Category Archives: War of the Worlds

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

Deep Ice: Strong men, no weak ones (Superman: War of the Worlds, Pages 19-38)

Previously…

I tell you, it feels really good that they went all-in on the Golden-Age costume here. Notice, though, that there’s no bullshitting around with a secret identity. Clark doesn’t even seem to have had time to think about such a thing. It’s obvious to Lois who he is and he doesn’t deny it. There’s no time for anyone to coin his moniker either; he’s just Clark Kent for the duration. Or occasionally, “That guy in the pajamas”.

In fact, Lois and Clark meet up with the army on the next page, and Captain who greets them asks whether he’s a foreign agent or with the circus. Which is an interesting combination of possibilities, and even better, Lois vouches for him by saying he’s her photographer. I could kinda see how this might actually carry some weight, with Lois being a general’s daughter, but Sam Lane wouldn’t be introduced until 1959, and it wasn’t until the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot that he was a military man. As it is, a random woman just told an army captain that the random dude with her in a weird costume is trustworthy. You can’t even suppose that Lois has clout as a famous journalist, since they’ve established that Lois has been stuck writing the agony aunt column waiting for Taylor to give her a break.

<Montgomery Burns Voice>Excellent.</Montgomery Burns Voice>

The obligatory scene of the army not believing this “Martians” nonsense is cut short with the reveal of the tripod, eliciting a shout of “Holy Crow!” from the captain. I assume this is a golden age comics thing, but all I can think of is Bella Swan. The tripod itself is a letdown after the really creative look we got from the Saddleback version, but it’s certainly consistent with the ’30s comic aesthetic. There’s not anything wrong with it, mind, it’s just the most straightforward interpretation possible; essentially a flying saucer on stilts. In one interesting choice that is true to the novel but rarely carries to adaptations, the heat ray isn’t built into the fuselage but is instead held in the manipulator arms.

I’m thinking the captain is modeled on Les Tremayne

When the army is slow to heed Clark’s warning to back off, he throws himself into the path of the heat ray to save them. At such close range, the blast is enough to stun even Clark, causing him to experience pain for the first time in his life. He recovers in time to shove a cannon and its operator out of the way, then lifts the heavy field piece over his head and fires it like a bazooka. When this fails to affect the tripod, Clark grabs the canon by the barrel and just clubs the Martian with it, knocking it over.

WHAMM!

He’s able to pry open the fallen tripod, extract the struggling alien, and pitches it. Not all the way back to Mars, mind you; he points out that he’s not strong enough for that.

Superman can’t throw a Martian clear to Mars. But Ralph Kramden could probably punch one to the moon.

This is one point where the writing style can get a little annoying, and the artifice can show through a bit. This is Golden Age Superman, so his powers aren’t what they’d creep up to in the silver age: he can’t fly, only “leap tall buildings in a single bound”; he’s not immune to all injury, but only strong enough to withstand “anything less than a bursting shell”. He’s not faster than the speed of light, only as fast as a speeding bullet. And this story stays true to that. But in an actual Golden Age story, they wouldn’t feel the need to remind us of it. The real Golden Age Superman would not, as this Clark Kent does, tell people, “No, I can’t fly, but I can jump really far.” He wouldn’t tell a Martian, “I’m just sorry I’m not strong enough to toss you back [to Mars].” This Clark Kent — on his very first outing in tights — seems unrealistically aware of his limitations.

It’s a similar kind of misstep to when the opening scene of the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie started out inside the TARDIS and spent several minutes there before showing the Police Box: it botched “It’s bigger on the inside” by showing us “It’s smaller on the outside”. Just like here, Clark’s repeated mentions of his limitations changes the message from “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” to “Slower than a fighter jet, weaker than an atom bomb, not able to fly.”

Not bird nor plane nor even frog…

Clark arrives at Metropolis not far behind the Martians, just in time to rescue a pilot who’d managed to ditch before his plane was incinerated, but lost his parachute to another heat ray.

But even with Clark’s reassurance that he’s not flying, just jumping, the rescued airman still panics, begging the non-human Clark to keep away from him. This might seem ungrateful, but that airman has had a hell of a day, and in any case, we’re really edging in on our major theme for the piece. Presaging Man of Steel, we see that Pa Kent had been right to warn his son against displaying his powers, that, at least in the context of an alien invasion, humanity’s instinct is to fear Clark rather than idolize him.

Up And Atom!

Lois makes it back to the train station, but it’s destroyed halfway through her call-in to the office. Lex Luthor knows better than to drive into Metropolis, but offers Lois a ride as far as his laboratory on the outskirts. They have to make the last leg on foot once the roads become impassible, and at this point, Lex and Lois are separated before Lex gets clipped by the outer edge of a heat ray, and I think you know where this is going…

Brylcreem! Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!

Clark’s luck runs out when the Martians release the black smoke. Though he can hold his breath for minutes, he’s eventually forced to make a blind leap out of the smoke and takes two heat ray hits at close range. His unconscious body is scooped up with the others harvested by the tripods.

I used to just toss my action figures loose in a big bin too. That’s how so many of them got broken.

George Taylor witnesses the Man of Steel’s defeat via telescope from his office at the Daily Star. Though the height of the building protects them from the black smoke, a heat ray catches the building. Taylor shoves Jimmy Olsen out of the way, but is killed when his office explodes.

The destruction of the Daily Star leads into a kinda mediocre two-page spread showing civilians fleeing before smoke and tripods as the Battle of Metropolis ends in utter rout…

To Be Continued…

Deep Ice: If they’re more advanced than us, they should be nearer the Creator (DC Comic’s Elseworlds: Superman: War of the Worlds, Pages 1-18)

Whatever that is off-panel to the left must be hella interesting if Supes is looking at that instead of the tripod.

It’s two weeks to Christmas and we still don’t have the tree up, so it is a minor miracle that this post is going up at all, which is why I am stretching a 64-page comic book to 3 articles.

It is 1998. Ted Kaczynski pleads guilty to the Unabomber bombings. The winter Olympics take place in Nagano. Disney opens the Animal Kingdom park. Bear Grylls climbs Everest. Matthew Shepard is mortally beaten in Wyoming, the photogenic youngster’s tragic death helping to bring about a wave of hate crime legislation. Actor Phil Hartmann is murdered by his wife. Windows 98 is released. I go briefly crazy some time in November. And, in a statement I may have to revise depending on how long it takes me to write this article, for the last time until the present day, a US President is impeached.

Titanic makes a literal billion dollars and wins a fuckton of Oscars. Saving Private Ryan comes out, and will do similar things. The Big Lebowski comes out. So does Wild Things, Lost in Space, Les Miserables (the 1998 one with Liam Neesen and no singing), the killer asteroid movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, Godzilla (the 1998 one with Matthew Broderick), The Parent Trap (the 1998 one with Lindsay Lohan), My Dinner With Andre, Bride of Chucky, The Faculty, Star Trek: Insurrection, You’ve Got Mail, and What Dreams May Come. All these things happened in the same year. Weird, right?

Star Trek: Deep Space 9 enters its final season. Star Trek Voyager… Happens. This is the last season I watched consistently. This year’s Power Rangers is Power Rangers in Space, the finale of the “Zordon Era”, and the last season to be part of an ongoing multi-season storyline until 2011’s Power Rangers Samurai. The reboot of Doctor Who starring Hugh Laurie finishes its second season and starts its third. Doctor Who is pretty much dead again, seemingly forever this time. Seinfeld airs its legendarily bad series finale. Dawson’s Creek premieres, a handy thing if you’re a college freshman who wants an excuse to hang out with all the girls on your floor in the apartment of the upperclassman with a 27″ TV. Other premiers this year include the wonderfully bizarre time travel adventure series Seven Days, the American version of Whose Line is it Anyway, seminal gay sitcom Will & Grace, supernatural craze-expander Charmed, and beloved girl-power cartoon The Powerpuff Girls.

Brandy dominates the Billboard charts all summer with “The Boy is Mine”. Armageddon and Titanic cough up chart-toppers as well with Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing” and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”. R Kelly’s “I’m Your Angel” sees the year out, but somewhere mixed among all that, Barenaked Ladies become a household name south of the 49th parallel thanks to “One Week”.

The dude in the lower left who just can not handle this shit is possibly my favorite character in the history of comics.

Meanwhile, sixty years earlier, it’s 1938. I hardly need remind you that in October of 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater adapted War of the Worlds. I mean, I hardly need tell you again, since I’ve told you like a million times already. But you know what else happened a few months earlier in 1938? I mean, you’ve surely worked it out since it’s in the title of the article. But yeah, back in May, National Allied Publications released issue 1 of Action Comics, introducing audiences to a strange visitor from another world who was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

So in 1998, when a whole lot of stuff was going on in the Superman world to celebrate the Man of Steel’s sixtieth, Roy Thomas and Michael Lark put together a story for DC’s “Elseworlds” line, depicting alternate versions of their beloved characters. Superman: War of the Worlds asks us to imagine a world where the intrepid reporter that was first on the scene when a strange meteor lands in a small town near Metropolis (The name isn’t given in the text, but sharp-eyed readers will notice the train station identifies it as “Woking”) isn’t Carl Philips, but Lois Lane, and her fledgling photographer, Clark Kent.

The opening comingles the introduction of War of the Worlds with the classic Superman backstory, with direct homages to both. “No one would have believed,” we are as usual told, of the intelligences greater than man yet as mortal as his own which scrutinized the Earth in the early decades of the twentieth century, but here, it’s not only the Martians, but also the far-distant Krypton. Because this is the golden age version of the story, Krypton’s destruction is caused by it simply having reached the end of its life cycle — a more advanced case of the fate facing the Martians.

The parallel between Mars and Krypton adds a slightly sinister note to the arrival of Kal-El on Earth. Though we learn nothing concrete of Jor-El (the narrator seems to be speaking from the viewpoint of a human historian in the near-future, though even knowing the name “Krypton” is inexplicable in that case), the narrator presumes that he must have views humans “as inferior animals…. as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.”

I am surprised that they decided to model Pa Kent on Melvyn Douglas, but I wholeheartedly endorse this decision.

Baby Kal is found by the Kents, a slight divergence from Superman’s earliest appearance; in the earliest comics, he was said to have been raised in an orphanage. The Kents aren’t given first names, consistent with mainstream Superman history, where the Kents don’t get their canonical first names until the 1950s. As he grows, the Kents discover young Clark’s abilities, which are the reduced Golden Age power set: the ability to leap an eighth of a mile rather than fly, skin that is impervious to anything short of “a bursting shell”, and the ability to outrun a train. His powers are attributed to a million years of evolution beyond that of Earth humans, rather than any particular influence of a yellow sun.

Pa Kent warns Clark to hide his powers, lest humanity be scared of him, while Ma encourages him to help humanity, “when the proper time comes”. Again, this all tracks with the various versions of Clark’s upbringing in this era. It is the death of his parents (Until the ’70s or so, the Kents were generally depicted as already elderly when they adopted Kal-El) which prompts Clark to head out to the big city to try to find a way to use his powers to benefit humanity, and by an amazing coincidence, this occurs simultaneously with “The great disillusionment”, as the Martians launch their invasion fleet.

 

Below the fold? Citizens Oppose Tax.

A montage of Clark taking in the splendor of Metropolis makes for some nice syncretism with the “infinite complacency” of man going “to and fro about this globe about their affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.

Continue reading

Deep Ice Addendum: More Saddleback

It’s almost Christmas, and also almost my son’s birthday, and also just past my wife’s birthday, so here’s a filler article: more fun panels from the Saddleback illustration of War of the Worlds.

Here’s the text from the back cover, by the way:

Do UFO’s really exist?
Could creatures from another planet visit Earth?
In The War of the Worlds they do exist and the visitors from the planet Mars come to Earth with not so friendly intentions—to destroy our civilization!

Greengrocer’s apostrophe theirs.

I love that this abridgement included “Dude who is mostly concerned about the insurance.”

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said there were an inordinate number of panels about horses.

I love this unnamed military guy. Very GI Joe.

Continue reading

Deep Ice: Anything that would serve the image emerging onto the canvas (Saddleback’s Illustrated Classics: The War of the Worlds)

Weirdly, this is a better interpretation of the Thunderchild scene than is actually in the book.

It is 2007, a year in which many things happened. One of them is that Mauritania illegalized slavery, and it is pretty damned shocking to learn that there was a country in the world which hadn’t already done that by 2007, and even more shocking when you find out that Mississippi didn’t do it until 2013.

Or, rather, it would be shocking if I wasn’t writing this in 2017. Never mind. We’ve got songs like “1234” by Feist and “Bubbly” by Colbie Callat and “Umbrella” by Rhianna. This year gives us The Big Bang Theory, Yo Gabba Gabba!, Super Why, Mad Men, Pushing Daisies, and Flash Gordon. We say goodbye to Stargate SG-1, Gilmore Girls, 7th Heaven, and Veronica Mars. This year’s Power Rangers is Operation Overdrive, and I’d tell you about it except that the one good thing I have to say about it is “I can’t really remember anything about it.” Except that it’s the second season to feature a ranger who had previously been one of the kids on the Kiwi Post-Apocalyptic Tween Soap Opera The Tribe. Doctor Who airs from March through July, featuring David Tennant and Freema Agyeman as the Doctor and Martha Jones. It also brought us the animated miniseries “Infinite Quest”, which, oddly, ties into an arc on The Sarah Jane Adventures a year or two later. And it gives us the minisode “Time Crash”, wherein David Tennant gets to fanboy over Peter Davison, who is, fun fact, his father-in-law. The Christmas Special is “Voyage of the Damned”, which guest stars Kylie Minogue, who I gather is actually properly famous in the UK, and not just “The chick who did the 1988 cover of “The Loco-Motion”.”

Anyway. Here in the present, it’s Thanksgiving week, and I don’t have time to do anything difficult, so instead, we’re going to cover a comic book. Well, a graphic novel. Well, something.

Saddleback Illustrated Classics is a line of graphic novel-style adaptations of classic works of literature, abridged and using simplified language, to be used as educational resources for teaching remedial English. They apparently have an accompanying audio disc reading the story, but I didn’t get one with my copy.

As abridgments go, it’s only barely serviceable. Turning a book into a comic is going to require a lot of compression in the storytelling, and what they do here is done in the service of teaching people to read way more than actually conveying Wells’s story in a faithful manner. What’s here is accurate, but a lot gets left out. What can be grating is that a whole lot of the “nothing happening” stays in, while some of my favorite parts are dropped. The prose is simple and functional, nothing exciting. No, all we are really going to care about here is the artwork. Since I had fun mocking some of the artistic choices in the two Captain Power comic books and the Captain Power Annual, I thought maybe for some lighter fare, we could take a look at the artistic choices in Saddleback’s illustrated War of the Worlds. Because these choices are… Occasionally interesting.

Our opening shot is this full-page spread of a Martian slowly and surely drawing its plans against us from this kinda “I HAVE THE POWER!” pose.

The iPhone X’s built-in projector performed better than expected, but it was still panned for being uncomfortable to stick in your pocket.

They retain Ogilvy’s “The chances of anything manlike on Mars are a million to one,” which is nice.

I feel like they were going for Vincent Price as the narrator and Rex Harrison (circa The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) as Ogilvy. But somehow they ended up with the love child of Vincent Price and Ian Marter as the narrator and the lovechild of Rex Harrison and Edward Mulhare (circa The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) as Ogilvy.

It’s also the hat. I didn’t scan a picture of it, but Ogilvy wears a Greek fisherman’s cap in a bunch of panels.

Ogilvy majored in astronomy, not geometry. That’s why he somehow has no idea what a cylinder looks like.

They spend what feels like an inordinate amount of time in the build-up between the first cylinder landing and the reveal of the Martians.

Thinking the cylinder contains friendly visitors in danger of burning to death, Ogilvy seeks the help of sad Amish Farmer Abraham Lincoln.

The Martians finally reveal themselves, and… Not bad. A very retro sci-fi look to them. Reminds me a bit of the test footage Harryhausen did when he was considering making a War of the Worlds film.

Or, y’know, the Krang. It looks a lot like the Krang.

The abridged narration doesn’t really carry over the sense of horror at the basic strangeness of the aliens. You could say that, being a graphical format, they can rely on the visuals to do that instead, only, come on; that Martian is clearly evil, but he’s not really all that scary.

And then for some reason, the zombies surrender.

There’s something about the way people are drawn in this — I’ve seen this art-style before, so maybe it’s one of the common comic art styles or something? — that sort of looks like everyone is made of wax.

The narrator narrowly escapes the attack at the pit, but once he gets home, promptly decides it wasn’t that scary after all.

Though it kinda looks like he got close enough to the heat ray that his face melted.

As they flee the approaching Martians, there’s an odd decision to illustrate the fact that on the road out of town, “The hedges on either side were sweet with roses.”

Meanwhile, in a cheap Van Gogh knockoff…

There are more panels than we really needed of the narrator’s horse being spooked by a landing cylinder.

Also, why is he dressed like a gambler in a western? He’s even got a bolo tie.

At last, almost halfway through, we get to see a tripod, and it’s not terrible. Kind of visually busy, lacking the elegant simplicity of most interpretations. The closest match is probably Goliath, though it doesn’t look nearly so good, nor does it have the allusions to a gas-masked World War I soldier. Continue reading

Deep Ice: I don’t believe in anything (Howard Koch’s War of the Worlds II: Finale)

Now, where was I…

Jesus. Fucking. Christ. This was pointless and stupid. I could rattle off a long litany of all the stupid, pointless things, but we’ve lived through them these past few months and I am loathe to go back into the details.

On some level, the fact that this series has had sweet fuck all to do with the original 1938 radio play is the least of its sins. I mean, George Pal’s 1975 proposal for a TV series (Which is presumably a big part of the inspiration for War of the Worlds II) has sweet fuck all to do with the movie it’s based on, and the TV sequel that ended up actually happening doesn’t really draw all that much from it either.

If you were to ask someone — someone who knew and was into War of the Worlds, so basically me — what War of the Worlds II was about, the most normal sort of answer would be that it’s a sequel to the 1938 radio play in which humans, using salvaged Martian technology, travel to Mars in 1999, where they find out that the Martians were themselves enslaved by a bigger, badder alien race who now want to take over the Earth.

That is technically true, and it doesn’t sound necessarily like a bad concept for a series. Like I said, it’s the basic idea George Pal came up with in 1975. For that matter, it’s not too far afield from the premise of the Stargate TV franchise.

But, of course, over the course of four episodes, of something in the neighborhood of twelve hours, that makes up what, an hour of the story? At the outside. So what’s War of the Worlds II about? Well, it’s partly a James Bond-style over-the-top international intrigue about an insane evil trillionaire concocting a nonsensical plan to dominate the world, only they neglected to include the savant gentleman superspy who is the only one that can defeat him. And it’s partly a weird political farce about politicians who are hamstrung by nebulously defined “special interests” and at the mercy of comedy over-the-top radio pundits.

In this War of the Worlds sequel. Those ideas, they just have no place here. Those aren’t the sorts of plots that have any place. I mean, you could maybe squeeze them in around the edges — the Strangis’s series is heavily inflected with black comedy, it’s even got traces of that whole, “the government is willing to let aliens take over the world rather than cause a PR scandal.” But those things are around the outside. Like, there’s episodes of the series where the team has to deal with journalists. But there’s still aliens in those episodes. And the aliens are still the primary focus of the plot. But here, over and over again, you’re hoping against hope that the story on Mars will fucking get on with it, but no, it’s time for a “hilarious” argument between obvious-Rush-Limbaugh-expy and obvious-Sally-Jessy-Rafael-expy while obvious-Geraldo-expy sleezily reports on it. There’s just so many plot threads that have nothing to do with anything that might conceivably have brought you to listen to this. There’s the nonsense with DeWitt’s political maneuvering and the nonsense with the assassination attempt and the nonsense with Tosh Rimbauch and the nonsense with Ratkin and the ice sectioners and the nonsense with Nancy and Ethan and the nonsense with Ratkin’s wife and the nonsense with the Underground, and I don’t give a shit about any of it.

And there is no way they could make that many subplots turn into something coherent, but maybe they could pull off a few of them. Except that in addition to being utterly pointless, they’re also terrible. There is nothing even slightly believable about Ratkin’s machinations, or DeWitt’s unwillingness to just have Seal Team Six rub the fucker out, or the whole “special interest” nonsense. There’s no reason anyone would take Tosh Rimbauch seriously in any regard whatever. Making Ethan all twee and naive up until he suddenly goes all Artemis Fowl in his very last scene, vowing to outthink his father? Stupid, cliche, unbelievable. It’s just all so dumb, and don’t forget poorly written.

And then, of course, the big question: where are these subplots going? The answer is nowhere, because every single subplot becomes utterly irrelevant the moment the Tor announce themselves to humanity. If you think no one fucking cared about whether Ethan Allen is going to beat Ronald in the race to rescue Mrs. Rochester from Steinmetz now, exactly where is that plot going to go once the Tor start abducting billions of humans and stripping Earth of its atmosphere? It doesn’t. There is no way to continue any of the Earth-based plots the instant this second War becomes a shooting war.

That’s what’s been driving me nuts these past few months. Where could the other plots, the plots that make up about 90% of the story so far, go once the actual plot starts up? I could maybe see Ratkin continuing to try to work a deal with the Tor to be the warlord of a conquered planet if the Tor’s plan was simple conquest, but that doesn’t work at all if the Tor plan to transplant the entire human race en masse in the space of a week. Jessica Storm could maybe be salvaged. She seems right now like a character at the end of her arc, though: the traitor who realizes she’s been double-crossed and goes down in a blaze of glory that earns her partial redemption. But certainly, there’s room to rework her as the villain who’s forced to work with the heroes, while secretly trying to engineer things to get them killed in some “noble sacrifice”. The eleventh-hour introduction of The Resistance seems tailor made to be the backbone of the force that will fight against the Tor, except that nothing we’ve learned of them suggests this is in their wheelhouse or that there’s any reason to expect them to be more use to the cause than the actual military, which, remember, still exists. What about President DeWitt? Honestly, there’s nothing we’ve learned about her character that suggests she’d be of any use in an open war. It’s not simply her physical handicap — heck, the brilliant tactician who is physically handicapped is a fair enough trope all on its own. But DeWitt’s never really been depicted as having a particular skill at anything, really, other than the game of politics (at which she is, at best, just adequate). She’s a perfectly good character for a political drama, but nothing in the story implies that any of her skills would really be useful here. She can’t even give big rallying speeches, because she can barely speak unassisted. The pending plot to have DeWitt declared unfit, the Vice-President “taken care of”, and that weird Republican Kennedy-clone installed? This sounds like complete nonsense in the face of the alien invasion. And Tosh Rimbauch? Nope. Just nope.

So out of all the plot threads they started — and basically kept starting right up until the last twenty minutes — it’s only the ones involving the Orion crew that really even make sense going forward. And two of them are back on Mars, so barring a thrilling, “And then they spend four hours flying back to Mars to pick up the other two,” sequence, they’re out of the picture for the near future. Even if they were planning to set up, “Ferris and Rutherford rally the Martian slaves into revolting against the Tor,” it appears at the moment that the Tor have left Mars and the Martians don’t have any more ships, so there’s really nowhere for that plot to go.

Not that I miss them especially. Ferris has the personality of a block of wood, and Rutherford is a piece of shit who seems to exist only to make Nikki more likable by negging her. Asshole. Gloria, Talbert, Morgan and Gus are okay, I guess, though Talbert’s personality doesn’t seem to go much past, “He’s the only member of the crew who has heard of science.”

So what’s left to say in the final analysis? Not much, really. On a technical level, I guess I can give the weak praise that the audio is almost entirely intelligible. This should be a given, but I’ve seen too many low-budget productions that can’t get their audio levels right at this point in our little adventure through every War of the Worlds adaptation I could find to take it for granted. And there are clearly deliberate choices being made about how to convey these characters through their voices and tones of speaking. The major characters all have distinctive tones of voice, and there’s only a very few cases where it’s hard for me to tell them apart.

But, of course, you can’t go very far down the road of praising any element of War of the Worlds II without it leading you back to a problem. On the one hand, yes, almost everyone’s speaking voice is distinctive. But that is not the same as anyone’s voice being good. There aren’t many voice choices that I’d outright call “good”; most of them vary between “neutral”, “This was a bad idea but at least I can see where they were coming from,” and “What the hell were they thinking?” I mean, consider:

  • Jonathan Ferris: I think they’re going for “stoic” here. I have made no secret of the fact that they overshot and ended up with “inanimate object”. If their goal was to make me believe this guy was real, real dull, then congrats, but this is not necessarily a great thing to succeed at.
  • Nikki Jackson: Another very neutral voice. As her characterization shifts toward her being ruthless and driven, a less sociopathic version of Jessica Storm, her voice acting doesn’t do a great job of conveying it. The biggest flaw, of course, is that we’re asked to believe that this very obviously white upper-middle-class woman from the north east is, in fact, a black woman who pulled herself up out of poverty by her own bootstraps having been raised by her wise old Tyler Perry-portrayed grandmother in the Jim Crow south, which no. Just no.
  • Mark Rutherford: Mark Rutherford I is fine. Neutral. It’s a dubious idea to have this character based around his acerbic relationship with Nikki, the implicit, “Isn’t it adorable how he constantly negs her. They should totally date,” thing is awful, but I can believe the aspect of, “They used to be friends, and they’re professional enough to work together, but there’s still some bitterness there,” even if they never quite settle on whether they genuinely dislike each other, or just have the kind of friendship based on mutual insult. Mark Rutherford II, though, pushes into this weird “hapless ’50s guy” thing that is supposed to remind us of Dobie Gillis or Dagwood Bumstead or something, and it just doesn’t really make any sense. I think it’s an attempt to make him seem adorably awkward and likeable, which fits progressively less well as he becomes more and more of an entitled jackhole. Mark Rutherford III gives up the pretense of adorkability, which at least makes sense for the character, and is played as more of a deadpan snarker, but there’s still an old-timey aspect to his voice which doesn’t make any real sense.
  • Gloria Townsend: The combination of a slightly southern accent with her overly-technical mode of speaking is an interesting mix. I have no strong feelings about her.
  • Gus Pierelli: He’s the gear-head, so they have him a working-class accent. A little on-the-nose, but okay. His Brooklyn accent becomes less pronounced as the series goes on, though, leaving him sometimes hard to distinguish from…
  • Robert Talbert: There’s not really anything distinctive to him.
  • Medic Morgan (I don’t think she actually has a first name): Having her be sort of mousy and uncertain makes it easy to distinguish her from the other women on the Orion crew, but the notes of insecurity aren’t something that you really expect from a medical doctor, and brings to mind some unpleasant stereotypes about women in “male” roles.
  • Jessica Storm: So… I can see what they’re going for. Her tone of voice conveys a lot of information very quickly. From her first line, you know not only that she is evil, but also what kind of evil she is: she’s clever, ambitious and arrogant. But she also sounds like a soap opera diva. And I mean, okay, fair enough; War of the Worlds II, as it turns out, is a soap opera. But it’s impossible to take her seriously in any of her stated competencies. I don’t believe she’s a Wile-E-Coyote-class Sooper-Geeenious, I don’t believe she’s a top-notch space pilot. I don’t believe she’s a deadly assassin. I’d buy her seducing elderly millionaires, or even executing brilliant boardroom double-crosses. Not the actual things she’s allegedly brilliant at.
  • Ronald Ratkin: Everything about Ronald Ratkin I is designed to tell you he is the villain. He sounds like cartoon character. He sounds like he should be trying to tempt young Skywalker over to the Dark Side. He sounds like he’ll disappear in a puff of smoke if you say his name. Ronald Ratkin II is much closer to what they actually ought to have been going for, being very clearly modeled on Brando’s Don Corleone. Even then, though, maybe just a hair too on-the-nose?
  • Hoover Jones: Of course, they had someone playing a gangster before they recast Ratkin, but he’s playing a very different kind of gangster archetype. Fine, but the accent slips as the series goes on until he’s just doing a kind of generic “affluent” accent with his vowels inexplicably drawn out. I think maybe they wanted him to sound British (He’s one of the characters who awkwardly throws in occasional Britishisms for no reason), but he doesn’t. At all.
  • Tosh Rimbauch: No. Just no.
  • Sandra DeWitt: She’s so mellow and soft-spoken that it’s basically impossible to take her seriously as a politician. It doesn’t help that she clearly hasn’t learned her lines ahead of time and is hearing them for the first time as she says them. Also, her husband kinda comes off as a closeted gay man.
  • Nancy Ferris: No one is that southern. Plus, far more than any other character, she tends to narrate her actions, which is really annoying.
  • Ethan Allen Ratkin: Many, many things about the character of Ethan Allen Ratkin are wrong. The decision to have a voice actor who is not a twelve year old boy play him as a super-twee twelve-year-old boy is not terrible, until the end when they decide he’s suddenly going to take a level in badass and vow to bring an end to his father’s reign of terror using his own strategic brilliance of which there has been no evidence.

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Deep Ice: I’m Just Glad This Is Behind Us (War of the Worlds II, Episode 4, Part 4)

Oh thank God. Oh thank you dear sweet merciful lord. This is it. One more part and I can put this behind me forever unless someone finds a copy of episode 3 and sends it to me (don’t do that). We’ve got about thirty-six minutes of this ridiculous thing left, and there’s a whole lot of plot threads to tie up before we say goodbye to this cast of characters and resolve this complicated story. Fortunately for us, it seems like all the characters are heading toward a fateful confrontation at the banquet about to be held for the Orion crew, and I’m sure that will make for an epic setting for the tense final battle of—

Nah, just foolin’. Of all the things which are going on in this plot, like maybe one of them is actually going to get resolved. For certain definitions of “resolved”. Instead, can you guess what they’re going to do instead?

If you guessed “Introduce a bunch more bullshit plot threads that go nowhere,” you’re right. If you didn’t, hi, welcome to A Mind Occasionally Voyaging, where I write fake documents about an alternative history of Doctor Who on Saturdays and essays about adaptations and spin-offs of War of the Worlds on Wednesdays, except when I can’t be bothered and instead post something adorable about my children. You might want to catch up on the last fifteen posts in this series so you understand why you ought to have seen this coming.*[Technically, I would have also accepted “Waste a bunch of time with pointless whining about “special interests” that goes nowhere, but the other answer is better]

But before we get to nothing happening, first, we have to finish up last week’s nothing happening. Oh yes, we are not quite done with the exciting drama of Ronald Ratkin, the world’s richest man; Tosh Rimbauch, the world’s douchiest man; Ethan Allen Ratkin, the littlest child soldier; and Nancy Ferris, suddenly the standard-bearer of La Resistance.

Ratkin finishes buttering up Rimbauch and advises him to wait until after the banquet to air his expose. Once Tosh leaves the room (and, thank God, the series), Ratkin proceeds to monologue a bit about what a moron Rimbauch is and how easily he has manipulated the fat idiot into doing his work for him. He tells Hoover Jones that Rimbauch, “Becomes so caught up in his own rhetoric that he lets his guard down.” This seems to imply that Ratkin is setting Rimbaugh up for a double-cross, but one never comes. And it’s hard to imagine what the double-cross would be. I mean, the only possible thing would be if the evidence he’s given him of DeWitt’s infirmity were fake. But it’s not. There’s no reasonable setup here against Rimbauch. Unless maybe they mean to put in in a Glenn Greenwald sort of position. But isn’t Ratkin taking a pretty big chance here that if Rimbauch is subpoenaed over releasing the President’s confidential medical information, he’ll sing like a canary?

On the other hand, it’s pretty clear Ratkin has absolutely no concern over getting caught; he’s above the law, immune to subpoenas and law enforcement and vulnerable only to something like the heroes of an ’80s action-adventure show. So why bother with all this bullshit. I mean, seriously, he’s devoting all sorts of time and energy and money into keeping his plans a secret, suppressing the media, defaming the administration, secretly undermining societal institutions on all levels. But why? It’s clear no one can do anything to stop him. And his cover-ups aren’t even working: children on the street knew about his kidnapping of Nancy Ferris, that he was the one behind the ice sectioners’ strike, that he was the one preventing water purification efforts. Yet he persists in this farce.

After Ratkin and Hoover Jones have a good laugh at the idea of giving the crippled DeWitt a “run for her money”, Hoover expresses some sympathy: “It’s not her fault she was in your way.” “It was her responsibility to move before I ran her down,” Ratkin answers. And he pledges that she will too “Know what hit her”.

Ratkin calls Evans, who is still working on his mindwipe procedure, and tells him to have “Mrs. Rochester” returned to her relatives, so he can kill her in the privacy of his own house once he’s used her as bait to lure Ethan back to the compound.

“Not very far away,” the narrator tells us, Ethan comes to the same conclusion, and tells Nancy that he wants to spring his mom from Steinmetz before Ratkin can. Nancy warns him that, “Your father is a very powerful man, and a brilliant one.” Ethan insists that Ratkin taught him everything he knows.

Except that poor people exist. Or how capitalism works. Or really anything at all. Seriously, there’s this whole claim that Ratkin has been grooming Ethan to be this perfect heir, which is completely undermined by the way that he’s actually raising him to be utterly naive and completely isolated from the world. This is not the way you raise an evil heir to your evil empire. We all know this. You send him to military school then give him a million dollars to start him out in shady real estate dealings and advise him to engage in illegal discrimination, then let him doctor your will to disinherit your other son’s family.

You know what would make way more sense than this whole family dynamic? If the mind-wipe technique Evans is working on is really just step 1 of a mind transfer procedure and Ratkin actually intends to possess his son’s body and thus gain immortality.

I mean, that would be a fucking stupid ridiculous sci-fi-soap-opera plot worthy of nothing but laughing derision. But it would still make more sense than the plot we’re actually given.

Ethan, who is now being written completely differently, muses on “What kind of a man,” Ratkin must be to have treated his mother so badly. Nancy pontificates that, “Many rulers have treated women like dispensable child-bearing machines.” Ethan declares that, while he won’t allow himself to be used to hurt his father, he’s “not a child any more” and will prevent his father from doing any more harm to others, using his deep and detailed knowledge of his father’s “stratagems and gambits”, though, presumably, no knowledge whatever of what his father’s business actually is.

Kyle returns and asks if he can tag along to the Orion banquet. Nancy doubts she could get anyone not on the guest list in, and does not bring up the fact that she’s currently a missing person presumed kidnapped by Ronald Ratkin and probably wanted by the FBI as a person of interest. She also worries about Kyle’s safety since there’s “all sorts of opposition to Mission Red, and not just from Ronald Ratkin.” Also, “Who knows if the Martians are really friendly?”

After Nancy leaves, Ethan promises to find a way to get Kyle into the banquet. What the hell is Kyle’s stake in this again? Kyle reiterates his disbelief that Ethan is a Ratkin, but again, decides to go along with it. In accordance with the narrative laws set by the great Scoobert Doo, we cut away when Ethan starts to explain his plan, thus assuring its success.

This is, by the way, the last we will hear from Ethan Allen Ratkin and Kyle Jordan (Wasn’t he the Green Lantern?). Bye, kids.

“Meanwhile”, on Mars, possibly two days earlier, I’m not sure, the real Orion crew has found and repaired the Martian warship. Pierelli declares that it’s not so weird, “Once you get used to manipulating living tissue.” Yeah, the ship is organic, because of course it is, even though Orion-1 was supposed to be made from the same metal as the 1938 warships. Gloria isn’t showing any signs of losing her Martian powers this time, and in fact feels great. She won’t lose them for the remainder of the episode. It is acknowledged, but never explained. Gloria does muse a bit on how she being among the Martians, she feels for the first time in her life like someone really, like, gets her, you know?

Are they going for a reveal that Gloria’s actually a Martian changeling? We know that Martians can adopt a form indistinguishable from a human, so is it possible she’s meant to be some kind of advance scout who was dropped on Earth Son Goku-style? Or maybe she’s only half-Martian, and her dad was a survivor of the ’38 invasion who went native. That’s not a terrible twist, though it’s hard to imagine this reveal will actually mean anything by the time they get around to it.

Nikki Jackson pulls the commander aside to tell him what he’s already worked out for himself: the ship isn’t big enough to fit seven. Commander Ferris, his Star Trek Commander’s Hat low on his brow, tells her that he’s working on it, and to keep quiet for the moment. After Mark objects to naming the ship “Orion-2”, not wanting to be, “Two to Jessica’s Orion-1,” Gloria suggests calling the ship “Ares”, which she pronounces wrong. I mean, she pronounces it “Are-ees” rather than “Air-ees”. You might be able to make the argument that she’s pronouncing it in the Greek, rather than English way, but close as I can tell, that would be more like “Are-ess” rather than “Are-ees” (No, I do not know IPA. Sorry). I wouldn’t bring it up, but she made a big deal out of pronouncing “forte” correctly before. I do wonder, though, if it’s coincidence that her preferred pronunciation is indistinguishable from “Ari’s”.

Once Gus finishes the repairs, Ferris tells everyone about the ship’s inadequate seating. Thank God he didn’t let Nikki tell them forty-five seconds earlier. For the sake of padding, he lists off the reasons for each crewmember to stay: Pierelli to maintain the ship; Townsend to communicate with it; Talbert to navigate at relativistic speed; Morgan in case anyone is injured; and Jackson because they’ve been building up this whole thing with Nikki and Jessica needing to have a big showdown.

Nikki objects to leaving Ferris behind, but he’s stalwart. Everyone objects, in fact, citing his wife and the fact that Nikki is kind of a bitch. No one says a single word about leaving Rutherford behind, not even Rutherford. He pretty much gets that he’s completely pointless.

So, bye Rutherford. Ares launches, and Nikki orders them to maximum speed. Then she immediately backs off when she finds out that maximum speed is about .83c, and they’re not confident on their ability to decelerate quickly enough to make a controlled landing. They back down to a mere 20,000 kps, which will get them to Earth in four hours, rather than fifteen minutes. After a long-winded explanation about momentum being a cruel mistress, they move on to a long-winded explanation of how the reason they can see out the front of the ship is because Gloria ordered the front of the ship to turn invisible, and now it’s not a “reflection”, but a “simultaneous telecast”. Note that she says she turned the ship transparent, so what she actually did was just make a window. But the explanation, which goes on to compare it to the Martians’ own camouflage ability, presumes that what she’s actually doing is having the inside surface of the ship mimic the colors of light striking the outside surface — something more akin to a chameleon, maybe.

Talbert goes on to explain that they aren’t going fast enough to notice any relativistic effects, which is true, but because those only kick in “within 50,000 kilometers per second of the speed of light”, which is bullshit. I could be all nerdy and pedantic and talk about how ordinary real-world astronauts experience measurable time dilation, but okay, I’ll grant that picking up a second or two isn’t really anything to make a big deal over. But generally speaking, you should take relativity into account whenever you’re talking about speeds greater than one tenth of the speed of light. Which, admittedly, they’re not.

By the time the explanations are over, they have to start decelerating, since apparently the brakes suck on these Martian ships. This gives everyone an opportunity to pontificate on how, “Waste is the way of the universe,” as they are sad about leaving Ferris behind, having to “sacrifice so many good people because of the evil plots of a few.” Gloria muses on how war is irrational, while Talbert considers it a universal law. Gloria goes on to explain how she finds pain, bigotry, greed and suffering completely alien to her, and that she finds the Martian philosophy closer to her own than any she’s heard on Earth. Yep. I’m calling it: she’s an alien.

“At that very moment”, we’re told, Jessica Storm finally introduces her boss to her new shady business partners. Ratkin is snarky about the circumstances of her return: the official story is that a “malfunction” aboard Artemis killed the rest of her crew, and she was rescued by Orion.

Does it feel like something’s missing here? I mean, they’ve skipped straight from Orion calling in to let them know they’re on their way home to Jessica being in the “Hiltmore” hotel in Washington with the clone crew. We never actually cover Orion’s landing, their debriefing, how the clones somehow managed to convince NASA that everything was on the up-and-up despite the fact that their skills at passing for actual humans is somewhere in the Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons From Mars range. And now Jessica Storm, who as everyone knows was sent to Mars by Ronald Ratkin to assassinate Orion’s crew is not only at liberty, but has been given access to the celebratory banquet? I mean, okay, they’ve established that for some reason, even if they had rock-solid proof, they still wouldn’t be able to actually take legal action against Storm because of “protests”, but what the fuck is she doing being invited to the banquet?

Oh, and have you noticed what they haven’t said a single word about? The fact that Earth is deadly to Martians. Y’know, the one thing that you pretty much have to have in order to be an adaptation of War of the Worlds. Anyway, Jessica introduces Ratkin to the Tor over the video-phone. Keep in mind that the Tor haven’t revealed their true forms, as far as I can tell, and still look like “living shadows”. Also keep in mind that the Tor don’t actually speak, but use Martian intermediaries to translate their aroma-based communication into telepathy. So Jessica Storm has used a high-tech ’90s video-phone to introduce Ronald Ratkin to an invisible alien who doesn’t speak. Also, the Tor isn’t physically present with Jessica, but appears via projection. Science!

He is “honored” to meet them, and recognizes that it’s “convenient” that the Tor have no need for “primitive” names, since it puts their enemies at a disadvantage. Tor proceeds to explain how his species is dependent on Quorrium, which would be destroyed if humans try to extract water from the Martian rock, which is why they want him to prevent any further human exploration of Mars. And I’d say here that it seems like they’re giving a way an awful lot about their own weaknesses here, but we’re something like seven million hours into this production, and never once has it mattered that one side knows something the other side doesn’t, so whatever.

The Tor offer to make Ratkin supreme ruler of Earth in return for stopping the space program. Ratkin points out that he’s taking over the world just fine without them… But then they basically just say the exact same thing again, and Ratkin is like, “Wait, you mean you’ll make me the supreme leader of the Earth and all I have to do is promise humans will stop going into space? Sign me up.” He agrees to their terms, warning them that it would be unwise to betray them.

The plan the Tor propose is flatly ridiculous enough that it will presumably work like a charm in this stupid world: Ratkin will use his communications satellites to transmit DeWitt’s address at the banquet on every station around the world, whereupon the clone crew will seize the podium and declare that the Tor are making Ratkin the sole proprietor of all water in the universe.

Ratkin, presumably in need of a clean pair of pants, reflects on how he’ll soon have everything he’s ever wanted (except for his son back), and will make Jessica rich and powerful as a reward. We cut back to the Tor Master, for some Mua-ha-hahing about how they’ll soon have complete victory. The banquet will surely be “what they call ‘simulcast'”, and the Tor will “use their own technology to defeat them.” Because as it turns out, the Tor have the ability to beam people up via television.

A bit late in the day to bring that up, isn’t it? Yeah, despite there having been no previous indication of such a thing, the Tor have a technology so ridiculously far in advance of anything we’ve seen here, that it’s basically impossible to reconcile with anything else we have seen or heard. The Martians, recall, are like a million years more advanced than the Tor, but they don’t have teleportation. Also, the Tor can jam any human communication at will, so I’m not sure why they’re even bothering with this bullshit. “Once we have conquered Earth, no world will dare oppose us again,” the Master Tor says.

Oh, and by the way, let’s say goodbye to Ronald Ratkin now. This is it for him.

But I can’t linger on that ridiculous bullshit, since we’ve got a lot of ridiculous bullshit to get through. The Ares approaches the dark side of the moon and locates the Tor ship. More time gets wasted on exposition about how Ares can camouflage itself to look like space, and the Tor can’t detect them because their sensors are primarily smell-based (Ares has too mild of an odor to be detected). Gloria reminds everyone that smell and sound don’t travel in space. Ares intercepts part of the conference call between Jessica, Ratkin and the Tor, learning the location of the banquet. Gloria laughs off the suggestion that they might be able to “beam down” to Earth, since this scene was probably written before they decided that beaming was a thing that could happen in this universe.

As they land, Doctor Morgan reflects on how much she likes passing through the clouds: “It’s like flying in heaven.” Because we haven’t really had enough pointless time-wasting so far. Gloria introduces them to the marvels of Martian GPS to help Talbert navigate, and then talk turns to armaments. With audible and creepily sexual excitement, she tells them there’s a veritable arsenal on board, but most of the weapons can’t be operated by humans. Why do the Martians have hand-weapons anyway? They can manipulate matter on a molecular level with a touch. Actually, how the fuck did the Martians lose to the Tor when a Martian can pretty much turn anyone they like into a puddle of goo just by poking them?

Come to think of it, if Martians can alter their biology at will, why did they succumb to Earth bacteria back in the ’30s? I mean, other than “This sequel has completely forgotten that and will not bring it up.” Anyway, if you were hoping that we’d get to see some heat rays… You should be used to disappointment by now. Gloria presents them with a small hand-weapon that can disintegrate a human at a distance of half a kilometer. The mechanism isn’t specified, but they’re genetically coded to their operators and operated telepathically. They land Ares at the Hiltmore Hotel and set off to find their duplicates. Nikki leaves Gloria and Talbert aboard the ship with orders to go back and retrieve the others if they don’t hear back. Bye, guys.

Some classical music transitions us to Nancy Ferris. Her adventures in trying to reach the Hiltmore Hotel while evading recapture by Ratkin are… Not described. Instead, she announces for our benefit that she’s right outside her husband’s room. Somehow, she’s found his room number and gained access, apparently without anyone noticing. You’d think if she asked for him at the front desk, they’d have called up to his room. You’d think there’d be security, given that, as we keep being told, there are many who oppose Mission Red.

You would be wrong about these things. He answers the door with, “Can I help you?” and then, in a deadpan that is so thorough that I actually did get a smile out of it, “Oh. Yes. Nancy. My wife. I was told that you were missing. Enter, please. I am glad to see you.” She explains that she’s in disguise, due to having been in hiding for weeks.

Weeks. It’s been weeks.

Never mind. Press on. We’re almost there now. It takes Nancy a while, but she does eventually start to pick up on the fact that something might be a little off about her husband, pointing out that he hasn’t even kissed her yet. “Ah, yes, a kiss,” he says, sounding for all the world like Donald Trump Jr. trying to demonstrate that he is a real human being by placing photos of his family on his desk, facing away from him. Nancy gives him a sarcastic thank-you after a passionless kiss, and he returns a sincere, “You are welcome.” She asks if he’s acting strangely because the room is bugged. “Bugged? Ah, yes, bugged. I have no knowledge of such activities.” He suggests that he’s tired from the trip, and Nancy almost buys it, until she remembers that the real Jonathan is usually a useless klutz for weeks after a space trip, and he seems fine to her.

When he barely reacts to being told about their house burning down, the jig is up, and she accuses him of not actually being Jonathan Ferris. He apologizes, and actually sounds rather sad about it as he declares that he’s been ordered to kill her.

It’s just at that moment that the real Orion crew busts into the hotel room to rescue her. Jessica Storm arrives a second later with the other clones, giving Nikki a chance to flirt with herself, because at this point why not? Nancy challenges the Orion crew to prove their authenticity, and Nikki explains about the real Ferris having remained behind, which she finds convincing, since she knows her real husband would gladly stay behind on Mars to avoid coming home to her.

Jessica threatens them all with a Tor hand-weapon, and Nikki responds by declaring herself immune to being shot for plot reasons because she’s Jessica’s nemesis, and therefore Jessica needs her alive to have someone to beat at things. Jessica insists she’s okay with that, and starts to explain the plan for the benefit of the Orion crew. Weirdly, though, the Tor decide to interrupt her at this point and reveal their true intentions.

WHAT. IS. EVEN. THE. FUCKING. POINT?

After accusing the “smelly insects” of tricking her, Jessica tries to warn Ratkin to fire his missiles. I guess over a cell phone or something? I mean, she just says “Ronald, fire missiles!” out loud to no one. It doesn’t matter, though, because the Tor have blocked her signal. We get one last bit of pointless padding when the Tor explains that a rebellious Martian slave erased all of the Tor’s records about human biology, which is somehow relevant to why they need to wait for the banquet to put their plan into action. Jessica promises that the military will destroy the Tor, and if not them, Ratkin. The Tor counter that within a week, all humans who refuse to be relocated will asphyxiate. I, um, I thought they were going to beam everyone up, so how does “choice” figure in here? “The choice is yours, Jessica Storm. Only this time, you have no choice.” Oh. Okay then.

And that’s game. The narrator assures us that the story will be continued “soon”, but he is wrong and thank God. I think he suspects this as well, since he refers to “Episode 5”, but doesn’t give a name for it as he had previously.

End of Side Four. Please stay tuned for the final analysis…

 

Deep Ice: Oh yes, dear. Quite mad (Howard Koch’s War of the Worlds II, Episode 4, Part 3)

It just keeps getting worse and worse, but hang in there; we’re halfway out of the dark. Part of me is inclined to say that this episode is the worst of the lot, but I’ve already listened to part four and it’s pretty bad too. Though I can’t say for sure if it’s worse, or I’ve just completely depleted my will to live.

I don’t know why it keeps getting harder to write these. I mean, I talk a good game because I have a small amount of affection for hyperbole, but War of the Worlds II isn’t really even in the top five things that make me long for the sweet release of death. Top ten, sure, but not top five.

In fact, I will say from the outset that this section of the story does one thing well: it stays on topic. Out of thirty-eight minutes of side three, about thirty-four of those minutes stick to just one topic. This will not be the case in part four, for the obvious reason that they’ve got a fuckton of plot to get done before they run out of tape.

Here’s the bad news: those thirty-four minutes are about Ethan Allen Ratkin and his quest to find his mother and become a better-rounded human being. And the other four are about Tosh Motherfucking Rimbauch. Lord, give me strength.

We left Ethan and Kyle right outside Steinmetz, where they’d just evaded Ratkin’s personal physician Dr. Evans on his way home after murdering Ethan’s mom, who has been living under the name “Mrs. Rochester” for the past decade and change. Kyle explains to Ethan that he won’t be able to just knock on the front door and ask to visit his mom, as they are Just Some Kids. Instead, Kyle fakes some kind of psychotic break, running around in front of the lobby shouting about something being all over him, so that Ethan can slip in unnoticed while a nurse with an excessively southern accent tries to help the screaming street urchin.

Inside, Ethan hears someone coming and hides, I think, on a crash cart. I’m not sure. He says he’s going to hide under a table, then we hear someone say “Grab that crash cart!” and he ends up in the room where they’re taking it, but it really stretches the imagination to think Ethan would mistake a crash cart for a table, or be able to conceal himself on one such that no one would notice when they wheel it around the hospital. I mean, unless they’re imagining that a “crash cart” is basically the same thing as a catering cart, only with a defibrillator on top.

That is totally what happened, isn’t it?

In a plot contrivance which would be part of acceptable storytelling necessity except that this production has been nothing but storytelling contrivances, Ethan is thus delivered directly to his mother’s room. Mrs. Rochester is in cardiac and respiratory arrest, according to the excessively southern nurse. This is slightly odd, because we can hear her heart monitor, and everything sounds entirely normal until the nurse starts speaking. I assume they wanted us to understand what the sound meant, by playing us the normal beeps of a heart monitor before it transitioned into a solid flatline tone. But it comes off as though the staff is out ahead of her condition.

Idealistic Young Doctor from the last tape and Crusty Old Administrator work frantically to help her. Young Doctor explains that he’d been called away to take a phone call, but no one had been on the line. He’d returned to find her dying. They determine that she’s suffering from an opioid overdose, but assume an orderly screwed up her medications. The administrator orders a dose of naloxone to reverse the effects, momentarily startling me because this was made years before the current opioid epidemic, and it’s weird that they get so much right about treating the overdose. Young Doctor calls for a crash cart, which, as you know, is already on the way, and defibrillates and resuscitates her a second later, without any indication that one has arrived.

While Firstein (Administrator) is arguing that Bryant (Young Doctor) is obviously crazy for thinking that the mysterious call from no one that drew him away when his patient was given a deadly overdose might possibly mean anything other than human error, Ethan pops out of hiding to cry for his mommy. Bryant recognizes the familial resemblance instantly and intervenes to promise Ethan will be allowed to see his mother once she’s stabilized. Firstein wants to call the director and get permission from Mrs. Rochester’s family first. Which she doesn’t have, because they don’t know who she is.

Bryant manages to cajole his boss into keeping Ethan’s presence quiet for the moment and risking both their careers for the chance of turning Mrs. Rochester into “A fully functioning individual”.

The narrator helpfully explains to us that while Ethan waits for his mother to wake up, Nancy Ferris is still with Tom and Jennifer Connors, preparing to go recapture their hostage. Before going to Steinmetz, they decide to stop off at Nancy’s house so she can pick up some personal things.

Did they ever say where Nancy lived? I can’t remember if they ever actually say it. But it’s implied she’s within driving distance of NASA’s mission control center in Houston, so I’d kinda taken for granted that Nancy lived in Texas. Steinmetz is in Connecticut, and is in driving distance of Ratkin Manor, though clearly it’s not all that close since it takes hours to get there. The narrator is very clear that these events are meant to be contemporaneous with those at Steinmetz, but this makes no sense if Nancy is meant to drive from Houston to Connecticut in the space of the next scene. Or, indeed, if she isn’t. What’s she been doing all this time?

Tom isn’t comfortable with taking her back to her house. Nancy interrupts to ask if his car is new, since she doesn’t recognize it. This is foreshadowing, but it’s foreshadowing something stupid and pointless. They reach Nancy’s house to find that Ratkin’s had it firebombed. “My home. My beautiful home. Burned to the ground,” Nancy says with no conviction whatsoever.

Tom and Jennifer reveal that they belong to “The Underground”, a vaguely specified resistance movement that opposes… They’re not really clear about what. They oppose, and really, shame on you if you didn’t see this coming by now since literally every character in this series has complained about it, “a wasteful government, a government whose hands are tied by special interests and bureaucracy,” (Tom, you probably don’t remember, is a town councilman, but that’s “good” government I guess) and powerful corporations, and Ratkin in particular. That’s the reason for the comment about the car: it’s an Underground car, registered to the fictional “Killroy Burgess”, and therefore untraceable, except that it will be traced instantly the second time anyone cares to. Their main gig at the moment is running underground water refineries and selling water on the black market. Jennifer is their chief scientist.

Also, Jennifer uses the phrases “Smoke you out,” and “You can’t go home again.” within a minute of Nancy losing her house in a fire. Jerk.

“Mrs. Rochester” wakes up at Steinmetz and gets her reunion with her long-lost baby. This consists mostly of Ethan saying, “Mother!” and her saying, “My baby!” Ethan explains that he’s twelve, and I am quite sure they said he was fourteen back in episode 2. All goes well until Ethan proposes taking her back home to Ratkin, whereupon she becomes agitated and starts moaning, “No! No! He’ll kill me! No! Evans! Needle! No! Ronald killed me!”

Southern nurse shepherds Ethan out of the room and tells him that his mother is delirious from a “bad reaction” to some medication. Ethan reflexively threatens to sue if one of the staff was responsible for her overdose. Ethan is confused about his mother’s ramblings, and runs off to find Bryant. He does while Bryant and Firstein are discussing Mrs. Rochester’s overdose. Firstein has learned of the visit by Doctor Evans. They don’t go into how exactly this unknown-to-them doctor had gained entry and access to a patient without having to sign in and keeping his face covered by a large hat. Maybe it was explained in episode three, but I doubt it. Bloodwork reveals that she’d been given a large intravenous injection of dilaudid, which is not the sort of thing anyone would do by mistake, meaning that it was definitely an assassination attempt. Ethan puts this information together with what he’d seen earlier and what he’d heard from his mother, and realizes that Evans, under orders from Ratkin, had just tried to kill his mother.

He runs off, mumbling, “Oh father? Why did you do it?” He finds Kyle, who apparently is just freely roaming around outside the hospital, instead of having been taken into custody or anything, and they decide to flee together. Bryant chases after them, swearing that he won’t hurt them, but Nancy and the Connors arrive and the kids accept a ride from these strangers, leaving Bryant swearing to trace the license plate number in order to help protect Ethan and his mother.

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Deep Ice: There’s more than enough for you and your friends, Senator (War of the Worlds II, Episode 4, Part 2)

Y’all ready for some political intrigue? Too fucking bad, it’s War of the Worlds II. The good news is that some actual stuff happens in this part. The bad news is that it happens on Earth, with all that implies. Oh yes, we’re back to the world of Ronald Ratkin (the world’s first Trillionaire) and Tosh Rimbauch (Making America Great Again).

But we’re not quite done with space yet. The Tor make their final preparations to send Jessica back to Earth, and it’s time for her to play her hand too early and gloat about her success with no consequences. She explains the Tor’s plan back to them for our benefit: Orion-1, newly refitted with a warp drive, will return to Earth, announcing success in finding water and forging an alliance with the Martians, which will surely prompt a ticker-tape parade and banquet in their honor full of world leaders. The Tor will follow Orion as far as the moon, and hide behind it until everyone’s at the banquet, and then they’ll “make their move”. The nature of this move is not explained, nor, honestly, what this plan will accomplish. It might make sense if the Martian clones were meant to assassinate or kidnap the world leaders. But there’s no indication that this is their plan, and it’s hard to believe that the Martians themselves would even be capable of it. It’s hard to fathom how Jessica herself could attend this hypothetical banquet, or indeed not be arrested for piracy the second Orion landed.

I mean, the basic concept that Orion with its ersatz crew will keep humanity from just shooting the crap out of the Tor the moment they arrive is solid. We learn over the course of this conversation that the Tor have roughly similar weapons capabilities to Earth, and that a Tor ship can’t withstand multiple nuclear warheads. This is an interesting shift from the trend in other adaptations, where aliens are sufficiently advanced that the only times humanity can fight back are in adaptations where they’ve repurposed stolen alien technology. Here, the entirely home-grown technology of late-20th-century Earth is equal to that of the alien invaders — the Tor leader will shortly mention that the lack of lightspeed space travel is the only area in which humanity lags behind the Tor. And little though this production has to do with the 1938 radio play to which it is nominally a sequel, it’s not a radical inconsistency; the tripods of the radio play were vulnerable to heavy artillery provided you were fast enough to get in a killing shot before they rolled over you, so it’s reasonable to imagine that the Martians (and the less-advanced Tor) were only a few decades ahead of human technology in most respects.

But when we get into the details, it all goes pear-shaped. Why hide the Tor behind the moon, where they’ll have to come out and make the last leg of the journey exposed, after they’ve been formally introduced at a banquet? Why bother refitting Orion at all — just show up in the Tor warship, broadcasting an announcement from the fake Orion crew that they found and borrowed a Martian ship. The whole point is to get Earth under their control without having to resort to a fire-fight, but there’s absolutely no indication how any of this would actually accomplish that. Are the Martians going to shape-shift back to their natural forms and just announce “Bwa ha ha! We’re not really the Orion crew! We’re aliens! And we’re conquering your planet!” whereupon the Secret Service will just shoot them and be done with it. Nothing in this plan makes it seem like it’s an improvement over “Just show up unannounced”.

While the main part of the plan is going on, Jessica will secretly communicate with Ratkin to reassure him that she’s got Orion under her control and he shouldn’t blow it up with his own private space-based weapons platform.

Yes, he has one of those. Don’t be stupid. Jessica cautions the Tor that Ratkin will try to double-cross them and conquer the galaxy, and the Tor counter that they’re going to kill her for suggesting such a thing. This is where she stops to gloat: on the last tape, she took a short break to hop back up to Artemis in order to murder her crew off-screen. I didn’t mention it at the time because it was handled as an aside by the narrator. But while she was up there, apparently, she filled Ratkin in on the bare outline of what was going on and had him arrange for his private space-based weapons platform to nuke the hell out of the Tor if they show up without her or try anything. The Tor congratulates her on having cleverly outmaneuvered them such that their only choices are to either agree to her terms or kill her and give up on Earth. For the sake of keeping this story going, they choose the former, but once she’s out of the room, they go back to bwa-ha-hahing about how they’re totally going to double-cross her once they’ve taken over the Earth and gotten rid of that pesky satellite.

Jessica also mentions in passing during this segment that the water crisis on Earth is entirely artificial; the Tor are concerned that even Ratkin’s empire wouldn’t be powerful enough to stop humans from pursuing Martian water out of desperation, and she flat out says that there’s plenty of water on Earth, and it’s only Ratkin’s machinations that are preventing humanity from making it potable.

The faux-Wagner music is traded out for the cheap ’80s crime drama sax on the transition to Earth. Major Stryker, Bob Boness, and the still-hospitalized President DeWitt get on a conference call to hear from Orion-1, which is finally checking in after an unspecified period of time which seems like it ought to have been at least a couple of months by now but time is passing at different rates in different parts of the plot. “Commander Ferris” calls NASA for the first time in months to announce that they’re on their way home to report success. They pretty much repeat everything Jessica already told us about their cover story: they claim that the Martians have agreed to help them, that the ’38 invasion was an by an unsanctioned rebel sect, that by way of apology, the Martians have upgraded Orion-1’s engines and agreed to help them extract water, and that the “feeble attempts” of Jessica Storm and the Artemis crew were “easily thwarted”. DeWitt finds the “feeble attempts” bit hard to swallow. We seem to have completely forgotten the bit from before where the jamming was attributed to a superluminal signal being transmitted from Mars to a distant star system.

Before disconnecting, Stryker gives “Ferris” the bad news about his wife: that she’s gone missing, suspected to have been kidnapped by Ratkin. The clone unemotionally responds, “That is most unfortunate.” But since this is the same character who has been acting like a particularly inanimate block of wood for three episodes now, everyone quickly dismisses any suspicion that there might be something “up” with the fact that he responded to the news of his wife’s abduction without any hint of actually being bothered by it. Just as predicted, DeWitt’s first thought is to throw a ticker-tape parade and state banquet for them.

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Deep Ice: They made a copy (War of the Worlds II: Episode 4: The Eye of the Storm, Part 1)

Am I the only one really bothered that they commissioned four different covers, each of which is its own variation on “Terrible composite of the Earth against a nebula of some sort in proportions that aren’t even vaguely plausible”?

Okay. Okay. Enough stalling. Let’s get into this thing. Part four. The exciting finale. Or whatever. As you can tell, I haven’t been looking forward to this.

In case you’ve forgotten, the missing-but-not-missed episode 3 ended with the deaths of Commander Ferris, Nikki Jackson and Mark Rutherford at the hands of Jessica Storm and her hired gun Walsh. After the ridiculously lengthy recap, we rejoin Jessica Storm on Mars, under interrogation by the Tor. It’s not clear to me whether there’s meant to be one or two of them there. The voices of the Tor are distorted with an echo and flange, slower and deeper than the Martian voices. This is justified in-universe by the fact that the Tor are communicating using the telepathic Martians as intermediaries: their native form of communication is based on smell.

They inform Jessica of their intent to destroy Earth: since humans will kill for water, the Tor can’t tolerate them as a threat to their supply of quorrium. Jessica counter-proposes that they make an alliance with Ratkin, who can provide them with unlimited slave labor and block any attempt to extract Martian water. The Tor accept her offer, and please her further by planning to work the Orion crew to death in the mines in order to gauge human physical endurance. We fade to the theme music as Jessica Storm laugh maniacally.

Which pretty much sets the stage for side one of this episode: it’s going to be a whole lot of villains monologuing and laughing maniacally as they plan their various double-crosses and backstabs.

The decidedly not-dead crew of Orion-1 wake up in a chamber deep below the Martian surface. It takes them little time to work out that they are prisoners of the Tor, the events of the previous episode having been some kind of mental simulation to test their levels of murderocity. The fact that Walsh and Jessica passed the test, while the others apparently failed does not fill them with optimism.

Everyone is so happy to not be dead that Nikki and Mark immediately go back to sniping at each other, giving us an opportunity to notice that I think they’ve recast Mark again. He actually kinda sounds like Dick York now. Or Dick Sargent. One of them. With maybe a hint of Jack Lemmon in there. And a hint of Boris Karloff a la How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

If, for some unthinkable reason, you’re just picking up the story now, then here’s some good news: Since Commander Ferris was up on Orion for the entirety of episode 2 and didn’t get to meet the Martians, and spent episode 3, I assume, fighting to the death, he never actually got to hear all that exposition the others got, so they get to spend the next five minutes catching him up on who the Martians are, who the Tor are, what quorrium is, how Hanoi Xan rose through the ranks of the World Crime League, and whether there’s water on Mars.

The Tor go back to Jessica to talk with her about Walsh. He passed the murder test, so they like him, but they don’t trust him. Jessica offers to sort things out, so they send her to see him. She slaps him for referring to her as “The Broad”, and his main concern is to accuse her of “going soft” because having been captured by powerful, murderous aliens and trapped many kilometers below the surface of Mars as the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, her first priority isn’t to find and murder the Orion crew. This annoys Jessica enough that she kills him.

She explains to the Tor that Walsh didn’t count as a “peer” because she hasn’t got any, and that Walsh had orders to kill her anyway: she’d tapped Ratkin’s phone and knew of the planned double-cross. This evolves into a long discussion about the nature of trust, wherein Jessica expositions that the Tor appear as moving shadows, but this is not their natural form (We’re told later that the Tor evolved from reptiles. We’re also told that they are a sulphur-based lifeform, and that we should be ashamed of ourselves for assuming that all life must be carbon-based just because carbon is actually unusual in the way it can bond to other elements, and has properties which sulphur doesn’t. Also, being sulphur-based would seem to make the whole thing about the Tor being related to Earth-reptiles seem even more unlikely. But it doesn’t really matter; the main point is just that they stink).

The Tor also reveal that she’ll be returning to Earth with a cadre of Martian slaves who’ve used their matter-manipulation abilities to assume the likenesses of the Orion crew.

This would have been a more impactful reveal in a format other than audio.

We also get some sermonizing, in case you’ve missed clunkily inserted authorial politics. The Tor suggest that they’re not so different, and Jessica claims that humans would never resort to slavery over water shortages. The woman who has literally sold out humanity as slaves to the Tor. So Tor tells her that humans just call it “minimum wage”. Later, Ari will also point out that humans and Tor have a lot in common, though he grants that, unlike Tor, humans have the capacity for kindness.

Jessica tags along when the Martian clones go to suck out the memories of the Orion crew, though she’s disappointed to find out that the procedure is “mostly painless”. While that’s getting set up, the Tor who’s been dealing with Jessica is summoned to speak to his “Master”, a Tor with the voice of an old man. Time for more bwa-ha-hahing.

They explain to each other that they are totally planning to double-cross Jessica Storm. Despite what they’ve told her, the humans won’t be used for quorrium mining. Humans are ill-suited for it, lacking the ability to manipulate matter on a molecular level, and being prone to dying from radiation poisoning and all. Instead, they plan to transport the human race en masse to the planet Brick (Different people at different times pronounce it differently, so probably it’s meant to be an alien-sounding name like Br’iak or Breeak or B’r’k or B””””k or something, but I’m going to go with “Brick” because that’s what it sounds like) to farm fungi. Earth itself is going to be strip-mined for its atmosphere, because as it turns out the Tor eat pollution. Also fungi, I guess, but mainly pollution.

I will note here that “Pollution is rendering Earth more attractive to aliens” is a ham-handed science fiction plot device which has turned up in lots of things before. Doctor Who has done it at least twice. Power Rangers also did it possibly twice, but I’m not sure because the plot of Megaforce was a god-damned mess. Did Captain Planet do it? Feels like the sort of thing they would do. And heck, War of the Worlds the Series even threw it in. So it would be petty of me to object… But I still object. Because War of the Worlds II has not done anything good to make me want to forgive them for the over-the-top moralizing of “Don’t pollute or else aliens will come and eat all our air.”

All the same, the Tor Master orders the Tor Underling to keep an eye on Jessica Storm, because she’s clever enough to pose an actual threat to them.

We transition back to the Orion crew with a musical sting that sounds like a cheap knockoff of a Wagnerian Opera. Jessica enters and gets taunted about the sulfurous smell that accompanies her. They accuse Ari of betraying them, but Gloria recognizes that it’s actually Ohm: the Tor forced the Martians to build him a new body and reinstalled his mind from backup. It’s a neat idea to toss in which could have interesting implications later on, and which (all together now) doesn’t come up again.

Jessica relishes telling the Orion crew about their fate in the mines, and throws in the really incredibly hackneyed over-the-top villain comment that Nikki should be “pleased” to follow in the footsteps of her slave ancestors.

What. The. Ever. Loving. Fuck.

You know, the only thing I can even begin to imagine that line is for is because they got halfway through episode 2 and started to worry about how “implicitly white” this whole thing was, so they hastily started shoehorning in any line they could think of to convince the listeners that Nikki is black. And I’m not saying that it necessarily ought to be possible to tell a person’s race in an audio-only presentation, but Nikki is black the same way that any non-white character in the Superfriends is non-white: in the mode of a white person who spent a semester abroad and won’t shut up about it. Y’know, like your friend in High School who spent the summer in England and came back insisting on calling it “American Football” and using the exclamation, “bugger me!” in a way that indicates that she doesn’t know what it means. Everything everything about the character of Nikki Jackson screams at the top of its lungs “rich white girl”. So when she starts dropping anecdotes about being raised by her poor grandmother who lived through Jim Crow (the old one, not the Trump-era revival) in a few minutes, Imma call bullshit.

And Jessica’s casual racism is… So not only is it ridiculous and out-of-character, it’s not even believable racism. “You should enjoy slavery because your ancestors were slaves,” isn’t a sociopathic genius trying to be cruel. It’s not even a dumb person trying to be cruel. It’s just… I mean… Look, it’s 2017, so I think we all know what it looks like when a powerful white person says something incredibly racist. This is super fucking racist, but doesn’t sound like real-world coded racism, and it doesn’t sound like real-world overt racism. It sounds like exactly what it is: expository racism which is only there to remind us that Nikki is black, because the writers apparently have never actually met any black people and have no idea how to write the experience of being a person of color in 1990s America. Not that I do either, but at least I know enough to not do that.

Anyway, Nikki decks Jessica after the men all refuse to because they’re “old world gentlemen”. The Tor warn Jessica off of killing Nikki in retribution because, apparently, the Tor respect Nikki for her violent outburst.

With the Orion crew’s minds successfully copied, Jessica gleefully leaves them to their fate. And by “fate”, I mean another long talky scene. It takes Gloria and Nikki about thirty seconds to figure out what Jessica E. Coyote, Sooper-Geeeenius missed: that it’s radically implausible that Tor would want them as slaves in the mines.

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Deep Ice: In a Brave New World (DG Leigh’s The Massacre of Mankind: War of the Worlds)

That is epic levels of ‘stache.

It is January 1, 2017. If you are reading this, you were there. President-Elect D- Irm. President-Elect Do-. FUCK THIS NOISE. Okay. Right. Blah blah something about how he “knows things other people don’t” about Russian interference in the election. I wonder what that could possibly mean… A prankster uses tarpaulins to temporarily change the “HOLLYWOOD” sign to read “HOLLYWEED”. There’s a terror-related shooting at a nightclub in Turkey and a suicide-related shooting at one in Brazil.

TV’s repeats, obviously. We’re a week on now from Doctor Who‘s Christmas special and real-2016’s only new Who, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, which was fun, but filled me with dread that Harmony Shoal would be a recurring villain, having appeared both in this special, and last year’s “The Husbands of River Song”. Sherlock returns tonight with “The Six Thatchers”. Mariah Carey, Demi Lovato and Gloria Estefan are among the performers on Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve. I am so old now that I have literally never heard of any of the songs in the top ten.

Guess who didn’t learn his lesson last week! Oh yeah, we are returning to the world of D. G. Leigh with The Massacre of Mankind, billed as “The Unofficial Sequel to The War of the Worlds”. And once again, there’s some title confusion; the cover art seems to present the title as Artilleryman Needs You, which would kinda be a better title. Credit where it’s due, though: that is a cool cover. It’s reminiscent of the old “Uncle Sam Needs You To Join the Army” posters, but the art style and the presence of Mars in the background give it a threatening aspect. The mustachioed visage of the Artilleryman in his high-collared black uniform has obvious fascist tones to it, but more than that, I think it’s very obviously trying to call to mind the “Big Brother is Watching” posters of 1984. And the tripods and fleeing couple rendered as negative space cut out of the Artilleryman’s uniform are lovely. There’s something that just feels very retro-sci-fi, evoking any number of ’70s and ’80s short-lived “Heroes fleeing from a pursuer through a strange fantasy world” TV seriesAnd, of course, the old Sci-Fi Channel-specific logo for Doctor Who. The page headers go with The Massacre of Mankind: The War of the Worlds, but the title page, to make things worse, goes with The War of the Worlds: Brave New World. I am suspicious about the title. I kinda suspect that Leigh is going for a Transmorphers thing here, and expects most of his sales to go to people who have made a mistake.

Leigh is still full of interesting ideas and is able to keep up an exciting narrative, but once again, he’s stuffed the book too-full with more ideas than the narrative can comfortably support. And once again, his prose is largely artless and telegraphic. I feel bad for him; Leigh could probably be a decent writer if he had a good editor to help him polish his prose and reign him in.

While Sherlock Holmes vs The War of the Worlds mashed up two classic Victorian icons, The Massacre of Mankind is a more modern take on Victoriana. It’s a steampunk sequel. Well, sort of; it has a lot of the trappings of steampunk, but it’s stylistically more like cyberpunk — steampunk usually has a very different attitude, drawing from Verne and Wells, with themes that fit well with Victorian ideals about gallant men going out adventuring and finding exciting new worlds and exploiting them. This book, though, is set in a world of post-apocalyptic underground cities, with 31337 hacking and cyborg gunslingers. There are dirigibles, sure, but there’s also honest-to-goodness flying cars.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like Sherlock, Massacre is prefaced with apologies (or “Apologises”) from the author about his playing hard and fast with fact in his story about a turn-of-the-century authoritarian underground civilization besieged by alien invaders from Mars. It’s not as awkward as last time: he apologizes for referencing a seamount that wouldn’t be discovered until the ’50s and for playing hard and fast with the physics of a space elevator. Next is a very strange dedication, to the “gallant souls” who gave their lives at the battle of Anton Dorhn Seamount. Which is the battle at the climax of the book. He dedicated the book to minor characters in the book. He goes on to, I don’t know, name them? This doesn’t make sense at all. Under the title “HMS Phoenix Child” is a list of eight names presented in pairs, as though he’s giving a cast list. “Darren (Ulla) Dunn ….. Harwich”, “George Lindsey …… Ascot”, and so on. I’m not even sure if the names listed here appear in the text of the book. Best I can guess, he based certain minor characters on real people in his life, and he’s giving the cast list here, purely as a shout-out to his buddies. Or not, I’ve no idea.

Next, we get a quick summary of the premise which spoils most of the major plot points. It’s twenty years after the invasion, and the Artilleryman has become the dictatorial ruler of New London. The surface is largely uninhabitable in England due to the persistence of the carnivorous red weed. France, Germany, and a united independent Ireland have formed a coalition that’s at war with New London, but [sic] “Unable to replicate a certain Martian alloy, Marsuminium. Their alien-hybrid-steam-tank division edge ever closer to New London’s research laboratories hoarding stock piles of fighting machines.” Artilleryman (I’m probably going to slip into using “the” with him, but the book treats it as his name), having gained control of the lion’s share of Martian technology, has had its secrets unlocked and developed an arsenal of high-tech defenses.

But the Martians haven’t given up on conquest, and now, an orbiting space station is melting the polar ice caps in order to disrupt human civilization as much of the world’s population is displaced due to sea level rise, and a Martian sea platform acts as their beachhead for a new ground invasion.

We’ll spend roughly half the novel working our way up to the stuff that was just explained in that anteprologue. Then we get a prologue which basically tells the end of the war from the Martians’ perspective, with the dying aliens sending back a warning to their homeworld.

Then there’s an appendix to the prologue which covers ground we’ve already covered, briefly outlining the invasion of Britain by French and German forces, and how they were ultimately repelled by the red weed and Artilleryman’s greater supply of Martian technology.

And then there’s another appendix to the prologue about Artilleryman’s rise to power. His major qualification was simply that he’d survived. He lucked into commandeering a tripod and made a name for himself by using it to fend off French and German attackers. Good luck and charisma got the military to back him, and in the lawless chaos left by the invasion, he was able to build a new civilization, just as he’d planned, using heat rays to excavate an underground city.

We mercifully begin the story proper with the introduction of the narrator, who calls himself “Pockets”. He’s the son of Journalist (narrator of the original novel) and his wife, Carrie (h/t to Jeff Wayne’s musical). This was actually explained back in the second or third prologue, but I wanted to leave something until dramatically apropos. Journalist and Carrie had fled New London after he had a falling out with Artilleryman, but were forced to leave Pockets behind. Pockets grew up as a social outcast, his engineering genius unnoticed and unappreciated, and eventually became a criminal: a dealer of illegal books.

That’s a wonderful idea to splash into this dystopia. The Artilleryman is always depicted as having disdain for poetry and literature, and here, it’s contraband. Pockets smuggles books of nursery rhymes and poetry to people who’ll pay black market prices for the stuff, which paints a lovely picture of what kind of bleak existence Artilleryman has made in his underground police state.

Now say it along with me: Nothing Ever Comes Of It.

As I mentioned, Pockets is a mechanical genius, and it’s this, rather than the book smuggling thing, which is the primary mechanism through which the story moves forward. Among his early inventions is a steam-powered mechanical dog, Pooch, who serves as a sidekick for about half of the book. There’s some well-intentioned but not especially effective attempts to give Pooch some character: he vents steam through his rear so we can do fart jokes about the robot dog. And, not having ever heard a real dog, Pockets didn’t know what they sounded like, so he programmed Pooch to moo like a cow.

It’s Pooch who gets Pockets into book-dealing, locating a supply of illegal books and somehow working out on its own that Pockets could trade them for parts necessary to build a “sky-cycle” with which he could finally leave the city. We sort of skip ahead from there to what Pockets means to be his last deal, trading a banned bible to a vicar in exchange for a Martian power pack.

It doesn’t go well: the preacher (or “Preacher”) draws a gun on him, revealing himself as an undercover enforcer for Artilleryman, and he seems to have a personal beef with Pockets: “Your father also possessed. A sinner in league with Satan. Must be a bloodline trait? An unholy contract signed.”

Yeah, turns out that Preacher is the Curate. He’d miraculously survived being captured by the Martians, but retains a grudge against Journalist and his entire line for cold-cocking him and abandoning him. Pockets is able to escape, but finds Preacher and the police lying in wait for him when he returns home. Pooch sacrifices himself, taking six bullets to buy Pockets a chance to escape, which he does by sealing a tunnel hatch on Preacher’s arm.

With neither Pooch nor his sky-bike, Pockets stows away on a transport to an outer borough and uses his hacking skills to set up a false identity for himself there. We prance forward in time again while he sets himself up in the new development and secures a forgotten watchtower in which to build a new sky-bike, this time simply stealing what he needed from construction supplies, making me wonder why he was doing it the hard way before.

Discovered access to the forgotten watchtower network that originally protected us from the French and Germans while the caverns for Artilleryman’s brave new metropolis were being excavated STOP Used afterwards as Earth bound observation posts STOP Keenly viewed for any signs of a repeat attack launched from Mars STOP Once established and secure underground, the deeper the construction went the less frequent visits paid to the lookouts STOP Spread of the red weed kept the Free Lands at bay, the towers eventually mothballed, resources put to better use STOP Their glass domes covered with blast shields STOP Outside gantry doors wielded shut STOP

Having lost a sidekick in the previous chapter, it’s time to add a new supporting character.  Pockets eventually meets his neighbor, Tubance, “An orphan war child brought to the city by strangers. Found with two pennies in her top pocket, that’s how she’d come-by her name. Still kept the coins safe.” He’s immediately smitten:

How’d come [sic] she smelt [sic] so wonderful? The ways of the old world gone. No more indulgent imports from Paris of the latest boutique perfumes. Those frivolous fancies along with idle gossip of shocking vogue fashion fresh from Milan’s designer houses all belonged in a unattainable forgotten past.

A couple of paragraphs later, he’s made the “mistake” of falling in love with her. We skip ahead weeks or months, and Pockets has finished his sky-bike, but is dawdling on his escape due to his relationship. When he finally does decide to make his escape, he takes Tubance to his watchtower workshop to give her a chance to see the stars. Which, as it does, leads to sex.

They’re interrupted by guards who’ve noticed that the watchtower’s blast shield is open. Pockets hides Tubance and tries to convince them that he’s an inspector doing his rounds. They believe him, but are still duty-bound to take him in and file a report. The guards fail to see a “shooting star” that coincidentally falls during their conversation, but the narrator assures us that this heralds the arrival of the Martian super-cylinder that would, “Mark the start of New London’s collapsing foundations.”

Though Pockets’s cover identity, George Wells, level six engineer, holds up under scrutiny, the Artilleryman’s brave new world is largely powered by prison labor. After the initial excavation, the need to conserve heat rays had prompted a shift to a more pickaxe-based technology, as, “Artilleryman decided that a pickaxe and shovel were good enough tools to be getting on with, he wasn’t the one slaving and dying.”

So once they determine that he won’t be missed, the minor infraction of not having filed the proper paperwork is considered sufficient to merit our hero being shipped off to the mines. With Tubance sidelined, it’s time for our third sidekick, Pockets’s cell-mate, Zero. Zero’s a bruiser with no legal identity due to an unregistered birth. Pockets impresses him by insulting him while he’s killing another inmate. Leigh’s musings on prison buddies is about the most eloquent thing he’s written in two books:

I’ve learnt that there’s three types of friends you make in life. Those first in childhood. When you’re innocent. Free from envy, greed and the biological urge to f**k. When a friendship doesn’t have an alternative agenda for gain. The second is an unbreakable bond that comes from fighting with comrades on the battlefield. Included in this second category is also your prison cell companion. The third form of friendship is everyone else and doesn’t count for shit.

 

After a tangent about how miners frequently fall victim to a parasitic worm that came to Earth with the Martians and now lives in the ground (this goes nowhere, but provides a chance for a some horrifying imagery about being eaten from the inside-out), we once again prance ahead a bit, and find Pockets hauled off to an interrogation room. They present him with a miniature steam-powered reproduction tripod and demand he help them solve its balance issues.

When he feigns ignorance, the Preacher reappears, now sporting a robot arm and carrying the remains of Pooch. The jig up, Pockets looks at the source code for the tripod’s stability. See, this is what I mean about it feeling more like cyberpunk than steampunk: I shouldn’t be seeing a discussion about software bugs and computer viruses. Pockets recognizes that the flaw was deliberate, and Preacher reveals that it was the work of a saboteur, now deceased. Though hiding the full extent of his skill, he programs the tripod to right itself, then smashes it, which nearly wins him execution before a voice over the loudspeaker stays the Preacher’s hand (We’re not told what the voice says, and who it is is revealed in the next chapter).

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