Synthesis 6: It’s Just a Jump To the Left

War of the Worlds

Interesting, I guess, that almost exactly a year apart, they did episodes featuring the appearance of alien war machines, and the difference in the approach is noteworthy. In 1990, they give us a good reproduction of the original design, but as a matte painting.

So that happened.

There are remarkably few terms on which you can defend the execution of “Time to Reap”. You’re pretty much stuck with, “Bless their hearts, at least they tried.” And maybe, “At least it’s better than ‘Synthetic Love’.”

At this point, is it even worth pointing out the extent to which it contradicts the first season? There aren’t actually too many problems on a simple numeric basis: really just the two.

The portrayal of Sylvia shouldn’t bother me so much, but it does. Ann Robinson’s performances in the first season, despite being small parts, are incredibly powerful, and it really rubs me wrong. She played Sylvia as a much older woman struggling with severe mental illness, but still recognizably the same character she’d played back in 1953. The version of Sylvia here is just a random generic fifties mom. Blackwood clearly thinks of her as a mother figure, despite the fact that first-season Harrison never spoke of having been raised by Sylvia. He refers to Clayton as his adoptive father, but never calls Sylvia his mother: it’s implied (stated outright in the novelization) that her breakdown occurred while Harrison was still young. This is also the only time she’s referred to as “Mrs. Forrester” rather than “Ms. Van Buren”. It seems unlikely (Again, ruled out explicitly in the book) that first-season Sylvia and Clayton ever married, her illness and institutionalization precluding it.

War of the Worlds - Ancient Alien Warship

In 1989, having failed twice to recreate the classic machine, they give us a very good model that isn’t anything like the original design

If I’m more bothered than I ought to be by the rewriting of Sylvia, I’m also less bothered, emotionally, by the far bigger giant show-stopping bug with regards to the first-invasion aliens. Namely, Blackwood and Malzor are in agreement that the 1953 invaders died back in the fifties. Blackwood raises the idea that some of them may not have died “right away”, but even this is presented only as speculation. There’s no indication that the aliens survived in a state of dormancy instead of just dying. You know, the entire premise of the first season. I’d be more upset, but I’ve long since stopped expecting them to maintain any sort of parity with the first season.

In fact, it’s never really seemed like they were even trying to maintain continuity with the second season premiere. No one’s mentioned the first wave, or their fallen comrades, or the government project they worked for before being disavowed. There’s still some sense that the war has been going on for some time, and a recognition that the Morthren weren’t originally humanoid, but the concept of the current batch of aliens representing a distinct shift in the war has been largely forgotten. Note, for example, that the aliens Kincaid and Blackwood shoot in 1953 still explode into glow-sticks and evaporate, even though Blackwood had commented back in “The Second Wave” about the Morthren looking different when they die. Or how completely inconsistent Malzor’s compassion for the first wave is with his behavior in the opener, when he declared them all failures and had them executed en masse.

But if they meant to completely cut bait on the first-season premise, it’s odd that there are several little touches that relate back to elements of the first season. The reappearance of references to Blackwood having been raised by Forrester, which hasn’t been mentioned at all so far this season. Of course, the dying aliens in the past use the first season design, rather than something closer to the movie. And more, they’re wearing the refrigerated suits the aliens developed in “The Walls of Jericho”, just as they did in “Seft of Emun”. That’s largely just a practical matter, of course.

More interesting is the repeated references to radioactive contamination of the crash site. This seems like it ought to be a straightforward reference. Why are the aliens at Linda Rosa still active when the rest have lapsed into hibernation? Because the radiation is keeping the bacteria in check. And yet Blackwood never acknowledges this — you’d think he would. Just a simple, “Of course! That’s why he came here, Kincaid,” moment. Why add the detail of the radiation without using it? And why bother at all if you’ve written the entire first-season radiation angle out of the show?

As it stands, Blackwood and Kincaid never do learn why Malzor came back in time, or whether they’ve thwarted his plans. For that matter, neither does the audience. But our heroes seem singularly unfazed by this. There’s no angst-ridden note at the end with Blackwood unsure if their interference had positive or negative effects. They don’t know that Malzor was inoculating the others, they don’t know about the alien who got away. For all they know, Malzor came here to pull a spare transmission out of the warship.

Based on my limited resources, fan-reaction to this episode wasn’t as strongly negative as it was to some of the other episodes (“The Defector”, for instance, was panned because in 1990, the magic-computer-bullshit didn’t have the advantage of being charmingly ridiculous). But one of the complaints that caught my eye is that more than one person was hoping for some evidence that the radical inconsistencies between the first and second season were due to history being altered here. That would certainly be interesting — perhaps even interesting enough to redeem the fact that they’d done it in the first place. The archetype for time travel timeline-alteration episodes in science fiction of the time is very directly “Time got changed, this is bad, we’ve got to set it right by the end of the episode” — we’re about three weeks out from Star Trek the Next Generation‘s definitive example, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”. Patrick Stewart in Star TrekIt wouldn’t be until years later that shows like Eureka and Primeval (And perhaps the Terminator franchise as a whole) would embrace the idea of making dramatic changes to the fictional world via a time-travel episode and having to just live with the consequences. Star Trek itself wouldn’t try this until the 2009 movie (Though technically, I think “Yesterday’s Enterprise” did have the timeline permanently altered by giving Starfleet uniforms collars, which they hadn’t had before).

You can sort of see how it would play out, in light of another one of this episode’s most fundamental problems: the 1950s world just does not look like they’re five days out from a global invasion. The people we meet in the ’50s, Miranda, Tommy the newsie, the cab driver who doesn’t take Malzor to Linda Rosa, Sylvia, none of them are acting like they’ve just lived through an invasion that’s killed or displaced millions of people across the world, razed the Earth’s major cities, toppled the Eiffel Tower, and forced man to question his place in the universe. General Mann is more worried about the Red Menace than the little green one. The only person who seems to have actually been traumatized by this war is Young Harrison.

You can still get a cab, people are still “scurrying to and fro over the Earth, about their little affairs,” TVs in shop windows still show local broadcasts. The evening paper comes out on time. War of the Worlds Funny thing, that. The newspaper Blackwood buys upon their arrival is the four-star edition. Four-star editions are published in the late afternoon or evening — my dad, who prefers to read the paper when he came home from work rather than in the morning, was a subscriber to the Baltimore Evening Sun until its demise in 1995. No real problem with that, but if the evening paper just came out, how is it that Blackwood, Kincaid, and Malzor spend the next twelve hours there without it ever being nighttime? In September, in the Los Angeles area, there should be a bit less than thirteen hours of daylight. You just can not make the evening paper, the visit to Sylvia, General Mann’s press conference, Blackwood and Kincaid’s capture at Linda Rosa, and the final showdown all take place in the daytime unless they’re all meant to happen in a span of two to three hours. If we assume that the sun sets right after they leave the Forresters’ house, there’s not enough time left even if General Mann’s press conference is at dawn. Note that (though travel times might get contrived) the problem completely goes away if Malzor’s time limit is cut down to, say, four hours. That would also resolve the issue of Suzanne apparently just standing around making awkward small-talk with Miranda for twelve hours — twelve hours which apparently also span only a single night. The news boy is at his post. Miranda certainly doesn’t look like she’s just getting off after a 24-hour shift desperately fact-checking sources and trying to make sense of garbled, contradictory reports and fielding phone calls from families desperate to know if their loved ones are dead or alive. She may not have made page one, but she managed to land an interview with a celebrity scientist who’s currently out-of-contact for important government meetings.

As ridiculous as all this sounds, though, it should also seem maybe just a little familiar. This 1950s world is the same kind of world as the first season: no one’s actually denying that the invasion happened, but everyone’s just gone back to their regular lives as though it hadn’t.

Sound familiar? It’s a difficult thing to square away logistically, given the scope of the devastation the movie implied (And “Time to Reap” doesn’t really deny this, with headlines about the destruction in Europe and calls for foreign aid), but the black-and-white world Blackwood and Kincaid visit is very much in keeping, if not with the details, at least with the broad strokes of the first season’s world. The aliens aren’t forgotten, exactly, but most everyone’s moved past them, is more concerned about the Russkies, and gets kind of snippy if you even bring them up.

The world that Blackwood and Kincaid visit seems primed to evolve into exactly the sort of “World outside your window” that the second season eschewed in favor of grimdark dystopia. So what’s with the disconnect?

I think that when you factor in elements like the radiation, or the references back to Harrison’s childhood, or the lone inoculated alien escaping, you could make the case that there’s remnants of a bridge between the seasons here. I’ll go as far as to speculate — and again, I have no special insight here — that at some point, the idea was on the table to have this episode function as the explanation for the radical shift from the first season.

How it all played out, I can’t say. Maybe there was a draft of the script that was explicitly that, but it got butchered when it became clear that this episode was going to slot into the second half of the season when the audience had either forgotten or moved past their whiplash. Probably not, though. More likely, perhaps, there was originally a treatment of the episode, something dashed off early on, when Mancuso was still working out what direction he was going to take the series. Or maybe — and really, this seems the most likely explanation of all given how beleaguered the writing process looks to have been — the original script included nothing of the sort, and the little hints and indications that we see in the finished product were added ad hoc as production commenced in a desperate attempt to salvage a foundering script.

So, what would “Time to Reap” have looked like if they’d gone all in? I don’t know. More competent, I hope. We have a sort of prototype for what a “History had been derailed” episode of a syndicated Paramount show airing in the first two months of 1990 might look like, though: whatever cultural influences shaped “Yesterday’s Enterprise” would be the same ones that shaped “Time to Reap”.

What can we learn from that? The first thing to note is that the actual time travel element is comparatively minor in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (Though it will have important implications later in the series). Time travel occurs briefly at the beginning and the end, while the main thrust of the episode is the exploration of the moral dilemma: the Federation is losing a war with the Klingon Empire, and, based entirely on the nebulous, otherworldly trans-temporal intuitions of his bartender, Captain Picard has to decide whether or not to send the Enterprise-C’s crew back to their certain deaths in the hope of averting his own existence.  I haven’t seen “Yesterday’s Enterprise” in years, but I don’t recall them making much of the fact that if they succeeded in what they were doing, they would be erasing billions of lives in order to replace them with “better” ones. Everyone just kind of accepts that this universe sucks and replacing it with a better one is a good thing, the moral dilemma rests solely on the question of whether or not it will actually work, and whether or not it’s acceptable to willfully sacrifice the Enterprise-C crew. The only major work of popular mass-media TV science fiction I can think of offhand which actually does bring up the point, “Hey, even if we’re not the ‘proper’ timeline, don’t we have a right to exist anyway?” is Stargate Continuum, where the heroes get told off for the arrogance of thinking their timeline had more right to exist.

So I think you’d want to speed up the segments set in the past, and give more screen-time to events in the present. The older version of Miranda could be rewritten as a Guinan-figure. Indeed, even as the episode stands, she really ought to have been introduced earlier, and had an active role in shepherding Kincaid and Blackwood toward their destiny. You would certainly want Blackwood to realize what had happened, in general if not in detail. In fact, he should know this before he goes back in time, and he should know that Miranda never found out what happened to them, placing him in the position of having to decide to travel back in time, not knowing if he’d survive.

The other interesting thing about “Yesterday’s Enterprise” that might be relevant to us is the way that it varies from other “History has been changed” stories, Star Trek stories in particular. Every other case I can think of in Star Trek where the timeline is altered, we start out with the “proper” timeline, then someone acts with agency to alter it — usually (But not always, our heroes by mistake). “The City on the Edge of Forever” briefly shows a timeline altered when Dr. McCoy saves the ill-fated Edith Keeler. “Tapestry” shows a timeline altered by Q at Picard’s request. Voyager‘s “Year of Hell” has the Krenim weapon-ship create an altered timeline. Star Trek is set in a timeline which diverged from the original due to the actions of Spock and Nero. Tim Russ’s fan-film Of Gods and Men features a timeline created deliberately by Charlie Evans using the Guardian of Forever (a setup so fanwanky I want to give myself a wedgie and steal my own lunch money just for saying it). “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is different because the altered timeline in that episode is naturally occurring: no one went back in time and messed things up. It’s entirely self-generating. It’s the primary timeline that was created by deliberate intervention — sending the Enterprise-C back through the naturally occurring temporal rift — if anything, it’s the War Timeline that has the stronger claim to being “real”. The only other Star Trek example I can think of that works like that is the animated episode “Yesteryear”, and even then, the altered timeline is “naturally occurring”, but the actions which undo the alteration are undertaken by a Spock displaced from the primary timeline. (There is also the New Voyages episode “In Harm’s Way”, but they never actually explain what a doomsday machine was doing eating Captain Pike in the first place so who knows what was going on there)

How this maps onto War of the Worlds is in the matter of us starting out in the second-season timeline. Assuming it to be logically inconsistent for Malzor to have created the second-season timeline from within it, we must assume that the second-season timeline is naturally occurring, and that the first-season one is an altered state that could potentially result from their interference.

There’s some fascinating implications to this. The thing that’s lacking if we try to directly transpose the “Yesterday’s Enterprise” setup onto “Time to Reap” is the moral dilemma: the first season world is very straightforwardly better than the second in most respects, so why would there be any question of setting it back? In keeping with the tonal shift between seasons, the obvious answer is to have Blackwood and Kincaid fail to “correct” the timeline. But how?

And now some of the points of incongruity come into play. It’s taken for granted that the 1953 aliens are dying — actually dying, not lapsing into hibernation. Perhaps the twist is this: the modern-day Morthren were only partially successful in developing a serum against human disease. The cure they offered protected them from a single, deadly strain of Earth bacteria, but not against less-harmful bacteria which forced them into hibernation. In the first-season timeline, Malzor successfully distributes his cure to the survivors in Linda Rosa, who spread out and inoculate thousands of others, before succumbing to diseases which leave them dormant until 1988, when radiation exposure awakens them to renew their war efforts, only to, ironically, be executed by Malzor himself when the second wave arrives. In the intervening years, the world puts itself back together, and gives in to a collective neurosis that incites them all to forget about the alien menace, perhaps, as Harrison speculated back in, “The Walls of Jericho”, due to some kind of persistent psychic influence from the dormant aliens.

So what goes wrong? Blackwood and Kincaid intervene. They catch Malzor in the act and gun down the vaccinated aliens. All over the world, the invaders die off — perhaps the one escapee successfully saves a few, but not enough. Meanwhile, the discovery of General Mann, apparently murdered by Soviet agents, escalates Cold War tensions. Limited exploitation of captured alien technology causes a technology boom that speeds the destruction of the environment, and the lack of alien amnesia as a coping mechanism worsens social unrest. The Blackwood project still forms, due to the emergence of the few alien survivors inoculated by the one Linda Rosa escapee, but they’re a far less formidable adversary — and consequentially, Omega Squadron is far less experienced and easier to catch unawares.

Perfectly in keeping with the dark tone of the second season, Blackwood and Kincaid bring about their own timeline precisely because they’re grimdark ’90s antiheroes who go in guns-a-blazin’. And also, we return to our moral dilemma: did they do good or bad? Well, the world is obviously fucked. Government collapse, societal collapse, agricultural collapse, industrial collapse. But…

Neither season has yet given us a force estimate for the aliens. So I’m going to skip ahead a little. The estimate we’re eventually given for how many active aliens there are on Earth late in the first season is something in the tens of thousands. By the end of the second season, we will learn that the total number of Morthren is in the neighborhood of two dozen. So there is your trade-off: they destroyed the world to win the war. How’s that for grimdark?

Where would this leave the show for the future? Hard to say. But I think if they’d made this move to address this rift with their past, it might have helped ease the alienation of the existing fanbase. Of course, by January, 1990, that ship had obviously sailed. What it would do is one thing that this show has, with its de facto policy of “Let’s just pretend the first season didn’t happen and hope no one notices,” never done: actually made an active pitch for the new way being a worthwhile change.

Also, it probably would have been a more solid story, rather than this rambling mess that ends with a loose thread they’ll never revisit and without any real resolution for the characters. I’m not, and really never was, hugely bothered by the big explicit retool for the second season. But it’s hard to deny that it’s a wound, a very palpable one. They could walk away from it, or they could address it. As it stands, “Time to Reap” seems like it does neither: it kinda-sorta-half-assedly remembers its past, but only in a vague, “I read the capsule description out of the TV guide” sort of way. And that’s also true of its treatment of the movie itself. The extent of their engagement is that they pulled out a couple of names from the press kit (We’re still in an early era for home video, so it’s likely they didn’t have easy access to the original film and were working from memory). And that feels maybe just a little bit contemptuous.

I think moving forward, this is just going to be how the second season is. It feels like a show that’s imploding. Traveling back to the first invasion is a really neat idea, but they just sorta tossed it out there without much effort. You can see these idea maybe working if they’d spaced them out over more than one season, given them the time they needed and followed up on the plot threads. Instead, the show’s turning into a fire sale, desperate to get all of its idea out there before the electric company switches off the power, regardless of whether they’re done cooking yet.

One thought on “Synthesis 6: It’s Just a Jump To the Left

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