Going to try something new this week. I’ve been told that these articles tend to run a little long, so from now on, I’m going to be splitting the essays in half if they run over 4000 words. Let me know if this gets to be a problem.
It is February 19, 1990. A comparatively quiet news week. Science historian Otto Neugebauer dies in Princeton. In a commentary for US News and World Report, Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel writes, “For more than 40 years, there has been not one Europe, but at least two. One is the Europe of the West, the land of democracies and relative prosperity. The other is the Europe of the East, of totalitarianism until recently unchallenged, the Europe that has finally awakened.” Tomorrow, Leicester city centre will see three people injured by a bomb. The United Mine Workers reach an agreement to end the Pittston Coal strike.
Little change on the Billboard charts; Paula Abdul maintains the top slot. Michael Bolton and Skid Row fall out of the top ten, while entering it are The Cover Girls and Expose, the latter with “Tell Me Why”, a song I only know because I had their greatest hits album when I was young. Damn Yankees will release their self-titled debut album later this week.
Adobe Photoshop has its first release. Driving Miss Daisy returns to the number one spot in the US Box Office, having held it for three of the past four weeks. Among this week’s home video releases is Friday the 13th Part VIII. TV is new this week. There’s a miniseries about the Kennedys airing this week, as well as The Death of the Incredible Hulk, the final TV movie continuing the 1978 Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series. MacGyver is “Jenny’s Chance”, a “Sting” episode where Mac and his friends go under cover with ridiculous fake identities to expose the murderer of a friend’s dad. Star Trek the Next Generation presents Yesterday’s Enterprise, and if I had anything new or important to say about it, I wouldn’t be blogging about the most obscure shows I can think of. Denis Forrest gets a little extra exposure this week, as he’s making his last guest appearance on Friday the 13th The Series as the villain in, ahem, “My Wife as a Dog”. It’s the only episode of the series where the cursed antique — a cursed leash which does exactly the thing you think it’s gonna — gives its user exactly what he wants, and he gets to live to enjoy it. Indeed, even though he ends up in jail, Forrest’s character is comparatively satisfied with how everything worked out.
This week’s War of the Worlds is… I guess I can say, “bless their hearts for trying,” at least. It’s not aggressively bad the way that “Synthetic Love” was. It’s not bad at all, really. It’s just thin and insubstantial. What’s there is okay taken sort of abstractly, but it doesn’t really feel like part of the world they’ve been sketching out. The aliens are, once again, somewhat bracketed this week. They’re present, and play an active role in events, but the story feels like a tangent from their perspective: there’s a brief mention of a satellite they want access to, and you get the impression that’s what they’re really focusing on, with this episode’s events being a minor sub-plot to that. If anything, this episode feels almost like a backdoor pilot for a potential spin-off. Except that the spin-off it’d be promising is a pretty bog-standard Walking the Earth show in the vein of Kung Fu or The Fugitive or The Master or The Incredible Hulk. Only without martial arts, a one-armed man or purple stretch-pants. And, I mean, it’s a perfectly competent backdoor pilot, but there’s not much of a hook. Nothing to make me think, “Yes, it’s worth spending an hour out of my week to watch this series, as it will provide me with something I haven’t already seen a thousand times already.”
Much more of the focus is placed on the human characters and the world they inhabit. This ought to be great: I’ve been wanting more insight into the dystopian setting. But it doesn’t really pay off. As I’ve said so many times before, a lot of what goes wrong in this show is the product of it existing in the wrong time for what it’s doing. What we see of the dystopia this week seems strangely un-dystopic, but perhaps that’s just because this is the dystopianism of 1990.
To wit, this week’s episode is about journalism, at least as much as it’s about anything. This week, we’re going to see that one of the major aspects of this dystopia is that the newspapers are dying, and the few that remain are under the thumb of rich assholes who use them to manipulate both the public and the political discourse to support their personal agendas. Yeah. In 1990, that was the scary dystopic future. Now, it’s, well, Wednesday.
And we don’t even get a Matt Frewer in a rubber mask to make cynical jokes about the media. In fact, while it’s nice that the show unambiguously presents the state of the media as a bad thing, this particular angle on the horrifying near-future seems sort of… Quaint. Our evil media mogul suppresses news stories and has people whacked and bribes senators, but compared to, say, manipulating major nations into starting pointless wars, he seems like small potatoes. He’s not even all that evil. Venial, to be sure, but there’s nothing here on the level so much of J. Jonah Jameson, to say nothing of really properly supervillainous media moguls like Ned Grossberg, Elliot Carver, Charles Magnussen, The Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe, or Rupert Murdoch. I could maybe buy this as an episode of Knight Rider, but this is a show about aliens in a dystopian future. Is it too much to ask that our corrupt media be a little over-the-top?
Our Rupert Murdoch expy this week is W. R. Samuels. He’s currently housebound, and when we meet him, he’s confined to bed and living in a plastic bubble, under blue lighting, having come down with a terminal case of Bad Makeup and Disheveled Hair. He’s visited by Ardix, under the cover name “Dr. Adelson”. They make a stab at playing this as a shocking reveal by not showing his face for the first minute he’s on screen, but I’d know that long head and alien body language anywhere.
Posing as, I guess, some kind of Generic SCIENCETM Company, the Morthren are offering Samuels a serum that will prolong his life in exchange for him using his influence to get them various things they want, starting with the use of a government satellite. The serum hasn’t worked yet, though, so Samuels isn’t prepared to pay up.
There’s a certain structural similarity between this episode and the previous one. They both follow the pattern of the Morthren offering the fruits of their technology to a human with power and influence in exchange for a MacGuffin. And like “The Deadliest Disease”, they both spend the middle part of the episode focused neither on the heroes nor the villains, but on the guest cast. Our guest cast this week starts with David Ferry as Mark Traynor. He’s an intrepid reporter for the Midtown Herald, the only remaining newspaper in Unnamed City I’m Still Guessing Is Near DC. He visits the same bar-slash-strip-club that Blackwood and Kincaid frequent, and as luck would have it, they’re seated at a back table tonight.
Traynor isn’t interested in them, though. I think he’s here for a story, though we never learn what in particular the story is about. A couple of obvious villains show up, pull out shotguns and start shooting. It’s not clear at first, but Traynor is their target, which in my opinion is bad pacing. You don’t start out with the bad guys trying to kill the reporter. You start out with the bad guys killing the reporter’s source, and then he witnesses it, and that‘s what gets him on their list. Kincaid and Blackwood return fire, drawing the attackers off, and chase them outside. Traynor follows, his camera at the ready.
Outside, the bad guys switch to I guess a grenade launcher, because they manage to explode a barrel that Kincaid uses for cover. He shoots one, revealing their attackers to be aliens. It’s strange to see the aliens using human weapons. In context, they’re presumably meant to be under cover, but I think this is the first time we’ve seen the aliens think of that since “Night Moves”. Nothing in the rest of the episode suggests that Kincaid and Blackwood came out to the bar tonight expecting to run into aliens, but they aren’t surprised to see them. Admittedly, the fact that you literally can’t pop down to the bar for a couple of beers without getting attacked by aliens isn’t really beyond the world the series has established, but one of the thinner parts of the plot is that the gang never shows even the slightest curiosity as to what it is the aliens are up to this week. They’re more concerned about Traynor, because he’s got photographs of a decomposing alien and of them.
They’re forced to flee when the cops show up, and back at base, they explain to Suzanne that if Traynor’s photos go public, there’s a danger of a mass panic, with an unprepared populace getting themselves killed while trying to hunt aliens. Blackwood and Kincaid suggest that the fact that most people are “tuned out” and that the government has been unwilling to involve itself has kept the Morthren from escalating into open warfare, which is an interesting point. They make plans to track down the reporter, and Suzanne buggers off for the rest of the episode. We won’t see her again until the coda (Okay, turns out she’s in a couple more scenes, but she has essentially no presence in them, so I forgot).
Traynor develops the photos in his home darkroom. His girlfriend (Who I think is also a journalist, or in the industry at least) isn’t tremendously impressed, though he thinks it’s the biggest story, “since the tearing down of the Berlin Wall”. Nice topical reference, War of the Worlds. Remember, when this aired, “the biggest story since the tearing down of the Berlin Wall” literally meant, “The biggest story in almost three months.” It gives the audience something they can relate to, but it also reinforces the idea that this show is set in the future. It’s also a reference that dates the show with some precision: the thing that this is the “Biggest Story Since” happened in November, 1989. The big past story he compares it to is the Berlin Wall, not the fall of the Soviet Union (December, 1991), nor the start of the Gulf War (August, 1990), or the LA Riots (April, 1992), or German Reunification (October, 1990), or The Ultimate Warrior defeating Hulk Hogan in Wrestlemania VI (April, 1990). This is The Future as seen from a pretty narrow slice of The Past.
Traynor’s editor, Rob Nunn, isn’t overly impressed with his work either. He does the whole hard-nosed editor thing where he demands better proof than a couple of blurry night-time photographs. But he also says something weird. He suggests that maybe what he’s photographed isn’t a newsworthy story about aliens, but a not-at-all newsworthy story about a, “military robot or security cyborg that got loose.”
Man, War of the Worlds, just when I thought I got your number. There’s two things going on here. First, Nunn never treats the idea of a story about aliens as especially outlandish. He notes that “every rag in the country runs phony stories about aliens,” but they’re clearly running a legitimate newspaper, not your Weekly World News sort of thing. I think the idea that there’s been lots of reports of aliens in the past few years, but nothing that could be confirmed is in keeping with what we’ve seen of the world. There’s always been a tension in the way that the aliens have been able to keep their presence hidden, despite that whole global invasion thing back in the fifties. But okay, the aliens have returned to Earth in secret, and the state of the world means that though everyone abstractly understands the possibility of Earth being threatened by invaders from space, they’ve got problems enough of their own to worry about without bothering over that. Most people would expect that, were the aliens to return, it would be instantly obvious across the globe, so as long as the Morthren are generally discrete, they’ll go unnoticed. So Nunn isn’t persuaded by Traynor’s pictures not because aliens are an extraordinary claim, but because he’s already got a solid idea in his head of what “evidence that the aliens are back” should look like, and it’s not this.
The second, and weirder, thing is the counter-suggestion he throws out: as if it’s somehow unnewsworthy that someone has a green-blooded robot that is outwardly indistinguishable from a human. Or a “security cyborg”. Nunn’s tone implies that this isn’t pure speculation: security cyborgs are just things he assumes to exist. And Mark responds with complete confidence that what he saw “obviously” wasn’t one. So… Robots and cyborgs are things that just turn up randomly in this world.
Robots. Cyborgs. Genetically engineered super-babies. Nanotech. These are all things that exist in this world. Human technology in this world. Weird. Will we ever see these “security cyborgs”? Of course not. But they’re there.
Or maybe not, because there is an episode later on where they explicitly say that humans don’t have the technology to make a cyborg. Damnit, show.
Back at Snake Mountain, Malzor sneers at a publicity photo of David Ferry on the old stretched-membrane and rants about how incompetent his henchmen
Beast-Man and Triclops Salo and Unnamed Alien Soldier are to have not just failed to assassinate Traynor, but also let him get pictures of their gross glowstick-related deaths.
When Mana and Ardix show up, he expositions that Traynor had been seen near three unspecified operations recently. We never learn the details of them, never hear why Traynor was investigating. For all we know, Traynor had no idea that the things he was investigating were related to the Morthren or to each other for that matter. He doesn’t seem to have any clue that he’d seen something important prior to the shoot-out.
Malzor flashes a creepily disgusted sneer at Mana when she asks why he hadn’t mentioned this guy before. “You were busy,” he says. After the affection we saw between them last week, his attitude here is surprising. I think the best way to interpret it is that Malzor’s is more insecure than ever after being forced to confront how dependent he is on Mana, and he’s lashing out — including keeping her out-of-the-loop in a kind of childish “I don’t need your help” tantrum.
Malzor also clears up that their interest in Samuels is his ability to “protect our identity,” and, “connect us to their government.” Though I sure thought that the bits at the beginning of the series with Kincaid reporting that him and his brother had been set up, and the disappearance of General Wilson and the subsequent disavowal of the team was meant to imply that the aliens had already infiltrated the government. They sure had a preexisting relationship with government representatives last week. And I find myself wondering why they don’t just clone Samuels, or whatever senators they want to control for that matter. Could it be that after last week’s incident with the Brock clone, they’re more reluctant to use clones? I’m not sure about this, but I think we only see them clone one more person for the rest of the series, so it’s possible that cloning is being phased out. But it’s not like they’ve ever been hugely consistent about when they try to manipulate someone into helping them and when they just clone them instead.
At any rate, Ardix gives Mana a vial of Samuels’s blood, and she can tell by visual inspection that the serum will need some fine-tuning for his blood type. Ardix takes the revised serum back to Samuels, who is instantly cleaned of his bad makeup and able to walk again.
Using the names John Wolf and Harry Porter, Kincaid and Blackwood make a clumsy, inept attempt to strongarm Nunn into giving them Traynor’s negatives and location. Oh, for my millennial readers, “negatives” were like a primitive form of SD card for old-timey cameras. All they succeed in doing is convincing the editor that Traynor’s story is worth pursuing. In fact, he’d been closer to convinced than he’d let on with Traynor, since there was an intervening scene of him going to his own boss,
Nancy Reagan Bebe Gardner, to tell her that, yes, they’d need more proof before they could run the story, but that it looked like they had the “first real proof” of extraterrestrials.
It hasn’t been all that long since “Time to Reap”. That episode, remember, actually showed us on-screen a newspaper with headlines about aliens. So this adds to my general discomfort about the handling of public knowledge of aliens in this episode. It’s probably a small thing, but I would have liked it better if they’d called it, say, “The first real proof in forty years.”
But Bebe’s attitude has changed when when Nunn returns to tell her about his visit from the regulars: she orders him not to tell anyone and to let the story drop. Turns out that the Midtown Herald had been family-owned by the Gardner plan, but, having fallen on hard times, is now owned by Samuels Publishing. Samuels’s assistant, Jennings, has a shady meeting with her to put her in her place and demand custody of the photos, however little she likes it.
- War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.