WARNING: MEMORY CORRUPTION. RESTORING UNIVERSE FROM BACKUP…
It is February 18, 2000. It’s a pretty solid time in my life. Leah and I are starting to get serious. We’d recently had our first kiss after the Valentine’s Day dance at school. In obvious analogies, Arianespace launches the Japanese communications satellite Superbird-B2. Space Shuttle Endeavour is currently in orbit, halfway through its final solo mission (its remaining dozen missions would be to the ISS). The final Peanuts strip ran this past Sunday, following the death of Charles Schulz a week earlier. Microsoft released Windows 2000 yesterday. With the withdrawls of Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, the GOP primary race is down to George W Bush and John McCain. McCain’s five points up in South Carolina, and he just might take this thing. I mean, unless some kind of evil, ham-shaped mastermind spreads a rumor that he fathered a black child out of wedlock.
Mariah Carey tops the Billboard charts with “Thank God I Found You”, a song I do not recall at all. Also in the top five are Christina Aguilera with “What a Girl Wants”, Blink 182 with “All the Small Things”, Savage Garden with “I Knew I Loved You”, and Santana featuring Rob Thomas with “Smooth”. Savage Garden will unseat her next week, the others are all on the way down from the top. In two weeks, Savage Garden will hand over the top spot to Lonestar with “Amazed”, currently at number 18.
The 1950 film adaptation of Born Yesterday is released on DVD. Loyola will do the stageplay this year, and I wonder if that’s related at all. Among movies opening in theaters today are two Vin Diesel films: the securities fraud crime drama Boiler Room, and Pitch Black, the first Chronicles of Riddick movie. Bruce Willis vehicle The Whole Nine Yards, and Walter Matthau’s final film, Hanging Up. Eastenders celebrates its 15th anniversary on British television this week. Stateside, this week’s The West Wing is “Celestial Navigation”. Sam and Toby go on a road trip to get a SCOTUS nominee out of jail (He’s falsely accused of drunk driving by a probably-racist cop), CJ has a root canal, and Josh makes an ass of himself. 7 Days this week is “The Backstepper’s Apprentice”. Without looking it up, I’m just going to assume the plot is “Something goes wrong with the time machine and the actual mission takes a back-seat to sorting out the consequences of that,” because that is the plot of about 75% of all 7 Days episodes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is “Goodbye, Iowa” in which Big Bad Adam escapes from fake-out Big Bad The Initiative. Really moving performance from Charisma Carpenter. Angel gives us “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, a demonic possession story with a clever twist. Over on Showtime, Stargate SG-1 gives us “New Ground”. The gang arrives through a recently-unburied stargate, causing trouble for the locals, a creationist culture that’s fighting a cold war with a neighboring country that has a more accurate theory of human origins. They bring a scientist back with them to become a research assistant while he waits for his people to get their heads out of their asses. He is never heard of again, but his backstory is broadly similar to the one they’d give Jonas Quinn two years later. On Sci-Fi, The Phoenix Banner: Crusade airs “Bigger Bugs Have Lesser Bugs”. Sunday’s The X-Files will be “X-Cops”, a crossover with the police reality show Cops. Speaking of reality shows, earlier this week, FOX aired Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, which culminated with the marriage of Darva Conger to Rick Rockwell, and I’m sure those two crazy kids will be very happy. (Spoiler: The marriage was annulled in April.)
And, of course, Doctor Who. Now you probably already know that season four of Doctor Who is a little bit controversial among fans. The show had been doing well for three seasons, but it was ridiculously expensive. They’d tried to reign in costs by having the Doctor destroy the TARDIS to defeat the Master back in the season opener. This left the Doctor Earth-bound, hearkening back to the original UNIT era in the 1970s, and let them replace expensive alien and period locales with location shooting in Vancouver. And introducing a recurring humanoid enemy saved them on alien make-up and visual effects.
And while it’s certainly true that these changes brought a sharper focus on the writing and led to more complex character development and storylines, it just was not what Doctor Who fans wanted out of the show. The ratings slumped and word on the street was that FOX was unlikely to renew the show.
So as a last, desperate saving throw, they massively retooled the show mid-season, ushering in the Christmas hiatus with a cliffhanger that saw the Doctor and Lizzie thrown back in time two thousand years. The return of time travel to the format, along with a break from the season-long recurring enemy, was a fresh change of pace, but it proved to be too little too late, and the show was only saved when the Sci-Fi channel bought the rights and they jumped to basic cable.
If you skipped this period in Doctor Who history, the show works a little differently now from the rest of its run. As I mentioned, the Doctor and Lizzie are trapped in the past. They’re working their way forward through the centuries using something called the “Toynbee device”, which is slowly pulling them back to their own time, but needs a random amount of time to recharge before it will work. And yes, more than a few fans, me included, objected to the similarities between this setup and that of a certain other FOX show which had jumped to the Sci-Fi channel and whose run ended a couple of weeks earlier.
This week is the last episode of that arc. After leaving World War I France, the Toynbee device pops them forward twenty years to New York, 1938. Last week’s cliffhanger found the time travelers accosted on the streets of New York by a pair of strange, unwieldy creatures. They’re quickly revealed to be costumed revelers: it’s Halloween.
Cut to the vortex and the John Debney version of the theme song.
Oh yes, Halloween in New York, 1938. You can see where this is going. Now, based on our experiences so far, between Global Dispatches and “Eye for an Eye“, there’s two obvious ways for this to play out:
- Orson Welles’s radio play really was a news broadcast, documenting real events
- Welles’s radio broadcast was faked as a cover-up for a real invasion.
What I’m pleased to report is that the path they went with is… Actually something different. We meet up with Welles in a bar, where he’s arguing with Howard Koch about the script. Leiv Schreiber plays Welles, and it’s a refreshing take. Casting Orson Welles is tricky business; hell, Orson Welles could barely handle playing Orson Welles. But playing a 1938 Welles has its own challenges, because Welles is such a huge, imposing trope of a man that everyone is going to go into a project like this with really concrete ideas about how the character should be played. But the Orson Welles that lives in our imagination, demanding Galvatron capture the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, refusing to sell wine before its time, and wigging out over a commercial for frozen peas, that Orson Welles took decades to form. What we have here is Welles at 23. Someone who’s up-and-coming, sure, and certainly a little arrogant (who wouldn’t be if they’d just had their picture on the cover of Time at 23. Hell, I’ve heard some people have to fake that), but his potential is still largely yet-to-be-proven, and to a great extent, he’s still in the process of finding his voice. So Schreiber plays a surprisingly subdued Welles, one that’s far more restrained and moderate than you’d expect, he said, just before inserting an animated gif of him flipping a table in anger:
Welles thinks Koch’s script is dull and is close to dropping the whole thing and doing Lorna Doone instead. John Houseman, Welles’s long-time collaborator, who you might remember from The Paper Chase and also me having mentioned him recently (Also, fun fact: Houseman died on October 31, 1988, fifty years to the day after the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and, of course, the same day “Eye for an Eye” aired), calms him down, promising to work with Koch on some last-minute rewrites to make it more exciting.
Houseman is played by, of all people, David Suchet, best known for Poirot. And he’s great, obviously, but I can’t help feeling a little sad that they got an actor of such amazing talent and repute and used him in such a minor way. Also, I spent the whole episode waiting for him to refer to his “leetle gray cells.”
The historical accuracy of Doctor Who‘s version of the production is, of course, nonsense. I mean, there’s some broad strokes of reality here, but everything’s ratcheted up to eleven in the name of drama, and the timeline is condensed well past the point of believability. They really ought to have had the story set over the course of several days, but I guess they were really committed to that opening gag with the costumes (Never mind that the broadcast actually happened on the 30th. Technically, they never say what the date is or how much time passes between scenes, but the timeline is vague and kind of sloppy).
After selling off a couple of Roman coins to the same antiques dealer from the last two weeks (I guess he’s actually the son of the one from two weeks ago, since that was 1848), the Doctor and Lizzie set out to get something to eat, coincidentally ducking into the selfsame restaurant where Orson has just flipped the table. And of course our heroes are quick to recognize one of the greatest figures in film history. Lizzie has occasionally been portrayed as a bit of a film buff, which makes it especially hilarious when her unthinking reaction to meeting Orson Welles is to tell him she loved him in Transformers: The Movie. Seriously, it is one of my favorite lines from the entire season. That said, watching Hugh Laurie and Sarah Michelle Gellar fanboy over Liev Schrieber’s Orson Wells through this episode wears thin pretty fast. They basically wear out their welcome with a too-long sequence of them interrogating him about the wine list in an attempt to goad him into saying, “We will sell no wine before its time.”
Some people on rec.arts.drwho back in the day objected to the Doctor being so knowledgeable about Orson Welles. Their issue was that the Doctor’s supposed to be largely ignorant about history due to his memory loss back in the first season. But I don’t think it’s a big deal; the Doctor’s historical ignorance never really applied to actual you-can-look-it-up-in-a-book real-world history with any sort of consistency. Besides, he’s spent a year crashing on Lizzie’s couch at this point, so it’s not like it’s entirely unreasonable to assume he spent a little time watching A&E. Also, rec.arts.drwho is a cesspit of assholes whose primary joy in life is finding things to complain about, and this was true even back when I used to hang out there.Now, Doctor Who has really always been a show whose fundamental operating premise is “Let’s see what happens when Wandering Odin and his attractive female sidekick happen upon this other, well-defined sort of story that’s already in progress.” It was the way Doctor Who worked even before the decided to make the Doctor explicitly be Odin with the whole ridiculous eyepatch thing (which is still a few years away, remember). It’s been more true and less true over the years. Obviously, it will be more straightforwardly the case once The Sci-Fi Channel takes over and alters the show’s remit to, “Help us recoup some of the money we blew building sets for this stupid other show we tried that didn’t last a whole season.” Back in the sixties, it was frequently, “Let’s see what happens when the weird old man and his hip young friends happen into a BBC Costume Drama,” or “Let’s see what happens when the anarchist with the Moe Howard haircut and his buddy in the short skirt happen into a ’50s monster movie.” And in the ’70s, it was very often, “Let’s see what happens when Quatermass happens into a James Bond movie,” and then, “Let’s see what happens when Tom Baker happens upon a Hammer movie.”
So War of the Worlds is key to this episode’s plot, but it’s not really what the episode is about. No, really, what this episode wants to be is, “Let’s see what happens when Columbo meets Orson Welles.” Unfortunately, the best answer they came up with for what would happen is that the Doctor would be an annoying fanboy. Admittedly, this is a pretty solid guess for what would’ve happened if Orson Welles actually had done a guest spot on Columbo.
Once Orson has finished storming off, our heroes get to know John and Howard, who they don’t recognize, at least at first. Fair enough. Houseman’s much younger than most people would recognize, and I certainly wouldn’t recognize Howard Koch on sight. Neither the Doctor nor Lizzie think of the War of the Worlds broadcast either, so they take Houseman at his word when he wryly tells them their next episode is going to be Lorna Doone.
The Doctor manages to charm his way into an invitation to watch the rehearsal before they leave. Lizzie suggests some sightseeing of ’30s New York while they wait for the Toynbee device to recharge, but the camera lingers ominously on a pair of gangster movie types who are obviously following our heroes.
They don’t notice, of course — or so it seems. After a cute little “Landmarks of New York retouched to make them look old-timey” montage, Lizzie just leans over to the Doctor and casually says, “So, is it time to do something about our tail yet?” This is the thing that the Fox era really got right. Lizzie and the Doctor have the best chemistry out of all the combinations in the American series, and this is it at its finest. So obviously, the old-school fans were up in arms about the show treating them like equal partners rather than keeping the wimminfolk in their place.
Without doing anything to let on, the Doctor and Lizzie have actually been silently getting the measure of their shadows. Whenever they’d moved apart from each other, both pursuers had followed Lizzie, so the Doctor guesses that they’re following them because they detected the Toynbee device, which she’s carrying. On the observation deck of the Empire State Building, the Doctor sonics the elevators to help him and Lizzie beat a hasty retreat, trapping everyone else up there with two potentially dangerous aliens (They don’t actually say how the Doctor knows they’re aliens; I guess it’s implicit in them being able to detect the Toynbee device). Our heroes!
But we’re in a bit of a weird situation, plotwise, because seriously, the Doctor and Lizzie could just book it and find somewhere to lay low until the Toynbee device recharges and zap on out of here, and there wouldn’t be much of a plot to this episode. So of course the Doctor wants to go back, because they’re aliens and he ought to do something about that. Which sounds more violent than it should — he’s like, “Maybe they’re stranded here and need help.” But I’ve been watching this show for four years — a little bit less religiously now that I’ve got a girlfriend — and I know what’s what. If you meet a friendly alien in this show, it’s only because there’s another, less-friendly alien about to show up.
The Doctor’s plan is to wait for the aliens to emerge from the building and confront them, since they’ll have the upper hand. This promptly goes awry when one of the aliens jumps off the Empire State Building. The Doctor claims to know when he’s been beat and allows himself and Lizzie to be escorted to the aliens’ base of operations in the Flatiron building. They declare themselves to be the Cathulans, and say that they’re moving in on this turf, so the Doc and his lady had better do a twenty-three skidoo before they find themselves wearing cement overshoes.
Oh yes, these aliens talk like they’re in a gangster movie. It’s how they learned the culture, see. The Doctor feigns willingness to go along with things, claiming that they’re just passing through. The Cathulan leader orders them off the planet by eight, and the Doctor’s just like, “Okay, bye.”
Not that simple, of course; they have indeed detected the power source, and want it. The Doctor explains that giving up the Toynbee device is incompatible with leaving by eight, and offers to make a deal. He guesses that they’re having some trouble with their ship and offers to try to fix it for them. They get visibly antsy at this, and the Doctor presses them. The second-in-command comes close to explaining something, but the leader cuts him off and says that, yes, their ship was damaged, but it’s no big deal because the rest of the invasion fleet is arriving tonight. The second’s neck is basically on the chopping block for botching the landing. Lizzie supposes that he’s willing to deal just “To save his own skin,” which the aliens find hilarious, and to demonstrate why, they peel off their masks to reveal their true forms…
To be continued…