It is October 30, 1989. Tammy Faye Bakker moves into a motel to stay near her husband, who was sentenced to half a century for fraud last week. Smith Dairy of Ohio brings all the boys to the yard with a world-record 1,500 gallon milkshake. The prolonged Battle of the Bay finally ended Saturday when the Oakland Athletics won game four. The second national tour of Les Misérables will move from LA to San Francisco on Wednesday. Friday, hundreds will gather in Sofia, Bulgaria to demand democratization.
This is Janet Jackson’s last week at the top of the charts with “Miss You Much”. By Friday, she’ll have swapped places with Roxette. Opening in theaters this week is Valmont, the second movie in the past eleven months based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Unlike last year’s more successful Dangerous Liaisons, which was based on Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play, this one is adapted directly from the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos, which, fun fact, is the very first thing I ever bought on Amazon, on March 14, 1999. I’d just seen the play and really liked it, plus I was really into epistolary novels. MacGyver, 21 Jump Street and Alien Nation all air new Halloween episodes. CBS reruns last year’s Garfield Halloween special. NBC shows a special called The Wickedest Witch starring Rue McClanahan and Burgess Meredith, which has, as far as I know, never been shown since.
Star Trek the Next Generation offers up “Booby Trap“, an episode that is very good if you are watching it in 1989, but less good in the light of next year’s “Galaxy’s Child“, which recasts it from a story in which Geordi falls in love with his ship via a holographic avatar to one where Geordi creates a holographic simulacrum of a real woman because he’s a nerdy mechanophile who can’t handle Real Girls (made worse still by later repeated implications that the Real Leah Brahms is destined to leave her husband for Geordi because his creepy stalker approach works, for they are fated to be together). It’s pretty much always Halloween for Friday the 13th The Series, which airs “Bad Penny”, a sequel to last season’s “Tails I live, Heads you die”, featuring a magic coin that can trade one person’s life for another’s.
War of the Worlds is curiously un-Halloween-themed with “Breeding Ground”. At least “Terminal Rock” had people in fancy dress. That said, there’s something very sci-fi horror about “Breeding Ground”, in a particularly Outer Limits sort of way. Certainly, it’s the farthest they’ve tacked in the direction of actual horror so far, and the result is an episode that’s tonally very rich. It’s also an episode that’s important in the ongoing storyline — the events of this episode will be referenced again later in the season (also in last week’s episode, as they must have aired them out of order). There’s a particularly strong showing from some of the characters, a sympathetic antagonist of sorts, and some nice detail fleshing out the world.
But at the same time… I don’t know if it’s all that good. The weak spot this week is the regular cast, and that just does not bode well. Jared Martin in particular is well off his game. More than that, their involvement in the plot is utterly superfluous. In many ways, this episode would be better if you just cut them out and retooled this as an episode of one of the half-dozen horror anthologies that have sprung up recently. The action of the story is tremendously thin, just enough to serve as a cursory skeleton for showcasing societal collapse and body horror. It’s not that the plot itself is weak: it’s more like the wrong parts of it are happening to the wrong people.
While the aesthetic of this episode is straight-up horror, the plot is more that of a tragedy in the classical sense. It is, specifically, a story about a noble character who finds himself in a situation where a personal flaw allows external factors to twist his noble traits to inevitable disaster. It even observes the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action for the most part, and the parts that don’t are the weakest.
The fallout of this that the same character is, depending on your point of view, the protagonist, the villain, or the victim. This episode, much more than the others, feels like it’s written partially under the assumption that the Morthren are supposed to be the heroes: the ones engaged in the noble work of trying to assure their survival in a hostile world. As with so many things in this show, it’s a very interesting conceit, but it’s setting the show up for failure when there’s so much else in the show determined to depict them as ’80s horror movie villains.
This episode, wisely, puts us one step removed from actually siding with the aliens by introducing a patsy. This is our tragic “hero”, Doctor Emil Gestaine, played by Gerard Parkes (Who you may remember for playing “Doc” in Fraggle Rock and its highly controversial feature film adaptation, The Boondock Saints). He is, to all appearances, a skilled and compassionate doctor, once considered the top man in his field. The Morthren have sought him out because the survival of their species relies on them being able to breed on Earth, and for reasons which they do not go into, this requires they find a way to implant “seeds of the Eternal” into human hosts.
When we open, Doctor Gestaine is performing one of these implantations, using one of those three-fingered tongs we noted last week to shove a glowing “seed” into the back of some dude who probably just came in to get his tonsils out. Gestaine will later justify his actions in the name of the scientific knowledge humanity stands to gain. His other motivation is more immediate: he’s suffering from a degenerative illness which they’ll eventually explain as the result of his time on a medical team trying to save the victims of biological warfare experiments run awry (Because it’s a punk-rock dystopia. Of course the government is running secret biological warfare experiments and releasing them on their own people). The Morthren have provided him with a treatment, in the form of a test tube of red liquid with some green pith on top.
Denis Forest and Catherine Disher only get a few minutes of screen-time this week. Instead, it’ll be Ardix and Bayda doing most of the heavy lifting. There’s a great shot of them in shadow which feels very X-Files. The implant doesn’t take, and and the host’s back explodes, but not before he has time to run down a hall in the filthy, broke-down hospital, right past Harrison Blackwood and hide behind a plastic sheet for the sake of discretion before his back explodes.
Blackwood, fortuitously, had been on his way to visit Gestaine, an old friend, in hopes of scoring some megacillin (the Canadian brand name for benzylpenicllin, an injectable form of penicillin used for treating syphillis (and other things, but that’s the first thing on every list I’ve found), but which I bet the writers just used because it sounded like it means “Penicillin, only moreso, because it’s the future”), since Suzanne is sick, though she’ll be perfectly fine the next time we see her. There’s a small scene near the beginning establishing Blackwood’s trek to the hospital which has some nice world-building. A radio in the background mentions rioting “on the east side”, which the newscaster attributes to the “rash of unexplained droughts” back in “Doomsday“, which this episode is clearly meant to be set no more than a day or so after. It’s still raining, hard enough that the downspouts are overflowing. Also, Blackwood’s wearing the same shirt. Debi, updating Kincaid on the day’s news, mentions that, “Another senator skipped bail.” Kincaid’s bought morphine on the black market, which pleases Blackwood though no one says why especially, so I am going to assume that a drug problem is part of Blackwood’s Rugged proto-’90s grim anti-hero shtick. Blackwood’s quest is motivated by Kincaid’s failure to bring home any antibiotics, which he seems strangely glib about, despite how seriously the other three react. Blackwood is so taken aback by this that he hugs a random patient (Seriously, that guy he’s hugging in the animated gif just appears out of nowhere and vanishes in the next shot) then winds up a pay phone to call Kincaid (Yeah, phones wind up. It’s the future).
So the aliens need a new victim to experiment on. Fortunately, a few scenes earlier, we were introduced to Kate Barrows (Helen Hughes She’s got a long resume, but only one thing jumped out at me: she was one of the ghosts in the pants-crapping horrifying (but somehow only if you are a small child) 1985 French-Canadian movie The Peanut Butter Solution), an elderly woman, a former exotic dancer, whose apartment suggests that she’s living in the past, surrounding herself with old magazines and posters, even a weird black-and-white cardboard standee. But she seems happy enough, singing along to an old Victrola as she dances around her apartment. Her spirits aren’t even brought down by the fact that she’s behind on her bills, uninsured, and desperate for a welfare check that hasn’t come because the welfare office is on strike (Because societal collapse). What does get her down — lays her flat out on the floor even — is that she’s also got a bad ulcer that Gestaine can’t legally operate on because she’s poor and this is a dystopian future.
While she’s waiting to die in the fifth floor “People we’re going to let die because they’re poor” ward, Ardix and Bayda find her and decide, for reasons they don’t explain, that she’d make a good replacement victim. Gestaine wants none of it after their previous failure, but gives in the second Ardix waves that pith-covered test tube in his face, on the condition that, “This time, we’ll do it my way.”
By “his way,” he means that he’ll fix Kate’s ulcer, and while he’s in there, he installs a glowing alien baby-seed in her uterus. While he’s doing that, Blackwood and Kincaid break into the morgue. Because it’s the future and human life is cheap, the morgue keeps bodies not in refrigerated vaults, but hanging from the ceiling in plastic baggies. A rare moment of amusing banter:
Kincaid: Oh God, I hate these places.
Blackwood: By the time you’re in one, you won’t care any more. Blackwood scrapes something that looks like a green slug out of the first victim’s body while expositioning to Kincaid about Gestaine’s past. Back at the base, Blackwood examines the sample under a microscope and determines that it’s a fusion of human and alien cells — the first evidence they’ve ever seen of the aliens having the ability to combine their biology with the native population. Suzanne notes that the aliens have tried this before and failed. This must be a reference to an event in the unseen backstory about General Wilson’s alien-fighting team. It’s a bit annoying that they don’t follow up on this, since it’s rare for anyone to talk about the events before the destruction of their old HQ.
Also worth noting is that this scene answers two of the questions I’ve raised in the past. First, we learn that Harrison is some kind of biologist, as he’s able to identify the tissue by visual inspection. I probably should have guessed from the fact that he habitually carried a sample vial around with him in “Doomsday” (Though not this week, as he has Kincaid take one from the morgue. Maybe he hasn’t had a chance to clean the one he used last time). A biologist and a chemist seem like a very realistic pairing to be working on an alien-fighting team, and it’s surprising that a TV show like this wouldn’t have gone for something flashier and less realistic. The second thing we have absolute confirmation on now is that Debi knows about the aliens, as she’s the one who draws the conclusion that they’re trying to cross-breed. Pity, that could have made a good episode in itself.
The gang makes plans for the now instantly cured Suzanne to go undercover as a candy striper (This is the Future, so those old-timey nurses’ caps are back in) while Ardix and Bayda try to be friendly and comforting to Kate, who’s instantly about six months pregnant. They come off really creepy instead, though Kate doesn’t notice. Gestaine has passed the aliens off as federal researchers, who paid for her medical care in exchange for participating in their experiment. Kate is alarmed for about ten seconds and then is cool with it.
That right there is one of the biggest weaknesses of this story. Kate is the victim in all this. She’s the one who’s had her body violated against her will, who’s suddenly found herself pregnant, well past childbearing age, with an alien baby, been taken advantage of by a doctor she’d trusted, and is being kept a prisoner. No one is ever going to actually give her any consideration, ask her her opinion, or respect her decisions. Worse still, aside from one cursory nod at the end, the plot is going to do its darnedest to make Emil Gestaine out to be the victim in all this, the well-intentioned doctor who’d made a great sacrifice to help humanity, who’d been preyed upon due to his one weakness (The illness he acquired trying to save people, natch) and and ultimately destroyed by his choices and his circumstances. When Blackwood confronts him, they even give him a big hero speech where he tries to take the moral high-ground because, “I come down here every stinking day of my life, to fight a war against rape, murder, disease and despair.” It takes serious balls to position yourself on the anti-rape side right after you’ve forcibly impregnanted a non-consenting woman. What the fuck, War of the Worlds?
Blackwood hijacks the ambulance when they try to move Kate to the alien base for the delivery. Kincaid, predictably, wants to give Kate an abortion (without asking her of course), and the others sort of tacitly agree, even though they really want to study the implantation process and learn what they can about alien biology. They make a point of sending Debi out of the room while they discuss this, though they have no qualms about talking right in front of Kate.
Malzor and Mana show up in order to get in the contractually required scene where they bitch at each other. Mana considered the plan too risky and hates the idea of using humans as hosts, while Malzor takes her reluctance as a lack of faith in the Eternal’s ability to look out for his own. Gestaine gives up Blackwood in exchange for his life and arranges a meeting in which he fesses up about his condition and his work with the aliens (One nice facet of Gestaine’s tragic flaw: he hints that his interest in a cure for his condition may be more about his failure to save the Georgetown victims than about saving his own life). Blackwood notes the rash that’s spreading over Gestaine’s hands and neck as evidence that their cure may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
There is an ambiguous cut to Malzor declaring, “We have contact,” which either refers to the fact that the Morthren are about to spring a trap on Blackwood, or that they’ve done something to Kate Barrow, as we cut over to her suddenly waking up and clobbering Suzanne with an ultrasound wand to make her escape.
Kincaid saves Harrison from ambush by splattering a soldier’s glow-sticks across what might be an old Chevy Vega (though I can’t imagine what a Chevy Vega would be doing in The Future), they stop back at the shelter to find Suzanne, then hit the streets looking for Kate, basically to keep them from outrunning the plot before Kincaid suddenly realizes without prompting that she’d obviously just go back to the hospital.
Gestaine confronts Ardix, who confirms that he’ll eventually build up a tolerance to their medicine. It’s not clear how on-the-level Ardix is here. He claims that they had no way of knowing how long the medication would be effective, and that they hadn’t actually said he’d get a permanent cure. He seems like he’s implying that they did the best they could and weren’t deliberately screwing him over, and suggests that Gestaine should be “glad for the moment we gave you.” And despite realizing that Blackwood was right about the aliens, Gestaine is still willing to go along with them for as long as the alien medicine will keep him going.
Kate delivers the baby in the traditional “more or less like real life but cleaner and faster” way. The camera makes a point of not letting us see the baby at this point. Ardix and Malzor both look briefly alarmed, but it’s hard to tell with Julian Richings and Denis Forest. They may actually be trying to look proud or happy or something. Gestaine takes one look at the little alien and does the traditional tragic catharsis, “My God, What Have I Done?”
Having been delayed by a car-fight against more soldiers, Blackwood and Kincaid arrive at the hospital to find the aliens gone and Gestaine dead on the floor in a pool of blood. It may just be that the director needed a way for them to see that he’s dead, but I’ll note that Gestaine wasn’t vaporized by an alien weapon. And if you look close, I think there’s a scalpel in his hand. I’d take that to mean that he killed himself in remorse, though I guess it’s also possible that he took a swing at Ardix and just got shoved head-first into something. After lingering a long moment to let us take that in, the show finally remembers Kate, who’s still alive, crying for her baby. They’ll return to her in the penultimate scene, sitting quietly in her darkened apartment to indicate the soul-crushing despair she feels. Or whatever. Too little, too late, I’m not buying that she’s a real character with feelings and motivations. I’m half surprised they didn’t just shove her in a refrigerator given the way the story has treated her more like a plot token than a character so far.
There’s a weird coda before that, back at base where Kincaid comes in like Rush Limbaugh’s Santa Claus, as black market drugs are available again. Suzanne, Harrison, and Debi all look so happy to get big old bottles of pills. Well, thank God they resolved that whole “black market drugs are in short supply” plot thread. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night.
We end with Malzor presenting the baby to The Eternal. Malzor gets a little weepy and sentimental, and why not. He holds the child aloft, Lion King-style, to reveal… A perfectly normal human-looking baby. So… Gestaine took one look at a perfectly normal human-looking baby and decided to off himself? I give up.
This episode almost works. There’s a lot that’s good about it. Gerard Parkes is great, as you’d expect. And the things it sets out to do, it does well: there’s a compelling tragedy going on around Emil Gestaine. You’re probably bored by now of listening to me go on about how fantastic Julian Richings is, but this is probably his strongest episode. He’s fantastically creepy, particularly in an “uncanny valley” sort of way, where he acts like someone who has only ever observed human behavior from a distance and is just going through the motions. Watching him try to be comforting to Kate, he’s horrifying. Even more impressive is his Mephistopholean manipulation of Gestaine, striking this balance between friendly and threatening, sincere and deceptive.
But then it drives straight into a big old brick wall of wrong. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast aren’t in nearly the same form as Parkes and Richings. This is a Kincaid-lite episode, so we’re stuck with mopey-passive Kincaid rather than one of his other personalities. Jared Martin spends a lot of the episode just being ineffectually angry. Gestaine is a once-great physician who is now performing unethical experiments on people and has already killed at least one person. This ought to be easy. But when Blackwood confronts him, it’s as though his only argument against what Gestaine is doing is “You’re working for genocidal aliens.” This is the place where you always have the, “You used to help people! You took an oath! You betrayed Shiva!” speech, but instead, Blackwood just tells him, “This is a war, but you’re on the wrong side.” He makes it about sides rather than what it ought to be about.
And what it ought to be about is that without her consent, Gestaine performed a dangerous, unethical medical procedure on an unwitting woman and impregnated her. Kate Barrow, who is (going by her actress) seventy-one years old, wakes up from surgery pregnant. This bothers her for approximately thirty seconds. She’s being attended by the two creepiest people she’s likely ever met, but she never gives any hint that she notices this. Within a few hours, she’s at least second trimester. This should be horrific. This should be a story about someone who finds their body being taken away from them, who has a something growing inside her, who is being lied to and deceived and used and manipulated by mysterious, creepy Stepford smilers. This should be Rosemary’s Baby.
The tragic victim in this story should be Kate Barrow, and Kate alone. Not the fscking guy who did this to her.
- War of the Worlds: The Second Invasion is available on DVD from amazon.com