May 20, 2017

Tales from /lost+found 112: Sideways

1×17 April 11, 1997
SIDEWAYS (Serial 11, Episode 2*)

Setting: San Francisco, California, Present
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Lizzie Thompson)
Guest Starring: Jerry O’Connell (Quinn), Sabrina Lloyd (Wade), Cleavant Derricks (Rembrandt), Kari Wuher (Maggie), Neil Dickson (Rickman)

Plot: Despite his reservations, the Doctor and Lizzie follow the sliders through the wormhole to avoid being crushed. They find themselves in a futuristic world, but one which seems devoid of life. The Doctor is severely affected because the different temporal constants of this universe affect his Time Lord senses. They soon discover that this world was depopulated by a mutant species of insect. They find a group of survivors who treat them with suspicion. Rickman has already been and gone, leaving one of their group comatose. Despite his own affliction, the Doctor devises a treatment that helps Rickman’s victim make a partial recovery. Having watched from hiding as the sliders arrived, Rickman opens a vent to allow the insects into the survivors’ stronghold. While defending himself, Quinn discovers that the signal generated by the timer repels the insects. Quinn and the Doctor work together to create a defense for the survivors while Maggie goes to confront Rickman. Rickman has also learned to use his timer to fend off the insects, and drives them toward Maggie. The Doctor and Lizzie attempt to save her, the Doctor using his sonic screwdriver to interfere with Rickman’s timer, damaging it. In spite of the damage, Rickman manages to slide away. Despite the risk of losing Rickman’s trail, Quinn agrees to use their timer’s recall function to return the Doctor and Lizzie to their own universe after building a device which will protect the survivors on this world from the insects. After returning to the Doctor’s universe with only a few minutes on the timer, the sliders discover that Maggie has been infested with insect larva, which erupt from her body, killing her. In shock from Maggie’s sudden death and unwilling to condemn this world, the sliders allow the timer to run out. Since the insects are still few in number, they devise a plan to use the sonic screwdriver and the timer together to attract and destroy the insects. The insects multiply more rapidly than they expected, and Rembrandt sacrifices himself, remaining behind to activate the makeshift weapon rather than waiting to get to a safe distance. While it is normally forbidden for the Doctor to change the past, he realizes that his instinctive discomfort around the sliders is because they are not part of this universe’s web of time. Leaving Lizzie behind to comfort Quinn and Wade, he disappears in the TARDIS, then reappears a moment later with a surprise: he has fetched Rembrandt and Maggie from the compactor a moment before they slid. He warns that they should not return to this universe, as it may cause a paradox. Quinn reminds him that, having missed their window, they will not be able to slide again for 27 years. The Doctor reveals that he had pocketed the timer before departing and waited out the delay. It now shows only a few minutes before they can slide. Quinn is still unconvinced about the possibility of time travel, but can come up with no other explanation. Once the sliders depart, Lizzie notices that the Doctor seems older, and he confesses that it took him several tries to get back with the right amount of time on the timer.
Note: This episode aired as part of Fox’s “When Worlds Collide” event. Part 1 of this serial aired as Sliders episode 3×20 “What the Doctor Ordered”.

May 17, 2017

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

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

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

Don’t call me Shirley.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 13, 2017

Tales from /lost+found 111: Lockdown

6×01 (5x19a) January 4, 2002
LOCKDOWN (Serial 75)

Setting: Space Station W-9, 22nd Century
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor)

Plot: After dropping off Ruth and Leo for a romantic dinner at a swanky restaurant on Titan, the Doctor takes a tour of Space Station W-9, the local administrative hub, renowned for its view of Saturn’s rings. Shortly into his tour, the station is shaken by an explosion and goes into a security lockdown. The Doctor is sealed in an observation pod with two crew members and five other visitors. The others assume the explosion was an attack by rebel colonists seeking independence. When one of the tourists expresses sympathy for the colonists, he is ostracized by the others and treated with suspicion. They find themselves unable to contact the rest of the station, and begin to fear that more attacks are coming. The Doctor himself comes under suspicion when he displays his advanced technical knowledge in an attempt to reestablish communications. The crew force him to surrender his sonic screwdriver. They notice a tattoo on one of the other visitors associated with a mining colony. As their paranoia grows, she is accused of involvement with the attack. The Doctor attempts to calm the tensions, but when he reveals himself as an alien, one of the crewmen panics and attacks him. He is restrained, but the life support system is damaged in the process. The Doctor begs to be allowed to repair the damaged system, but by now, everyone is too paranoid to allow an alien to use advanced technology on the station. Instead, everyone descends into a service area below the deck to reach an emergency hatch. Because of the damage to the station, some of the systems in the service area are damaged, and the hatch is disabled. One of the visitors is badly hurt by an electrified conduit. The former colonist is accused of sabotage and a fight breaks out. The Doctor tries to intercede but is forced out of the way. The others beat the colonist nearly to death when the Doctor retrieves his dropped sonic screwdriver and uses it to open the hatch. As everyone makes a hurried escape, the damage to the pod causes it to begin to rapidly decompress. The colonist sacrifices herself to force the hatch closed from the inside to protect the rest of the station. A rescue team arrives, and informs the survivors that the initial explosion was caused by a faulty part, not a rebel attack. The humans are left ashamed by their actions, while the Doctor is shaken by his inability to defuse the situation.
Note: This story takes place before “Invasion, Part 1”

May 10, 2017

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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May 6, 2017

Tales from /lost+found 110: The Key to Time

8×22 March 5, 2004
THE KEY TO TIME (Serial 133)

Setting: Space Materials Research Center, 2020
Regular Cast: Rowan Atkinson (The Doctor), Scarlett Johansson (Alice)
Guest Starring: Lucy Lawless (Zoey/Zodin), Anthony Stewart Head (The War Chief), Nicholas Brendon (White Guardian), Kelly Donovan (Black Guardian), David Hasselhoff (The War Doctor), Sylvester McCoy (uncredited)

Plot: The Doctor takes the TARDIS to the Space Materials Research Center in the year 2020. Alice is surprised to learn that there is no key segment here. Rather than risk the War Lords finding the last key segment, the Doctor poses as an aerospace researcher in order to use the center’s advanced “3-D Printer” to create a reproduction. While he works on generating a computer model for the missing segment, Alice learns that there is a growing tension among the staff about the use of their fabrication technology to build weapons. Alice befriends Zoey, an engineer who has serious misgivings about using their technology to produce weapons, but fears that a pacifist stance will cripple progress. Later, Alice finds the War Chief has infiltrated the center and warns the Doctor. The Doctor confronts the War Chief, who claims to be on a pilgrimage and promises not to stop the Doctor’s work, so long as they do not interfere with the debate among the center staff. The Doctor is amused at being asked by a War Lord to leave history to take its own course, and agrees that the decision about the center’s future should be left to humanity. The argument among the staff takes a violent turn and Zoey is accidentally killed just before the 3D print of the sixth segment completes. Hoping that a high-quality facsimile will unlock some of the key’s powers, the Doctor assembles the key with the reproduction. Alice, the Doctor, and the War Chief are transported to the domain of the Guardians, creators of the Key. They explain the function of the key: it is a maintenance device for the web of time, able to change the past and rebalance the universe without creating destructive paradoxes. The White Guardian discourages the Doctor from trying to use the key, while the Black Guardian tempts him with the possibility of using it to restore Gallifrey. However, without the genuine sixth segment, it only has enough power to restrain the War Chief from attacking them. The War Chief deduces what the Doctor has concealed: Alice is the final segment. As a fail-safe against abuse, the sixth segment assumes the form of a living, intelligent being, and can only be converted to its true form willingly. The War Chief taunts the Doctor. He can only use the Key by sacrificing his companion. The War Chief reveals the truth about the War Lords: they are not a race, but a philosophy, spread whenever any civilization embraces the belief that conflict is the true driver of history. The Doctor is already too entangled in the war, and if he sacrifices Alice, he will have become a War Lord himself, and would inevitably impose the War Lord ideal on the web of time. While they argue, Alice notices the symbol a piece of SMRC letterhead she was carrying is similar to the War Lord symbol. She flashes back to her final conversation with the War Doctor, and we hear his whispered message. He had decided not to find another way and not use the Key himself. She looks inside the Paradox Box and finds an anachronistic earlier incarnation of the sixth segment. Before either the Doctor or the War Chief can do anything, she assembles the Key, and orders it to undo Zoey’s death. This small act reverses the critical decision by the humans to pursue War Lord philosophy. However, Alice’s change inadvertently undoes an earlier change to history: Zoey had been living a false life. She reverts to her true identity, the War Queen Zodin. She tries to seize the Key, but is stopped by a disembodied voice that declares, “Did you really think I would leave the universe unprotected?”

May 3, 2017

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.

Continue reading

April 29, 2017

Tales from /lost+found 109: Golden Age

2×12 February 6, 1998
GOLDEN AGE (Serial 20, Episode 4)

Setting: New Orleans, Louisiana, Near-Future
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Lizzie Thompson)
Guest Starring: Jonathan Frakes (Blackwood), Bruce Harwood (Swift), Ted Raimi (Dr. French), Dean Cain (Adam Neuman) Paul Eckstein (Voskar)

Plot: Lizzie awakens aboard a space ship, where she is told by its commander, Adam, that she has been in suspended animation for a hundred years, and is currently on a colony ship approaching an Earth-like planet to establish a new civilization. Lizzie becomes suspicious when she recalls the Doctor’s warnings to Rex about the side effects of suspended animation. In New Orleans, the Doctor, Slate and Blackwood search for Lizzie, which eventually leads them to French Technologies. The Doctor recognizes some of the technology they find there as salvage from Jagaroth’s experiments with the time destructor, but is surprised to see Therasapien technology as well. In the space ship, Lizzie finds Adam meeting with Dr. French, who arrives in a space suit, having allegedly space-walked over from a sister ship. When she sees that his scratches have not healed, she follows him out of the airlock, discovering that the “ship” is a simulator. Lizzie takes French by surprise and overpowers him as he confronts the Doctor. French is a radical environmentalist. To save the world from the dangers of global warming, he has built a primitive time machine which will send the unwitting “colonists” millions of years into the past to start over on an unspoilt world. The dinosaurs had been summoned as part of the machine’s calibration process. Swift is part of the conspiracy, having joined French’s group out of guilt after his position as an oil executive exposed him to evidence that the industry had deliberately suppressed evidence of global warming. Voskar comes out of hiding, having been smuggled out of the Therasapien base by Swift. Voskar and Swift had made contact shortly after the Therasapiens awoke, and had plotted the attack as a cover to smuggle Therasapien technology to French. His earlier opposition had been a pose: Voskar wishes to return to his native time, but on his own terms. The Doctor had misunderstood their circumstances; when Greyhorn’s outpost malfunctioned, it caused the other Therasapien shelters to remain in hibernation indefinitely, so Therasapien civilization never awakened after the impact. Voskar plans to travel to the Eocene period and send the activation signal manually, changing Earth’s history so that humanity never evolves. French and Swift are willing to sacrifice humanity so that their colonists can build a better future. The conspirators retreat to the ship and activate the time machine. Blackwood is left behind, but the Doctor and Lizzie are able to fight through the time distortion and enter the ship. The ship is sent back fifty million years, materializing near the entrance to the Therasapien base. With no more use for the humans, Voskar kills French and Swift. He never intended to honor his promise to allow the humans to coexist peacefully with his people. The Doctor, Lizzie, and Adam pursue Voskar into the Therasapien base, but Lizzie goes missing on the way. The Doctor attempts to dissuade Voskar from changing history. Voskar is unswayed, and transmits the awakening signal, but nothing happens. Lizzie appears, and reveals that the base had never malfunctioned in the first place; she sabotaged it. She had easily recognized the sabotage when she first saw the base computers, and discovered a hidden message from her future self giving a cover story to tell. Voskar tries to force Lizzie to undo the sabotage, but in the course of the chase, he encounters his own hibernating counterpart, and the release of temporal energy kills him. With no other way home, the Doctor helps Adam and the other colonists into spare hibernation chambers, where they will awaken with the Therasapiens a century in their own future. The Doctor modifies his and Lizzie’s chamber to activate early, allowing them to discretely slip out during the events of “In Cold Blood”. The Doctor is upset that Lizzie’s sabotage affected the entire Therasapien race, but acknowledges that she had no choice thanks to the predestination paradox. They recover the TARDIS and meet up with Blackwood, from his perspective, only minutes after they left. While skeptical about their story, he contacts his superiors with the recommendation that a permanent taskforce be established to deal with similar matters in the future.

April 26, 2017

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.
April 22, 2017

Tales From /lost+found 108: In Cold Blood

2×10 December 19, 1997
IN COLD BLOOD (Serial 20, Episode 2)

Setting: New Orleans, Louisiana, Near-Future
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Lizzie Thompson)
Guest Starring: James Horan (Greyhorn), Paul Eckstein (Voskar), Bruce Harwood (Swift), John Vargas (Rex), Jonathan Frakes (Blackwood)

Plot: Assuming that the reptilian creature is sensitive to low temperatures, the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to open the coolant pipes that run along the corridor. The creature is forced to retreat to avoid falling into a torpor. The Doctor reasons that the creatures are aliens whose ship had crashed on the ocean floor and perceived the drilling platform as a threat, but can’t figure out why they are only attacking in person now. He tries to modify the platform’s sonar to make contact in hopes of brokering a peaceful solution, while the company men simply want to destroy the creatures so that drilling can continue. The roughnecks reckon that there’s more money to be made by capturing them instead and assist the Doctor, until he sends a message to the ocean floor offering his help in leaving the planet. More creatures attack and several of the roughnecks are killed. The Doctor and Lizzie are locked in a storeroom where they find a cache of dinosaur fossils that had been churned up by the drills. Lizzie realizes that the sabotage to the platform was human in nature: the company men valued the oil more than the fossils, and sabotaged the radio to cover up the find, while the workers, wanting fame, sabotaged the drill to protect the fossils. The Doctor finds a vaguely humanoid skull among the fossils and realizes that the creatures, which he dubs “Therasapiens”, are not aliens, but a sapient species of dinosaur that had been somehow preserved for millions of years. They would have interpreted his offer of help as an eviction notice, prompting their violent response. The Doctor escapes using the sonic screwdriver, finds a Therasapien, and surrenders to it, offering the skull for burial. The Doctor and Lizzie, along with several other captured humans, are taken deep below the surface to meet with the Therasapien leader, Greyhorn. The Therasapiens were the dominant species on Earth sixty-five million years ago. When they detected a comet on a collision course with the planet, they placed themselves in suspended animation deep underground. Greyhorn had commanded a scientific outpost designed to study the force of the impact. Lizzie spots a flaw in the outpost’s systems which caused them to radically over-estimate how long the surface would be uninhabitable. The Doctor hypothesizes that the rest of their species had awakened millions of years ago and had since gone extinct. The Doctor suggests that he could use the TARDIS to return them to a period when their species still existed, but the Therasapiens are divided, with many wishing to remain in the present and reclaim Earth from the humans. Greyhorn persuades a majority of the clan to go with the Doctor, but he is betrayed by his ambitious lieutenant, Voskar. Voskar imprisons the humans and plans to use Therasapien technology to detonate the oil deposit near their base, creating a tsunami that will destroy New Orleans. With help from the dying Greyhorn, the Doctor rigs the base to return to hibernation mode, forcing the Therasapiens back into suspended animation for a century. Rex sacrifices himself by remaining behind to activate the hibernation sequence. The Doctor and the surviving humans escape back to the platform where they meet Blackwood, a government agent dispatched to investigate their disappearance. Swift agrees to work with the government to protect and conceal the Therasapiens until they can be peacefully awakened. Blackwood brings the survivors back to port to make arrangements, but upon arriving in New Orleans, they discover the city is being menaced by a Giganotosaurus.

April 19, 2017

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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