It is May, 1994. This month’s biggest story is the inauguration of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa. That same day, John Wayne Gacy is executed by the state of Illinois. The Channel Tunnel opens between England and France, and for all the mind-blowing innovations of the twentieth century, I think, “England and France voluntarily spent billions so that people could travel from one to the other faster,” would be the most confusing to a Victorian. In addition to Gacy, this month will see the deaths of actor George Peppard, East German leader Erich Honecker, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Sony and Phillips announce their collaboration on the new technology that will eventually become DVD. The first two Beverly Hills Cop movies are released on VHS and Laserdisc for the first time, coinciding with the theatrical release of Beverly Hills Copy III. Also out this month are the live-action adaptation of The Flintstones, as well as The Crow and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Four Weddings and a Funeral is released in the UK. The associated rerelease of Wet Wet Wet’s “Love is All Around” will spend fifteen weeks at the top of the UK Singles Chart.
In the world of music, Michael Bolton is found guilty of ripping off the Isley Brothers, Weezer releases the Blue Album, and Michael Jackson marries Lisa Marie Presley. Ace of Base holds the top spot on the charts for half the month with “The Sign”. If you’ve forgotten what song that was, imagine you’re listening to a college’s acapella group. It’s that one. All-4-One takes the spot for the second half of the month with “I Swear”. Also in the top ten are Enigma’s “Return to Innocence”, Madonna’s “I’ll Remember”, Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love”, Prince’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and Big Mountain’s cover of “Baby I Love Your Way”.
My Fair Lady closes on Broadway. The Simpsons airs its one hundred and first, second, and third episodes. Ending their runs this month are Roc, a show my dad always tried to watch because it was set in Baltimore, and TV fixtures LA Law, In Living Color and The Arsenio Hall Show. Also Cafe Americain, one of those shows that didn’t last long but sticks out in my memory, largely because I was going through a phase of being obsessed with Casablanca at the time, though the show was only tangentially related. It followed the exploits of an American woman in Paris, who gets a job at the eponymous cafe after discovering that the job she’d come to Paris for (English-to-English translator) was actually intended purely as a cover for “Boss’s mistress”. She hangs around with a collection of quirky expats, most prominently, an Imelda Marcos-inspired deposed dictator’s widow who was constantly concocting moneymaking schemes to raise a counterevolutionary army. One plan involved selling ice cream made from all-natural ingredients, “Mint, chocolate, and Chip.” It’s also the origin of the phrase, “I keel you! I keel you bad! I keel you two times!”, a recurring threat from the perpetually jealous Italian lover of a fashion model. Oh, and also something else. Star Trek the Next Generation airs, “Bloodlines”, “Emergence”, “Preemptive Strike”, and “All Good Things…”, the series finale.
There is a new Columbo this month, the second of the year. It’s unusual, in that it eschews the standard “reverse whodunnit” format for a more traditional structure, largely because it’s been adapted from an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel. Ed Begley Jr. guest stars. CBS airs the miniseries The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, NBC airs a biopic about Joan and Melissa Rivers. The Rocketeer has its broadcast debut on ABC. There are new episodes of The X-Files, seaQuest DSV, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (dubbed “Must-Sleep TV” by dad), Walker, Texas Ranger, Full House, Lois and Clark, Martin — I don’t know if this was an especially memorable time for TV, or if it’s just the intersection in my life of when I watched a lot of TV and was old enough to remember it? And Angus MacGyver returns to the small screen for the TV movie MacGyver: The Lost Treasure of Atlantis. I was upset that they destroy the technologically advanced ancient artifact at the end, having been too young to remember that this is what happened in every other archaeology-themed episode of MacGyver. John Goodman and Heather Locklear host the season’s final epsiodes of Saturday Night Live. Sesame Street‘s upcoming 25th anniversary is celebrated with a prime-time network TV special on ABC titled “Stars and Street Forever”.
I’m stalling. Because this is gonna suuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. But I had to shell out cash for this, more than I probably should have, so we’d better get on with it. Today, we’re looking at a direct-to-cassette full-cast audio drama which presents itself as a sequel to the Mercury Radio Theater’s 1938 adaptation of War of the Worlds. I do not recall the exact circumstances behind my first listening to Howard Koch’s War of the Worlds II. It was some time around 2003, I reckon. I’ve found a link on the web to a copy of it in Real Player format, but you probably don’t have Real Player now, and the .ra file probably went away with Geocities. But I feel like I had a physical copy at some point. Maybe from the library, because I ripped all my audiobooks back in ’09 and it’s not there. Which is why I had to buy it again. The upside, such as it is, is that I managed to get an episode I didn’t catch the first time around. The downside is that I didn’t get one of the episodes I did catch the first time. Also that I spent money for this crap.
I exhausted my desire to do research on Pharoah Audiobooks well before I actually found out anything about them. They came and went before the era where an internet presence was a requisite, and when they do turn up in catalogues and registries, there’s little more than the odd title or author. My best guess, based on experience, is that they were a small line whose primary audience was people whose careers involved long-distance driving and whose primary market was truck stops and travel plazas in the days before the iPod was a thing and “Podcast” was a word. It’s been long enough since I spent much time in a Stuckey’s that I don’t know if low-end audio adaptations of niche titles for purchase on physical media is still a thing, or if Audible, iTunes and the smart phone have done away with it all.
So of course when I saw the title, I was interested. This series of four or maybe five episodes purports to be a direct sequel to the 1938 radio play, after all. We’ve already seen, with the TV series, one idea for how to weave the radio play into the backstory of a modern invasion. Could this be the tale of a second invasion? Or perhaps a tale set in a world where human technology has benefited from the study of alien artifacts? A world where the global tensions and wars of the middle part of the twentieth century were rerouted by the experience of an alien invasion?
It is none of those things. What it is instead, is terrible. The dialog is bad, and the voice acting is bad. The story itself is… An ambitious concept that is not without merit. But it’s a jumbled up mess is what it is. In 1994, Howard Koch was still alive, so I presume he signed off on having his name attached to this, but I see no reason to think he had any actual involvement beyond branding. It’s a “sequel” only nominally: they say that this is indeed a world which experienced an invasion from Mars in 1938, but nothing about the story or the world in which it’s set that is consistent with a massive alien invasion in the 1930s. Not everyone seems to be aware of it — some characters treat the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence as purely speculative rather than documented historical fact. At other points, it’s taken for granted as something so well-known that of course everyone knows it happened, and it just goes unmentioned because people do not normally bring up things that happened sixty years ago when they aren’t directly relevant to the situation at hand.
But this is a strange way to behave in context, because if there is one thing the characters in this audiodrama like to do, it’s to exposit at great length about things that are not directly relevant to the situation at hand. Years ago, when I had a longer commute, I got interested in amateur audio drama for a while, and devoured it voraciously. One thing that kept getting to me is that even in the better works, say, the output of Darker Projects, or this one I can’t remember the name of that was clearly a sequel to Independence Day with the serial numbers filed off (Twenty-second century space-based humanity prepares for a second invasion by aliens who’d invaded in the ’90s and were defeated by a computer virus) things tended to be tremendously over-written. Characters would repeat themselves, inject contentless noise-dialogue like “I am just trying to say,” or “As you know,” inject needless exposition about the writer’s personal bugaboos (their Star Trek series were awful about having characters randomly go off on tangents about how Classic Rock would remain a respected musical movement into the twenty-fourth century, while 2000s pop-rock was entirely forgotten) or self-promotion (So many Star Fleet lieutenants whose favorite twenty-first century novelist just happened to be the same guy who wrote the show), prove the writer’s research credentials (three separate instances of someone saying “Lead on, MacDuff,” and being corrected) and just generally spout a lot of dialogue that didn’t need to be there.
The dialogue in War of the Worlds II is like that, only without the frequent good (or at least clever) ideas and… Just generally any other redeeming qualities. Like, imagine if the first, say, half hour or so of the story consisted of, for example, a bunch of people at a dinner party complaining about how the various societal woes that plague their modern times, and the failure of the government, private industry, and the public to deal with it properly. And now stop imagining, because that is exactly what the first half hour of War of the Worlds II is.
Broad strokes then. The basic story of War of the Worlds II is that the Earth is facing a global shortage of potable water, so the US sends a secret mission to Mars to look for some. Never mind that this is stupid, because that thing I just said? At least until you get to episode 3, that’s really more of a side-plot. Because primarily, War of the Worlds II is a political satire and/or political thriller.
Yes. I really did say that. See, the actual primary plot of the story is that most of the world’s water supply is being de facto held hostage by Ronald Ratkin, whose name is hardly ever spoken without someone reminding us that he’s “The world’s first trillionaire.” He holds the patents to ice-mining technology, and he’s got control over the ice-miner’s union, and he’s basically a Captain Planet villain, straight up, and will stop at nothing to prevent the government from finding more water. And the government is sort of inept and ineffectual, and while they are careful to only ever have the bad guys blame this on the fact that the president is a woman, there’s a kind of understated implication that they maybe have a point.
In case you were hoping, the political satire is not especially biting, relevant to the real-world concerns of the day, or, when you get down to it, good. For example, one of the major antagonist characters is a radio pundit named — excuse me a minute while I mentally prepare myself for the ordeal of saying this — “Tosh Rimbauch”. This is what passes for comedy. He is predictably terrible. Awful as Rush Limbaugh is, I can admit there is some artistry to the way he works. Tush Rimbaugh comes off more like a conspiracy theorist. And a George Noory sort of conspiracy theorist, not even an Alex Jones conspiracy theorist. His voice actor is clearly trying a Rush Limbaugh impression, but it’s so dire he sounds more like Richard Nixon. Not that it’s a decent Nixon either, just a better Nixon than Limbaugh.
We don’t really start with the boring dinner party: that was an exaggeration on my part. The dinner party doesn’t happen until about six minutes in. Episode 1, “The Invasion of Mars, 1999”, actually opens, after a terrible synth-heavy theme song which sounds enough like it was inspired by the TV series theme that I’d believe you if you said it was intentional, on the flight deck of the space shuttle Orion 1. The crew, who have been training together for months for this mission, proceed to introduce themselves to each other repeatedly for five minutes. The mission commander is Jonathan Ferris, whose first line of dialogue is to reflect on how exciting yet weird it is to be here, commanding a space ship, with the rank of commander. Their pilot, Nikki Jackson, dutifully explains how she is also excited, and how she’s wanted to go to space ever since childhood, with a lengthy yet boring anecdote about forcing her parents to take her on Space Mountain repeatedly as a child. She seems to have one of those antagonistic they-snipe-at-each-other-because-later-they-will-hook-up relationships with the first mate (“First Mate” seems to be his official title, but Nikki is explicitly the “Second in command”. This is not the only weird thing about the way ranks work on this ship), Rutherford, insofar as anyone in this production is capable of conveying human emotions. He’s a cynical sort, who complains about how old their shuttle is. This prompts the engineer, Pirelli, to leap to the defense of his ship, because that’s what engineers do. Orion 1 may be old, but it’s been completely refitted with a new outer skin and lighter materials and I can’t believe we’re only like three minutes in and we’ve still got another three before we even get to the boring dinner party.
Their conversation is banal and the dialogue is the sort of weird expository space-filler characteristic of golden-age sci-fi. But even worse, their delivery is strange and stilted, clearly pieced together in post from actors who’ve never met each other. And everyone’s adopted this very artificial elocution, the old-timey diction they used to teach film actors back in the 40s. The only exception is Pierelli, who has just a hint of a Brooklyn accent, and I can’t help thinking that this is intentional because this Space Shuttle engineer is meant to be thought of as the team grease monkey. Rutherford ribs Nikki for consulting a fortune teller, and she ribs him back over his lucky rabbit’s foot, which, it turns out, is missing. Then, because they need a segue, Nikki suddenly realizes for the first time that Commander Ferris is the only member of the crew who’s married.
This, in turn, prompts Ferris to talk about how supportive his wife is of his astronauting career. Of course she is, the people in this thing aren’t quite sure if they’re in the ’90s or the ’50s. She was apparently so excited when she found out that he’d been promoted to Commander for a space mission that she went out and bought him a pair of Spock ears and a Star Trek Commander’s hat. Man, wish I had one of those. You always knew the shit was going down when Commander Kirk would put on his Commander’s hat. Your Star Trek cosplay just is not complete unless you’ve got your Commander’s hat.
The topic turning to his wife leads Commander Ferris and his hat into an extended flashback to him having a boring conversation about local politics at a dinner party. His friend, Tom, is a city councilman who’s up for reelection, and it’s apparently not a lot of fun. What follows is half satire and half authorial political screed, but it’s entirely unfocused. If it were better written, there might be something salvageable here, but it just comes off as waffling. The general thesis, insofar as there is one, seems to be that the problem is special interest groups who are only concerned about their own pet cause without any consideration for other stakeholders. There’s something beyond simple cliche here in that they make pains to be supportive of the actual causes of those organizations, but the way it’s presented is rambling and unfocused. He starts out with what should just be a joke about how he can’t order lunch without offending at least three special interest groups. But Ferris inexplicably asks him to confirm whether it this is literally true, so he and his wife (who seems to be doing a Jacqueline Kennedy impression for some reason) elaborate: he offends the anti-meat lobby, which opposes him eating meat; the anti-paper-products lobby, which objects to the destruction of “virgin Brazillian rain forests” to make the paper the sandwich is wrapped in, and the anti-fossil-fuel lobby, which objects to the motor scooter the delivery boy drives.
But this branches out into how the anti-meat lobby is basically right, because in an age of constant famine, cattle are an inefficient way to make food, and the anti-paper lobby is basically right because we’re running out of rain forests, and the anti-fossil-fuel lobby is basically right because — this one isn’t going where you think it is — traffic sucks. Seriously. Traffic apparently sucks so bad that the city is implementing a policy called “unsafe days”, on which the motorways will be automatically barricaded when traffic congestion gets too high. Which will offend “grandmothers on their way to bingo.” They work their way to the major point: that modern civilization is facing serious problems, and that both the government and the citizenry dropped the ball on dealing with those problems before they reached a crisis point. And now, people are finally willing to accept the compromises that would have helped a decade ago, but it’s too late for anything but much more draconian measures to help, with citizens and corporations “Filling the courts with frivolous lawsuits,” whenever taxes are proposed to pay for fixing the big problems.
The mention of traffic having gotten so bad as to cause violence attracts the attention of Mike Carson, a lawyer who describes road rage shootings as his favorite subject in a tone that suggests the voice actor didn’t realize that was meant to be sarcastic. We’re still a year away from the OJ Simpson trial, but the writers’ meandering tirade wanders off for a while to complain like Nancy Grace about people getting away with murder, as Mike relates the story of a man who chased down and murdered (Mike says “ventilated”. Like four times.) the guy who cut him off in traffic, and was subsequently acquitted with a defense of Temporary Insanity. This segues into a story about a homeless man, acquitted after killing someone over a piece of bread using a defense of “population insanity”. The defense successfully argued that, in light of global overpopulation and the growing wealth gap, the responsibility for poverty rests on the privileged classes, and therefore if a man can not feed himself and is forced to resort to crime to do so, the fault, and therefore the criminal liability, falls on the “haves” (which Mike has to define for us, because the audience, having paid money for this, can be safely presumed very, very stupid) for failure to address global hunger. This precedent means that it is legal for any “have-not” to kill for food. Everyone is understandably horrified, but after half an hour of this dialogue, I’d be basically okay with everyone in this thing being murdered and eaten by the homeless. Lack of fear for their own lives at the hands of an angry mob of have-nots is one of the major problems with rich people these days.
The conversation meanders to investments — Mike missed out on a major windfall by not taking a tip to invest in astroturf as natural lawns were banned due to the water crisis. Jonathan and his wife picked up a little that way (enough to afford ice cubes for the party), but took a loss investing in water purification, since the aforementioned administrative gridlock has stalled that development.
Things finally come around to space again. President DeWitt is taking a lot of heat over the five billion dollars they’ve dumped into Jonathan’s mission, which is called “Mission Red” because that totally won’t give the game away about what their secret goal is. Some of the party guests (Including Mike but not Tom) are bothered by the secrecy surrounding the project, though they can’t express it in any terms more specific than, “But the government is shady!” while Johnathan can’t defend it in terms more specific than, “But come on! Trust the government!”
We return to the present for Jonathan to do a final voice check with his crew before blast-off. In addition to Ferris, Rutherford, Jackson and Pierelli, there’s also Navigator Talbert (I think he actually spoke in the first scene, but he doesn’t have any personality and they didn’t say his name, so I didn’t realize he was a different person from Ferris), Medic Morgan, and Geologist Townsend. Orion 1 lifts off without any issue, and at mission control, they open the champagne at T+8:00.
There’s an odd reference just beforehand to there having been manned moon landings in the past fifteen years. Which is weird, because this story is only set five years in the future from when it was written. And I can’t tell if this is indeed meant to be a different timeline (Not so different as to preclude references to Oprah and Ross Perot, though), or if the writers forgot how time works. Maybe the story was actually written in the ’80s and sat around for a while before it was produced, but that wouldn’t explain the substantial references to Rush Limbaugh. Though it’s possible that different parts of the story were written at different times. The writing credits are interesting on this series. Episode 1 is credited to Thomas and Yvonne Phelan with Sharah Thomas. Episodes 2 and 4 are credited exclusively to Thomas, while 3 is exclusively the Phelans. This is the only credit for any of them in isfdb.org. Part 3 is the one I don’t have a copy of, so it’s unlikely we’ll get a solid answer to which parts of the story each contributor focused on, but it wouldn’t surprise me tremendously if the political parts were written entirely separately from the space bits.
Not joining in the celebrations is Project Lead Robert Boness, who tells his underling Reed about five times that his duties are “officially concluded” now that Orion 1 has launched. He, like a lot of characters in this thing, is a cynic who isn’t cynical in any particular direction, just generally argumentative and no fun. He rants a little about the press, who’ve been brought in to drum up support for Project Red with “a single photograph of some inane scientist staring blankly at a row of bubbling beakers filled with colored water.” The narrative has forgotten that five minutes ago, we were talking about how the press wasn’t allowed access to Mission Red. He goes on to refer to the project as a “Charade”, which it technically is, but possibly not in the sense he’s using it. “Who’s the real catcher here, Reed? The monkey or the organ-grinder? It’s difficult to tell, isn’t it?” Speaking of things that are difficult to tell: what the everloving fuck he’s talking about.
This is the end of side 1. Please flip the cassette over and continue with side 2.