Thesis: Vengeance is Mine (War of the Worlds 1×19, Part 1)

I had no idea it was going to end in such tragedy.

Cheap special effects. That’s obviously a model.

It is April 17, 1989. We’ve been away for a month again, and missed a lot. Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web. Pons and Fleischmann announce that they have achieved cold fusion, solving the world’s energy problems forever, unless it turns out their work is unreproducible, flawed, or possibly fraudulent. But what are the odds of that? The oil tanker Exxon Valdez runs aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The term “Exxon Valdez” would become the go-to metonym for oil spills until the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, despite the fact that it isn’t even on the top 20 list of biggest oil spills. The Valdez would be renamed the Exxon Mediterranean and returned to service, then later sold to SeaRiver Maritime, then to Hong Kong Bloom Shipping, ending its life as the Dong Fang Ocean in 2012 when it was sold for scrap under the name Oriental Nicety, which sounds like a musical number out of a Mickey Rooney movie that hasn’t aged well.

In political news, the Soviet Union has its first (and last) election for the Congress of People’s Deputies. Serbia revokes the autonomy of Kosovo. There’s a failed coup against Prosper Avril in Haiti. The Solidarity labor union in Poland is legalized. Peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia are massacred by the Red Army. A thing happens in China. And the Australian Prime Minister admitted to marital infidelity on national TV.

Last Friday, the US Government seized the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association for conducting a long-running campaign of fraud costing the life savings of loads of elderly investors as part of the massive savings and loan crisis brought about by Reagan-era deregulation which allowed them to, excuse me if I get technical here, play the ponies with the life savings of old people in order to make massive profit for themselves. Or, as the current administration would have it, “Good times!” Chairman Charles Keating would eventually go to jail for fraud in the affair. Lincoln had been in trouble since 1987, but had been able to keep themselves afloat by tricking customers into switching their federally-insured investments over to junk bonds, after a group of five US Senators had taken various actions to delay or reduce action against Keating on the theory that if we just let him keep betting grandpa’s pension on red 13, it had to come up eventually. Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and John Glenn (D-Ohio) are eventually cleared of wrongdoing but criticized for “bad judgment”. In other “Congress is the opposite of Progress” news, Speaker of the House Jim Wright is charged with accepting improper gifts and evading outside income limits. He will resign at the May, and it’s widely understood that the actual thing he did was less of a big deal than other, less technically illegal factors that would have come up during an investigation. Many on his own side believed that he’d cost them the election with his handling of the savings and loan crisis, a congressional failure so bipartisan that it had cost the Democrats the moral high ground. Meanwhile, others believe he was pressured to resign because he was pushing too hard on the Iran/Contra affair. The charges against Wright were filed by up-and-comer Newt Gingrich, which helped bring him to prominence within the party, as part of his lifelong commitment to strictly enforcing the highest standards of ethics from all elected officials except for Republicans.

Also in the past few days, 94 people are crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium during a soccer semifinal in Sheffield. Two more would die of injuries in the following days. Unrelatedly, Daphne du Maurier will die Wednesday.

Dramarama and Alphaville have new albums out this week. I mention it because “Dramarama and Alphaville” is a fun sequence of words to say. Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, considered one of the 500 best albums ever, is released. Someone else had an album out a couple of weeks ago, which I’ll get to later. The past month is another one that occupies an inordinate amount of my late ’80s music memory. Mike + The Mechanics unseated Debi Gibson in the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100 with “The Living Years”, then yielded to The Bangles with “Eternal Flame”. The next week, Roxette had overtaken them with “The Look”, then Fine Young Cannibals bumped them with “She Drives Me Crazy” in the most recent charts. Elsewhere in the top ten, Milli Vanilli and Madonna are still hanging around, as is Roy Orbison’s posthumous hit “You Got It”. Poison and REM are also in there, as is Karaoke favorite “Funky Cold Medina” by Tone Loc.

The 61st Academy Awards happened at the end of March. Rain Man wins big, with Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman. Jodie Foster wins Best Actress for The Accused. And oh, hey, look at that, Christopher Hampton wins Best Adapted Screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons, adapted from Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton, adapted from Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Amboise-Francois Choderlos del Laclos. Step 2 sounds like a cheat there. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? takes home a lot of the more technical categories. They Live is new out on home video last week, as is Crossing Delancey, a film which holds no interest for me, but whose cover I always found really striking on the rack at the rental place. Among those movies out in theaters while we’ve been away are The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Troop Beverly Hills, Heathers, and Major League.

In Canada, a TV adaptation of Babar premiered recently. On March 24, game shows Sale of the Century and Super Password ended their runs. That same day — and this is a rare case where I have absolute concrete memories of having watched this specific broadcast — NBC reruns the 1960 production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. My dad was real excited to see it. We watched this one with Dylan last year, and I found I was super uncomfortable with how over-the-top racist the “Indian” stereotypes were. But I’ll let it slide if I’m allowed to pretend that Peter is trans. Series debuts in March include COPS and Quantum Leap, which I mentioned last time and won’t go into here. Premiering this week is the William Shatner-hosted docudrama series Rescue 911.

MacGyver is a repeat this week, but ALF is new. Yesterday’s The Wonderful World of Disney was the second half of The Parent Trap III, the penultimate film in the original Parent Trap continuity. Since this is the first time we’ve been together in April, we missed the premiere of The Robert Guillaume Show, whose fourth episode airs Wednesday. This is a show I have no recollection of whatever, which probably means that in 1989, my bedtime on a school night was before 9:30 (Though I recall enough other things to assert that my bedtime was 11 by 1992, so maybe not). The show only lasts 13 episodes despite Robert Guillaume being a God damned national treasure. ABC reckoned that the American viewing audience wasn’t ready for an interracial romance in prime time, which is not entirely unfair for reasons I can’t address without screaming about the election for another five hundred words. It would be the mid-90s before approval of interracial marriage became a majority view in the US. On the other hand, Guillaume (who, I will repeat, is a God damned national treasure) suggests that the failure of the show was due more to ABC reckoning that the American viewing audience wasn’t ready for an interracial romance in prime time — and therefore didn’t put in the effort to help it find its audience.

Again we have no new Star Trek the Next Generation, though we’ve had three new episodes in April: “Contagion“, “The Royale“, and “Time Squared“. In the first, the Enterprise nearly crashes from being port-scanned by an ancient probe. It’s a good episode, and feels like it’s setting up something interesting for the future, but that never actually happens. “The Royale” is, I think, considered one of the weaker episodes, based around an away team getting stuck in an alien recreation of a terrible pulp novel. It’s basically the Original Series episode “Spectre of the Gun” without anything actually exciting happening. I liked it as a child because I enjoyed the visual motifs — it’s set in a mob-era casino, and there’s an amazing visual of a revolving door in an otherwise featureless black void — but the lack of any sort of stakes or “stuff worth watching happening” really brings it down. But it does feel to me like part of the last hurrah for TNG’s early years “bring the weird” mandate, in that the (never shown) aliens in this episode are weird and distant and implied to be very very unlike us indeed, with godlike powers and an inability to interact with humans in meaningful terms. The third is another “bring the weird” episode, in which the crew tries to explain the appearance of an alternate version of Picard, sent back in time six hours after the apparent destruction of the Enterprise. It has several weaknesses (Like having Picard kill his duplicate for no clear reason), but probably would have been better as originally proposed, with a reveal that the situation had been engineered as a test by Q, segueing into the next Q episode, May’s “Q Who”.

Friday the 13th The Series this week gives us “A Friend to the End”, which is a twofer. In the B-plot, Micki and Ryan track down a cursed child-size coffin that, like so many other cursed objects in this show, can trade one life for another. It guest stars a kid named Keram Malicki-Sanchez. Sounds familiar, but I can’t place him. The A-plot involves the “Shard of Medusa”, a stone spike used by a sculptor to transform models into statues via stabbing. I recall being impressed by the visual effect, and am scared to re-watch in case it turns out to suck. While we were back on break, one other episode aired, “The Mephisto Ring”. In that one, a cursed 1919 World Series ring predicts the outcome of sporting events in exchange for a human life. The villain this time is played by recurring actor, Denis Forest who specialized in playing these kind of pathetic, loser-y villains. It’s a role he’s good at — he’ll do it one more time on Friday the 13th, and also, by an interesting coincidence, he’ll do it this week on War of the Worlds.

I mean, I know that it’s a close community, the Toronto acting scene of 1989. But it’s a weird coincidence that this guy Forest, who we’ve never run into before, shows up in consecutive weeks on Paramount-syndicated shows playing very similar characters. He’s an antagonist in this episode of War of the Worlds, but this show isn’t willing to go all-in on human villains, so he’ll reform at the end, leaving us time for the aliens to be the bad guys. He’s kind of a sympathetic antagonist too. Sort of. It’s complicated, and actually, this is kind of the thing that Denis Forest was good at. You feel bad for him, because he is a sad, pathetic weasel, and possibly dealing with some sort of mental illness. But there’s never any point at which you feel bad for him in a way that makes you want to help him — at least, help him achieve his goals; broadly speaking, “Let’s get this guy institutionalized before he harms himself and others” is certainly a form of helping him. He’s a person who is dealt a bad hand but also plays it badly and never really cares about the harm he does to others.

There’s a clue that something’s going on a little more than your standard episode opening right from the beginning of the first scene, but it’s subtle. It looks a lot like the open we’ve seen a lot of times: Ironhorse and Omega Squad on a snowy university campus, moving into position to take out some aliens. The odd thing, though, is that it’s narrated. As Ironhorse frets, with worry in his voice, about Omega squad taking too long to clear the area of civilians, a voice-over Ironhorse tells us that it had seemed like a routine mission, and he’d been left alone to cover one of the exit points when a report came in of three suspects headed his way. Voiceover Ironhorse seems a bit distracted, and insists that, “I had no choice; I had to confront them.”

Do a barrel roll!

Physical Ironhorse is visibly on edge at having to enter open combat without backup, but he approaches the three people, two of whom draw assault rifles. Ironhorse does one of those dive-rolls and comes up with his own weapon drawn, gunning them down. It… doesn’t look as cool as it ought to. It’s executed fine in a technical way, but with everyone on open, level, snow-covered ground, it doesn’t actually seem like he does it for any particular reason. He doesn’t move fast enough to be plausibly evading their fire, there’s no cover for him to take, it doesn’t move him out of their line of fire. It’s like he just does it because it seemed like it was expected of him at that point. The audio stops completely dead for a second when Ironhorse stops shooting. The incidental music slowly picks back up a second later, but there’s this moment of eerie silence that doesn’t sound real; the foley for Ironhorse’s gunfire just cuts off dead.

Maybe the reason he’s so disturbed is that she’s clearly the same actress who played one of the LARPers in “Goliath is my Name”

The camera walks with Ironhorse to see the results of his handiwork. “But it wasn’t three of the enemy like the radio report said. It was only two.” As we draw closer, it becomes clear that what’s left is two puddles of steaming alien goo, and a dead human woman in a fur coat. “The woman was their hostage.” Ironhorse looks up in time to see the third alien escape and brings his weapon to bear, but freezes, instead drawn to look back at the dead hostage, allowing the alien to escape. “I let her get away, and I had shot their hostage, and innocent person.” He crouches by the nearly bloodless body and screams for a medic as we dissolve to reveal the previous scene as a flashback, as Ironhorse relates the tragic events to his therapist. He’s been having nightmares, and keeps reliving the scene in his mind. He insists that the killing doesn’t bother him, but his compulsion to keep replaying it does, and he becomes defensive when asked about it.

Okay. Ironhorse accidentally kills a civilian and is having a hard time coping. That’s an idea that we could get something out of. There’s been little hints at this as a looming possibility all season, but they’ve never fully latched onto it before. We’ve had scenes where Ironhorse has been fooled by aliens, and scenes where he’s unsure if Harrison or Suzanne have been converted. But this is the first time someone’s ever guessed alien and been wrong.

Unfortunately, Ironhorse’s character journey here is a shambles. He’s largely incoherent with his therapist. He doesn’t seem to want to talk, he gets cause and effect backwards, he repeatedly insists that he knows he did the right thing under the circumstances, and if he doubts this, the narrative doesn’t display that. The therapist isn’t much help either. He does the usual “well what do you think?” shtick, and latches on to Ironhorse’s unwillingness to explain what exactly he means about being presently involved in a “war”, or who this “enemy” is. He implies that he can’t help Ironhorse because he’s withholding this information.

And that doesn’t make sense. Soldiers serving in combat have different needs than most other kinds of patients; Ironhorse would certainly be seeing a psychiatrist who has experience working with the military, and who understands that they won’t be allowed to disclose the details of operations. But more to the point, it shouldn’t matter within the context of helping Ironhorse to work through this.

+This week’s guest star who’s too good of an actor for the way they use him is Bernard Behrens. Even though the character is thinly drawn and not given anything good to do, Bernard Behrens has the right look for the part. He conveys a sort of detached gravitas that is a little light on empathy for a realistic therapist, but is pretty good for a standard cliche. I also checked three times to make sure he’d never been a Knight Rider villain (But guess who in this show did…). Behrens will be better served when he returns to Canadian-made first-run syndication in the fall as patriarch of the Van Helsing clan in Dracula the Series, a show that my local unaffiliated stations didn’t carry, so I know nothing about it, except that one of my three readers mentioned that Mia Kirshner was in it.
Wait. Does this all sound familiar? Why am I getting this crazy feeling of deja vu from this episode?
The one actually important question he (The psychiatrist is credited only as “Psychiatrist” and has no name) asks is this: why was this killing different? And Ironhorse doesn’t give him a meaningful answer. In fact, the show never gives us a meaningful answer. It never even gives us a meaningless one.

The one terrifying possibility it obliquely dangles is that Ironhorse thought she was hot — the next time he flashes back to the shooting, he’ll imagine her in a wedding gown for reasons that aren’t examined or explained. Or perhaps it’s because she’s American. Ironhorse’s military experience, we must presume, is mostly overseas because that is how the US’s history of military engagement has gone for the past century and a half, so American civilian casualties aren’t something most soldiers have to be prepared for. But that’s an intensely ugly thing to presume about Ironhorse (and besides, there are occasional implications in the series, without being rendered concrete exactly, that this show is set in the world where domestic anti-terrorist action within the continental US is something comparatively normal for the US military to do, rather than the fever dreams of conspiracy theorists who watch too much Alex Jones).

This isn’t even the thing that looks most like it’s from a music video in this episode.

What he tells the psychiatrist is that he went to her funeral, for reasons he doesn’t understand. That doesn’t answer the question, though: there has to be something about the shooting that was different. Saying that the shooting is different because he went to the funeral is just begging the question. Why did he go to the funeral? Because the shooting was different. Why was the shooting different? Because he went to the funeral. There are so many possible reasons, and the show never picks one, and the resolution for Ironhorse doesn’t find one. Has Ironhorse never been involved in an action that killed civilians before? Possible I guess, but he served in special forces and Vietnam, so it seems like he’d have at least been close to action that had civilian casualties.

And if that were the case, it’s so blindingly obvious that the fact that he doesn’t mention it is basically inconceivable. Now, maybe the more interesting possibility is that it has something to do with him being alone at the time. Perhaps every other time he’d been in a similar incident, he’d been working with a team, and had other people there to — it’s oversimplifying it to say “share the blame”, but that’s kinda it. Maybe not to pass the buck, but to reinforce the idea that the outcome, while tragic, was unavoidable. In the sense of, “Since all three of us thought this was the right thing to do, the bad outcome was just tough luck, not the result of me personally making the wrong call.” That would have been a good explanation, and you could work that into the story arc, and indeed the character arc: say, that Ironhorse is used to perceiving himself as a piece of a machine, but this particular shooting erased his internal separation between the decision to use deadly force (usually issued as an order to others), the physical act of killing (performed under the order of others as a young soldier), and the consequences of his actions. You could have this be the first time he’d personally killed a civilian since being promoted to a commanding role, so that he was effectively both the person giving the orders and the person receiving them. And coming to terms with that might even play into the character arc that they enticed me with months ago but won’t come back to: the evolution of Ironhorse into a shamanic character.

But none of that happens. The psychiatrist asks him how he felt about going to the funeral, and Ironhorse says that he doesn’t feel good about killing an innocent person but refuses to dwell on it. Then their time runs out, and Ironhorse leaves. It’s ambiguous whether he plans to return; he doesn’t think the session has helped, but the psychiatrist points out that they still haven’t sorted out why he’s here in the first place.

What, no hoodie and sunglasses?

As he leaves, he’s watched through a sniper-scope camera mask effect. The mask effect belongs to a scope (not presently attached to a gun) in the hands of Denis Forest. He’s playing Martin Cole, the — you may want to sit down for this — grieving husband of Ironhorse’s victim. He’s come unglued with the death of his wife, and mutters to himself, “It’s all under control folks; I’m here, I’m going to put the chaos in order.” Me, I’m going to put the order in chaos by skipping ahead to his next scene, five minutes later.

When we rejoin Martin a few minutes on, he’s watching home movies while arguing with the police over the phone. They’ve declared his wife’s death a closed case, on account of they know who did it and it counts as an accident. The home movies depict Martin and Sarah in happier times, playfully mugging for the camera as they do some nonspecific frolicking in the park. Or at least, she does; his frolicking still looks weird and creepy because he’s still Denis Forest.

In an episode that is full of ideas that sound interesting but don’t end up working, grieving widower Martin Cole is possibly the most… sound interesting but don’t end up working. I get what they were going for, and it’s a good idea. A man who’s had a break with reality due to a traumatic loss as an antagonistic character who manages to be a more personal and direct threat to one of the regulars than the aliens typically are (Remember, outside of the pilot, direct combat with the aliens has generally been a total rout for their side) is an interesting idea. And Denis Forest’s Martin Cole is an interesting character. But when you put those things together, it doesn’t quite work. Because Denis Forest isn’t playing a broken, grieving widower; he’s playing a stalker. He’s in his creepy stalker lair, watching his creepy stalker videos of a beautiful woman who, a reasonable person would assume, would never in a million years marry the sort of guy whose destiny almost certainly involves the one of his neighbors telling a reporter, “He was a quiet man who kept to himself.” I don’t just mean that Martin Cole looks like a weasel — he does, but that’s neither here nor there. But he displays no real character traits that might plausibly lead to a sane human being wanting to spend time with him, let alone marry him. He is not kind or personable or friendly. He possesses considerable technical skill, but doesn’t seem to be especially intelligent in an abstract sense. He is obsessive. He is possessive. He never gives any indication that he might have redeeming traits. And even in the videos that should be set before his breakdown, he still comes off like a creepy stalker.

Still not the thing that looks most like it came out of a music video.

Also, he’s got a bomb-making workshop in his garage, where, after a few more intervening scenes, we will watch him arm a remote controlled model helicopter. This does not appear to be a recent remodel. Simply put, Denis Forest does such a good job of playing Martin Cole, mad obsessive stalker and unibomber-style domestic terrorist, that it’s impossible to take him seriously as Martin Cole, grieving husband who had been able to carry on a successful relationship with another human being before he was pushed to the edge. For fear I am overstating my case here, I should be clear that it’s not simply the fact that Martin Cole is a profoundly creepy weirdo that makes him hard to believe in context. Rather, it’s that lack of any other traits: he’s a one-note creepy weirdo, and that one note isn’t one that leads me to believe he was ever capable of a healthy adult relationship. There’s a couple of ways they could have helped this out. The most obvious would be to give us more of a look at what Martin Cole was like before the death of his wife. They could have — and I imagine this is the most likely path they would’ve tried — to present him as entirely normal before Sarah’s death. But I think it would be equally valid (at least in a logical sense; there are some second-order implications that are deeply problematic) to depict him as having some kind of pre-existing difficulty, perhaps even being non-neurotypical, but managing his condition and, critically, having other positive qualities as well. There is some support for this in the text, particularly later, when Martin describes Sarah as having helped him through unspecified “bad times”.

The big problem with this approach, obviously, is that it plays directly into the notion that the mentally ill are dangerous, and “even the good ones” are one bad day away from violence. That’s both a deeply harmful and unpleasant narrative, and a pretty tired cliché. Therefore I think that it would be preferable, in terms of the broader social context and also in terms of playing Denis Forest’s particular acting strengths, to scrap the whole thing about him being the grieving widower. Have him present himself as her boyfriend but, critically, with a third act reveal that actually no, he was just a creepy stalker who’d developed a dangerous obsession with her, and their relationship existed only in his sense of entitlement. The other advantage to this solution is that it keeps the emotional center of the episode with Ironhorse, as it should be. Because in the plot as it stands, there’s a broad attempt to make Martin Cole a sympathetic antagonist. His complaint is valid, after all. What happened to him does indeed suck, and it also really sucks that if your wife gets shot by a military special ops unit during an anti-terrorist operation despite having done nothing wrong, there is absolutely no recourse, no recompense, and no justice. The way it’s presented, this distracts from Ironhorse’s emotional arc rather than reinforcing it.

But even creepy-stalker-Martin is a tough sell, just because frankly, the plot of this episode is already all over the place, and Martin Cole as a plot device needs to be available for the third act reversal where he helps save the day. And I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell don’t want this episode to end on, “The stalker saves the day and gets revenge against those ultimately responsible for killing the woman he was planning on abducting and keeping prisoner in his basement.” This story is a really interesting idea, but I don’t know if there’s any way they could have pulled it off.

To Be Continued…

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

4 thoughts on “Thesis: Vengeance is Mine (War of the Worlds 1×19, Part 1)

  1. Stephen Phillips

    Denis Forest played Nosferatu in an episode of ‘Dracula: the Series’, a show that, honestly is not good enough to justify the nostalgia people like me have for it – but I digress…

    It seems like I’ve grown up watching more Canadian TV than anything else, just by random accident. I recognize more Canadian and UK actors than American ones. Cuz that’s where all the niche genre stuff got made…

    Well, Dracula was filmed in Luxembourg, but it’s the same familiar faces.

  2. Ross Post author

    The government incentives for creating home-grown media in Canada cause some weird economies.

    I reckon I am going to have to give Dracula a spin at some point. It sounds wonderful. In a sense that a dude who’s spent the better part of a decade blogging about apocalyptic TV shows from the late ’80s would use the word.

  3. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for April 28th, 2017 | The Slacktiverse

  4. Pingback: Thesis: Vengeance is Mine (War of the Worlds 1×19, Part 2) | A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

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