Jesus. Fucking. Christ. This was pointless and stupid. I could rattle off a long litany of all the stupid, pointless things, but we’ve lived through them these past few months and I am loathe to go back into the details.
On some level, the fact that this series has had sweet fuck all to do with the original 1938 radio play is the least of its sins. I mean, George Pal’s 1975 proposal for a TV series (Which is presumably a big part of the inspiration for War of the Worlds II) has sweet fuck all to do with the movie it’s based on, and the TV sequel that ended up actually happening doesn’t really draw all that much from it either.
If you were to ask someone — someone who knew and was into War of the Worlds, so basically me — what War of the Worlds II was about, the most normal sort of answer would be that it’s a sequel to the 1938 radio play in which humans, using salvaged Martian technology, travel to Mars in 1999, where they find out that the Martians were themselves enslaved by a bigger, badder alien race who now want to take over the Earth.
That is technically true, and it doesn’t sound necessarily like a bad concept for a series. Like I said, it’s the basic idea George Pal came up with in 1975. For that matter, it’s not too far afield from the premise of the Stargate TV franchise.
But, of course, over the course of four episodes, of something in the neighborhood of twelve hours, that makes up what, an hour of the story? At the outside. So what’s War of the Worlds II about? Well, it’s partly a James Bond-style over-the-top international intrigue about an insane evil trillionaire concocting a nonsensical plan to dominate the world, only they neglected to include the savant gentleman superspy who is the only one that can defeat him. And it’s partly a weird political farce about politicians who are hamstrung by nebulously defined “special interests” and at the mercy of comedy over-the-top radio pundits.
In this War of the Worlds sequel. Those ideas, they just have no place here. Those aren’t the sorts of plots that have any place. I mean, you could maybe squeeze them in around the edges — the Strangis’s series is heavily inflected with black comedy, it’s even got traces of that whole, “the government is willing to let aliens take over the world rather than cause a PR scandal.” But those things are around the outside. Like, there’s episodes of the series where the team has to deal with journalists. But there’s still aliens in those episodes. And the aliens are still the primary focus of the plot. But here, over and over again, you’re hoping against hope that the story on Mars will fucking get on with it, but no, it’s time for a “hilarious” argument between obvious-Rush-Limbaugh-expy and obvious-Sally-Jessy-Rafael-expy while obvious-Geraldo-expy sleezily reports on it. There’s just so many plot threads that have nothing to do with anything that might conceivably have brought you to listen to this. There’s the nonsense with DeWitt’s political maneuvering and the nonsense with the assassination attempt and the nonsense with Tosh Rimbauch and the nonsense with Ratkin and the ice sectioners and the nonsense with Nancy and Ethan and the nonsense with Ratkin’s wife and the nonsense with the Underground, and I don’t give a shit about any of it.
And there is no way they could make that many subplots turn into something coherent, but maybe they could pull off a few of them. Except that in addition to being utterly pointless, they’re also terrible. There is nothing even slightly believable about Ratkin’s machinations, or DeWitt’s unwillingness to just have Seal Team Six rub the fucker out, or the whole “special interest” nonsense. There’s no reason anyone would take Tosh Rimbauch seriously in any regard whatever. Making Ethan all twee and naive up until he suddenly goes all Artemis Fowl in his very last scene, vowing to outthink his father? Stupid, cliche, unbelievable. It’s just all so dumb, and don’t forget poorly written.
And then, of course, the big question: where are these subplots going? The answer is nowhere, because every single subplot becomes utterly irrelevant the moment the Tor announce themselves to humanity. If you think no one fucking cared about whether Ethan Allen is going to beat Ronald in the race to rescue Mrs. Rochester from Steinmetz now, exactly where is that plot going to go once the Tor start abducting billions of humans and stripping Earth of its atmosphere? It doesn’t. There is no way to continue any of the Earth-based plots the instant this second War becomes a shooting war.
That’s what’s been driving me nuts these past few months. Where could the other plots, the plots that make up about 90% of the story so far, go once the actual plot starts up? I could maybe see Ratkin continuing to try to work a deal with the Tor to be the warlord of a conquered planet if the Tor’s plan was simple conquest, but that doesn’t work at all if the Tor plan to transplant the entire human race en masse in the space of a week. Jessica Storm could maybe be salvaged. She seems right now like a character at the end of her arc, though: the traitor who realizes she’s been double-crossed and goes down in a blaze of glory that earns her partial redemption. But certainly, there’s room to rework her as the villain who’s forced to work with the heroes, while secretly trying to engineer things to get them killed in some “noble sacrifice”. The eleventh-hour introduction of The Resistance seems tailor made to be the backbone of the force that will fight against the Tor, except that nothing we’ve learned of them suggests this is in their wheelhouse or that there’s any reason to expect them to be more use to the cause than the actual military, which, remember, still exists. What about President DeWitt? Honestly, there’s nothing we’ve learned about her character that suggests she’d be of any use in an open war. It’s not simply her physical handicap — heck, the brilliant tactician who is physically handicapped is a fair enough trope all on its own. But DeWitt’s never really been depicted as having a particular skill at anything, really, other than the game of politics (at which she is, at best, just adequate). She’s a perfectly good character for a political drama, but nothing in the story implies that any of her skills would really be useful here. She can’t even give big rallying speeches, because she can barely speak unassisted. The pending plot to have DeWitt declared unfit, the Vice-President “taken care of”, and that weird Republican Kennedy-clone installed? This sounds like complete nonsense in the face of the alien invasion. And Tosh Rimbauch? Nope. Just nope.
So out of all the plot threads they started — and basically kept starting right up until the last twenty minutes — it’s only the ones involving the Orion crew that really even make sense going forward. And two of them are back on Mars, so barring a thrilling, “And then they spend four hours flying back to Mars to pick up the other two,” sequence, they’re out of the picture for the near future. Even if they were planning to set up, “Ferris and Rutherford rally the Martian slaves into revolting against the Tor,” it appears at the moment that the Tor have left Mars and the Martians don’t have any more ships, so there’s really nowhere for that plot to go.
Not that I miss them especially. Ferris has the personality of a block of wood, and Rutherford is a piece of shit who seems to exist only to make Nikki more likable by negging her. Asshole. Gloria, Talbert, Morgan and Gus are okay, I guess, though Talbert’s personality doesn’t seem to go much past, “He’s the only member of the crew who has heard of science.”
So what’s left to say in the final analysis? Not much, really. On a technical level, I guess I can give the weak praise that the audio is almost entirely intelligible. This should be a given, but I’ve seen too many low-budget productions that can’t get their audio levels right at this point in our little adventure through every War of the Worlds adaptation I could find to take it for granted. And there are clearly deliberate choices being made about how to convey these characters through their voices and tones of speaking. The major characters all have distinctive tones of voice, and there’s only a very few cases where it’s hard for me to tell them apart.
But, of course, you can’t go very far down the road of praising any element of War of the Worlds II without it leading you back to a problem. On the one hand, yes, almost everyone’s speaking voice is distinctive. But that is not the same as anyone’s voice being good. There aren’t many voice choices that I’d outright call “good”; most of them vary between “neutral”, “This was a bad idea but at least I can see where they were coming from,” and “What the hell were they thinking?” I mean, consider:
- Jonathan Ferris: I think they’re going for “stoic” here. I have made no secret of the fact that they overshot and ended up with “inanimate object”. If their goal was to make me believe this guy was real, real dull, then congrats, but this is not necessarily a great thing to succeed at.
- Nikki Jackson: Another very neutral voice. As her characterization shifts toward her being ruthless and driven, a less sociopathic version of Jessica Storm, her voice acting doesn’t do a great job of conveying it. The biggest flaw, of course, is that we’re asked to believe that this very obviously white upper-middle-class woman from the north east is, in fact, a black woman who pulled herself up out of poverty by her own bootstraps having been raised by her wise old Tyler Perry-portrayed grandmother in the Jim Crow south, which no. Just no.
- Mark Rutherford: Mark Rutherford I is fine. Neutral. It’s a dubious idea to have this character based around his acerbic relationship with Nikki, the implicit, “Isn’t it adorable how he constantly negs her. They should totally date,” thing is awful, but I can believe the aspect of, “They used to be friends, and they’re professional enough to work together, but there’s still some bitterness there,” even if they never quite settle on whether they genuinely dislike each other, or just have the kind of friendship based on mutual insult. Mark Rutherford II, though, pushes into this weird “hapless ’50s guy” thing that is supposed to remind us of Dobie Gillis or Dagwood Bumstead or something, and it just doesn’t really make any sense. I think it’s an attempt to make him seem adorably awkward and likeable, which fits progressively less well as he becomes more and more of an entitled jackhole. Mark Rutherford III gives up the pretense of adorkability, which at least makes sense for the character, and is played as more of a deadpan snarker, but there’s still an old-timey aspect to his voice which doesn’t make any real sense.
- Gloria Townsend: The combination of a slightly southern accent with her overly-technical mode of speaking is an interesting mix. I have no strong feelings about her.
- Gus Pierelli: He’s the gear-head, so they have him a working-class accent. A little on-the-nose, but okay. His Brooklyn accent becomes less pronounced as the series goes on, though, leaving him sometimes hard to distinguish from…
- Robert Talbert: There’s not really anything distinctive to him.
- Medic Morgan (I don’t think she actually has a first name): Having her be sort of mousy and uncertain makes it easy to distinguish her from the other women on the Orion crew, but the notes of insecurity aren’t something that you really expect from a medical doctor, and brings to mind some unpleasant stereotypes about women in “male” roles.
- Jessica Storm: So… I can see what they’re going for. Her tone of voice conveys a lot of information very quickly. From her first line, you know not only that she is evil, but also what kind of evil she is: she’s clever, ambitious and arrogant. But she also sounds like a soap opera diva. And I mean, okay, fair enough; War of the Worlds II, as it turns out, is a soap opera. But it’s impossible to take her seriously in any of her stated competencies. I don’t believe she’s a Wile-E-Coyote-class Sooper-Geeenious, I don’t believe she’s a top-notch space pilot. I don’t believe she’s a deadly assassin. I’d buy her seducing elderly millionaires, or even executing brilliant boardroom double-crosses. Not the actual things she’s allegedly brilliant at.
- Ronald Ratkin: Everything about Ronald Ratkin I is designed to tell you he is the villain. He sounds like cartoon character. He sounds like he should be trying to tempt young Skywalker over to the Dark Side. He sounds like he’ll disappear in a puff of smoke if you say his name. Ronald Ratkin II is much closer to what they actually ought to have been going for, being very clearly modeled on Brando’s Don Corleone. Even then, though, maybe just a hair too on-the-nose?
- Hoover Jones: Of course, they had someone playing a gangster before they recast Ratkin, but he’s playing a very different kind of gangster archetype. Fine, but the accent slips as the series goes on until he’s just doing a kind of generic “affluent” accent with his vowels inexplicably drawn out. I think maybe they wanted him to sound British (He’s one of the characters who awkwardly throws in occasional Britishisms for no reason), but he doesn’t. At all.
- Tosh Rimbauch: No. Just no.
- Sandra DeWitt: She’s so mellow and soft-spoken that it’s basically impossible to take her seriously as a politician. It doesn’t help that she clearly hasn’t learned her lines ahead of time and is hearing them for the first time as she says them. Also, her husband kinda comes off as a closeted gay man.
- Nancy Ferris: No one is that southern. Plus, far more than any other character, she tends to narrate her actions, which is really annoying.
- Ethan Allen Ratkin: Many, many things about the character of Ethan Allen Ratkin are wrong. The decision to have a voice actor who is not a twelve year old boy play him as a super-twee twelve-year-old boy is not terrible, until the end when they decide he’s suddenly going to take a level in badass and vow to bring an end to his father’s reign of terror using his own strategic brilliance of which there has been no evidence.
And even though the characters all have distinctive voices, that’s not the same as them actually talking like distinct characters. One thing I’ve been working on a lot recently in my own writing is giving characters their own voice. A lot of writers aren’t great at this, and it’s especially rare in amateur writers. What I mean is, if you take out the auditory component and just focus on the words, a lot of the time, all these characters sound the same. At the most basic level, there’s certain words and phrases that multiple characters use a lot. “Not bloody likely,” for example, or “I am simply trying to say,” or “Shall we say.” More broadly, you’ll see all characters tending toward the same rhetorical devices over and over. When they want to sound witty, they’ll rely on the same kinds of wordplay over and over. Every character in associated with Ratkin, for example, constantly peppers their speech with a very specific kind of euphemistic threat, along the lines of, “It would be a real shame if something were to… happen,” or the like. Everyone on Orion constantly interrupts with an, “Oh yeah? Well have you considered this nitpick?” And everyone but everyone has exactly the same complaints about corporatism, about the public not being willing to take responsibility, about “special interests”. Everyone in this entire program will at some point become a mouthpiece for the authors’ vaguely-defined political hobbyhorses, and no one has any piece of nuance that’s different from anyone else.
There’s really just no level on which this thing “works”. Some of the Mars stuff at least has some interesting ideas to it, but even when it does, it doesn’t fit at all with the concept of this as a sequel to the 1938 radio play. At the heart of it all is the fundamental structural conceit that is possibly the most bizarre thing about War of the Worlds II.
That it’s a soap opera.
That is the fundamental structure of the entire thing. It is a continuing narrative based around character-driven melodrama rather than a plot. And you know what? There’s nothing actually wrong with that. The Kiwi tween soap opera The Tribe did a perfectly good job at being a soap opera in an apocalyptic sci-fi setting. Heck, while the original Wells novel isn’t soap itself, the whole genre of the British “Cozy Catastrophe” was heavily influenced by his style of “Let’s just wander around and obsess over minutia while this big sci-fi plot goes on in the background”, and the Cozy Catastrophe has always been heavily soap-inflected. Doctor Who, of course, in its modern incarnation, became the global phenomenon it is in no small part due to Russel T. Davies injecting it with soap opera sensibilities. So you can do “Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Soap Opera”. You can do “Alien Invasion Soap Opera”. This didn’t have to go this badly wrong.
Yet it did. So why? Well, for one thing, what we have in War of the Worlds II isn’t really science fiction informed by soap opera sensibilities; rather, it’s informed by soap opera structure. We’ve got multiple ongoing storylines which have nothing to do with each other, and they’ve also got nothing to do with the over-arching quiddity of the series as a whole. We’ve got a storyline about a political pundit trying to become a kingmaker by discrediting the president, a storyline about a rich supervillain trying to take control of the world’s water supply, a storyline about a son trying to find his long-lost mother, and, oh yeah, a plot about some people exploring Mars. That last one is practically an afterthought. Hardly any of the tension across any of the plots has anything to do with the actual alien invasion, which, I remind you, does not actually happen before the series gets canceled. There’s decompressed storytelling, and there’s the question of when we’re going to get to the fireworks factory.
And, of course, the thing science fiction most benefits from taking out of the soap opera playbook is the way they invest us in characters. But War of the Worlds II seems to have only the broadest understanding of how soap operas work. They don’t encourage us to invest in the characters, because the characters are so vaguely sketched. Half of them are simply broad soap-opera archetypes: the corrupt businessman; the ambitious bitch-queen; the former lovers who don’t get along. There’s a broad stab at a love-triangle with Nikki, Jessica and Mark that feels perfunctory, because soap operas are always having love triangles, right? Heck, there’s even a plot with some kids like Days of Our Lives would toss in over the summer in the hopes of introducing the next generation of viewers while school was out. But there’s no sense of authenticity to the characters or their interactions because once you drop beneath the level of broad archetypes, the characters are all the same. I don’t care about Nikki’s rivalry with Jessica because Jessica is just Nikki with a haughty laugh and this “rivalry” consisted of one scene three hours ago that didn’t really fit into the narrative anywhere anyway.
So you’ve got no characters I care about, and you’ve got nothing about the actual mode of storytelling to keep me invested, and ninety percent of the plots are dull and pointless. But that’s okay, because all the earthbound plots will come to a screeching halt once the alien invasion happens. That part, that promise that someday this might actually turn into a “War of the Worlds” story, haunts everything that comes before it. It stops me from caring while those plots are unfolding, because I know that Tosh Fucking Rimbauch becomes completely pointless once the aliens show up. It becomes clear at the end that all those other plots will be unsustainable in the face of the Tor, but it’s not like there was ever really any doubt about that: the series was going to have to start being about a War of the Worlds eventually.
What is wrong with War of the Worlds II? Well, everything, obviously. The story is bad, the storytelling is bad, the characterization is bad, the plots are bad, the structure is bad, the racial sensibilities are bad, the science is bad, the political science is bad, the understanding of the human condition is bad, the economics are bad.
The common thread that runs through it all is shallowness. The Phelans and Sharah Thomas just can’t be bothered to fully engage with anything. They’ve got this vague notion that the political system is bad for… reasons. Something to do with special interests and a lack of accountability, but they never delve deeply enough into it to reduce to practice. They’ve got this very vague understanding of how a soap opera is structured, but they don’t understand it well enough to produce a matrix of plot threads which all work together. They’ve got this broad sense of what sorts of characters you put into soap operas, but no real feel for how they work or why they are the way they are. They’ve got a broad outline of some interesting ideas for an alien culture, but they never go into any depth about it. They’ve got a basic hook of being a sequel to the 1938 play, but don’t seem to have spent any effort to make the aliens or their technology consistent with Koch’s story. Indeed, its position as a sequel extends only as far as justification for Orion being capable of interplanetary flight and no one being surprised by the existence of Martians. They never bother to think about how a society might be shaped by sixty years to contemplate their place in the universe and their close brush with extermination.
It is lazy. It is lazy and it is awful. It is lazy and it is awful and it is stupid.
And I’m done with it.