Okay. Okay. Enough stalling. Let’s get into this thing. Part four. The exciting finale. Or whatever. As you can tell, I haven’t been looking forward to this.
In case you’ve forgotten, the missing-but-not-missed episode 3 ended with the deaths of Commander Ferris, Nikki Jackson and Mark Rutherford at the hands of Jessica Storm and her hired gun Walsh. After the ridiculously lengthy recap, we rejoin Jessica Storm on Mars, under interrogation by the Tor. It’s not clear to me whether there’s meant to be one or two of them there. The voices of the Tor are distorted with an echo and flange, slower and deeper than the Martian voices. This is justified in-universe by the fact that the Tor are communicating using the telepathic Martians as intermediaries: their native form of communication is based on smell.
They inform Jessica of their intent to destroy Earth: since humans will kill for water, the Tor can’t tolerate them as a threat to their supply of quorrium. Jessica counter-proposes that they make an alliance with Ratkin, who can provide them with unlimited slave labor and block any attempt to extract Martian water. The Tor accept her offer, and please her further by planning to work the Orion crew to death in the mines in order to gauge human physical endurance. We fade to the theme music as Jessica Storm laugh maniacally.
Which pretty much sets the stage for side one of this episode: it’s going to be a whole lot of villains monologuing and laughing maniacally as they plan their various double-crosses and backstabs.
The decidedly not-dead crew of Orion-1 wake up in a chamber deep below the Martian surface. It takes them little time to work out that they are prisoners of the Tor, the events of the previous episode having been some kind of mental simulation to test their levels of murderocity. The fact that Walsh and Jessica passed the test, while the others apparently failed does not fill them with optimism.
Everyone is so happy to not be dead that Nikki and Mark immediately go back to sniping at each other, giving us an opportunity to notice that I think they’ve recast Mark again. He actually kinda sounds like Dick York now. Or Dick Sargent. One of them. With maybe a hint of Jack Lemmon in there. And a hint of Boris Karloff a la How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
If, for some unthinkable reason, you’re just picking up the story now, then here’s some good news: Since Commander Ferris was up on Orion for the entirety of episode 2 and didn’t get to meet the Martians, and spent episode 3, I assume, fighting to the death, he never actually got to hear all that exposition the others got, so they get to spend the next five minutes catching him up on who the Martians are, who the Tor are, what quorrium is, how Hanoi Xan rose through the ranks of the World Crime League, and whether there’s water on Mars.
The Tor go back to Jessica to talk with her about Walsh. He passed the murder test, so they like him, but they don’t trust him. Jessica offers to sort things out, so they send her to see him. She slaps him for referring to her as “The Broad”, and his main concern is to accuse her of “going soft” because having been captured by powerful, murderous aliens and trapped many kilometers below the surface of Mars as the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, her first priority isn’t to find and murder the Orion crew. This annoys Jessica enough that she kills him.
She explains to the Tor that Walsh didn’t count as a “peer” because she hasn’t got any, and that Walsh had orders to kill her anyway: she’d tapped Ratkin’s phone and knew of the planned double-cross. This evolves into a long discussion about the nature of trust, wherein Jessica expositions that the Tor appear as moving shadows, but this is not their natural form (We’re told later that the Tor evolved from reptiles. We’re also told that they are a sulphur-based lifeform, and that we should be ashamed of ourselves for assuming that all life must be carbon-based just because carbon is actually unusual in the way it can bond to other elements, and has properties which sulphur doesn’t. Also, being sulphur-based would seem to make the whole thing about the Tor being related to Earth-reptiles seem even more unlikely. But it doesn’t really matter; the main point is just that they stink).
The Tor also reveal that she’ll be returning to Earth with a cadre of Martian slaves who’ve used their matter-manipulation abilities to assume the likenesses of the Orion crew.
This would have been a more impactful reveal in a format other than audio.
We also get some sermonizing, in case you’ve missed clunkily inserted authorial politics. The Tor suggest that they’re not so different, and Jessica claims that humans would never resort to slavery over water shortages. The woman who has literally sold out humanity as slaves to the Tor. So Tor tells her that humans just call it “minimum wage”. Later, Ari will also point out that humans and Tor have a lot in common, though he grants that, unlike Tor, humans have the capacity for kindness.
Jessica tags along when the Martian clones go to suck out the memories of the Orion crew, though she’s disappointed to find out that the procedure is “mostly painless”. While that’s getting set up, the Tor who’s been dealing with Jessica is summoned to speak to his “Master”, a Tor with the voice of an old man. Time for more bwa-ha-hahing.
They explain to each other that they are totally planning to double-cross Jessica Storm. Despite what they’ve told her, the humans won’t be used for quorrium mining. Humans are ill-suited for it, lacking the ability to manipulate matter on a molecular level, and being prone to dying from radiation poisoning and all. Instead, they plan to transport the human race en masse to the planet Brick (Different people at different times pronounce it differently, so probably it’s meant to be an alien-sounding name like Br’iak or Breeak or B’r’k or B””””k or something, but I’m going to go with “Brick” because that’s what it sounds like) to farm fungi. Earth itself is going to be strip-mined for its atmosphere, because as it turns out the Tor eat pollution. Also fungi, I guess, but mainly pollution.
I will note here that “Pollution is rendering Earth more attractive to aliens” is a ham-handed science fiction plot device which has turned up in lots of things before. Doctor Who has done it at least twice. Power Rangers also did it possibly twice, but I’m not sure because the plot of Megaforce was a god-damned mess. Did Captain Planet do it? Feels like the sort of thing they would do. And heck, War of the Worlds the Series even threw it in. So it would be petty of me to object… But I still object. Because War of the Worlds II has not done anything good to make me want to forgive them for the over-the-top moralizing of “Don’t pollute or else aliens will come and eat all our air.”
All the same, the Tor Master orders the Tor Underling to keep an eye on Jessica Storm, because she’s clever enough to pose an actual threat to them.
We transition back to the Orion crew with a musical sting that sounds like a cheap knockoff of a Wagnerian Opera. Jessica enters and gets taunted about the sulfurous smell that accompanies her. They accuse Ari of betraying them, but Gloria recognizes that it’s actually Ohm: the Tor forced the Martians to build him a new body and reinstalled his mind from backup. It’s a neat idea to toss in which could have interesting implications later on, and which (all together now) doesn’t come up again.
Jessica relishes telling the Orion crew about their fate in the mines, and throws in the really incredibly hackneyed over-the-top villain comment that Nikki should be “pleased” to follow in the footsteps of her slave ancestors.
What. The. Ever. Loving. Fuck.
You know, the only thing I can even begin to imagine that line is for is because they got halfway through episode 2 and started to worry about how “implicitly white” this whole thing was, so they hastily started shoehorning in any line they could think of to convince the listeners that Nikki is black. And I’m not saying that it necessarily ought to be possible to tell a person’s race in an audio-only presentation, but Nikki is black the same way that any non-white character in the Superfriends is non-white: in the mode of a white person who spent a semester abroad and won’t shut up about it. Y’know, like your friend in High School who spent the summer in England and came back insisting on calling it “American Football” and using the exclamation, “bugger me!” in a way that indicates that she doesn’t know what it means. Everything everything about the character of Nikki Jackson screams at the top of its lungs “rich white girl”. So when she starts dropping anecdotes about being raised by her poor grandmother who lived through Jim Crow (the old one, not the Trump-era revival) in a few minutes, Imma call bullshit.
And Jessica’s casual racism is… So not only is it ridiculous and out-of-character, it’s not even believable racism. “You should enjoy slavery because your ancestors were slaves,” isn’t a sociopathic genius trying to be cruel. It’s not even a dumb person trying to be cruel. It’s just… I mean… Look, it’s 2017, so I think we all know what it looks like when a powerful white person says something incredibly racist. This is super fucking racist, but doesn’t sound like real-world coded racism, and it doesn’t sound like real-world overt racism. It sounds like exactly what it is: expository racism which is only there to remind us that Nikki is black, because the writers apparently have never actually met any black people and have no idea how to write the experience of being a person of color in 1990s America. Not that I do either, but at least I know enough to not do that.
Anyway, Nikki decks Jessica after the men all refuse to because they’re “old world gentlemen”. The Tor warn Jessica off of killing Nikki in retribution because, apparently, the Tor respect Nikki for her violent outburst.
With the Orion crew’s minds successfully copied, Jessica gleefully leaves them to their fate. And by “fate”, I mean another long talky scene. It takes Gloria and Nikki about thirty seconds to figure out what Jessica E. Coyote, Sooper-Geeeenius missed: that it’s radically implausible that Tor would want them as slaves in the mines.
Ari shows up, and after the obligatory “Everyone except Gloria mistakes him for Ohm” bit, he lets the Orion crew in on the plot. Because apparently a random Martian rebel is privy to the full details of the Tor plan. I guess it’s vaguely plausible that the Tor consider the Martians so completely subjugated that they don’t bother to hide their plans from them, but it still kinda beggars the imagination that Ari knows not only about Tor’s deal with Jessica, but also that they plan to double cross her, to strip Earth of its air and water for the pollution, and that they plan to ship the Orion crew and later the rest of humanity off to Brick. Nikki wryly comments that Jessica didn’t know how close to the mark her slavery crack was, if the plan is for her to end up a plantation slave. Nope. Still not buying it. She also quotes a bit of her grandmother’s Wise Old Black Woman wisdom: “The best way to defeat your enemy is to know them.” The Sun Tzu of Dixie, they used to call her.
After Ari’s filled us in on the various biological details of the Tor and the impending doom of Earth, they ask for help escaping, and Ari turns them down. He’s a fugitive himself now, and can’t put the resistance in danger by sticking his neck out for them. Every, particularly Mark, is super freaking catty about this, once again being complete assholes about the unwillingness of the Martians to risk their own lives for the benefit of a bunch of interlopers. Gloria is the only one who’s gracious about it, asking to shake Ari’s hand when they part company.
She mentions feeling suddenly weak as soon as he departs, so of course it takes ten minutes for them to figure out what you and I already have. To be fair, they spend a lot of that time talking about what a bitch (or “witch”, as Nikki calls her to her face) Jessica Storm is. Gloria refuses to believe anyone could be as bad as all that, and quotes Martin Luther King Jr. at Nikki. Because she’s black, see.
My fucking God.
Anyway, Nikki has some more Sun Tzu Grandma wisdom to counter the wisdom of Rev. Dr. King: “When you befriend your own enemy, you become your own enemy.” Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house must’ve been weird. Both Mark and Talbert get snarky lines about this.
Once Nikki starts talking about how her grandmother lived through Jim Crow and segregation and her brothers being lynched, everyone decides that this conversation has gotten weird enough and changes the subject to suggesting they let the Tor take them to Brick and then escape from there, since surely that would be easier than escaping while still on Mars, even though they will be in a different galaxy and Ari already told them that it would be much harder to escape from there. The only thing that scuppers the plan is Talbert explaining how relativity works, which none of them were familiar with I guess. Gloria asks him to confirm, “This ‘relativity’ thing,” and he reassures her that physics is his forte, so that she can admonish him for pronouncing “forte” wrong (The E is silent).
Then there’s a thirty second gap. I checked, and this time, it’s not my tape player on the fritz; there’s just thirty seconds of blank tape, and they pick up right where they left off, giving up on their plans to pad out the plot with a trip to Brick and back, before launching into a discussion about Ronald Ratkin. For the benefit of anyone who missed both the previous three episodes and also the recap at the beginning, Gloria apparently reads celebrity gossip rags, and therefore can remind everyone that although Ratkin has no known heir, he married three times, and each wife died following a miscarriage. The astronauts quickly conclude that Ratkin has a secret son, because no one at any time in this entire production has ever been tricked by any of the clever machinations and manipulations of another character and everyone has equal knowledge of everything that happens in the plot.
When they finally get around to actually making a plan to escape, Mark brings up the Martian warship, which everyone thinks is a great idea, except for the fact that they’re locked in a room with no exit.
Which leads to another digression about Jean-Paul Sartre. I’m not making that up. Gloria starts explaining the plot of No Exit, and how hell is other people. She is wrong, of course, since hell is quite clearly a cheaply produced mid-90s direct-to-cassette audio drama.
It suddenly occurs to Nikki what occurred to everyone with a higher IQ than a Trump cabinet appointee ten minutes ago: that maybe Ari discretely gave Gloria another set of super-powers when she shook his hand. Even Gloria is surprised by this, until Nikki reminds her that she is dizzy.
They waste another minute wondering whether or not it will work before they get around to testing it, and yes, of course Gloria can open the walls again. They never address why Ari didn’t tell them he was doing this, why, in fact, he made a big deal out of saying he wouldn’t help them. It makes sense if Ari thought he was being watched, but if he were, wouldn’t the Tor have just grabbed him and executed him on the spot? The whole point was that he was on the lam.
So, having wasted ten minutes of Gloria’s time-limited superpowers, they immediately decide to… Make detailed plans. I’m not saying they should charge forward blindly, but maybe sort of meander in the general direction of the warship because they’re on the clock? Gus is confident that he can make any necessary repairs to the warship, and Nikki just throws out there the idea that maybe Gloria’s powers will extend to being able to learn how to fly the ship by osmosis. Gloria demonstrates the ability to sense the presence of Martians through the rock and plots them a path to the nearest elevator. Ferris lines everyone up with himself at the rear, and Nikki objects. Thankfully, they don’t have a ham-fisted bit where she insists that he’s being sexist. She just asserts that it’s her job as first officer to watch his back, and he agrees.
They head out, with Ferris warning them to, “Remember: move fast, but don’t rush. We don’t want to make any mistakes out of carelessness. We can’t afford them.” Because God knows, they haven’t been slow and cautious so far. Oh, wait.
End of Side One
Man is this bad. The racial stuff is possibly the low point of the entire series. I’ve never seen anything so clearly written by the sort of person who says, “I don’t see race,” and then defends the shooting of Tamir Rice. And they could’ve used the idea of Nikki being a person of color to actual effect in her character, if they’d let it actually inform the character rather than being clearly stapled on at the end. There’s a perfect place for contrast there between Jessica, who is motivated by a sense of entitlement and lashes out whenever she’s not given anything she wants, with a version of Nikki who is driven because she’s always needed to work twice as hard to have her accomplishments recognized. And while Jessica is cold and opportunistic because she’s a sociopath, Nikki could display similar traits because she’d accustomed to being denied, looked down on, and underestimated because of her race. Even her rejection of Mark because she doesn’t want “sloppy seconds” would make more sense in the context of Nikki having been raised to assume she will always have to settle for being second to a white person. But instead, we never get anyone challenge Mark’s assertion that Nikki and Jessica are fundamentally the same, and never any indication that Nikki isn’t simply a more pragmatic sort of sociopath.
I would never suggest that you need to justify a character being non-white. But actually engaging with race in a story should lead to the character’s race informing how the character is presented. And the only angle that the Phelans seem to have found is “Nikki especially dislikes slavery, because she’s black.” Which… I mean, I realize that it is 2017 and the President of the Electoral College of the United States says that some white supremacists are very fine people, so it no longer goes without saying, but being black should not be a prerequisite for opposing slavery. If you’re writing a group of characters, and you say to yourself, “Well now, we need one of them to be strongly opposed to slavery,” you are already written into a place where you should really just stop, scrap the whole thing, and start over from step one, before you ever reach the conclusion, “We’d better write her as African American so that it will be believable that she strongly opposes slavery.” And once you get past, “She’s the only one of the Orion crew who strongly opposes slavery in principle,” there’s nothing else about her character that is informed by her race. This story isn’t set in some far-off culturally-different civilization; it’s set in 1999 as viewed from 1996. Basically anyone should know that a female African-American astronaut who graduated top in her class at MIT and is so well-qualified and well-respected as to have landed the first officer gig on the most important secret space mission of all time is going to have had a very different life journey and faced very different challenges and obstacles than white man Mark Rutherford or white sociopath evil cartoon super-genius villainess Jessica Storm. But she just… Doesn’t. Mark’s the rebellious, cocky one; Jessica’s the evil one, and Nikki is the one who opposes slavery because she’s black.
Beyond that, the only nice thing I can say about this section is that they spend the whole thing on Mars, where the actual story is, rather than the political bullshit on Earth. Though don’t worry, we’ll be back to bullshit next week (or whenever. If I can find an excuse to put off listening to another forty-five minutes of this, I totally will). But the padding. My God, the padding. Did we actually need them to remind us how to pronounce “forte”? Or give us a quick precis on Jean-Paul Sartre? And I like Sartre. Was it really the time for Nikki and Mark to keep sniping at each other? Why don’t the world’s finest astronauts seem to have even heard of the concept of general relativity? Did we need to keep going back and forth with Jessica and the Tor about whether or not the Tor could trust her, when they don’t actually plan to hold up their end of the bargain anyway? And what about Scarecrow’s brain?
Given that the story has gone basically nowhere since the end of Episode 2, I’m happier than ever that I wasn’t able to get a copy of Episode 3. This is my first time listening to Episode 4, so I don’t know where it’s going yet. I don’t know if they’re actually going to bring this story to a close, or if they were planning to continue it (There’s no evidence of an episode 5 at all), but at this rate, I can’t imagine them tying up the plot threads they started with, let alone this new bullshit with the Tor planning to steal the Earth’s air.
I mean, unless the last tape is “The Tor mothership approaches Earth and the US nukes the fuck out of it right after Seal Team Six executes Ratkin for crimes against humanity. The End.”
I’d like that.
- You can sometimes find War of the Worlds 2: Episode 4: The Eye of the Storm at amazon.