It is October 7, 1988. Robin Givens files for divorce from Mike Tyson. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s National Plebiscite, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet begins the process of transitioning his country into a democracy, culminating in presidential elections in 1990. I assume it took so long because he needed a couple of years to make sure he had adequate protections against prosecution once he was out of power. Also Wednesday, Senator Lloyd Bentsen famously told Senator Dan Quayle he was, “No Jack Kennedy,” shaming him so badly that afterward, he was only fit for the Vice Presidency of the United States of America. “Love Bites” by Def Leppard takes the top spot on the Billboard charts from Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy”.
ABC is in repeats. CBS and NBC show made-for-TV movies. Star Trek the Next Generation will not start its second season for close to two months. Keeping the time slot warm for them are Friday the 13th The Series, (which, rather than having anything to do with the films, is about a pair of cousins who inherit an antiques shop from a devil-worshiping uncle and subsequently have to track down the cursed objects he’d sold, typically antiques which bestow a boon on the user after they are used to murder someone. Like a garden tool that mulches human corpses into dollar bills. This week, Ryan and Micki track down a voodoo mask powered by a vengeful ghost) and the series premier of Sam and Greg Strangis’s War of the Worlds: The Series.
The basic concept is pretty straightforward: a small team of three scientists work together with an army colonel to thwart the plans of alien invaders who have recently awakened from hibernation after a failed attempt to invade the earth in the 1950s.
We open on a truck and the words “The Resurrection”. After a night-drive, they approach an army base identified by signage as “Fort Jericho”. The guards on duty take them for a delivery truck, and are therefore surprised when the drivers shoot them, then open the truck to reveal some friends on ATVs who drive around the place shooting anyone they find and also taking random pot-shots at the many fine barrels full of radioactive waste stored therein. It’s a slightly strange scene, with a lot of angles shot from the ATV-rider’s point of view with just the handlebars and the barrel of his submachine gun visible. It gives the sequence a bit weird of an FMV on-rails-shooter look to it, set to the soothing sounds of Billy Thorpe (Anyone know if the stuff he did for this series was ever released on an album?).
The terrorist leader Urick was played by Ilse von Glatz, who would continue on the show through the first season playing one of the alien leaders. In interviews, she said that it wasn’t the sort of show she herself would watch, but she had been impressed by the production values. This is especially interesting since it’s pretty well known that War of the Worlds was shot on the cheap. She only appeared in a few things after War of the Worlds. Already trained at Maxim’s de Paris as a gourmet chef, in the 90s, she changed careers again, studying naturopathic medicine. While I’m not a big fan of naturopathy, she doesn’t appear to have been a hard-liner about it, as later in life, she participated in clinical research trials for new cancer treatments before losing her own battle in May of last year.The shooters, a multi-ethnic bunch fronted by a blonde woman with a German accent and a white guy with a faintly southern accent, helpfully explain themselves as terrorists from the Non-Specific People’s Liberation Party, who plan to broadcast some demands (including the resignation of the president) and threaten to blow the place up if they don’t get their way. They don’t actually use the term “dirty bomb”, but it’s clear that’s what they’re talking about: using conventional explosives to contaminate a large area with radioactive waste. This is a bit of a surprising thing to find hanging out here in 1988; I didn’t think the possibility of terrorists using dirty bombs was a thing that entered the public consciousness until the turn of the century. 1980s fears about terrorism was, I think, more focused on the (much less realistic) possibility of rogue actors making their own Real Deal Nuclear Weapons. Some more research tells me that there was an incident in 1976 where hoaxers claiming to be terrorists purported to have placed explosive containers of radioactive water from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation around Spokane. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was the direct inspiration for this set-up.
But that’s a bit of a side-show, since their plan will never get to that stage. While looting the corpses of their victims, the terrorists pointedly fail to notice that the white slime from the blue radiation trefoil-marked barrels is dripping down onto the black “CLASSIFIED” barrels, apparently turning their lids into silly putty, since a leathery, three-fingered hand pushes its way through it in a scene so shocking it causes the show’s title to appear and forces us into a commercial break.
That image of the three-fingered hand is going to be the major icon of the series. There isn’t a lot of storytelling potential in this kind of ’80s action-adventure to be had out of the iconic 1953 war machines, so they just don’t come up that much. The alien hand, on the other, um, y’know, is something they can whip out whenever they like. The title screen used for the rest of the series, in fact, is going to show a computer-rendered alien hand wrapping around the globe, an image that’s iconic enough that Stephen Spielberg by a complete coincidence I am sure used the same concept in the art for his 2005 version of War of the Worlds. The hand itself is quite a bit different from the version in the movie, though. While it retains brown, leathery skin and three long fingers, the distinctive suction cups are missing, and the hand is larger and altogether more muscular. Ironically, the fingers look considerably more human, with joints and knuckles, the lines of tendons visible, running the length of the fingers, which are thick and long enough to wrap all the way around a man’s face.
We’re off to a strong start, introducing the heart and soul of the premise right up front. The terrorists themselves are a bit of a false flag, transparently coded as the villains of the piece in a pretty standard cold open of the sort you’d see on Knight Rider or MacGyver or even Columbo, where the first scene sets up the caper, then we introduce the hero in the next scene and get to watch him go through the process of figuring out what’s going on and putting a stop to it. And that’s basically the structure of “The Resurrection”, but the twist, of course, is that the caper they set up in the first scene isn’t the real one, and these terrorists are just a red herring for the aliens they unwittingly release. That, of course, is a traditional setup as well, as attested to by Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue, Power Rangers Mystic Force, Jackie Chan Adventures, The Real Ghostbusters, The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, Adventure Time, Mighty Morphing Power Rangers: The Movie (Power Rangers really likes this trope), and about eight different episodes of Doctor Who (Not even counting the ones that never happened). But interestingly, it’s predominantly a kid’s show trope. Unless you count Friday the 13th The Series, which can’t possibly be relevant.
So, having set up our plot, the obvious next step, in accordance with the laws of storytelling, is to introduce the hero. Our hero this evening will be Jared Martin (who, in 1988, I mostly remembered as the bad guy from an episode of Knight Rider) as Dr. Harrison Blackwood, an astrophysicist at The New Pacific Institute of Technology. His next three scenes (Which are intercut with the terrorists preparing to broadcast their demands) are a very dense, very effective introduction to the character. If I hadn’t watched the 1953 movie so recently and with a critical eye, I certainly would have missed some key elements of Harrison’s characterization at this early stage. Namely, the inspiration they take from his spiritual predecessor, Clayton Forrester. There are very clearly three major elements to the character of Harrison Blackwood that they want to get across to us right away:
- He’s a Man of Action
- He’s hella (“hella” is not a word I am normally inclined to use, but for some reason, I really like it in conjunction with “suave”) suave
- He’s kind of a weirdo.
And I’ll say this for them: two out of three ain’t bad. The mix of these three aspects doesn’t really work at this stage. A lot of his character arc in this episode in particular is driven by the notion that he’s kind of strange and off-putting and inconsiderate and obstreperous (He is called out on this. It is only the second time in all of television I am aware of the word “obstreperous” being used. The other is in Are You Being Served?), with a penchant for profoundly not-giving-a-crap about how his actions affect other people that presages The Big Bang Theory. But then they turn around and start intimating that he’s got himself a way with the ladies. On the one hand, they want us to believe that it never even occurs to him that he’s being a complete ass making unreasonable demands of the people around him, but on the other, they have him turn on the charm and convince non-load-bearing plot structures to bend to his will. It doesn’t work here. You can absolutely have a “weirdo” character be lucky in love, and why not, but trying to do it in the form of “He’s a weirdo who can’t interact with other human beings properly, except that he can go all Idris Elba when there’s a female guest star for him to bed,” just makes the characterization look inconsistent. Rather than just being a cloud-headed dreamer who doesn’t get ordinary people, it implies that he does understand how to interact with people and chooses to be a jerk out of selfishness. Worse, this frames his suaveness as an insincerity: he comes off as a seducer who doesn’t care about other people but is happy enough to manipulate them to get what he wants. Thankfully, most of this will be quietly dropped for the remainder of the series, where the idea of Harrison caring enough about something that isn’t work to form a romantic bond will be treated, in keeping with the cliche, as something very special and profound and cause for surprise from his friends. Dropping the ladies’ man angle
I can’t help but wonder if this is casting-related. Just as Gene Barry’s wheelhouse was playing smooth, wealthy ladies’ men with a connection to law enforcement, Jared Martin was at the time pretty famous from his stint on Dallas as Sue Ellen’s lover Dusty. You can kind of imagine Greg Strangis selling the part to Martin, saying, “We were watching the old tapes of that Fantastic Journey thing you did back in the ’70s, and we were thinking your character would be kind of like that. Sort of an otherworldy, new-agey pacifist type. With a tuning fork.” And Jared Martin wold be all like, “Well, I can do that, sure, but you know these days people mostly think of me as this suave ladies’ man type from Dallas.” And pere Strangis nods sagely and says, “It’s a bit of a stretch, but how about we just throw in a couple of scenes to indicate that your character is really good in the sack? Like really good. Like Scott Baio good.”
Because that’s what it’s like. In a few scenes, we’re going to meet Harrison’s fiancee, Charlotte, played by our old friend, Freedom One herself, Gwynyth Walsh (You know who else she was, I just realized? Robot Aunt Em in Tin Man). And he is basically a jerk to her at every turn, then just pulls some John Hughes Movie bullshit and shows up at her door and kind of smugs at her for forgiveness after she breaks up with him and stops returning her calls — and she just instantly caves and lets him in and bones him. Harrison loves her because she’s “funny” and “smart” and “beautiful” and “has great legs”, but I think we’re also meant to dislike her because she’s trying to tempt him away from academia and into highly paid private industry and she doesn’t accept the importance of his work, man. But she keeps right on forgiving him because she’s infatuated with him. Their banter is surprisingly sexually charged, and I keep wanting to shout at her that he’s just not that into you, because he has less than no interest in any of the things that are important to her, but expects her to bend over backwards to accommodate what’s important to him. Also, he expects her to bend over frontwards for much the same reasons.
But that’s a couple of scenes down the road. In our first scene with Harrison Blackwood, the first priority is establishing the “weirdo” bit. This is pretty efficiently conveyed by having us open on him delivering a rambling lecture on the philosophy of science, which a change of camera angle reveals at the end to be delivered to a class of tweens on a field trip. Harrison’s cleverness, his sense of humor, and his lack of concern for the feelings of others are compactly expressed when he predicts to within a few seconds the angry entrance of one of his colleagues who’s just fallen prey to the classic “Bucketfull of confetti perched atop an ajar office door” practical joke. Doctor Gutterman’s humiliation and subsequent sputtering of vengeance threats is witnessed by two other colleagues, Doctor Ephram Jacobi, the department chair, who himself seems slightly smitten with Harrison, being weirdly deferential and implying that he basically gives Harrison free reign not only to terrorize his coworkers but also to use university resources however he likes. Hence the other character introduced in the scene, Dr. Suzanne McCullough, a microbiologist recently hired by Pacific Tech and handed over to Harrison because he’d asked for one, for reasons which take him an inordinately long time to get around to explaining. I’ll say this for Harrison at this stage: though he doesn’t immediately assume Suzanne is the microbiologist he asked for, he never expresses any surprise or reluctance at a female microbiologist, unlike everyone else in the show, who immediately insists that all microbiologists are nearsighted and balding (As of 2012, about 30% of all full-time academic faculty in microbiology were women, slightly more among PhDs).
Structurally, this is a really good scene, and it gets better as I mull it over in my head. In a very short space of time, we introduce two of the four major characters of the series and give us a lot of insight into Harrison and a pretty good feel for the character, and he’s certainly likeable by ’80s adventure show standards (Even if with distance and age, I’m inclined to view this version of the character as kind of a jerk because I am now old and bitter. And they do file the rough edges down quite a bit as the show goes on). It’s not at all frontheavy with exposition: at this point, we don’t know what Harrison’s deal is exactly, or what he’s interested in, or indeed how this could tie back in to the plot established in the first scene. There’s enough going on that, if you remember what movie this is ostensibly a sequel to, you can put the pieces together and make an educated guess though.
Unfortunately, though it gets better as I think about it, it gets worse as I actually re-watch it. On a technical level, it’s a mess. The biggest problem is the audio. That’s a problem for this whole episode, in fact. Dr. Jacobi’s delivery is weird and stilted, like he learned his lines phonetically, but I suspect the real problem is that they’ve dubbed him with different dialogue in post and the words don’t fit quite right. Suzanne’s lines also sound poorly looped. It’s going to get worse later, with the background sounds cutting out suddenly when a looped character speaks, or the audio quality and even volume varying considerably between shots. And there’s worse still a few scenes on. The shot composition isn’t great either, with Harrison frequently having part of his head chopped off. And then there’s Lynda Mason Green…