Antithesis: The Pied Piper (War of the Worlds 2×12)

In an old house in Paris, all covered in vines...

In an old house in Paris, all covered in vines…

It is February 5, 1990. Two really big things in the news this week. On the second, as part of his strategic, “For the love of God, please don’t let our decades of racist oppression lead to us all being massacred the way we really, really deserve,” plan, F. W. de Klerk promised to release Nelson Mandela from prison. He’ll make good on it this coming Sunday. Wednesday, the Soviet government will vote to allow opposition parties in the USSR, giving up their legally mandated monopoly on power.

In entertainment news, Future-Parallel-Universe-Doctor Who Rowan Atkinson marries makeup artist Sunestra Sastry. Rowan AtkinsonThe marriage would last until 2015. The 1960s game show Supermarket Sweep is reincarnated by Lifetime. Network TV is all new this week, including a new MacGyver where Mac takes on Yakuza interference with the logging industry, and a new Columbo directed by and guest-starring Patrick MacGoohan, the fourth of his five appearances in the series. Friday, CBS will use its Special Presentation bumper for the last time to introduce The Bradys, a shockingly ill-considered revival of The Brady Bunch as an hour-long drama. Leah Ayers replaced Maureen McCormick, who’d recently given birth and wasn’t available for filming. The show’s kind of a bummer, with Marcia battling alcoholism, Bobby being crippled in a car crash, and Peter getting into an abusive relationship. It quietly vanished after six episodes. I remember that we made a real effort to watch it, but just could not bear it.

Michael Bolton retains the top spot on the charts for one more week, but Paula Abdul’s hot on his heels, leaping over Rod Stewart’s “Downtown Train” to land in the number 2 position this week. “Janie’s Got a Gun” hops into the top ten, displacing Phil Collins’s “Another Day in Paradise”. Star Trek the Next Generation this week is “Deja Q”, which is the one where Q gets turned human and hijinks ensue. I recall liking bits of it at the time, but Josh Marsfelder makes a sold argument against it. I think the failure of this episode is that there’s a tension among the writers over Q’s status as a trickster god archetype, and whether, to simplify it a bit, he’s Loki or he’s Coyote (Anansi is probably a better fit here, but I’m more familiar with Coyote), and this episode ends up having him be neither. This is the episode where he pretty much transitions from “Otherworldly trickster god” to “Picard’s wacky uncle with godlike powers”. Friday the 13th The Series presents “Repetition”, which is kind of a cross between one of the more outlandish episodes of CSI and one of those French farces. A reporter accidentally runs over someone, but he happens to have one of those useful cursed artifacts that lets you raise the dead in exchange for killing someone else. And since he’s a decent sort and doesn’t want to kill anyone, he proceeds to go on a murder spree in order to resurrect each subsequent victim. It ends exactly the way you know it’s going to, with him offing himself to break the cycle.

This week’s episode, as is the recurring theme for this series, is weak on plot and storytelling, but strong on style. The plot is thin and the characters pointlessly obstructive and evil for no reason other than “Because you need bad guys in this part of the story,” and the lead characters are bracketed off for most of the story, but there’s some interesting visuals and a great, almost dream-like, atmosphere. In many ways, it feels more like an episode of, say, Tales From the Darkside than War of the Worlds. And for once, the style they’ve picked to go over the substance actually works.

To follow up our last episode’s cavalier disregard for the history of the franchise, this week, we have a direct sequel to an earlier episode. War of the Worlds scoffs in the face of your foolish attempts to fit it to any sort of master narrative.

This Chtulu Mythos crossover with 2001: A Space Odyssey is confusing.

This Chtulu Mythos crossover with 2001: A Space Odyssey is confusing.

Unfortunately, the episode it’s a direct sequel to is “Breeding Ground”. Yes, we’ll be bringing back the the alien child, born of a human woman who was marginalized in her own story because fuck 1980s screenwriting. After a flashback to Malzor doing the Lion King bit at the end of “Breeding Ground”, we see that the baby, who is two months old according to Mana, has rapidly aged-up to the equivalent of a nine-year-old human, who they’ve named “Adam” out of their cultural love of symbolism. I’ll allow it because we’ve already established that the Morthren get a kick out of mocking Christianity, though it’s not really a theme they’ve followed up on in a while.

There’s another issue implicit in this as well: child actors. Joel Carlson plays Adam. He’d previously appeared in the 1989 movie Communion, and would go on to appear in Superboy as an alternate-universe version of young Clark Kent. And he’s not great. Not aggressively awful, but stilted in a way that doesn’t feel intentional, and he’s got a twee lisp on top of it. wotw21203There’s one other speaking child part, the rest are all just dead-eyed extras. Mana reckons that the reason Adam is so sullen and withdrawn and his “energy grows lower each day” is that his “human side” isn’t getting the human interaction it needs. They hadn’t really been clear on Adam being part human before: my assumption back in “Breeding Ground” was that, like the others, he’s fully Morthren, but has been outwardly engineered to look superficially human. But now it seems that Adam is something different. His behavior reminds me a lot of the clones: physically “perfect”, psychologically human, but with Morthren loyalties and a Morthren value system.

So they’re going to send him off to boarding school, where interacting with other dead-eyed child actors will hopefully perk him up. There’s a place called “The Creche” outside the city, “Where this society has focused its efforts on improving itself.” Malzor has a secondary motive in sending Adam there as well: the Creche has information that the Morthren can use. It strikes me odd that Malzor is the one here — throughout the episode, really — who’s pushing the scientific agenda, while Mana is more concerned with Adam’s wellbeing, even to the point of giving her superior a stern talking to about pushing him too hard. This might be a rare piece of foreshadowing to where her character goes at the end of the season, or maybe the writers just forgot which character was which. You never can tell with this show.

War of the Worlds

Oh no! That car only saw him with ten seconds and the length of a city block to stop. Clearly there was no way to avoid a collision!

We cut to a guy named Martin Daniels (Oddly, IMDB lists the character as “Paul Daniels”, but he’s not credited that way nor is he ever referred to by any name other than “Martin”) having an argument with his wife about their son’s prospects. The child, Patrick, is a prodigy, and dad wants to ship him off for special schooling and discipline and no fun, while mom wants her child to be a child and do fun child things. When she threatens to leave him and take Patrick with her, Martin calls her a bitch and roughs her up. Unfortunately, Patrick sees this and flees, and, as basically always happens in this sort of story, runs straight into the path of a delivery truck. A keen eye might have caught that this scene is strangely well-lit and not especially post-apocalyptic, and indeed, the smash-cut reveals that we’ve been watching the night terrors of a slightly older Martin, who’d been dozing in his office until his past guilt roused him. He’s drawn to the window by calls of, “Daddy! Daddy!” from outside, and sees Adam standing in the driveway, but for a moment, he sees not Adam, but Patrick.

If you work in a place that looks like this, the only research you should be doing with children should involve determining if they have sufficient "Attitude" to fight monsters using giant robots.

If you work in a place that looks like this, the only research you should be doing with children should involve determining if they have sufficient “Attitude” to fight monsters using giant robots.

He immediately thinks to call Suzanne, because… Okay, I don’t know. Suzanne was friends with his now ex-wife. For some reason, he reckons that her expertise will be relevant. Maybe the show’s forgotten that she’s a microbiologist and thinks she’s a PI? Not that I blame them, since it’s only come up once in passing. It takes him a week to get hold of her, this being one of the disadvantages to living in a sewer in a post-apocalyptic urban dystopia.

He, “wasn’t about to turn him over to the police,” and I think by now we’ve seen enough of how this world works to accept that without further explanation. He gives her Adam’s photo and fingerprints and asks her to help him find out who the kid is. Adam has no discernible social skills and won’t speak (I’m calling him “Adam”, but at this point, he hasn’t told the humans his name yet), but he reminds Martin of his dead son. Suzanne agrees to help.

Before meeting Adam, Martin gives her a quick tour to help establish how atmospheric and creepy the Creche is. He takes her to the Creepy Room “Imagination Chamber”, a room decorated in a sort of Salvador-Dali-does-Alice-in-Wonderland style with a large ravine in the middle.

Possibly I should have picked a room that did not already look like it had been badly stitched together in photoshop to try out my new panorama plugin.

Possibly I should have picked a room that did not already look like it had been badly stitched together in photoshop to try out my new panorama plugin.

Here, we meet the other two scientists at the Creche. “Billy” (I don’t recall him having a last name) is a sort of Vincent Schiavelli-wannabe who contributes little to the episode. Dominic CuzzocreaThe other scientist participating in their torture of an infant is Ms. Ghoulson, which is pronounced “Goalson”, except, presumably, when she’s not in earshot. She kinda looks a little like Daily Show contributor Kristen Schaal, and is basically the grumpy adult character from a children’s breakfast cereal commercial who does not approve of children eating fun and exciting non-bran-based cereals.

They’re running an experiment where Billy coaxes an infant into crawling toward him in spite of the ravine between them. There’s a silent, tense moment where we’re meant to fear that the baby is going to fall in before the reveal that the pit is covered by a transparent panel (Which clearly isn’t there in the long shots) — they even intercut a reaction shot of Suzanne taking a little gasp, because apparently she reckoned they were indeed actually trying to coax a baby into walking over a cliff, but only objects when the baby actually does it. wotw21206The experiment here is clearly based on 1960 Gibson and Walk “Visual Cliff” experiment. The big difference, of course, is that the goal of the Visual Cliff experiment was to determine when infants develop depth perception: virtually all normally-sighted infants will either refuse outright or display extreme reluctance to crawl out over a cliff to get to their mother. Initially, it was assumed that this meant that depth perception developed around the same time as crawling, since smaller babies would happily wiggle themselves over the cliff. Later experiments with heart-rate monitoring showed something more complex: infants as young as three months noticed the cliff, it just didn’t affect their behavior. The conclusion researchers drew was that the ability to perceive depth develops very early, but it’s only much later that an infant develops the concept of falling, and is able to appreciate that crawling off a cliff is the sort of thing that might result in them having a bad time. Whatever the interpretation, the version shown here is has been twisted to do something very different, essentially, “Let’s see if we can break this small child of innate in-built behavior and teach them to like being gaslighted.” Deeply disturbing, but pretty in-keeping with this episode’s motifs. They explain this as a trust exercise: in order to ensure that the students will accept the accelerated teaching program, they train them from birth to blindly trust their teachers, even to the point of, for example, crawling into an open pit on command. I will note as the episode goes on, it takes very little coaxing for the children at the Creche to turn on their teachers, so I have to reckon that these trust-building exercises have not actually been subjected to any sort of efficacy testing.

Having thus established how creepy and unpleasant the Creche is and showing us the big conspicuous visual cliff and the shiny Russian revolver hanging on the wall, Martin and Ms. Ghoulson takes Suzanne to the playground — sorry, “recreation area” — to meet Adam. They’ve spent hours trying to get through to him, without getting him to talk or participate in physical activity. Even his classmate Julie (Lisa Jakub, an actually competent child actor, who’d go on to appear in Mrs. Doubtfire and Independence Day, but the part is too small here to really appreciate her acting), can’t entice him to try playing ball. Mrs. Ghoulson snaps at the other children to stand back, and proceeds to look utterly scandalized when Suzanne dares to try speaking gently to him and being nice, and looks utterly horrified when this prompts him to tell her his name and actually interact with her. When Suzanne asks if he’s feeling okay and whether he’s hungry, it’s more than she can stand and she snaps at Suzanne that, “He’s fine and he ate a short time ago!” Bran flakes, no doubt.

Tanja JacobsSuzanne counters that the kid looks sickly and needs to rest, but now that he’s talking, Martin immediately decides to forget about all that crap about building trust and shit, and strap the kid in to run experiments on him. There’s a little disconnect here in that it seems like Martin has already decided that Adam is Special, hence his determination to learn his secrets and test his powers. But it’s not at all clear why he’d think that at this point, since we’ve established that Adam has thus far refused to participate or interact in any way, so there shouldn’t be any evidence so far that Adam is anything other than one of the tn Martin is trying to lift humanity above. In fact, you’d really expect someone like Martin to be dismissive of Adam, interpreting his lack of social skills and unwillingness to talk as evidence of some sort of mental defect, only to have him later shocked by the reveal that Adam is actually highly intelligent. Instead, Martin knows there’s something special about Adam from the beginning for no clear reason.

The test is a pretty straightforward “Strap him in a chair and make him do math problems” affair, in which Adam demonstrates an understanding of Laplace’s Equation. Laplace’s Equation is a second order partial differential equation that’s useful in a whole bunch of science-related fields because it describes harmonic functions which can model the difference in potential energies between different points in space, which lets you do stuff like describe gravitational fields, electrostatic fields, and heat transfer. And yeah, second order partial differential equations are hard. But we’re talking “Undergrad-level physics” stuff, not “Wile E. Coyote, Super-Genius” levels. Certainly a heck of a feat for a child, but I don’t know if it would realistically be drop-everything-and-freak-out impressive in a place that regularly deals with child prodigies. Martin is blown away that a nine-year-old could possibly do work so far in advance of his own students, and Mrs. Ghoulson calls his knowledge of algorithms, “Above genius level.” Or rather, his knowledge of “ahl-goo-rheezim”. It’s not like she has a fake German accent the rest of the time or anything, it’s just this one word the pronounces utterly bizarrely.

Suzanne is troubled by the way they’re treating this strange and possibly traumatized child and pulls Martin aside to demand an explanation. He vaguely explains that, “The public can’t even begin to understand,” the work they do, but that he believes, “All children should be tested to see where they fit in.” Because Children Are Our Future. Oh goodie. Reproductive Futurism. Don’t worry, they don’t get into it too deep. The salient point is that Martin is dangerously obsessed and up to something vaguely sinister, even though they never actually expand on what these vaguely sinister goals might be.

Suzanne suggests that maybe Martin doesn’t actually want Suzanne to find Adam’s family and he doesn’t deny it. Which is fine and all, except that now we’ve got a big plot hole in the area of what she’s doing here in the first place. When Suzanne arrived, he gave her Adam’s picture and fingerprints and told her he wanted her to find Adam’s family. Now, it seems that he doesn’t want that at all, so why did he go to the trouble of tracking her down? There’s still an open question of why Martin would contact Suzanne even for tracking down Adam’s parents. Why does he think Suzanne would be particularly good at this? They’re not especially close, so it’s unlikely he knows the details of her current circumstances — that she lives with a roguish ex-military type and a roguish action-scientist who are good at knocking heads and getting access to hard-to-find information via their 31337 network of contacts and strippers. And given that the Creche has highly-placed government backing, Martin should have official contacts of his own through which he can make inquiries, which would make a lot more sense than him asking Suzanne for help, given the direction her investigation is going to take. Thematically, it might make sense that he sought her out because (for reasons that I can’t explain) he thought her particular skills might let her get through to Adam and coax him out of his shell. Except that doesn’t work either, not only because there’s nothing we know about Suzanne that would suggest she’s especially good at that sort of thing (And even if she did turn out to secretly be a child psychologist in her spare time, it beggars the imagination to suppose the Creche didn’t already have one of those on hand), but more directly because everyone at the Creche seems outright resistant to actually letting her do anything to reach out to him.

What would make a lot more sense to me would be if he’d reached out to Suzanne immediately after finding Adam, but something had changed in the week it took his message to get to her. If, say, Adam had remained nonverbal but had done something to indicate his intelligence. Or if he’d been given a medical examination that revealed something unusual about his biology. But it’s clear that they’ve only just discovered how intelligent Adam is, and the alien aspects of his biology are only going to be discovered later. There could have been an interesting angle here, with Martin being actively conflicted between a genuine desire to help Adam and his scientific obsession. But I don’t really feel it. There’s no sense of Martin struggling or changing over the course of these scenes, so it’s as though he’s just nonsensically decided to undermine his own plans by inviting an outside agitator to come interfere in his work, and it’s just dumb luck that her unconventional, “Say hi to the kid and ask him how he’s doing,” approach paid off.

Pressed by Suzanne, Martin admits the truth: the students at the Creche were genetically engineered. Suzanne seems to take this in stride, but then reacts with a look of horror when he refers to them as, “test tube babies”. Probably just a poor editing choice to compose the reaction shot that way, but the clear implication is that the phrase “test tube babies” can be safely tossed out to generate simple, visceral revulsion. Which is a big fuck-you to a smallish number of eleven-and-unders who might possibly be in your audience.

Blackwood has only a passing knowledge of the Creche, and Suzanne fills him in on the details, describing the students as, “The most unhappy kids I’ve ever seen.” Seems like a stretch. I mean, the baby seemed happy enough. The older kids were maybe a little glum, outside on a cold, overcast day, dressed in red berets and herringbone longcoats that kinda read “French boarding school” to me. But they didn’t seem any unhappier than the mundane kids in the first act of any story where the dull gray lives of prim and proper schoolchildren in a repressive educational setting have their lives turned upside-down by a whimsical, quasi-supernatural new student, hippie teacher, or nanny with demonic powers. In fact, possibly the coolest thing about this episode is the way its horror aspects are juxtaposed with tropes and trappings more often associated with whimsical children’s stories. It’s called “The Pied Piper”, but it’s also a bit Peter Pan, but coupled with bits and pieces of, say, Frankenstein and maybe a little bit of “It’s a Good Life”. One of the many weak spots in the plot is that Suzanne never elaborates convincingly on her objections to the Creche. We know it’s a sinister place because it’s heavily coded that way, with Martin’s clear obsessiveness, Ms. Ghoulson’s cereal-villain attitude, and the creepy Salvador Dali room. But that’s all motif: there’s never any concrete reason given for it. It could just as easily turn out that there’s nothing wrong with Blake-Holsey High the Creche and this is really a story about not judging by appearances.

Suzanne personally and the narrative at large both assume without question that the people at the Creche are up to no good, and up to no good in a more specific way than is ever really addressed. At first, Suzanne’s concerns run less to the children being an affront to nature and more to them being abstractly mistreated. But that “abstractly” is a problem. What we see of this “mistreatment” doesn’t go beyond standard boarding school story cliches, and the complaints you could actually make based on what happens on screen you could equally well level against Hogwarts (Personally, I think there was far too little “Angry parents sue Hogwarts out of existence over the cavalier maiming of their children” in that series).

There’s a strong sense that Martin has some specific and nasty end in mind with his genetic manipulation, rather than the abstract, “Make humanity better,” but that’s the only end we’re ever given. When he and Suzanne come to words over it, he’ll talk about humanity’s desperate need for, “minds capable of correcting 2,000 years of mistakes,” but then he’ll meander into the concept of customizing, “a child’s appearance and personality like ordering a meal from a menu,” which… I mean, it’s kinda tangential to the whole “Saving humanity from its past mistakes” thing. Is he looking to make a load of money selling designer babies? Or is this a traditional mad science thing where he’s just obsessed with what’s scientifically possible and isn’t thinking about the consequences? The gobsmackingly obvious answer would be that he’s trying to “resurrect” his dead son by inventing a form of genetic engineering that would allow him to have another child with all the same traits as Patrick. But that isn’t in here, and in 1990, the sci-fi answer to reincarnating a dead kid is “cloning”, not “genetic engineering” (The story changes when you get to the 21st century and start to understand things like epigenetics and the fact that differences in the prenatal environment mean that a genetic duplicate of a person won’t necessarily resemble the original much more than any sibling).

Suzanne doesn’t come right out and give him the “Tampering in God’s domain,” speech, but she does fixate on the word “manipulate”. She gets close to actually hitting on a good point: that Martin is a control freak. His desire to control his Patrick’s life indirectly led to his death, and now he wants to manipulate and control a generation of children from the genetic level to mold them in his own perfected image. But rather than zero in on it, Suzanne sticks to trite platitudes about how humans weren’t meant to be perfect or how he treats people like machines or how terrible it would be if no one had a cleft palate.

And I’m not saying that genetic engineering for the purpose of “improving” humanity is okay or anything, but, especially from a character like Suzanne, who’s meant to be a scientist, I expect her argument to be based on reason rather than leaning, as it almost entirely does, on the assumption that the audience will just viscerally agree that genetic manipulation is Unnatural-therefore-Wrong. Because that is an immensely privileged argument to make, with its implicit assumption that there is a hard-and-fast line between treating diseases and deliberately “perfecting” humanity. Are we to say, “Harlequin Ichthyosis is sufficiently horrible that it’s okay to cure it using gene therapy, but a strong genetic predisposition toward obesity is just a trait and we shouldn’t tamper in God’s domain… Even though that genetic predisposition drastically increases the chances of an early death”? Or maybe, “If it can be controlled by traditional medical means, then you can’t use genetic manipulation, and it’s just tough cookies if when you’re thirty, they repeal the ACA and you can’t pay for your antidepressants any more”? The closest Suzanne comes to an actual rational argument rather than a simple visceral, “designer babies are unnatural” is her claim that, “there’s no way to predict the long-term effects of this,” which just seems like a lame counterargument.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Kincaid calls one of his government contacts on the old video phone and sets up a meeting to get some closely-held information. Here’s another place where the plot starts to go off the rails. Because Kincaid’s supposed to be trying to find out who Adam is. And the reason he’s doing this is because Suzanne was asked to look into it by Martin. So, obviously, Kincaid is going about this by bribing a government employee to give him information about the Creche. There’s a jump to “The Creche is up to something and we should investigate them” which is justified, but which they never actually bother to make. Suzanne outright says that she’s not interested in going after the Creche at the moment, just in tracking down Adam’s parents. This is like if the FBI hired an informant who just turned around and stole FBI files to give to them.

War of the Worlds

I basically just included this picture so you’d remember that Jared Martin was in this episode.

It doesn’t even come to anything, either. Instead of Kincaid’s contact, a group of government heavies show up at their arranged meeting to warn them off looking into the Creche. They claim the work done there is a matter of “national security” (“Which nation?” Kincaid retorts. Not that this makes a huge amount of sense). They ask them “nicely” to back off, and then beat Kincaid and Blackwood into unconsciousness for the rest of the second act.

Wow. If the completely dysfunctional government’s getting involved, there must be something really big behind the Creche. Ooh, I know, the whole “build a better human to solve the problems of society” thing is just a front and they’re actually breeding super-soldiers? I can’t wait until the big reveal later that —

Naw, I’m just foolin’. We never find out why the government is so protective of the Creche or that there’s any secret scheme behind it. Everything we actually see tells us that Martin is on the level: he’s breeding superkids because he thinks the world is fucked up (which it is) and superkids are the best hope for fixing it, and the only thing really wrong about it is that he is absolutely terrible at raising children. There is absolutely no reason or justification for the government sending suited thugs to beat up Blackwood and Kincaid. The thugs never show up again and there’s not a single mention of government involvement for the rest of the episode. Everyone claims the Creche’s work is “hush-hush”, but there’s not even a hint that anything is going on there beyond what we see. Blackwood and Kincaid both knew of the Creche’s existence and goals, if not the exact details. It’s clearly not a secret that the children are genetically engineered as Martin tells Suzanne openly and is even surprised she didn’t already know.

Catherine Disher

Adam, you must go to Dagobah.

While this has been going on, Mana and Malzor have had an argument about how fast to push their agenda, with Mana insisting that they only task him with stealing the Creche’s files on genetic engineering — Malzor’s priority — after he’s made friends with the kids. Now, Mana manifests to Adam while he’s sitting quietly in the Imagination Chamber. Hovering above him in a video effect similar to when the Eternal manifested to that church back in “Doomsday”, she tells him to gain the trust of the other children so that he can bring them back with him when he returns to his people. Martin watches this scene with intense interest over the CCTV, looking all up-to-no-good. Though it doesn’t occur to him to turn on the sound, or go check on the kid, or indeed do any sort of follow-up whatever about the child prodigy apparently talking to himself.

Lisa Jakub

I could just do a gallery of “Characters in War of the Worlds looking regretting their career choices”

In response to his orders, Adam befriends Julie, on account of she’s the only one of the Creche children to have a name. On the playground, she muses, the way that TOTALLY REALISTIC CHILDREN are TOTALLY REALISTICALLY WONT TO DO on how she wishes she could be the large, predatory bird they see fly overhead in some stock footage, because then she could, “fly away over that fence”, “see cities, forests and oceans”, and “eat rats and voles”. Adam replies, in his twee lispy voice, that she could be a bird, using the power of imagination. But not lame kind where you just think about it or anything, we’re talking full-on Cylon Projection stuff using the secret inner power of the mind. Miss Ghoulson (For simplicity, imagine that I drop into a Stephen Colbert-doing-a-Crypt Keeper-impersonation voice every time I say that name) drags him away after he offers to show her how, but before he can get into the details.

After Suzanne interviews Adam again, continuing to cement her reputation as a bad influence by daring to be friendly with him, she argues with Martin about — I’m not sure really. He cuts her off and proceeds as if she’s suggested taking Adam to an orphanage, to which Martin entirely correctly observes that there is no way in fuck that sticking this kid in the system will do good by him. Suzanne wheels and complains about all the fun the children at the Creche aren’t having. “They know the definition of fun, but they’ve never experienced it!” she insists.

Far away. for to see, friendly angel come to me

Far away. for to see, friendly angel come to me

This scene is intercut with the children having fun. Adam’s gathered them all together and is teaching them to use the power of their mind to insert cheaply done matte shots where the background is replaced with some stock space footage as they fly away into space. Miss Ghoulson sees the children having fun and immediately runs in to put a stop to it. Seriously, she’s clearly in a panic because the children appear to be happy, and is very suspicious that Adam might be doing something to brighten their lives.

Martin just now, a week in, notices that Adam’s medical charts clearly indicate that he’s not human and has him hauled off for more testing. He’s had enough of Suzanne at this point, and frankly, if she’s not going to make a coherent argument, so have I. Citing his government affiliation, he has her removed.

Adam is placed in quarantine and hooked up to a monitor. Mana contacts him again, this time ordering him to steal all the computer files on genetic engineering, and promising he can bring his new friends back home with him afterward. Via the CCTV, he creepily tells Martin, “I am not of your world. You will never understand my powers unless you join with me.”

Or at least, a stunt double who looks nothing like him throws himself through the window.

Or at least, a stunt double who looks nothing like him throws himself through the window.

Martin finds himself reliving the death of his son. Thinking he’s trying to reach Patrick before the truck hits him, he runs blindly down a corridor and throws himself through a window, falling to his death below. At least, that’s what I think happens. The scene isn’t very well composed and would have benefited from some cutting back and forth between the “real world” and Martin’s fantasy.

Adam uses telepathy to summon Julie, who releases him from quarantine. They gather the rest of the children and go to Martin’s office to access his computer. We hear Mana’s voice tell him to memorize all the data, though what we actually see is him using a Morthren crystal on the computer. We’ll just ignore that interoperability between Morthren and human technology was supposed to require some kind of special one-off engram back in “The Defector”, and instead, I’m going to wonder where that crystal came from. Has he had it on him all along? Did he somehow extrude it from his body? Maybe Mana teleported it to him? They’ve been playing hard and fast with what sort of capabilities the Morthren have. Like, this whole episode has revolved around Adam having these psychic talents. Is that just because he’s part human, or can any Morthren do that? Because there are a whole bunch of times when that woulda been handy earlier in the season, just saying.

Top priority was stealing the Creche's sweet collection of Amiga font files.

Top priority was stealing the Creche’s sweet collection of Amiga font files.

Billy walks in them during their little hacking expedition, and Adam causes him to choke to death. There is no detail given about how this happens. Billy just walks in, starts to say something, and dies. Once he’s got all the computer files, Adam takes the children to the Imagination Room and green-screens them under the sea. How this is related to his plan to break out of the Creche with the other children and lead them back to “The place of the Eternal” is not explained. As before, Miss Ghoulson interrupts them, sending the other children back to their rooms with the security guards. She grills Adam, getting shouty about the question of what’s become of Martin (She doesn’t seem to have noticed the noisy defenestration), so Adam sets her on fire. With his mind.

I guess his power is to turn people into unconvincing stunt doubles.

I guess his power is to turn people into unconvincing stunt doubles.

She flails, screaming and in flames, into the pit in the center of the room, which I guess kills her. There is absolutely no mention of why the glass isn’t covering the pit any more (Not that there ever actually was, but clearly there was supposed to be). They show us her unburnt body, to explain that the flames were illusory, but she’s legitimately at the bottom of the pit, so where’d the glass go? Did Adam magic it away? Can he do that? There’s no evidence he can do that, but there’s been no explanation of the nature of Adam’s powers whatever. It seems like with Miss Ghoulson, Adam made her believe she was on fire so that she’d stumble into the pit and break her neck, and with Martin, he made him reenact trying to save his son with the window in the way, but Billy he just force-choked or something. Or is her being at the bottom of the pit also part of the illusion? I can’t tell any more.

While this has been going on, Suzanne, Kincaid and Blackwood have decided that being roughed up by a bunch of heavies and thrown out of the Creche merit them going on a raid to liberate Adam. Remember, they have no idea that Adam is an alien at this point: their motivation is entirely down to the idea that the Creche and the government are nebulously up-to-no-good, and that’s enough for them. They find the gate open and no security at the Creche, and as I was watching it, I took it to mean that every guard in the joint is attending Martin’s body, but now that I’m thinking about it, that makes very little sense and I’m not even sure why I think it. Three people are dead already. When someone unexpectedly and violently dies in a high-security compound, you do not have all the guards leave their posts and leave the front gate open and the doors unlocked. You lock the place down and shoot anyone who’s out and about. This is what you do in a functional society, and it is also what you do in a collapsing dystopian state. You do not send out a group of thugs to beat up a pair of randos for the crime of asking too many questions about your scary evil project (asking, I’ll remind you, at the behest of the project’s manager) on the one hand, and leave the front door open on the other.

The gang splits up, with Suzanne going after Adam while Blackwood and Kincaid check Martin’s office, because it totally makes sense to send Suzanne off on her own while Kincaid protects Blackwood. Blackwood finds Adam’s X-rays, and the size of his heart and lungs tip them off that Adam is an alien. Kincaid finds Billy (For once they get this right, and neither of them ever refers to him by name, since they don’t know it), and Blackwood diagnoses him as having suffocated for no apparent reason. So maybe Adam made him think he was under water and his throat reflexively shut up? Would have been nice to show us that. Come to think of it, it would have been nice to have him be the one who walked in on them in the Imagination Room — have him drown because he walks in on Adam creating the illusion of being undersea. I almost want to think they originally wrote it that way, but had to move Billy’s death earlier to space the scenes out more.

Highly deadly three-foot drop.

Highly deadly three-foot drop.

Suzanne finds Adam sobbing with regret over what he’s done. My instinct is to interpret this as a rouse, given that he only had this crisis of conscience after murdering the person who’s acted most like a cartoon villain in this story. A cut back to Malzor and Mana indicates that he might be on the level, though, as his emotional turmoil is preventing Mana from establishing a connection with him. He claims that Ghoulson told him he was “bad” (Which is an overstatement but possibly less of a lie and more of an overwrought child projecting his insecurities) and asks Suzanne if she agrees. She insists that everything will be fine, even after seeing Ghoulson’s body.

Her reassurance calms Adam down enough that Mana can reestablish her connection. She verifies that he’s got the files and orders him to bring them back, along with the “perfect” human children. Kincaid and Blackwood catch up to them, and Suzanne’s reaction is fairly understated when they inform her of Adam’s alien nature. She backs away from him and asks him to sit down, but neither she nor the others is aggressive or confrontational toward him. We get a rare moment of character growth here, because none of them, Blackwood, Kincaid, or Suzanne, are nearly as resistant to the possibility of working with Adam as they had been in “Loving the Alien”, “Seft of Emun” or “The Defector”. Each one of them has, at different times, learned not to simply hate and mistrust aliens out of hand. It must be something they really took to heart, too, since Adam, who has, as Kincaid points out, already killed three people, clearly presents an immediate threat in a way that Ceeto, Seft and Kemo didn’t. They also have no explicit reason to believe that Adam is part human — it never occurs to them that he’s the alien baby from “Breeding Ground”, and why would it? Perhaps they might have intuited that he’s something special due to the fact that it took the Creche doctors a week to notice he wasn’t human (clearly, he can eat human food at the least, and probably doesn’t have glow-stick blood), but if so, they don’t mention it. Yet Suzanne still sees him foremost as “a frightened little boy” and hopes she can reach him. Blackwood has realized that Adam is here to steal the genetic research, but still defers to Suzanne.wotw21219

While they’re discussing the matter, though, Adam, prompted by Mana, makes a break for it. Trying to pursue, they find that the door is only painted on the wall. Blackwood reasons from Billy’s inexplicable suffocation that Adam has the power to alter their perceptions. As is often the case, not just in War of the Worlds but in science fiction of this period in general, the balance of the evidence we‘ve seen does point to that, though given what Blackwood has seen, it seems like more of a stretch. Kincaid takes the idea and runs with it, declaring, “The door is where it should be.” He reaches out for it.

This is literally TV history's most thrilling "Guy locates a doorknob" scene.

This is literally TV history’s most thrilling “Guy locates a doorknob” scene.

This is honestly a surprisingly well-done visual effect. Because it really does look for all the world like the door handle is only painted on until Kincaid’s hand closes around it, at which point he is actually holding it. Reminds me of the bridge scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where the bridge blends in perfectly with the ravine until you’re standing on it.

The kids have already made a break for it by now, all dressed up in their longcoats and red berets. Another really nice touch here is that Julie is awstruck by her first sight of the lights of the city in the distance, thinking it beautiful and reassuring Adam that she wants to go with him and is okay with never being able to go back.

Cold reality sets in when they actually get to the city, what with the place being a giant crap-hole, and the kids start complaining instantly. Adam gets a little pushier when they start talking about how it’s cold, filthy and miserable, and maybe they’d like to go back. But even “a little pushier” is still more about reassuring them and promising to use his powers to take them somewhere fun. Adam may be loyal to his people, but his desire to make his friends happy is legitimate.

Suzanne spots the kids from the Awesome Van and chases Adam and the others into a building. The throw-down for this episode is pretty much just Suzanne asking Adam to let the other children go, and Adam begrudgingly agreeing. Adam argues that they weren’t happy at the Creche, but Suzanne intuits that what he’s leading them to with the Morthren is basically the same thing as they’re escaping — a life of being experimental subjects. I don’t think it’s as much of a jump for her to figure this out as when Blackwood sorted out the nature of Adam’s power earlier. The fact that he hasn’t hurt the children yet is enough to suggest that the Morthren don’t plan on just killing them outright. Now, given the general MO of the Morthren, it does seem very likely that whatever they plan to do with the children is liable to be fatal to them. Not simply executing them outright, no, but quite probably some vivisection would be involved. That said, it seems like Adam would take that really hard, and given Mana’s attitude throughout the episode, she might not be willing to traumatize him like that. And there is precedent in “Seft of Emun” to imagine that she might be willing to try indoctrinating a non-Morthren into their lifestyle, especially children who she considers “perfect” humans. We’re starting to see some evidence here that the Morthren aren’t exactly “xenophobic” in the simple sense: they are at times willing to tolerate coexistence with other species, but only with beings who, independent of their species, meet the Morthren standard of “perfection”.  And coupled with the knowledge that Adam had stolen Martin Daniels’s research, her conclusion makes sense. Adam can’t argue the point, but makes a personal plea for Julie to come with him, offering her, “Any dream you want.” Suzanne counters with the platitude that dreams aren’t real, which is enough to convince the girl.

At Julie’s prompting, Suzanne offers to take Adam with them as well, but it’s a bridge too far. “Take them,” he says, with pretty much is the disappointed resignation of a small child saying, “Fine,” when you finally cajole him into taking a potty break. Adam returns to his own people while Suzanne takes the other children away, presumably, to be left to starve in an underfunded orphanage, on account of the fact that there aren’t any functional social services any more.

Everyone at the Morthren base is way too polite to mention that Adam neglected to collect the human children they wanted, and focuses on how well he did getting the genetic engineering information. Adam sits sullenly in the corner, flashing back to the two or three lines of dialogue he shared with his human friend.

Malzor muses on how they can at least go forward with their plans to create a “hybrid”, cross-bred from two warrior races who would stand over the ruins of Gallifrey — no, wait. A “Morthren perfectly adapted to Earth’s environment.” This is a theme they’ll revisit… Never. They’ve been on-the-record as staunchly opposing making themselves any more human. And while there’s certainly acknowledgement that they’re biologically a rough fit for Earth — what with the whole thing where Earth food makes them explode and superficial cuts give them life-threatening infections — they’ve elsewise indicated that they’d rather change Earth to suit them. It’s a neat idea, and giving the Morthren a plot-arc based around their attempts to create a perfect Human-Morthren hybrid would certainly be an interesting way for the series to go and give some structure to the alien side of the series-long arc. But, like everything else, they never bother to do anything with it.

It’s more evidence of just how completely off-the-rails the writing for this show has gone by this point. I still think that they probably had some kind of long-term plan for this series to have arcs and plot progression and real forward progress. But rather than assembling them in a consistent and orderly fashion to build to something, they just clusterfuck them all at the screen in a desperate attempt to see what sticks.

There’s definitely room here to imagine Ceeto and Kemo and now Adam as part of a pattern that suggests the possibility of Human and Morthren finding a way to come together, and in that model, Malzor’s pursuit of a “hybrid” would serve as a dark mirror to that possibility — the ultimate irony being that Malzor’s efforts to create a hybrid are doomed to fail, even as he marginalizes and suppresses the successful hybridization that is naturally occurring among his people.

If we untangle the season a bit, deconstruct the episodes and put their components back together in a different order, we might imagine the seeming inconsistencies in the Morthren leadership’s attitude toward humanity. Like I observed back in “Synthetic Love”, the aliens flip-flop about whether they want to exterminate humanity, enslave it, dominate it through soft pressure, or just keep humanity out of their way while they establish themselves. It’s easy to suppose that if the writing staff could get their collective act together, this would not be an inconsistency, but an evolution, with the resource-poor Morthren adapting their strategy over time. If the “hybrid” thing had become a recurring theme, I think it’s likely that it would be their continued failure to create a “proper” hybrid, even as more and more of their dwindling number become “tainted” by humanity that might eventually drive Malzor to a hard-line eliminationist position.

One thing I actually do regret about this episode is that Rachel Blanchard is again absent. I don’t know what role she could play in the plot exactly, but it seems like an episode about a bunch of children is exactly the sort of thing you’d want your regular child actor for. This episode is sort of like a nice piece of Jarlsberg. Very pleasant to consume, and so full of holes it’s hard to reckon how it doesn’t just collapse under its own weight. The plot is just about the least coherent we’ve seen. Most of it comes to nothing, like the disappearing G-Men, or the security guards who just up and leave when the crisis begins. Little of what happens at the Creche makes any sense: the characters don’t seem to be motivated by any particular goal other than “act transparently evil”, especially Miss Ghoulson, who appears to have gone into researching child psychology because she hates children. Their goals are vague, their methods are vague, their accomplishments are vague. But the counterarguments against what they’re doing are equally vague. Suzanne never does give Martin a firm basis for her objections, other than, “the kids are unhappy,” a fact which we’re told but never really shown. The Blackwood team sets out to raid the Creche based on nothing more than vague feelings of something being “up”.

This whole series has been a massive experiment in style over substance. This plot is worse than some of the others only in degree, not in kind. For that matter, it’s only “worse” in terms of plot holes and vagueness. It’s not flawed to its core the way “Synthetic Love” was. Nor does it rely as heavily on magical insight the way “Time To Reap” did. But I don’t really care so much about the plot holes, because, for once, this style-over-substance approach actually works. Remove the scenes of Blackwood and Kincaid, and maybe of Malzor and Mana, and what you’re left with feels very much like Tales from the Darkside (or maybe even closer, the 1990s version of The Outer Limits). You even have a cheap jump scare with the baby and the visual cliff. Martin Daniels comes off like a very straightforward Tragic Mad Scientist, a bit of a Victor Frankenstein doomed to learn the hard way not to tamper in God’s domain, and not to let his obsessions get the better of him.

Once you accept that Martin is a Tragic Mad Scientist, most of the “plot holes” regarding the way the Creche works go away: it doesn’t have to make sense if the person behind it making his management decisions based on obsession rather than science. And while a character like Miss Ghoulson might not make logical sense, she’s such a straight-up Fairy Tale Villain that she slots into the same kind of unreality as Adam making the doorknob disappear. Suzanne as the sympathetic outsider who breaks through to the creepy boy with vast supernatural powers reminds me a whole lot of Helen Foley in the version of “It’s a Good Life” that was included in Twilight Zone: The Movie. The point of her in the story is to be the only one who actually cares about Adam’s wellbeing.

There’s so much in this story that doesn’t add up or quite make sense or quite conform to the way real people should work. But as it’s going along not quite adding up, everything they show us keeps saying that it doesn’t need to quite add up: we’re not watching a science fiction action-adventure. We’re watching an allegorical sci-fi-horror morality tale.

And even on that level, there’s still something a little off. It’s almost like we’re watching not one sci-fi-horror morality tale, but, like, three. There’s this very Outer Limits plot about the obsessive scientist tampering in God’s domain, the very Twilight Zone plot about a caring outsider trying to break through to a creepy boy with powers, and the very Tales from the Darkside plot about an alien cuckoo who finds himself starting to go native. Plus you’ve got the utterly unjustified and pointless reveal of Evil Government Agents being behind the Creche, the sort of thing you’d start seeing a lot in sci-fi-horror anthology series starting around this point in history and continuing forward (See, for instance, the key change to the reveal in the 2003 Twilight Zone version of “The Monsters are on Maple Street”). Curious, though, isn’t it, that none of the obvious influences from horror-anthology include Friday the Thirteenth the Series The episode is basically an orgy of sci-fi-horror-anthology themes, and, frankly, that’s part of the charm.

If they can salvage this show at this point (which they can’t), this is how to do it. The writing just isn’t coherent enough to hold the show together as a serious action-adventure. But after the imagery in “Time to Reap” and the surrealism in this one, they’ve shown that they’ve got the directorial chops to make a watchable show out of just bringing the weird.

If they follow through. If they don’t back off and try to make me take it seriously for a bunch of weeks before trying something surreal again.

We’re in a lot of trouble.

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

One thought on “Antithesis: The Pied Piper (War of the Worlds 2×12)

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