What can I say about this, then? In their proper historical context, “Unto Us a Child is Born” and “Breeding Ground” aired about eight months apart. There’s ten episodes between them, which is significantly fewer than than separate them in our treatment. I bring this up because it probably means something that for folks watching “Breeding Ground” back in 1989, the related first season episode was still a comparatively fresh memory.
The episodes are basically nothing alike, which is undoubtedly the right way for a series to do the same basic brief in consecutive seasons, and it’s surprising only insofar as this is the one and only time the second season directly acknowledges a specific event from the first (Unless you count Blackwood instinctively recognizing the mind-altering effects of the music in “Terminal Rock” as a nod to “Choirs of Angels”, but I’d hardly call that “direct”).
While “Unto Us a Child is Born” is very straightforward creature horror, essentially, as I noted, a simplified version of It’s Alive, “Breeding Ground” is a far more psychological horror. There’s only one real shock-moment of gore, the explosion of the first implant subject. It’s fairly discrete too, the “money shot” obscured by a curtain a la Cloverfield. There’s nothing comparable to the repeated assaults and dismemberment done by the hybrid in the earlier episode. There’s not even a climactic battle in the second-season story: it’s one of those episodes where the heroes are mostly following the aliens at a distance for the whole episode and only show up after-the-fact.
But if you remember my coverage of “Breeding Ground”, you’ll know that I had some pretty serious misgivings about the structural decisions that story made. Specifically, the way that it seeks to make Gestaine a tragic character at the expense of erasing the actual victim, Kate. Or the perennial problem across both seasons of the regulars being only incidentally engaged in the plot. That’s not a problem in “Unto Us a Child is Born”: it’s one of the tightest episode of the season structurally, and does a very good job of integrating the heroes with the story. So I’m inclined to say that the second season had a more interesting concept, but the first season did a better job of realizing its concept. Which is pretty much this series in a nutshell.
The difference in plot-emphasis is best summarized by the baby itself: the baby in “Breeding Ground” is born at the end of the episode, and we don’t actually see it until the very last shot. In “Unto Us a Child is Born”, the birth of the hybrid happens at the start of act 2. We see it as a baby, then as a child, and finally in its mutant form. It’s actively engaged in the story, serving as the antagonist for the final act. The other aliens only engage the protagonists briefly, and are dispatched trivially. In “Breeding Ground”, Ardix and Bayda are the primary antagonists, and serve as a menacing presence throughout the episode.
There is also a big difference between the episodes in how much else is going on. “Unto Us a Child is Born” has the plot at the mall in its opening scene, but that vanishes immediately, and the episode is pretty much razor-focused on capturing the child and studying it. The whole of the episode is about the nature of the alien hybrid and very little else. “Breeding Ground” has a bunch of other stuff going on: Gestaine’s illness, and the larger matter of him being a victim of biological warfare testing. The collapse of the welfare state, healthcare costs and the moral dimension of for-profit medical insurance. The long-term survial of the Morthren species, for that matter: they deliberately set out to have a baby for the purpose of establishing that their species could reproduce on Earth; the Mortaxan hybrid is an accidental creation, and their interest in it is not about reproduction, but about vivisecting it to study its immune system.
And, of course, the Morthran hybrid’s story doesn’t end at the end of “Breeding Ground”: it’s one of very few episodes to have a direct sequel (Perhaps the only one. “No Direction Home” follows directly from “The Second Wave” but it’s arguable whether that’s really enough to make it count as a sequel per se. The series finale will also pick up on some events from “Loving the Alien”, but the plot is mostly unrelated). “The Pied Piper” revisits the infant we’d only briefly seen in “Breeding Ground”. Unlike the first episode, “The Pied Piper” is a story properly about the character of Adam. Who has rapid-aged from an infant to school-aged. And he kills a bunch of people who are doing medical work on him. In this regard, it’s a lot closer to “Unto Us a Child is Born”. Yet still, the second season episode feels the need to also have human antagonists by making the Creche staff and Martin in particular into vaguely sinister characters.
That’s one of the big, recurring shifts going into the second season: the addition of human antagonists. Other than mostly off-screen obstructionist bureaucrats, the closest the first season has come so far [Wait for it.] to a human antagonist would be Marcus Madison in “Feeding the Masses”, and he gets converted into an alien when the alien part of the plot really spins up.
“The Pied Piper” is also an interesting place to compare the seasons in light of the other connection I noted with respect to “Unto Us a Child is Born”. You’ll recall that I pointed out a superficial resemblance to the then-very-recently-released film The Fly II. The similarities are only skin-deep, though, on the level of what you’d expect if they’d pretty much just seen the trailer and decided to let it influence not the overall story, but maybe some of the visual motifs. There’s the basic idea of a chimeric baby rapidly aging and becoming monstrous, then at the end divesting itself of its foreign biomass to become fully human, but little of the actual meat of the story is duplicated. Through a weird coincidence, though, “The Pied Piper” seems to have picked up a lot of elements from the plot of The Fly II that “Unto Us a Child is Born” omits.
Like the film, “The Pied Piper” is set primarily in a sterile laboratory environment, and the related, um, alienation of the hybrid character from his humanity is a major theme of both works. There’s also the presence of something comparable to a “love interest” for Adam in the person of Julie. She serves a similar role to Daphne Zuniga’s character in The Fly II, helping Martin get in touch with his humanity as the first person to show him ordinary human affection, and being the major force that pulls him back from the abyss of giving in to his monstrosity — though obviously, the equivalent War of the Worlds character doesn’t succeed at this, in keeping with the series’s grimmer outlook.
Cronenberg’s The Fly is focused largely on the body horror of its main character as he is transformed. Seth Brundle is both the protagonist and the antagonist of the story. The sequel changes things up by having a distinct villain, Anton Bartok, a classic ’80s villainous businessman, looking to exploit teleportation-based-genetic-abomination-making for profit. If this plan doesn’t work out, his fall-back is to apply for a job with either Weyland-Yutani, the Umbrella Corporation, or that company from Time Shifters. He spends the movie manipulating Martin and eventually gets his comeuppance by being horribly mutated when Martin steals a bunch of his DNA to cure himself of creeping monsterism. Martin’s motives are ideological rather than profit-based, but he serves a similar role and is similarly obsessed with exploiting genetic manipulation. And though it’s handled more sloppily, his death — accidental self-defenestration while being induced to relive the death of his son — certainly has the feel of a comeuppance to it.