It is October 2, 1989. For good this time. Since the first season of War of the Worlds wrapped up back in May, the Tiananmen Square protests took place in Beijing, resulting in my website getting blocked by the great firewall of China. The B2 Stealth Bomber makes its first flight. The Nintendo Game Boy, the most popular computing device in the history of the planet, was launched, as was the Sega Genesis, which did what Ninten-Don’t. F W de Klerk becomes the last president of South Africa under Apartheid, having run on a platform, near as I can tell, of “Look, we all know this system is ridiculous and untenable, let’s try to wind it down in a way that doesn’t end with the giant bloody massacre most people reckon we’ve got coming to us.” That pretty much covers the sentiment of the whole world at the time, as Poland reestablishes diplomatic relations with the Vatican, Vietnam ends its occupation of Cambodia, and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs opens a restaurant in Moscow. It is the waning days of communism in countries whose names don’t begin with the letter ‘C’. The last-ever large-scale anti-communism protest is held in East Germany. Last, because in a month, it’s going to be a moot point.
Ayatollah Khomeini, Lawrence Olivier, Mel Blanc, Jim Bakus, Irving Berlin, Ferdinand Marcos, Graham Chapman and Bette Davis die. Daniel Radcliffe, Joe Jonas, Carlos Pena, Hayden Panettiere, Avicii, Jason Derulo and Brie Lawson are born. The big films of the summer were License to Kill, Ghostbusters II, Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Seinfeld, Hey Dude, Saved by the Bell, Tales from the Crypt, Baywatch, Doogie Houser MD, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and Captain N The Game Master premiered, as did ABC’s new Friday night “TGIF” programming block, bringing with it Family Matters (The rest of the block consisted of returning shows Full House, Perfect Strangers and Just the Ten of Us).
And War of the Worlds is back. Sort of. I’ve had a hard time turning up sources, so I’m mostly going by hearsay, rumors, and mailing lists from the ’90s. This being syndication, ratings are more complex than usual, but the show had pretty good distribution through Paramount’s syndication mechanism. But there had been complaints against the show, mostly centered around the level of gore. Stuff like alien arms bursting out of chests, ripping holes through the faces of their victims, and messily dying in a pool of white foam and rubber skin was the sort of thing that only interested a subset of the mixed-demographic audience they were shooting for with Star Trek The Next Generation. Besides, the writing was on the wall for the Cold War that had informed so much of the style and theme of War of the Worlds. Glasnost and Perestroika were in full swing, Poland, Hungary, Albania and Bulgaria were already backing away from communism, Czechoslovakia, Romania and East Germany would join them by the year’s end. The Soviet Union had held its first and last comparatively free elections back in March and had formed an opposition party over the summer. So if it’s surprising that for the fall 1989 TV season, it seemed like a good idea to retool War of the Worlds away from being an obvious Cold War analogy, that’s only because it shows a certain amount of insight from the same class of people who come up with ideas like Dog With a Blog.
So the network executives reasonably declared that season 2 of War of the Worlds would be less gory and less Cold-War-y. They less reasonably also declared that it would be less Strangis-y, as Sam and Greg Strangis were out. Replacing them was Frank Mancuso Jr., whose qualifications included having made Friday the 13th parts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7, and the strangely unrelated TV series Friday the 13th The Series, one of the few TV series on the air that had less to do with its namesake than War of the Worlds The Series (The only contemporary show I can think of based on a movie which had less is Mr. Belvedere). Now, it may strike you that this resume makes him a somewhat strange choice as a showrunner for their new less-explicit retool, but Frank Mancuso Jr. had one other important qualification: his dad was Frank Mancuso Sr., who was president of Paramount at the time.
What we find as he takes over the helm of the series is something interestingly paradoxical. Though the per se gore is toned down — the aliens, for example, now evaporate when killed, leaving only a puddle of glow-stick fluid, and carry weapons which vaporize humans — this doesn’t mean that the second season isn’t scary. In fact, if anything, the show tacks more toward horror tropes now, with the aliens portrayed as actively sadistic, rather than just utterly lacking in humanity.
Everything else about the show has changed too. I mentioned in my previous article that one of the fundamental oddities of the first season of War of the Worlds was that it didn’t feel like a world that had suffered a massive alien invasion thirty-five years earlier. It’s forgivable, I think, that the world would put itself back together fairly quickly, but very strange indeed that the configuration it would assemble itself into is so indistinguishable from the 1980s of the real world. After all, Europe and Japan put themselves back together after the world wars, but the world that resulted was very different from the waning 19th century colonial empires that had seen the century in. That’s one of the things that, say, Goliath came very close on (Even if it didn’t have time to really see it through): their world of 1914 is one that’s rebuilt itself after the war, but it’s one that’s still quite askew of the real world in many ways.
Mancuso felt much the same way. He found it implausible that the “world outside your window” could follow on a few decades later after a global war against the unstoppable alien invaders. Because I have the perspective of not living in the 1980s, I don’t think his alternative is the most plausible, but it’s within the bounds of reality. He proposes a straight-up ’80s dystopia. There’s little arable land left in the continental US due to pollution. The ecosystem has largely collapsed, most kinds of manufacturing have become economically unfeasible, violent gangs of Punk Rockers maraud the streets. Drugs are legal (And because this is the ’80s, this is taken to be one of the big contributors to the collapse of civilization), food and water are in short supply, income inequality is at an all-time high, the police have militarized and poverty is universal. So actually, Mancuso didn’t really propose a world all that different from the real world after all.
He also felt that the aliens were too alien; it was hard for the audience to get any sort of handle on them. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing per se, but it’s a storytelling problem when you’re a jobbing writer for a weekly action-adventure series and not, say, Stanislaw Lem. The aliens can’t simply be distant, bizarre and irascible, because we have to cut to them plotting at least once an episode in order for the story to make sense: the design of an action-adventure plot means that we need some scenes from the “Villain Point-of-View” because one of the major sources of tension comes from what we know that he heroes don’t. So Mancuso retooled the aliens. Rather than a faceless horde with no sense of individuality, individual aliens are given names and personalities. Some of them are sympathetic at times. Rather than the millions-strong armada we’d been promised, the invasion force is whittled down to only a few dozen survivors, who are now more desperate and therefore more dangerous. Very presciently, given the arc of world history after the end of the Cold War, the new aliens are patterned not after the threat of invasion by the faceless conformity of communism, but rather after terrorists: specifically, they’re depicted as religious extremists who don’t merely want humanity destroyed to make room for their own kind, but who view genocide as a holy crusade against the infidels. That’s the biggest single thing Mancuso’s aliens add: they’re a theocracy, their leader serving as the high priest to a powerful, semi-corporeal being they worship as a god.
Now, just laid out on table like that, it doesn’t really sound bad, does it? I mean, it’s an ’80s dystopia, and I do love me my ’80s dystopias. But Frank Mancuso had a kind of a New Coke problem: he’d come up with what was, on paper, a good formula, one that addressed some of the weaknesses of the existing product. But he utterly failed to take into account the fact that there was an existing fanbase that was already invested in the show as it had existed, and who had specific things they liked about the first season.
Paramount, in a freakish reenactment of their treatment of the original Star Trek, tried the “fix” the problems with War of the Worlds by alienating the fanbase so badly that no one would get worked up when they canned it in the spring. The second season is broadly hated by fans of the first. The three or four of them who are left even going so far as to ask Paramount not to release the second season on DVD. It’s widely believed among War of the Worlds fans that Mancuso deliberately sabotaged War of the Worlds, viewing it as a competitor to his own Friday the 13th series (The shows aired back to back in many markets, and while Friday was higher rated, War of the Worlds generally got the superior time slot).
That’s obviously crazy, of course. Just as crazy as the idea that Copp and Goodman deliberately made a terrible Knight Rider revival as part of a masterplan to ruin the reputation and legacy of their arch-nemesis Glen Larson, or that Russel T. Davies secretly hated Doctor Who and that he’d only convinced the BBC to give him the project so that he could burn through the Doctor’s remaining lives thus rendering it completely impossible for anyone to ever bring the show back again (and also turn our children gay or something), and in any case it didn’t work, since the final episodes of both series aired the same night. All the same, it’s probably fair to say that making two shows at the same time was a lot of work, and Mancuso probably did not divide his attention equally between them: his A-game was already spoken for.
Years ago, I coined something I call the Law of Fandom Jackassery, which roughly states that the average jackassery of a fandom is a Gaussian function of its obscurity. That is to say, large fanbases tend to represent the assholishness of the general populace, and very small fanbases tend to be fairly pleasant because the Vr.5 appreciation society is like just these three guys and they stopped hanging out with the one who’s a giant dick, but right in the middle, back where Doctor Who was around the turn of the century, you’re too big to kick the bastards out, but small enough that… you’re mostly weirdos.
This law… Does not apply to War of the Worlds fans. At least, not the original generation (The ones I met when I got involved in fandom in the late ’90s were all perfectly nice people). Catherine Disher, who joined the cast this season as Mana, one of the lead aliens, received hate mail and death threats due to her involvement in the retooled show, to the point that she doesn’t even like to talk about the show today. Which is a double shame, because, frankly, she really shouldn’t have been cast to begin with. This isn’t a dig on her skills as an actress. But, not entirely unlike what happened with Jessica Steen in Captain Power, casting her as a sadistic inhuman psychopath is just a radical misuse of her acting abilities. She’s far better known for her role a few years later in Forever Knight, where a major aspect of the character she plays is to be the major representative for humanity in the abstract. There are only a couple of moments in the season when she’s allowed to show a more “human” side, where her acting skills really shine, but it’s all hamstrung by the fact that it grates against her default characterization as Alien Josef Mengele. They even seem to realize their mistake at the very end and try to make her a sympathetic character in the final episode, hoping the audience will forget that she’s been murdering people and calling for genocide without a trace of regret all season. Disher was their first choice for the role of Suzanne last season, and it would have suited her far better.
Also joining the cast this season as the rest of the alien leadership are Malzor, played by Denis Forest, and Ardix, played by Julian Richings. But the really impressive pick-up this season is Adrian Paul — I told you to remember him, didn’t I? This is his first leading TV role, two years before Highlander the Series gained him his geek cred. He plays John Kincaid, a former black ops soldier who replaces Ironhorse.
Yeah, that. Richard Chavez and Philip Akin are out this season. Mancuso’s reasons aren’t entirely without merit. He felt that the shift in premise, with our heroes eking out an existence disowned by the government, living rough in an urban dystopia, didn’t work for the characters of Ironhorse and Norton. The straight-laced Ironhorse didn’t slot well into the more rogueish role that the new structure required. And there were practical reasons that the wheelchair-using Norton would be a difficult character to sell in this world. Now, I know there are people who accuse Mancuso of writing Norton out because, “No one wants to see a handicapped person in an action show,” but I’ve never found any sources attributing to him any sentiment harsher than that they just didn’t think there’d be anything for the character to do now that computer analyses weren’t going to be a big part of the story (ironically, season 2 would go on to include two episodes that revolve heavily around computers, but never mind that).
In any case, I think the characters could have been made to work, and in a time when TV storytelling was more sophisticated, they certainly should have been made to work. The challenges that the new environment presents for Norton and Ironhorse’s difficulty adapting to his new circumstances (And being essentially abandoned by the government to whose service he’d sworn himself) are exactly the sorts of things that can seed good character drama. But it’s at least understandable why they’d opt to start over with a new character. Neither Norton nor Ironhorse got a ton of development in the first season. Ironhorse got a lot of screen-time, but mostly as a foil for Harrison, with fairly little development of his own.
What Mancuso completely overlooked, though, was that Ironhorse, at least, was an incredibly popular character. He hits all the same sweet-spots, I think as the Brigadier in Doctor Who, and it was really the dynamic between Ironhorse and Blackwood that got people invested in the show. Killing off Paul Ironhorse deprived the fans of their favorite character, and also robbed the show of its most compelling character relationship. Kincaid and Harrison never develop the same rapport; Blackwood himself has been rewritten as a more streetwise, action-oriented character himself, so a lot of the same tension just isn’t there.
I think ultimately, what cheesed the fans off is the appearance of hubris. Mancuso’s changes to the format of the series slots very comfortably into the popular narrative of the hotshot new boss who comes in determined to shake things up and do them “his way”, who can’t be arsed to even learn the way things used to be out of a firm conviction that he knows better and can’t possibly have anything to learn. Like, the name of the alien race changes. The name. I don’t personally think this is a big deal — the alien speech we hear in the first season suggests that their language isn’t meant for human vocal cords, so I’m perfectly happy to accept that what we’re seeing is just a change in the preferred romanization of sounds that don’t have an exact direct equivalent, a Peking-Beijing sort of thing. But if you’ve already run out of benefit of the doubt to give, it’s easy to read as, “Frank Mancuso Jr. could not even be bothered to learn the name of the aliens.”
The backlash was substantial. The episode order was cut by two episodes, channels started moving it to less prominent time slots, and it was fairly well known by the Christmas break that there wasn’t going to be a third season.
But as I said, even though I do have some memories of it from its initial airing, my primary experience of War of the Worlds The Series is divorced by half a decade from the original airing (Which doesn’t seem like a long time now, because I am old, but was a huge amount of my life back then). So I didn’t have the same kind of investment. When you take Mancuso’s ideas out of context, they’re not bad. If the first season of War of the Worlds was the culmination of Cold War informed television sci-fi alien invasion action-adventure, the second season is very much the prototype for post-Cold War television sci-fi alien invasion action-adventure. While season 1 gave us one last major outing for aliens as obvious expies for communism, season 2 is really one of the first if not the first time we’ve had aliens as stand-ins for terrorists and religious extremists. This wasn’t a bad concept for a TV series based loosely on War of the Worlds. It just wasn’t a good concept for this TV series based loosely on War of the Worlds.
So let’s pretend it wasn’t. Instead of walking through all 22 episodes of the first season of War of the Worlds the Series, then going on to talk about the 20 episodes of the second season as a continuation of that, how about we engage in a little shared mental fiction, and pretend that the second season isn’t a continuation of the first. Let’s pretend that these are two completely unrelated series, which just happen to both be loose adaptations of the 1953 George Pal film, and which just happen to have a couple of actors in common. I mean, we’ve already had one War of the Worlds sequel with Adrian Paul in it, so why not?
Over the next year or so, that’s what I intend to do here in my Wednesday posts. Alternate between episodes of the first and second season, taking each one only on its own merits, approaching it not as one great show that was derailed by an ill-considered retool, but as two good shows that took very different approaches to the same source material.
- War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.com