Deep Ice: The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader (“Howard Koch’s” War of the Worlds II: Episode 1, Part 4)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Um. Space, or something? I had to listen to this thing like six times in the course of writing this and I think I have brain damage now.

Ratkin (I hear he’s the world’s first trillionaire. Did you know that?) is annoyed by the president’s speech because it means that he’s competing with foreign governments now to get his space ship launched and to Mars in time to stake a claim. Jessica thinks that Japan could launch in six months, and the EC in ten. “The EC”, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is probably not what he actually means. It refers to the economic pillar of the European Union, from back when the European Union was organized into things called “pillars”. But they’re probably using it to refer to the Common Market, which was a pre-EU economic organization of European nations, which evolved and expanded into the first of the pieces that eventually came together to form the EU. But this is neither here nor there, because what they almost certainly meant was the ESA, Europe’s international space agency, which is not a part of the EC, the Common Market, or the European Union (It was supposed to be integrated into the EU by 2014, but that hasn’t happened yet). For those of you reading from the future, “The EU” refers to a political union of European countries with the goal of making Europe as a whole remain relevant in the era of superpowers, and also preventing those pan-European wars that tended to break out like clockwork every 40-50 years for all the rest of history. It collapsed some time in the second quarter of the twenty-first century after an incident in which the UK overheard someone calling them “The US’s less-racist uncle,” and national pride forced them to say, “Less racist? You know blackface was still socially acceptable here until 1986? Hold my warm beer while I scuttle our economy just to show how much we hate eastern European immigrants.” Ratkin isn’t worried about the EC, since they’ll balk at the cost and “run for cover like children from a doctor’s vaccination needle.” Who the fuck talks like that? Japan does worry him, though, since Japan is an economic powerhouse obsessed with profit over all else. Because even though this was made in 1995, the writers are apparently unaware of the Lost Decade, or how Japan abruptly stopped being on a course to completely dominate the world economy. Honestly, the window when people assumed the Japanese were going to take over everything was fairly small, since it only really fit in the space between when people stopped believing the world would end in a nuclear war between the US and USSR in 1989 and the Japanese asset bubble bursting in 1990 (I mean, Americans can always be counted on to have irrational fears, so there were earlier and later “Oh no the Japanese are going to become culturally dominant and we will all have to eat sushi and take our shoes off indoors!” patches in American pop culture, but it’s only a short window when it was “the” big thing we were culturally neurotic about. It makes a large number of pop-cultural appearances in science fiction of this era, but as a fact-of-life, not source of panic).

Ratkin is happy to “benefit at the expense and labor of others,” when Jessica tells him that she’s all set up to receive and decode Orion-1’s next message to NASA. She goes on to muse in her smug-sexy-cartoon-villainess way about how much she looks forward to showing NASA whatfor by besting Ferris and capturing Orion-1. That’s when Ratkin drops the bombshell: he’s having a “clean-up crew” sent along with her to kill the Orion-1 crew. “Are you referring to some kind of hit-squad?” “Regulators. Exterminators. Eliminators. Call them what you will.” I feel like we’re in another comedy bit that forgot to have a punch-line, where the mob boss tells the henchmen to “Have him taken care of,” so they take the guy out to the spa or something.

Jessica foolishly says that he makes it sound, “Like the wild west,” despite the fact that he’s clearly making a mob allusion. Ratkin responds that space is the wild west, and he laments that he was born too late to have been a part of the 1870s… Except that the thing he actually wants has little to do with the wild west: he wants to have gone up against the robber barons, specifically naming Huntington, Vanderbilt and “Rocker… Feller”. His lament is that although he’s acquired empires in all of their respective fields, he didn’t do it by taking it away from them. He wishes he could have known the pure joy of ruining an old-timey rich dude.

Anyway, yeah, he’s gonna have the crew of Orion-1 whacked. Jessica expresses momentary alarm at this, but settles back into Evil Soap Opera Bitch-Queen when Ratkin accuses her of going soft. She complains about what she’s supposed to do for the duration of the trip on a ship full of “manly men”, and I’m starting to worry we’re going to have another “Uncle Terry Writes Feminism” moment. But instead Ratkin tells her that once his hired guns kill the crew of Orion-1, she’s to kill them. She accepts this in the tone of a petulant preschooler agreeing to clean up her toys.

In case you don’t get these Terrance Dicks references, he’s a Doctor Who writer, best known for adapting the classic series stories into short novelizations for Target books. He’s infamous for his clear, simple, workmanlike prose. Because fans of 1970s science fiction tend not to be especially woke, he’s somewhat less well-known for the absolute consistency with which he depicted nominally “feminist” characters as cartoon charicatures whose purpose was to be shrill and accuse men of sexism without justification. Basically, his understanding of feminism was that it was when a woman yelled at you (“you” is presumed male, of course, because who else would the presumed audience be?) if you opened a door for her.

She also suggests that killing the Orion crew might not be trivial, but Ratkin starts giggling about how easy it will be, because, “Who’s going to stop me, the Martian police?” He locks in on the idea that the only possible reason it might be at all challenging to have his thugs murder Ferris and company would be if there were anyone else on the planet at the time, which is utterly laughable, because we are in an odd-numbered scene where the idea of life on Mars is so preposterous as to make the elderly supervillain giggle like a schoolboy. When Jessica asks what’s to stop Ratkin from having her snuffed as well, Ratkin concedes that there isn’t anything, then tells her to, “Use that 180 IQ of yours,” and realize that he won’t kill her because she’ll still be useful to him as head of his Mars colony. There will be enough money and power to go around, he says, which totally means he is definitely going to try to kill her. Pretty much in his next scene.

Back on Orion-1, the votes are in. Despite Rutherford’s objections — they stop for a second in the middle so that Nikki and he can get into it over whether he’s going to scuttle their mission, and Ferris has to step in and insist that they can’t jump to any conclusions about who a hypothetical dissenter is — everyone votes to “continue on”. Well, everyone except for Talbert, who votes “Affirmative”. This prompts Ferris to ask for an explanation, since language doesn’t work the same way in their universe and “affirmative” could equally mean, “affirmative, we continue on,” or “affirmative, we go back.”

Having a unanimous decision to continue, Ferris introduces them to some of the equipment they’re carrying with them for the trip. Unbeknownst to the crew, Orion-1 is carrying two solar-powered rovers which will serve as vehicles for exploring the surface. There’s a weird exchange when Ferris mentions that one of their survey sites will be Olympus Mons, and Townsend responds by giving the dimensions of the Martian volcano as if that were, all on its own, a valid objection. If she means that it’s too big an area to explore in a reasonable amount of time, okay (Olympus Mons is similar in size to France), but the fact that Ferris considers her complaint adequately addressed by mentioning the two rovers doesn’t seem right. It’s not the only weird exchange in this scene, either; when Ferris asks if they’re curious about the equipment in the cargo bay, Nikki says, “Oh, no sir,” and he completely misses the sarcasm. Not that I entirely blame him since the conversation, like every conversation, is weird and stilted. Also, didn’t Rutherford climb back into the cargo bay a couple of episodes ago? And he didn’t notice the rovers then?

Do you like bad science? You’re in for a treat, because things are going to get weird in a minute. The rovers also serve as landing vehicles, since Orion-1 can’t land unless they happen to find a natural runway (Was this sarcasm? If this was sarcasm, then that’s why Ferris didn’t recognize it from Nikki, as he has no idea what tone a human uses when conveying sarcasm. If it turns out Ferris has really been an alien this whole time, I will be mildly impressed). Talbert (I think in the previous few episodes, I have confused Talbert and Pirelli at least once) points out that the gravity on Mars is “negligible” compared to Earth. That is… Um… The gravity on Mars is about 38% of that on Earth. Does that count as “negligible”? I could maybe see someone calling lunar gravity negligible, but Martian gravity is more than twice that. Less defensible is Rutherford’s conclusion that the low gravity means that Orion-1 would land “Like a twenty-story office building,” a statement which is so bizarre that it’s not even wrong. I’m not even sure what it would mean for something to land “like a twenty-story office building”, but I’m pretty sure that “In a manner consistent with very low gravity” isn’t it. Ironically, a shuttle would fly like a brick on Mars, because shuttles land like airplanes, and the aerodynamics of the shuttle would not work in the thin Martian air, but that’s nothing to do with gravity. Weirder is that Ferris adds that in addition to landing “like a twenty-story office building,” they would bounce half a mile up if they hit too hard. Put those together, and you’re left with the image of a twenty-story office building bouncing half a mile, and you start to see that this metaphor has gone well off the rails and probably needs new tires.

More bad science: the rovers are equipped with space suits that can protect against even the cold temperatures of the Martian nights, which they repeatedly claim average something like 220° below zero. I will just give them that they should really be using metric, since the actual NASA made a dumb-ass metric/US system mistake with an actual Mars mission in the actual 1998. But the temperature they give is too cold even for night time at the Martian poles in the winter — I’m pretty sure the number they pulled out is the all-time record for lowest temperature. Olympus Mons and the Tharsis bulge (their other destination) are basically equatorial, and except in the coldest part of Martian winter, the nighttime temperature would rarely get much below -100. Not that that isn’t very cold or anything. They also make a big deal about the size and ferocity of Martian storms and the powerful Martian winds. And here, their mistake is more reasonable. The winds on Mars do kick up pretty high (though they claim the average wind-speed of a Martian storm is two hundred miles per hour. My research says that they top out at 60), and Mars has huge, long-lasting dust storms. But the atmosphere on Mars is far thinner than on Earth. Even though the air is moving at high speed, there just isn’t that much of it: a 60 mph Martian gale would apply as much force to a stationary object as a 7 mph breeze on Earth. And that dust? Martian dust is finer than cigarette smoke. After all, it has to be light enough to be carried on that thin air.

Since stuff like character growth, or at least us getting to know these characters might happen during a long trip to Mars, we time-skip over that via the narrator. In the intervening time, that ice miner’s union merger thing happens, putting Ratkin in control of all the ice miners world-wide, and promptly makes them go on strike for more expensive equipment, knowing that the prices would “of necessity”, be passed on the the thirsty public. This little detail, I assume, is there just to show off how evil Ratkin is, but it’s another one of those, “Let’s show he evil so hard that it makes him look dumb,” moments, since it implies that he actually cares who ends up paying the bill and wants the public to pay usurious prices. Because if you raise the price of water to the point where no one can pay it, this will somehow still lead to you profiting, and not to you being killed by an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. And again, this sounded more ridiculous before we had an actual cartoon supervillain as president in the real world.

Finally, mercifully, two and a half hours into “The Invasion of Mars: 1999”, Orion-1 finally gets to Mars. Yes, Mars, the red planet which, the narrator tells us, revolves closest to the sun. Shit! They took a wrong turn and went to Mercury instead. Seriously, of all the scientific bullshit in this production, who the hell put the idea that Mars “revolves closest to the sun” in there? That’s… Look, as I am writing this, Dylan is learning about the solar system in preschool. Dylan knows what “revolve” means, and he knows which planet is closest to the sun. Could they not have a five year old check this for scientific accuracy?

After reassuring us that Jessica Storm is still intercepting their transmissions back on Earth, they send Townsend and Rutherford down in Rover-1. Townsend makes a joke about finding Martian flora to make a salad, prompting everyone back on Orion-1 to start moaning about how much they want salad after their non-specific period of subsisting on space food. Talbert wistfully longs for a caesar salad with anchovies. This is almost goofy enough to make me enjoy it. Rutherford completely neglects to celebrate the touchdown by saying something dramatic or getting out of the rover to physically touch the soil of another world, because that would be too interesting, and instead they go driving around. Back on the ship, the sound of a 1200 baud modem informs Nikki that the “metal-detecting sensors” have picked up something much larger than Rover-1: it’s a cylindrical object “almost 100 meters” long. “One hundred meters?” Talbert protests, “But that’s longer than a football field!” Which is the biggest scientific blunder they’ve made so far, because 100 meters is 109 yards, and a football field, counting the endzones, is 120 yards (And yes, okay, I get that he wasn’t counting the endzones, but who says “That’s bigger than a football field!” audible-exclamation-point for something that is exactly 9% longer than a football field?), so it’s “nearly slightly longer”, which I guess is like “Bounce half a mile in the air like a 20-story office building.”

They reckon they’ve discovered a fuel storage tank. Rutherford describes it as looking like a supertanker, and points out that it doesn’t look like the Martian ships he’s seen pictures of from the ’38 invasion. Ferris starts warning him to turn back with increasing desperation, but Rutherford either ignores him or doesn’t hear him. The signal from Rover-1 cuts out just as Rutherford discovers a hatch in the ground. The narrator tells us about several desperate minutes of trying to locate the rover on their sensors and reestablish radio contact culminating in a silence so profound, “You could hear a spider walking on velvet,” before we pop back into the narrative so that Nikki can read her official report for the ship’s log. Short version: the rover’s missing and they don’t know where it is.

Pirelli (or maybe Talbert) says that they have weeks worth of air and food, but they “don’t even have days” of power if the rover isn’t exposed to sunlight — its solar batteries only hold 72 hours of charge. Is this another technical blunder where they’ve forgotten how long a day is? It certainly sounds like “they don’t have days,” presumes that 72 hours is less than “days”. Nikki and Doctor Morgan are insistent on mounting a rescue, but Ferris insists they, “Consider all the parameters of this problem.” Seriously. I will be pissed if he doesn’t turn out to be an alien or a robot or something. Who talks like that? They’ve only got one rover left, they don’t know what happened to the other one, they don’t know if Townsend and Rutherford are still alive, and they’ve got a fuckton of Mars left to explore. Ferris isn’t comfortable risking any more of his crew. Morgan (They alternate between calling her “Doctor” and “Medic”, which my memory of Stargate Universe discussion fora tells me is wrong, because you can only be one or the other), after pointing out for the third time that she’s not an astronaut like the others (I mean, she is, because she’s in space right now, but I guess she means a career one), comes up with the idea of — you’ve probably already guessed it — splitting up. Go down in Rover-2 to Rutherford’s last reported location and all walk off in different directions so that hopefully they don’t all get lost and also they get to survey perhaps as much as a quarter mile of Mars. Nikki is put in charge of the rescue mission, with Pirelli and Morgan along in case Rover-1 and/or its crew need repairs. But Ferris won’t let them set out until morning, despite Nikki’s protests. We’re into the part of the story where Nikki starts acting desperate and irrational because Rutherford is missing and she secretly likes him.

Back on Earth, Ratkin raises the price of water to ten dollars an ounce (he owns the April Showers bottling company, which sounds a porn name), and the President gives a speech where she orders strict water rationing, including no lawn-watering for the few who still have grass, with bathing and laundry kept “to an absolute minimum”. She asserts that Orion-1 will soon free them from the “tyranny of greed and ecological terrorism.” Ratkin takes this as an oblique reference to himself, calling it a clever strategy to blame him without opening herself up to a libel suit. It’s slightly funny that he seems so honestly offended to be blamed for what is literally, directly, and exclusively his fault. He also takes to stressing Ms. DeWitt, and from this point, we’ll see him add misogyny to his list of sins. His ship is ready to blast off, and he wishes Jessica luck. She’s excited to show up the Orion crew, as, “I’ll be the last thing they want to see. And the last thing they’ll ever see!” Yes, we get it, you’re evil. Ratkin has a moment of doubt, though, because he knows that Jessica has a past with one of the Origin crew members. They don’t disclose which one yet, to preserve suspense. Ooh, I hope it’s Doctor Morgan! (Seriously, it’s obviously Rutherford, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a love triangle with her and Nikki. I’m not even sure if this is supposed to be a surprise since the narrator will say it outright at the beginning of episode 2). He sends her on her way after she insists that her feelings for “any of Orion’s crew” are in the past, but then immediately calls up the head of his hit squad and instructs him to be ready to eliminate Jessica if she shows any signs of developing a conscience. That took less time than I expected.

Ratkin cautions him that she’s still the commander and he’s still to obey her orders, but since, “She’s only a woman,” (see what I mean about misogyny?), they should be ready to commit “creative mutiny” if she hesitates over the whole, “Murder a NASA crew” thing. Of course, Ratkin already plans to have Jessica kill the hit men once they’ve done their job, as is confirmed when Walsh ends the call with “I’ll see you in a few months,” and Ratkin responds after hanging up with, “Not bloody likely.” So even as he’s ordered Walsh to kill Jessica, he still expects her to kill him. So Ratkin’s plan is:

  • Catch up to Orion-1 on Mars despite them having an unspecified head-start
  • Have his death squad kill the Orion-1 crew
  • Have Jessica kill his death squad
  • Have his death squad simultaneously kill Jessica
  • Declare himself Emperor of Mars despite having no presence there
  • Continue to extort the entire world because despite having very obviously and ostentatiously murdered an astronaut crew and the fact that he is literally dehydrating every person on earth to death, any military action against him would provoke protests from pacifists.

It is, at least, a simpler bad plan than DeWitt’s bad plan. It might make sense if there were a Goldfinger-style twist where Ratkin didn’t actually want to control Mars, just stop anyone else from setting up shop there. But even then, why not just send an unmanned ship full of nuclear waste with which to poison the surface and make further manned missions impossible? In any case, it seems to still be assumed that Ratkin does indeed want to make himself ruler of Mars and add it to his business empire. Despite the fact that his current plan involves killing off all of his own people. This had better end with Ratkin changing his name to Weyland and/or Yutani.

Mars is big on the melty clocks.

On Mars, Nikki, Morgan and Pirelli descend to the surface in search of their lost colleagues. They pause a moment to reflect on how red everything is, Nikki’s favorite color because of course it is. She likens it to The Persistence of Memory. Fuck off, War of the Worlds II, you are not blaming this on Salvador Dali. Dude had his flaws, but he had more taste than to show up in this piece of—. While Doctor Morgan remains in the rover, Pirelli sets out in the direction of the large metal object, while Nikki heads out at a right angle. She encounters the usual expected sort of Martian terrain: dust and rocks. Pirelli, on the other hand, finds a strangely clean, level area, a solid, very flat, dustless sheet of rock. The metal object, devoid of hatches or seams, is now described as over 300 meters, which is, point of fact, bigger than a football field. Shortly after getting out of Morgan’s sight, Pirelli, like Rutherford, vanishes after spotting a hatch on the ground. Ferris wants them to bail out now because losing two astronauts can be counted a misfortune, but to lose three calls his command skills into question. Nikki persuades him instead to let them carry on. Nikki will continue on foot, tethered by a 30-meter steel cable to the rover

Following behind in the rover, Morgan is able to witness as Nikki reaches the spot where the others disappeared and a “vortex” opens up in the rock and sucks the assistant commander down. Unable to pull her back, Morgan is forced to cut the cable to prevent the rover from meeting the same fate. Aboard Orion-1, Talbert wryly observes, “And then there were three.”

Woo Fucking Hoo. Something vaguely resembling action. And a really evocative idea, a “vortex” of solid rock. One that gets a boost in my imagination due to the timely coincidence of me writing this the week after Doctor Who aired “Knock Knock”. I mean, it’s not like they paint any sort of word-picture of the events to give you a sense of what the seemingly impossible concept of a “vortex of solid rock” could mean, but, especially in juxtaposition with their earlier references to surrealism, it injects the idea, utterly anomalous in contrast to the hard-nosed straight-laced ’50s sci-fi feel of this subplot, that Mars is flippin’ weird.

So of course that’s where the episode ends, with more of the cheap-knockoff Billy Thorpe music as the narrator reads us a five minute long cast list (I won’t bother you with the details, since they don’t say who voices who) and gives us the phone numbers of Pharoah Audiobooks and also the distributor who sold them their copy of the 1938 radio show.

God, folks, this is painful. I am not looking forward to the next episode. I have not re-listened to the second episode yet, but what little I remember is that it might get a little more even, but not any better. The worst of it — no, wait, on reflection, the worst of it is the terrible characters who come in the varieties of “cartoon caricature” and “wood”. But the second worst thing is that there are some interesting ideas mixed in here — that collision right at the end of a silver-age sci-fi story with the psychedellia of Martians who can manipulate solid stone. Or the idea of mixing an over-the-top political farce with silver-age sci-fi. Even the inclusion of Skeletor and Evil-Lynn as the antagonists has potential. But unlike some of the noble failures we’ve run into before, they don’t work as a whole and the individual parts don’t work. The political satire isn’t funny. The silver-age sci-fi is stilted. And it’s all played perfectly straight. If it were funny, if it even tried to be funny, at least this combination of plot points would make sense. But no, I think they meant this entirely seriously.

And the plot keeps wandering off. People keep busting into filibusters of cynicism where the writers air their laundry lists of issues with Kids These Days. Always, every time, they go after the same people: politicians, special interests, and the lazy public. No one’s motivation makes sense. No one’s strategy makes sense. The whole Mars mission is predicated on the idea that transporting water back to Earth from Mars is cheaper and easier than water filtration. And remember, the reason they can’t filter water is something to do with political gridlock and special interests. Letting a rich asshole ransom the world at ten dollars an ounce for potable water and sending a mission to Mars is considered a more viable solution than having Seal Team Six take Ratkin out and building a fuckton of filtration plants.

Okay, you know what the worst thing actually is? It’s that no matter how much I want to complain about the insane, over-the-top incompetence masquerading as clever strategy and realistic behavior from heads of government and industry being presented as realistic, there’s still nothing in this that is quite as farsical as the actual state of the world in 2017. Ratkin might want to exploit ecological collapse for profit, but he never tries to deny it’s happening. DeWitt might get bad press for her handling of a crisis, but no one’s accused her of running a sex trafficking ring out of the nonexistent basement of a pizza parlor. “How about we solve the water crisis by secretly going to Mars,” is only half as crazy as the ACHA. Blaming pacifists for their inability to have the Bond Villain currently blackmailing the world taken out is stupid, but the President of the United States keeps claiming that people finding out about the possible stealing of the election by a foreign power is way worse than the fact that it happened. But what do I know. I’m writing this three weeks in advance, so maybe we’ll have a different government by the time this goes to press.

End of side 4.

3 thoughts on “Deep Ice: The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader (“Howard Koch’s” War of the Worlds II: Episode 1, Part 4)

  1. Seed of Bismuth

    They alternate between calling her “Doctor” and “Medic”, which my memory of Stargate Universe discussion fora tells me is wrong, because you can only be one or the other why did you have to remind me of that show, actual when your done with war of the world (ha) and since your completely insane by that point would you be willing to rip-apart ever episode of that heap of -.
    also are you ok with me persevering this page as part of my series of printed internetz in case of solar flare/nuclear war/totalitarian regime/AT&T’s wet dream pay-per-view internet?

  2. Ross Post author

    I can’t even begin to imagine how to explain just how SGU managed to go so badly off the rails. I mean other than “yknow how we had two series which worked so well due to the strong chemistry among the ensemble? Well fuck that let’s do a show where eveyone is unlikeable and they have zero chemistry as a team!’ Its like every bad instinct of every 90s Star Trek writer who ever said “But let’s make it darker and edgier” had a gangbang in the writers room

  3. Seed of Bismuth

    SG-1 even had the meta-tv episode make fun the concept before it even existed.

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