Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
Why do these scientists need to be reminded that an alien invasion occurred in the 1950s? Why wasn’t the basic concept of alien possession covered in their briefing kits? What are they even doing here if they don’t already know the basic ground rules?
The parts about alien biology, sure, that makes sense to present. They’re presenting the findings of Suzanne’s research. But when Harrison takes over on the subject of alien possession, he spends thirty seconds rattling off a list of the sort of people aliens might take over, complete with montage: “Soldiers… Waitresses… Bikers… The homeless… Paramedics…” Imagine you were listening to that, in that room, without the accompanying archive footage. Do you imagine a photographer from Christchurch is sitting there thinking, “Whoa, even waitresses?” (And, not to lay too fine a point on it, but the waitress thing happened in the opening scene of “The Good Samaritan”, and the Blackwood team didn’t get involved with it until much later, and never knew about the waitresses anyway). The other issue if you imagine the representatives listening to this speech without the accompanying montage is the pacing. Without the archive footage, Harrison just trails off for five to ten seconds after every sentence to let the clip play out. Even if we grant the basic conceit that Harrison is trying to stress the seriousness of the situation rather than give them actionable intelligence, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on threats like, “They could strategically replace people in key government positions,” or “They could replace your mom and you wouldn’t know until it was too late, unless this is one of those episodes where the aliens can’t act remotely human long enough to avoid blowing their cover.” Or maybe mention that the aliens actually did manage to briefly infiltrate the Blackwood team. Actually, they probably don’t want to advertise that.
During dinner, Argochev, for the only time in the episode, decides to be charming and flirts with Suzanne. She mentions that his government-provided dossier didn’t really explain what his job was, just in case we missed the fact that we’re meant to be suspicious of him. Harrison buttonholes Soo Tak, and asks, very bizarrely, if the aliens in China are the same aliens they’ve been fighting stateside (They are). Dr. Tak considers it “most curious” that his people have been unable to open a dialogue with the aliens, suggesting that maybe he nodded off when Harrison explained how the aliens were space-Nazis who didn’t give a crap about humans. Harrison just nods and says that the aliens are “very intractable.” When Harrison asks about their numbers, Tak estimates that there are about 10,000 aliens in China, surprising Harrison leading to James Hong’s one really properly good line, and the best line in the episode to my mind: “We have a big country, sir.”
Back to the Land of the Lost, where one of the Advocates muses on how much he enjoys watching his industrial manufacturing show. I always liked the segments on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood where they showed us the production line at a factory too. Especially that one about how crayons are made. Dylan got to visit the Crayola factory where they made that once. Anyway, nothing new here; “The humans are meeting. Should we do something?” “We should do something!” Their agents have narrowed down the location of the conference to Philadelphia. I don’t believe there are any establishing shots of Toronto which directly contradict this.
We only get one presentation from the other representatives, which is a real shame. Fortunately, it has some meat to it. Morales claims that they’ve seen no evidence of an active alien presence in Peru, but he’s brought some national geographic footage of an unusual clay object found in a recently excavated Andean crypt. He’s brought a black plastic tetrahedron with him, found inside the object. Looks a bit like the big brother of the weird alien sex crystal Harrison found back in “The Second Seal”, which makes it weird that they don’t explicitly reference that episode, nor do they mention the alien control crystal found in a Native American headdress in “Dust to Dust”, another really obvious parallel. The tetrahedron emits a low level of X-rays, as well as a percussive sound outside the range of human hearing, which Morales claims bears similarities to alien transmissions the Blackwood team had forwarded to him ahead of the conference.
After the technology presentation, Ironhorse comes in with the news that someone left an anonymous note at the front desk accusing Morales of faking his presentation. Everyone is instantly offended and distrustful, and Harrison all but directly accuses Argochev of being behind it. This is interesting in two ways. First, it’s Harrison and not Ironhorse who’s instinctively suspicious of the Russian. In fact, Ironhorse only makes one negative comment about Argochev in the entire episode, and honestly, he doesn’t seem like his heart is really in it. Could this be Ironhorse showing character growth after the events of “Epiphany”? Hard to tell, since this show won’t commit to going all-in on character development. It’s strange that “Epiphany” doesn’t come up at all in this episode. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that having come so close to nuclear armageddon might be something the higher-ups don’t want them discussing with the international committee, especially since the attendees don’t exactly represent the US’s closest international partners. But given the randomness of the assortment of countries involved in the conference, there’s a suggestion that Harrison had a hard time getting buy-in from the international community. All due respect to our international neighbors, but when one is setting up an international coalition against a world-ending threat, inviting China and the USSR seems pretty straightforward, inviting Peru, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and “Unspecified African Nation” less so. Invoking “Epiphany” could have been helpful here to explain that it was the influence of Dr. Rhodan that got Soviet buy-in.
The other odd thing about Harrison’s implicit accusation of Argochev… Is right. Argochev is deliberately undermining the conference for reasons which will become clear right after we cut over to the Advocates and back. “Should we do something? We should do something!” (Oh, also, they confirm that they’ve got an agent at the conference who they’re expecting to report in with important information soon). But it’s still a dumb reason. When they reconvene, Argochev admits to having made the baseless accusation against Morales, and explains that he did it because Soviet intelligence has reason to believe one of the representatives has been replaced by an alien.
What a twist. Is it weird that they’d have reason to believe that without knowing who it is? Maybe. It’s certainly easier to imagine whatever sources they were using could distinguish between New Zealand, Peru, Sri Lanka and “Africa”, but who knows. Maybe they picked up an alien transmission. Or a known alien they were tracking switched hosts at the airport. But like I said, the field was already down to two, and presumably it’s not the guy who just alerted them to the alien threat. I mean, unless that is itself a diversion. I mean, if their primary goal is to break up the conference, this is a good way to do it. No one ever expresses any skepticism at Argochev’s claims. And frankly, what’s the point of Argochev causing so much trouble anyway? The aliens are trying to disrupt the conference, so he… Disrupts the conference for them? It’s not like the alien is liable to blow its cover because Argochev is being a jerk. I guess maybe it might make sense if you assume that Argochev is just trying to slow things down in the hopes of sussing out the alien before the conference gets around to actually making plans for fighting the aliens. That might explain why he comes clean now — since accusing Morales didn’t work, he’s out of time, and wants his cards on the table because Ironhorse’s presentation is next. Remember that Argochev specifically objected early on that he wanted a say in the agenda? Perhaps he legitimately wanted to make sure that the presentations specifically about successes in combating the aliens went last.
Harrison claims that they can’t detect aliens by visual inspection, forgetting that they’ve been here for three days now and alien host bodies rot and are radioactive. He proposes letting Suzanne do a blood test, but all the delegates balk for unspecified reasons, and Dr. Menathong asks to contact her embassy first, breaking the communications blackout. Everyone else hops on the “Let’s call home first” train, and Ironhorse is forced to go off and figure out a way to make it happen. Now, Menathong wanting to call home first makes perfect sense, in light of her being the one who’s secretly an alien, as hinted at by the fact that she’s the only one who hasn’t said anything since her introduction. The others making the same demand seems on first blush to serve no real purpose, but if you think about it for a few minutes, you can sort of put together the idea that they’re all worried that they’ll be set up and falsely accused, and want their governments to be ready for it if they don’t come home.
While that’s going on, alien agents in Philadelphia have somehow narrowed down the location of the conference to Cheltenham (a real-world Philadelphia suburb), but the Advocacy already has the address, having been called by their agent on the inside. They make preparations to storm the place.
Despite pushback against the blood test, Harrison makes the case for carrying on anyway, insisting that they’ll figure out who the alien is before the end of the conference, and it might even be useful for an alien to learn about how hard humans are willing to fight. Ironhorse has to bow out of his presentation, so Harrison presents the final montage in his stead. This one’s about the team’s successes in fighting aliens. This presentation is the weakest as part of the narrative framing story, but at the same time, it’s probably the most successful as a visual montage: it’s all about the team, mostly Ironhorse, shooting aliens and watching them melt. So it’s full of cool shots of aliens getting shot — though disappointingly, not the one of Harv getting blown up in “Eye for an Eye”, or the really good slow-mo dissolving alien scene from “A Multitude of Idols”. But the content is basically, “Good news: the aliens’ one weakness is bullets.” Harrison calls particular attention to their success in the pilot at blowing up the alien war machines. He ends on a sombre note, though, revealing that they’ve already lost a member of their team. I assume they’re talking about Kensington, though calling him a “member of the team” feels like a cheat, since he’d only appeared in two or three scenes before they killed him off. Makes me wish they’d kept Reynolds around to have him die a few episodes in. He felt more like a full character in his handful of scenes in the pilot than Kensington did. Harrison also gives a nod to the “many soldiers” they’d lost in combat (though really not all that many after the pilot), and the innocent civilians.
It’s at this point that the aliens assault the school. Ironhorse and Omega squad take up defensive positions, and we get lots of good chances to see Richard Chaves look realistically frightened but push on anyway. I love this guy as an action hero. Then he promptly leaves his men to handle things while he goes to rescue the delegates.
The sound of the firefight outside alerts the conference, and Harrison declares that they’ll have to defend themselves. The three white men instantly agree to take up arms and defend the women and people of color. I don’t mean to get political (that is a lie. I totally mean to get political), but this is shockingly overt. There’s no discussion, no argument. It simply goes without saying that Harrison, Raymond and Argochev will defend the others, because they are the white men. Jerry Raymond is the real outlier here. Harrison, sure, he’s kinda sorta a part-time action hero in this series. And as soon as the danger becomes manifest, Argochev does a moderately cliche, “Allow me to re-introduce myself,” and confesses to being GRU and not an astrophysicist at all. When Ironhorse comes in to check on them, he gives Raymond a gun without him even asking. He doesn’t have to arm Argochev; Argochev brought his own gun.
Argochev brought his own gun.
To this secret scientific conference.
And Ironhorse didn’t notice.
Spoiler alert for the next episode: it actually makes a lot of sense to assume that Ironhorse is off his game this week and has screwed up, and that’s why the aliens have been able to breech security. Not enough sense to work completely, but at a stretch, you could convince yourself that’s what’s going on. That would also explain why Ironhorse puts his own gun down on the table and leaves it unattended.
After a jam session with his tuning fork, Harrison comes up with the brilliant idea of surrendering to the aliens and hoping they’ll be willing to listen to terms. Dr. Menathong casually responds by admitting that she’s an alien. Which I think was his plan, maybe? Menathong picks up Ironhorse’s gun and prepares to shoot them all, but it turns out that it’s unloaded. Was that part of the plan to expose the alien too? If so, he must have communicated it to Ironhorse psychically. I don’t think it’s an accident that the gun was unloaded, but I’m not sure if the unloaded gun was a deliberate misdirect, or if the idea was that Ironhorse is not so much of a fool as to leave a loaded gun on the table in front of a suspected alien, and only put it down because it was useless.
With no other options, the alien Menathong auto-defenstrates, which strikes me as suspicious because who ever heard of having a gym on the third floor? Tak, Burnobi and Suzanne hide under the stage while the White Male Action Heroes (and Norton, so it’s not quite as bad as I thought at first) set up Plan B, which involves luring the aliens down to the boiler room and — you remember the bit in “The Good Samaritan” where they kill one of the aliens by opening a steam vent in its face? Pretty much exactly that again.
The plan goes off without a hitch. The aliens check the gym, don’t find the delegates hiding under the stage, chase Harrison, Ironhorse, Norton and Argochev down to the basement, then get killed off by a combination of steam and bullets. Honestly nothing much to it, since there’s only about three minutes of show left at this point. I’m not hugely comfortable with the extent to which the aliens are able to overcome Omega squad, only to be taken out by two soldiers and two scientists. Ironhorse had been repeatedly complaining about how he didn’t have enough men for the mission and Omega squad being outnumbered, so I guess there’s a defense-in-depth thing going on, with Omega picking off the majority of the attackers, with only a handful making it inside — certainly, the final showdown in the basement only involves far fewer aliens than we’ve seen soldiers. But they could have done a better job at conveying this.
The alien threat quelled for now, Argochev and Ironhorse shake hands and congratulate each other on a job well done, a moment of respectful Glasnost between two warriors that would have meant something had there ever been any real tension between the two of if they had ever interacted in any meaningful way before this scene. Harrison harshes their buzz by reminding everyone that while they might have won this battle, “Tomorrow is another day.” And then the episode just up and ends on that. Without even getting the delegates out from under the stage. There’s no wrap-up of the conference, no chance to see the reaction of the delegates after coming face-to-face with an alien. Would it affirm everyone’s commitment to working together to fight the alien menace, with the Blackwood project taking on a more international flavor? Or would it do the opposite, and spook the delegates into running home and holing up, trying to deal with the alien menace on a local scale for fear of how easily a global coalition could be compromised?
What’s actually in this episode is pretty good, but man, does it suffer from a serious case of unfulfilled potential. I don’t object terribly to these montages per se, but it hurts the episode on the whole that the time carved out to recap things we’ve already seen leaves the plot so threadbare. The whole episode seems to consist of interesting setups without payoffs. Like Argochev. He’s an obstructive jerk for the first half of the episode for reasons that don’t add up, then suddenly drops it — the whole reason for his behavior, for him wasting so much time instead of revealing his suspicions from the outset, seems to boil down to the hope that the audience is sufficiently primed to think “Russian = Bad” that they’ll suspect him instead of the character who has done nothing other than sit quietly and look shady.
The biggest missed opportunity angle to my mind is the other representatives. We only see one of them give their presentation. That part is really good. It gives a solid sense of there being more going on in the world than we’ve seen. The only other hint we get that any of these people have any sort of direct knowledge of the aliens comes from Soo Tak, who tells us that he’s tried and failed to communicate with the aliens. There’s this basic weirdness that could easily tie into the ongoing notion of humanity being made slightly dysfunctional by a kind of alien-induced psychosis. There’s a conflict in the way that the representatives seem to implicitly accept the reality of the aliens, and the reality of their active presence as a threat, but they simultaneously seem to have no direct knowledge of them. None of the Blackwood team’s presentations rise above the level of Aliens 101.Why not make it explicit that these scientists, like Harrison, remember the 1953 invasion, and have a personal passion about it, but are afflicted by the alien amnesia and are having a hard time hanging on to operant knowledge and practical understanding of the threat.
You could go a long way to tighten things up by showing some of the other representatives’ presentations, suggesting that they too have been dealing with the alien threat. And it would work particularly well if they were in the vein of Morales’s presentation, suggesting that their work, while related, has covered radically different ground than the Americans. Perhaps in Russia or China, the aliens might have isolated themselves, focusing in building up numbers and resources from remote encampments instead of entering into repeated confrontation with the humans. And what presentation might Menathong have given if asked? Would she deliberately mislead them, or, assuming the conference will end with her killing them all, would she give an honest presentation to maintain her cover?
And what’s the deal with Raymond? I mean, he basically only speaks twice in the entire episode, but at the climax, he’s just implicitly taken as trustworthy and capable. Would you hand a gun to a Kiwi photographer you’d just met? I mean, what reason do they have to assume he’s trained to even use one? Did they just assume that New Zealand is close enough to Australia that they could treat him like Crocodile Dundee? Now, if he’d had a scene of his own where he’d established himself as having alien-fighting experience, that would have made it work. Wouldn’t even necessarily have to be alien-specific experience, really; have him drop a line at dinner about having to shoot his way out of a dangerous situation on a photo assignment in a war-torn country. Without something like that, you get this nasty little notion that he was considered eligible for action hero-hood purely because he was a white man.
It’s not a terrible episode. That is probably the best I should expect from a clip show. They tried to be something a little better than the usual shameless attempt to save a buck by making an episode out of recycled footage. And you know what? They succeeded. In making it a little better. It’s just that, as frankly tends to be the case with this show, they came so close to making something a lot better. And I think that the reason it wasn’t really boils down to how much time they lost from the plot to be a clip show.
- War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.