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…
It pains me to say this, it really does. But she’s just not any good in this. I’d say she gets better, but frankly, I’m so surprised by how not-good she is that I no longer trust my memories, so we’ll see how it goes later. She’s got a very expressive face — she’s not as much into the big flashy reaction shots as Peter MacNeill, but she’s good at communicating with smiles, nods and eye-movements. But her line delivery and body language are terrible. It’s not all her fault: the writing and direction do her absolutely zero favors. TV writers are notoriously terrible at writing female characters, especially writers who get work doing 1980s action-adventure series. But you’d think the director would at least have some sense that maybe the characters should maintain a consistent mood and tone over more than two consecutive lines. Pretty much everyone in this thing acts like they’re six months pregnant and all out of ice cream and pickles, and Suzanne gets the worst of it. In the space of about thirty seconds, she’s put off by Harrison’s weirdness, charmed by his quirkyness, impressed by his scholarliness, annoyed by his evasiveness, touched by his humanity, insulted by his callousness, and that’s just the ones that fit the cadence of the sentence I wanted to write. Actually, Harrison’s girlfriend Charlotte gets a lot of the same treatment. I kinda wonder if the brief here was something like, “Women be fickle, yo.”
Harrison puts on a leather jacket and an Indiana Jones hat, because he’s an adventurey sort of academic, and they go for a walk in the park, to compare academic credentials, hers being MIT, NYU, the Smithsonian and a top secret project that she just casually mentions to a guy she just met. His are “I grew up here, went to school here, and eventually they gave me a job.” We briefly meet Suzanne’s daughter Debi, played by Rachel Blanchard, later of Clueless, Seventh Heaven and Fargo. Though Suzanne explains her as “Eleven going on Twenty-one,” she’s not a character of any real consequence in this show, existing almost entirely just to remind us that Suzanne has ovaries in case the writers slip up and start writing her as a scientist who isn’t entirely defined by her gender. Debi is also the reason Suzanne doesn’t want to work nights and weekends. Harrison is cool with that, as he doesn’t like to work nights and weekends either, because he is lazy. See? Isn’t it cute how quirky he is? Seriously, he’s like a male Lorelai Gilmore over here.
Next, they go to visit the third member of our ensemble, computer scientist Norton Drake, played by Philip Akin. He does the bit about microbiologists being nearsighted and balding, then makes coffee. This bit makes me just a bit uncomfortable because last night, Leah read me an article that did an excellent job of explaining the concept of sexual consent an analogy for offering someone a cup of tea. Suzanne isn’t interested in coffee, but Norton won’t take no for an answer since he wants to show off his voice-controlled wheelchair “Gertrude”. In all honesty, it kinda seems like having a voice-controlled wheelchair would be more cumbersome than it’s worth in most professions. Now, this was a quarter of a century ago, so it’s hardly fair for me to get angry at them for a coincidental similarity to a rape analogy from 2015. But then they had to go and toss in some sexual innuendo when he asks her if she “likes it black.” (She responds that yes, she does like it black, in a tone that can’t make up its mind if she gets the joke or not, and if she does, whether or not she’s about to file a sexual harassment suit).
All the same, after the Unbearable Whiteness of Being Captain Power, kudos to them for casting a person of color in a role with some substance to it. Norton doesn’t get as much focus or development as the other characters, but he still manages to contribute substantially in nearly every episode. It would have been nice to have cast an actor who actually was a wheelchair user, but I have no idea as to the relative difficulty in finding a Jamaican wheelchair-using actor with the proper experience in Toronto in 1988.
As with Harrison’s introduction, the scene does a good job of establishing Norton’s character. He’s easygoing though he doesn’t like to be interrupted, he’s a bit of a coffee snob, he’s cocky, and he’s clever. And if it weren’t for the fact that he keeps talking to it, his wheelchair would have basically zero impact on his character, and that’s just delightful in a time when The Facts of Life has just gone off the air and the TV public is still used to physical handicaps being just a thing guest stars sometimes have in order to teach the regulars an object lesson about either not giving up in the face of adversity or about not being fucking douchebags to people with disabilities.
The problem with Norton in this episode, though, is his audio. Philip Akin is Jamaican, but he grew up in Canada; his normal speaking voice is pretty typical of the Toronto area, but thanks to his family background, he can do a perfect Jamaican accent when he wants to. While filming the pilot, they decided for whatever reason that the character of Norton should sound Jamaican, so he read his lines in a thick Jamaican accent. By the time they got to post, though, someone presumably noticed that their anticipated American audience was probably going to have a hard time understanding him. So he came back into the studio and dubbed all of his lines sans accent. The problem with this approach is that Jamaican English has a very different rhythm and cadence from American English, so to make it match up, he had to perform his lines in a North American accent, but with a Jamaican rhythm. The result is that he still sounds kinda-sorta Jamaican, but, more than he sounds either Jamaican or North American, he sounds wrong.
We check in with the People’s Liberation Party, who are getting ready for their broadcast when a slasher movie breaks out for a few minutes as the aliens stalk and kill the terrorists. We finally get our first look at the aliens themselves. We’re never going to get a good look at them particularly, but we at least get to see one face peek out from behind a barrel of radioactive waste. The design of the aliens is clearly inspired by the George Pal movie, but considerable changes have been made. The more “muppet” aspects are gone — these are clearly costumes rather than puppets. The single eye remains three-segmented, but looks more like an actual eye here: one yellow eyeball with a sort of tricorn-shaped iris, rather than the red, blue and green lenses of the original alien, though the original is still hinted at in alien-POV shots which deliberately mis-align the red green and blue color components. The shape of the body is also generally similar, but is larger, with a fold of skin like a cowl at the shoulders. We don’t get to see the alien’s lower body, and there seems to be some disagreement about its structure; I’ve seen art, either conceptual, promotional, or fan, that depicts them as both bipeds and tripeds. I’ve even seen one where they’re octopeds. Much later, we will get to see one with two legs, but it’s still possible that it’s got a third leg tucked in there somewhere not visible on-camera. The creatures explicitly have three arms, for instance, but the third is not usually visible as it retracts into their chest. I don’t think the costumes actually have a third arm, since I don’t recall us ever seeing the third arm and the torso at the same time.
Unlike the physically “primitive” aliens in the movie, these aliens are quite formidable, able to pick a grown man up by his head and throw him effortlessly with one hand, and do much more disgusting forms of murdering people as the series goes on. If you’re into that sort of thing, I guess you could reconcile the differences from the movie version by claiming that the ones we see in the movie were emaciated from disease, though, you know, you’re not really fooling anyone. The climax of the fight scene comes when Urick finally discovers Mossoud, the first of her co-conspiritors to be taken, who slowly advances on her while emitting inhuman sounds.
At Pacific Tech, Suzanne, now wearing a lab coat because ScienceTM, interrupts Harrison during his daily mournful gazing at an old black-and-white photo of his family to remind him that he still hasn’t told her what her job is. For some reason, Green comes off as a combination of smug and confused, which shifts to exasperated when he finally, mercifully tells her: Harrison’s major work is the search for extraterrestrial life based on the analysis of radio emissions from deep space. He wants her to “daydream” about the possible non-Earth-like conditions under which intelligent life could evolve. He would then use his astrophysics knowledge to construct models for that would account for those conditions. Basically, Suzanne works out what kind of planet you need to get life, Harrison works out what kind of star you need to get that kind of planet, and Norton analyzes radio emissions from those kinds of stars. Though grossly oversimplified, what they’re describing is more or less a simplified explanation of astrobiology, It’s interesting, though, that he’d request a microbiologist specifically for this, since you’d think her area of expertise would be at best tangential to modeling planets that could support intelligent life. This suggests to me one of two possibilities:
- Astrobiology did not yet exist as its own field of science (Looks to me like astrobiology only started being recognized as its own field in the late ’90s), and the breadth of environments which support extremophile microorganisms hadn’t been established, so there was a popular belief that the set of planets which supported bacterial life wouldn’t be all that much larger than the set of planets which supported intelligent life.
- Harrison knows more than he’s saying.
Of course, again, if you know this show’s provenance, you might find it a somewhat ironic twist that Harrison’s hired a microbiologist to help him find aliens, when the one thing we know about the aliens’ planet is that it doesn’t have bacteria (I mean, taking Wells at his word. Obviously, if we’re going to upgrade the science for modern audiences, it’s far more likely that they do have bacteria, just not the same bacteria).
Suzanne, priding herself on being results-oriented, is flustered, disappointed, chagrined and eventually annoyed at this vague and open-ended task. Harrison responds by taking a nap at her. This is one of Harrison’s endearing quirks, that he’s got this weird new-agey alt-mediciney idea that taking a nap one hour out of four is good for body and spirit.
But before he does that, in the middle of their conversation, he suddenly goes on the defensive, getting all Fermi Paradox at Suzanne about the folly of assuming humanity is the only intelligent life in the universe, a sentiment with which Suzanne agrees, even if she questions the efficacy of his methods.
And that right there is the core weirdness of this show’s conceit. It isn’t common knowledge that aliens exist. But some people know, and some people don’t. And hardly anyone is ever hostile to the possibility of aliens existing. When people find out, they always seem to take it in stride. No one who knows about aliens is ever surprised that other people don’t believe. Harrison here speaks to Suzanne as though the existence of alien life is something widely disbelieved and as though he himself, like Fox Mulder a few years later, doesn’t actually know, but just wants to believe. Which isn’t the case at all, as we’ll soon find out. And it gets weirder. Because in a little while, Harrison is going to come clean to Suzanne and tell her all about the 1953 invasion. And her reaction isn’t going to be disbelief. She’s just going to be like, “Oh, okay then, here, let’s go visit my uncle who served in the alien war and is a general now,” when literally three seconds earlier, she was all like, “You are clearly insane for thinking we are in imminent danger of an alien invasion.”
The shoddy direction, with characters changing moods like Katy Perry changes costumes at a Super Bowl Halftime Show, belies the fact that this may actually be intentional. They never come right out and say it, but there is some subtle hinting, I think, that this world, which looks so much like ours, is a complex farce: that the world everyone perceives is kayfaybe, (I freaking love this word) in which everyone agrees to complacently go to and fro, over the Earth, about their little affairs, pretending to be serene in their assurance of their dominion over their little piece of solar driftwood, because it is much more pleasant than admitting that the universe is full of big scary monsters who can waltz in and annihilate them any time they like. And when something forces them out of that delusion, they’re upset, but it’s not like it was actually a surprise.
The aliens, now inside the increasingly radiation-scarred bodies of the terrorists, repurpose the terrorist broadcasting equipment to call home. We learn that the invasion force on the planet is governed by three “advocates”, who in turn answer to a “council”. At Kellogue Air Force Base, Hangar 15, equipment inside three manta-ray alien war machines activates in response to alien signaling, and the advocacy packs up the converted terrorists and hundreds of still-dormant aliens in drums to go collect their ships. Harrison goes to a boring party with his fiancee, who makes the “nearsighted and balding” joke about Suzanne. They try too hard to convey genuine physical attraction between Gwynyth Walsh and Jared Martin, then he ditches her when Norton calls: he’s detected radio signals they’ve seen before from deep space, but these ones originated on Earth. After working through the night, Harrison conscripts Suzanne to drive him out to the transmission site while he takes a nap.
At this point, we introduce the last of our main characters, Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse of Delta Squad. Ironhorse’s job in this show is basically to be the “straight man”. He’s the one who has to say things like, “Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no such thing as aliens,” every time, even though there obviously are at this point. In fact, he’s pretty much the only person who has any reluctance in accepting that it’s aliens. Insofar as Harrison Blackwood prefigures Fox Mulder, Ironhorse is his Agent Scully. But far more than that, he’s quite clearly inspired by the Brigadier. He’s an intensely by-the-book soldier type, whose job is to shout orders and say how he isn’t going to take this kind of crap from people, and deliver lines like, “I need answers and I need them yesterday, mister!” or “Chap with the wings, five rounds rapid,” (Which he doesn’t actually say, but you can totally imagine it. He plays it primary as “weirdly intense army guy,” which thanks to this episode’s inconsistent direction makes you worry he might suddenly make the cashier at the Jack-in-the-Box drive-through drop and give him twenty. He can also do the stoic-but-beleaguered, “Look, I don’t like this any more than you do, but there are procedures, and I’ve got the chief breathing down my throat about the paperwork,” Good Cop thing, but the choice of which one he’s going to pull out in any given circumstance seems random at this point.
He’s endearing, though, even at this early stage when the writing and direction haven’t come together. I can see hints of the character I’m going to like as Harrison Blackwood eventually, but at this stage, they’re trying so hard that he just comes off as a jerk. Ironhorse comes off a lot better. We know he’s wrong, and in fact that he’s making things worse, but you can still really appreciate that here is a man who has been dropped in way over his head, and his response is just to be stoic and unflappable and military. In one sense, he seems realistic because unlike everyone else, he responds to this weird and otherworldly threat in the “realistic” manner of a military mind approaching an ordinary military problem. While Harrison behaves like an unreal person in an unreal world, Ironhorse behaves like a real person in a real world. The twist is that Ironhorse is not in a real world, and what he doesn’t act like is a real person in an unreal world: if you want a “realistic” response to “It’s body-snatching aliens,” it’s not “Chap with the wings, five rounds rapid.” It’s “I have just soiled myself. I want my mommy.” He’s conservative in the William S. Buckley sense of the word: Paul Ironhorse wants to stand astride this War of the Worlds and shout “Stop! I’m not having it!” Or, if you like, “Right, stop that; it’s silly. You can tell those aren’t proper keep left cones anyway.”
Ironhorse detains Harrison and Suzanne long enough to check their IDs, and makes veiled threats about having them arrested if they don’t go away, but Harrison manages to trade a tape of the alien transmissions (or rather, a random mix tape Harrison had in his pocket, but Ironhorse doesn’t know that) for a chance to watch as Ironhorse’s men inspect the site. When they find six empty barrels, burst open from the inside, and no trace of the “hundreds, maybe thousands” more he expected to see, Harrison freaks out and runs off, confusing both Ironhorse and Suzanne.
After the aliens stop for gas and murder one of two drunken yokels, we rejoin Harrison back in his office, where he watches some archive footage of the attack on San Francisco from the movie, into which has been spliced some frames of a sad, filthy child with Jared Martin’s hair. It looks like they made an effort to age the new footage to make it match up with the old, and while it’s not convincing in the slightest, at least they tried. Suzanne quits at him, grinning the whole time while angrily chewing him out over his treatment of her.
Harrison explains that he thinks the Earth is being invaded. Suzanne calls him insane. He goes on to monologue at her a longer version of what would become the show’s opening narration:
Harrison: In 1953, we experienced what could only be described as a War of the Worlds. If it wasn’t for common, everyday bacteria attacking the aliens’ immune systems, they would have won this war, and you and I would not be having this conversation.
Suzanne: But we are having this conversation, which I don’t want, so I fail to see your point.
Harrison: My point is that although the bacteria stopped the aliens, I don’t think it killed them.
Suzanne: Excuse me, but I think you have been sitting too close to your television set.
This is, I want to point out, amazing. The general outline of the conversation is your bog-standard disaster movie scene where the manic scientist tries to explain the danger and is brushed off as insane. But look at Suzanne’s part of it. She doesn’t challenge him on the fact of the 1953 invasion. She doesn’t challenge him on the existence of aliens, or that they died from “common, everyday bacteria,” and a few lines later, she won’t challenge him when he claims that Fort Jericho had housed hundreds of barrels of alien remains. Look at what she does challenge him on: that the 1953 invasion could be relevant today, and that the aliens weren’t really dead. She accepts without question that the aliens existed, invaded, and died, but refuses to accept that they might be back.
This will come up again as the series progresses, but not nearly enough, in my opinion. Because this here, this scene is the single most amazing concept of the series. As I said before, I think the clues are there that Suzanne already knows about the aliens. She’s just got a mental block against thinking about it.
Harrison theorizes that the aliens had been forced into a state of anabiosis until the radiation from the nuclear waste sterilized the bacteria. He persuades Suzanne (a bit too forcefully) to listen to his life story. His parents had been colleagues of Clayton Forrester, who adopted him after they were killed in the invasion. Forrester had ended up a sad, broken man after the government decided to cut his grants and bury his research, since basically no one wanted to hear that the alien threat wasn’t well and truly gone for good and that, hey, has anyone noticed that those alien corpses aren’t rotting? This sounds like a profoundly stupid thing for the government to do, since being paranoid about evil invaders was more or less what the government was for in the 1950s, but it starts to make sense when you take it in light of the “Everyone developed this sudden and profound neurosis about thinking too hard about aliens.” This is apparently enough to convince Suzanne, who takes him to see her uncle, General Hank Wilson, played by guy-who-is-fairly-famous-but-I-mostly-remember-him-from-being-a-Knight-Rider-villain John Vernon. For no clear reason, she doesn’t tell Harrison that he’s her uncle ahead of time.
Uncle Hank is supportive, and like everyone in the show who isn’t played by Richard Chavez, doesn’t question or challenge Harrison’s contention that there are aliens, that there was a war, that the alien bodies were at Fort Jericho, or that they’ve gone missing. But he still insists that he’ll need tangible proof before he can actually do anything about it, since he’s read Ironhorse’s report, and likes the idea of it being terrorists better (Though after they leave, he makes plans to meet with the president about it).
Determined now to find the evidence he needs, Harrison sets Norton to the task of tracking the alien transmissions, and has Suzanne verify that nuclear waste exposure kills the bacteria Forrester had identified as affecting the aliens while he goes to make up with his girlfriend after a fight they’d had a little while ago. His Zach Morris Cell Phone draws him out of bed after make-up sex to go charter a helicopter to the backwoods ghost town where the aliens have holed up. Once there, Harrison resolves to get a closer look after sunset, and leaves Suzanne on watch while he takes a nap.
The last act of “The Resurrection” feels more like the series that follows than the first two-thirds. Enough that I wonder if they’d originally planned to end the pilot with the here in the ghost town (Indeed, there’s only one more scene before the point where the episode is split into two parts for reruns). Pilots often vary a lot in look, feel and even the details of the concept from the series, enough that the first episode afterward is sometimes thought of as a second pilot, one that introduces the series as it’s actually going to be, and I find myself thinking it would be useful to think of this last act as something of a second pilot itself.
In fact, this article is running really long, so let’s do that. We’ll discuss the back third of “The Resurrection” next time.
- War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.com