We should surrender to the aliens. We have no other choice.
It is March 6, 1989. Since the last episode of War of the Worlds aired, nine people aboard US Airlines flight 811 out of Honolulu were lost when a cargo door failed, causing the aircraft to experience explosive decompression. Icelandic Prohibition ended after almost 80 years (though only strong beer was still banned by this point). Time and Warner have announced their impending merger. The Berne Convention was ratified by the US, making international copyright law a settled issue that totally won’t ever come up again. The Satanic Verses controversy comes to a head with Iran placing a three million dollar bounty on Salman Rushdie. Tomorrow, they will sever diplomatic ties with the UK over the affair. Venezuela is hit by a series of riots and protests over rising gas and transportation costs known as the Caracazo. Future strongman Hugo Chavez was unable to participate, being sick that day, but would later describe the event as a turning point that made the 1992 coup attempt inevitable. In cold war news, Estonia, which had been quietly resisting Soviet rule for almost two years by now, flew their own flag at Toompea Castle, next to the Estonian Parliament building, for the first time since Soviet annexation.
Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” made its debut in a Pepsi commercial during last Thursday’s The Cosby Show, another big part of my childhood which seems like a parallel universe now because a lot of people were up in arms about how inappropriate it was to expose innocent children to Madonna, especially a song that was sexy and possibly a little blasphemous, and worse, to do it in the middle of something totally family-friendly and not-at-all-scandalous-especially-in-any-kind-of-sex-related-way like Bill Cosby. Reality doesn’t make a lot of sense any more. Not a lot of changes to the Billboard charts. New in the top ten this week is Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True”. The album will hit the stores tomorrow.
ABC debuted Coach last week. CBS presented us with Hard Time on Planet Earth, one of those high-concept sitcoms I’m always going on about, this time about an alien warrior whose rehabilitation after being convicted of war crimes is to go be an ’80s Walking the Earth action-adventure hero, only as a sitcom rather than an ’80s action-adventure series. I do not recall this series; it is by all accounts terrible. The Disney Afternoon evolved into its imperial phase with the debut of Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. Tomorrow, ABC will premiere Anything But Love, which is surprisingly close to running out of 1980s for a show I remember almost exclusively for being “a very ’80s thing I didn’t pay much attention to.”
TV is a mix of old and new this week. ABC’s TGIF Friday lineup is repeats, though their Tuesday lineup is new. Yesterday, they aired a Debbie Allen special and followed it up with a thriller starring Robin Givens, Robert Guillaume, and, strangely, David Hewlitt, who must have been awfully young. NBC counters by airing the 1986 William Petersen film Manhunter, the oft-overlooked first film adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter novel Red Dragon. CBS also did a movie, this one a docudrama about the invention of the atomic bomb, featuring Hal Holbrook. MacGyver is a repeat this week, but last week they aired “The Challenge”, one of those charmingly ’80s “White Action Adventure Hero Meets and Uplifts Underprivileged Black Youths and Saves Their Community Center” episodes. The basic problem of the premise is the worst thing about it; it’s otherwise pretty much okay and holds up better than any of the twice-a-season “Sam solves racism” episodes of Quantum Leap.
I bring up Quantum Leap because it is due to premiere in a couple of weeks and I have a note in my big spreadsheet of when things happened relative to each other to mention Quantum Leap here, and I have very little to say other than, “Wow, these ‘Sam solves racism’ episodes have not aged well.” Not that the show isn’t great or that Bakula isn’t a national treasure and we were lucky to have him in a recurring role as the villain for one season of Doctor Who how the hell did he manage to kill Star Trek? I just don’t have anything interesting to say about it. Oh, except that have you ever noticed how similar the theme song to Quantum Leap is to the theme song to MacGyver?
No new Friday the 13th this week, and no new Star Trek either, but there will be something weird instead: Michael Dorn will guest star on the series finale of the sitcom Webster, in character as Lt. Worf. I have no memory of this happening, it’s not out on DVD, and I can’t find a copy on-line to verify any of this. I did watch Webster, though, at least the first few seasons. I probably lost track when it fell off ABC and moved to first-run syndication. Let’s hop over to a sidebar…
Webster is one of those shows that dropped off of a lot of people’s radar because of the extent to which it sounds like a complete rip-off. On paper, it’s essentially a clone of Diff’rent Strokes: a show about a short black child being raised by a wealthy white family. The biggest difference is that unlike Gary Coleman’s Arnold Drummond, Emmanuel Lewis’s Webster Long is super-adorable rather than mouthy. It’s not exactly the show they were aiming to make when they pitched it. Susan Clark and Alex Karras had been developing a romantic comedy series under the name Another Ballgame for ABC at the time. Clark was a more accomplished actor than Karras (Probably best known for Mongo in Blazing Saddles), but their real-life romantic chemistry translated incredibly well to the screen. But ABC was desperate to get Emmanuel Lewis on the screen as soon as possible in case he stopped being marketably adorable as he aged, so they pushed him on Karras and Clark and the rest… Is more complicated than any of you care about in this article about alien invasions. But it’ll be relevant, I promise! Anyway, after five seasons on ABC, the ratings slumped so they canned it, and Paramount exercised an option to keep making the show for syndication. I’m guessing I didn’t see it past this point, because nothing in the capsule summaries rings a bell. I’ve got plenty of memories of the show, but only three are especially specific. I remember needing some parental guidance to help cope after being especially terrified when Webster burns down the family’s apartment while playing with a chemistry set in the second-season episode “Burn Out”. I think this is one of those times my parents tried to teach a life lesson in a way that involved some knife-twisting by implying that I myself might similarly destroy our family home if I didn’t learn to straighten up and fly right and not play with chemistry sets without parental supervision. The second one I recall specifically is the third season episode “Chained”, in which bad luck haunts the family after failing to forward a chain letter. I remember this just well enough to identify it as one of those episodes that’s at odds with itself, because of course the moral is going to be that you shouldn’t forward chain mail and postal fraud does not have magical powers to manipulate fate… Except that TV is always disposed to pander to those who want to believe we live in a magical, daemon-haunted world, so 90% of the episode, up to and including the final freeze-frame gag at the end will be based on assuming or at least leaving open the possibility that, yes, the chain letter really does have magical powers. The third one I remember is one where Webster discovers a hidden room behind a secret passage in the cool Victorian house they inhabit for the bulk of the series and gets trapped in there. Typically, the premise of being trapped in a confined space is used as an excuse for a season-finale clip show. Webster did have one season finale cliffhanger, unusual for a sitcom, but the majority of its seasons ended with the much more traditional sitcom season finale clip show…
The reason that the series finale for Webster guest stars everyone’s favorite Klingon — I mean, other than as a treat for Emmanuel Lewis — is that young Webster dreams himself onto the Enterprise via the popular sitcom conceit of nodding off while playing video games. The Enterprise’s security chief apparently wants to learn how to be more human, because the writers couldn’t figure out a new plot when someone explained to them which one was Michael Dorn. So Webster, George and Ma’am teach Worf a very important lesson about the concept of feelings and familial emotion via a clip show, because God knows you can’t end a long-running sitcom without a clip show.
I hate clip shows.
We’ve talked about my hate of clip shows before. And I know you can make a solid argument for them, especially back in an era when television was deliberately ephemeral, without home recordings and only limited reruns, and I don’t care. They suck. There is something kinda interesting, though, in having Star Trek collide with an obscure ’80s sitcom a few months ahead of their one and only clip show, the upcoming season 2 finale “Shades of Gray”, which will see Dr. Pulaski inducing a clip show as an experimental medical treatment for Commander Riker after he gets stabbed by a poisonous thorn.
So after that very long diversion, do you want to guess what this week’s episode of War of the Worlds is?
Okay, it’s not as bad as all that. The “clip show” is limited to a handful of montages interspersed in an episode that still has a full plot. But yeah, this is our recap episode. I realize it’s been a long time due to my decision to meander off on a very long tangent, but do you remember a few episodes back when John Colicos paid us a visit? Harrison’s adventure with the original Baltar was framed by preparations for an important presentation by the Blackwood team to the UN. Well, imagine you took the last scene there of them actually presenting their work to the international community, and you stretched that out to a full episode. That’s what “The Last Supper” is. Under conditions of the utmost security, Ironhorse and the Omega squad have locked down a private school that is trying its darnedest to look like it is not in Toronto, and is hosting an international conference on the alien invasion.
Why are they holding this high-security international conference in a high school and not one of the US Government’s many high-security installations? Because shut up. Okay, there’s some gestures here toward the notion that the risk of discovery and infiltration by the aliens is so high that they can’t protect the conference if they involve anyone outside of Ironhorse’s direct chain of command, including their own government, because of the risk that anyone at any level might have been replaced by a soulless monster with no capacity for empathy toward humanity and wouldn’t bat an eyelash at condemning millions of innocent lives to suffering and death in the name of achieving their own selfish goals and GOD DAMN IT these articles were a lot easier to write before Trump got elected. Here I was about to explain how it’s basically nonsense to suggest that the federal government is so malicious and/or incompetent that they can’t be trusted not to sell out the human race for extermination and yet the Blackwood team is still somehow able to operate at all, let alone host a security conference to establish an international military coalition involving two communist countries and one that’s in the middle of a civil war. But then I realize that I live in a world where the single best chance we have at preventing the total collapse of our civilization lies in the actions of rogue park rangers and renegade NOAA employees. So I can’t make a joke about the setup for this being completely ridiculous because it turns out that the fate of the world resting in five visiting scientists put up in a school gymnasium while Ironhorse complains about how he only has half as many men as he needs may actually not be ridiculous enough to be realistic. I liked writing about the ’80s better when they were safely in the past.