It is October 9, 1989. Just two days after celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its existence, the German Democratic Republic begins to dissolve in earnest as the Peaceful Revolution kicks into full swing with a large-scale protest in Leipzig which local party officials opt not to violently suppress. Three days earlier, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize, partly on his own merits, partly as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, and partly to piss off China. What with all that going on, it seems kind of glib to mention that also today, Soviet news reported a UFO landing in Voronezh and Penthouse‘s first Hebrew edition hit newsstands. Last Wednesday, Secretariat died and Dakota Johnson was born, but as I am not Christian Gray, I am going to beat neither a dead horse nor a live woman.
Janet Jackson and Madonna have leapfrogged (leaptfrog?) Milli Vanilli with “Miss You Much” and “Cherish” respectively. MacGyver, Major Dad and Alf are new. Later in the evening, ABC will show the LA Raiders beat the New York Jets 14-7, as LA Coach Art Shell becomes the first African American to coach an NFL game. Simultaneously, George Strait and Kathy Mattea win big at the 23rd Country Music Awards on CBS.
In the backwoods of syndication,
Star Trek the Next Generation hasn’t started its third season yet (I have no idea how I forgot the first two episodes of this season, beyond the fact that I find them largely uninteresting). Star Trek the Next Generation airs “The Survivors“, which kinda feels like TNG doing a Jerome Bixby script. Friday the 13th The Series aired its actual season premier, a two-parter called “The Prophecies”, a few days late. Rather than dealing with a cursed object, this one plots the gang against devil worshipers trying to summon the Antichrist. The episode serves as a cast transition, with leading man Ryan Dallion being magically regressed to childhood at the climax to serve as a human sacrifice. I think the conclusion is something like it turns out that his alcoholic mother has cleaned up her act and she decides to have another go at raising him. He’s replaced by Johnny Ventura, a reformed con man who’d guested last season. Today, they air an episode titled “Crippled Inside”, which for whatever reason is one of the few episodes I personally remember very well. On his first solo mission, out of naivety, Johnny hesitates in reclaiming an antique wheelchair from the paralyzed girl it’s both healing, and allowing to take horrible vengeance on the cliche High School Mean Girls directly responsible for her injury. The episode ends with pretty much everyone dead and Johnny screaming in rage as he impotently tries to murder a wheelchair with an axe (cursed objects are indestructible).
Mancuso’s other, less beloved series airs “No Direction Home”. We open minutes after the end of the previous episode, with the Blackwood survivors having retreated to Kincaid’s Awesome Van. They’re haunted by little flashback montages of the closing minutes of the previous episode. Kincaid mumbles something about the possibility of being followed, which, in fact, they are.
The aliens are in the process of abandoning their base, what with them somehow psychically knowing that Blackwood and Kincaid survived the explosion. Mana isn’t happy about having to leave her pickled human experimental subjects, conveniently bagged in more of that green orange pith and hanging from the ceiling, and she shows her displeasure by getting all passive-aggressive about Malzor’s failure to murder the cast. Malzor does some sneering and insists that, “They haven’t escaped.”
I’m digging this tension between Malzor and Mana. Malzor, for the most part, seems to have little respect for science, and just wants to get on with the murdering. Mana, on the other hand, seems like she finds Malzor’s bloodlust unseemly and is all about the science. Of murdering people. That tension is going to be there for the whole season, and at the end, they’re even going to make a stab at justifying it in a shockingly banal manner. But — and this is a huge problem with this show — it’s not tremendously consistent, as we are going to see moments of something approaching tenderness between them.
Malzor’s insistence that they haven’t escaped is in turn because a couple of Morthren soldiers in a Cadillac gets on at the next ramp and starts following Kincaid. While Blackwood climbs to the back of the van, takes out and loads a gun, Kincaid does a very quick three-point turn, which befuddles the aliens so much that they crash their car. There is something just a bit hilarious about Blackwood taking so long to load his gun that the whole incident is over before he’s ready, and they’re savvy enough not to call overt attention to it.
The aliens manage somehow to crash their car into an entirely different set, coming to rest outside a homeless shelter run by Father Tim (Angelo Rizacos). Father Tim is a good sort, and immediately tries to help the drivers, despite warnings from Ralph, one of the regulars. Ralph is mentally ill or mentally handicapped: his friend, who is credited only as “Lady at Mission”, will later attribute his condition to unspecified government experiments. Because it’s a dystopia. Accordingly, his warnings that the men in the car are “wrong men” will go unheeded, because the characters don’t realize that they’re in an action-adventure TV show in the 1980s, where being non-neurotypical invariably gifts a person with a magically infallible sixth sense for detecting Evil. The aliens pull Father Tim into the car when he sees the glow stick juice dripping from them and drive off. Lady at Mission fruitlessly tries to comfort Frank that Tim probably just jumped into the back seat of the car to help them drive to the hospital, but Frank isn’t having it.
Kincaid takes the van to an industrial building which appears abandoned but is still, in accordance with how these things work, leaking steam and has big fans slowly turning in front of all the lights. They descend into a set of underground passages which lead to an abandoned underground bunker dating to the “war scare” back in the fifties. I assume he means the Cold War, but this is, after all, War of the Worlds. It may just be me, but the place kinda looks like it might possibly be a refurbishment of the Power Base set from Captain Power. That sort of thing happens a lot in TV, big fancy sets being expensive and not much use after the show ends (For example, though I’ve never gotten a canonical source to confirm it, in addition to being redressed as various other bridges in the TNG era, I’m pretty sure the USS Enterprise bridge from Star Trek III also appeared in at least two seasons of Power Rangers). Blackwood is concerned that Debi is still in shock, but Kincaid just kind of passively brushes it off, and gets mopey about his dead brother when Blackwood finds a picture of them. Sounding a little uncomfortable and nervous, Kincaid offers Suzanne a trunk of hip late-’80s/early ’90s women’s clothes he for some reason has.
They haven’t said it outright in terms more explicit than the ambiguous “Almost Tomorrow” dateline, but this show is meant to be set in the near future. We get one very forthright indication of this when Kincaid pulls out an honest-to-goodness videophone to call his superiors. Using the codename “Lone Wolf” (presumably, he got it from page 1 of the book, “World’s most predicable code names”, right after “Maverick”), he speaks to a low-resolution black-and-white 1 fps image of General Wilson’s secretary, and has to shout at her to “cut the crap” to finally speak to a Major Yaro, apparently the highest person up in the food chain they can still find. Yaro is weird and evasive, claiming to be Kincaid’s new contact in Wilson’s absence, presses him for information about the Blackwood Project (he claims that there’s been reports of “an accident”, but that he doesn’t know the details), and tries to talk Kincaid into giving up his location. Kincaid smells a rat and hangs up on him.
The exchange is a bit weird, with Kincaid using the threat of showing up in person to get through to Yaro, then freaking out when he suggests showing up in person. But more to the point, the framing story it’s trying to establish doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s easy enough to work out what’s meant to be going on: as Blackwood immediately realizes, they’re being cut loose and disavowed. What’s far harder to make sense of is why and how. On the one hand, the set up here seems like the idea might be that the government has been infiltrated by the Morthren, who are cutting off the Blackwood team’s life-line. But that doesn’t really make any sense. If the Morthren had access to institutional power, why do they keep moving to abandoned power plants and coming up with cunning plots to assert social control or gain resources, when they could just, like, give themselves a giant ranch somewhere secluded while they order the national guard to start disappearing people?
No, in some ways it’s more like the government just really wants to pretend this whole “alien invasion” thing isn’t happening. That’s weird, because it’s really not like The X-Files where no one’s ever able to present proper evidence or anything. There was a war. The Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, and Los Angeles City Hall all got blown up. This is history. People in this world know about aliens. And the Blackwood Project’s existence seems to indicate that the government considers aliens an active threat. This isn’t like Stargate SG-1, where the government was trying to shut them down in the early seasons on the premise that if we just buried the Stargate, the Goa’uld would almost certainly leave us alone, what with it being a hella long way to drive to get here.
It’s like the government is being obstructionist just to be obstructionist. Which I guess is not all that far out there — I’m writing this article just weeks after one half of the US Government wrote a letter to a country we were negotiating an anti-nuclear deal with to say, “Look, just give up. Our side does not want peace with you, so no matter what deal you make, once we take over the government in the next election, we’re going to break the agreement because we’re pretty sure that, this time, starting a war in the middle east for no good reason is going to work out super for us.” But here in the ’80s, with glasnost and perestroika and the Berlin Wall getting ready to fall, I would have hoped that folks would think, “Okay, the government might be obstructionist. It might be corrupt. It might be incompetent. It might be self-serving. But in the event that genocidal aliens were invading, they would probably not actively try to make their job easier.”
At a very basic level, the point of the scene is, “The government is going to be no help. They’re on their own.” More than that, even, the scene conveys the message that this is the sort of story where the government is going to be no help and you’re on your own. The scene is pure genre convention, like the scene in every second-rate cyberpunk story where the author takes five minutes to explain an insanely elaborate series of death traps that the Evil Megacorporation has set up to prevent unauthorized access to the room where they keep their zombie-making virus that they’re trying to market as a bioweapon. Is it remotely practical or a sound investment to secure your bioweapon at the end of a narrow walkway with no rails above a one mile deep pit with utterly sheer sides lubricated with nanoscale graphene that drops you through six yards of electrified monomolecular razor wire into a pit of acid, which is boiling, and also to make the door out of two panes of nanometer thick glass sandwiching five million times the lethal dose of a nerve agent that slows your perception of time so that the one-thirty-second of a second it takes to kill you feels like a thousand years of the most intense agony the human mind is capable of experiencing, before you fall into the pit of razor wire and acid, oh, and also the door is electrified too? And for that matter, exactly what is your business plan for these zombies, given that you try this approximately once a year and every single time, it’s ended with everyone dying and the trillion-dollar death-trap-slash-research-lab you built exploding? And what about Scarecrow’s brain? You know who you are.
Sorry. That paragraph kind of got away from me. The point is, this scene is here because it’s genre convention in a dystopian show like this to establish that the government is corrupt and/or powerless. So they include that scene here because this is where that scene always goes in this kind of story. Normally, this is where I’d say something like, “But they do it without a proper understanding of how the scene works and what it does, so it doesn’t logically fit into the plot for them the way it does for other people using the trope,” but this is dystopian fiction of the ’80s, man. It scoffs at your Earth-logic.
At their new digs, Malzor gives Father Tim to Mana as a test subject, though he gets in a little dig about her propensity for accidentally killing her test subjects. As Tim calls out for God and protests that he doesn’t understand what’s going on, Mana has a very nice exchange as she, almost tenderly, promises that he soon will. Setting up the cloning machine, Ardix discovers that part of the machine, an “engram” was left behind at the power plant. Mana wigs out and orders him to get it back. One of the more annoying things about the characterization of the Morthren is that whenever they seem to be building up something more complex — say, Mana’s scientific detachment — they almost always follow it up by having them just wig out and get all angry and shouty and genocidal.
Kincaid wants to return to the alien base to reconnoiter. Blackwood wants to go too, prompting the traditional Lone Wolf “I work alone” bit out of Kincaid, but he just instantly caves when Blackwood reminds him that they’d worked together to rescue Ironhorse last time. They return to the base, where Kincaid gets a little freaked out finding Mana’s collection of bagged corpses, and they find the aforementioned “engram”, a green, glowing, pith-covered testicle-looking dealie. Kincaid wants to destroy it, but Blackwood wants to study it instead, especially after he guns down two soldiers sent to recover it.
Suzanne has a heart-to-heart with Debi after she wakes from a nightmare in the form of a flashback to the previous episode, including things she could not possibly have seen, like the timer on the bomb ticking down. Having Debi spend most of the episode in shell-shock isn’t a bad idea. Child actors are notoriously hit-or-miss. Rachel Blanchard is better than a lot of them, but she’s not one of the greats. Shame they couldn’t get Sarah Polley, who would have been about the right age, in the right town, and in the right part of her career at this point (Though, having won a Gemini two years previous, maybe she had too much clout for a role like this. She did appear in an episode of Friday the 13th the Series, but that was pre-Gemini). But having her in shock lightens the load and makes it no real problem if she’s wooden and detached. The coolest thing about the scene, though, is that you’d expect her emotional state to be fear and sadness. That’s there, but on top of it is guilt. In fact, there’s more than one kind of guilt. It’s rare for TV in this era to address that aspect, that children often feel guilt over tragedies. Debi sensed the clone Ironhorse’s insincerity (or, possibly, she just thinks she did in retrospect), and on some level, blames herself for being used as a hostage. And there’s one more line she says that I’m not sure about. I should point out that the DVD subtitles for this show are terrible. The caption for this line in particular is, “One of them was the clone. That one,” which doesn’t even make sense in context. It sounds like what she’s saying is “I want to miss the colonel and Norton.” If I’m right (she might have said “am going to” instead of “want to”), the implication is that she’s not yet able to grieve for her friends because of her own trauma.
Ardix has been reading the bible, and explains the “human” concept of God (Yes, of course “human” religion is Christianity. What else would it be in an American television show of the 1980s. At least the Morthren have the excuse that they’re supposed to be xenophobes.) to Mana as, “A mad confusion of myth and contradiction,” and they have a good laugh at the fact that the human God is invisible. Mana promises Tim that he’ll soon know the One True God, and again, there’s a note of sincerity and something like tenderness to her. If it weren’t for that angry shouty scene in the middle, this would be some great character development, and Catherine Disher is fantastic in those scenes. Ardix operates the cloning machine this time, and his scream of pain as it sucks energy from him is amazing. The clone sits up and declares, “Now I understand,” prompting smug (They’re really smug in this episode. Maybe a little too far over-the-top) nods of approval from the aliens.
When Blackwood and Kincaid return with the engram, Blackwood theorizes that its function is related to memory transfer. He draws this conclusion because, upon touching it, Suzanne repeats his exact words on finding it. Since those exact words were, “I’d say it has something to do with the replication process,” that kinda seems like a stretch, but it bears out when Suzanne is able to recite other bits of dialogue from previous scenes. The scene is a little overly detailed, with them taking it in turns to recite each others’ lines from earlier in the episode then explain that they remember those events as though they had been there. Seriously, they do this three times in a row.
Malzor makes veiled threats to Mana over losing the engram and two soldiers to boot. She defends herself by claiming the humans won’t have the willpower to control it, but might give up their location by turning the thing on. Ardix questions the clone on the nature of charity. Clone-Tim describes it as, “Helping the unfit to survive,” because some humans believe that all life has value. Ardix mocks the idea that the unfit should be permitted to survive, and smugly mocks the concept of charity as a “waste of resources.” I bring it up, of course, because of the theme we identified in last week’s episode: while the Morthren are unquestioningly loyal to authority and to their God, in terms of concern for one another, they’re practically Ayn Rand heroes, rejecting the idea of there being any virtue in self-sacrifice or empathy. Especially in these first two episodes, this is treated as the defining difference between human and Morthren morality: humans care for each other individually and collectively, while the Morthren do not. She also shows off her newly cloned priest, who’s explaining to Ardix how stupid he now thinks faith, hope and charity are. He pledges to do, “What I’ve always done, to serve God Almighty. But now I’ll serve the one true God: the Eternal.” The aliens smug at each other as Mana and Tim explain to Malzor that Tim’s shelter will make a good source of people for Mana to experiment on.
Tim is returned to the shelter, where Frank instantly pegs him as “wrong,” but is largely ignored because the show has another twenty minutes left. Theorizing that the engram might contain alien memories they could extract for strategic value, Blackwood and Suzanne think at it a bit more, summoning up a magic lantern projection of Malzor and Mana, which Kincaid tries to shoot. They don’t actually do anything, just sort of walk across the room. Blackwood considers this a great success, even if all they’ve actually learned is that the aliens are somewhere with a hallway. Kincaid notices that Harrison and Suzanne are both visibly exhausted from the experience.
The engram’s activation lights up a stretched membrane at alien HQ, informing them that it’s somewhere in the city, but it hasn’t fed on our heroes’ energy enough to produce a strong signal. After a long but unrestful nap, Blackwood and Suzanne find the engram has grown big pithy wings. Kincaid notices Frank on one of his surveillance cameras, complaining about, “A bad thing watching me in my head,” from the general direction of their bunker. He suspects Frank might be somehow sensing the engram, and goes out to find him.
Giving a lift to Frank and Lady at Mission in his Awesome Van, Kincaid gets more of the story, how Father Tim is now “wrong” in the same way as the “bad thing in my head”, ever since he went off with the “wrong men in the car”. Recognizing Lady at Mission’s description of the aliens from the previous day, he returns Frank to the mission, and unsubtly questions Father Tim, who is instantly suspicious. It’s a side of Kincaid we haven’t seen before: he’s cocky, but throws up a vaguely Columbo-like layer of obfuscating disinterest, enough that you almost expect him to turn around and say, “Uh, just one more thing, sir,” when he catches Tim in a lie. Once he’s gone, Tim, backed up by some alien soldiers, roughs up Frank, threatening to send him to Hell unless he tells him about the “right man”, Kincaid.
Kincaid is convinced Tim is a clone. Blackwood and Suzanne agree it’s suspicious, but are worried about getting too trigger-happy since they can’t be sure. The conversation is mooted, though, when Malzor and Mana remotely activate the engram. This for some reason causes a wind storm in the bunker, and for everyone’s voices to reverb as they’re shown flashbacks to the pilot with a motion blur added. Blackwood declares that destroying the engram now would kill them… for some reason… and that it’s using their memories against them. They “reverse it” by concentrating… on something… to “turn it back on itself.” This in turn causes the wind to die down and the engram to shrink back to its original size, but Ardix is able to trace its location as somewhere close to Father Tim’s mission.
Assuming they can get close to the clone priest unnoticed, as he doesn’t know what they look like, Blackwood and Suzanne decide to confront Tim at the mission while Kincaid is taking a nap. They’ve concluded… somehow… that the engram will act as a clone-detector… somehow. It turns out they’re right, of course. Clone Tim senses the engram as soon as they enter, and because they’ve used it too, Blackwood and Suzanne see a projection of the clone’s creation hovering over his head. Blackwood refers to this as the clone’s memories, which doesn’t really explain why they’re in the third person. Ralph does a runner, followed by Blackwood, Suzanne, the clone and two alien soldiers. Ralph finds his way to one of Kincaid’s surveillance cameras and calls for him and Suzanne shoots one of the soldiers.
Kincaid dispatches the second soldier when he reveals his position by missing a really easy shot at him, but the clone Tim manages to catch Ralph and forces the heroes to throw down their weapons. But Blackwood draws the engram, and when he and Suzanne lay hands on it, it summons up an image of the real Tim, saying the Lord’s Prayer. For some reason, this causes the clone to release Frank and recoil, screaming, allowing Kincaid to shoot him. The engram boils away to nothing (A somewhat neat effect that looks like it was achieved using a time-lapse shot of a prop made of dry ice), and the real Tim is instantly invigorated by the death of his clone, and just kind of strolls out of the alien base unchallenged, but will not be able to remember where it was later when he meets up with Kincaid, Blackwood and Suzanne. He does, though, invite them back to volunteer, which amuses Kincaid a bit.
The tag closes out the story in a nice little scene to give us a sense of where our characters are emotionally after the events of the past few days. Their victory and a day of volunteer work at the mission has raised everyone’s spirits, even Debi, who is markedly less traumatized when they return to the bunker. We end on our adult heroes splitting a beer to celebrate their newfound sense of camaraderie.
This episode is strange. It works very well and very straightforwardly on a kind of alchemical level. All the emotional beats are right, and the thematic sense of every scene is pretty straightforward. But on a logical level, it’s much harder to follow. Why did the aliens clone Tim? On a logical level, their reasons are unclear. They imply that their goal is to use the clone to abduct people from the shelter for experimentation, but we never actually see them do anything about it. But in a magical sense, it’s much more straightforward: they are pitting The Eternal against the “Invisible God” of the humans, trying to assert the superiority of their faith by “converting” a man of God.
The climactic battle where Suzanne and Blackwood face off against Mana and Malzor via the engram — on one level, it’s very obvious what’s happening: a battle of wills. But how? How does Blackwood know what to do? And what does he do? What does “turn it back on itself” mean? Concentrate on what?
And then during the final battle, Blackwood uses the engram to disable the clone… How? Why does the clone recoil and scream? What’s all that about anyway?
You know what it reminds me of? Okay. I am going to don an asbestos suit to make this comparison, but it reminds me of the climax of Star Trek II. Yes, really. At the climax of Star Trek II, Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise. The core of the engine is full of radiation, and he walks in there and opens it up and…. Let me ask you: what does he do? No looking it up on wikis. No going by novels or comics or reference guides or interviews. Just watch the scene and tell me what he does.
You can’t. Because no one ever says what it is that needs to be done or what Spock does or even how Spock knows what to do or that he could do it when Scotty couldn’t. This is the one and only respect in which I think Star Trek into Darkness one-ups its predecessor. Because in Into Darkness, you can actually tell what Kirk is doing. There’s two thingies inside the engine which are clearly supposed to line up, and they don’t line up, so Kirk kicks them until they line up again. And this is important: that’s all they needed. We don’t need a technical explanation. It’s enough to know that two thingies which don’t line up have to be lined up. All we actually see is that he goes in there and opens up a bit of the ship and shoves his hands in there and fiddles with something. They easily could have shown us. You don’t even need a line of dialogue. Just film some second unit footage of two hands reaching into a box where there’s two thingies that have come apart, and the hands grab the thingies and push them back together again. You don’t even need Nimoy’s real hands; you could use a stand-in. They don’t bother because they didn’t care: the point of the scene is that Star Trek has sinned (Playing God by creating Genesis for one, and Kirk getting old and being a dad for another) and a blood sacrifice is needed to appease the gods. For all it matters to the diagetic logic of the story, Spock could have gone down there, pulled out a knife and cut his own heart out to stuff in the engine and it would have had the same effect. That part of the plot is alchemical: it works according to the laws of magic, not logic.
But Star Trek can get away with that kind of thing, because Star Trek was always a kind of stylized reality that ran on a kind of magic, and also because Star Trek was a quarter-century old and knew how far the fans would come with them. The engram defeats Clone Tim because the engram is a totem of power, one that lays bare his false nature. The engram is the philosopher’s stone that creates the homunculus, and therefore has the power to unmake it. At the same time, what does it conjure to torment the priest of The Eternal? A priest of the Invisible God. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, no less. It would have been less obvious if he’d been chanting, “The power of Christ compels you!”, because that’s what this was: an exorcism.
Last time, we observed that one of the key themes of this show as a follow-up to the 1953 movie is that “our” God won the last war, and the aliens have returned with a god of their own. The final fight of this episode is very overtly a throw-down between the gods. And “our” god won this one.
While that’s going on, the characters are starting to fall into the patterns they’ll be adopting for the series. Adrian Paul is much improved when he’s not interacting with Blackwood and Suzanne. He gets to be sort of rough-and-tumble action-heroey with Major Yaro, but even better is the cocky, jovial front he puts on with the Tim clone and the people from the mission. Over the course of the series, we’ll often see Kincaid put on various facades, posturing or outright assuming a false persona to gain access or information. And pretty much every time, the character he assumes is more interesting, more compelling and better acted than the “default” John Kincaid. In the scenes where he’s interacting with his teammates this episode, he’s still mumbly and even sort of submissive. I think maybe it’s an attempt to show a side of him that’s uncertain and depressed over the death of his brother, but it just comes off as angsty and kind of weak-willed. He caves instantly on taking Blackwood with him to the abandoned alien base, he caves instantly on taking the engram, and he caves instantly on letting them use the engram, even after it starts affecting them.
If he’s meant to be a voice of reason, urging caution, he doesn’t pull it off. Instead, he’s more like Shaggy from Scooby Doo: his protests come off not as caution but cowardice. It doesn’t help that he freaks out at the very Scooby Doo-esque projection of Malzor and Mana that appears in their bunker. Over at Vaka Rangi, Josh Marsfelder would likely argue that this is a misreading of Shaggy, who never meant to be taken as lazy and cowardly, but rather world-weary and cynical, in the manner of someone who’s been ground down by an uncaring society that’s proved to him time and again that hard work and unrestrained optimism are rarely rewarded. I would suggest that’s also the intent behind Kincaid’s character here, but, just as epic levels of Hanna-Barbera failing to give a crap flanderized Shaggy into a useless, cravenly beatnik, some combination of misguided writing, misguided direction, and this not being the kind of acting Adrian Paul is good at reduce Kincaid from “grizzled cynic” to “angsty teenager”.
Blackwood and Suzanne get to interact a lot more in this episode. In scenes where action is called for, it’ll be Blackwood and Kincaid mostly, but for the more “adventure”-focused bits, the show is going to break down primarily as either Kincaid on his own or Blackwood with Suzanne. When they’re together, the show seems like it’s stressing their similarity. It’s when they’re apart that they change to fill different roles. Suzanne’s raison d’etre is protecting her daughter. It will be her primary motive in almost all of the episodes where her plot threads dominate. Insofar as this makes her identity distinct from the others, this is a good thing, I guess. The characters of Blackwood, Suzanne and Kincaid have an awful lot of overlap between them: they aren’t tremendously distinct. They’re all clever, they’re all good in a fight, they’re all dedicated, they’re all brave, etc. But of course Suzanne’s One Distinctive Trait is motherhood. She’s a woman in a TV show in 1989. Men have traits. Women have family. In the scenes of them working together, Suzanne doesn’t really do much: she’s mostly just a sounding board for Harrison’s guesses. During the big showdown over the engram, when Kincaid’s first thought is to shoot it, and Harrison’s is to use their minds to fight it, Suzanne’s immediate thought is for Debi’s safety. Again, in most senses, this is a good thing. Particularly after the emphasis in last week’s episode about the key human strength lying in how we care about each other and are willing to sacrifice for one another. Thus, just as Ironhorse’s fatal flaw was a kind of tunnel vision that caused him to get outflanked, Suzanne is the only one of them who doesn’t lock on to the immediate threat right in front of them, and instead thinks about someone else.
Which would be great, except that (a) it’s all gender essentialist bullshit and (2) Suzanne is wrong within the plot logic of the story to worry about Debi instead of focusing on the engram. The key to winning their battle with it lies in focusing on it and concentrating, not on thinking about family. How much better would it have been to turn it around. Make the humans incapable of overcoming the engram by force of will, but instead, have them win by confronting it with compassion, an emotion so, irm, alien to the aliens that the engram doesn’t know how to react. Given the earlier scene with Ardix mocking the concept of charity, there would have been fantastic symmetry to having our heroes win through an act of selflessness. Plus, it would have given Suzanne something to actually do.
What makes this show so confounding is that it’s actually remarkably consistent in its alchemy, its tone, its themes and its emotional beats. But for whatever reason, when it comes to internal plot logic and basic continuity, it’s like they just don’t care. Ironhorse, Norton, General Wilson? Never mentioned again after this episode. The aliens pursuing Blackwood and his teammates? After this episode, they will completely forget that they know them until the far end of the season.
Watching War of the Worlds at times feels like playing a Hideo Kojima game. It’s full of these really great themes and big ideas that you keep getting glimpses of (For Kojima, mostly some variation on the idea that war is inherently absurd. How absurd? Why is it that you think this bullshit with giant mechs and mind-control ghost snipers, and Russian Cowboy Lee van Cleefs and Snake wanting to eat every shrub, berry or reptile he encounters is weird and unrealistic, but you’re cool with the bullshit of guaranteeing world peace by way of an intercontinental Mexican Stand-Off with nuclear weapons?), but the people doing the writing just do not have the skills to actually turn those big ideas into a sensible story.
It’s like Chef said when the kids from South Park started a dance team: You’ve got the heart, and you’ve got the soul. What you don’t have is the talent.
- War of the Worlds: The Second Invasion is available on DVD from amazon.com