It is November 14, 1988. This week, the Soviet Buran space shuttle will make its first and only unmanned test flight. The Soviet Union would collapse before the next scheduled test flight in 1993, and the Buran shuttle would spend the next decade gathering dust in a hanger in Kazakhstan until a storm brought the dilapidated hanger down in 2002. Here’s some neat pictures of the two remaining unused Buran shuttles. Pakistan holds its first free election in a decade, electing Benazir Bhutto as their Prime Minister. She’d hold the office until 1990, then be reelected in 1993, and was widely assumed to be about to return to that position in the 2008 election before her tragic assassination.
The Escape Club’s “Wild Wild West” unseats “Kokomo” in the music charts. Yesterday, The Wonderful World of Disney aired “Mickey’s 60th Birthday”, which I remember pretty well, but not as well as 1984’s “Donald’s 50th Birthday”. Mickey angers a Peter Cullen-voiced wizard and is cursed such that no one recognizes him, and has to get help from the casts of Family Ties(History doesn’t back me up on this, but I could have sworn this was after Family Ties had ended its run, making this a reunion show), The Golden Girls and Cheers to make his way home, while the cast of LA Law defends Donald against mousenapping allegations. ABC will spend the week showing the first half of the World War II miniseries War and Remembrance, the sequel to 1983’s Winds of War. Friday the 13th the Series brings us “Wax Magic”, in which, let me see if I can get this straight, a sculptor wax-dips his wife, then uses a cursed handkerchief to bring her back to life, but then she’s got to commit axe murders to stay alive.
I’m very worried now, after last week, because three weeks ago, if you’d asked me what my two favorite episodes of War of the Worlds were, I’d have said “The Second Seal” and “Goliath is my Name”. And then it turned out that “The Second Seal” was loaded down with gender essentialist bullshit, so what are we in for this week?
We’ve touched just a little bit on the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. That multi-headed hydra grew out of a storm of influences that were all coming together at this point in history: the growing influence of the religious right and their fierce desire to cast themselves as holy warriors against a demonic conspiracy; reactionary disapproval of the increased visibility of women in the workforce (particularly in the association with ritual abuse at day care centers, which caught zeitgeist of a public already primed to disapprove of working women leaving their children in the care of “strangers”); growing distrust of academia; increased visibility of religious and sexual minorities; increased visibility of psychological disorders and any number of other forces that made people particularly willing to believe that dark forces were conspiring to kill their children.
In 1979, James Dallas Egbert III attempted to commit suicide in the steam tunnels under Michigan State University. The media, incorrectly, decided that this had something to do with his interest in Dungeons and Dragons. In 1981, Rona Jaffe published a fictionalized version of the misreporting, Mazes and Monsters, later adapted into a TV movie starring a young Tom Hanks as a college student who suffers a psychotic break while live-action-role-playing in the steam tunnels under his college (Neither the book nor the movie asserts that the game caused the break, but both imply that his interest in the game was symptomatic of the underlying pathology). In 1982, Patricia Pulling founded the group “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons” after she decided, for no clear reason that her son had committed suicide due to a D&D curse on his player character. In 1984, Jack Chick’s tract, Dark Dungeons asserted that D&D was a satanist recruiting tool (But then, Jack Chick thought that about freemasonry, communion wafers, rock and roll, the NIV, and women wearing pants). And in 1988, Chris Pritchard and a group of friends conspired to murder his stepfather to inherit the family fortune. Since Pritchard and his friends were D&D players and admitted to mapping their college’s steam tunnels (Am I the only person who went to a college without a network of underground steam tunnels?) for the game, the media decided that must have been the catalyst, directly blaming the game in both of the 1992 TV movies about the crime.
Going out on a limb here, I’m going to guess it’s that story that put the writers in mind to do an episode whose plot revolves around LARPing in the steam tunnels under a major university. What we have this week, in part at least, is essentially War of the Worlds crashing into Mazes and Monsters.
The advocacy has dispatched a pod of alien soldiers to the then-fictional “Ohio Polytechnical University” (In an odd coincidence, the University of Akron recently adopted the phrase as part of their branding) to steal the “Y-fever”, an experimental bioweapon they plan to use to make North America “look as pleasing” as the documentary they’re watching about the Bhopal disaster. For some reason, the alien unit goes under cover dressed as Blues Brothers (their incidental music even includes a jazzy harmonica riff). For some reason, this works, as they show up at what I assume is a Blues Brothers theme party.
Why they go to this party is a mystery, since they’re under orders to stick to the steam tunnels under the campus in order to remain covert. Like I’ve said before, there’s a lot of evidence that the aliens… Are not all that smart. The plan here is something like, “This is a sneaking mission, so dress up in fancy dress. If by some chance the fancy dress lets you blend in, make yourselves look extra suspicious by wandering around restricted but easily-accessible steam tunnels.”
Naturally, this plan puts them in the path of a group of body-doubles for The Goonies LARPers. They’re playing “Aliens and Asteroids”, which is an entirely realistic name for a late ’80s role playing game trying to cash in on the success of Dungeons and Dragons. The market was flooded at one point with such stuff: Tunnels and Trolls, Shinobi and Samurai, Villains and Vigilantes, Bandits and Basilisks, Bunnies and Burrows, Orcs and Oubliettes, Ninjas and Narwhals, Houses and Humans, Powers and Perils, Sense and Sensibility, and the like. Now, as you all know, the mutants have invaded our universe, and we have but one choice. The mutants travel over time and space to do battle. They are foresworn [sic] to annihilate us. This is something we can not allow. Intelligence reports that their staging area is in the Orion chamber. We’ll intercept them there and wipe them out. With luck, we’ll be the rulers of the universe by lunch. But I should be clear here: we can safely guess that no one involved in the writing of this episode actually knew a damned thing about Dungeons and Dragons or about role playing games at all, beyond what they’d seen in Mazes and Monsters. Because this game isn’t a pen-and-paper RPG. From what we see of it, it’s Urbex Laser Tag with a sci-fi backstory. Fun fact: there is a modern laser tag-based LARP. It’s called Lasers and Logic.
The “Venusians” are your standard well-balanced eigenvector of ’80s teen stereotypes: the preppy (as indicated by his popped collar), the classic nerd (as indicated by his glasses), the rebellious indie chick (one large, exotic earring), the hot chick (The one they send to distract the guard, one of the first screen roles for future Crossing Jordan star Jill Hennessy), the allegedly homely chick who is actually way hotter than the hot chick, the short, smarmy wisecracker who is usually from Brooklyn (Think Marshall Blechtman or Vinnie Delpino or The Booch or anything Samm Levine has done), and the jock (who isn’t actually here yet because he’s got football practice or something). So basically a bunch of people who would almost certainly never be seen together in real life mixed with a certain amount of confusion as to whether they’re college or high school stereotypes. I note that we’ve got an even gender balance, which is a nice touch abstractly, even if it’s kind of hard to accept as a historical reality given the considerable social pressures of the 1980s. Also, they look like the cast of Kidd Video. I am not going to bother to learn most of their names, and I am not even sure they all have them.
Parkins, the classically nerdy one, gets separated from the others while mutant-hunting and comes across one of the Elwood gang. There’s an odd presumption here that the players would not recognize each other on sight (Later, the preppy will mention that the mutant players don’t know the jock), as he assumes the Elwood to be a mutant. And despite the fact that it was only 30 seconds ago that the preppy explained to the homely chick that you have to shoot a mutant in his laser tag target for it to count, he immediately shoots him in the face. With a visible laser beam. Jerk. Once the Elwood realizes that he has not just been decapitated, he walks over and peels the kid’s face off, which I’m not going to show you, in case you are eating.
As was the case in the past two episodes, the Blackwood Team becomes involved in events more due to coincidence than anything else. Norton interrupts Harrison’s meditation to accuse him of upsetting Suzanne. There’s a callback to the friction we’d seen between them back in “A Multitude of Idols,” with Norton referring back to them working out their differences. The usually laid-back Norton is up in arms because Suzanne is crying in her lab, and he assumes it’s Harrison’s fault.
Philip Akin is playing Norton a bit differently in this episode from previous ones. There were moments before where he’s bring out this hangdog, put-upon thing, but he goes all-in this week: rather than the unpleasant fratboy persona he’s defaulted to recently, he’s focusing on being irritable, annoyed when his work isn’t appreciated or when he’s distracted from it. It’s an improvement over the way he’s been acting, except for the fact that there’s no justification for it or any build-up.
Harrison, on the other hand, shows some actual character growth. Indeed, these first scenes at the cottage seem like a direct response to “A Multitude of Idols” that’s very parallel in construction. Rather than taunting Suzanne and justifying his own behavior, Harrison instead goes down to the lab to check on her, and preemptively apologizes on the assumption that he actually had done something to upset her without realizing it.
Instead, she’s crying because she’s received word of Parkins’s disappearance. They actually go to the trouble of filling in a bit of Suzanne’s backstory here: we know from the pilot that she’d been in Ohio prior to coming to Pacific Tech. We now learn that she’d left Ohio Polytechnic (Home of the Molecules) when she found out that the “pure research” dream job she’d been working was actually developing bioweapons. Admittedly, I am not a microbiologist, but I am not sure how one could be developing bioweapons without realizing it. Parkins had been her lab assistant, and he was the one who blew the whistle on the project. Though Harrison suggests that he’s just out somewhere on a bender (it’s Greek Week), Suzanne is worried that there’s been a lab accident and cover-up, as the bioweapons under development include Y fever, which she warns us is, “The same biotoxin that killed all those people”. Um. Oh, those people. Yeah. Lynda Mason Green is way too over-the-top in this scene, crying and sobbing when literally all she knows at this point is that he missed debate club this morning.
Harrison offers to help, by which I mean he volunteers Norton. A search of the AM and FM bands turns up campus security walkie-talkies (just roll with it or we’ll be here all day) where they hear the title-card conversation, confirming Suzanne’s fears. Harrison and Suzanne set out for Ohio, with Ironhorse in tow to bring them back after the 48 hours he’s grudgingly allowed them. “You’re my hero, colonel,” Harrison says, “Strong, determined, and sensitive.”
While they get the runaround about Parkins’s death from the administration that’s trying to cover it up for PR purposes, the Elwoods are lost in the steam tunnels, since the map they were given is out of date. The Venusians, now joined by Jefferson the jock, sneak past the guards to reenter the tunnels, believing that their nerdy guy was kidnapped by the Mutants. Because that is a remotely likely thing to have happened. The Elwoods decide they need some more up-to-date local knowledge, and swap themselves for the Mutants, who are identified by their red headbands. This shows an unusual amount of initiative for the alien soldiers, unless there was a scene of them calling home for advice that got cut for time. They will call later over something else, for unhelpful advice and to give the advocacy a chance to grouse about how much humanity sucks. Jefferson separates from the rest of the Venusian team to scout ahead and gets possessed.
The aliens either use the LARPers knowledge of the tunnels, or else just remember, hey, the place has a front door we can just walk in and it’s not like anyone will question students walking around on a college campus. The alien possessing Jefferson uses his immense strength to kill the desk guard and force his way into the biohazard lab. He tosses the place, roughing up one of Suzanne’s former colleagues, and finally finds thee vials of Y Fever just sitting out on the counter in a test tube rack. He inexplicably tries to juggle them and drops one, which kills the researcher before he can decontaminate the clean room. Once he realizes that he’s immune to the effects, he opens the door and leaves. It seems like this should mean that the incredibly deadly bioweapon is spreading all over campus as we speak, but never mind (Okay. A clean room like that would be negative-pressurized, so even with the door open it should delay anything inside getting out, and the door is closed in the next scene, so maybe we’re okay here).
This is where things get a little Dark Dungeons. Suzanne will explain in a bit that Y Fever is “Literally (not literally!) invisible in every way except to the human brain, which it literally (literally!) melts within seconds without leaving a trace.” Alien biology is different enough that Jefferson survives exposure, but something happens to him, which both Suzanne and the aliens themselves will describe as a “mutation” (Though even before his exposure, you kind of get the impression that the alien wearing Jefferson is a little off-balance), just in case it wasn’t confusing enough that we’ve got aliens disguised as humans playing mutants in a game called Aliens and Asteroids. The long and short of it is Jefferson is going to go all Robbie Wheeling and start thinking the LARP is for real. A scene later, he’ll abandon the other aliens to go hang out with the Venusians.
Ironhorse is itching to go home, but gives Suzanne and Harrison another 24 hours due to the biological warfare angle. Suzanne discovers the alarm going off in the lab (For some reason, no one was tipped off by the dead guard outside or the doors ripped off their hinges) and starts decontaminating. Ironhorse demonstrates exceptionally keen eyesight by determining that the shattered vial on the floor where he could not possibly see it through the window was Y fever, and Suzanne realizes that two additional vials are missing.
While playing a kind of neat-looking low-poly 3D War of the Worlds video game, Norton grouses to Debi about the others not calling to check in. When Harrison does finally call, he sends Debi out of the lab. As she leaves, she muses on the possibility of working with them when she’s older. Norton’s research has turned up mention of Parkins’s laser tag target in the police report. Harrison: Did you know Robert Parkins was a fantasy game player?
Ironhorse: What the hell’s that, some kind of swinger? Harrison recognizes it as Fantasy Gaming paraphernalia, because I know when I hear someone had a bike reflector on a chain around his neck, I assume he’s into GURPS. Norton hacks into the Fantasy Game Club’s computer and finds a 3D map of the steam tunnels.
Star and planet graffiti in the tunnels leads Harrison to conclude that they’re playing Aliens and Asteroids. He’d been a “planet master” in his own younger days (You can make the timeline work out if you try hard enough, but the idea of a 40 year old man in 1988 having played a laser tag-based RPG when he was in college, 20 years earlier, when Fantasy Role Playing Games only date back to the mid-70s and laser tag to ’79, and LARPing dates to the late ’70s is likely a stretch), and theorizes that Parkins came across real aliens while roleplaying. Ironhorse is (all together now) skeptical that aliens are involved, even holding his flashlight under his chin, campfire story-style to mock Harrison, but then he turns around and sees a melted Elwood on the floor.
Ironhorse uses that cool knife from last week to break into some kind of fantasy dungeon or something — it’s a room connected to the steam tunnels decorated like a Renaissance Festival, with suits of armor, tapestries, wrought-iron candelabras and a taxidermy raven. Harrison finds a computer and hooks it up to a phone for Norton to hack, but those Fantasy Club kids are “scary good” about their security. Though all we ever see is a 320×200 “Fantasy Club” wallpaper and a login prompt. Harrison goes for what Ironhorse calls “ooga-booga,” using his tuning fork to meditate. Though Suzanne complains, the two of them almost instantly work out the entire plot: one of the gaming teams was possessed by aliens, who stole the Y Fever. Exposure to the virus didn’t kill the alien but mutated him, and now he’s a loose cannon, and the others don’t know where he is. Ironhorse thinks this is ridiculous conjecture without any evidence, and it’s far more likely that the aliens are long gone, but for the second time in three minutes, this is the prompt for fate to bitch-slap him, as Norton announces that he’s just intercepted an alien transmission from within the tunnels.
Jefferson’s frightened the Venusians back into the tunnels to make their stand against the mutants. His condition continues to deteriorate, as he seems to be speaking entirely in quotes from the rulebook when he’s not slipping into alien-speak. Once Norton hacks the Fantasy Club computer, he’s somehow able to track everyone in the steam tunnels, because that is a thing Fantasy Game Players can do with their computer. Ironhorse dispatches most of the aliens, and Harrison goes to confront the Venusians. They try to suggest that he’s trying to deduce their strategy from the information in the computer, but that would be a nice thing to show us rather than just have him walk down a dark hallway while Norton tells him via cell phone that this is a bad idea.
Harrison presents himself to the Venusians as a Mutant ambassador, claiming to have them surrounded and demanding their surrender, and offering them their lives in exchange for disarming. Jefferson wants to huck the Y Fever vials at him, but Preppy talks him out of it. They never come out and say it, but it seems like at some point the others have worked out that the two vials Jefferson keeps threatening “the universe as we know it” with are something legitimately dangerous. Harrison chickens out from trying to physically take the vials when Jefferson presents them along with the rest of the team’s lasers. Instead, he acknowledges the surrender and walks away, claiming he’ll return with the planet master. Jefferson declares the surrender to be a feint so that he can follow Harrison back to “Mutant high command”. Harrison’s anticipated this, and books it back to the biohazard lab.
He ducks into the clean room, then doubles back on the alien, sealing him inside. The alien gently sets the vials down on the counter then proceeds to trash the place in anger, eventually smashing the innermost of the three panes of glass in the observation window with a stool. Suzanne starts the decontamination cycle to stop him busting out, which turns out to be a good idea when he picks the stool up again and breaks the second pane, then retrieves the vials and smashes them against the third pane. Until the second pane breaks, we can’t actually hear anything inside the clean room. There’s a tense intercut between Jefferson smashing up the lab and screaming in alien rage, the tense expressions of Suzanne, Harrison and Ironhorse, and the clean room control box blinking meaningless lights at us. The alien raises the stool to smash the final window, but the big overhead “VACUUM” sign starts blinking at just the right moment, and he drops the stool in pain, starts clutching at his throat, and…
Yup. He goes full Total Recall. Even Harrison looks disgusted. Now, you and I both know that exposing someone to a vacuum does not make someone explode like that. But remember, two episodes back, we saw an alien explode from being shot with a hunting rifle, so let’s just pretend that it’s an alien thing and not the writers just thinking that people exploding in a vacuum is cool. What’s harder to swallow is that this clean room has the ability to draw a total vacuum like that. What practical purpose does that serve? Where does all the (contaminated) air go? And for that matter, how does the alarm system register Y Fever contamination when it’s “invisible except to the human brain”? But never mind that, let’s watch that dude explode again.
You know what? I remembered liking this episode, and I was worried it was going to turn into a catastrophe in the middle like the last one. But, for once, I get to look back over the whole episode and say without qualification that this was a good episode. The team has a strong dynamic. Norton’s sort of whiny but he’s not an asshole. Harrison shows real character growth. The humor works, leveraging little things like the sight-gag of the Elwoods putting on their sunglasses and the harmonica riff that accompanies them. And the dialog really sings for the most part. That one line from Ironhorse suggesting that LARPing is related to swinging is possibly the funniest thing in the series so far, and they go all-in on recognizing how Straight-Laced Ever-Skeptical Ironhorse is ridiculous in context by turning his skepticism into a running gag, having him deny an alien presence immediately before being proved wrong.
Plus there’s nothing unfortunately retrograde shoehorned in there to ruin it. If it were 1988 and you heard that this episode was going to revolve around “Fantasy Game Players”, after the past few weeks, you could be forgiven for expecting them to go to a pretty bad place, implying unkind things about the mental stability of gamers.
And there’s a sense in which that’s what happens, but it happens only in a very bent sort of way: the only gamer who actually goes off the deep end is one who’s been possessed by an alien and literally had his human-brain melted. There’s no implication that their hobby is a sign of any kind of personality defect. The gamers themselves, though admittedly we don’t get a whole lot of time with them, seem perfectly well adjusted. One of them is involved in debate club and also holds down what sounds like a prestigious lab position. One of them is active in sports. Some of them have girlfriends. Norton respects their skill at computer security. The aliens even seek out the gamers as a source of local knowledge. And Harrison is revealed as a gamer himself.
By now, it’s a running theme that episodes of War of the Worlds feel like there was some other, more ordinary show going on that suddenly got interrupted, like a Ramon Raquello performance, by an alien invasion. That’s truer than ever in this episode: you can really see the Venusians as the characters in an (admittedly bad) ’80s college sitcom. It’s not that the characters are particularly deep — in fact, it’s kinda the opposite: because these all seem like such stock characters, it just feels like there ought to be a TV show wrapped around them. I doubt it’s entirely a coincidence that The Homely Chick and The Indie Chick (who IMDb tells me are named “Debra” and “Kim”, though I’ll be damned if I can remember that coming up in dialogue) look an awful lot like Andy and Stef from The Goonies (It probably is a coincidence that Nerdy (Parkins), Snarky (“Pete”, sayeth IMDb) and Hot (“Patty”) look like Whiz, Ash and Carla from Kidd Video). I kinda want to know where their lives go after the day when one of their friends got murdered in the steam tunnels, another went crazy and exploded in the biohazard lab, and their opposing team got gunned down by the US Army.
I’m starting to feel optimistic about this show again. Man do I hope they keep it up next week.
- War of the Worlds the Series is available on DVD from amazon.com