Thesis: The Prodigal Son (War of the Worlds 1×15)

I have nothing really against humans, but as a group, they stink. I say kill them all.

John Colicos as Quinn

Who’s the alien sculptor who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?

It is February 6, 1989. Pinko Commie Liberal Gun-Grabber Ronald Reagan, just a few weeks out of office, delivers a speech at the University of Southern California in the wake of last month’s Stockton school shooting in which he says, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth or home defense. But I do believe an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon nor needed for home defense.” Though, fun fact, an AK-47 is not a machine gun. Los Angeles will ban the sale of semiautomatic weapons the next day. As the week goes on, Ron Brown will become the first African American to chair the DNC, and Barbara Harris will become the first woman to be ordained a Bishop in an Anglican church. Isiah Thomas will be born tomorrow.

In Cold War news, the Polish government initiates the Round Table Talks with the Solidarity party. The Communist regime had hoped they could just co-opt the opposition by giving them a place at the table that would make them more invested in the status quo. Instead, it gave Solidarity the legality and legitimacy that would lead in short order to the collapse of the Communist regime in Poland.

The collaborative live album Dylan and The Dead is released. Their July, 1987 performance of “All Along the Watchtower” is fucking incredible. Tomorrow, Elvis Costello will release Spike, which includes his Paul McCartney collaboration, “Veronica”, also known as, “Probably the only Elvis Costello Song you can remember (Unless you’re like me and really like “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”. That same day, Roy Orbison’s final album, “Mystery Girl”, is released posthumously. Its highest-charting song, “You Got It” will hit number 9 on the charts in April. Phil Collins drops nine spaces this week, just barely hanging on at number ten. Taking his place at the top of the chart is Sheriff with “When I’m With You”, one of those great late-’80s power ballads that stretches the word “Baby” out to nine syllables over five seconds. Except that the song was actually off of a 1982 album, and the band had broken up back in ’85, and it’s one of the only chart-toppers of the era not to have a music video. There doesn’t seem to be any particular story behind this happening; it’s just the eighties.

Composer Joe Raposo died yesterday. His credits include the theme songs to Three’s Company, The Electric Company, and the recently-debuted Shining Times Station. But his most famous contribution to television music was his work for Sesame Street, which includes “C is for Cookie”, “(It’s not easy) Bein’ Green”, “ABC-DEF-GHI”, “Sing”, and the iconic series theme song. It’s also rumored that Cookie Monster was inspired (At least in the detail of having one particular culinary obsession rather than being a generic Glutinous Monster) by Raposo’s love of cookies.

Sky Television becomes the UK’s first satellite TV network. US network television is all new this week, including the epic Western miniseries Lonesome Dove. For the first time since 1978, a new Columbo airs, the series having been brought back and moved to ABC. “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine” pits the detective against an alleged psychic who murders a stage magician, with the complication that the psychic is defrauding the government into contracting him as a consultant. MacGyver gives us “Cleo Rocks”, which features the return of Teri Hatcher as the comedy peril-magnet Penny Parker and Mac’s arch-nemesis Murdoc, an internationally renowned assassin for the Bond-Villain-esque “Homicide International Trust” and infamous master of disguise. Only by “master”, I mean, “You can tell it’s him the first time he appears on screen even though he’s facing the other direction and only half in the frame. Friday the 13th The Series is a bit interesting this week. “Face of Evil” is a sequel to last season’s “Vanity’s Mirror”. An aging model finds a cursed compact, not recovered after its last appearance, and uses it to restore her own beauty in exchange for murdering or mutilating other models. This is odd, because in its last appearance, the compact’s powers were completely different, causing men to fall obsessively in love with the bearer. They try to spackle over this discontinuity by suggesting the compact’s power is actually to “give you what you want the most,” love for the lonely teenage girl, beauty for the vain aging model, which technically makes the compact way more powerful than pretty much anything else in the series, including the ones which can cause the apocalypse. Star Trek the Next Generation is “A Matter of Honor”, the one where Riker spends a semester abroad on a Klingon ship. I want to say I think I was underwhelmed by this episode when it aired. Over at Vaka Rangi, Josh focuses on the coolness of its 3-D Viewmaster adaptation, which is a fair cop. Even today with our smart phones and our occulus rifts, we haven’t quite managed to reproduce the awesomeness of adapting TV shows to the 3-D Viewmaster format.

This week’s episode is the first one I’ve watched on our new 65″ TV, which rendered it almost unviewable. Looks like I’m going to have to re-rip my DVDs. Last week aside, War of the Worlds has generally had a really impressive guest cast. This week is probably where it tops out with the first appearance of John Colicos. Colicos was an extremely talented and versatile actor best known for playing villains that were between “just slightly over the top” and “did somebody order the LARGE HAM?” John Colicos as KorIn the Star Trek franchise, he’s known for playing Kor, the Klingon commander from “Errand of Mercy“, a role he reprised decades later for three episodes of Deep Space Nine (His final scene has a bit I really love. On the pretext of seeing Worf off on a suicide mission, he asks if he has a message for his wife. Worf fumbles, assuming the senile old man has forgotten that his wife had died last season. Kor takes advantage of Worf’s confusion to drug him in order to take his place, and says, roughly, “Don’t worry, when I get to Klingon Heaven, I’ll tell her you miss her.”). John Colicos as KorBut what he’s really known best for in the domain of Science Fiction is a role he played back in a weird 1970s show. I am, of course, speaking of The Starlost, where he played the butch manly leader of an all-male society of butch manly men who mostly wrestled. Well, that and Battlestar Galactica where he played Baltar.

I’ll cut to the chase and tell you who he is right now. Colicos is playing “Quinn”, a reclusive artist known as the “Painter of Light”.

Something about the name "Kinkade" feels familiar. Wonder why...

Something about the name “Kinkade” feels familiar. Wonder why…

No, wait. The “Sculptor of Light”. Like this:

It's only a model.

It’s only a model.

Okay, so maybe actually more like “The Sculptor of Video Toaster Post Processing Effects”. But anyway, he’s also an alien.

Not just any alien, though. See, Quinn is something we haven’t seen before (Though I suppose there are shades of him back in the novelization with Xashoron). Quinn is a renegade: an alien on the run from and actively opposed to the advocacy. This is, on the face of it, unthinkable. Everything we’ve seen so far suggests that the aliens are utterly, unquestioningly loyal, being possessed of little capacity for independent thought to begin with, to say nothing of rebellion.

The explanation, rather straightforwardly, is that Quinn is insane. Specifically, he’s been living among humans for so long that he’s adopted human traits. He hasn’t exactly “gone native”, but the tension between his Mortaxan psychology and his human lifestyle has driven him “half-mad”: he admits as much to Harrison. And do you think John Colicos can pull that off? Yes, of course he can. This part was basically written for him.

What does he expect to find under that hat?

Does he think Quinn is hiding under the hat?

I mean, except for the bits where he seems to be channeling Shaft. I don’t know where that came from. But, inexplicably, he still pulls it off. We first see Quinn on the run from the NYPD. Or rather, from some people who wear NYPD uniforms and bear noticeable radiation sores. They’re briefly incapacitated by a blinding light from a device hidden under Quinn’s seemingly-dropped hat (Why they decide to gather around the hat and gingerly pick it up is hard to explain), giving Quinn time to take the chase to the rooftops. The first officer to reach him fails to make the jump to the next building and Quinn takes obvious delight in refusing his pursuer’s plea for help as he tries to pull himself up from the ledge. After stomping on the policeman’s hand, he watches with a smirk as the surviving aliens below watch their comrade decompose. Our first indication of Quinn’s complicated nature comes when he tosses off a one-liner: “To life immortal, sucker.”

At the Cottage, the gang is getting ready to head to New York, where they’ll meet with General Wilson to brief the UN on the alien situation. While he’s in New York, Harrison has something more exciting planned, though: he’s received a personal invitation to meet Quinn and an opportunity to buy one of his sculptures. Norton is floored, and even Ironhorse is impressed, even if he describes the infamously reclusive artist as a, “phony who sells art that disappears when the lights are turned on.”

When sales are bad I rent my studio out as a mosh pit.

When sales are bad I rent my studio out as a mosh pit.

Quinn’s limo picks Harrison up in New York, and the artist demands he wear a blindfold for the trip back to the studio in order to protect his privacy. He leads Harrison to a seat on a raised platform in a large, dark room that reminds me a lot of Jessica Morgan’s studio from Captain Power. His blindfold removed, Harrison is awed by “The Universal Truth”, an installation consisting of interwoven patterns of blue beams of light. It’s always a problem when you include a character in a work of fiction who’s meant to be a master artist, especially if the medium of your fiction is able to display the art. You can maybe get away with writing a famous painter or sculptor or musician into a book. But try writing a story about a world-renowned poet, and you’ll be expected to actually produce some competent poetry. The light-sculpture Quinn shows Harrison honestly is less “world-famous artist” and more “competent wedding DJ”. The other Quinn we see in this episode might be a bit lackluster due to the visual effects used to render it, but you can at least imagine that if you saw this holographic space scene hovering in the air in real life, it would be pretty neat. The Universal Truth is just night club lights. But Harrison’s impressed and that’s what really matters. He couldn’t possibly afford a work on this scale (Maybe the problem here is that the good part is off-camera?), but Quinn, whose attitude has shifted from brusque to playful, gives it to him as a gift, and throws in a metal bracelet identical to his own.

Quinn moves the topic of conversation to the possibility of alien life. Quinn: Tell me, Harrison, do you believe there’s life in outer space?
Harrison: How could I not?
Quinn:That answer reminds me of the little old Irish lady who, when asked if she believed in ghosts, replied, “No, but they’re there.”
Harrison asks if Quinn takes his inspiration from the stars. When Quinn answers that the stars are the source, “of imagination itself, and of life immortal,” Harrison realizes that something is up. I’m struggling here to remember if Harrison has ever heard the aliens say their catchphrase before. Maybe in “Eye for an Eye”?

John Colicos in War of the Worlds

It was a serious struggle to keep the number of John Colicos Crazy Eyes gifs in this post down.

Quinn reveals that he’d “made contact with aliens” back in 1953, near Harrison’s home town in California. I mentioned a long time ago that there are only two characters in the series who call Harrison “Harry”. Sylvia is one. Quinn is the other. He even mentions this: he apparently knew Sylvia and Clayton personally, which brings up the interesting possibility that Quinn played some role in Sylvia’s affliction. Quinn possesses a rare mutation which grants him immunity to Earth bacteria, and has lived, “Thirty-five long, lonely years, on a hostile, alien planet called Earth.” “You’re an alien,” Harrison realizes. Quinn gives him a fantastic crazy-eyes stare. “Oh, no, Harry. You’re the alien.”

While this has been going on, the remaining police aliens are under orders from the advocacy to capture Quinn. They track down an art gallery selling a second-hand light-sculpture and compel the proprietor to give them a phone number. By “compel” here, I mean, “Stick their alien fingers in her brain.”

Jared Martin and John Colicos

This is a very advanced dance move for this kind of club

When we did “Among the Philistines“, I mentioned that the episode was obviously aired out of order, primarily on the basis of Harrison knowing more about the aliens than he ought to. “Among the Philistines” actually follows on pretty closely from this episode. The conversations between Harrison and Quinn in his studio and elsewhere are the source of a lot of the details that will come up when they interview Adrian. Quinn explains that Mortax is a “garden world” orbiting a dying star in the constellation of Taurus, and that Earth is the nearest habitable planet by far. He also reveals that colony ships carrying three million refugees are less than five years away. The alien leadership wants to exterminate humanity outright, and Quinn doesn’t dispute that humanity kinda deserves it. Out of nowhere, he flies into a rage, calling Harrison a bacteria-ridden parasite and threatening to kill him if he doesn’t escape. Escape proves impossible, of course, since, quite predictably, those bracelets they’re wearing turn out to be a kind of alien handcuff, tethering the two of them with some manner of tractor beam.

Wait a second... Tree-huggers don't smoke! It's a trap!

Wait a second… Eco-warriors don’t smoke! It’s a trap!

His rage passed, Quinn offers Harrison a way to end the war. Before they can get into the details, however, more aliens show up. Quinn and Harrison flee, one of Quinn’s traps taking out another of the alien policemen. In the commotion, Quinn fails to notice Harrison dropping a matchbook on which he’s written “〝Q〞 = Δ” They take to the subway tunnels, Quinn’s usual way of getting around as the sunlight above ground hurts his eyes. Harrison notes the irony, given that they’d come here for the sunlight. I guess they spend a lot more time underground than we see. Because in the next shot, Ironhorse and Suzanne are fretting because Harrison missed the meeting with Wilson, which means that thirty-six hours have passed since the last scene at the Cottage. Suzanne notes that it, “Just isn’t like Harrison,” to blow off an important meeting, because she, like Ironhorse, seems unable to learn from the past. Norton tracks down Quinn’s studio by using his 31337 hax0r skills, and Ironhorse and Suzanne arrive just in time to encounter the real NYPD, investigating the murder of Quinn’s limo driver. In the tunnels, Harrison’s cell phone (They call it a “portable”) somehow gets enough of a signal to ring when Norton tries it. Quinn confiscates and smashes it.

Ironhorse’s credentials gets them access to Quinn’s studio, where Sergeant Fitzpatrick, the detective on the case has found only “a pile of goo that I think from the badge is a New York cop who’s been missing for a month” and the matchbook, whose provenance Ironhorse deduces when he hears that it’s from, “A Save the Whales group in San Francisco”. Ironhorse and Suzanne marvel briefly at the light sculpture, then withdraw, asking to be kept in the loop. Once outside, Ironhorse reveals to Suzanne that he suspects the cryptic message on the matchbook is identifying Quinn as an alien, the Greek letter delta’s triangle shape referring to the alien penchant for threes. Suzanne is slow accept this, but comes around when Norton calls to report on the death of the art gallery owner, with the characteristic head injury. Ironhorse doesn’t want to accept that Harrison may have been possessed, but can’t reject the possibility. He orders Norton to evacuate the Cottage and enlists the police to help stake out the UN.

Jared Martin and John ColicosQuinn takes Harrison to a secluded room off of the subway tracks, a secret bolt-hole where he stores art and tools. He flies into another rage when Harrison refuses to sit down and displays his enhanced alien strength by trying to throttle him. The Advocacy is after Quinn to learn the secret of his immunity, but he’s grown accustomed to not being dead, and would therefore prefer not to be dissected for study. His rare mutation has also left him unable to drop his human host body, so he can’t simply swap bodies and go to ground.

Quinn retains the contempt for humanity-in-general shared by the rest of his people, but the years have made him less of a hard-liner. Like any proper real-world bigot, he’s willing to make the odd exception for individual humans, “Some of my best friends are human,” he says. He’s willing to allow ten percent of humanity to survive on reservations, in exchange for the UN surrendering to him. The meeting with Harrison was set up specifically to give him his ultimatum for delivery at their UN conference. After decades of living among humanity, Quinn’s picked up a streak of megalomania. Before turning renegade, Quinn had been a supreme commander in the alien military, and he believes that if he can secure humanity’s surrender, the alien military will accept him as leader, overthrowing the advocacy.  Quinn translates his military title as “One Who Knows”. This might give us some more insight into how the alien social structure works. It’s been driven home repeatedly that the rank-and-file aliens are kinda jaw-droppingly stupid. Not simply uncreative or lacking advanced problem solving, but possessed of a certain kind of childishness. We have several examples of aliens sort of wandering off-task. It seems like by dubbing him “One Who Knows”, there’s an implication there that his leadership rank sets him above the troops first and foremost in that he is intelligent. We’re not going to see Quinn wander off to eat some flowers in the middle of an operation. But there’s that other interesting word: “One”. This is particularly unusual. This very episode reminds us that the alien psychology, biology, and culture are all oriented around the number three. The advocacy are referred to as “Three who Lead”, and yet Quinn is “One who Knows”. Now, I think this makes sense for a battlefield commander, who needs to make strategic decisions on-the-fly and might not have the opportunity for consultation, but it’s weird and hasn’t come up before. Perhaps Quinn’s already-unusual status among his kind is what made it possible for him to survive, alone, on Earth for so long. He’s contemptuous toward the ruling class, who’d ignored the warnings of the scientists, and believes that the rank-and-file will agree that the advocacy has shown itself incompetent.

It’s striking how similar Quinn is, in the broad strokes, to Xashoron from the novelization, even refering to Earth as, “a new world with new rules”, but his plan honestly seems kind of far-fetched given what we know about the alien mindset. “You’ve lived here for 35 years in torment and suffering in a terrible kind of loneliness. Now you’re revolting against your condition. Despite the pain, you want to live, Quinn. That’s a human feeling.”  Harrison thinks the same, as he challenges Quinn’s assumption that his people would ever consent to be ruled by a “half-breed” in a human body. He pleads with Quinn to instead accept his offer of sanctuary. “If you want to live, Quinn, humans will tolerate you. They might even celebrate your half-alien identity. But your kind, your kind will squash you. They will kill you out of fear.”

wotw11507Still determined to rule the world, Quinn forces Harrison back into the tunnels and toward the UN building. Elsewhere, the pursuing aliens have discovered the remains of Harrison’s cell phone, including the name label, because it’s 1989 and of course you’d pull out the Dymo and label your cell phone with your name. More evidence, I think, that this episode was meant to precede “Among the Philistines”. In an unusually (and deeply ironic, given that they aired the episodes in the wrong order) dense bit of continuity, I think it’s clearly the events of this episode which tip off the alien leadership to Harrison’s identity. And the aliens have also snatched Sergeant Fitzpatrick. Although Ironhorse only told him about “terrorists” who use “unusual methods”, and who would have good reason to attack a certain special meeting with UN security council members, that’s enough for them to work out that there’s an international coalition forming to fight them, and that Harrison and Ironhorse are important figures in it. These events right here are what set in motion the first direct attack by the aliens on the Blackwood Project back in “Among the Philistines”, and it also sets up the events of an episode coming in a few more weeks.

Here. I haven't done a picture of a Lynda Mason Green anguished smile in a while.

Here. I haven’t done a picture of a Lynda Mason Green anguished smile in a while.

Ironhorse and Suzanne are uncomfortable with the prospect of having to kill Harrison. “Harrison may be the biggest weirdo, pain in the butt, I’ve ever known, but he’s a friend of mine,” Suzanne says, and Ironhorse agrees. He orders his men to take Harrison alive, and that if it comes down to it, he alone will give the kill-order. When he fails to raise Fitzpatrick on the radio, he proceeds inside the UN building to investigate personally.

At the UN, Quinn produces another ridiculously fake looking Video Toaster effect to secure the door to a viewing room overlooking the conference room where Harrison’s meeting is scheduled to take place.wotw11511 Though the “laser lock” is impenetrable, it will only last for half an hour, which makes you wonder why he bothered. Harrison understands the basic principles, but is annoyed that Quinn spouts vague platitudes about the nature of the universe rather than getting into the mechanics. Personally, I’m more disappointed that he used a fancy alien magic lock on the door to a room with a big honking window. The alien-possessed policemen, who now number six with Fitzpatrick and some other new converts, confront him from the conference room below, demanding his surrender. Quinn offers Harrison to them in exchange for his freedom, but they’re willing only to grant that he’ll be honored posthumously for it. With no more alien tricks, Quinn becomes desperate, but Harrison shows the MacGyver side that they’ve been ignoring for the past few episodes by building a makeshift flamethrower from the contents of a janitor’s cart. The flamethrower dispatches two of the aliens, creating an opening for Quinn and Harrison to flee back into the subway tunnels.

Jared Martin

He’s a pacifist, see.

This isn't a special effect. John Colicos could actually just generate a blinding green light from his mouth. It only comes up here and in one episode of Mannix

This isn’t a special effect. John Colicos could actually just generate a blinding green light from his mouth. It only comes up here and in one episode of Mannix

Ironhorse is not far behind the aliens as they chase Quinn and Harrison, and he manages to shoot one of them. When Harrison and Quinn are eventually cornered, Quinn fakes his own death while Harrison hides. Having learned from last time, the aliens pointedly ignore his strategically placed hat and check the body themselves. He opens his mouth to reveal another one of those alien tricks he said he was all out of, a green light which blinds them long enough for Quinn to shoot them. In recompense for his help in escaping, Quinn gives Harrison his freedom, releasing the lock on his bracelet, vanishing while Harrison is looking down. A disembodied whisper warns, “We’ll meet again, Harry.”

Ironhorse approaches Harrison with his gun drawn, unsure whether Harrison’s been possessed, and the exchange between the two of them is about as slashy as it gets for these two:

Ironhorse:Is that you, Harrison?
Harrison: Yes, Colonel, it’s me. The one and only. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t put any new holes in me to prove it.
Ironhorse: Believe it or not, it’s important to me, too. You’ve been under Quinn’s influence for a long time. How do I know you’re not one of them?
Harrison: Well, I could tell you a joke, but if you didn’t get it, and you might not, Colonel, you might just shoot me out of spite.
Ironhorse: Very funny.
Harrison: Paul.
Harrison: It’s really me.
Ironhorse:I guess it is.

wotw11514There’s a final scene of Ironhorse, Harrison and Suzanne speaking to the UN. Nothing new here, really. It sounds like they’re just trying out sound bytes for next season’s opening monologue:

Harrison: 35 years ago, a great invasion force of aliens nearly obliterated mankind in an all-out attack from the stars. They came here in these spaceships and they fell from the sky dead, so we all thought. Earth was saved from interstellar conquest by the presence of common bacteria found on this planet, but they were not dead, as my adoptive father, Dr. Forester, tried to warn everyone. They were only asleep.
Suzanne: They are capable of inhabiting human bodies, a perfect cover which allows them to roam our cities undetected, unnoticed.
Ironhorse: We are at war gentlemen. And we had better win. There won’t be any second chance.

wotw11516And we end on Quinn emerging from a manhole, disguised in a hard-hat and safety vest. I guess in case we didn’t get the memo that yes, he had indeed escaped.

I tell you, I needed this after the last one. I’d remembered this as a pretty good episode, and it turned out, mercifully, to be one of the few episodes that didn’t just live up to my expectations, but actually turned out to be way better than I remembered. John Colicos is just an absolute delight. At least on par with Ann Robinson, Patrick Macnee and John Vernon on terms of raw talent. But this episode takes it a step further because Quinn is the central character of the episode rather than a side-character. You get to enjoy John Colicos as he John Colicoses it up for the bulk of the episode’s run-time.

Quinn is just an exceptional character, and Colicos’s performance really conveys the conflict that’s playing out in him. His violent mood-swings are the most obvious sign of this. He swings from brusque, to affable, to violent anger, to giggling madman, to imperious megalomaniac as though it’s perfectly natural based on his psychology, without it ever seeming forced There’s also an impishness to him, an obvious relish both in taunting his victims and in using subterfuge to manipulate and ensnare Harrison. Goofy as the aliens have been all season, Quinn is the only one to actually possess a sense of humor. And despite his cold, calculating machinations and grisly plot to have 90% of the human race euthanized, you get a real sense of his own pain, forced to live as an outcast from a civilization that radically opposes individuality.

If Quinn’s plan to become king of the world seems unlikely to succeed, it only adds to the sense that Quinn isn’t behaving entirely rationally. We’ve repeatedly seen that the rank-and-file among the aliens are perfectly happy to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Quinn isn’t. He’s given up his loyalty to the advocacy. He still longs to return to his people, but it’s equally clear that, though he might not admit it, he doesn’t consider himself one of them: he doesn’t want to be a soldier, to return to the place ordained for him in their caste-based society. No, he considers himself above the rest of his kind, fit to rule, and to rule as one, rather than as part of a triumvirate or council.

But the strangest thing about Quinn, I think, is that when he’s not being a megalomaniac plotting world domination, he’s an artist. And, we are meant to believe, a really good one. How often do you see those traits together? Maybe he’s meant to be some kind of anti-Hitler: great artist, terrible world-conqueror. We’ve seen nothing to indicate what alien art is like, if they even have it. We have maybe some general sense of alien aesthetic sensibilities: they find the human form grody and like looking at images of human suffering. It’s maybe a bit surprising then that an alien artist would produce art pleasing to humans. And it doesn’t seem to be a cynical ploy on Quinn’s part: he seems to sincerely be making art that he considers reflective of the true nature of the universe.

It’s also nice to see our heroes directly confronting the aliens again. Aside from Norton’s fight with Adrian in “Among the Philistines”, we haven’t had a fight scene, or even a scene where the aliens and the Blackwood team directly confront each other in a meaningful way since last year. The previous five episodes have seen the heroes primarily being either helpless bystanders or getting involved only after-the-fact. This week, we get some solid action sequences both with Quinn and with Ironhorse, plus a reprise of the “Harrison contrives a weapon from stuff he finds in the closet” scene from “To Heal the Leper” — and this time we actually get to see the payoff.

Norton and Suzanne are mostly on the back-burner this week, but they’re not entirely neglected. Norton has really gotten the short shrift since “Among the Philistines”. This week is an improvement for him over the past two, at least. It feels like the writers are getting lazy about thinking of ways to use him. Earlier in the season, they were a lot more willing to finagle him into the plot proper, actually having him go out in the field in “Thy Kingdom Come” and “Eye for an Eye”. The rest of the time, Norton’s role is primarily “Mission Control”. This can still be a substantial part, and “Goliath is my Name” is a good example of that. But increasingly, they’re choosing not to linger too long on events at the Cottage, and while that doesn’t per se knock him out of the plot, it does knock him out of most of the mundane character interaction stuff. While the others get to bounce ideas off each other and theorize about what the aliens are up to, Norton is only called in to answer a specific question. He’s really the only one of the three scientists who still functions primarily as a scientist in his chosen field: Suzanne has used her microbiology skills twice since Thanksgiving, and I can’t remember if Harrison’s astrophysics has ever been directly relevant to the plot, but there’s only ever been one episode where Norton contributed anything to the plot other than his 31337 hax0r skills.

I said a long time ago that I didn’t think Ironhorse was a particularly dynamic character. Rewatching the series now has proved me wrong, as it appears that Norton is the character who changes the least across the season. Instead, we get to see that for all their differences, Ironhorse thinks of Harrison as a friend, and agonizes over the possibility that he might have been turned. Character growth, people. Even if everyone has this inexplicable inability to remember what Harrison is and isn’t “just not like”.

In production order, rather than the middle of the season, “Epiphany” and “The Good Samaritan” fell much earlier. “Dust to Dust” directly followed “To Heal the Leper”, with this episode afterward. “Choirs of Angels”, “He Feedeth Among the Lilies”, and “Among the Philistines” followed afterward. Now, production order isn’t the be-all and end-all here, as “The Angel of Death” is very obviously meant to be a season finale, but wasn’t the last episode filmed. But in this case, reordering the episodes really makes the season more coherent. The most obvious way, as I said, is because the events of this episode are directly relevant to “Among the Philistines”. But also in terms of character development.  Ironhorse is openly suspicious of Harrison in “Epiphany”, and shows a lot of reluctance to believe Harrison’s theories in the first half of the season, all the way up through “To Heal the Leper”. Here, we see Ironhorse positively affirm for the first time that he thinks of Harrison as a friend, and he presents this to Suzanne as a surprising revelation. This works okay in the aired context of the series, but I think it’s a better fit taken as the introduction of Ironhorse’s change of heart toward Harrison that will reach fruition in “Choirs of Angels”.

Back in “Dust to Dust”, I roughed out a hypothesis for the direction they might have taken with Ironhorse’s character evolution. In the novelization, Ironhorse makes a point in inner monologue that he could imagine himself coming to respect Harrison, but could never consider him a friend. Could Ironhorse have become more kindly disposed toward Harrison as a result of the nascent spiritual awakening he begun with the Westeskewin? Certainly, you’d think his experience would make him less hostile toward a new-age weirdo.

Quinn will return in a few weeks, though his role will be very minor. I don’t object, though: I think it’s best that he be used sparingly, rarely a central figure, but often a liminal one. One of the things that has stymied this series so far is how utterly alien the aliens are. The way they think, strategize and problem-solve are all so alien that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish their actions from nonsense. Quinn serves as a bridge, someone who can understand how aliens think and convey it in human terms. He’s a bit like Davros in Doctor Who. Someone who bridges between human and alien, ideologically aligned with the alien, but rejected by them for his own impurity, yet convinced that it is his right to rule over them. Just as Davros became less of a compelling character as Terry Nation and his estate started demanding he be used as often as possible, Quinn would probably grow tiresome with overuse.

There’s any number of ways you could see this character going. He could eventually ally himself with the Blackwood project out of self-interest, though I imagine that would eventually end in sudden yet inevitable betrayal. It’s possible he might find a way to make him sufficiently valuable alive that the advocacy is forced to reconcile with him, which would likely end with him forced to flee for his own safety. It’s even possible that he might be able to trigger a schism among the aliens on Earth and amass his own followers independent of those loyal to the advocacy. The most compelling possibility, though, I think is for him to remain a third-party whose goals aren’t compatible with either side. As an agent provocateur, we might even find ourselves in the strange position where the aliens and the humans are effectively on the same side as they work to foil Quinn’s machinations.

It’s weird how much it feels like this episode accomplishes, even though its own plot is fairly modest. There isn’t much closure to the story: the aliens fail to capture Quinn, Quinn fails to conquer the Earth, the only plan that actually succeeds is Harrison making his appointment at the UN. And yet, we’ve established this new character who is going to be part of the plot moving forward. And that’s not all. For the first time, the humans have gotten real insight into the aliens from an alien point-of-view. They know where they’re from, what they call themselves, why they’re coming, and when to expect reinforcements. The aliens have been largely impenetrable to the humans all season: they have no real insight into their plans, thought-process, needs, desires, or social structure. It’s contributed heavily to the recurring sense of our heroes succeeding largely by dumb luck, an unending series of coincidences that puts the heroes and the aliens at the same place at the same time.

Meanwhile, it’s a small point that they never call attention to, but suddenly the aliens are explicitly aware of the Blackwood Project and recognize it as a threat, which, as we’ve already seen, leads to the events of “Among the Philistines”. We’ve finally reached a point where the aliens are in specific confrontation with the human heroes rather than their interactions being more a matter of coincidence.

At long last, we’ve reached a position where it actually feels like there is a “somewhere” for this show to go. They’ve found a direction for the series. Pity it took them so long to do it.

One thought on “Thesis: The Prodigal Son (War of the Worlds 1×15)

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