It is November 21, 1988. Following the massive success of the US’s general election a few weeks ago, Canada holds federal elections of their own, reelecting Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Ted Turner buys Jim Crockett Promotions and turns it into the WCW. Liberace’s former beau, Scott Thorson, is sentenced to a year in jail and two on probation for his role in a drug-related robbery ring. Over the weekend, LA Law‘s Corbin Bernsen celebrated his recent victory defending Donald Duck on kidnapping charges by marrying Max Headroom star Amanda Pays. Tomorrow, the US Air Force will publicly unveil the Northrom Grumman B-2 Spirit, better known as the Stealth Bomber. In Perestroika news, on Friday, American chessmaster William Donaldson and Soviet grandmaster Elena Akhmilovskaya will elope (The marriage lasts about a year).
The Escape Club cedes the top spot on the charts to Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine”. Will to Power’s “Baby, I Love Your Way/Free Bird Medley” is galloping up the charts, crippling the musical background of people who were just the right age in 1988 by becoming the definitive version of both songs. In two weeks, it’ll unseat “Bad Medicine”, followed closely by Chicago with “Look Away”. Tuesday, CBS will air Garfield: His 9 Lives. It’s good, but the book is better. My two favorite stories, “Babes and Bullets” and “Primal Self” are omitted (Babes and Bullets would be adapted into a full-length special the next year). Wednesday, they’ll air Star Wars, which is what that movie was called back then, none of this “Episode IV: A New Hope” nonsense. And in the not-too-distant future, this Thursday, AD, independent Minneapolis television station KTMA-23 will debut Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Much-delayed by the writer’s strike, Star Trek the Next Generation finally starts its second season with “The Child”. There is no way around this: “The Child” is a terrible idea for an episode. It was a terrible idea when it was drafted for Star Trek: Phase II back in the ’70s. It was a terrible idea when The Avengers used it for issue 200 back in 1980. It will be a terrible idea in 2012 when James Cawley adapts it for an episode of his Star Trek: Phase II fan series. It’s retrograde, demeaning, gender-essentialist, rape-apologetic, reproductive futurism bullshit and even the technobabble is debunked 19th century pseudoscience, and the script’s been adapted with a sledgehammer to fit it into the very different style of TNG and map the roles of Decker and Ilia onto Riker and Troi, characters who are only similar if you stopped paying attention to anything at all beyond the single paragraphs in the first draft of the series bible. Seriously, if you, as a writer, find yourself writing, “Female character is forcibly impregnated against her will by a mysterious alien force, but she’s cool with it because Motherhood is Magical and Wonderful,” just stop writing, go find yourself a bench vise, and crush your balls in it. Josh Marsfelder is as kind to the episode as just about anyone could be, which is still pretty unkind.
Friday the 13th The Series stays true to form with a plot that feels like it was constructed by rolling a bunch of dice: “Read My Lips” has Micki struggle to save a friend from her fiancé’s ventriloquist’s dummy, which has been brought to life by — I am not making this up — Adolph Hitler’s silk boutonnière.
With thanksgiving approaching, this week’s War of the Worlds is the last until Christmas. “To Heal the Leper” puts the aliens on the defensive again, taking desperate measures to avoid their sudden defeat. It isn’t as good as “Goliath is my Name”, but it’s still fairly solid. The big step backwards from last time is that Harrison and company end up having very little involvement in the actual plot: they spend the bulk of the episode operating in parallel to the aliens, and the one point at the end where the stories intersect is largely superfluous: the plot is held together in large part by the expedient of a whole lot of “And then Harrison just randomly happens to be passing by and notices…”
This does give the episode an interesting structure, though, one that’s even more “cop show” than we’ve been seeing so often, with Harrison taking on the role of a detective trying to track down the killer before he can strike again (That he fails in this regard is very much in line with the series’s general pessimism). Plus, Ann Robinson makes her second appearance as Sylvia Van Buren, which is absolutely lovely and I just wish they’d given her more screen-time.
By this point in the series, you hopefully won’t be surprised when I tell you that we open in a scene that feels like its own separate show. The zany comedy relief morgue assistant returns to the office after picking up lunch and goes looking for the brilliant but quirky medical examiner with a penchant for solving crimes… But finds that someone’s tossed the place, pulled all the bodies out of their lockers, ripped the skulls open, and absconded with the brains of the recently deceased.
Back in the Land of the Lost, the Advocacy is in a bad way, because one of them (Officially, the advocates are named Horek, Oshar and Xana, though this never comes up in dialogue) caught the Chicken Pox (To my younger readers, this is a disease that every human being on the planet used to get when they were like 10 or so, and parents would even deliberately infect their children because parents are terrible, vindictive people, thinking it was somehow “better” for all of them to get it out of the way at the same time. Occasionally (About 9,000 times a year back in 1988) this would lead to a kid dying, but that was a small price to pay for not having to take the extra days off work. It’s why just about everyone you know over the age of thirty has a small scar near their left eye), and though the aliens were able to treat the disease itself, the advocate has lingering brain damage as a result. The remaining advocates are rendered basically useless, their wisdom rendered “imperfect” without the third, and are prone to making impulsive, terrible decisions. That might be interesting to keep in mind given how often it seems like the aliens out in the field are prone to making impulsive, terrible decisions: it seems to be a feature of the alien mindset that they can only think properly when three of them are working together. But I also notice that we don’t see the alien scientists trioing off. I wonder if that’s related to the apparently disregard the Advocacy has for scientists. Could it be that the scientist caste is psychologically different from the rest of their race, trading the triumvirate structure for greater individual intellect? That could easily lead to a cultural bias against scientists, who’d be seen as those weirdos who don’t like three-ways and who are always sort of suspect because all the rest of their race turn into complete knuckle-draggers when they try heavy thinking without a spotter.
The aliens have built this giant lucite tetrahedron machine and stuffed it full of human brains, many of which are quivering under their own power in order to show that they’re still fresh enough to twitch, except for the fact that brains do not work that way. The alien scientists reckon that if they juice a bunch of human brains, they can create an elixir that will halt the brain deterioration in the sick advocate and allow him to recover. Unfortunately for them, the machine just blows itself up, because human brains don’t keep well in radioactive caves.
Despite the risk and the fact that they’re barely functional, the two healthy advocates decide to risk heading out into the human world where they can pick the freshest locally-sourced free-range artisanal brains. Thus, they stuff themselves and the third one into a trio of kidnapped joggers, played by young actors early in their careers, one of whom turns out to be future Sons of Anarchy star Kim Coates.
The Advocacy’s incapacity has not gone unnoticed back at the Cottage: Norton summons the others in a panic because the usually very regular pattern of alien transmissions had become erratic, then ceased altogether. Ironhorse tells a anecdote about the significance of the Coyote in Native American culture which turns out to have nothing to do with anything that happens in this episode, and seems like it’s just there to remind the audience that he’s a Native American (He’ll tell a similarly seemingly-relevant but actually pointless anecdote about eating the liver of one’s enemies later). Suzanne suggests the possibility that the aliens encountered a more radiation-resistant disease and it’s wiped them out once and for all. Ironhorse suggests that perhaps the aliens decided the invasion wasn’t worth the effort and just packed up and went home, though the look in Richard Chaves’s eyes says that even he is getting tired of this skeptic schtick.
Before Harrison can compose a thorough counterargument, he’s interrupted by a call from the mental hospital, summoning him to come visit Sylvia. In keeping with the laws and traditions of TV storytelling, they do not tell him why over the phone. Harrison brings Ironhorse along in the hopes of shutting him up about the possibility of the aliens leaving.A nice touch about the hospital scenes is that they’ve brought back the character actors from “Thy Kingdom Come” for the minor characters in the hospital, and they’ll return again the next time we see Ann Robinson. Diane Douglas, best know for playing a nurse in Billy Madison, plays Sylvia’s nurse. John Dee (not the adviser to Queen Elizabeth I) returns as the old man who walks around saying that it isn’t safe out there. John Dee, for what it’s worth, was a character actor famous through the ’80s for playing an old man, in such roles as “Old Man in Park” in Mom, The Wolfman, and Me, “Old Man in Lobby” in Switching Channels, “Old Man in Jail” in City of Shadows, and “Old Man” in Adventures in Babysitting (You may recall, Captain Power voice actor Deryck Hazel also had a small part). He also appeared as the old man in the Captain Power episode “The Mirror in Darkness“. His first TV role, for what it’s worth, was as Merlin in the 1979 Canadian educational series Read All About It!, a wonderfully goofy science fiction/fantasy series about poetic meter, magic, zoning laws, copy-editing, alien invasions, journalism, local politics, ghosts, and Canadian history some people probably fondly remember from middle school reading class, which I’d highly recommend except that the incredibly byzantine situation with its legal rights means that it’s never gotten a home video release and probably never will.
To Harrison’s befuddlement, Sylvia is doing perfectly fine — and is more than a little annoyed at his reluctance to accept that. She’s done her hair up, given herself a manicure, and is packing a bag because she’s decided to go on a vacation to see the outside world. The change in her symptoms has convinced her that the aliens really are gone, and she cautions Harrison about obsessing over them too much for fear he’ll end up institutionalized himself.
Ironhorse isn’t as pushy as he was back in “The Walls of Jericho“, but he thinks that Sylvia’s condition clinches it, and he certainly has a good point in that Harrison’s entire reason for dragging him along was that Harrison supposedly trusts her. Yet Harrison, having not gotten the answer he wanted out of her, is suddenly the skeptical one. John Dee wanders by, making his speech about how it’s not safe out there, and piques Harrison’s interest by pointing out a newspaper article about the brain-snatching at the morgue.
He drags Ironhorse along with him to go investigate, to the chagrin of both Ironhorse, and also Detective Harley, who’s working the case. Ironhorse is willing to humor Harrison at least far enough as to order the local police to call the President to verify their credentials, but he doesn’t see an alien angle. In fact, in a few minutes he’ll suggest an alternate theory which will sound ridiculous to you, but if you’ve been reading this blog so far, you’ll know is exactly the sort of thing popular culture would demand he consider in 1988: maybe it’s a satanic cult. There’s something cutely proto-Mulder about Harrison in these scenes, his scoffing, “Don’t be ridiculous, this obviously isn’t a satanic cult; it’s clearly aliens,” though it’s worth pointing out that Harrison never dismisses the idea of a satanic cult as outlandish per se, just obviously not what’s at work here.
Specifically, he asserts, and the others concede, that satanic cults wouldn’t have taken all the brains except for five which were removed but left behind. Only aliens, he insists, would break into the morgue, kill everyone there, open up all the skulls, and take every brain they found except for the brains belonging to people who’d died of Alzheimer’s, toxoplasmosis, trichinosis, and St. Louis Encephalitis (No word on what what wrong with the fifth brain). And I think it’s worth pointing out that Harrison’s justification implicitly accepts that satanic cults breaking into a morgue, killing everyone there, opening up all the skulls, and taking all the brains is indeed an entirely plausible explanation except for the detail of them leaving sick brains behind.
That explanation comes after Harrison skips lunch to have a long think about the problem. Said think involves burning incense and putting himself into a hypnotic trance. The others see the smoke under his office door, but completely fail to notice that it smells like patchouli, and therefore assume he’s decided to torch the place in frustration. When Suzanne can’t detect his slowed breathing, Ironhorse comes within an inch of giving him the kiss of life before Harrison wakes up and stops him before he makes Norton jealous (That’s right, I’m still shipping Ironhorse and Norton, dammit).
Meanwhile, the advocacy has set out into the big wide world. Keep in mind that the aliens have made their stronghold in an abandoned nuclear storage facility in the Nevada desert. The three advocates, once of whom, recall, is very ill, set out on foot, and walk as far as a nondescript meadow somewhere before it occurs to them that they probably should steal an RV (This is extra-weird given that it’ll be clear in a bit that they also brought that big Lucite tetrahedron with them).
This is where time and space go a little wonky. It’s still nighttime when Ironhorse and Harrison visit Sylvia at the Whitewood center, but the morgue attack has already made the newspaper, which implies it’s the next day (Technically, it could have been an evening paper; those still existed back in 1988, though they were on the way out), but the bodies haven’t been moved yet when they visit the crime scene — in fact, they’ve only just finished counting the bodies. We should also assume that the morgue, identified as being in is comparatively close to the mental hospital, since it’s front-page news. But remember that “Thy Kingdom Come” placed Sylvia’s hospital several hours’ drive from the cottage, probably closer to Wolf Jaw than to San Francisco (There’s a Hadleyville in Oregon, which would totally make sense here, except that San Francisco to Hadleyville is an eight hour drive). The Advocates steal the RV that same night, and it’s daytime when we next see them. We don’t know what time it is when Harrison and Ironhorse visit the morgue, but the next time we see Harrison, it’s lunchtime. Okay. We can reconcile that. The morgue attack happens on, let’s say, around noon (The attendant is returning from lunch, remember). That night, Ironhorse and Harrison go to visit Sylvia. They stop at the morgue on the way back, and it’s weird that the crime scene is still swarming, but we’ll roll with it. But now it starts to get weird, as apparently, it’s lunchtime the next day by the time Ironhorse and Harrison arrive back at the cottage. But that requires that the aliens brought a truckload of brains back to their cave in Nevada, tried and failed to cure the sick advocate, and the advocates have had time to walk to a campsite where they could steal an RV in the space of half a day. To make things even weirder, Harrison later gives the date as the seventh, which would put the morgue attack four days earlier. Which, frankly, seems reasonable given how much the aliens do in that time, except that the bodies are still at the in situ at the crime scene. Also, October 3, or even 7, would set this episode almost a month before the last explicitly-dated episode, “Eye for an Eye” and two months before its airdate.
The aliens drive the RV, apparently all the way to San Francisco, where they stop at a hair salon. They’re able to pass themselves off as employees by the simple expedient of the Paul Boretski one nonchalantly telling the Kim Coates one, “You can go right on back,” which I think is a really cute scene. They proceed to pop the skullcaps off of everyone there and scoop out their brains, which they stick in a fishtank. Among the victims is a “Teen Queen” played by future Heroes Reborn star Krista Bridges in her first screen role. The advocate is genre savvy enough to suggest as she complains about her perm that he “take a little off the top”.
After Harrison’s “rescue” and some discussion of why the aliens would want healthy human brains, Harrison decides to go for a drive in the hopes of clearing his head, since he’s frustrated by having to answer stupid questions from his coworkers. And because otherwise, there wouldn’t be a story, Harrison’s casual drive takes him right to the same hair salon, where he briefly clashes with Detective Harley again, completely scuttling the idea that that Sylvia’s hospital isn’t in the same city as the cottage, unless Harrison drove most of the way back there between lunch and sunset. Harley demands to know if Harrison has any information about the killings, Harrison says he doesn’t, then wanders off to sit in the truck and think. In just about any other ’80s action-adventure series, Detective Harley would immediately decide Harrison was up to no good, and the third act would be built around either Harrison desperately trying to get out of jail in time to stop the aliens, or Harley following Harrison around San Francisco putting both their lives in danger with his zealous but incautious pursuit culminating with him finally realizing what’s at stake and possibly sacrificing his own life to interfere with the alien plans. Instead, the police disappear after this scene, leaving the impression that Harrison just sits around in his truck for, as far as I can tell, the next eight to nine hours (This scene takes place before sunset, which would have been around 5 PM in San Francisco in November. The end of the episode takes place some time around 3 AM).
Some time after sunset, the advocates murder their way into a power plant and set up their healing machine. I particularly love the visual of Paul Boretski dumping a fishtank full of brains into an inverted pyramid. When you get past all the hand-waving over the details, the machine is essentially a still, as Harrison will later describe it. The sick alien lies in a bed directly below the tetrahedron full of brains with, the reason for this is unclear, a laser-light show playing over their body. Large amounts of electricity are applied to the device, and this somehow renders down the brains into a miniscule amount of thick, viscous fluid which drips down a thick needle at the base of the machine. This “essence” of brain has vaguely specified curative properties to the alien biology. However, the advocates quickly become worried as even after several hours, the distilling process hasn’t had any effect, and the third advocate’s host is starting to desiccate and wither.
Hasn’t had any effect for the aliens, that is. The moment they switch on, Sylvia suffers a massive anxiety attack, trashing her room and giving herself a nosebleed. Unable to locate Harrison, Ironhorse and Suzanne make the drive up to check on her (at this point I give up on the idea that this is a particularly long drive). They’re able to calm her down, but not get anything coherent out of her aside from this sort of triangle-shaped SS-logo she drew on the wall before they took her crayons away, which they can’t make sense of, but the audience, if they were paying attention, can, as does Harrison when he calls them later, ready to call it quits. He has, apparently by happenstance, parked somewhere in view of the power plant’s marquee, and recognizes their logo from Suzanne’s description (This makes utterly no sense, by the way. The graphic on Norton’s supercomputer indicates that the power plant itself is in Oregon, somewhere in the vicinity of Bend (A three hour drive from Hadleyville). In retrospect, it would make a good deal of sense to just assume the Cottage is in Oregon, and I can’t think of any evidence to discredit this aside from the reference to it being in “the bay area”. Technically, Oregon does have a “bay area”, the area around Coos Bay, but I don’t know whether anyone would refer to it as such unqualified. And more to the point, there’s no reason I can think of that the aliens would drive all the way to the middle of Oregon from the Nevada desert. In the long shot, Harrison has clearly been parked outside the salon all day, then we show a close up of him inside the truck, he looks out the window, and sees the same sign the advocates drove by when approaching the power plant, which was show in its establishing shots to be in an industrial neighborhood). But since he hangs up without explaining, the others are left in the dark, figuratively.
Getting desperate, the aliens decide to increase the power to their healing device, despite the risk of giving away their location. Harrison slips into the power plant unnoticed and is able to watch as they divert so much power into the device that it causes brownouts in seven states, which leaves the others in the dark, literally. Suzanne complains about not being able to watch TV on her night off, which is a weird complaint since it’s got to be like two in the morning by now. Once the supercomputer reboots, Norton brings up a map showing the interruptions to the power grid marked with the power plant logo, tipping them off to Harrison’s location.
The machine finally delivers its payload, causing a series of very well-done intensely ’80s cross-fades and video toaster effects as the third advocate’s host is restored. Harrison attempts to slip out unnoticed while they’re having a tete-a-tete, but knocks a wrench from a scaffold, alerting them. Even with all three of them working together, the advocates are still conflicted over whether to pursue him or just leg it, and decide to “do both” by retracing their steps.
Harrison barricades himself in a lab and records a message to posterity while taping a live wire to a conduit-bending tool to make a makeshift weapon. It’s three thirteen on the seventh. This Harrison Blackwood. These may be the last words I ever speak on this Earth. Aliens in human bodies are outside the door. They’re about to break through my barricade. The message that I want to get to the people who may come after me in the fight against these invaders is that the aliens can be beaten, I know that now. I’ve been watching them attempt to heal one of their own. That’s what they’ve been doing. Some microbe or disease or virus or bacteria has infected them and made them sick. That means that they are vulnerable. It’s up to the Blackwood Project to exploit this vulnerability whatever it may be, and continue this fight. His message strikes me as a little fluffy and pointless: his important wisdom to the future is merely that the aliens are vulnerable in some unspecified way to disease. Which is, let’s not forget the one thing they already knew the aliens to be vulnerable to. I mean, disease, shooting, stabbing, and hard vacuum. But disease was literally the first weakness mankind learned about, and aliens being vulnerable to disease was a major plot point last week. The newly-healed advocate says something in uncaptioned alienese while Harrison prepares to make his last stand. Once he’s done recording his message, he promises to take a few of them with him as the door to the lab is forced open. Turns out that uncaptioned alien speech must’ve been something like, “This is taking too damned long, let’s just go home,” because Harrison swings his weapon, and nearly electrocutes Ironhorse. Serves him right for not knocking (I mean, if there were and alien in there and not Harrison, he’d have basically fallen on it.)
Harrison leads Suzanne and Ironhorse back to the healing machine where they marvel over its design. Suzanne looks downright aroused as she muses over what they stand to learn about alien materials, logic systems and problem-solving ability. But then Harrison goes and fucks it all up by touching it, which triggers some kind of booby-trap, causing the entire machine to spontaneously vaporize into glittery confetti, leaving us to end on the two scientists looking befuddled as fake snow covers their heads and shoulders.
I think it really shows a lot of progress that the worst thing I can say about this episode is that it feels a bit thin. For all I went on about them playing hard and fast with geography and travel time, it’s still way more grounded than anything in Captain Power with the possible exception of the training video that shows the Sears Tower (And even then, it turns out that they were quite clearly using the wrong building as a visual reference. The cross-bracing is incredibly distinctive to the John Hancock tower, not the Sears Tower).
It ought to be unsatisfying that the hero plot for this episode is almost entirely, “Harrison sits around and thinks, then briefly barricades himself in a lab before almost killing Ironhorse by accident,” but the pacing does well to compensate. On paper, this sounds like a very back-heavy episode, not unlike most of the season so far, but in practice, it cuts between the hero and alien plots frequently in a way that keeps a sense of forward movement.
Ultimately, this episode is more character-driven than plot-driven. The big central issue is Harrison’s obsession: Sylvia, Suzanne and even Ironhorse express genuine concern that his obsession is becoming unhealthy, and I think that the audience is meant to sympathize with their concerns, especially when they find Harrison unconscious on the floor of his office having apparently worked himself to death. And though Ironhorse maintains his contractually-mandated skepticism and, just like last week, finds Harrison’s methods risible, he’s more willing to hear him out. And in a very self-aware touch, when Ironhorse agrees (after getting in a wry comment) to play along with Harrison’s problem-solving sessions, Harrison is visibly surprised, having been expecting a fight.
Of course, there’s a big problem with all this in that the audience already knows why the aliens have gone silent and that no, they’re not gone for good. Indeed, knowing what we do, it seems bizarre how readily everyone else comes to the conclusion that the alien threat is over. On the other hand, no one brings up the possibility of packing up the cottage and going home, so perhaps no one, even Ironhorse is actually saying “gone for good” so much as “there’s not much we can do until they turn up again.” One thing I find conspicuously missing from their speculation on the change in alien transmissions is the possibility that the aliens might be dormant. They already know that the aliens are capable of entering a death-like state of profound anabiosis; for all they know, the aliens normally hibernate for the winter. Sylvia’s recovery should really be a shocking twist that makes us start to consider the possibility that the aliens really are gone, but of course it’s not because by that point, we already know what’s happening with the advocacy. The emotional beats would be stronger if all the stuff with the aliens were moved down so that we didn’t see what the aliens were up to until after Ironhorse and Harrison visit Sylvia. But that would make the pacing of the episode altogether more ponderous. What might work better is to leave the alien scenes in place up to the failed attempt to use the healing device in the caverns, so that we know the aliens are in trouble, but when Norton reveals that their transmissions have ceased, we don’t know that it’s because the advocacy’s gone off on their own. Then we’d have the opportunity to suspend our disbelief and, for a while at least, consider the possibility that the failed healing attempt really did spell curtains for the aliens. As it stands, any concern we might have that Harrison’s obsession is becoming dangerous is completely undermined by the fact that we know it’s justified.
Ann Robinson is as fantastic as ever as Sylvia. It’s amazing how much her body language recreates the 1953 role in her first scene, before she’s incapacitated by an attack in her second one. A big let-down for this episode is that she’s only in the two scenes. Thematically, they really should have ended the episode not on Harrison and Suzanne at the power plant, but with a last cut back to Sylvia at Whitewood to reiterate the cruelty and sadness of having built up her hopes of recovery only to snatch them away again. That would have worked well as a juxtaposition with the running theme that Harrison’s obsession with the aliens is putting his own mental health at risk.
This episode isn’t one of the great ones, but if this is the new normal, we’re in pretty good shape.
- War of the Worlds the Series is available on DVD from amazon.com