Monthly Archives: August 2016

Synthesis 8: I Believe That Children Are Our Future

Alien babyWhat can I say about this, then? In their proper historical context, “Unto Us a Child is Born” and “Breeding Ground” aired about eight months apart. There’s ten episodes between them, which is significantly fewer than than separate them in our treatment. I bring this up because it probably means something that for folks watching “Breeding Ground” back in 1989, the related first season episode was still a comparatively fresh memory.

The episodes are basically nothing alike, which is undoubtedly the right way for a series to do the same basic brief in consecutive seasons, and it’s surprising only insofar as this is the one and only time the second season directly acknowledges a specific event from the first (Unless you count Blackwood instinctively recognizing the mind-altering effects of the music in “Terminal Rock” as a nod to “Choirs of Angels”, but I’d hardly call that “direct”).

War of the WorldsWhile “Unto Us a Child is Born” is very straightforward creature horror, essentially, as I noted, a simplified version of It’s Alive, “Breeding Ground” is a far more psychological horror. There’s only one real shock-moment of gore, the explosion of the first implant subject. It’s fairly discrete too, the “money shot” obscured by a curtain a la Cloverfield. There’s nothing comparable to the repeated assaults and dismemberment done by the hybrid in the earlier episode. There’s not even a climactic battle in the second-season story: it’s one of those episodes where the heroes are mostly following the aliens at a distance for the whole episode and only show up after-the-fact.

But if you remember my coverage of “Breeding Ground”, you’ll know that I had some pretty serious misgivings about the structural decisions that story made. Specifically, the way that it seeks to make Gestaine a tragic character at the expense of erasing the actual victim, Kate. Or the perennial problem across both seasons of the regulars being only incidentally engaged in the plot. That’s not a problem in “Unto Us a Child is Born”: it’s one of the tightest episode of the season structurally, and does a very good job of integrating the heroes with the story. So I’m inclined to say that the second season had a more interesting concept, but the first season did a better job of realizing its concept. Which is pretty much this series in a nutshell.

War of the Worlds: Julian Richings and Patricia PhillipsThe difference in plot-emphasis is best summarized by the baby itself: the baby in “Breeding Ground” is born at the end of the episode, and we don’t actually see it until the very last shot. In “Unto Us a Child is Born”, the birth of the hybrid happens at the start of act 2. We see it as a baby, then as a child, and finally in its mutant form. It’s actively engaged in the story, serving as the antagonist for the final act. The other aliens only engage the protagonists briefly, and are dispatched trivially. In “Breeding Ground”, Ardix and Bayda are the primary antagonists, and serve as a menacing presence throughout the episode.

There is also a big difference between the episodes in how much else is going on. “Unto Us a Child is Born” has the plot at the mall in its opening scene, but that vanishes immediately, and the episode is pretty much razor-focused on capturing the child and studying it. The whole of the episode is about the nature of the alien hybrid and very little else. “Breeding Ground” has a bunch of other stuff going on: Gestaine’s illness, and the larger matter of him being a victim of biological warfare testing. The collapse of the welfare state, healthcare costs and the moral dimension of for-profit medical insurance. The long-term survial of the Morthren species, for that matter: they deliberately set out to have a baby for the purpose of establishing that their species could reproduce on Earth; the Mortaxan hybrid is an accidental creation, and their interest in it is not about reproduction, but about vivisecting it to study its immune system.

And, of course, the Morthran hybrid’s story doesn’t end at the end of “Breeding Ground”: it’s one of very few episodes to have a direct sequel (Perhaps the only one. “No Direction Home” follows directly from “The Second Wave” but it’s arguable whether that’s really enough to make it count as a sequel per se. The series finale will also pick up on some events from “Loving the Alien”, but the plot is mostly unrelated). “The Pied Piper” revisits the infant we’d only briefly seen in “Breeding Ground”. Unlike the first episode, “The Pied Piper” is a story properly about the character of Adam. Who has rapid-aged from an infant to school-aged. And he kills a bunch of people who are doing medical work on him. In this regard, it’s a lot closer to “Unto Us a Child is Born”. Yet still, the second season episode feels the need to also have human antagonists by making the Creche staff and Martin in particular into vaguely sinister characters.

That’s one of the big, recurring shifts going into the second season: the addition of human antagonists. Other than mostly off-screen obstructionist bureaucrats, the closest the first season has come so far [Wait for it.] to a human antagonist would be Marcus Madison in “Feeding the Masses”, and he gets converted into an alien when the alien part of the plot really spins up.

“The Pied Piper” is also an interesting place to compare the seasons in light of the other connection I noted with respect to “Unto Us a Child is Born”. You’ll recall that I pointed out a superficial resemblance to the then-very-recently-released film The Fly II. The similarities are only skin-deep, though, on the level of what you’d expect if they’d pretty much just seen the trailer and decided to let it influence not the overall story, but maybe some of the visual motifs. There’s the basic idea of a chimeric baby rapidly aging and becoming monstrous, then at the end divesting itself of its foreign biomass to become fully human, but little of the actual meat of the story is duplicated. Through a weird coincidence, though, “The Pied Piper” seems to have picked up a lot of elements from the plot of The Fly II that “Unto Us a Child is Born” omits.

Like the film, “The Pied Piper” is set primarily in a sterile laboratory environment, and the related, um, alienation of the hybrid character from his humanity is a major theme of both works. There’s also the presence of something comparable to a “love interest” for Adam in the person of Julie. She serves a similar role to Daphne Zuniga’s character in The Fly II, helping Martin get in touch with his humanity as the first person to show him ordinary human affection, and being the major force that pulls him back from the abyss of giving in to his monstrosity — though obviously, the equivalent War of the Worlds character doesn’t succeed at this, in keeping with the series’s grimmer outlook.

Anton Bartok

Hi, I’m Bob Evil.

Cronenberg’s The Fly is focused largely on the body horror of its main character as he is transformed. Seth Brundle is both the protagonist and the antagonist of the story. The sequel changes things up by having a distinct villain, Anton Bartok, a classic ’80s villainous businessman, looking to exploit teleportation-based-genetic-abomination-making for profit. If this plan doesn’t work out, his fall-back is to apply for a job with either Weyland-Yutani, the Umbrella Corporation, or that company from Time Shifters. He spends the movie manipulating Martin and eventually gets his comeuppance by being horribly mutated when Martin steals a bunch of his DNA to cure himself of creeping monsterism. Martin’s motives are ideological rather than profit-based, but he serves a similar role and is similarly obsessed with exploiting genetic manipulation. And though it’s handled more sloppily, his death — accidental self-defenestration while being induced to relive the death of his son — certainly has the feel of a comeuppance to it.

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Thesis: Unto Us a Child is Born (1×17, Part 2)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Ah crap, someone had an accident with a nurse doll and a bottle of ketchup.

Ah crap, someone had an accident with a nurse doll and a bottle of ketchup.

On finding the nurse’s body, the team mounts a search of the hospital for the escaped hybrid. In a move that I’m sure will work out great for him, once the others have split up into groups, Lang decides to pull out his uzi and go wandering off alone. Responding to no stimulus visible to us other than a change in the incidental music, he stops suddenly, looks around suspiciously, and searches a random laundry room. This is literally just down the hall from where he was standing with everyone else a minute ago when he declared that they’d finished searching “every inch of this floor”. “Every inch” must not have included the laundry baskets, because he sticks his hand one one and gets his thumb bit off before he’s beaten to death by the hybrid in its adult form.

Costume tests for the live-action version of the Arthur cartoon were not well-received

Costume tests for the live-action version of the Arthur cartoon were not well-received

Gah. It’s like someone shaved a Troll doll. The aliens summon a nurse to the patient room where they’re holed up — the nurses seem blissfully unaware of the room-to-room search by armed special forces soldiers and instead joke about the doctors getting it on (The doctor they name is “Dr. Burns”. I choose to believe that this is Major Frank Burns, still determined to cheat on his wife thirty-five years later). The Nancy alien wants to simply beat the child’s location out of her, but they don’t have the time, so the guy who looks like William Katt does that thing where he sticks his fingers in her head and reads the room number out of her brain. He uses his human fingers, which is kinda weird, since every time they’ve done that before, they’ve used their alien third hand. It’s perhaps a little late in the day for me to object, but it’s a lot harder to swallow a dude effortlessly push human fingers through the side of a person’s skull.

At least it wasn't a Q-tip. You're never supposed to stick those in your ear.

At least it wasn’t a Q-tip. You’re never supposed to stick those in your ear.

Turns out they needn’t have bothered, though, because once they’re out in the hallway, Nancy has another flash of maternal instinct and takes off running, even giving her companions the slip. Elsewhere, the hybrid utters, “Mama” in alienese, meaning that there’s an alien word for “mama” (“ow-wa”, by the sound of it), which is weird given what little we know of their social structure. No one else in the hospital seems especially perturbed by a patient apparently running down the hall and forcing her way into the elevator, being chased by a pair of doctors she’s clearly trying to evade.

She takes the elevator up, I reckon, two floors, then switches to the stairs while Harrison and Suzanne find Lang. The reveal of his mutilated body is discrete compared to this episode’s other gore: he’s mostly out-of-frame, his visibly missing thumb to identify him to the audience. wotw11717But I’d say it conveys the brutality of his death a bit more effectively than the cartoonish dismemberment of the nurse: you can see his legs sticking up from a laundry basket, and they seem at first unharmed until you realize the impossibility of their angle to the rest of his body.

Alien mommy and baby are reunited in the stairwell. He calls out “Mama!” in alien, she responds, “My baby!”, and they run to each other and embrace. But if you thought this would lead to a straightforwardly heartwarming reunion between parent and child, you’ve forgotten that War of the Worlds is still trying this whole “dark comedy” thing. And I forgive you for that because they are infuriatingly unwilling to really commit to being comically perverse, so it only comes up every once in a while. Mother and child run to each other and embrace… And then the Nancy alien declares her intention to bodily absorb the hybrid in order to “become whole again”.

The rest of her cadre catches up with her and protests that the Advocacy wants the hybrid taken alive. She refers to it as an “abomination”, and insists that it must be “sacrificed”. The baby seems untroubled by this. I really like the juxtaposition of Nancy embracing the hybrid lovingly while describing it as an abomination and plotting to kill it, and I doubly love that the hybrid isn’t bothered by this. They easily could have gone the other way with it and pulled an Alien Resurrection and had the hybrid messily reject its mother and ultimately die tragically because deep down it really just wants to be loved, but is still a crime against nature and has to die. But instead, we get a really properly alien relationship between parent and child: genuine affection, but at the same time, the alien wearing Nancy Salvo’s body and the alien part of the child are the same alien: it’s split between the two of them and wants to heal itself. And the child doesn’t even object to this because its alien side also wants to be made whole.

The ensuing falling-out between the Nancy alien and her companions leads in short order to a falling-out between Nancy and the stair rail, and then to a falling-down between Nancy and the landing. The child rushes to its mother’s side and lets out a howl of despair over the alien’s melted body. You’d normally expect this to be the part of the episode where the alien would go all First Blood and turn on its own kind to avenge its mother, but we’re late enough in the season that they finally seem to have gotten it through their heads that the human heroes should be actively involved in the resolution of the plot, so out in the hallway, Ironhorse suddenly has a flash of Spider-Sense or something, and suddenly looks up as though he’s felt a great disturbance in the force, and heads down the hall, breaking into a sprint as he nears the door to a random ward (According to the signage, it’s the ward where the aliens brain-sucked the nurse, but that’s neither here nor there). According to Elyse Dickson’s summary, he hears the commotion in the stairway, but I see absolutely no sign of this on-screen. He doesn’t even seem to be near the stairway when he reacts; there’s at least one more hallway to go before he reaches the stairs, and the aliens are several floors up from there.

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WWJS: An old meme retold in images

(Back next week. Something funny occurred to me instead that I wanted to post about this week)

GOPTeens: What would Jesus's favorite gun be? / A Nail gun / Not funny. Consider yourself blocked.

Things @GOPTeens doesn’t understand: Jesus. Humor. How hashtags work

Many Guns

Wayne LaPierre’s brain is more organized than I would imagine.

You must choose. But choose wisely

And no choosing Pikachu.

Golden Gun

Third nipple: Optional.

Melting Nazi

This is why you need to remember to moisturize

He chose poorly

I mean seriously, Magikarp?

Nail gun

Wait for it.

This is the gun of a carpenter!

When I related the original reference to a Catholic friend of mine, I actually did have to explain to him that there was anything other than this exact thing that the nail gun might have been referencing.

For years, the religious right told me this conversation would be hard.

Scene: Interior, night. The kitchen. DADDY is washing dishes.

Where’s my ring? (Looks down to family room) Oh. There it is.

I never saw your ring before.

He runs down to look at it and comes back.

Oh. I’ve seen your wedding ring. You always wear your wedding ring.

Yes, except when I’m doing something that gets my hands wet

I never wear a wedding ring. Because I’m not even married!

They laugh.

Boys only marry girls. Boys can’t marry boys.

Boys can marry other boys if they want.

You’re telling a joke! That’s so silly!

No, really. Most boys marry girls and most girls marry boys, but some boys marry boys and some girls marry girls and that’s fine too if it’s what they want.

Oh. I think I’d rather marry a girl. I don’t think I’d marry a boy.


Especially not [REDACTED]. He’s naughty. Well, he’s getting better. He used to be a lot naughtier when we were in the four-year-old classroom. Also, he uses a lot of potty words.

Thesis: Unto Us a Child is Born (1×17, Part 1)

You’re saying we have some kind of a half-breed on our hands here?
A monster, half-human, half-alien.

Clint Howard, Man of Action!

Clint Howard, Man of Action!

It is February 20, 1989. The first of the year’s two total lunar eclipses takes place tonight over Asia and Australia. An IRA bomb destroys part of a British Army barracks in Ternhill. As the week progresses, Pete Rose will meet with the baseball commissioner to discuss his gambling, the US will capture eight hundred pounds of heroin in a bust on a Chinese drug gang, the Finnish government will suggest everyone take a couple of days off to have sex, and Iran will put a three million dollar bounty on Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses. President Bush will visit Japan to attend the state funeral of Emperor Hirohito, who died back in January. This is not the trip where he barfs on the prime minister of Japan.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure just opened in theaters. Charlie O’Donnell returns as the announcer on Wheel of Fortune after his departure in 1980. He’d remain in the role until his death in 2010. Falcon Crest star and Ronald Reagan’s first wife, Jane Wyman is hospitalized due to diabetes and liver failure. Advised by her doctor to retire from acting, she’ll return to the show for the final three episodes, make one guest appearance in Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman a few years later before giving up acting for good. Leslie Grantham’s last scenes on Eastenders air later this week.

“Straight Up” maintains the top spot on the charts. Entering the top ten are Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes”, Edie Brickell’s “What I Am”, and New Kids On the Block’s “You Got It”, subtitled “The Right Stuff” so you don’t confuse it with the Roy Orbison song which is hanging out in the 40s. The 31st Grammies are this week as well, with Bobby McFerrin taking home Song of the Year for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. George Michael’s Faith is the album of the year, and Tracy Chapman wins Best New Artist. Other interesting Grammy winners include Phil Collins, whose song “Two Hearts” wins “Best song written specifically for a motion picture or television”. Danny Elfman wins his only Grammy this year for his theme to Batman. Despite still being dead, Roy Orbison splits one with k.d. lang for Best Country Vocal Collaboration on “Crying”. Into the Woods gets Best Musical Cast Show Album. And Robin Williams, of all people, wins two, for a comedy album related to his 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam and Pecos Bill, a children’s album.

MacGyver this week is “The Battle of Tommy Giordano”, where Mac has to rescue a child kidnapped by his mobbed-up non-custodial parent. Benji, The Hunted is this week’s Wonderful World of Disney. Glenn Close hosts Saturday Night Live this coming Saturday. “Scarlett Cinema” is this week’s Friday the 13th the Series. A cursed antique camera which lets you summon movie monsters. A werewolf-obsessed film buff gets himself turned into a werewolf, only to be ironically killed by garotting with, you guessed it, silver nitrate film stock. Star Trek the Next Generation airs “The Dauphin“. All I remember is that my friend Shelly wanted to off the shape-shifting bitch who had stolen the heart of her beloved Wesley Crusher. She was like eleven or twelve at this point. Josh doesn’t

No terra cotta floor tiles though.

No terra cotta floor tiles though.

So after taking a couple of weeks off to talk about shopping malls from the 1980s, let’s get back to War of the Worlds to visit a shopping mall from the ’80s. I have to admit, I got a pretty good chuckle out of this. Sadly, we don’t get many good looks at the place. One thing I’ve noticed during our trip through the nexus is that adventure shows of the 1980s, recorded on video tape in standard definition in a 4:3 format tend to be shot very tightly compared to modern shows. It wasn’t until I started writing this blog that I really bought into the superiority of widescreen as a television format. It really opens up a lot more options for scene composition. It’s very rare for a show like War of the Worlds to show both a character reacting to something and also the thing they’re reacting to in the same shot, and where a modern show would use a medium two shot, War of the Worlds typically goes for intercutting close-ups instead, so what’s on-screen a lot of the time is essentially a disembodied head.

What we do see of the random Toronto-area mall is a pleasant mix of nostalgia and modernity. The unnamed mall is large, open, bright and airy. The overall decor is basically modern, with softer angles and less stonework than the ’80s malls of my memory. It looks decidedly more modern than, say, Marley Station. Instead, it reminds me more of the upper floors of Towson Town Center, which, Wikipedia tells me, date to 1991, so that’s a fair cop. The signage is more retro — which is to say, contemporary to 1989. The only marquee I can clearly make out is for a Bulk Barn, Canada’s largest bulk foods chain. There’s also a Le Chateau whose sign was too out-of-focus for me to read, but I could identify it as the same logotype that I found in a photo during my research. I think maybe this was filmed at the Erin Mills Town Center in Mississauga, which opened some time in 1989, since I imagine “a week before the grand opening” is a good time to bring a film crew into a mall. The mall has been extensively renovated since then, so I can’t be sure from photos, but there’s some familiar architectural elements, and the mall has frequently been used as a filming location for TV and movies over the years. And it has both a Bulk Barn and a Le Chateau near the escalators, so that matches up.

But my weird obsession with indoor shopping arcologies is distracting us from our main point. We follow this week’s guest character, Nancy Salvo, as she takes the escalator up to the second floor, idly plays with a stranger’s baby, drops her popcorn when she bumps into a maintenance man who looks like a lot like a surly William Katt, and finally goes shopping for maternity clothes.

Okay. In close-up, he doesn't really look that much like William Katt.

Okay. In close-up, he doesn’t really look that much like William Katt.

I say “maternity clothes” because Mrs. Salvo is pregnant, apparently heavily. Though between the aforementioned close shots and abundance of bulky ’80s clothes, I didn’t actually notice this. There’s not really any shots where she looks unambiguously pregnant, and the actress playing her, Amber-Lea Weston, is small and young-looking so it wasn’t even immediately clear that the character was an adult; she’s got a sort of Linda Hamilton-mixed-with-Justine-Bateman-circa-1984 thing going on and looks like the sort of twentysomething TV producers would cast to play a teenager. She’s best known for her role on the long-running Scottish-Canadian series The Campbells, about a frontier doctor in early-19th-century Ontario, though she also had a recurring role in the later series E.N.G., which, coincidentally, also starred Cynthia Belliveau, who you might remember as Karen from “He Feedeth Among the Lillies“.

Good morning, Jim. Here is your mission, if you choose to accept it.

Good morning, Jim. Here is your mission, if you choose to accept it.

Surly William Katt is an alien because of course he is. Along with two other aliens, he infiltrates the mall’s maintenance areas, locating an industrial set which is meant to be above the second floor concourse, but clearly isn’t because we can see the skylights in the mall, so we know there isn’t an entire multi-story space above the concourse, but never mind. The aliens start to open up a plenum and one of them opens his toolbox to reveal a petri dish full of Ecto Cooler on ice. They helpfully exposition to us that they’re testing out an alien toxin that the Advocacy hopes will prove an effective bioweapon. But one of the aliens kicks over an inconveniently-placed bucket of lubricant, and they panic. He puts the toxin away and insists they have to hide the evidence of their presence. I’d have thought that just pressing on so that any potential witnesses would be dead would be a more expedient solution, but what do I know. He shoos the others away to avoid capture while he destroys the evidence.

IMDB informs me that the unlucky alien is played by Clark Johnson, and that he’s the same Clark Johnson who’d go on to roles in The Wire, Alpha House, and, if not most famously, at least best-known to me, to play Detective Meldrick Lewis in Homicide: Life on the Streets. There is no way in a million years that I would have guessed it was the same guy. I’m only half-convinced now that this isn’t just a case of mistaken identity and it’s some other Clark Johnson, who happened to also be acting in the Toronto area in 1989 (Proper Clark Johnson would also have a recurring role in E.N.G.) and bore a passing resemblance.

In a stroke of bad luck, the machine oil immediately leaks through an overhead vent right as one of the mall cops walks by, and rather than just calling maintenance and telling them there’s a problem with the vents, he decides to investigate personally. Rather than just claim to be maintenance and apologize for the spill, the alien sets his toolbox to self-destruct (it implodes in a very nice visual effect shot) and tries to escape while the guard is incapacitated by the resulting fumes. While the other aliens are able to remove their maintenance coveralls and blend in with the crowd, the third alien is quickly spotted by security, who chase him with their guns drawn. Did mall cops normally carry guns in the ’80s? That feels wrong.

After brutally murdering another mallgoer by tossing him from the mezzanine, the alien attempts to hide in a clothing store dressing room, where, because otherwise we wouldn’t have bothered introducing the character, he finds and possesses Nancy Salvo. But this turns out to be a dangerous move for the alien, as the trauma of possession induces labor in the victim. She staggers out of dressing room looking decidedly unwell, lapsing into alienese as she panics over the inexplicable pain and disorientation she’s feeling. The sales associate who’d been helping her calls for an ambulance. The other aliens watch helplessly, unable to break cover.

She’s rushed to nearby Valley Hospital and sent to labor and delivery, where one of the technicians briefly notices that the fetal monitor is showing a triple-heartbeat. There’s never any elaboration on that, so I’m not sure if the idea is that the monitor is picking up the heartbeats of the mother, child, and alien, or if the baby is meant to have developed an alien triple-heart, and in any case, the aliens having discrete internal organs to begin with is something that hasn’t been consistently portrayed. No one notices that Mrs. Salvo is a radioactive reanimated corpse. In the waiting room, her husband is annoyed that he can’t be with his wife despite the ten weeks of Lamaze class — which is kind of a lot — but he’s relieved when they announce that, despite a difficult delivery, mother and baby are doing fine. The aliens watch from the waiting room, troubled by this development.

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Misspent Youth: The Centre at Glen Burnie, Part 2: I Don’t Wanna Grow Up

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging


Fun fact: there was a Japanese live-action Spider-Man series in the ’70s where he had a race car that turned into a giant city-smashing robot. It is generally considered the direct inspiration for the Super Sentai franchise which eventually gave rise to Power Rangers

Right before that furniture store that used to be a Dick’s, I come to a section where the west side is recessed further back than the surrounding wall. And I am transported. It is December, probably. 1984 or maybe 1985. They’re doing an event at the mall. They’ve partitioned off the recessed section of the hallway and created this little holiday gift shopping area where parents could send little kids through and the attendants would help them buy Christmas presents for their parents in secret.

It was all too much for me. I was small, and I was overwhelmed. My parents had given me some money, but I didn’t really know how much, and I only really understood how money worked in an abstract sense. I had this idea in my head to be deathly afraid of breaking my budget. I had no idea how much money I actually had. I had no idea how much things cost. I couldn’t do the math. I don’t know if I didn’t know how to do the math or if it was just anxiety. I was scared I’d get to the end without finding anything. It was too much. I was over my head. I was afraid to touch things. I don’t think I even fully perceived the goods on offer. I saw a tiny little candle in a ceramic holder with a picture of Garfield on the lid. I liked Garfield. I pretty much grabbed it and booked, relieved that the ordeal was over. I payed my money and got my change and they gift wrapped it and I rejoined my parents.

Mostly I was relieved. There was maybe some little sense of pride in there at having bought a present for my parents “all by myself”, but it was tempered by a very secret shame that I’d failed in my task — that a tiny little Garfield candle wasn’t really good enough as a Christmas gift to my parents, that I’d cheaped out and chickened out, and that probably my parents knew this. Or worse, knew almost this: that a small child might feel overwhelmed in the face of being sent out all alone with a big responsibility like Christmas shopping all by himself was one thing, but I’d spend years quietly obsessing over the idea that what they really thought was that I’d simply been selfish. That I’d picked out something with Garfield on it because I liked Garfield, and I’d picked the cheapest thing I could find in hopes of pocketing the change. I couldn’t articulate the difference between how I felt I’d failed and how I assumed (And let me be clear here: these were the assumptions of child-me, not an evidence-based assessment of their actual feelings) they thought I’d failed.

Over the years, the details of what really happened faded in my memory, and my brain kept evolving so that the basic premises of my actual feelings and behaviors no longer made sense. I forgot how to imagine panicking at the inability to do basic arithmetic, or at being on the other side of a partition wall from my parents, so I edited my memories to say that maybe my hypothetically-judgmental parents were right and it had really been about me being selfish. I only came to really understand and articulate how I’d felt back then last Christmas, when I took Dylan to a dollar store to pick out a present for his mother. He was excited by the idea of picking out a present all by himself, but faced with the reality of it, he tried immediately to convince me that she’d really like a rawhide dog treat, because it was literally the first thing he saw, and he just desperately wanted this to be over so he could get on with the fun part where he got to pick out a toy for himself. It wasn’t that he was being selfish: “What would mommy like for Christmas out of this collection of ALL THE THINGS IN THE UNIVERSE UNDER FIVE DOLLARS?” was too big a concept. We went home and ordered her a mom-themed mug from Amazon instead. Dylan got a dinosaur hat.

Keep walking north through the mall. You pass the Permanently Closing Furniture Store that used to be a Dick’s that used to be a Murphy’s. Not too far past that is a kiosk that serves coffee drinks and light fare, the only inward-facing food place in the mall. There’s also a video game place. Google Maps tells me it’s called “Power Gamer II”. It looks and feels basically like a GameStop, but with a lot of counter space devoted to very old used games. Like fourth and fifth-gen stuff. There seemed to be a whole lot of nonstandard Playstation controllers on sale. There’s also a shoe store, and I think one of those places where they pluck your eyebrows using dental floss.

I should point out that although the mall feels very abandoned and lonely, I don’t actually think there were many shuttered storefronts. The mall may actually be way less empty than it seems. Because they basically turned it inside out, it can be hard to tell if you’re looking at an unoccupied space or just the back of an outward-facing one. In any case, the place seems hauntingly out-of-time. If anything, the fact that it’s well-maintained somehow adds to that: it doesn’t feel like you’re wandering into a long-abandoned mall so much as a freshly abandoned one. The paint is fresh, the plants are still alive, there’s no cobwebs or dust, but somehow, in here, it’s still the ’80s.

If I was struck by dredged-up childhood memories at the south end of the mall, it’s nothing compared to the north end. There is no memory involved here: the Toys “R” Us end of the mall has simply been lifted out of my childhood and dropped in 2016. It is unchanged in every substantive detail. There have undoubtedly been some minor changes to the trim and facade in other parts of the mall, but not here. Rather than the sort of large, open entryway standard for shopping malls, the entrance is similar to old grocery stores, a row of standard-height (rather than floor-length) windows flanked on either side by a single automatic sliding door. It’s got to be an artifact of its origins as a Topps. Above the sliding doors are illuminated signs which raise the door arch to the level of the top of the windows. It’s the kind of sign that’s made from a translucent plastic rectangle in the front of a deep frame, behind which are fluorescent tube lights (It turns out these are called “lightboxes”, and there’s a bunch of places that make them, which surprises me just a little because it feels like I never see them any more. Maybe it’s just that modern ones mostly use a dark background and old ones used a light one). Used to be a really common form of business signage when I was young, but they’re uncommon enough today that the “Welcome” sign feels ancient, despite the fact that it shows the post-2007 version of Geoffery the Giraffe.



The entire facade is outlined by four rows of ceramic tile — men’s room tile, essentially, blue, green, yellow, red. The large marquee above is the modern Toys “R” Us logo, the version with a large blue “R” with a star for its loop. There’s also a hanging sign orthogonal to the storefront, for the benefit of anyone on the cross-hallway. That one shows the “classic” 20th-century version of the logo, the one with a yellow R in scare quotes. I didn’t check if it was still there, but Google Street View shows the transitional version of the logo, a yellow R in a blue star, on the outside of the mall in the front.

I Don't Wanna Grow Up

I Don’t Wanna Grow Up

Inside, the Toys “R” Us is also largely unchanged. In the picture, you can maybe sorta see that even the light indicating where the checkout counters are is very retro. I mean, obviously, the toys are different and the displays are different, but the store hasn’t had a major refit in a long time. It seems weirdly small. It’s just not as big as the enormous big-box stores that dominate retail these days. It seemed bigger back when I was smaller. There was somewhere around here that you could get an Icee when I was a kid. Maybe a cart in the front of the store?

Even the light fixtures are the same.

Even the light fixtures are the same.

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