You will help us bring a new age to this planet
It is January 16, 1989. If you were born today, you’d be able to drink at my wedding. Last Friday, the UK was hit by a massive outbreak of the Jerusalem computer virus, a popular 1987 computer virus which triggers on Friday the 13th. Václav Havel is arrested today in Prague, which is sure to nip this whole democracy thing in the bud for Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union announces their plans to launch a manned mission to Mars. I wonder if they’ll beat the Americans there. The rest of the week will see the Solidarity party legalized in Poland, George Steinbrenner receiving a presidential pardon for illegal campaign contributions to Nixon, and the Stockton Schoolyard Shooting, in which a guy shot up a school in California, killing five and wounding 32. This was back when such things were considered unusual and shocking and prompted the sitting Republican president to issue an executive order banning the importation of assault rifles (for which he was not compared to Hitler). A backward, primitive time when we didn’t consider the systematic murder of children just a small price to pay for assuring the freedom of, for example, a bunch of rednecks to intimidate and threaten in the name of seizing public lands for their own use, yes, I am pissed.
Ryan’s Hope ends its run on TV. Romance/Romance (Starring Scott Bakula) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ close on Broadway. Bobby Brown takes the top spot on the Billboard charts with “My Prerogative”. MacGyver this week is “Deadly Dreams”, an episode featuring Dr. Zito, a Hannibal Lecter-inspired recurring villain (We’re still a few years out from the Silence of the Lambs film, but the novels Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs are already out, as is Manhunter, the first film adaptation of Red Dragon). Zito is played by W. Morgan Sheppard, a guy who you should keep in your back pocket for Kevin Bacon Game competitions given just how many franchises he’s appeared in, including Max Headroom, Star Trek and Doctor Who. He never appeared in anything War of the Worlds-related himself, so far as I can tell, but his son voiced Adrian Paul’s brother in Goliath between appearances in Supernatural, Star Trek, Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica. After MacGyver is the premiere of a TV-movie about Ryan White, a teenager who developed AIDS as a result of a blood transfusion for hemophilia. The importance of Ryan White in changing the attitude of the American public about the AIDS crisis can not be understated, firstly because it got the American public to actually start doing something about it, and secondly, because it calls out what assholes the American public are, since the vast majority of them were perfectly happy to let AIDS kill as many people as it liked so long as it limited itself to the gay community, drug addicts, and poor people in Africa. But you get one photogenic presumed-straight middle-class white boy, and it’s war.
There is no episode of Star Trek the Next Generation this week. Friday the 13th the Series gives us “The Sweetest Sting”, which, as you’ve probably guessed, is about bees. My god. And not even in the way you’d think: rather than straight-up killer bees, these are vampire bees who can transfer life force between people by stinging. Here is an additional bee joke, because I can.
This week’s War of the Worlds is an odd duck, in strangely good way. It succeeds on a lot of the levels that War of the Worlds usually doesn’t, while the show’s usual wheelhouses of dark comedy and strong guest characters are… Not absent, but perhaps pushed to the side for a bit. Instead, we get what’s really a pretty darn solid and coherent science-fiction plot, and a very traditional A-B plot structure that you wouldn’t be surprised to see in an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation or Deep Space Nine.
The A-plot is, at long last, a Suzanne-centric episode. Stylistically, a traditional SCIENCETM-based story in the mold of, say, British Science Fiction of the ’50s and ’60s (I recently was watching a Let’s Play and the host got to talking about early Doctor Who, and suggested that there was a trend in British Science Fiction of the ’50s and ’60s to build their stories around the concept of “Uh oh, something’s happened involving aliens. Let’s go back to the lab and science the shit out of this for an hour.”). Her plot is primarily a science-mystery, the show’s first real attempt at what’s sometimes called “competency porn”: a visual showcase designed around the simple demonstration of someone doing their job well.
The B-plot is another foray into “Harrison isn’t himself due to adverse influence.” That didn’t go well last time, but this time, he doesn’t act like a drunk fratboy and rough up Suzanne. Instead, we get to see Harrison much more vulnerable in a story that has very direct and obvious analogues to drug addiction and recovery.
It’s not like we haven’t had plots that decompose into an A and B side before. But so far, it’s mostly been a decomposition between the aliens pursuing their goals and the humans pursuing theirs in opposition. The aliens stay more toward the edges in this one. There’s no mystery for the audience as to what their plot is, but there’s very little showcasing of them actually pursuing it. Instead, we’ve got two groups of characters who are pursuing largely different things at the same time, in parallel, really only coming together at the end, when their combined experiences help to put together a larger puzzle. It’s just so easy to imagine this story happening not with Suzanne and Harrison, but with, say, Beverly Crusher and Riker. Or Jadzia Dax and Miles O’Brien. Or even Seven of Nine and Harry Kim.
We open with some aliens in the Land of the Lost cave cutting an album. It’s not very good, just them chanting “We are the travelers / We are your friends / We need your help / Believe in us,” over and over. Using their broken oscilloscope and toy cassette recorder technology, this is converted into a subliminal embed.
Because, oh yes, we are doing one of my favorite Sci-Fi plots, subliminal mind control via music. We’ve got shades of Probe and even a bit of Max Headroom mixed in here. Equipped with their subliminal embed, the aliens, who’ve adopted the forms of three of the most eighties-looking record company suits they can find and go to visit famed New Age musician Billy Carlos. He’s right in the middle of composing an otherworldly, ethereal piece that, I only just noticed, kinda sounds like a prog-rock remix of the Doctor Who theme. Far as I know, there’s no publicly available clean recording of the whole thing, which is a shame, because it’s a nice piece of music. It’s similar in style to the end theme of the show, though slower and more spacey. Billy Carlos is played by legendary Australian rocker Billy Thorpe, who also did the score for the whole series. His work for War of the Worlds doesn’t sound much like the stuff for which he’s best known, though you can maybe hear little hints of it in “Children of the Sun”.
Carlos objects to the suits showing up before he’s ready, and they respond by murdering him. The female suit, presumably the leader, replaces the outgoing message on his answering machine to say, in a sexy voice while looking straight into the camera, that he’s on tour. They replay the song he was working on, integrating the embed. This seamless mixing consists mostly of the female alien repeatedly ordering the others to crank the volume and she starts grooving to the music. The way the scene is shot gives it a very otherworldly feel that comes off as kind of Tales from the Darkside to me.
I’ve been impressed by the guest cast a lot with this show. This week isn’t the strongest outing in terms of performances, but it’s still an interesting roster. In addition to Billy Thorpe, we’ll be meeting Jan Rubes later as Dr. Von Deer. Rubes is an accomplished character actor who would go on to a recurring role in Due South, but you might know him for playing Daniel’s grandfather in the Stargate SG-1 episode about crystal skulls. Our aliens this week are played by Alex Carter, John Novak and Heidi von Palleske. Palleske’s got a solid acting resume through the ’90s up to today, but her acting career is overshadowed by her accomplishments as an activist against the export of asbestos, the use of which remains legal in Canada (Quebec was the world’s third biggest producer as of 2009), though mining finally ceased in 2012. Alex Carter mostly plays cops, agents and other government-heavy-types, such as Sheriff Logan in Point Pleasant, Lieutenant Lindo in Lincoln Heights and Detective Vartann in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. John Novak is best known for his voice work, including the English dubs of Death Note, and Gundam Seed, as well as Ninjago, but he also had a recurring live-action role on Stargate SG-1 as Colonel Ronson, the first commander of the Prometheus. And, in a move that might help you win at the Kevin Bacon game, he’s also one of the doctors who assists Grace in the hospital scene in the Doctor Who TV Movie (Since we’ve had so many already this week, free bonus Kevin Bacon Game tip: there’s an episode of Star Trek Continues that guest-stars both Colin Baker and the third Yellow Power Ranger).
In spite of what I said about this episode having a good, solid plot, we do still start out on the usual, “By an amazing coincidence, the heroes just happen to show up in the right time and place to get involved in the plot.” Harrison and Suzanne turn up at the lab of one of Dr. Eric von Deer. Suzanne’s been corresponding with her old professor for the past few months and he’s agreed to work with her over the weekend in the hopes of developing a means to block cell-phase matching. Von Deer is apparently an expert in the subject, which is a neat trick since as far as I can tell, “cell-phase matching” is a made-up term.
Since von Deer is a stereotype absentminded-professor, he’s completely forgotten his commitment to Suzanne in the face of some work he’s been obsessing over. He agrees to let her poke at his research to see if she can find anything useful and to give her the occasional spare moment.
In case there was any chance that the audience might be experiencing undue levels of suspense, that track Billy Carlos was laying down in the last scene has been playing for the entire duration of the scene. Once she takes her ear-plugs out, the receptionist had explained to Suzanne and Harrison that von Deer had been listening to it on repeat full-blast for the past month. Von Deer explains that he’d known Billy as a child and had been gifted with an advance-copy of the artist’s latest album.
No one in the world should really be surprised that Harrison is into the weird, new-agey synth vibes of Billy Carlos. He finds that, “his complex chord structure and his tonal progression — they tune my mind and stimulate my imagination.” Ecstatic to meet a fellow fan, von Deer gives him a copy of the tape. He feels the need to explain that he has a bunch of spares in case he breaks one. Then the RIAA rappels in and beats the crap out of him for music piracy.
Von Deer having multiple copies of the same tape is meant to be a character quirk, I think. To mark him as weird and nerdy, because who’d have more than one copy of the same tape? It’s not like it’s just good sense because playing an audio cassette continuously for a month absolutely will wear it out, which is why I no longer have a working copy of Laura Brannigan’s Best Of album. Later, we’ll find out he also wears two watches. Basically, they’re pushing the whole “Absent-minded science nerd” archetype with him. I bet his closet is full of identical copies of the same suit too. Surprised he doesn’t have a bow tie.
A limo pulls up outside as Harrison is leaving, and apparently just sits there looking sinister for like three hours, because it’s still there when we return to this location hours later. In the mean time, Harrison returns to the Cottage and tries to do some work while grooving to his new Billy Carlos album. This is a nicely subtle scene because they never come out and say what’s happening, but you can tell from Jared Martin’s performance that something is going on with Harrison, as he gets increasingly flustered, then something seems to “click” for him. Another nice touch here is that neither Harrison nor Dr. von Deer do any sort of mind-controlled-zombie thing. If anything, Harrison seems invigorated, with a little spring in his step as he pops down to the lab.
Ironhorse and Norton are busy looking at computer models that Norton hopes will let them eventually locate the alien base when Harrison pops in and tasks Norton with, “a career’s worth of work,” digging up pre-1953 DoD files to find evidence that something humanity did might have provoked the first invasion. Ironhorse is scandalized by the mere suggestion, but — correctly — no one overreacts at this stage, since it actually is a perfectly reasonable thing to research, particularly if there’s a possibility that, say, the isolation of pure folic acid (first done in 1945) posed an existential threat to the aliens (Or, y’know, that other thing that happened in 1945, but we’ll get to that). As a side-note, I’m glad to see Ironhorse and Norton casually working together in the background of this episode, even though the real meat later is going to be Ironhorse and Harrison inspiring a whole bunch of hurt/comfort fics.
In von Deer’s lab (Which is nicknamed “The Pit”, seemingly as set-up to a joke no one ever gets around to telling. Probably the same one from the pilot novelization), Suzanne immediately abuses her mentor’s hospitality by poking around in his computer files and setting off a security alarm, necessary for some “government work” he’s doing. I don’t think that a security lockout that triggers an alarm on someone else’s terminal in real time if someone just happens upon a particular file while doing a mundane search for relevant information is either a realistic or useful security precaution — either Suzanne ought to have had some way to know she wasn’t allowed to access that data before it got to the point of raising an alarm. But hey, ’80s computers.
Before they can get into it over the matter, the record company aliens decide to come in, after, I assume, spending the past few hours just sitting around in the limo. Von Deer leaves Suzanne in the lab while he meets with them. They challenge him about Suzanne’s presence in a very threatening way, but he assures them that she isn’t a threat. This show is getting progressively better at communicating things subtly, without lapsing into traditional Sci-Fi exposition dumps. Which is all the more surprising because they insist on structuring the show such that we always know the gist of the alien plan ahead of time. Without repeating what von Deer must already know at this stage, it becomes clear that they’ve convinced him they’re a peaceful race that seeks to uplift humanity once he’s developed a vaccine that will protect them from Earth bacteria, but they’ve got to operate in secret for fear that human governments will imprison and dissect them. Von Deer is completely convinced of their good will in spite of the way they keep doing over-the-top villain-talk stuff to tap-dance around their intentions rather than just plain lying: they keep repeating how they’ll “bring a new age” to Earth, or how they’ll “change humanity’s destiny”, or how “you will be baked. And then there will be cake,” or how Darth Vader killed his dad. Their performance isn’t just down to the subliminal music, though. The female alien is flirting pretty hardcore with the elderly scientist, including a sensual throat massage (not a euphemism) as she teaches him to pronounce alien words.
The aliens present him with a bottle of day-glo yellow alien juice — puree of alien brainstem, which he’s requested to complete his research. He’s momentarily taken aback when she explains that they had to kill a whole mess of their own (they refer to themselves as “travelers”) to procure it. But he gets past it when she clarifies that they volunteered happily, such is their zeal to Build a Better World Here on Earth (ps. Don’t pay attention to the way we keep on choosing phrases that deliberately separate the ambiguous fate of humanity from the future of the planet). He assures them that he’ll have their vaccine in 48 hours.
As close as I can tell, they spend it camped out in the limo. You might think that after 48 hours in a limo, these aliens would not be able to pull off the whole “glamorously seduce a nerdy aging scientist”, but given that this plan has been going on for a month, and those aliens are, remember, wearing rotting, radioactive corpses, that should really be the least of their worries. They call the advocacy, who aren’t entirely on-board with this plan to begin with. That’s a little interesting. Certainly in keeping with the disdain they’ve shown for their scientist caste before. The aliens in the field explain that von Deer is too frail to survive possession. The advocacy isn’t fully convinced, but gives them another two days.
I dig that they explained why they’re going to the trouble, when finesse and subtly aren’t normally things the aliens bother with. The advocacy’s reluctance also gives us an ahead-of-time idea of why they won’t be trying this method again, and why even this attempt is a targeted one when it seems like this would be a great way to pacify humans in large numbers (I mean, modulo the scientific reality that subliminal messages don’t actually work outside of controlled environments, but no one making a sci-fi adventure in the ’80s is going to mention that).
The next morning, Suzanne returns to The Pit to find von Deer’s worked himself unconscious. After helping him to the couch, she turns off his music. Turning from the tape deck, I do not know what happens exactly. She notices a microscope with a level of alarm that indicates that she’s seen something of importance, though, y’know, it’s just a microscope. But her microbiologist instincts prove correct as once she actually looks in the eyepiece, she sees alien cells. At least, that’s what she tells Norton. They don’t look like the big triangular alien cells they showed back in the second episode.
When Ironhorse and Norton bring Harrison the news of what Suzanne’s found, he seems completely uninterested (he does eventually acknowledge the news, then dismisses it with the assertion that Suzanne can take care of herself, which would be a fantastic response except that it’s meant as part of the evidence that he’s been mind-whammied). Instead, he gone all Michelle Bachman-eyed with excitement over his new theory: nuclear testing and the atomic bombings in Japan spooked the aliens — he’s taken to calling them “travelers” — into adopting a defensive posture, and it was only when threatened that they’d become aggressive. “We have to convince them that we are their friends,” he insists, and argues that they should sue for peace with them. Ironhorse is obviously scandalized by the very suggestion. Norton is barely able to process it. Neither of them note the significance of the way Harrison keeps hovering next to his tape deck with the slightly orgasmic look of a junkie mid-fix.
Norton decides that this is all a complicated practical joke, and Ironhorse accepts that. Either Harrison was prone to going on benders back at Pacific Tech or Norton is a terrible judge of a person’s mental state. Could go either way, really. I could totally imagine Harrison establishing a warm working relationship with the psychopharmacology department in his quest to expand his mind.
Suzanne sciences some of von Deer’s hair to determine that he’s still technically human while Ironhorse checks with General Wilson and finds out that von Deer isn’t doing any sanctioned alien-related work. Even in his sleep, Von Deer feels the call of plot-related timing and wakes up to accost Suzanne at the exact moment she finds his bottle of alien juice. He starts shouting about how she’s holding the “future of the world” and gets aggressive with her, but since she’s holding the bottle, she manages to keep him at bay.
Suzanne reminds him of the 1953 invasion. Like Katya a few weeks ago, though he wouldn’t bring it up himself, he has no problem acknowledging that it happened. But he’s under the impression that his “travelers” are a different group of aliens from the invaders, come to Earth as “spiritual guides”. Suzanne starts to work out what’s going on when von Deer tells her to listen to the music, proclaiming Billy Carlos as a prophet. She feigns willingness to listen to him and agrees to return the bottle to storage, though I think von Deer was planning to lock her in the storage room, as he gets out his keys and leaves them in the lock. Suzanne smashes some unrelated bottles and pretends to have dropped the alien juice. When von Deer comes in to look, she doubles back and locks him up.
At the Cottage, Harrison slips down to the lab and makes one of those grade school science project volcanoes on top of one of Norton’s CD-ROMs (or “Rom disks” as Norton calls them), mixing what’s supposed to be powerful caustic chemicals but I bet is actually apple cider vinegar and baking soda on top of it to destroy the “lies and distortions” and also a year’s worth of work. Ironhorse and Norton catch him in the act and manage to stop him before he can destroy a second disk.
Having by this point lost his shit, Harrison rants demi-coherently about the aliens having acted purely in self-defense. When Norton challenges him about the death of his parents, Harrison breaks down completely, declaring that it was their own fault as he grabs his temples in desperation and collapses.
He wakes back in his office as Ironhorse and Norton are discussing what’s happened to him, wondering if he’s had some kind of stress-induced breakdown. Harrison’s first thought is to turn his music back on. When Ironhorse turns it off, things quickly escalate to a throw-down between the two of them, which tips Ironhorse off. He orders Norton to grab the tape for analysis while he restrains Harrison, then locks the two of them in the office together.
I tell you, it’s abbreviated to be sure, but Jared Martin’s performance here is pretty moving. Clearly going for a junkie in the throes of withdrawal, he starts ranting illogically, alternately insulting Ironhorse and accusing him of coveting Harrison’s position as head of the project. He tries groveling, smashing things, even trying to bribe Ironhorse. When he finds his cash-on-hand insufficient, he promises to borrow, even steal to raise more in exchange for “just a taste” of the music. He even looks like a strung-out junkie, gaunt and sallow.
While not as emotionally moving, Richard Chaves turns in a solid performance too. As is usually the case with Ironhorse, it’s all about self-control. But it’s not pure stoicism this time. There’s a clear acknowledgment in Ironhorse’s expression and body language that it upsets him to see his colleague in pain. Not only upsets, but even embarrasses him a little, though he strains to reign in his emotions. There’s a confused, helpless expression in his eyes when Harrison forces a handful of cash on him. He starts to choke up when he tells the groveling scientist that he still respects him, although he’s “a little sick right now.” He apparently stays the night, watching over Harrison when he finally collapses to sleep it off (Though he does take a break to change his shirt).
Norton and Suzanne agree that something in the music has affected both Harrison and von Deer. Von Deer’s breakdown is allegedly worse than Harrison’s, though we don’t get to see it and given his age and that he’d pretty much worked himself into a coma, it doesn’t seem like he managed to do much more than cower on the ground whimpering for his music.
Harrison is entirely cured when he wakes up a few hours later, which is I guess understandable from a practical perspective, but a little bit disappointing. He and Ironhorse shake hands to show that there’s no hard feelings, and I think back to last week. I thought maybe Chaves was overselling it with his Vietnam stories last week, but if you assume that episode is supposed to come after this one, it makes a lot of sense to view Paul’s willingness to display emotional vulnerability to Harrison there as something indicative of how their relationship has grown here. Ironhorse explains how much worse von Deer’s breakdown had been. Harrison realizes that it’s due to his greater exposure, plus, “He was a lot crazier to start with. Okay, not a lot crazier.” Hey, man, Harrison only wears one watch, remember.
Norton uses the supercomputer to SCIENCETM the music, revealing the embed. I like that when he isolates it, Harrison claps his hands to his ears in pain and demands he turn it off. Harrison somehow intuits that the signal directly stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, making the listener susceptible to the subliminal suggestion. It’s a nice, science-fictiony move that they give a scientific justification for alien technology making the method effective, rather than just taking for grated that subliminal messages can completely override someone’s sense of right and wrong. What they don’t attempt to justify is why it worked so much more quickly on Harrison than, say, on Suzanne, who, one assumes, had a similar amount of exposure working in von Deer’s lab for a day.
Suzanne spends the day sciencing the shit out of the place once Norton’s hacked the computer for her. She eventually discovers what we’ve known for most of the episode: von Deer has developed a serum that will vaccinate aliens against Earth bacteria. We even get an accompanying graphic of little round bacteria bouncing off of big green alien cells.
I’m not really clear on the passage of time here. I think Suzanne finds von Deer passed out in the morning, but it looks like it’s night time during Harrison’s breakdown, and day when he recovers. The aliens call von Deer’s lab when his 48 hours are up, and start to get worried when Suzanne answers instead. After nightfall, they get tired of waiting and grab some guns from the trunk of the limo. There’s an incidental reveal that they’ve murdered their driver, probably when he objected to just sitting there outside the lab for three days.
Fortunately, Suzanne hears them coming with a few seconds to prepare. They arrive to find her rocking out to Billy Carlos. She explains that von Deer’s sleeping off the long weekend, but he told her everything and she’s totally on-board. She gives them a bottle of Mountain Dew, then cranks up the music and dances. The aliens discuss whether to kill her or steam her body, since Suzanne is healthy and apparently the last month was fine but 48 hours in a limo is more than their host bodies could handle, and they’re starting to look pretty rough. Obviously, there’s absolutely no way out for Suzanne here, since there’s nothing to stop them killing her one way or another and no reason why they wouldn’t, especially as she knows about them, even if she is mind-controlled.
Yeah, obviously they just decide to leave or something. The next scene has Ironhorse and Harrison arrive to find her pretending to work while the music continues to blare in the background. Harrison cowers with his ears covered as Ironhorse runs past him to turn the tape off. Suzanne takes out the ear-plugs they’d politely foreshadowed for us and explains that she’d been too afraid to look up and check if the aliens had left. She calms their concerns about the aliens escaping with the vaccine, since she’d tainted it before handing it over. Turns out that before destroying von Deer’s notes, she’d discovered that aliens are deathly allergic to ammonia. I don’t believe this ever comes up again. It’s not something that would have huge tactical benefits, but it’d be a nice element to reference later if, say, Suzanne got cornered by aliens in a janitor’s closet, and had to improvise a weapon out of cleaning products. Or perhaps they could use it as a field alien-detector in a pinch — spike a suspected alien’s drink with a few drops of windex.
We end in the Land of the Lost cave. The three record label aliens are given the honor of being the first to try the serum. They seem a bit orgasmic for a moment right after being injected, but their elation turns to a coughing fit and they expire messily. The advocates conclude that developing a usable vaccine is beyond human science, and therefore they should never ever try again.
Like I said, this is a really solid episode. Plot-wise, the only really glaring issue is the lack of closure with von Deer. The last we see of him, he’s whimpering on the floor in his storage room. We never hear anything about his prospects for recovery. Given that they’ve got an incredibly gifted scientist who now knows about the aliens and has deep first-hand knowledge about their biology, you’d kinda think he’d be worth following up with. Or perhaps he’s too emotionally damaged from these events and never fully recovers? That would certainly be a way to reiterate the threat of the aliens.
It would also soften the team’s victory. Three of the past four episodes have been fairly cheap, total victories for the Blackwood team, and the other one was still a victory, albeit at a cost. Early in the season, we tended to have the aliens win total or at least partial victories, but the tide’s really turning against them now. That’s an interesting direction for a show like this to go, but if they were planning on a multi-season plot arc, I think it’s perfectly fair to expect them to have ups and downs.
Otherwise, there’s a lot more care in the craftsmanship of this episode’s plot than we usually see. Like, we know why the aliens won’t try this again: the advocacy was never really convinced that subliminal messages were a good idea to begin with. And Suzanne’s tainting of the vaccine plays out in a way that makes it reasonable that the aliens would think it’s pointless to try again. There’s a lot of small things that are handled really well. Having Suzanne use ear-plugs after showing the receptionist using them earlier. Having Harrison unwittingly repeat phrases from the subliminal embed. For that matter, the fact that the embed was targeted at one specific person is an interesting variation from the other plots I’ve seen that involve subliminal mind control, for instance, in Max Headroom, Probe, The X-Files, Doctor Who, or Saved by the Bell (targeted subliminal mind control does come up in the contemporary version of Mission: Impossible and, of all things, Columbo).
I’m glad we finally have an episode that’s Suzanne-driven. And it’s not an episode about motherhood (Debi isn’t in this one at all, in fact) or about her using sex appeal to manipulate a CEO. It’s about Suzanne being a scientist and solving a mystery. Like “Epiphany”, this isn’t a very action-oriented episode, which is a nice change-up. What we do get is a climax where Suzanne has to keep her cool when confronted by three armed aliens. It’s nice to see her not reduced to a peril monkey in a time period where that’s the usually appointed role for women in a series like this.
Of course, she’s the center of the plot, but she’s not the emotional center of the episode. Placing this episode back-to-back with Harrison’s strange melancholic episode last week isn’t the best pacing, but it really does speak to the growing intimacy between him and Ironhorse (As I said, I think it works better if you bump “Among the Philistines” forward a few weeks so this one happens first). It’s a pity that Harrison’s little brush with addiction never comes up again.
Going back to what I said from the outset, this feels like a much more traditional, solidly-written science-fiction adventure show. I won’t lie, I was starting to think my memories of this show being “good” may have just been reflective of me being young and stupid the last time I watched it. But no, as we get out of the episodes that were partially or totally written under the specter of the 1989 strike, we’re starting to see the level of just plain storytelling competence go up considerably.
It’s not without its cost, though. I had to keep reminding myself as I watched this episode that, actually, the three record label aliens weren’t meant to look hilariously weird. Because once you get past the wonderfully surreal bit in the recording studio, this episode is… Kind of weirdly ordinary. When I said that you could imagine Star Trek the Next Generation doing this plot, I didn’t just mean that the story itself would work in that format. It’s also tonally more in line with Trek, or indeed with the whole family of late ’80s adventure TV. You don’t have any comedy rednecks or corporate love triangles or tense lunch dates with KGB agents or alien cop feeding the meter. Just, you know, a good, solid, normal science-fiction mystery.
On the surface of it, that might seem like a sound move. But let’s be honest: War of the Worlds is not going to be able to compete with something like Star Trek the Next Generation by just being good, solid, normal science-fiction. It probably won’t compete by being quirky and offbeat and bringing the weird either, but at least it would be fun.
- War of the Worlds: The Series is available on DVD from amazon.