Synthesis 2: How does it feel, to be on your own?

I wasn’t actually planning on doing another one of these so soon. A direct one-to-one comparison between every pair of episodes isn’t likely to be very enlightening as we get further into the season. There will be interesting points of comparison, but the seasons don’t address the same things at the same times. For example, members of the clergy appear in episodes three and four of the first season, and a mind-influencing alien artifact will turn up in episode seven. While the Morthren go on the offensive straight away, fully the first six episodes of season 1 are about the aliens trying to adapt to Earth and recover the resources they’d brought with them back in 1953; they won’t get down to the business of actually trying to exterminate humanity until the middle of November, and that was basically when I was originally going to do the second Synthesis post. The Morthren will eventually have to start going on the defensive, but not for a few more weeks. But as I’ve been watching ahead in preparation for future articles, I think it might be worthwhile to talk a bit about the differences in how the two seasons are structured.

At the moment, the situation for the first-season aliens is pretty precarious, while the second-season ones seem to be in a pretty solid position. In “The Walls of Jericho”, the aliens are in serious danger of not surviving the episode. By comparison, there’s no real question of the Morthren living the episode out. The first season aliens need to steal because they have no capacity to manufacture the things they need to survive, while the Morthren, despite having no obvious supply lines seem (at least so far; this will change) to be entirely self-sufficient, able to grow whatever technology they need. Notice that when they discover the missing engram, Ardix’s first reaction is to brush it off as they’ve got spares.

The first season aliens struggling to survive in a hostile environment with no resources but what they can steal and scavenge is a really unusual villain plot for an alien invasion story. The bones of it sound far more like a hero‘s story. As I’ve mentioned before, there are lots of times in War of the Worlds where the Blackwood team serve the narrative role of antagonists: the aliens set up a caper to get something they need to survive, and the plot is essentially a chase with the nominal heroes trying to catch the aliens while the aliens desperately try to get away. With an inevitable Mentos the Freshmaker twist at the end where it seems as though the aliens have been caught, only to reveal that they got away with the thing they needed before the big bad heroes blew up the factory.

This is all very strange and it’s certainly interesting, but I can’t help feeling it’s a serious narrative flaw qua alien invasion narratives. You can certainly argue that it’s very clever to subvert the traditional alien invasion trope of a distant, nigh-invulnerable, all-powerful alien invader, particularly in a sequel to what’s essentially the progenitor of the trope. But it’s not enough to just be clever. If you’re going to put the aliens into the narrative role of the protagonist, you don’t necessarily need them to be sympathetic, but I think it’s a mistake to invert the trope of the all-powerful, nigh-invulnerable, resource-rich alien invader while retaining the traditional aspects of them being distant, irascible, homogenous, and exceedingly expendable.

The problem — part of the problem, for there are several — is that the stakes feel all wrong. Harrison will occasionally fly off the handle about how the fate of the entire planet is at stake, but I’m just having a hard time buying that when half the plot is wrapped up in how goofy these aliens are and how precarious their situation is. There’s a palpable excluded middle-ground between “aliens become extinct” and “aliens conquer the Earth.” Despite them telling us that their situation is dire, their priorities never quite seem to reflect that. The deaths of their soldiers are never treated as anything more than an inconvenience (We have no idea yet the size of the alien force, but it’s small enough that locating alien burial sites will be next week’s top priority), and the advocacy reacts to the prospect of heat-death with more annoyance than anything else.

Mancuso’s version of the aliens are of course very different in this regard. Sure, there are still soldiers to be cannon fodder, but there’s also named characters who we can actually care about. The stakes aren’t exactly lower, but they’re certainly more intimate. Malzor and Mana may grumble about taking over “the world” abstractly, but the world of season 2 feels very much like it’s contracted down to a single city. Of course this doesn’t make a lick of sense from a plot perspective, but it gives us a kind of thematic and narrative cohesion that the first season lacks. It’s sort of like video games. The first season is sort of like an early open-world game, a la the first few Grand Theft Auto games: a huge, sprawling world with little in it but buildings you can’t go into and NPCs you can’t interact with. The second season’s world is smaller, but it’s a world more densely packed with people who are actual people rather than cardboard standees labeled “Hick farmer”, “Useless Sheriff”, and “Superstitious Chinese Woman”.

And even without the threat of looming extinction, the Morthren manage to sell it in a way the first season aliens (I know what they’re called. For no good reason, I’m going to refrain from saying it until the show introduces it. Also, it’s a much more awkward name than “Morthren”) didn’t. We have arguments over resources. In particular, Malzor goes after Mana for losing the engram, and losing two soldiers when they go to retrieve it. It reminds me a little bit of the Doctor Who 25th anniversary story, Silver Nemesis, which aired just shy of a year before “No Direction Home”. It’s a serial I like well enough, but it gets a lot of grief, owning to the fact that it’s pretty much got three different plots going on, one of which is complete crap involving Nazis, and another which is exactly the same plot as they’d done better a month earlier. But I bring it up because it’s the only story where you see Cybermen having a disagreement. More than once, a lieutenant takes the Cyberleader to task over the fact that they’re going to run out of Cybermen if they don’t stop getting killed. Aside from the fact that Cybermen have absolutely no business getting stressed out and snippy, it’s a subtle and effective way to convey the fact that the Cybermen are in a slightly desperate position and only have limited resources (I mean, they also apparently have a big honkin’ battle fleet hanging out in orbit, but you can’t have everything. David Banks, who played the Cyberleader, went on to write a supremely readable book about the Cybermen in which he found the implication that the Cybermen are resource-impoverished so convincing that he concludes the battle fleet is actually fake). Mana, likewise, calls Malzor out when his schemes fail to pay off. There’s a real sense here that the Morthren have to make cost-benefit analyses when sketching out their plans, that, unlike their season 1 counterparts, they can’t simply throw expendable soldiers at problems.

In addition to the overall structure of the series-long arc (insofar as you can call the plot of a TV show from the ’80s an “arc”), the individual episodes are structured very differently as well. On this front, what’s very tangible to me is how much closer “No Direction Home” is to the style and pacing of modern TV. Remember, in “The Walls of Jericho”, our heroes don’t actually get involved in the plot until about halfway through. For the first half of the episode, the aliens are off working on their plot, but the heroes are busy having tea and exposition with Uncle Hank.

Now, that’s something: there’s a corresponding scene in “No Direction Home” to General Wilson shutting the project down in “The Walls of Jericho”, but it’s much faster and sort of offhand, handled via videophone between Kincaid and Major Yaro, a character we’ve never heard of before and never will again. The scene with Wilson is great, of course, with its hints about alien amnesia and John Vernon’s scene-stealing gravitas. But it’s also largely a sideshow to the whole alien-fighting thing that the show is ostensibly about. When Kincaid calls Yaro, we basically take two minutes to give closure to the first season setup, and, importantly, we do it after we’ve already had our first action scene. Season one is going to keep on loading the first two acts of each episode with lots of setup and exposition, and keep the action down to the last ten minutes. Compare that with something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which nearly always put the gang into a fight in the first few minutes of the episode, just to get things going. Or, say, the modern Doctor Who, where we generally start out with the Doctor emerging from the TARDIS and walking directly into the plot. The first season of War of the Worlds is a lot more like Classic Doctor Who, where they were contractually obligated to spend a full half-hour not involving the Doctor with the plot so that there could be a shocking reveal for the cliffanger. Classic, sure, but it is not a coincidence that Doctor Who is going to get cancelled before War of the Worlds does. The nineties are encroaching and they will not put up with this “Making TV is hard! Let’s see how much time we can burn off without actually having anything happen!” ’80s bullcrap.

Don’t mistake me for saying that the problem is that the first season isn’t action-oriented enough. I think I said early on that the first season of War of the Worlds reminds me a little bit of Columbo in a structural sense: the first act tends to focus mostly on the actions of the antagonists, and leaves the viewer knowing more than the heroes, who, through the remainder of the story, are going to be “solving” the mystery set up at the beginning. Columbo, though, wouldn’t work as a CSI-style forensic drama. In an episode of Columbo, we jump straight from the murder to Peter Falk bumbling around the crime scene asking the murderer, “Uh, just one more question, sir.” War of the Worlds instead tends to have a long and fairly dull second act where our nominal heroes squint at microscopes and computer print-outs to try to figure out what the aliens are up to, and it isn’t engaging drama, because what they’re doing isn’t, despite Philip Akin’s considerable efforts to make HVAC maintenance thrilling, all that interesting to watch, and it isn’t engaging mystery because we already know the answer (“The Walls at Jericho” is especially bad in this regard since it takes so long for them to figure out that liquid nitrogen is used for the only thing liquid nitrogen is used for).

In fact, you’ll notice that the chase scene at the beginning of “No Direction Home” leads directly into the alien plot at the mission — it’s the same Morthren soldiers chasing Kincaid’s van who abduct Father Tim. This makes our heroes themselves the catalyst that starts up the specific plot of the week. And we’re going to keep seeing that Mancuso’s version of the series gets the heroes more directly involved in the story earlier in each episode.

I’d be lying if I said the first season wasn’t creative and original. It’s full of clever things and interesting things. But at this stage, those interesting and creative and original things just don’t seem like they’re things that are well-suited to a weekly action-adventure TV series. The dark comedy, the equal-time they’re giving to characters that are utterly inhuman, the very deliberate cheesiness of the stock characters and extras, it’s like they’re halfway trying to make serious respectable science fiction, and half trying to make the next cult classic B-movie. And neither of those things are where the strengths of TV as a format lie. The second season is far less ambitious, but what it does, it does well. Mancuso’s War of the Worlds is never going to give us the joy that is watching John Vernon charge a pick-up truck full of aliens while wielding an assault rifle. But the Strangis’s version isn’t going to give us an alien exorcism. I keep coming back to the same place with these: Season 1 is a better idea, but I think season 2 is a better show.


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

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  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for June 6, 2015 | The Slacktiverse

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