I’m in total control, Suzanne.
It is November 7, 1988. Since last week, Geraldo Rivera got his nose broke when a fight broke out on his talk show and Emma Stone was born. Tomorrow, George Herbert Walker Bush will win the presidential election, inaugurating the Bush Presidential Dynasty, and 900 people will die from an earthquake in China. Today, Donny Lalonde fights Sugar Ray Leonard at Caesar’s Palace. Had Senate Joint Resolution 390 passed, today would be “Memorial Day for Victims of Communism”.
“Kokomo” is the number one song on the Billboard charts, the only number one from The Beach Boys since 1966, though they’ll crack the top 40 once more in 2013 when a new Greatest Hits compilation comes out. They Live had its US theatrical premiere Friday. Election coverage will preempt prime-time TV until Wednesday. On General Hospital, Dr. Tom Hardy marries Dr. Simone Ravelle, the first interracial marriage on daytime TV, another thing for your checklist of, “Wait, that only happened in the ’80s?”. Friday the 13th The Series airs “Master of Disguise”. This week’s murder-powered cursed artifact is the makeup case of John Wilkes Booth.
No particular idea why, but “The Second Seal” is one of two episodes of War of the Worlds that tends to pop to the front of my brain, and I implicitly think of it as being archetypical of one of the series’s two major modes. Like most of the episodes so far, this one’s plot is based around the aliens trying to acquire resources to build their army and assure their survival on Earth. This episode also follows the format that I kind of nostalgically think of as the default War of the Worlds structure (Even though it isn’t really all that common in the series; that’s just me imposing my own assumptions about default storytelling structures onto the show), with Harrison and Suzanne off having an “adventure” plot, while Ironhorse goes off on his own to have an “action” plot, and Norton stays home to act as “mission control”. Also, Jared Martin and Lynda Mason Green act drunk for half the episode.
Based on Norton’s discoveries, Harrison, Suzanne and Ironhorse have traveled to nearby (This episode establishes that the cottage is located in the San Francisco Bay area) Fort Streeter to look in the vaults of “Operation Deep Ice”, a large collection of alien artifacts and Dr. Forrester’s research papers. Original Mission: Impossible alumnus Greg Morris takes a break from his recurring guest role on the Mission: Impossible revival to play the fort’s commanding officer, General Masters. Because it’s a tiny, tiny world, Masters went to school with General Wilson, and also knows Ironhorse from the invasion of Grenada. He invites Ironhorse to an awards banquet in order to get him out of the way for act 2.
Sadly, General Masters will not make it to the banquet himself, as the news reporter parked outside trying to get an interview is really an alien, and when the General stops to sexually harass her (Seriously. He makes suggestive comments about her twice, and later, one of the other officers will imply that Masters is a bit of a skirt-chaser), he gets possessed. There’s a slight misdirect, as you kind of expect the reporter to possess him (They’ve already established that she’s an alien as the General’s attache had been possessed by an alien hiding in her van), but it’s actually his driver who does it once he waves her off.
As we’ve seen a few times by now, there’s often a feel in War of the Worlds that we’re watching the aliens and the Blackwood team coincidentally happen upon some other, more ordinary show already in progress. That’s the case again this week, as Harrison and Suzanne pass briefly through some sort of military-themed office romance. You probably know the one. Lt. Amanda Burke is thoroughly smitten with her coworker, Lt. Hamil. But he’s cool and conventionally attractive and kinda looks like a young Ted McGinley, while she likes opera and is Hollywood Homely, which more-or-less means that she’s fairly attractive but has an unflattering haircut and glasses. So of course he’s constantly brushing her off with lame excuses while she’s trying to be all subtle and win his heart through dogged persistence. Later on, Suzanne will probably give her a makeover. There’s also an administrative assistant who’s warm for Ironhorse, and of course that’s supposed to be hilarious because she’s middle aged and therefore the thought of her having a sexual identity is obviously laughable.
And because this is 1988, the audience is supposed to find this cute and relatable rather than looking forward to all of these characters dying messily. It’s okay. We’ll get through this. After tracking down the vault number (it takes a little while because it’s misfiled as “Operation Dee Pice”), Lt. Burke uses her voiceprint to unlock the elevator down to the vast underground storehouse (because of course voiceprint locks are a thing they use. Amanda’s password is “Yabba Dabba Doo”.)
The vault in question turns out to be mostly empty. Amanda doesn’t go out of her way to be obstructionist, but she won’t let them check any of the others without authorization. Ironhorse promises to get it and leaves the others for the General’s party, despite the fact that his spider-sense is piqued by the alien-possessed soldiers milling about outside.
While Lt. Ted McGinley is getting himself possessed, Harrison sets up his Tandy T1000 laptop and acoustic modem-slash-speakerphone (The most outlandish thing in this show: in this underground military archive, Harrison finds a rotary phone with a direct outside line on which he can multiplex voice and data.) and calls Norton, who, as per usual, promises to hack into the secure military network and search the archive’s inventory for the rest of the haul. There’s a bit of a fresh side to Harrison in this scene: in the past, he’s generally tended to get manic and forceful, but here, he’s melancholic instead, disappointed to be denied access to his father’s (I think this is the first time Harrison refers to Clayton as his father without qualifying the relationship as “adoptive”) work when he’s so close.
Suzanne puts some tissue samples under the microscope and reveals that these isolated samples are still showing cellular activity, which is terrifying and interesting and won’t come up again. The former General Masters and his legion of aliens decide this would be a good time to take the vault. Doudy middle-aged administrative assistant is killed, but Lt. Burke narrowly escapes because rather than stopping to notice the sound of the secretary getting shot, she got on the elevator to bring Harrison and Suzanne a box full of sandwiches and fashion magazines.
Suzanne and Lt. Burke settle in for a bit of girl-talk while Harrison naps, and holy crap, Suzanne actually does give her a makeover. Well, she takes off her hat and glasses, and teases her bangs a little. Look, I’m not going to go all indie street cred and disparage Hollywood standards of beauty in favor of I don’t know what. But look, Burke looks the way she looks, and it’s not like she can trade in her uniform while she’s on duty. She can make the sexy librarian thing work with a little effort. “Take off your hat and glasses and tease your bangs a little” is not an improvement on this. In fact, it kinda just makes her look silly. Also, Suzanne’s advice for snaring the hunky Lt. Ted McGinley is pretty much just to throw herself at him. I am in favor of taking the direct approach, and heartily disapprove of the societal pressures that more or less order women to express sexual interest only in the form of subtle hinting. But there’s at least two problems with this: first, she’s already tried that, directly asking him out on a date a few scenes ago. He shot her down so hard that I was rooting for him to get hollowed out and used as a meatsuit. Secondly, this is Suzanne giving the advice. One of the very first traits the show explicitly gave us about Suzanne is that she’s not the type to throw herself at a man. And to add insult to injury, that’s going to be a major part of the next act.
Amanda gets a brief chance to think that her “makeover” has paid off, as Lt. Ted McGinley comes on to her the moment he sees her. As it turns out, the voiceprint lock on the elevator door is sophisticated enough to detect when someone is alien-possessed, and thus, his password (The most obvious dudebro password of the ’80s) won’t work. So he ushers her into the elevator with sloppy makeouts, and once she’s exclaimed her “Yabba-Dabba-Doo!”, right when she’s expecting him to whip out his third appendage and stick it in her, instead he whips out his third appendage and sticks it in her.
A typo leads Norton to locate another vault of interest: it had been filed under “D. Eep Ice”. Suzanne and I both think this sounds like par for the course with bureaucracy, but Harrison is instantly convinced that this is, in fact, a brilliant form of added security, intentionally misfiling the collection in order to obscure it, and orders Norton to look up various misspellings. Unwilling to wait while Ironhorse gets the paperwork lined up, Harrison picks the lock to the next vault, which is chock full of thirty-year-old file boxes and alien artifacts. And also a boom box that’s so 80s that it is identical to the first picture that comes up if you google “80s boom box”.
Harrison reaches for an alien device that looks kinda like a dousing rod — it’ll later be revealed as a handheld weapon — but his approach wakes up a small crystal pyramid that glows green. When he tries to show it to Suzanne, it tosses him into a pile of boxes. Harrison appears no worse for wear physically, though: he pushes the boxes aside, shouting at Suzanne that he doesn’t need her help, then violently shoving her away with a shout of, I am not making this up, “You’re not my mother!” so he can get back to fondling his crystal.
Yeah. Turns out that the crystal has some kind of vaguely defined psychoactive properties, and this is going to be the episode where an adverse outside influence makes the regulars act out-of-character. The crystal works basically the same way as the PSI2000 virus in Star Trek. Harrison’s already on my shitlist for his violence toward Suzanne, and he compounds a few minutes later when he forcibly grabs her wrist while taking a hit off the crystal, deliberately infecting her against her wishes. The effect of the crystal is probably supposed to be analogous to drunkenness, but kinda sounds closer to toxoplasmosis: it makes women slutty and makes men giant assholes. So Harrison becomes angry and aggressive, shouting at Suzanne and Norton, while Suzanne gets all giggly and touchy-feely.
But the gender essentialism doesn’t stop there, friends. After that first little bit, Harrison basically tones it down to “Normal Harrison, but angrier,” while Suzanne is pretty much useless for the rest of the episode, constantly whining about how she wants another hit, or how she’d like to try doin’ in while high on crystal, and how Harrison’s insistence on doing work is “Boring with a capital B”. Even in angry asshole mode, Harrison realizes the crystal is dangerous, while Suzanne insists, “But it feels good, so let’s do it!” Her one contribution from this point on is to randomly wonder what effect light has on the crystal, so Harrison can shine a flashlight on it and learn how to make an Iron Man-style repulsor beam for the climax.
The crystal doesn’t work over the phone, so we’re at least spared seeing Norton unleash his inner fratboy. But he doesn’t get off scott-free, as he repeatedly eggs them on and laments that he can’t get a hit off of the thing. At one point, he does this while Harrison is manhandling Suzanne. Yeah. I am really coming to hate Norton.
Ironhorse has gotten tired of the rubber chicken jokes back at the party (It’s like he wandered into someone else’s running gag. Two different people have made the exact same joke about the chicken tasting like rubber. The writers don’t seem to get that you have to tell a running gag three times for it to be funny) and is on his way back, though Harrison makes him stop for a pepperoni pizza so that we can all notice how out-of-character it is for him to eat meat.
On their way to pop open another vault, Harrison and Suzanne find General Masters and the aliens, who take about two minutes to find the list of alien burial sites they were looking for and decide to cover their tracks by rigging the place to explode. This really harshes Suzanne’s buzz and she nags Harrison to let her get another hit of crystal. Instead, he duct tapes it to his flashlight.
For no reason, when Lt. Burke finds them, she decides to play along and pretends to lead them to safety away from the “terrorists” Harrison claims have invaded. She gets a little too pushy demanding that he give her the crystal, though, and he uses his flashlight to send her flying. It’s not entirely clear if Harrison realizes she’s an alien when he does it: she does push him, but the amount of force she uses isn’t necessarily more than a physically fit soldier could bring to bear against a man who’s larger, but, y’know, a forty-year-old academic.
By this point, Ironhorse has returned with Harrison’s pizza. Alerted by Norton to something being “up”, he inexplicably pulls out an eight inch dagger. Now, I’m no expert in combat cutlery, but I did about an hour of googling, and the sword he’s pulled out does not appear to be even a little similar to any sort of combat knife in common use by the US Army at least as far back as Vietnam. After gutting the alien guarding the doors, he goes full Rambo on the rest of the contingent above-ground, taking a bullet in the shoulder and one in the leg in the process. Harrison and Suzanne manage to capture the courier tube containing the burial site list (He claims that the aliens getting the list would be “Like the opening of the second seal”) and escape via the elevator, leaving the aliens and the rest of the Deep Ice stockpile to perish in the explosion. You know, they might have made it out in time, but they had to stop to do the Bond Villain thing where the alien who dropped the tube is ordered to kill himself to atone for his failure. Suzanne redeems her behavior for the past several minutes by making the difficult decision to use the crystal on the aliens rather than herself, even though this results in her losing it as the elevator door closes.
Once they meet up and assure each other of their shared humanity Ironhorse: Are you aliens?
Blackwood: Are you?
Suzanne: Well if you have to ask, no one is.
Ironhorse: You’re probably right. Harrison compliments Ironhorse on having, “Really kicked some alien butt.” Ironhorse thinks he’s being mocked, but Harrison explains that the influence of the crystal made him feel “Like Ironhorse,” while he notes that Suzanne was, “Maybe just a little bit looser.” She self-consciously redoes the top button on her shirt, and completely misunderstands what “loose” means in this context, since she interprets this as a callback to when he called her “uptight” in the pilot. Still trying to convince us that there is supposed to be some romantic tension between these two, Harrison muses on where their relationship stands after this. Ironhorse, who’s been looking confused as he slowly bleeds to death during this exchange, interrupts them to ask that someone call him an ambulance. “You’re an ambulance,” Suzanne responds, bringing the total number of times that Suzanne acting goofy under the influence of the crystal has been as amusing as the writers thought it was to one.
Before the scene can get any more awkward, one badly burned alien survivor climbs up the elevator shaft, takes a shot at them, and grabs the tube with the list in it. Obviously, Harrison lets the guy with two bullets in him do all the work and chase the alien out of the building, shooting him just before he rounds the corner. Though they find the courier tube in the alien’s melted remains, it’s empty, leaving the team unsure whether the list was left in the vault or handed off to someone else: only time will tell. Or not, since it’ll never be mentioned again.
So… Yeah… I’ll stand by my assessment that this is a pretty well-made episode. The pacing is solid, there’s a nice balance of action and adventure elements, and all the regulars get something to do. The plot generally makes sense, and there’s no point where the story hinges on the aliens being comically stupid. Plus Suzanne even gets her own action sequence.
But wow. I guess early-teens me didn’t have the background to notice just how ugly a lot of that middle section with Harrison and Suzanne tripping is. Harrison knocks Suzanne around on three separate occasions, and her reaction is to try to mount him. The completely unchallenged, unreconstructed assumption is that removing a man’s inhibitions makes him violent, and doing the same to a woman makes her easy creates an implicit equivalence between sex and violence and just lets it sit there unchallenged. Harrison even refers to them as “primal behavior patterns,” making it explicit that the violent/slutty dichotomy is wired straight into the human brain.
Now, Harrison was exposed to the crystal accidentally, and he’s clearly not in control of his actions when he forcibly exposes Suzanne. Even so, the scene comes off as very rapey. This wouldn’t be unforgivable, except that the narrative never seems to problematize his behavior. On the contrary, Harrison’s exposure makes him “Like Ironhorse” — a different sort of hero than the usual, but still a hero. Suzanne, on the other hand, becomes largely useless, and the show feels like it wants us to agree with Harrison’s frustration at her acting “like a junkie”, which is particularly rich after, I can not repeat this enough, Harrison forced the crystal on her.
And to make matters worse, Harrison never apologizes. Almost the opposite: his “where are we now?” to Suzanne sounds like a question asked after waking up hung over in bed with your no-really-we’re-just-friends. He’s characterizing both their actions as flirtatious.
Just when this show starts to get into its groove, the eighties rears its ugly head. I don’t even. Really. It took me about three hours to write everything up to that picture of Quasimodo up there, and then a week to write the rest because I don’t know how to process this. What the fuck, War of the Worlds? What the fuck.