Category Archives: War of the Worlds

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

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

No no no no no no no.

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

Space is warped and time is bendable!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previously…

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

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

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

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

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

That ‘Stache, tho.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s still not Mars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Billy Connoly as the War Doctor Johnny Fever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previously…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Deep Ice: A word picture of the strange scene before my eyes (“Howard Koch’s” War of the Worlds 2, Episode 1: The Invasion of Mars 1999, Side 2)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Astronauts introduced themselves to each other. A boring dinner party was held where people complained about the public being too selfish and short-sighted and I’m amazed no one used the word “sheeple”. I spent a lot of time questioning the series of life choices that got me to this point.

Don’t call me Shirley.

Reed questions his boss over why he took the job when he clearly hates Mission Red and everything it stands for. He took the job because if he didn’t, someone less qualified would. His objection to Mission Red is that he views space exploration as repeating the mistakes of colonialism, and humanity is bound to exploit other worlds as they did their own. Now, you and I know, because the title of this episode is, “The Invasion of Mars: 1999”, that this is indeed exactly what they are going to do. But Reed isn’t in on the plan, and thinks that Orion 1’s mission is to orbit the moon. You can’t make lunar orbit in a space shuttle, but I’ll allow it since it’s been heavily modified. And the weird thing is, Boness doesn’t indicate that he knows better either. Maybe he was meant to, and it’s just his weird rhetorical style that makes it sound like he doesn’t. His entire argument seems to be based purely on being curmudgeonly and suspicious of any notions of “progress” He argues that, even though Orion 1’s mission is to orbit the moon, this is clearly the first step to pillaging other planets.

Reed points out that the most likely planet for them to pillage is Mars. And, “Extensive experimentation absences an absence of life on Mars.”

Lolwhut.

Boness responds by challenging the validity of the scientific process. This is only mild hyperbole. “There’s an inherent flaw in your reasoning. Who conducted the experiments on Mars, Reed? Doesn’t the fact that the same greedy humans who raped Earth and have now turned to space raise a little suspicion in your cranium?” He challenges Reed on the basis that the scientific research saying Mars is devoid of life was done by humans, and, in the mildly condescending tone of a global warming denialist, claims that scientists always fabricate their results to get the answers they want when their funding is on the line. That is his argument. Reed doesn’t actually dispute this, but points out that his boss is basically a luddite, which he concedes, admitting that he’d prefer to lose himself in Rockwellian pastoral simplicity (He has to explain what “Rockwellian” means) over dealing with the complexities of 1999.

Then he says that he fears humanity is reenacting the events of ’38 (He has to explain what “38” means. That it is short for “AD 1938”). Reed, who just a minute ago, told us that there was no life on Mars, quickly realizes that he’s talking about the Martian invasion. If, before, he had meant “the science tells us that life on Mars died out shortly after the failed invasion,” why wouldn’t he have said that? Once again, it feels like the narrative keeps forgetting that it’s a sequel. Boness, who’s in his late ’60s I guess, flashes back to a few minutes of Carl Phillips reporting on the initial Martian landing, and suggests that the Martian invasion was motivated by the same impulses that are now leading humanity to the moon. Or wherever. Boness seems genuinely not to know where Mission Red is really going. He eventually more-or-less concedes that he’s just being old and curmudgeonly and agrees to put in an appearance at the wrap party if Reed will run interference for him with the reporters.

After a scene change marked by terrible music trying its best to sound like a Star Trek theme, we cut to Washington, where President DeWitt holds a late-night meeting with the cabinet on the DL. After spending a whole minute dispensing with formalities so that the SecDef can call her “Sandra”, they get on with the bad news: their project to build a fleet of supertankers to ship ice down from the arctic is seven months behind. The “good news” is that it doesn’t matter, since their ice mining efforts are pretty much at a stand-still. They’ve been unable to buy modern ice sectioning equipment, and now they can’t buy replacement parts for the equipment they have, and the American ice miner’s union is slowing down work in protest because they want to join with the international union. This is all tied back to Ronald Ratkin (In case you’ve somehow forgotten, you will be reminded that he is the “World’s first trillionaire”); he controls the supply of ice sectioning equipment, and he also controls the international ice miner’s union, and now he wants the American union as well so that he can, to put it bluntly, take over the world. Of course.

The SecDef proposes that DeWitt declare martial law and have Ratkin rubbed out. And, again, I have no deep principled objection to having abusive rich assholes snuffed for the good of humanity. But DeWitt puts the kibosh on the plan on account of the fact that it would prompt protests from the pacifist lobby.

That is her objection. That pacifists would complain if the President of the United States had a civilian (Almost said “citizen” but later it becomes clear that Ratkin’s citizenship is somehow ambiguous, as he’s rich enough to shop around for one) whacked and declared martial law to seize a private company.

Now, we are not told what her plan is instead yet. I mean, we all know what her plan is, because we know what this series is about. But they do that thing where someone says, “Here’s my plan:” and then you cross-fade to the next scene so that the audience will be left in suspense. Only the audience isn’t left in suspense, because even inanimate objects know what the plan is at this point.

But let’s pause here and reflect on this plan. Just so we’re all on the same page here:

  • President DeWitt got five billion dollars redirected from water subsidies to NASA
  • By telling congress that it was for a military space project
  • Which was sold to the public as an emergency mission to fly around the moon
  • So they refitted a space shuttle, a vehicle designed for Low Earth Orbit, to travel to Mars
  • With the project lead and crew believing they were only going to the moon
  • Mars is 141 times farther away than the Moon
  • Also, DeWitt doesn’t expect this plan to actually pay off for decades
  • And to keep it a secret, they code-named it “Mission Red”
  • And they can’t do anything about the Bondian Supervillain who is holding the world’s water supply hostage because it would be a scandal.
  • Unlike the President lying to Congress to secretly invade Mars.
  • She’s telling this plan, now, to the cabinet. None of them knew. NASA apparently didn’t know. The crew (aside from Ferris) doesn’t know. The only people who actually know about the plan at this point are DeWitt, her chief of staff, and Commander Ferris. This seemingly includes the people who did the refitting of the shuttle to make the trip. Who’s executing this secret plan?

What I’m saying is, this plan is stupid and implausible. And don’t think I didn’t notice the random dig at protesters. In the space of an hour, they’ve twice already suggested that protesters who believe in good causes are a worse problem than the things they’re protesting. Even the Trump administration isn’t that far over the top about victim blaming.

Once DeWitt has faded out to explain her plan, we hop over to the Tosh Rimbauch show. Tosh rants about DeWitt and her wasting of taxpayer money to fund Mission Red. His bullying antics come off as so schoolboy that it’s impossible to imagine his show would have gotten on the air with a male president — I would say “at all”, but it’s 2017, so I know that a grown man can indeed make a successful career taunting female politicians with “Women be shopping, amirite?” jokes. Even his misogyny is lackluster; there’s no nuance, no clever dog-whistling. He basically just flat out says “She’s a woman, therefore she will blow off important affairs of state for manicures and shopping.” And again, I live in 2017, where we’ve all seen how creatively misogynists will prey upon all that is nasty in the psyche of the American public to discredit a woman while maintaining a veneer of plausible deniability that affords them the luxury of turning any accusation of sexism back on the accuser with phrases like “woman card”. He doesn’t bother, instead proudly advertising himself as a proud misogynist. Hell, Rimbauch doesn’t even use the word “Feminazi.” About the only thing he does that shows even the slightest evidence of actually knowing how real political pundits manipulate their audience is that he consistently over-emphasizes the “de-” in DeWitt. That’s actually a something of a realistic kind of petty power play for a character like that.

In between shitty misogynistic jokes, he takes a call from Gary, a listener in Iowa, whose slack-jawed yokel shtick is so thick that you expect the call to end when he shoots at some food and up from the ground comes a-bubblin’ crude. He complains about having a lady president and suggests that she be shot into space. Also there’s a bit where Tosh has a sci-fi audio effect play to indicate that he is scanning for listening devices because DeWitt has his nationally broadcast radio show bugged. Gary mentions family farms being sold “for peanuts”, which prompts Tosh to make a Jimmy Carter joke Gary doesn’t get. Gary also didn’t get the “Gary, Indiana” joke Tosh made earlier, but I don’t blame him because it wasn’t funny.

Orion-1 finishes its OMS burn and stabilizes into orbit, making me wonder how time works in this universe, since I think the implication is that the past three scenes have all taken place at the same time. Never mind. It’s time to open the cargo bay doors, because the shuttle has to open its cargo bay doors as soon as it reaches orbit, because the radiators are on the inside and otherwise, the shuttle would overheat. This is an actual true fact about the shuttle which was often overlooked when it was depicted in film and television — basically, the shuttle keeps its cargo doors open whenever it’s in space (Also frequently mis-depicted in media: the shuttle orbits “upside-down”, with the underside away from the Earth). You earn a small amount of goodwill from me whenever you get this right. This audioplay is so far in the hole for goodwill right now that I’ll take what I can get.

The pod-bay doors won’t open, Hal, and this causes an immediate and tense crisis. Nikki tries the emergency manual release, but that doesn’t work either. Ferris orders Rutherford to try the manual release, and they promptly blow that small amount of goodwill they just earned by stopping the plot dead for a minute while Nikki accuses Ferris of sexism for asking Rutherford to try the control after she’d failed. “Commander, are you implying that I’m not strong enough to move the lever because I’m a woman?” I haven’t seen a block of dialogue so egregiously “Middle-aged white man imagines what a feminist is like based purely on his imagination because he has never bothered to listen when a real one was talking,” since Terrance Dicks used to write dialogue for Sarah Jane Smith in ’70s Doctor Who. In any case, Rutherford can’t open it either, and they all worry a great deal about whether they’ll have to abort the mission. One of them — I’ve lost track of who and can’t be bothered to check — suggests using the external camera to check for anything jamming the mechanism. Ferris placates Nikki by assigning the task to her on the grounds that she’s the most dexterous.

And now we have a narrator all of a sudden. For the first time in this thing, about eighty minutes in, they cut to a voice-over to elide the action. The camera finds nothing, so they shove Rutherford into the cargo bay to have a look at the mechanism himself. With time running out before they have to abort, he finds that the issue is a snapped bolt (or “bolt-like part” as the narrator calls it. Wouldn’t want to be vague on that point), which they replace and open the doors just in time. Pirelli takes a look at the bolt and discovers that it failed due to having been precisely cut half-way through with a laser, which means that someone sabotaged the ship, and I’m not sure we will ever get around to saying who or why. The crew is faced with the possibility that one of them is a saboteur. I bet it’s Doctor Smith. Ferris, fearing a breakdown of crew cohesion, basically orders them not to worry about it.

This tense and dramatic scene… Is told to us by the narrator. Glad they didn’t waste time on that so we had an extra few minutes for Nikki to make unrealistic accusations of sexism. We return to regular voice acting for Ferris to call NASA and, rather than informing them about their issue or the possibility of sabotage, just says everything is fine, and then switches to an encrypted channel to… Tell them everything is fine and he’ll call them back in the morning.

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Deep Ice: Another Senator skipped bail (Thomas and Yvonne Phelan’s “Howard Koch’s” War of the Worlds II: Episode 1, The Invasion of Mars: 1999, Side 1)

Mars is looking rather blue, and also in the entirely wrong part of space.

It is May, 1994. This month’s biggest story is the inauguration of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa. That same day, John Wayne Gacy is executed by the state of Illinois. The Channel Tunnel opens between England and France, and for all the mind-blowing innovations of the twentieth century, I think, “England and France voluntarily spent billions so that people could travel from one to the other faster,” would be the most confusing to a Victorian. In addition to Gacy, this month will see the deaths of actor George Peppard, East German leader Erich Honecker, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Sony and Phillips announce their collaboration on the new technology that will eventually become DVD. The first two Beverly Hills Cop movies are released on VHS and Laserdisc for the first time, coinciding with the theatrical release of Beverly Hills Copy III. Also out this month are the live-action adaptation of The Flintstones, as well as The Crow and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Four Weddings and a Funeral is released in the UK. The associated rerelease of Wet Wet Wet’s “Love is All Around” will spend fifteen weeks at the top of the UK Singles Chart.

In the world of music, Michael Bolton is found guilty of ripping off the Isley Brothers, Weezer releases the Blue Album, and Michael Jackson marries Lisa Marie Presley. Ace of Base holds the top spot on the charts for half the month with “The Sign”. If you’ve forgotten what song that was, imagine you’re listening to a college’s acapella group. It’s that one. All-4-One takes the spot for the second half of the month with “I Swear”. Also in the top ten are Enigma’s “Return to Innocence”, Madonna’s “I’ll Remember”, Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love”, Prince’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and Big Mountain’s cover of “Baby I Love Your Way”.

My Fair Lady closes on Broadway. The Simpsons airs its one hundred and first, second, and third episodes. Ending their runs this month are Roc, a show my dad always tried to watch because it was set in Baltimore, and TV fixtures LA Law, In Living Color and The Arsenio Hall Show. Also Cafe Americain, one of those shows that didn’t last long but sticks out in my memory, largely because I was going through a phase of being obsessed with Casablanca at the time, though the show was only tangentially related. It followed the exploits of an American woman in Paris, who gets a job at the eponymous cafe after discovering that the job she’d come to Paris for (English-to-English translator) was actually intended purely as a cover for “Boss’s mistress”. She hangs around with a collection of quirky expats, most prominently, an Imelda Marcos-inspired deposed dictator’s widow who was constantly concocting moneymaking schemes to raise a counterevolutionary army. One plan involved selling ice cream made from all-natural ingredients, “Mint, chocolate, and Chip.” It’s also the origin of the phrase, “I keel you! I keel you bad! I keel you two times!”, a recurring threat from the perpetually jealous Italian lover of a fashion model. Oh, and also something else. Star Trek the Next Generation airs, “Bloodlines”, “Emergence”, “Preemptive Strike”, and “All Good Things…”, the series finale.

There is a new Columbo this month, the second of the year. It’s unusual, in that it eschews the standard “reverse whodunnit” format for a more traditional structure, largely because it’s been adapted from an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel. Ed Begley Jr. guest stars. CBS airs the miniseries The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, NBC airs a biopic about Joan and Melissa Rivers. The Rocketeer has its broadcast debut on ABC. There are new episodes of The X-Files, seaQuest DSV, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (dubbed “Must-Sleep TV” by dad), Walker, Texas Ranger, Full House, Lois and Clark, Martin — I don’t know if this was an especially memorable time for TV, or if it’s just the intersection in my life of when I watched a lot of TV and was old enough to remember it? And Angus MacGyver returns to the small screen for the TV movie MacGyver: The Lost Treasure of Atlantis. I was upset that they destroy the technologically advanced ancient artifact at the end, having been too young to remember that this is what happened in every other archaeology-themed episode of MacGyver. John Goodman and Heather Locklear host the season’s final epsiodes of Saturday Night Live. Sesame Street‘s upcoming 25th anniversary is celebrated with a prime-time network TV special on ABC titled “Stars and Street Forever”.

I’m stalling. Because this is gonna suuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. But I had to shell out cash for this, more than I probably should have, so we’d better get on with it. Today, we’re looking at a direct-to-cassette full-cast audio drama which presents itself as a sequel to the Mercury Radio Theater’s 1938 adaptation of War of the Worlds. I do not recall the exact circumstances behind my first listening to Howard Koch’s War of the Worlds II. It was some time around 2003, I reckon. I’ve found a link on the web to a copy of it in Real Player format, but you probably don’t have Real Player now, and the .ra file probably went away with Geocities. But I feel like I had a physical copy at some point. Maybe from the library, because I ripped all my audiobooks back in ’09 and it’s not there. Which is why I had to buy it again. The upside, such as it is, is that I managed to get an episode I didn’t catch the first time around. The downside is that I didn’t get one of the episodes I did catch the first time. Also that I spent money for this crap.

I exhausted my desire to do research on Pharoah Audiobooks well before I actually found out anything about them. They came and went before the era where an internet presence was a requisite, and when they do turn up in catalogues and registries, there’s little more than the odd title or author. My best guess, based on experience, is that they were a small line whose primary audience was people whose careers involved long-distance driving and whose primary market was truck stops and travel plazas in the days before the iPod was a thing and “Podcast” was a word. It’s been long enough since I spent much time in a Stuckey’s that I don’t know if low-end audio adaptations of niche titles for purchase on physical media is still a thing, or if Audible, iTunes and the smart phone have done away with it all.

So of course when I saw the title, I was interested. This series of four or maybe five episodes purports to be a direct sequel to the 1938 radio play, after all. We’ve already seen, with the TV series, one idea for how to weave the radio play into the backstory of a modern invasion. Could this be the tale of a second invasion? Or perhaps a tale set in a world where human technology has benefited from the study of alien artifacts? A world where the global tensions and wars of the middle part of the twentieth century were rerouted by the experience of an alien invasion?

It is none of those things. What it is instead, is terrible. The dialog is bad, and the voice acting is bad. The story itself is… An ambitious concept that is not without merit. But it’s a jumbled up mess is what it is. In 1994, Howard Koch was still alive, so I presume he signed off on having his name attached to this, but I see no reason to think he had any actual involvement beyond branding. It’s a “sequel” only nominally: they say that this is indeed a world which experienced an invasion from Mars in 1938, but nothing about the story or the world in which it’s set that is consistent with a massive alien invasion in the 1930s. Not everyone seems to be aware of it — some characters treat the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence as purely speculative rather than documented historical fact. At other points, it’s taken for granted as something so well-known that of course everyone knows it happened, and it just goes unmentioned because people do not normally bring up things that happened sixty years ago when they aren’t directly relevant to the situation at hand.

But this is a strange way to behave in context, because if there is one thing the characters in this audiodrama like to do, it’s to exposit at great length about things that are not directly relevant to the situation at hand. Years ago, when I had a longer commute, I got interested in amateur audio drama for a while, and devoured it voraciously. One thing that kept getting to me is that even in the better works, say, the output of Darker Projects, or this one I can’t remember the name of that was clearly a sequel to Independence Day with the serial numbers filed off (Twenty-second century space-based humanity prepares for a second invasion by aliens who’d invaded in the ’90s and were defeated by a computer virus) things tended to be tremendously over-written. Characters would repeat themselves, inject contentless noise-dialogue like “I am just trying to say,” or “As you know,” inject needless exposition about the writer’s personal bugaboos (their Star Trek series were awful about having characters randomly go off on tangents about how Classic Rock would remain a respected musical movement into the twenty-fourth century, while 2000s pop-rock was entirely forgotten) or self-promotion (So many Star Fleet lieutenants whose favorite twenty-first century novelist just happened to be the same guy who wrote the show), prove the writer’s research credentials (three separate instances of someone saying “Lead on, MacDuff,” and being corrected) and just generally spout a lot of dialogue that didn’t need to be there.

The dialogue in War of the Worlds II is like that, only without the frequent good (or at least clever) ideas and… Just generally any other redeeming qualities. Like, imagine if the first, say, half hour or so of the story consisted of, for example, a bunch of people at a dinner party complaining about how the various societal woes that plague their modern times, and the failure of the government, private industry, and the public to deal with it properly. And now stop imagining, because that is exactly what the first half hour of War of the Worlds II is.

Broad strokes then. The basic story of War of the Worlds II is that the Earth is facing a global shortage of potable water, so the US sends a secret mission to Mars to look for some. Never mind that this is stupid, because that thing I just said? At least until you get to episode 3, that’s really more of a side-plot. Because primarily, War of the Worlds II is a political satire and/or political thriller.

Yes. I really did say that. See, the actual primary plot of the story is that most of the world’s water supply is being de facto held hostage by Ronald Ratkin, whose name is hardly ever spoken without someone reminding us that he’s “The world’s first trillionaire.” He holds the patents to ice-mining technology, and he’s got control over the ice-miner’s union, and he’s basically a Captain Planet villain, straight up, and will stop at nothing to prevent the government from finding more water. And the government is sort of inept and ineffectual, and while they are careful to only ever have the bad guys blame this on the fact that the president is a woman, there’s a kind of understated implication that they maybe have a point.

In case you were hoping, the political satire is not especially biting, relevant to the real-world concerns of the day, or, when you get down to it, good. For example, one of the major antagonist characters is a radio pundit named — excuse me a minute while I mentally prepare myself for the ordeal of saying this — “Tosh Rimbauch”. This is what passes for comedy. He is predictably terrible. Awful as Rush Limbaugh is, I can admit there is some artistry to the way he works. Tush Rimbaugh comes off more like a conspiracy theorist. And a George Noory sort of conspiracy theorist, not even an Alex Jones conspiracy theorist. His voice actor is clearly trying a Rush Limbaugh impression, but it’s so dire he sounds more like Richard Nixon. Not that it’s a decent Nixon either, just a better Nixon than Limbaugh.

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Thesis: Vengeance is Mine (War of the Worlds 1×19, Part 2)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Ironhorse killed an innocent woman, and the writer thinks it’s very important that we not blame him for it. Her husband didn’t get the memo and is planning to murder our hero…

With this weapon, no human will stand a chance against us, so long as they are willing to stand still for five seconds while we shoot them.

While Martin has been off writing his manifesto, we get some exposition about the alien plot from over in the Land of the Lost cave. Those aliens back in the opening scene had been stealing high-end optical lenses. The reason, it turns out, is demonstrated when a pair of possessed bowlers tie their unpossessed buddy to the triangular crucifixion jig we’ve seen once or twice before. The stolen lenses are a component in a great big laser gun, which they wheel out and shoot at the guy, burning a hole through his head. The advocates are suitably impressed, and command that the laser be miniaturized and mass produced so that each of their troops can have one. This, they conclude, will allow them to conquer the planet by “the hot season”.

Yes, this is a major breakthrough, a weapon powerful enough to kill a single, unarmed human in about five seconds. With thousands of these, they will be… Slightly less formidable than if they had a thousand of those ordinary uzis their soldiers normally carry. Look, the alien plan in this episode is fractally stupid. Every layer of it is dumb, starting here. Sure, this isn’t even close to the first time the aliens have tried to acquire advanced weapons. In most of the other instances, they were reacquiring the weapons they brought with them in the war, and we have some idea of what those were capable of. But you might remember that I had misgivings about this back in “Eye for an Eye“: the formidability of the “Martian” war machines in the movie came from the combination of their firepower and their invincibility. A soldier armed with a ray-gun is still vulnerable to bullets. If they have the numbers to conquer the planet armed with hand-held ray guns, then they have the numbers to conquer the planets with ordinary guns, which, because they are in America, can be freely purchased in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

The demonstration serves the opposite purpose to what was intended. Yes, sure, the laser gun is a terrifying weapon in that it burns a fist-sized hole in a person’s head. It’s even more terrifying when you contrast it to the unrealistically bloodless death of Susan Cole. But to evoke Stargate SG-1, the laser is a weapon of terror. Guns are a weapon of war. There’s nothing in the demo that indicates the laser’s efficacy against an armored target. Maybe it can shoot a hole in a tank, but we don’t know that. And even if it can, can it do it faster than the tank can blow you up with its tank-size bullets? It can kill a human slowly and horribly. But the aliens can do that with their bare hands already. There’s a complete reliance here on the assumption that laser guns are Just Better because Reasons, even as it shows us otherwise.

For the next layer of stupid to their plan, each laser requires a high quality ruby. Okay. That’s fair. Rubies are one of the things you use to make lasers. Even by 1989, ruby lasers were kinda on the decline in favor of better lasing media, but it’s a small thing, and besides, this is an alien laser. I’m even willing to call the fact that their design calls for a high-quality cut gemstone rather than an industrial-quality synthetic ruby rod an acceptable break from reality. There’s been lots of media from this general period where someone’s jerry-rigged a laser using a gemstone, including MacGyver and our old friend Tomes and Talismans.

Where the stupid comes in is with how they plan to get the rubies. They can’t steal them because, “Humans hold these rubies in the highest regard. They are under heavy security. Casualties will be prohibitive.” So instead, they’ll have to buy them. Now, to buy them, they’ll need money. So… They’ll steal the money. Because humans don’t hold money in the highest regard, and large quantities of money aren’t held under high security, I guess. Their plan is a string of brazen daylight armored car robberies. So they can get money to buy rubies, because stealing rubies is too dangerous. What?

Almost every shot of her is an extreme close up from a low angle.

They send a clique of aliens to go meet with a gem dealer who — Wait. She looks familiar somehow. Who is that? Oh, huh. That’s Alannah Myles. Her self-titled debut album is the other new album out last week I mentioned before. And almost exactly a year from now, the second single off of that album, “Black Velvet”, will hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks. Weird. I’m getting that feeling of deja vu again. It’s probably nothing. Anyway, she shows off three rubies. A cheap synthetic that she claims is mostly used for industrial lasers despite being princess-cut, a Thai stone, and the breathtakingly beautiful Burmese Gemstone, which visibly arouses her to talk about. The aliens, of course, want the Burmese. And this all represents a massive misunderstanding of how the ruby media in a laser works, but whatever. I’m only bringing it up in the hopes I’ll find an excuse to insert a clip from the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers second season finale where Zordon says, “Too much pink energy is dangerous.”

What’s that she’s displaying the ruby against? Could it be…

Alannah Myles thinks they’re having her on briefly when the aliens request a thousand five-carat rubies. But they promise to have the necessary five million dollars within a week and this pretty much causes her to have an orgasm on the spot. The lead alien will return to her halfway through the episode to deliver the down payment and double the order and she will respond by trying to bone him. It may be implicit that she in fact does bone him once the camera has discreetly cut away. No explanation is ever offered for why they don’t just possess her and have her quietly route a bunch of rubies to them and “lose” the paperwork.

In another meanwhile, at the Cottage, Norton gleefully breaks into computer systems to learn about a second theft of high-tech optical lenses, this time in Sacramento, with the characteristic radiation traces of alien activity. Harrison and Suzanne assume Ironhorse will be on board with setting out immediately, but Ironhorse, who is distracted by obsessively drawing little crosshatch patterns in his notebook, is reluctant, and isn’t even sure any more that it’s appropriate to treat their campaign against the aliens as a war.

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

That’s an interesting thought, and one that feels very prescient to a person living in the era of Wars on Abstract Concepts (ie., me). But of course they go nowhere with it, because Ironhorse’s misgivings are meant to be symptomatic of his internal crisis, and he’s meant to get over it and go back to being a contented war machine. The shame of it is that it comes so close to actual active awareness of something I’ve been increasingly aware of as we move through this series. We have talked about the cultural neurosis that this show infuriatingly won’t engage that stems from being set in a world where an all-out alien invasion occurred in the fifties. It’ll hint at it, but never really let it properly into the light. I think there’s a strong case to be made that one of the big ways that it surfaces is in that whole “Always think of it as war,” attitude. Has the show ever really addressed just how weird it is that Ironhorse regularly runs military operations on US soil? That Ironhorse seems to be able to pull rank in order to take charge of civilian facilities? That at one point he seriously considers calling in an air strike? This is not normal. The things Ironhorse is empowered to do would normally require martial law, and not only does he do them, but, even ostensibly not knowing about the aliens, no one ever acts as though this is at all odd. People can’t remember that there was an alien invasion in the fifties, but they do think that the US Army occupying a hospital is a perfectly normal thing to happen. Ironhorse is granted a tremendous amount of latitude by civilian authorities simply by saying that he’s investigating suspected terrorists. To you and me, that reads as a largely technical mistake — that it’s the army taking the lead and not the FBI, but we can maybe accept (unhappily) the gist. But think about what this looked like to people in the ’80s, people from a pre-9/11 world. This ought to have been hard to swallow. There’s no real cultural precedent for it. Hell, think about how the deranged anti-Obama conspiracy nuts real true American patriots who Democrats ignored at their peril went nuts over Jade Helm 15, a normal training exercise that was widely mistaken for a vast conspiracy between the US government and Wal-Mart to establish a military dictatorship. We’re supposed to somehow believe that Ironhorse and Omega Squad shooting real bullets at real people on a college campus would be something the civilian authorities would just shrug off? At the same time, though, it was the ’80s. Even with the lack of evidence that anything like this would ever stand, the zeitgeist of the ’80s was still wrapped up in the idea that “soft” martial law — that the military kinda sorta could just roll in and take over our lives whenever they felt like it — was entirely plausible. I mean, the Ruskies might drop the bomb at any minute, after all.

Suzanne and Harrison take turns trying to talk to Ironhorse, who alternates between being polite and being annoyed, but maintains that he’s got himself under control. After advising restraint when Norton reported the second lens theft, he’d inexplicably wanted to roll out to “bust some heads” in Sacremento when Norton picked up four more alien transmissions without any context and without any details that would make the information actionable. This culminates in him shouting about how he can handle killing all the aliens himself personally and punching the elevator door hard enough to make the set wobble. Harrison eventually pulls rank and gets permission directly from General Wilson to order Ironhorse to take some time off to get his act together, and offers him the use of a cabin in the woods left to Harrison by Dr. Forrester (Is this the first direct confirmation on-screen that Forrester is dead? I think it is).

This prompts Ironhorse to go see his therapist again, where, with difficulty, he explains that the reason he’s been so affected by this killing is that, “I just keep expecting her to walk through the door, alive. Not dead.”

Whut.

THAT IS NOT A REASON. THAT IS A RESULT.

Also: Whut? I mean, what does that even mean? He didn’t know this woman. If she’d survived, it’s not like there would be any reason for him to expect to ever see her again. What does it even mean for him to expect her to “walk through the door, alive”?

No, never mind that. Why does he think that? He still hasn’t answered why this killing is affecting him so much. At least Ironhorse himself agrees that this doesn’t make any sense.

I am not sure this Knight Rider/Airwolf crossover is entirely legitimate.

If the therapist has a useful answer for him, we don’t see it, because we cut to Ironhorse returning to his car. Once again, Martin Cole is waiting for him, but this time he gives chase, launching his explosive helicopter after the Colonel. And I won’t lie: this is far and away the most thrilling car-versus-remote-control-exploding-helicopter scene I have ever seen on television. And that is not me damning with faint praise, even though I am pretty sure I have seen no more than one other car-versus-remote-control-exploding-helicopter scene. But it’s actually really good in the sort of Stephen King way that it legitimately makes you feel like this tiny yellow toy presents an actual threat to a decorated special forces officer. Martin eventually forces Ironhorse off the road and he crashes into an embankment, knocking himself unconscious.

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Thesis: Vengeance is Mine (War of the Worlds 1×19, Part 1)

I had no idea it was going to end in such tragedy.

Cheap special effects. That’s obviously a model.

It is April 17, 1989. We’ve been away for a month again, and missed a lot. Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web. Pons and Fleischmann announce that they have achieved cold fusion, solving the world’s energy problems forever, unless it turns out their work is unreproducible, flawed, or possibly fraudulent. But what are the odds of that? The oil tanker Exxon Valdez runs aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The term “Exxon Valdez” would become the go-to metonym for oil spills until the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, despite the fact that it isn’t even on the top 20 list of biggest oil spills. The Valdez would be renamed the Exxon Mediterranean and returned to service, then later sold to SeaRiver Maritime, then to Hong Kong Bloom Shipping, ending its life as the Dong Fang Ocean in 2012 when it was sold for scrap under the name Oriental Nicety, which sounds like a musical number out of a Mickey Rooney movie that hasn’t aged well.

In political news, the Soviet Union has its first (and last) election for the Congress of People’s Deputies. Serbia revokes the autonomy of Kosovo. There’s a failed coup against Prosper Avril in Haiti. The Solidarity labor union in Poland is legalized. Peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia are massacred by the Red Army. A thing happens in China. And the Australian Prime Minister admitted to marital infidelity on national TV.

Last Friday, the US Government seized the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association for conducting a long-running campaign of fraud costing the life savings of loads of elderly investors as part of the massive savings and loan crisis brought about by Reagan-era deregulation which allowed them to, excuse me if I get technical here, play the ponies with the life savings of old people in order to make massive profit for themselves. Or, as the current administration would have it, “Good times!” Chairman Charles Keating would eventually go to jail for fraud in the affair. Lincoln had been in trouble since 1987, but had been able to keep themselves afloat by tricking customers into switching their federally-insured investments over to junk bonds, after a group of five US Senators had taken various actions to delay or reduce action against Keating on the theory that if we just let him keep betting grandpa’s pension on red 13, it had to come up eventually. Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and John Glenn (D-Ohio) are eventually cleared of wrongdoing but criticized for “bad judgment”. In other “Congress is the opposite of Progress” news, Speaker of the House Jim Wright is charged with accepting improper gifts and evading outside income limits. He will resign at the May, and it’s widely understood that the actual thing he did was less of a big deal than other, less technically illegal factors that would have come up during an investigation. Many on his own side believed that he’d cost them the election with his handling of the savings and loan crisis, a congressional failure so bipartisan that it had cost the Democrats the moral high ground. Meanwhile, others believe he was pressured to resign because he was pushing too hard on the Iran/Contra affair. The charges against Wright were filed by up-and-comer Newt Gingrich, which helped bring him to prominence within the party, as part of his lifelong commitment to strictly enforcing the highest standards of ethics from all elected officials except for Republicans.

Also in the past few days, 94 people are crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium during a soccer semifinal in Sheffield. Two more would die of injuries in the following days. Unrelatedly, Daphne du Maurier will die Wednesday.

Dramarama and Alphaville have new albums out this week. I mention it because “Dramarama and Alphaville” is a fun sequence of words to say. Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, considered one of the 500 best albums ever, is released. Someone else had an album out a couple of weeks ago, which I’ll get to later. The past month is another one that occupies an inordinate amount of my late ’80s music memory. Mike + The Mechanics unseated Debi Gibson in the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100 with “The Living Years”, then yielded to The Bangles with “Eternal Flame”. The next week, Roxette had overtaken them with “The Look”, then Fine Young Cannibals bumped them with “She Drives Me Crazy” in the most recent charts. Elsewhere in the top ten, Milli Vanilli and Madonna are still hanging around, as is Roy Orbison’s posthumous hit “You Got It”. Poison and REM are also in there, as is Karaoke favorite “Funky Cold Medina” by Tone Loc.

The 61st Academy Awards happened at the end of March. Rain Man wins big, with Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman. Jodie Foster wins Best Actress for The Accused. And oh, hey, look at that, Christopher Hampton wins Best Adapted Screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons, adapted from Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton, adapted from Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Amboise-Francois Choderlos del Laclos. Step 2 sounds like a cheat there. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? takes home a lot of the more technical categories. They Live is new out on home video last week, as is Crossing Delancey, a film which holds no interest for me, but whose cover I always found really striking on the rack at the rental place. Among those movies out in theaters while we’ve been away are The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Troop Beverly Hills, Heathers, and Major League.

In Canada, a TV adaptation of Babar premiered recently. On March 24, game shows Sale of the Century and Super Password ended their runs. That same day — and this is a rare case where I have absolute concrete memories of having watched this specific broadcast — NBC reruns the 1960 production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. My dad was real excited to see it. We watched this one with Dylan last year, and I found I was super uncomfortable with how over-the-top racist the “Indian” stereotypes were. But I’ll let it slide if I’m allowed to pretend that Peter is trans. Series debuts in March include COPS and Quantum Leap, which I mentioned last time and won’t go into here. Premiering this week is the William Shatner-hosted docudrama series Rescue 911.

MacGyver is a repeat this week, but ALF is new. Yesterday’s The Wonderful World of Disney was the second half of The Parent Trap III, the penultimate film in the original Parent Trap continuity. Since this is the first time we’ve been together in April, we missed the premiere of The Robert Guillaume Show, whose fourth episode airs Wednesday. This is a show I have no recollection of whatever, which probably means that in 1989, my bedtime on a school night was before 9:30 (Though I recall enough other things to assert that my bedtime was 11 by 1992, so maybe not). The show only lasts 13 episodes despite Robert Guillaume being a God damned national treasure. ABC reckoned that the American viewing audience wasn’t ready for an interracial romance in prime time, which is not entirely unfair for reasons I can’t address without screaming about the election for another five hundred words. It would be the mid-90s before approval of interracial marriage became a majority view in the US. On the other hand, Guillaume (who, I will repeat, is a God damned national treasure) suggests that the failure of the show was due more to ABC reckoning that the American viewing audience wasn’t ready for an interracial romance in prime time — and therefore didn’t put in the effort to help it find its audience.

Again we have no new Star Trek the Next Generation, though we’ve had three new episodes in April: “Contagion“, “The Royale“, and “Time Squared“. In the first, the Enterprise nearly crashes from being port-scanned by an ancient probe. It’s a good episode, and feels like it’s setting up something interesting for the future, but that never actually happens. “The Royale” is, I think, considered one of the weaker episodes, based around an away team getting stuck in an alien recreation of a terrible pulp novel. It’s basically the Original Series episode “Spectre of the Gun” without anything actually exciting happening. I liked it as a child because I enjoyed the visual motifs — it’s set in a mob-era casino, and there’s an amazing visual of a revolving door in an otherwise featureless black void — but the lack of any sort of stakes or “stuff worth watching happening” really brings it down. But it does feel to me like part of the last hurrah for TNG’s early years “bring the weird” mandate, in that the (never shown) aliens in this episode are weird and distant and implied to be very very unlike us indeed, with godlike powers and an inability to interact with humans in meaningful terms. The third is another “bring the weird” episode, in which the crew tries to explain the appearance of an alternate version of Picard, sent back in time six hours after the apparent destruction of the Enterprise. It has several weaknesses (Like having Picard kill his duplicate for no clear reason), but probably would have been better as originally proposed, with a reveal that the situation had been engineered as a test by Q, segueing into the next Q episode, May’s “Q Who”.

Friday the 13th The Series this week gives us “A Friend to the End”, which is a twofer. In the B-plot, Micki and Ryan track down a cursed child-size coffin that, like so many other cursed objects in this show, can trade one life for another. It guest stars a kid named Keram Malicki-Sanchez. Sounds familiar, but I can’t place him. The A-plot involves the “Shard of Medusa”, a stone spike used by a sculptor to transform models into statues via stabbing. I recall being impressed by the visual effect, and am scared to re-watch in case it turns out to suck. While we were back on break, one other episode aired, “The Mephisto Ring”. In that one, a cursed 1919 World Series ring predicts the outcome of sporting events in exchange for a human life. The villain this time is played by recurring actor, Denis Forest who specialized in playing these kind of pathetic, loser-y villains. It’s a role he’s good at — he’ll do it one more time on Friday the 13th, and also, by an interesting coincidence, he’ll do it this week on War of the Worlds.

I mean, I know that it’s a close community, the Toronto acting scene of 1989. But it’s a weird coincidence that this guy Forest, who we’ve never run into before, shows up in consecutive weeks on Paramount-syndicated shows playing very similar characters. He’s an antagonist in this episode of War of the Worlds, but this show isn’t willing to go all-in on human villains, so he’ll reform at the end, leaving us time for the aliens to be the bad guys. He’s kind of a sympathetic antagonist too. Sort of. It’s complicated, and actually, this is kind of the thing that Denis Forest was good at. You feel bad for him, because he is a sad, pathetic weasel, and possibly dealing with some sort of mental illness. But there’s never any point at which you feel bad for him in a way that makes you want to help him — at least, help him achieve his goals; broadly speaking, “Let’s get this guy institutionalized before he harms himself and others” is certainly a form of helping him. He’s a person who is dealt a bad hand but also plays it badly and never really cares about the harm he does to others.

There’s a clue that something’s going on a little more than your standard episode opening right from the beginning of the first scene, but it’s subtle. It looks a lot like the open we’ve seen a lot of times: Ironhorse and Omega Squad on a snowy university campus, moving into position to take out some aliens. The odd thing, though, is that it’s narrated. As Ironhorse frets, with worry in his voice, about Omega squad taking too long to clear the area of civilians, a voice-over Ironhorse tells us that it had seemed like a routine mission, and he’d been left alone to cover one of the exit points when a report came in of three suspects headed his way. Voiceover Ironhorse seems a bit distracted, and insists that, “I had no choice; I had to confront them.”

Do a barrel roll!

Physical Ironhorse is visibly on edge at having to enter open combat without backup, but he approaches the three people, two of whom draw assault rifles. Ironhorse does one of those dive-rolls and comes up with his own weapon drawn, gunning them down. It… doesn’t look as cool as it ought to. It’s executed fine in a technical way, but with everyone on open, level, snow-covered ground, it doesn’t actually seem like he does it for any particular reason. He doesn’t move fast enough to be plausibly evading their fire, there’s no cover for him to take, it doesn’t move him out of their line of fire. It’s like he just does it because it seemed like it was expected of him at that point. The audio stops completely dead for a second when Ironhorse stops shooting. The incidental music slowly picks back up a second later, but there’s this moment of eerie silence that doesn’t sound real; the foley for Ironhorse’s gunfire just cuts off dead.

Maybe the reason he’s so disturbed is that she’s clearly the same actress who played one of the LARPers in “Goliath is my Name”

The camera walks with Ironhorse to see the results of his handiwork. “But it wasn’t three of the enemy like the radio report said. It was only two.” As we draw closer, it becomes clear that what’s left is two puddles of steaming alien goo, and a dead human woman in a fur coat. “The woman was their hostage.” Ironhorse looks up in time to see the third alien escape and brings his weapon to bear, but freezes, instead drawn to look back at the dead hostage, allowing the alien to escape. “I let her get away, and I had shot their hostage, and innocent person.” He crouches by the nearly bloodless body and screams for a medic as we dissolve to reveal the previous scene as a flashback, as Ironhorse relates the tragic events to his therapist. He’s been having nightmares, and keeps reliving the scene in his mind. He insists that the killing doesn’t bother him, but his compulsion to keep replaying it does, and he becomes defensive when asked about it.

Okay. Ironhorse accidentally kills a civilian and is having a hard time coping. That’s an idea that we could get something out of. There’s been little hints at this as a looming possibility all season, but they’ve never fully latched onto it before. We’ve had scenes where Ironhorse has been fooled by aliens, and scenes where he’s unsure if Harrison or Suzanne have been converted. But this is the first time someone’s ever guessed alien and been wrong.

Unfortunately, Ironhorse’s character journey here is a shambles. He’s largely incoherent with his therapist. He doesn’t seem to want to talk, he gets cause and effect backwards, he repeatedly insists that he knows he did the right thing under the circumstances, and if he doubts this, the narrative doesn’t display that. The therapist isn’t much help either. He does the usual “well what do you think?” shtick, and latches on to Ironhorse’s unwillingness to explain what exactly he means about being presently involved in a “war”, or who this “enemy” is. He implies that he can’t help Ironhorse because he’s withholding this information.

And that doesn’t make sense. Soldiers serving in combat have different needs than most other kinds of patients; Ironhorse would certainly be seeing a psychiatrist who has experience working with the military, and who understands that they won’t be allowed to disclose the details of operations. But more to the point, it shouldn’t matter within the context of helping Ironhorse to work through this.

+This week’s guest star who’s too good of an actor for the way they use him is Bernard Behrens. Even though the character is thinly drawn and not given anything good to do, Bernard Behrens has the right look for the part. He conveys a sort of detached gravitas that is a little light on empathy for a realistic therapist, but is pretty good for a standard cliche. I also checked three times to make sure he’d never been a Knight Rider villain (But guess who in this show did…). Behrens will be better served when he returns to Canadian-made first-run syndication in the fall as patriarch of the Van Helsing clan in Dracula the Series, a show that my local unaffiliated stations didn’t carry, so I know nothing about it, except that one of my three readers mentioned that Mia Kirshner was in it.
Wait. Does this all sound familiar? Why am I getting this crazy feeling of deja vu from this episode?
The one actually important question he (The psychiatrist is credited only as “Psychiatrist” and has no name) asks is this: why was this killing different? And Ironhorse doesn’t give him a meaningful answer. In fact, the show never gives us a meaningful answer. It never even gives us a meaningless one.

The one terrifying possibility it obliquely dangles is that Ironhorse thought she was hot — the next time he flashes back to the shooting, he’ll imagine her in a wedding gown for reasons that aren’t examined or explained. Or perhaps it’s because she’s American. Ironhorse’s military experience, we must presume, is mostly overseas because that is how the US’s history of military engagement has gone for the past century and a half, so American civilian casualties aren’t something most soldiers have to be prepared for. But that’s an intensely ugly thing to presume about Ironhorse (and besides, there are occasional implications in the series, without being rendered concrete exactly, that this show is set in the world where domestic anti-terrorist action within the continental US is something comparatively normal for the US military to do, rather than the fever dreams of conspiracy theorists who watch too much Alex Jones).

This isn’t even the thing that looks most like it’s from a music video in this episode.

What he tells the psychiatrist is that he went to her funeral, for reasons he doesn’t understand. That doesn’t answer the question, though: there has to be something about the shooting that was different. Saying that the shooting is different because he went to the funeral is just begging the question. Why did he go to the funeral? Because the shooting was different. Why was the shooting different? Because he went to the funeral. There are so many possible reasons, and the show never picks one, and the resolution for Ironhorse doesn’t find one. Has Ironhorse never been involved in an action that killed civilians before? Possible I guess, but he served in special forces and Vietnam, so it seems like he’d have at least been close to action that had civilian casualties.

And if that were the case, it’s so blindingly obvious that the fact that he doesn’t mention it is basically inconceivable. Now, maybe the more interesting possibility is that it has something to do with him being alone at the time. Perhaps every other time he’d been in a similar incident, he’d been working with a team, and had other people there to — it’s oversimplifying it to say “share the blame”, but that’s kinda it. Maybe not to pass the buck, but to reinforce the idea that the outcome, while tragic, was unavoidable. In the sense of, “Since all three of us thought this was the right thing to do, the bad outcome was just tough luck, not the result of me personally making the wrong call.” That would have been a good explanation, and you could work that into the story arc, and indeed the character arc: say, that Ironhorse is used to perceiving himself as a piece of a machine, but this particular shooting erased his internal separation between the decision to use deadly force (usually issued as an order to others), the physical act of killing (performed under the order of others as a young soldier), and the consequences of his actions. You could have this be the first time he’d personally killed a civilian since being promoted to a commanding role, so that he was effectively both the person giving the orders and the person receiving them. And coming to terms with that might even play into the character arc that they enticed me with months ago but won’t come back to: the evolution of Ironhorse into a shamanic character.

But none of that happens. The psychiatrist asks him how he felt about going to the funeral, and Ironhorse says that he doesn’t feel good about killing an innocent person but refuses to dwell on it. Then their time runs out, and Ironhorse leaves. It’s ambiguous whether he plans to return; he doesn’t think the session has helped, but the psychiatrist points out that they still haven’t sorted out why he’s here in the first place.

What, no hoodie and sunglasses?

As he leaves, he’s watched through a sniper-scope camera mask effect. The mask effect belongs to a scope (not presently attached to a gun) in the hands of Denis Forest. He’s playing Martin Cole, the — you may want to sit down for this — grieving husband of Ironhorse’s victim. He’s come unglued with the death of his wife, and mutters to himself, “It’s all under control folks; I’m here, I’m going to put the chaos in order.” Me, I’m going to put the order in chaos by skipping ahead to his next scene, five minutes later.

When we rejoin Martin a few minutes on, he’s watching home movies while arguing with the police over the phone. They’ve declared his wife’s death a closed case, on account of they know who did it and it counts as an accident. The home movies depict Martin and Sarah in happier times, playfully mugging for the camera as they do some nonspecific frolicking in the park. Or at least, she does; his frolicking still looks weird and creepy because he’s still Denis Forest.

In an episode that is full of ideas that sound interesting but don’t end up working, grieving widower Martin Cole is possibly the most… sound interesting but don’t end up working. I get what they were going for, and it’s a good idea. A man who’s had a break with reality due to a traumatic loss as an antagonistic character who manages to be a more personal and direct threat to one of the regulars than the aliens typically are (Remember, outside of the pilot, direct combat with the aliens has generally been a total rout for their side) is an interesting idea. And Denis Forest’s Martin Cole is an interesting character. But when you put those things together, it doesn’t quite work. Because Denis Forest isn’t playing a broken, grieving widower; he’s playing a stalker. He’s in his creepy stalker lair, watching his creepy stalker videos of a beautiful woman who, a reasonable person would assume, would never in a million years marry the sort of guy whose destiny almost certainly involves the one of his neighbors telling a reporter, “He was a quiet man who kept to himself.” I don’t just mean that Martin Cole looks like a weasel — he does, but that’s neither here nor there. But he displays no real character traits that might plausibly lead to a sane human being wanting to spend time with him, let alone marry him. He is not kind or personable or friendly. He possesses considerable technical skill, but doesn’t seem to be especially intelligent in an abstract sense. He is obsessive. He is possessive. He never gives any indication that he might have redeeming traits. And even in the videos that should be set before his breakdown, he still comes off like a creepy stalker.

Still not the thing that looks most like it came out of a music video.

Also, he’s got a bomb-making workshop in his garage, where, after a few more intervening scenes, we will watch him arm a remote controlled model helicopter. This does not appear to be a recent remodel. Simply put, Denis Forest does such a good job of playing Martin Cole, mad obsessive stalker and unibomber-style domestic terrorist, that it’s impossible to take him seriously as Martin Cole, grieving husband who had been able to carry on a successful relationship with another human being before he was pushed to the edge. For fear I am overstating my case here, I should be clear that it’s not simply the fact that Martin Cole is a profoundly creepy weirdo that makes him hard to believe in context. Rather, it’s that lack of any other traits: he’s a one-note creepy weirdo, and that one note isn’t one that leads me to believe he was ever capable of a healthy adult relationship. There’s a couple of ways they could have helped this out. The most obvious would be to give us more of a look at what Martin Cole was like before the death of his wife. They could have — and I imagine this is the most likely path they would’ve tried — to present him as entirely normal before Sarah’s death. But I think it would be equally valid (at least in a logical sense; there are some second-order implications that are deeply problematic) to depict him as having some kind of pre-existing difficulty, perhaps even being non-neurotypical, but managing his condition and, critically, having other positive qualities as well. There is some support for this in the text, particularly later, when Martin describes Sarah as having helped him through unspecified “bad times”.

The big problem with this approach, obviously, is that it plays directly into the notion that the mentally ill are dangerous, and “even the good ones” are one bad day away from violence. That’s both a deeply harmful and unpleasant narrative, and a pretty tired cliché. Therefore I think that it would be preferable, in terms of the broader social context and also in terms of playing Denis Forest’s particular acting strengths, to scrap the whole thing about him being the grieving widower. Have him present himself as her boyfriend but, critically, with a third act reveal that actually no, he was just a creepy stalker who’d developed a dangerous obsession with her, and their relationship existed only in his sense of entitlement. The other advantage to this solution is that it keeps the emotional center of the episode with Ironhorse, as it should be. Because in the plot as it stands, there’s a broad attempt to make Martin Cole a sympathetic antagonist. His complaint is valid, after all. What happened to him does indeed suck, and it also really sucks that if your wife gets shot by a military special ops unit during an anti-terrorist operation despite having done nothing wrong, there is absolutely no recourse, no recompense, and no justice. The way it’s presented, this distracts from Ironhorse’s emotional arc rather than reinforcing it.

But even creepy-stalker-Martin is a tough sell, just because frankly, the plot of this episode is already all over the place, and Martin Cole as a plot device needs to be available for the third act reversal where he helps save the day. And I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell don’t want this episode to end on, “The stalker saves the day and gets revenge against those ultimately responsible for killing the woman he was planning on abducting and keeping prisoner in his basement.” This story is a really interesting idea, but I don’t know if there’s any way they could have pulled it off.

To Be Continued…


  • War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.