Category Archives: War of the Worlds

Review and analysis of adaptations of HG Wells’s “The War of the Worlds”

Deep Ice/Tales From /lost+found 121 CROSSOVER: Maybe it’s how they make little baby aliens (Doctor Who 4×18: Invaders From Mars!, Continued)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

I’m going to end up getting filtered by google for this, aren’t I?

The ninth Doctor (Hugh Laurie) and his companion Lizzie Thompson (Sarah Michelle Gellar) are prisoners of the Cathulans, gangster aliens attacking New York on Halloween, 1938. Also, Orson Welles is getting ready to put on a radio play. Also, the aliens’ heads kinda look like a penis made of smaller penises.

In exchange for his freedom and safety, the Doctor takes a swing at reparing the Cathulan ship, supposedly so that the Cathulan commander can lead the coming armada when they invade the Earth. Right away, though, the Doctor notices that something’s not kosher; the ship is old and run down, and the damage is more due to lack of maintenance than a crash. There is battle damage to the ship, but it isn’t affecting any of the ship’s systems. The Doctor brings up a file while he’s working, and it turns out to be a schematic for the Empire State building. The Cathulans, who assume that the Doctor doesn’t have a stake in the matter, admit that they plan to announce their invasion by destroying the Empire State Building by crashing their ship into it.

Yeah… That’s awkward. That’s somewhere around the level of that episode of Power Rangers Turbo where the monster of the week knocks over a skyscraper and the Megazord catches it and just sticks it back on its foundation. This is not a plot point they would be able to use in a year and a half (See also, the post-9/11 Power Rangers SPD episode in which a monster suddenly declares, “I HATE EMPTY BUILDINGS!” Or the myriad episodes set in the town’s “Abandoned warehouse district,” which sounds like poor urban planning until you realize that it is, in fact, pretty sound strategy if you live in a world that features weekly attacks by giant monsters who hate empty buildings).

I won’t lie. Parts of this episode are uncomfortable to watch. I never really connected with the need to digitally edit the towers out of movies after 9/11, and I thought it was stupid when an episode of Friends got pulled. But this one is… Kind of on-the-nose. And I can’t really gloss over it, because it’s a pretty key point in the plot. The specific thing that’s broken on the ship is its shields, and without them, that whole “fly it into a building” plan will destroy the ship too. The Doctor points out that they could crash the ship by remote control and have one of the other ships in their armada beam them up.

Ahem. The Doctor suggests this. Casually. I mean, we know the Doctor’s going to end up foiling this plot, but he’s just completely casually trying to help these aliens come up with a workaround so they can carry out their plan to destroy the Empire State Building. Even the aliens are visibly uncomfortable about this. I mean, actually they’re uncomfortable because they’re up to something, but it does come off like even they can’t believe the direction this is taking.

Once the Doctor and Lizzie have a private moment as he’s repairing the shield generator, they work things out: there is no invasion fleet. The Cathulans aren’t launching an invasion; they’re working a protection racket. That’s why they want to crash the ship rather than using its weapons. They want to make a big, dramatic entrance, claim to represent a big old battle fleet, and then suggest that, “Nice planet you got here; be a real shame if it got caught in the crossfire during our interplanetary war.”

It’s the mention of a fake invasion that finally gets our heroes to cotton on to where the plot has been headed this whole time. Lizzie remembers the story of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, and tells the Doctor the accepted wisdom about the panic that ensued. The Doctor points out that Welles is planning to do Lorna Doone tonight, but he quickly formulates a plan, and it hinges on ensuring that the Mercury Theatre puts on the right show tonight.

When the Cathulans return, the Doctor starts musing out loud about how attractive the Earth is to the various galactic powers. He references the past few episodes, noting the Ogron expedition in Baltimore last century and last week’s business with the Jokari and the Red Baron. He muses that he’s even heard rumors that the people of Mars were planning an invasion. That makes the Cathulans nervous. There’s always been a bit of weirdness with Mars in the American series. The Ice Warriors don’t properly show up until season 8, but there’s references to a dangerous race on Mars all through the FOX era, going all the way back to episodes 3 and 4 back in the first season. They’re never actually shown or referred to as anything other than “Martians”, but there’s little hints here and there. References to them looking like turtles, or being sensitive to heat.

Sarah Michelle Gellar was best known as a soap opera actress when she signed on to Doctor Who. Then they found out she could do high-kicks, and a lot of writing excuses for her to do them ensued.

The Doctor “casually” mentions that the humans have been talking about signs of an approaching Martian fleet over the radio for days, and the leader decides to follow up on that, leaving them alone with his lieutenant. The time travelers decide that it’s time to make a break for it, which involves Lizzie roundhouse-kicking the remaining Cathulan. We get one of those classic “running down corridors” chase scenes as the Doctor and Lizzie escape into the subway tunnels. But, of course, they get separated, and Lizzie ends up getting recaptured.

And here’s where I’d personally have preferred they take the episode in a different direction. Because I reckon they gave the wrong parts of the story to the wrong characters. Once safely away from the Cathulans, the Doctor heads for the Columbia Building to convince Orson Welles to do War of the Worlds tonight, while Lizzie is stuck with the aliens, and her role for the rest of the episode is basically going to be to persuade them not to listen to Charlie McCarthy.

I’m serious. The big conflict in her end of the plot is that they turn on NBC rather than CBS and nearly spend the evening listening to The Chase and Sanborn Hour. (For clarity’s sake, no one ever actually says the names of the networks. They don’t even mention Charlie and Edgar by name.)

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A Memorial

I was out of town the last week of May, and in the preparations, I missed this piece of news. I probably would have missed it anyway, because it’s not the sort of thing that makes the big news sources, and I find it too morbid to google random people whose stars have faded to see if they’re still alive on a regular basis.

Jared Martin died May 24, of pancreatic cancer (The same cancer that recently relieved us of John Hurt, Alan Rickman, and Steve Jobs. Cancer is an asshole). He is, of course, best known for his role as Dusty Barlow on Dallas. Though readers will know him best as Dr. Harrison Blackwood on War of the Worlds, even among science fiction fans, he’s more often remembered for playing the time-traveling musician Varian on the short-lived ’70s series The Fantastic Journey (No relation to The Fantastic Voyage; this is from the popular ’70s genre of “Contemporary family falls through a hole into a weird otherworld and fails to get home week after week”). And though it would be a prime time soap that made him a household name, Jared Martin had a long history with genre TV, firmly in the stable of “Hey, it’s that guy!” actors. Think someone like Mark Sheppard today. He appeared in Columbo as an incredibly sympathetic murder victim, a recovering addict killed as part of a cover-up by a ruthless surgeon played by Leonard Nemoy. He played a double role in an episode of Wonder Woman, as an amusement park owner and his disfigured brother. He played the son of a corrupt senator on The Incredible Hulk. Martin was often cast as sophisticated villains: a professor who used remote-controlled cars in the third season opener of Knight Rider; a murderous doctor in Hart to Hart, a gentleman thief in Scarecrow and Mrs. King, a ruthless businessman’s Number 2 in Airwolf. He appeared in two episodes of Murder, She Wrote, including one of that series’ crossovers with Magnum, PI. (Not all of his villain roles were sophisticated, though; he also played a mutated pacific islander in The Six Million Dollar Man). He also appeared in the original Westworld and an episode of the TV adaptation of Logan’s Run.

Harrison Blackwood was his last regular leading role. He spent his later years teaching acting and directing in Philadelphia, and as an art photographer. He was 75.

Regular programming resumes next week. Sorry for the delay.

Tales From /lost+found 119/Deep Ice CROSSOVER: It wasn’t like the radio show at all (Doctor Who 4×18: Invaders From Mars!)

WARNING: MEMORY CORRUPTION. RESTORING UNIVERSE FROM BACKUP…

If they were making this today, they’d have totally CGI’d New York instead of badly colorizing old newsreel footage.

It is February 18, 2000. It’s a pretty solid time in my life. Leah and I are starting to get serious. We’d recently had our first kiss after the Valentine’s Day dance at school. In obvious analogies, Arianespace launches the Japanese communications satellite Superbird-B2. Space Shuttle Endeavour is currently in orbit, halfway through its final solo mission (its remaining dozen missions would be to the ISS). The final Peanuts strip ran this past Sunday, following the death of Charles Schulz a week earlier. Microsoft released Windows 2000 yesterday. With the withdrawls of Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, the GOP primary race is down to George W Bush and John McCain. McCain’s five points up in South Carolina, and he just might take this thing. I mean, unless some kind of evil, ham-shaped mastermind spreads a rumor that he fathered a black child out of wedlock.

Mariah Carey tops the Billboard charts with “Thank God I Found You”, a song I do not recall at all. Also in the top five are Christina Aguilera with “What a Girl Wants”, Blink 182 with “All the Small Things”, Savage Garden with “I Knew I Loved You”, and Santana featuring Rob Thomas with “Smooth”. Savage Garden will unseat her next week, the others are all on the way down from the top. In two weeks, Savage Garden will hand over the top spot to Lonestar with “Amazed”, currently at number 18.

The 1950 film adaptation of Born Yesterday is released on DVD. Loyola will do the stageplay this year, and I wonder if that’s related at all. Among movies opening in theaters today are two Vin Diesel films: the securities fraud crime drama Boiler Room, and Pitch Black, the first Chronicles of Riddick movie. Bruce Willis vehicle The Whole Nine Yards, and Walter Matthau’s final film, Hanging Up. Eastenders celebrates its 15th anniversary on British television this week. Stateside, this week’s The West Wing is “Celestial Navigation”. Sam and Toby go on a road trip to get a SCOTUS nominee out of jail (He’s falsely accused of drunk driving by a probably-racist cop), CJ has a root canal, and Josh makes an ass of himself. 7 Days this week is “The Backstepper’s Apprentice”. Without looking it up, I’m just going to assume the plot is “Something goes wrong with the time machine and the actual mission takes a back-seat to sorting out the consequences of that,” because that is the plot of about 75% of all 7 Days episodes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is “Goodbye, Iowa” in which Big Bad Adam escapes from fake-out Big Bad The Initiative. Really moving performance from Charisma Carpenter. Angel gives us “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, a demonic possession story with a clever twist. Over on Showtime, Stargate SG-1 gives us “New Ground”. The gang arrives through a recently-unburied stargate, causing trouble for the locals, a creationist culture that’s fighting a cold war with a neighboring country that has a more accurate theory of human origins. They bring a scientist back with them to become a research assistant while he waits for his people to get their heads out of their asses. He is never heard of again, but his backstory is broadly similar to the one they’d give Jonas Quinn two years later. On Sci-Fi, The Phoenix Banner: Crusade airs “Bigger Bugs Have Lesser Bugs”. Sunday’s The X-Files will be “X-Cops”, a crossover with the police reality show Cops. Speaking of reality shows, earlier this week, FOX aired Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, which culminated with the marriage of Darva Conger to Rick Rockwell, and I’m sure those two crazy kids will be very happy. (Spoiler: The marriage was annulled in April.)

And, of course, Doctor Who. Now you probably already know that season four of Doctor Who is a little bit controversial among fans. The show had been doing well for three seasons, but it was ridiculously expensive. They’d tried to reign in costs by having the Doctor destroy the TARDIS to defeat the Master back in the season opener. This left the Doctor Earth-bound, hearkening back to the original UNIT era in the 1970s, and let them replace expensive alien and period locales with location shooting in Vancouver. And introducing a recurring humanoid enemy saved them on alien make-up and visual effects.

And while it’s certainly true that these changes brought a sharper focus on the writing and led to more complex character development and storylines, it just was not what Doctor Who fans wanted out of the show. The ratings slumped and word on the street was that FOX was unlikely to renew the show.

So as a last, desperate saving throw, they massively retooled the show mid-season, ushering in the Christmas hiatus with a cliffhanger that saw the Doctor and Lizzie thrown back in time two thousand years. The return of time travel to the format, along with a break from the season-long recurring enemy, was a fresh change of pace, but it proved to be too little too late, and the show was only saved when the Sci-Fi channel bought the rights and they jumped to basic cable.

In our defense, can you really say these look less like legitimate alien creatures than, say, Alpha Centauri?

If you skipped this period in Doctor Who history, the show works a little differently now from the rest of its run. As I mentioned, the Doctor and Lizzie are trapped in the past. They’re working their way forward through the centuries using something called the “Toynbee device”, which is slowly pulling them back to their own time, but needs a random amount of time to recharge before it will work. And yes, more than a few fans, me included, objected to the similarities between this setup and that of a certain other FOX show which had jumped to the Sci-Fi channel and whose run ended a couple of weeks earlier.

This week is the last episode of that arc. After leaving World War I France, the Toynbee device pops them forward twenty years to New York, 1938. Last week’s cliffhanger found the time travelers accosted on the streets of New York by a pair of strange, unwieldy creatures. They’re quickly revealed to be costumed revelers: it’s Halloween.

Cut to the vortex and the John Debney version of the theme song.

Oh yes, Halloween in New York, 1938. You can see where this is going. Now, based on our experiences so far, between Global Dispatches and “Eye for an Eye“, there’s two obvious ways for this to play out:

  • Orson Welles’s radio play really was a news broadcast, documenting real events
  • Welles’s radio broadcast was faked as a cover-up for a real invasion.

What I’m pleased to report is that the path they went with is… Actually something different. We meet up with Welles in a bar, where he’s arguing with Howard Koch about the script. Leiv Schreiber plays Welles, and it’s a refreshing take. Casting Orson Welles is tricky business; hell, Orson Welles could barely handle playing Orson Welles. But playing a 1938 Welles has its own challenges, because Welles is such a huge, imposing trope of a man that everyone is going to go into a project like this with really concrete ideas about how the character should be played. But the Orson Welles that lives in our imagination, demanding Galvatron capture the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, refusing to sell wine before its time, and wigging out over a commercial for frozen peas, that Orson Welles took decades to form. What we have here is Welles at 23. Someone who’s up-and-coming, sure, and certainly a little arrogant (who wouldn’t be if they’d just had their picture on the cover of Time at 23. Hell, I’ve heard some people have to fake that), but his potential is still largely yet-to-be-proven, and to a great extent, he’s still in the process of finding his voice. So Schreiber plays a surprisingly subdued Welles, one that’s far more restrained and moderate than you’d expect, he said, just before inserting an animated gif of him flipping a table in anger:

And how dare you license your name to a bullshit sequel that’s mostly a political farce!

Welles thinks Koch’s script is dull and is close to dropping the whole thing and doing Lorna Doone instead. John Houseman, Welles’s long-time collaborator, who you might remember from The Paper Chase and also me having mentioned him recently (Also, fun fact: Houseman died on October 31, 1988, fifty years to the day after the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and, of course, the same day “Eye for an Eye” aired), calms him down, promising to work with Koch on some last-minute rewrites to make it more exciting.

Houseman is played by, of all people, David Suchet, best known for Poirot. And he’s great, obviously, but I can’t help feeling a little sad that they got an actor of such amazing talent and repute and used him in such a minor way. Also, I spent the whole episode waiting for him to refer to his “leetle gray cells.”

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Deep Ice: As if a vast intelligence was pouring into my mind (“Howard Koch’s” War of the Worlds II, Episode 2, Side 4)

Previously… Nancy Ferris got kidnapped, the gang on Mars got reunited, and a guy names Jefferson Davis Clark is totally not going to do anything rash or dangerous…

Side four, like the preceding one, begins with Jessica Storm aboard Artemis. She receives a message from Ratkin, informing her of Nancy Ferris’s kidnapping, so that she can use it to compel surrender out of her husband. He cautions her that Commander Ferris will undoubtedly threaten her life in an attempt to force her to send a message back to Ratkin. His confidence of this is bizarre given that there’s nothing we’ve seen of Ferris that indicates as much. Probably projection. The point of saying it is so that Ratkin can subtly threaten Jessica, hinting that he’ll pretty much have her rubbed out if she were to cave under pressure. This in turn prompts Jessica to allude to the fact that Ratkin had his first two wifes murdered. Whenever Ratkin makes a point about how he seriously wants Jessica to make sure the entire Orion crew is good and murdered, she always responds with an oddly robotic, “I will do what I must.” Halfway through the call, she has to change encrypted channels, because someone is trying to intercept their signal. As far as I know, this never comes up again and never has any payoff.

Hey, check it, the people who built the prop 30 years ago had a broken link on their website to a picture of it!

At Castle Volcania, Doctor Evans cautions Ratkin that Jessica is, “Not your typical woman,” and that Ratkin underestimates her at his peril. Ratkin assures Evans that Jessica can’t possibly prove anything. Doctor Evans, in case you’ve forgotten, is Ratkin’s personal physician from his very first appearance. Why is Ratkin letting his doctor — who, don’t forget, hates him and is blackmailing him — listen in as he confesses to abduction, conspiracy, attempted murder, murder for hire, and crimes against humanity? Because it’s fun to listen to Ratkin insist to Jessica that there must not under any circumstances be any witnesses while he’s telling his plans in detail to basically every person he has ever interacted with?

Nah, it’s actually an excuse to segue into a flashback of Ratkin and Evans at the funeral for said first wife. Well, I assume it’s the funeral because there’s organ music in the background, though their dialogue would make more sense by her hospital bed, since the scene seems to take place within moments of her death. Literally every line of dialogue sounds like a threat out of a gangster movie, whether the line makes sense that way or not, with those drawn-out pauses in the middle to punctuate a euphemism or a threat. “The nature of her ailment was so… mysterious. It’s so hard to predict the course of such a… wasting disease.” Ratkin, for his part, sounds genuinely mournful, despite his words conveying a far more mercenary tone. “If only we’d caught it earlier. She might still be… alive.”

The “mysterious wasting disease” instantly gets changed into a series of miscarriages. Evans says that she was too small to carry a child to term, which Ratkin blames on her “aristocratic” breeding, but Evans points out that, “Chronic anorexia can make it almost… impossible to bear a child.” Ratkin swears off the aristocrats and promises that his next wife will be “pure peasant stock” with good birthing hips. Evans suggests Ratkin’s personal assistant, but hopes she’ll be able to fulfill his… requirements, because it would be a… real crime if she, “Had to end up like the first Mrs. Ratkin.”

This scene, like all the flashbacks, is pointless and stupid. Okay. Ratkin killed his first two wives. This is not exactly news. We already know the broad strokes of what he did to his third wife, and we know he had the nanny offed, and we know that he’s ordered the murder of the Orion crew. There is nothing in particular new or exciting that we learn from having a flashback to his wife’s death, unless possibly the point is so that we’ll know Evans was involved. But that isn’t much of a revelation either.

Ohm appears to the Orion crew on Mars, and after the obligatory moment where everyone other than Townsend mistakes him for Ari, they ask him to help fix their rover. Ohm is happy to help, and lets them know that there’s no hurry: Tor is running late, so they’ll have plenty of time to explore and look for water and whatever. More than that, they should have Orion land and bring everyone else down here, and this is not suspicious at all and he totally is not delaying them as part of a trap. They ask about the fact that they’ve only met a grand total of two Martians. Ohm explains that the budget will only stretch to do that flange voice effect for two actors that they decided to minimize their contact with the others to reduce their chance of discovery by the Tor.

Ari shows up and they barely have time to tell him that Ohm wanted them to stick around longer when he up and kills Ohm, who disappears with a flanged “Eeeee!” Sure enough, Ohm had betrayed the humans under Tor mind-probing. The humans are at first horrified by this, but Ari explains rationally that the death penalty for people who do things you don’t like against their own will is actually the rational thing to do, and locking Ohm up for the rest of his life so he could become embittered and vengeful would actually be less humane than just offing him. Everyone sees the wisdom of this because it is a view shared by the author, I’m guessing.

With the Tor now aware of the humans, and certain to move fast once they notice Ohm’s death, Ari pressures the Orion crew to leave quickly. Besides — and here’s another thing that seems like it should be important but as far as I know will not come up again — there’s unrest among the Martians, and the possibility of an uprising fomenting. Mark casually drops the possibility that the unrest is related to the Martian warship he saw the previous day and didn’t think to mention until now. Without any indication of anything new having happened that would cause this warship to suddenly be a point of contention after sixty years. Or why they left their only remaining warship where Mark could just happen upon it by accident, especially in light of the fact that the Martians don’t have doors; they just open and close holes in the walls to travel between disconnected chambers, so either someone let Mark into the chamber where the ship was, or there was an open path he could just walk down to get there.

According to Ari, it’s the only remaining ship the Martians have, and even Ohm didn’t know about it, meaning it’s a secret from the Tor as well. But between Tor’s extermination of all of their pilots and the need to keep it a secret from the unwilling Tor collaborators, no one knows anything about operating it. Rutherford’s hero complex plays up again and he starts getting starry-eyed about the possibility that he could figure out the controls himself. Nikki gets snippy with him over it. Ari agrees to fix the rover for them, but warns that they have very little time before the Tor come looking for them.

DeWitt engages in a hopelessly padded scene before her address to the Ice Sectioners. Her Secret Service head briefs her on security arrangements because they’ve found the building impossible to completely secure. DeWitt can’t back out in spite of the elevated risk, since polling shows that most Americans will decide who to vote for based on how she handles the strike. She hopes that if she plays up the idea that the strike is hurting Americans, they’ll make their congressmen’s phones, “Ring so loud the congressmen won’t be able to hear the NAIS lobbyists.” They can’t pay the ice sectioners any more because the people won’t stand for a tax increase, but somehow they could force the ice sectioners back to work if it weren’t for the lobbyists, and congress is more interested in fellating wealthy donors than in protecting their constituents, to the point that they are literally letting a comic book super villain charge ten dollars an once for the only potable water in the world and hundreds of people are dying daily from dehydration. The level of contempt that the government shows for its duty to promote the general welfare would be completely fantastical except that it’s 2017 and the actual government is basically doing the exact same thing in order to redirect billions of dollars away from Medicare and into tax cuts for the super-rich and now I’m angry again.

The only time DeWitt will actually be vulnerable is on the walk out to the bulletproofed podium, so of course she takes about two steps out onto the stage when Clark shouts “Down with the tyrant!” from the audience and fires off a volley of gunfire, killing the Secret Service head and hitting DeWitt twice. As she lingers in critical condition, a series of news briefs explain that Clark was a former janitor at the auditorium, and had retained a key to an “obscure basement entrance.” I know that technically, “obscure” could be a legitimate word to use here, but that phrase does not scan like something an actual English speaker would say.

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Deep Ice: Turn it off! Turn it off! (“Howard Koch’s” War of the Worlds II: Episode 2, Part 3)

No no no no no no no.

Okay. We’re back. No need for a recap because nothing happened last week. We left off with Jessica Storm having a flashback to how she broke up with Mark Rutherford and Nikki Jackson, and why she wants to kill them. In the present, she meets with the rest of the Artemis crew to discuss how to kill their rivals. Predictably, she insists that Nikki be left for her to kill personally, though this does not actually go on to happen. They show stolen files on the Orion crew, identifying all of them as being good in a fight, except for Doctor Morgan, who is a (spit) pacifist, though Jessica calls out Mark’s hero complex and Ferris’s over-protectiveness toward his crew as weaknesses for them to exploit.

Space is warped and time is bendable!

Immediately after the briefing, one of Jessica’s underlings announces that interference from the Martian surface has blocked their feed from Orion 1. It’s not any NASA signal, or any other transmission Jessica is familiar with. This is, presumably, the same interference we heard about before that had stopped NASA from warning Orion about the approach of Artemis. Which means it’s probably time to point out just how few fucks this series gives for anything resembling a coherent sense of how time and space work. I won’t bother faulting them for the fact that there’s no time lag between Earth and Mars, because frankly that would just slow the plot down more. But different parts of the story take radically different amounts of time. They never say how long the trip to Mars actually takes, but it’s long enough that Orion was equipped with hibernation equipment. Artemis will catch up “several months” before Orion is scheduled to depart Mars, and DeWitt was surprised that it could achieve that speed even with bleeding-edge upgrades. Now, technically, that could mean that Artemis is expected to reach Mars only a few days after Orion does, but would you phrase it that way if it were the case? No, of course not. By framing Artemis’s arrival as being “several months before Orion is scheduled to depart”, it implies that Orion will be well into a long mission. And the ordering of scenes so far placed Artemis’s launch after Orion arrived at Mars. But don’t forget, Ratkin and Jessica anticipated that Japan could launch a Mars shuttle in about six months (spoiler: we won’t hear any more of any other country even attempting a launch). In general, events on Earth all seem to be progressing at a normal sort of narrative pace, with gaps of hours or days between scenes, while events in space have large, multi-month gaps in them, yet the events interleave with those on Earth. Even worse, the story on Mars is paced much more tightly; the only time there’s a real gap where you could fit a lot of downtime is before they arrive in Martian orbit, or maybe right before Rover 1 is sent down. Yet the implication is that Artemis’s entire trip from Earth to Mars takes place after half the Orion crew disappears into the Martian underground. The closest we’ll get to a duration for how long they ultimately spend underground is “more than 72 hours”. Things which should take weeks or months are continually interleaved with things that could take at most hours or days.

At this point, something a little funny happens, and I initially misinterpreted it completely. So just for a minute, let’s go with my mistake for a bit, because I’ve got to take some pleasure where I can in this thing. Jessica is trying to figure out what the strange signal from Mars is. She’s sure, with her 180-IQ, that she knows every kind of signal, cipher and encoding used on Earth, and it’s none of those. So she listens to it.

We’re treated to a sample of the audio. Pretty quickly, I recognize what I’m hearing: it’s backmasked. Pull out audacity and reverse it, and it turns out that it’s a clip from much later in the episode:

˙sɹǝʇunoɔ ᴉʞʞᴉN ,,’ssǝſ ‘ʎɹoǝɥʇ uᴉ ʎluO,, ,,˙sʎɐʍl∀ ˙noʎ uǝʇɐǝq ʎɐʍlɐ ǝʌ,I ˙˙˙uǝɯ uǝʌǝ ‘ɹǝǝɹɐɔ ‘ǝƃǝlloƆ ˙ʇsɹᴉɟ pɐɥ ǝʌ,I ‘ᴉʞʞᴉN ‘pǝʇuɐʍ ɹǝʌǝ ǝʌ,noʎ ƃuᴉɥʇʎɹǝʌƎ ˙ɯɐǝʇ ƃuᴉuuᴉʍ ǝɥʇ uo ɯ,I ‘pǝʎɐld ɹǝʌǝ ǝʌ,ǝʍ ǝɯɐƃ ʎɹǝʌƎ ˙ǝɹoɔs ʇsǝq ǝɥʇ ʇǝƃ I ‘uǝʞɐʇ ɹǝʌǝ ǝʌ,ǝʍ ʇsǝʇ ʎɹǝʌƎ,, ‘ʍoɥ ʇnoqɐ ᴉʞʞᴉN ƃuᴉʇunɐʇ ǝʇnuᴉɯ ɐ spuǝds ɐɔᴉssǝſ ˙ǝɟᴉʍ sᴉɥ pǝddɐupᴉʞ sɐɥ uᴉʞʇɐɹ ǝsnɐɔǝq ɹǝɥ oʇ ɹǝpuǝɹɹns oʇ pǝɔɹoɟ uǝǝq p,ǝɥ ʇɐɥʇ sǝssǝɟuoɔ sᴉɹɹǝℲ ˙ɹǝʇɔɐɹɐɥɔ ɹǝɥ ɹoɟ ǝlʇʇᴉl sʎɐs uosɐǝɹ ou ɹoɟ ɯɹoʇS ɐɔᴉssǝſ ƃuᴉɥʇnoɯpɐq spuoɔǝs ǝʌᴉɟ-ʎʇuǝʌǝs puǝds oʇ ǝpᴉɔǝp ᴉʞʞᴉN ƃuᴉʌɐɥ puɐ ‘ǝuoʇ s,snפ uᴉɐldxǝ ʎllɐǝɹ ʇ,usǝop sᴉɥʇ ˙ɹǝɥ puᴉɥǝq ʇɥƃᴉɹ ƃuᴉpuɐʇs sᴉ ɯɹoʇs ɐɔᴉssǝſ ʇɐɥʇ sᴉ ‘ǝsɹnoɔ ɟo ‘uosɐǝɹ ǝɥ┴ ˙ɹǝɥ ʇdnɹɹǝʇuᴉ oʇ ƃuᴉlᴉɐɟ puɐ ƃuᴉʎɹʇ ʎlʇuǝnbǝɹɟ snפ ɥʇᴉʍ ‘pɹɐǝɥ ʇsnɾ ǝʍ ʞɔɐqɥsɐlɟ ʇɐɥʇ ɟo sʇuǝʌǝ ǝɥʇ ɟo dɐɔǝɹ ʞɔᴉnb ɐ sn sǝʌᴉƃ puɐ ‘qoɾ ǝɥʇ pǝʇdǝɔɔɐ ɐɔᴉssǝſ pɐɥ ʍǝɹɔ uoᴉɹO ǝɥʇ pǝuᴉoɾ ǝʌɐɥ ʇ,uplnoʍ ǝɥs ʍoɥ ʇnoqɐ ǝnƃolouoɯ ɐ oʇuᴉ sǝɥɔunɐl ᴉʞʞᴉN ˙spuoɔǝs ǝʌᴉɟ-ʎʇuǝʌǝs ʇnoqɐ uᴉ ɹɐǝlɔ ǝɯoɔǝq ɟo-ʇɹos llᴉʍ ɥɔᴉɥʍ suosɐǝɹ ɹoɟ ,,’ɯɹoʇS ɐɔᴉssǝſ,, ‘sǝɹɐlɔǝp ʎluǝppns snפ ˙ʎlᴉɯɐɟ sɐ ʍǝɹɔ ǝɥʇ ɟo ʞuᴉɥʇ oʇ ǝɯoɔ s,ǝɥs ʍoɥ ʇnoqɐ ɥɔǝǝds ǝlʇʇᴉl ɐ sǝʌᴉƃ puǝsuʍo┴ ‘pɹɐoqɐ ǝɔuo puɐ ‘uoᴉɹO ɥʇᴉʍ sʞɔop ɹǝʌoɹ ǝɥ┴ ˙sᴉɹɹǝℲ llᴉʇs s,ʇᴉ ‘llɐ ɹǝʇɟɐ ‘ǝsnɐɔǝq ‘uoᴉʇoɯǝ ƃuᴉʍoɥs ʎllɐnʇɔɐ ʇnoɥʇᴉʍ uɐɔ ǝɥ sɐ ʎlʇuǝƃɹn sɐ dᴉɥs ǝɥʇ oʇ ʞɔɐq ɯǝɥʇ ƃuᴉɹǝpɹo ‘ǝɔuǝsqɐ sᴉɥ uᴉɐldxǝ oʇ ǝɯᴉʇ ɯǝɥʇ ǝʌᴉƃ ʇ,usǝop sᴉɹɹǝℲ ɹǝpuɐɯɯoƆ puɐ ‘ɯǝɥʇ ɥʇᴉʍ ʇ,usᴉ pɹoɟɹǝɥʇnɹ ˙(Ɩ ɹǝʌoɹ ʎlɹɐǝlɔ s,ʇᴉ ‘ʇxǝʇuoɔ uᴉ ;ǝʞɐʇsᴉɯ ɐ sᴉ sᴉɥʇ) ᄅ ɹǝʌoɹ uᴉ sɹɐW ɯoɹɟ uɹnʇǝɹ sʇnɐuoɹʇsɐ uoᴉɹO ɹnoɟ ǝɥʇ ɟo ǝǝɹɥʇ ʇɐɥʇ sn sllǝʇ ɹoʇɐɹɹɐu ǝɥʇ ‘dᴉlɔ ǝɥʇ uI

Now okay, backmasking legitimate audio to stand in for an alien transmission is fine. But this goes on for four minutes. Which just played into my sense of this episode being padded all to hell. I didn’t cotton on until I got to the end of side four and the same thing happened again.

Yeah. Turns out that the tape had just gotten twisted when I was ripping the tape to CD. There isn’t meant to be four minutes of backmasked audio here. The reason I didn’t realize it is that it just fits in so well in context. I mean, it happens right when Jessica Storm is trying to interpret this signal from Mars. And it’s not like any of the story is missing here. Plus, there’s places later on where there are actual for-real production errors, like big silent gaps between scenes, or incorrect fades in the music during transitions. So it didn’t tip me off when the next scene cuts in for a second three-quarters of the way through and then switches back to backmasking.

In the scene which the backmasking replaces, Jessica doesn’t pay any more mind to the signal from Mars, but instead just fiddles with the controls until she can hear NASA, and orders the signal jammed to prevent Orion learning of their approach. The remaining three minutes are taken up with a scene which isn’t entirely pointless, but is close enough to it that the episode frankly flows better without it.

We’re introduced to a new pointless character, Hiro Protagonist Stephen Ulysses Perhero Victor Fries Remus Lupin Edward Nygma Eric Magnus Victor von Doom Richie Rich Captain Jonathan Power Moon Bloodgood Jefferson Davis Clark. He’s an unemployed water purification technician who sounds like an unholy fusion of a fourteen-year-old redneck and… a nebbishy Rick Moranis character. And he lives with his mother. Of course. He’s an obsessive Tosh Rimbauch fan, and blames DeWitt for his unemployment. His mother thinks Rimbauch is unfair to DeWitt, who inherited a mess, and disagrees that she’s responsible for him losing his job at the water plant. This thing can’t go more than a few minutes without shitting on the populace, so she patiently explains that he actually lost his job because, “Citizens didn’t want the cost of the operation of the water purification plant added to their taxes.” I mean, that and the public masturbation, I assume. He vows to be at DeWitt’s upcoming speech to the Ice Sectioner’s Union, in a tone that is supposed to be menacing, but just sounds whiny.

Clark and his mom are watching The Freida Kahlo Cohen Show, which I assume is a reference to someone, but I can’t figure out who. Sally Jessy Raphael, maybe? She sounds kinda like a drunk Terry Gross. She’s interviewing Tosh Rimbauch about his new book, Better Luck Next Time. He leads off by insulting her weight, though, “I’ve always found heavy thighs real attractive.” “Well then, you must think you’re just gorgeous,” she retorts. They trade barbs for a while (There is an actual good one where Freida says she’s not dumb enough to ever agree to go on Tosh’s show, and he throws back, “I wouldn’t say that”) before getting into the content of his book, which is all about trashing President DeWitt. Predictably, there’s no real content to his arguments other than, “She’s a woman.” He’s proud of his misogyny, as he’d, “Rather insult some desperate short-haired pantsuit-wearing women’s movement than insult the intelligence of decent American people.”

He lays it on thick, blaming DeWitt for literally every problem facing America, and insists that things would be better if voters had followed his advice in ’96 and voted for — they really mean for us to take this seriously as the name of the Republican presidential candidate — Napoleon Creed. Okay, admittedly, there are real actual people named Newt Gingrich, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, and Reince Preibus. Freida doesn’t have any better counterargument than, “But his name is Napoleon” either. Freida suggests that it’s “price wars and bureaucracy on Wall Street”, rather than DeWitt that is responsible for the current state of affairs, but Tosh dismisses her claims, without even addressing the fact that she seemed to just be stringing random words together with no sense of what they meant. No, he simply asserts that having a woman in the Oval Office meant “all hope was gone.”

He shows off a red baseball cap black armband of mourning for his lost country, and insists that until DeWitt is “gotten rid of”, “we” won’t be able to have “our country” back and “Make America Great Again”. “Mark my words, Freida: the world will be a better place when DeWitt is out of here.”

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Deep Ice: It was my special thing and you took it away from me (Howard Koch’s War of the Worlds II, Episode 2: Lost in Space, Part 2)

Previously…

You know what? It doesn’t matter. Side two is a really shocking amount of filler and backstory, since that bit with Ohm and Ari and the Tor was too much interesting happening too fast, so let’s slow the plot down for the next forty-five minutes.

Is there a canonical explanation why the Legion of Doom headquarters looks like a Darth Vader Novelty Condom?

At Mount Doom, Ratkin’s pet boy comes in to say goodnight. Ever since Nurse Mary “accepted another position mua ha ha,” he’s been having nightmares about being torn from the arms of a beautiful, singing woman who is thrown to the ground violently as his father watches. Ratkin panics briefly when it becomes clear that the boy is remembering how Ratkin got rid of Ethan’s mother. This scene takes much longer than I’m making it sound, but nothing of substance happens.

Jump-cut to an insane asylum nearby, where one of the patients is a nameless woman the staff refer to as “Mrs. Rochester” after the character from Jane Eyre. She’s kept sedated into a state of catatonia because, on her admission a dozen years earlier, they were told that she became violent during her lucid periods. And they’re being paid a huge amount of money to never ever reevaluate her or do any sort of psychiatric treatment to try to improve her condition, and they are cool with it, except possibly the optimistic young doctor who’s just started here and thinks he sees hints of intelligence in her eyes, and possibly in some later episode help break her out to confront Ratkin, provided Sharah Thomas can keep all these stupid, pointless plot threads going. This scene takes much longer than I’m making it sound, but nothing of substance happens.

“Mrs. Rochester” carries around a baby doll and sings lullabies to it, to make sure the audience gets that she’s connected to the woman in Ethan’s dream even if they missed the segue about how Ratkin’s secretary was making out a check to the asylum (“Mrs. Rochester”‘s story is kinda inconsistent; they claim she was found catatonic and soaking wet from falling off a bridge, with no ID, and no one ever claimed her… But someone is also regularly sending them massive checks for her upkeep. Untraceable anonymous checks, which identify whose upkeep they’re paying for without revealing her name… Never mind.). The only thing that stirs her to action is if someone tries to take the doll from her, as an orderly found out earlier that day. Though she also gets riled up while Optimistic Young Doctor Who’s Just Started Here meets her, due to what’s on the TV. Segue!

That ‘Stache, tho.

What’s on TV is The Obvious Expy For Geraldo Rivera Show. Yes, Geraldo Rivera. The Fox News Person. Back in the ’90s, he was best known for hosting a trashy daytime talk show in the vein of Jerry Springer. His show today is on Husbands Who Carry Out Needlessly Complex Agatha Christie-esque Plots to Kill Their Wives. This scene takes much longer than I’m making it sound, but nothing of substance happens.

I hope they actually give some reason why Ratkin, who has shown absolutely no qualms about murdering people even when he’s doing it so obviously that there could be absolutely no doubt of his culpability, had his wife drugged and institutionalized at great expense rather than just killing her. But I’m not optimistic.

The “Renaldo” show is interrupted by a CNB news special report (Aww. It’s adorable. They’ve learned how to do a segue between scenes. So grown-up!). The water purification plant in Detroit has just closed up shop, and at least six people are dead in the resulting riots. The Water Refinery (Is “refinery” the right word here? It’s the word they use) had been bought years ago to produce potable water. But after outfitting the plant at great cost, the owners had been forced to operate at only minimal levels due to “bureaucratic debate”. This is that thing they kept banging the gong about in the previous episode, about how water purification was a non-started because of “bureaucratic gridlock”. What was this debate about? Who cares! Bureaucracy, amirite? Arguments aren’t about things; they’re just useless government officials wasting time. After years of losing money hand over fist, the owners of the water refinery have gone bankrupt. Despite not actually doing anything, the refinery was the largest employer in the city, so twenty-thousand people are out of work, hence the riots.

The CNB reporter hands over to a press conference by President DeWitt. In her usual, stilted fashion, she repeats what we already know and sort of vaguely blames greed. She also announces that she’s brokered a deal with the former Soviet block to buy ice from them, and sent in the National Guard to put down the riots in Detroit. Questions from the press corps go all over the place. There’s a rumor — and DeWitt confirms it — that the White House indoor pool hasn’t been drained, though she maintains it hasn’t been filled either. They’re just, y’know, storing it. Fun fact: the White House doesn’t have an indoor pool. It used to. The press briefing room, the room in which this scene is set, was built over it. Someone else asks about reports of a five billion dollar earmark for submarines to collect water from undersea freshwater pockets, and what impact it would have on the environment. DeWitt denies that any funds have been allocated, but does say that they’re still looking into it. (Turns out that undersea freshwater pockets are a thing, and might actually be a more realistic way to provide potable water in the future than ice mining or flying the fuck to Mars. Five billion does seem pretty steep, though, given that it’s the same cost as Mission Red)

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Deep Ice: Nobody is listening (Howard Koch’s War of the Worlds II, Episode 2: Lost in Space, Part 1)

That’s still not Mars.

Well shit. Back to this, I guess. The story so far, according to the continuity announcer:

The world was in chaos. Fresh water, the lifeblood of every lifeform on the planet, was in short supply. Efforts at water purification met with fierce opposition and bureaucratic squabbling, orchestrated by Ronald Ratkin, the richest man on the Earth. It was his goal to gain control of the world’s water supply, and by doing so, control the world.

In our last episode, the entire world watched, riveted, as a moon-bound shuttle was launched. Little did they know, the shuttle, Orion-1, was really bound for Mars. In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to find a new water supply, United States President Sandra DeWitt charged NASA to send the shuttle to find the water believed to be trapped within the red planet. Sixty-one years ago, a Martian army had launched an attack on Earth, which the world had barely survived. Now, a team of seven courageous astronauts and scientists, led by Commander Jonathan Ferris, were chosen to confront the unknown, hostile inhabitants of the planet Mars, and return with water to save their dying planet.

But Ronald Ratkin, ever vigilant, had plans of his own. With his unlimited resources, he purchased his own shuttle. He chose Jessica Storm to command the Artemis. Her mission: to eliminate the Orion crew and return with the secrets of Martian water. And Jessica was only too happy to carry out her assignment: she had a few scores to settle. One with NASA for not picking her to head the Orion mission, one with Jonathan Ferris for winning the position she coveted, and one against Orion crewmembers Mark Rutherford and Nikki Jackson. This score was personal.

As Orion’s crew landed on Mars and began its exploration, people began to disappear, starting with first mate Rutherford and geologist Gloria Townsend. Then, in an attempted rescue, mechanic Gus Pierelli and assistant commander Nikki Jackson were swallowed up in what looked to be a vortex of pure rock.

With four of his seven crewmembers gone, ignorant of what dangers lurked beneath the surface, and unaware of the danger that approached from Earth, Commander Ferris and his remaining crew had a difficult decision ahead of them. They could either risk their own lives to save the missing four, abort their mission and return to Earth, or continue their original mission and abandon all hope of ever seeing their friends again.

Got all that? Good. Now, let’s pick up with that exciting cliff-hanger on Mars… In about eight minutes, because the actual narrative is going to pick up with DeWitt in the Oval Office listening to Tosh Rimbauch. Rimbauch spends his time calling for DeWitt to be “deposed” (not, I note, “impeached”) due to high unemployment and the high cost of April Showers Spring Water, and insults her husband’s manhood. He reminds voters that he didn’t vote for her, and this gives him license to say, “I told you so.” Technically, no one voted for her, since they mentioned last episode that she’d succeeded her predecessor upon his death in office, which is the way we all assumed the first female president would end up happening except for a few glorious days in 2016 and FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU—

Anyway, Ed comes in with the grim news of the launch of Artemis (the mythological Artemis killed Orion, hence the name. Too bad space-murder isn’t illegal I guess, because Ratkin’s pre-confession would probably work against him in court). Ed is super coy about it, delivering revelations in a calculated order to make it seem like a progressive reveal. Of facts we already know from last episode. It makes it sound like he is somehow getting new information passed to him in the middle of this private meeting. What I mean is this: he starts out by saying that there’s been an unscheduled shuttle launch. Then he says that he contacted the various world space agencies, who confirmed that it wasn’t them. Then he offers DeWitt “one guess” who’s behind the launch, and then offers her “one guess” where it’s going, and “one guess” what they plan to do when they get there. Then he reveals the name of Ratkin’s ship. So he actually knew all along that it was Ratkin and even knew the name of the ship. So why would he bother contacting the other nation-state space agencies? And why were they acting like Ratkin being behind the launch was still just a guess? He speculates that Ratkin could have easily bought a ship from a former Soviet state, which he already stated as a known fact last episode. They estimate Artemis will reach Mars months before Orion leaves, which DeWitt finds hard to believe: it would require extensive engine modifications and the world’s best shuttle pilot. Ed reveals that NASA top scientists jumped ship to Ratkin months earlier, and also that Ratkin does indeed have the best pilot ever. DeWitt realizes the thing which they already discussed as a matter of fact in the previous episode: Ed’s talking about Jessica Storm. And they recap her musing over whether or not she made the right choice in picking Ferris over her. Jessica is said to be a “brilliant tactician”, which doesn’t strike me as a normal space shuttle piloting skill. There is no consideration of how Jessica Storm being a murderous sociopath affects her qualifications.

Remember Boness, the NASA project lead who grumpily resigned back on side two of cassette one? Well, he’s still in charge of Mission Red, and they call him to pass along a warning to Orion. Boness grumpily says that he can’t, because a signal from Mars is blocking their transmission. He speculates that it is something akin to a radio signal, but traveling faster than light, and aimed at a planet in a distant star system. In the Oval Office, they reflect, with very little obvious interest, that this means the Orion crew isn’t alone on Mars.

DeWitt’s husband interrupts to suggest she turn the radio back on. Rimbauch is breaking the story of Artemis’s launch, though he doesn’t know who’s behind it. He praises the unknown benefactor for setting out to murder the Orion crew, because clearly, we need a man to go fix this mess, not some so-called “Lady President” with her icky girl parts. And what about her emails?

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Metathesis: A Kind of Strange Charisma (Head of the Class: Radio-Activity)

I know what you’re thinking. I also do not know why Bennett the Sage, Rick Springfield, Pearl Mackie, Paul Ryan, and Elizabeth Berkley are in this picture, nor why half of them appear to have Hitler mustaches. It was the ’80s.

Charlie: So to wrap it up, Ronald Reagan is known as the “teflon president”, because nothing sticks to him.
Alan: In that case, I guess you’d call Jimmy Carter the “velcro president” because everything sticks to him.
Charlie: What does that make Richard Nixon?
Sarah: The Saran Wrap president. Covered everything up, but you could still see through him.

I need a palate cleanser. Let’s back up, just a bit. It is March 8, 1989, a week I have already covered in all the detail I care to, aside from mentioning that The Heidi Chronicles opens on Broadway today. When they did it at Loyola back in ’99, my next-door-neighbor played the lead. She asked me how to pronounce “Artemisia Gentileschi”. I’ve spent the following nineteen years trying not to find out if I was right.

I’ve never talked about an individual episode of a sitcom before, I think. I mean, not as the primary focus of an entire article. I’ve padded a few out with digressions about them. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a retrospective on Sabrina the Teenage Witch at some point because it would be something different, but it’s hard to draw out enough words about an episode when most episodes are twenty-two minutes of one-liners glued together by five minutes of story. But like I said, I need a palate cleanser.

What possible connection do you think there could be Howard Hessman and War of the Worlds? If you said, “I bet WKRP in Cincinatti did an homage to the the 1938 radio play,” then YOU FOOL! You fell for my obvious trap! No, impossible as it may sound, there won’t be so much as an oblique reference to Doctor Johnny Fever in our source material tonight. Instead, we’re going to drop in on a later Hessman vehicle, the late ’80s sitcom Head of the Class.

Head of the Class was a successful ’80s sitcom which was basically Welcome Back Kotter with geniuses. Hessman plays Charlie Moore, a failed actor turned long-term substitute history teacher, who ends up spending four years teaching the students of Millard Fillmore High School’s “Individualized Honors Program”. They’re not exactly Sweat Hogs, but rather a diverse group of students, luckily representing a wide array of traditional sitcom high school stereotypes. We’ve got the pocket-protector’d and bespectacled 1950s nerd Arvid, the overweight prankster Dennis, the Reagan-worshipping ultra-conservative preppy Alan, the highly driven rich girl Darleen (played by a pre-Mike Tyson Robin Givens), the sensitive and artistic good-girl Simone, the Indian exchange student Jawaharlal, Eric the ’50s greaser, pre-teen super-genius Janice, the vaguely new-agey Maria, and Sarah, who was basically normal so the audience would have someone to identify with. The cast was rounded out with the antagonistic and reputation-obsessed principal, Dr. Samuels, and his administrative assistant Bernadette, Charlie’s never-paid-off-potential-love-interest.

And Billy Connoly as the War Doctor Johnny Fever

Spring of 1989 keeps us in the “classic” era of the show. The next season would see the cast start to shake up with some departures and new arrivals, and the final season (Yeah, it takes these honors students five years to finish high school. The last two seasons are supposed to represent a single year with an inexplicable surplus of Christmases) would see Charlie replaced by Billy Connoly as Billy MacGregor. Connoly would continue the role in the terrible spin-off Billy, which would move him to California and stick him in a sham green card marriage. But all that is in the future, and a part of the future that’s well outside of our scope.

No, today we’re stopping by to have a look at episode sixteen of the third season, “Radio Activity”, due to a plot point that turns out to be smaller in reality than it was in my memory. In a show with such a large cast, not everyone got equal play every week. Hessman, of course, as the main lead, gets to be front-and-center in every episode, but otherwise, an episode tends to zero in on one or two of the students for the main plot, with a different student or two for a minor and unrelated side-plot that bookends the episode.

It’s not an overwhelming preference, and in fact, it might just be my memory cheating, but I feel like Dennis and Arvid were picked for character focus a bit more than the others. Their relationship fits into a couple of classic comedy-duo tropes: the fat guy and the thin guy, the buffoon and the straight-man, the bully and the doormat, the jerk and the woobie. They’re a dumber Leonard and Sheldon, a smarter Laurel and Hardy, a younger Abbot and Costello, a classier Bulk and Skull. Also, they’re white and male which I’m guessing endeared them to the writers.

This episode in particular belongs primarily to Arvid. We’re back in the ’80s, well before the ascendancy of nerd culture, so you shouldn’t expect this character to be especially nuanced. As I said before, he draws on a nerd aesthetic that was retro even at the time. Pocket protector. Coke-bottle glasses. Deviated septum. Love of chess. Eminently wedgie-able. Arvid is part of the tradition of television nerds that will soon lead us down the dark path of the Ur-kel. It is a portrayal that has a great deal of ugliness stuck around it. It is not an empathetic portrayal: we are meant to laugh at, not with such characters, view their abuse and mistreatment as no less than they deserve. And yet, even at its worst, television is an inherently sympathetic medium. No one’s going to make a TV show where the goal is for you to root for the bully, teaching that sensitive kid an important life-lesson about how he should learn to conform if he doesn’t want to be sexually assaulted with a broom handle. At least, not until Parker and Stone. So there is a paradoxical element to the TV nerd archetype in that while we revel in his humiliation and abuse, we don’t actually want to see him fail. Such is the nature of comedy. If you hit someone with a frying pan and it makes them think they’re a race car driver named Chazz, that’s funny; if you hit someone with a frying pan and it kills them, less so. But also, writing for television is something of a nerdy pursuit, so there tends to be hints of authorial self-insertion here. For the writer, maybe it’s therapeutic to take charge of their childhood traumas by reducing them to a series of jokes. But more than that — and here’s where things get troublesome — there’s an urge toward recompense. Arvid Engin is part of tradition that extends forward through Steve Urkel, to Ross Gellar and Xander Harris, of the Butt-Monkey Ascendant. These are characters who are mistreated and abused — by their friends, by society, by the fates themselves — well beyond what any reasonable person should be expected to deal with. Where this becomes ugly and problematic is that the audience is encouraged to view this as a kind of price that the universe is extracting from the victim. They are “paying their dues”, and we are pushed to see it as just, as fitting, proper and good when the Butt-Monkey is ultimately recompensed for this. The laws of fictional universes tell us that they have earned a happy ending. The have earned it not by working toward a goal, though, or by learning to be better people or by developing as characters. No, they “earned” their reward because the universe incurred a debt to them which now must be paid. We are encouraged to think of how Urkel never gave up his quest to woo Laura no matter how much pain and humiliation it brought him — we are encouraged not to think about the fact that he stalked her for a decade and refused to show the most basic respect for her wishes. Seriously, fuck that guy.

I have, par for the course, wandered away from the point. As far as I remember — and I haven’t seen this show in a quarter-century, so I might be forgetting a lot — Arvid Engin is a fairly mild, innocuous version of the trope. There’s no long-term stalking issue, no discreet passive-aggressive campaign of undermining a woman for a decade until her self-esteem is broken enough to accept his advances. But what’s there is that first thing I said: we’re supposed to revel in Arvid’s humiliation, but we still want him to win. And that’s the force that controls the moral arc of this episode.

Events occur in real time. Provided you keep pausing the tape and doing something else for 23 hours and fifty minutes each day.

After an introductory scene in the classroom as they cover the Reagan era (Will there be an arc of consistent themes and topics as the IHP spend five years working their way through history in some kind of chronological or thematic order? Of course not! Monday: Reagan. Tuesday: the 1930s. Wednesday: The Punic Wars), Charlie Moore is accosted by the principal. Dr. Samuels and Mr. Moore don’t get on well. Samuels considers Moore underqualified, and doesn’t like how he’s teaching his prized honors students to take joy in life and the process of learning and how he encourages them to eat Apple Jacks even though it doesn’t taste like apples. Samuels reveals that all teachers are required to serve as faculty advisers to one of the extracurricular clubs, and orders Charlie to sign up for one. They all sound totes lame, with the Future Farmers getting a chuckle out of the laugh track (I personally know better than to knock the FFA, though it does seem like an unlikely fit for Manhattan), until he discovers that the school has a radio station. It turns out — in a shocking reveal — that Charlie digs radio and jumps at the chance to take over. I know, right? What a stretch to have Howard Hessman play a guy who’s into radio!

While this is going on, Eric is trying to woo Simone. She’s artsy and poetic and sensitive and highbrow and wears sweaters. He’s basically every character John Travolta played in the 1970s, only as a super-genius. Half Danny Zuko and half Vinnie Barbarino, and looking to be his generation’s J. D. Salinger, for whatever “his generation” could possibly mean when he’s meant to be a high school student in the 1980s, played by a 26-year-old actor dressed like it’s the ’50s. He and Simone had their first date a few episodes back, and they’ll meander their way in the general direction of couplehood for the rest of the series, without ever actually arriving substantively enough to upset the status quo.

Seen here for some reason dressed as Rufus from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Simone has two tickets to Mozart night at the New York Chamber Ensemble. She invites Janice, but she’s got girl scouts that night. The basic running joke with Janice is that she’s probably the smartest one in the class, but she’s also still a child. So she cites Ein musikalischer Spaß Köchelverzeichnis 522 as “raising your soul to the heights of emotional and intellectual bliss,” but then whines, “Oh boogers!” when it turns out she can’t make it. Actually, it turns out that there’s a second joke hidden in there which hints at the fact that sitcoms are often smarter than we give them credit for. Ein musikalischer Spaß K. 522 is an odd choice for “emotional and intellectual bliss”: it’s a satirical piece full of deliberate technical mistakes to parody less-competent composers. The English title is “A Musical Joke”. Eric steps in and offers to accompany Simone, but he’ll have to prove to her that he appreciates chamber music first. He conscripts Janice to teach him enough to fake it.

It turns out, because of course it does, that Arvid is the president of the radio club. He’s also the secretary, chief engineer and announcer. He’s the entirety of the club, and an eighth of its audience. Mr. Moore is clearly really excited by the prospect of making something about the radio station, but is less enthusiastic about Arvid’s notions of how to run it. Arvid is kind of spectacularly bad at this, in fact, and it’s one of the weak points of the episode. The writers can’t let go of their “Ha-ha, what a fuckin’ nerd, amirite?” attitude long enough to justify the place they want the themes of the story to go. So Arvid’s idea of exciting programming is “The Wild World of Chess”, “Stamp Collector’s Corner”, and “Insect of the Week”. Ha-ha, what a fuckin’ nerd, amirite? And though Arvid is supposed to be passionate about radio, when Mr. Moore namechecks The Green Hornet, Arvid assumes it’s an entomology show. Because the show has decided that Charlie’s love of Old Time Radio is “cool”, and therefore as alien and mysterious to the nerdy Arvid as the clitoris, or ending a school day with the elastic band of his underwear still attached. I mean, it’s not like nerds are knowledgeable about the things they are passionate about, right? They only know about nerdy things like science and bugs and chess.

But then how do cool people avoid getting ink on their shirts?

So the situation we have here is that Arvid is basically running the station as his own personal hobby, without restraint or supervision, to meet the needs not of the school which is sponsoring it, but just for his own kicks. So maybe the moral of this episode is going to be that being president of the radio club makes him the steward of it, rather than its owner?

Of course not cousin, don’t be ridicu— wrong show, sorry. Nah, where we’re going with this is that Charlie’s going to impose his ideas on the radio station and change things too much and Arvid will feel left out, and it’s Charlie who needs to learn that nerdy clubs should be the personal fiefdoms of nerdy students and not try to reach out to the people it’s supposed to serve. I mean, they make a stab at it being about how Charlie shouldn’t muscle in and make the students’ things about him (one of the show’s occasional themes that comes up in particular when he becomes overly controlling during the musical episodes. Oh yes, they do musical episodes. It is wonderful. And yes, who the fuck do you think plays Danny in Grease, and who the fuck do you think plays Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors? I can’t remember who plays Claude in Hair. And, because of course it was, they made it a recurring joke that Arvid and Dennis wanted to be in the show, but were forced to be tech instead, because Ha-ha, fuckin’ nerds and fat guys, amirite? They were ultimately vindicated when Arvid got the lead in Little Shop of Horrors and Dennis, despite opposition from Charlie because fuckin’ fat guy amirite?, built the Audrey prop as a Power Rangers Monster suit for himself). But they don’t actually bother to show this happening in a substantive way.

What they show us instead is Charlie Moore being an enthusiastic and supportive mentor who wants to get people involved in the radio club and make it serve as a better service for the school, and Arvid whining and sulking because the cool kids are getting involved in his club and he no longer has exclusive control over his own personal radio station. And I’m not unsympathetic. The whole idea of “The marginal thing you were into suddenly becomes popular and you feel pushed out of your own hobby because now it’s all about catering to the popular kids,” is something any fan of classic Doctor Who, original series Star Trek, or basically any band ever can understand. But that impulse right there, the one that says, “It was better before it was popular. It should go back to being the way us Real True Fans remember it,” is the voice of screaming entitlement. It comes from the same dark place that inspires basement-dwelling neckbeards to call SWAT teams out on game developers for the sin of failing to cater exclusively to white heterosexual men or corners women in elevators at conventions.

And if it seems like I’m being harsh, I am. If I were interested in being fair, I’d say that this is a largely harmless story and the only real weakness is that the message of Mr. Moore pushing Arvid out and making it about his own childhood passion isn’t given enough space to grow. But we’ve seen across this blog, I hope, how particular tropes in fiction are all bound up in their historical context. Arvid Engen is one of the earliest ones to be elevated to such a major role, and one of the last ones to be played so utterly straight. There’s a line that runs straight from Arvid to Urkel to the modern era of the sexually precocious man-child who badgers consent out of attractive women in Judd Apatow movies.

Let’s be clear here: Arvid claims to be on-board with Charlie’s plans to improve the station and build its audience. But there is no point where his support goes beyond words. The very moment Mr. Moore actually suggests a change, Arvid deflates. He looks worried by the prospect, and grants permission to launch a new show only with reluctance. We haven’t actually gotten to “Charlie Moore tries to take over the station,” when Arvid starts sulking. We’re still at “Charlie Moore tries to have creative input.” Yes, Arvid will indeed have cause to be upset, but he’s already acting the martyr at the very first suggestion of a new radio show.

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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.

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Deep Ice: But as a group, they stink (“Howard Koch’s” War of the Worlds 2, Episode 1, Side 3)

Previously…

Someone cut a bolt. A president declined to have a supervillain whacked for fear of protesters. We spent some time with Alexis Carrington and Looten Plunder as they cackle over their plans to defeat Captains Planet and/or Kirk. Also, someone sabotaged Orion-1 and the crew didn’t bother reporting this or looking into it or thinking about it at all.

My name is Ted Stryker, I’m sitting down, facing forward, but that’s not important right now.

In case you were worried that narrator would be a one-off, he’s back after the Rimbauch segment to tell us that we’re skipping ahead a few days. I just checked, and the movie Apollo 13 doesn’t come out until June of ’95, which surprises me, because the next scene feels inspired by it. And maybe it was anyway; it’s not a direct parallel or anything, so it could be that the writers saw the press for the upcoming movie and it shaped some of their presentation. A Colonel Stryker (Stryker? Stryker…. Stryker!) from NASA drops in on Nancy Ferris at home, just as she’s getting off the phone with her mother. He’s got bad fake news: their cover story for the Mars mission is that a navigational fault developed on Orion-1 which means they’re stuck around the back of the moon until they either fix it or get rescued. Nancy is not happy. I think. I mean, she says things which indicate anger, but her tone never changes from tired, bored and slightly annoyed. Also, her voice actor sounds so much like Tweak from The Octonauts that I am continually disappointed that she never proposes fixing the problem on the shuttle faster’n you can say, “Buncha munchy crunchy carrots.”

This is another super-clunky dialogue scene too. You know how in TV and movies, sometimes someone will take a phone call, and since we’re only hearing one side of it, the other person will repeat back everything that’s said to them in a questioning tone? Nancy basically does that, only we can hear both sides. “I’m hear to talk to you about the mission,” Stryker would say. “The mission?” Nancy would respond. “Your husband’s mission to the moon.” “The moon? What is it?” “It’s a nickel-iron ball that orbits the Earth about a quarter of a million miles away, but that’s not important right now.” “There’s been a navigational fault.” “A navigational fault?” “It might take them weeks to get back.” “It might take them weeks to get back?” Stryker claims that NASA’s got the ground crew working on a solution, but Nancy blows him off, insisting that, “You mean the ground crew is going to sit around a desk and eat pizza while trying to figure out how to dodge the blame,” and that she’s been, “Making excuses for the military ever since I met Johnathan.” When she warns him that she’ll speak her mind to any reporters that make it into her presence, Stryker borrows her phone (It’s next to the credenza. For some reason, I find the transition from her angry ranting about NASA incompetence to the phrase, “It’s over by the credenza” to be the single funniest thing in this entire episode. “Credenza” feels like a very 1950s word to me. And if you image search “credenza”, most of the hits are for mid-century styled furniture. It contributes to the recurring feeling I’ve had that the Ferris family and their side of the plot are living in a silver-age sci-fi movie, unlike the political side of the plot, which is a bad ’90s political comedy, or the Ratkin side, which is an ’80s cartoon) to call his boss, who sends out dozens of military policemen to set up a cordon around her house.

Well, at least having the military cut off a suburban neighborhood won’t lead to protests from those annoying pacifists or special interest groups. It’s not like having a paper-wrapped sandwich delivered via motorbike. The narrator tells us that they have MPs stationed “every few feet” to keep out anyone unauthorized, including Nancy’s mother, who is turned away “glibly” by Stryker. We hop over to DC, where DeWitt is meeting with Ed and her “political scientist” (Scare quotes here because although “political scientist” is actually a thing, I’ve never heard of it being used as a White House job title) Marcia Weiss. They’ve caught wind of Rimbauch’s upcoming broadcast, set to blow the lid off the Mars mission, and have to act quickly. Unfortunately, no one involved in this production has anything resembling a penchant for acting.

I do not like this whole thing where Rimbauch early on insists that the administration is obsessed with him and fears him as the guardian of truth and reality… And it turns out that he’s exactly right and the administration makes important policy decisions specifically to undermine him. I would say that it’s unrealistic and in any story with any resemblance to reality, a conservative pundit would indeed think himself to be a major mover-and-shaker, but the actual White House would consider him an annoyance at best and largely ignore him. Except, y’know. It’s 2017 and you can google “Catheter Cowboy”. Fuckity-fuck. But it drives home how bad War of the Worlds II is: it is as unbelievable and ridiculous as the world we are all living in now. Only somehow, despite the fact that the real-world White House and congressional majority are enacting policies that will literally kill thousands of the most vulnerable Americans, reality is also funnier.

DeWitt was always planning to tell the public about the Mars mission eventually, but she’s got to let the cat out of the bag now to avoid letting Rimbauch scoop her. The reason for the secrecy in the first place turns out to be that they’re worried about other countries or private interests launching their own competing Mars missions. The discussion about Rimbauch is weird and meandering; Rimbauch got his information from a mole, and they think the mole is at NASA, but the mole isn’t leaking to journalists, but to Ratkin (The world’s richest man, in case you’ve forgotten). This leads them off on a tangent about how Ratkin has bought an aftermarket Soviet space ship, and how he’s always wanted to be, this is the actual phrase they use, “Emperor of the Universe”. Apparently, it’s a well-known public fact that that Ratkin has always wanted to own a planet. “Yeah, but Mars?” Marcia challenges, as though the choice to focus on the only planet that is even remotely plausible for this sort of thing is the most unbelievable aspect of a wealthy asshole’s plan to privately fund a mission to colonize another — Jesus fucking Christ 2017. (No one ever questions Ratkin’s motivations, because “He wants to conquer Mars and become King of Space” is a perfectly ordinary sort of thing for an evil trillionaire to do. When Elon Musk announced his plans to go to Mars, no one questioned his choice of planet; the actual question was, “Yeah, but for altruistic reasons based on wanting to improve the odds of the long-term survival of the human race, and not just so you could declare yourself god-king of space?”)

DeWitt already knows Jessica Storm is working for Ratkin, which is symptomatic of the plot structure clusterfuck we’re going through. There is no point in this story when something that should be a secret is actually unknown to the people it’s being kept secret from. At this point, the only people who don’t already know where Orion-1 is going are on Orion-1.

Marcia advises DeWitt to give an unscheduled TV address right after the Sunday Football game (“Football?” DeWitt asks. It’s a team sport where opposing groups of large men attempt to move a prolate spheroid from one end of a field to the other, but that’s not important right now), when most of America will be watching TV, and shortly before Rimbauch’s show. “But football?” DeWitt asks, “Isn’t that a little sexist?” Oh come the fuck on. It actually is Terrance Dicks writing this, isn’t it? And worse, Marcia’s response isn’t, “No, there is nothing sexist about giving your address after a football game, at the last possible minute you could give it without having the news you want to break scooped.” Instead, she says, “Political realism and sexism often go hand in hand,” which is irrelevant and also gibberish.

Since it might be vaguely interesting to hear the tense scene in the writer’s bullpen as Sandra’s best writers try to come up with a speech for her, that’s relegated to the narrator, who tells us that the process, “lacks the usual camaraderie,” because of the tension and tight deadline, and that the writers decide that an “inculpatory” speech wouldn’t work, because the American people don’t like when their leaders admit to faults even though they claim to want candor. Notice how even the narrator gets in on this program’s favorite game of calling the public a bunch of hypocritical jerks?

Before DeWitt gives her big speech, we switch back to Orion-1 so that the crew can learn what their mission is a few minutes before the rest of the free world does. Ferris plays a tape from the president, which reveals that they’ve got a secret mission. The tape does not disclose it because the mission is so secret that, “It could never be reduced to a recording,” for fear of discovery, as that might lead to someone trying to sabotage their mission. Good thing that no one found out what their mission was or tried to sabotage it. Oh, wait.

Ferris tells everyone that they’re going to Mars, and everyone’s immediate reaction is to spend five minutes explaining how Orion-1 is not capable of making the trip. I know that we need an explanation for how it is that a space shuttle — a vehicle designed for LEO — can now travel all the way to Mars. But the tone of the conversation is weird. They’re already in space. The shuttle got launched with this as its destination. Yet everyone approaches it as though they’re contributing new information to say, as Rutherford does, that, “The moon is two-hundred and forty thousand miles from Earth. Mars is slightly farther,” and that it’s beyond the capacity of their shuttle to get them there. Skepticism makes sense, but they all start from the position of, “No, not possible. NASA sent us on this mission somehow overlooking that they had not equipped us in a way that makes it even slightly possible,” rather than, “Well clearly the people who set this up have some trick up their sleeves to make this mission possible; what did they do?”

The answer to what they did was that they refitted Orion-1 using a new tissue-thin metal that had recently been reverse-engineered from Martian craft recovered after the 1938 invasion. This made the ship 40% lighter, and gave them the extra space needed for hibernation chambers and extra fuel (Don’t worry about the hibernation chambers; they’re not mentioned again). Everyone’s real shaken about the idea of going to Mars (“Mars?” Rutherford asks. It’s the last of the inner, rocky planets, named for the Roman god of war, but that’s not important right now), especially Rutherford, who can’t see any sense in their mission. Townsend, the geologist, quickly guesses that they’re being sent there to look for water. And, you should be used to this by now, they spend five minutes reminding us how it’s the general public and the useless politicians and the self-serving scientists who are to blame for the water crisis. Rutherford can’t see how it makes economic sense to import water from Mars, and Ferris reacts as though he’s suggesting they should import it from somewhere else instead. Rutherford also jumps really quickly to, “Why don’t we just use our military to protect our water?” Ferris dismisses this on the basis that the military is apparently incompetent in their world, and couldn’t stop “some terrorist” from poisoning the water supply with a toxin or radiation. Everyone but Rutherford very quickly gets on-board with the idea of going to Mars to find water. They clearly want Rutherford to be the stick-in-the-mud, which is why after starting out strong with such arguments as, “There’s a good chance that there isn’t any water on Mars,” or “Importing water from another planet is not a sustainable business model,” or “We’re all going to die,” he quickly starts tossing out strawman arguments. When Ferris says that without a new water source, governments will be forced to choose for some to live while others die, his incredibly weird response is, “But isn’t that what we’re doing? By being on this mission, we’re choosing to live, so someone else must die.” What?

They wander around the topic, saying how the public won’t stand for draconian rationing (Finally, someone gets around to calling the public “bleating sheep”), and how they can’t wait for a political solution because politicians are useless, and they can’t wait for a scientific solution because scientists are greedy and self-serving. Yeah, scientists suck, especially astronauts. And politicians suck, you’d never catch a politician planning a mission like this. The conversation wanders around even more; when Rutherford asks how they intend to stop the “fat cats” from ending up in control of the water they bring back from Mars, Ferris explains that their mission includes setting up a permanent Mars base… In case there’s a nuclear war on Earth and they have to abandon ship. Ferris declares that they’ll have a secret ballot to decide whether to continue to Mars, or turn back, because the mission is too important to bring along any dissenters. But before that, the president’s speech.

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