Category Archives: War of the Worlds

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

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.”



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.

Antithesis: Candle in the Night (War of the Worlds 2×15, Part 2)

Man, Eugene Levy aged a lot in the ’90s.

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…

Blackwood baked a cake. Kincaid broke a window. Suzanne took up scrapbooking. Debi didn’t recognize obvious references to Mark Twain. Kincaid decorated a library with construction paper chains. The nerdy boy complained a lot. Julian Richings smiled.

Suzanne lures Debi to the library with the (accurate) claim that Kincaid needs them to bring him tools to repair his starter motor. They make an honest stab at turning “Everyone kept telling Kincaid not to put off fixing the starter motor” into a running gag, with Ralph, Suzanne, and Debi independently ribbing him about it, but it woulda worked better if they’d ever brought it up before the van broke down.

Y’know what woulda been better than writing this charismatic young actress as a series of one-note fat jokes? Literally anything else.

Debi is suitably impressed by the surprise party, doubly so by a chocolate cake. She gets to meet Gunther, Lisa gives her a bracelet hand-woven from stranded cat-5, and Nate, confessing to his actual circumstances, and gives Debi his copy of Tom Sawyer. Lisa, after begging off due to her diet, takes two pieces of cake anyway because fat people jokes, amirite? Suzanne surprises Debi with a prom dress. Possibly the same dress from that photo of herself from the album back at the other end of the episode. Why does Suzanne still have her dress from a dance she went to when she was fourteen, now, while she’s living in a sewer after the apocalypse? Because shut up. Having had his faith in humanity reaffirmed by the happiness of children, Gunther says his goodbyes and leaves, and while he doesn’t simply fade away as he dons his hat and coat and turns to the door, he does see a shooting star as he steps outside.

Or rather, he sees what is possibly the least convincing computer generated shooting star effect in the history of television. You know, the whole scene has this weird It’s a Wonderful Life feel to it that makes me wonder if they didn’t cast Sandy Webster partially because he bears a passing resemblance to Henry Travers.

It’s Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness / Come with him come along!

For contrast, we cut back one last time to the Morthren, who are so bent out of shape by watching Gunther decorate a cake that they are still complaining about how short-sighted and selfish humans are to celebrate birthdays. Yay! Recurring themes! Once again, the Morthren demonstrate that their ideology is based around collectivism that discredits individualism, and yet we see that the strength of humanity lies in the ability of individuals to come together and work toward a common cause.

Because of course everything about this episode screams from the rooftops that there is nothing selfish about celebrating Debi’s birthday. She emerges, looking all kinds of cute-awkward-teenager in her party dress, Lisa and Ralph put on an aggressively banal ’80s tune whose chorus is something like “Like a candle in the night / I’m watching over you / Burning with the night / For everything you do / Like an angel in your view.” Debi’s awkward dance with the cute boy she’s crushing on is immediately interrupted by her mother, who wants to take a group photo, so we can end on the camera pulling back to show the party photo affixed to the last page of Debi’s album.

I feel like Alan Thicke should be singing over this


I wish I had more to say about this episode. It may come off feeling a bit thin, which is strange when you consider it. It’s a low-key, low-stakes episode, but it’s not like it’s a bottle episode or a clip show or one that gives the impression of being made on the cheap. I mean, we’ve got two major new sets, with Gunther’s shop and the library, both of which are large and detailed. Plus there’s several more minor sets as well, and a lot of outdoor location shooting. And on top of that, there’s a big guest cast, with four new one-off characters who all play significant roles, and a handful of other minor characters as well.

Plus they gave Debi a boyfriend. Nah, just kidding; we’ll never see or hear of Nate again.

Let’s talk about the guest cast. None of them are hugely well known. Most of the kids have significant resumes as voice actors in the ’80s and ’90s, but little on screen. In an interesting side-note, the nameless pitcher from the street baseball game is way better known than any of the other child actors. Pat Mastroianni would go on to be a staple of the Filmed In Canada scene, appearing in both Degrassi High and Degrassi The Next Generation, as well as appearing in the 2015 version of Beauty and the BeastDark MatterSaving Hope and The Good Witch. Noam Zylberman, who plays Nate, was in the animated versions of Garbage Pail Kids, Babar, Police Academy, and ALF; Gema Zamprogna (Sam) is probably the best known, going on to play Felicity King in Avonlea; Krista Houston’s only IMDB credit other than as Lisa is eight episodes of Degrassi High, a pity since she’s got a ton of charisma. But despite modest screen experience, the child actors in this one are pretty good. Possibly the best we’ve had all season — which is, surprisingly, saying a lot. It’s weird how many child-centric episodes there’s been. Debi’s friends are all one-trick ponies, but they’re well-developed one-trick ponies. They don’t just stroll on, announce their single trait, then fade into the background. Sure, they’re largely archetypes we’ve seen before — the smug, obnoxious geek; the jolly, food-obsessed fat girl; the streetwise tomboy — but there’s a good, simple, workmanlike competence in how those tropes are executed, and while that might not win the show any awards, it’s a pleasant change from the dead-eyed deer-in-headlights acting of some of the other child actors we’ve seen this season. Is this just good luck? I’m not sure. Remember, this is also the first time we’ve had child characters (Debi excepted) who are meant to be “normal”, and not aliens, clones, or soulless lab-created abominations. But it works out well for them, especially in the episode that is really the most human we’ve seen out of the series.

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Antithesis: Candle in the Night (War of the Worlds 2×15, Part 1)

This article is dedicated to Sandy Webster, who played Gunther in tonight’s episode, and who passed away on March 22, 2017, just before I started writing this.

Sandy Webster was best known for playing a Victorian forensic scientist in the 1979 Canadian crime drama The Great Detective, essentially a Canadian mashup of Sherlock Holmes and Gunsmoke, from what I can tell.

It is April 9, 1990. While we’ve been away on hiatus, basically the whole world has changed. Lithuania has declared independence from the USSR. Estonia has declared itself independent as well. There are free elections in Yugoslavia and Hungary. Patricio Aylwin becomes the first democratically elected president of Chile since 1970. Fernando Collor de Mello becomes the first democratically elected president of Brazil since the ’60s. The Sandinistas lost the elections in Nicaragua, ousting Daniel Ortega in favor of Violetta Chamorro, Nicaragua’s first female president, who takes office later this month. Haiti also gets their first female president, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, but she’ll be the second president to take office since last we spoke: three days after replacing Prosper Avril, Herard Abraham stepped down, becoming the first twentieth-century president of Haiti to leave office of his own accord. Mikhail Gorbachev was upgraded to President of the Soviet Union with the creation of the office. He is the only man ever to have held the title. Namibia becomes a country. Imelda Marcos goes on trial for crimes that were very vast and which the US media boiled down mostly to something to do with an exorbitant shoe collection. Also, the Nintendo World Championships happened, and The Ultimate Warrior beat Hulk Hogan in Wrestlemania. Skronk. Destrucity.

As if that weren’t enough of a kick in the major themes of this series, there’s another big event we missed from skipping March: the Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games, a maker of pen-n-paper role playing games, under the belief that one of their games in development, GURPS Cyberpunk, was a legtimate handbook for committing real-world cyber-crime. Yes. They thought this game was real. This would lead to the creation of the EFF. In other news, Kristen Stewart was born today. Ryan White, the photogenic straight white boy who made straight white Americans finally start giving a fuck about the AIDS epidemic, died yesterday. He was 18.

Taylor Dayne leads the Billboard Hot 100 this week with “Love Will Lead You Back”. She unseats “Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles, who — Wait. I feel like I’ve gotten ahead of myself somehow. Never mind. Weird feeling of deja vu. By the week’s end, Tommy Page’s “I’ll Be Your Everything” will have unseated her. Phil Collins, Luther Vandross, Kiss, Lisa Stansfield and Sinead O’Connor are all in the top ten. In other music news, Gloria Estefan is badly hurt when her tour bus crashes during a snow storm. Her slow recovery will inspire her third number one single, next year’s “Coming Out of the Dark”.

Mission: Impossible, The Bradys, Mama’s Family, and ALF all ended their runs in the past few weeks. Baywatch was also canceled by NBC, which is the last we will ever hear of it unless somehow it gets brought back in first-run syndication to become the most popular television show of all time or something. But what are the odds that people would actually be interested in watching buxom women in swimsuits while David Hasselhoff consumes cheeseburgers?

Neither Star Trek nor Friday the 13th are back from Spring Break yet, but Alien Nation is new. So is MacGyver, after which airs the pilot movie for a Lloyd Bridges series, “Capital News”, a drama set at a fictionalized version of the Washington Post. It only lasts three episodes, proving that it takes more than a kickin’ Jan Hammer theme song to make it these days.

Won’t you light my candle…

This brings us around to “Candle in the Night”, which is a big, big change up from how the series has played out so far. It’s a low-key episode, really the only low-key episode. There’s no casualties on either side, no action scenes, and only very little interaction between the aliens and humans. It’s kind of pleasant. It doesn’t overreach, and it’s a rare chance to get a sense that this show might be capable of stretching itself to do a wider variety of episodes. Knowing, as I do, how few episodes we have left, it’s hard to get over the sense that the series is kind of spinning its wheels with this one, but if you bracket that knowledge and just take it for what it is, it’s just a nice episode. One that, for the most part, doesn’t suffer from asking more questions than it answers or from gaping plot holes, or from the gamut of missed opportunities we’ve so often seen in this series.

The plot has two tracks, and they bump into each other from time to time, but don’t really interact very much. In one, a Morthren probe malfunctions and goes walkabout, forcing Ardix and a one-off Morthren apparently named “Zeel” to track it down on foot. In the other, Blackwood, Suzanne, and Kincaid try, in the face of the general privation that comes from living rough in a crapsack world, to throw Debi a birthday party.

That’s it. No old friends of Kincaid’s who’ve stumbled onto an alien plot to grind up the homeless for food; no weird government experiments into making little girls that can vomit up mold monsters; just a birthday party and hunting down a lost drone.

Noam Zylberman

It was nice of Nate to take time off from bullying Ralphie and Flick to come to Debi’s birthday party.

So, you remember how they casually have videophones in this world? Don’t sweat it if you forgot. I keep forgetting too. It’s received a bit of an upgrade since last time, though, providing a black-and-white TV-quality signal rather than the 1-fps CIF image it did before. In any case, Debi is on the phone with her friend Nate, who she’s a little sweet on. He tells her all about his adventures out on his wealthy family’s big estate out in the country. Only he’s clearly lying because he’s dressed like a hobo same as everyone else, and I’m pretty sure his charming bucolic anecdote about spending three days sailing down the river on a home-made raft is just him remixing bits of Tom Sawyer, and he gets super cagey and suddenly has to go when Debi suggests she might some day go visit him and ride on his raft, if you know what I mean (I mean ride on his raft). Also, who goes rafting in the middle of winter?

Debi is down in the dumps because the writers keep forgetting she exists for weeks at a time despite her self-evidently being far and away the most interesting character. And also because tomorrow’s her birthday, which has made her want to actually spend time with her friends in person rather than via Skype.

You know what’s weird? No, not that Debi isn’t more upset about the fact that she lives in a hole in the ground, that her civilization appears to have pretty much collapsed, that she’s repeatedly had to fight for her life over the past few weeks, that the Earth is in the middle of an alien invasion, that a couple of months ago, she got mind-controlled into nearly murdering her mother, or that, oh yeah, her grandmother just died. But that we’re only a few months out of the eighties and the writers were willing to present a teenage girl who isn’t happy to interact with her friends in the form of monopolizing the telephone. “Man, teenage girls be making phone calls,” is one of the core dominant ’80s cliches, and they steered clear. I’m impressed.

While this is going on, Mana is showing off the new cloaking device they’ve slapped on a watcher drone, which allows them to easily penetrate, “The military’s much vaunted wall of security.” Why do they want to do that, when they’ve repeatedly demonstrated that the military not only fails to be a threat to them, but in fact seems to be actively working for them half the time? Never mind. As pretty much always happens on demo day, something goes wrong and the probe flies off on its own, which is bad because it’s full of important intelligence about the… unlabeled plain brown boxes in a nondescript army warehouse.

Boy, they sure can’t risk losing this highly valuable data about unmarked crates on shelves.

For her birthday, Suzanne gives Debi… A photo album. There isn’t much chance of me making it a whole paragraph through this thing without finding something that fails to make sense to me, is there? How did she do this? They live in an underground bomb shelter that they moved into because their previous home exploded. They’ve gone to ground and are, I think, maybe, possibly in hiding. Or are they? Did Suzanne get to settle her mother’s estate after “Night Moves”? Where did she get a collection of old family photos stretching back for decades? And why are all of her family photos in black and white?

They make a huge deal about how hard it is to get things like eggs. Where did Suzanne get those little fancy corner things you use to stick down photos into albums?

And Suzanne’s choices for this album don’t pass strict scrutiny either. Like, there’s a picture of the pony she got for her birthday when she was 8 or 9. Because God knows that the thing your lonely teenager who thinks her life is a craphole wants for her birthday is a picture of her mom getting a birthday present which is way better than some shitty photo album. And remember, the last time Debi had a significant role in an episode, it was when her grandmother died. And it didn’t occur to Suzanne that it might be a sore subject? She tells a thematically meaningful anecdote about how her mother always put a single candle on birthday cakes to “represent the light that children brought into the world.” But there’s absolutely nothing to convey the complexity of Suzanne’s relationship with her mother, which had been such a big deal in “Night Moves”.

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Deep Ice: There’s a woman dying in front of me, and no one’s helping her (“Hermione Georgina Wells”‘s War of the Worlds Refought

So I know I said we were back on the TV series for a while, but April Fool’s Day was this past weekend, and I’ve got this tiny little divergence that came up while I was googling in the hopes of finding somewhere I could still buy a copy of Kevin Sorbo Presents The War of the Worlds: A Biblical Reading (Spoiler: There isn’t. I’m not sure I didn’t dream the whole thing). Since I’ve namechecked le poisson d’avril, let me assure you up front that this is an absolutely real thing which really exists.

Wait for it…

It is August 20, 2010. The last US combat troops have just left Iraq, so I guess that’ll finally put an end to US involvement in wars in the middle east.


Jack Horkheimer, director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, died of a lifelong respiratory ailment this morning. Horkheimer was best known as the host of the PBS series Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer, or as I always knew it, “The astronomy show that comes on before Doctor Who.” It has originally been called Star Hustler, until the internet became a thing and people started to worry about kids googling “Star Hustler”. His epitaph reads, “‘Keep Looking Up’ was my life’s admonition; I can do little else in my present position.”

“Love The Way You Lie” by Eminem and Rhianna holds the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Because it’s a year starting with 201, Katy Perry is on the top ten twice (“California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream”), but remarkably, Taylor Swift is only on there once, with “Mine”. Mike Posner’s “Cooler Than Me” is also in the top ten, a really fun little song except that I’m pretty sure the whole point of it is to neg a girl into dating the narrator, and that’s fucked up.

Everything’s in reruns, obviously, and it’s Friday so Jon Stewart isn’t even on tonight, and this is the gap year for Power Rangers so there’s not even that to talk about. About the only new thing on television is the Melissa Joan Hart/Joey Lawrence vehicle Melissa and Joey, a sitcom in a vaguely retro mold in which an up-and-coming local politician has to take in her brother’s kids when he flees the country after a Bernie Madoff-style scam, then hires a disgraced day-trader as a nanny. I am told it gets better after the first season, which I kept wanting to like but found unspeakably awful. The final episode of At the Movies, formerly hosted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, aired this past week. Out in theaters, I am not making this up, is The Room.

The War of the Worlds Refought by “Hermione Georgina Wells” is part of a series of literary remixes by Jekkara Press which all follow roughly the same premise: Let’s take a classic work of fiction and swap all the genders. Other works in the line include The Hound of the Baskervilles Retrained, The Three Musketeers For All, Frankenstein Remade, and Tarzan of the Apes ahem Reswung.

Well that’s an interesting idea, sure, but we’re not talking about Jane Austen here, or even Sherlock Holmes. H. G. Wells is not exactly known for his richly drawn characters. So what would it look like to gender-swap all the characters in The War of the Worlds?

Turns out it would look like someone ran a simple search-and-replace over the text of the novel. That’s it. Seriously. Just the full text of The War of the Worlds with such changes as replacing every instance of the word “he” with “she”, “man” with “woman”, “wife” with “husband”, and soforth.

This isn’t as big of a change as it must be in the other books in the series. Victor Frankenstein has to become Victoria; Sherlock Holmes becomes, rather inexplicably, “Shylock Holmes”, and Lady Greystoke calls herself “Tarzyn”. But Wells was never much for names. Ogilvy is still Ogilvy, even as a female astronomer; the Curate is still a curate; the artilleryman becomes an artillerywoman (Though in an oversight which I am guessing is due to capitalization, her chapter is still called “The Man on Putney Hill”). If you thought War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies was a cheap trick to make a buck with the minimum possible effort (And, okay, it was, but there was more to it than that), it’s got nothing on The War of the Worlds Refought.

But okay. Y’know what? Maybe we can still get something out of this. One element of note is the rigorous consistency with which the transformation has been done, chapter titles notwithstanding. “Man” becomes “woman” even in the abstract. It’s shrieking men who run past the narrator, or who foolishly dismiss the first reports of fighting. It’s womankind she fears has been purged from existence by the Martians (Reminding me of the fun fact that etymologically, “man” once was legitimately genderless, and only became de facto male by replacing an older word. Which is why the etymologically correct name for a lady werewolf is a “wifewolf”, though there is a certain charm in the more cumbersome “wolfmannic woman”). And most interestingly, as the Curate descends into madness, she is said to be, “He was as lacking in restraint as a silly man.”

That’s something we can think about. The changes to the text are simple, mechanical. There’s no discretion to them, and one thing that means is that the choice of any individual change isn’t subjective: it’s determined according to a rigorous set of rules. If there’s an agenda in what’s been changed, the details of that agenda are bracketed away behind the rules. What that means is that if we want to talk about the psychological effect the changes have on the reader, we can start from the position that it’s the reader’s own subjectivity that produces those effects, rather than the reader being manipulated into them by the author/editor’s machinations. (Or, rather, if you do want to insist that you’re being manipulated by some trick the author/editor is pulling, you can only do it by confessing that you view “just systematically include women in spaces that were previously male” as a form of emotional manipulation. And that position is not going to win you any friends outside of the executive branch of the US government.)

So how does it make us feel? We’ll leave aside anyone who just throws up their hands and shouts about everything being ruined by “political correctness run amok” to have women with agency in a Victorian science fiction adventure and focus on something else instead. The word “woman” appears eighteen times in the original text of The War of the Worlds. Three of the occurrences are some form of the phrase, “a woman shrieked,” two are, “a woman screamed.” These aren’t the only occurrences of people shrieking or screaming, but they do stand out at least insofar as they are singular and personal, rather than the more common “I heard a shriek” or “Screams reached me from the crowd.” (Both the narrator and his brother do “scream”, but “shrieks” are generally collective). Wells’s go-to images of human horror also tend to be gendered. One scene builds an escallating sense of the refugee crisis by showing first two men, then a, “dirty woman, carrying a heavy bundle,” and finally a lost dog.

There is, of course, the matter of women appearing almost exclusively in the particular, while men appear vastly more often in general: the narrator frequently mentions “men” futilely attacking or fleeing the Martians, his chaotic scenes are always full of men being shoved, pushed, trampled as they try to escape; women appear almost exclusively in the particular, as a special case where the narrative is calling attention to a particular instance of human misery. This means that the gender balance is actually much better than you might at first expect when we are talking about characters of significance. Among characters with dialogue, women are within a standard deviation or two of men. Among characters with names, they do even better. But in general? The word “man” appears at least 89 times in the text, “men” over a hundred. To paraphrase Sam Spade, maybe they’re not all important characters, but look at the number of them. Flipping the genders makes the disparity painfully obvious, especially in how many contexts are male dominated purely as a linguistic default.

But what of the major characters? The narrator, the Curate, the Artilleryman? You might, for instance, find that gender-swapping the narrator inclines you to look for a deeper emotional connection in her quest to reunite with her husband, imagine this as a stronger theme in the story. But even with the gender swap, Wells’s writing precludes this with its dry, analytical style. A more interesting case is the curate, whose breakdown is explicitly called, “Like a silly woman,” in the original text. The gender-swap puts the lie to this, because it makes us more aware of how the curate compares to other characters. Those “shreiking” women mentioned elsewhere in the original story are all reacting in the heat of the moment to immediately impending danger, not at all like the curate’s slow breakdown under days of continuous stress.

There is one scene in the original book where a woman’s reaction to the Martians might be called “silly”, though: immediately after the battle of Horsell Common, the narrator encounters a mixed-gender group who laugh off his tales of murderous Martians, and the woman takes a notable lead in dismissing his claims — the “silliness” of dismissing the danger, rather than the curate’s descent into panic. It’s becomes clear that Wells threw out the “silly woman” accusation purely because “Like a silly woman” was a standard way to dismiss someone for being irrational, without any consideration for how actual women were depicted in the rest of the book.

That just leaves the Artillerywoman. And here, I have to admit, the simple act of changing he to she does make a big impact on how I relate to the character. Namely, it completely destoys any sense of that “strange charisma” the Artilleryman seems to convey. I’ve always had a bit of trouble empathizing with that aspect of the character, but I do acknowledge it, that people like the narrator can listen to him and find themselves drawn to go along with his ridiculous, unworkable plans.

I’m an anti-authoritarian; I don’t go in for the whole, “This guy sounds confident as he makes angry noises about which people we should kill! I respect this as strength and good leadership!” But I live in 2017. I can’t exactly pretend that I don’t believe that kind of pitch would work perfectly well with a certain percentage of the audience. And I already know as a matter of absolute fact that the traits of ambition, of unyielding confidence, of bullying bluster might be enough to win a man the highest office in the land, but in a woman, they’re universally derided as being “shrill” and “arrogant” and “bitchy”. The Artillerywoman doesn’t feel quite right to me because I know as an absolute matter of fact that she’s wrong, and even if she were right in her desire to create a quasi-fascist populist utopia where everyone eats peas with their knives, nine out of ten people would hear that and dismiss her as a shrill, angry bitch who shouts too much. And what about her emails?

So maybe that’s the point of this little project. By simply swapping the genders and leaving everything else alone, the book becomes a mirror to help us see some of the gendered assumptions we make without even thinking about it. How the words “man” and “men” occur about twenty times as often as “woman”; that a book with three major male characters and only a few minor female ones doesn’t “feel” overly masculine in the same way it might feel especially feminine with the ratios reversed. That the selfsame traits that make a male character charismatic make a female one reviled. Maybe this is a book whose purpose is ultimately to just “feel wrong” — to not work quite as well as the original, specifically so that you’ll question why it doesn’t, only to find that the reasons — how we as readers have been trained to think about male and female characters — don’t come from the text. They come from ourselves.

At least, that’s what I would have said, if I hadn’t seen the cover. Because guess what the cover of this book looks like…

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Thesis: The Last Supper (1×18, Part 2)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

There’s something just a bit Ionesco about the swanky conference table and chairs in the middle of a high school gym.

Why do these scientists need to be reminded that an alien invasion occurred in the 1950s? Why wasn’t the basic concept of alien possession covered in their briefing kits? What are they even doing here if they don’t already know the basic ground rules?

The parts about alien biology, sure, that makes sense to present. They’re presenting the findings of Suzanne’s research. But when Harrison takes over on the subject of alien possession, he spends thirty seconds rattling off a list of the sort of people aliens might take over, complete with montage: “Soldiers… Waitresses… Bikers… The homeless… Paramedics…” Imagine you were listening to that, in that room, without the accompanying archive footage. Do you imagine a photographer from Christchurch is sitting there thinking, “Whoa, even waitresses?” (And, not to lay too fine a point on it, but the waitress thing happened in the opening scene of “The Good Samaritan”, and the Blackwood team didn’t get involved with it until much later, and never knew about the waitresses anyway). The other issue if you imagine the representatives listening to this speech without the accompanying montage is the pacing. Without the archive footage, Harrison just trails off for five to ten seconds after every sentence to let the clip play out. Even if we grant the basic conceit that Harrison is trying to stress the seriousness of the situation rather than give them actionable intelligence, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on threats like, “They could strategically replace people in key government positions,” or “They could replace your mom and you wouldn’t know until it was too late, unless this is one of those episodes where the aliens can’t act remotely human long enough to avoid blowing their cover.” Or maybe mention that the aliens actually did manage to briefly infiltrate the Blackwood team. Actually, they probably don’t want to advertise that.

The end table with reading lamp is a nice touch.

During dinner, Argochev, for the only time in the episode, decides to be charming and flirts with Suzanne. She mentions that his government-provided dossier didn’t really explain what his job was, just in case we missed the fact that we’re meant to be suspicious of him. Harrison buttonholes Soo Tak, and asks, very bizarrely, if the aliens in China are the same aliens they’ve been fighting stateside (They are). Dr. Tak considers it “most curious” that his people have been unable to open a dialogue with the aliens, suggesting that maybe he nodded off when Harrison explained how the aliens were space-Nazis who didn’t give a crap about humans. Harrison just nods and says that the aliens are “very intractable.” When Harrison asks about their numbers, Tak estimates that there are about 10,000 aliens in China, surprising Harrison leading to James Hong’s one really properly good line, and the best line in the episode to my mind: “We have a big country, sir.”

Back to the Land of the Lost, where one of the Advocates muses on how much he enjoys watching his industrial manufacturing show. I always liked the segments on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood where they showed us the production line at a factory too. Especially that one about how crayons are made. Dylan got to visit the Crayola factory where they made that once. Anyway, nothing new here; “The humans are meeting. Should we do something?” “We should do something!” Their agents have narrowed down the location of the conference to Philadelphia. I don’t believe there are any establishing shots of Toronto which directly contradict this.

War of the Worlds - Philadelphia City Hall

In fact, I’m pretty sure that is a legit shot of Philadelphia city hall from the 200 block of North Broad Street. Which means that they did a location shoot. For their clip show.

We only get one presentation from the other representatives, which is a real shame. Fortunately, it has some meat to it. Morales claims that they’ve seen no evidence of an active alien presence in Peru, but he’s brought some national geographic footage of an unusual clay object found in a recently excavated Andean crypt. He’s brought a black plastic tetrahedron with him, found inside the object. Looks a bit like the big brother of the weird alien sex crystal Harrison found back in “The Second Seal”, which makes it weird that they don’t explicitly reference that episode, nor do they mention the alien control crystal found in a Native American headdress in “Dust to Dust”, another really obvious parallel. The tetrahedron emits a low level of X-rays, as well as a percussive sound outside the range of human hearing, which Morales claims bears similarities to alien transmissions the Blackwood team had forwarded to him ahead of the conference.

The worst is when you go downstairs in the middle of the night for a glass of milk and step on it.

After the technology presentation, Ironhorse comes in with the news that someone left an anonymous note at the front desk accusing Morales of faking his presentation. Everyone is instantly offended and distrustful, and Harrison all but directly accuses Argochev of being behind it. This is interesting in two ways. First, it’s Harrison and not Ironhorse who’s instinctively suspicious of the Russian. In fact, Ironhorse only makes one negative comment about Argochev in the entire episode, and honestly, he doesn’t seem like his heart is really in it. Could this be Ironhorse showing character growth after the events of “Epiphany”? Hard to tell, since this show won’t commit to going all-in on character development. It’s strange that “Epiphany” doesn’t come up at all in this episode. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that having come so close to nuclear armageddon might be something the higher-ups don’t want them discussing with the international committee, especially since the attendees don’t exactly represent the US’s closest international partners. But given the randomness of the assortment of countries involved in the conference, there’s a suggestion that Harrison had a hard time getting buy-in from the international community. All due respect to our international neighbors, but when one is setting up an international coalition against a world-ending threat, inviting China and the USSR seems pretty straightforward, inviting Peru, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and “Unspecified African Nation” less so. Invoking “Epiphany” could have been helpful here to explain that it was the influence of Dr. Rhodan that got Soviet buy-in.

The other odd thing about Harrison’s implicit accusation of Argochev… Is right. Argochev is deliberately undermining the conference for reasons which will become clear right after we cut over to the Advocates and back. “Should we do something? We should do something!” (Oh, also, they confirm that they’ve got an agent at the conference who they’re expecting to report in with important information soon). But it’s still a dumb reason. When they reconvene, Argochev admits to having made the baseless accusation against Morales, and explains that he did it because Soviet intelligence has reason to believe one of the representatives has been replaced by an alien.

What a twist. Is it weird that they’d have reason to believe that without knowing who it is? Maybe. It’s certainly easier to imagine whatever sources they were using could distinguish between New Zealand, Peru, Sri Lanka and “Africa”, but who knows. Maybe they picked up an alien transmission. Or a known alien they were tracking switched hosts at the airport. But like I said, the field was already down to two, and presumably it’s not the guy who just alerted them to the alien threat. I mean, unless that is itself a diversion. I mean, if their primary goal is to break up the conference, this is a good way to do it. No one ever expresses any skepticism at Argochev’s claims. And frankly, what’s the point of Argochev causing so much trouble anyway? The aliens are trying to disrupt the conference, so he… Disrupts the conference for them? It’s not like the alien is liable to blow its cover because Argochev is being a jerk. I guess maybe it might make sense if you assume that Argochev is just trying to slow things down in the hopes of sussing out the alien before the conference gets around to actually making plans for fighting the aliens. That might explain why he comes clean now — since accusing Morales didn’t work, he’s out of time, and wants his cards on the table because Ironhorse’s presentation is next. Remember that Argochev specifically objected early on that he wanted a say in the agenda? Perhaps he legitimately wanted to make sure that the presentations specifically about successes in combating the aliens went last.

Harrison claims that they can’t detect aliens by visual inspection, forgetting that they’ve been here for three days now and alien host bodies rot and are radioactive. He proposes letting Suzanne do a blood test, but all the delegates balk for unspecified reasons, and Dr. Menathong asks to contact her embassy first, breaking the communications blackout. Everyone else hops on the “Let’s call home first” train, and Ironhorse is forced to go off and figure out a way to make it happen. Now, Menathong wanting to call home first makes perfect sense, in light of her being the one who’s secretly an alien, as hinted at by the fact that she’s the only one who hasn’t said anything since her introduction. The others making the same demand seems on first blush to serve no real purpose, but if you think about it for a few minutes, you can sort of put together the idea that they’re all worried that they’ll be set up and falsely accused, and want their governments to be ready for it if they don’t come home.

While that’s going on, alien agents in Philadelphia have somehow narrowed down the location of the conference to Cheltenham (a real-world Philadelphia suburb), but the Advocacy already has the address, having been called by their agent on the inside. They make preparations to storm the place.

Despite pushback against the blood test, Harrison makes the case for carrying on anyway, insisting that they’ll figure out who the alien is before the end of the conference, and it might even be useful for an alien to learn about how hard humans are willing to fight. Ironhorse has to bow out of his presentation, so Harrison presents the final montage in his stead. This one’s about the team’s successes in fighting aliens. This presentation is the weakest as part of the narrative framing story, but at the same time, it’s probably the most successful as a visual montage: it’s all about the team, mostly Ironhorse, shooting aliens and watching them melt. So it’s full of cool shots of aliens getting shot — though disappointingly, not the one of Harv getting blown up in “Eye for an Eye”, or the really good slow-mo dissolving alien scene from “A Multitude of Idols”. But the content is basically, “Good news: the aliens’ one weakness is bullets.” Harrison calls particular attention to their success in the pilot at blowing up the alien war machines. He ends on a sombre note, though, revealing that they’ve already lost a member of their team. I assume they’re talking about Kensington, though calling him a “member of the team” feels like a cheat, since he’d only appeared in two or three scenes before they killed him off. Makes me wish they’d kept Reynolds around to have him die a few episodes in. He felt more like a full character in his handful of scenes in the pilot than Kensington did. Harrison also gives a nod to the “many soldiers” they’d lost in combat (though really not all that many after the pilot), and the innocent civilians.

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Thesis: The Last Supper (1×18, Part 1)

We should surrender to the aliens. We have no other choice.

I’ve summoned you all to the accusing parlor, so you can watch while I gradually solve the crime.

It is March 6, 1989. Since the last episode of War of the Worlds aired, nine people aboard US Airlines flight 811 out of Honolulu were lost when a cargo door failed, causing the aircraft to experience explosive decompression. Icelandic Prohibition ended after almost 80 years (though only strong beer was still banned by this point). Time and Warner have announced their impending merger. The Berne Convention was ratified by the US, making international copyright law a settled issue that totally won’t ever come up again. The Satanic Verses controversy comes to a head with Iran placing a three million dollar bounty on Salman Rushdie. Tomorrow, they will sever diplomatic ties with the UK over the affair. Venezuela is hit by a series of riots and protests over rising gas and transportation costs known as the Caracazo. Future strongman Hugo Chavez was unable to participate, being sick that day, but would later describe the event as a turning point that made the 1992 coup attempt inevitable. In cold war news, Estonia, which had been quietly resisting Soviet rule for almost two years by now, flew their own flag at Toompea Castle, next to the Estonian Parliament building, for the first time since Soviet annexation.

Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” made its debut in a Pepsi commercial during last Thursday’s The Cosby Show, another big part of my childhood which seems like a parallel universe now because a lot of people were up in arms about how inappropriate it was to expose innocent children to Madonna, especially a song that was sexy and possibly a little blasphemous, and worse, to do it in the middle of something totally family-friendly and not-at-all-scandalous-especially-in-any-kind-of-sex-related-way like Bill Cosby. Reality doesn’t make a lot of sense any more. Not a lot of changes to the Billboard charts. New in the top ten this week is Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True”. The album will hit the stores tomorrow.

ABC debuted Coach last week. CBS presented us with Hard Time on Planet Earth, one of those high-concept sitcoms I’m always going on about, this time about an alien warrior whose rehabilitation after being convicted of war crimes is to go be an ’80s Walking the Earth action-adventure hero, only as a sitcom rather than an ’80s action-adventure series. I do not recall this series; it is by all accounts terrible. The Disney Afternoon evolved into its imperial phase with the debut of Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. Tomorrow, ABC will premiere Anything But Love, which is surprisingly close to running out of 1980s for a show I remember almost exclusively for being “a very ’80s thing I didn’t pay much attention to.”

TV is a mix of old and new this week. ABC’s TGIF Friday lineup is repeats, though their Tuesday lineup is new. Yesterday, they aired a Debbie Allen special and followed it up with a thriller starring Robin Givens, Robert Guillaume, and, strangely, David Hewlitt, who must have been awfully young. NBC counters by airing the 1986 William Petersen film Manhunter, the oft-overlooked first film adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter novel Red Dragon. CBS also did a movie, this one a docudrama about the invention of the atomic bomb, featuring Hal Holbrook. MacGyver is a repeat this week, but last week they aired “The Challenge”, one of those charmingly ’80s “White Action Adventure Hero Meets and Uplifts Underprivileged Black Youths and Saves Their Community Center” episodes. The basic problem of the premise is the worst thing about it; it’s otherwise pretty much okay and holds up better than any of the twice-a-season “Sam solves racism” episodes of Quantum Leap.

I bring up Quantum Leap because it is due to premiere in a couple of weeks and I have a note in my big spreadsheet of when things happened relative to each other to mention Quantum Leap here, and I have very little to say other than, “Wow, these ‘Sam solves racism’ episodes have not aged well.” Not that the show isn’t great or that Bakula isn’t a national treasure and we were lucky to have him in a recurring role as the villain for one season of Doctor Who how the hell did he manage to kill Star Trek? I just don’t have anything interesting to say about it. Oh, except that have you ever noticed how similar the theme song to Quantum Leap is to the theme song to MacGyver?

Now, if War of the Worlds had done a musical episode, maybe they’d have gotten renewed.

No new Friday the 13th this week, and no new Star Trek either, but there will be something weird instead: Michael Dorn will guest star on the series finale of the sitcom Webster, in character as Lt. Worf. I have no memory of this happening, it’s not out on DVD, and I can’t find a copy on-line to verify any of this. I did watch Webster, though, at least the first few seasons. I probably lost track when it fell off ABC and moved to first-run syndication. Let’s hop over to a sidebar…

Webster is one of those shows that dropped off of a lot of people’s radar because of the extent to which it sounds like a complete rip-off. On paper, it’s essentially a clone of Diff’rent Strokes: a show about a short black child being raised by a wealthy white family. The biggest difference is that unlike Gary Coleman’s Arnold Drummond, Emmanuel Lewis’s Webster Long is super-adorable rather than mouthy. It’s not exactly the show they were aiming to make when they pitched it. Susan Clark and Alex Karras had been developing a romantic comedy series under the name Another Ballgame for ABC at the time. Clark was a more accomplished actor than Karras (Probably best known for Mongo in Blazing Saddles), but their real-life romantic chemistry translated incredibly well to the screen. But ABC was desperate to get Emmanuel Lewis on the screen as soon as possible in case he stopped being marketably adorable as he aged, so they pushed him on Karras and Clark and the rest… Is more complicated than any of you care about in this article about alien invasions. But it’ll be relevant, I promise! Anyway, after five seasons on ABC, the ratings slumped so they canned it, and Paramount exercised an option to keep making the show for syndication. I’m guessing I didn’t see it past this point, because nothing in the capsule summaries rings a bell. I’ve got plenty of memories of the show, but only three are especially specific. I remember needing some parental guidance to help cope after being especially terrified when Webster burns down the family’s apartment while playing with a chemistry set in the second-season episode “Burn Out”. I think this is one of those times my parents tried to teach a life lesson in a way that involved some knife-twisting by implying that I myself might similarly destroy our family home if I didn’t learn to straighten up and fly right and not play with chemistry sets without parental supervision. The second one I recall specifically is the third season episode “Chained”, in which bad luck haunts the family after failing to forward a chain letter. I remember this just well enough to identify it as one of those episodes that’s at odds with itself, because of course the moral is going to be that you shouldn’t forward chain mail and postal fraud does not have magical powers to manipulate fate… Except that TV is always disposed to pander to those who want to believe we live in a magical, daemon-haunted world, so 90% of the episode, up to and including the final freeze-frame gag at the end will be based on assuming or at least leaving open the possibility that, yes, the chain letter really does have magical powers. The third one I remember is one where Webster discovers a hidden room behind a secret passage in the cool Victorian house they inhabit for the bulk of the series and gets trapped in there. Typically, the premise of being trapped in a confined space is used as an excuse for a season-finale clip show. Webster did have one season finale cliffhanger, unusual for a sitcom, but the majority of its seasons ended with the much more traditional sitcom season finale clip show…

The reason that the series finale for Webster guest stars everyone’s favorite Klingon — I mean, other than as a treat for Emmanuel Lewis — is that young Webster dreams himself onto the Enterprise via the popular sitcom conceit of nodding off while playing video games. The Enterprise’s security chief apparently wants to learn how to be more human, because the writers couldn’t figure out a new plot when someone explained to them which one was Michael Dorn. So Webster, George and Ma’am teach Worf a very important lesson about the concept of feelings and familial emotion via a clip show, because God knows you can’t end a long-running sitcom without a clip show.

I hate clip shows.

We’ve talked about my hate of clip shows before. And I know you can make a solid argument for them, especially back in an era when television was deliberately ephemeral, without home recordings and only limited reruns, and I don’t care. They suck. There is something kinda interesting, though, in having Star Trek collide with an obscure ’80s sitcom a few months ahead of their one and only clip show, the upcoming season 2 finale “Shades of Gray”, which will see Dr. Pulaski inducing a clip show as an experimental medical treatment for Commander Riker after he gets stabbed by a poisonous thorn.

So after that very long diversion, do you want to guess what this week’s episode of War of the Worlds is?

Okay, it’s not as bad as all that. The “clip show” is limited to a handful of montages interspersed in an episode that still has a full plot. But yeah, this is our recap episode. I realize it’s been a long time due to my decision to meander off on a very long tangent, but do you remember a few episodes back when John Colicos paid us a visit? Harrison’s adventure with the original Baltar was framed by preparations for an important presentation by the Blackwood team to the UN. Well, imagine you took the last scene there of them actually presenting their work to the international community, and you stretched that out to a full episode. That’s what “The Last Supper” is. Under conditions of the utmost security, Ironhorse and the Omega squad have locked down a private school that is trying its darnedest to look like it is not in Toronto, and is hosting an international conference on the alien invasion.

Why are they holding this high-security international conference in a high school and not one of the US Government’s many high-security installations? Because shut up. Okay, there’s some gestures here toward the notion that the risk of discovery and infiltration by the aliens is so high that they can’t protect the conference if they involve anyone outside of Ironhorse’s direct chain of command, including their own government, because of the risk that anyone at any level might have been replaced by a soulless monster with no capacity for empathy toward humanity and wouldn’t bat an eyelash at condemning millions of innocent lives to suffering and death in the name of achieving their own selfish goals and GOD DAMN IT these articles were a lot easier to write before Trump got elected. Here I was about to explain how it’s basically nonsense to suggest that the federal government is so malicious and/or incompetent that they can’t be trusted not to sell out the human race for extermination and yet the Blackwood team is still somehow able to operate at all, let alone host a security conference to establish an international military coalition involving two communist countries and one that’s in the middle of a civil war. But then I realize that I live in a world where the single best chance we have at preventing the total collapse of our civilization lies in the actions of rogue park rangers and renegade NOAA employees. So I can’t make a joke about the setup for this being completely ridiculous because it turns out that the fate of the world resting in five visiting scientists put up in a school gymnasium while Ironhorse complains about how he only has half as many men as he needs may actually not be ridiculous enough to be realistic. I liked writing about the ’80s better when they were safely in the past.

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Deep Ice: Definitely a nutcase (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 13: Emily Dickinson)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Kudos to anyone who actually understands this reference.

Well, despite it having been kinda the thing I said I was looking for, I think I need a little bit of a pick-me-up after that last one. Now, this anthology has had a few memoirs, and a few epistolary stories, and a few traditional narratives. It’s had stories that are grim, and stories that are hopeful, and a couple that have turned on a punchline. But what it hasn’t had, yet, is a story that just goes full-on balls-to-the-wall outright bonkers. So here, right at the end, let’s go mad.

Enter Connie Willis. She’s one of the most decorated authors in this anthology, with seven Nebulas, four Locuses (Loci?), the impressively-titled Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement, and eleven Hugo awards, including the 1997 award for best short story, for this piece, the also impressively-titled The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective. And it is full-on balls-to-the-wall outright bonkers. Whee.

The first thing about this story that sets it apart from the others is that— no, wait. The other first thing about this story that sets it apart— Okay, the three first things about this story which… I’ll come in again.

The first thing about this story which sets it apart from the others is its style. Namely, it’s not presented as a traditional narrative, or indeed a narrative of any sort. There’s no per se story here. Rather, it’s written in the form of a journal article by a young academic, presenting a controversial new theory about the provenance of two recently discovered Emily Dickinson poems, despite the fact that the poems are heavily implied to be counterfeit by a reference to a fictitious Desperation and Discovery: The Unusual Number of Lost Manuscripts Located by Doctoral Candidates in a footnote.
The first thing about this story which sets it apart from the others is its subject, which is Emily Dickinson. If you’re not overly familiar with the biographies of influential female poets of the nineteenth century, the reason this is an unusual choice for this anthology is that, like most of the writers in the anthology, Willis dates the Martian invasion to 1900 (A footnote refers to Wells’s 1898 novel as the definitive account of the matter, giving you some idea what we’re in for). And that’s all well and good, except that Emily Dickinson died in 1886. So the protagonist of this story, if this were a story and had a protagonist, is not merely Emily Dickinson, but zombie Emily Dickinson.
The first thing about this story which sets it apart from the others, the thing you notice by just looking at the first page of it without even getting as far as reading the words, is the unusual number of footnotes. I mentioned that A Letter From St. Louis contained about a third of the book’s footnotes. Almost all of the rest are in this one, as befits its style as an academic paper. These footnotes often include citations to other fictional research works, such as a reference to Emily Dickinson’s Effect on the Palmer Method on the matter of Dickinson’s famously bad penmanship, Emily Dickinson: The Billabong Connection, which suggests that Dickinson had a crush on Mel Gibson, or Halfwits and Imbeciles: Poetic Evidence of Emily Dickinson’s Opinion of Her Neighbors. *

*Others are simply comic asides, including a footnote referencing the inability of the public to tell the difference between HG Wells and Orson Welles, and how this confirmed Dickinson’s opinion of her neighbors, or, slightly later, a reference to readers missing parts of Wells’s book because they’d turned off their radios and fled into the streets screaming “The Martians are coming!”. Or a note when something is described as “cigar-shaped” reading only, “See Freud”.

The setup for the article is the premise that two previously unknown Emily Dickinson poems were discovered under a hedge in Amherst by a desperate doctoral candidate a few years earlier. And though the poems are obvious forgeries, apparently written with a felt-tipped pen on 1990s paper stock and artificially aged by dipping them in tea and sticking them in the oven the way we did to make imitation parchment paper for a class project when I was in grade school, the author, who was herself also a desperate doctoral student at the time, takes them at face value, but reinterprets their historical context.

She recognizes the word-fragment “ulla” on a damaged part of the page, and immediately recognizes it as the death-cries of Wells’s Martians (She notes other landings, in Texas, Paris (Where Jules Verne, coincidentally, “had been working on his dissertation” at the time) and Missouri), and concludes that Dickinson had herself met the Martians. She admits that this is an “improbable scenario”, due to Dickinson’s infamous reclusiveness (Due possibly, say scholars, to an unhappy love affair, eye problems, bad skin, or the fact that her neighbors were morons) and also that she had been dead for a decade and a half by then.

Further, the author admits that history holds no record of the aliens visiting Amherst, though are references to “unusually loud thunderstorms” in diaries of the time, including this snippet from Louisa May Alcott, in nearby Concord:

Wakened suddenly last night by a loud noise to the west. Couldn’t get back to sleep for worrying. Should have had Jo marry Laurie. To Do: Write sequel in which Amy dies. Serve her right for burning manuscript.

The author further justifies her assertion of an alien landing in Amherst by suggesting that Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play had been set in New Jersey due to the common conflation of Amherst with Lakehurst. The “newly discovered” poem describes the event thus: “I scarce was settled in the grave— When came—unwelcome guests— Who pounded on my coffin lid— Intruders—in the dust—” (The excessive use of dashes is taken by the author as evidence of the poem’s authenticity).

While Wells assumed the Martians, having evolved away their base desires and feelings along with most of their bodies, “Would become ‘selfish and cruel’ and take up mathematics,” the author believes that their enlarged neocortexes would instead lead them to take up poetry.

Like the notion of the Martians having literally woke the dead, she recognizes that there might be some objections to this theory, such as the fact that trying to wipe out humanity with heat rays and black smoke doesn’t sound like a very poety thing to do. But on the other hand, some poets are assholes:

Take Shelley, for instance, who went off and left his first wife to drown herself in the Serpentine so he could marry a woman who wrote monster movies. Or Byron. The only people who had a kind word to say about him were his dogs. Take Robert Frost*.

*(Yes, I know that isn’t what Mending Wall is about, and that “Good fences make good neighbors,” is actually the opposite of the sentiment he was trying to express. And I’m guessing Willis knows this too, just as she probably knows that Mary Shelley didn’t write monster movies and that Byron’s Don Juan is not actually a paean to his dog.)

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Deep Ice: Common bacteria stopped the aliens, but it didn’t kill them (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 12: Jack London)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Okay. Home stretch here. I didn’t really expect it to take this long when I started in on Global Dispatches.

I think I like Jack London. I’m not sure. Every time I try to summon up a memory of having read anything by him, it turns out I’m actually remembering My Side of the Mountain by Jean George. So, my dodgy memory notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure that Dave Wolverton manages to do a fair job of evoking London’s style with After a Lean Winter, a story which was nominated for the 1997 Nebula Award for best Novelette.

This is one of the few stories in this anthology where I really genuinely enjoyed the storytelling itself, not just the story or the premise or the twist or the historical insight. The story finds London anachronistically in the Yukon on January 13, 1900. The real-world London had left Alaska in 1898. The fictional version, along with his girlfriend Elizabeth “Bessie” Maddern (the two would marry in April in the real world, but divorce four years later), had returned months earlier, hoping to escape the Martian invasion. Most of the stories we’ve read so far date the invasion to 1900, which is kind of weird, since Wells dates the invasion to “Early in the twentieth century,” and technically, 1900 isn’t in the twentieth century. (And yes, that’s hugely popular layman mistake, but these are science fiction writers we’re talking about, a group known for loving that sort of pedantry). Wolverton sets the invasion a bit earlier, but, unusually, sets the story later.

Fleeing northward turns out to have been a bad move for London. He may have anticipated that the sparsely populated and inhospitable north might escaped attack, but the Martians were creatures native to an icy world. In a major departure from every other story, Martians in the arctic do not expire quickly from Earth disease: they survive and thrive many months later, more comfortable in weather which is outright balmy by Martian standards, and where the thinner atmosphere and greater UV radiation reduced the amount of airborne bacteria. Even the sluggish clumsiness of the Martians’ bodies, recounted by many of the authors (other than Mike Resnick), turns out to be more a matter of them being oppressed by the weather rather than the gravity, as those in the arctic have acclimatized, and some fear that the colony in Alaska will in time acclimatize themselves to Earth bacteria as well, allowing their invasion to be renewed.

Colony, yes. The cylinders which attacked the rest of the world were only an advanced force. A far larger ship landed near Juneau months after the initial invasion, cultivated a “jungle” of native Martian plants that rendered travel southward impossible.

Another oddity: this story is the only one I’ve ever read to mention and expand upon the humanoid creatures the Martians used as livestock on their homeworld. The creatures are mentioned only in a single sentence of the novel, none of them having survived the impacts of the cylinder-ships. The creatures were able to survive the much gentler landing of the colony ship, though, and serve as slaves for the Martians, hunting any humans who try to cross the “Great Northern Martian Jungle”.

Only the cover of a coming snowstorm allows London and the others in the area to meet up at a lodge by Tichen Creek on that January night. None of them are in a good way, but while the gold miners have been able to simply hole up in their mines and work through the invasion in relative safety, the trappers have been hit hardest, unable to ply their trade under the threat of attack. One such trapper is Pierre Jelenc, a man of “almost legendary repute,” now sorely embittered to have lost a year’s earnings, and down to only two dogs after losing five of them in an ill-advised prize fight. He arrives at Hidden Lodge with a large and foreshadowy bundle lashed to his sled, and brings news that the Martians have wiped out Anchorage.

He also brings news that the Martians are building a great walking city:

 “Twelve days now,” Pierre said. “Dere is a jungle growing around Anchorawge now—very thick—and de Marshawns live dere, smelting de ore day and night to build dere machine ceety. Dere ceety—how shall I say?—is magnificent, by gar! Eet stands five hundred feet tall, and can walk about on eets three legs like a walking stool. But is not a small stool—is huge, by gar, a mile across!
“On de top of de table is huge glass bowl, alive with shimmering work-lights, more varied and magnificent dan de lights of Paris! And under dis dome, de Marshawns building dere home.”

Once the storm is fully upon them, bringing cover from patrols of Martian flying machines (Another minor element of the book rarely retained in adaptation), Pierre reveals what’s brought him to the conclave for the first time in months: “By gar, your dogs weel fait mah beast tonait!”

He repeats it a few times, even as the others remind him that he’s down to his last two dogs, before he tires of toying with them and elaborates: the best trapper in the Yukon has captured a live Martian, and will let the assemblage pit their dogs against it. The crowd is immediately consumed by such bloodlust that the local doctor is cold-cocked when he dares suggest they let him study it instead of killing it. Even London himself, noted in the real-world for his animal activism, is drawn in:

 I found myself screaming to be heard, “How much? How much?” And though I have never been one to engage in the savage sport of dogfighting, I thought of my own sled dogs out in front of the lodge, and I considered how much I’d be willing to pay to watch them tear apart a Martian. The answer was simple:
I’d pay everything I owned.

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