WAR OF THE WORLDS (1988) Reviews: Eps. 15-17 (Spoilers)
“The Prodigal Son”: Ahh, this is the one I’ve been waiting for. Not only because it should’ve been aired before “Among the Philistines” four weeks earlier, not only because it’s a crucial story in the arc, but mostly because it features the ever-delightful John Colicos, best known as Kor from Star Trek: “Errand of Mercy” and several Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes, Baltar in the original Battlestar Galactica, and the original voice of Apocalypse in the ’90s X-Men animated series (though it was hard to tell through the voice distortion).
And Colicos is the first voice we hear (due to the show’s custom, which I haven’t mentioned until now, of playing a bit of ominous dialogue from the coming episode just after the opening titles) and the first face we see, sporting a robust gray beard, as he flees from the police through the
Toronto New York City streets. But wait, they have “decay” makeup on, so they’re aliens. The credits identify Colicos as “Quinn.” The alien cops chase him up to the rooftops and re-enact the opening of Vertigo — a cop fails to make the jump Quinn makes and dangles from the roof, and Quinn watches with an evil grin, denying his pleas for rescue, then kicks him off the roof and says the most badass line of the series so far: “To life immortal — sucker.”
Turns out Quinn is a famous, reclusive laser/hologram artist, and art lover Harrison’s been invited to meet him and buy an original installation. Ironhorse cautions Harrison to be sure he’s at the UN in 36 hours, at which point they’re scheduled to brief the UN Security Council on the alien threat. Quinn and his driver pick Harrison up in a limo with tinted windows, and he’s taken to Quinn’s secret Chinatown loft, where Quinn offers to give Harrison his supposedly spectacular piece of laser art (which is just a few blue beams bouncing around), and also gives him a bracelet as a gift. When he says his art is a tribute “to life immortal,” Harrison begins to realize Quinn knows about the aliens. Quinn confirms this, saying he also knows about Dr. Forrester and Sylvia. Harrison asks him to tell anything he knows about the aliens, and Quinn tells of one particular alien, who was immune to the bacteria that overcame the other aliens and has wandered the world alone for 35 years, trapped in the cesspool of primitive humanity. Harry catches on that he’s talking about himself. He’s an alien! But Quinn’s bracelet is a manacle, binding Harrison to him with invisible force; he’s going nowhere.
Quinn gives the vital exposition that pegs this episode as taking place before “Among the Philistines.” His people are from a “garden planet” called Mor-Tax, 40 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. Their sun is dying, so they set their sights on Earth, the nearest habitable world. Now, this is a nice bit of either good research or lucky happenstance, since 10 Tauri is a potentially habitable star system 45 light-years away in Taurus. I remember being rather excited when I discovered the correspondence. Although there’s no reason such a star would die the way Quinn describes, its light going out. Anyway, he reveals that there’s an invasion fleet of millions of aliens due in under five years. Humanity will be annihilated — unless Harrison takes Quinn’s proposal to end the war to the UN.
They’re interrupted by the arrival of the alien cops, who got Quinn’s number from an art-gallery dealer by using a power we haven’t seen them employ before, a sort of lethal Vulcan mindmeld where an alien sticks its fingers into her head and forces her to speak before she dies. Quinn drags Harrison out through a secret passage and they flee through the subway tunnels; Quinn discards Harrison’s gigantic 1980s cell phone, which the aliens find, thus learning that Quinn is with a Harrison Blackwood. Later, in his sooper-seekrit bolthole filled with the treasures he’s accumulated over 35 years, he reveals his proposal to Harrison. He’s fleeing from the aliens because they want to dissect him for the secret of his immunity to Earth disease. But he was the commander of the alien fleet, and believes the approaching soldiers will obey him rather than the politicians who’ve led them astray. He offers to spare 10 percent of humanity, kept in reservations away from his people, if they accept him as ruler of the Earth. Otherwise the whole race will be wiped out. And lucky Harrison gets to be the one to choose who lives and who dies. (Out of several billion people? That would be a time-consuming job…)
Meanwhile, Ironhorse and Suzanne are worried that Harrison missed the preliminary meeting, so they investigate and find the crime scene at Quinn’s loft. They also find a matchbook of Harrison’s with a coded message he had the foresight to leave behind: “Q” = Δ, meaning Quinn is an alien (delta = triangle = 3). They’re concerned that Harrison himself may have been taken, his secrets in alien hands, so they call Norton and warn him to get everyone out of the Cottage. They recruit the NYPD to help them stake out the UN that night, but the cops get taken over by aliens (who now know that Ironhorse is looking for the same Dr. Blackwood who’s with Quinn).
Harrison questions Quinn’s plan, saying the aliens will never accept him as leader since he’s become too human: he has human emotion and humor, a human’s individuality and desire for self-preservation. Plus the same genetic quirk of the host body that gives him immunity (and it’s never explained why he took a host body during the initial invasion) also traps him in it; he’s a half-breed the aliens would never tolerate. But humans, he says, have learned tolerance and would accept him. Quinn is understandably skeptical. (Accept the leader of the invasion force that devastated the planet? He’d be lucky to get life in prison.) He drags Harry along to the UN, through the sewer tunnels; the sunlight hurts his eyes. Harrison notes the irony: “That’s what you came here for.” But at the UN, they get cornered by the alien cops, who are covering the interior while Ironhorse’s men watch the outside (though Paul goes in when the cops don’t answer the radio). Quinn makes his demands, but the aliens are rigid and loyal to the Advocates; the best offer they have for him is the chance to die as a hero. He’s not buying, and he’s convinced they’re doomed, but Harrison uses some “human ingenuity” and rigs a flamethrower from cleaning supplies, so they get away into the tunnels, and a chase ensues through the subway. Somehow Ironhorse manages to be there, trailing the others, and takes out one of the alien cops. Eventually Quinn gets the drop on the others… and since Harrison gave Quinn his life, he returns the favor, freeing Harrison and disappearing — but not before promising to return. Ironhorse shows up and needs to be convinced that Harrison’s still himself. Then the team gives their speech to the Security Council, which is a bit anticlimactic since it’s nothing we didn’t already know; as far as we see, Harrison doesn’t even include the information Quinn revealed. But Quinn walks off into the night — and will return in episode 20.
This is the first episode of this series that I’d actually call good. It’s got a strong premise — a direct, one-on-one confrontation between the hero and an eloquent, charismatic representative of the foe he’s been fighting. It’s rich on exposition and ideas, adding new texture to the series premise. It has the best-written dialogue I’ve heard in this show to date, courtesy of scripter Herb Wright (Patrick Barry wrote the story), and Colicos elevates the material even higher. In my first draft of this review, I wrote, “If the remaining episodes of the season stay at a comparable level, I’ll understand why I remembered the first season of this show so fondly.” Unfortunately, they won’t. Only one more episode will reach this level.
“The Meek Shall Inherit”: Speaking of impressive writing, this one is by D. C. Fontana, story editor for the original Star Trek and one of the uncredited co-developers of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It opens as a pretty typical episode, though: on the theory that disrupting communication would cripple human society, the aliens have invented a weapon that, when connected to the phone lines, can make phones melt or explode (a guy in a phone booth gets blown up). But they can’t deploy it effectively until they steal a large enough power source. So they take over the bodies of some homeless people in Portland, Oregon — coincidentally the city where Sylvia Van Buren is institutionalized (in a place that I only just noticed is named Whitewood — and her adoptive son is named Blackwood). A street person named Molly (Diana Reis) sees her friend getting taken over, and nobody will believe her. But when she gets checked into Whitewood as a charity case (how convenient), she meets Sylvia. At first, Fontana portrays Sylvia with the grace and dignity she’s been largely denied until now — a kind, calm, maternal figure who takes Molly under her wing and stands up for her when the staff gets too pushy. But Sylvia goes back to her usual ranting once she psychically senses the alien activity, and the staff straitjackets and sedates her — until Molly breaks her out.
Meanwhile, Ironhorse is recruiting and training soldiers for a special alien-fighting Omega Squad, and there’s some nice banter with Suzanne as they quibble over her parameters for the selection process (including the fact that she included a woman in her selections — welcome to 1989, when that was still an issue). And Norton can’t get through to the Pentagon computer because the long-distance phone network is offline — something he and Harrison eventually begin to suspect is due to alien sabotage. But Harrison and Suzanne rush off to Portland when they learn that Sylvia’s disappeared.
The “homeless” aliens sneak into the truckyard where the power source will arrive, but get driven off by a mean, Bluto-esque (Blutonian?) security guard. I suppose they didn’t kill him because they didn’t want to attract attention, since they’ve got a long wait — though after they sneak in that night, he finds them the next day and gets wasted. One of the aliens took over a very ill homeless man and is in the market for a trade-up, but the guard suffers heart failure before he can be taken over.
Harrison and Suze have no luck finding Sylvia, though a helpful hooker tips them off (once paid for her time) that the truckyard is where the homeless go for handouts. Indeed, Sylvia and Molly are there, sheltering from the cold (and the episode was filmed during a heavy snowfall, something that was surely easier to come by in Toronto than in the actual Portland, OR). Molly goes out to beg from the truckers, but Sylvia’s alien-sense tingles and she’s too afraid to go out. So she can only watch in terror as Molly gets taken and the sick alien is able to trade up for a healthier body at last. And that alien gets a windfall, since Sylvia has told Molly all about her adopted son, alien-fighter Harrison Blackwood. Uh-ohs!
So once Harry and Suze find Sylv, they discover just how high the stakes are. Luckily Ironhorse is already en route with Omega Squad, since he and Norton detected an alien signal originating from the Portland truckyard (sheesh, if it’s that easy to find the aliens, why are they able to get away with anything at all?). Oddly, the squad hasn’t even been told what it is they’re fighting, which seems like a bad idea to me. Didn’t Sun-tzu say that the key to victory is knowing your enemy? Anyway, the squad’s ignorance doesn’t hamper them, and they take down the aliens. The female member of the squad proves herself by shooting ex-Molly just before she pounces on Harrison, and then the episode ends rather abruptly, as they tend to do on this show.
Not as good as the previous episode, and not as good as I’d expect from Fontana. I wonder how much her script got rewritten. There are some plot and logic holes, but there are some nice attempts at character-building, and the best portrayal of Sylvia Van Buren that we’ve gotten yet, though that’s faint praise.
“Unto Us a Child is Born”: This show routinely takes forever to get around to showing its main characters. We spend the first eight or nine minutes of the episode following a trio of aliens attempting to test some kind of bioweapon at a shopping mall, but clumsily spilling something that drips through a vent and alerts mall security. We then follow the thrilling adventures (this is a thing we Earthlings call sarcasm) of mall security chasing the one alien who didn’t have the brains to ditch his workman coveralls to blend into the crowd. To elude pursuit, he eventually goes into a changing room and takes over the body of the woman there — Nancy Salvo (Amber Lea Weston), whom we’ve been following in between the alien stuff and who’s extremely pregnant. Which apparently is more than the alien bargained for. He, now she, seems confused at what’s happening; either his new host’s pregnancy disrupted the joining, or the writers forgot the aliens absorb the knowledge of their hosts. Anyway, the joining apparently induces labor and she’s rushed to the hospital.
Finally, we visit the Cottage, and even Norton comments on their belated appearance, saying “Nice of you to show up” when Harrison and Ironhorse arrive to be informed of the latest alien transmission, a distress call coming from what appears to be Eureka, California, judging from the map topography on Norton’s computer. The team races there and finds the signal coming from a hospital.
A hospital wherein Nancy’s husband has been enacting all the hoary expectant-father stereotypes, pacing nervously in the waiting room and then handing out cigars on learning it’s a boy. The other two aliens, waiting with him, get cigars too, and toss them out (smart move). Somehow they get to the mother’s room before he does, and instead of one of them taking his body (which would be ideal cover), they just kill him, and the three of them leave without the baby. Only to be told by the Advocates that they need to bring in the baby, which they already somehow realize is a hybrid that might give them immunity to Earth’s diseases.
But our guys have already played the “hunting terrorists” card and taken over the hospital, and it’s not long before Suzanne determines that the baby is partially hybridized with alien tissue. And naturally, as a human-alien hybrid child, this baby is mandated by the laws of SFTV biology to undergo hugely accelerated growth, becoming the size of a 2- or 3-year-old within a matter of hours (despite not being fed anything to build all that biomass from, considering that he’s apparently been left alone throughout the entire growth spurt, or else someone would’ve noticed). Harrison theorizes it has something to do with the aliens’ own maturation cycle, but it never gets a decent explanation.
Anyway, Alien Nancy foolishly insists on joining the other two in re-entering the hospital, despite the risk of being recognized, and apparently this is in keeping with the Advocates’ orders to go in as a trio. The Advocates are idiots. So the aliens hijack an ambulance (but not the drivers’ bodies, so the producers don’t have to pay for more actors) and sneak back in, but a nurse recognizes Nancy and the team is tipped off that the aliens might be back inside. Ironhorse has brought in Omega Squad from last week to handle security. But that doesn’t help the nurse who goes in to feed the “baby,” who’s had another growth spurt. A hand reaches out from under the bed and grabs her by the leg — which then breaks off for no good reason, since there’s nothing holding the rest of her in place against the pull.
So our heroes find the body and realize the baby’s become a killer, and begin searching for it — very, very slowly and tediously. One of Ironhorse’s people becomes a casualty after an interminable walking-and-searching sequence. Meanwhile, Alien Nancy is showing a psychic link with the child, drawing her toward it. Eventually they’re reunited, and it looks like the aliens have developed a mother-child bond — except it turns out Alien Nancy’s idea of parental love is to kill the child (now a deformed monster) and absorb its alien component back inside her so they can be one again. The other aliens toss her downstairs and kill her, and they and the alien mutant head down.
But Ironhorse somehow hears them descending the stairwell even though he’s nowhere near the stairs, and this leads to a confrontation where the two aliens are killed and the mutant flees. Cue more tedious searching, and eventually the mutant pounces on Harrison, yet far from ripping him apart it just flails at him for a while and then dies of old age once Ironhorse and Suzanne arrive to see it. Its body dissolves — and a perfectly human baby emerges from the remains. Suzanne declares it healthy and it gets adopted by its grandparents — who, in a wholly predictable twist, turn to it and say “To life immortal” in alien-speak.
Now, that’s just nasty. There’s no reason for it. If the baby is free of any alien cells, then the aliens have nothing to learn from it. So what could they possibly want with it? This is just gratuitous nastiness and left a bad taste at the end of a very weak episode, with an absurd premise and an incredibly tedious pace. It’s amazing how little actual dialogue there was in this one relative to its running time. I guess there’s supposed to be suspense in scenes of people slowly searching for something deadly that you know is going to leap out at them sooner or later, but I’m not sure that’s the sort of thing that works for me, certainly not as executed here.
Oh, by the way, if I read IMDb right, the mature form of the alien mutant was played by John Pyper-Ferguson, who’s become rather well-known in the years since, with prominent roles on shows like The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Caprica, and Alphas.