We all have to die some time.
Let’s close out the year. It is December 26, 1988. Since last we spoke, the Spitak earthquake killed 25,000 in Armenia. Estonia declared Estonian to be its official language, which probably seems hilarious to anyone too young to understand the whole “Soviet Union” thing. Pan Am 103 was destroyed by terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland. US Presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche was convicted of mail fraud, ruining once and for all his chances of winning the 1992 election. NASA unveiled its plans for a moon colony and manned mars mission. I haven’t looked, but I assume that all went according to plan. Vanessa Hudgens was born, and Roy Orbison died. Tomorrow, Bulgaria will give up jamming Radio Free Europe, and Hayley Williams will be born.
Two days ago, Mega Man 2 was released in Japan. Out in theaters are The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad, Rain Man, Working Girl, Beaches, Twins, and, of course, Dangerous Liaisons. Poison leads the Billboard top ten with “Every Rose Has its Thorn”. Also charting are Bobby Brown’s “My Perrogative”, Boy Meets Girl’s “Waiting for a Star to Fall”, and Guns N Roses’s “Welcome to the Jungle”. New in the top ten this week are Doctor Who-fan-music-video favorite Phil Collins’s “Two Hearts”, The Bangles’s “In Your Room” (Which honestly, I didn’t even know was a single), and Taylor Dayne’s “Don’t Rush Me”. Speaking of Doctor Who, the novelty song, “Doctorin’ The Tardis”, a mash-up of the Doctor Who theme song with Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2 by The KLF (performing as “The Timelords”) is on the Hot 100 for its second week at 83. It’ll peak at 66. Former Kids Incorporated star Martika’s “More than You Know” enters the charts at 91.
TV is virtually all reruns this week, including, I am not making this up, a rerun of the made-for-TV movie Ewoks: Battle for Endor. Is that the one with the big spider? Friday the 13th will not be back for another week. Star Trek the Next Generation is off this week, but while War of the Worlds was on break, they cranked out “Where Silence has Lease” (the one where they get sucked into a Weird Space Hole where a big disembodied face wants to murder them because it’s curious about this whole “mortality” thing), “Elementary, My Dear Data” (the Sherlock Holmes one), and “The Outrageous Okona” (the one where they hang out with a Han Solo-inspired vaguely rogueish antihero and also holographic Joe Piscopo).
You only have to get a few minutes into “The Good Samaritan” to notice two things. The first is that this is densely and effectively written episode. The second is that there’s something seriously wrong on a mechanical level. The audio mix is weird. The foley is awkward. The looping is painfully blatant. Characters speak with odd cadences and tones. Some of this may not be their fault. There’s several audio glitches in my DVD copy — a half-second of the wrong audio warps in during the credits, and the sound track goes out of sync after the commercial breaks. Perhaps these have been fixed in later pressings (I am not optimistic). But other audio oddities must have been audible to the original audience. Maybe stuff like this was less noticeable on a cheap ’80s television set?
“The Good Samaritan” was the third episode produced, after “The Resurrection” and “Thy Kingdom Come”, made while Sam Strangis was still operating with a skeleton crew due to the strike: the writing credit on this one is the obvious pseudonym “Sylvia Clayton”. That might explain some of the technical issues, if the production team was still finding their feet and under pressure.
All the same, like I said, the actual story is really well put-together. We see the best examples we’ve had so far of the writing conveying information to the audience effectively and efficiently without resorting to direct information dumps. There’s also a strong display of the rapport between the characters, which is especially interesting given that this episode was filmed before the relationship development they put on display in “A Multitude of Idols”. There are a few oddities though: Ironhorse is far more casual with the others than he should be, and they’re still clinging to that idea of there being sexual tension between Harrison and Suzanne.
We open with four extremely ’80s-looking thirty-year-olds pretending to be college students in a diner. Noticing that one of them has a cold, the waitress talks them all into trying the chicken soup. When she slips into the back to deliver their order, she lapses into alienese just for the phrase, “and four soups.” Really great way to be discrete: if anyone were listening in, they wouldn’t learn that she’d put in the soup order she’d just been given, they’d only learn that she’s an alien who speaks a language that sounds like backmasking. The line cook adds something from his flask to the soup, while they discuss their plans in alienese which, this time, hasn’t been subtitled, in order to increase the suspense for the ten seconds before we cut to the last survivor of the group being wheeled into the hospital.
If you were hoping that the horrible alien toxin would produce some satisfying body horror, like his chest cavity collapsing or alien goo issuing from his orifices, sorry; it’s not that kind of show. The kid just dies painfully while one of the cooks watches from a distance. Back at the Land of the Lost cave, an alien identified only as “Commander” explains to the Advocacy how they’ve proven that their “spores” are fatal to humans, and they’re ready to start using them to wipe out the locals. They also bring by a bound young blonde in a halter top with a bare midriff, which the Commander explains is a “gift” to the scientists to use in their experiments. Also, presumably, a gift to the anticipated target audience’s “dudes who like seeing a young blonde in a halter top with a bare midriff in bondage” demographic.
Meanwhile, at a stock image of looking up at a skyscraper that I think I’ve seen before, a businessman with the incredibly unlikely name “Marcus Madison Mason” is giving a press conference. Seems he’s invented some kind of new miracle food-crop which, among its other magnificent properties, is completely radiation resistant, which will come in important after the inevitable nuclear conflict that’s coming. That’s not me being wry: Mason actually literally states this as his reason for adding radiation resistance. Mason speaks in a strangely slow monotone that makes him sound like he’s on something. It’ll probably come in handy when he gets alien-possessed later since no one will think it odd that he suddenly sounds like a robot. A quick pan around the room does a surprisingly modern job of communicating character wordlessly. Mason is disingenuous. The board of directors — which includes future Robocop regular David Gardner — is bored with all this humanitarian bullshit. Mason’s wife, an elegant middle-aged woman is proud of her husband. Mason’s personal assistant, a much younger woman, wants to bone him, and probably already has. The wife is clueless, as indicated by her whispered promise of a “special dinner” when they do their obligatory chaste post-press-conference smooch for the cameras. The secretary looks away, clearly pissed at Mason’s flagrant flirting with his own wife right in front of her.
As soon as they leave the conference, Mason, still speaking weirdly slow, drops the humanitarian facade and starts complaining about recouping their research costs, and making plans to bleed the third world dry and bribe government officials to expedite their export licenses. Once behind the locked door of his office, he starts making out with Teri, the personal assistant. The actress who plays Teri looked a bit familiar to me, and a little research turned up that she’s Lori Haller, who would go on to appear in a handful of things I’ve seen, most prominently, as Josie’s mom in Strange Days at Blake Holsey High, a show that I find kinda wonderful for the way that it is quite obviously an attempt to do a lighter and fluffier version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with all instances of the word “supernatural” struck through and replaced with “SCIENCETM!”. For example, there is an episode whose actual plot is that when one of the characters starts to feel unnoticed by his friends, he turns invisible. Only instead of it being due to the hellmouth in the basement, it’s due to the wormhole in the science teacher’s office. He blows off her offer for sex on the claim that he has to work late, and gives her a gold watch to make up for it. We immediately cut to him giving a gold necklace to his mistress, another, more pinup-y kind of young blonde, who responds by taking off her clothes to give the audience an eyeful of the kind of PG-13 near-nudity that could only come about thanks to the ever-laxening broadcast standards that have come with the breakdown of Big Three Network dominance.
Back at the cottage, a nice exchange with the regular cast. Norton’s reading an article about Mason in Plot Convenience Magazine, while Harrison is picking horses from the track list — a very obviously redubbed Norton explains to the befuddled Ironhorse that Harrison’s mathematical genius gives him an impressive betting record, even if it’s only on paper (Harrison likes probability but doesn’t approve of gambling). Ironhorse struggles with a Rubik’s cube, then tosses it away in frustration just as Suzanne enters to vent about how hard it is to genetically engineer radiation-resistant biological weapons.
Norton helpfully comments on Mason’s grain, which inspires them to have General Wilson get Suzanne a meeting. Mason explains the radiation resistance as being purely of his own personal invention, but doesn’t let on any of its secrets. But it’s clear from his thoughtful looks that, despite Suzanne’s high neckline and enormous shoulder pads, he’s concocting a plan to bed her, and she agrees to have dinner with him for further discussion and artless flirting.
The aliens, meanwhile, have decided that Mason’s grain would be a good way to distribute their killer spores, which is a good thing because otherwise, this episode is going to be kind of pointless. They send three possessed little old ladies to acquire him. The little old ladies are played by Anne Mirvish, who hasn’t done much else, Billie Mae Richards, a prolific voice actor best known for the voices of Brightheart Racoon and Tenderheart Bear across multiple incarnations of the Care Bears franchise, and Maxine Miller. Miller is this episode’s second actress who looks really familiar. Not from anything in particular as it turns out, though. In addition to considerable voice-acting credits which include Babar, Double Dragon, The Baby Huey Show, and Martha Speaks, she’s a fairly prolific character actor who pretty much always plays “little old lady” characters, in such shows as So Weird, Seven Days, First Wave, The Outer Limits, Dead Like Me, Smallville, Supernatural and The Flash (Ironically, in an episode titles “Who is Harrison Wells?”)
If you were thinking “Hey, three little old lady aliens, and this Mason guy is boning three different ladies!” you’re actually way ahead of the episode. The little old ladies watch Mason at lunch with his girlfriend, then follow her as she goes shopping. A scene later, the girlfriend, accompanied by only two little old ladies, calls Mason to make a date.
Intermixed with all this, we get some more boardroom scenes with Mason to establish that he’s a pretty typical Robber Baron (According to IMDb, one of the suits in these scenes is our old friend Barry Flatman, but there’s only one guy I can’t rule out, and he doesn’t look much like him), and a scene back at the Cottage where Debi establishes that she likes playing with Suzanne’s lab rat, Caesar. The rat’s name should really be “Chekhov”.
While we’re back at the Cottage, Ironhorse spends a scene ribbing Harrison about Suzanne’s impending date with Mason, trying to get a rise out of him by noting that Mason’s “not a bad looking guy,” which, well, I guess I’ll just take his word for it, and that, “We may be losing our lady doctor to big business.”
So, um. What the fuck? I know it’s the ’80s and it’s a forelorn hope for me to imagine they might treat Suzanne like a human being and all, but “lady doctor”? And what’s up with Ironhorse trying to make Harrison all jealous? I guess Ironhorse sniping at Harrison shouldn’t be too surprising at this point, but this feels sort of dudebro for a guy who’s supposed to be a military hardass-type.
In keeping with the kind of heavily trope-aware show this is, Suzanne walks in on them to seek make approval on her little black dress, because clearly an academic weirdo and a straightlaced soldier are exactly the right guys to help her decide if her hair and shoulder pads are big enough. We get the cliche “Men awkwardly react when the female character they’d always been purely platonic with walks in all dolled up for a date and is Suddenly Hot.”
I do not like this cliche. I don’t like it so much that I am going to read against obvious intention here. Because while it is true that the writing clearly assumes that, yes, Harrison is attracted to Suzanne and is just in denial, and that yes, he’s supposed to be flustered by the thought of her being all sexied up and going out with a rich businessman, the truth is that Jared Martin does absolutely nothing to sell that. Given that we kinda know that Jared Martin can play Stupid Sexy Harrison, I’ve got to conclude that this is on purpose, and someone — the director, perhaps, or Martin himself — is mutinying against hamfisted attempts to ship those two. There’s no indication of repressed desire in Harrison’s reaction to Suzanne. The only emotion he shows in the scene at all is annoyance toward Ironhorse. His glower in the face of Ironhorse’s smug expression is easy to read not as anger at being “caught” by the soldier, but rather as frustration with Ironhorse’s insistence on treating his colleague as some sort of prize to be won. That is my story, and I am sticking to it.
At dinner, Mason refuses to disclose trade secrets, and Suzanne refuses to disclose state ones, and eventually he takes her back to his office and comes really close to flat-out offering to sell her the technical information she wants in exchange for sex and/or state secrets. It’s a weird combination of it being the ’80s and the writers having no idea what stuff like “treason” and “espionage” are that the whole thing is utterly oblivious to the fact that Mason is opening himself up to all kinds of lawsuits and that the things he’s asking Suzanne to do are prostitution and/or espionage.
Teri walks in before Suzanne has to go for her pepper spray, and the woman that Mason is cheating on both his wife and his girlfriend with looks shocked and offended that he’s trying to cheat on her with Suzanne. Suzanne takes the opening to slip out before Mason can find his roofies.
Seriously. This whole “date” scene is explicit sexual harassment and no, it would not surprise me at all if Marcus had tried to date-rape Suzanne at the end of it. And yes, that is exactly the right sort of character to assign to this slimy ’80s businessman type. But I object very strenuously to the fact that the whole thing comes off as just crass exploitation. Everyone treats it as essentially a joke that they’re trying to prostitute Suzanne to get Mason’s radiation-resistance technology. And Suzanne’s even going to be hurt later when Mason stops showing sexual interest in her. Because she’s a woman and it’s an ’80s show and so of course women find pushy unsolicited sexual pressure flattering. I wish I had more to say about this, but I’ve been talking about ’80s shows for like four years now and I’ve basically said everything that I can personally think of about this bullshit.
In case you haven’t figured it out, Mason’s lack of interest later is because immediately after Suzanne slips out, he gets that call from his alien girlfriend, who summons him over for sex and bodily possession. The next morning, he calls a board meeting, where he introduces the three aliens from the diner scene, now in suits, as “consultants” he’s hired. The board looks mostly scandalized by how frumpy they look. A scene later, they’re hosing down the grain samples with toxic spores from unmarked containers in a lab while the board looks on helpless and confused. I love how ’80s it is that just by possessing the president of the company they can just waltz in and do this and there’s no oversight or anything, or anyone from the government to object or inspect or anything. Also that apparently the grain is manufactured in a lab even at this stage, like literally a day or so before it’s to be shipped out, and not in a factory.
The next day, Suzanne fawns at length over Mason to Harrison and Ironhorse, referring to him by his first name and going on about how “romantic” he was and how good the pate was as Ironhorse smirks at Harrison. Harrison, again, seems bothered only by Ironhorse’s attitude and how far Suzanne beats around the bush before revealing that she wasn’t able to learn anything useful. Suzanne: After about seven courses and two bottles of wine, he invited me up to his office.
Harrison: Mason agreed to share his research with you?
Suzanne: No. In fact he made it very clear he wanted to share his bed with me.
Harrison: You’re kidding.
Ironhorse: She’s not kidding.
Harrison: You’re not kidding.
Suzanne: He’s very romantic. Shrewd. Terribly wealthy.
Suzanne: And about as subtle as an adolescent on his first date. And I’m pretty sure he’s having an affair with his secretary. I’d really like to read this as subversive. You can get at least a little way with that. The turnaround at the end makes it clear that her fawning was insincere, and I’d like to read that as Suzanne’s resentment, but it just doesn’t come off that way. No, Suzanne seems to have genuinely enjoyed having a nice dinner on a millionaire’s dime (which, okay, fair enough. Who doesn’t enjoy a nice dinner), and her complaint about Madison’s seduction attempt isn’t that it was utterly inappropriate and vile, but rather that it was clumsy. And more than anything, she just seems to want to get Harrison’s goat.
I guess I kinda like the display of friendly rapport between three-fourths of the cast. But this is just… Flakey. They shouldn’t be chuckling about the clumsy seduction attempts of a serial philanderer and they shouldn’t be playing games of trying to use the example of said serial philanderer to make Harrison jealous. And again, Harrison does nothing to indicate that he’s actually bothered. When he tells her that her romantic liaisons are none of his business, it might seem awful because it’s framed in the context of Mason trying to coerce Suzanne into bed, but it doesn’t come off as insincere: he genuinely isn’t jealous and genuinely just wants to get on with the alien-fighting. I love the idea of this being Jared Martin rebelling against the script, though if he’s the sort to do that, I wish he’d saved it for the scene where he roughs up Suzanne in “The Second Seal”.
For a scene that’s about the gang playfully ribbing each other, isn’t it a bit curious who isn’t there? That’s because Norton is downstairs in the lab building something with circuit boards. Because that’s what computer scientists do. Actually, in addition to fiddling with circuit boards, he’s having a character-building moment with Debi, who’s come down to play with Chekhov. Debi asks Norton if he misses the use of his legs, and Norton explains that he can’t miss what he’s never had (I think the novelization implied if it didn’t say outright that Norton became paraplegic as an adult), and tells heartwarming stories about his childhood. It’s a strong scene for both of them, even if Rachel Blanchard isn’t really there yet to carry the weight of it.
It’s weird now that I think about it: Harrison is detached and scientific, Suzanne is flirty and laid back, Norton is serious, introspective and heartwarming. Ironhorse is a sarcastic, laid back wisecracker. Debi is… An actual character. Did they all drop their scripts or something? Especially knowing that this episode was produced so early, it’s interesting to see them breaking so hard from the character traits we’d seen in earlier episodes. No idea what it means. If it’s accidental, maybe they weren’t entirely sure where the characters were going. But if it’s intentional, it’s really something that so early in production, they were anticipating the characters developing. As I mentioned before, during production one of the things they really felt was important was that the characters would learn from each other and grow over time. One of the things that came out strongly in the novelization was that many of the more abrasive traits of the characters were at least partially defensive mechanisms they fostered due to the stress of living in a world that’s suffering from a kind of society-wide PTSD from the alien invasion. And the turnaround in the characters here does convey a sense that, after months of working side-by-side, they’re more comfortable with each other and less defensive. Perhaps even the release of doing this kind of work has helped them to deal with their own neuroses: now that they don’t have to live their everyday lives trying to deny the impact of the alien war, they’re learning to cope with the reality of the aliens rather than suppress it.
Suzanne returns to Mason’s HQ to take that factory-slash-his-pants tour, but since Mason’s new priorities are speaking in a slow monotone that’s slightly creepier than his usual slow monotone, she has to settle for just touring the factory. In order to keep the plot going, she pockets some grain. Which gets me thinking. Seriously, what is the aliens’ plan here? It seems like what they reckon is that if this grain is distributed all over the world, then everyone in the world is going to eat this tainted grain all at the same time, and boom, Achievement Unlocked: Genocide. Which assumes that this grain is going to get planted, grown to maturity, harvested, processed, converted into foodstuffs, and distributed to consumers en masse without anyone getting exposed to the toxic spores along the way. What would actually happen is that about a month before harvest, someone would notice all the dead birds around their field and the jig would be up. Now, sure, that could prove a serious blow to humanity: you’d be depriving a large chunk of the world, mostly the developing world, of a year’s harvest. You could probably start a bunch of revolutions. And in 1988, you might even be able to leverage that into escalating cold war tensions if the Soviets could frame it as a capitalist plot to cull the poor or something. But none of that figures into the alien plans: they’re very clear that they think they can kill most of the human race by tainting a single grain crop with something that’s so incredibly lethal that it can’t go undetected for more than a meal. You know what would work better? A spore that took a couple of years to kill you. It’d take forever to work out the source, and by the time they had, the entire food supply would be dependent on the stuff. Or heck, a spore that just waited a couple of years then killed the grain. Are we once again seeing evidence that the aliens are just kinda stupid? I don’t know. There’s nothing in the text of the show which suggests that. Indeed, the urgency with which the Blackwood team moves in the third act strongly indicates that, yeah, we’re meant to believe this is a good plan. I guess it’s a good thing that the Blackwood project has to be all clandestine and secretive, because it seems like a more rational way for them to behave would be to have General Wilson call the FDA and get them to fork over the samples they had been analyzing. But then, of course, her sample would have been from the pre-“hose it down with death spray without even trying to hide it and assume no one will notice” phase.
She brings it back to the lab and is just settling down to do some SCIENCETM when Debi comes in looking to play with Caesar. Debi wants to adopt the rat and keep him in her room, since Suzanne only keeps him for appearances anyway. If you have any sense of how TV shows work, you’re guessing that what’s about to happen is that Debi will let Caesar out of his cage, and he’s going to eat some grain and then promptly die. Well, I hate to break it to you, but in fact it takes Caesar like two whole scene changes to die. In the middle, Mason gives a press conference declaring that he’s decided to give away his grain to every country in the world even if they can’t pay because, as he creepily and robotically monotones, to do anything else would be “inhuman”.
What gives the game away for the aliens this week is that the Advocacy decides they ought to call home and let them know that they’re getting their genocide on. Norton intercepts the transmissions, and starts working on the allegedly arduous task of triangulating the location of the ground station. He discusses this with Harrison and Ironhorse while Suzanne gets her SCIENCETM on in the lab. In another well-shot scene, we see her observe the effect of the spores through her microscope, and without having her actually say anything, it’s real clear what’s going on.
She warns the others that the grain is incredibly deadly, but Ironhorse does not understand why that’s a problem. Technically, if it doesn’t involve aliens, attempts to wipe out the human race via biological warfare do not fall under the Blackwood Project’s charter, so their hands are tied: the only thing they’re allowed to do is have Suzanne call Teri and warn her that “something” is wrong with the grain. This seems like an intensely stupid charter to me, but Ironhorse insists that they can’t risk exposing the nature of their work just to save a few billion people. Fortunately, Norton triangulates those broadcasts I mentioned before to the Oakland docks, affirming my suspicion that it is folly to try to locate the Cottage more specifically than “Somewhere on the west coast”.
Suzanne’s warning to Teri must have been incredibly convincing, because she finds Mason all in a panic about the grain being tainted and liable to kill anyone who eats it. Mason quotes the epigram from the beginning of the episode and quietly removes her from the narrative off-screen.
As usual, though, Ironhorse is the only
ship in the quadrant representative of the US Military in the state, so him and Harrison have to drive down to the docks and delay the grain ship by posing as inspectors from the Department of Agriculture. Their suspicions about Mason are confirmed when he shakes Harrison’s hand, revealing a bad radiation sore, or at least they would be if they didn’t insist on pretending that neither that nor the high radiation levels in the ship’s engine room are conclusive. Why are they in the engine room? Harrison asks that as well, and Ironhorse just writes it off as playing for time, though it’s pretty clear the actual answer is “because this looks like a cool place for an action-packed climax”.
The Mason-alien sends the diner aliens to go body-snatch our heroes, and they decide to drop their current hosts first because they’ve got the budget to do some suit work this week. But one of them promptly knocks something over and the noise alerts Ironhorse, who responds by pulling his gun. Boy would that be embarrassing if it turned out it was just the Oiler checking the bearings. What follows is a very tense and atmospheric cat-and-mouse stalking scene which culminates in an alien grabbing Harrison by the leg and trying to pull him through a hatch. Harrison burns his hand on a steam pipe trying to protect himself (Harrison:I think my violin-playing days are over.
Ironhorse:You play the violin?
Harrison:It’s something I’ve always been meaning to do), and Ironhorse can’t get a clean shot, so he pulls out his battle baton and dives in, cutting off the alien’s arm, which melts satisfyingly. One of the really nice things about this scene is that Ironhorse looks genuinely scared for much of it, while Harrison, even when he’s being attacked, looks more angry than frightened. It sits well with my recurring sense ever since the second episode that Ironhorse, despite being undoubtedly and incredibly brave man by any sane and normal human standards, is completely bugfuck terrified by the aliens, while Harrison, who’s got a personal grudge and has spent his whole life studying them, doesn’t experience the same visceral sense of terror.
Harrison dispatches a second alien by opening a steam valve into its face and Ironhorse shoots the third. The possessed Mason shows up, and Harrison stops Ironhorse from shooting him in the hopes they can interrogate him. The last leg of the chase ends with Mason cornered on deck, and he elects to throw himself overboard after shouting the alien catchphrase.
While the local police clean up, Ironhorse and Harrison pull out giant Zach Morris cell phones to call General Wilson and Suzanne respectively, assuring them that they’re all right and assuring the audience that the Coast Guard will intercept any ships that are already under way. Before they leave, Harrison muses to Ironhorse that he feels like there’s something important that he’s overlooked.
Which is a weird sentiment to end on because it’s not at all clear what action he could take if he hadn’t. The thing he’s overlooked, presumably, is what the alien commander back in the Land of the Lost cave offers up to the Advocacy in his own defense after the failure: the aliens can just make more spores any time they like, so they can always try again as soon as they think of another way to distribute the spores. Like, I don’t know, spraying them on a low-profile shipment of foreign relief food that isn’t receiving massive media attention? Even if he had thought of this, though, what is Harrison supposed to do with that information? I suppose broadly, something like trying to institute tests for deadly spores at various other parts of the food supply chain, but I doubt he could get General Wilson to go for that. The only other real revelation we get from the final alien scene is that, just as everyone who was paying attention predicted, Teri is an alien now, joining Mason’s wife and mistress as the only survivors of the alien field team. Though this doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, as we know that aliens come in three-packs, and we saw a total of six aliens, and four of them died. What, there was a seventh alien just hanging out somewhere this whole time who didn’t get mentioned?
Everything about this episode screams, “I was written during a writer’s strike.” The plot is full of holes, there are reveals in the wrong places, setups that lead nowhere, and a lot of pointless back-and-forth to pace the plot out (I got the impression at one point that Mason called a board meeting, spoke for a minute, dismissed the meeting, then immediately called another one).
But all the same, this is a technically well-made episode in a way that a lot of the early episodes just were not. That climactic fight scene is great. A lot goes on, it’s pretty visual, and we actually get about as good a look at the aliens as we’re ever going to. There’s also a lot of subtle nonverbal communication in this episode, like the way they establish the character of Mason, or reveal his philandering. Or Ironhorse’s fear of the aliens. Harrison’s exasperation at being taunted. The tenderness in the scenes between Norton and Debi. The relationship between the regulars comes across very clearly too, and we get a rare episode that makes good use of Suzanne in her capacity as a scientist.
But this does bring me to the sexist elephant in the room: that bit in the second act where they pretty much pimp out Suzanne and everyone thinks it’s hilarious. And it wouldn’t even be so bad if the narrative ever acknowledged that this was a shitty thing to do. Instead, Suzanne seems to be, if anything, flattered by the sexual harassment, exactly the same way men are always saying that women ought to be. I know that women are entirely capable of writing and holding misogynistic attitudes, but all the same, I think I’m going to bet that “Sylvia Clayton” was just might possibly have actually been a dude.
Like quite a few episodes so far, this one has hinged a little contrivedly on “Just by dumb luck, both the Blackwood team and also the aliens independently happen to take an interest in the same thing at the same time.” If Mason’s grain hadn’t been radiation-resistant, they would have totally gotten away with their plan. All the same, it shows considerable improvement over the last episode’s “Harrison just randomly happens upon an alien-related crime scene, then just randomly happens to park across the street from where the aliens are.” And other than the big initial coincidence, the two halves of the plot are pretty well integrated, and the whole, “We can’t lift a finger to prevent mass murder on a global scale because it will blow our cover” business wastes thankfully little actual screen-time.
It all makes it just so strange how early this fell in production. The climactic battle on the ship is filmed incredibly well by period standards. The guest characters have a lot of character. The regulars show new sides of themselves, but don’t seem out of character. Knowing that they were capable of this, it’s just bizarre that they’d go on to make the comparatively weaker episodes from the first part of the season.
Readers who’ve gotten this far have probably noticed that possibly the one consistent strength of this show over the course of the episodes so far, despite their highs and lows, has been the depth of the guest characters. Okay, “depth” might be overstating it. But there’s a richness to the incidental characters at least in their conception that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in an adventure show like this. In your typical MacGyver or Knight Rider or Airwolf or The A-Team, you might get a really interesting one-off character every once in a while, but if they actually went all-in on giving a character a personality, it would either mean that they’d lucked into getting a known character actor as a guest star and letting them do their shtick, or they’d be setting up a recurring minor character (MacGyver was particularly fond of that, with its oddly large rotation of recurring guests). But War of the Worlds hardly ever introduces a minor character without hinting at a broader backstory. The elderly militiamen in “Eye for an Eye”; the homely Lieutenant and her unrequited crush in “The Second Seal”; the Cary Grant-imitating EPA clerk; the LARPing gang in “Goliath is my Name”; even the possessed factory worker and his suspicious wife in “The Walls of Jericho”.
For a franchise that started out not even caring to give characters names, it’s amazing that we’ve come to a place where with each new episode, I’m spending as much time wondering about the backstories of the incidental characters as I am about the action on-screen.
- War of the Worlds the Series is available on DVD from amazon.com