It’s not the cold. It’s something else.
It is February 13, 1989. An insider trading scandal breaks in Japan involving the Recruit company, implicating many government officials. Chairman Hiromasa Ezoe is arrested and the scandal will eventually lead to the resignation of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita among others. Tomorrow, Ayatollah Khomeini issues a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, prompting years of occasional assassination attempts and talk show appearances. The first GPS satellite is placed in orbit. Wednesday will see the first election in Sri Lanka since 1977 after a violent campaign season. It’ll also see the Soviet Union finish pulling its troops out of Afghanistan, having learned the hard lesson that you should never invade Afghanistan. Thursday will see investigators announce that the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster was caused by a bomb hidden in a tragically named Toshiba Bombeat tape player.
Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl album, released, as you’ll recall, last week, makes it onto the Billboard top five albums. Since Traveling Wilburys Volume 1 is still on the charts from last year, this makes Orbison the first artist since Elvis to have two top-five albums at the same time despite being dead, a feat not repeated until Michael Jackson died in 2009. Ukeleleist and frequent crossword puzzle clue Tiny Tim throws his hat into the ring in the New York mayoral race. “Straight Up” and “When I’m With You” trade the top two spots on the hot 100. Sheena Easton, Samantha Fox, Rick Astley and Information Society enter top ten, unseating Phil Collins, Def Leppard, Taylor Dane, and Karyn White.
Friday the 13th the Series airs “Better off Dead”. Cursed syringe lets you transplant brain tissue. British TV gets its first LGBT talk show, Channel 4’s Out on Tuesday (later retitled Out). US TV is still all new in prime time, but nothing I particularly remember. Ted Danson hosted Saturday Night Live last Saturday, Leslie Nielsen will host this coming one.
Also on Saturdays, as I’ve neglected to mention so far, is the short-lived Spencer for Hire spin-off A Man Called Hawk. I mention it because the titular character is played by Avery Brooks, who would go on to play Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Hawk’s habit of addressing his mentor by the moniker “Old Man” would carry over, as, eventually, would his shaved head and goatee.
But Deep Space Nine is far off in the future for right now. Star Trek the Next Generation gives us “The Measure of a Man”, a courtroom drama in which Captain Picard must prove that Data is sufficiently a Real Boy to be allowed to go on living rather than being dissected for study so that Starfleet can start mass-producing android slaves. At the time, I remember rather liking this. I would, in later years, go on to like procedural dramas, plus it’s just adorable that when he thinks he’s leaving, Data packs a little miniature hologram of Tasha Yar. Later, I would sour on the episode. It would become increasingly bothersome that in the 24th century, we could still be having big court cases about whether or not a person was deserving of basic human rights, and whether or not it was okay to enslave someone. Especially when Star Trek Voyager did almost exactly the same legal drama (Though I’ll admit, I loved the sadistic legal twist in that one where the court stuck it to the cartoonishly evil publishing company by declaring that, while they were unwilling to expand the legal definition of “person” to cover holograms, they were willing to expand the legal definition of “artist” so that a hologram could hold a copyright). Also, the stupid nonsensical bullshit of Riker being press-ganged into prosecuting the case against his will for the sake of “conflict”. Later still, I read what Josh Marsfelder had to say about it at Vaka Rangi. Even if he wasn’t completely sold, his general approach closed the loop for me. Star Trek makes way more sense once you realize that the Enterprise is the only place where people actually earnestly hold to the ideals the rest of the Federation only presents as aspirational goals in order to make themselves feel better about being pragmatic capitalist-informed soft-imperialists. I feel a much greater kinship to the Enterprise crew once I came to realize that they’re the people who missed the memo about which of the things we all purport to believe are really just lies we tell ourselves to not feel like monsters.
This week is a special treat. It’s the final appearance of Ann Robinson as Sylvia Van Buren, and her role this week is considerably more substantial than her previous appearances. This episode really makes the case for her being a major character in the series moving forward, and I can only assume that it’s down to nothing more than the fact that we’re into the final third of the season that we don’t see her again after this one.
“The Meek Shall Inherit” is not an episode that ranked particularly high in my radar before. I mean, I remember it being “fine”, but not really anything special. Under closer scrutiny, it holds up well. Or maybe I’m still just pissed about “He Feedeth Among the Lilies”. Like “The Prodigal Son”, I feel like this episode was supposed to air earlier in the season, before “Among the Philistines”, and probably before “Choirs of Angels” and “Dust to Dust” as well. There’s no direct evidence either way for whether it fits before or after “The Prodigal Son”, but my gut instinct is that it goes before that one as well, if only to amplify Harrison’s surprise when Quinn name-drops Sylvia.
The script is by legendary Star Trek alum D. C. Fontana. If you were to put all the scripts for all the episodes of War of the Worlds side-by-side and asked, “Which one of these do you reckon Fontana wrote?”, this is hands-down the one you’d pick. Basically everything that goes right in this episode is part of Fontana’s wheelhouse. It’s not hard to guess that the writer who gave us our most powerful insights into Mr. Spock, and a somewhat surreal reflection on mortality and the character of Pavel Chekhov would also be the writer to give us a more complex and substantial view of Sylvia Van Buren than “mad prophet”.
The plot proceeds along several tracks at once, a more complicated mode of storytelling than has really been typical for the series so far. Only of of the tracks — the one about Sylvia — is really properly good though. The alien plot doesn’t really stand up to any significant contemplation, but is at least well-integrated, unlike the early-season episodes which too-often had the alien and human sides of the plot fail to interact until the last moment. Ironhorse gets the third major plot thread. It’s an interesting thread with good character moments, but it is for the most part tangential to the main story: you could really have slotted it into pretty much any episode so far in the season equally well. For a story focusing on Sylvia, Harrison is curiously bracketed. He and Suzanne do have a minor plot-thread of their own, but it’s entirely subsidiary, just “While actual stuff is happening, Harrison and Suzanne try to find Sylvia.” Norton makes a strong showing early in the episode, but quickly fades into the background.
The episode starts out nice and strong, with an artfully done montage of people in a geographically nonspecific neighborhood displaying how dependent 1980s American culture is on telephony: a man in a phone booth making demands into a payphone about some kind of monetary transaction. 911 dispatchers directing emergency services. A big-haired teenage girl gossiping about, and I quote, what, “Bobby told Johnny that Linda told Cindy,” while her parents admonish her to get off the phone. It’s a strange and wonderful scene to look at now: there’s very little they need to communicate to the audience in explicit terms, because if you lived in the ’80s, the idea of a teenage girl ignoring her family to spread vague gossip via a wired land-line telephone, or of a junkie trying to arrange his next fix from a phone booth — of there being such a thing as phone booths — would be so straightforwardly obvious that it just takes flashing a few quick signifier to get the message across. And yet, in 2016, those are concepts as utterly alien as the phrase “Yahoo Serious Film Festival”.
Intercut with this montage is some linemen working on the phone lines. The reveal that they’re aliens is delayed until after the montage, and for once it actually works. We’re expecting something to happen, but until it actually does, it’s not clear if the linemen will prove to be the cause, or the victims. They activate an electronic device that features as its centerpiece a triangular crystal similar to the space ship starter from “Dust to Dust” (By which I mean “It’s clearly the same prop”). We cut back to the phone users, who are treated to a painfully loud noise and error signal. The teenage girl casts away the handset just before the entire telephone melts into the countertop. The man in the phone booth is less fortunate: the entire booth explodes with him inside it.
In the cave, one of the Advocates disdainfully questions the utility of their newfound ability to blow up telephones. Another explains that, what wit humans being social animals, creating massive disruptions to their communications will have an outside effect on human society and leave them vulnerable to other forms of attack. It’s interesting that the advocates speak of humanity’s social impulses with such smug disdain. The very clear implication is that they consider it a weakness the extent to which humans rely on interacting with each other rather than being self-sufficient isolates. But that’s a very strange position for the aliens to take given that their own society is so tightly constructed around triads. More than that, the alien culture is strictly hierarchical, to the point that it’s been a recurring theme that soldier-class aliens are unable to complete even fairly simple tasks without explicit guidance from leadership, and we saw the last time Ann Robinson guest starred that even the Advocacy becomes severely impaired if the bond between the three of them is damaged. It would have made more sense for the aliens to have aimed their derision at the weakness of human communications infrastructure, rather than the basic fact that humans rely on communications: it certainly would have squared well with what we know about aliens for them to find it laughable that humanity would use such a vulnerable means for something so important. The alien linemen report that they can implement the attack more widely, but require an additional power source. The advocates advise that they’re working on it.
In a night scene, we’re introduced to Molly Stone, our major guest star this week. She’s a street person, and seems to suffer from some kind of mental illness that makes her unwilling or unable to speak. At least, it’ll seem that way until she pretty much drops it halfway through. While she scavenges for food in a trash can, another homeless person, a somewhat older man called Pollito — pretty much a straight-up cartoon hobo from a depression-era short — admonishes her for using the ineffectual “silent bit” rather than contriving a spiel to elicit donations from passers-by. As an example, he approaches a passing couple, begging for change as the cold weather exacerbates his old war-wound. When they brush him off, he announces, “People don’t take care of their vets anymore. That’s why I dodged the draft.” Oh good. He’s going to be the comic relief homeless person. Joy.
Fortunately, he doesn’t last long. He meets up with some friends around a barrel fire, and the offer of alcohol entices him into the shadows, where an alien possesses him. Molly, following at a distance, sees it happen and flees in terror. The next day, after a series of events which will not be covered in this show (and honestly, are probably too tangential to the plot to be worth bothering with, but maybe some kind of quick recap would be nice), Molly ends up as a “charity case” at Whitewood. Nurse Hamilton — the same one we’ve seen in Sylvia’s previous episodes — brings Molly into a common room to show her around, but Molly becomes agitated when the nurse tries to relieve her of her bundle of possessions.
Sylvia is as lucid as we’ve ever seen her, and she’s going to remain largely that way for the bulk of the episode. Fontana takes her cues for writing Sylvia less from her first appearance in “Thy Kingdom Come”, and more from “To Heal the Leper”: rather than being constantly off-kilter, Sylvia’s condition is presented as manifesting in the form of isolated episodes, something akin to a panic attack, which punctuate long periods of normalcy. Outside of her attacks, she seems generally normal. She does show some anxiety later in the episode, but nothing out-of-line with the fact that she’s an elderly woman in an unfamiliar city, hunting aliens. If anything, she copes really well with being so closely involved in an alien plot, and with learning of the aliens’ terrifying ability to absorb human hosts. Over Nurse Hamilton’s complaints, Sylvia takes charge of Molly, offering to show her around and help her relax into her new setting.
Rather than boring us with that, though, the episode switches over to its B-plot. Or C-plot, depending on how you count them. A figure in black approaches The Cottage under cover of twilight. The figure is able to slip past the security and makes it as far as the living room without setting off an alarm, but the ever-vigilant Colonel Ironhorse appears from the hallway and overturns the invader with a flying kick. A scuffle ensues, and despite a few tense moments, Ironhorse emerges the victor, restraining his assailant and unmasking h—
Holy crap, it’s a girl! What a twist! Really, there are few better ways to properly demonstrate twenty-seven years of media progress than by the fact that here in 1989, it was meant to be a shocking twist that this character we have never seen before, never heard of before, don’t know what their game is, and have no sense of their role in the narrative happens to have zero Y-chromosomes. Also that we weren’t supposed to notice the hips or breasts until she gets unmasked.
But who is this strange woman, and why has she broken into the Blackwood Project headquarters? “Not bad, Coleman. Not good either. You made as much noise springing that lock as you would have setting off a flare,” (Are flares known for their noisiness?) Ironhorse admonishes. Yes, this was the traditional “Characters go on a dangerous mission and blow it, only for the shocking reveal that the whole thing was a training exercise designed to showcase the character flaw the episode will focus on them overcoming,” trope, as seen in Star Trek II, the Tomb Raider movie, Power Rangers, and pretty much every episode of the ’90s X-Men cartoon.
That said, its use here is a little bit off-label; normally, you’d frame this with a known-hero character getting defeated by a seeming-villain character: the Enterprise destroyed by Klingons, the X-Men cornered by Sentinels. If you’re introducing a new character, you’d generally frame the scene, as it is here, with the new character as an attacker, but you’d focus the scene on the established character, making them seem legitimately threatened, and ultimately defeated. Typically, you’d include a third character, the “big boss”, who arranged the whole thing as a way for the new character to prove themself, but leading to animosity between the new and established characters that would serve as the source of character tension until the climax. But this episode isn’t going to be about Ironhorse feeling inadequate because he got beat up by a girl until she saves his butt in the climax (More’s the pity: what actually does happen in this episode is close enough to being that plot that I wonder if it was in an earlier draft). Ironhorse bests Coleman. Not trivially, but there’s never any serious doubt that he’s the superior fighter. Neither is there any substantial plot about Coleman needing to prove herself as the rookie on the team: she’s just another minor character, really. There’s a little nod toward Ironhorse having some kind of character arc around needing to work past his reluctance to accept Coleman due to her gender, but it’s dispensed with quickly. I’m certainly not complaining that Ironhorse recognizes that any issues he has about women in combat roles are his problem, behaves like a professional and just sucks it up, but it leaves this side of the plot feeling disconnected from the larger story.
We get more of an explanation for what’s going on with this training exercise when Ironhorse dismisses Coleman for the evening and heads down to the lab. He’s assembling a special-forces team, dubbed “Omega Squad”, to handle direct confrontation with the aliens. In aired order, of course, we’ve already seen them, back in “Among the Philistines”. I’m a little hard-pressed to think what specifically would prompt this right now — maybe the events of “The Good Samaritan”, or Ironhorse’s complete failure to usefully leverage the local police in “The Prodigal Son”, if that one was meant to come first. But any of the first six episodes seem like they’d provide much better justification for giving Ironhorse his own private on-call unit, so why is this only happening so late in the season? Candidates for the team were selected based on a psychological profile Suzanne compiled for him. I’m going to have to go back at some point and see if I missed a line somewhere, because they seem to have settled on the idea that Suzanne is a psychologist and I have absolutely no recollection of this fact having been introduced at any point.
When Ironhorse challenges the accuracy of Suzanne’s profile, she counters by accusing him of being unwilling to believe, “a woman, any woman, has any place in a special unit designed to provide, quote, tactical backup in case of a major altercation with aliens, unquote.” Ironhorse dodges the accusation, but maintains that the other candidates are too rebellious. Suzanne insists that her profile is perfect for the mission as described. “How can you say that?” Ironhorse asks, “I mean, who’d you model this profile on, Rambo?”
Lynda Mason Green gives what is, in my opinion, her single best line delivery in the entire series, and, in a tone of utter innocence, says, “Why no, Paul. I modeled it on you.”
While this has been going on, Harrison and Norton are struggling with the phone system. Harrison “can’t save the world” until Norton can work out a way to connect to the mainframe at the Pentagon. And since this is 1989 and your normal TV audiences haven’t heard of ARPANET, the only way for one government facility to network with another government facility is via a dial-up modem (presumably with an acoustic coupler) over plain old-fashioned AT&T long distance service. Only that small-scale test the aliens carried out a day and a half ago, despite their limited power supply, somehow took out all the long-distance lines on the west coast. Norton can’t even route around the trouble by bouncing the call over to Hawaii and back through Toronto. Jokes about the phone company ensue which probably don’t really work unless you’re old enough to remember when it was just “The Phone Company” and not “Phone Companies“.
It’s the next day before connectivity is restored. Alongside this is a bit that strikes me as very D. C. Fontana. Norton’s coffee-fetishism resurfaces for the first time in months as he entreats Harrison to try a new blend he’s cooked up. In 1989, we’re still in the early stages of the proliferation of second-wave coffee. Starbucks has only recently started serving brewed beverages, so we’re still in the stage where it’s more about defining and appreciating specialty coffee, rather than the social experience of the coffeehouse. The Pacific Northwest, where we’ve presumptively located our gang is certainly the right geographical region for a nacient coffee-snob (Though remember, Norton was based near LA prior to the events of the pilot). Norton’s coffee snob credentials are meant to be part of his lovable quirkiness, and in that vein, I think it helps more than hurts that he’s a coffee-snob as written by someone who isn’t a coffee snob — no proper self-respecting coffee-snob would be working from canned grounds and a Mr. Coffee Automatic Drip brewer. And he probably wouldn’t have used too much chicory either. Norton’s curiosity gets the better of him and he snoops on internal phone company traffic, learning that the damage has been attributed to, “saboteurs unknown”. It’s pretty thin evidence, but Harrison agrees that this is the sort of show where if your milk goes sour before its sell-by date, it’s probably aliens, so he advises him to keep looking into it. They also make some snide remarks about eco-terrorists, the presumed default “more likely” culprit, which they dismiss since the saboteurs failed to go public with demands.
Like Norton’s coffee, this is a minor element that hearkens back to earlier in the series. Specifically, a slightly ramped-up bit of ’80s zeitgeist brought up as though it’s perfectly normal. We saw it before with cattle mutilations, LARPers going postal, biological warfare experiments killing “all those people”, even insurgent student groups taking over a nuclear waste depot. This show presumes a world that’s really unstable. Where if the phones don’t work one day, your first thought would be, “Oh, it’s probably a group of radical students protesting political prisoners in Antarctica.” What is less clear, because you and I are in the twenty-first century looking back, is that to a greater or lesser extent, that’s just how the ’80s were. Satanist cults sacrificing children in daycare, cities in the midwest becoming ghost-towns due to accidents at nuclear research labs, the occasional high-ranking military officer absconding with an ICBM and declaring himself the king of St. Louis, these weren’t things that ever actually happened, but they were things that were thinkable as real scenarios. To the point that we were all kinda surprised when they didn’t happen. Maybe even a little bit angry — and we’d see that anger manifest in the ’90s with the rise of Grimdark and with conspiracy theories becoming more mainstream.
But I’ve meandered away from the plot, which has been moving on its own during the phone outage. At Whitewood, Molly witnesses Sylvia having an attack. Nurse Hamilton has her sedated and refuses to call Harrison, as, “We’ve been bothering Dr. Blackwood far too frequently.” Once again, we see the weirdly casual strangeness of this world. It was established back in “Thy Kingdom Come” that the staff knows that her episodes coincide with natural disasters: she predicted the Mt. St. Helens explosion. But they’re treating her here like she’s — well, like every misunderstood character with precognitive powers in a work of fiction is treated by mental health professionals. They assume the crazy old woman ranting about three-fingered aliens just needs to be strapped down and sedated. As the drugs kick in, Sylvia drifts off, muttering pleas for someone to believe her. Unnoticed, Molly whispers her first line of dialogue: “I believe you.”
I don’t know if we’re meant to believe that Molly’s condition has been an act the whole time, or if it’s just your typical Hollywood “Many forms of mental illness are easily resolved by just bucking up and willing yourself to be neurotypical,” jackassery, but from this point on, Molly shows no obvious signs of mental illness and behaves entirely normally. She returns when Sylvia has woken up and calmed down, but is still restrained. Molly cuts her loose with a knife they really ought to have taken away. I don’t even know why; they’re just velcro. Molly invites Sylvia to escape with her, a chance to prove her claims.
Ironhorse spends the day introducing the audience to the other named members of Omega Squad. Sergeant Coleman we’ve already met. Corporal Stavrakos is a rebellious man who looks and sounds like he’s being played by a time-traveling Peter Deluise. He’s been promoted and subsequently demoted three times over his military career, finding the rank of Sergeant to carry “too much responsibility.” But he’s an avid reader of Von Daniken, Keyhoe and Ruppelt. “Haven’t you ever heard of the swamp gas theory?” Ironhorse challenges, with way more Angry-Drill-Sergeant-No-Nonsense-Military-Voice than the words “Swamp Gas Theory” could possibly support. Stavrakos remains unflapped when Ironhorse challenges him on whether he’d be the first out there fighting back if aliens were to invade. “Don’t think I’d be the first, Colonel, but I’m sure I wouldn’t be the last. Last time I checked, this planet was ours.” This is cheesetastic enough that I think Vox Day nominated it for a Hugo, and I hope you don’t all get bored of me once again reminding you that, while, yes, the current invasion is cloaked in secrecy, the existence of Earth-invading aliens is a matter of historical fact. Constantly referring to the belief in aliens in the abstract as crazy conspiracy theory is just wrong, especially when they vacillate between “Most people consider aliens just crazy conspiracy theory,” and “Most people dimly recall the first invasion but don’t believe it’s an ongoing threat and don’t like to think about it.”
The third member of the unit is Sergeant Derriman, a lifer who served with Ironhorse in Vietnam and remained in the service when he couldn’t find a job in the civilian world. Derriman isn’t interested in the dangerous world of special ops at his age, but after he proves his physical prowess by disarming the Colonel in an impromptu sparring match, Ironhorse conscripts him anyway.
Ironhorse: You’ll be working with Sergeant Coleman. You don’t have any problems working with a woman noncom, do you?
Derriman: And if I said yes?
Ironhorse: Then we’d have to work out our problems together.
Both of the scenes are weird and stilted, with Ironhorse doing the whole over-the-top no-nonsense military guy thing that was his shtick in the earliest episodes. I’m guessing Fontana’s script was informed only by the very beginning of the season, possibly only by preproduction materials. But she’s really got a handle on that early version of Ironhorse who’s a slightly ridiculous character expressly because he takes himself so seriously. And yet, she isn’t ignorant of the character development that’s been happening in fits and starts across the season, at least in the abstract. The team works together well: there’s none of the early season’s obligatory “Ironhorse refuses to believe it’s aliens” bits, Harrison and Suzanne are working together comfortably, and everyone seems to have toned down their rough edges. Harrison is less “weird”, Suzanne is less “uptight”, Norton is less of a fratboy, and Ironhorse is casual around the team, only reverting to his “military” character when he’s acting in his role as the leader of Omega Squad.
We do not get to see Sylvia and Molly’s daring escape from Whitewood. Obviously, there are more interesting parts of their story to tell, but just given the size of the grounds we’ve seen around the place, I’m curious how they made it back to civilization unnoticed. They hitch a ride back to Portland, and Sylvia’s excited to ride in a truck. Also to see the outside world for the first time in years. Molly scrounges for food behind a bakery, while Sylvia makes doe-eyes at the baker until he gives her a few fresh loaves. “You really got the touch,” Molly observes.
Harrison is livid when he gets the news of Sylvia’s escape. He and Suzanne set out for Portland to look for her while Norton is ordered to drop everything and search news and police feeds for anything relevant. Without any leads, Harrison’s search is haphazard. Sylvia’s condition causes her to be drawn to aliens, and though they don’t yet have any reason to suspect alien activity in the area, the basic fact of her presence raises the possibility, not to mention the danger of what she might reveal about them if absorbed. They pound the pavement for a while, eventually stopping to tell a convenient prostitute that they’re, “Looking for a woman.” Oh, the hilarity. Fortunately, there’s a lot going on in this episode, so we’re spared the scene I assume must have been considered at some point where Harrison awkwardly tries to explain himself to a vice cop.
Molly takes Sylvia to the alley where Pollito was absorbed. “This is not a good place,” Sylvia observes. She believes Molly’s story, obviously, and explains about aliens. Molly takes it in stride; whether she already knows the basics about aliens, or if it simply makes no difference to her what manner of monster it was she’d seen, I can’t really say. It’s been snowing off and on for the entire episode (Except maybe that first scene, which did not look all that wintry), and they need to find shelter.
You might expect that it’s Sylvia’s vaguely-defined powers that cause her story to intersect the alien plot. But it’s actually Molly’s street-experience. The three possessed hobos have secreted themselves inside a local truckyard, where they’ve been laying in wait until the “power source” they’ve been sent to acquire arrives. They’ve already run afoul of Bull, the security guard once, opting not to kill him as it might arouse suspicion. On their second encounter, they’re less cautious and simply kill him, hoping that he won’t be missed for the few remaining hours until the truck arrives.
Using the bodies of homeless men allows them to move unnoticed, but it has its disadvantages. Living rough has taken a harsh toll on their bodies. Pollito’s body in particular is deteriorating quickly and prone to incapacitating coughing fits. Given that, I don’t know why they didn’t try to absorb Bull the first time they ran into him. The idea does occur to them once it’s too late, the alien-Pollito claiming he’d died too quickly to try it. They call the Advocacy to report this difficulty, but all they get for their trouble is to be reminded how important their mission is. The three who lead are kinda useless.
The homeless are a common sight at the truckyard: the truckers are generous with handouts and empty trailers and other structures make good shelter, and only one of the guards objects to their presence. It’s for that reason that Molly brings Sylvia there, where they take shelter until nightfall.
In the episode’s best-paced scene (and frankly, one of the best-paced scenes in the entire series), Norton is no closer to locating Sylvia when Harrison checks in. But he can report that he’s picked up a burst of alien transmissions — justification for that otherwise pointless scene of the aliens phoning home earlier. Harrison tells him to delegate it to Ironhorse until they have more information so that he can continue his search.
Just back from training exercises with Omega Squad, Ironhorse catches the tail-end of the call and looks at Norton’s alien transmission log. Presumably due to his military training, he’s able to interpret the coordinates at a glance, while Norton, distracted by his search for Sylvia, hadn’t yet looked them up.
With Harrison, Suzanne, Sylvia, and now the aliens all in Portland, Ironhorse decides to muster the troops. I think it’s a misstep that we’re not treated to a lock-and-load montage with Ironhorse waking the squad from their well-earned slumber to suit up and arm themselves.
In Portland, Harrison’s becoming increasingly worried at the thought of Sylvia spending the night on the streets. Something — probably would have been better storytelling to have something clearly and specifically prompt him to think of it — causes him to realize he’s been approaching the problem wrong. He and Suzanne return to the prostitute they’d met before. Though busy, she’s not entirely unsympathetic to his desperation. This time, Harrison backs up his questions with an offer of cash, and learns that the local homeless frequently scrounge food and shelter from the truckyard.
The information comes not a moment too soon. Molly wakes Sylvia from a nightmare because the evening’s shipments are arriving and it’s their best chance to find something to eat. Sylvia can sense the alien presence nearby, and refuses to break cover even with considerable prodding from Molly. This turns out to be the obviously right course of action, as a minute later, peering out after her, Sylvia witnesses Molly getting absorbed by one of the aliens. As the alien integrates with Molly’s body, it realizes that Sylvia knows about them, and more, that her stories about “Harry” describe a human, “who has a unique understanding of who and what we are.” She wants to pursue the older woman when Sylvia makes a break for it, then use Sylvia’s knowledge to find and capture Harrison. But the other aliens insist that they complete their primary mission first, as the truck containing “the power source” is approaching…
It’s a gas generator. That’s what this has been about the whole time. A commercial gas generator. That’s the “power source” the aliens need. Not nuclear materials or some new battery technology or Tony Stark’s prototype arc reactor. Just an ordinary gas generator. Over and over again, the aliens keep engaging in weird, byzantine plots because it never occurs to them to just possess a rich dude and buy the ordinary, commercially-available stuff they need. It’s not like they haven’t possessed a rich dude before, but the idea of just using money to get things seems never to occur to them. It’s honestly getting hard to take the stakes seriously in some of these episodes once you realize that the coda to almost any of these could easily be, “And then the aliens just buy the thing they wanted on Amazon with a stolen credit card instead.”
Harrison and Suzanne arrive in time to help Sylvia when she gets stuck squeezing through a hole in the truckyard fence. She tells them about Molly, realizing with horror that the aliens now know about Harrison’s work. A call to Norton assures them that Ironhorse is already on the way, but they can’t follow his instructions to stay clear of the aliens, given the urgency of their situation: if the aliens escape before Omega Squad arrives, they’ll inform their leadership about the Blackwood Project. Airing as it did after “Among the Philistines” and “The Prodigal Son” blunts the impact of that fear quite a bit. Those three episodes taken together in the reverse of their airing order show a distinct progression of the story arc, with Harrison worrying about the possibility of their discovery by the aliens, the aliens learning Harrison’s identity, and finally deciding to strike back. If we add in “Epiphany” and one more episode that’s yet to come, you get a complementary plot arc of the Blackwood Project starting to build an international coalition against the aliens which is strong enough to provoke them into direct action against it.
From a distance, they see another homeless man wandering the truckyard near where the aliens are making their way to the dispatcher’s shack. Sylvia’s sixth-sense tells her the man is human, so Harrison decides to chance a rescue, dashing across the yard and tackling the man. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he explains. “Damn right you’re not,” responds a disguised Ironhorse, who probably feels like shit for letting Harrison get the drop on him.
He orders Harrison and the others to take cover while Omega Squad moves into position. The driver of the generator truck enters the dispatcher shack and vanishes from the narrative. Under the pretense of looking for a handout, two of the aliens (Molly disappears here for no specified reason) come to the door of the shack and throw a road flare inside. Like basically everything the aliens ever do, this seems needlessly byzantine. Why not just go inside, ask for some food, then grab the guy?
I mean, the answer is because it looks cool when the aliens do go in and find themselves alone as the smoke clears, but still. Coleman, Stavrakos and Derriman emerge from hiding, ordering the aliens to surrender (Actually, what happens is that one of the aliens declares, “There’s no one here,” and Coleman leans in through the window, shouting, “Only half-right, sucker!” which sounds badass but makes no sense) They bolt instead. One is shot in the doorway and explodes.
Yes, I know that aliens sometimes exploding when shot was established back in “Eye for an Eye”. It still doesn’t make any sense. Stavrakos observes that the Colonel’s got some ‘splaining to do.
What? You mean that Ironhorse still hasn’t told them about the aliens? I get not telling them while he’s still putting the team together, but when you’re at the point of actually sending them out on a mission, you’ve got to think that stuff like “You’ll be fighting an enemy that can look like anyone, and if you get separated, you can’t actually be sure that your own comrades haven’t been turned while you were away. Also your adversary has a third arm and even if one of them looks frail, they’re still strong enough to knock your face off with a casual backhand,” would be mission-essential situational awareness. The whole point of the rout of Delta Squad back in the pilot was that even the best soldiers were easily taken out because they didn’t expect what was coming. Sending them into combat without that knowledge is pretty much begging for them to all get possessed.
Ironhorse chases Pollito as he makes a break for it. The alien flees into the path of an oncoming truck. The presumably human truck driver, having, he must assume, have just murdered a hobo, just drives off without stopping. As the gang regroups, Molly approaches from the rooftop and declares, “You’ve interfered for the last time, Harrison Blackwood!” Um. You know he didn’t actually do anything, right? Ironhorse shouts a warning as she prepares to leap on him, but it’s Coleman who dispatches her in mid-air.
This episode having been packed pretty tight, it basically just stops dead right there, freeze-framed on Harrison, Suzanne, Sylvia and Ironhorse looking at Molly’s remains. We’ve had one or two episodes this season which just stopped dead at the end rather than giving us some closure, but mostly they’ve been better about it. This episode in particular really seems like it calls for some closure on several points. Omega Squad should have some reaction to learning about aliens for one thing. And Sylvia’s experience here certainly could use a scene at the end where Harrison checks up on her a few days later to see how she’s coping after her first close-up encounter in decades. Like I said at the beginning, Sylvia holds up amazingly under the stress. She actually sees Molly get absorbed, and, sure, she’s scared, but she doesn’t break down. They never say it explicitly, but did Sylvia even know about alien possession before? Certainly nothing they’ve shown us would indicate that. If anything, her reaction is curious in how calm she remains after seeing a friend hollowed out and worn like a mascot suit. Is this a hint that Sylvia might be developing a greater tolerance to the presence of aliens which might allow her to take a more active role in the future? We’ll never know because this is her last appearance.
Even though it’s obviously Sylvia’s show, all of the regulars get to make their own positive contributions to the story, and they do a good job this week at involving them in the plot. This episode draws a lot from the style of the early-season, but is much more competently put together, and reflects the growth of the characters over the course of the season. Elements in the alien plan are reminiscent of “The Walls of Jericho” and “A Multitude of Idols”, while we see Ironhorse engaging in a team operation in a way he hasn’t had a chance to do since “The Resurrection”.
Then there’s the whole thing with the alien plan. They’ve got a working prototype that can shut down long-distance calling over half the continent for at least a day even without the “power source”, which turned out to be a commercially-available generator. There’s no reason they can’t just try this again in a week. Or, say, notice that almost everywhere in the US, the phone lines run no more than about a foot away from a wire that’s carrying seven thousand volts they could just use instead.
I’m guessing a lot of this episode ended up on the cutting-room floor. What remains is one pretty good plot thread and a lot of really fantastic character work. But the rest is truncated. The build-up of Omega Squad is enough of a deal that I wish they’d gotten a whole episode. They’re clearly there to be an advanced form of canon fodder: characters like Tom Kensington who have enough of a presence for it to mean something when they’re killed off in a later “event” episode. But you can imagine them getting some good banter among Coleman, Derriman and Stavrakos beforehand. If this were a mid-to-late-90s show, I’d even expect to see a “lower decks” episode that omitted the regulars entirely and focused on these three. Which really brings us back to an old recurring theme that we haven’t talked about in a while: the nascent hints of the sorts of tropes and storytelling mechanisms that TV would evolve in the twenty-first century popping up here in a half-formed not-quite-working shape years too early. This is an era when action-adventure shows didn’t have plot arcs, and here’s two. Scuttled, of course, by the fact that the world of television had never yet considered the possibility that it might matter what order the shows aired in.
That I describe the plots as feeling “truncated” shouldn’t be confused for saying that the pacing is bad. In fact, this is one of the best-paced episodes all season. It’s obviously still a very ’80s style of pacing, with a very long build-up, one explosion of action forty minutes in, and an abrupt ending. But the fact that there’s so much going on does force them to keep moving forward, not getting bogged down in people not trusting each other or not listening to each other. But it’s got more ideas than it has time to fully realize. Ironhorse having an issue with Coleman’s gender, for instance, gets the short shrift. It’s mentioned exactly twice, and never to her. Coleman gets a bit less dialogue than the other soldiers, though not by much. But having her pop up and save the day at the last second is exactly the sort of way you’d resolve a plot thread about Ironhorse’s sexism making him undervalue her. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad Ironhorse recognizes the problem is his and not hers, and I’m glad they didn’t go with the cliche where she needs to “prove herself” to his satisfaction. But the skeleton of that kind of story haunts the structure of the B-plot. It feels not like they opted to avoid the cliche but rather that they did write the cliche, then cut it for time. We don’t have Ironhorse get past his issues with Coleman (or his mentioned-but-never-actually-displayed issues with the other soldiers identified by Suzanne’s profile). We also don’t get to see Omega Squad come to terms with the nature of their enemy. All their plot amounts to is “Ironhorse puts together a team,” then “The team shoots some aliens.” It’s like an episode of Mission Impossible with the middle two-thirds cut out.
The alien plot itself is on sounder structural footing. It certainly doesn’t feel like large parts of it have been cut out, at least not in how it flows. But it is, I think, very strange that they’d introduce an interesting and very sci-fi element of “Aliens build a device that can cause human communications equipment to explode, potentially killing the user,” but then pretty much just push it to the side and make the bulk of the episode about Sylvia and her mental illness. That’s… Unexpected. I’ve read so much sci-fi which is clearly just “I had this really neat idea for a thing someone could invent,” thinly wrapped in a narrative. It’s bizarre to see a genuine Big Sci-Fi Idea introduced only to be left on the side. We only see it the device in operation once, right at the beginning of the episode, and, no, of course the aliens will never try it again.
It reminds me of… something…