WAR OF THE WORLDS (1988) Reviews: Pilot-Episode 2 (spoilers)
My latest Netflix acquisition is 1988′s War of the Worlds: The Series, a show that Paramount syndicated for two seasons as part of the same package that included Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s a direct sequel to the 1953 George Pal movie, and draws on a lot of elements from that movie, while changing or ignoring others. I had mixed feelings about the show’s first season in its initial run. I often found the writing weak and the production cheesy, but I really connected to the core cast: Jared Martin as Dr. Harrison Blackwood, Lynda Mason Green as Dr. Suzanne McCullough, Philip Akin as Norton Drake, and Richard Chaves as Col. Paul Ironhorse. I felt they had a marvelous rapport and chemistry and were always fun to watch even when the story was silly.
I’m only going to be rewatching the first of this show’s two seasons. For the second, producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. was brought in the “fix” the struggling show, and his “fixes” made it worse and more unpleasant in every respect, and turned it into essentially a different show. I think I’ll save that discussion for the end of the season, though.
(Note: I actually finished watching and reviewing the whole season before deciding to go ahead and post these reviews, since my reaction to the series was more negative than I’d expected. At times I was tempted to give up on the whole thing, but I kept going on momentum, and now that I’m finished, I might as well go ahead and post them. But proceed at your own risk.)
“The Resurrection”: All of season 1′s episodes have Biblical titles, which is odd, since nobody in the show is particularly religious. Anyway, the pilot opens with a bunch of generic and implausibly multiethnic terrorists raiding and taking over a military nuclear-waste storage facility with ATVs and machine guns, with the intent of threatening to blow it up and create a cloud of radiation over the US unless the President resigns and their other unspecified demands are met. But they awaken creatures held inside storage drums marked “Classified 1951-53″ — creatures that resemble the “Martian” seen in the 1953 film, but are burlier and bigger (enough to have human stuntmen inside the suits). The creatures go Rambo on the terrorists, who then emerge looking zombified and speaking in tongues. The aliens have body-snatched them! They never did that in the movie, but hey, it’ll sure save money going forward.
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to three of our core cast. Harrison Blackwood is aggressively established as a quirky scientist who plays practical jokes and takes an hourlong nap every five hours. He’s paired up with the more “uptight” Suzanne, a biochemist and single mom, whom he wants to brainstorm about possible aliens so he can narrow down the list of search targets for his SETI project. The conversation about aliens is strictly theoretical at this point, as though everyone’s forgotten that the whole world was ravaged by alien invaders just 35 years earlier. (Get used to it.) We also meet Norton Drake, Harrison’s computer genius, who was the first of a minor spate of paraplegic African-American scientist-heroes on ’80s/’90s sci-fi shows (the others being Dorian Harewood on Viper and Carl Lumbly on M.A.N.T.I.S.). Norton has a voice-activated motorized wheelchair named Gertrude, and in the pilot he speaks with an odd, stilted cadence and all his lines are recognizably looped. I figure he must’ve performed the lines with a broad Jamaican accent and then redubbed them without it, though some of the broad, affected cadence remains, and it comes off weird.
Anyway, Norton picks up transmissions from the nuclear-waste site which match transmissions they’ve picked up from space, so Harrison and Suzanne head off to track the signal and run into Col. Ironhorse — not a friendly meeting at first, but Harrison has info Ironhorse can use, so he gets in and sees the ruptured drums that held the aliens. Learning that many more drums are missing, he storms off. He tells Suzanne his theory that the ’53 aliens were only rendered dormant by the bacteria that supposedly killed them in the movie, and the radiation leakage from the drums after the gunfight killed the bacteria and awakened the aliens, who are still bent on conquest. Harrison explains that he was adopted by Dr. Clayton Forrester, Gene Barry’s character from the original film (the villain on Mystery Science Theater 3000 was named after him), a colleague of his parents, after they were killed in the invasion. (Martin was no doubt cast partly due to his vocal resemblance to Barry.) Suzanne seems unaware that the ’53 invasion happened, though moments later she’s stipulating the reality of it without any transition. There seems to be a big chunk of dialogue missing from their argument, just from the flow of the scene and the way some exposition seems to be skipped over. (In the novelization by J. M. Dillard, Suzanne and other characters were aware of the invasion as a historical event, just in denial that it could happen again. I wonder how much of the more fleshed-out conversation in the novel comes from material cut from this scene.)
Luckily, Suzanne happens to be the niece of General Wilson (John Vernon), who at least is aware of the ’53 invasion, but unconvinced of the aliens’ return without further evidence. Meanwhile, the aliens — their possessed bodies decaying like zombies — kill and possess a gas-station owner, which is witnessed by a Pat Buttram-esque, stereotyped drunken hick who later reports the event to Ironhorse. The scientists pick up another transmission and track down the aliens, only to run into Ironhorse and his squad as they’re about to raid the “terrorists.” The soldiers all get possessed save Ironhorse, whom Harrison rescues. Now they have their proof, and General John Vernon appoints them as his alien-hunting team, moving them all to a high-security ranch called the Cottage. Suzanne brings her preteen daughter Debi (Rachel Blanchard).
Oh, and did I mention that there’s a subplot with Harrison’s fiancee (Gwynyth Walsh), a rich interior designer who’s trying to get him into the private sector and constantly complains that he loves his work more than he loves her? I forgot because it’s completely irrelevant to the story. The fiancee is forgotten without a second thought as soon as Harrison moves to the Cottage; there isn’t even a scene of their breakup or her reaction to him moving away or anything of the sort. The whole thing feels wrong and adds nothing. They could’ve dumped this subplot and spent more time on worldbuilding, establishing a world aware of the ’53 invasion as a historical event, yet in denial about whether it could happen again. (I’m thinking about how, the season before, TNG’s pilot was supposed to be 90 minutes but they decided to expand it to 2 hours and added the Q subplot to the script. I wonder if the same thing happened here and Walsh’s character was written in to pad the pilot’s length. If so, it was done much more sloppily than in TNG’s case.)
Anyway, there’s a nice scene where Ironhorse tells Debi a story about his shaman great-grandfather finding an ancient drawing of what seems to be an alien, a story whose truth Ironhorse doubts. This is where we really begin to see what a charismatic actor Richard Chaves could be and how good the chemistry was among the cast. Ironhorse quickly became the breakout character here.
So the brain trust does its brainery, and they use some captured maps and Ironhorse’s soldierly thinking to realize that the aliens are planning to raid the secret government vault holding three intact war machines from the invasion. This leads to a final confrontation which is actually pretty cool. The war machines and their weaponry and shields are pretty authentically replicated, given the limits of ’80s video FX technology. The sound effects of the rattlesnake-like sensor sound and the heat ray firing are the authentic originals, although the sound effect of the green energy bolts is not quite right (they use the Star Trek photon torpedo sound, which is similar but not identical to the sound used in the movie), and they’re missing the warbling whistle of the war machines’ levitation fields (which is a slowed-down version of the same sound effect used for phasers in the original Star Trek, actually a recording of a swarm of locusts stridulating).
Unfortunately there’s zero suspense here, since the heroes already planted C4 in the war machines before the aliens took them. So it’s cool to see the vehicles in action again, but the heroes have already won before the “danger” even begins, which is a terrible way to structure a climax. The war machines blow up on schedule, and then we get the usual thing in these stories where one character (Suzanne) says “I’m glad it’s finally over” and the hero (Harrison) turns enigmatically and says “Is it? Is it really?” And of course it isn’t, since we cut to the abandoned underground nuclear test site in Nevada where the aliens are holed up and see them making plans to strike again.
All in all, it’s cheesier than I remembered. The character introductions are pretty clunky, there’s too much lame humor, and the actors were worse than I remembered, particularly Akin and Green. (I guess I forgave it in Green’s case because she was really stunningly beautiful.) And some of the effects and production values are pretty lame. Oddly, some scenes seem to be shot on videotape rather than film, and most of the dialogue in the interior film sequences is looped.
And the conceit that the world had forgotten the invasion was an odd choice, reflecting the tendency of too many genre shows to try to be as much like the real world as possible. It would’ve been so much cooler to see this show set in an alternate history where the world had been radically transformed by the ’53 invasion. Then again, that’s kind of what the second season tried to do in a retconny sort of way, and its version of that was deeply unpleasant, a perpetually dark and polluted world where society was disintegrating. Maybe instead, it could’ve been set in a world where humanity had rebuilt its cities and infrastructure using reverse-engineered alien technology, entering a new golden age and growing overconfident. That could’ve been cool.
“The Walls of Jericho”: The episode opens with the first use of the main title sequence, and the theme is an ’80s-synth pastiche of Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War” by series composer Billy Thorpe. The images are a succession of clips from the pilot, heavily featuring the war machine battle from the climax — which is misleading, since the show didn’t have the budget to do that sort of thing often, and there are only a couple more episodes in the season that use the war machines even briefly.
This episode is credited to “Forrest Van Buren,” an obvious pseudonym (named after the lead characters in the ’53 film), but IMDb has no information on the real writer. Yet the script is stronger than the pilot’s.
It’s six weeks after the pilot, and Gen. Wilson and Col. Ironhorse are convinced the alien threat is ended and it’s time to shut down the Blackwood Project. They take their time breaking the news and letting the team get packed, so there’s a lot of time for conversation and character interaction. We actually get an explanation of sorts for the global amnesia about the invasion, drawing on UFO lore about amnesia in alien abductees/witnesses, the idea being that either a) aliens have some effect on human memory and b) humans suppress the memory of aliens because they can’t cope with it, or a mix of both in Harrison’s view. Wilson confirms that he fought in the ’53 war but remembers no details. It’s still odd — how did people explain the global devastation to themselves? — but at least they addressed it. And it helps explain why the military types here are so determined to believe the aliens are gone — that same suppression effect might be kicking in, and the more imaginative scientists are less susceptible.
Meanwhile, the aliens are dying from the heat in the radiation-rich caverns, and the triumvirate of Advocates (three of the possessed terrorists from the pilot) are pushing their scientists to find a solution before their stolen bodies rot away. So they launch a series of heists — first draining blood from a herd of cows as some kind of coolant bath, then taking a special plastic to make protective suits (which we will see the Advocates wearing for the rest of the season, since it’s cheaper than using full alien costumes or paying actors to speak on camera — and indeed most of the Advocate scenes over the season will just be stock footage with new dialogue dubbed in), then trying to steal liquid nitrogen from a rocket base as coolant, then finally taking over a refrigeration plant and making their own LN. In the first couple of cases, the investigating cops go out of their way to mention that they’re putting the reports on the national crime computer database, because that wasn’t taken for granted back then and they need to set up Norton discovering these crimes via his superhacking so the heroes can begin to piece the alien scheme together. (Good grief, it’s startling to realize how long ago the ’80s were. The interval between this series and the present is already more than 2/3 the interval between the original movie and this series. God, I feel old right now.)
So the team convinces Ironhorse to go along and investigate the refrigeration plant, and they find the employees acting zombielike, so they call in John Vernon and they raid the plant. Vernon gets to shoot up a truck and see the alien inside dissolve upon death (as alien invaders do), thus confirming that the threat is still active and the team needs to stay together. But the aliens get away with enough canisters of LN to keep them alive for, ohh, at least one TV season. Everybody wins! Well, except for all the people (and cattle) the aliens killed.
This episode has the same odd production values, with all the lines in the Cottage blatantly looped except in the one scene that appears to have been on videotape. (And Philip Akin’s delivery is even more broad when looping than when it’s live audio. Odd, because he’s done a lot of voiceover work, such as Bishop on the ’90s X-Men animated series. Then again, the voice acting on that show was never subtle.) But like I said, the writing’s better, we learn more about the characters, and while the performances are a mixed bag, John Vernon does a really good job. This episode does a better job than the pilot of reminding me why I liked season 1 of this show.
But will it stay this decent? To be continued…