It is the week of January 30, 1989. Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney shuffles his cabinet. Over the course of the week, the Soviets will pull their last armored column out of Afghanistan, Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner will be overthrown by a military coup, and P. W. Botha will resign the presidency of South Africa for health reasons. Though his presidency had seen the legalization of interracial marriage and racially mixed neighborhoods, he remained a staunch supporter of apartheid and an opponent of the reforms made by his successor, F. W. de Klerk.
George Michael and Randy Travis win big at the 16th annual American Music Awards. “Two Hearts” retains the top spot on the charts, but there’s a lot of churn further down in the top ten: Paula Abdul, Bon Jovi, Tone-Loc and Tiffany are all in; Bobby Brown, Poison, Annie Lennox, and Michael Jackson are out. Her Alibi and Who’s Harry Crumb? premier this week, movies I mostly know from seeing their boxes on the shelf at the video place. WTTW-11 in Chicago demos HDTV to some members of the press, who are suitably impressed. The FCC would approve the technology almost two years later. PBS begins airing segments of the British children’s series Thomas and Friends intercut with new American-made framing segments as Shining Time Station, inexplicably starring Ringo Starr (For subsequent seasons, he’d be replaced by the even less explicable George Carlin).
In the second of their four time-travel episodes, Friday the 13th The Series gives us “Eye of Death”, about a antique murder-powered magic lantern which allows a shifty antiques dealer to acquire Civil War artifacts straight from the source. He ends up getting tele-fragged when they turn the lantern off as he’s coming back through. Star Trek the Next Generation gives us “Unnatural Selection”, which is noteworthy for the fact that it sure as hell seems like a straight-up rip-off of the original series episode “The Deadly Years”. Some scientists are rapidly aging to death, and it turns out that this is because they genetically engineered their children to have hyper-aggressive immune systems As Josh Marsfelder put it, the moral is basically, “Don’t tamper in God’s domain or else you’ll be stuck in a shitty knock-off of an original series episode.” I find it interesting, at least, for being, “The one where the Federation is explicitly and deliberately doing transhuman genetic engineering and everyone is cool with it, despite the fact that every single other time this comes up, the repeated theme is that humanity absolutely shits its pants over the idea of doing genetic engineering because of that thing that happened with Ricardo Molteban.”
Memories and imagination can be tricky. “He Feedeth Among The Lilies” feels large and important in my memories. An episode intended to set up future events and spin out character development. It’s supposed to have implications for the future. Multiple fan-writers went on to pen sequels to it.
But I went and watched it again and… Well, to sum it up, the plot of this episode is, “Harrison gets laid. It doesn’t end well.” It’s not bad, really, but it’s thin. Not a lot happens. The entire episode revolves around Harrison getting a girlfriend, and even that is curiously abbreviated. The alien presence is little more than foreshadowing for the not-at-all shocking ending — the only point at which it starts to feel like the same kind of show it has been so far is the very end. Its biggest sin, though, is that the whole thing is a heavily telegraphed slow-motion fridging, and we don’t even get to see the fridge opened at the end.
We’ve seen a few times already how War of the Worlds attempted to capitalize on collective neuroses that were part of the public zeitgeist at the time, even when they don’t quite fit in with the rest of the established continuity of the series. The cattle mutilations back at the beginning of the series, for instance: they don’t really make a lot of sense in context or lead to anything, but aliens mutilating cattle was a Thing that was popular in the tabloids at the time, so they felt compelled to tie it in. You may or may not recall that Satanic cults were mentioned in passing at the time, though only for the purpose of being tossed out as an alternate explanation to aliens. And we’ve run into the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of the 1980s in other places, up in the paragraphs at the tops of the articles where I talk about what else is going on in the world that week, and I hope that you’ve taken away from that by now that this stuff isn’t entirely unconnected. It isn’t a coincidence that you get these particular panics at these particular points in history: there’s something about living in this part of the 1980s that makes “My child’s teacher is secretly a satanist” or “Aliens are exsanguinating my cows” or “Dungeons and Dragons will make my children commit suicide” an attractive crazy thing to believe, moreso than, “My neighbor is a secret Soviet sleeper agent,” or “Dancing may lead to our children having premarital sex,” or “I saw Goody Proctor consorting with the devil”.
So why these particular paranoias here and now? You’ll probably have to ask a social scientist for the details, but I think some of it has to do with the winding down of the Cold War. We addressed the spirit of Glasnost back in “Epiphany”, and one of the things that struck me there is how fair-handed they were with the Soviet establishment — Major Kedrov is clearly coded as antagonistic, but it’s a respectful antagonism, one that’s heavily invested in maintaining the status quo. They’re on different sides, but they’re not really opposing each other per se. I’ve often said that nothing in the ’80s makes a lick of sense unless you realize that everyone was acting from the assumption that nuclear war was inevitable. I think what we see with these panics is a sense that western culture had grown “comfortable” with the persistent threat posed by the cold war — we were locked in this stupid, pointless, neverending struggle that was eventually going to kill us all, but so were they. It was familiar. The “real” danger was the danger of an unknown outsider tipping the balance. Once the cold war actually ends, things are going to shift — it’ll suddenly be a lot more popular to look back at stuff like Reagan deliberately antagonizing the Soviets in order to scare Americans into voting for him, and start worrying that the government might be actively Up To No Good rather than just hillariously incompetent, and we’ll see the public start taking a greater interest in conspiracy theories and shadow governments with stuff like The X-Files (It’s not like this hasn’t already started here in 1989, but it hasn’t really hit its stride yet), but that’s a story for another day.
Speaking of The X-Files though, whatever motivates them, in among the social worries in this part of the nexus is an increasing interest in alien abductions. Later this year, Whitley Strieber’s 1987 novel Communion is going to be adapted as a Christopher Walken film. Once again, alien abductions aren’t a thing which the Martians of the 1953 movie ever did, and it’s different in key ways from the alien possession used so far in the series, but in hindsight, we should have seen it coming.
The interesting thing about alien abductions is that they tend to a whole bunch of specific common elements — paralysis, missing hours, reports of having foreign objects inserted into one of two very specific places (the other one is the navel), being surrounded by quasi-humanoid figures with distorted proportions. Carl Sagan pointed out that if you eliminate the flying saucers, the same elements also come up in premodern reports of demonic attacks. If you’re a believer, you might take this as evidence that the reports are true, not random dreams or hoaxes, and that they’ve been going on even before the concept of extraterrestrial life entered the public consciousness. If you’re a skeptic, you might instead conclude that there’s something wired into the human brain that is inclined to generate certain patterns of hallucination given the right stimulation, onto which sufferers project additional details as befits their cultural context, be it aliens, or demons, or the fair folk.
So this week, the gang from Mortax is going to try their hand at alien abduction and human experimentation in order to unlock the secrets of the human immune system. The opening scene finds doctors and paramedics shocked as they wheel a gravely injured patient into an operating room to find it’s been hastily stripped. Doesn’t really speak well of the hospital’s reputation that they were the first ones to notice. At the Land of the Lost cave, some alien candy stripers try cutting up a prisoner they’ve conveniently tied to a metal frame in a crucifixion pose, but the radiation means that he “spoils” too fast.
The advocates are wary about moving their experiments away from the safety of their cave, but this is counterbalanced by the better “selection” they’ll have on the outside: it turns out that the raid on the hospital also netted them an ambulance, which they can use as a mobile surgery to conduct experiments in the field.
And then, I guess, six months pass. There’s no interstitial titles or anything to indicate this, but the rest of this episode is going to require that the aliens have been doing field experiments on humans using this particular modus operandi for at least half a year.
By the sort of remarkable coincidence that has become part of the standard operating procedure for this show, Harrison and the gang are over at the safe house (The same one where they met Adrian in “Among the Philistines”) conducting interviews with alien abductees. Now, this episode is kind of threadbare plotwise, but there’s just a bit of that War of the Worlds wonderful weirdness around the periphery that I can at least enjoy. For example, the first interview we see is with an older couple, Arnold and Pat Thistle, who consider it very important that Harrison understand that they’re good, respectable, upstanding Christians, and not the sort of lowlife perverts who go around getting abducted by aliens. It’s got a very nice “First paragraph of Harry Potter,” vibe to it, with the Thistles clearly more troubled by what the neighbors would think than by the fact that they met aliens. They also give the just shockingly wonderful and surprisingly accurate description of the aliens as looking like “A cross between a giant frog and a huge, slimy walnut.”
There’s some more interviews, either shown in-progress or by having the team review recordings. A man who was paralyzed during a motorcycle ride and experimented upon, a woman pulled from her car, and Karen McKinney, a sound editor who was attacked while jogging and left with a ten-hour memory gap and recurring nightmares. Mixed in between the interviews, the team reflects on their findings.
At first, I wasn’t crazy about the characterization of the regulars in these scenes, but it’s grown on me. Ironhorse, as usual, is pessimistic, but there’s clear character growth from his hardcore skepticism in the early part of the series. He had been supportive of the “Blackwood plan” (Harrison takes umbrage at the name, intended as it is to characterize the program as one of his flights of fancy) initially, but doesn’t think they’re learning anything they don’t already know: that the aliens exist, have three fingers, are slimy, travel in multiples of three, and are jerks. He thinks it would be a better use of their time to locate and interview veterans from the 1953 war and government employees from the period who might help them locate storage facilities like the ones in “The Second Seal”. Harrison actually concedes both that Ironhorse’s plan is a good one and that his own plan has been slow to yield new information: it’s Suzanne who takes the lead in defending the value of what they’re learning about the aliens, and even she doesn’t provide any examples of new information they’ve discovered.
I get the feeling that Suzanne is being written here under the assumption that she’s a psychologist rather than a microbiologist. I think she’s meant to be interested in what they’re learning about alien behavior from the abductions. And as the episode goes on, Harrison will defer to her expertise in conducting interviews. Harrison notes that everyone they interviewed described essentially the same experience — basically the classic “Close Encounter of the Fourth Kind” archetype of being paralyzed while out alone in the middle of nowhere by a bright light (A flashback shows it to be a something like a flashlight with a green triangular lens, possibly a callback to the device Harrison contrived in “The Second Seal”), laid down with inhuman figures hovering over them, and probed in one of the usual places. Weirdly, though, Harrison’s claim that all the interviews reported the same thing doesn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny: namely, the Thistles don’t report being paralyzed and probed. Their story involves the aliens “looking for something” using a “strange device” that’s probably similar to the vacuum-cleaner-metal-detector affair they’d had in “Eye for an Eye”.Suzanne suggests a psychological origin: mass hysteria. Curiously, it’s Ironhorse who shoots the idea down, due to the diversity of times and places where the incidents occurred.
There really isn’t enough going on in these scenes: it feels like the plot is just spinning its wheels. Nevertheless, they’re very good scenes for depicting how the team has really come together by this point in the series. One thing that’s very clear watching them is that the members of the Blackwood team have developed a comfortable working rapport with each other. While they still disagree on strategy and on how to interpret evidence, they’ve learned to respect each other’s opinions and methods. Harrison himself says that there’s no requirement that they all agree about every strategy and gives Ironhorse his blessing to pursue a different angle of investigation. Ironhorse, for his part, limits his complaints to the purely practical. He’d supported the plan initially, and has only changed his opinion because of how it’s been developing. And it’s kinda neat that at this point, even if it was Harrison’s idea, it seems like Suzanne’s taken more interest than he has — I get a distinct impression that Harrison himself is starting to lose interest in the plan at this point. Having everyone respectfully differ about priorities and understand and appreciate each other’s respective different working styles is something rare for the conflict-driven nature of adventure TV, with its long and august history of “He’s a gung-ho man of action / he’s an introspective scientist / How will they ever get along?” set-ups. It’s rare even for the show we’re talking about. And it’s going to get even rarer as television marches into the ’90s and the oppressive gravitational force of grimdark keeps whispering, “The good guys should all hate each other and not get along! That’ll make it seem so dark and edgy and exciting!” Yet at the same time, you can see this development here as prototypical of another, better form of maturation TV will undergo in the ’90s, in that characters are gaining the capacity to grow and change not just individually, but as a group.
Cut back to the Land of the Lost cave, where the advocates are characteristically worried about their progress. The alien nurses explain about how the ambulance they’ve heisted will speed things up, but the leadership is worried about how the humans keep polluting the planet and if they don’t take it over soon, the place might be too trashed to be worth the effort. An odd observation, with a bit of an edge to it in the, “Do we really have the moral high ground over the aliens, when we kill each other and destroy our own planet?” sense, though, as these sort of things often do, it falls a little flat the same way it falls a little flat when Doctor Who has Davros challenge the Doctor’s morality: dude, you’re basically space-Hitler, yes, we do too have the moral high-ground here. I think it would have worked better thematically, especially when we’re already working this, “Aliens thrive on radiation” angle, to have pollution be somehow beneficial to the aliens. Maybe have them come from a world that’s naturally warmer, so greenhouse gasses make the place more amenable. Of course, it wouldn’t be relevant in this episode, but it’s not like this scene has much of a point to it anyway, beyond giving the camera something else to show in what would be an otherwise long, unbroken sequence of Harrison thinking about Karen McKinney.
Because, for no better reason than, “She’s a traditionally attractive woman, in a very eighties sort of way,” Harrison’s come over more than a little bit smitten with one of the interviewees. This is part of the reason behind his decreased interest in the rest of the interview process: he wants to focus on helping her recover her memories. By which I mean he wants to bone her. And also help her recover her memories. But mostly bone her. He calls her up at four in the morning, wanting to meet. Fortunately, she’s just woken up from a terrifying nightmare and is in the mood for an early breakfast. Harrison, Karen and the elephant in the room discuss her problem. Beyond the nightmares, she’s deeply troubled by the gap in her memory. She’s had numerous physical and psychological tests done without learning anything, and you get the sense that she’s primarily afraid that she’s had some kind of psychotic break and might be mentally ill, and I’m getting increasingly uncomfortable about that elephant. Harrison proposes hypnotizing her.
Given that it’s 1989, and repressed memories being recovered under hypnosis is all the rage, and also that she’s allegedly trying everything and anything she can think of to unlock the secret of her missing time, you might imagine that she’s already tried that. But it’s also an alien invasion show, so of course it had never occurred to her that hypnosis is anything more than a parlor trick and none of her doctors have suggested it to her and what about that elephant? She consents to hypnosis.
Ironhorse dutifully repeats the same scene from Epiphany back in the lab where he frets over Harrison having slipped out in the wee hours without telling anyone, with the added complaint that Harrison blew off the morning’s interviews. Harrison turns up while he’s complaining to ask Suzanne to do a psychological assessment on Karen, because microbiologist. Norton’s only contribution to the episode is to ask if Karen is hot, and when he will get a chance to creep on a psychologically vulnerable alien abduction victim. This is probably karmic punishment for me having praised him so highly a few weeks ago. Then Harrison goes off to flirt with Karen some more, culminating in makeouts before bringing her back to the safehouse to be interviewed by Suzanne.
Suzanne starts out with ink blots, which Karen mocks, having been through all this before. She’s also snarky about Suzanne’s next cliche psychology technique, word association. But that one pays off creepily, because after going through all the standard “red/blue”, “apple/orange”, “sex/mother” stuff, Suzanne tosses out, “alien”, and Karen’s instinctive reaction is, “rape”. Which means it’s finally time to talk about the elephant.
Let’s step behind the [more] tag here because of there’s about to be a sidebar about sexual assault.
I suppose partial credit is due them for mentioning it at all, but it feels downright negligent that this is the first time the word “rape” has entered the narrative, and when it does, it’s already primed to be a Horrible Sci-Fi Rape Analogy. Having called our attention to it, it suddenly seems incredibly remiss that a woman who was attacked while alone and woke up suffering from <em>recurring nightmares of being physically violated</em> seems to have not even considered the possibility of rape until now.
But more than that. TVTropes identified a phenomenon they call Harsher in Hindsight, for those times when events in real life recontextualize something in a fictional setting — things like John Spencer’s character on The West Wing suffering a heart attack a year before Spencer’s own death, or episodes of Seventh Heaven and The Cosby Show where the family patriarchs addressed sex crimes. I don’t think I would have been able to keep watching this episode if I hadn’t gone into it knowing that it first aired at the end of January. Because in April of that year, while jogging in Central Park, Trisha Meili was attacked, raped, and beaten so severely that she was left in a coma and suffered amnesia afterward. It was one of the most publicized crimes of the 1980s, and the legal fallout continues to this day, with no less a person than Donald Trump commenting on the matter in 2014.
This setup feels so much like a cheap, tacky attempt to exploit the media circus of the April 19 crime that I went back a couple of times to check the dates just in case. And even though it’s clear that the one didn’t influence the other, it’s just impossible to watch without feeling sort of gross about it.
We cut back to the aliens in their ambulance, because we need some foreshadowing. They pull a guy over (I guess ambulances can do that?) and pull him out of his car for some experimenting. Small thing I want to bring up here: the guest cast in this episode isn’t up to the usual standards. Nobody’s much of anybody. Cynthia Belliveau, who plays Karen, would go on to be a regular on a couple of Canadian series at the turn of the century, and one of the ambulance drivers would later play a recurring character on The Red Green Show, but that’s about it. But check out the guy they pull over here, a non-speaking part identified only as “Man in hat”. IMDB tells me his name is Julian Richings. He’s not an actor I’m particularly familiar with, though I’m told he was in Supernatural. For a minor non-speaking role, man am I impressed by his fantastic over-the-top expressions of alarm as they yoink him out of the car. I’m real impressed. Keep you eye on this guy. He’s going places.
Harrison thinks that the most sensitive, respectful way to help Karen with her psychological trauma is to take her out to dinner and flirt shamelessly and tell religious jokes (We fade in on the line, “Peter… I can see your house from here.“) She must really like him, because she pronounces him, “So funny!” without a hint of irony. I don’t know, I guess they have some chemistry. They’re certainly saying words and performing physical motions to indicate that they like each other. It’s hard to tell, largely because I’m not really buying Cynthia Belliveau’s performance and it’s not like I’ve ever been able to take this whole #HarryHottie thing seriously. Compared to the scenes between Harrison and Katya back in “Epiphany”, they seem to be trying a lot harder, and they don’t actually feel as much like they’re responding to each other. But also, with Katya, there was an implied history between the two of them. These two have pretty much known each other for almost, but not quite, eighteen hours, and they’ve spent sixteen of those getting ready to bone. This relationship feels unearned, and part of the pattern of “Oh, Harrison’s just got a magical power over women.”
Harrison alludes to the unspeakable things he’d like to do to this woman if no one were watching, and rather than giving her flashbacks to her recent assault, this prompts Karen to suggest they go back to his place.
Things get momentarily awkward when he confesses that he’s not allowed to bring girls back to his house because his mom Ironhorse doesn’t allow it, and also that he can’t tell her what he does for a living beyond the fact that he’s an astrophysicist, and no, he can’t tell her why an astrophysicist is conducting interviews with amnesiacs. And the more I think about it, why are they interviewing her? I mean, the people who remember being abducted by aliens, sure, but there’s absolutely nothing in the story she’s been able to relate that should have caused her file to be lumped in with them, unless the team really is interviewing everyone who’s conked their head or gone out on a bender and woken up unable to remember the previous night. The law of conservation of detail tells us straight-up that her case is alien-related, but you can’t possibly imagine that losing a few hours and not knowing why is a thing that happens so rarely that in the absence of any other evidence, they’d all be part of the team’s research. She’s clearly uncomfortable over Harrison’s enforced secrecy and says as much, but still takes him back to her place, which he likens to a “Cheap hotel room.” Charming. We’re supposed to believe that multiple women have found this guy attractive? Karen puts on some pygmy chanting and things are weird and awkward, and then they do it. I can’t tell, between the actors, the director, and the writer, who thinks this relationship is actually working, but clearly not everyone is on the same page about it. The next morning, aliens break into Karen’s apartment and defenestrate Harrison in a scene that we might have believed wasn’t a dream sequence had they not chosen to film it through a thick cataract filter lens left over from Moonlighting.
The next morning, Ironhorse dutifully repeats the same scene from Epiphany back in the lab where he frets over Harrison having slipped out in the wee hours without telling anyone, with the added complaint that Harrison blew off the morning’s interviews. Wait, did I already do this part? Oh God, I’m caught in a time loop. Yeah, it’s the exact same scene from earlier in the episode with Ironhorse complaining about security and how, “This just isn’t like Harrison,” which is exactly the same thing he said last time Harrison had a ladyfriend. Paul, have you even met Harrison? This is literally exactly like him. Suzanne revealed that Harrison did check in with Mrs. Pennyworth, just to find the name of a good place for brunch. Because the others seem to have gone terminally stupid, or possibly this scene was written before the earlier scene of the same thing happening, Norton has to spell it out for the others that Harrison’s obviously gone and gotten himself involved with their interview subject. Everyone finds this annoying because it means Ironhorse will have to conduct the interviews himself, rather than finding this troubling because it’s a clear ethical violation. Suzanne does eventually point this out when Harrison tells her he’s ready to have Karen hypnotized. Harrison agrees that he can’t be objective, and asks Suzanne to do the deed instead. There is no explanation for why it is that Harrison and Suzanne are both apparently qualified hypnotherapists.
Showing their trademark understanding of how time and space work, the aliens in the ambulance are just finishing up on Man With Hat. Since the audience might not have had the end of the episode telegraphed quite enough yet, they exposition to each other how they’re put a hard-to-detect implant in him to perform some kind of long-term experiment on his immune system, and in six months, they’ll pick him up again to harvest it. You got that, folks? That is the alien plan: they pick up the people they’ve implanted again after six months. They never actually said how long ago Karen’s incident was, making a rare show of faith in the audience to work it out without having it all explained to them.
Under hypnosis, Karen reveals what even the especially thick members of the audience have worked out by now: Karen was attacked by three aliens, who used the green flashlight to stun her, then stuck something in her belly button. So… Why were the aliens in their natural form? Here, and also in the other interviews, the aliens are clearly described or shown in their natural form, wearing neither their refrigerated suits nor a human host body. Why would they be out in the open like that? The ambulance drivers don’t shed their hosts. It just makes the aliens more liable to be noticed and remembered. There’s no sense to it, other than that it makes good scary imagery.
Strangely, it’s Ironhorse who’s the first to say they should tell Karen the whole truth of what happened to her, on the premise that it’s inappropriate for them to “play God” by using her in their research unawares. Suzanne counters that learning about aliens in this context might only compound the trauma of her violation. Harrison agrees with Ironhorse that they’ve got a moral obligation to tell her, and does so the next morning.
We’ve seen this scene quite a few times now, but context makes it all the stranger. Karen had never considered aliens, doesn’t have any awareness that aliens are an established fact of her world, a matter of historical record. She thinks Harrison is joking, but only for the length of a single line of dialog — it takes nothing more than for him to say that, no, he’s not joking, and she’s convinced. She claims to be terrified, but her reactions are subdued. If this is a deliberate attempt to convey a person accepting consciously what she’s actually known all along on an unconscious level, then it’s on the right track, but just doesn’t work. With how slapdash the emotional beats of this episode are, I’m not even sure it’s intentional.
And then Harrison goes back to the Cottage and leaves Karen alone, because of course he does. He talks with Suzanne about wanting to have tests done on Karen to see if they can find some kind of medical implant. He’s convinced that the aliens are doing medical experiments and monitoring the results. Even though Karen has already undergone numerous tests, he reckons that with their knowledge about aliens, they might find something. He’s interrupted by a call from Karen, who’s having an especially bad night.
This time, it’s not simply a nightmare, though: she experiences a pain in her abdomen, followed by an odd compulsion to wander outside. In obvious distress, she tries to call for help, but finds herself unable to. Harrison pulls over momentarily on his way to meet her to let an ambulance pass him, and as a direct result, they arrive first, the aliens forcing her inside and driving away just as Harrison pulls up. The episode ends on a freeze-frame of Harrison, halfway through the door to Karen’s apartment building. In voice-over, he informs us, “I have no proof. But I know in my heart the aliens have Karen McKinney.”
Well that was pointless. I mean, seriously, where does the plot even go in this episode? What’s changed from the beginning to the end? The aliens have been running this plan to kidnap people and study their immune systems for months when the story starts, and by the end of the story, they’re still doing it. We don’t see their plans bear fruit. We don’t see them thwarted. We don’t see the Blackwood team make any specific headway in their fight against the aliens. At the end of the episode, they know as much as they did when they started: that the aliens are occasionally kidnapping people to do experiments on them. For all the weight they put on using hypnosis to recover Karen’s missing memories, there’s not really anything in them of significance. Ironhorse was right back in scene three: they’ve spent a lot of time and effort to learn that the aliens have three fingers and are assholes.
I wasn’t really joking back at the far end of this when I said that all that happens in this episode is that Harrison gets laid. The whole thing is really just three scenes cycling over and over: Harrison flirting with Karen; the aliens abducting and probing people; and everyone complaining back at the cottage about Harrison wasting government resources to get himself laid. And I actually shuffled it a little when I recapped it to combine some of the “The team gets together and talks about how they haven’t learned anything” scenes. The middle half of the episode is just a cycle of “Harrison goes on a date with Karen. Harrison goes back to the Cottage to talk about what they’re going to do to help Karen,” over and over and over. This episode actually takes place over the course of four or five days, and for what? Certainly not to spend any time making the relationship between Harrison and Karen feel justified. Harrison’s smitten the moment he sees her, and she apparently feels the same. We don’t really see them fall in love, however much the narrative is begging us to believe that’s what’s happening, because there’s no process to it, just intense happy pantsfeels from the moment they set eyes on each other. And I’m not even going to get into the basic skeeveyness of having Harrison aggressively pursue a relationship with a woman who is still very early in the process of recovering from an extremely traumatic and very personal physical violation, and doing it from a position of authority as he’s actively withholding the professional reasons for his interest in her.
I had high hopes for this episode. Tom Lazarus previously wrote “Goliath is my Name”, and you know how much I liked that one. He also wrote “Eye for an Eye”, which was also good. And “A Multitude of Idols”, which was… Okay. He was the story editor for the whole series, so he’s got the background to have a good handle on the regulars, at least. For a moment, I kinda thought “Tom Lazarus” was another made-up name to hide a scab writer coming in during the strike, a la “Sylvia van Buren”. But he’s legit. In addition to his work on War of the Worlds, Lazarus was a prolific story editor in ’80s TV, having worked on shows including Stingray, Jake and the Fat Man, Starman, Hunter, even Knight Rider. His writing credits include scattered episodes of the various shows he’d edited, an episode of Columbo, the 1999 film Stigmata, and — I feel dumb for not noticing this back when we did “Goliath is My Name” — the teleplay for Mazes and Monsters.But it’s like this time, he just outright neglected to insert a plot. And for me, at least, the major emotional beat of the episode, the believability of the relationship between Harrison and Karen, is a complete misfire. That leaves the episode without much to recommend it. The scenes of the team all working together are very good, though Norton, when he’s present at all, has disappointingly reverted to his fratboy persona from earlier in the series. But it’s not enough to justify the episode as a whole. Maybe this is the kind of episode that was meant to set up the groundwork for something later — something where it would feel more substantial when viewed as part of a whole. But it’s honestly hard for me to imagine what kind of follow-up would justify this episode.
I mentioned a fanfic sequel I read once. Can’t track it down now, but as I recall, the setup was that a tip led the team to a recently abandoned alien prison-camp, and among the artifacts recovered was the diary of Karen McKinney, chronicling her last days, kept prisoner with other abductees for medical research. It was a pretty good story, aside from some clunky dialogue, but I don’t for a moment imagine it’s the natural or obvious direction for her story to go: it’s a salvage job, replacing whatever intent was originally there with something new and hopefully better. There’s nothing in “He Feedeth Among the Lilies” that organically leads to any fate for Karen beyond her very immediate death when the aliens remove her implant. Any follow-on to this episode they had planned would only have dealt with the fruition of the alien experiments, and with Harrison’s emotional fall-out from the experience. Karen McKinney is a woman in a refrigerator as far as this show is concerned: she exists only so that her tragic death can be a motivation to Harrison.
That’s a shitty and exploitative trope to begin with. But to add to it, it’s not like anything ever comes of it. There’s (spoiler alert) no real change going forward in Harrison’s approach or demeanor. What’s the point of it? Why does Harrison need a Tragic Girlfriend Death to motivate him? What’s wrong with the motivations he’s already got? You know, like saving the damned planet. Or avenging the death of his parents. Or vindicating Dr. Forrester’s life’s work. Or obsessive scientific curiosity. Or plain and simple self preservation. Harrison already has the greatest personal stake of anyone on the team. Harrison’s gotten the lion’s share of the “character focus” episodes anyway, this one would be superfluous even if it actually added something to our understanding of his character, which it doesn’t. What’s even the point?
What’s the goddamned point?
- War of the Worlds the Series is available on DVD from amazon.