It is November 20, 1989. It is the last day you will be able to smoke on US domestic flights, as President Bush is about to sign the smoking ban into law. The Namibian Constitutional Assembly we mentioned last week starts work on writing a constitution for the newly independent country. Lebanese president René Moawad is assassinated in Beirut. Space Shuttle mission STS-33 launches on Wednesday night, the first night launch since the shuttle program resumed after the Challenger disaster. The heavens and the Earth literally aligned that day, with a conjunction of Venus, Mars, Uranus, Neptune, Saturn and the Moon, which probably looked pretty cool but has absolutely no greater significance.
Except for the fact that, again literally, within one week of breaking out, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia is more or less won. On Monday, the demonstrations in Prague had grown to half a million people. On Wednesday, the Federal Television threatens to go on strike unless allowed to air uncensored reports on the protests. Thursday, the Minister of Defense announces, despite the fact that the military has just told him they’re totally ready to do it, that he’s not going to have the military go in and break up the demonstrations. And on Friday, the entire government resigns. This isn’t quite the end of Communism in Czechoslovakia: it’ll be the middle of next week before they alter their constitution to allow non-communists to run the place. By the end of the year, dissident playwright Václav Havel will be President, a move widely considered one of the best outcomes of any revolution ever. In fact, the Velvet Revolution goes so fast and so smooth, despite the fact that there were at least five points where Communist hard-liners could have crushed it (Mostly by crushing the protesters. With tanks.), conspiracy theorists apparently claim the whole thing was staged as a cover for the ruling government to sneak out the back door while surreptitiously maintaining their power in secret. Czechoslovakia, always something of a marriage of convenience for many of its peoples, would eventually dissolve into the independent Czech Republic and Slovakia at the end of 1992 in what’s sometimes called the “Velvet Divorce”.
Future American Idol Candice Glover is born this week. Back to the Future Part 2 opens in theaters Wednesday. Next Friday will bring us National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The following weeks, we’ll see The War of the Roses, Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, Tango and Cash, Born on the Fourth of July, and, of course, literally the last of the ’80s Kids’ Action-Adventure Movies, The Wizard. The Wizard is remembered mostly now as it was perceived mostly then, as a shameless commercial tie-in with Nintendo that had no redeeming features and which drew its market entirely from the promise of seeing thirty seconds of pre-release footage from Super Mario Bros. 3, but this perception does the movie a terrible disservice, as, if you actually watch it, it’s a perfectly good ’80s Kids’ Action-Adventure Movie, in the vein of such classics as The Goonies, Explorers, Flight of the Navigator and Adventures in Babysitting (Not that it’s quite as good as any of those, but it’s certainly no more than a little worse. Maybe more on par with Big Shots or The Legend of Billy Jean). Besides, I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.
“Blame it on the Rain” takes the top position on the Billboard charts. New on the top 10 this week are Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville with “Don’t Know Much”, a song that usually dampens my eyes a bit, and Phil Collins with “Another Day in Paradise”. It will take the top spot for the last two weeks of the year and the first two weeks of 1990, right after a two-week stint by what is the most famous Billy Joel song if you were ten at the time, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which is at number 5 this week, teaching me everything I know about American History. This is Phil Collins’s second number one this year, the other being “Two Hearts” back in January. This has, on balance, been a good year and intensely ’80s year for music: “Every Rose Has its Thorn” in January, “The Living Years” in March, “Eternal Flame”, “The Look”, “She Drives me Crazy”, and “Like a Prayer” in April, “Listen to Your Heart” and “When I See You Smile” in November, and “Another Day in Paradise” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in December. There were, of course, also some real oddities, like Milli Vanilli hitting the top spot three times despite never actually singing anything, former Kids Incorporated star Martika making it to number one for two weeks in July with “Toy Soldiers”, or the week that Prince had a number one hit. Prince having a number one hit should be the least remarkable thing in the world, except that he did it with “Batdance”.
If I seem to be drifting forward in time a little bit with my history and pop-culture recap this week, it’s because after this week, Paramount is pretty much done airing new shows for the rest of the year. Friday the 13th goes out with “Femme Fatale”, in which a cursed 16mm film print can exchange a noir leading lady for a live one. Star Trek The Next Generation‘s final offering for the year is “The Vengeance Factor”, an episode I don’t recall being impressed with that much. Head over to Vaka Rangi to see why I’m wrong. I do recall being so surprised that Riker actually had to kill Yuta and couldn’t talk her down that I completely missed the fact that, due to the difficulty of the special effects shot with other things moving in the frame, Picard just sits completely motionless as Riker shoots someone dead in front of him. Also on TV this week, a new Columbo on Saturday, and MacGyver airs “The Ten Percent Solution”, which is about honest-to-goodness Nazis, and ends on an honest-to-goodness “We are everywhere” ending, with Mac and his friends discovering a Nazi conspiracy infiltrating all levels of American society in secret.
If I was hoping to work toward a thesis that Debi’s evolution as a character is the emotional center of this series, I could not have asked for a better follow-up to “Loving the Alien” than “Night Moves” (Also, coincidentally, if I was hoping to work toward a thesis of the show liking to use song titles for its episodes). Though I’ll warn you up front, as with many things in this series, there’s not going to be consistent follow-through on that (Also, again, the song titles thing).
“Night Moves” is the first properly Suzanne-centric episode we’ve had. And it’s a bit problematic. While it’s hardly a low-stakes episode, a lot of the plot is coded female in a cliche and deliberate way: a good bit of the episode’s thematic grounding is based around the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the alien plot is balanced with a very soap operatic character plot. Now, there are certainly elements of soap opera that adventure TV will benefit from importing over the next decade, but what we see here is only the most superficial borrowing, essentially character tension for its own sake, a kind of cheap sensationalism that’s made worse by the obvious truth that they’d never try something like this with any of the male characters. It’s also an episode that suffers from some pretty grating omissions, lots of things that seem to either set up or resolve story elements that just aren’t there. It’s easy enough to figure out what’s going on, but it often feels like the emotional justification or payoff for things just isn’t there.
Also, Dylan tells me that it isn’t scary, and that he’d have liked it better if it were. This is the first episode I’ve let Dylan watch, as I remembered it as having only fairly contained violence and no gore to speak of. There were a couple of things I hadn’t remembered were in this episode, and I wouldn’t have let him watch it if I’d remembered, but fortunately, he didn’t seem to notice. I’m pretty liberal with what I’ll let Dylan watch. I try to avoid anything I think will scare him too badly, though I can’t always judge what will scare him, and he claims to like scary things (Though to this day, there’s one episode of his favorite show, Transformers: Rescue Bots, that he won’t watch because he’s scared of Colonel Quarry). We restrict shows with fighting if we catch him imitating it, but he’s been pretty good about it, and I have a hard time finding a rational basis for declaring War of the Worlds more violent than Power Rangers.
The Morthren are once again in trouble this week, because their nutrient tanks have gotten contaminated, and there’s dissension in the ranks a-brewin’ with various non-speaking roles fighting in the background over the chance to suck the last few drops of precious protein-rich fluid from the ceiling phalluses. One Morthren’s been placed in a bag hanging from the ceiling for emergency medical treatment after he foolishly ate an unspecified “Earth food”, which has caused a serious allergic reaction, in the form of rapidly growing face-pustules which explode open with blue glow-stick juice rather than the usual green. On my first watching, I assumed this was a fatal reaction, but he’s still there later, so presumably the effects were messy but not life-threatening. Too bad they can’t eat, say, flowers.
Hunger has made Mana and Malzor even more passive-aggressive toward each other than usual. Mana’s working on a solution, but Morthren plants won’t grow in Earth soil, exposed to Earth air under Earth sunlight. The physical acting from Catherine Disher is really great in this scene. She very clearly conveys that she’s in physical discomfort. But because her body language isn’t meant to be entirely human, she doesn’t quite look like the thing that’s wrong with her is hunger. But it’s still clearly something like hunger in that it’s constant, nagging, and distracting, but not like the pain of an injury or illness. She’s short-tempered, maybe a little shaky, often hunched over rather than her normal stiff-backed pose, and, a very specific tic, she keeps touching her throat. She’ll eventually develop a workaround using heavily polluted soil and a prism, whereupon she’ll muse lovingly on the prospect of exterminating humanity, which I assume is just the hunger getting to her, because this is really the first time she’s shown a specific interest in genocide: she’s otherwise tended to view the mechanics of wiping out humanity as sort of beneath her. Also, the native food is poisonous and, as established earlier, the air is so toxic to them that minor cuts lead to life-threatening infections within minutes. This planet does not seem like a good choice for them to invade.
We hop on over to a farming commune somewhere outside the unspecified city where the show takes place. Farmer John Owen and his dog are out at night for some reason when they spot what they assume to be “city folk” gleaning from the fields. These fields are full of ordinary-looking corn, but the farmer makes an offhand comment about how the thieves aren’t liable to find much since the soil isn’t especially arable, what with the apocalypse.
Because this is television, the dog quite naturally has an inexplicable ability to sense the presence of evil and runs off. And here’s how you know that all that fruity peace and love bullshit from last week was a load: we hear the distinctive sound of Morthren weapons and the dog stops barking. If there is one thing ’80s television has taught me, it’s that anyone who kills a dog is utterly, irredeemably evil. John goes off to investigate and is struck by a Morthren weapon set to gurn.
Back in the city, Blackwood, Suzanne and Debi are part of a mob trying to buy fresh produce off of a street vendor. They trade a pair of boots and a knife for a sack of apples, but Debi gets mugged as they’re pushing through the crowd. And in keeping with our theme of Debi’s evolution from an ordinary thirteen-year-old to a stone cold killer, Debi responds by chasing the thief, knocking him down, and kicking the shit out of him while screaming, “I’ll kill you!” over and over until Blackwood and Suzanne pull her off of the guy.
Upon returning to their underground lair, Suzanne declares that she’s had enough of this shit and resolves to take Debi away to live with her mother. Blackwood points out that Suzanne hasn’t spoken to her mother in years, and that she “doesn’t know what the country is like anymore,” alluding to the vague apocalypse that’s going on. Kincaid volunteers the grizzled loner cliche that running away doesn’t solve anything. Suzanne calls her mother, Rebecca, on the video phone, and, over sappy Full House music, begs her to put them up for a while. There’s some obvious tension between them, with mom assuming Suzanne’s gotten herself into some kind of trouble by the very fact that she’s calling, and Suzanne essentially begging for forgiveness. They do try to get into what the beef is between the two of them later, but even after hearing them explain it, it’s still sort of vague and doesn’t really add up.
As soon as she gets off the phone, Rebecca steps out of the room to meet her husband, and you can take three guesses who it is. Yep. John, now a clone, is Suzanne’s stepfather. It’s easy enough for the audience to tell that something is off about him, as he’s a bit distant and strangely unconcerned about the disappearance of his beloved dog, but it’s not enough to alert his wife yet: she only really becomes bothered the next day when he reveals that he’s gone behind everyone’s back and leased some of their land to the “government” for experiments in soil restoration.
Clone John demonstrates the interesting way that clones are handled in this show. The cliche would for him to be weird and sort of zombie-like. Instead, like Clone Jo last time, the clone retains much of his original’s personality, just reoriented to serve the Morthren. He’s personable with the other members of the commune. He plays off his sudden willingness to rent out some of their land to a secret “Department of Agriculture” project as determination to save the failing farm. Later, when Ardix mentions the need to replace Rebecca with a clone, he even says that he’s “looking forward to it,” eager to bring his wife “in” on things. All the way back to “The Second Wave”, there’s been a theme of the clones thinking of themselves as legitimately equivalent to the originals, not an ersatz copy, but rather a “perfection” of the flawed original. In its way, it’s a bit like a religious conversion.
Suzanne is surprised the next day to be met at the gate by armed guards, but their handsome and charismatic leader is expecting her and waves her through after a little bit of flirting. Kincaid and Blackwood say their goodbyes and head back for the city. Well, Blackwood says goodbye; Kincaid just stands around with his hands in his pockets looking awkward.
Rebecca welcomes them, then she and Suzanne stand around awkwardly and make vague allusions to the unspecified falling out in their past, including an obvious sore spot when Rebecca mentions Debi’s father, Danny (Though she doesn’t say anything specific enough to guess at his fate, or how this plays into the tension between them). John, very surprisingly, is welcoming to Suzanne and acts as a peacemaker, even diffusing the situation when Rebecca freaks out upon discovering that Debi’s carrying a gun.
As a scientist (turns out Suzanne is a microbiologist, which I never woulda guessed in a million years), Suzanne is curious about the “government” experiment, and John introduces her to Paul Fox, who predictably turns out to be the handsome and charismatic flirty guy from the front gate. They flirt and discuss soil decontamination while Rebecca and John have an argument about trusting the government. I gather this commune must have been a bunch of aging hippies who dropped out of polite society years ago to stick it to The Man, but have since grown up and become grumpy in the face of harsh reality.
Back in the city, Kincaid and Blackwood celebrate their new living arrangements by going to a strip club and making me regret letting Dylan watch this with me. I mean, we’re obviously only talking about “Seven O’Clock on a Saturday on Broadcast Television In 1989”-levels of luridness, but still. In keeping with the gold standard of gender essentialist bullshit in ’80s television, without the civilizing influence of a woman, the two have regressed to somewhere between fratboys and cavemen, and eventually get in a fight over whether or not they miss the girls, and it almost comes to blows, but another patron gets annoyed at these two yoyos shouting right next to him when he’s just here to ogle the dancers and takes a swing at Blackwood, prompting our heroes to forget their argument and team up to ruin that poor stripper’s evening by trashing the place. Blackwood gets to be a particular badass, casually dropping someone with an elbow to the face without even looking.
Suzanne and her mother have it out with more vague arguing about the still vague tension between them. The most concrete thing we get is that Rebecca apparently “took up with” a string of different men over the years before settling down with John. This leads to a real-for-real proper Soap Opera style slap-fight, because, damn it, Suzanne, slut-shaming your own mother is not cool at all.
Suzanne runs off to Paul Fox, who comforts her with some platitudes about giving people the benefit of the doubt. While that’s going on, Ardix turns on the prism in the greenhouse to get the plants to grow by altering the spectrum of the sunlight… In the middle of the night. He warns the clones that the atmosphere will become toxic to humans as a result, and then kills a bird in case the audience doesn’t know what “toxic” means. And then he apparently teleports back to the Morthren base in the city because 30 seconds later he’s there (in different clothes) to watch Mana pour hydrogen peroxide over a potted plant she’s grown and then have an orgasm as she drinks the resulting foamy mixture. Ardix promises her that they’re preparing additional greenhouse sites while she feeds some of her plant juice to the bagged sick alien from the first scene. They inform Malzor of their success and let him take a swig of plant juice as well, in order that the audience can see Denis Forest’s O-face, since this episode has, as Dylan said, not been very scary so far.
Even without Ardix magically being on the farm one minute and the Morthren base the next (The entire rest of this episode seems like it takes place over the course of a single night, and he’ll be back again before the climax), this scene feels misplaced. Like, shouldn’t she have confirmed that her technique produced edible food before they built a big honkin’ greenhouse? I seriously kind of think that this episode was originally plotted out to start with all the scenes at the Morthren base, followed by the confrontation in the city, then all the scenes at the farm. But they went back and chopped up all the sequences so they could interleave them to make the pacing feel more modern. Like we saw with Captain Power, one of the things that they really like to do in War of the Worlds is cut back and forth frequently between the “hero” plot and the “villain” plot. The technique keeps the show moving and makes it feel fast-paced even when not much is happening. In Captain Power, it became grating because it left you with the feeling that both sides were simultaneously omniscient and incompetent, as it seemed like Lord Dread and Captain Power would invariably find out instantly about what their respective sworn enemies were doing, and frequently gave the impression that Lord Dread personally micromanaged every single thing that happened in his empire. In War of the Worlds, they’re better about having the two sides in the dark about each other, but the interleaving of scenes is made without any real respect for either the logic or the logistics of the plot. As a result, you end up with stuff like this, where Mana, ostensibly a consummate scientist, is halfway through implementing their farming program before she concludes her preliminary experiments. Or last week, where one half the cast goes through six times as much plot in the same span of time as the other.
Suzanne has a heart-to-heart with her mom where they talk around whatever the hell their issue is. The gist of it seems to be something to do with Rebecca’s second husband, who was, “A good man. I just didn’t realize what… Life had done to him.” They never actually say what was wrong with the guy, but it led to Rebecca sending Suzanne away somewhere, they never say where, because she was “desperate” and “thought it was for the best”. Maybe they’re trying to imply that Suzanne’s stepfather abused her? But having Rebecca defend him even now that he’s out of the picture seems like it should not be part of any reconciliation between her and Suzanne. This is what I meant about the episode being full of grating omissions. We get the basic notion that Suzanne and her mother don’t get along because Suzanne felt abandoned by her ever since her father left, but there’s stuff all wrapped up in there that doesn’t lead anywhere: Rebecca’s bitterness toward Suzanne is never explained or justified. There’s no explanation of what the second husband has to do with anything. There’s little justification for Suzanne’s earlier slut-shaming. And if Suzanne is indeed meant to be an abuse survivor, this whole, “Oh you should just forgive your mom because I’m sure she meant well,” thing is unforgivably callous. The whole plot assumes “Children should forgive their parents for being shitty because they are their parents and you just should because shut up,” is not only true (which it’s not), but that it’s sufficient in and of itself to explain the entire plot arc between Suzanne and Rebecca. It’s not important, the episode tells us, what their issue is. We shouldn’t care who’s right and who’s wrong.
Once they’ve made up, John shows up and ushers Rebecca off to bed. And kind of a weird detail, when she challenges him on how early he’s turning in, he gives her a little smile that seems like it’s trying to communicate that he’s, ahem, in the mood. Now, good for them if they’ve got a healthy sex life even at their age and all, but it’s really odd that an American TV show from the late ’80s would even hint at the possibility of an elderly couple having sex. And let’s not forget, he’s not actually her husband, but an Evil Alien Clone.
While they get up to whatever they get up to, Suzanne slips outside to stargaze and make out with Paul Fox. Who has not personally given any indication of this, but, the audience should have no doubt about this, is working for the bad guys. Rebecca wakes up in the night just in time to see John sneak off to a secret late-night meeting with the other members of the commune, and also Ardix, who, as previously mentioned, suggests that it’s time to “take care” of his wife. The next morning, everyone remains affable and friendly at breakfast until Suzanne and Rebecca are alone, whereupon Rebecca warns Suzanne to leave. She explains how John and her friends seem strangely distant and a bit off, and also how she overheard them planning to “take care” of her. Which is burying the lede if you ask me. If “and also my husband is plotting to have me offed” is part of your argument, you should almost always lead with that. Lynda Mason Green does some good acting with her eyes in this scene, where you can really see Suzanne triggering on certain specific things Rebecca says, like that John “is not the man he was”, or that her friends have “changed”. She immediately calls Blackwood on the video phone and asks him to check out the legitimacy of the project, though the connection drops before she can go into detail. Or ask Blackwood about the black eye he presumably got in the fight.
So Blackwood and Kincaid immediately go back to the strip club. Not even making that up. The best hacker Kincaid knows is Scoggs, played by Belinda Metz. She’d better be a good hacker, because she’s a shitty exotic dancer. She spares a few minutes between sets to reveal that the Department of Agriculture only has two research projects, one in Nevada and one in Maryland. And I guess neither of those places is the undisclosed state where this unnamed city is located. Scoggs, played by Belinda Metz (Like many War of the Worlds guest stars, she’ll also turn up a few times on Friday the 13th The Series, then later land a recurring role on Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, and later still, will play Irene on So Weird, a show I’ve mentioned before because I love it for being pretty much The X-Files crossed with The Partridge Family), will go on to be one of the few recurring characters in the series, appearing in a total of four episodes.
Despite the fact that Suzanne was clearly suspicious in the previous scene, she goes to Paul Fox, and between flirtations, tells him that her mother is suspicious that they’re up to no good and mean to do her harm, and asks if he can do anything to make her feel better, all of which makes absolutely zero sense if you’ve got any suspicion that this guy is up to no good. He agrees to talk with her, and even after Suzanne leaves, seems more chagrined than anything. Look: we already know that this “Department of Agriculture Research Project” is a front for the Morthren. It’s not like there is any real possibility here that he is who he says he is. Could it be maybe that they want us to believe maybe he’s an innocent dupe who doesn’t know what’s really going on? That would explain why we never see him interact with Ardix or the other Morthren. But we’ve also been told that he is the one in charge of the project. And you can’t be both an innocent dupe and the guy in charge. If he were just a guard, maybe we could believe that he’s a hired gun who thinks he’s working for something benign.
And then it’s night time. It’s not that I expected an episode called “Night Moves” to be set during the day, but the placement of these scenes is weird. It’s reasonable, I guess, that it takes the whole day for Blackwood to enlist Kincaid, Kincaid to enlist Scoggs, and Scoggs to do the actual work in investigating the agriculture project. But whether or not Suzanne thinks her mother’s fears are justified, it’s really odd that both Suzanne and Rebecca apparently just go about their regular business all day if Rebecca thinks her life is in immanent peril. Given that Rebecca literally told Suzanne she should leave at breakfast, you’d think there would be some tension when she was still there come dinnertime.
That night, Rebecca decides, with no particular prompting, that enough is enough and demands to see the greenhouse. Ardix trying to be charming goes exactly as well as it should for once (ie. “He’s real creepy and unconvincing”) and she pushes past him, goes inside, and starts choking. Ardix follows her in, shoves her over then leaves her to die. Suzanne, perhaps psychically, senses that her mother is in trouble and runs out to check. And suddenly the clones stop behaving like they’ve been behaving all episode and start behaving like traditional demihuman zombies, completely dropping the charade and ordering Suzanne and Debi’s deaths.
John retrieves Debi and brings her outside at gunpoint, but Suzanne sics the farm’s remaining evil-detecting dog on him. Debi has the presence of mind to retrieve the dropped gun and toss it to Suzanne before fleeing. I like that we can see the extent to which she’s learned to keep her head in a crisis. This isn’t the sort of character who gets herself taken hostage to force the hero to back down at a key moment. If you’re gonna be saddled with a kid during an alien invasion, she’s the kind you want. I can’t even really imagine Debi doing the cliche we saw in Goliath with the kid freezing at the key moment so that mom has to run back to save her and get vaporized.
Suzanne runs for the truck, but Paul Fox appears (apparently out of nowhere since she doesn’t see him until he’s right next to her), pointing a shotgun. What a shocking twist! The flirty guy she’d made out with who was ostensibly running the project we knew from the beginning was a front for an alien plan is a bad guy! Suzanne opens the truck door into his face, knocking him down. As he rolls over, we see a trickle of green blood glowing on his cheek.
Wait, what? He was Morthren? My surprise here isn’t even sarcasm. This twist makes no sense. They established last week that the Morthren have started hiring human mercenaries. We’ve never seen a Morthren who could convincingly pass for human before (Maybe Sol, but the best he could do was pass for a music industry rep, which doesn’t really count). We’ve never even seen a Morthren who’d want to. Why did he flirt with Suzanne? If he were a mercenary, you could justify the flirting by just having him be legitimately interested in her, or at least wanting to get his end away. But as a Morthren? I mean, we did technically see last time that it’s possible in principle for a Morthren to feel affection toward a human, but Ceeto was surely meant to be exceptional in this regard. And he flirts from the moment he meets her. His scenes are full of shots that linger on him after she leaves the frame where he looks after her with attraction or bemusement in a doomed attempt to make us think he’s on the level. Why would an alien do that? What end does it serve for him to romance Suzanne? Hell, why are they tolerating her presence at all? Why not just clone or kill Debi and Suzanne right from the start (And for that matter, why wasn’t Rebecca cloned with the others)? Instead, they put on a charade that is elaborate, yet paper-thin. Paul Fox is, for absolutely no reason, ordered to flirt with Suzanne (To keep her busy? Except that he really doesn’t), and is good at it. And even now that they’re in a full-on firefight, he doesn’t revert to acting like the other Morthren, instead coming off like a very angry human, almost more like the villain in the showdown of a stalker movie. It’s a really striking and bizarre contrast with, for example, Ardix, who neve
Suzanne runs down her stepfather and crashes the truck into the greenhouse, venting enough of the toxic gas to rescue her mother. Suzanne and Rebecca dispatch the other cloned members of the commune then take to the cornfield to find Debi, but age and being nearly suffocated has taken its toll on Rebecca, and Suzanne is forced to leave her behind with a shotgun. Blackwood and Kincaid have arrived by now and start taking out Morthren soldiers and hucking grenades at their greenhouses.
The way the scene is cut makes it hard to tell where everyone is in relation to each other, but presumably Paul Fox, Debi and Suzanne are all converging, as he gets out of the truck he’s been driving and aims a shotgun at… something (The whole scene is intercutting closeups. It really is a terrible way to film an action scene). I guess maybe he’s about to shoot Suzanne or Debi, and Rebecca decides to draw his fire? I don’t know. She fires her shotgun but doesn’t hit him. He fires his, and then we get an extreme close-up of Rebecca falling down dead. Suzanne does one of those “Big No” screams, which is enough to let Debi home in on her. Suzanne hides Debi in the corn, then walks out between the rows as Paul Fox slowly advances on her.
See, here’s where you’d fully expect him to easily disarm her, give some cocky speech about how everything would’ve been fine if she’d just minded her own business, then get hit in the head from behind by Debi. But instead and less wonderfully, he just sort of stands there, kind of very slowly raising his gun while Suzanne calls him a bastard and shoots him in the chest.
We return to the Morthren base for one of those cliche villain ending scenes where we find out that they’ve already got a whole bunch more farms and aren’t too miffed about losing one, and end on a tag where Blackwood comforts Suzanne back at the shelter, who wryly observes that there really isn’t any escaping the craphole in which they live.
This episode is an interesting evolution of the tone and style of the series so far. Not a departure, really, not after last week, but definitely a progression. We’ve kind of fully moved into soap opera territory, with a lot of forced character drama between Suzanne and her mother that feels artificial because isn’t really adequately supported by the narrative: Suzanne’s issues with her mother really ought to inform her relationship with her own daughter, but we’ve never heard of her before nor will we in the future. But it’s not just the artificial tension; the episode also texturally feels like a soap opera, albeit a grungy one. Practically every exchange between two characters is accompanied by sappy, emotionally manipulative music. There’s an abundance of two shot west scenes, with one character in the foreground and one in the background, both facing the camera as they talk to each other, with a rack focus between lines. If you don’t quite understand all that (possibly misused) technical jargon, try imagining a dramatic exchange in a soap opera. Yeah, that’s it. Most of the other episodes use a combination of over-over-two shots (Think Daily Show interview) and the very traditional, very ponderous Star Trek The Next Generation-style shot where you alternate between a medium two shot and a close-up on each character in turn. The composition used here, keeping both characters in the frame and close at the same time, puts more emphasis on the immediacy of the emotional responses, hence its association with the more melodramatic style of soap.
Paul Fox is another big part of it. Because he isn’t a War of the Worlds character. He’s a very straightforward Soap character: the charming stranger who seduces the heroine then suddenly and out of nowhere reveals himself to be a charming villain, possibly Raul, the long-lost evil twin brother who was presumed to have died in that fire all those years ago, but has been secretly living in Europe seducing and then murdering wealthy older women. That’s why he doesn’t act like a Morthren: he’s playing a standard archetype that isn’t from Science Fiction.
There’s even an attempt to rope in Blackwood and Kincaid, who are once again only minor players this week, having them get into an argument for no reason beyond “Character tension is drama!” I notice that, except for that one scene when they’re dropping Suzanne and Debi off, Kincaid this week is the cocksure ladies’ man rather than the mopey teen: most of the shots where he’s the main thing in the frame are him smirking appreciatively at exotic dancers. It’s not exactly an endearing character, but I do at least find flirty Kincaid less tedious than mopey Kincaid.
Only Debi is spared, really. It’s a shame she doesn’t get more screen-time given that it seems like she ought to slot into the plot really well this week. But they still manage to maintain consistency in her character arc. I’d even say that Debi is the only character who really has a consistent arc from episode to episode. I was just saying last time how we saw an evolution of the character over the episodes so far, with her starting out primarily as a peril monkey, there just to be held hostage. Last week we saw her point a gun at Kincaid, and now she’s kicking the crap out of a mugger. And while she does get briefly held hostage, it’s handled very differently. She breaks away while Paul is distracted by the dog, and rather than running to her mother, she stops to be helpful by tossing a gun to Suzanne before making a break for it to keep herself out of harm’s way.
It’s all very odd to see these soap opera elements in a science fiction action-adventure show in 1989. To my mind, it doesn’t really work because it’s not done with any deep understanding of how the parts work. So instead of complementing the story, it feels like things are happening just because it feels sort of tense and dramatic. And it’s not like that wasn’t a problem War of the Worlds had in spades to begin with: it’s often been a problem that the Morthren start out with a reasonable enough plan, but then make their logistical decisions based purely around ensuring that the right characters are in the right place at the right time for the plot to happen.
But I’ve often said that the past is chock full of bits of the future that don’t quite work because they don’t belong there. What would have happened if it were, say, seven years later? Could War of the Worlds have worked as a ’90s show that fuses action-adventure and character-driven drama, whose central character arc is about a teenage girl who’s forced to fight otherworldly horrors which occasionally act as metaphors for growing up, while perhaps falling for one of said otherworldly horrors because he’s not as evil as the others?
And if the problem with getting the parts of “Night Moves” to all make sense together is really down to this sort of thing just not belonging in the 1980s, what can we expect when we come back after Christmas?
“I used to be afraid of growing old, but now I trust in God and accept. I dare say we would not be wrong to look forward to whatever the nineties may bring. Meanwhile, I suggest our best course is to continue with the game.” — Christopher Hampton, Les Liaisons Dangereuses
- War of the Worlds: The Second Invasion is available on DVD from amazon.com