Antithesis: Synthetic Love (War of the Worlds 2×09)

Remember kids, yellow drugs are bad. Blue drugs are good.

Remember kids, yellow drugs are bad. Blue drugs are good.

Happy new year! It is January 15, 1990, which is, it is really weird to think about, twenty years and one day before I get married. We’ve been away for a while, so let’s see what we’ve missed. Gorbachev met Pope John Paul II and two days later officially declared the Cold War over. East Germany amended its constitution, permitting political parties other than the Socialist Unity Party to run the country. Egon Krenz resigned as head of state and the SED dissolved a few days later. Václav Havel became the president of Czechoslovakia. Civil unrest broke out in Romania, and unlike all the other communist countries that were collapsing at the time, the Romanian government decided to double down rather than back down, ordering protesters to be shot. On December 22, the military abruptly switched sides. On Christmas day Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife were given a quick show-trial then summarily executed by firing squad.

In January, Turkmenistan, though still communist and not yet independent, held the first partially-free elections in the Eastern Bloc since Poland last year. Poland, by the way, withdrew from the Warsaw Pact at the beginning of the year. Demonstrations in Lithuania presage its independence in March, and protesters in East Germany storm the Stasi headquarters. Martial law in China, imposed after last year’s Tiananmen Square protests, is finally lifted on the tenth.

In non-Cold War news, David Dinkins was sworn in as the mayor of New York and Douglas Wilder as the Governor of Virginia. The US invaded Panama over Christmas break. Strongman Manuel Noriega surrendered on January 3. Mission STS-32 launched Space Shuttle Columbia into space for the tenth time. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is closed to visitors on account of how far it’s leaning.

The Billboard chart-toppers since we’ve been gone have been “Blame it on the Rain” by Milli Vanilli, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, and “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins, which remains the incumbent for its fourth week. “Pump Up the Jam” is also on the chart this week, as “Don’t Know Much” by Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville. New on the top ten this week is “Just Between You and Me” by Lou Gramm, one of those songs I find hard to remember from its title (It’s the one whose chorus goes “Even if heaven and Earth collide tonight…”).

Mr. Bean premiers on Thames Television. The Simpsons premiers on FOX. Bart Simpson is in fourth grade and Maggie is a nonverbal infant. Free Spirit, one of those “high-concept” sitcoms I’m so fascinated by gets its plug pulled after fourteen episodes. I remember nothing of the show whatever and it seems to be utterly unremarkable except that it was Alyson Hannigan’s first regular TV role. Square One TV starts its third season. Everything on TV is new this week, but largely unremarkable. Last week’s MacGyver is another of those ones where Mac gets whacked in the head and hallucinates himself into the old west or something. Without looking it up, I think it may be the one where he gets a wooden Swiss Army knife.

Star Trek the Next Generation takes the week off, but the preceding two weeks gave us “The Defector” and “The Hunted”. I remember “The Defector” pretty well. “The Hunted” I am pretty sure is exactly the same plot they would recycle for at least one of the later series. Possibly more than one. And possibly an episode of Stargate Atlantis too. Friday the 13th the Series returned last week with “Mightier than the Sword”, about a cursed pen that compels people do whatever they’re written as doing. So like that John Candy movie Delirious only not funny. It’s noteworthy because Micki straight-up murders the bad guy at the end. This week is “Year of the Monkey”, and involves a set of those see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil monkey statues.

If you were hoping that after my very long break, I’d have something brilliant and insightful to say about this week’s episode of War of the Worlds, you’re going to be disappointed. I went through this a couple of times, but all I can come up with is that it’s a confused mess. On the most superficial level, it seems like it’s got something to say — the incredibly banal and underwhelming message that, “Drugs are bad, mmkay?”, screamed from the rooftops. But it spends much of its run-time undermining its own message, and never manages justify or quantify its own moral stance. It’s not even a fully coherent Space Whale Aesop (A speculative fiction morality tale wherein the fantastic elements undermine the moral lesson by giving it an air of fantasy that renders it inapplicable to the real world. Such as, “Don’t torture space whales.”) because while it seems to be going for, “Drugs are bad because aliens,” the actual alien drug is the least harmful thing in here. Except when it isn’t. I don’t know. Maybe I missed a page or something.

“Synthetic Love” tries to be an important episode to the mythos, and completely fails in this regard. Specifically, this is the only time we’re given insight into how the world came to be such a crappile. And man alive is it heavy-handed. There’s been hints, sure: Debi mentioning a senator skipping bail, the talk last time about the soil being infertile. But they’ve never actually come right out and claimed a causal relationship with the collapse of civilization until now. A voice on the TV in the background of the second scene of this episode is going to come right out and say that the economy has collapsed, and the welfare system has collapsed, and social services have collapsed, and it’s all the direct result of the legalization of narcotics four years earlier.

The government announced the final collapse of the welfare system. Rumored for the past month, the official shutdown of all welfare operations will begin at midnight tonight. The plight of millions of unemployed and homeless has reached unmanageable proportions, and the administration attributes the origin of the catastrophe to the legalization of narcotics four years ago.

You don’t say. Well, first-off, I guess we’re meant to understand that War of the Worlds is set at least four years into the future. Probably at least eight since it’s hard to imagine anyone seriously believing George Bush would end the War on Drugs. The TV voice makes a particular point that it was assumed that taking drugs out of the hands of the gangs and giving them to the corporations would make things better but has not. No reason is given for this. No reason is ever given for this. Okay, our motif here is grimdark punk-rock dystopian, so maybe it just goes without saying that corporations are evil and corrupt and make everything worse. I can get behind that, sure, but if you want to actually claim that corporations are worse than street gangs, I think that’s not something you can just handwave. Utterly missing from this discussion is any sense of “how” or “why”. Because it feels for all the world like this episode wants us to believe that drug legalization is the cause of the current state of affairs, and is just hoping we don’t remember that the previous episode told us that one of the attendant problems with this collapse is that they can’t get food to grow in the soil, and a few weeks before that they told us about bio-weapons testing on civilians. Because drugs, I guess.

There’s a note of triumphalism in it, sort of like you often see in religious end times stories — a sense of, “Take that, hippie scum! You thought legalizing drugs would make things better but this entirely fictional story about aliens proves you’re wrong!” Like all triumphalism, it doesn’t really care about the substance of the argument it’s dismissing. It takes for granted that if drugs were legal, nearly everyone would do them, become addicted, and turn into a drain on society. But for all that’s a very right-wing argument, it seems like the narrative’s sympathies are clearly with the addicts, and it strongly agrees with the idea of treating drug addiction as a public health crisis rather than a criminal one. If anything, addicts are depicted foremost as victims of corporate greed.

And yet, the big drug corporation is also painted sympathetically. They do try to do the right thing, and there’s indications of a social consciousness and sense of social responsibility that perhaps they wanted to seem fake, but don’t come off that way. Certainly, if we’re supposed to take away the message that it’s all the fault of Evil Corporations, we shouldn’t have Blackwood speaking approvingly of the narcotics-industry-run free rehabilitation clinics. Which he does.

You know what it reminds me of a little? Way back when I was talking about Max Headroom, one of the things I had noticed was that their critique of capitalism was subtly neutered: the system as a whole stank, to be sure, but it was always the fault of a discrete set of bad actors. A handful of sociopaths who’d wormed their way into positions of trust. Not like out corporate overlords, who totally want to do the right thing, and totally would on balance, if only they weren’t beholden to the advertisers and the shareholders.

Come to think of it, there’s a distinctly Max Headroom vibe to the look and feel of this episode. If “Night Moves” had kind of a Soap Opera feel to it, “Synthetic Love”, despite lacking any of the overt trappings and signifiers of it, feels weirdly cyberpunk. There’s no cyberweb or NuYen or Street Samurai, but there are elements of corporate plotting with overly elaborate plans which have been calibrated for maximum nastiness despite the fact that they could not possibly accomplish any sort of practical goal beyond increasing human misery (It’s even explicit that the drug companies aren’t profitable! It’s not even “They destroy lives, the environment and civilization to turn a profit.” They do all those things at a loss!). But I don’t just mean the plot: there’s been other plots that would lend to a Max Headroom episode (“Night Moves”, “Terminal Rock” and “Breeding Ground” all come to mind), but it would require a substantial rewrite to actually tell the story in that mode. Much more than any other episode so far, you could imagine this one ending with Edison Carter airing his “live and direct” expose on rehab clinics. You can pretty much use Edison, Theora and Bryce as drop-in replacements for Kincaid, Blackwood and Suzanne.

Except, of course, that Max Headroom had a sense of humor, and could revel playfully in the perversity of its setting, while War of the Worlds is more interested in just bringing us down. You’ll notice that there’s no analogue of the Max character in War of the Worlds. I think I would be a lot more forgiving of this show if it were more fun instead of just an endless tragedy parade. Having an element like Max to provide cynical commentary on the situation would also help with the fact that the heroes don’t actually do anything this week. Blackwood and Suzanne spend the entire episode doing chemical analysis, and Kincaid’s role is primarily to serve as a witness. They have nothing to do with the outcome of the story — everything would unfold in exactly the same way had they been omitted. For Max Headroom that sort of thing worked, since Edison’s power in that series wasn’t his ability to intervene in the plot as it unfolded, but to be there at the end with his camera to expose the truth. The truth-exposing part just doesn’t happen in War of the Worlds, and Kincaid isn’t much of a “watch but don’t interfere, and make sure you document everything” character anyway.

The aliens have invented a new drug called “Crevulax”, which sounds almost five percent more like the name of an alien from Doctor Who than like an actual drug. Allegedly, it fixes personality disorders and causes instant euphoria — we see it instantly calm someone who’s violently psychotic.

War of the Worlds

This dude looks like he’s about to ask Lenny to tell him about the rabbits, the girl is obviously terrified… And this is considered a great success

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Ooh, I bet the effects are only temporary and when the withdraw kicks in, you become ultra-violent or explode or something.” You know what would have been a better plot than the plot of this episode? That thing you just said. No, we never see any evidence that there’s any negative side effects to taking Crevulax. Which is not to say that Crevulax isn’t secretly evil: it’s rather predictably so. But, based on what we actually see, it does work. Really well. But it’s somehow bad for some reason.

I guess maybe you could claim that Crevulax suppresses all violent instincts to the point where it leaves people unable to defend and take care of themselves, in a sort of Clockwork Orange or Serenity way (Or even closer, the Doctor Who serial “The Mind of Evil”). I’d say that fits best with the balance of the facts (Malzor does mention that pacifying the humans is one of their goals, though he seems to be in it mostly for the money this time). But no one ever says so or shows us this in action. You’d want there to be a scene where the Crevulax test subject gets jumped by street toughs or something and Kincaid has to save him because he’s completely unable to protect himself. But no, we’re just expected to take it for granted that Crevulax is bad because (a) aliens and (b) drug.

Vlasta Vrana as Laporte

Only lighting one side of his face and having him always hold a snifter of brandy is the full extent of how they convey that he’s evil.

Malzor, operating again under the pseudonym of “Mr. Malcolm”, signs a lucrative deal with the head of Laporte Pharmaceuticals to distribute Crevulax via their charity free drug rehab clinics. I guess to replace methadone. Laporte is instantly convinced that Crevulax will turn around his company’s projected 13% loss this quarter though an aggressive policy of “giving it away for free”. Laporte’s plan seems to be:

  1. Give Crevulax away for free
  2. ???
  3. Profit

Sure, okay, “the first one’s free” is standard drug-dealer MO. But once again, they never actually say that. Far too much in this episode is predicated on the idea that the audience will just go along with “Drugs are bad, mmkay?” Legalizing drugs will be bad because instead of the narcotics industry running like a business, businesses will run like drug cartels. Only without making any money because you can’t make legit money on drugs, because drugs are bad, mmkay? That murders will go up (42% according to The Exposition Channel) with legalization because drugs make people murderous. For that matter, the whole “Corporations are bad, mmkay?” thing is also something we’re meant to take on faith, given that Laporte never knowingly does anything evil and tries to make things right when he learns the truth.

You could probably say that Laporte ought to have been more suspicious and kicked “Mr. Malcolm” to the curb for being so transparently slimy and evil, but it’s not like he actually trusts Malzor beyond what he demonstrates firsthand in the Crevulax tests. Heck, he goes behind Malzor’s back to have Crevulax analyzed because he’s suspicious. The worst thing he does is to agree to Malzor’s terms when he claims that they’ll need a regular supply of “test subjects” to “calibrate” the Crevulax formulation process.

Yeah, about that. Crevulax is people, in case you haven’t figured it out. I shouldn’t play down the fact that this is evil and all, but it’s a very bush-league sort of evil. The aliens are killing a small number of people for the purpose of making a drug which legitimately seems to help people in very dire need. That’s sort of an “essay topic for freshman ethics class” kind of evil, not what you’d expect from either a secret alien invasion story or a giant evil corporation story.

Adrian Paul

Kincaid demonstrates how to Just Say No to Freddie Mercury

The hook to get our heroes involved this week, insofar as they’re involved, is a guy called Mr. Jimmy. He’s yet another of those “Old friends of Kincaid with a problem” that we’d seen before in “Terminal Rock” and “Seft of Emun”. He’s got one line of dialogue that hints that maybe he became addicted to drugs due to chronic pain from an old leg injury, which is all we’ll learn about his backstory. We watch him try unsuccessfully to buy “a gram of rock” at a fortified pharmacy (Perhaps we’re meant to understand that the drug companies’ unprofitability stems from them relying on a product that actively hinders the buyer’s ability to hold down a job?), then almost get beaten up by a loan shark in a bar. Fortunately for him, Kincaid’s just sat down to a bottle of whiskey, hold the shot-glass full of pills.

Kincaid rescues Mr. Jimmy and strongarms him into checking himself into the brand new Center City Rehab, which has just been opened by Laporte’s daughter Rene, who would no doubt sleep with Kincaid if this episode were a little longer.  “Center City” might just be a kind of Simpsonian vagueness, part of their studious attempt to avoid specifying where the hell the show is set. But it’s at least possible that we’re meant to glean more from it than the simple notion of “Downtown somewhere.” To me and Google, the first thing the phrase “Center City” brings to mind is downtown Philadelphia, as it’s the only city I know of that refers to its downtown district as such. Research tells me that there’s also a Center City, Minnesota, and that the term can also refer to the downtown areas of Charlotte, North Carolina, Amarillo, Texas, and, to my surprise, the monument district in Washington, DC. The only other thing we really know about the location of the city so far is that it isn’t in Maryland (Scoggs mentions a Department of Agriculture project there). Washington or Philadelphia would both fit well, given the references to Gestaine having worked in Georgetown recently. The presence of the Cottage and the indication that General Wilson and Major Yaro were based nearby also makes it likely that they’re near the Pentagon. You’ve also got what seems like a proportionally large amount of the local news covering federal government events. On the other hand, though, if this is meant to be Center City DC, there’s a distinct lack of any recognizable monuments or architecture, plus, there’s skyscrapers, and DC isn’t a tall city. All the same, I think DC and Philadelphia are probably our best bets so far based on the evidence. Rene comes off as entirely legit, the wealthy heiress with a Big Cause. She speaks optimistically about the role of private business and private citizens in taking care of society’s problems and indicates belief in the right of people to make their own choices about responsible drug use. So of course the show’s going to paint her as a hopelessly naive optimist who’s shielded from the corporate horrors her father is unleashing as he shamelessly uses her to put a human face on his drug-dealing. At the same time, though, Laporte genuinely cares for his daughter, calling her his “one great joy”. Reminds me a little of Max Shrek in Batman Returns, a sociopathic, scheming, corrupt corporate executive, who nonetheless genuinely loves his son, to the point of willingly offering himself up to the Penguin in exchange for his safety.

When Kincaid comes back the next day to check on Mr. Jimmy, Jimmy is freaking out because “I sprang out of here last night, and I saw what they’re up to. They’re moving people out of here, and they’re not telling anybody.” Kincaid claims to believe him but clearly doesn’t, and gives him a rabbit’s foot for luck. Later, he and Blackwood discuss rehab clinics over drinks at the bar. Blackwood reckons they’re, “the only real option an addict has,” and that they work well enough, though he disparages the drug companies which “make all the money.” Apparently Blackwood hasn’t seen Laporte’s market predictions for the next quarter.

Predictably, Mr. Jimmy is gone the next time Kincaid stops in to check on him, with no record of what’s become of him. We cut to the Morthren base to watch him have his brain juice surgically extracted. Kincaid steals a bottle of Crevulax and wakes Blackwood in the night to analyze it. Kincaid dons a wig and some filthy rags and checks himself into rehab under the name “John Wolf”. Adrian PaulI’ve mentioned before that I like when Kincaid goes under cover. The character of John Kincaid is kind of a wet noodle and not a great use of Adrian Paul’s acting strengths, but when it’s Adrian Paul playing John Kincaid playing John Wolf, we get to see a lot of breadth and layering to his performance. And he must be convincing, because even if it looks to me like it’s just Kincaid in a wig, the receptionist, with whom he’d interacted considerably before, doesn’t recognize him. Neither does Bayda, who’s the alien point-man for this project.

I think they’re being very careful here about who sees Kincaid and when. Malzor recognizes Blackwood on sight, but I’m not sure about Suzanne, and I don’t think he’s ever actually seen Kincaid. Ardix has seen Kincaid twice, and has seen him and Blackwood together, but I’m not sure if Ardix actually knows who Blackwood is to care. Kincaid is the only one of them to engage named aliens directly, as far as I know, so right now, the Morthren presumably don’t know who he is, or that he’s working with Blackwood, and while they’re still on the lookout for Blackwood, they don’t know what he’s been up to or how he’s been involved in the foiling of their recent plans.

Taking “John Wolf”‘s personal history, Bayda reacts so transparently at his claims that he’s got no family and no one to go looking for him if he disappears that you half expect her to put on an incredibly racist fake Chinese accent and talk about how sad it is to be all alone in the world.

Kathryn Rose

Four years in the future is gonna be really aggressively ’80s.

Kincaid meets Rene while she’s volunteering at the clinic and asks after Mr. Jimmy. She promises to make inquiries for him, and is noticeably disquieted when Bayda brushes her off about the “transfers”. That night, Kincaid breaks into the office and finds Mr. Jimmy’s file in the computer. They don’t really elaborate on how the record demonstrates anything, but he’s convinced now, and confronts Rene with the damning evidence of vaguely defined wrongdoing when she too turns up to do her own after-hours investigation. Rene refuses to believe that her father would be involved in anything seedy, since he’s a good, honest drug dealer, but Kincaid’s speech about how people will do anything for money and shouting “Where are they taking them? Where?” convinces her to confront Laporte.

Meanwhile, Suzanne and Blackwood’s investigation of Crevulax has turned up exactly the same thing as Laporte’s lab had: there’s a “masking agent” preventing them from analyzing the drug. Suzanne tells us that it’s “incredibly sophisticated”, that it, “adapts to every chemical environment,” and is “like a virus.” They aren’t sure what purpose the masking agent serves, since they can’t imagine what could be in the drug that could be illegal in this day and age.

War of the Worlds

I have no snarky comment here. I just love early ’90s “computer screen” shots.

But then they cut over to Kincaid confronting Rene, and when they cut back, the masking agent spontaneously separates, allowing Suzanne to determine that the active ingredient in Crevulax is human brains, and the masking agent is alien. Suzanne suggests they, “pick your nightmare,” as to what the Morthren are up to, which sounds like code for, “This plot doesn’t make a lot of sense to us either.”

Laporte’s scientists make exactly the same breakthrough (sans the alien bit) at exactly the same time. Which I guess means that the masking agent had some kind of built-in expiration date. No wonder Malzor is such a jerk to Mana if this is the quality of her work. She’d assured him the masking agent was perfect. And this corrupt money-grubbing businessman… Immediately cancels his contract with Mr. Malcolm. Malzor responds by threatening him and promising to make Laporte Pharmaceuticals take the fall.

Rene walks in just as Malzor is being thrown out and confronts her father about the goings on at the clinic. And instead of telling her the truth, that he didn’t know what their partners were up to and now that he does, he’s thrown the guy out and plans to expose him, he instead is evasive and acts suspicious and justifies all of her concerns, then becomes angry and aggressive, eventually slapping her when she accuses him of selling the clinic patients.

Once she storms off, she gets kidnapped pretty much instantly, to ensure Laporte’s silence. Sorta. I mean, Malzor says that’s why they did it. But normally, when you do something like that, you call them up and say, “We’ve got your daughter, and we won’t give her back unless you STFU about our evil plan.” Which he doesn’t do. They just sort of assume that Laporte will work it out on his own. And they only need his silence for the time it takes them to cover their tracks at the clinic. But it’s not like Laporte was going to go to the press that night anyway, and the Morthren are apparently finished with their track-covering before dawn, because Malzor leaks the true nature of Crevulax to the press the next morning to ruin Laporte now that it can only be traced back to his company. Which also doesn’t make sense, as Malzor insists that since they still have the drug, they can just shop it around to other drug companies, which, obviously, they won’t be able to do if it’s public knowledge that the magic fix-personality-disorders drug is made of people. Also that whole thing where the masking agent breaks down after a day.

Jared Martin and Lynda Mason Green

Man (and woman) of ACTION!

Kincaid gets caught by the aliens at the clinic and shot up with Crevulax ahead of being taken back to base for brain-sucking. Fortunately for him, Blackwood and Suzanne show up in the Awesome Van to rescue him after a tense firefight that involves a lot of glowsticks being sacrificed. It’s not a bad firefight. With Kincaid out of the picture, it’s the first time we’ve seen Blackwood and Suzanne dominate a gunfight all by themselves.

Kincaid is acting all loopy like he’s hyped up on MDMA, so the others decide that it’s absolutely imperative to give him the experimental counteragent they aren’t sure will work. Um. Why? He’s not dangerous. He’s not violent. And they’re not even being chased so it’s not like there’s an emergency that requires he be lucid right this minute.

Adrian Paul

Clearly, this is an improvement over him being all cuddly and happy.

Why can’t they take him back to the shelter and let him sleep it off? Even if it’s like I was suggesting before and Crevulax has rendered him permanently non-violent, they could at least have him stay home and take care of the housekeeping and such until they had a chance to test and refine the cure. But they’re all like “We don’t have any choice! Just give him a random amount of this stuff we don’t know if it’s safe right now out here while the van’s moving!”

So they do. Kincaid has a violent fit, knocking Suzanne unconscious in a spasm, then breaking down crying and trying to turn his gun on himself before Blackwood can restrain him. Blackwood declares this to be the serum “working”.

Malzor returns for one last confrontation with Laporte at the clinic. He explains that the press and government have been informed about Crevulax and that Laporte is going to take the fall. Then he returns Laporte’s “daughter”, in the way you probably saw coming: as a bottle of Crevulax.

Mana:The drug is perfect, but we need another means of distribution.
Malzor: In time. It’s interesting, isn’t it? These creatures will do anything for money, even sell their children. They do so much of our work for us.

Malzor’s final monologue to Mana seems more than a little off-base. Not to keep beating the same dead horse about Malzor’s continued confidence that they can pull the same swindle again even after it’s become common knowledge, but we’re never going to hear a damned thing about Crevulax again. Even more, the whole “Humans will even sell their own children for money” thing is just complete bullshit given that Laporte didn’t do that.

Vlasta Vrana

Even in his darkest moment, only one side of his face is in shadow.

This is clearly meant to be a downer ending episode, a lot like “Night Moves”. Yes, the aliens have been foiled in the proximate sense, but their larger plan will still move forward, and any victory for our heroes is largely Pyrrhic. The final scenes have Laporte take his own life in despair over the death of his daughter, and Kincaid haunted by flashbacks of Mr. Jimmy’s desperate please for help. For all that this show is tonally pessimistic, that’s actually not the dominant storytelling mode for War of the Worlds. “No Direction Home”, “Doomsday”, and “Terminal Rock” all end in straight-up routs for the Morthren, while “The Second Wave” and “Seft of Emun” see them have a partial success and impost a significant cost on the humans, but fail the larger part of their goals. “Breeding Ground” and “Loving the Alien” are the only episodes where the aliens win an unqualified victory. There aren’t many more to come where the Morthren manage better than a heavily qualified success, though they’ll continue to inflict considerable harm even as they fail. As dystopian and collapsed as human civilization is, they manage to keep thwarting the aliens, to the point that the overall trend of the season is for the Morthren to become increasingly desperate as they try ever more audacious plots to establish their dominion.

If, indeed, dominion is still even their goal. It clearly was in “Doomsday”, and it clearly was in “Terminal Rock”. But there’s been five episodes in a row where the aliens haven’t seemed like they were actively engaged in any sort of “taking over the planet”. This is the first episode since “Terminal Rock” where their scheme of the week has really involved humanity-in-general, and unlike those early episodes, their goal doesn’t even seem to involve gaining power and control over humans, just pacifying them so that they won’t pose a threat. The Morthren would never admit it, but it seems like they’ve resigned themselves to coexistence with the humans, their focus not on killing humans or subjugating humans, but on keeping themselves safe — by gaining the ability to breed on Earth, by securing a sustainable food and power supply, and by defending themselves from human aggression. There’s some of that in “Terminal Rock”, of course, and I guess you might be able to frame this episode as a sequel to it: in “Terminal Rock”, the aliens felt threatened by aggressive punk rockers, and responded by trying to assert domination over the gangs and turn human violence to their own ends. That plan proved too ambitious, so this week, they’re once again trying to protect themselves from aggressive social malcontents, but this time, they’ve set their sights lower and just want to make the humans less violent. The fact that Malzor admits that they’re also doing it for the money points to the Morthren being resigned to interacting with human civilization as well. After disastrous attempts at just stealing whatever they need in “Seft of Emun”, they seem to have realized that it’s far less risky to turn their advanced science and utter lack of conscience to making money, and just buy stuff.

All this puts a very odd spin on events. Yes, the Morthren have an utter disregard for human life, and yes, they’ll kill to achieve their goals. But they’re not going out of their way to kill any more. They’ve transitioned to primarily trying to stay alive, keep their heads down, and find a way to just keep on living in this craphole. But this show is set in a world where things are so far gone that even that is an uphill battle for them.

That could be an interesting angle for this show. If they bothered to go there. Instead, we get this incoherent mess that thinks “drugs are bad, mmkay?” is a substitute for any actual plot logic. They assert that drug legalization has caused abuse rates to skyrocket, murder rates to skyrocket, a complete governmental collapse and a complete economic collapse, because “drugs are bad, mmkay?”. They insist that corporate greed just goes without saying — which it does of course — but immediately undermine it by showing that this supposedly greedy company that will do anything for a buck runs a network of charity-supported rehab centers and has been operating at a loss. It asserts that humans will “sell their own children” and expects the audience to go along with it, even as what it shows is humans behaving compassionately toward each other, bending over backward to help addicts and legitimately caring for each other. If Laporte’s big sin is that he’s excited by the prospect of making a profit while he helps addicts and the socially non-functional to become functioning members of society, he’s just about the least evil businessman in the history of evil TV businessmen. Yet everyone, even Laporte himself seems to treat, “Laporte is in the drug business therefore he’d do anything even mass-murder to make a quick buck” as gospel. It’s the social politics of Ronald Reagan and the economic politics of Karl Marx. Indeed, isn’t it a little odd that they don’t just clone Laporte? Given the ease with which they kidnap his daughter, it would have been easy enough to either capture and clone him, or, for that matter, clone his daughter and have her manipulate him. We’ve seen them prefer to manipulate a human than clone them before, but only with an excuse, such as Dr. Gestaine, whose illness precluded cloning. The only reason I can think why they chose to work with Laporte is to show the audience how evil and corrupt and greedy humanity is, having them work willingly with the aliens.

Everything else about this episode is stupid and pointless too. Kincaid accomplishes nothing. Blackwood and Suzanne spend the entire episode looking down a microscope. The Morthren plan is itself almost incoherent. And that ending, with Blackwood insisting that they’ve urgently got to give Kincaid an experimental treatment which almost drives him to suicide without ever once actually demonstrating that there was anything wrong with him at all, let alone anything that required urgent treatment? What the hell?

This is the first episode where I really started to understand why this show was so poorly received. “Synthetic Love” doesn’t feel like part of an ongoing, coherent storyline. It’s just a few pieces of cheap emotional manipulation used to string together a tragedy-parade of otherwise disconnected images of nastiness and decay. What happened to the weird show about desperate people pushed to extremes while Yahweh and Space-Cthulhu get into a God-off?

  • War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.


2 thoughts on “Antithesis: Synthetic Love (War of the Worlds 2×09)

  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for January 29th, 2016 | The Slacktiverse

  2. Pingback: Thesis: Dust to Dust (War of the Worlds 1×13) | A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

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