Monthly Archives: June 2015

A brief observation on gender

Note: Numbers exclude performers in adult media.

  • Number of people whose gender I have determined by observation of their genitals: 1
  • Number of people whose gender I have determined by their chromosomes: 0
  • Number of people whose gender I have determined by assuming their self-reporting (Or that of their representative) to be correct: All the rest of them

 

Roll to the Rescue: Transformers Rescue Bots Beam Box Customization

One of the myriad delights of parenthood is discovering the latest in children’s TV without the accompanying shame of being a thirty-six year old man who still watches Power Rangers.

One of Dylan’s favorites is Transformers: Rescue Bots. It’s a kid-friendly entry in the Transformers franchise. Set contemporaneously with the more mature Transformers Prime, it tells the story of Rescue Force Sigma-17, a team of four Autobots specialized for search-and-rescue operations. They’re revived and summoned to Earth after an unspecified long time in stasis. Optimus Prime, surprised to discover Rescue Bots aren’t extinct (There is a fantastic moment in the first episode where he has to struggle for words because he doesn’t want to be the one to tell them what happened to the other rescue teams), realizes that they’re not designed or trained for combat, and assigns them to assist the human search-and-rescue team on the island of Griffin Rock, where the town’s obsession with advanced technology will allow them to work undercover as experimental rescue vehicles.

This show is really fun. The visual style is clean and fun, the characters are well-developed, there’s a lot of action but very little actual fighting, and Levar Burton, Peter Cullen and Tim Curry lend their voice talents. Despite only having four regular transformer characters, they’ve managed to spin out a whole toy line by introducing alternate forms and variants — Dylan’s Transformer collection is starting to rival my own. And these are absolutely fantastic toys. They’re pretty show-accurate, have a simple one or two-step transformation, and feel nice and sturdy. You don’t worry you’re going to break them like you do with the main toy line (A fear I’ve had since my G1 Megatron shattered into about a million pieces thirty years ago), and they transform fast enough to be properly playable (By contrast, it takes about 6 weeks to transform a Movie-style Optimus Prime). Plus, there’s a weird disparity in the storyline of the merchandise and the show which makes me nostalgic for the weird-ass toy/show storyline disparities of my youth.

Transformers Rescue Bots Beam BoxOne of the more creative things in the toy line, and the reason we’re here today, is the Playskool Heroes Transformers Rescue Bots Beam Box. This is a low-end stand-alone game console based around a really cheap imitation of the Skylanders/Amiibo craze.

The Beam Box connects to a TV over a pair of RCA connectors — composite video and monaural audio. You insert one of six action figures (The four Rescue Bots, plus Optimus Prime and Bumblebee) in the box and press the big blue plunger on top. The doors on the beam box close and a spring-loaded mechanism flips the pedestal inside. When you release the button, the doors open to reveal a seeming-identical empty chamber. Sound effects from the TV and the box itself indicate that the selected robot’s been “beamed” into the game. The game consists of a six-level beat ’em up, plus four minigames. The game is voice acted, though only Optimus Prime’s voice is anything resembling show-accurate.

It’s all very cute and very simplistic, about on the level of a collection of simple Newgrounds games. It’s fun enough for an adult to enjoy a bit in a casual-game sort of way, and easy enough for a small child to have a chance.

But there’s a problem.

The console ships with the Optimus Prime action figure. Each of the other figures, sold separately, unlocks an extra character-specific minigame. Blades the Copter-Bot unlocks a game where the player must use the Scoop Claw attachment (1×03 “Hotshots”) to retrieve spilled cannisters from a river while dodging floating lobsters (1×04 “Flobsters on Parade”). Heatwave the Fire-Bot unlocks a shooting gallery-style firefighting game, Boulder the Construction-Bot’s game is, appropriately enough, a Boulder Dash-clone. Bumblebee gets a top-down side-scroller (Which as far as I can tell, may be the only top-down side-scroller ever made).

And then there’s Chase the Police-Bot. Chase’s game is basically Bumblebee’s turned 90°, making it something more conventional. Problem is, the game is broken. Specifically, they somehow seem to have neglected to implement horizontal movement. Which means that Chase dutifully walks down mainstreet of Griffin Rock until he reaches the first obstacle, at which point he gets stuck and that’s the end of the game. This is a really impressive level of incompetence, and lacking any means to patch the game, Playskool responded by slapping a sticker over the picture of Chase on the box and not releasing the action figure.

Which would be mildly disappointing and the end of the story, except that after a few minutes of playing Optimus Prime’s scenario on his new Beam Box, Dylan says to us, “I want to get all the Rescue Bots! But I want to get Chase first!”

And then, to add insult to injury, a few days later, Dylan reported to Leah one morning that he’d had a dream that she’s brought him a large box, and inside the box were the Rescue Bots for his Beam Box. And then — I swear I’m not making this up — he said, “Mommy, can you make my dream come true?”

So Leah found this video, explaining how you can shim some of the figures to fake it. The trick is that, unlike the fancier collectible-toy-based game systems, there’s no NFC chip in the Beam Box figures. Instead, pegs in the base of the figures depress pins in the box, which selects the character who appears in the game. Here’s the pin positions for each figure:

Rescue Bots Beam Box Pin Locations

Gray positions indicate absent pins.

As you can see, Optimus Prime’s pin positions are a proper subset of Chase’s (And Blades for that matter. Also, Heatwave can substitute for Boulder or Blades if you like). Which means that if you shove a folded up piece of paper in on the left of the rightmost pin, the Beam Box will register Optimus as Chase. Rescue Bots Beam Box Bumblebee Dylan was tremendously impressed by this, and spent some time pressing various combinations of pins with his fingers to trigger the Beam Box (You can’t play this way, but the box will light up and the ‘bot will introduce itself).

But that hardly counts as making a kid’s dream come true. But from the chart above, you can see that Bumblebee’s pins are also a proper subset for Chase, and unlike Prime, Bumblebee is sold separately.

Rescue Bots ChaseAs I said before, there’s lots of variants in the toy line. Dylan has a non-transforming Chase figure that’s very similar in style to the Battle Box figures. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s about 30% too big to fit in the Beam Box, the obvious solution would be to cut the base off a spare Bumblebee, shim it, and glue it onto Chase. For that matter, if we had a 3D printer, the obvious solution would be to scan Chase and print off a reduction.

Failing that, we can see that there’s a general sort of similarity between the body types of the two bots. Most importantly, Bumblebee’s jackhammer weapon is vaguely similar in shape to Chase’s claw, and they have the same style of arms.

So. One trip to Amazon for the four available action figures and a spare Bumblebee, and it’s time for Robot Surgery.

First things first, fill in the base with epoxy. This is the functional change that makes the whole thing work: everything else is cosmetic. After the epoxy cured, I shaved it down a bit in the back to make it fit easier into the box.

Beam Box Bumblebee base

Before and after

Rescue Bots Beam Box Bumblebee

Click to embiggen

Next, my trusty X-Acto knife removed the extraneous bits: reshape the head a little bit, modify the weapon, round out the shoulders, and remove the cable from his arm.

Foolishly, I neglected to take a picture of Bumblebee fully carved but unpainted. I handed off to Leah, who, using the figure above as a model, started the long and arduous task of repainting. Here he is with the base coat.

Rescue Bots Beam Box Custom Chase

The white marks on the base are from a reconsidered attempt to recolor it

The biggest physical difference between the two figures that couldn’t be resolved by carving was Chase’s police lights. These I had to build from scratch. Rescue Bots Custom Police LightI made a rough mold by pressing the large Chase’s lights into a block of styrofoam, then filled it with epoxy. Which was a mistake, because epoxy sticks to pretty much anything, including styrofoam. Once it was hard enough, I cut it free and shaved the surfaces with my X-Acto knife, and then trimmed around the edges to reduce the size.

By this time, Leah had mostly finished the detailing. I’m particularly impressed by how accurate the light blue for the weapon came out. We could have left it unpainted, but trimming it into a claw exposed the yellow plastic of the inside.

Rescue Bots Beam Box Chase

Hours of painting and letting paint dry, and it was time for me to epoxy the police lights to the back.

Rescue Bots Police Light

The next afternoon, Leah and I got to make Dylan’s dream come true. I’d have recorded a video of his little happy dance, but he was being resistant to the idea of putting clean pants on after a potty-related accident, and I don’t want to go to jail.

Rescue Bots Beam Box Bumblebee and Chase Comparison

Before, after, and reverse detail. Click to enlarge

Roll to the rescue.

Tales from /lost+found 13: End of Line

A number of fans were vocally angered when the events of this book, particularly in reference to the circumstances of the seventh Doctor’s regeneration, were contradicted by the 2003 episode “The Terrible Zodin”.

Doctor Who: The Dying Days alternate universe cover

Click to embiggen

 


  • The Dying Days by Lance Parkin has been out of print for years, but an ebook version is available from The Internet Archive

#LoveWins

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

576 U. S. ____ (2015)

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito all wrote dissenting opinions, which I find very strange because they all said basically the same thing, repeating the kind of douchey old argument that the decision should be settled by the legislature, because spirited debates about the rights of a minority are more valuable to society than actually granting rights to a minority. Roberts put it in a very respectable classically conservative, “This is the sort of thing the people should work out together rather than the nine of us deciding by fiat,” way. Scalia and Alito instead offered vague threats about the horrors that will ensue if the Supreme Court’s power goes unchecked.

Also, Thomas has a beef with the whole concept of substantive Due Process and at one point seems like he’s edging right up to saying “Slavery wasn’t so bad.” (“Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved,” he writes, disputing the notion that same-sex marriage bans are an affront to the dignity of same-sex couples)

I feel kind of bad for Roberts, who’s clearly trying to be a voice for moderation and slowing down and thinking things through and mostly just reminding us what we’re giving up (Albeit in a way that ignores both the track record for the majority deciding to grant rights to the minority just out of the goodness of their harts, and the fact that real harm is being done to real people while the American People struggle to make up their mind), saddled with the Three Stooges.

Thesis: A Multitude of Idols (War of the Worlds 1×04)

Richard Chavez as Paul Ironhorse in War of the Worlds“Don’t be scared. This won’t hurt you.”

It is October 24, 1988. Since last time, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were indicted on racketeering charges, Roxette released “Look Sharp” (aka “The one with almost all the Roxette songs you can remember, except maybe “Fading Like a Flower” and “Joyride”), and the World Series ended in game 5, Los Angeles beating Oakland 5-2. Kraft rejects Philip Morris’s hostile takeover bid, promising to borrow a bunch of money and fire a bunch of employees instead. Whether or not this will happen depends on how much Phillip Morris wants Kraft and how deep their pockets are (Spoiler alert: very).

In Supreme Court news, Sandra Day O’Connor is reportedly doing well after breast cancer surgery, and the Senate has just rejected Robert Bork’s nomination. The Bork nomination process, incidentally, led to the Video Privacy Protection Act, which guarantees a legal right privacy for your video rental history. Bork’s (rather banal) rental history was leaked to the press, which had no real effect on his nomination (Dude had illegally fired the Watergate Special Prosecutor in exchange for the promise of a SCOTUS nomination under Nixon. He wasn’t about to be undone by his love of the Marx Brothers), but did provide the media with some amusing irony, since one of the major criticisms of Bork was his rejection of a constitutional right to privacy (Then, as now, code for, “I will totally vote to uphold laws restricting abortion.” (What this has to do with privacy is not well understood by laymen and too long to go into here beyond saying that for everything except abortion, most everyone agrees that the state isn’t allowed to go looking into what medical procedures you’ve had done or why)). All that said, the more I learn about Bork’s judicial views — he was an influential anti-trust scholar, believed the second amendment was about state-sponsored militias rather than unrestricted private ownership, advocated a congressional “override” for SCOTUS and agreed with Brown v. Board of Education despite his criticism of the Warren court — the more I think I’d rather have two of him on the Supreme Court than one of Scalia. Which I know is damning with faint praise, but I’d totally have made that his motto, “Bork: He’s better than Scalia.”

Phil Collins’s groovy love still holds the top spot on the charts. Also, there are two different songs called “Don’t Be Cruel” on the top ten, one by Cheap Trick and one by Bobby Brown. Only one of them is a cover of the Elvis song. Kylie Minogue closes out the top ten with “The Loco-Motion”, which will eventually top out at #3. Without a Clue and Mystic Pizza are newly out in theaters.

On the far side of the pond, Doctor Who has just finished up Remembrance of the Daleks. At home, still no Star Trek, and Friday the 13th The Series is off this week. Due to the writer’s strike, a desperate ABC raided their vaults and turned up a fifteen-year-old stockpile of Mission: Impossible scripts and filmed them, the first episode premiering over the weekend. I have a handful of dim but fond memories of the 1988 Mission: Impossible, which, if I’m being honest, I think was probably better written than the original. Namely, in its plot twists, which, in the revived series, existed, rather than the original series’s narratively strange habit of having them explain their plan in the first scene, and then spend the rest of the episode pulling it off without a hitch. Things that stick out in my mind include the replacement of the original series’s iconic exploding reel-to-reel tape recorder with an exploding tiny-little-optical-disc-player (The player was tiny, and the disc was tiny. Like a little tiny CD the size of a half-dollar), an episode where they use a pocket-sized large-format printer to print a fake wall to hide behind, and my utterly mistaken notion that Phil Morris and Michael Dorn were the same guy, based on the fact that they had kinda similar voices and I hadn’t yet seen Michael Dorn out of makeup. The Wonderful World of Disney shows The Goonies, which even today is one of the best kids’ adventure films ever (I am really struck, now, though, by the pacing. You’re 2/3 of the way in before any of the cool pirate cave stuff you remember from your childhood happens). MacGyver‘s a repeat, ALF shows a new two-parter in its entirety. Tomorrow, NBC’s showing a Geraldo Rivera special on Satanism, which says pretty much what you’d expect: satanists are taking over America, sacrificing babies by the thousands, and it’s all the fault of Ozzy Osbourne. Rivera uncritically treated various Satanic Panic (What’s your mechanic?) experts (most of whom were later exposed as frauds) as primary sources, repeatedly warned audiences that the documentary was not suitable for children, and suggested cigarette-style warning labels for music with satanic content. CBS shows a rerun of the Garfield Halloween special (the one where, for all the world, it sounds like at one point Garfield shouts “Fuck it!” G’head, listen).

But we’re here to talk about War of the Worlds. And it’s kind of one step forward, two steps back from last week. It feels a lot closer to “The Resurrection” and “The Walls of Jericho” than “Thy Kingdom Come”: they’re back to trying too hard on the humor, everyone’s performance is weirdly stilted, and the plot is merely ridiculous, rather than surreal. They do revisit some of the character points from the first episode that haven’t come up recently… but, y’know, it’s a lot of the “Everyone is quirky and unlikable” stuff I complained about before. All the same, they do seem to be settling down on a format and the technical aspects of showmaking, and the pacing is pretty good.

Like the two previous episodes, the alien plot this week is still based around the aliens shoring up their resources and digging in before they start actively trying to take out mankind. Michelle Scarabelli in War of the WorldsThis week’s plan is sort of loosely modeled off of cold war “sleeper cell” paranoia, probably something that was put in the writers’ heads by the film Little Nikita from earlier this year. The aliens repopulate an abandoned town with their own, in order to train aliens to infiltrate human communities.

As per usual, we’re also going to feature a guest star who’s a pretty good actor you hope will become a recurring character, and won’t. This time, it’s Michelle Scarabelli as Elyse Conway, TV news reporter. Sci-Fi Universe once named Michelle Scarabelli among its “25 Most Intriguing Women in Science Fiction”. After getting her start as an uncredited extra in the 1980 slasher film Prom Night, she has a regular gig for one season of Airwolf, and a recurring role on Dallas. She also played Data’s girlfriend in an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, which gives me an excuse to link to Vaka Rangi for the first time in weeks, and you should go read it right now because it is very apropos of where this essay is going in about three paragraphs. To most geeky people, she’s best known for playing Susan Francisco on Alien Nation. But I didn’t watch Alien Nation, so the main thing I remember her from is three of the five games in The Journeyman Project trilogy (They remade the first game twice. She’s in the second remake and the two sequels) as Michelle Viscard, the primary antagonist of the second game and an ally in the third (I have no idea what her role is in Pegasus Prime, as it only runs on MacOS 8 and the Japanese Playstation. But it looks really cool). Fiction, of course, has a long history of journalists sucking. Cameron Williams, Rory Gillmore, Sarah Jane Smith, Ford Prefect, Sabrina Spellman, Rita Skeeter, Spider Jerusalem. Either they’re terrible human beings, or they’re terrible journalists, or both. Your only choice for a fictional journalist (teen journalists excluded. They can be pretty okay) is for them to either be more interested in covering up the truth than reporting it for bullshit reasons like “The world is not ready to know about aliens,” or else they’re self-serving opportunists who endanger sources, ruin police investigations or cause a public panic by reporting about aliens when the world isn’t ready to know about them because they don’t actually care about journalistic responsibility, they just want the fame and credit.

Conway is crouched with her cameraman outside a loading dock filming a special report on “Hot Stuff”, radioactive waste being shipped by commercial trucks to secure storage facilities. If she can sell the idea that this is very scary and dangerous, it might just land her a network gig. So she’ll be the second kind then, for all the difference it makes (Not much, really. Her plot thread doesn’t go anywhere). War of the WorldsHer investigation leads her to a truck stop, where she’s incredibly unsubtle about interviewing a couple of truck drivers, but still manages to witness (and more importantly, film) what is either an alien making sweet love to a truck driver, or possibly an alien possession.

Intercut with all of this, we learn that the aliens plan to take advantage of the cavalier attitude humanity has toward radioactive waste (SHAME ON YOU, DEAR AUDIENCE) to steal some so they can set up a radioactive town for alien orientation. A possessed Department of Transportation employee engages in some light banter with her coworker, trying to get him to release the radioactive waste shipping schedules a day early. If this were a video review, I’d probably do a bit here where I pretend to not recognize the series of voice impressions the coworker does. War of the WorldsInstead, I’ll just say that his Blaxploitation Hero Voice is way more racist than they intended it to be, but his Cary Grant wasn’t really so bad that he deserved to get his eyes punched out by an alien for it.

Back at the cottage, the writers have decided that the character trait from the pilot that they should really revisit for Suzanne is that she’s shrewish and uptight, because women, amirite? She goes full-on Mama Bear Berenstain and bitches Harrison out for his lackadaisical approach to his work — he’s promised her some unspecified analysis results and she’s tired of waiting. The punch-line of course will be that he’s just waiting for them to print, and lets her have her little rant to chasten her for not just asking politely. She also has a go at Norton for keeping her up all night with his “pacing”.

If this is all meant — and I think it is — to be familial bickering to indicate how close they’ve gotten to each other as a team, they missed the mark. Remember, last week, Suzanne was dismissive of a mentally ill woman, and now she’s yelling at a wheelchair user for “pacing”. Either they have way more faith in Lynda Mason Green’s likeability to salvage the character, or they are bound and determined to make us think Suzanne’s a total bitch. Her saving grace is that Norton (predictably given his character, and understandably given her attack) teams up with Harrison and the two of them very obviously revel in winding her up.

The good news is that they’re going to put this to bed in a little bit. A few scenes from now, this little confrontation will start to play out again. Harrison, while standing on his head, will imply Suzanne’s uptight (and should stand on her head to realign her internal organs), and Suzanne will take issue with Harrison’s leadership skills. It’s actually a very good (if stilted) scene for walking back the whole nasty “Suzanne’s an uptight bitch” business, because she just comes right out and directly explains why she’s upset. Suzanne: Your apparent indifference to my work makes me feel like I’m not sure why I’m here.
Harrison: Suzanne, you’re an integral part of what’s happening here, and the last thing I want is to make you unhappy. Now, you are used to being part of a research team, working together, everybody interfacing. I come from a different tradition. My model is the scientist who goes three weeks without sleeping to solve a certain problem. It’s a solitary process, I can’t do anything about it. Unfortunately, it does affect how I relate to your work, and for that I’m sorry.
Harrison will genuinely apologize for upsetting her, and he’ll offer an explanation without invalidating her feelings — that experimental sciences like hers rely on coordinated teamwork, while theoretical ones like his tend toward a more monastic approach, and both approaches are valid for their respective disciplines, and both are necessary, and he’s really very sorry that it makes things harder for her and he’ll try to do better. I’m hoping this is a turning point in their relationship. (Would it be better for Suzanne to be the one who knows this and not need it explained to her by a man? Probably. On the other hand, Harrison is the one who needs to justify himself here, not her.)

But that’s yet to come. Ironhorse interrupts the gang before violence breaks out and summons them down to the lab to watch a video of the aforementioned eyeless shitty voice actor. Harrison instantly identifies it as the work of aliens, “Based on experience. And my gut.”  Ironhorse (all together now) is skeptical. I think. He gets a faraway look like he’s Phoebe Cates about to tell the story of how her dad got stuck in the chimney on Christmas Eve and rambles about Vietnam and not knowing who you can trust and who’s the enemy. I can’t for the life of me tell if he’s trying to suggest that the missing DOT employee might just be a human who went postal or if he’s talking about Harrison, warning about the danger of seeing enemies even where they weren’t any. That second one is a more interesting interpretation, suggesting that Harrison’s zeal might lead him to make false accusations, except for the fact that the audience already knows Harrison is right. And, in fact, Harrison is pretty much always going to be right. There’s exactly one case in this show of someone being falsely assumed an alien, and it’s not Harrison who does it. Now that I think of it, this series would be a lot stronger if there were an episode where the team investigates something horrific that turns out to have an entirely human explanation — War of the Worlds doing a take on Torchwood‘s “Countrycide” (or that episode of Supernatural Leah was watching last night that is basically the same plot as Torchwood‘s “Countrycide”).

Norton has programmed the supercomputer to search all forms of media for certain key words, a concept which is so fractally “A supercomputer is basically a crystal ball” wrong that being gobsmacked by it nearly kept me from noticing the punch-line. It wakes them up in the night because it’s intercepted Elyse Conway’s transmission of the trucker possession back to the studio, and she’s used one of its trigger words: “bizarre”.War of the Worlds Supercomputer

War of the Worlds

See if you can detect the utterly seamless transition from the actual image on the monitor to one added in post

“Bizarre”.  “Bizarre” is one of the trigger words that Norton’s supercomputer alerts on. Every time anyone in the country says the word “bizarre” in any broadcast, print or electronic medium (And I’ll be nice and ignore how utterly ridiculous it is to suppose that a supercomputer in 1989 could actually do this), Norton is alerted in the middle of the night. Ironhorse is (all together now) skeptical, but at a word from Harrison, Norton enhances the image to clearly show the shadow of an alien hand. I’ll note here that it’s October, 1988, eight weeks to the day before MacGyver airs “Collision Course”, often credited (Erroneously; Columbo did it back in ’75) as the first appearance of the modern form of the Magic CSI-style Video Enhance Button in TV, though Norton spares us any technobabble about creating a bitmap or increasing the Z-axis (In a strange and merciful choice, there is hardly ever any technobabble about Norton and his computer. Indeed, it’s rare for anyone but Suzanne to go into technical exposition).

After a brainstorming session about how to get a copy of the video without making the reporter suspicious, Harrison comes up with the brilliant plan to show up outside the house of a pair of elderly yokels who Elyse is interviewing about their lottery win (because War of the Worlds can’t go more than an episode and a half without a pointless scene with some yokels. They plan to buy thousands of cats with their winnings) with Ironhorse pretending to be from a DOD documentary project looking to hire her, and does she happen to have any samples of hard-hitting investigative reporting ready to hand? This plan goes exactly as well as you’d expect, and the Awesome Van has barely pulled away before she’s making plans with her cameraman to get the station’s news chopper out looking for the trucks in her video.

Continue reading

Antithesis: Doomsday (War of the Worlds 2×03)

Julian Richings and Patricia Philips in War of the WorldsIt is some time between Saturday, October 14 and Monday, October 16, 1989. On Friday, the junk bond market collapsed, causing the Dow to drop 190 points. Walter Sisulu is freed from prison in South Africa. East German leader Erich Honecker’s health declines due to a debilitating gallstone, and he’ll resign by Wednesday. One of the hardliners in the Eastern Bloc that opposed the perestroika reforms being pushed by the Soviet Union, his resignation would remove one of the last major impediments to the collapse of the GDR.

Friday, the Oakland Athletics beat the San Francisco Giants 5-0 in the first game of the Battle of the Bay, the first cross-town series since the Dogers left New York back in the fifties. Saturday, they win again, 5-1. Game three, scheduled for Tuesday, will be postponed due to the magnitude 6.9 Lomo Prieta earthquake. The first large earthquake from that part of the San Andreas fault in the better part of a century, it re-popularized the mass-media idea of California falling into the ocean. It would be remembered in pop culture by a Very Special Episode of Full House later that year, then in the years to come by two TV movies (After the Shock and Miracle on Interstate 880), and would go on to be referenced into the 21st century, in the 2004 video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a 2005 episode of Medium, a 2007 episode of Journeyman and a 2008 episode of Fringe.

Not much change in the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Miss Jackson and Madonna retain their positions. The newcomers to the top 10 are Tears for Fears with “Sowing the Seeds of Love”, better known as “The Tears for Fears song that is neither ‘Shout’ nor ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’,” and Roxette with “Listen To Your Heart”.

Mixed in among the new episodes airing on all the channels over the weekend is a new episode of Baywatch on NBC, and two TV movies. The first is An Eight is Enough Wedding, the second reunion movie for the late ’70s Dick van Patten series. The second is Roxanne, the Prize Pulitzer, a biopic about a wealthy socialite whose divorce some years earlier had made headlines due to tales of sex and drugs so lurid and kinky she’d gotten on the cover of Playboy back before mom made dad cancel his subscription.

For nerds who are not interested in “The Sports”, Star Trek the Next Generation airs, “Who Watches the Watchers”, which I think is a popular episode. It’s the one where Picard saves a guy from a primitive culture and accidentally gets himself proclaimed a god. It’s also a Prime Directive episode, which kind of means it sucks by default, and its view of cultural anthropology is complete bullshit, as you can learn by reading, as usual, Vaka Rangi. But it does happen to be set right next to that mountain where Kirk fought the Gorn, Bill and Ted fought their evil robot duplicates, and the Power Rangers first met the Putty Patrol, so that might ignite your fanboy-squee enough to ignore the bullshit.

Friday the 13th The Series this week is “Stick it in your Ear”. Murder-powered mind-reading hearing aid. I’m a just let that sit there for a bit. I promise, the show is indeed quite scary if you watch it, no matter how much the capsule summaries sound like they were transcribed from balled-up cocktail napkins in Stephen King’s wastepaper basket. If that’s too weird for you, you could try flying over to England to catch the last episode of the Doctor Who serial Ghost Light, which will be airing on Wednesday.

At some other point in the weekend, War of the Worlds airs its third episode, “Doomsday”, in which the Morthren attempt to dominate humanity using religion, by turning a charismatic preacher to their cause. Wait, hold on. I must have turned to the wrong page. Aw crap.

Remember “No Direction Home”? Well the writers didn’t. Actually, that’s being too hard on them. “Doomsday” and “No Direction Home” have fairly different plots. They just happen to both be built around the setup of the Morthren cloning a man of the cloth in order to take advantage of his flock. What it feels like is that Frank Mancuso got his writers together in a room, and handed out a brief to do a story about the aliens trying to infiltrate a church, and didn’t notice until too late that he’d accidentally assigned it to two different writers. Or perhaps “No Direction Home” originally had a B-plot that was cut for time and got expanded into its own episode.

I have a strong gut-level negative reaction to them just doing the same setup twice in a row, but in spite of that, it’s hard for me to be too upset about it, because “Doomsday” kinda feels like the answer to a lot of the complaints I had about “No Direction Home”: we actually see the aliens doing specific things to advance their plans with a specific goal in mind. Our heroes save the day in very mundane and straightforward ways, none of this, “Grab on to this alien testicle thing and think happy thoughts” stuff.

And besides, there’s more going on than just the church stuff. There’s a sort of framing plot to this episode. The unnamed city where the Blackwood gang and the aliens are living (Lucky break the Morthren didn’t just land in Kansas where there’s no one around to fight them) is caught in the grip of a drought and heat wave. War of the Worlds The SeriesAs the first scene reveals, the city’s reservoirs are drained, and something is preventing them from accessing the emergency supply. In case we’ve forgotten that this is a dystopia with a useless and corrupt government, the first scene reveals the state of affairs to us via a local official who takes off his suitcoat and hides his parcel-gilt water glass in a show of faux populism before giving an interview about how they’ll have the situation resolved in no time.

At their base, the aliens mock humans for their foolish decision to base their biology on water instead of something whose supply can’t be endangered, like K-Y Jelly, but it’s proving inconvenient for them as well, as Mana’s experimental subjects and the originals for their current batch of clones are in serious danger of expiring. Denis Forest as Malzor in War of the WorldsMalzor authorizes Ardix to have them all moved to the pumping station they’ve taken over, where the humidity and temperature will remain livable and they will be convenient later when the plot requires Blackwood and Kincaid to find them.

Mana’s been reading the bible, and there’s no indication that this is directly following on from last week — it’s not the same physical bible, there’s no reference to Father Tim, and Malzor has apparently not heard of this before. Unlike Ardix’s description of the bible last time as “A mad confusion of myth and contradiction,” Mana reads it as a “Blueprint for human control.”

Malzor is already working an angle based on exploiting the drought. It might be implied that they’re somehow causing the drought, but this is unclear. War of the Worlds the SeriesWhat is clear is that they’re behind the difficulty the city is having accessing their emergency water supply: they’ve grown themselves a veiny green amniotic sac across what I assume is a hallway-sized water main, with soldiers stationed to kill any city employees who threaten to pop it. Mana suggests that humans will “call out to their invisible God,” in the face of the hardship imposed by drought, and that if they were to “answer” that call, it would give them control over humanity.

When Debi collapses from heat and dehydration in the bunker, Kincaid takes to the streets to find water, despite Blackwood’s warnings that they’ve gone full-on Mad Max out there and are killing each other in the streets for water. Kincaid interrupts the hijacking of a truck full of water bottles, and in gratitude for resolving it peacefully, he’s given two gallons.

Before heading back to tend to the sick child at his place, he stops off to give the spare water jug to a local church run by Reverend Thomas and his wife Grace (Kurt and Diana Reis), who seems to be an old flame of Kincaid’s. The make some allusions to some difficult time in Kincaid’s past she helped him through, but don’t give the details.

Ardix has visited the church as well, and reports to Mana and Malzor that Reverend Thomas is, “a man of faith.” Malzor agrees that, by providing them with water in their time of desperation, his congregation can be brought under their control. Mana suggests that they should perform a miracle. I know I’ve complained before about this role being a terrible misuse of Catherine Disher. But I’ll give them this: when Malzor scoffs at the concept of miracles, Mana is forced to explain that she’s actually talking about faking a miracle. Catherine Disher as Mana in War ofthe WorldsAnd her expression as she does this conveys the usual Morthren smugness, but there’s just a hint in there of, “I can not believe this moron is my boss.”

Between the heat and an infestation of rats that makes Kincaid hilariously freak out, the Blackwood gang decides to relocate to Reverend Thomas’s church for a while. Resultantly, they’re on-hand to witness when, thanks to a green eyeball-shaped thing Ardix has in his lap, the church’s font suddenly fills up and overflows during a sermon.

Julian Richings in War of the Worlds the Series

I note that neither Ardix nor the heroes recognize each other. It’s not completely unbelievable, as everyone’s attention is elsewhere. But Ardix was there last episode during the business with the engram, and saw Blackwood and Suzanne’s images appear on the viewing membrane. There’s no point in this episode where the aliens mention Blackwood or there being any kind of organized resistance, and in most of these episodes, there’s no indication whatever that the aliens are actively aware of Blackwood and his team. In fact, one of the closest approaches this show is going to have to a plot arc will come near the end of the season and revolve around the Morthren discovering the identities of Blackwood, Kincaid and Suzanne.

Everyone in the church forms a bucket brigade to distribute water, except for Blackwood and Suzanne, who decide to sneak into the basement and check out the church’s plumbing. They find the pipes warm and empty, but a single sinuous tentacle of sorts grows up the wall toward the font. War of the Worlds The SeriesWhen Blackwood cuts off a bit for Suzanne to study, the vine leaks water. This scene, and one a bit later where she analyzes the cuttings, are the first time in the series we’ve been given an indication of what kind of scientist Suzanne is, and indeed what her role is on the team in general. Presumably, she’s a chemist, as she’s able to determine that the water from the tentacle contains chlorine and fluoride by looking at it under a microscope. Or possibly she’s an oracle, because my dad assures me that you can’t detect chlorine and fluoride that way. This is enough for Blackwood to figure out that half of the plot, and he concludes that the aliens have blocked off the city’s water supply.

As they set out to find the blockage, the Morthren are setting up their next few miracles, to which end they’ve kidnapped Reverend Thomas and Grace’s son Stephen for cloning. At the church, Reverend Thomas is increasingly uncomfortable with the following he’s quickly acquired. He gets even more worried when a woman begs him to use his miraculous powers to cure her from a severe disfigurement of her hand, probably from RA. Despite his protests that he’s just a dude with a font, and does not have healing powers, she’s cured. Morthren Gothic - American Gothic reimagined with Julian Richings and Patricia Phillips from War of the WorldsThis is, of course, because the pasty woman is Bayda, another minor Morthren, probably of similar rank to Ardix. Her role, with very few exceptions, is to do pretty much the same thing they’d have Ardix do when they need more than one thing done at the same time. She’s fine, though she lacks the distinctiveness of Julian Richings. The best thing I can say about her is that if you put her and Ardix next to each other, it kinda looks like an alien version of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”.

Ardix, in the audience stands up and declares it a miracle. One thing I really like about the way this episode is done is that Reverend Thomas doesn’t ever buy in to his own hype. He’s troubled by it; he doesn’t understand, nor does he ever try to initiate a “miracle” on his own. Which is cool, because in a show that makes such a concerted effort to be all proto-nineties grimdark, you’d expect Thomas to get all full of himself and abuse his powers in a self-aggrandizing way so that we’d feel good about him getting his comeuppance. Instead, he remains humble and unsure. Even as his faith tells him that the events he’s witnessing are possible, rather than taking as proof of favored status, he instead can’t quite process that he personally might be worthy. More than that, he’s scared of what he might be becoming. And yet, even this plays right into the hands of the Morthren.

While Reverend Thomas was healing the sick, Kincaid was out looking for the wayward Stephen, and he’s found him. Or rather, he’s found the clone. Or rather, he’s found the dead clone, since it turns out that clones have an off-switch. Grace is driven to despair, lashing out at God, Kincaid, Thomas, and anyone else who’ll listen, and there’s short, wordless scene where Debi tries to comfort Kincaid Adrian Paul and Rachel Blanchardthat’s very nice. Reverend Thomas performs a service for his dead son, and just as he gets to the bit from John 11 about the raising of Lazarus, Ardix and Bayda switch the clone back on.

War of the Worlds The Series

Continue reading

Thesis: Thy Kingdom Come (War of the Worlds 1×03)

[Content advisory: The following article contains several animated loops of gore which, though transparently fake, is probably icky enough to be upsetting to some]

Stu Stone in War of the Worlds“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).

War of the Worlds the SeriesThe 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. Ann Robinson as Sylvia Van BurenShe’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.”War of the Worlds The Series 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.Jared Martin in War of the Worlds 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. Jared MartinWhen 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. Ann Robinson as Sylvia Van BurenLooking 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) War of the Worlds the Seriesand 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. Stu Stone in War of the WorldsI’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.

Continue reading