Happy Halloween! It is October 31, 1988. Hope you’re not planning on Trick-or-Treating in Cleveland: it’s only 19° out, the coldest it’s ever been in October. Despite the weather, Indianapolis trounces Denver 55-23. Veteran actor/producer John Houseman dies at 86. Yesterday, that little drama Philip Morris and Kraft had been playing out came to a close with Philip Morris raising their offer to $106 a share, the largest merger at that point in US history not involving an oil company. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis will marry tomorrow, and on Wednesday, Robert Morris, a Cornell graduate student, will unleash the first well-known internet worm.
“Groovy Kind of Love” will maintain the lead position on the charts until Saturday. On TV this week are a haunted house episode of MacGyver, guest starring Teri Hatcher as one of Mac’s recurring goofy friends with a penchant for getting into trouble, and a bunch of shows I’ve never heard of. Doctor Who begins “The Happiness Patrol” on Wednesday, an incredibly scathing and incredibly camp satire of the Thatcher administration which is my sister’s favorite serial and is widely hated by Doctor Who fandom, because the monster of the week is a sadistic robot made out of candy, and Doctor Who fans rather notoriously can’t take a joke. Friday the 13th the Series airs “Symphony in B#”. Ryan gets involved with a violinist whose crippled mentor is using a cursed violin to restore his musical abilities. Said violin is, of course, powered by murders committed using its switchblade bow. Seriously, I’m starting to think I should be reviewing that show instead of this one, but I doubt anything I could say improve upon the one sentence capsule summaries. It’s like Dario Argento and Stephen King playing Mad Libs.
The astute among you may have realized that we are fifty years to the day from when early John Houseman collaborator Orson Welles may or may not have terrified the nation with his adaptation of War of the Worlds. It would be kinda sorta utterly remiss to let the occasion go uncelebrated by the current incarnation of the franchise. Accordingly, this week’s episode of War of the Worlds will take Harrison and the gang to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
There’s never any indication that there’s an in-universe version of the 1953 George Pal film in War of the Worlds, though it’s a popular fan theory that a feature film docudrama was produced starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, which later would help feed the collective neurosis leading to widespread alien amnesia. They aren’t the first ones to try out the idea. Possibly the most famous example is 1984’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, in which the alien warlord John Worfin hypnotized the young Welles to disclaim his initially factual reporting on the arrival of the Red Lectroids in Grover’s Mill as a work of fiction. You have to stretch the documented facts more than a little to make the concept work (For example, to explain why an actor/director in New York would go down to the middle of New Jersey — a trip that takes two hours using roads that didn’t exist in the thirties — during the time slot where he’d been doing his theatrical presentations for weeks and try his hand at journalism under an assumed name), but it’s all in good fun.
Aliens being fooled by the broadcast also comes up a lot. It happens in an episode of the cable series Perversions of Science (Think The Twilight Zone with pay cable nudity. The one I mostly remember is about a billionaire who has a sex change and goes back in time to fulfill his lifelong dream of boning himself), the movie Spaced Invaders, and is subverted in the Doctor Who audio drama “Invaders from Mars”, where the Doctor talks Welles into a repeat performance to convince invading aliens that Earth is already being conquered by a more powerful invader (It doesn’t work because Welles congratulates himself on a hot mic). For the 1938 radio play, though, War of the Worlds decided to go with the literary agent hypothesis, that Orson Welles really did witness an alien invasion, and his supposedly fictional dramatization was part of the cover-up.
I hope you’re ready for another tonal whiplash episode, because “Eye For an Eye” is going to stride through some extremely goofy territory. I’m still on the fence about the humor in this show. The big problem with it is that it doesn’t usually work. But they’re trying at a time when the emerging trend for science fiction on TV is that it must be SRS BSNS — Star Trek, actually quite funny in its original incarnation, pretty much completely loses its sense of humor for this part of its history, and will really only get it back on Deep Space Nine (when, I assume, they were allowed to occasionally be funny because half the time, the show was so damned grim that without the occasional comic relief episode, the audience would all commit mass suicide). In general, War of the Worlds works best when they either minimize the comic elements, or when they maximize them. The worst episodes are the ones where they waffle on it, unwilling to commit one way or the other.
The episode opens with a biker gang leading a funeral procession through the town of Grover’s Mill on the anniversary of the infamous Orson Welles broadcast. One biker stops to reassure the worried local cops that they only mean to bury their friend in the a graveyard outside of town, and won’t cause any trouble unless provoked. Meanwhile, the town is preparing for their annual War of the Worlds-themed town fair. A gang of elderly men watch in disgust and grouse about what a travesty the whole thing is. The gang is led by Flannery, a 1938 veteran, played by character actor Jeff Corey (You may remember him as the leader of the planet Stratos in the Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders”. The one other role he had that sticks in my mind was as a senile judge in an episode of Night Court).
The biker gang are, of course, aliens, as we learn when we hear them speaking alien as they throw a drunken party at the graveyard. Yeah. The aliens hang out drinking been and dancing and carousing and having a good time, speaking alien. There’s an implication that they’re taking their cover stories seriously to avoid suspicion. That would tie in nicely with the idea of the aliens going to behave-like-a-human training camp as we saw last time. But then there’s the fact that they’re speaking alienese, and walking around in broad daylight scanning the ground with a device that looks and sounds like what would happen if a vacuum cleaner, a metal detector and a chainsaw had an orgy.
They call home to let the advocates know they’ve found what they’re looking for, a war machine left behind in 1938, but it’s going to take them a while to dig it up, what with the town cops keeping an eye on them. Rather unusually, the advocates don’t complain about the ineptness of their soldiers. Instead, they leave it up to their best judgment, then go off for a stroll to complain about how much work this whole invasion thing is. “No one ever said war was easy,” one of them remarks.
Harrison, Suzanne, Ironhorse, and Debi arrive in Grover’s Mill on assignment from General Wilson. Wilson’s own (off-screen) research has dug up some buried files revealing that a real invasion took place in 1938. Debi: This place is great! They’ve got pony rides and everything!
Harrison: Good news, Colonel.
Harrison: Pony rides.They’ve driven up (This show is geographically more sound than Captain Power, but apparently the Blackwood Project has their own wormhole system, since they drive everywhere. They use the same three cars in basically every episode, Norton’s Awesome Van, Suzanne’s Bronco, or, as in this episode, a Chevy Caprice. It’s heavily implied that the Cottage is somewhere in the northwest, maybe northern California, the aliens are operating out of the Nevada desert, two weeks ago, they were in Montana, and now they’re in New Jersey. That’s an awful lot of driving.) to interview anyone they can find who remembers the invasion and, according to Ironhorse, “Pay tribute to those brave, but forgotten veterans who fought in that great, historic battle.”
So here are two things I love about that line: first, it is ridiculously overblown, and second, it is perfectly in character for Ironhorse, based on everything we’ve seen so far (particularly how he acted toward Sylvia). In a lot of ways, that line sort of sums up the tone of this show, two scientists and a soldier talking about the brave veterans of a forgotten war, in the middle of a town’s fair while three portly, bearded guys in the background practice saying, “We shall sell no wine before its time,” for the Orson Welles impersonation contest.
While they recap basically the exact conversation about alien amnesia they had with General Wilson back in episode 2, there’s a whole lot of background silly going on in the town fair. Offscreen, emcee for the Orson Welles contest tells an unseen woman that she looks like a “likely contender” for the competition. The PA announces that there’s nothing wrong with the blue ice cream, “despite rumors to the contrary,” and later indicates that someone left a baby at the hot dog stand. A bit later, the announcer will disappoint the crowd by dispelling rumors that Bruce Springsteen will be performing. A little person in greenface is mocking competitors at the Martian Dunking Booth. And there’s a guy in the background who is almost certainly not Alan Ruck, but really looks like him.
Suzanne and Debi don’t really serve any purpose in this story. It’s nice to see Rachel Blanchard back for the first time since “The Walls of Jericho”, but her only practical impact on the plot is for Suzanne to leave right before the climax to take her somewhere safe, because that they couldn’t think of anything for Suzanne to do in that part, and they could just as easily have sent them somewhere else for a week for all the difference it makes.
Or maybe I’m being too hard. There are some nice character moments out of the pair: Debi talks about missing her father and being unhappy about her parents’ divorce. There’s no follow-through on that yet, but it’s coming eventually. We also learn that Suzanne used to be a softball player in her youth, as evidenced by the unbelievably shitty overhand throw she uses at the dunking booth. And Debi asks Suzanne if she believes in aliens — Suzanne’s answer is vague but consistent with the first half of the pilot in that she claims to accept aliens as inevitable given the size of the universe, but doesn’t say anything specific about aliens on Earth. I hadn’t really thought of that much, but given the nature of their work at the Cottage, of course Debi wouldn’t have been told what they were doing. And now I look back and notice that Debi leaves the room back in the pilot between Ironhorse telling his Ancient Astronauts folktale and his conversation with Harrison about the potential historicity of it. It’ll be interesting moving forward to see how much Suzanne is willing to let Debi into the loop. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Debi’s one of the few characters to outright question the existence of aliens. People have questioned and doubted the presence of aliens here on present-day Earth, and people have doubted individual reports of alien encounters, but so far, Ironhorse is the only person to have actually challenged their existence directly. Everyone else just seems reluctant to address the question.
While Debi and Suzanne are bonding, Harrison and Ironhorse head down to the local trademark-friendly equivalent of the American Legion to interview three of the four remaining members of the 1938 militia, who are happy to be taken seriously for the first time in half a century. They mention the gooseneck weapon on the fighting machine, and complain about Orson Welles, and how his broadcast trivialized their contribution and convinced the country that the whole thing had been a hoax. Later on, Harrison will interview an elderly librarian, still obviously smitten with the young Welles (She describes him as “slender”. Welles was indeed slender in his youth, but its mention here is probably more for ironic humor, since by 1988, the popular image of Orson Welles was heavily influenced by the fact that he did not need any makeup to play his final film role, Unicron, the planet-sized robot in Transformers The Movie), who will explain that Welles had been hired by the government to create his radio play to “protect the people”. The fact that Welles had allegedly come to town with government advisors to conduct interviews and research before making his play seems to conflict with the implication from the veterans that they’d, “Been waiting 50 years to tell our story.” It also makes the timeline more convoluted: Welles couldn’t have been reporting the events live. Rather, his broadcast was a fictional play, just one that was based loosely on real events. Another conclusion we can draw is that the “real” battle couldn’t have taken place on Halloween (and therefore this episode isn’t taking place on its anniversary): the real battle must have taken place some time earlier, to give Orson time to drive down, conduct interviews, and produce a radio play. Okay. It still makes sense that Halloween itself would be a good time for Harrison and his team to come for a visit rather than the “real” anniversary, since the town fair makes a good cover for them to walk around asking people about aliens in 1938.
The coincidence of the aliens showing up the same day is hard to swallow on its own. It would be easy to justify — perhaps the downed ship transmits a signal on the anniversary of its arrival because of mumble mumble planetary alignment. But this thing of just having the Blackwood team and the aliens coincidentally show up in the same place at the same time is incredibly contrived, and it lays bare the way that the universe is being created ad hoc: of course Harrison and the aliens are pursuing the same alien-related thing out in the world at the same time; the world for this show is being created one alien-related thing at a time. Fortunately, they won’t lean too much on the worst kinds of coincidences like this very often. You will still see a lot of “An old friend of mine just mentioned that there’s a creepy new guy at his office with radiation sores all over his face”-type setups, but I don’t find those as forthrightly contrived as “It just happens by dumb luck that we’re both in town the same weekend.”
Ironhorse concludes that the 1938 invasion had been a reconnaissance mission ahead of the main invasion fleet. At no point do we actually learn anything specific and new. The militia allegedly brought down the single war machine — with great difficulty and with great sacrifice — but there’s no indication of how they might have actually accomplished this, given that the war machines have otherwise been portrayed as completely indestructible from the outside.
I would like to postulate that the 1938 war machine was a different design, perhaps a tripod as described in the radio play, without a force field and susceptible to heavy artillery fire provided it doesn’t have time to shoot back. But while this has been going on, the alien bikers have unearthed the buried war machine, and it’s identical to the movie design. It’s a much better recreation of the 1953 Al Nozaki design than we saw in the pilot, with proper proportions and shot from a more favorable angle. The open hatch is extremely faithful to the original design, though given the way the ship is buried, it would have to be on the dorsal hull rather than the underside. Since the ship is still partly buried, you could still propose that the covered part of the ship might be a different design, though the ’38 veterans still describe it as a “flying saucer”, and the aliens refer to it as flying (Of course, in the 1953 movie, we’re explicitly told that the war machines don’t fly, but rather use “electromagnetic legs”. I’m inclined to take this as purely a terminology thing. When Clayton Forrester says that it isn’t flying, he means that it’s not using propulsive thrust or aerodynamic lift. But the machines do move through the air without direct support from the ground, which is probably within the bounds of the dictionary definition of “flight”. I’ll even go as far as to propose why they’re willing to call it “flying” in 1988 but not in 1953: the modern hovercraft was invented in 1959. The question of whether what a hovercraft does counts as “flying” is debatable, with the consensus answer appearing to be “sorta”.), so tripods are right out.
To the advocacy’s dismay, the ship’s flight capability is beyond repair. The trip isn’t a wash, though, since a quick test of the the heat ray (They call it “the beam”) proves it functional. The visual effect of the beam is even closer to movie-accurate here than it was in the pilot. We see them vaporize a car, which satisfyingly generates white and red overlays then ceases to exist, leaving blackened ground in its stead. The sound isn’t quite as good as last time, though, with the “THRUM THRUM THRUM” as the weapon charges sounding decidedly wrong. After complaining about how they have to do all the thinking, the advocates order them to dismantle the beam and bring it back. If any humans notice them, I swear I am not making this up, they are to, “remind the puny Earthlings how our death ray works.” That is freaking beautiful, man. Puny Earthlings.
But you have to get up pretty early in the morning to put one past an elderly, possibly senile man in Grover’s Mill. A few biker aliens made the ill-considered decision to stop by Flannery’s prize rose bushes for a snack, and he’s onto them now, having seen the 1938 “Martians” (That’s a nice touch. The Grover’s Mill militiamen are the only people who ever refer to the aliens as “Martian”) feed similarly. His friends are disinclined to believe his tales of “Martians on motorcycles,” because of Flannery’s informed habit of embellishing the story of his own contribution to the 1938 battle. And besides, the aliens of 1938 were in their natural form, so this is the first the veterans have heard of the aliens being able to “disguise” themselves. Harrison and Ironhorse also seem unconvinced, which is a bit of a wall-banger given that they know that (a) the aliens are indeed back, and (2) can possess human bodies.
All the same, Flannery’s friend Harv agrees to go with him to reconnoiter the biker encampment. Harv is played by John Ireland, another veteran character actor, the first Vancouver-born actor to be nominated for an Academy Award, best known for Spaghetti Westerns and his affairs with several young starlets like Tuesday Weld and Natalie Wood (There’s a scene in the 1948 John Wayne film Red River where he and Montgomery Clift compare the size of their… sidearms as a cheeky joke about Ireland’s reputed endowment). Also, kinda looked like George R. R. Martin in his later years. Joining Flannery turns out to be a bad move for Harv, as he’s possessed by an alien when he stops to take a leak.
Harrison and Ironhorse regroup with Suzanne and Debi for a disgusting lunch of green-dyed “Martian” themed diner food. Harrison explains what “slop” means to Debi. He also lets slip that Norton is on the way, having had the Awesome Van air-lifted by usurping Ironhorse’s requisition powers. Ironhorse is so bothered by this that he sticks Harrison with the check and runs off, a surprising reversal, since the way Harrison’s been characterized so far, you’re primed to expect any sticking-with-the-check bit to run the other way.
I guess Norton getting air-lifted patches the geographical oddity I mentioned earlier, but keep in mind, the others arrived in one of the same three cars we see every episode without apparently having been air-lifted. Ironhorse tries to bawl Norton out for leaving him on the hook for a “presidential priority” request. Norton, as you’d expect by this point, responds by flirting. He’s even brought presents. “Oh, I brought Dr. McCullough’s microscope and laser spectroscope, and I brought your picture of John Wayne.” His tone is also flirty with Suzanne. This is one of the few scenes out of this show that Leah was in the room to see, and she found Norton’s tone kind of weird and creepily over-the-top, particularly that he’s flirting in the context of being told that Suzanne is going to go examine biological samples. She’s not wrong. Norton’s flirtatious manner hasn’t aged well. In 1988, the bar was in a different place, but in 2015, I’m leaning toward calling it sexual harassment. Norton’s one saving grace, such as it is, comes down to the fact that he seems to be pretty egalitarian with regard to who he’ll flirt with. I will therefore spend the rest of this review series looking for excuses to ship Ironhorse and Norton. There’s at least one real good one around the middle of the season.
Also, not to lay too fine a point on it, but they never actually say why Norton has flown all the way out here and what they need him to do that requires him to be out in the field. Or why he didn’t come with them in the first place. Nothing’s happened yet from their point of view, so why go to the trouble of having Norton flown out?
Suzanne abandons her eleven-year-old daughter for a few hours to investigate the battle site with Ironhorse, but they’re turned back by the two police officers from the first scene, now alien-possessed. They regroup with Harrison shortly before Flannery tracks them down to tell them about the alien warship. You’ll remember that a couple of weeks ago, I took Suzanne to task for her frankly cruel dismissal of Sylvia. Well, here we have another example of that thing I mentioned from the old Starlog interview about the showrunners wanting to portray the characters as dynamic. Suzanne does question Flannery’s claim because of his reputation, but she comes around immediately when he explains himself. Ironhorse is a bit more skeptical, but he too thinks it’s worth investigating, particularly given that they’d wanted to go up there anyway, and none of them were particularly convinced by the police officers’ claims of roads blocked by mudslides.
Ironhorse arrives just in time to see the aliens mounting the gooseneck to their hearse. Well, I say “the gooseneck”. But you know how I said the war machine model this week looked pretty good? This does not apply to the detached gooseneck. It looks wrong enough that, and again I emphasize, twenty-seven years later, I still distinctly recall not realizing that the thing they were strapping to the hearse was meant to be the same thing as was attached to the top of the war machine the first time I saw this episode. The proportions are completely, utterly wrong. The gooseneck is too short and too stocky, it seems to have only three or four segments (Is there a name for the individual ring shapes on flexible gooseneck tubing?) rather than “lots”, the cobra-head isn’t even close to the right shape or size relative to the neck, the emitter lens looks nothing like correct, and the whole thing looks like it’s made out of cardboard.
Ironhorse is able to get approval for tanks and/or an air strike, but it will take hours to arrange (It’s very strange and backward that the limiting factor in this show tends to be the amount of time it takes to drive a tank somewhere, and rarely anything to do with the political implications of a US Army general ordering an attack on American soil). So it’s up to Harrison to contrive a method of stopping the aliens with whatever he can MacGyver up at Flannery’s farm with stuff they can get at the local hardware store while Suzanne takes Debi to safety.
One weak point in the plot here is that the team has no idea what the aliens mean to do with the beam weapon, and neither do I. Harrison even seems to realize that a single weapon isn’t a lot to work with — there’s a whole lot of Earth for the aliens to conquer and the minute they start shooting stuff up with the beam, they’ll lose the advantage of secrecy. Without one of their indestructible ships to mount it on, the best they could manage is maybe one high-profile attack that, sure, kills a lot of people, but ends with the hearse being mobbed by humans, the alien operators killed, and the weapon captured. They might be able to raze Grover’s Mill, but what that would get them, I’ve no idea. Harrison seems to settle on the idea that they might attack New York, though he doesn’t mention a specific target. And it’s worth remembering that Harrison is wrong: whatever their long-term plans, the immediate plan is just to bring it back to their lair. All of the farmland near Grover’s Mill is to the east of town, which is the opposite direction.
Which is why I was really hoping that it would turn out that Harrison had figured out that Harv was possessed and was deliberately feeding him information, since he sneaks off to warn the bikers. You might think that the aliens would respond to this warning by just taking US-1 up through Princeton instead of going down 614 out through bumblefrack for 30 miles, and thereby being in Pennsylvania without ever driving past Flannery’s farm (Bonus: there’s a way to get out of New Jersey without crossing a toll bridge if you go through Princeton. Far as I know, it’s the only way to leave New Jersey for free). But we’ve observed before that these minds that are to our minds as ours are to beasts in the jungle don’t seem particularly bright, so they decide, knowing ahead of time where Harrison is setting up an ambush, to go directly there and walk straight into Harrison’s trap.
Harrison sets Norton to work on a “parabola program”, which Norton claims should take a week. I have no idea how to make writing a “parabola program” take a week. As close as I can tell, what he wants is to calculate the parameters for a parabola with a given focal length and model an approximation of the shape out of line segments. This is tedious work, but it’s not actually hard. Even with the computing technology of 1988, you’re only talking about a few hours of work. It wouldn’t take a week to do it longhand.
With some help from the Grover’s Mill militia, and borrowed dynamite (No one questions why Flannery has dynamite. I’m pretty sure that agricultural-use dynamite was illegal even in the ’80s) Ironhorse plans to draw aggro from the alien convoy, then lead them back to Harrison, who compares the plan to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I am not clear on which part of the Little Bighorn this plan resembles, and assume that Harrison is just reminding the audience that Ironhorse is a Native American, in case they’re complete morons who have been thrown off by the fact that he uses pronouns and does not wear a feathered headdress. (I am looking forward to an episode still to come that will treat Ironhorse’s Cherokee heritage with some substance rather than just having characters shout at the camera, “HEY DID YOU KNOW HE’S AN INDIAN?”).
Flannery catches Harv eating his roses, and marches him back to Harrison at gunpoint. This time, everyone believes Flannery at first blush, and Harrison’s geiger counter silences Harv’s protests. Harrison makes an impassioned plea for inter-species cooperation, “Why this planet? That you came here from across the universe, you’re so different, we’ve got so much to learn from each other. There’s enough universe for both of us to live in peace.” but Harv dismisses humans as “fungus”. Harv makes a break for it as they’re escorting him to a meat locker for safekeeping, and Flannery is forced to shoot his old friend. Who explodes. For some reason. Aliens explode when shot with a long gun. Let’s just roll with it.
Ironhorse forces the bikers off the road by throwing dynamite at them, and the plan goes exactly the way you think it would given how this show has been going: having been warned of the ambush, the aliens drive right into it, and then disobey their orders to get the beam weapon to safety (One of them even questions this) by pursuing Ironhorse across a field while the beam charges up.
Ironhorse lets himself be chased to Flannery’s barn, where Harrison rolls out of the way to reveal the large parabolic dish he’s made by attaching mirrors and other shiny objects to a wood frame. Luckily, rather than being instantly vaporized by the heat ray, the parabolic mirror does what a parabolic mirror is supposed to do, more or less. The beam strikes it off-center, bounces around the dish a few times, then shoots out the front right back the way it came. Possessing video game hit box detection, the beam neatly disintegrates the weapon, the hearse, and the bikers standing nearby.
The next morning, Ironhorse gives medals to the remaining militia survivors while Harrison and Suzanne meet back up. Then Ironhorse amusingly almost shoots a bunch of children out Trick-or-Treating. Serves them right for being out this early. (I assume it’s early. It is daytime again, having been night in the previous scene, and it seems weird that they’d wait until the late afternoon to regroup. In any case, no self-respecting kid old enough to be out trick-or-treating on their own in the ’80s would have gone out before sunset anyway, which would have been around 5 PM on Halloween in Grover’s Mill. We close with only Debi noticing, and waving to, a solitary biker who turns to show his radiation scars to the camera before riding out of town.
If “A Multitude of Idols” was a step back from the progress they’d made in “Thy Kingdom Come”, “Eye for an Eye” gets us back on track. It’s another supremely watchable episode, with a much more modern feel than the even-numbered episodes, using a lot of short scenes and a lot of location shooting. It’s basically still the case that all the excitement happens in the last five minutes, but it manages not to feel as front-heavy as “The Walls of Jericho” or “Thy Kingdom Come”. That’s especially good work because both of those episodes did have actiony scenes in their first halves, with body possession, and alien hosts melting, while this episode doesn’t feature any action sequences at all until the climax, just a very few special effects shots.
I still can’t quite pin down exactly why some episodes work and others don’t. A lot of it is down to pacing. With both “The Walls of Jericho” and “A Multitude of Idols”, you had setups where the team spent two-thirds of the episode at The Cottage engaged in research and in-fighting, leaving the aliens to carry the story proper up through act 3. Even though this week’s episode, unlike “Thy Kingdom Come”, has the Blackwood team basically following their own unrelated agenda in parallel to the aliens, they’re still fully engaged in the plot, and it’s their engagement that leads them to the alien plan, rather than, say, Norton’s computer search just happening to stumble upon it. The two “good” episodes keep the team out in the field for the bulk of the episode. Another part of it is the humor. An episode set in a town where aliens are learning to pass for human should be funny. Heck, that is basically the premise of the show Michelle Scarabelli will do the following year. And “A Multitude of Idols” isn’t funny. It’s not even really trying.
The lighthearted approach patches over a lot of the rough points in the plot. The unjustified coincidence that the Blackwood team’s visit, the aliens’ visit, and Halloween all happen to coincide. Or the fact that we never get any explanation for how the Grover’s Mill militia could possibly have taken out an alien warship. Or that the whole reason they came here in the first place is to research alien amnesia, but they never learn anything about it and will not pursue it any farther. The aliens’ inexplicable decision to ignore their orders and hunt down Ironhorse out of spite (Coupled with the fact that Flannery catches aliens eating his roses twice in the episode and once in the backstory, maybe the idea is just that aliens have shitty impulse control). Norton having himself air-lifted to New Jersey for no discernible reason. Kids out Trick-or-Treating on a Monday morning when they should be in school (That last one is petty, yes, but in my defense, I am probably the first person to apply the methodology of geeky nitpicking to this show).
Despite sidelining Suzanne for the climax, this is a good episode for her. It’s all a big old pile of cliche, of course, defining her character primarily in terms of motherhood, but it gives Lynda Mason Green a chance to display some range as an actress, which she’s been sorely missing. Debi is a wonderfully eighties eleven-year-old, which I think is best summed up when Suzanne proposes they spend the night in the woods outside town pretending to be on Safari, and Debi counter-proposes, “We can pretend to find treasure! Buried treasure with credit cards!”
It’s probably no coincidence that the two best episodes so far are the ones that have actively engaged the franchise’s past. That’s not necessarily good news. As I said while I was playing dumb in the lead-up to this series, there really isn’t a whole lot in The War of the Worlds that’s left open to return to in a sequel, at least, not much that’s within the scope this series has laid out for itself. You could kind of imagine a show going in that direction, depicting a world that’s been changed by virtue of having the trauma of an alien invasion in its past, or by having the boon of captured alien technology reverse-engineered and integrated into society. In fact, you don’t have to imagine it. We’ve already talked about Goliath, but you could just as easily imagine a War of the Worlds series in the vein of Stargate SG-1. Heck, SG-1 isn’t all that much more connected to its feature film inspiration than War of the Worlds is (There is no evidence, for example, in Stargate that the gate goes anywhere but Abydos, or that Ra is the highest ranking of a whole race of body-snatching snake-aliens rather than the sole surviving Roswell Gray-style alien who can shapeshift). But that’s not an avenue this series has chosen. It’s not until SG-1 (and even then, not really until the middle of its run) that present-set humans-vs-aliens TV series would pursue the idea of humans adopting and adapting alien technology. Until that point, it was standard practice (bordering on painful cliche even in SG-1‘s early seasons) that humans would inevitably be prevented from acquiring alien technology, or at best would be forced to immediately sacrifice anything they laid hands on to deal with the crisis of the week.
So we’re not going to see a lot more engagement with the past. Only two more episodes off the top of my head, maybe three. In place of that, they’re going to have to find something else. What that is, I’m not sure yet, but hopefully we’ll see it soon. We’ve got two of my favorite episodes coming up in November, 1988. One of them is similar in many ways to this one. The other will see our first “good” episode that isn’t built around calling back to the source material. Let’s see what they come up with.
- War of the Worlds the Series is available on DVD from amazon.com