Synthesis 4: Raised on Biggie and Nirvana

Jared Martin, Rachel Blanchard, Lynda Mason GreenSo yeah. As many times as I’ve watched this series, somehow this is the first time I’ve noticed how much “Among the Philistines” prefigures “The Second Wave”. And not just in the broad strokes of “The aliens manage to get an agent inside the Cottage.”

“The Second Wave” begins with Blackwood going to a meeting set up by General Wilson which turns out to be a trap set by the aliens to capture him. That’s basically what happens in the first half of “Among the Philistines” as well, though in a slower way: Harrison and the gang are sent to a meeting with Adrian, who turns out to be an alien infiltrator.

Once the Blackwood team starts working with Adrian, we cut back to the Advocacy in their cave. One of them has sent a transmission to the council in anticipation of their success. Another cautions the first about getting ahead of himself because of the risk they’re taking on if the plan fails. It’s unusual to see the Advocates disagree on strategy — the only other time we’ve seen it was when one of them was sick. But there’s similar scenes in “The Second Season” of Malzor assuring the Eternal of their success, and the recurring element of tension between him and Mana over strategy.

It’s the third act of “Among the Philistines” where the parallels become really strong, though. In both, Ironhorse and his troops are sent off to a location they’ve discovered by studying alien transmissions, and in both cases, it turns out to be a trap. In both cases, Ironhorse is forced to breach security to get back into the Cottage when it’s been locked down in his absence. In both cases, there’s a climactic fight in the basement between Norton and an alien agent — for that matter, both episodes feature a fight between Norton and Ironhorse, though in very different contexts.

Even more specifically, both fights feature a member of the team dying at the elevator door. Philip AkinAnd in both fights, Norton is knocked out of his wheelchair, but manages to pull himself to something he can use to strike back: the wiring box in “Among the Philistines”, the alarm panic button in “The Second Wave”. Furthermore, both episodes feature a scene where the good guys would be able to safely escape the situation, except that Debi has gone and gotten herself into a position to be imperiled by the infiltrator, and someone’s got to risk themself to extricate her. And, finally, both episodes end with sombre survivors commemorating their fallen colleagues.

Despite their similarities, though, the two episodes are polar opposites in tone. Because their plots hit so many of the same points, this particular pair of episodes serve to highlight spectacularly just how different in tone the two seasons are. In both episodes, Norton is brave, and clever, and more competent in a fight than Ironhorse anticipates. But in “The Second Wave”, that’s not enough to save him (If you’ve got a good memory, I actually did make a crack about how Norton might have survived if he’d had a voice-controlled wheelchair. I did this totally not remembering the episode where he’d survived a similar fight by having his voice-controlled wheelchair ram the alien). In both episodes, Ironhorse is a brave and determined soldier, but in “The Second Wave”, he doesn’t manage to avoid falling into an ambush.

War of the Worlds Season 2 Title SequencePart of the difference is that Norton and Ironhorse (and Blackwood, for that matter, given that he only evades capture himself due to Kincaid’s intervention) all seem a little bit dimmer in the second season. Ironhorse lets himself be led into a trap. Norton fails to recognize the clone’s intentions until it’s too late (In fact, Norton here lacks all the traits which “Among the Philistines” showcased, which certainly gives credence to the unpleasant theory that Mancuso just didn’t see anything to the character of Norton beyond “cripple”). But even more, Frank Mancuso’s War of the Worlds is set in a world that’s just downright nastier. That much you can see from the title sequence. Remember the episode of Friday the 13th from two weeks ago? Basically an old episode of The Twilight Zone rewritten to be nastier. That’s basically Mancuso’s approach here too. What happens when you remake “Among the Philistines” in a grimdark world that cuts you no slack?

Turn LeftYou know what else it reminds me of? “Turn Left”. The antepenultimate episode of the fourth series of Doctor Who. A minion of the Trickster (a powerful extradimensional villain from The Sarah Jane Adventures who specializes in modifying history to sew chaos) creates an alternate reality around the Doctor’s companion, Donna Noble, where she never met the Doctor. Without her intervention, the Doctor is killed by the events of the second Christmas special. As a new timeline unfolds, Earth faces many of the same crises as in the third and fourth series, but with more tragic outcomes as the Doctor’s many friends on Earth are forced to sacrifice themselves to minimize the impact. By the nominative “present day” of the series, Great Britain is rapidly devolving into a police state with deliberate parallels to Weimar Germany after the destruction of London.

I bring it up because I think the general sense of that episode is that it’s not merely the absence of the Doctor himself which changes the outcome of the situations. The casts of the Doctor Who spin-offs The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood are sacrificed resolving events which, in the primary storyline, were resolved not by the Doctor himself directly, but by others who’d been influenced by his worldview. The altered timeline is shaped not by the Doctor’s actions but by his narrative gravity: it is a general recurring theme of Russel T. Davies’s take on the character of the Doctor that his presence in a story alters the nature of the narrative, creating, to oversimplify things, a more optimistic world, where people are a bit more prone to listening to their better angels and outcomes trend toward the better rather than the worse. In other words, the Doctor is the antidote to grimdark (One could be more specific: it is the gestalt between the Doctor and his companion which exerts this narrative gravity, for, in the major theme which Stephen Moffat carried forward when he took over the show, the Doctor seems to lose this power when he is alone).

Marvel RuinsThe other thing I’m reminded of a bit is Warren Ellis’s Ruins, a 1995 miniseries parodying the earlier series Marvels. Like Marvels, Ruins is a history of the pantheon of Marvel superheroes in the twentieth century, told from the perspective of an ordinary newspaper reporter, exploring what life is like for ordinary people who live in a world full up of superpowered heroes and villains. But where Marvels is set in the primary continuity of the continuing Marvel comic series, Ruins is set in a world that lacks the uncanny propensity for random genetic mutations, biological experiments, nuclear accidents and the occasional spider-bite to have remarkable, beneficial results. Thus, Wolverine has been reduced to a deformed, revenant-like state due to the toxicity of his adamantium bones, Bruce Banner is a monstrous mass of tumors, Magneto has been crushed to death by a barrage of metal objects he could not avoid, the Fantastic Four suffered horrible disfigurement and death from a radiation cloud, Matt Murdock simply died as a child from having radioactive waste sprayed in his face, and Peter Parker contracted a deadly rash from a spider bite.

Davies’s approach to Doctor Who is, by and large, a reaction to the period colloquially known as the “Wilderness Years”, the fifteen year period between the end of the original series and the start of the new one — a period which, for what it’s worth, started during the Christmas break for Mancuso’s War of the Worlds. The_BurningThis era is mythologized within the text of the series itself as the “Time War”, a grimdark time that saw the Time Lords corrupted and eventually destroyed and the Doctor himself unmade in the single best idea and worst follow-through Stephen Moffat ever added to the series. There are, of course, some fans who would contest the characterization of the Wilderness Years as a dark void in which Doctor Who was inherently broken, because in a completely different way, the franchise was flourishing as a series of novels and later, audio dramas. But they’re wrong. The Wilderness Years were a dark void in which Doctor Who was inherently broken. Whatever their merits, the “New Adventures” series, with its fixation on producing a “more mature” version of the series, full of sex and violence and grim darkness, and transforming the seventh Doctor from a Columbo-esque figure who uses vaudevillian clowning as a form of obfuscating stupidity into a Machiavellian master-manipulator is barely recognizable as the same franchise that produced a camped-up lampooning of Thatcherism starring a monster based on a candy company mascotThe Kandyman. And it’s hard to view the “Eighth Doctor Adventures”, with their high body counts, casual murder of beloved characters, recurring body horror, and giving the Doctor a blasé attitude toward the torture and murder of his friends as anything other than an attempt to write “Doctor Who Gone Wrong”.

It is no coincidence that the Wilderness Years coincide so neatly with the Long 90s, nor, for that matter, that Ruins is a product of the mid-90s. Doctor Who does not belong in the ’90s. It is not fertile ground for a story where the protagonist’s narrative gravity makes things better. The Doctor is not a creature of the grimdark. The Doctor is the antidote to the grimdark.

What we see from “Among the Philistines” to “The Second Wave” is like what we see from Marvels to Ruins, or from the third and fourth series of Doctor Who to “Turn Left”: we see the same events play out as before, but in a universe that is far less kind. “Among the Philistines” is a product of the long ’80s, of a society with a certain relationship to its own mortality — not, as I’ve tried to make clear, a society that optimistic about the future. But rather one that was resigned to the proposition that the end of the world was not simply nigh, but would be inevitable, total, and above all, abrupt. Though it’s several years early to the party, “The Second Wave” is far more in line with the attitudes of the long ’90s: it is set in a world that still thinks the world is probably going to end, but is horrified to realize that we might have to go on living in it.

For a long time, I’ve described this little window of time at the end of the 1980s as the Nexus of all Realities. The place where many of the fundamental forces of my youth collide: the heyday of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the overlapping window when all of Captain Power, Star Trek the Next Generation, War of the Worlds, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf and MacGyver were all on the air, along with pretty much the whole batch of sitcoms I remember from my youth. Most of this is probably personal and psychological. That little window of time I’ve identified coincides pretty neatly with the window of time when I was at exactly at the right age to have the kind of cognitive development that gives me rich and detailed memories of things which shaped the interests and preferences I’d carry into adulthood, but was still young enough that everything is shrouded in happy childhood-ness.

But it’s not entirely subjective. There really is something going on in the wider culture here, and its personal impact on me is just good timing (In much the same way that, purely through a stroke of good luck, the evolution of home computing technology maps very closely to me growing up, with the first properly affordable home computers coming on the market around the same time as I start remembering things, moving forward to computers becoming practical home delivery mechanisms for pornography right about the time I hit puberty, to computers becoming fast, highly portable and ubiquitous right when I became a parent).

Here in the Nexus, all things are possible. But we are nearing the end of the Nexus now, and as I like to say, the past is haunted by the future. There is a specter hanging over the waning days of the Nexus. It is the specter of a force that will bring the Nexus to its end.  The specter of grimdark.

For in the grim darkness of the near future, there is only War of the Worlds (I wasn’t aiming for this to be where the article was leading. Just incredibly happy accident).


  • By an unlikely coincidence, just as I was writing this, Josh Marsfelder touched on many of the same themes in his commentary on the Star Trek the Next Generation comic miniseries “The Worst of Both Worlds”

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