Antithesis: Path of Lies, Continued (War of the Worlds 2×14, Part 2)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

I don't know much about grenade launchers, but shouldn't it not be so easy to miss with one?

I don’t know much about grenade launchers, but shouldn’t it not be so easy to miss with one?

Intrepid reporter Mark Traynor got Too Close to Something Big. But never mind that, because the show won’t. The Morthren are out to get him because… They were already out to get him, and then he took a picture of one of them dying, so now they’re double out to get him. Meanwhile, they’re also making arrangements to provide publishing magnate W. R. Samuels with a life-prolonging elixir in exchange for using his Rupert Murdoch-like control of the media to do favors for them.

The next day, the aliens make another attempt on Traynor, this time outside his house. Kincaid and Blackwood are somehow there to rescue him, and give him enough information to sway him to their side. His girlfriend, having seen the assassination attempt, confronts Rob Nunn. He feigns ignorance, but immediately runs to Bebe and resigns when she stonewalls him.

There’s a pattern in this episode that is abstractly interesting as a storytelling mechanic, but doesn’t gel well with the action-adventure format of the show. Namely, other than the aliens themselves, no one in this story is really “evil”, but everyone is antagonistic. Compare with “The Deadliest Disease”. That was a story chock full of villains — Brock, Tao, the other two gang leaders at the exchange, the double-crossing security guard, Brock’s clone, even the Colonel to a lesser extent. The Morthren manage to be the least villainous characters in the story, since they’re acting entirely on the defensive to preserve themselves in the face of a plague.

But here, Nunn wants to do the right thing, but he’s being held back by Bebe. Bebe wants to do the right thing, but she’s being held back by Samuels. And even Samuels is shown to be motivated purely by desperation to stay alive. It’s a cool and interesting idea that all these people who are at best just selfish are pushed to villainy by forces beyond their control due to the manipulation of the aliens, but it doesn’t really sit well with this show. The aliens aren’t Moriarty-like evil masterminds creating intricate webs of deception. They’re much more straightforward than that. In fact, the aliens themselves have only a tenuous hold on the situation, struggling to off one reporter. It’s not the kind of show this is. And especially in light of the way this episode feels like it’s trying to fit into the mold of those classic shows where a guy who “sees something he shouldn’t” has to become a fugitive wandering from town to town, writing wrongs along the way. That’s a concept that calls for small villainies: the racist small-town sheriff who covers up a murder or the corrupt paper mill executive who tosses a union organizer into the shredder.

Now that he's better, he looks like the narrator from the old animatronic Winnie-the-Pooh TV series.

Now that he’s better, he looks like the narrator from the old animatronic Winnie-the-Pooh TV series.

The next scene is the best one in the episode: Malzor and Samuels meet face-to-face. It’s a classic Nasty Party scene with Samuels and Malzor being cordial to each other while communicating mutual loathing. Samuels keeps trying to drive home how tenuous his influence actually is: it was hard for him to suppress Traynor’s story (Which Malzor claimed involved an experimental military cyborg — they’re really hammering on this cyborg thing). He tries to caution Malzor that he might not be able to keep up that sort of thing, and his influence over his government contacts is contingent on avoiding scandal. But Malzor hits back hard on the matter of Samuels’s dependence on their serum, and the old man caves instantly. Samuels is very subtly nervous through the whole scene.

Polite of her dead body to gently move its hand out of the way as he takes the envelope.

Polite of her dead body to gently move its hand out of the way as he takes the envelope.

Traynor realizes too-late that he’s endangered his girlfriend by giving her the negatives. She’s strangled to death by someone who isn’t shown past the forearm. I don’t know why they bother; it’s not like we’d recognize Random Non-Speaking Assassin. We’re all meant to assume he’s Morthren, but the next scene reveals that they still don’t have the negatives and Malzor and Mana bitch at each other about it. After finding her body, Traynor and the others go off to confront Rob Nunn.

They find him drunk and packing in his office. A little bit of roughing up gets him to explain that he’s been under growing pressure to bury stories critical of the government and major corporations. So much for that thing about it taxing Samuels’s influence to have a story suppressed. Traynor works out that the orders to kill the story must have come from Bebe, and he and Kincaid storm off to confront her, leaving Nunn to get his neck snapped by the unseen assassin.

Samuels discovers just how far in over his head he’s gotten when Jennings brings him prints of Traynor’s pictures. “Cyborgs don’t disintegrate,” he says, in the tone of a man who knows this first-hand. He realizes that Traynor is right and “Dr. Adelson and Mr. Malcolm” are aliens. He freaks out, worried about their ultimate motives and the possibility that the serum might be more sinister than it seems. Jennings tries to reassure him, but betraying humanity to help invading aliens is a bridge too far for the old man. See? Even Samuels ultimately wants to do the right thing when he can get past his own fears.

There’s no explicit reveal that Samuels has the negatives — and by implication, it was his assassin who killed Traynor’s girlfriend. I think this is a misstep. Remember, Jennings had already gotten copies of the prints from Bebe. So why didn’t Samuels look at those five scenes ago? And given his horrified reaction when he sees the photo of a decomposing Morthren, I find it hard to imagine Samuels is the sort of guy who’d jump straight to, “You want those negatives? Okay, I’ll send a hit man out to kill a reporter’s girlfriend.” Perhaps it’s meant to show how desperate Samuels becomes when Malzor makes the negatives a hard condition of their agreement? But he never acknowledges the assassinations either. We’re to presume that it’s the same assassin who kills Rob Nunn and Bebe Gardner (Yeah. Spoilers). You’d think he might mention the fact that he’s had three people murdered when he has his moment of horror at realizing Traynor was right about aliens. The only way the scene really works is if you assume that the murders were done on Jennings’s initiative, and Samuels hadn’t know the details of it. But for that to work, you’d want a scene where Samuels orders Jennings to get the negatives and says something like, “I don’t care how!” and to have a confrontation later where Jennings reveals what he’s done to a shocked Samuels. And in any case, you’d want them to make an explicit reveal that, yes, it’s Samuels and not the Morthren who got the negatives.

Every scene she's in, it's like she's visiting from a soap opera.

Every scene she’s in, it’s like she’s visiting from a soap opera.

Traynor and Kincaid confront Bebe, who makes it clear that she’s frightened for her life if she tells them who’s behind it all, but she agrees to help anyway just before being shot by the off-camera killer.

The question of why the publishing magnate just bought an auto mechanic seems like a way more interesting story than anything we've seen.

The question of why the publishing magnate just bought an auto mechanic seems like a way more interesting story than anything we’ve seen.

Fortunately, Blackwood and Suzanne just looked up who owned the paper in the public records and learn about its ties to Samuels, so the gang decides to pop by his place.

Samuels gives Malzor the prints but not the negatives, and threatens to run Traynor’s photos unless Malzor hands over the formula for the serum and buggers off. But Malzor calls his bluff, taking the serum and preparing to leave. It’s another good scene, with Samuels starting out full of bravado, but falling apart when he realizes that he’s overplayed his hand. He orders Jennings to retrieve the negatives. Jennings notices a gun in the safe, and surprises no one by holding Samuels at gunpoint.

Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!

Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!

See, no one but Jennings and his easily-bribed doctors have actually seen Samuels in the flesh in years. Jennings has been handing the day-to-day operations of the company for so long that no one would notice if Samuels were never seen again, and it’d pay a lot better than his pension (How quaint, people having pensions in the future).

See now, in Jennings, we have an actual villainous-type person. But it’s too little too late. His betrayal comes off as spur-of-the-moment, when it would have been easy enough to build it up subtly through the episode. Jennings doesn’t really sell the villain thing, either. Bernard Behrens has the right look for the part — I checked three times to make sure he’d never been a Knight Rider villain (But guess who in this show did…). But he plays the character as being out of his depth. It’s not really clear whether he’s meant to have been manipulating things all along, or if it really is a matter of him being the mistreated underling who finally snaps. The plot wants him to go one way, but his portrayal goes the other. Behrens will be a better fit when he returns to Canadian-made first-run syndication in the fall as patriarch of the Van Helsing clan in Dracula the Series, a show that my local unaffiliated stations didn’t carry, so I know nothing about it, except that one of my three readers mentioned that Mia Kirshner was in it. Like, when he gets copies of the photos from Bebe, maybe we could react to them — on-screen, he flips through them, but gives no acknowledgment to their content. If we’d seen him appreciate their significance earlier, we’d know he’s lying when he seems just as shocked as Samuels by them later. You could use it to justify why Samuels doesn’t see the pictures until he gets the negatives. Reveal here that it was Jennings who decided to have everyone involved assassinated. Heck, imply that everything shady that we’ve attributed to Samuels has really been his doing.

He shoots his boss and asks Malzor for the same deal his predecessor had, though he sweetens it a touch:

The way I see it, I’m really doing you a favor. For unlike my previous employer, I don’t want to live forever. Just long enough to enjoy myself.

Malzor takes the deal, and throws in a free “vaporize your murder victim’s inconvenient corpse” signing bonus. That, of all things, freaks Jennings out a little, but he hands over the negatives anyway. Malzor tosses them in the fire, which is quaint immediately after he’s zapped someone, but we did establish last week that those zap guns don’t work on med cells, so maybe they don’t work on celluloid either.

The gang shows up a minute after Malzor leaves and Jennings calls the cops on them. Faced with approaching sirens, they’re forced to leg it, because War of the Worlds scoffs at your desire for closure.

Back at the base, Kincaid, Suzanne and Blackwood reflect on how completely screwed they are:

Blackwood: I bet we have as many human enemies now as we do alien.
Suzanne: They’re not working alone anymore.
Kincaid: We walk into one setup after another. They’re gaining in strength and we have nowhere to go.
Blackwood: Samuels. A man with his power.
Kincaid: Think of his connections.
Suzanne: He can buy anyone.

Will Jennings become a new recurring enemy who uses the Samuels conglomerate’s power and influence against them? Find out.. Now. The answer is no. We’ll never hear about it again. Of course we won’t. Hell, we won’t even hear about it again in this episode: the next scene has Malzor meeting a senator on a snow-covered country road to give him a case of their youth serum along with a picture of Mark Traynor who he describes as, “A pest we can do without.” So turns out Malzor can just go bribe senators directly and doesn’t need to go mucking about with publishing magnates.

We end on Mark Traynor, walking alone down another lonely country road, carrying a knapsack. He thumbs down a ride as we fade out. I am going to assume that it’s only because of the TV movie that was on NBC yesterday that they didn’t accompany him with The Lonely Man Theme from The Incredible Hulk.

David Banner Mark Traynor is believed to be dead and he must let the world think that he is dead until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him

David Banner Mark Traynor is believed to be dead and he must let the world think that he is dead until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him

This was… Very close to being good. But not good. There’s too many ideas at the high level and too few at the low level. There’s a story about media corruption and influence peddling that never goes anywhere. There’s a story about an investigative journalist that never goes anywhere. There’s a story about the conniving underling who Michael Goves his boss that… Well that one goes somewhere, it just doesn’t come from somewhere. There’s allusions to Traynor investigating other Morthren plots that isn’t followed up on. There’s allusions to Bebe making Nunn kill other stories that isn’t followed up on. There’s the thing about the Morthren wanting access to a satellite that isn’t followed up on.

Like I said, it’s structured as though someone had it in their mind to spin off a show about Mark Traynor, rogue reporter. But if that were anywhere in their minds, it seems like they ought to have given him more to do. There’s no story of the intrepid reporter stumbling onto something that gets him in trouble: that’s all off-screen backstory. He doesn’t do any actual investigative journalism after the first commercial break. All he really contributes for the bulk of the episode is to yell at people and demand they tell him Whose Responsible This. He ends up on the run, but in a kind of nonspecific way. Hey, you know what would have made sense? For Jennings to pin the murders of Bebe, Nunn and his girlfriend on him. This story would have actually been stronger if you’d taken out the aliens and the heroes and just made it about Traynor being set up by Jennings to take the fall as he enacts his coup against Samuels.

The heroes don’t do all that much either. Mostly, chaperone Traynor for half the episode as he yells at people. Adrian Paul is in phoning it in so hard I’m surprised that the operator doesn’t break in in act 3 to ask him for a buck and a quarter for the next three minutes, which is disappointing since he’s actually given a damn about his performance often enough this season to convince me that, yes, Adrian Paul does already know how to act at this stage in his life, and is not going to be shipped off to The Actor’s Studio for boot camp at the end of the season. Jared Martin is all over the place. Never really engaged properly, though he gets weirdly intense in one scene where they start speculating on whether Rob Nunn is a clone. Lynda Mason Green has absolutely no presence at all, and I can’t blame her since it seems like the only reason she’s in the episode at all is to avoid having scenes of Blackwood talking to himself.

All the action, all the drama, happens between the other characters. Malzor and Samuels. Bebe and Nunn. Bebe and Jennings. Jennings and Samuels. Bebe and Nunn are fairly thin characters, but I’d argue there’s a lot more to them than to Traynor. Nunn’s got this “Veteran reporter who’s too old for this shit” thing going, Bebe’s got her “Proud publisher forced into a position of servitude as an employee of the organization she once owned,” thing. Traynor’s just “Journalist who got shot at in a bar.”

Bits of this episode could easily have been fleshed out into something good. But they never really take a stand for any particular thing, so they end up standing for nothing.

Maybe that could be the epitaph for this show. After this episode, they’re on hiatus until April, and when they come back, it’s a different ballgame. In about two weeks, the final word is going to come down from Paramount: War of the Worlds is cancelled. No one’s really surprised by this: the ratings had been stable, but way too low, averaging 3.8 in the Neilsens (For context, Star Trek the Next Generation, basically the highest-rated show in first-run syndication, tended to come in between 10 and 12, which would put them at the very bottom of the chart compared to network shows). More surprising is that Friday the 13th the Series is getting the chop too. Its ratings are fine in an abstract sort of way — a 4.5 average with a high of 5.1 — but the violence had scared off advertisers, so it wasn’t pulling in the money.

But there’s a silver lining to this shadow. I guess this airing break was to accommodate the last production block of the series, which means that they went back into production already knowing the series was dead. Production on this show has been a mess. Script consultant Jeremy Hole had fallen ill some time during the first production block, right after “Breeding Ground” and didn’t return. Deborah Nathan would serve as script consultant for most of the series, but there wouldn’t be a regular script editor again until the midpoint of the season. Jim Trombetta had taken over starting with “The Defector” (Technically, with his own “Time to Reap”, which was filmed first), but is only credited for six of the ten episodes in the second half of the season. Jared Martin and Adrian Paul were doing rewrites themselves during breaks in shooting for a big chunk of the season just to keep things coherent.

No one would have blamed them if everyone just gave up at this point. Paramount had made it clear that War of the Worlds would be shelved. Unlike Friday the 13th The Series, which would still be available in reruns, the plan was pretty much for the rest of the series to run once, ever, then get stuck in a vault to slowly rot. And yet, freed from any delusion that the series was actually going to survive, they decided to make one last noble stand, and actually try to get their act together for the last five episodes. Unlike far too many shows, War of the Worlds knew its number was up in time to have a proper ending. A lot of what seemed like obvious setups are going to have to be discarded, sure, but what we’ll see over the final five are some really properly chilling alien strategies. There’s going to be some playing hard and fast with continuity, but as the series winds down, we finally get a real sense of the thing that’s been so lacking all season: a proper sense of the show actually moving in a defined direction toward a specific end. And, for better or worse, they’re going to get there.

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

4 thoughts on “Antithesis: Path of Lies, Continued (War of the Worlds 2×14, Part 2)

  1. Stephen Phillips

    I actually enjoyed ‘Dracula: the Series’. I even own the box sets. It’s, well, it’s charmingly awful. Definitely a kids show, terrible special effects, probably should have just been a cartoon. And yet, Dracula himself is a fun character on the show, with sort of a weird Bond villain vibe. The bizarre “European” (the location is never made clear, but it’s definitely Europe, somewhere) affinity for polka and schnitzel, the goofy magical items. I actually think you should check it out. It only runs one short season of half hour episodes, and it’s cheap. Which it should be, because it is largely what the then-famous C+C Music Factory called things that make you go hmm. Or, huh? And sometimes, WTF?

  2. Ross Post author

    Neat. Based on not having seen it and the wikipedia article, I was assuming it was in the vein of the slightly-edgy dark-fantasy-action syndicated series that got big around this time like Friday the 13th. But I’ve always got room for a new charmingly awful kid’s show.

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  4. Stephen Phillips

    Oh, it plays around with the dark and edgy vibe a bit, but it’s just playing. Too campy and, frankly, badly acted (really, the kids’ acting is usually awful, but they’re kids) to be edgy, really. It’s mostly a comedy with horror elements. Though there are scenes of genuine menace or pathos, it’s mostly played for laughs.

    A typical (that is, corny and dated) zinger from the first episode:

    “You’re . . . Dracula.”

    “No, I’m Milli Vanilli. Of COURSE I’m Dracula. And you know what? I enjoy being me!”

    I’m paraphrasing, but not by much.

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