Synthesis 3: Band-Aids Don’t Fix Bullet Holes

So let’s talk a little about “Breeding Ground” and “Seft of Emun” as relates to the first season, and about “Eye for an Eye” and “The Second Seal” as relates to the second. I was originally just going to babble a bit about the use of alien-induced mind-altering in “The Second Seal” compared to “Terminal Rock” and “No Direction Home”, but then I actually watched the episodes, and…

The simplest thing in this cluster of episodes to get worked up about is the appearance of the first-season alien costumes in the Seft’s flashback. We got a little glimpse of them in “The Second Wave”, but not a good look. The costumes are the same for obvious reasons, but you’ll note that if this version of the alien form is meant to have three arms, we never see them pull the middle one out. Of particular note is the accouterments (Did you know that the plural of “accoutrement” is “accouterments”?). You may notice that the Morthren in “Seft of Emun” are wearing the suits we saw them manufacture in “The Walls of Jericho”. That’s a very easy thing to get upset about, but this one, ironically, I think actually makes for better continuity with the first season. Obviously, it’d be a mistake if the aliens in the flashback, aliens who haven’t yet come to Earth (they’re vague about when the invasion of Emun happened. Mana says only that Seft has been asleep for “the time it takes to cross a galaxy.” The invasion could have happened before the 1953 invasion, or closer to the series’ present as a prelude to the arrival of the second wave) were wearing literally the same refrigerated suits. But there’s nothing to imply that the aliens didn’t have combat uniforms prior to coming to Earth, and it makes a lot of sense to imagine that the suits made in “The Walls of Jericho” were typical of alien fashion. So there’s really no reason that the uniforms worn by Morthren soldiers at some unspecified point in the past shouldn’t look basically the same as the uniforms they made for themselves on Earth. That said, much later in the series, keep an eye out for a completely different style of Morthren clothing. We saw an alien hand weapon in “The Second Seal”, an elegant sort of metal dousing rod. It’s a new design for the show, but one that looks perfectly in keeping with the visual style of the alien technology in the 1953 movie: it looks like copper, it has the same sort of curves and lines, and it fires green pulses that closely resemble the “skeleton beam” of the war machines. Even though we never saw anything like it in the George Pal movie, if you hold that thing up next to the Al Nozaki war machine, there’d be no question in your mind that they were designed by the same race. That’s particularly pleasing after just how unimaginably fucking awful the detached gooseneck weapon-arm looked in “Eye for an Eye”.

The Morthren weapons used on Emun take an entirely different approach. They’re essentially just sci-fi rifles, but for one very interesting addition. They’ve got these bulbous lamp-heads attached to the top like bayonettes. What’s strange is that they’re so very clearly meant to look like the cobra-head of the Nozaki prop, but they’re incredibly different in a way that’s deliberate, rather than the incompetent clusterfuck we saw in “Eye for an Eye”. Rather, it feels like Mancuso’s propmasters set out to harmonize the 1953 designs with the visual motif of the show and meet in the middle.

This was going to be tricky business, given that absolutely nothing we’ve seen of Morthren technology looks even the tiniest bit like the technology from the 1953 movie. The Morthren weapons therefore are the right shape, but they’re made not out of a coppery metal, but out of a dense, fiberous substance, and the weapon fires not a heat ray or skeleton beam, but a narrow beam identical to the usual Morthren hand weapon. In some regards, it’s a nice touch to try to bring the styles together like this, but on the other hand, it really serves to draw a big red circle around just how little this show has to do with its namesake. It reminds you that, so far, there’s been nothing in the show which requires or even benefits from this being a sequel to the 1953 movie — you can attribute the societal collapse to the invasion if you like, but the show is never going to come right out and do that itself.

Season 1, on the other hand, has just done a pair of episodes which draw heavily on the past continuity of the universe, even attempting to harmonize the 1953 movie with the 1938 radio play (I wonder, had the Strangises remained in command for the second season, would the Blackwood Project have set out for Buffalo to investigate a series of small sorties in ’68, ’71 and ’73?). Once again, when the first season draws from its source material, it does it with an eye toward details and and very literal, straightforward reference of the past. The second season approaches its past much more abstractly, almost impressionistically.

The big point of comparison in the last four stories we’ve visited, of course, is the unforgivably awful way women are treated in “The Second Seal” and “Breeding Ground”. And while it’s miles better on this front, “Seft of Emun” still features the shameless fridging of Blade, and to a lesser extent, Seft. These three articles were uncharacteristically difficult for me to write, almost as much of a chore as some of the late-season Captain Power ones. For the first two, the difficulty was essentially the same: these are both technically proficient episodes, that hit on a good mix of action, adventure and drama, and which speak to some of the issues I’ve been having with the series so far. They’re both episodes I very much want to like. There’s a fantastic guest cast in “Breeding Ground” and amazing performances out of Julian Richings and Patricia Phillips. And “The Second Seal” had always been one of my two favorite episodes. But how do I overlook something like Harrison grabbing Suzanne, violently shaking her, then throwing her to the ground shouting, “You’re not my mother!”? Or Kincaid stonily asserting that they’re going to give a seventy year old woman an abortion in their squalid underground lair whether she likes it or not?

War of the Worlds is, at the end of the day, part of the sci-fi horror genre. This was true to some extent in 1953, and it’s far truer in 1988-1989. There’s undeniably a history of violence specifically against women being a staple of the horror genre — season 2 is the work of Frank Mancuso Jr., a man who’s very well known for his work on a film series whose entire premise (particularly during the part of the franchise he’s most associated with) is built around a masked revenge-zombie taking a machete to teenage girls for the sin of putting out. But even Friday the 13th doesn’t have Jason forcibly impregnate someone, then treat Jason as the victim for the remainder of the movie (I think. The last few movies got pretty weird). The kind of violence we see in these episodes isn’t within the tradition of the slasher movie, but is much more in line with simple, straight-up abuse. And while that abuse may not be outright glorified, it is at no point treated with the gravity it deserves.

The eighties were a different time, and the public sense of social consciousness wasn’t as advanced as it is now. But somebody ought to have noticed Harrison acting like a wife-beater. Somebody ought to have noticed that Kate might as well have been a sack of potatoes for all the agency she has in the plot. I didn’t get it when I was nine. I didn’t get it again later when I was fourteen and it was airing in reruns on The Sci-Fi Channel. But I get it now.  You can explain, and you can justify, but people still had to write this. Someone sat down and said, “You know what would make a good story? Let’s have an alien crystal zap Harrison and make him slap Suzanne around a bit. Ooh, and let’s have that make her horny, and she can spend the rest of the episode trying to get into his pants.”  Someone had to sit down and say, “Let’s do a tragic story about a noble doctor who is tricked by the Morthren into sticking an alien fetus in an elderly woman. Oh, never mind how the woman feels about this; the story’s really about the doctor and his pain.”

Those someones were Patrick Barry and Alan Moskowitz. Patrick Barry’s resume is pretty short. He’ll go on to write two more episodes for the first season of War of the Worlds, his only later credit is for an episode of Transformers: Beast Wars almost a decade later. He was also a staff writer for the mid-80s animated series M.A.S.K., a sort of Transformers/GI Joe hybrid about a counterterrorism agency that used transforming vehicles (Twenty-five years later, GI Joe adopted the MASK toyline, recasting the lead character as leader of a Joe specialist unit), which I liked because, did you just listen to the premise, of course I would like that. His biggest credit is for the first-season Star Trek the Next Generation episode “Angel One“. It’s surprising that the same writer who gave us TNG’s first explicitly feminist episode would turn around and give us this. Though “Angel One” is also complete crap, and fails so hard in its attempt at feminism that I think Vox Day nominated it for a Hugo, so maybe that explains why Barry didn’t have a little light go off in his head to tell him this was a bad idea.

Alan Moskowitz is harder to dismiss. His resume is fluffy, but long, with a lot of sitcom credits, including the 1991 revival The Munsters Today (This version was my first introduction to the franchise, which managed to transcend its status as a really shameless knock-off of The Addams Family by being really clever and visually appealing. The series would go on to be rebooted in 2013 as Mockingbird Lane, an absolutely beautiful clusterfuck that couldn’t decide what kind of comedy and/or family drama it wanted to be. Also its theme song is sampled in the Fall Out Boy song Uma Thurman), Charles in Charge, and the TV adaptations of Harry and the Hendersons and Police Academy, as well as Out of this World, on which he served as a story editor. That seems pretty far afield from sci-fi horror, which might explain why the story is set up like body horror but all the emphasis is on the tragic downfall of Doctor Gestaine instead.

It’s hard (and probably unnecessary) to declare one or the other “worse”, but on balance, I’m bothered more by “The Second Seal”. “Breeding Ground” does manage to deliver some reasonably good tragedy, even if its heart is in the wrong place. And it doesn’t involve character assassination against the leads.

War of the Worlds: Jared Martin and Lynda Mason GreenNow, with the distance of years and the insight that comes from looking through the lenses of how television has matured over the past quarter-century and how much more socially aware we are now of the culture of violence against women, what “The Second Seal” reminds me of is — you’ll have to bear with me here — “The Twin Dilemma”.

I’m going to have to unpack that a little, aren’t I?

“The Twin Dilemma” was the final story of season 21 of Doctor Who. Back in 1984, executive producer and sexual predator John Nathan-Turner made the really bizarre decision to pull Colin Baker’s first story back up to the end of the season, rather than giving the creative team a couple of months to think things over and doing it at the start of season 22. It was declared that the previous Doctor had been too nice, so the next one would be meaner, and that maybe the audience shouldn’t entirely trust him. Also they dressed him in a clown costume.

Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant in Doctor Who The Twin DilemmaSo to really drive home that this new Doctor was Edgy and Unpredictable, ten minutes into his first episode, he tries to strangle his companion to death with his bare hands.

Just as we can try to “justify” Harrison’s behavior by the fact that his mind is being affected by the alien crystal, defenders of “The Twin Dilemma” (NB: There is actually no such thing as a defender of “The Twin Dilemma”) can point to the fact that the Doctor is suffering a particularly intense bout of post-regenerative trauma when he does this: his brain literally isn’t working correctly. But like I said before, someone had to write this. Neither the Doctor nor Harrison Blackwood are real people, alien mind-control crystals aren’t a real drug, and post-regenerative trauma isn’t a real mental illness. These things all do what the writer says they do. And Anthony Steven in 1984 and Patrick Barry in 1988 both, at some point in the creative process, asked themselves, “What’s a good way to show that this character has become dangerously unhinged?” and the answer they came up with both times was, “Let’s have him batter a woman he’s close to.” Right from the get-go, there’s an assumption that having your male lead commit violence against women is a way to make him “dangerous” and “edgy”, rather than, y’know, abusive. The whole scene, in both cases, is set up to minimize the importance of the victim and emphasize the altered state of the attacker. If you’re a kid in 1984, watching “The Twin Dilemma”, the lesson you’re learning is that when you see a man attacking a woman, you should think, “That poor man! I wonder what adverse influence is compelling him to do this?”

But you know, for me, these are things you could walk back. Okay. This happened. You have the hero confront that. Have him come down, and realize the horror of what he’s done, and have to live with the fact that something like that is inside of him, and have him work to make it better.

Guess what both “The Twin Dilemma” and “The Second Seal” do next? Did you pick “not that”? They both instead go on to compound their sins by never once having the hero apologize. Doctor Who could have, maybe, recovered from having the Doctor try to murder Peri with his bare hands, but it would have had to try, and to do that, it would have to have first admitted that it had done wrong, which never ever happens. Rather, the Doctor simply dismisses his behavior as a temporary aberration due to his trauma — he never actually addresses the fact that the person he tried to murder is a person and might have feelings about almost being murdered. In fact, he compounds his sin by declaring that he’s immediately got to go live as a hermit and take her with him. At no point is his vicious unprovoked attack on Peri treated as something about her: he engages in what looks for all the world like classic abuser behavior by making himself out to be the victim, cruelly betrayed by his own synapses, and then making a direct move to isolate the actual victim by dragging her off somewhere where she’ll be alone with him and unable to escape.

Harrison doesn’t do that. I’d probably say that Harrison does not behave as badly as The Doctor (Even beyond the fact that Harrison never gets as violent as The Doctor does). But War of the Worlds behaves at least as badly as Doctor Who on this count. Because while the Doctor may have behaved exactly like you’d expect a domestic abuser to behave, at least Peri, the actual victim, never backs him up. But once Harrison’s forcefully exposed Suzanne to the crystal against her will, mind-altered Suzanne responds to his macho bullying by getting turned on by his rugged manliness. And when they speak about it later, Harrison talks about the incident as though him roughing her up and her coming on to him were morally equivalent things. The juxtaposition between their behavior, particularly in light of Harrison’s reaction to it once he comes down, implicitly sexualizes the violence. The show itself is going out of its way to frame Harrison’s actions in a particular way that completely hides the fact that physical abuse and heavy flirting are not even remotely the same thing.

When Doctor Who did this, it was the third of the classic series’s three cardinal sins (The others being the Doctor’s abandonment of Susan in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” and Nyssa’s failure to react to the murder of her father, destruction of her planet, and genocide of her entire species with anything other than dull surprise in “Logopolis”), and the one that finally killed the show off, and that was a show with twenty years under its belt. I’m not prepared to give up on War of the Worlds for this, but this show can’t afford to keep pulling shit like this.

One thought on “Synthesis 3: Band-Aids Don’t Fix Bullet Holes

  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for August 21, 2015 | The Slacktiverse

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