This article is dedicated to Sandy Webster, who played Gunther in tonight’s episode, and who passed away on March 22, 2017, just before I started writing this.
It is April 9, 1990. While we’ve been away on hiatus, basically the whole world has changed. Lithuania has declared independence from the USSR. Estonia has declared itself independent as well. There are free elections in Yugoslavia and Hungary. Patricio Aylwin becomes the first democratically elected president of Chile since 1970. Fernando Collor de Mello becomes the first democratically elected president of Brazil since the ’60s. The Sandinistas lost the elections in Nicaragua, ousting Daniel Ortega in favor of Violetta Chamorro, Nicaragua’s first female president, who takes office later this month. Haiti also gets their first female president, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, but she’ll be the second president to take office since last we spoke: three days after replacing Prosper Avril, Herard Abraham stepped down, becoming the first twentieth-century president of Haiti to leave office of his own accord. Mikhail Gorbachev was upgraded to President of the Soviet Union with the creation of the office. He is the only man ever to have held the title. Namibia becomes a country. Imelda Marcos goes on trial for crimes that were very vast and which the US media boiled down mostly to something to do with an exorbitant shoe collection. Also, the Nintendo World Championships happened, and The Ultimate Warrior beat Hulk Hogan in Wrestlemania. Skronk. Destrucity.
As if that weren’t enough of a kick in the major themes of this series, there’s another big event we missed from skipping March: the Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games, a maker of pen-n-paper role playing games, under the belief that one of their games in development, GURPS Cyberpunk, was a legtimate handbook for committing real-world cyber-crime. Yes. They thought this game was real. This would lead to the creation of the EFF. In other news, Kristen Stewart was born today. Ryan White, the photogenic straight white boy who made straight white Americans finally start giving a fuck about the AIDS epidemic, died yesterday. He was 18.
Taylor Dayne leads the Billboard Hot 100 this week with “Love Will Lead You Back”. She unseats “Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles, who — Wait. I feel like I’ve gotten ahead of myself somehow. Never mind. Weird feeling of deja vu. By the week’s end, Tommy Page’s “I’ll Be Your Everything” will have unseated her. Phil Collins, Luther Vandross, Kiss, Lisa Stansfield and Sinead O’Connor are all in the top ten. In other music news, Gloria Estefan is badly hurt when her tour bus crashes during a snow storm. Her slow recovery will inspire her third number one single, next year’s “Coming Out of the Dark”.
Mission: Impossible, The Bradys, Mama’s Family, and ALF all ended their runs in the past few weeks. Baywatch was also canceled by NBC, which is the last we will ever hear of it unless somehow it gets brought back in first-run syndication to become the most popular television show of all time or something. But what are the odds that people would actually be interested in watching buxom women in swimsuits while David Hasselhoff consumes cheeseburgers?
Neither Star Trek nor Friday the 13th are back from Spring Break yet, but Alien Nation is new. So is MacGyver, after which airs the pilot movie for a Lloyd Bridges series, “Capital News”, a drama set at a fictionalized version of the Washington Post. It only lasts three episodes, proving that it takes more than a kickin’ Jan Hammer theme song to make it these days.
This brings us around to “Candle in the Night”, which is a big, big change up from how the series has played out so far. It’s a low-key episode, really the only low-key episode. There’s no casualties on either side, no action scenes, and only very little interaction between the aliens and humans. It’s kind of pleasant. It doesn’t overreach, and it’s a rare chance to get a sense that this show might be capable of stretching itself to do a wider variety of episodes. Knowing, as I do, how few episodes we have left, it’s hard to get over the sense that the series is kind of spinning its wheels with this one, but if you bracket that knowledge and just take it for what it is, it’s just a nice episode. One that, for the most part, doesn’t suffer from asking more questions than it answers or from gaping plot holes, or from the gamut of missed opportunities we’ve so often seen in this series.
The plot has two tracks, and they bump into each other from time to time, but don’t really interact very much. In one, a Morthren probe malfunctions and goes walkabout, forcing Ardix and a one-off Morthren apparently named “Zeel” to track it down on foot. In the other, Blackwood, Suzanne, and Kincaid try, in the face of the general privation that comes from living rough in a crapsack world, to throw Debi a birthday party.
That’s it. No old friends of Kincaid’s who’ve stumbled onto an alien plot to grind up the homeless for food; no weird government experiments into making little girls that can vomit up mold monsters; just a birthday party and hunting down a lost drone.
So, you remember how they casually have videophones in this world? Don’t sweat it if you forgot. I keep forgetting too. It’s received a bit of an upgrade since last time, though, providing a black-and-white TV-quality signal rather than the 1-fps CIF image it did before. In any case, Debi is on the phone with her friend Nate, who she’s a little sweet on. He tells her all about his adventures out on his wealthy family’s big estate out in the country. Only he’s clearly lying because he’s dressed like a hobo same as everyone else, and I’m pretty sure his charming bucolic anecdote about spending three days sailing down the river on a home-made raft is just him remixing bits of Tom Sawyer, and he gets super cagey and suddenly has to go when Debi suggests she might some day go visit him and ride on his raft, if you know what I mean (I mean ride on his raft). Also, who goes rafting in the middle of winter?
Debi is down in the dumps because the writers keep forgetting she exists for weeks at a time despite her self-evidently being far and away the most interesting character. And also because tomorrow’s her birthday, which has made her want to actually spend time with her friends in person rather than via Skype.
You know what’s weird? No, not that Debi isn’t more upset about the fact that she lives in a hole in the ground, that her civilization appears to have pretty much collapsed, that she’s repeatedly had to fight for her life over the past few weeks, that the Earth is in the middle of an alien invasion, that a couple of months ago, she got mind-controlled into nearly murdering her mother, or that, oh yeah, her grandmother just died. But that we’re only a few months out of the eighties and the writers were willing to present a teenage girl who isn’t happy to interact with her friends in the form of monopolizing the telephone. “Man, teenage girls be making phone calls,” is one of the core dominant ’80s cliches, and they steered clear. I’m impressed.
While this is going on, Mana is showing off the new cloaking device they’ve slapped on a watcher drone, which allows them to easily penetrate, “The military’s much vaunted wall of security.” Why do they want to do that, when they’ve repeatedly demonstrated that the military not only fails to be a threat to them, but in fact seems to be actively working for them half the time? Never mind. As pretty much always happens on demo day, something goes wrong and the probe flies off on its own, which is bad because it’s full of important intelligence about the… unlabeled plain brown boxes in a nondescript army warehouse.
For her birthday, Suzanne gives Debi… A photo album. There isn’t much chance of me making it a whole paragraph through this thing without finding something that fails to make sense to me, is there? How did she do this? They live in an underground bomb shelter that they moved into because their previous home exploded. They’ve gone to ground and are, I think, maybe, possibly in hiding. Or are they? Did Suzanne get to settle her mother’s estate after “Night Moves”? Where did she get a collection of old family photos stretching back for decades? And why are all of her family photos in black and white?
And Suzanne’s choices for this album don’t pass strict scrutiny either. Like, there’s a picture of the pony she got for her birthday when she was 8 or 9. Because God knows that the thing your lonely teenager who thinks her life is a craphole wants for her birthday is a picture of her mom getting a birthday present which is way better than some shitty photo album. And remember, the last time Debi had a significant role in an episode, it was when her grandmother died. And it didn’t occur to Suzanne that it might be a sore subject? She tells a thematically meaningful anecdote about how her mother always put a single candle on birthday cakes to “represent the light that children brought into the world.” But there’s absolutely nothing to convey the complexity of Suzanne’s relationship with her mother, which had been such a big deal in “Night Moves”.
And what actually sets Debi off isn’t anything to do with her grandmother. It’s a picture of young Suzanne in a pretty dress, off to a school dance with the boy she’d been crushing on. She runs off to phone her friends, in order that we can introduce them for later. In addition to Nate, the one who is pretending to be rich but is certainly going to turn out to be a hobo just like everyone else, there’s Lisa the fat one (Will there be a half-hearted joke where she takes an inordinate interest in the food arrangements? Yes there will), Sam the tomboy, Ralph the nerdy one, and three or four other kids they don’t bother to name. He’s doing experiments with holography. Debi is more concerned with whether or not Nate has talked about her — turns out that he does indeed like-her-like-her.
Having epically blown it with regards to a birthday present, Suzanne is desperate to cheer her daughter up. I get it. I always get kind of down on my birthday too. She comes up with the bright and comically infeasible idea of throwing her a birthday party, which everyone immediately agrees is a brilliant idea aside from the fact that it is comically infeasible. I mean, again, the last time we saw Debi, people were beating each other to death in the streets over apples. Since Kincaid has a van and doesn’t like kids, he’s assigned to go collect Debi’s many friends from all over the city, while Blackwood is tasked with the Mission Impossible-esque feat of acquiring a cake. Suzanne applies a directory of ten thousand names to hack into Debi’s phonebook. It turns out her password is “Debi”.
Fearing what the humans could do if they got their hands on it, the Morthren make the difficult decision to activate the watcher’s self-destruct mechanism. Only it doesn’t work, so Ardix has to set out on foot to find the thing, leading to many scenes of Julian Richings and Rob MacInally casually strolling toward a very badly composited little flying green thing.
Trying to buy a cake from a black market vendor just gets Blackwood laughed at, but since she has a kid of her own, she offers up a vague lead that there might be a baker named Edna at a shop called Gunther’s, but no one’s seen her in months, so he’s not even sure if she’s still around. Blackwood finds Gunther, but Edna turns out to have died peacefully in her sleep months ago. Fortunately, Gunther’s an industrious sort, dabbling in, “Software, pharmaceuticals, auto parts, you name it,” and since he’s hung on to his late wife’s cookbooks, he agrees to take a swing at baking if Blackwood can source the ingredients.
Keeping with this episode’s commitment to be something lighter and more fun than the ceaseless human misery-fest the rest of the season has been, we switch to Kincaid. Having picked up Ralph and Lisa, he locates Sam in the middle of a neighborhood baseball game and gets conscripted to pinch-hit for the kid who’d gotten called home. He puts the ball through a window and everyone flees as alarms sound.
Last on his list is Nate, who, as it turns out, is squatting at an abandoned library full of Home Alone-style booby-traps, and, yes, telling Debi stories of his adventurous life ripped from the pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Debi should have been suspicious of the way this alleged rich boy living on a large estate in the country spent large chunks of time as a poor boy in the antebellum south. The Awesome Van breaks down, and Kincaid doesn’t have his tools to fix it, so he declares that they’ll hold the party at the library, much to the dismay of Nate, who Debi is even now alluding to with her mother as the “rich boy” she isn’t sure would be willing to date the poor girl who lives in the sewer.
Debi and Suzanne have a surprisingly honest, genuine-sounding conversation, which does a lot to right the character arcs in this series. Debi is pretty much the only character who’s allowed to interact with people as normal human beings without everything instantly turning into weird government conspiracies. They talk about dating and dancing, and Suzanne stops just short of stumbling into telling her daughter how she lost her virginity. But Debi eventually throws a fit over how much it sucks, “living in a rat hole waiting for the world to end,” and how much better her rich friend Nate has it.
While Kincaid and the kids scavenge decorations for the library, Blackwood has managed to beg, borrow and steal the necessary ingredients for the cake, aside from chocolate, which Gunther miraculously provides. Gunther is a good sort, and isn’t concerned about being paid in a timely manner, which is helpful since Blackwood’s blown the budget on eggs. He asks about Debi’s provenance, and Blackwood explains that she’s a friend rather than his own child. Rather than finding this suspicious and creepy, Gunther hints obliquely about Blackwood one day settling down and having children of his own. Just in case you haven’t fully appreciated the themes of this episode, Blackwood worries that he’d, “Have to think twice about bringing a child into this messed-up world,” prompting Gunther to remind him that Children Are Our Future and all that jazz. I bet it’ll turn out later that Gunther actually died right after his wife did and he’s some kind of guardian angel come down to grant birthday wishes or something.
Kincaid redecorating with the kids intercuts with Blackwood and Gunther baking to make a nice little thematic montage as everyone shows some nice honest working-togetherness to do nice simple pleasant things like cooking or making construction paper chains or gluing a broken mirror to a globe to make a mirrorball. Gunther dispenses folksy wisdom about how the world is still full of good people if one is willing to look for them.
The Morthren side of the plot finally brushes up against the “actual” plot just for a moment when the rogue watcher drifts into Gunther’s shop. Mana and Malzor watch the video feed, but don’t recognize Blackwood for some reason. He’s never clearly in the center of the frame and facing the camera, but there’s one shot where his face is visible at the edge of the screen. Ardix and Zeel follow it inside and manage to catch it just as Gunther comes up from the back. And luckily, there’s no pointlessly tragic turn with him getting killed or anything (Though it would be hilarious if they vaporized him, prompting Blackwood to conclude that the kindly old man who helped him out and wanted nothing in return, then mysteriously vanished after his work was done really was some kind of supernatural being out of a cutesy glurge story in an urban legend); Ardix just pretends to have been window-shopping and leaves right after confirming to the old man that they are indeed, “Not from around here.” And then he gives him an amazing grin. Blackwood misses the exchange, having been busy searching for candles.
To Be Continued…
- War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.