You’re saying we have some kind of a half-breed on our hands here?
A monster, half-human, half-alien.
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
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.
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“.
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.
At the Cottage, we get another piece of the geographic puzzle that’s been poking around this series all season. Norton’s detected an alien transmission “within 300 miles” of them. When he zooms the map all the way in, it stops looking like real geography, but at the middle distance, it’s really clear that the area he’s showing on his computer screen is Humboldt County, and it looks like he’s centering in on Eureka, California. Now, three hundred miles basically places the Cottage somewhere between Portland and San Francisco, but I think that’s about the best we’re going to do. Admittedly, those are both places that it’s previously seemed like the Cottage might be, so we’ve only really narrowed it down to one of two places six hundred miles apart. Ah well.
Norton thinks that the cadence of the signal is unusual and speculates that it might be a distress call. Harrison and Ironhorse set out to track it. The aliens called in a distress call to their bosses to explain the situation. The structure of this episode breaks from the War of the Worlds standards in the way the Advocacy is handled, and I actually saw some complaints about this on the ancient mailing list archive. There’s no constant cutting back to them for exposition and complaints about the incompetence of their soldiers. The Advocates only appear once, to issue new marching orders to the soldiers, where normally you’d expect to have cut back to the cave early on to have them explain the plot with the toxin, then come back to them later to talk about the baby, giving us little actual content and a lot of “The child will be the key to our future. Our soldiers must capture it,” and suchlike.
Those are indeed their orders: bring the baby back alive for study. They’re bothered by the fact that (like Quinn), Nancy can’t leave her host body, but they think that study of the child might give them the key to adapting to Earth’s environment.
Doing the whole “We think there’s terrorists here,” thing, Ironhorse and Harrison strongarm their way into being allowed to check out the hospital. For some reason, the natural radiation in a hospital from all the X-ray machines or whatever render their geiger counters useless, so they have to go room to room. Which sounds like shameless padding, but they basically just cut immediately to them having finished their search, with only Nancy Salvo’s room remaining: apparently, she’s the only person in the hospital whose condition — being pretty tired after giving birth — is serious enough that the nurses give our heroes some push-back.
The aliens had reunited while the search was going on and made their escape, the Nancy alien still pretty messed up. Nancy’s husband walked in on them in her hospital room and got an alien hand through his face for his trouble. That’s what they find in her bed when Harrison and Ironhorse finally persuade the nurse to let them check on her, which pretty much answers their question as to where the aliens were. The baby is placed in isolation (This is 1989, so newborns spend a lot of time away from their parents in the nursery, and wasn’t there when the aliens legged it) and they call in Suzanne.
Looking at crude computer-generated animations of cells under a microscope, Suzanne determines that the baby’s cells are a blend of alien and human. I guess. The cells have also conveniently partitioned themselves on her slide so that she can jiggle the knob on the microscope to show Harrison “before” and “after” views of “normal” cells, and cells that get squirted full of alien splooge and turn green. Since I can look back on my DVDs and watch the animation of an alien cell invading a human one back from the second episode, I get that this is meant to be something very different, but I wonder if this was confusing for people watching in 1989. Maybe they could have had her mount an old slide first to remind Harrison what it normally looks like, so that the audience could see the difference? If you actually put them side-by-side, I think the two animations really do convey the idea that what’s happening with the baby’s cells is not only different, but some kind of co-mingling rather than an outright takeover, but since that first animation isn’t shown in this episode, that comparison is largely lost.
The dialogue doesn’t really help much either. Neither of them really understand what’s going on, but both jump to the conclusion that the baby is a “half-breed”, and that its biology might provide the aliens with the means to fully adapt to Earth’s environment. They don’t go into details, but it seems like the deal is that the alien’s biomass is split between the mother and the child. Consequentially, the child has alien tissue in it, but not enough to constitute a full possession, so instead, the host cells have adapted to coexist with the alien tissue rather than being hollowed out and possessed. I point this out because the more obvious (and possibly cliche) interpretation would be that it’s something to do with being possessed before birth, but given that Nancy seems to have been full term, that’s even dicier science than the already handwavey alien genetics. Also, the basic concept that introducing a small amount of alien tissue to a human body might result in some kind of hybridization is, remarkably, going to come up again later.
When they go to check up on the baby in person, they find that he’s aged up to about five or six years old, and, again without any real obvious sense of how they got there, Harrison concludes that aliens normally age to maturity very quickly and that the boy must have an alien growth cycle. The baby’s little hospital kimono also rapid-aged into a child-size hospital gown I guess
Harrison tasks Norton with correlating Suzanne’s prior research on alien biology with human growth rate to see if he can supercomputer out an explanation of the boy’s growth. Norton will not accomplish this or mention it again, but he does have some exposition for them, having discovered reports about the incident at the nearby mall. Harrison deduces a quick recap of the first five minutes of the episode.
The aliens return to the hospital by stealing an ambulance and disguising themselves as paramedics. This works easily and no one challenges them or anything as they wander around a hospital that is already on lockdown. A nurse does think she recognizes Nancy Salvo, and news gets back to Ironhorse as he’s briefing Omega Squad, represented this week by Sergeant Coleman and a balding middle-aged guy named Lang. Don’t get attached to him.
As the aliens near the child, Nancy and the boy experience some kind of psychic link, which is cliche, but not out of line with the sort of abilities we’ve seen the aliens display I guess. It distresses both of them, and they intercut their chests heaving over the sound of a pounding heartbeat. It’s confusingly edited, because it seems like they actually see each other, but it turns out the aliens still don’t know where exactly the child is being kept.
The link also maybe triggers something in the child, because he starts to get his weird on. A nurse goes to check on him (bringing a baby bottle. Did she not get the memo about him not being a baby any more?) and is promptly murdered. The hybrid is hidden from view for this scene save for a hand with long, gangrenous fingernails which grabs her by the ankle and then casually tears her leg off like she’s made out of paper-mache. It’s the same kind of cartoonishly fake B-movie gore we saw back in “Thy Kingdom Come”, and Leah found it shocking but chuckleworthy. He just tugs her leg gently while she’s laying on the floor, not braced against anything, and rather than sliding toward him, her leg just falls off in his hand.
- War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.