[Content advisory: The following article contains several animated loops of gore which, though transparently fake, is probably icky enough to be upsetting to some]
“You haven’t got a prayer.”
It is October 17, 1988. Phillip Morris offers $11 billion to buy Kraft. A Ugandan jetliner crashes near Rome due to heavy fog. HRH Queen Elizabeth II makes her first visit to Spain. Pianist Keith Jarrett performs a solo concert in Paris, one of his last solo performances before being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. President Reagan signs the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, 25 USC sections 2701-2719, establishing federal regulation of gambling on Native American reservations.
UB40’s cover of “Red Red Wine” has unseated Def Leppard on the charts, but in a few days, they’ll yield to Phil Collins’s “Groovy Kind of Love”. The Bills beat the Jets 37-14 after a MacGyver repeat. ALF is new. 60 Minutes has its twentieth anniversary special. That pesky writer’s strike means that Star Trek the Next Generation still hasn’t started its second season yet. Friday the 13th the Series airs “Heads I Live, Tails You Die”, which has something to do with a plot to summon Satan, and also features the first time they kill off Micki (She gets better. One of the popular cursed antique powers is the ability to trade one life for another).
The third episode of War of the Worlds gives Toronto a break from pretending to be California for a bit, and has it pretend to be Regina instead. That’s right, the aliens are heading north this week. A quartet of portly flannel-clad hunters sporting radiation scars are out in the woods somewhere near Wolf Point, Montana. Using a device made out of a typewriter mated to Captain Kirk’s phaser rifle from the second Star Trek pilot, they bounce a green special effect off of what looks like a radio telescope (It’s probably a large satellite television receiver, but we’re talking about a huge dealie that looks a lot more like an RT-70 than a C-Band satellite dish) outside of Wolf Point, Montana (Fun fact: Wolf Point is the hometown of Marvel Superhero William Talltrees, aka “Red Wolf”). They do not elaborate on the details, but the gist of it is that they are receiving the location of a storage facility near Regina, Saskatchewan housing a large number of dormant aliens. Under orders from the advocacy, they set off for Regina, but are hampered by the fact that the only thing falling apart faster than their host bodies is their car. They’re able to hitch a ride to the Canadian border on a prison bus that is conveniently taking a busload of inmates to Canada for an inter-prison hockey game. Which I guess is a thing.
This is all greatly disturbing to this week’s very special guest star, Ann Robinson, reprising her 1953 role as Sylvia Van Buren. She’s gone mad, you see. On top of that, the tap on her sink is dripping and it’s driving her up a wall. Her room is graffiti’d with Mondrian designs and a sketch of an alien hand, helpfully annotated, “Three fingers, not five like me.” She holds her own hand up to her face, clearly imagining a three-fingered one reaching for her before she gives in to some sort of seizure and starts screaming. Nurses rush in to restrain her, and we see that she’s been clutching a picture of Harrison. A second picture on her nightstand is of Clayton Forrester.
I know I shouldn’t nitpick about it, especially as this series is an artifact of the pre-photoshop era, but there’s something I find kind of cute in how blatantly those photos are publicity headshots. I mean, you could make an argument for the picture of Gene Barry (Though, if they worked together for years, it’s a bit strange that the only picture she has of him is from the fifties), but the picture of Jared Martin is a black-and-white publicity shot for this show. So it’s a picture of Harrison ca. 1988. Who in 1988 would have a framed current photo of a loved on in black and white?
I mentioned before, Ann Robinson had pretty much dropped out of acting in the ’60s. This, and some small-time B-horror movie earlier in the year were her first acting gigs in years. She’s really really good though. She comes back to a character that she played for one movie a length of time earlier roughly equivalent to my whole life, and delivers a performance that is spot-on. That bit where she freaks out at her own hand: I am instantly convinced that I’m watching Sylvia Van Buren thirty-five years later.
Mental illness is difficult to portray in film and television, and it’s hardly ever done well. This is not the world’s most accurate portrayal. But it’s better than most. And it’s clear that Ann Robinson is having an absolute ball with the part. In a couple of scenes, Harrison will explain that her work as Forrester’s assistant (There are no direct references to her pursuing a romantic relationship with Forrester after the movie, though most fans prefer to believe she did. If they did marry, it could be seen as a pleasantly progressive touch that she kept her maiden name for professional purposes. On the other hand, she is not referred to as “Mrs.” at any point, so it may be that their romantic relationship was curtailed by her illness. Harrison refers to Clayton as his adoptive father, but does not describe Sylvia similarly, despite the obvious familial affection between them, which also supports the idea that she became incapacitated quickly, and therefore wasn’t around to raise Harrison) on “Project Ezekiel” had somehow (he theorizes it was due to exposure to alien tissue samples) made her a “human electromagnetic barometer”. She gained the ability to predict earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions (Mt. St. Helens is mentioned by name), but was afflicted with migraines, seizures, cliche psychic nosebleeds and severe bipolar disorder. It’s hinted that her psychological symptoms may be due not to the alien influence directly, but to medical experimentation by government scientists trying to understand her abilities: “They hooked electrodes up to my brain, until I couldn’t even remember my name.”
Sylvia’s rough night has prompted the staff to summon Harrison. To show how important this is, Harrison is actually driving this time, rather than napping, even though he’s got Ironhorse in tow. The rapport is very different between them than it was last week. Ironhorse is far more comfortable with the scientist and is more willing to listen to him. He’s still stiff, and it’s still his job to be the skeptical one, but he’s learned to respect Harrison’s judgment even when he doesn’t agree with it. He’s even calling him by his first name. The Ironhorse here draws more from the version of the character who sat around the fireplace telling old Indian Folk Tales back in the pilot. Ironhorse explains that his special forces training has taught him to avoid getting close to people, but he’ll give Harrison a bye now that they’ve “faced death together.” By which he means alien-popsicling that guy in last week’s episode, and not the time they had to run from alien war machines or the time before that where Harrison dragged him out of a combat zone on a quad.
Harrison hasn’t yet told Ironhorse the details on Sylvia; all he knows is that Harrison has a “contact” for alien information. He’s insisted on coming along so that he can establish a relationship with her, “In case you should suddenly die.” (“As opposed to slowly die?” Harrison asks). Ironhorse launches into some Sun Tzu stuff about how only fools fight without knowing their enemies. When he sees the sign for the mental hospital, he assumes Harrison’s contact is undercover, and Harrison, in a very nice and pleasantly subtle character moment, becomes visibly uncomfortable.
He gives Ironhorse the full story once they arrive, and he takes it in stride, which is surprising. You’d really be expecting Ironhorse of all people to be the one who’s skeptical of the elderly mental patient who can predict earthquakes, but instead he just rolls with it. I’m disinclined to complain about it because having Ironhorse be skeptical here, particularly having him be skeptical of Ann Robinson, would just be tedious and callous. Just before they’re summoned up to visit, Harrison is confronted by another elderly patient, who cautions him, “It’s not safe here.” Harrison counters that it’s not safe out there either, to which the patient sighs and mutters to himself, “Oh. I’d forgotten that.”
Sylvia is confused and only partly coherent. At first, she mistakes Harrison for Clayton. She’s frightened by Ironhorse, but calms down when he introduces himself and makes a point of showing her respect as a “distinguished veteran”. At least for this week, Ironhorse’s character has evolved a bit, playing less as the “gruff cop” archetype and more, well, military. These are, I think the two fundamental sides of the Ironhorse character. I said before that Ironhorse isn’t a tremendously dynamic character. I stand by that, but I should probably add some qualifications. Even from the pilot, we see both aspects of the character: polite, reserved “military” Ironhorse, whose mission is to facilitate Harrison and his team’s scientific efforts, and “cop” Ironhorse who wants that annoying scientist out of his hair and isn’t going to listen to any of this crazy talk about little green men. Last week, with General Wilson around to play the “military” role, Ironhorse slipped fully into the “cop” persona, which is presumably why the parts between him and Harrison all felt so much like Hypothetical ’80s Buddy Cop Show Flagstone and Roberts. The key difference, I think, is in how the us/them distinction is drawn. To a soldier, at least, one in a modern, nominally free society, civilians are “us”, and the enemy are “them”. The “enemy” is out-there: a soldier leaves his home to go “over there” and fight the enemy. And for all the honor and the glory, a soldier is fundamentally a servant to the civilian population, the folks back home, who it’s his sworn duty to protect (I should probably acknowledge that this is an exceedingly American understanding of soldiering, which you can only really develop if you’re a country with moderate geographic isolation that hasn’t fought a war on its own soil in a very long time). A cop, on the other hand, doesn’t have the benefit of the same hard distinction: the people he’s sworn to “protect and serve” and the people he’s supposed to be removing from society are the same group of people — sometimes they’re the same individuals. In conventional warfare, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” have the common courtesy to wear different colors, and the people who aren’t wearing one of the designated colors is a designated civilian, and you’re not supposed to shoot them (This is, of course, far truer of wars that had been fought up to 1988 than wars that have been fought since). But the nature of a cop’s job actively encourages them to view the world not as having a hard delineation between “enemy” and “non-combatant”, but rather to view the world in the muddier terms of “enemy” and “potential enemy”, and anyone who isn’t wearing a badge is to be treated with suspicion. Consequentially, Ironhorse-the-soldier is serious, and stern, but he can also be affable. He knows that Norton and Suzanne and Harrison are on his side, and that his duty is to protect humanity. For Ironhorse-the-cop, duty is to get the bad guys, and these three scientists he’s been saddled with are at best a distraction, and anyone he meets might turn out to be “the enemy” at any minute. Over the course of the series, we will, I hope, see patterns emerge in what brings out each side of Ironhorse. The tension between the two Ironhorses is a natural fit for a setup where “the enemy” is an invading army which can hide in plain sight as literally anyone you might run into. But on a larger scale, it’s also a natural fit for the viewing audience in a time where it’s starting to become clear that it’s no longer possible to fight a “traditional” war with two well-defined sides consisting of uniformed state actors facing off on well-defined battlefields. In 1988. And here I am, in 2015, writing this while the city where I lived for thirteen years is literally burning in riots while the police are determined to “restore order” almost more in the manner of an occupying army putting down an insurrection. Sylvia has sensed that the aliens have returned, and it causes her both physical and emotional distress. She locates the aliens somewhere in Montana, but when she starts screaming for Harry (There are only two people in the entire series who call Harrison “Harry”. Make of that what you will) to “kill them all,” the nurses insist on sedating her and make Harrison leave.
The nurses bring up an interesting point. It’s clear that they understand that Sylvia’s condition is something more than just delusions, as one of them mentions her prediction of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. But they’re unphased by her talk of aliens. There’s a long history in film and television of characters with special abilities being presumed insane, with their caregivers blithely, even forcefully dismissing their “delusions” even in the face of evidence. But this is a little different. Are we to believe that they accept her ability to predict natural disasters, but assume the alien business is pure fantasy? I mean, okay. I could buy that. It’d be a lot more sophisticated than you’d expect without further elaboration, but I could just about imagine a reasonable doctor concluding that some abnormality in her brain made her sensitive, but that the aliens were something she hallucinated to explain the unusual sensory input. But since this is War of the Worlds, we might instead conclude that, yeah, the nurses know about aliens, and just don’t care.
Based on Sylvia’s claims, Norton identifies the alien transmission from Wolf Point. Ironhorse notes that Wolf Point is on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation: “Great. First the white man, now aliens.”
Sadly, they don’t do anything with the Native American angle this week. Their stopover in Wolf Point is a brief one, just long enough to meet with the Sheriff, who can’t understand what “terrorists” would want with their town (Psst. Haven’t you noticed that you seem to have a giant radio telescope for no reason?). As luck would have it, though, he does have a VHS tape of the previous night’s football game, showing a distinctive triangular interference pattern at the same time as the transmission.
While Norton and Ironhorse try to interpret the tape from a portable set-up in their Awesome Van, Suzanne and Harrison pay Sylvia another visit. She’s feeling better, though still decidedly odd, and has picked up a penchant for speaking in rhyming couplets and bursting into cackling laughter at inappropriate moments. Suzanne is given the idiot ball for a minute and dismisses Sylvia as hopelessly befuddled and mad. It’s an ugly thing for her to say, and a real mar on her character for this episode. She only does it to give Sylvia a set-up to explain that, yes, of course she’s mad, what with the whole world being “topsy-turvey”, which segues into her identifying the interference patterns on the tape as being indicative of the workings of the alien eye. Looking at it through a three-faceted glass pendant which she describes with the really wonderful phrase, “This doohickey from old Saint Nicky,” she’s able to tell that the embedded message is a satellite image of the Earth. That information is somehow enough for Norton to decipher the message prompting our heroes to set off for Canada.
While that’s going on, the aliens, having switched bodies with some inmates, make their escape during a hockey game. I mentioned before that there were four aliens, which seems strange, because they normally travel in packs of three. There’s no in-story justification, but the reason from a writing perspective is that they need one to sacrifice at this point in the narrative: the alien rips an arm off of one of the human players (I say “rips”, but it’s more like “gently holds on to it as the guy skates away and it just sorta falls off,” but there’s a weird choppy slow-mo effect as it happens so it’s hard to tell what’s going on) and the others escape while everyone is distracted by the big rampaging goalie who melts when shot. As they need to change bodies again in a hurry, they flee to a nearby gas station.
It’s here that we meet Little Bobby. “Little Bobby” is an early role for Canadian actor, producer, voice actor, rapper, podcaster, pro-wrestling manager and commentator, and former Kraft Dinner spokesbaby Stuart Stone. We’re introduced to him playing with a set of Star Trek the Next Generation action figures in the back of his parents’ station wagon on a road trip to Canada, along with his elderly grandmother. Mom, dad, and grandma are all predictably snatched by the aliens while Little Bobby is in the rest room, and for absolutely no reason that could be justified within the confines of the plot, the aliens, now wearing dark sunglasses, opt neither to kill him nor abandon him, instead deciding to, like, adopt him. Mom Alien even orders the others to “Speak as the body would speak, for the sake of the child.” (Does she say it in her normal human voice, or in her creepy liquid Goa’uld voice? I’ll let you guess) They hint at the possibility of possessing him when he’s older, but otherwise seem to be kind of awkwardly parental to him, admonishing him to eat his salad and praising him when he works out that it’s an appropriate time to say, “To life immortal.”
Little Bobby reminds me a bit of that Not-Wil-Wheaton kid from The Stuff, as they have a passing physical resemblance and their backstories are vaguely similar. I’ve referenced Little Bobby before. At some point in the development of this show, they had the idea of making him a recurring character. Not even making this up. At some point in development, they thought it would be a good idea to occasionally check in with Little Bobby as the reanimated, zombie-controlled corpses of his parents and grandmother tooled around the US and Canada in their station wagon, always looking for a way to alert the authorities, and always being laughed off because he is a child and oh, isn’t it hilarious when the police refuse to take a child seriously when he insists that his parents are hurting him? (In this episode, it plays out with him holding up signs from the back of the car begging for help from a passing carload of nuns, who chuckle to themselves and mime at him to indicate that he should take it up with their Boss). They even talked about doing the ’80s equivalent of a viral marketing campaign based around the theme of “Save Little Bobby”.
Wiser voices prevailed, and Little Bobby is never seen or heard from again after this episode, which is chilling in its own way. Presumably, the aliens kill him, or else he’s simply abandoned and dies of exposure. (There is a scene of Little Bobby encountering soldiers in the woods which is supposed to imply that he gets rescued, but as far as I can tell, all the soldiers get killed by the end) And here I was all set to thank God and say how great it was that they didn’t go with this ridiculous running gag. But the more I think about it, the abandonment of Little Bobby is really symptomatic of the large structural problem with the series as a whole. Namely, that this show keeps throwing out big ideas that strongly telegraph that they’re setting something up for the future, and then quietly dropping them as though they’d never happened. I can only think offhand of a single specific incident from one episode that gets picked up on in a later episode.
Do I think that the Little Bobby Subplot is a good subplot that would make a good running gag? No. Of course not. Being glib about child endangerment is the kind of joke hardly anyone could pull off, and almost everyone who could would know better than to risk it. But, if nothing else, they’d have been committing to something. And in committing to something, particularly something this utterly absurd, they’d have been making a firm stand about what kind of show this is. And that would give us some sense of direction rather than the sort of thematically aimless meandering they do where it’s never completely clear if they’re blundering into moments of black comedy and absurdism on purpose or not.
Besides, the weekly adventures of Little Bobby Whose Parents Are Alien-Possessed Reanimated Corpses would be some delicious low-hanging fruit for me to riff on for a few hundred words in every essay.