WAR OF THE WORLDS: THE SERIES: Overview and final thoughts (Spoilers)
Well, I undertook this DVD rewatch with the expectation of revisiting a show (or at least a season) that I’d somewhat enjoyed the first time around. But it’s revealed to me that my memories of the original show are somewhat rosier than the reality. All in all, this hasn’t been a very enjoyable revisit. The writing was mostly weak and the production values bordered on the amateurish. Even the thing I liked most, the chemistry among the main cast, isn’t as good as I remembered. At least, it took a while before the actors seemed to settle into their roles and start giving decent performances. Some of their early work is kind of embarrassing. And overall, the show made way too little use of its own leads, often spending 10-20 percent of the episode dealing with the alien plot and guest stars of the week before Team Blackwood even showed up.
I think one reason I liked the idea of this show was that, at least in theory, it treated the original, unaltered movie as part of its continuity. Most TV series based on movies change things about the events of the films to set up the series — like the Starman series retconning the events of the film to happen a decade or so earlier so the title character could have a teenage son, or Men in Black: The Series ignoring K’s retirement at the end of the first film. So it’s refreshing in those few cases where you can treat the movie and the sequel series as a continuous whole. Sure, the series introduces a lot of retcons about the aliens’ abilities and origins, and makes bizarre and implausible assumptions about the aftermath, but hardly any of it contradicts what we were actually shown in the film, just recontextualizes it. We weren’t explicitly told in the film proper (just in the prologue) that the aliens were from Mars; that was just a speculation that was offered but never confirmed. We never saw the film’s aliens possess human bodies, but that didn’t prove they couldn’t. The two aliens we glimpsed were much smaller and flimsier than the ones in the series, but they could’ve been a different species or subspecies, perhaps some kind of helper animal or genetically engineered scout. And the series incorporated actual footage from the movie in its titles and flashbacks, brought back Ann Robinson as her original character, recreated the war machines fairly faithfully, and so on. I appreciated that regard for the original work, even if the series’ idea of what happened afterward was pretty lame.
Only a few episodes really amounted to much. The pilot was kind of okay, but flawed by its premise. The reuse of the movie’s war machines in the climax was a high point, but marred by the fact that the aliens had no chance of success, and it was more a matter of running out the countdown timer than any real kind of suspense. ”Eye for an Eye” was fun, though mainly for its homages to the 1938 Orson Welles broadcast (and the fact that it was both set on and aired on the actual 50th anniversary of that event was kind of cool). There was a run of decent episodes from about #9-#13, but even they had weak and silly moments. All in all, there are only two episodes I’d call genuinely good, “The Prodigal Son” and “Vengeance is Mine.” And there were quite a few ranging from stupid to just atrociously bad. I really didn’t remember the show being this consistently lame. Did I just have different standards back then, or was this a show I just tolerated despite its badness because I liked the cast? I do remember not being very fond of the horror elements and feeling the writing could use improvement, but I don’t remember thinking it was this bad.
In any case, I definitely remember how awful the second season was, and I have no intention of rewatching it. In an attempt to boost the show’s flagging ratings, Paramount brought in a new production staff led by Frank Mancuso, Jr., who’d previously (and contemporaneously) produced Friday the 13th: The Series. His ideas for how to “fix” the series were bizarre. Somehow he thought it would be more appealing if the fairly normal world of the first season were replaced with a relentlessly dark, dismal dystopian near-future in a state of perpetual decay. I gather his reasoning was that the world should have been more devastated by the ’53 invasion and this was the aftermath, but that doesn’t work in the context of the first season, and just springing the changed world on us without explanation didn’t work. I tried to believe at the time that four years had passed between seasons and the arrival of the new alien force at the start of the season was the one Quinn had foreshadowed, and that the deterioration of the world was the result of four more years of the aliens’ evil schemes; but that didn’t work because Debi (who became a more prominent character in season 2) was only a year older.
The worst change Mancuso made was killing off half the cast, and destroying the chemistry that was the series’ only real high point. And which half he killed off is telling. Both Paul Ironhorse and Norton Drake died in the series premiere, and were replaced by a mercenary named John Kincaid, played by future Highlander: The Series star Adrian Paul, who was just as dull on this series as he would be on that one. Ironhorse was the most popular character on the show, the breakout star, and yet Mancuso apparently thought it would “improve” the series to kill him. (And the way it was done was just painfully wrong. I cried when I saw it, but not in a good, cathartic way like when Tasha Yar died on TNG — I was hurt and angry at how completely, painfully wrong the story was in how it treated and disposed of the character. Okay, they had Paul sacrifice himself to keep his evil clone from killing Debi, but the way it was executed just felt so ugly and forced and hollow and unfair to the character.) He never offered a clear reason for this decision, as far as I recall (beyond claiming that he had no idea Ironhorse was popular until after the deed had been done), but his excuse for killing Norton was that the team was losing the Cottage and going on the run, so it wouldn’t be practical for a guy in a wheelchair to be on the team without a steady home base to operate from. This was a blatant lie. The team moved into a new permanent home base at the start of the second episode of the season, barely any time at all after the Cottage was destroyed. Norton could’ve functioned just as well in that environment as the Cottage, with a few access ramps and computer upgrades put in.
So I think it’s self-evident why the Native American and the black paraplegic were the characters who got killed off, while both white leads were kept and a new white lead was added. Because it’s not just the racial diversity that was lost. Harrison also lost all his eccentricities, becoming an entirely bland character; essentially his only personality trait in the entire season was that he grew a beard. Even the aliens lost their weirdness. The Mor-taxians were replaced by a new faction of their species who called their planet Mor-thrai and themselves the Morthren, and who worshipped a living deity called the Immortal. Unlike the weird-looking, weird-sounding, weird-dressing, body-snatching Mor-taxians, the Morthren transmogrified themselves to look permanently human — all of them white, as far as I recall — and spoke entirely in English. (The leader Malzor was played by Denis Forest, last seen in “Vengeance is Mine,” and his second-in-command Mana was played by the lovely Catherine Disher, who would later become one of the numerous WotW veterans to star in the ’90s X-Men animated series, where she voiced Jean Grey — and who reportedly hated her time on WotW and refuses to talk about it to this day.) So essentially everything about the first season that didn’t conform to the majority, mainstream view, every trace of diversity or eccentricity, got cut out or whitewashed, and we were left with a cast that was utterly bland.
The first half-season was relentlessly dark and dismal and horrible, and it’s all a homogeneous blur to me; I seriously don’t know why I even kept watching for as long as I did. The second half got a little better with the addition of Jim Trombetta as story editor (just when I was on the verge of giving up altogether). There were a couple of halfway-decent episodes there. There was one episode where they went back in time to shortly after the original invasion, with new actors playing the young Clayton Forrester and Sylvia as Harrison’s adoptive parents, which was the first time in the entire season that it felt like it was really a continuation of War of the Worlds in any way. Also it was just a relief to see actual daylight in the past scenes, as opposed to the perpetual polluted gloom of the second season’s present day. However, the past scenes were in black and white, which was silly because the movie was in Technicolor. But there was one episode I really liked, which was mainly about the team and their allies trying to arrange to give Debi a happy birthday in the middle of this dismal, horrible world, and was rather sweet and optimistic.
But the series finale squandered any goodwill those episodes earned. For whatever bizarre reason, after a whole season of unrelenting darkness and ugliness, the writers decided to end the series with a tacked-on, forced happy ending that required betraying prior continuity all the way back to the original film. The finale introduced the enormous retcon that the Morthren were mostly a benevolent, decent bunch, that the ’53 invasion had actually been a peaceful scouting party that fell into a misunderstanding with the humans and fought them in self-defense, and that the evil Malzor misled the other aliens and tricked them into launching the second wave of invasion as a ploy to seize power. Thus, just killing Malzor was enough to let the two species make peace and live together on Earth happily ever after. Which is just… completely… insane. There is no way the pre-emptive, brutal, genocidal alien invasion seen in the George Pal movie could possibly have been the result of a misunderstanding or self-defense on the aliens’ part — unless they were somehow fatally allergic to white flags. The first interaction between species in the film was the aliens heat-raying a trio of harmless locals trying to make friends, and it just got worse from there. The War of the Worlds was a systematic, planned ethnic cleansing on the aliens’ part, an aggressive war rather than a reactive one; the movie made that very clear. And the first season of the series made it even more blatant that the aliens were bent on conquest and genocide and were a cold, ruthless race by nature. Even the second season, for all its retcons, did nothing to change this basic characterization of all the aliens, not just Malzor, as ruthless and genocidally inclined — at least until it became convenient for them to rewrite the rules so they could force a completely incongruous happy ending. It was a terrible way to end a terrible season of what I now must admit was a pretty terrible series on the whole.
Oh, well. At least the original movie is still awesome.
So the question I’ve been pondering is, how would I have preferred to see this series done, or how would I have approached it myself? First off, I would’ve probably kept the cast. They started out weak, but they did have pretty good chemistry for most of the season. I also would’ve incorporated a recurring or regular role for Gene Barry as Clayton Forrester, and brought back Sylvia in a more respectful way than reducing her to a babbling lunatic.
I definitely would’ve had the world remember the ’53 invasion. Most of the planet’s major cities were destroyed, and the death toll probably exceeded that of WWII. The invasion would’ve interrupted the postwar recovery, and would’ve interrupted the Cold War as well. Whatever came afterward would’ve been very different. Would the nations of Earth have put aside their differences and banded together to guard against further invasions? Or would the East and West have entered a new, more dangerous arms race as they competed to reverse-engineer the aliens’ weapons and technology? Either way, we would’ve probably seen a more advanced civilization by 1988 — and perhaps one with a significantly smaller population, so maybe its environment would be healthier.
I’m not sure if I would’ve kept the body-snatching. I don’t care for it, but I can understand the necessity to represent the aliens with human performers. It’s less expensive than constant prosthetic/animatronic effects, it’s more dramatically effective to have human actors as the enemy, and since a weekly series would need to be more about an ongoing infiltration than an overt invasion, giving the enemy the ability to pass for human makes sense. Still, there could’ve been another approach. When a nation lacks the strength to invade another, sometimes they ally with local factions and use them to help overthrow the establishment, like when Cortez fought alongside the Mexica people who rebelled against Aztec rule, then stepped into the power vacuum their revolution had created. Maybe in my version the aliens are mostly offscreen and have coopted (or mind-controlled?) a human faction that serves as the main antagonists, perhaps a megacorporation that’s thrived from reverse-engineering alien tech and whose power-mad leader is happy to betray humanity in exchange for the aliens’ promise that he’ll rule the world. Something like Tobias Vaughn in Doctor Who‘s “The Invasion.” (I’d love for John Colicos to have played the role, but that would mean basically rehashing Baltar. Maybe given time I could think of something a little more original.) It might not play out too differently from what we got, with the aliens seen occasionally in their base making plans while their agents in the field are human. Although if the bad guys were genuinely human, it would’ve been harder to justify the good guys killing them, so that might’ve changed the dynamic of the action.
I might’ve tied it in a bit more closely to the original film by establishing that the Mor-taxians had used Mars as a staging area. Maybe some had remained there since ’53, unable to move on Earth until they tackled the immunity problem. But in that case, surely humanity would’ve worked harder to develop spaceflight sooner and take the war to them. (I gather some people have written sequels along those lines to the original H. G. Wells novel.) Maybe there’s been an uneasy cold war between Earth and Mars for decades. This would be public knowledge, so you wouldn’t have the same secrecy cliche the actual series had.
I mean, seriously, keeping the whole thing secret was a terrible idea if you think about it. If there’s a group out there that’s actively threatening the safety of the public, and if they can be fairly easily identified by their decay/radiation burns, their tendency to congregate in threes, and the weird noises they use to communicate, then it would only make sense to alert law enforcement and the general public to be on the lookout for them. Keeping it all secret and relying on just four people to protect the whole world from these genocidal beings was obscenely irresponsible. It gave the aliens far too much freedom to act and do harm. The secrecy trope is something genre shows use to pretend they’re happening in the real world, but it’s often a bad idea in-universe.
And it’s so much more interesting to create a world different from our own. There could’ve been a wealth of stories to tell, 35 years into the global recovery from an invasion that nearly destroyed the world. What a shame we never got to see them.