On the twelfth day of Christmas, A Mind Occasionally Voyaging gave to me…
We must plan for the future.
A future without humans.
It is January 2, 1989. Happy new year. We have, of course, been to the beginning of 1989 before, so you know the broad strokes of it. Leonard Nemoy is enjoying his first full day of marriage to Susan Bay. Notre Dame beats West Virginia at the Fiesta Bowl, Miami beats Nebraska at the Orange Bowl, Florida State beats Auburn at the Sugar Bowl, and Michigan beats Southern California at the Rose Bowl. By week’s end, Comet Tempel 1 will reach perihelion (It would later be visited by NASA space probes Deep Impact and Stardust, the only comet we’ve visited twice. The former would carry a detachable baby space probe with which it would ram Tempel 1 as part of NASA’s “Let’s see what happens if you crash a space ship into a comet” program. Answer: SCIENCETM), a pair of French newsmen will test security at JFK by trying to plant fake bombs, Hirohito will die, and, in news that kinda prefigures the way this year is going for communism, Russian newspaper Izvestia will start running commercial advertisements.
The only new movie releases this week that I’m familiar with are American Ninja 3 and Communion, a Christopher Walken flop based on Whitley Strieber’s 1987 book about alien abduction. The networks start back up with new programming this week, though even the shows I’m familiar with aren’t doing episodes I remember particularly. Nothing has moved in the top ten since last week. Star Trek the Next Generation returns next week. Friday the 13th the Series gives us “13 O’Clock”, which is pretty much the Twilight Zone episode “A Kind of Stopwatch” but meaner. We once again run into one of our old friends, Gwynyth Walsh, who acquires a magic pocket watch that stops time for an hour at one in the morning. Only since this is Friday the 13th, it only does that as payment for murdering someone, and she gets it by murdering her husband, the previous owner. I think the major part of the plot is her trying to track down and murder a couple of orphans who witnessed the murder, and naturally, it ends with her frozen in time. I’m kinda fuzzy on the middle part, because I remember it mostly as being one of those episodes that did a much better job of selling how completely screwed the good guys were and how the villain was basically invincible and they had no chance whatever of stopping her, and a worse job of making it believable when they go ahead and win anyway. Also, the visual effects for both the stopped time and the watch itself (which magically manifests a “XIII” where the “I” should be when stopping time) were really impressive by the standards of the day, and got them an Emmy nomination. If I recall correctly, stopped time, like time travel in this show, was represented by a switch to black-and-white with a fuzzy ghost-trail motion blur effect.
War of the Worlds this week is about as close as a show like this can get to a Christmas episode. By which I mean it’s called “Epiphany”, which is also the fancy name for the religious observance that happens after the twelfth day of Christmas (That is, on January 6, because the “Christmas Season” begins with Christmas and ends on Twelfth Night, rather than the modern American tradition of it beginning on All Saint’s Day, climaxing the day after Thanksgiving, and finally ending on Boxing Day when the radio stations stop playing Christmas music and all the Christmas stuff is marked down 50%). It also happens to be today, which is why I extended my originally planned four weeks of padding for the mid-season break out so long, the same way I padded out Captain Power to make the finale fall on April Fool’s Day.
What does this episode have to do with the childhood of Jesus (Epiphany traditionally commemorates the events from Jesus’s birth through the wedding at Cana, with the western church’s celebration centering around the Adoration of the Magi, and the eastern church around the Baptism of Jesus)? Very little, as close as I can tell. The secular meaning of the term (The feeling of a sudden, profound realization) doesn’t seem to fit especially either. There’s a few minor points that, at a stretch, could be made to fit, and we’ll talk about them later.
So if not a straightforward epiphany, what are we in store for this episode? A mixed bag, as this show tends to be. First thing I’ll say is that the pacing is fantastic. After a few missteps early in the season, the pacing has generally been very good in War of the Worlds, but this one especially. This episode was filmed between “The Good Samaritan” and “Goliath is My Name”. It’s not quite as good as “Goliath”, but there’s absolutely signs of progress. Another “as always” is that the character roles are fantastic, with some particularly good moments from both the guest cast and the regulars. Also, they managed to land legendary actor and “enthusiastic” nudist Patrick Macnee.
On the other hand, though this show is really always about the Cold War, this is the first one to address it directly, and it’s a little over-the-top. This episode is pretty much all about the actual Cold War, and the role of the aliens in the plot is curiously bracketed: they basically stop being active participants by the midpoint. The story works just fine, but in all honesty, 99% of it would work just as well if they weren’t in it at all. The dialogue is curiously clunky — probably related to this being another script attributed to an obviously fake writer, this time “Sylvia Van Buren”. The overall gist of what’s going on is fine, but the actual specific words coming out of people’s mouths seem ill-chosen. Suzanne is woefully underused, having only really the one worthwhile scene and getting more than her share of the dialogue clunkers. Worst of all, this episode sees the return of Sex God Harrison.
The story opens up with three creepy, alien-possessed nuns taking a tour of some kind of crime-infested dystopian urban sprawl (That is, San Francisco), like we’ve suddenly turned into a show set in a post-apocalyptic societal collapse grimdark future or something. They watch two men come to blows over a parking spot, watch the world’s worst David Spade impersonator steal a purse, and watch some bullies rough a kid up for his lunch money (When he asks why they didn’t do anything to help, they remind him that, “God works in mysterious ways.”). All this street crime in a one-block radius proves the research the aliens need for the military commander to conclude that humanity is absolutely going to wipe itself out via “tribal” warfare in a couple of decades anyway.
Why they generalize from street crime to the Cold War is unclear, but they decide that it’ll only take a very little bit of prodding to persuade the major powers of the Earth to nuke each other out of existence. Curiously, no one points out that an added benefit of triggering a shooting war between the US and the Soviet Union is that the radiation will render the planet safer for Mor-Taxan immune systems.
At the cottage, everyone’s watching the Plot Convenience Channel coverage of upcoming nuclear disarmament talks which will be going on nearby the next day. Not unlike last week, there’s some good non-verbal communication when they cut around the room to show Suzanne, Harrison and Norton all looking happy and hopeful at the news, while Ironhorse grimaces and looks pensive. He snaps off the television in frustration, declaring that the plan to simultaneously dismantle an American and Soviet nuclear device is, “The beginning of the end,” because, “Nuclear warheads are the only guarantee of peace we have right now.” Harrison, clearly humoring him, politely asks for an explanation, and Ironhorse launches into a text book defense of mutually assured destruction, insisting that the superior Soviet numbers in conventional weapons make an invasion absolutely, unarguably inevitable absent the threat of nuclear retaliation.
Surprisingly, the writers decided to let Suzanne be the one to challenge him. They cut to her rolling her eyes during Ironhorse’s speech. Once he’s done, she points out that his entire philosophy is predicated on the idea that the “reds” actually want to launch a ground invasion of the United States. He calls her naive for even imagining otherwise, and she pretty much calls him an idiot. Ironhorse insists that the strong dominating the weak is a law of nature, and cites Darwin at her. Norton tries to break the tension by offering up the very obvious joke that, having discussed politics, perhaps they could move the conversation on to religion. This scene is actually really cool in that we see the three scientists sort of instinctively banding together against Ironhorse, but they’re all very different in their approach. Suzanne is the only one who becomes combative. It’s consistent with past episodes where she’s been quick to annoyance and anger forced to suffer fools, but it’s surprising that they’d give this scene to her and not Harrison. There’s a reason for that, though.
Harrison slips out unnoticed during the argument to take a personal call from one of this week’s guest characters, Dr. Katya Rhodan. Since we spent a whole scene establishing that there’s nuclear disarmament talks going on, she’s obviously a Russian nuclear physicist who’s in town to attend the conference (In a minor nice touch, she namechecks Dr. Jacobi, Harrison’s boss from Pacific Tech, who we haven’t heard mention of since halfway through the pilot). She’s also an old flame of Harrison’s having, as we later find out, spent three days hiding from her KGB handlers and boning him at a physics conference in 1980 — which may be the most relevant that Harrison’s astrophysics training will ever be to the plot. She’s cagey on the phone, because we’re doing Cold War Intrigue, but you’ve already figured out the score, haven’t you? I mean, there’s only one way a Cold War intrigue goes from this setup. She sets up a lunch date with Harrison then hangs up just ahead of being accosted by her KGB babysitter, Major Valery Kedrov, played by John Steed himself, Patrick Macnee, in a role which he treats with complete professionalism aside from the fact that he gives not a single fuck about whether or not he sounds even the least little bit Russian. I mean, what, was the director going to order the dude who played Satan himself in Battlestar Galactica to put on a fake Russian accent?
He’s a straight-up stereotype Cold War-era KGB heavy, speaking in veiled threats and exuding that very polite distrust that makes it really clear how numbered the Soviet Union’s days are, and really exposes the fallaciousness of Ironhorse’s worldview: not once does he ever treat any of the Americans with the level of suspicion or suppressed hatred that he treats one of his own. Ironhorse thinks that the Russians are gearing up to invade the US? Judging by Major Kedrov, they’re more likely gearing up to invade Russia. Not that the notion of one’s own government spending as much effort trying to keep its own citizens in line as protecting them from outside attackers is something entirely alien to anyone in our post-9/11 world. What Macnee brings to the character is a sense of gravitas, and the way he sells the urbane front the character puts on. He’s an extremely political character, never making actual threats or even outright stating a position, while still communicating with authority and intimidation.
He politely accuses Katya of “frivolity” for using the pay phone rather than the one in her room. She counters, with undisguised distaste, that it would be inappropriate for her to make a personal call on the government’s dime, spitting the word “Comrade” at him. There’s just the tiniest flash of anger from Kedrov when, unable to challenge her logic, he simply tells her that he’s going to note it on his report.
The aliens snatch three Nuclear Power Plant employees right as they’re going off shift, and return the next morning to steal some fissile material so the aliens can make an atomic bomb. Now, there’s an obvious problem with this: the kind of material used in nuclear power plants isn’t suitable for making a bomb, the plutonium isn’t enriched nearly enough to cause a chain reaction (Also, I don’t think you use plutonium in power plants). You might counter this by supposing that the aliens are going to make a dirty bomb — a conventional explosive that uses low-grade material not to cause a nuclear explosion, but rather to contaminate the area with radioactive pollution. Or perhaps it’s just a matter of the aliens using their alien science to somehow convert the low-enriched material into weapons-grade material with the meager resources they have on-hand. But by the time word of the theft gets back to the Blackwood team, it will be on the news that, no, the stuff they stole was high-enriched weapons-grade stuff. Because shut up.
Harrison slips out for his lunch date all dappered up, making a big point of being evasive and dismissive when Ironhorse demands on knowing his plans so that Ironhorse being suspicious of him can be a thing later. When he arrives at the restaurant, despite not having seen her for eight years, he recognizes Katya from behind, across the patio. When he greets her, she pulls him into an embrace that knocks her ridiculous broad-brimmed ’80s hat off. And let me tell you, this scene really reaffirms my impressions last week: the affection between Harrison and Katya is clear and intense here, and you can’t compare his behavior in this scene to the scenes where he’s meant to be “jealous” about Suzanne and believe that Jared Martin is trying to convey the same class of emotion in both scenes.
We aren’t privy to the content of their conversation yet, though, because the camera pulls back to reveal that they’re being watched from a distance by Ironhorse, who’s secretly photographing them with a discreet SLR camera with one of those totally discreet ginormous telephoto lenses. He looks to his right, though, and notices that he’s not the only one spying on the romantic reunion: Major Kedrov is also photographing them. Ironhorse brings up his camera and snaps off a few shots before Kedrov too senses that he’s not alone, turns, and gets a few snaps of Ironhorse before retreating. I can not stress this enough: the scene is played completely straight, and is possibly the funniest thing I have seen so far in this series.
Ironhorse immediately assumes the worst, that Harrison’s gone and gotten himself smitten with a godless Red and now plans to defect so he can run off to Moscow and make the beast with two спинка with her, if you know what I mean (I don’t even know what I mean. I’m not even sure that’s the right sense of the word “back” in Russian). He’s so wound up in his worries about Harrison going pink that he’s barely interested when Norton and Suzanne intercept news about the theft at the nuclear plant. You know. This is the second episode in a row where Ironhorse has shrugged off events that could lead directly to the extermination of mankind with an, “Eh. Not my department.” I know that Ironhorse’s whole character is based around this Brigadier/Agent Scully-style, “Skeptical past the point of reasonability,” thing, but who exactly does he think is poisoning the world’s food supply and stealing nuclear materials? Let’s go back to the pilot for a minute. The very first scene of the very first episode depicts domestic terrorists (In the novel, at least. Since we never get any details on-screen, you’re welcome to assume they’re foreign in the aired version, what with their random generically-foreign accents) attacking and capturing a US Military installation and plotting to, in essence, set off a massive dirty bomb. That much actually happens — it’s not just a fake-out to hide the aliens. And Ironhorse spends the first hour of the series convinced that terrorists are now schlepping around the pacific northwest with a truckload of radioactive waste in order to do bad stuff and hurt Americans. As the series progresses, Ironhorse proceeds to be skeptical about lethal levels of radiation at a liquid nitrogen plant, the theft of trucks carrying radioactive waste, the theft of an incredibly lethal bioweapon, a spate of murders involving bizarre mutilations, and a deliberate attempt to taint the world’s food supply with an incredibly lethal engineered toxin. A lot of these are basically Bond villain plots. And they’ve run through ten of them in a matter of months. It took Bond fifteen years to run into that many. But it’s not just Ironhorse being Ironhorse: remember, no one ever questions the wisdom or necessity of Mason engineering a secret radiation-resistant process into his grain, and the response here to the theft of enriched nuclear power rods isn’t to mobilize the National Guard, the FBI and G.I. Joe, but rather to issue a BOLO to meter maids. The only way this makes a lick of sense is if this is a world where stuff like domestic terrorists defeating the US army on US soil, and accidental releases of deadly bioweapons, and daring daylight theft of weapons-grade plutonium is enough of an everyday occurrence that people have learned to cope. And this is 1989. We’re still half a decade from the Oklahoma City bombing, and a whole decade away from 9/11. I’m not saying that the 1980s were devoid of violent acts of terror, far from it, but I’m pretty sure that, “Unknown people stole enough enriched plutonium to make a bomb,” would result in pants-crapping freak-outs if it happened today in our more cynical times. Airports would be shut down. People would be mobbing — let’s see, 1989, so… Hechenger’s? — for duct tape and plastic sheeting. Very Serious People would be on TV suggesting we ought to round up everyone with a beard and dark complexion.
One of the things about this show that is often taken as a weakness is the way that the world seems superficially unchanged despite that whole “devastating invasion from space in the 1950s” thing. But more and more, there seem to be these hints that it’s not the “World outside your window.” More and more, I’m accepting the possibility that War of the Worlds is actually set in a dystopian world that’s right in the middle of a societal collapse, but one that’s so deeply in denial that it’s still clinging to the idea that everything is fine. By the time we get back from a quick cut back to the Land of the Lost cave to explain that the aliens have built a bomb, which they’re going to use to blow up the disarmament summit, Ironhorse is ready to beat down Harrison’s door to accuse him of treason and haul him up before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He even tacitly accuses Suzanne of complicity for being “so quick to defend him.”
And the writers presumably think he’s made a compelling argument, because they move to abate our worries by cutting to Katya’s hotel room, where Major Kedrov beats down the door looking for her, only to find that she’s apparently fled out the window.
Just as Ironhorse is about to call the TSA and have Harrison put on the no-fly list, he shows up (In a different suit than he was wearing in the last scene for some reason), with Katya in tow, because, duh, she wants to defect. Ironhorse and Harrison go off to argue about this, (with Ironhorse bringing up the nuclear theft briefly in an attempt to shame Harrison over his dereliction of duty). Meanwhile, Katya, Suzanne and Norton make awkward smalltalk. Katya compliments them on the Cottage’s decor, which Norton appreciates, but Suzanne takes a bit of umbrage when Katya asks if she did the interior decorating. Since she’s a Strong Modern Female Character and a Scientist Dammit. At least, this week. Anyway, Katya explains that, despite being a nuclear physicist, she still enjoys interior design as a hobby, so there.
Weirdly, Ironhorse, who’d earlier been so dismissive of political concerns and didn’t like the idea of nuclear disarmament, is really upset that Harrison’s gone and created a political scandal that might derail the peace talks. Also weird: it’s clearly daytime in the hallways and night time in the rooms.
While all that was going on, the three alien nuclear plant workers were accosted by a policeman, who they possess, since one of them has for some reason lost her face.
The next morning, they drop their bomb off across the street from the summit. The alien side of the plot feels very 1970s Doctor Who, with aliens threatening a peace conference, but then they cut back to the cave, where the aliens speculate on the sure success of their plan and call for maps so they can find the greatest population centers for planting future bombs, essentially ushering in a sort of Carnival season for Mor-Tax (fitting for what comes after Epiphany).
I think they may have lost track of what their plan is here. The whole point of blowing up the peace conference is to provoke war between the US and the USSR so that they’d wipe themselves out in a nuclear conflagration. I won’t even make a call as to whether or not this plan is really plausible: on the one hand, yeah, tensions are high and setting off a nuke pretty much anywhere would probably lead to the end of the world, but on the other hand, it’s not like the US or the USSR would seriously believe the other side was responsible. If their plan is just to ratchet up the Cold War tension until Mistakes get Made, I guess starting an age of nuclear terrorism is a good way to do it. It seems like they’re proceeding here from the idea, though, that blowing up cities with nuclear bombs is a low-cost solution for wiping out humanity. Which, okay, it took basically zero effort for them to build this bomb, but it’s strongly at odds with the whole series-concept of the aliens being resource-poor and needing to work through subterfuge.
But leaving that aside, I like the character work from the alien field team. There’s a neat shot of one of the nuclear plant workers beaming with pride as the Advocates charge them with their mission over the radio. Immediately upon arming the bomb and abandoning their van, they’re accosted by a little girl who “reminds” them to feed the meter. The cop-alien protests that, being a cop, he isn’t liable to get a ticket. The little girl protests that even policemen have to follow the law,
so he decides that she made a threatening move and puts sixteen bullets in her. Such sweet, old-fashioned simple times, when you could tell a genocidal alien disguised as a policeman that even cops have to follow the law and not get tazered. The alien looks to the girl’s mother for help, but she just nods at him, smiling. I guess if you want to claim logic for the scene, the alien decides that it would be better not to arouse suspicion, because he puts on an insincere smile and thanks the little girl for reminding him, then takes out a nickel and offers to lift her up so she can put fifty minutes on the meter for him.
It’s a cute scene that really plays up the bathos, juxtaposing this very mundane act of kindness with the fact that these three are right in the middle of planting a nuclear bomb next door to a peace conference. He even tips his hat to the girl and her mother as they leave. And it’s going to get even funnier in a bit, because fifty-five minutes later, the meter-maid comes by and gives them the first of three tickets she’s going to issue before calling a tow truck.
Meanwhile, Richard Chaves gets to share the screen with Patrick Macnee. If War of the Worlds were closer in reality to the half-remembered show of my imagination, I’d be annoyed that we never get a scene between Harrison and Kedrov. But based on what we’ve actually seen, I don’t really think there could be much to it other than maybe a bit of awkward yelling. The confrontation between Ironhorse and Kedrov is here purely for flavor: nothing really gets said or done to progress the story. But it’s still a necessary scene in the sense that the offscreen events that follow it would feel unearned without it. Which is to say that all that happens in this scene is that they exchange pleasantries.
Kedrov: Ironhorse. I’m told that’s an Indian name.
Ironhorse: It is.
Kedrov: Yes. We have Indians in our country too. There are some who believe that our Indians and your country’s Indians are related.
Ironhorse: Maybe. But I didn’t come here to talk anthropology, Major.
Kedrov: No, you’re right. We have much more important things to discuss.
That’s exactly how far the scene goes (I omitted a few lines at the beginning where they tell each other how difficult it was to set up the meeting). Very classic “Nasty Dinner Party” scene, practically Bond sitting down to dinner with Dr. No, though that’s probably unfair to both of them (Also, this is possibly the only reference to indigenous peoples of Russia and Siberia I’ve ever seen in western media that wasn’t specifically talking about Aleutian Islanders).
I wonder if it’s intentional that they’d juxtapose those three very different scenes of Ironhorse’s relationship with the political mechanism: the opening, with him openly distasteful of the peace process, then his confrontation with Harrison, with him concerned about the political implications of Katya’s defection, and finally this scene, where he’s a fully-engaged player in the game of realpolitik, thrust into what’s essentially a poorly-written scene from The West Wing, where two people who are contractually obligated to hate each other interact with genuine mutual professional respect, and try to very politely communicate threats about the dire implications should they not get what they want without ever actually saying what they mean or being anything less than gentlemanly to each other.
The politicking continues into the next scene, where Ironhorse interrupts Norton, Suzanne and Harrison as they analyze alien transmissions with the news that the US and Soviet governments have both decided against Katya’s defection. Harrison threatens to quit the project, but General Wilson had anticipated that and Ironhorse — his tone completely sincere — offers the general’s respectful acceptance of his decision. What’s even more surprising, given that opening speech, is Ironhorse’s passionate affirmation that, whatever his personal feelings are, the peace talks are far too important to derail. I honestly don’t know if there’s some deeper meaning here, or if “Sylvia Van Buren” just wasn’t paying attention, because I don’t get a “Just following orders” vibe here: Ironhorse seems genuinely convinced of the importance of the summit now.
Katya agrees with Ironhorse’s logic, and besides, she’s noticed that Harrison’s completely obsessed with his work at the moment and will probably not make a great boyfriend anyway. Keep in mind that Katya doesn’t know about the aliens at this point, and I think there’s meant to be some tension between them over the fact that he can’t talk about his work. Which is odd, since it seem like Katya’s a smart enough person that if she knows Harrison intimately, shouldn’t she at least have a pretty solid inkling as to what kind of job would obsess him like that?
But never mind that; the meter-maid’s found the bomb by now, and it’s all over the news, completely spoiling the aliens’ plan, since the Soviets and the Americans both have already officially accepted that it’s terrorists, and the peace summit is on hold. The news announces that police are evacuating a 20 mile radius and describes the bomb as threatening Silicon Valley. Ironhorse notes that the Cottage itself is within the evacuation zone, which is far and away the most specific location we’ve been given. Too bad it technically rules out any of the places we’ve suspected before, unless geography works differently in this universe.
Ironhorse rushes off to call General Wilson. From the banter of the others, Katya realizes that Harrison and the gang had reason to suspect something like this might happen and takes offense at their failure to warn anyone. Harrison finally breaks and decides to tell her, over the objections of Norton, of all people, who is, “All for detente and glasnost and you show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” but thinks that telling the Russians about the aliens is a bridge too far.
Of course, we don’t actually get to see Harrison do the telling: he leads her off-screen to break it to her, but she takes it in stride. As per usual, it never occurs to Katya that aliens might be involved, but she also isn’t surprised upon being told. Later, she even reflects that some of her colleagues in Moscow will be happy to re-open their files from the ’50s, so plainly she’s got some familiarity with the alien invasion.
It’s a shame it’s not on-screen, because I think it’s this part in particular that speaks to the title of the episode: Epiphany. The reason that western Christianity emphasizes Epiphany as the celebration of the visit of the Magi is because of its significance as the revelation of the incarnation to the gentiles: the Magi are the first non-Jewish people to learn of Jesus, and therefore they’re symbolic of the evolution of Christianity beyond its origins as a sect within Judaism. Doctor Rhodan, therefore, is taking the role of the Magi, as the first non-American who will spread word of the new invasion to the other nations of the world. It’s a seed that we’ll see bear fruit a few weeks down the line. Once Katya knows what’s at stake, she demands a chance to defuse the bomb. Ironhorse’s instinctive response? “Well I’d like to be president of the United States,” delivered in a tone that implies he doesn’t know how that kind of sarcastic response actually works. He momentarily seems to relent, pointing out that he can’t officially ask her to help, reminiscent of a scene back in the pilot where Harrison offered him that recording of alien transmissions. Ultimately, he decides to stick to Wilson’s plan of them all getting the hell out of Dodge and returning Katya to her government later, until Harrison makes the argument that they can’t, “Protect the world against aliens if we’re not first willing to protect it against ourselves.” I’m not entirely sure what the hell that means in context, but it works, because we cut over to Harrison, Katya, and Ironhorse approaching the van to inspect the bomb. The cop-alien from before is among the police maintaining the cordon, though he doesn’t do anything other than make the a wry comment
Ironhorse is surprised by how small it is. “How big do you like your bombs?” Katya asks. If this is an attempt at innuendo, I consider it misguided. The bomb-defusing scene is pretty stock. Ironhorse and Katya do all the work while Harrison keeps Suzanne and Norton (Who have not been evacuated for some reason) up to date via his giant Zack Morris Cell Phone. They do the thing where Katya reflects that the bomb’s design is completely unlike anything she’s seen before, even though it looks like an egg timer sitting on top of the wiring harness from an ’84 Ford Escort, and they do the “cut the red wire, no wait, there’s another red wire!” thing. And in case we’d forgotten from five minutes ago that Ironhorse is a Native American, he thanks his grandfather’s spirit when the bomb fails to explode. I think it’s a really great idea to have it be Ironhorse who pairs off with Katya rather than Harrison, placing the better-dead-than-red Reaganite in the position of having his life depend on taking orders from a Russian — and a scientist at that.
Another nice touch in this scene is that Ironhorse looks properly scared about the whole thing. I’ve mentioned it before, particularly last week, but it’s probably my favorite thing about Richard Chaves’s performance. While he’s so clearly meant to be in the mold of the great ’80s action heroes who shrug off danger with a grunt and perhaps a one-liner through a thick accent, Chaves usually plays Ironhorse as actually being frightened when he’s in a dangerous situation. But, of course, he never lets this fear get in the way of accomplishing his mission: he’s still a bad-ass motherfucker when he needs to be, but he’s got an entirely realistic sense of just how dire the situation is, and he seems all the braver for the fact that he keeps going in spite of his fear. That’s a trait usually associated with the “unlikely hero” type rather than a decorated Special Forces combat veteran, and it’s incredibly rare for an ’80s action hero. About the closest that comes to mind is John McClane in Die Hard, but even there, Bruce Willis’s performance is more about conveying realistic pain than fear. I was going to have some more examples here, but when I asked some friends about it, the best they could come up with was “The guys in Predator,” which seems like cheating under the circumstances.
Once the bomb’s defused, Major Kedrov shows up, presumably having teleported in, since didn’t they evacuate everyone within twenty miles? He gives Ironhorse a little nod that quietly communicates respect from one old soldier to another. While Harrison and Katya say their goodbyes, Ironhorse takes a call from General Wilson and returns with the news that the US government has reconsidered her defection in light of that whole, “Saved Silicon Valley from getting nuked” thing. But now that she knows about the aliens, Katya accepts her duty to carry the warning back to the Russian scientific community. Ironhorse is exasperated by her change of heart, but she dismisses it as, “A woman’s prerogative.” Because it’s the ’80s and gender egalitarianism is for pinkos — wait… Anyway, she’s pretty confident that she’s not going to face any kind of negative repercussions for that whole, “Trying to defect,” thing, since she just defused a nuclear bomb and saved a peace conference and is a famous international hero now, and to punish her when she’s such a high-profile celebrity for the USSR would be the act of a collapsing totalitarian regime lashing out in desperation, so she’ll probably be fine.
Back at the Land of the Lost cave, the alien commander apologizes for the failure of the plan, explaining that he’d underestimated the human will to survive. The advocates thank him for his service, and he throws himself off the balcony into the green lava pit they inexplicably have.
The advocates turn to their new commander, asking what his plan is for genociding humanity to reveal…
Yeah, it’s just the cop alien from before. I don’t know why the framing of the scene wants this to be a shocking reveal. It’s not like we didn’t know he got away. Maybe there’s an attempt to give this particular alien a little more personality, because of his interaction with the little girl — and technically, it’s the same alien who was possessing the female nuclear plant worker when she made the crack about the Grateful Dead. But in any case, it’s not like we’re ever going to see this alien again. Or, I guess, maybe we will, but not in this body.
It feels like War of the Worlds is hitting its stride after the roughness of the first few episodes. Even with the dialogue being shaky (Lynda Mason Green is given the worst lines, but Richard Chaves is forced to contradict himself several times and seems frequently to have no idea what he’s saying), the story’s a pretty solid old-fashioned spy-fi plot. In fact, between the old-fashioned Russian heavy in the form of Kedrov and Harrison’s relationship with Katya, this episode is very James Bond in a lot of ways, but with a War of the Worlds twist. Not only in that it’s about aliens, but also in the way the plot is divvied up, with Harrison and Ironhorse sharing the traditional 007 duties. Just to make things weirder, for a Bond pastiche, there’s remarkably little action, nothing even a little like the action scene last week.
Patrick Macnee is a delight to watch, even in a small role. A look at his resume indicates that this was kind of a good time if you wanted to hire him for a small role in your low-budget Sci-Fi Action series, and he’s a good enough actor to bring a lot of gravitas to the role purely through withering glares. And there’s something cute about him putting absolutely no effort into faking a Russian accent.
The usual complaints do apply: the humans and the aliens don’t really interact. The alien plot is undone largely due to the meter running out. Though the aliens talk about choosing other targets to bomb, they’ll never consider using nuclear bombs again, despite the fact that it was basically trivial for them to make one and their plan pretty much failed only because the guy they’ve just promoted wasn’t carrying enough change.
We’re not really going to get past the problem of the aliens abandoning plans that have almost worked. That’s not an easy flaw to avoid when you’re drawing so much of your inspiration from the James Bond-style action-adventure genre but you’ve got a recurring villain. As to the problem of the heroes not interacting with the aliens at all…
See you next week.
- War of the Worlds the Series is available on DVD from amazon.com