It is January 29, 1990. In Cold War news, Tiraspol, Moldova briefly declares independence. Over the next few days, a McDonalds will open in Moscow and George H. W. Bush will propose that the US and Soviet Union cut back on their militaries, because he’s a pinko wimp who doesn’t love America. I mean, I assume. That’s what they usually say when someone suggests that the US doesn’t actually need a military big enough to take on the whole rest of the world at the same time. Joseph Hazelwood goes on trial for his actions as captain of the Exxon Valdez. Ava Gardner and Helen Jerome Eddy die. Of course, what everyone’s talking about today is the big news from the sports world, one of the most exciting sporting events of the year. I am of course talking about Steffi Graf beating Mary Jo Fernandez in the 48th Women’s Australian Open. Oh and also something about a Superb Owl, with the ’49ers beating the Broncos 55-10. I was more concerned about turning eleven, the Annual Major Sporting Event occurring on the Sunday nearest my birthday, as was tradition until it slipped forward a week in 2002.
Michael Bolton remains at the top of the charts for a second week with “How am I Supposed To Live Without You”, and Paula Abdul enters the top ten with “Opposites Attract”. ABC opposed the Super Bowl with an airing of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In first-run Star Trek, The Next Generation gives us “The High Ground”. I know I watched this at some point. I remember something about there being this super-powerful dimension-hopping teleporter that damaged your DNA if you used it too much. I don’t remember the details. It’s not very good. I mean, it’s probably okay as a story, but it’s basically a traditional Roddenberry Morality Tale about terrorism, except that it never gets around to making any sort of moral statement about terrorism. It’s curiously ambivalent on the matter, offering only the banal platitude that terrorism is bad (mmkay?) because it hurts innocent people, but qualifying it with, “But maybe sometimes the terrorist have a legitimate complaint, and sometimes the establishment is even more evil and ruthless. But terrorism is still wrong. I think.” Also, there’s an offhand comment about Irish reunification that got it banned in Ireland. Mostly it just feels like pointless wheel-spinning. Here’s the take on it from Vaka Rangi.
Friday the 13th The Series provides “Midnight Riders”, an episode which, curiously, does not involve a cursed antique. Instead, on their way back from an off-screen adventure, the gang gets waylaid in a town haunted by vengeful biker ghosts in a sort of supernatural Bad Day at Black Rock. This might have been a trial-run for the plans Mancuso and company had to expand the scope of the series in the fourth season, introducing a broader range of paranormal threats.
Without me occasionally harping on it, you might have forgotten this by now, but War of the Worlds the TV series is, at least on paper, a sequel to the 1953 film The War of the Worlds. I know this can be a little hard to believe. On very rare occasions, there’s a direct allusion to it: the vague similarity of the Morthren weapons in Seft’s flashback, or the three-fingered tool Mana uses, but for the most part, there’s very little connecting the series with the show. It’s not forthrightly contradictory: we learn very little about the aliens in the movie (I mean, okay, they come from Mars in the movie, but surely that’s only speculation), and the fact that the Morthren are far less invincible for the series is well-justified as the result of a massive change in their fortunes after their early defeat. The biggest point of tension is the Morthren’s exclusive use of organic technology, as opposed to the alien-yet-recognizably-technological devices of the first invasion. But this is largely an aesthetic issue. Such a major aesthetic shift is strange to be sure, but not really any stranger than, say, Klingons changing from shifty white guys in Fu Manchus and shoe polish to bumpy-foreheaded space-samurai. It might be nice to see a flashback episode some day set on Morthrai with the Eternal decreeing that their defeat in 1953 was divine punishment for using too much copper and ordering them to convert their technological base over to green orange pith, but we can get by without it.
All the same, if you’re going to do a sequel to a movie from thirty-five years earlier, you’d kind of want there to be some connection. Even if the extent to which basically everything from the movie has changed is reasonable, there’s still the question of why you’re bothering. This is how I generally feel about reboots and reimaginings. I don’t mind if you change up a whole lot of stuff, but if you’re going to change things to the extent that the reboot doesn’t at least offer us a new perspective on the original, why bother? Why not just do something new? I liked, for example, Power/Rangers not for being a grimdark reimagining of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, but rather for the way it took those old Power Rangers concepts and asked us to think about the questions which a (as Samurai Karasu over at Ranger Retrospective would put it) Karate Show for Babies would never even give a first thought, let alone a second. Questions like, “Isn’t strongarming a bunch of children into fighting alien monsters once a week kind of an awful thing to do that would leave them with irreparable psychological damage?” On the other hand, the similarly grim live-action short film Voltron: Red isn’t nearly so compelling, because watching Lance slowly die of asphyxiation in a defunct red lion doesn’t really reframe anything from the thirty-year-old cuisinart-rewrite of Golion.
In any case, this episode of War of the Worlds is the first (and for the most part, only) time the series will seriously engage with its origins as a sequel to the 1953 George Pal film. And it’s… Well, to be honest, it’s kind of a hot mess. I hate to keep banging the same gong, but just like we’ve already seen time and again, it’s another episode where the acting is pretty good, the direction is pretty good, the character drama is strong, the concepts are interesting, the visual composition is great… And the plot is confused and directionless. It just sort of meanders in the general direction of a denouement and ends without bothering to accomplish anything or give any kind of resolution.
The Eternal orders Malzor to… Something. Something that Malzor protests is, “Beyond our capabilities.” The scene feels sort of out-of-order, especially with the audience only hearing Malzor’s side of the conversation. The Eternal brings up the first wave of the invasion, who died, as we all know, from harmless Earth bacteria in 1953. To Malzor’s surprise and confusion, the Eternal proposes that they use time travel to change the outcome of the earlier invasion. It’s clear in context from Malzor’s reaction that bringing up the 1953 invasion and time travel is a shift in the topic of conversation, so I’m really curious what it was the Eternal had been ordering right at the beginning that the Morthren, “have no such power” to do. My understanding is that time travel isn’t something the Morthren can normally do, but the Eternal is going to use its godlike powers to set something up.
Sadly, this clashes with my pet theory that the Eternal isn’t actually an intelligent being, but some sort of shared cultural neurosis of the Morthren. You can still salvage it, since the phenomenon the Morthren harness to enable time travel could be naturally occurring, but it’s a stretch. It would have the rather nice side effect of depicting Malzor as being close to a breakdown.
He promises the Eternal that, “Those who inhabit the Earth, some will be our slaves. The rest will have never been born,” and then orders Mana to rob some blood banks and gather some scientists to do immunological research. While that’s going on, he flips through some forty-year-old file photos until he finds the H. R. record of a 1950s G-man who, through an amazing coincidence, looks exactly like Denis Forest in some makeup and a wig. Using their amazing technology, the Morthren shine a green light on his face which gives him minor plastic surgery and a haircut. Pity they didn’t have this last week; they coulda done something about Kemo’s scars and saved themselves a lot of bother.
Reports of the blood bank robberies make the news, grossing out Debi. Suzanne fails to connect it with the aliens (and why should she?) and suggests that the thieves probably mean to sell the blood on the black market. The news report is interrupted for a weather report, announcing that a hurricane is moving inland from the east coast, causing gale force winds and flooding in the city. I guess we have confirmation now that the city is on the east coast. Kincaid and Blackwood return from a supply run and confirm the severity of the storm.
Then the power goes out and everyone notices that their watches are magnetized.
The weather anomalies are a good example of the writing being incredibly muddled and confused this week. We’ve just been told that the storm they’re experiencing is due to an, “Unusually high tide” along the gulf coast, which, in turn, scientists theorize is caused by, I am not making this up, “A planetary alignment that occurs only once in several centuries.” Oh goody. Vaguely specified planetary alignments are always a reasonable go-to explanation for negative space wedgie bullshit happening in a sci-fi show, because it’s totally reasonable that when the planets all align, the laws of physics get suspended by a gravitational force that is four orders of magnitude smaller than the difference in the gravitational pull on the Earth by the son from perhelion to aperherlion. But none of that even matters, because in a minute, they’re going to cut back to the Morthren and Ardix is going to tell Malzor that he’s only got twelve hours because that’s how long it will take for the energy from the supernova to pass beyond Earth’s orbit. What supernova? Never mind. Maybe the implication here is that the Eternal done blew up a star in order to facilitate Malzor’s Back to the Future reenactment. Because (a) the Eternal can do that, (2) the energy from a supernova would reach Earth in a matter of days rather than centuries, and (iii) this would somehow allow time travel. This is like that episode of Doctor Who where the Cybermen blow up a star in a different galaxy and this somehow diverts a meteor shower toward a space station near Earth.
And on top of all this, the opening shot of the episode is of the sun, showing prominent solar flares in a way that seems like they’re trying to foreshadow that the solar flares have something to do with the window for time travel. That, at least, has the benefit of being a bullshit pseudoscience justification for time travel that Stargate SG-1 would later accept (I’ve always assumed that the second wave arrived via some kind of teleportation rather than by ship, as evidenced by the way that they at no point seem to have a, y’know, ship. It would certainly be an interesting coincidence if the Morthren time machine — realized as a large, circular portal controlled from a nearby pedestal — was actually a repurposed interstellar transporter, which could achieve time travel by sending the traveler on a parabolic orbit across the path of prominent solar flare).
But just to add insult to injury, in a moment, Blackwood and Suzanne are going to be discussing this strange weather — the weather that’s prompted flood warnings, and they’re going to notice that it’s exactly the same as Norton (Remember him? Their colleague from the pilot who they haven’t mentioned all season?) had observed when the second wave arrived: “Lightning and thunder and never any rain.”
So what we have here is a major storm, which is caused by a hurricane, and also by a planetary alignment, and also by solar flares, and also by a supernova. Which is causing high winds, thunder and lightning, power failures, electromagnetic effects, magnetizing watches, and floods, but not rain. This all happens in the space of about five minutes. Was the writer drunk?
Blackwood stops by Debi’s room to give her a candle, and they have a pleasant chat about her homework, which is on the history of Rock ‘n Roll. Seriously. When is this show set, anyway? They chat a bit about what life was like in the ’50s, when life was, “nice and normal”. Debi finds the concept of milk delivery, newspaper delivery, and ice cream trucks impossible to believe. Um. We have two of those things now. I get that Debi lives in a dystopian hellhole which wouldn’t have luxuries like ice cream trucks, but just how long has the world been like this if she can’t even imagine them? Debi’s not that old, of course, but if the collapse of civilization isn’t recent, when was it? The most logical time for it to happen would be back in the ’50s, in the immediate aftermath of the war. But, as we’re about to learn, Blackwood was a small child during the war, so if civilization collapsed back then, he wouldn’t remember “sock hops and bebops”.
This isn’t really a character focus episode for Blackwood per se, but it does go into his backstory quite a bit. Clumsily. The magnetized watches must have triggered a memory for him, because he consults an old notebook and finds a reference to a, “Lightning storm with no rain and high winds,” associated with magnetized watches and power outages. The notebook belonged to Dr. Clayton Forrester, and is describing the events of the first invasion. I don’t recall there being high winds and lightning in the movie, though the magnetized watches and power failures are in there.
Lucky job he had that in his pocket when the safe house and all their stuff got blown up. Blackwood and Suzanne draw the horrifying conclusion that the unusual weather might herald another invasion wave. And you know what, I like this. All too often, even in modern sci-fi adventure, there’s a scene where the heroes have to speculate on what the enemy’s next move is based on limited evidence, and they luck into getting it exactly right, even though there are much more obvious possibilities that would fit the known facts. But this time, our heroes get it wrong, and they get it wrong because there happens to be a really well-supported possibility that fits their experience and the facts they know, and because there’s no way they could guess what’s actually going on from the facts at hand. Fortunately, their wrong guess is still close enough to point them in the right direction, so they grab Kincaid and hop in the Awesome Van, using some unnamed piece of scientific equipment to locate the epicenter of the lightning strikes, which they describe as generating “A tremendous displacement of energy,” and compare to a black hole. Kincaid’s not happy about this plan, as it’s not like they have any realistic chance of breaking the beachhead of a full-on invasion, but Blackwood insists that, at the least, someone has to be there to see it.
Another electromagnetic pulse disables the van, and they proceed on foot to the epicenter, which turns out to be in an abandoned amusement park. There’s no Watsonian reason for this. If the Eternal did indeed engineer the meteorological conditions to make time travel possible, I guess maybe it picked a place that was near the Morthren base, but not so close that it would give their location away? The obvious Doylist reason for the setting is because abandoned amusement parks are super creepy, and this show is supposed to be pretty scary. I’ll give it to them, a gunfight with aliens with shots ricocheting off of broken-down animatronic clowns is pretty awesome.
Mana determines that the death of the first invasion force was due to a single, specific microbe. She provides Malzor with a serum that will innoculate and heal the infected. They’ve never really talked about why it is that the modern Morthren of the second wave aren’t similarly affected — the fact that it’s only now that they’ve had to develop a treatment for that microbe is sort of weird. We do know that the Morthren are still extrememly susceptible to Earth diseases, with Ardix and Ceeto both suffering from life-threatening infections after fairly superficial injuries.
Each of you is charged with a specific role. The Eternal has created this moment for us, and we will not fail him.
We’ll bring about a new era on this diseased planet. Malzor gives what’s supposed to be an inspirational speech, and Ardix powers up the time machine. Blackwood and Kincaid follow a Morthren soldier into the funhouse, because of course they do. You don’t have a fight scene in an abandoned amusement park without a chase through the hall of mirrors, and you don’t have a chase through the hall of mirrors without one of two things happening. Option A is a big exciting scene of lots of mirrors shattering. They go for option B: the soldier shoots at Blackwood with his laser weapon, only to have it bounce off a series of mirrors in unlikely procession until he accidentally vaporizes himself. Suzanne tries to follow the men inside, but is restrained by an old woman who’s maybe dressed as a fortune teller? Or maybe she’s just dressed like a homeless person wearing a bandana. At any rate, she assures Suzanne that she can’t follow where the others are going for reasons she will explain once the camera cuts away.
Alerted by the gunfire outside, Malzor orders Ardix to turn up the power. He hurls himself into the glowing circular membrane of the time portal just as Blackwood and Kincaid arrive. The remaining Morthren run for cover rather than engage the humans, giving Blackwood an opening to jump into the portal himself, and Kincaid reluctantly follows. I haven’t said much about Julian Richings these past few episodes, because ultimately, he’s a very minor character, popping in for a line or two, and he’s great, but there’s not much to talk about. But I’ll stop a moment here to point out just how fantastic his Big-Shouted-NOOOOOOOO! reaction shot is here when he helplessly watches Blackwood and Kincaid launch themselves into the time portal.
There’s a particular visual idiom which Frank Mancuso Jr. really likes. He’s used it repeatedly in Friday the 13th the Series, and now he’s using it here. Like a reverse Wizard of Oz, time travel is depicted by the world switching to black-and-white. It makes you almost wonder if he thinks that the world was actually like that before the advent of color television. It doesn’t quite look like normal black-and-white television, though. I assume that the color was removed in post. The contrast is very sharp, and it gives everything a slight air of unreality which I think works nicely, but it’s just weird as hell because the 1953 movie was in color. In fact, it had really rich, deep color, that had its own sort of Technicolor unreality to it, and it’s just wrong to flatten that down to black and white. It’s almost like they’ve gone back in time not to a real past, but to a past TV show. Hey, y’know what? Let’s roll with that.
It is September 7, 1953. In Cold War news, the UN rejected a proposal by the Soviet Union to grant membership to China. This might lose you a point or two on a world history test, because in 1953, China was already a member of the UN. This is because there’s kinda sorta two Chinas, but don’t say that in earshot of either one of them because it’s a touchy subject. The Taiwan-based Republic of China, though it had lost control of the mainland in 1949, would retain its UN seat until 1971. Nikita Kruschev becomes the head of the Soviet Central Committee. Last Friday, REM sleep was discovered. Senator Kennedy is getting ready for his wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier this Saturday. That boy’s going places, I tells ya. Later this week, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson will die. Because it’s the ’50s and Eisenhower is white, his replacement, California Governor Earl Warren, will be confirmed in less than a month.
“Vaya con Dios” remains on the top of Billboard Magazine‘s Most-Played and Best-Seller charts. It’ll be second only to Dean Martin’s rendition of “That’s Amore” for the year in general. Racket Squad, Studio One, and Robert Montgomery Presents are all new tonight. This week’s Dragnet, airing Thursday, is “The Big Revolt”.
Frankly, I’m still not convinced that trying to adapt last month’s George Pal film to a weekly series is a great idea. I mean, with the Martians all dead or dying, what’s this show going to be about, anyway? There are some hints. General Mann gives a press conference in which he mentions the urgency of the US gaining access to an alien mothership to learn its secrets before the Soviets can do the same. There’s certainly room here for a Cold War intrigue, maybe some kind of proto-spy-fi with agents tracking down spies and criminals armed with stolen alien technology.
This episode seems to represent a changing of the guard from the movie, marking General Mann’s last appearance, reducing Sylvia to a cameo, and moving Clayton entirely off-screen as he’s been called to Washington for a conference. In their place, we’re given a new main character, Miranda Watson, plucky junior reporter for the City Sun-Mirror. She dreams of getting the big scoop and making page 1 (Her interview with Clayton Forrester on the question of whether the aliens were really from Mars and not some other planet is on page 2), alongside the articles about how tough it is to be a beat cop, and trade negotiations with the AFL, and, oh, right, the devastation of much of the world by the Martian invasion last week. But for now, they won’t even comp her a copy of the newspaper she works for, as she’s got to buy one from Tommy, the news boy stationed outside the newspaper office.
Tommy suddenly notices something funny about the half-dollar his last customer used to pay him: it bears the face of the junior senator from Massachusetts. That seems forced. I mean, do you have any half-dollars on you at the moment? It’s not like they were any more common in the early ’90s. Half-dollars were the last silver coins in production in the late ’60s, so collectors hoarded them, and by the time the half-dollar was switched to nickel-clad copper in the ’70s, people had gotten out of the habit of spending them. Maybe Blackwood’s a gambler (The only place I know of that half-dollars are commonly used for any more is casinos, where they get used like a half-chip, or to pay out non-computerized slot machines). He shoulda given the kid a dime. Dimes haven’t changed their design since the forties. Besides, the newspaper only actually cost a nickel.He probably should’ve noticed sooner since it was nickel-clad copper instead of real silver. Miranda trades him a proper Franklin-head for the “counterfeit” one and sets out to learn more about the pair of mysterious strangers…
Blackwood quickly deduces where they are by buying a newspaper from a conveniently placed newsie. It’s September 7, 1953, which is a really neat little detail: it’s twelve days after the movie was released. Blackwood tells us that this is five days after the alien defeat, which would mean the war lasted 7 days. That aligns with a bit of dialogue from the movie: one of Forrester’s colleagues does the math on the rate of alien progress and calculates that it will take them six days to conquer the world, so the date works out if we assume the aliens landed on August 26, the war started the following day, and the battle of Los Angeles was part of the final push. Blackwood also realizes that they’ve traveled in space, by a coincidence that completely beggars the imagination, to his home town. Which is probably near Los Angeles, for reasons I’ll get to in a bit. I’m not saying it’s unreasonable for the time portal to have sent them across the country in addition to sending them four decades back in time, but I’m not satisfied with the reasons for it. Why cross the country? Surely there must be enclaves of dying aliens all over the planet, probably some that aren’t surrounded by the US Military. For that matter, why did they come back to after the war? Maybe the time tunnel was limited to this exact place and time by natural forces, but if so, they should have said something about it.
Blackwood is also confused by their choice of destination. He guesses — another near miss — that they’ve come back to retrieve something from the past, since, per Forrester, not all of the aliens died right away. He’s at a loss as to what set of time travel story rules apply, but cautions Kincaid that anything they do in the past will alter their present. Guess how many times this comes up. He decides that the best move is to go home. This is when, very casually, they drop the major backstory-bomb of the episode: Blackwood’s parents died in the war, and he was raised by Dr. Forrester’s wife, Sylvia.
That’s… Kind of a big thing to just suddenly, casually drop into the middle of a random episode like that. I get that because the story began in medias res, you wouldn’t expect Blackwood to have any sort of “origin story”, but this is the first time we’ve mentioned the Forresters. It’s not like there hasn’t been ample oportunity in the show so far to have him pull out Clayton’s old notebook to reference some aspect of alien biology or technology that Forrester had discovered. It’s doubly weird because it’s not like we pick up with Clayton and Sylvia where the film left them: in the five days since the end of the movie, they’ve gotten married and adopted a kid. (And now he’s run off to Washington for a week-long conference. Shitty honeymoon.) It’s just such a waste to call back to one of the greatest couples of 1950s sci-fi and not really do anything with them. I see no particular resemblance between Sylvia Forrester in this episode and the character Ann Robinson played, and not just that Martha Irving looks nothing at all like Ann Robinson. I guess it’s reasonable that she would stay home and not be involved directly with aliens any more. Sylvia was an academic — she taught library science — but not a research scientist of the sort who’d be involved on a continuing basis with alien research. Plus, she was clearly traumatized by her experiences and was unlikely to want to assist her husband in his work. But the Sylvia we see here is just sort of “Generic Fifties Housewife.” The fact that she’s a newlywed, a new mother, and went through a highly traumatic, life-changing experience last week doesn’t really show on her at all.
It also makes me more interested than ever in the unspoken backstory for this series. Now that we know Blackwood is the adopted son of the Forresters, maybe that clarifies my confusion about how role on the team from the opening episode. The old team that gets cut down in the pilot, remember, was basically the General, three specialists, and Blackwood. You could sort of imagine now that whatever events led General Wilson to form his team might have involved Blackwood directly. Maybe the last invasion wave announced their presence by hunting down the Forresters, and he convinced Wilson to let him on the team to avenge his parents.
There’s a huge waste of opportunity here. Odd that the narrative doesn’t feel any need to explain who Sylvia and Clayton are. Is it really safe to assume the audience is that familiar with the movie? We’re still in the early days of home video, and the show’s had little enough to do with the movie so far. Kincaid doesn’t seem to need any explanation of who Clayton is, but he doesn’t appear to have known that he’s Blackwood’s adopted dad . It’s clumsy. We really should have seen small, casual references to Clayton throughout the season leading up to this reveal. Start out with Blackwood mentioning him to Kincaid right at the beginning when he says that the aliens have changed physically — something like “Back in the fifties, there was a scientist, Clayton Forrester, he theorized that the alien biology blah blah blah.” You’ve made sure that the audience knows to recognize the name as important when it comes up here. The thought occurs that probably the reason Blackwood kept his birth name, despite it being common practice in the ’50s that he’d have changed his name as part of the adoption is specifically so that it can be a surprising reveal that Clayton isn’t just an old scientist he respects, but his father. And yet, there’s no real weight to the reveal here.
Blackwood gets momentarily choked up on seeing Sylvia, but recovers quickly and presents himself as a colleague from Canada, reminding me of the running gag on Sliders of the heroes explaining their ignorance of local customs on alternate Earths by claiming to be Canadian tourists, who thus don’t know who won the Civil War or which color traffic light means “go”. She’s polite, but unhelpful, as Clayton’s out of contact. Before heading inside, she asks if he’s seen her kid, who’s probably hiding in his “secret hiding place”.
Blackwood circles around to the “secret hiding place”, which turns out to be a crude lean-to against the side of the house with open sides. Now, it might seem contrived that Sylvia can’t find the kid, but keep in mind, she’s lived here like five days max. Here we introduce Young Harrison Blackwood, played by Amos Crawley, an actor who is going to grow up to be a respected live-action and voice performer, but here is another terrible child actor. Blackwood and himself have a heart-to-heart. The kid is obviously upset about his parents being dead. If he’s bugged by the fact that his new replacement dad has abandoned him within a week, he keeps that to himself. When Young Harry says that he wants to be with his parents in heaven, his older self comforts him by giving him a Cat’s Eye shooter marble, a memento he’s been carrying around for the past forty years to remind himself of his parents.
They abandon the grieving child to go catch a press conference being given nearby by General Mann. General Mann is played by George R. Robinson, best known for playing Hurst in the Police Academy series. When I saw this casting choice, I was initially really bothered that, as with Martha Irving as Sylvia, Robinson looks nothing at all like Les Treymane. But seeing him in action, I was surprised to find that I didn’t have too much trouble accepting him as an older, wearier version of the same character. That said, it’s a rough fit for a General Mann who’s only a week older than when we last saw him. The General Mann of the film was urbane, a good communicator, and eager to work with others to get the job done. Robinson’s Mann is much more crotchety and “Get off my lawn you damned kids.” It doesn’t seem flat-out wrong, but it’s a big shift in the characterization to go unjustified.
Mann is clearly unhappy about having to deal with reporters. He refuses to confirm that they’ve got a group of alien survivors cordoned off in the devastated nearby town of Linda Rosa. The real Linda Rosa was a 19th century housing development south of Murrieta, California which briefly became its own town in the 19th century. Murrieta is a little more than an hour outside of Pasadena, and in the modern day, it’s a major bedroom community for LA, so it’s actually kind of a reasonable place for the Forresters to live, assuming that the fictional Pacific Tech is in roughly the same place as Cal Tech. Though in the fifties, Murrieta was mostly an agricultural town with a declining tourism industry linked to the local hot springs. I’m probably over-thinking this, but it’s really interesting that we’ve finally been given geographical clues that actually seem to point to a single, specific place that makes sense. Mann does confirm that the quarantine area is being monitored due to elevated radiation. Blackwood and Kincaid catch sight of Malzor in the crowd and give chase, but he evades them by ducking around a corner.
Having failed to hire a cab to take him to Linda Rosa, Malzor locates the FBI agent he’s been impersonating, murders him, and steals his car. I think. Actually, it kinda seems like he just climbs into a random car to evade our heroes, and by dumb luck, the real Agent Magruder is inside.
Miranda, having spotted our heroes at the press conference, approaches them, looking for an interview. Blackwood and Kincaid respond by carjacking her to get up to Linda Rosa themselves. She takes them for Russian agents, because, “Everyone’s worried about Russian agents right now, especially Senator McCarthy,” which amuses Kincaid a little. They immediately spill the beans about being from the future, because fuck the timeline. She doesn’t believe them, of course, until Kincaid points out that aliens are a thing. Seriously, he’s just like, “We’re chasing an alien. If you believe in aliens, you damn well better believe in us,” and she finds this completely convincing.
Malzor’s forged identification gets him past the military checkpoint. Our heroes aren’t so lucky, and get caught pretty much immediately. General Mann doesn’t find their advanced polyester clothes and digital watches at all convincing, and declares all three of them to obviously be Soviet agents and has them taken away.
Kincaid protests that they’ve only got two hours left of the original twelve, which is utterly bizarre on all sorts of levels. For example, really? They’ve been here for ten hours? Doing what? And more importantly, when did Kincaid learn about the twelve hour window?
Miranda fakes a panic attack as they’re about to be locked up, giving Blackwood and Kincaid an opening to dispatch the guards and free themselves. Kincaid gags Miranda with his bandana and locks her up to keep her out of harm’s way. There really ought to have been a line here explaining that by leaving her locked up, they were effectively clearing her from suspicion of being a willing accomplice to the two “Soviet agents” (I mean, maybe. It was the ’50s. They’d probably just conclude that she was a spy anyway because she hadn’t forced them to shoot her).
“Agent Magruder” affirms the general’s suspicions about Blackwood and Kincaid being spies, then demands to be taken to the alien mothership. General Mann is combative about it. This angers Malzor so much that he temporarily forgets what show he’s in and knocks the general out with a Vulcan neck pinch, then sticks one of those grub things from Ceti Alpha V in his ear, placing him under alien mind control.
The general drives Malzor to the crash site and stands guard outside. This is where we get our one and only look at the iconic Martian War Machine. They’ve been referring to it as a “mothership”, which is clearly wrong (the motherships were cylinders which contained three of the smaller warships), but it’s there, one of the most distinctive and famous space ships in the history of sci-fi.
Of course, by “It’s there”, I mean, “There’s a matte painting of one.” It’s a very nice matte painting though. Even in black and white, it captures the look of the original perfectly (The cobra-head looks maybe a little off, but that might just be the angle on the shot). Malzor kinda sings at it, for what reason, I can’t say.
The ship is crashed against a dairy. Malzor finds the ship’s occupants huddled inside. The aliens here look exactly like they did in “Seft of Emun” and “The Second Wave”, rather than the original movie design, and wear the same cowled suits with tubing all over them. There’s a surprisingly touching scene where Malzor regards his dying brethren with compassion, speaking words of comfort to them. One alien reaches out its three-fingered hand in desperation, and he takes it compassionately.
While he injects the survivors with his vaccine, Kincaid and Blackwood fight their way past the army to the crash site. Blackwood draws General Mann’s fire while Kincaid circles around… And shoots him. Yeah. Kincaid shoots General Mann. We don’t actually see him die — he’s still trembling when they move on — but it seems pretty likely those wounds are fatal. And it’s not like Kincaid knew he was mind-controlled or anything. He just up and murdered a two-star for no greater crime than being in their way and doing his duty to protect the US against suspected Russian spies. Surely, the murder of General Mann and Agent Magruder mean that the timeline has been altered, setting up a paradox that will — nah, I’m just kidding. Nothing happens and it’s never mentioned again.
Malzor passes the vaccine off to one of the 1953 aliens and orders him to find and innoculate the others as he sees the humans approach. Blackwood and Kincaid dispassionately gun down all the aliens they find, spraying the walls with their glow-stick blood as the air grows thick with the smoke from their evaporation. Meanwhile, in the future (I know, right?), Ardix declares that Malzor’s time is up and entreats him to return at once. The time portal just sorta appears at the end of the building, and Malzor makes a break for it. Blackwood sees him and they give chase. Though Malzor orders Ardix to cut the power to the time portal as soon as he emerges, I guess it takes the thing a few seconds to wind down. The Morthren flee just before Kincaid and Blackwood emerge, finding the black-and-white world of the past replaced by the black-and-brown world of the present. After checking under the house for any dead witches, they leave the house of mirrors to be reunited with Suzanne, who I guess has just been waiting there for the past twelve hours (Is it still night time twelve hours later? Of course it is. When I watched this show as a teenager, I kinda assumed the sun had gone out or something, it is so rarely daytime).
The old woman chuckles and declares that they, “Haven’t changed a bit,” and that she’s waited a long time to see how the story ends. Kincaid is confused until she returns his bandanna. Realizing that it’s Miranda, they all share a good laugh. You might reasonably ask how Miranda had known to be there. But I’ll let it slide; Kincaid easily could have told her the exact date, time, and place they came from on the trip to Linda Rosa, though why he’d do it, I’ve no idea. Also, I think it would have been better for her to show them the half-dollar rather than the handkerchief.
Back at the Morthren base, there’s a pointless scene where Malzor apologizes to the Eternal for his failure and asks to be punished. Based on his reaction, it seems like the Eternal just told him he was Very Disappointed and Try Harder Next Time. Given Morthren philosophy, I guess that bit does perhaps work as support for my theory that the Eternal isn’t real and Malzor is just crazy.
We finish on Blackwood in his room, gazing into the marble he gave his younger self. Because he’s got it back somehow. Because… Fuck, I don’t know. He’s in a funk, melancholic over seeing Sylvia again and revisiting the loss of his birth parents. Debi interrupts his reverie to ask him to teach her one of those old-timey ’50s dances, and he agrees, which I guess is supposed to be symbolic of Blackwood choosing to remember the happy things about his past as well as the sad.
Man, this episode. What a freaking waste. I have no problem with the premise; it’s a great premise. And the imagery is fantastic, especially the amusement park. I also really like the bookending scenes with Debi. I really want her to be this show’s moral center, and I love the symbolism of Blackwood choosing Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll as the thing from his past that he wants to pass on to her in light of the way that they’re both children of the alien war.
But the plot is basically incoherent garbage. Adrian Paul did an interview for Starlog where he said that the scripts for War of the Worlds were almost always delivered late and needed substantial revisions on the fly to cover over the worst of the plot holes. This seems like a really beleaguered production.
There are so many places they could have gone here. We get to revisit these amazing characters from the original film, but Clayton’s out of town and Sylvia’s a barely-recognizable cameo. You’ve got Blackwood’s dire warning about changing the past, but then they go and shoot General Mann with no repercussions whatever. We presume one alien does escape with the ability to immunize aliens the world over, but this has no impact on the timeline. Nothing gets explained, nothing justified. The show seems unengaged with its own past to the point of negligence. Don’t forget that in “The Second Wave”, Malzor eagerly executed the previous invasion force for their failures, yet now he’s eager to save the failed first invasion. After repeatedly hammering home the Morthren mindset of disdain and even contempt for anything perceived as imperfect, Malzor greets his dying comrades with affection and compassion. It’s not really clear what was at stake here, and what success or failure ought to look like. That one alien escaping sure seems like it should have made this an ultimate success for the Morthren, but it’s not. Are they setting something up for later? Any deferred impact from this would be a major cheat. What are they going to do, start the next season with the revelation that the escaped alien did inoculate more of the 1953 survivors, but for some reason they went into hiding for forty years rather than hop back in the war machines and finish conquering the world?
So many of the time travel tropes seem to just be tossed in because someone vaguely recalled them being things that happen in time travel stories. Meeting yourself as a young child, check. Dire warnings about what happens if you alter the past, check. Time passing in the present at the same speed as the future, check. Person you met in the past turning up as an old person when you return to the present, check (I don’t know why I feel compelled to mention, this, but that was the capacity in which W. Morgan Sheppard appeared in Doctor Who, as the 2013-version of Canton Delaware, their ally whose 1969 version was played by Sheppard’s son). Even the bit with Blackwood’s marble — a bauble of enormous personal significance to him, which we have never seen or heard of before and never will again. That scene feels like it must have been inspired by a botched reading of the scene in Star Trek IV where Kirk sells his glasses. How does he get it back at the end? Because reasons.
It grates on you. This episode could have been something really cool. But instead, it’s amateur hour.
- War of the Worlds the Series is available on DVD from amazon.