We should surrender to the aliens. We have no other choice.
It is March 6, 1989. Since the last episode of War of the Worlds aired, nine people aboard US Airlines flight 811 out of Honolulu were lost when a cargo door failed, causing the aircraft to experience explosive decompression. Icelandic Prohibition ended after almost 80 years (though only strong beer was still banned by this point). Time and Warner have announced their impending merger. The Berne Convention was ratified by the US, making international copyright law a settled issue that totally won’t ever come up again. The Satanic Verses controversy comes to a head with Iran placing a three million dollar bounty on Salman Rushdie. Tomorrow, they will sever diplomatic ties with the UK over the affair. Venezuela is hit by a series of riots and protests over rising gas and transportation costs known as the Caracazo. Future strongman Hugo Chavez was unable to participate, being sick that day, but would later describe the event as a turning point that made the 1992 coup attempt inevitable. In cold war news, Estonia, which had been quietly resisting Soviet rule for almost two years by now, flew their own flag at Toompea Castle, next to the Estonian Parliament building, for the first time since Soviet annexation.
Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” made its debut in a Pepsi commercial during last Thursday’s The Cosby Show, another big part of my childhood which seems like a parallel universe now because a lot of people were up in arms about how inappropriate it was to expose innocent children to Madonna, especially a song that was sexy and possibly a little blasphemous, and worse, to do it in the middle of something totally family-friendly and not-at-all-scandalous-especially-in-any-kind-of-sex-related-way like Bill Cosby. Reality doesn’t make a lot of sense any more. Not a lot of changes to the Billboard charts. New in the top ten this week is Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True”. The album will hit the stores tomorrow.
ABC debuted Coach last week. CBS presented us with Hard Time on Planet Earth, one of those high-concept sitcoms I’m always going on about, this time about an alien warrior whose rehabilitation after being convicted of war crimes is to go be an ’80s Walking the Earth action-adventure hero, only as a sitcom rather than an ’80s action-adventure series. I do not recall this series; it is by all accounts terrible. The Disney Afternoon evolved into its imperial phase with the debut of Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. Tomorrow, ABC will premiere Anything But Love, which is surprisingly close to running out of 1980s for a show I remember almost exclusively for being “a very ’80s thing I didn’t pay much attention to.”
TV is a mix of old and new this week. ABC’s TGIF Friday lineup is repeats, though their Tuesday lineup is new. Yesterday, they aired a Debbie Allen special and followed it up with a thriller starring Robin Givens, Robert Guillaume, and, strangely, David Hewlitt, who must have been awfully young. NBC counters by airing the 1986 William Petersen film Manhunter, the oft-overlooked first film adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter novel Red Dragon. CBS also did a movie, this one a docudrama about the invention of the atomic bomb, featuring Hal Holbrook. MacGyver is a repeat this week, but last week they aired “The Challenge”, one of those charmingly ’80s “White Action Adventure Hero Meets and Uplifts Underprivileged Black Youths and Saves Their Community Center” episodes. The basic problem of the premise is the worst thing about it; it’s otherwise pretty much okay and holds up better than any of the twice-a-season “Sam solves racism” episodes of Quantum Leap.
I bring up Quantum Leap because it is due to premiere in a couple of weeks and I have a note in my big spreadsheet of when things happened relative to each other to mention Quantum Leap here, and I have very little to say other than, “Wow, these ‘Sam solves racism’ episodes have not aged well.” Not that the show isn’t great or that Bakula isn’t a national treasure and we were lucky to have him in a recurring role as the villain for one season of Doctor Who how the hell did he manage to kill Star Trek? I just don’t have anything interesting to say about it. Oh, except that have you ever noticed how similar the theme song to Quantum Leap is to the theme song to MacGyver?
No new Friday the 13th this week, and no new Star Trek either, but there will be something weird instead: Michael Dorn will guest star on the series finale of the sitcom Webster, in character as Lt. Worf. I have no memory of this happening, it’s not out on DVD, and I can’t find a copy on-line to verify any of this. I did watch Webster, though, at least the first few seasons. I probably lost track when it fell off ABC and moved to first-run syndication. Let’s hop over to a sidebar…
Webster is one of those shows that dropped off of a lot of people’s radar because of the extent to which it sounds like a complete rip-off. On paper, it’s essentially a clone of Diff’rent Strokes: a show about a short black child being raised by a wealthy white family. The biggest difference is that unlike Gary Coleman’s Arnold Drummond, Emmanuel Lewis’s Webster Long is super-adorable rather than mouthy. It’s not exactly the show they were aiming to make when they pitched it. Susan Clark and Alex Karras had been developing a romantic comedy series under the name Another Ballgame for ABC at the time. Clark was a more accomplished actor than Karras (Probably best known for Mongo in Blazing Saddles), but their real-life romantic chemistry translated incredibly well to the screen. But ABC was desperate to get Emmanuel Lewis on the screen as soon as possible in case he stopped being marketably adorable as he aged, so they pushed him on Karras and Clark and the rest… Is more complicated than any of you care about in this article about alien invasions. But it’ll be relevant, I promise! Anyway, after five seasons on ABC, the ratings slumped so they canned it, and Paramount exercised an option to keep making the show for syndication. I’m guessing I didn’t see it past this point, because nothing in the capsule summaries rings a bell. I’ve got plenty of memories of the show, but only three are especially specific. I remember needing some parental guidance to help cope after being especially terrified when Webster burns down the family’s apartment while playing with a chemistry set in the second-season episode “Burn Out”. I think this is one of those times my parents tried to teach a life lesson in a way that involved some knife-twisting by implying that I myself might similarly destroy our family home if I didn’t learn to straighten up and fly right and not play with chemistry sets without parental supervision. The second one I recall specifically is the third season episode “Chained”, in which bad luck haunts the family after failing to forward a chain letter. I remember this just well enough to identify it as one of those episodes that’s at odds with itself, because of course the moral is going to be that you shouldn’t forward chain mail and postal fraud does not have magical powers to manipulate fate… Except that TV is always disposed to pander to those who want to believe we live in a magical, daemon-haunted world, so 90% of the episode, up to and including the final freeze-frame gag at the end will be based on assuming or at least leaving open the possibility that, yes, the chain letter really does have magical powers. The third one I remember is one where Webster discovers a hidden room behind a secret passage in the cool Victorian house they inhabit for the bulk of the series and gets trapped in there. Typically, the premise of being trapped in a confined space is used as an excuse for a season-finale clip show. Webster did have one season finale cliffhanger, unusual for a sitcom, but the majority of its seasons ended with the much more traditional sitcom season finale clip show…
The reason that the series finale for Webster guest stars everyone’s favorite Klingon — I mean, other than as a treat for Emmanuel Lewis — is that young Webster dreams himself onto the Enterprise via the popular sitcom conceit of nodding off while playing video games. The Enterprise’s security chief apparently wants to learn how to be more human, because the writers couldn’t figure out a new plot when someone explained to them which one was Michael Dorn. So Webster, George and Ma’am teach Worf a very important lesson about the concept of feelings and familial emotion via a clip show, because God knows you can’t end a long-running sitcom without a clip show.
I hate clip shows.
We’ve talked about my hate of clip shows before. And I know you can make a solid argument for them, especially back in an era when television was deliberately ephemeral, without home recordings and only limited reruns, and I don’t care. They suck. There is something kinda interesting, though, in having Star Trek collide with an obscure ’80s sitcom a few months ahead of their one and only clip show, the upcoming season 2 finale “Shades of Gray”, which will see Dr. Pulaski inducing a clip show as an experimental medical treatment for Commander Riker after he gets stabbed by a poisonous thorn.
So after that very long diversion, do you want to guess what this week’s episode of War of the Worlds is?
Okay, it’s not as bad as all that. The “clip show” is limited to a handful of montages interspersed in an episode that still has a full plot. But yeah, this is our recap episode. I realize it’s been a long time due to my decision to meander off on a very long tangent, but do you remember a few episodes back when John Colicos paid us a visit? Harrison’s adventure with the original Baltar was framed by preparations for an important presentation by the Blackwood team to the UN. Well, imagine you took the last scene there of them actually presenting their work to the international community, and you stretched that out to a full episode. That’s what “The Last Supper” is. Under conditions of the utmost security, Ironhorse and the Omega squad have locked down a private school that is trying its darnedest to look like it is not in Toronto, and is hosting an international conference on the alien invasion.
Why are they holding this high-security international conference in a high school and not one of the US Government’s many high-security installations? Because shut up. Okay, there’s some gestures here toward the notion that the risk of discovery and infiltration by the aliens is so high that they can’t protect the conference if they involve anyone outside of Ironhorse’s direct chain of command, including their own government, because of the risk that anyone at any level might have been replaced by a soulless monster with no capacity for empathy toward humanity and wouldn’t bat an eyelash at condemning millions of innocent lives to suffering and death in the name of achieving their own selfish goals and GOD DAMN IT these articles were a lot easier to write before Trump got elected. Here I was about to explain how it’s basically nonsense to suggest that the federal government is so malicious and/or incompetent that they can’t be trusted not to sell out the human race for extermination and yet the Blackwood team is still somehow able to operate at all, let alone host a security conference to establish an international military coalition involving two communist countries and one that’s in the middle of a civil war. But then I realize that I live in a world where the single best chance we have at preventing the total collapse of our civilization lies in the actions of rogue park rangers and renegade NOAA employees. So I can’t make a joke about the setup for this being completely ridiculous because it turns out that the fate of the world resting in five visiting scientists put up in a school gymnasium while Ironhorse complains about how he only has half as many men as he needs may actually not be ridiculous enough to be realistic. I liked writing about the ’80s better when they were safely in the past.
I could say how the whole thing is comically theatrical, with Harrison, Norton and Suzanne arriving at the school on a repurposed public bus, with undercover operatives watching for them at every bus stop on the way to report back to Ironhose, in order that no one could possible track their movements, like a public bus skipping all its stops and then going to a high school in the middle of the night to be met by uniformed soldiers is somehow less conspicuous than them all showing up in Norton’s van. But then it turns out I live in a world where the TSA just issued a press release warning of “more intimate” pat-downs, specifically because they anticipate an increase in people calling the cops on them to report having been sexually assaulted by the TSA, so yeah, sure, take the bus. That won’t draw attention. Or I could talk about how I think it genuinely is a neat visual that they’ve set up their conference in the school gym, and they’ve laid out a conference table, complete with those banker’s lamps with the green glass shade, but also they put it on an oriental rug, and also brought in big comfy armchairs in case people want to step aside and have a more casual discussion, but doesn’t it conflict with the whole, “We didn’t have time to prepare adequately and are roughing it because of security” to have five-star catering with white-gloved waitstaff serving caviar and pate? But then I hear that the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of Japan planned their response to an international nuclear crisis in the dining room of a golf resort by the light of cell phone cameras and JESUS FUCKING CHRIST I CAN’T TAKE THIS ANY MORE.
Okay. Okay. Calm down. Calming down. Calming. THEY LET SOME GUY TAKE A SELFIE WITH THE NUCLEAR FOOTBALL HOLY SHIT WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE.
Okay. Got that out of my system. Ironhorse is all bent out of shape because he blew the budget on a fancy heat sensor-based ID system, and it turns out that there is no such thing as a heat sensor ID system and he’s actually been making everyone just put their hands on a desktop photocopier. Actually, his issue is that two of the delegates can’t be identified by heat signature: the Russian delegate is a last-minute replacement whose identification hasn’t come through yet, and the Sri Lankan delegate has a pacemaker, and apparently heat sensors are not safe to use on pacemakers, because the difference between an X-ray machine and a heat sensor that is clearly clearly actually supposed to be a palm-print scanner is lost on the writer. Who is Tom Lazarus again this week, by the way, and he’s a perfectly good writer, who I would seriously consider paying to consult on a script if I ever wrote one, and the parts of this episode that are actually written are in fact pretty good, I am just in a bad mood because I live in 2017, and you’re going to have to get used to that. Sorry.
Anyway, in case you missed it, the Russian and the Sri Lankan didn’t check out. Would anyone care to guess which of the five international guest stars this week will turn out to be the alien infiltrator and which will turn out to be the red herring? In principle, I like the foreshadowing. I like that the reveal isn’t going to come out of nowhere. But in practice, it’s just way too transparent. Maybe if it actually was the ’80s, the audience would be so primed to think ill of the Russians that this would have a serious chance of surprising us, but even after “Epiphany”? I’m not buying it. I’m not really spoiling anything to tell you right up front that the Russian guy is going to act all sketchy and pointlessly confrontational for three quarters of the episode, because that way you’ll think he’s the alien, because an alien infiltrator would totally act deliberately suspicious and not just keep their mouth shut until the time was right. Anyone who is at all media literate is going to take about zero seconds to realize that it can’t be the Russian. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be the Sri Lankan, but the setup at this stage has already taken direct action to narrow our suspect list down to two. And yes. It’s the Sri Lankan. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. It would have made a better twist for it to be literally anyone else. Like the caterer. Ooh. That would be fan-fucking-tastic to have it turn out that the butler did it.
There are, as I mentioned, five representatives attending the conference. Harrison says he sent out other invitations, but most respectable nations declined his offer to come have caviar in a high school gymnasium. From Russia, with the power of Wind, is Dr. Leonid Argochev, an astrophysicist, played by prominent actor Colm Feore. I have no particular idea why I recognize that name; he’s been in a lot of things, though the things he’s best known for are all things I haven’t seen. I think he was the main antagonist in the first season of Revolution. From “Africa” (yes, really. They never specify which country), is Nobel Prize winner Dr. Morris Burnobi, the self-described “Clearinghouse on the African continent for all information on close encounters.” The aforementioned Sri Lankan representative is Dr. Sunetra Menathong, an astronomy professor. She is played by Suzanne Coy, a Jamaican-born Canadian, because no one in the target audience was going to call them out on it. Peru has sent the assistant Minister of the Interior, Señor Gabriel Morales (Ever wonder about the odd convention that you leave ‘Señor’ untranslated when going from Spanish to English, but you generally translate honorifics from other languages? It’s Doctor Menathong, not வாத்தியார் Menathong, and Soo Tak is addressed as Doctor, not Jiàoshòu), who is, “involved with matters of an unusual nature.” Representing New Zealand is Jerry Raymond, a photographer. I mean, he’s also a doctor of astronomy and president of the Skywatch Society, but he introduces himself as a photographer. The final member is the Chinese representative, Dr. Soo Tak, from the Beijing Institute of Extraterrestrial Research, which, I checked, is not a real thing. He is played by this week’s overqualified guest star in an underutilized role, James Hong. If you don’t know who James Hong is, imagine a middle-aged Chinese man in a guest role on an American TV show. Yes, that’s him. To be more specific, among his credits are playing the Chinese ambassador on The West Wing, playing two different middle-aged Chinese men in MacGyver, he’s the voice of Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda series, he had recurring roles on Dynasty and Falcon Crest, appeared in The A-Team, Manimal, and Airwolf, was in both Kung Fu and Kung Fu The Legend Continues (as, oddly enough, the Dalai Lama in the latter), and probably most relevantly to anyone who is into reading this sort of essay, he was Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China. Or “the one between Darth Vader and Superman” if you’re Dylan. Oh, and fun fact: he auditioned for the part of Sulu. He is going to have one really good line of dialogue and otherwise just stand around looking slightly sinister to divert suspicion until the big reveal, then stand around looking slightly worried afterward.
Also, you did not imagine that: Argochev did not specify anything beyond that he’s an astrophysicist. There’s a reason for that, but we can pause for a moment to reflect on the fact that of all the attendees, only the Blackwood team are explicitly tasked with fighting the aliens. Half of the representatives come off as though their involvement with aliens is more a hobby than anything else; only Soo Tak explicitly has alien research as part of his official job description. The pleasant vagueness around Morales’s position is intriguing, making him sound like he’s basically in charge of the Peruvian X-Files, but nothing ever comes of it.
We cut back to the Land of the Lost cave, where one of the Advocates is watching industrial manufacturing on their wall of TVs when the others show up to let him know that they’ve just heard about this important international conference, and they all agree that it’s the most important thing ever that they find and disrupt it. And this is where the episode falls into the pattern it’s going to follow for about two-thirds of its runtime. Cut to the advocates watching TV and saying how it’s very important that they find this conference, then cut to the conference where Argochev does something arbitrarily obstructive, then the Blackwood team presents a montage of clips from earlier in the season, then they take a little break for canapes and character building. Rinse, repeat.
Argochev leads off by objecting to Harrison having exclusive control of the agenda, and then getting catty about Bunrobi’s credentials when he accuses him of, “outdated cold war posturing.” Everyone agrees to let Harrison and his team go first anyway, just for the sake of expediency. We fade to the opening animation from the George Pal movie as Norton gives a quick recap about the history of aliens on Earth, and I like that he arranges it in proper chronological order rather than the order of it coming up in the series: first he covers the ancient ship they found at the Westeskewin reservation in “Dust to Dust“, then, accompanied by footage from the movie, he mentions the events of the 1938 radio play, before covering the invasion from the film, and finally gives a quick recap of the pilot episode.
Between Norton and Harrison, the recap montage drops a little bit of new information on us in a statistical way. Norton estimates that there are between a thousand and five thousand active aliens in the US, and Harrison dates the resurrection to a year and a half ago. Harrison tells them about Quinn, and Quinn’s warning that the colonization force is four years away. Suzanne does a recap of alien physiology, identifying the aliens as having a “Liquid core, which carries neurological information as well as arterial matter.” No, that does not make a lot of sense, beyond the overall gist that the aliens don’t have discrete organs (Never mind that Quinn explicitly mentioned an organ the Advocacy would have removed from him). Harrison confirms that the aliens have three arms, even though the diagram he uses only shows two, and also confirms the aliens as bipedal. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve seen fan art depicting them with other numbers of legs in their native form, since we never get a great look at them. After Suzanne gives a technical explanation of the possession mechanism, Harrison expounds about it, noting that the aliens seem unable to possess animals or children, and ending with a plea for international cooperation backed by a chilling warning:
The most frightening thing of all… they’ve absolutely no regard for human life. Not since Nazi Germany has the world witnessed such callous and brutal treatment of human beings. They mutilate, they maim. To them, we’re an inferior species and they treat us like one.
Nazi comparisons? Really? Not that they’re uncalled for, but it just seems in context like a cheap shorthand for trying to sell “This is SUPER SERIAL YOU GUYS.” The remaining montages in this episode are going to follow the same basic pattern, so this is a good place to talk about how they work. I’ll start off with something good. In terms of working into the framing sequence, they don’t fall into the common ’80s clip show trap of using magic cameras: whenever someone directs the representatives to the television as a montage starts, the footage they cut to is something that could reasonably be on film. Suzanne’s CGI animation of cell phase matching. The news footage of a trucker getting possessed from “A Multitude of Idols”. The video feed Ironhorse showed Harrison of Fort Jericho. It’s only after they’ve segued into the montage that they switch to footage from the show proper. A few of the clips run a little long, but for the most part, it’s a good selection of clips, illustrating the basic concepts the series has showcased.
Where the clip show montage conceit of this episode falls down, though, is the voiceovers. Each montage is presented with the idea that it’s meant to illustrate what the characters are talking about. Fine idea. But framed, as it is, as a conference conducted under tight security, with a limited schedule and under a great deal of pressure to succeed, the content comes off as perhaps a little bit banal. The content isn’t much more specific than the narration that goes with the opening titles. Why do these scientists need to be reminded that an alien invasion occurred in the 1950s? Why wasn’t the basic concept of alien possession covered in their briefing kits? What are they even doing here if they don’t already know the basic ground rules? I mean, the fact that they bothered to show up implies that they already have enough knowledge of the alien menace that they didn’t simply write Harrison off as a kook, which should indicate that they have enough of the backstory down that “The aliens are ruthless and want to take over the Earth,” isn’t new information to any of them. Yet a big chunk of Harrison’s dialogue in this episode is based around the assumption that one of his major goals is to convince the representatives to take the alien threat seriously. And again I find myself about to accuse the show of being nonsensical by writing as if “Oh, yes, aliens exist and are active on Earth now in 1989, having previously invaded in force thirty-five years ago,” is something that the representatives are meant to have already accepted, but “We humans ought to do something to stop them, probably in a coordinated way,” is something that they need to be sold on, only to realize that I live in a world where, as I am writing this, Google News has headlines claiming both “Kellyanne Conway suggests wider surveillance of Trump campaign,” and also on the same page at the same time, “Kellyanne Conway denies having suggested wider surveillance of Trump campaign,” so I don’t even know any more.
- War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.