It 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. As 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. Malzor 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. What 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. And 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.
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. When 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. This 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 that’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.
Kincaid, of course, isn’t having any of it, and accuses Thomas of being up to something, having “sold out” in some unspecified way, or being used by someone with leverage against him. Thomas is exhausted and frightened, but he’s not about to look a zombie child in the mouth. No sooner has Kincaid stormed off to go seek either answers or Blackwood and Suzanne (who, remember, haven’t been back to the church since the water “miracle”), than Ardix offers to take Thomas to meet the “one true God”, and the reverend is sufficiently shaken up by recent events to not put up a fight when a pair of soldiers strongarm him out of the church. Ardix is, as always, just delightful to watch. It’s almost like those “Chicken Boo” segments from Animaniacs, where a chicken successfully passes himself off as human until, say, his hat falls off. Ardix is so transparently malevolent and so transparently inhuman, but no one he interacts with in the outside world ever seems to notice.
While this has been going on, Blackwood and Suzanne have been wandering around in tunnels under the city looking for evidence of alien interference. The scenes are sort of weird and contextless, being just a succession of dark tunnels that kind of remind me of modern-era TARDIS corridors. Suzanne starts to have a panic attack due to some claustrophobia that never came up before. Blackwood calms her down by giving her a hug and yelling at her. At least he doesn’t slap her, the way manly men in old fashioned TV shows typically deal with hysterical women. They proceed forward in the darkness, and trip an alien alarm.
This turns out to work in their favor. Ardix brings Thomas to the pumping station to clone him. Kincaid, who’d been tailing them, loses them once inside, but does see the soldiers summoned to protect the blocked water inlet. He slits the throat of one, pausing to look at the glowing blood on his knife-blade. So… Did he not know for sure they were aliens, and was just checking after the fact to see if he’d maybe just murdered an innocent public utilities worker?
He catches up with Blackwood and Suzanne at the big membrane over the inlet, where they dispatch the other soldier, taking advantage of the fact that Morthren can only aim for shit when facing highly trained special forces soldiers. Blackwood sets an explosive on the membrane and they manage, pretty trivially, to rescue Thomas and Stephen, though Stephen is comatose and Thomas is severely ill from the cloning process.
At the church, Debi starts to panic at Clone-Stephen’s creepy dead-eyed robotic behavior (They’ve made clones that could act normally before, so no idea why the Stephen clone acts so transparently suspicious) and backs way directly into Ardix and the cloned Thomas. The Thomas Clone gives an impassioned speech about obedience to the One True God, and a coming age of happiness and enlightenment that’s one part Billy Graham (Well, maybe more Franklin Graham) and one part Johnathan Edwards. In contrast to Father Tim last week, though, the thrust of his speech isn’t about smiting God’s enemies, but rather about giving one’s self up to total dependence on God. Bayda and the Stephen clone both stand to give their own testimony about Thomas’s healing powers.
Kincaid, Suzanne, Blackwood and the real Thomas fight their way through the quickly thickening crowd outside the church as the sky lights up above with lightning. Suzanne and Debi are reunited in the church in a scene that I’m sure is meant as an homage to the reunion between Clayton and Sylvia in the 1953 movie. The two Thomases are brought face-to-face, and proximity seems to affect both of them physically. The real Thomas denounces the clone as a fake, insisting that mankind is responsible for taking care of itself, that they should use their God-given intellect to think for themselves, build a better world, and reject easy answers. Clone-Thomas denounces his original as satanic trickery, insisting that people shouldn’t think for themselves, but instead rely on The Eternal to give them everything they want.
The congregation is torn, but the bulk of them are still waving their hands in the air and calling out to The Eternal. From their base, Malzor and Mana generate a projection of The Eternal so it can manifest in the church. This, I think, shows a certain misunderstanding of human psychology, as I imagine that the assembled faithful, having seen the miraculous summoning of water, miraculous healing of the sick, and miraculous raising of the dead, would still consider the revelation that the One True God is a giant floating brain with an eyeball to be a bridge too far.
Yahweh, though, decides that He’s had enough of this crap, and sends a lightning storm which interferes with the transmission. Despite Mana’s best efforts to boost the signal, the Eternal’s image in the church flickers and fades. As thunder cracks outside and the drought finally breaks with the first drops of rain, the real Reverend Thomas wins the theological argument with his clone by dying at him. Clone Stephen is also struck down, though there’s no indication why; possibly the interference from the storm disrupted the link between the clone and the original. If that’s the case, it seems needlessly cruel that Thomas had to die to take out his clone. As we saw last time with Father Tim, Stephen visibly strengthens when the clone dies. Everyone pretty much instantly stops caring about the fact that over the past day, they’ve just seen three miracles, a divine manifestation, and two clones in light of the fact that the drought has broken. In the mad rush to go play in the rain, no one notices Ardix use his weapon to vaporize the dead clones before making his escape.
So there you go. As a stand-alone episode, “Doomsday” is done a lot better than “No Direction Home”. The plot is balanced better between the three heroes. Even if the science is dodgy, Suzanne actually makes a specific contribution, and it’s a contribution based on her professional skills as a scientist, performing analysis on the cuttings from the church basement. We once again see the dynamic of Blackwood and Suzanne doing the “adventure” part of the plot, and Kincaid as a “lone wolf”. Adrian Paul continues to improve in his role. Though he doesn’t get to do one of his “undercover” personas this week, his interactions with Grace and Thomas manage to pack a lot of character into a tight space.
We still have the element of what basically seems like divine intervention at the climax, and more explicitly this time, as we actually have God sending down a literal thunderbolt, but this time it’s almost tangential to the resolution of the story, as it’s Thomas’s death, not the rain, that foils the Morthren plot. If, as seems likely, the storm is responsible for “shutting down” the Stephen clone, then the most we can give the guy upstairs is that he saved Stephen. There’s maybe something uncomfortable there, theologically, since you could read it as God intervening only to save Stephen, lest He be one-upped by the Eternal in the arena of children named Stephen raised from the dead today. The reading in which this is about one-upsmanship between God and The Eternal isn’t a flattering one (Though admittedly, it’s one that isn’t especially inconsistent with the old testament).
Just like “No Direction Home”, though, it’s clear that more attention was given to themes and theology than to the plot. Most notably, what about the bomb Blackwood planted on the inlet? We never see it go off and it’s never mentioned again. And that’s a contravention of a pretty fundamental law of drama. It’s a literal ticking time bomb — the reason Blackwood gives Kincaid why they just grab Thomas and Stephen and run, rather than hunting down the alien leaders at the pumping station. You could easily have the bomb going off cause, say, all the fire hydrants on the street to suddenly burst open (You’d want to back that up with a scene earlier of desperate people opening the hydrants in a desperate search for water) in place of the thunderstorm. Or, if you’re really determined to keep some divine intervention, show the Morthren disarming the bomb. Blackwood’s counting on the bomb to go off, releasing the water, to restore water service and persuade the congregants that they don’t need to rely on the clone’s promises. When it doesn’t, when the clone can still summon water on demand but the humans can’t, the crowd turns against them until they get a miracle of their own.
Now, of course, if your major exposure to Christian theology comes from the loudest voices in the modern American political stage, you might find the views expressed by the two Reverend Thomases to be a little backward: after all, the clone’s depiction of God as a sort of magic genie who will just grant you everything you ever wanted and mark you out as a chosen people, superior to the rabble if you just say the magic words that pledge yourself to His service is the theology you’d normally hear out of the hero in most of what’s marketed as Christian apocalypse fiction.
But the contemporary American theopolitical right isn’t the only kind of religion there is, even within modern American Christianity. War of the Worlds pretty overtly aligns itself against conservative, fundamentalist religions, identifying Reverend Thomas’s more humanistic theology marks him as a “true man of faith.”
There’s one more dimension to the theology of Mancuso’s War of the Worlds. If you remember, back when I talked about the 1953 film, I said this of the movie’s theology:
We know that when Clayton says, “We were all praying for a miracle,” it’s the Christian God they were praying to, but we only know it because we know a priori which God a person in a 1953 American film is praying to. It’s religious, but in a very vague sort of way: a religion that’s had all its challenging bits stripped off and amounts to little more than “There is a vaguely defined higher power who may at times bail your sorry ass out if you ask nicely,” that speaks to the core tenants of most of the popular western religions, but is vague enough to avoid offending ¾ of people.
Maybe it’s just coincidence. Probably it’s just coincidence. But the religion of Reverend Thomas Soter isn’t “a religion that’s had all its challenging bits stripped off”: it’s actually a very challenging religion, one that claims that we live in a world of our own making. One that leaves him frightened when he’s “blessed” with miraculous powers. There is a religion that includes, “A vaguely defined higher power who may at times bail your sorry ass out if you ask nicely,” but that’s the religion the clone is selling.
Point of fact, the clone and the Morthren talk far more about God than Reverend Thomas ever does — I’m not sure, but I only recall him actually saying the word once, admonishing the congregants to use the intellect “God gave you.” He does speak of Jesus, briefly, a far more specifically Christian reference than any we saw in the 1953 movie (The only bible quote in the movie is from the Old Testament), but he does so in the context of John 11, the chapter that includes the famous “shortest verse” in the bible, “Jesus Wept”. So even when he refers specifically to Jesus, it’s Jesus at his most human.
What does it mean? Maybe nothing, like I said. Or maybe it’s reflective of the prevailing cultural shifts since the ’50s, with “Hollywood” religion reflecting a more secular, humanistic culture. Or maybe this all ties in with the larger themes we’ve seen so far, the fundamental difference between Human and Morthren philosophy, that humans work together and value each other, while Morthren value submission to authority.
Or maybe this was just a passing thought, because they’re not going to tack this explicitly religious again. Time will tell.
- War of the Worlds: The Second Invasion is available on DVD from amazon.com