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.

Coleman’s joined him when he finally reaches the aliens. The hybrid legs it, and the soldiers take out the aliens when they try to pursue. Harrison and Suzanne show up as well, warning Ironhorse about Lang’s demise. Ironhorse wisely decides to send Coleman back to secure the exits and take the two scientists with him in pursuit of the alien hybrid, who’s already killed two people and is distraught over the death of its mother. They ascend to the hospital’s obligatory Creepy Disused Ward Lit Like a Day For Night Shot ward and the hunt is on. As the three move down one creepy corridor, Harrison falls prey to the same mysterious plot-sense everyone else has developed, and intuits that he should wander off on his own down an extra creepy side-hallway and into a random closed room full of tall shelves laden with those wire frames that they put in card catalogue draws to keep them from all falling down if the drawer’s only half full.

Why is there a cage in this hospital?

Why is there a cage in this hospital?

Harrison searches the room for a moment before the hybrid leaps down on him from where he’s not really hiding atop a shelf, and we are treated to a minute of Jared Martin wrestling a dwarf in an Alien Nation mask that was left out in the sun too long. Ironhorse and Suzanne eventually show up, and pretty much just watch. Ironhorse has his gun out and it’s clear that the implication is that he’s waiting for an opening to shoot the hybrid without endangering Harrison. But that doesn’t especially track with the fight choreography that’s going on: by the time they show up, Harrison is on the floor and the Hybrid is over him, and Ironhorse has a clean shot pretty much the whole time.

wotw11720Despite the ease with which the hybrid had previously dismembered its victims, the fight with Harrison is basically of the “slap each other and crash into scenery while Jared tries not to drop the stunt man,” variety. After a minute of struggling, the hybrid suddenly clutches his liver and keels over. At first I thought Harrison had kicked him, but slow-motion revealed that was just a shadow. As everyone watches in horror, he undergoes a slow-motion “Looked into the Ark of the Covenant” deterioration sequence. Suzanne helpfully exposits that it’s another bout of rapid aging, and he’s experiencing a hundred years in a day. The Hybrid’s body melts away leaving only a discolored and hollowed rib cage that gives off enough of an alien egg vibe that you’d advise the War Doctor not to stick his face over it.

Our heroes, but probably not the audience, are then surprised to hear the sound of crying issue from the alien remains, and hidden PA lifts a happy six-month-old out through the decayed chest. You can’t see the hands or anything, but the way the baby moves as it ascends through the chest cavity is pretty clearly “there is a pair of human hands lifting this kid up through a hole in the floor”. And, I was not aware you were allowed to show this on TV, but, um, it’s a boy.

I'm sure this is symbolic, but if it's not one thing, it's your mother.

I’m sure this is symbolic, but if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

The next day, Suzanne declares the baby absolutely human and also adorable, but no one has a clue what the hell happened. Harrison offers the explanation that the death of the mother also killed the alien part of the hybrid, but no one is willing to insult the audience by even pretending that this does anything to explain the whole “and then a normal human baby popped out” thing, which seems to be there just because “And then the monster dies and a (at least seemingly) normal baby pops out,” is A Thing. Even if I can’t offhand think of any good examples other than Adventure Time and Silent Hill.

Outside, the hospital administrator hands the baby over to his grandparents. Watching through the window from above, Harrison, Suzanne, and Ironhorse muse to each other — telepathically, it seems, since we can clearly see in the longshot that their lips aren’t moving — on what a wonderful, loving home they’ve sent the baby to where he can grow up as a normal, ordinary kid. The grandparents are overjoyed to take him, and banter about such modern concerns as car seats and parenting techniques, without any suggestion that this is a bittersweet occasion, what with becoming parents to a newborn again at their advanced age, or the fact that their own child just died horrifically. You know where this is going.

This may be the most technically adventurous shot in the series. Pity the ADR is terrible.

This may be the most technically adventurous shot in the series. Pity the ADR is terrible.

As they drive away, the baby wakes from a nap bursts into tears when grandma tries to comfort him in alien-speak with the words, “To life, immortal.”

First things first, let’s get the six foot arthropod out of the way: this episode has got to have taken some inspiration from The Fly II, doesn’t it? The sequel to the 1986 Cronenberg remake of the 1958 Vincent Price monster movie had opened just ten days earlier.

Like “Unto Us a Child is Born”, The Fly II revolves around a hybrid child of a chimeric parent — in the film, the child of Seth Brundle, a scientist who’d accidentally merged himself with a fly. Plus, the child, Martin, experiences accelerated aging (Also, interestingly, a plot element of the 1958 film’s little-known second sequel, Curse of the Fly, a film which wouldn’t see a home release until 2007). And turns into a violent, horrible monstrosity. There’s also a distinct visual similarity between the end of “Unto Us a Child is Born”, with the normal baby emerging from the remains of the hybrid, to the opening scene of The Fly II, depicting Martin Brundle’s birth in the form of what initially seems to be an infant-sized maggot before it opens to reveal a seemingly-normal baby inside.

Congratulations! It's a grub!

Congratulations! It’s a grub!

The similarities, though, are pretty much superficial, which is probably what you should expect given that the movie only came out a week before the TV episode. This episode was in the can well before The Fly II premiered, so if there’s any deliberateness to the similarities, it was planned well in advance, and probably drew only from the film’s trailers. Is it a rip-off? Not really, but I’m pretty comfortable guessing that the scheduling of this episode isn’t accidental.

The plot itself bears very little similarity, of course. That’s much closer to a straightforward creature feature. With the basic concept of “Murderous monster-baby wants its mama,” there’s a pretty strong familial resemblance to the 1974 Larry Cohen film It’s Alive. There are a handful of nods to the baby being a tragic figure, sure, but the narrative never loses sight of the fact that the hybrid is one of “them”. Harrison and Norton even describe it as a “monster’, which might even be going too far. These are the heroes, after all, and the complete lack of sympathy toward what is ultimately still a newborn is shocking. Suzanne is, in a way, worse. A mother herself, she seems never to have any sort of emotional reaction to the hybrid. It’s not like this show has been exactly progressive in its gender views, so you’d really expect her to express some reluctance to the prospect of hunting down and killing the hybrid, or to make some observation about the bond between mother and child. In another show, I might applaud this as a subversion of traditional gender roles, but given the show we’re watching, it comes off as just another example of Suzanne being underwritten.

Indeed, all of the regulars feel sort of flimsy this week. There’s none of the usual interplay between the characters and the dialogue is almost entirely functional. Harrison doesn’t do anything quirky and weird; Ironhorse isn’t stubborn and skeptical; Suzanne isn’t uptight and frustrated; Norton doesn’t crack jokes. The exposition is quick and narrow in scope. Even the advocacy appear only once and just get down to business rather than mua-ha-hah-ing over their latest plan or complaining about the rank-and-file. Given that we’ve got an alien-human hybrid and an alien who can’t drop its host body and an alien with natural immunity to Earth bacteria, you’d think that parallels to Quinn would be called for, but he doesn’t come up at all.

And yet, the integration of our characters into the plot feels much tighter than it is in many earlier episodes. They’re actively involved in the resolution, they have a pretty solid guess as to what’s going on, and they’ve got a solid reason for getting involved in the first place, unlike a lot of episodes where the heroes just sort of coincidentally happen upon the aliens, or the alien plot largely resolves itself all on its own while the heroes stand nearby and watch. They get involved early and they’re able to sort things out on their own very efficiently. And though the scope of what they say and do is limited, they do for the most part have a substantial presence. Ironhorse especially. He doesn’t have much dialogue, and no real action scenes, but he spends a lot of time on screen, reacting to things. As I’ve mentioned before, Richard Chaves is very good at conveying a kind of realistic action-hero fear. When he’s in pursuit of an alien, it comes across very clearly that he is scared in an entirely healthy and appropriate way for someone who knows full well that he is fighting an enemy that can casually smack his entire face clean off and might look like anybody, without his fear in any way compromising his status as a very traditional action hero. He’s frankly delightful to watch.

Colonel, why are we wearing lab coats? Are we supposed to be under cover? Because these uzis kinda ruin the effect.

Colonel, why are we wearing lab coats? Are we supposed to be under cover? Because these uzis kinda ruin the effect.

Efficient is a good word for this episode. The character interactions are efficient, and the plot is efficient. This might be the best-paced episode so far. I’ve complained in the past about episodes being back-heavy, with a whole lot of waiting around and then all the good bits coming at once in the last few minutes. This episode has interesting things happening at a regular pace, with a very solid action-heavy opening, then a fast-paced “figuring things out” section, and then we transition to “stalking the killer alien baby” at pretty much the midpoint. Having the aliens, the humans, and the hybrid all pursuing slightly different goals means that there’s a lot of combinations they can run through. So we get a climax in three stages: Nancy and the hybrid confronting the other aliens, then Ironhorse and Coleman confronting the aliens, then Harrison and the others confronting the hybrid. Even though the action is all very simple and straightforward, the good bits happen every couple of minutes without much downtime in the middle.

There are a few weaker aspects of the episode. One thing that bothered me recurringly is that none of the extras ever react to anything. The hospital has been locked down and occupied by the military, but no one seems to care. During the chase scene at the mall, a few of the shoppers glance over their shoulders, but no one flees in panic when a guy gets tossed from the mezzanine or a mall cop goes running past with his gun drawn. This is also the second time in as many weeks that the opening scene has depicted the aliens trying out an exciting new way to wipe out humanity, and then that gets completely dropped because the plot is going to go in a different direction. If they’d done this from the start and made every episode start out with the aliens trying out a plan then getting distracted by the actual plot, it might make a clever running gag, but introducing it at this late stage makes me more kind of wonder when we’re going to get to the fireworks factory.

The design of the alien hybrid is weaksauce. It doesn’t really look like anything, other than possibly a melting anteater. Nothing is suggestive of why the hybrid would look like that. It’s not like it looks anything like the aliens in their natural form, it’s just “generic freak mask”. Why did it look like a normal human after its first burst of accelerated growth but then go all chocolate-bunny-on-a-hot-day after the second?

But the most serious problem with this episode is the over-reliance of “Character suddenly hears an ominous chord in the incidental music which prompts them to go off somewhere to encounter the plot. Three times someone is walking down a hallway and then suddenly looks up like they heard a dog whistle and changes direction, going off alone to investigate something with no stimulus that’s visible to us. Possibly Lang saw or heard something in the laundry room, but Ironhorse isn’t anywhere near the stairs when he senses the plot calling him, and Harrison just seems to magically know where the hybrid is hiding at the end. Even if they’d composed the scenes a little better to actually give the audience a sense of there being an actual something each of them had seen or heard, doing it three times in fairly close succession feels forced. We’re beyond even the level of slasher movie “I’m going to just wander off on my own into the dark spooky basement, I’ll be right back,” stuff here. If this is a matter of them deliberately invoking bad horror movie tropes as part of the black comedy aspect, it’s too subtle.

I never identified this episode as one of my favorites before, largely because its efficiency leaves it light on the normal War of the Worlds distinctiveness. But I can appreciate it now as being very mature on a technical level in ways that the series usually isn’t. If more episodes were like this, it might not have been quite such a wonderfully weird show, but it might have been a lot more successful.

Also, they gave me Detective Lewis and an ’80s mall. Gotta love that.

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

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

  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for August 26th, 2016 | The Slacktiverse

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