Antithesis: The Defector (War of the Worlds 2×10)

Ah yes, the Commodore Amiga, clearly the computer of the dystopian near-future

Ah yes, the Commodore Amiga, clearly the computer of the dystopian near-future

It is January 22, 1990. Two days ago, Soviet troops were sent in to suppress independence protests in Baku, Azerbaijan. 130 protesters are killed. Today, communism kinda collapses in Yugoslavia when the 14th (extraordinary) Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia ends, the country’s ruling party suddenly breaking up due to the fact that the whole country was on the verge of splitting up and going to war with itself, which will occupy the region for the rest of the century. Also last week, Marion Barry, the popular incumbent mayor of Washington, DC, famous for his work as an activist for civil rights, as an education reformer, and as a hero during a 1977 hostage crisis, became best-known for the phrase, “Bitch set me up,” uttered in response to the discovery that he was being videotaped smoking crack with his ex-girlfriend in an FBI sting operation. He would later serve six months in federal prison before being reelected as mayor in 1994. The McMartin Preschool trial finally ends, with all defendants cleared of child molestation charges. Space Shuttle Columbia returns from mission STS-32, bringing back NASA’s Long-Duration Exposure Facility (a free-flying structure placed in orbit in 1984 to house seeds, spores, and various materials that might be used in space stations, in order to see how they liked being left in space for five years) and a bunch of IMAX footage that would later be used in the films Blue Planet and Destiny in Space.

Today, Robert Morris becomes the first person convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse act for releasing the Morris Worm, the first major recognized internet worm. Over the coming week, a hispanic Miami police officer will be found of being insufficiently white to get away shooting an unarmed black man. Avianca Flight 52 will crash in New York, killing 73. The crash is attributed to miscommunication between the plane and airport, leading to them running out of fuel. Benazir Bhutto will become the first modern head-of-government to give birth while in office.

Out in theaters this week is Tremors, a movie which I was really fascinated by in my youth because of the way it blended horror and dark comedy tropes, and also because I was twelve when I first saw it and it had a long scene of Finn Carter running from a snake monster in her underwear.

Tonight is the 17th annual American Music Awards. Bobby Brown and Paula Abdul win favorite male and female artists, New Kids on the Block are named favorite group, and their Hangin’ Tough takes favorite album. Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True” is named favorite song. This all seems like some sort of fever-dream now. Michael Bolton unseats Phil Collins for the top spot on the charts, and Technotronic adds insult to injury as “Pump Up the Jam” peaks at #2. A lot of churn in the chart this week: new to the top ten are Rod Stewart’s “Downtown Train”, Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”, Seduction’s “Two To Make It Right”, and Tesla’s “Love Song”.

MTV Unplugged premiered yesterday. Faced with ABC’s coverage of the American Music Awards, CBS and NBC respond with airings of Cocoon and Delta Force respectively. ‘Trek is off again, they’ll be back next week. Friday the 13th the Series gives us “Epitaph for a Lonely Soul”, like the four-hundredth episode where an antique has the power to suck out someone’s life-force and give it to someone else. The twist this time is that it’s a mortician’s aspirator, and he’s using it to resurrect attractive female clients, on account of he’s a lonely creep.

My God, you guys. This episode. Man-oh-man. Okay, the plot’s a little thin, the character development is haphazard, and the emotional beats aren’t entirely earned. But I don’t care, because this episode is lovely. This week’s War of the Worlds is about The Internet. It is 1990, and the World Wide Web doesn’t even exist yet, but this is an honest-to-goodness episode about the Internet. And I’m not talking about VR Cyberspace Bullshit like we got back in Captain Power (Oh, that’s coming. But not until April). No, this is old school Internet, with 31337 hax0rs. And this is just about the most wonderful techno-bullshit I have ever seen. Seriously, I came close to not even writing an article here, just OCRing the subtitles and pasting them in their entirety instead.

This is a Suzanne-and-Debi-light episode: about five minutes in, they turn up to announce that they’re leaving town for a few days because Debi’s got “exams”. There’s no elaboration on that, which, I mean, it’s a minor point and probably not worth the screen-time, but it does feed into the general sense that, to put it kindly, they’ve got a lot more ideas about how this world works than they have scope to fully integrate. I guess Debi’s in some kind of regulated homeschooling program that has yearly exams. That just seems weirdly mundane to be a thing in this world where the government’s in a state of pretty much total collapse and has shut down all social programs. I sort of took for granted that our heroes had gone to ground and were trying to live outside the system. Aren’t they on the lam or something? Seemed that way back in “No Direction Home”. In any case, they’re gone for the rest of the episode. Coupled with the return of Belinda Metz as Scoggs, I suspect this episode was filmed simultaneously with “Night Moves“.

War of the Worlds - Grapevine

The drop-shadows took six months to render using the three most powerful supercomputers in the world.

Kincaid is almost out of ammo, and Blackwood needs replacement parts for their generator. Kincaid decides to check Craigslist. “The Internet” for the purposes of 1990 apocalyptic fiction is a system called “Grapevine”, a highly secure, highly robust network capable of accommodating perhaps as many as five users (Seriously. The UI design assumes exactly five users max), and includes such features as a non-private chatroom, email, and absolutely nothing else. The system is supposed to provide absolute secrecy and anonymity, aside from the fact that everyone uses the same cool post-apocalyptic nickname on-line as they do in real life, except for Kincaid, who goes by “Rogue”, because he’s all edgy and brooding and grimdark, and because “CatLover45” was already taken.

Kincaid’s usual contact for stuff like this is “Ace”, a middle-aged guy who lives in a warehouse. Kincaid’s never met Ace in person, and doesn’t know where he lives (beyond that it’s in “Quadrant 7”, because cities have quadrants now. At least eight of them, which technically, is too many), which probably makes buying stuff from him a little complicated. Luckily for Kincaid, Ace comes home while Kincaid’s on-line and signs onto Grapevine. Lucky timing. Too bad that The Internet doesn’t have any mechanism for someone to put up some kind of persistent document, a “page” of some sort, where a client could see what products a trader had to sell and somehow submit offers or purchase orders to be handled automatically by a program on the back-end. Perhaps even multiple documents arranged into some kind of “web” that could be accessed from around the world. We could call it the Global Document Lattice or something.

There’s a conceit about how computers work that I’ll put in here to help with your imagination. To operate a computer in this world, you just say aloud what you want to do, then tap on the keyboard a few times. At first, I thought maybe they were meant to be typing commands, and just repeating them aloud for the audience’s benefit, like when someone talks on the phone in an old movie (What’s that? You say I should repeat everything you say out loud so the audience can hear it? And I should use rising intonation, to pretend I’m actually repeating it in the form of a question?), but for every message or command, they only type three or four keystrokes. So it sure seems like they’re dictating to the computer. Yet they still need to use the keyboard, I guess to confirm the input? I don’t know. It’s weird and dumb, but has the glorious and magnificent result that we spend the entire episode listening to these 31337 hax0rs speaking aloud. Mostly chatroom conversation. The way it’s cut, you never actually see someone receive a message until the very end, but it seems explicit that they’re reading the messages rather than hearing them.

War of the Worlds

Also, the killer pulse program looks like TRON’s dildo for some reason.

Since at this point, we’ve got about as long as any episode ever has without checking in with the Morthren, let’s check in with the Morthren. It’s demo day at the alien lair. A scientist named Kemo is showing off a new engram that can disrcreetly interface with human computer systems and “drain it”. Malzor, being a dick, is only interested in its offensive capabilities, and gets angry at Kemo when he says that the “direct pulse” still has some bugs to work out.

To save face (This is a joke that you’ll understand in a minute), Kemo offers to demonstrate just how effective his engram is by hacking one of the world’s most advanced networks, the Grapevine. Yes. Kincaid’s internet chatroom is one of the most advanced networks on the planet.

Maybe I was too hard on Malzor for complaining, because Kemo’s advanced, undetectable data-stealing engram… Immediately causes Ace’s connection with Kincaid to start breaking up. I don’t know what it would look like to Kincaid for Ace’s transmission to “start breaking up”. The writers were clearly imagining something like radio static. We get to see Ace’s screen replaced by an alien pattern that, for want of a better term, I will use the totally random phrase, “floating green weirdness.”

Floating green weirdness“My files are jammed,” declares Ace. And then I don’t hear anything over the sound of my own laughing for about five minutes. I can’t even begin to even. Thumping of the screen ensues, because that’s how you fix a stuck computer. Jammed files or not, Ace tries to send Kincaid… Something. Nope. No idea. He just says, “Here, take a look at this.” Kemo indicates that Ace has somehow stolen some data from the Morthren and passed it along. I… I guess by hacking him? Or something? How does that work? How does the engram interfacing with the human computer network cause Morthren data to end up on Ace’s computer? How does it make alien stuff appear on his screen? None of this makes any Godsdamned sense. If he’s opened up some kind of reverse shell into Ace’s computer, his data would all be on his end, not in Ace’s computer. If he had to deploy some kind of alien virus into Ace’s system, okay, but alien code won’t run on a human computer — they already established that, it’s the whole point of Kemo having to develop this new engram. So any of Kemo’s data that was deployed on Ace’s computer wouldn’t be alien code: it would be alien-created normal Earth-computer code. And in any case, there’s absolutely no reason that deploying this code would result in alien characters appearing on Ace’s screen. Even if some flaw in Kemo’s code caused it to screw around with the video bus on the remote system, it wouldn’t produce distinctively alien-looking patterns. It would most likely just produce complete junk.

I know. I know. Deep breath. It’s just a show, I should really just relax. Malzor panics and orders Kemo to kill the operator, despite that feature not having been tested. Kill. The. Operator. Kemo’s engram can cause a lightning bolt to shoot out of the screen of a computer and murder the user. I… I… I… <CRASH>

Technical difficulties

Okay. Okay. Fine. I’ll roll with it. Alien technology can make lightning bolts shoot out of your computer monitor and kill you, even though the monitor is just an ordinary television (I mean this. All the monitors in this episode appear to be ordinary NTSC television sets, not specialized high-resolution computer monitors) and the computer is a physically separate unit whose interaction with the display is limited to sending it an analogue signal telling the electron gun inside when to fire as it sweeps across the phosphors, and no, you can’t just overdrive the signal until it shoots death-rays out of the screen, because televisions don’t work that way and —

Technical difficulties

Look, we’re going to be here all day at this rate. The long and short of it is that Ace gets cooked. Kincaid jumps up in alarm and shouts to Ace in concern, even though he hasn’t seen or heard anything to indicate what’s wrong: all Kincaid knows is that Ace suddenly went off line, and given the state of public utilities these days, that really should just mean someone chopped down a telephone pole to steal the copper. But there’s really no sense in this episode that computer networks and the telephone system have anything to do with each other. Which I guess is possible, but it’s a big leap to assume that this city has some kind of independent data infrastructure that anyone can plug into and works basically like the internet, given that so far, the most advanced form of telecommunications we’ve seen is rotary-dial 1-fps video phones.

Killing Ace turns out to backfire for the Morthren, though. Literally: there’s a feedback pulse that electrocutes Kemo. Kemo’s electrocution is shown split-screen with Ace’s making it look as though the two are joined by a single tendril of electricity, to better symbolize that they are in this moment joined in a way that transcends the bounds of species and — Oh for Christ’s sake. They are going there. Kemo and Ace mind-meld. Via lightning bolt. From the screens of their computers. Okay, the Morthren have never heard of surge suppressors, I can accept that. But they don’t even try to justify this. They don’t even explain it. Kemo just has a bunch of Ace’s memories and his feelings and instincts now. Because fuck you, alien technology is magic.

War of the Worlds - Charles McCaughan and Charles Kerr

But Kemo’s only seen the sights / A girl can see from Morthrai’s Heights / What a wacky pair!

We know that alien engrams are able to operate on human memory. We established that back in “No Direction Home“. We know that the aliens can transfer the human sense of identity during the cloning process. And we know that the cloning process creates a clone that isn’t just obedient to the Morthren, but has a Morthren sense of purpose and loyalty. So it’s not completely out of left-field. But it still requires that Ace’s completely normal human-made Earth-computer do the work on his end. Sucking out Ace’s mind accidentally, over the internet requires that the Earth-made consumer electronics in Ace’s lair magically reconfigure themselves at a hardware level to have the same technological capabilities as an alien engram. If you shove the power cord from your coffee-maker into the refrigerator, it doesn’t suddenly gain the ability to produce frappucinos. If I sound angry, it’s really not that. More sort of stunned. It’s like no one involved in the writing of this episode had ever seen a computer before and reckoned they were basically just genies who looked like televisions attached to typewriters.

They rush Kemo off to the infirmary and stick him in a bag and put a damp cloth on his face and everything, but they’re only able to save half of his face, leaving him very mildly disfigured with a bunch of scars on one side of his face, about on the level of an ill-considered prison tattoo. Our first hint of what’s happened is a classic old-fashioned reaction shot of Mana looking away in disgust when his bandages are removed. War of the worlds - Catherine DisherIf you recall from “Loving the Alien”, the Morthren are obsessive about physical perfection, so of course Kemo is issued his pink slip and asked to kindly report for immediate execution. I want to stop a moment and consider that it’s a little weird that the Morthren were able to massively reconfigure their physical appearance, and we know they can xerox a human body while removing any scars or disfigurements, but they can’t fix Kemo’s burns.

They’re sort of cutely ginger with him about it. Kemo walks in on Malzor and Mana while she’s trying to fix his engram, and explains that the problem is with the feedback. Malzor politely takes him aside, and explains to him like he’s a senile grandpa that, look, they’re all super proud of him and everything, but what with his very mild disfigurement, they really have to have him put down. Kemo understands this, and even accepts it, but he’s been working real hard on this engram and reckons he ought to finish it before having himself offed. Mana gets catty at this point and insists that she’ll finish it herself. Malzor is more diplomatic, suggesting that he, “Let the knowledge that you have been of great value be your comfort.” But Kemo makes a big stink of it and demands to be allowed to talk to the Eternal. Once he’s out of earshot, Malzor notes that Kemo’s behavior indicates serious psychological damage in addition to his physical injury, but Mana’s already ruminating on Kemo’s comments about feedback, so clearly she’s willing to take advantage of his expertise even while calling for his death.

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from the Morthren god. I’m pretty sure this is the only time someone other than Malzor addresses the Eternal directly. I’d love for it to turn out that the Eternal doesn’t really exist, that it’s some kind of group hallucination by the Morthren collective or something. We never see the Eternal actually do anything, there’s never any change in the tone of its whalesong, or any particular expression in its eye, so it would be interesting to imagine that whatever the reality of the Eternal is, the way the Morthren react to it is based purely on them projecting their own goals and desires onto it. That would add a neat angle to this one, since when Kemo begs for absolution, I guess the Eternal turns him down, because he ends up crying and is escorted away for execution.War of the Worlds - Charles McCaughan Mana and Malzor are troubled by the way he, “Showed fear before the Eternal,” and ominously foreshadow that he acted, “Almost like a human.”

Just as Kemo’s about to be tossed into the Morthren trash compactor, he suddenly realizes that he’d really rather not, yoinks the weapon off of one of his escorts (Which I guess clarifies one point of vagueness I’ve had all season: the weapons are discrete devices they hide up their sleeves, not, as it sometimes looks, a thing they grow out of their bodies on demand), shoves him into the execution machine, and shoots the other one. After a confused shout of, “What have I done?”, he escapes with absolutely no fuss despite the alarm having gone off, because the Morthren are shit at keeping people from escaping their secret base.

While this has been going on, Kincaid’s been getting increasingly desperate to find out what happened to Ace. He’s touched base with the other Grapevine users, Lonelyheart, Roller, and Scoggs. None of them have heard from Ace, of course, and none of them know where he lives, or even what he looks like: no one’s met him face-to-face. At least Blackwood acknowledges that this is kind of weird, given that no one seems to know how it is they hooked up with him, but he’s their main supplier for a bunch of stuff. Kincaid meets with Scoggs in person at the strip club, at which point Dylan came home from school and plopped himself down on the couch with me, making me 2 for 2 in “Episodes of War of the Worlds featuring scenes set in strip clubs which my four-year-old has watched with me.” My own parents, of course, would not let me watch Prime Time US Broadcast TV filth like this until I was ten. I turn the show off until he’s gone to bed.

Kincaid asks Scoggs to find Ace’s address. She’s reluctant, because, “There are rules to the game and laws of survival, even when you break a hacker’s code.” Ooh. I am getting shivers all over. Will Scoggs be tempted to break the Hacker’s Code in the face of a threat that might endanger them all? Yes. Yes she will. Well, the threat and also a big wad of cash that Kincaid gives her.

Mana and Ardix get a replacement engram working while Lonelyheart is on Grapevine with Blackwood and Kincaid. Luckily, their random choice of victim does not lead to the deaths of our heroes, as Lonelyheart is the next one to suffer the indignity of a comically implausible computer death, though Kincaid’s motherboard is also fried. Maybe. Blackwood inspects the motherboard, declares that they’ll need a replacement, but then says that he doesn’t think the problem “is here”. I know he means that there’s some outside influence attacking the Grapevine, but the way it’s presented, it’s like he’s saying that the actually cooked motherboard is not the thing that is wrong with the computer.

Kemo uses Ace’s memories to find his way to the dead hacker’s lair and lets himself in. He discovers Ace’s body, his face burned on the opposite side to Kemo’s, because symbolism, and wry comments that they, “Shared more than I intended.” He also muses on whether Ace’s God accepts him. Charles KerrHe uses an engram to restore Ace’s computer and calls Kincaid and Blackwood for some reason, though he doesn’t say anything. Mana detects the system’s come back on-line, and they conclude Kemo must be responsible. Kemo instinctively counter-hacks his former leaders when they try to interface with his system, then realizes what he’s doing and turns the whole thing off. He was on-line long enough for Mana to trace his location, and guards are dispatched to take care of him.

While Blackwood goes to check on Lonelyheart, Kincaid gets an address from Scoggs. Blackwood finds Lonelyheart, left extra tasty crispy. Kincaid arrives at Ace’s about ten seconds after the Morthren show up and dispatches them. He finds Kemo cowering behind a computer desk, but since he’d swapped his Morthren coverall for something from Ace’s wardrobe, he’s able to pass himself off as Ace. He claims to have “stumbled across something he shouldn’t have.”

Kincaid presses “Ace” for details, but he’s close-lipped about it, saying he’d gotten access by accident and doesn’t know how to get back into the alien system. Kincaid deliberately avoids mentioning aliens. As per usual, I’m not sure how common the knowledge of aliens is meant to be.

Since the only thing Kemo did to hide Ace’s body was to pull a blanket over him, Kincaid eventually notices, but Kemo’s faster on the draw. He holds Kincaid at pew-pew-gun-point and… Answers all of his questions. He describes his weapon as being able to “break any system, drain it, and use the energy to kill the operator.” Explaining that, “I could hear him at the moment of his death,” is enough for Kincaid to understand that Kemo had mild-melded with a human, though he’s skeptical. That is kind of a big logical leap to make for something you don’t believe. Kincaid is able to get the drop on him and disarm the alien when he gets distracted by telling his story, whereupon he… Hold Kemo at gun-point and has a conversation about the morality of war, with Kincaid pointing out that the Morthren came here to commit genocide and steal a planet, and Kemo countering that humans kind of suck as well, but really, how much to the two races know about each other beyond wartime propaganda anyway? Kemo makes a stand and declares that he wants to find a way to stop the killing on both sides, and Kincaid is inexplicably convinced by the argument that, if their situations were reversed, he too would not want to help the scary dude with the gun wipe out his own people. Instead, he offers to destroy the engram, in the hopes of at least cutting off one avenue of killing between the races. When he explains that the Morthren can use the engram to basically murder anyone using a computer, plus take over all the banking computers, the computers that run critical infrastructure, and even seize control of nuclear weapons, Kincaid decides to trust him.

While this has been going on, Blackwood has called the surviving members of the Grapevine together, explaining that someone’s compromised the network and is trying to take them out. Roller wants to cut and run, changing “all my networks and passwords”, but Blackwood thinks it’s too late for that. He convinces them to join forces in an attempt to decode the information Ace had captured before his death. He doesn’t mention the alien angle, of course, so I don’t actually know if Blackwood even realizes they’re involved. I mean, he should since this gang can’t even go visit relatives in the country without aliens turning up (Too bad, really. It’d really fit in well with the grimdark to do an episode where it turns out in the end that the cruelly inhuman plot to exploit human suffering had an entirely human cause this week, and end on our heroes wryly musing whether their race is even worth the effort of saving).

Scoggs and Roller bicker over the computer, trying to “hack” the weird triangular green patterns and spouting some really wonderful computer-flavored techno-gibberish:

Roller: You’re in the wrong area altogether.
Scoggs: I haven’t seen anything like this. Where the hell should I be?
Roller: Let me in there. Got to start with the primaries.
Blackwood: No, no, I think it’s based on a geometric progression.

Paul Coeur and Belinda Metz

From my heart and from my hand
Why don’t people understand
My intentions, ooh, weird science

Keep in mind, all we ever see on the screen are blinking green trefoils. Blackwood’s scribbling down notes in a notebook. Like Crow said back in Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, I hope Roller is the kind of hacker who spits a lot. Since he’s the one sitting at the computer, he gets the worst of it when the Morthren send another death-pulse, and gets cooked right good. Scoggs takes one to the face, but is only knocked out cold and thrown across the room. Well, walks slowly across the room and gently lowers herself to the floor. Belinda Metz is not really into big physical scenes. Why was her computer logged into Grapevine when the entire community was literally in the room with her, when they knew it was dangerous? Never mind. Watch Blackwood’s goofy reaction instead.

Jared Martin

I love that he carefully puts his notebook down on the table before getting up.

When Kincaid and Kemo arrive, Blackwood is tending to Scoggs. Kincaid explains who Kemo is, and Blackwood completely loses his shit, trying to throttle the alien on the spot, and screaming at Kincaid when he pulls him off, implying that Kincaid’s been had for believing such an obviously ridiculous story as Kemo having mind-melded with Ace, and that obviously this is a trap and — you know what? Just go back to “Seft of Emun” and watch the scene where Kincaid and Suzanne confront Blackwood about Seft. Or the scene in “Loving the Alien” where Kincaid and Suzanne confront Debi about Ceeto. This is an utterly bizarre scene in how backwards the characters are. Kincaid’s always been very one-note traditional grim-action-hero who’s always the one who just wants to shoot everything. Blackwood’s the one who wants to learn more before resorting to violence. Even in “Loving the Alien”, Blackwood is the one who’s at least willing to let Debi plead her case. It would have made so much more sense to swap Blackwood and Kincaid’s roles in this episode. Except somehow, it works. I mean, look at that animated gif above. That’s a man who’s been pushed way off-kilter by watching people he cares about attacked brutally and unexpectedly. Blackwood’s seen a lot of combat deaths, but this is much more brutal, and it happened in a context that would have seen safe.

Jared Martin, Belinda Metz, Adrian Paul, Charles McCaughanAnd it carries through when he attacks Kemo: it’s not a sudden, violent outburst. Instead, Blackwood rises slowly, casually walks over to Kemo, then declares him a murderer and tries to throttle him. Blackwood is behaving out-of-character because he’s been knocked out of character.

Kincaid’s behavior isn’t as well-justified. It’s not too bad — we can sort of accept that by now, after having been through this twice, his feelings toward the aliens are evolving and he’s becoming more willing to think of them as something more than just a faceless (Oh. That’s unfortunate) enemy. But it lacks a good solid catalyst. I can believe that in some situation, Kincaid might by now be willing to accept an alien’s word and allow him to work with him toward a common goal. But they didn’t really earn it here: Kemo’s story about the possibility for nuclear annihilation doesn’t seem immediate or proximate enough to justify such a big turn. Also, it would have been really good for Kincaid to namecheck Seft here, but this show very rarely remembers the details of prior episodes, which, admittedly, is just how TV worked back then. On the other hand, one of my big complaints about Kincaid all season is that he so frequently comes off as mopey and passive. Kincaid insisting on something, then instantly caving when challenged is a thing that has come up repeatedly. So maybe it’s not that out of character that, being used to just walking in and shooting any alien he sees, when he’s faced with an alien who actually asks him nicely to not be killed, he caves instantly.

Kemo uses his engram to restore Scoggs’s computer, as Kincaid declares that they’re, “out of time”, and asks again for the location of the Morthren base. What are they “out of time” for? No idea. The same thing happened last week, someone suddenly insisting that things were urgent and they had to act immediately without any justification for it.  We know that the Morthren have detected Kemo’s actions and are preparing the pulse weapon again, but they don’t. And even if they did, no one’s ever demonstrated why you can’t just unplug the damned thing. Or indeed why Kemo was futzing around with the computer in the first place. The computer was broken. The Morthren couldn’t attack them. They knew that their last attack killed the computer operator, so there’s no reason for them to do anything. Kemo and the humans could plot their next move at their leisure.

It feels for all the world like there’s a major plot thread missing here. It would be easy to justify the sense of urgency. Have the Morthren be about to execute the next phase of their plan — establish that the Morthren have some specific, highly deadly attack planned for this weapon, and that the only thing stopping them was that they needed to recover the data Kemo had leaked first. That way, we know that once Scoggs’s computer is hit, the aliens can launch a major attack at any time. But they don’t.

War of the Worlds

Remember, Parenthesis first, then exponents, then weird alien trefoils

Kemo explains that his engram can disrupt the Morthen system temporarily, but he’ll have to go back to the base and physically destroy the weapon. Then, presumably not wanting to get zapped in the face, he gets up and has Kincaid sit at the terminal, ordering him to, “Combine every third equation.” Again, not clear on what they’re disrupting. If this was something where the Morthren wouldn’t be able to target anyone else with the weapon during the disruption, that would make sense, but they never clarify, and it comes off like what Kincaid’s desperate hacking is for is to block them from killing him by re-pulsing the machine. If that’s the case, what they really ought to do is turn the computer off and leave the room, because that would be way more effective. I almost get the feeling that this was written on the assumption that a computer and its user have some kind of persistent link, that it’s just part of life that if your computer crashes, you die. I mean, except that Scoggs’s computer killed Roller. Never mind.

Blackwood begrudgingly allows Kemo to return to his base to destroy the weapon, and Kincaid even gives him back his weapon.

Blackwood: You really surprise me. Why are you doing this?
Kincaid: I don’t know. Maybe because I’ve lost too many friends. Maybe because I believe him.

See, this is another example of what we’ve seen all season, where the themes and emotional beats are doing the right thing, but the plot is a mess. My read of this scene is that Kincaid is so broken up about the death of Ace that he’s willing to give Kemo the benefit of the doubt just on the hope that some part of Ace survives in him. And that would be absolutely wonderful, except that it doesn’t make a lick of sense, given that Kincaid barely knew Ace in the first place.

An intense haxoring battle takes place, with Kincaid furiously banging on the keyboard, trying different “equations” while Mana demands “more pulse” as Malzor magically intuits that, “They’re trying to reprogram our system,” which isn’t even true. In the end, both computers explode. I guess. This scene is weird. Ardix and Mana take small lightning bolts to the face and are rendered unconscious.

Kemo sets his phaser on stun and makes his way to the lab. He threatens to kill Malzor if he doesn’t move away from the weapon. “Death isn’t important,” Malzor insists, and they grapple for the weapon, but Kemo punches Malzor in the face, knocking him down. “No,” he says, “But life is.” Denis ForestHaving thus accepted his human side by perfecting the art of the one-liner Kemo shoots the weapon until it explodes the rest of the way, then vanishes in the resulting ridiculous amount of smoke as Malzor looks like he’s going to cry.

At their lair, Blackwood and Kincaid contemplate trashing their computer until a message comes in from “Ace” confirming his escape. Kincaid goes down to some snow-dusted railroad tracks to say goodbye to Kemo, who’s now sporting a Phantom of the Opera/Stark-from-Farscape style half-mask. He makes vague, optimistic statements about having acted to save both races, declares that they’ve made the first step toward reconciliation, calls Kincaid “friend”, shakes his hand, and walks off into the sunset. To, I’m guessing, die in a week from starvation since we established some time ago that Morthren can’t eat Earth food without exploding.

Charles McCaughan

Turn your face away / from the garish light of day

This episode was… Interesting. The story itself is okay, I guess. The larger concept of the Morthren developing a device that can give them control over any human computer system is a big, interesting idea for big exciting sci-fi action plots, but it’s completely ill-served by the actual episode. Just completely bizarre to have that setup, but the actual story is really intimate instead. We get Kemo offering the possibility of the Morthren using their new engram to destroy the entire planet in a nuclear holocaust, but the Morthren leadership themselves never even mention doing anything other than going after the Grapevine. There’s a recurring element of the showmaking here that they believe having characters tell us that things are urgent is a substitute for actually conveying a sense of urgency.

The plot hangs together properly: other than the failure to convey a sense of urgency, they do a good job of cause and effect. There’s no reliance on, “And then through dumb luck the Morthren choose the same farm where Suzanne’s mother lives,” or “Through dumb luck, the rehab clinic Kincaid takes his buddy to is where the aliens are kidnapping people,” or “Blackwood randomly happens to bump into an alien priestess at the rock store,” that so often happens. The aliens attack Grapevine because it’s the most advanced system in town, and that’s also the reason Kincaid is involved. The aliens continue to pursue the users because they got a hold of a piece of Kemo’s data (It does bother me a lot that nothing ever comes of that. That should have been the thing that provided the sense of urgency). They all start working together because they realize they’re being targeted. It’s nothing super-impressive but it all works competently, with no big stretches of logic or wild coincidences. It’s competent.

As has happened lots of times with this show, the storytelling and in particular the way they compose an emotional scene is the strong suit. The plot, not so much. I find it easy to buy Blackwood being traumatized by witnessing the death of Roller and lashing out at Kemo, even though it’s not really consistent with the way he’s been played so far. And I can buy Kincaid being swayed by Kemo even though it’s not really consistent with the way he’s been played either. I’m willing to do this because Adrian Paul and Jared Martin both sell it: there’s a lot of communication going on with them that goes beyond the basic action of the story. This is a well-directed episode. And its emotional core is convincing.

But there’s a huge problem: it’s the exact same emotional core as “Loving the Alien”. And look, it would be totally awesome if a TV show from 1990 deliberately recycled the same story twice in order to put Adrian Paul through the same emotional story they’d previously given to a teenage girl. But I rather get the sense that this was just the show… Not really remembering what it had done three episodes earlier. We’ve seen that before, with the overt similarities between “No Direction Home” and “Doomsday”. I mean, you’d think someone would comment on this. Kincaid might mention that he’s already met one alien who seemed like a mensch. Might tell Kemo that if he’s looking for a Morthren who might possibly have some sympathy for humanity, he should ask Mana about her kid. I mean something when Kemo claims that they’ve just made “the first step” about the other time they made the first step.

There absolutely are different variations at play here. Kemo combines human and Morthren in one person, whereas Ceeto and Debi do so as a gestalt. Ceeto ventures out into the human world seeking knowledge out of arrogance; Kemo is an outcast. Ceeto is ultimately allowed to return; Kemo was literally told to fuck off by god (Kemo gets over this rejection a lot faster than I would have expected). Ceeto is introduced to humanity when he’s rescued from street toughs by Debi. Kemo murders Ace, steals his identity, and has given the Morthen the technology to wipe out humanity. I think it’s very likely that had War of the Worlds gone more than a single season, we’d have seen the relationship between Ceeto and Debi get developed more. With Kemo, I’m less certain, but okay, I could believe that they were setting him up to be a recurring character, possibly even the kind who gets promoted to a leading role for the final season. But it would be intensely weird to have both Ceeto and Kemo as recurring characters in the same show, since their thematic roles are so similar. It’s like they just decided to take a mulligan on the whole “Sympathetic alien who works against his own people in the hope of a peaceful resolution,” thing.

Glancing back at the partial archive of a listserv from 1990, I see that this episode wasn’t well-received by the fans at the time. They must have cottoned on to the similarity with “Loving the Alien” because I see a lot of references to it being a rehash of a plot from “last year”. I do have one advantage over those 1990 viewers, though. I live in a world where the internet is and has been a thing for decades. And I mean, let’s be serious, who isn’t going to get a chuckle out of watching early ’90s TV writers pretend they know what a COM-PU-TAR is (Small, irrelevant aside here. Ever notice that in Space: 1999, they always refer to Alpha’s computer as if “Computer” were a proper noun? As in “I’ve just received a report from Computer. Computer thinks we should investigate the third planet.”).  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go change all my networks and passwords.

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


2 thoughts on “Antithesis: The Defector (War of the Worlds 2×10)

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