Thesis: Among the Philistines (War of the Worlds 1×11)

Don’t you see? It’s not just our problem. If we lose this war, we lose the entire planet.

Ah yes, the shocking discovery that "Too Doo Nakotae" means "To Da Nakatoo"

Ah yes, the shocking discovery that “Too Doe Nakotae” means “To Da Nakatoo”

It is January 9, 1989. In Japan, Emperor Akhito has just ascended to the throne. Wednesday, President Reagan will deliver his farewell address to the nation before ascending directly into the heavens on a rising tide, leaving golden showers trickling down in his wake. I assume. In a weird bit of synchronicity, there was a peace summit between the US and the USSR since last we met, the outcome of which was an agreement by the Soviets to destroy their chemical weapons. The big news this week, of course, is the crash of British Midlands Flight 92 near Kegworth in England. The crash, the result of the pilots shutting down the wrong engine (The relevant indicators had recently undergone a design change) when one of them failed due to metal fatigue, killed 47.

Over the weekend, 42nd Street and Starlight Express closed on Broadway. The Lost Lennon Tapes are released on vinyl. The Billboard Hot 100 continues to stagnate, though there’s just a hit of movement at the bottom of the top 10 with the arrival of Def Leppard’s “Armageddon It” and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”. MacGyver, Alf, and Newheart are new. Star Trek the Next Generation returns from Christmas break with “Loud as a Whisper”, which is the one about the mute telepathic negotiator who speaks via three interpreters until they get offed. I’m told it’s really really good, but honestly I remember almost nothing about it. Friday the 13th gives us “Night Hunger”, in which a cursed car key, when bathed in the blood of a murder victim, upgrades your car to win illegal drag races. It’s sorta like Christine got crossed with Knight Rider and also that episode of Futurama where Bender gets turned into a were-car. Also, The Pat Sajack Show premieres.

It’s time for a little blast from the future. “Among the Philistines” was the eleventh episode of War of the Worlds to air, but the sixteenth produced. We’ve seen episodes out-of-order before without it being an issue; this isn’t really the sort of show with an episode-to-episode story arc. But this episode is actually going to reference things that haven’t happened yet. These won’t be spoilers for us, thanks to the order in which I’ve done things, but Harrison’s going to mention the name of the alien homeworld and the time-table for the invasion, which he’s not going to learn until February, in “The Prodigal Son”. He also places the events of the “The Resurrection” about a year earlier.

War of the Worlds - Cedric Smith

The Cray-1 was discontinued in 1982, which actually makes it surprisingly new technology for a government job.

The lab set’s also been redressed a little, though looking back, the refurbished set actually debuted back in “The Second Seal” (Notably, after two episodes that didn’t have any footage set there), and I just didn’t notice because it switches back for a couple of episodes. I only noticed it this time because there’s a few shots where you can see the supercomputer, which actually looks like an honest-to-goodness Cray-1 now, the height of 1970s computing technology, all decked out in red leatherette.

There’s also one particular scene early on which seems very strange in context, but will make a lot of sense to you if I tell you now that this episode was probably supposed to fall immediately after “He Feedeth Among the Lilies” (Which will ultimately air before “The Prodigal Son”, but was produced after).

We open with Ironhorse’s squaddies — Ironhorse has squaddies now, another thing that won’t be introduced until later, though I do find myself thinking that it actually makes sense that it be this week’s events that prompts him to get some — setting up a fake car accident to serve as a road block. Stopping for the road block, three aliens driving a truck under the marque of the “Source Chemical Company” are captured alive. Harrison repeatedly stresses how important it is that they be taken alive for interrogation. Inexplicably, Harrison repeatedly saying this out loud right in front of them somehow alerts the aliens to the fact that the humans want to take them alive and interrogate them, so, exchanging a meaningful glance at each other, they each in turn punch themselves in the chest causing them to die in a spray of alien goo out their backs.

War of the WorldsWar of the WorldsWar of the WorldsWar of the WorldsWar of the Worlds
I tried making an animated gif out of this, but it’s like half a second long and would give you motion sickness.

Harrison completely flips his shit over this. They’d set up the roadblock due to a tipoff from an unknown source, and Harrison is convinced that the fact that the aliens were able to commit suicide apparently by force of will when captured after he’s told them that he wants to interrogate them about the invasion means that the aliens must have been warned about the ambush. Maybe we missed a scene or something.

For reasons that will become clearer when we view this episode in its proper context, this latest setback pushes Harrison into a dark place. He sits in his office brooding angrily until Ironhorse shows up to ruin my policy of only shipping Ironhorse with Norton. He actually gives Harrison a heartfelt shoulder-massage and talks about the stress of fighting an unseen enemy, leading into another of Ironhorse’s famous tonal whiplash military anecdotes.

Jared Martin and Richard Chaves

Well this certainly isn’t going to launch a thousand slashfics.

At the point, the prime discussion is the mission. Fighting an enemy you couldn’t see. It takes everything you have just to hold it together. I’ve been there. We fought all night at Khe Sanh. Pinned down. The screams, the dying that night. We all knew we’d be overrun. We’d be dead by the end of the night. In the morning, the mist cleared in the valley and they were gone. We’d done it. We’d held our position: we’d won. But that night was a million nights long.
You’re going through a night like that, Harrison. But the mist will clear. And we will have won.

I love it when Ironhorse goes into Dark Vietnam Anecdote mode. The music goes all grim and brooding and the lights dim, and I’m pretty sure they mixed in some jungle ambient sounds, and I just keep thinking of the scene in Gremlins where Phoebe Cates tells the story about how her father died (Or better, the scene in Gremlins II about why she hates Lincoln’s Birthday). While those two are exchanging meaningful looks, the aliens back in the Land of the Lost cave are having a Mua-ha-ha moment over how the death of the three aliens from the truck means that everything is going exactly according to their plans. So no suspense about that then.

Cedric Smith

This week’s lesson: never trust a man who eats salad

Here, then, we introduce this week’s guest star, Doctor Adrian Bouchard, played by Cedric Smith. Smith is a prolific actor, known for his roles in Anne of Green Gables and Avonlea, as well as for voicing Professor Xavier in the ’90s X-Men cartoon, opposite Captain Power alum David Hemblen’s Magneto. Also, minor fact, at the time, he was married to actress Catherine Disher, who was, I’ve mentioned, their first choice for the role of Suzanne. Pity they couldn’t get her to do the show.

Adrian is a researcher who’s spent the last decade doing language research with a couple of dolphins names Mona and Mabel. His work will eventually lead to seaQuest DSV. The gang has brought him to a cool old mansion that’s being used as a government safe-house so they can talk to him about aliens. During the copious down-time involved in studying dolphins, he listens to the radio a lot, and had noticed a correlation between an “odd percussive transmission” he’d picked up and news reports of terrorist attacks. Applying his dolphin research to the transmissions had yielded the tip we saw the team respond to earlier. Adrian had done work with the Navy in the past, training dolphins to lay mines or something (They don’t go into detail, but I just keep thinking of the “dipshit stuff” Gillian had suspected Kirk of being up to in Star Trek IV), and had some military contacts who’d hooked him up with Harrison and company.

Cedric Smith and Richard Chaves

Here’s a picture of Ironhorse pouring cream into Adrian’s coffee because I just find the image hilarious.

Adrian seems to have no awareness of the 1953 invasion, though he looks to be older than Harrison and therefore would have lived through it, probably as a teenager. And yet his response to the news that Earth is being invaded by aliens is not fear or panic, but simple scientific curiosity, asking about the aliens’ origin and technology. When asked, Harrison volunteers the name of their planet, that a colonization force of millions is four years away, and that they’ve tried without success to make peace with the aliens. Adrian agrees to help them decipher alien transmissions.

At their next coffee break, Harrison leaves Adrian alone with Suzanne so they can flirt a bit in the hopes it will make his sudden but inevitable betrayal a little less obvious. I mean, come on. Having an alien in human form casually flirt with Suzanne, feigning total sincerity? If we hadn’t seen the new alien commander last week humoring the little girl over the parking meter, I wouldn’t have imagined them capable of it.

What? You hadn’t worked out Adrian is an alien? I’m sure writer Patrick Barry will be happy to hear it. Yeah, it’s him again, back again after “The Second Seal”, an episode, you’ll recall, that I’d really liked in my youth but had serious misgivings about this time through. Anyway, it’s hard to avoid realizing that Adrian and his game-beaking ability to decipher alien transmissions is actually a trap when they keep cutting back to the Advocacy in the cave talking about how well their plan is going, which they do again now.

War of the Worlds

But I do dig that the UI on the mainframe is visibly crappier than on the supercomputer.

Adrian and Norton try running the algorithm against an incoming alien transmission on the safe-house’s mainframe, and there’s lots of computer-sounding gibberish about opening new windows and bitmapping the X-axis or whatever, but the signal is too big or something and the computer overloads, causing all the text windows to fade out and the whole system to go down. And the computer scientist person who has ever used a computer in me wants to call bullshit on that, but for all I know, ’80s mainframes did work like that. When Ironhorse comes in to see what’s wrong, he name-drops their supercomputer, and Adrian storms off in a huff, angry that they were screwing around with a Commodore 64 when they had a supercomputer.

Since Adrian’s background check had just come through before the computer crashed, Harrison is now at liberty to invite him to come back to the Cottage and work with them. Adrian claims that he wants to go back to his dolphins, but Harrison makes an impassioned plea about the fate of the world, and he agrees to be blindfolded and driven to their place.

Yeah... This isn't going to end well.

Yeah… This isn’t going to end well.

There’s another new arrival at the cottage: Debi just got a new evil-detecting dog, Chekhov Guido, from Anton Chekhov’s Evil-Detecting Dog Emporium. Adrian and Guido, predictably, do not hit it off, with Debi barely able to restrain Guido from attacking, because Patrick Barry does not know the meaning of the word “subtlty”.

The supercomputer solves their overload problem, and begins producing translations of the alien recordings, which everyone assumes will be the key to swift victory. Norton cautions them that Adrian’s algorithm doesn’t work on older recordings for some reason, so there might be more to the cipher than they’ve figured out. The team wants to bring Adrian on permanently, and both Suzanne and Harrison make pitches to him, but he plays hard-to-get.

During a break, they realize that they meant to establish Norton’s action skills at some point and haven’t gotten around to it, so Norton and Ironhorse spar at bojutsu. At first, they seem to be evenly matched, but Norton finally opens a can of whup-ass so big that he breaks Ironhorse’s staff.Philip Akin and Richard Chaves

It turns out Norton was cheating: his staff has a metal core. Seriously, I hope Anton Chekhov got royalties for this episode. But I kid. I think it’s actually a good thing. This episode much more than any episode so far has made a point to set things up ahead of time. The climax of this episode is going to play out as a series of callbacks invoking things we learned in the first half. It’s a big departure from the, “Heroes just kind of stumble onto the alien plot by dumb luck and a series of coincidences put people in the right place at the right time to foil them.” It’s not as funny as “Alien plot to nuke a peace summit foiled because they only put an hour on the meter,” but it’s more dramatically satisfying.

It’s right around here that Debi announces that Guido has disappeared, maintaining her perfect track-record with pets. Suzanne isn’t going to let her have so much as a goldfish after this. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “To lose one pet due to the machinations of a malevolent alien race bent on world domination may be regarded a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness.” While everyone’s discussing their intent to hire Adrian on permanently (And give him Ironhorse’s parking space, according to Norton), Adrian decrypts another transmission, and announces that the aliens are up to some vaguely outlined plot involving nerve gas, and gives them the exact time and place where it’s all going down complete with a note to make sure to show up exactly on time and for the love of God, don’t come three hours early and scope the place out for an ambush ahead of time.

Cedric Smith

Here’s a tasteful shot of Cedric Smith with his shirt off. For the ladies. Who like radiation sores.

Once the rest of the cast is safely out of the way, Norton sets to work trying again to apply Adrian’s algorithm to recordings of older alien transmissions. As before, it doesn’t work. Realizing that we’ve made it two-thirds of the way through the episode without a Rocky joke, he calls up to the guest room with, “Yo, Adrian!” and asks for his help. Adrian says he’ll be right down as soon as he finishes tending to the radiation sores on his chest and puts his shirt back on. What a twist! Soon as he hangs up, he starts talking in alienese as well, just in case the audience is especially thick. When Adrian returns to the lab, he sets off the pile of radiation badges they’re for some reason keeping on top of Norton’s computer terminal, which Norton assumes is just because they were sourced to the low bid.

Ironhorse and his troops arrive early three hours early for their ambush and reconnoiter ahead of time, something the aliens had not anticipated. Scouts spot over a hundred aliens setting up the ambush, and it’s so obvious that they’ve been set up that Harrison calls Norton and asks him to double-check the message that brought them here. This is my biggest problem with the plot of the episode. The trap the aliens lay for Ironhorse’s team is bizarrely facile. At this point, two out of the two alien plots Adrian’s led them to have turned out to be set-ups, and yet it doesn’t occur to the aliens that the humans might show up before the nick-of-time or that they might not charge in without getting the ley of the land first. Adrian does all this stuff with being reluctant to give up his research to come work with them, and getting butthurt when they won’t let him play with the supercomputer in an (admittedly not convincing) attempt to avoid looking suspicious, but then they go and make their set-ups in the field incredibly straightforward so that the heroes realize they’ve been had instantly.

And despite my joking about it before, Adrian never shows any concern about the fact that Ironhorse’s team is going to show up three hours early to the ambush. I mean, okay, this show’s dodgy enough about travel-times that who can say, but it would have been nice to show Adrian getting uncomfortable when they set out early. Maybe have him accelerate his plans because of it. Always assuming that it’s not an option to have the aliens set up their ambush carefully and far enough ahead of time that they actually do catch the heroes and make them fight their way out (I don’t think that’s an optimal solution because of the time it would take away from the main story, but still). Or, since it’s three hours, maybe they could play around with time zones. I gather Adrian was working on the east coast. Put the safe-house there too and make it clear that they blindfold him the whole way. He sends them into the trap three hours early because he’s still on east coast time. That would actually be kind of funny and clever.

War of the Worlds

Ask your parents what these are.

Norton leaves Adrian alone to re-run the analysis while he slips off to the kitchen to make lunch — Adrian asks for a salad; as established, the alien diet consists entirely of leafy greens and flowers. While he’s gone, Debi puts on her peril monkey hat and comes downstairs looking for him. She’s visibly apprehensive about Adrian, because children can inherently sense evil, only not so well as dogs. But she wouldn’t be much of a peril monkey if she just followed her instincts and fled. Instead, she lets Adrian put on a video tape of his dolphins to enthrall her while he sticks a blue 5¼” floppy into the disk drive and types, “COPY MEMORY TO DISK: ALL DATA ON ALIENS.”War of the Worlds We are sadly not treated to a progress bar.

Upstairs, Norton runs into Tom Kensington, the groundskeeper we haven’t seen since the pilot. He’s just found Guido sadistically murdered in the coach-house. Between this and that MacGyver episode last year, TV’s getting kind of blasé about canine murder.

Jared MartinBetween the dog, the badges, and the failure of the algorithm on old recordings, Norton finally puts it together and realizes that Adrian is an alien. So he and Kensington make one phone call to security which locks down the external switchboard and summons the highly-trained security detail to come in and dispose of the intruder.

Nah, I’m just kidding. There’s no switchboard operator or security detail. Norton yoinks the main phone cable out of the wall and Kensington goes to grab the shotgun from under Ironhorse’s pillow.

The others reach the same conclusion about Adrian a minute later. Once Harrison finds he can’t get a call through to the Cottage, he pulls out his tuning fork and meditates on Guido, the obvious ambush, and the suspiciously-timed computer crash at the safe-house, and everyone is too polite to note that they really should have thought about this sooner. Everyone hops in the Bronco to rush back to base to save Norton and Debi.

Norton and Kensington plan to seal off the basement and cut the power, but notice at the last minute that the last anyone saw of Debi, she’d been on her way downstairs. Norton tries to summon her on the intercom, but Debi brushes him off to watch more dolphin videos. He’s forced to take a dangerous chance and actually make Adrian his salad.

Downstairs, the copy finishes, and Adrian pockets a single CD-ROM containing the entirety of the Blackwood Project’s data.Cedric Smith
Yes, I know he started out with a floppy disk. Never mind that. CD-ROM was a brand-spanking-new technology in 1989: the CD-ROM specification was first published in the Yellow Book in 1988, and wouldn’t be standardized until later in ’89 (Technically, there is an older format for data discs: the Phillips CD-i format was published in the Green Book in 1986. But c’mon). Now, pressing a CD-ROM does require that you etch a glass master with a laser and then stamp it into metal foil and requires specialized machinery, so having all that hidden behind the supercomputer is actually way weirder than a floppy disk turning into a CD. (Oh, you say, obviously it’s a CD-R? Nope. CD-R wasn’t specified until the Orange Book in 1990, and early CD-R drives were the size of a washing machine.)
He goes on to order the computer to “ERASE ALL FILES RELATING TO ‘OPERATION BLACKWOOD’,” which, once again, does not sound even remotely like the way you’d phrase a command to a computer, but, again, I’ve never used a Cray-1, so what do I know? My computer doesn’t even come in suede. Also, “Operation Blackwood” seems like a terrible code name for this project, given that it tells you exactly who is in charge of it. Should have a meaningless, vaguely macho-sounding name like “Operation Vigilant Turnstyle”.

After delivering Adrian’s salad, Norton tries to persuade Debi to go upstairs. But she’s as self-absorbed as a millennial (this is sarcasm) and won’t tear herself away from her viral dolphin videos. Norton finally has to give in and let on that something is Wrong about Adrian. Keep in mind that I don’t think Debi actually knows about the aliens yet. At least, she didn’t back in “Eye for an Eye”, and no one’s mentioned it to her since. Though she hangs out in the lab while the adults are working, and even in this episode, someone mentions aliens in her presence, though it’s not clear if she’s meant to have heard. She leaves, but her nervous demeanor gives her away to Adrian, who realizes that his cover’s blown. When he tries to board the elevator with the others, Debi shouts an alarm and rushes in ahead of him, leaving Norton alone with the alien in the basement. Norton knocks Adrian down and flees to a service corridor while Kensington returns in the elevator to assist.

Since the place is on lockdown, when Ironhorse, Suzanne and Harrison return to the Cottage, they can’t get in. I do call shennanigans a little on the fact that there’s no room in the story for time to have been compressed enough that the trip from the alien ambush site back to the cottage could possibly have taken more than five minutes. I guess the barest sense of how time, space and geography work is actually an innovation of 1990s television. Ironhorse rappels over the wall and slowly makes his way toward the cottage, using his intimate knowledge of the security system to avoid detection in a scene which really wants to be tense, but just isn’t. The problem is that there’s no stakes: we know the compound is unguarded, so it’s not like he’s going to be mistakenly shot by his own men. There’s no indication of there being any sort of automated defenses, so he’s not going to be shot by a drone or anything. The worst that could possibly happen is that he sets off the alarm, which, spoilers, he eventually does, and it doesn’t end up making any difference. The scene makes sense, as Ironhorse doesn’t know what kind of opposition he’s facing: for all he knows, Adrian’s already let an alien attack force in. But since we know better, we’re just watching Ironhorse ninja it up for no reason, in a scene that could have been darkly funny if the production acknowledged that he’s just wasting time.

Cedric Smith and Larry Reynolds

The joke makes no sense. Kensington missing at that range makes no sense. But damn if Adrian’s “Hulk Smash” face isn’t PERFECT.

Kensington arrives in the lab and demands to know where Norton is. The alien responds, in inexplicably captioned alien-speak, with the words, “He wanted me to tell you,” as though he was about to tell a joke but didn’t get around to the punch-line. Kensington shoots him, but the trained veteran soldier armed with a shotgun at point-blank range only manages to clip the alien in the shoulder. He gets strangled before he can get another shot off.

After killing Kensington, Adrian kicks down the door to the annex, looking for Norton. “There’s no need to be scared,” Adrian says, using the growly half-human Goa’uld voice they occasionally do, “We both want the same thing, peace and cooperation.” Which would have been a great callback to something earlier in the episode had there actually been something earlier in the episode that suggested that the Blackwood team actually wanted to make peace with the aliens. But the last time something like that came up was way back in “Eye for an Eye,” and all they’ve said on the subject this episode was when Harrison said, “Yeah, we tried that,” to Adrian’s question whether they’d tried communicating.

Philip AkinNorton manages to circle around behind him, blocking Adrian’s exit and challenges him to get past. Adrian mocks Norton, who’s in a wheelchair and armed with a wooden staff — the one we know from earlier has an iron core. Norton manages to knock Adrian through a steel shelving unit, breaking off the wood cladding on the ends of his staff in the process. But Adrian eventually gets the better of Norton, knocking him out of his chair. Instead of going straight for the kill, Adrian decides to advance slowly on him, grumbling in alien and generally doing the whole “Seemingly invincible slasher-film killer moves in for the kill” thing. Norton pulls himself to a junction box and rams one end of his staff into it. Adrian doesn’t react, possibly because it sure seems like Norton’s plan here requires Adrian to willingly impale himself. But he’s overlooked Norton’s sidekick: “Gertrude, full speed ahead,” he shouts. In a sequence that looks undercranked, the wheelchair rams Adrian into the staff with enough force that even if the thing hadn’t been electrified, that big metal rod through his chest probably would have ruined his day. There is a certain delicious irony to Cedric Smith getting killed off by a wheelchair. Gertrude, apparently of her own volition, then backs up and does a victory lap, spinning around in a circle a few times before dumping the dead alien on the floor to melt, sparing us from an awkward scene where Ironhorse has to carry Norton around because his chair is full of melted alien.

Cedric Smith

You’d think Professor X would be able to handle a wheelchair better than that.

And then Ironhorse shows up, pretty much in time to do nothing but retrieve the CD from Adrian’s coat before it gets too much goo on it and compliment Norton. Harrison catches up with them when they return to the living room with the news that Suzanne is still outside with Debi and Mrs. Pennyworth. Norton assures the others that the cut phone lines mean Adrian hadn’t been able to leak their location, and delivers the sad news of Kensington’s demise.

Almost every episode has ended with a cut back to the Nevada cave where the Advocates ruminate on their latest setback. It’s almost always pointless. This time, it actually would have been interesting, given how they’d earlier discussed the potential dangers of this plan, and the implied precariousness of their own situation since they’d just sent a report back to the high command promising swift victory. Larry ReynoldsSo of course we don’t get a cut back there for this episode. Instead, we end on the funeral for Tom Kensington, held privately in a secluded area, complete with floating-sky-head of this character we’ve only seen in two episodes who only had two scenes of any sort and only one of any substance. I imagine that if it had been written yet, “I Will Remember You” would be playing in the background. In a later episode, Harrison will reflect on having, “lost one of our own,” talking about him. Nice try, but it feels unearned.

So wow. A Norton episode. The Norton episode, really. Which is a shame, but not that big a deal: there’s very few episodes that are tightly focused on any one particular character. I don’t think I’ve given enough credit to War of the Worlds so far for the diversity of the main cast. Remember that I was frustrated by the way that Captain Power had a cast of four white guys, a black man and a woman, and guess which two got far and away the least screen time? War of the Worlds is a massive improvement on this front. There’s only one white man in the regular cast — even Power Rangers wouldn’t do that. And yes, Harrison is the only character who is never given the short shrift by the script, but it isn’t systematic the way it was in Captain Power: there’ll be a Suzanne-light episode, then an Ironhorse-light one, then a Norton-light one, and then a good ensemble one, rather than four episodes in a row that forget anyone by Hawk and Cap even exist. They’re also very good at showing off different pairings of characters: you’ve got action scenes of Harrison and Ironhorse, investigation scenes of Harrison and Suzanne, science scenes of Suzanne and Norton, and scenes between Ironhorse and Norton like the ones in this episode (The one combination that seems especially rare is Ironhorse and Suzanne. We’ve only had one so far, their argument over nuclear disarmament last week).

The aliens, by comparison, are rather shockingly less diverse. The overwhelming majority of possession victims are white. More than that, I’m pretty sure that a simple majority of them are white, male, middle-aged doughy guys. I wasn’t really expecting that kind of insight from this show, but I think it says something when the heroes are a diverse group and the villains aren’t just a monoculture, but are a monoculture that presents most often as white, middle-aged, men. Who are, don’t forget, rabidly xenophobic and look on humanity as vermin.

Add to that the fact that you’ve got Paul Ironhorse, a strong Native American character in a time (that is, “the entire history of television in the US”) when Native American characters in leading roles on TV are basically unheard of, especially playing a character that isn’t a traditional Native American archetype. I mean, who would have predicted that they’d cast the white guy as the tree-hugging new agey liberal and the Native American as the right-wing Reagan-worshipping pro-nuke career soldier?

But this is Norton’s big episode, so let’s talk about that. I’m going to make a mildly controversial statement (Only not that controversial since offhand, I can’t think of any others): I think Norton Drake is probably the best-written wheelchair-using character to be a regular on American TV of the 1980s. The show doesn’t erase his wheelchair: it’s always present, it sometimes needs to be accommodated when they go places. And the fact that Norton talks to it stops it from just being part of the scenery. At the same time, though, the chair never defines Norton. He never shows any angst over it, he’s never used as an inspirational message to the others. He doesn’t have any of the classic handicap plots, never needs an able-bodied white person to tell him to just buck up. His colleagues treat him as an equal — if Ironhorse is surprised when Norton bests him at bojutsu, it’s because Ironhorse is a soldier and Norton is a peacenik. In fact, the only time he’s ever underestimated by anyone is Adrian mocking him for trying to stop him with only his chair and his staff. And, I mean, he’s an alien with superhuman strength, and Norton still manages to beat him, and he beats him in part on a physical level — Adrian is unambiguously stronger, and Norton needs to resort to cleverness, but it’s not a total rout: Norton does hold his own for much of the fight. It certainly puts paid to any notion that a wheelchair-using character can’t fit in an action-oriented series.

The real sin of it is that they hired an able-bodied actor. The usual mitigation for this is that because there are so few roles for disabled actors, the talent pool is a lot smaller, so it’s much harder to find a disabled actor with the necessary level of experience. This is the standard defense made when women and minorities are underrepresented in casting and hiring decisions across the industry, and it’s not entirely without merit. A big recent example is the casting of Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who: there was the option, and a considerable interest from the audience, to cast a female actor for the role. But it’s not unreasonable to counter with the simple observation that if one has the option of casting Peter Capaldi, it’s very big risk to say, “Sure, he’s good and all, but I bet we could find a female actor who is just as good and is willing to take the part.” I mean, unless Dame Helen Mirren (Star of Caligula) is willing to work for scale. Only a very small percentage of actors have that level of talent and experience, and only an even smaller percentage of them would even be interested, and even if those percentages are the same across all combinations of race or sex or disability, the “cisgender able-bodied white male” pool is a lot bigger to start with.

But I’m not convinced all that really applies to the character of Norton Drake. To put it simply, Philip Akin is a fine actor, but he’s no Peter Capaldi. I’ll admit that “black, wheelchair-using actor working in the Toronto area in 1988” is probably not a huge pool to draw from, but unless it’s actually zero, you’ve got to reckon they could find someone. And even if they couldn’t find someone who was as talented as Philip Akin… Honestly, is it that big a deal? Hiring an inexperienced actor for the leading role in one of the world’s most popular and longest-running science fiction franchises would be a huge risk and a big deal. But hiring an unknown actor to play the character in an ensemble who’s going to spend 90% of the season sitting at a computer playing mission control between fratboy jokes in a low-budget syndicated series? That’s kind of the role that exists for giving an inexperienced actor a chance to hone his craft. It’s a shame they didn’t see that.

In any case, in what I’m hoping will become a running theme as we go on, I think I like this episode about as much as any I’ve seen in weeks. That said, I can’t help feeling a strange sense of deja vu. Like I’ve seen this before somewhere. Or will see it somewhere in the future…


 

  • War of the Worlds: The Series is available on DVD from amazon.

One thought on “Thesis: Among the Philistines (War of the Worlds 1×11)

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