Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
Blackwood baked a cake. Kincaid broke a window. Suzanne took up scrapbooking. Debi didn’t recognize obvious references to Mark Twain. Kincaid decorated a library with construction paper chains. The nerdy boy complained a lot. Julian Richings smiled.
Suzanne lures Debi to the library with the (accurate) claim that Kincaid needs them to bring him tools to repair his starter motor. They make an honest stab at turning “Everyone kept telling Kincaid not to put off fixing the starter motor” into a running gag, with Ralph, Suzanne, and Debi independently ribbing him about it, but it woulda worked better if they’d ever brought it up before the van broke down.
Debi is suitably impressed by the surprise party, doubly so by a chocolate cake. She gets to meet Gunther, Lisa gives her a bracelet hand-woven from stranded cat-5, and Nate, confessing to his actual circumstances, and gives Debi his copy of Tom Sawyer. Lisa, after begging off due to her diet, takes two pieces of cake anyway because fat people jokes, amirite? Suzanne surprises Debi with a prom dress. Possibly the same dress from that photo of herself from the album back at the other end of the episode. Why does Suzanne still have her dress from a dance she went to when she was fourteen, now, while she’s living in a sewer after the apocalypse? Because shut up. Having had his faith in humanity reaffirmed by the happiness of children, Gunther says his goodbyes and leaves, and while he doesn’t simply fade away as he dons his hat and coat and turns to the door, he does see a shooting star as he steps outside.
Or rather, he sees what is possibly the least convincing computer generated shooting star effect in the history of television. You know, the whole scene has this weird It’s a Wonderful Life feel to it that makes me wonder if they didn’t cast Sandy Webster partially because he bears a passing resemblance to Henry Travers.
For contrast, we cut back one last time to the Morthren, who are so bent out of shape by watching Gunther decorate a cake that they are still complaining about how short-sighted and selfish humans are to celebrate birthdays. Yay! Recurring themes! Once again, the Morthren demonstrate that their ideology is based around collectivism that discredits individualism, and yet we see that the strength of humanity lies in the ability of individuals to come together and work toward a common cause.
Because of course everything about this episode screams from the rooftops that there is nothing selfish about celebrating Debi’s birthday. She emerges, looking all kinds of cute-awkward-teenager in her party dress, Lisa and Ralph put on an aggressively banal ’80s tune whose chorus is something like “Like a candle in the night / I’m watching over you / Burning with the night / For everything you do / Like an angel in your view.” Debi’s awkward dance with the cute boy she’s crushing on is immediately interrupted by her mother, who wants to take a group photo, so we can end on the camera pulling back to show the party photo affixed to the last page of Debi’s album.
I wish I had more to say about this episode. It may come off feeling a bit thin, which is strange when you consider it. It’s a low-key, low-stakes episode, but it’s not like it’s a bottle episode or a clip show or one that gives the impression of being made on the cheap. I mean, we’ve got two major new sets, with Gunther’s shop and the library, both of which are large and detailed. Plus there’s several more minor sets as well, and a lot of outdoor location shooting. And on top of that, there’s a big guest cast, with four new one-off characters who all play significant roles, and a handful of other minor characters as well.
Plus they gave Debi a boyfriend. Nah, just kidding; we’ll never see or hear of Nate again.
Let’s talk about the guest cast. None of them are hugely well known. Most of the kids have significant resumes as voice actors in the ’80s and ’90s, but little on screen. In an interesting side-note, the nameless pitcher from the street baseball game is way better known than any of the other child actors. Pat Mastroianni would go on to be a staple of the Filmed In Canada scene, appearing in both Degrassi High and Degrassi The Next Generation, as well as appearing in the 2015 version of Beauty and the Beast, Dark Matter, Saving Hope and The Good Witch. Noam Zylberman, who plays Nate, was in the animated versions of Garbage Pail Kids, Babar, Police Academy, and ALF; Gema Zamprogna (Sam) is probably the best known, going on to play Felicity King in Avonlea; Krista Houston’s only IMDB credit other than as Lisa is eight episodes of Degrassi High, a pity since she’s got a ton of charisma. But despite modest screen experience, the child actors in this one are pretty good. Possibly the best we’ve had all season — which is, surprisingly, saying a lot. It’s weird how many child-centric episodes there’s been. Debi’s friends are all one-trick ponies, but they’re well-developed one-trick ponies. They don’t just stroll on, announce their single trait, then fade into the background. Sure, they’re largely archetypes we’ve seen before — the smug, obnoxious geek; the jolly, food-obsessed fat girl; the streetwise tomboy — but there’s a good, simple, workmanlike competence in how those tropes are executed, and while that might not win the show any awards, it’s a pleasant change from the dead-eyed deer-in-headlights acting of some of the other child actors we’ve seen this season. Is this just good luck? I’m not sure. Remember, this is also the first time we’ve had child characters (Debi excepted) who are meant to be “normal”, and not aliens, clones, or soulless lab-created abominations. But it works out well for them, especially in the episode that is really the most human we’ve seen out of the series.
The last block of episodes had focused heavily on man’s inhumanity to man. In several of them, the Morthren needed only apply the gentlest pressure to entice humans to do their work for them. Whether it was greedy drug companies sacrificing hobos for drug profits, media magnates conspiring against the public interest, black market cartels turning on each other for a big score, Generals trading secret experimental military technology for… hyperdrive fuel I think?, or an unethical scientist playing God, the Morthren spent January and February mostly stoking human greed and nudging human ambitions, and it’s paid dividends for them. This was a contrast from the first block of episodes, mind you. In those, the Morthren operated primarily by replacing good people, subverting more noble human pursuits. That’s their opening gambit back in “The Second Wave”, replacing the most straightforwardly “action hero” character on the team. They go on to replace religious leaders twice, to corrupt a noble alien priestess, and to take over what appears to be a commune of aging hippies. Even Gestaine in “Breeding Ground” has a streak of (broken) nobility to him, legitimately trying to do right by his patients despite the devil’s bargain he’s made, in harsh contrast to Martin in “The Pied Piper”.
That development from the first block to the second feels like progress (It’s not a straight line, of course; “Terminal Rock” would fit better thematically in the second block, “Time to Reap” in the first. “The Defector” doesn’t neatly fit into either category, but seems to be part of an orthagonal thematic line through the series, which connects with “Loving the Alien” and “Path of Lies”, and with which I think we will touch base again for the final two episodes). Notice that the Morthren have markedly more success in “Synthetic Love”, “The Deadliest Disease” and “Path of Lies” than they do in the first four episodes. A minor plot point that fails to pan out in “Seft of Emun” is Mana’s attempt to indoctrinate Tori into the Morthren way of thinking. This is similar to their attempts at religious indoctrination in “Doomsday”, and comes up again in “The Pied Piper”, and all of these attempts ultimately fail. In casting the War as a conflict between Morthren and Human philosophies, things start going well for the Morthren when their attacks do not simply face them off against humans, but rather when they challenge the very right of humans to survive. The Morthren are not ultimately successful in persuading others to adopt their philosophy, but they are rather more successful at arguing against any virtue in the human position. They’ve done something that you see attempted far more often than you see accomplished: made the case that possibly humanity isn’t worth saving, that we don’t deserve to win.
The show’s success in this regard is modulated by the fact that they’ve completely failed to make the additional argument that there’s anything particularly worth saving about the Morthren. If anything, it feels like we’re coming dangerously close to the conclusion that it would be best for all involved if a giant meteor were to crash into the Earth, destroying all life — basically the result we all wish would happen in real life too. There is some hinting that the Morthren may not be beyond redemption, with Ceeto and Kemo, but the show stubbornly casts them into “They’re redeemable because they can be swayed by humanity,” rather than because there is anything particularly worth preserving about Morthren culture. I can fault the show for this, but it’s not any sort of exceptional failing, given that directly equating “goodness” in an alien culture with the extent to which they reflect human values is possibly the single most universal trope for TV science fiction other than “Sci Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale”. Star Trek will still be doing it decades from now (I’m still not over that whole, “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.”). Even Farscape, which went out of its way to depict aliens as being very alien and different and not just humans with funny noses couldn’t consistently find a way to convey “These characters are culturally very different from humans” that didn’t come off as “Because their entire race are jerks.”
But the most interesting thing about this pattern in War of the Worlds is that, even if the Morthren are “bad”, and there is a sense that the Morthren becoming “more human” would be “good”, the show doesn’t shy away from saying that humanity is also “bad”. And what’s especially unusual here is the way they do it. Science fiction television in particular, but really all of mass-market television (consider, for instance, whenever CSI-style crime shows address notions like police violence or corruption), is strongly biased toward the idea that human (Or, if we are being honest, Western, since White Middle-Class American Culture is universally presented as “human default”) civilization is a good thing (I am in favor of it), that it might be imperfect, but it is on the right track, better and fairer than any alternative, and — this is the key point, really — when it goes off the rails, that’s an aberration. The result of individual bad actors. A racist cop. A sociopathic businessman. A sexual predator lurking in a dark alley. What it’s not, what it can never be, is a systemic flaw that runs to the very core of our civilization (or if it is, only the “flaw” that we are insufficiently diligent in defending against these bad actors). Police violence is caused by an individual bad cop, not a system of policies and procedures and hiring practices that systematically make it easier for bad people to advance, harder to do anything about them, and incentivizes making good people behave badly. Pollution is caused by people with names like “Looten Plunder” who just really dig smog, not by a capitalistic system which not only rewards externalizing your costs in the form of environmental damage, but makes it impossible to compete and survive otherwise. Sexual predators are individual deviants detached from society, rather than the result of the systematic reinforcement of entitlement and privilege which teaches men from cradle to grave that they ought to be allowed to do such things and which systematically punishes victims and protects offenders.
But strangely, War of the Worlds goes out of its way to avoid this structure. Over and over, it’s the system that takes the blame. It’s the system that stops people from listening to their better angels, that, in fact, twists and corrupts goals which might be noble (or at least, merely venial) into something fallen, distorted and ugly. Laporte in “Synthetic Love” does want to make money selling drugs, sure, but he doesn’t want to do it by grinding up hobo brains. Basically everyone in “Path of Lies” is trying to do more-or-less the right thing, from the intrepid reporter, to his editor, to their manager. Even the wealthy media mogul balks at the idea of selling out humanity and being a party to murder. But their hands are all tied. You might say that this undeservedly exonerates them of personal responsibility. But those people getting exonerated are fictional. By shifting the blame from them to society, what they’re doing is refusing to allow fictitious bad actors (occasionally played by nonfictional bad actors) serve as scapegoats for societal problems.
That’s one of the really remarkable things about this series. Sure, guilt-tripping humanity in the abstract is always good fun, but doing it in a concrete way, a way that comes out and says, “We’re not talking about bad individuals, but about systemic problems which cause good people to be bad,” that’s unusual.
It’s also why an episode like this is such a contrast, especially following on from “Path of Lies”. In a series that has been unrelentingly bleak, we’ve got an episode whose whole point is to give you a little bit of faith in humanity. What’s key here is how it does it. It all comes down to Gunther’s response when Blackwood claims that his kindness is unique: “There are lots of people like me in the world. You just have to be willing to open your eyes to see them.” Gunther never disputes Blackwood’s pessimism about the state of the world; instead, he focuses on the individual. The system may be pathological, but not necessarily the people. I have nothing against humans, but as as a group, they stink (Where have I heard that before?) If there is hope for humanity, it lies in the individual, in the idea that one man can make a difference (And where have I heard that before?).
That’s not without its problems, of course; the view that the solution of systemic problems lies in the individual is also a kind of cop-out — the kind that says that we should solve pollution and global warming strictly through our personal choices as consumers without addressing the fact that the individual resource use of private citizens is a pittance compared to what happens at the industrial scale (And I won’t even bother with falling back to motherfucking reproductive futurism with the whole “Blackwood should have children to ensure a future generation that will fix the mess we made” thing). But in this show, what else could the answer be? When the battle lines have been drawn between the collectivist, individuality-suppressing Morthren, and the radically individualistic humans?
This episode is fantastic on a thematic level, and it’s delightful to see them try something like this. It really gives you a sense of this show having a kind of breadth to it. The tragedy? Aside from the fact that there’s still plenty of sloppiness when it comes to the actual writing, we’re also into the final block of episodes. The ones made after the axe had fallen. Which sadly means that we’re about to see all the thematic buildup we’ve seen over the course of the series kicked to the curb because we’ve only got a couple of episodes left in which to squeeze a slowly developing plot arc that was meant to take several seasons. The wheels are coming off the train, folks.
- War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.