi TV). By now, they’ve created the cooling suits they need, high-collared robes with a hood that looks like an upside-down gas mask — from this point on, we’ll almost never see more than an arm of the alien’s natural form — but the failure at the fuel depot has left the suits useless. The two remaining advocates are mildly panicked, unable to trust their own judgment, and fearful that they’ll be unable to find anyone qualified to replace the third if he doesn’t recover. This is, incidentally, the first time they say their alien catchphrase, “To Life Immortal.” At the same time, they’re unwilling to contact the council for help, as the council must be protected from bad news. It’ll be a theme that comes up again that if one of the advocacy is incapacitated, the others are rendered mostly useless. That said, you could probably make the argument that these aliens are, in fact, not all that bright even when they’re not immersed in bovine blood: their schemes tend to be overly baroque and easily foiled, tending to be close to cracking under their own weight even without the involvement of the heroes.

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The melted alien body is exactly the sort of thing Norton’s computer program triggers on, though, leaving the team to speculate on why the aliens would want rocket fuel, which is “mostly liquid nitrogen (Seriously. It’s not. Liquid nitrogen makes terrible rocket fuel. I’m sorry to keep harping on this.)“. They spend some amount of time uselessly mulling over this fact until Debi, surprisingly, provides the answer: she’s playing 3-D Pong with Norton when the computer technician stops by to top up the coolant tanks. When Debi adorably and precociously compares the liquid nitrogen coolant used for the supercomputer to “that coolant stuff” her mother puts into the radiator, Suzanne suddenly realizes that in addition to being a rocket fuel (It’s not. Holy crap how do you get that wrong?), liquid nitrogen is also a coolant. We are reaching Tomes and Talismans levels of redundancy here. They know the aliens want liquid nitrogen, but until Norton explains that the supercomputer uses liquid nitrogen coolant, no one realizes that rocket fuel which is made of liquid nitrogen (Bullshit) contains liquid nitrogen (Bullshit) and therefore can be used as a coolant (Okay, that part is probably true since some of the non-nitrogen things used to make rocket fuel will work as coolants).

Ironhorse remains skeptical that just because someone melted into a pool of white goo upon dying, it could possibly indicate that the aliens still exist, and even if they did, surely their failure to steal liquid nitrogen from the rocket fuel depot where liquid nitrogen has no business being (I am not going to let this go) means that they are now at last defeated once and for all. It’s interesting that Ironhorse has suddenly become so resistant — the character of his objections has changed a lot from last time. He’s moved away from a Proto-Scully skepticism into full-on denial. Could this be a sign that he too is affected by whatever it is that keeps compelling people to dismiss the alien threat? But Harrison manages to wear him down with the promise that he’ll, “Get the hell out of my life,” if proven wrong, and he agrees to take him to inspect the Jericho Refrigeration Plant, identified by Norton as the only other source of liquid nitrogen near the recent alien attacks.

Harrison is right, of course, as the audience already knows, since we’ve been flipping back and forth between scenes to the aliens, but Ironhorse is going to take some convincing. Richard Chavez and Jared Martin in War of the Worlds The SeriesWhen they arrive, under the guise of safety inspectors looking for PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls, a highly toxic coolant and dielectric banned in the US in 1979. It is a real thing that safety inspectors might really do an inspection for, and might really be found at a refrigeration plant, and are every bit as terrible as Harrison makes them out to be. Given how completely wrong they were about the properties of liquid nitrogen, it’s kind of amazing they’d get this right. Probably has something to do with it making the media circuit earlier that year that the Great Lakes still showed signs of serious PCB contamination even after fifteen years of cleanup efforts.), the possessed plant manager has to send an underling out to meet them as his radiation sores are too obvious. The aliens consider possessing Harrison and Ironhorse, but decide this would arouse too much suspicion. The underling acts really obviously suspicious, speaking in a disinterested monotone and maintaining a creepy emotionless expression, as does everyone else in the factory. All the same, after about thirty seconds of looking around, Ironhorse is ready to call it a day and declare there to be nothing at all alienesque about the place. He even suggests that Harrison is too proud to admit his mistake, which Harrison turns back on him, implying that it’s actually the Colonel’s pride that is on the line here. That’s the moral crux of the episode, more or less. Since we know Harrison is in the right from pretty much the second scene (Even beyond the fact that we know from the opening credits that the aliens in a show about an alien invasion aren’t going to die off quietly off-screen between first two episodes), the moral dimension of the story revolves around the question of how much damage will be done before Ironhorse accepts it.

Harrison pulls out a Geiger counter, which provides what really ought to be unassailable evidence, as the plant workers are giving off roughly the same amount of radiation per hour as getting fourteen hundred head CT scans (Per xkcd). wotw10211In case you’re unclear about this, the 25 year old standard-def unremastered shot of the Geiger counter in the show is too blurry to read, but the red line at the end where the needle is, based on me googling pictures of Geiger counters, does not simply say “Danger” or something mundane like that — it says “Check Meter”, because if the needle goes there, it either means that your Geiger counter is broken, or you should probably not be wasting your last few minutes on this Earth fucking around with a Geiger counter.

One more innocent bystander show bumps into the plot for a moment, when their investigation is interrupted by a soap opera breaking out: a possessed worker’s wife shows up to accuse him of an extramarital affair, given that he hasn’t come home in days, and his claims to have been working are utterly unconvincing given his creepy emotionless voice and blank, hollow stare. She pitches a fit, demands a divorce, then finally flees. This is what tips the scales for Ironhorse, who, though he’s unwilling to commit to it being aliens, is at least convinced that “something weird” is going on.

The team summons Uncle Hank to a seedy motel, where he insists at them that they have only the flimsiest of evidence and gets annoyed at them for wasting his time, since someone trying to rob a rocket fuel depot and then melting into a puddle of goo identical to alien goo puddles and a factory whose employees give off ten times as much radiation as the EPA defined maximum dose to emergency workers engaged in lifesaving operations per hour is so unlikely to be aliens that it’s not even worth investigating it when you’re already right here and happen to have the Earth’s one and only experienced alien-fighting team on-hand.

Richard Chavez and Jared Martin in War of the Worlds The SeriesHowever, Ironhorse finally decides to throw in with his teammates. While he’s still only convinced that it’s “weird”, but not yet “alien”, he persuades the General that, since they’ve already come all this way, they might as well plant a tracking device on the next shipment of liquid nitrogen and see where they’re sending it. Wilson and Suzanne wait in the car while Steelbrick and Johnson approach the factory. As they’re not expecting company at this hour, the aliens aren’t bothering to hide the more badly decomposed hosts, and Ironhorse, with audible difficulty, admits to Harrison that he was wrong. His tone even becomes nervous as he suggests they plant the bug and get out of there.

But as luck would have it, the aliens come back from break just as they’re leaving, and Ironhorse is forced to shoot one. Richard Chavez and Jared Martin in War of the Worlds The SeriesAs all hell starts to break loose, General Wilson, alerted by the gunshot, retrieves an assault rifle from the trunk of the car, noting that, “If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize in the morning.” The scene is weird and fantastic. We’ve never been given any reason to see Wilson as anything other than a desk-jockey, his days of field work long, long behind him. He’s been a mildly antagonistic character for the bulk of this episode, trying to, in essence, kill the show itself. But the sound of one gunshot, and suddenly, with complete calm and poise, in just about the most matter-of-fact way ever, he gets up, gets out a gun, and walks off to go murder a factory full of killer body-snatching aliens. You might think that this undermines the character, and is a kind of stupid turn. And probably on paper it is. But they’re just so brazen about it. He’s been all like “This is stupid, it’s obviously nothing, you folks are shut down. I can’t believe you dragged me into this. Oh, whoops, guess it’s aliens. Chap with the wings, five rounds rapid.”

As he marches toward the plant, a group of aliens tries to escape in a pick-up truck. They’re supposed to be saving the equipment, in theory, but there’s clearly nothing in the back of the truck. Without batting an eyelash, General Wilson marches silently toward them and shoots the truck up. He’s finally forced to leap out of their way at the last second, and the truck slips off the road, crashes through a shed, drives up over the back bumper of the heroes’ Cadillac, and, as is tradition, explodes, rolling down the embankment beside the road in a fireball. Which conveniently extinguishes itself when the camera angle changes so that Suzanne and her uncle can safely approach it, allowing Wilson to see the alien remains inside, prompting him to utter the title-card epigram.

While the General is busy being a bad-ass, Harrison and Ironhorse have, for no clear reason, decided to flee from the loading dock up to the roof of the building. I have no idea why they thought this would be safer than, y’know, running out through the open loading dock back down the road to their car. They’re met by an alien who kinda looks like Colm MeaneyWar of the Worlds The Series with a thyroid problem. Ironhorse tries to go hand-to-hand with him, but he’s at a three-to-two disadvantage in terms of hands. Richard Chavez in War of the Worlds The SeriesAs the alien throttles him with his third hand, Ironhorse chokes out an order for Harrison to save himself, but Harrison channels his obvious MacGyver inspiration and finds a cannister of pressurized liquid nitrogen. Just lying around. On the roof. He warns Ironhorse to close his eyes, then hoses the alien down with a spray of nitrogen. I, um. I guess that’s a thing. I mean, they use liquid nitrogen spray to remove warts. This is more like a fire extinguisher, and while using liquid nitrogen for firefighting is possible, it’s not tremendously practical, for reasons which include the fact that if the firefighter gets splashed by it, he will comically shatter like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2.

Terminator 2 is still a couple of years off, but basically the same thing happened at the climax of this year’s remake of The Blob, so that’s probably the inspiration for this scene. The alien loses his hold on Ironhorse, who picks up a second cylinder and joins Harrison in forcing the alien to the edge of the roof, whereupon he does exactly what you full well knew what he was going to do, and falls off to shatter comically below.

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War of the Worlds is not especially big on exposition-heavy scenes at the end where they wrap everything up, the way you’d see in back in Knight Rider or the like, with everyone hanging out in the truck talking about how Cameron Zachary had been handed over to the FBI and local law enforcement were going to clean up the rest of the street toughs, and the Phoenix Foundation would make sure the PCBs were all safely incinerated, so the episode instead just ends with the wotw10217Advocacy looking over their matte painting of a cave, which is now full of nitrogen tanks, saying how it’s annoying to have lost the plant, but hey, they’ve got plenty stocked up. That’s going to be a common style of ending for this show, just cutting back to the advocacy, where they reveal that even though their plan had been foiled, they’d still managed at least a partial success.

This episode is, as I said, uneven. Tonally, the big problem is the relentless failed attempts to make it funny. The yokel farmer and the useless sheriff? Not funny. The tired cop and the Chinese grandmother? Not funny. The jilted wife and the alien-possessed husband? Not funny. And that’s half the episode!

You know what’s funny though? Ironhorse and Harrison’s banter. Ironhorse’s increasingly ridiculous skepticism. General Wilson suddenly going full-on badass. The bits where our regulars — or at the very least, named characters — are actually doing stuff.

Don’t get me wrong. War of the Worlds isn’t the only show to pull this kind of stunt. Most episodes of Knight Rider had an inconsequential B-plot that would involve KITT getting involved with some distraction, typically befriending an orphan or playing Home Alone-style pranks on hapless jive-talking would-be car thieves. These usually amounted to about seven minutes, by an amazing coincidence, exactly the difference between how many minutes of commercials ran in a prime time one-hour slot and how many ran in a syndication slot. War of the Worlds is a lot more heavy-handed with these distractions, and the show would be a lot tighter if you just cut them out.

Of course the really interesting thing about this episode, in light of what we talked about last time, is the skepticism we see out of Ironhorse and General Wilson. This is several levels beyond Agent Scully here. I mean, sure, okay, I get not being convinced by the cattle mutilations. But the melty dude at the rocket fuel depot? And still being on the fence after Harrison detects lethal radiation doses coming off of the refrigeration plant employees? I mean, even if you’re on the fence about aliens, I’m fairly sure someone should do something really really fast about lethal amounts of radiation at a refrigeration plant.

In at least one way, War of the Worlds is kind of like an anti-Captain Power. You might remember that more than a few times, I complained that Captain Power was a show of parts rather than a whole: chock full of lots of really great things, but unable to make them add up to a cohesive whole. War of the Worlds, on the other hand, is full of things that range from ill-advised, to goofy, to disastrous. And yet, really clever things keep popping out when you put them together. This show runs on what TVTropes used to call “Fridge Brilliance”. That’s the opposite of the better-known phenomenon of “Fridge Logic”, which is when the plot of a show basically hangs together while you’re watching it, but when you walk away afterward and go to get something from the fridge, it suddenly occurs to you that the entire plot is predicated on something impossible or ridiculous. Contrariwise, as I watch War of the Worlds, I’m thinking, “Oh god, not another scene with a redneck mistaking an alien for sasquatch, and come on, the dude melted, I think it’s time to accept that it’s aliens!” But later, as I fish some cajun dip out of the refrigerator, it’s like, wait a minute. That random scene where Harrison explains about hypnotic regression and General Wilson gets all weird and distant and talks about the war did have a point! He’s not just being dense; he’s having some kind of episode.

They will never come right out and say it, and that is absolutely infuriating (It’s not that I need everything spelled out for me. But, particularly in a show like this, I really want to know how much of what I’m reading between the lines is really there, and how much is wishful thinking on my part). But the evidence is there if you look, that the reason things in show keep slipping into the realm of the absurd is because some humans have a serious adverse psychological reaction to confronting the reality of aliens. No one has trouble with the fact that there were aliens, but the idea that aliens might still be around and might still pose a threat is so traumatic to people that they block it out and shut it down. General Wilson is obstinate and obstructionist because kicking logic in the balls is less traumatic to his brain than continuing to contemplate the alien threat. Soon now, very soon, we’re going to get our best hint of why. Because next week, they are going to show that, at least in some cases, trying to cope with aliens makes people go crazy.

This really should have been the angle they went for in this show. Because this is just fascinating. In particular, Ironhorse. Last time, he came off as a very traditional “skeptical”-type character, insisting that there’s no such thing as aliens until the proof becomes inconvertible (Though I note, there is no exact on-screen moment where Ironhorse accepts aliens. At the break before the last act, he’s still on a “Okay, it’s weird, but maybe terrorists just sprayed us with LSD or something,” kick, then when they get to the cottage, he just implicitly accepts it). This week, there’s a subtle change in his skepticism. He starts out primed and looking for an excuse to shut the project down. There is something slightly weird to begin with about the whole angle of “Oh well six weeks without aliens guess we’re safe forever shut down the project.” But even more than that, Ironhorse seems more than anything to be annoyed by having to do this job. His desire to get Harrison “the hell out of my life,” outweighs his desire to protect his country, planet and species. Admittedly, Harrison is kind of a jerk, but still. And he keeps his skepticism up far longer than makes sense. I note, when he and Harrison first visit the Jericho Refrigeration Plant, he mentions to Harrison that there are enough people there that he might not be able to fight his way out — that’s kind of a strange thing to comment on when you’re convinced that these zombie-like people are perfectly normal and the comically high radiation levels probably don’t mean anything.

And the thing about Ironhorse’s behavior that I find most interesting is his tone when he finally concedes about the survival of the aliens. His voice catches when he apologizes to Harrison. His tone isn’t one of shame: it’s fear. And a few moments later, when he’s forced to shoot an alien, there’s fear in his tone there too. We never saw fear out of Ironhorse in “The Resurrection”, and off the top of my head, I can only think of one other scene later in the series where he shows it. It’s confusing, because I don’t expect subtlety out of this kind of show, but the subtext here seems to be that Ironhorse was slow to believe Harrison because he was frightened of the aliens.

All this leaves me really wanting the show to take a different tack than it’s going to. They won’t exactly ignore the issue of alien-induced psychological trauma, but it will always remain mostly a justification for the occasional lapse into absurdism. Even the times that alien amnesia is central to the plot, there’s no real exploration of it. I’d love to see an episode where Harrison explores the parameters of the alien amnesia, or at least questions the fact that some people have it and others don’t. General Wilson explicitly has it, and we see his attitude about aliens shift tremendously: in the first episode, even before Harrison has enough evidence for Wilson for formally pursue it, he’s concerned enough to put in a call to the President, but by this episode, he’s extremely skeptical. Is it relevant that it’s the two military characters who are most affected? Maybe, but there will be plenty of counterexamples to that later. Harrison and Suzanne seem unaffected, as does Norton (but then, Norton has never actually met an alien. It would be fascinating to see him suddenly develop alien skepticism after he does (Spoiler: He does meet one. He does not develop alien skepticism)). Why them? Because they’re scientists? Perhaps, but there’s going to be evidence soon that being a scientist doesn’t make one impervious to deleterious psychological influence.

For that matter, is Harrison unaffected? Isn’t it a little odd that he never once mentions the 1953 invasion until after Suzanne threatens to quit? Or that he knows instantly upon seeing the barrels at Fort Jericho that what was in them and how many there were, but somehow didn’t know what they were going to find when they set out? Perhaps he too had suppressed his knowledge until it was triggered by the sight of the barrels. And if that’s the case, what else might he be suppressing. You could easily imagine this leading to an arc about our heroes needing to work on a “cure” for alien amnesia. You could even lead to a big moral crisis if they’re forced to question whether it’s even fair to humanity to take away their ability to cope with alien invasion by suppressing it.

But that isn’t going to happen. Maybe if the show had run longer, but there’s a big issue with this show churning out ideas way faster than it can follow them up. In any case, while this episode started out rocky, it managed to get its act together at the end. We’ve moved all the characters into more-or-less where they need to be. I managed to pick up a soft copy of Starlog number 137, which featured an article on the series. One of the things that jumped out at me is a quote from Lynda Mason Green, who mentions that it was planned for the beginning for these characters to be dynamic — that we’d see them, “teach each other as characters. They won’t be locked into behavior patterns.” Which, of course, ought to just be “the way you make series TV,” but in 1988, character growth was the exception rather than the norm, reserved for Very Special Episodes.

Another thing that I was reminded of by the Starlog article, written some time between the filming of episodes 3 and 4, is that principal filming for the first batch of episodes would have taken place during the 1988 Writer’s Strike. The strike was also responsible for the long delay in the season premier of Star Trek the Next Generation, and for large parts of the season sucking. The strike forced Greg Strangis to step back from the making of his own show. And with Greg’s loyalty to the WGA, his father’s loyalty to his production company, the strike drove a wedge between them. I mean, they were family and both professionals, so it’s not like this tore the family apart or anything. But there was some tension. And even leaving aside personal feelings, you had Greg, prevented by the strike from working on his baby, and Sam, who couldn’t get the talent he needed to put the show together because of the strike. That probably explains the huge issues we saw last time with the direction, and lack of focus we’ve seen in the show so far. And it probably also explains why several episodes are credited to obvious pseudonyms for writers who weren’t technically supposed to be working (This one’s by “Forrest Van Buren”). We can hope that as we get into the episodes produced after August, it’ll get its act together.


  • War of the Worlds: The Complete Series is available on DVD from amazon.com

One thought on “Thesis: The Walls of Jericho (War of the Worlds 1×02)

  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for May 22, 2015 | The Slacktiverse

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