It is October 24, 1988. Since last time, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were indicted on racketeering charges, Roxette released “Look Sharp” (aka “The one with almost all the Roxette songs you can remember, except maybe “Fading Like a Flower” and “Joyride”), and the World Series ended in game 5, Los Angeles beating Oakland 5-2. Kraft rejects Philip Morris’s hostile takeover bid, promising to borrow a bunch of money and fire a bunch of employees instead. Whether or not this will happen depends on how much Phillip Morris wants Kraft and how deep their pockets are (Spoiler alert: very).
In Supreme Court news, Sandra Day O’Connor is reportedly doing well after breast cancer surgery, and the Senate has just rejected Robert Bork’s nomination. The Bork nomination process, incidentally, led to the Video Privacy Protection Act, which guarantees a legal right privacy for your video rental history. Bork’s (rather banal) rental history was leaked to the press, which had no real effect on his nomination (Dude had illegally fired the Watergate Special Prosecutor in exchange for the promise of a SCOTUS nomination under Nixon. He wasn’t about to be undone by his love of the Marx Brothers), but did provide the media with some amusing irony, since one of the major criticisms of Bork was his rejection of a constitutional right to privacy (Then, as now, code for, “I will totally vote to uphold laws restricting abortion.” (What this has to do with privacy is not well understood by laymen and too long to go into here beyond saying that for everything except abortion, most everyone agrees that the state isn’t allowed to go looking into what medical procedures you’ve had done or why)). All that said, the more I learn about Bork’s judicial views — he was an influential anti-trust scholar, believed the second amendment was about state-sponsored militias rather than unrestricted private ownership, advocated a congressional “override” for SCOTUS and agreed with Brown v. Board of Education despite his criticism of the Warren court — the more I think I’d rather have two of him on the Supreme Court than one of Scalia. Which I know is damning with faint praise, but I’d totally have made that his motto, “Bork: He’s better than Scalia.”
Phil Collins’s groovy love still holds the top spot on the charts. Also, there are two different songs called “Don’t Be Cruel” on the top ten, one by Cheap Trick and one by Bobby Brown. Only one of them is a cover of the Elvis song. Kylie Minogue closes out the top ten with “The Loco-Motion”, which will eventually top out at #3. Without a Clue and Mystic Pizza are newly out in theaters.
On the far side of the pond, Doctor Who has just finished up Remembrance of the Daleks. At home, still no Star Trek, and Friday the 13th The Series is off this week. Due to the writer’s strike, a desperate ABC raided their vaults and turned up a fifteen-year-old stockpile of Mission: Impossible scripts and filmed them, the first episode premiering over the weekend. I have a handful of dim but fond memories of the 1988 Mission: Impossible, which, if I’m being honest, I think was probably better written than the original. Namely, in its plot twists, which, in the revived series, existed, rather than the original series’s narratively strange habit of having them explain their plan in the first scene, and then spend the rest of the episode pulling it off without a hitch. Things that stick out in my mind include the replacement of the original series’s iconic exploding reel-to-reel tape recorder with an exploding tiny-little-optical-disc-player (The player was tiny, and the disc was tiny. Like a little tiny CD the size of a half-dollar), an episode where they use a pocket-sized large-format printer to print a fake wall to hide behind, and my utterly mistaken notion that Phil Morris and Michael Dorn were the same guy, based on the fact that they had kinda similar voices and I hadn’t yet seen Michael Dorn out of makeup. The Wonderful World of Disney shows The Goonies, which even today is one of the best kids’ adventure films ever (I am really struck, now, though, by the pacing. You’re 2/3 of the way in before any of the cool pirate cave stuff you remember from your childhood happens). MacGyver‘s a repeat, ALF shows a new two-parter in its entirety. Tomorrow, NBC’s showing a Geraldo Rivera special on Satanism, which says pretty much what you’d expect: satanists are taking over America, sacrificing babies by the thousands, and it’s all the fault of Ozzy Osbourne. Rivera uncritically treated various Satanic Panic (What’s your mechanic?) experts (most of whom were later exposed as frauds) as primary sources, repeatedly warned audiences that the documentary was not suitable for children, and suggested cigarette-style warning labels for music with satanic content. CBS shows a rerun of the Garfield Halloween special (the one where, for all the world, it sounds like at one point Garfield shouts “Fuck it!” G’head, listen).
But we’re here to talk about War of the Worlds. And it’s kind of one step forward, two steps back from last week. It feels a lot closer to “The Resurrection” and “The Walls of Jericho” than “Thy Kingdom Come”: they’re back to trying too hard on the humor, everyone’s performance is weirdly stilted, and the plot is merely ridiculous, rather than surreal. They do revisit some of the character points from the first episode that haven’t come up recently… but, y’know, it’s a lot of the “Everyone is quirky and unlikable” stuff I complained about before. All the same, they do seem to be settling down on a format and the technical aspects of showmaking, and the pacing is pretty good.
Like the two previous episodes, the alien plot this week is still based around the aliens shoring up their resources and digging in before they start actively trying to take out mankind. This week’s plan is sort of loosely modeled off of cold war “sleeper cell” paranoia, probably something that was put in the writers’ heads by the film Little Nikita from earlier this year. The aliens repopulate an abandoned town with their own, in order to train aliens to infiltrate human communities.
As per usual, we’re also going to feature a guest star who’s a pretty good actor you hope will become a recurring character, and won’t. This time, it’s Michelle Scarabelli as Elyse Conway, TV news reporter. Sci-Fi Universe once named Michelle Scarabelli among its “25 Most Intriguing Women in Science Fiction”. After getting her start as an uncredited extra in the 1980 slasher film Prom Night, she has a regular gig for one season of Airwolf, and a recurring role on Dallas. She also played Data’s girlfriend in an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, which gives me an excuse to link to Vaka Rangi for the first time in weeks, and you should go read it right now because it is very apropos of where this essay is going in about three paragraphs. To most geeky people, she’s best known for playing Susan Francisco on Alien Nation. But I didn’t watch Alien Nation, so the main thing I remember her from is three of the five games in The Journeyman Project trilogy (They remade the first game twice. She’s in the second remake and the two sequels) as Michelle Viscard, the primary antagonist of the second game and an ally in the third (I have no idea what her role is in Pegasus Prime, as it only runs on MacOS 8 and the Japanese Playstation. But it looks really cool). Fiction, of course, has a long history of journalists sucking. Cameron Williams, Rory Gillmore, Sarah Jane Smith, Ford Prefect, Sabrina Spellman, Rita Skeeter, Spider Jerusalem. Either they’re terrible human beings, or they’re terrible journalists, or both. Your only choice for a fictional journalist (teen journalists excluded. They can be pretty okay) is for them to either be more interested in covering up the truth than reporting it for bullshit reasons like “The world is not ready to know about aliens,” or else they’re self-serving opportunists who endanger sources, ruin police investigations or cause a public panic by reporting about aliens when the world isn’t ready to know about them because they don’t actually care about journalistic responsibility, they just want the fame and credit.
Conway is crouched with her cameraman outside a loading dock filming a special report on “Hot Stuff”, radioactive waste being shipped by commercial trucks to secure storage facilities. If she can sell the idea that this is very scary and dangerous, it might just land her a network gig. So she’ll be the second kind then, for all the difference it makes (Not much, really. Her plot thread doesn’t go anywhere). Her investigation leads her to a truck stop, where she’s incredibly unsubtle about interviewing a couple of truck drivers, but still manages to witness (and more importantly, film) what is either an alien making sweet love to a truck driver, or possibly an alien possession.
Intercut with all of this, we learn that the aliens plan to take advantage of the cavalier attitude humanity has toward radioactive waste (SHAME ON YOU, DEAR AUDIENCE) to steal some so they can set up a radioactive town for alien orientation. A possessed Department of Transportation employee engages in some light banter with her coworker, trying to get him to release the radioactive waste shipping schedules a day early. If this were a video review, I’d probably do a bit here where I pretend to not recognize the series of voice impressions the coworker does. Instead, I’ll just say that his Blaxploitation Hero Voice is way more racist than they intended it to be, but his Cary Grant wasn’t really so bad that he deserved to get his eyes punched out by an alien for it.
Back at the cottage, the writers have decided that the character trait from the pilot that they should really revisit for Suzanne is that she’s shrewish and uptight, because women, amirite? She goes full-on Mama Bear Berenstain and bitches Harrison out for his lackadaisical approach to his work — he’s promised her some unspecified analysis results and she’s tired of waiting. The punch-line of course will be that he’s just waiting for them to print, and lets her have her little rant to chasten her for not just asking politely. She also has a go at Norton for keeping her up all night with his “pacing”.
If this is all meant — and I think it is — to be familial bickering to indicate how close they’ve gotten to each other as a team, they missed the mark. Remember, last week, Suzanne was dismissive of a mentally ill woman, and now she’s yelling at a wheelchair user for “pacing”. Either they have way more faith in Lynda Mason Green’s likeability to salvage the character, or they are bound and determined to make us think Suzanne’s a total bitch. Her saving grace is that Norton (predictably given his character, and understandably given her attack) teams up with Harrison and the two of them very obviously revel in winding her up.
The good news is that they’re going to put this to bed in a little bit. A few scenes from now, this little confrontation will start to play out again. Harrison, while standing on his head, will imply Suzanne’s uptight (and should stand on her head to realign her internal organs), and Suzanne will take issue with Harrison’s leadership skills. It’s actually a very good (if stilted) scene for walking back the whole nasty “Suzanne’s an uptight bitch” business, because she just comes right out and directly explains why she’s upset. Suzanne: Your apparent indifference to my work makes me feel like I’m not sure why I’m here.
Harrison: Suzanne, you’re an integral part of what’s happening here, and the last thing I want is to make you unhappy. Now, you are used to being part of a research team, working together, everybody interfacing. I come from a different tradition. My model is the scientist who goes three weeks without sleeping to solve a certain problem. It’s a solitary process, I can’t do anything about it. Unfortunately, it does affect how I relate to your work, and for that I’m sorry. Harrison will genuinely apologize for upsetting her, and he’ll offer an explanation without invalidating her feelings — that experimental sciences like hers rely on coordinated teamwork, while theoretical ones like his tend toward a more monastic approach, and both approaches are valid for their respective disciplines, and both are necessary, and he’s really very sorry that it makes things harder for her and he’ll try to do better. I’m hoping this is a turning point in their relationship. (Would it be better for Suzanne to be the one who knows this and not need it explained to her by a man? Probably. On the other hand, Harrison is the one who needs to justify himself here, not her.)
But that’s yet to come. Ironhorse interrupts the gang before violence breaks out and summons them down to the lab to watch a video of the aforementioned eyeless shitty voice actor. Harrison instantly identifies it as the work of aliens, “Based on experience. And my gut.” Ironhorse (all together now) is skeptical. I think. He gets a faraway look like he’s Phoebe Cates about to tell the story of how her dad got stuck in the chimney on Christmas Eve and rambles about Vietnam and not knowing who you can trust and who’s the enemy. I can’t for the life of me tell if he’s trying to suggest that the missing DOT employee might just be a human who went postal or if he’s talking about Harrison, warning about the danger of seeing enemies even where they weren’t any. That second one is a more interesting interpretation, suggesting that Harrison’s zeal might lead him to make false accusations, except for the fact that the audience already knows Harrison is right. And, in fact, Harrison is pretty much always going to be right. There’s exactly one case in this show of someone being falsely assumed an alien, and it’s not Harrison who does it. Now that I think of it, this series would be a lot stronger if there were an episode where the team investigates something horrific that turns out to have an entirely human explanation — War of the Worlds doing a take on Torchwood‘s “Countrycide” (or that episode of Supernatural Leah was watching last night that is basically the same plot as Torchwood‘s “Countrycide”).
Norton has programmed the supercomputer to search all forms of media for certain key words, a concept which is so fractally “A supercomputer is basically a crystal ball” wrong that being gobsmacked by it nearly kept me from noticing the punch-line. It wakes them up in the night because it’s intercepted Elyse Conway’s transmission of the trucker possession back to the studio, and she’s used one of its trigger words: “bizarre”.
“Bizarre”. “Bizarre” is one of the trigger words that Norton’s supercomputer alerts on. Every time anyone in the country says the word “bizarre” in any broadcast, print or electronic medium (And I’ll be nice and ignore how utterly ridiculous it is to suppose that a supercomputer in 1989 could actually do this), Norton is alerted in the middle of the night. Ironhorse is (all together now) skeptical, but at a word from Harrison, Norton enhances the image to clearly show the shadow of an alien hand. I’ll note here that it’s October, 1988, eight weeks to the day before MacGyver airs “Collision Course”, often credited (Erroneously; Columbo did it back in ’75) as the first appearance of the modern form of the Magic CSI-style Video Enhance Button in TV, though Norton spares us any technobabble about creating a bitmap or increasing the Z-axis (In a strange and merciful choice, there is hardly ever any technobabble about Norton and his computer. Indeed, it’s rare for anyone but Suzanne to go into technical exposition).
After a brainstorming session about how to get a copy of the video without making the reporter suspicious, Harrison comes up with the brilliant plan to show up outside the house of a pair of elderly yokels who Elyse is interviewing about their lottery win (because War of the Worlds can’t go more than an episode and a half without a pointless scene with some yokels. They plan to buy thousands of cats with their winnings) with Ironhorse pretending to be from a DOD documentary project looking to hire her, and does she happen to have any samples of hard-hitting investigative reporting ready to hand? This plan goes exactly as well as you’d expect, and the Awesome Van has barely pulled away before she’s making plans with her cameraman to get the station’s news chopper out looking for the trucks in her video.
She finds them a good five minutes and a commercial break ahead of our heroes in the abandoned town of Beeton, soi dissant as the “Lima Bean Capital of Tula County” before improper storage at an atomic laboratory contaminated the water table. The name of the town is probably taken from Beeton, Ontario, a small town near Toronto which, ironically, no longer exists (It merged with two adjacent towns and incorporated as New Tecumseh in 1991). With a whole town to themselves and an unbounded supply of radiation waste(Odd little note here. They use the word “radiation” as an adjective to describe the lab material and the waste, and at other times in the series, they also use the word “radiation” when most people would say “radioactive” instead. I have no idea what that’s about.), all they need are a few dozen human victims. Fortunately, the nearby town of Grainville is having its Ladies’ Auxilliary Spring Bean Supper (A nice touch, there are little blink-and-you’ll-miss-em visuals to reinforce the fact that this episode is set in Lima Bean Country), and they’re just the sort to hop in the church bus and follow two aliens impersonating FBI agents with evacuation orders.
While Suzanne and Harrison are busy sorting out their differences, Ironhorse shows off his custom-made high-tech throwing tomahawk to Norton in one of the most transparent Chekov’s Gun scenes I’ve seen since that bit in the Knight Rider reboot where the side-impact-passenger-safety test is the only one that’s been completed. They try to smooth it out with some humanizing banter that sounds like it was written by aliens. Ironhorse: This is a perfectly balanced, high-tech throwing tomahawk. A modern-day version of my people’s most lethal weapon. I had it designed to my own specifications
Norton: Do you think less of me if I don’t have a tomahawk, colonel?
Ironhorse: Do you think any less of me because I’m not a bleeding-heart liberal like you, Mister Drake?
Norton: A little. I mean, the salient points here are to establish that Ironhorse has a tomahawk, and remind us that he’s a Native American and a conservative. But the weird out-of-nowhere gear change is like being slapped in the jaw, and Richard Chavez does not put even a hint of playfulness in Ironhorse’s tone. It comes off like Ironhorse is trying to make Norton feel threatened. And there’s something just slightly sexual about the tone of Norton’s playfulness here that you could seriously read as this being some kind of James Carville/Mary Matalyn thing if Ironhorse weren’t so square (and also quite obviously a sub in his private life). Harrison/Ironhorse slashfic was, I gather, pretty common back in the day, but I’m not aware of any Ironhorse/Norton stuff (mostly because I have less than zero interest in slashfic. Except maybe Stargate Atlantis Sheppard/McKay because come on).
Before the scene can end in either sex or violence, Harrison and Suzanne walk in so that Harrison can get angry and shouty because they can’t get access to high-resolution satellite imagery to look for the trucks from the video. I don’t like angry shouty Harrison; he doesn’t seem to really fit in with the academic weirdo he plays the rest of the time. Ironhorse is all over the place, at first defending the judgment of the powers-that-be to protect national security by not letting this top secret military project see high resolution pictures of America, then switching over to insisting that his hands are tied and being offended at having his dedication questioned. And then he tacitly agrees to let Norton get the photos they need by hacking.
This apparently nets them a couple of grainy, contextless photographs of trucks driving down nondescript country roads, so it seems like more coincidence than anything that Suzanne and Harrison happen upon Beeton while cruising the backroads looking for landmarks. It’s when they get to Beeton that we first see Harrison pull out his tuning fork. According to “memory research” he’d done (what’s Harrison’s field again?), the sound of the tuning fork helps with memory retrieval. Here, it helps Harrison remember reading a newspaper article about the evacuation of Beeton. His geiger counter confirms that the town is radioactive, and at a much higher level than he’d expect even given the town’s past — the needle’s gone all the way to “check battery” again. Harrison seems strangely obtuse about this, suspecting that his meter is indeed broken, even though the whole reason they’re here is because they were following trucks full of
radioactive radiation waste. He has no qualms about buying Suzanne an ice cream and himself an apple from a street vendor. That bit bugs me. Not just because they’re eating the food in a radioactive town, but because it seems like it flies in the face of the laws of drama. Your geiger counter is going crazy. You think it’s broken. You buy some food. The punch-line is supposed to be that you realize that the town really is incredibly radioactive and throw away the ice cream in a panic as you realize it’s contaminated. That’s how drama works. Instead, Suzanne is just like, “I shouldn’t be eating this, but it’s so good!” Then Harrison suddenly realizes, without any indication of some specific clue that lets him put 2 and 2 together, that everyone in the town is an alien (and in case you’re wondering, she’s still eating the ice cream in the next scene). A few seconds later, they notice two guys in suits and sunglasses holding automatic weapons outside an industrial building, but the reaction shot from Jared Martin suggests that he hadn’t seen them yet when he made his breakthrough.
By this time, Elyse has already been caught by the two truckers she’d interviewed earlier (They deliver the opening epigram), and is no longer a character in this story. Bye, Elyse. They summon Ironhorse somehow (The town’s been abandoned for years, so there’s no landlines, and it’s 1988, so they don’t have cell phones), who is none too happy that discretion requires him to go to work in a polo shirt and shorts. “I feel like a jerk,” he says. “I love the knees,” Harrison says. Suzanne is weirdly casual about all of this, asking Ironhorse to smile for a picture. I’m going to assume her brain is being affected by radiation poisoning from that ice cream cone. Ironhorse uses that tomahawk from before (what a coincidence!) to dispatch an alien guard, then has to rush up to retrieve it before the melting alien body damages it.
The alien’s demise is the most detailed shot we’ve had so far of an alien decomposing, at least for the first half of it, before the visual effects department just said “fuck it” and did a sloppy crossfade to a puddle of goo wearing a suit.
Inside the factory, Harrison wanders off and discovers that captured humans are being rendered docile using electric shocks, then possessed by freshly awoken aliens. The scene reminds me enough of the Cyber-conversion factor in the Doctor Who episode “Age of Steel” that I find myself wondering if Russel T. Davies ever saw this show. The possession itself is shown only in silhouette, which is probably the main reason that it looks chilling rather than goofy, since the alien essentially just shoves its arm into the chest of Elyse’s cameraman like he’s a puppet.
Ironhorse wants to call in an air strike. Given that his superiors weren’t willing to let Harrison see satellite photos, I have no idea how he expects he’ll be able to call down an air strike on an American city, but it’s a moot point since bombing a town full of
radioactive radiation waste is a monumentally stupid idea. They’re noticed on the way out and have to leg it, but Ironhorse returns some time later with tanks to find Beeton re-abandoned. Harrison, as becoming his custom, ends the episode lamenting the fact that they’re going to lose the war if the aliens keep getting away with their army-building plots like this.
To underscore this, we close on the advocacy back in their Land of the Lost cave, where they watch Elyse Conway on TV, delivering a fluff piece about UFO sitings and looking perhaps just a bit pekid from, y’know, being a reanimated corpse.
This episode, as I said earlier, isn’t as good as “Thy Kingdom Come”. The dialogue doesn’t flow in a lot of places. Michelle Scarabelli’s contribution is largely pointless and she vanishes at the halfway point to unceremoniously die off-screen. You could omit her altogether without changing much about the episode — her function in the plot is primarily to get our heroes from the DOT heist to following the trucks. Just have Norton use computer magic to figure out what files were taken and go from there.
But they are getting a rhythm down. We have a proper three-act structure for the main plot of the episode, with the show dividing fairly neatly into three fifteen-minute chunks. The first third sees our heroes become aware that there’s a plot afoot, the second third has track down the location of the aliens, and the final act is the confrontation. But of course, those first two-thirds are also largely concerned with shouting character development at us in the most hamfisted way possible. Norton drops out entirely for the third act, his most important contribution — hacking the government database — happening off-screen. It’s slow getting started. Far too slow. This is a common problem for TV in this era: they tend to be slow burns. But War of the Worlds isn’t very good at making those slow set-up parts hang together well. Hard as it is to say this, I think they could learn a thing or two from Captain Power: whether by mandate from Mattel, or due to directorial incompetence, almost every single episode opened with a fight scene. I’m not saying we need that here, but it’d be nice if our heroes did something other than sit around at the Cottage bickering for two thirds of the episode.
Characterization is sort of all over the place. They do a good job sewing up the tension between Suzanne and Harrison, but Harrison’s little angry flare-ups are offputting, and Suzanne’s back to smirking her way through every line. Ironhorse does some more of that “pissed off about having to do his job” stuff from two weeks ago, and there’s that creepy scene with Norton.
So it’s a little bit of a let-down after how smoothly last week’s episode worked. But even with its flaws, you can tell that the people behind the camera are getting their act together: this is competent and functional television. If they can work out issues like the habit of dropping half the cast for the third act and if Harrison’s reconciliation with Suzanne is a genuine turnaround from the jerk-ass version of Harrison, I think we’ll be on to something.
- War of the Worlds the Series is available on DVD from amazon.com