Could you tell me… how what happened last night happened?
It is January 23, 1989 (Depending on your viewing area, it may actually be the following Saturday. Big variance in airdates across markets this week). The President of the United States is George Herbert Walker Bush. An earthquake in what’s now Tajikistan kills close to 300 people. The San Francisco ’49ers claim victory in Superbowl XXIII, beating the Bengals. Tomorrow, serial killer Ted Bundy will be executed in Florida. Wednesday, John Cleese will win a libel case against the Daily Mail after they accused him of being nebulously similar to the character he played in Fawlty Towers. A legal challenge to Jewish identity laws is raised in Israel, which will culminate in the Israeli Supreme Court ruling that Messianic Judaism counts as a form of Christianity, rather than Judaism, for legal purposes. Noted jazz man Billy Tipton and artist Salvador Dali died this week. Also, Friday is my tenth birthday.
James Brown is sentenced to six years in jail after a multi-state police chase. Madonna and Sean Penn file for divorce. Michael Jackson’s Bad tour finishes out its run. Debi Gibson releases Electric Youth, and Skid Row releases a self-titled album. Phil Collins’s “Two Hearts” hits the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Remember when I brought up Morgan Sheppard last week? Funny thing: he’s in this week’s Star Trek the Next Generation, “The Schizoid Man”, in which he plays a dying scientist who uploads his brain into Data. If your nerdery runs deep enough, you might have anticipated that the part was originally written for Patrick McGoohan. Friday the 13th the Series is a tearjerker: “The Playhouse”, in which a cursed Wendy House takes a couple of abused children to a fantasy world, only, as per usual, there’s human sacrifice involved. Even Friday the 13th shied away from multiple child-murder, though, so the playhouse’s victims are just imprisoned. Belinda Metz guest-stars. I feel like I’ve mentioned her before, but I can’t think why…
This is a tough episode. See, I like mysticism, as a plot point. And I like when a show like this goes mad. And this episode goes mad with mysticism. And it’s got some fantastic special effects, and it’s a great character focus episode for Ironhorse. But therein lies the difficulty, because this episode is War of the Worlds taking a stab at looking into Ironhorse’s Native American heritage, which heretofore has mostly come up only in a very superficial way to give a little flavor to Ironhorse’s characterization. Only it’s 1989 in American Television on a Sci-Fi Adventure show.
So yeah. This week’s episode is Aliens versus Magic Injuns. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, but it’s inexorably bound up in a lot of stuff that’s… Less good. But look, they are really honestly trying here. They didn’t have to. And I am generally pro-trying. I am generally against reacting to a TV show making a genuine effort to present a positive depiction of Native American culture by screaming at them for being terrible at it. No, really, the only thing that’s grating about it is the general sense that, “Yup. Indian* Stuff Is Like That.” *I am not tremendously comfortable with using the word “Indian” to refer to the native peoples of the Americas, not least because that one’s already taken by the people who live on the subcontinent in southern Asia. But it’s the term used exclusively by the show, there’s places here where I think it would be misleading not to reflect their word choice. If War of the Worlds went mad with mysticism all the time, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. Or if War of the Worlds also included depictions of Native American culture that weren’t centered around mystical elements (And admittedly, they have made a few small gestures, such as Ironhorse’s paean to his tomahawk way back in “A Multitude of Idols”). The real wall-banger is that even though it can be explained and justified in the science-fiction context of the show, pretty much everyone just rolls with the idea that, “Oh yeah, Indians have magic powers,” as though it’s not especially remarkable.
R. D. Reid is a kind of poor-man’s Vincent Schiavelli, specializing in playing pasty, long-faced creepy guys, such as a pharmacist at a narcotics dispensary in some dystopian series or other. Here, he’s playing Mark Newport, an “archaeologist” who dresses like he’s the poor-man’s Indiana Jones. But he’s not. Right off the bat, we establish that he’s kinda shady because he uses a pair of bolt-cutters to cut down a “No Trespassing” sign. It’s not clear that the sign was actually blocking his way or anything, I guess it was symbolic. He’s here to do a little light grave-robbing at the Westeskiwin Indian Reservation. Westeskiwin allegedly means “People of the river”, and doesn’t appear to be a real tribe, though the name is similar to a Cree word that gave the name to a city near Edmonton. He cavalierly desecrates a sixteenth-century burial mound and steals a headdress featuring a large triangular cut stone.
Obviously, the first thing he does upon unearthing this delicate, ancient artifact is to shake out the bits of four-hundred-year-old dead chieftain and stick it on his head. Hey, it’s not like anyone was going to mistake him for a good archaeologist. Anyway, when he does, the headdress reveals itself as a primitive form of iPod by playing back a recording of tribal chants at him. Upon hearing this, he immediately freaks out, decides that the spirits have marked him for death, drops the headdress, runs for dear life and vows never to perform unlicensed archaeology again.
Nah, I’m just kidding. He finds the whole thing amusing, not scary at all, and instead gets instantly to thinking about how much money this find will bring in. Curiously, he does not choose to mention the whole “Magic Indian Chanting Powers” thing when he gives a press conference the next day to drum up interest for the upcoming auction. See, this is what I’m talking about. This guy’s discovered an ancient artifact with literal magic powers, and, sure, he finds it interesting, but he doesn’t even find it so remarkable as to include it when he explains why it should be considered the archaeological find of the century. It’s like, you know how you can hear the ocean when you put a conch shell to your ear? It seems almost like he reckons that ancient Native American headdresses are like that. You hear the sea when you put a shell to your ear; you hear ancient tribal chants when you put a Native American headdress to your ear. It’s cool, but nothing to get worked up about. He does eventually get spooked when the image of a bear appears in the sky, and beats a hasty retreat with his ill-gotten booty.
While this shameless assault on their cultural heritage is going on, the local shaman, Joseph Lonetree, is taking his son Darrow out into the woods for one of those important Native American Magic Rituals that Native Americans always happen to be doing whenever the white man has a camera crew in the area. I’m not really sure why he’s doing it: this is supposed to be the ritual in which Joseph initiates his son in the secrets of the tribe’s guardian spirits, and — I’m not really sure about this because, what do you know, they don’t bother to explain anything in detail — I think, basically make him an apprentice shaman. But it’s pretty clear from the get-go that Joseph doesn’t think Darrow is up to it. We’re not given the details, just little hints. He’s impatient with the older man, probably too integrated in the “white man’s world” and not in-touch enough with his heritage, bored by yet another retelling of the story of Kay-la-letivik, the tribe’s most prominent guardian spirit.
Because of how this show is going, he’s utterly nonplussed when his dad proceeds to make the crystal at the end of his staff glow, which summons a thunderstorm (An odd thunderstorm, as there’s thunder, lightning, but never any rain…) and a vague image that’s maybe the head of a bear appears in what is either a vortex of storm clouds, or just one storm cloud that they filmed while spinning the camera around in a circle. Darrow Lonetree declares that he’s performed the traditional ritual preparations, and informs the spirit of his CV:
I’ve been to college. I own a piece of land and I plan on building a house. And I’ve never lost a fight with anyone. I’m in excellent health, and I feel good about who I am. I’m ready to own the spirit.
By an amazing coincidence, Leah (who happened to come down while I was watching this one), I myself, years ago when I first watched it, and Elyse Dickenson way back in 1989 all had the same reaction: he sounds like a Yuppie.
Joseph’s face replaces the sky-bear in the clouds and declares that, as he failed to fast for the full required time, Darrow is unready. Receiving the spirit of Kay-la-letivik is pretty much the same as an HbA1C test. Joseph vanishes, leaving Darrow alone. I do not really blame the spirits. Darrow doesn’t really seem like the shaman type. I mean, his pitch to the sky-bear about his worthiness sounds more like the rejected suitor in a Victorian romance explaining to the dowager countess how he’s got excellent prospects and would make a fine match for her daughter despite being forty years older than her and being played by Billy Zane. But more to the point, his dad just summoned a storm, and a sky bear, and projected his face onto the heavens, and then teleported away, and his reaction is primarily one of boredom.
I’ll be honest with you, it’s kind of hilarious. A big part of the reason this show wasn’t more successful is that most of the audience didn’t fully appreciate that it was meant to be funny. Not slapstick, over-the-top comedy, but the more subtle kind of parody of, say, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, where the humor derives primarily not from punchlines and sight gags, but from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastic. The aliens fail to blow up a peace conference because they didn’t have enough change for the meter. No one ever acts like there’s an alien invasion going on despite the fact that no one ever disputes that there’s an alien invasion going on. Darrow Lonetree goes to talk with the great spirit Kay-la-letivik, and tells him about his business degree, his 401k, and his respectable cholesterol levels. I mean, he’s totally unfazed by watching his father transmogrify himself into a giant sky-bear, yet he’s completely blase about the requirement to skip lunch before being granted actual honest-to-goodness magic powers.
The next day at the Cottage, our heroes huddle around the computer to watch the streaming feed of Newport’s press conference, because watching 1980s YouTube is a good use of supercomputer time. Newport’s claimed to have bought the headdress from a private collector, and expects to sell it for over a million. Ironhorse is obviously incandescent with rage over the desecration and sacrilege. Harrison’s response is more controlled, but he agrees with Ironhorse in principle, saying that Newport should be banned from antiquities trading.
This is another one of those nice scenes we’ve been having more and more of recently, where the team is casually interacting, working together and bouncing ideas off of one another. It’s a distinct contrast from the earlier episodes which would mostly see each of them sequestered away in their own research. I’d like to have seen some hinting that Suzanne’s the one driving at that, in light of the way she’d clashed with Harrison early on about her more collaborative style. My issue with it is that there’s no clear reason why they’re doing this. If they’re just watching the news on a lark, why are they watching it on the supercomputer instead of the television? If this is part of their alien-fighting work, it’s hard to see why right now — there’s obviously been examples before (“A Multitude of Idols” comes to mind) of Norton’s search algorithms alerting them to news items they should watch, but in all of those cases, it happened after evidence of direct alien involvement was referenced in the media. There’s nothing in this press conference that should have pre-alerted them to its relevance, and they’re clearly not expecting this to be alien-related.
There’s a Doylist explanation that we’ll get in just a minute, but the lack of a Watsonian one is (admittedly, only very mildly) grating. This scene would have made a lot more sense set up in the living room with them gathered around the TV. Or start the scene with Ironhorse storming into the lab in a huff because of a newspaper article, prompting Norton to pull up the satellite feed.
The reason that the scene was set up to place them in the lab with the press conference on the computer is that, while Harrison and Ironhorse are speculating on what sort of criminal charges should be brought against Newport, Suzanne has become fascinated with the large triangular crystal set into the headdress. Even on the small, grainy image, she can tell that the workmanship isn’t consistent with the provenance. The quality of the glass and precision of the cutting is way beyond sixteenth-century technology (And glassmaking wasn’t introduced to the New World until the seventeenth century anyway). Ironhorse and Harrison suggest that it might be mica or quartz, but this overlooks the fact that it looks nothing like mica or quartz.
Ironhorse realizes what she’s getting at, and accuses her of having picked up Harrison’s penchant for wild hunches. That’s a good point, actually. In earlier episodes, it totally would have been Harrison’s place here to be the one who wildly speculates an alien connection, probably causing tension between him and Ironhorse, with Harrison’s obsession over the alien angle seeming callous in the face of Ironhorse’s cultural heritage. But instead, Harrison’s on Ironhorse’s side and it’s Suzanne who brings aliens into it. This week’s script has a strange quirk of treating Suzanne, Norton, and to a lesser extent Harrison as largely interchangeable: the episode is much more sharply Ironhorse-focused than any previous episode has focused on a single character. Thus, we get the microbiologist rather than the astrophysicist or the computer scientist who notices something unusual about the precise mathematical design of a mysterious crystal.
Norton takes a screenshot of the headdress. The grainy, compressed NTSC image of the stone produces a computer model accurate enough to conclusively prove that the mathematical precision and complexity of the cuts are far beyond any human technology of the period. In case you’ve somehow forgotten what show you’re watching, that means aliens. Harrison suggests that he and Ironhorse go have a word with Newport.
I don’t remember if I’ve gone into detail about this, but since early in the series, the Advocacy has had this great old cyberpunk video-wall in their cave, a giant pile of tube televisions in different states of disassembly, all hooked up in a makeshift rack so they can watch all six TV channels at once. Or, more often, watch the same show on three different sets at once. Which sounds like a waste of time, but remember, alien-vision is always represented as an R-G-B color separation with the alignment shifted. Maybe they have to do that to keep from getting eyestrain. Advocate Xana (I think I’ll start referring to the Ilse von Glatz Advocate that way for clarity’s sake) observes that watching TV has finally paid off. One of the others protests that it’s done that at the cost of “softening the brain”. They identify the crystal in the headdress as the starter for one of their warships, and thus the ship itself is probably nearby.
While Newport is on the phone with the auction house, Joseph Lonetree magics himself into his office, and, depending on your point of view, either threatens or warns Newport that unless the mask is returned, Newport will die. He teleports away while Newport is on the phone with the police, but they eventually find him wandering around “lost” in an industrial park on the other side of town and toss him in jail despite his dispassionate explanation that it wasn’t technically a threat, since he used the passive voice: he didn’t say he was going to kill Newport, just that “A man who desecrates sacred tribal burial ground will die,” citing the legal precedent established in the landmark 1948 Supreme Court case “I’m not touching” v. “You”. At no point does anyone consider how Joseph Lonetree traveled the 100 miles from his home on the reservation to Newport’s office, or how he subsequently traveled to the opposite side of the unnamed town they’re in.
Not much later, Newport is visited by Ironhorse and Harrison, who present themselves as being “from the government” and ask to see the artifacts as potentially of interest in an “ongoing investigation”. Ahead of time, Ironhorse had cautioned Harrison to keep it cool and professional, not letting his personal feelings get in the way. Ironhorse, of course, with his special forces training, is an expert at keeping his feelings under control. Gee, it sure would be comically ironic if Ironhorse were to lose his temper and need to be restrained by Harrison…
Yeah, Newport doesn’t take kindly to being yelled at by Ironhorse and threatens to have them arrested. Harrison convinces Ironhorse to beat a hasty retreat, but since Newport mentioned having had “that crazy Indian” arrested, they decide to make the local police station their next destination.
Meanwhile, a trio of aliens absorb a trio of employees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s one of the most brutally graphic scenes of the series so far, done as a series of POV-shots from the aliens, with a lot of people being grabbed and thrown around by alien third arms, though as per usual, we don’t actually see the possession. On the street outside Newport’s building, they revel in the fact that they’ve got official credentials, and therefore don’t even need to be stealthy.
Joseph Lonetree is released on bail by a guard who refers to him as, “Chief.” Lonetree clarifies that he’s a shaman, not a chief. “That means I can turn you into a toad.” He leaves a pile of still-living fish flopping around in his cell. How? Because Indians are magic. Why? I… Uh… Um… Indians are magic! (Upon reflection, I think maybe the idea is that he’s in a totemic relationship with the bear-spirit Kay-La-Letivik, which is to say, in some metaphysical sense, sometimes he turns into a bear. So maybe the live fish were his lunch. I don’t know.) The fish, and the water-marks on the floor, vanish when we cut back from the guard’s reaction shot.
Lonetree was expecting his children, but instead finds Ironhorse. Why didn’t his kids come bail him out anyway? Possibly they don’t know where he is yet: there’s no indication they’ve been informed. They don’t really react with any serious surprise when they find out, more a sort of mild chagrin that almost says, “Yeah, that’s our dad. Always teleporting himself a hundred miles away to threaten archaeologists and summoning live fish.”
Ironhorse offers Lonetree a ride back to the reservation and to help his tribe get their stolen artifacts back. Lonetree shrugs it off, saying that, “it is the way of things” that they’ll get their stuff back without human intervention. Just for the record, they don’t get their stuff back. Most of it gets destroyed.
Newport wryly comments that he needs a new lock for his door when he gets his third set of visitors for the day. He gives them sass when they demand to see the mask, so an alien grabs him — or rather, a paper-mache head that kinda looks like him — with his third arm, squishes his head a bit, then smashes his skull through the wall. The other aliens cavalierly destroy various artifacts until they find the headdress and rip out the crystal.
Harrison and Suzanne unwittingly pass the aliens on their way out as the scientists make a return visit to Newport’s office. I assume Harrison is hoping that swapping the belligerent Ironhorse for an attractive woman will get them a warmer reception, which makes this their second attempt to prostitute Suzanne out to people who’ve got something they need. Fortunately, it doesn’t come to that, as they find Newport well-beyond flirtation. They decide to slip out and make an anonymous call to the police. Harrison has Norton hack the police computers to keep them abreast of the details of the investigation.
We’re introduced to Lonetree’s other child, Grace, when Ironhorse arrives at the reservation. He’s a little miffed that the shaman didn’t show any appreciation or really interest of any sort in the fact that Ironhorse had bailed him out of jail and driven two hours out of his way to bring him home. Grace does thank him, and clarifies that her father has decided that Ironhorse was sent to him by the spirits, and therefore he’s gone off to thank them. Ironhorse explains that Joseph Lonetree reminds him of his own grandfather, who also had a habit of mysteriously disappearing for days at a time to “commune with the spirits.” He admits that he’d always just assumed that this was the equivalent euphemism to “hiking the Appalachian trail” and his grandfather had a bit on the side in the next valley.
The ice suitably broken, the two move easily into the cute flirtations part of the episode, wherein Ironhorse and Grace talk about their shared heritage and the importance of connecting with their Native American past, while subtly asserting their interest in connecting with their Native American presents. Grace talks about how most of the younger generation leave the reservation, and her efforts to change that. Ironhorse reflects that he’d been raised to be ashamed of his Cherokee heritage, and had only later learned to take pride in his cultural heritage. Maybe I haven’t said enough about how much I like that angle on Ironhorse’s character. This was a time in American TV when Native Americans had progressed out of being depicted primarily as the savage “other” to be casually dispatched as they threatened wagon trains and white women. But even if the stereotype of the “bloodthirsty savage” had fallen out of favor, that of the “noble savage” was slower to disappear. Your typical Native American character in a TV show of the period tended to be… Well, pretty much Joseph Lonetree. Old-fashioned, quiet, reserved, primarily interested in preserving the traditions of his people. Depictions tended to emphasize how sad it was that these noble people had gotten such a raw deal, and having survived the threat of literal genocide, were still facing a slow cultural genocide. Or else, they were more like Darrow Lonetree, fed up with their elders, disconnected from their heritage, and looking to get out. Those depictions tended to focus on the evils of youthful rebellion, with the young person needing to learn a Very Special Lesson about respecting his cultural heritage. But Ironhorse doesn’t fit neatly into either of those: he’s a much more mature and nuanced character: it isn’t an either-or with him. He’s fully integrated into white society — heck, he’s an officer, trained (as Grace playfully teases) at the same West Point that turned out General Custer. He might pull out a bit of ancient folk wisdom from time to time, but he’s equally likely to pull out a Vietnam anecdote. But he hasn’t turned his back on the traditions of his people. His native heritage doesn’t define him, but it’s also not ignored. It’s something we see him actively struggle with. A few weeks ago, I suggested that Norton Drake is the best wheelchair-using character of 1980s TV (I’d have said he was the best overall handicapped character, except that this show comes on right before one that’s got Levar Burton playing a blind man). I think I might be willing to venture that Paul Ironhorse is probably one of the best-written Native American characters of his time period. Things get hot, heavy, and hella awkward when Ironhorse stops to admire her, sheepishly saying, “I haven’t spoken to an Indian woman in a long time.” So yeah, there’s a not especially nice element in there that’s a lot like what we saw with Scout back in his “character focus” episode of Captain Power: a sense of, “Hey, we seem to be the only two Native American characters in this show who aren’t related. We should hook up.” But it comes off less bad than it might because Richard Chaves gives the line an air of Tired Old War-Weary Soldier to add another dimension to the exchange.
Perhaps less problematic, but harder to get over is Grace’s response: “Well, we’re out of the tepee and we’re back with a vengeance.” Which is the cheesiest sentence I think this show has ever done, and on top of it, it doesn’t even mean anything coherent or sensible.
They talk about how any relationship between them would be obviously doomed, what with them having nothing in common and coming from “different worlds”, and then they make out.
Norton’s hacking alerts him that fingerprints at the scene of Newport’s murder trace back to three missing employees from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is kinda surprising since they’ve basically only been “missing” for a couple of hours. Harrison draws the conclusion that Newport was murdered by aliens, who now have the alien artifact, and might be on the way back to the reservation. Suzanne, channeling Agent Scully in an X-Files parody, tells him that he’s being paranoid and it might just be coincidence. He counters that since aliens are real and really do mean us harm, his fears are not baseless, and therefore he’s not being paranoid, and therefore is probably right. Harrison probably failed discrete math. They decide to head to the reservation themselves to check on Ironhorse.
Ironhorse knows nothing of Newport’s murder or Harrison’s suspicions yet because when he calls the Cottage to check in, Norton’s taking a nap. But before he can make dinner reservations with Grace, Joseph Lonetree materializes in front of him. Grace admonishes the old man for materializing in front of her date, explaining that he’s always doing stuff like that.Grace Lonetree is played by Robin Sewell. Her performance is a bit unusual: she’s got a very strong, clear voice, she’s animated, she’s sincere, and there is no hint of subtly or nuance in her performance whatever. This is, I suspect, because Robin Sewell isn’t an actor. Though she started out in the entertainment industry, this episode of War of the Worlds is her only acting credit. Instead, she’s primarily a journalist, who’d go on to be the lead news anchor for KNXV in Phoenix in the ’90s. For over a decade now, she’s been the host of the syndicated travel/news magazine show Arizona Highways, the TV companion to the Arizona Department of Transportation’s travel publication. The show is produced by her production company, called, in what’s got to be the best coincidence all day, Lonetree Productions.
Lonetree orders Ironhorse to accompany him to go commune with the spirits. Ironhorse tries to demur, saying he needs to get back. The shaman raises his staff and summons a thunderstorm. Grace rolls her eyes. It’s always the way, isn’t it? You bring home a nice guy, and he literally calls down the thunder. Man, parents are such a drag, always using their magic powers to materialize in front of the guy you were hoping to fool around with or summoning lightning bolts.
Night falls, because time passes very quickly in this universe, and Ironhorse performs some ceremonial chants around the fire with Lonetree. Lonetree’s affinity with the spirits tells him that, despite being from a different tribe, Ironhorse is “one with our spirits,” as though he were Westeskiwin himself. Even Lonetree seems a little surprised by this. “It is an honor to be respected by those whom you respect,” Ironhorse says. Lonetree shares his people’s mythology:
Lonetree: It is told that many years ago, before there was white man’s time, the Westeskiwin were visited by beings from beyond. It is told they gave us the strength to win all battles and survive all crises.
Ironhorse: It is a valuable legacy.
Lonetree: It is a legacy of survival. The spirits want you to have the knowledge of that legacy.
Lonetree: The sky is a roof. Above that roof, my people believe the stars live as people. The visitors from many years ago came from beyond the stars.
Ironhorse: Just a legend, right?
Lonetree: (rolls eyes)
Guided by the crystal, the aliens make their way through the woods nearby. Harrison and Suzanne aren’t far behind. Harrison stops her a moment because he, doesn’t, “Like the vibe.” Leah takes offense at the slight against her beloved Pontiac, may it rust in peace.
Ironhorse and Lonetree stop at the edge of a model shot of a mound of earth, where Lonetree declares, “For generations, the knowledge has been passed down from father to son. Today, Paul Ironhorse, you are my son. You are the son of all the Westeskiwin.” Good thing Ironhorse skipped lunch. Having thus given the finger to his actual son, Joseph Lonetree holds his staff up, the crystal at the end glowing, and summons up a thunderstorm by chanting. Ironhorse… Just stands there looking a little confused.
Suzanne and Harrison pick up Grace and Darrow, explaining that they have “Reason to believe that Colonel Ironhorse is in danger.” That seems like a weird logical leap. Harrison’s reasons for believing that the aliens would return to the reservation are thin — he doesn’t know what the starter is, so he’s got no reason to conclude that there would be anything else on the reservation the aliens would want. But even granting Harrison his intuition, why would he think Ironhorse is in danger? The aliens don’t have any reason to know who Ironhorse is or that he’s there. If Harrison thinks the aliens are around, everyone‘s in danger, not Ironhorse in particular. Ironhorse would be in less danger than the residents, what with being special forces and all.
Out in the woods, Lonetree’s storm-dance kicks up the wind until it blows all the dirt off of the model shot revealing…
Well, I mean, it’s not like there was any suspense here; they told us back in scene three that it was gonna be an alien space ship. I’m not really sure why he’s showing Ironhorse that he has the power to excavate slightly-buried model space ships.
Now, the ship itself is pretty cool. We established in both “The Resurrection” and “Eye for an Eye” that their prop department can not accurately recreate the 1953 Al Nozaki design to save their lives. So they haven’t tried. The ship we see in this episode is meant to be an older design. Unlike the classic ships, this is a walking machine, with three spindly mechanical legs, like Wells’s version of the tripods. It lacks any sort of gooseneck and cobra-head, but the main body bears a clear familial resemblance to the classic design. The dome at the front is a sort of hybrid of the dome at the front of the manta-body on the classic ship and the heat ray emitter on the cobra-head. It’s got the same fresnel texturing as the heat-rays, but is two-tone, the center glowing amber, while the edges are blue, giving it the look of an eye. The wingtips are also illuminated in blue. Fans have described the ship as vaguely insectoid in appearance, and I won’t dispute it, but despite that, it still looks very clearly like something that was designed with the same general aesthetic as the more sealife-inspired 1953 war machine.
The aliens show up while this is going on and wave machine guns (Where did they get those anyway? They didn’t have them before, and I doubt they’re standard issue at BoIA) at Ironhorse and Lonetree while speaking alienese. Ironhorse warns Lonetree that they can’t allow the aliens to get the ship, but the shaman asserts that the spirits will take care of it. For absolutely no reason, the aliens don’t just shoot the two humans. Instead, the lead alien takes out the starter and lays hands on it, which opens the hatch on the ship. They breeze past Ironhorse and the still-chanting Lonetree. The aliens oddly decide to ask questions first and shoot later: they call up the Advocacy to report their success and are told to let the humans live, “as messengers of fear” to “spread despair among humankind,” and prepare for the, I am not making this up, “Final solution.”
Harrison, Suzanne, and the younger Lonetrees arrive as the warship starts powering up. Suzanne is sent back to the car to call General Wilson. No one asks about the old Indian dancing, chanting, and summoning a thunderstorm. Ironhorse and Harrison uselessly declare that they’ve got to stop the ship from taking off, but that there’s nothing they can do to stop the ship from taking off. As it rises on its legs, Joseph Lonetree declares, “The spirits are stronger than your power! This is sacred land! Only the spirits say who can come and go!”
The ship is repeatedly struck by lightning, and a funnel cloud of sorts reaches down and lifts it into the air. It spins into the sky, and then someone mixes in that poorly composited explosion from Captain Power. When the fireball vanishes, the ship is gone and the sky is clear.
And then it’s morning, because time passes very quickly in this show. Again. The humans survey a field of dirt that’s probably meant to be where those model shots were taking place. Harrison asks Lonetree about what happened, but he’s your traditional enigmatic shaman, and just says that it was the spirits. Harrison asks to take a look at his staff, and eyes the crystal at the end with fascination. “You want it?” Lonetree asks. “Yes, of course, but—” Harrison answers. Without a word, Lonetree pops the crystal off the end of his staff and gives it to Harrison.
Darrow challenges him on this once he steps away, but Joseph opens a pouch around his neck and takes out an identical crystal. “I gave him what he thought he wanted,” he explains. Looking back over various fan-conversations about this episode, there seems to be some question as to what just happened. The dominant theory seems to be that Lonetree had swapped the alien crystal on his staff for a mundane copy and just had a little joke at Harrison’s expense. Needless to say, I don’t think much of that theory, painting Lonetree as dishonest. The obvious more-generous interpretation is that the crystal he gives Harrison is indeed the one from his staff, but the crystal itself is mundane, and it’s Lonetree’s rituals and the spirits which give it power. I think the best read of the scene, though, is that the crystal he gives Harrison is extraterrestrial in origin, and does have some unusual properties, and Joseph Lonetree just has more than one of them (Or perhaps even has the ability to make them). Lonetree thinks Harrison is wrong to fixate on the crystal instead of the ritual, not because there’s nothing special about the crystal, but because the crystal itself is a small part of a much larger system that Harrison is overlooking. As Harrison and Suzanne study the crystal in awe, Joseph Lonetree retreats into the woods, followed by his son, whose expression reflects a newfound respect.
This episode is a fun watch, provided you can get past the problematic aspects of the whole “Magic Injun” trope. It’s clear that it’s meant to be a funny juxtaposition, with no one ever finding it especially remarkable that a Westeskiwin shaman can teleport, command storms, destroy alien warships, and summon fish. With his daughter rolling her eyes in embarrassment when her dad summons a thunderbolt at the guy she’s making time with. With his son being flippant and not taking the spirits seriously despite the fact that he knows firsthand that his dad’s magical powers are actual literal magic powers. And it would all be fantastic if we lived in a world where, “Native Americans are noble savages with a special connection with nature that transcends the white man’s science and their magic is totes real,” weren’t pretty much the dominant mode for engaging Native American culture in media that isn’t trying to be darkly comic.
If you can bracket that part, the only real issue with the episode itself is the passivity of the plot. None of our heroes ever actually do anything to advance the story: they basically just stand back and let events unfold around them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it becomes awkward and forced at the climax, where we have Harrison, and especially Ironhorse, just stand around looking worried for several minutes without actually doing anything. Having Lonetree save the day by invoking the spirits of the Westeskiwin is fine, but having Ironhorse just stand there and not risk his life trying to take out three heavily armed aliens using only sticks and rocks is hard to justify in light of the character we’ve seen so far. The least they could have done is give us some reason for Ironhorse to hold back. Give us some sense that the spirits are somehow restraining him, or at least make some visual indication that he’s worried they’ll shoot Lonetree if he tries anything. Instead, he just kind of stands there looking confused the whole time.
There is also the oddity of them not bothering to resolve any of the minor plot threads. Grace’s last line of dialogue comes about ten minutes before the end of the episode (It’s her agreeing to lead Harrison and Suzanne into the woods to find her father and Ironhorse). We do see her standing in the distance with Paul in the last scene, but nothing is said about their burgeoning relationship, nor will she ever come up again. There’s no closure about Ironhorse’s relationship with the elder Lonetree either. If Paul just got initiated into the mysteries of the Westeskiwin spirits, what does that mean? Does he get magic powers too? Is that the sort of thing you have to disclose to your commanding officer? What’s the army’s policy on use of spirit totems on US soil?
But most of all, what the huh? Seriously, we just saw a shaman summon the spirits to destroy an alien warship of a sort previously demonstrated to be impervious to even nuclear weapons. And this brings me to something that — and admittedly, my research into what fandom thought about this over the past 30 years is fairly limited — I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in fandom discuss before. We’re clearly meant to draw the conclusion that the Westeskiwin legends are true. This is straight out of the big book o’ prime-ass grade-A Von Daniken bullshit. We’ve seen it before with Ironhorse’s own family stories back in the pilot.
Now, I really hate Von Daniken Ancient Aliens bullshit when people try to present it as a serious theory (not least of all because it is almost always racist, predicated as it tends to be on the idea that non-European peoples could not possibly have produced the impressive ancient monuments we see in the historical record without the help of an outside influence). But I do think it can be fun as an element of fiction. What, though, is this Westeskiwin legend? Lonetree tells of visitors from beyond the stars who gave the Westeskiwin the power to overcome all adversaries. Now, I think the conventional wisdom is to read this as the Mor-taxans visiting five hundred years earlier, and leaving the Westeskiwin with a cache of alien artifacts and a warship, after they snuffed it in presumably similar style to the reconnaissance party in Grover’s Mills. Except that the story makes it sound like a friendly exchange, not a battle. Possible, I suppose, perhaps if five hundred years ago was a more peaceful time on Mor-tax. That would certainly be an interesting twist, but it doesn’t really answer the question of why they’d give Lonetree’s ancestors some magic crystals and a space ship. And besides, Lonetree seems to recognize the aliens for what they are and recognizes them as hostile.
No, I think a far more compelling implication is that, yes, aliens from Mor-tax visited Westeskiwin land hundreds of years previously, just as they had Grover’s Mills in the 1930s, but that they aren’t the “visitors from beyond” spoken of in the Westeskiwin legend. I think what Joseph Lonetree didn’t get around to telling Ironhorse is that his people were visited by two groups of visitors: invaders from Mor-tax (Nope. Turns out no matter how many times I say it, that is still a dumb name), and a second, friendlier race who armed the Westeskiwin that they might “survive all crises.”
The implications of that should be huge. If there’s another alien race out there, enemies of Mor-tax, and more kindly disposed toward humanity, that would be an angle that could change the whole dynamic of the series. One element I’ve been underwhelmed with in the show so far is any sense of it actually building toward something. It’s basically just “Aliens come up with a plot to commit genocide, heroes happen upon the plot and stop it/just hang around until it stops itself,” week after week. Evidence of a second alien faction would give Harrison and company something to be pursuing. Something, unlike the alien stronghold, that they could actually get closer to from time to time without threatening to collapse the whole series premise.
I could easily see them wanting to revisit, if not the Westeskiwin themselves, certainly Ironhorse’s growing connection to his heritage. Where could this have gone? I would really have liked to see some indication that the ritual in which he participated had a profound impact on him. We might have seen Ironhorse getting more in touch with his spiritual side, perhaps even see some internal tension growing as he’s increasingly torn between his military and spiritual duties — we know that the next decade is going to see science fiction series take an interest in exploring that sort of thing, with Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine as the Starfleet officer who’s also the emissary who walked with the Prophets, or with Sinclair on Babylon 5 (I won’t go into the details). Ultimately, we’d want to see Ironhorse transformed into a shaman himself, but on his own terms, without abandoning his duty and degenerating into a Native American stereotype.
That would explain the lack of closure in this episode, if they were planning to go down this road earlier. So what happened? They just don’t develop it any more. But that might not mean anything: I’ve rarely gone more than a few weeks without pointing out that TV in 1989 just did not work the same way as it does now. Having a plot thread that you only come back to once or twice a season is kinda what passed for an arc, since you could really only advance a series-wide plot in a big “event” episode. Maybe they planned to come back to this, and just never had the chance. That would have really been something, since so far, we haven’t really had any sense that they were really setting anything up for a future payoff.
Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it, and this whole thing with Native American shamanic powers and a possible second alien race is entirely an invention of my imagination… Time will tell.
- War of the Worlds the Series is available on DVD from amazon.