I never got around to seeing Andrew Stanton’s John Carter in theaters because of the lukewarm reviews, but I finally picked it up on DVD at the library. A lot of us know the story of what happened with this film — it fell prey to a regime change at Disney, the new regime had no interest in it, it got almost no marketing, the title was too vague and unrevealing, etc. And the reviews said the movie was too confusing or cluttered or what-have-you.
I agree, the title sucks. This is a grand adventure story set on a fantasy version of Mars. This is an adaptation of a work of classic adventure fiction that was a major inspiration for Flash Gordon, Superman, Star Wars, and a wealth of modern adventure fiction. And yet if you don’t recognize the name John Carter, the film’s title tells you absolutely none of that. It would’ve been so much better to call it A Princess of Mars, or Under the Moons of Mars, or Warlord of Mars. Heck, even John Carter, Warlord would’ve helped. (The rumors were that Disney didn’t want a Mars-related title because of a recent failed Mars-titled movie, but apparently Stanton shied away from it because Carter didn’t become John Carter of Mars until the end of the movie. Nice idea, works fine for the initiated, but for everyone else it’s a terrible title.)
And I agree, the opening is poorly handled. The film has two prologues too many. The opening scene of the battle on Mars is too confusing, since we don’t know who these characters are or what’s at stake; and more importantly, it reveals too much at the start, and deprives the audience of the chance to discover Mars along with Carter (although I admit today’s ludicrously impatient filmgoing audiences might not be inclined to sit around for the slow-burn buildup). And we didn’t need to see Carter eluding his tail and sending the telegram to Edgar Rice Burroughs; that was just padding at this point and would’ve worked better at the end if it had been needed at all, which it probably wasn’t. The film would’ve done better to start with Burroughs’s arrival — which would’ve had the added advantage of reflecting the structure of the first book, the foreword with Burroughs explaining to the reader how he came into possession of the manuscript detailing Carter’s adventures — starting us out from Burroughs’s POV before we move to Carter’s.
But once you get past the problems with the opening scenes, the film starts to improve considerably. Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, shows some excellent comic timing and sense of character in the sequence where Carter repeatedly attacks the cavalrymen who are trying to recruit him and repeatedly gets beaten down by them. And once the film does get to Mars . . . well, I don’t want to go into specifics, or I’d be here all day. In short, the Mars portions of this film are an extraordinary work of filmmaking, a masterwork of design, worldbuilding, and cinematography, with a mostly wonderful cast bringing out the best in the material. Stanton and his team really do an amazing job creating the world of Barsoom — its architecture, its costuming, the implied details of culture and history. It really feels like this is a whole world that’s been there all along and we’re just visiting and getting these glimpses of all this deep, intricate background that underlies it all. And despite being largely a computer-generated film with CGI aliens and virtual sets, it has the feel of a classic Hollywood historical epic. Michael Giacchino’s memorable score evokes the flavor of Lawrence of Arabia as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it fits the movie very well.
The CGI itself is extraordinarily well-done. Of course it’s quite photorealistic, as one would expect from the technology today, and of course the character animation of the 10-foot-tall, four-armed, tusked Tharks is superbly handled, as you’d expect from a Pixar director. But what struck me was the discipline Stanton exercised in shooting this virtual world. Too often, filmmakers using CGI do all these impossible, swooping camera moves just to show off “Ohh, look how CGI we are and what a big impressive virtual environment we built and how easy it is to go zooming around all over the place,” and it just divorces you from any sense of reality and makes it look like a fakey CGI environment. But Stanton builds these huge, amazing virtual sets and landscapes and then photographs them as if they were live action, with the camera constrained by physical and practical limits. And that camera discipline gives it all a very realistic, grounded flavor which does a lot to sell the fantasy. There are so many filmmakers today who could learn from that.
But what about the story, the characters, the actors? Well, I’ll grant that the story is pretty complicated, even a bit cluttered, with so much going on. You have Carter learning about Barsoom, meeting the key characters like Tars Tarkas and Dejah Thoris, getting embroiled in the multilevel rivalries between the Tharks and Red Martians, between Barsoom and Zodanga, between all of them and the super-advanced Matai Shang (Mark Strong) who’s manipulating everything behind the scenes. But in its way, that fits into that overall sense of coming into a well-established world and having to deal with its complexities. In some ways the manipulations of Shang and his Thern race seem like a complication that could’ve been left out, but they do serve to explain how Carter got to Barsoom in the first place — I don’t think today’s audiences could’ve accepted that he just wished himself there — and they set up a mythology arc that could’ve been effective at tying a whole trilogy together if the film had done well enough to get sequels — which I really wish it could. Also, the visualization of the Therns’ technology was intriguingly novel and imaginative.
I also didn’t find Carter to be the most likeable protagonist, and though Taylor Kitsch was perfectly adequate in the role, he wasn’t exactly compelling. Still, Stanton’s writing made the character sympathetic where Kitsch fell short, and there was a brilliant bit of direction and editing when Carter is in the middle of a ferocious battle (the kind that, according to Stanton, happened every other chapter in the books, but that are kept to only a few in a film that’s surprisingly character-driven) and the scene intercuts with flashbacks of Carter burying his wife and child. Not only are the transitions between his movements in the two times very deftly handled, but it’s effective at countering the cinematic tendency to treat battle as something fun or glamorous. Carter is fighting for his life, using his superstrength in Martian gravity to decimate a horde of primitives, yet his thoughts are on the pain of loss, the devastating consequences of death. Okay, granted, the same doesn’t go for the later battle scenes, which get quite gory (albeit with PG-13-appropriate blue alien blood), but it was nice to have that one time.
And I’ve been saving my praise for just about the best thing in this movie, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. She is simply magnificent. She’s playing much the same sort of character as Princess Leia (naturally, given how Burroughs influenced Lucas) — a princess and administrator who’s an impassioned rebel leader and a strong, capable warrior who’s unimpressed by an aspiring male rescuer and quickly proves herself at least his equal in a fight, yet also has a deeply loving and compassionate side that only adds to her strength — and she sells it even better than Carrie Fisher did. She makes Dejah a deeply impressive figure, wise, powerful, commanding, and beautiful, and with a great voice too. It’s easy to understand why the bitter, reserved Carter would lose his heart to her and why armies would follow her. Dejah is an iconic figure in SF literature, and getting her right was a tall order — and Collins met every expectation and then some (except for, well, the customary nudism of Burroughs’s Barsoomians; I wouldn’t have minded a tad more authenticity there).
It’s a shame this movie suffered from the weak title, poor marketing, and flawed opening, because for the most part this is a superb bit of filmmaking that deserves to be remembered as a classic. I think in time it will be, as more people discover it on video. But it’s a real shame we’re unlikely to get sequels.
I’m continuing my Godzilla film survey (which began here) with the movies of the Heisei Era, the first continuity reboot which began in 1984 and returned Godzilla to his original villain status instead of the kid-friendly Earth defender he’d become in the ’70s. Unfortunately the first two films, The Return of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Biollante, are not available on DVD, so I could only read summaries of them online. I gather they aren’t considered especially good anyway.
Although the Heisei series reboots the continuity, it nonetheless counts the original 1954 film as part of its canon; it just ignores everything since. The ’84 sequel either resurrects the original Godzilla without explanation or introduces a second member of the same species; online sources are inconsistent on this. There’s an attempt to reinject some allegory about nuclear energy and weapons, since Godzilla in this version is not merely resistant to radiation but directly sustained by it (and made larger, growing from his original 50 meters to 80), and the focus returns to Godzilla vs. humanity rather than another kaiju. Still, it’s apparently more a conventional kaiju film with the focus more on how to defeat the beast than on allegory.
Due to economic hardships for Toho Studios, the Biollante sequel didn’t come along for another five years. When it did, it returned to the format of films like Mothra vs. Godzilla in featuring a good kaiju (created via genetic engineering, when some scientist decided for some reason to put the genes of his dead daughter into a rose’s DNA and combine it with some of Godzilla’s cells) battling the villainous Godzilla. The film is notable for introducing the longest-running recurring human character in the franchise — Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka), a psychic who could sense and sometimes communicate with Godzilla, and convey other psychic exposition as needed. She’s in every Heisei Era film except the first, though her role is larger in some than others.
The first Heisei film I was actually able to see (though only in the mediocre English dub) was 1991′s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. This film involves time travellers from 2204 coming back with a plan to erase Godzilla from history — or so they claim. Here we discover that Heisei is not merely a different timeline branching off of the 1954 original, but a retcon of its core assumptions about Godzilla’s nature and origins. In the original two films, Dr. Yamane explained (assuming the subtitles in the original were correct) that Godzilla’s species had survived since prehistoric times, dwelling in the depths of the ocean like the coelacanth, but had been displaced from its natural feeding grounds by nuclear testing — and, implicitly, mutated with the ability to breathe atomic fire and to withstand virtually any injury. The fact that the monster in the 1955 sequel was explicitly a “second Godzilla” suggests that what we saw was the natural form and size of their species. But GvKG asserts that Godzilla was originally a much smaller carnosaur called a Godzillasaurus, maybe twice the size of a T. rex, and that it was mutated to giant size by its exposure to the atom bomb — meaning that Godzilla is a unique entity and must have somehow regenerated after “dying” in 1954. Before then, in the waning days of WWII, it attacked the American soldiers invading its home on Lagos Island and incidentally saved a platoon of Japanese troops stationed there, who revered it as their savior. The time travellers teleport the wounded Godzillasaurus to a distant part of the Pacific so that it will never become Godzilla — but they leave three small, genetically engineered winged lizards on Lagos so that they will instead be mutated by the bomb, and when they return to the present, the lizards have grown and merged into King Ghidorah. The whole thing was a trick to destroy Japan and avert its destiny to become the dominant economic power on Earth (ohhh-kay, jingoist much?). But first they needed to get Godzilla out of the way. However, they failed to account for the proliferation of nuclear weapons; at some point a nuclear sub happened to crash where they left the Godzillasaurus, so it was mutated anyway, and the more potent radiation made it an even bigger Godzilla, now fully 100 meters. This Godzilla is pure malevolence, and once he destroys KG he threatens to destroy Japan; but one of the time travellers who’s Japanese herself rebels against her group and helps by going back to the future, turning the 200-year-old corpse of King Ghidorah into Mecha-King Ghidorah, and bringing it back in time to defeat Godzilla.
Okay, this is weird. I understand that the idea of the previous two films was to wipe away the later Shōwa era’s portrayal of Godzilla as a defender of humanity and restore his villainous nature. So why is it that the first half of this film seems to be built around the notion of Godzilla as the traditional protector of Japan? The Godzillasaurus saves Japanese soldiers from Americans, and the time travellers need to get rid of Godzilla so that Japan will be unprotected against King Ghidorah. The “new” Godzilla is malevolent, but that’s implied to be a change from the original.
Also the treatment of mutation is silly; instead of a freak event, the film assumes that daikaijuism is a consistent and predictable response to irradiation — that even if the Godzillasaurus is exposed at a different time and in a different way, exactly the same genes will be mutated and it will transform into the same creature. And any other creatures exposed to radiation will also grow into daikaiju. If that’s the case, why hasn’t every human exposed to radiation grown into a 50-meter monster? Well, granted, Godzilla Raids Again established that the second Godzilla was mutated with the same resilience and atomic breath as the first. But mutation is normally something that happens between generations. What if a mother Godzilla was the one exposed to the bombs’ radiation, and gave birth to mutated monozygotic twins? The Godzillas we saw in the first two films could’ve been only a few years old — though it’s hard to imagine how much they would’ve devastated the ecosystem just eating enough to grow that big that fast. But maybe that’s really what drove them out of their undersea feeding grounds?
The film has other problems. The temporal mechanics are dreadful; after Godzilla is supposedly erased from history, the time travellers learn upon their return that Godzilla vanished — yet everyone still remembers he existed and was on the rampage until just hours before. The WWII veterans who tell the story of the Godzillasaurus look hardly any older in the film’s 1992 setting than they did in the 1944 scenes. The film’s prediction of Japan’s manifest destiny, in combination with its glorification of the nation’s Imperial forces in WWII, leaves a sour taste politically, and is strange since I gather that most Japanese themselves don’t think fondly of the military factions that drove Japan’s conquests in the 1930s-40s. The music is by Akira Ifukube, the composer behind many of the Shōwa-Era films including the original, but it doesn’t make use of his best themes. And perhaps most disappointing, they didn’t get Godzilla’s roar right. It starts out as the authentic roar, but then crossfades into a more conventional animal growl. It’s just not Godzilla’s roar without that upward flourish at the end.
Fortunately, the next two films are better. Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1992) is something of a loose remake of both Mothra and Mothra vs. Godzilla, combining elements of both. Again we have a greedy businessman capturing Mothra’s foot-high girl-singer heralds, here called the Cosmos rather than the Shobijin, and drawing Mothra’s wrath as she comes to rescue them; but there’s a new twist, as Mothra gains a black-sheep sibling of sorts, a “dark Mothra” named Battra — a similar but much more sinister-looking and aggressive kaiju. The Cosmos explain that Battra is a spirit of the Earth sent to avenge the destruction of its ecology. The environmental themes are delivered with a sledgehammer. It’s also the most spiritual-themed of the Heisei films, and focuses more on Mothra than Godzilla (who, along with Battra, is sucked into a volcanic fissure and absent for much of the film, until they both emerge from Mt. Fuji for the climax). Godzilla is back to being pure villain this time, though the fearsome-looking Battra is more ambiguous, initially battling Mothra but then coming to terms and joining forces against Godzilla.
All in all it’s a pretty entertaining film. Ifukube’s music is a high point, as he reuses his classic Mothra themes and brings back more of his Godzilla themes (though he’s still relying mainly on the main-title march from the original film, rather than the more ponderous theme that served as Godzilla’s leitmotif in the original film and many of its sequels). The Cosmos perform both of their Mothra-summoning songs from the first two Mothra films, and the melody of the second, the beautiful “Mahara Mosura” from Mothra vs. Godzilla, is again used as Mothra’s orchestral leitmotif as it was in that film. (I don’t think I like the Cosmos quite as much as the Shobijin, though. The new actresses are a bit prettier in repose, but they’re mostly lifeless, just staring blankly rather than showing emotion or engagement, and that makes them less appealing.) And Godzilla’s roar is back to its original sound, here and for the rest of the era.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) is next, and its concept is pretty cool. The focus is on G-Force, an international Godzilla-fighting organization (actually the United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Division). They’ve salvaged the remains of Mecha-King Ghidorah and reverse-engineered its future technology to build the battle robot Mechagodzilla, which is laden with all sorts of weapons and countermeasures. It’s neat to see a story that revolves around Godzilla from the start rather than focusing on random new characters doing random stuff before they get caught up in the latest random kaiju attack. There’s some of that too, though, as a team of archaeologists discover a live Rodan and an unhatched egg that eventually hatches into a baby Godzillasaurus, nicknamed Baby by the human woman it imprints on as its mother, Azusa (Ryoko Sano). (Her name is pronounced “Azsa,” not “A-zoo-sa” like the California city.) The introduction of a cute baby Godzilla into the series carries serious shark-jumping potential, considering how badly that turned out last time, but it’s handled judiciously here, with some serious themes of respect for life and animal rights coming into play. Godzilla comes off more ambiguously here, but not in the same odd and awkward way as two films earlier; rather, when Mechagodzilla gets the upper hand, you can’t help feeling sympathy for Godzilla’s suffering, and the film reminds us that, however dangerous he is, he’s simply an animal going about his life and has the same right to existence as any creature. Granted, there’s something to be said for self-defense, especially when the “self” is an entire city, but Godzilla is so resilient that the extensive bombardment needed to put him down feels more like torture. I’m reminded of Dr. Yamane’s position in the 1954 original that Godzilla didn’t deserve to be killed since he was just a displaced animal following his instincts. Ultimately, though, as per the film’s message, life triumphs over technology, and it’s an ambiguous ending since the technology was the good guys’ and the life that triumphs is a deadly threat. But Miki psychically convinces Godzilla to adopt Baby before he leaves. Perhaps fatherhood will tame his wild proclivities.
This time, the DVD Netflix provided actually had the Japanese-language soundtrack, and interestingly, the personnel of the international G-Force usually speak in English, although often horribly accented English by the Japanese actors and terribly acted English by the Caucasian actors. So it’s a very bilingual film. And interestingly, even in the Japanese-made version of the film, the people speaking English pronounce the kaiju’s name as “God-zil-la” rather than “Go-ji-ra,” and ditto for the Mecha- version. So even the Japanese accept that as the proper English pronunciation of the creature’s name, which makes me feel better about using the American spelling. And even Miki seems to pronounce the “ji” syllable more like “dzi” at one point when speaking Japanese. (And these films were produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer of the whole kaiju series going back to the original. So their officialness is not in doubt.)
All in all, it’s a cool film, with a lot of elements that come together pretty well, and a good return for Rodan, even if he plays kind of a strange role at the climax. And Ifukube’s score is the richest assemblage yet of his classic themes; in addition to the main-title march, he finally brings back the Godzilla-rampage leitmotif I mentioned earlier in full swing, as well as Rodan’s theme and the very nice slow march from the Mothra vs. Godzilla theme. And his Mechagodzilla theme here is wonderful, one of his best ever. (I read it was based on his King Kong vs. Godzilla theme, but the English dub I saw of that film replaced the music.)
Unfortunately, the following film, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, is awful in comparison, made by a mostly new and inexperienced production team (except for the FX crew) and feeling like a throwback to the cheesy Shōwa films of the late ’60s and ’70s. It opens with G-Force again, but apparently everyone was fired after the MechaGodzilla debacle except for the indispensible Miki and the G-Force leader Commander Aso (Akira Nakao), who’s in all three G-Force films and is the only human character other than Miki to appear in more than two Godzilla movies. Still, they haven’t learned their lessons, since they’ve built a new fighting robot, Mogera, an update of an alien robot monster from the Shōwa-era Toho film The Mysterians. Which is just one of several Godzilla-management schemes jockeying for the film’s scattered attention, including a project to control Godzilla by amplifying Miki’s telepathy and the vendetta of the renegade Major Yuki, seeking to kill Godzilla with a blood-coagulant bullet to avenge his partner’s offscreen death. For some reason, the telepathy team makes no effort to stop Yuki from interfering with their experiment. Maybe the point is that they don’t much care if G lives or dies; the moral ambiguity of the previous film is replaced by Miki whining to everyone that Godziwwa has feewings too and they’re all mean for trying to kill him.
All this goes down on the island where Baby Godzilla (now called Little Godzilla) lives, since Big G periodically visits there. Unfortunately, Little G has been drastically redesigned to look more babyish and cartoony, like Minya from the Shōwa-era films but even cutesier, and he serves no purpose beyond comic relief. Earth soon comes under attack by SpaceGodzilla, which looks like the love child of Godzilla and the Fortress of Solitude from the Superman movies, and apparently was spawned from some of Godzilla’s cells which were taken into space by Mothra or Biollante, merged with alien crystal life, and were nuked by supernovae. After a horribly cheesy space battle with Mogera that looks like it was shot in the ’70s, SpaceG lands on the island, gives Godzilla a good thrashing, and imprisons Little G in a crystal cage – an event which is ignored by every character immediately after it happens. I suppose I should be glad the dumb thing’s out of the movie, but still.
Anyway, there’s a lame borderline romance between Miki and one of the soldiers, Koji, and there’s a pointless digression where the Yakuza kidnaps Miki and copies her brainwaves to take telepathic control of Godzilla for no clearly defined reason. (Well, I guess I can imagine. “That’s a nice major metropolitan area you’ve got there. Be a shame if anything… happened to it.”) Eventually SpaceG builds a nest around a landmark skyscraper (since kaiju can’t resist those) and Yuki, now Mogera’s pilot despite the whole loose-cannon thing, must learn to set aside his hatred of Godzilla and fight alongside him to defeat SpaceG. Miki senses that Little G is free again, and everybody’s all affectionate and chummy toward Godzilla now even though he just devastated at least three major cities in Kyushu just because they were in his path while he was coming after SpaceG.
Like I said, it’s a rehash of the Shōwa films that turned Godzilla from villain to antihero, and I feel it weakens Godzilla’s impact just as much as those did. The film also suffers from inconsistent effects (especially the dreadful space stuff) and the lack of an Akira Ifukube score. The music is okay, but kind of generically ’80s, even though it’s a 1994 film. All in all, a forgettable and regrettable installment.
Fortunately, it’s barely referenced in the final Heisei film from later that same year, so it can be safely skipped. The concluding film’s title is rendered Godzilla vs. Destoroyah on the DVD, but the monster’s name is clearly meant to be simply Destroyer (which is how it’s pronounced in the English dub), so that’s what I’ll call it. Little Godzilla’s island undergoes spontaneous nuclear detonation at the start of the film, the only reference to the previous movie. Miki fears that the “Little One” is dead. But there’s a bigger problem, which rears its head when Godzilla goes out for Chinese! Yep, he attacks Hong Kong under the main titles, finally spreading the love to someplace other than Japan. And he’s glowing red-hot, which is apparently called “Burning Godzilla” mode. Unfortunately the Hong Kong attack is a brief interlude and doesn’t lead to the awesomeness that would’ve been Jackie Chan vs. Godzilla. The world is poorer for it.
But what we get instead is still quite cool, because this is not only the Heisei finale but a 40th-anniversary tribute, and it draws on a lot from the original film, including the reintroduction of the Yamane family to the franchise. Dr. Yamane’s grandson Kenichi — actually the son of a character from the original film who was orphaned by Godzilla and taken in by the Yamanes — is a college student who’s conveniently the world’s greatest Godzilla expert (even more so than all the employees of G-Force, somehow). He figures out that the island explosion has changed Godzilla, sending his nuclear-reactor heart into critical, and when he goes up, the energy release will be an extinction-level event.
Meanwhile, Kenichi’s sister Yukari, a reporter, interviews a Dr. Ijuin, who’s invented a “micro-oxygen” with the potential to help the world. This concerns the now-elderly Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kōchi reprising her 1954 role — awesome!), who fears its similarities to Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer (the weapon that killed the original Godzilla in ’54) and its potential to be the ultimate weapon. Ijuin dismisses the concerns at first, but Tokyo is soon attacked by a horde of relic Precambrian creatures reanimated and mutated by the effects of the Oxygen Destroyer 40 years before. They grow into 10-foot-high crablike monsters with really scary heads, and we get a very different kind of monster-movie sequence (inspired by Aliens) as they massacre the Self-Defense Forces. Finally, after being harried by the military with freezing beams that Ijuin believes will neutralize their micro-oxygen and kill them, they merge into a single giant creature, the Oxygen Destroyer’s power manifest in daikaiju form, and Ijuin dubs it Destroyer (Desutoroia).
Meanwhile, the SDF has tried to slow Godzilla’s meltdown using similar freeze weapons (launched from a super-jet whose pilot is the lead actor from Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, though he’s playing a different character), but it’s only been a stopgap and he’s heading for a super-China Syndrome meltdown that will destroy the world. (Though shouldn’t the Japanese call it the South America Syndrome?) Kenichi says the only way to stop Godzilla now is with the same force that stopped his predecessor: Destroyer. As it happens, Godzilla Junior (as he’s now called) has turned up alive and in a much less stupid-looking form, like a leaner, smaller, longer-snouted Godzilla, and the big G is tracking him. (We can assume that the same natural uranium deposits that caused the island to explode were also responsible for mutating the young Godzillasaurus into daikaiju form, per the concepts established in GvKG.) So we get a bit of a replay of the moral dilemma from two movies ago, since again Junior must be used as bait, and Miki must reluctantly accept the necessity of it. So G-Force orders the evacuation of Tokyo and sends Miki to lure Junior there, bringing Godzilla back to where it all started. I don’t want to spoil the rather epic, no-holds-barred battle that results, but it goes through a few different stages including one where Destroyer breaks up into mini-Destroyers that swarm Godzilla, a novel and effective twist. The battle is quite cataclysmic, though it builds to a conclusion that’s a bit abrupt and ambiguous, a weakness after the strength of what preceded it. But if the online summaries interpret it correctly, it was nonetheless a pretty satisfactory and fitting end to the career of the Heisei Godzilla (as well as that of Miki Saegusa, whose telepathy was apparently fading as she matured). All in all, it’s a good finish to the series, which is a relief after the disaster of SpaceGodzilla. It’s also an effective anniversary film, nicely tying back to the original’s characters and themes. The first half explores some of the same ethical dilemmas about the Oxygen Destroyer that the original did, and while it doesn’t carry the same weight in a later era (and is squandered once the OD just turns into yet another big monster), it makes the film feel deeper than most of its predecessors. They even coaxed Ifukube out of retirement to score one last G-film, and while this isn’t as good as his penultimate score, it’s refreshing to hear his distinctive style again, and appropriate for this film that brings everything full circle.
So that’s the Heisei continuity, or at least the 5/7 of it I was able to see. I’d say that the 4th, 5th, and 7th films are among the best Godzilla films I’ve seen, while the 3rd is mediocre and the 6th is one of the worst. Maybe someday I’ll get to see the first two and be able to make a more complete assessment. But overall, the Heisei Era was stronger and more consistent in quality than the Shōwa Era, though the 1954 original remains in a class by itself. I liked the ongoing continuity with Miki and G-Force, though I wish there’d been a larger continuing cast (Azusa should’ve stuck around as Junior’s advocate/friend, and it would’ve been nice to have the Yamane heirs as recurring protagonists). Although it has its missteps (the worst of which, SpaceGodzilla, can fortunately be ignored completely), it’s a reasonably solid continuation of the Godzilla mythos, and the most consistent multifilm continuity in the franchise. It remains to be seen whether the standalone alternate realities of the Millennium series will be as satisfying.
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.
Last three of the season!
“So Shall Ye Reap”: It’s Mor-tax Vice! The aliens are in Chicago, trying to develop a super-addictive drug that will turn humans murderous. They use Alien Hookers! to pick up men and abduct them as guinea pigs. One of the captives is a vice cop, Sawyer (Jonathan Welsh). Meanwhile, Team Blackwood is impersonating DEA agents to investigate the alien plot, and local Chicago cop Lt. Teri Novak (Dixie Seatle) and her department are in full turf-war mode, obstructing the “feds” at every step even at risk of endangering the public. Pretty darn unprofessional if you ask me. In between searching for Sawyer, she’s trying to get confirmation that our guys are who they claim. Norton didn’t set up their cover very well at all, and she soon blows it and has them arrested. Yet once General Wilson contacts her and reveals they’re an “anti-terrorist” squad, she’s suddenly super-cooperative, despite her previous extreme resentment toward anything federal. Just goes to show that “terrorist” was a panic button for Americans well before 9/11/01.
The Advocates have sent a badly-acted envoy to kibitz the head scientist, whose failures get him executed offscreen, but his geekier assistant does a much better job upon taking over and has soon perfected the drug, which looks like pink lemonade and which they insist on injecting into the ear for grossout effect even though it can be taken by mouth. Sawyer is their test subject, and in keeping with the vice theme, their chosen killing ground is a strip club, where the stripper languidly dances even as a raging lunatic bashes everyone around him with a baseball bat. Now, that’s professionalism! Not so much the cops who then drive up and run into the club, completely ignoring the victim who flies out the door and lands on the sidewalk just as they arrive. The aliens pick up Sawyer and drive away, but the cops chase them, and the envoy tells them not to lead the cops back to their base. They end up driving into the river, though it’s unclear whether this was intentional or the result of Sawyer’s throes of withdrawal in the back seat.
Once Sawyer dies, Novak’s determined to bust the bad guys and tries to call in reinforcements, but Team Blackwood warns her they can’t handle what’s out there. They finally confide in her about the aliens, and we get the usual token disbelief followed by quick acceptance, since there are only 43 minutes per episode. (Here Harrison says it’s been “nearly a year” since the aliens’ return, when the last mention was that it was more like a year and a half. Either this was delayed from earlier in the season, or the writers were getting forgetful.) Novak talks with an informant, a mob boss who was a friend of her parents and told her stories when she was a girl — “It’s Chicago,” she says. He tells her the new drug operation is based in an abandoned prison, and Omega Squad moves in for the raid — which proves unnecessary, since the aliens, in their haste to evacuate, left the keys and a supply of the drug in reach of some of the addicted prisoners, and the resulting riot kills all the aliens. The team comes in to the disgusting sight of the addicts writhing on the floor in broken glass to lap up every drop of the drug, just to make the episode’s “drugs are bad” message that much more heavy-handed. (Not that I don’t support that message; drug abuse is a terrible thing. But there are less ridiculous ways to make that point.) The Advocates finally catch onto the obvious flaw in their plan: making humans violent creates more danger for the aliens too. Well, back to the ol’ drawing board!
Ugh. I remember considering the last two episodes of the season to be very weak, but that implies I must’ve felt it had been decent up until then. This is the third-last episode and it’s one of the worst of the lot. There are some nice moments of banter among the team, which was the main thing I liked about this season, but the team spends a lot of this episode offscreen and nothing else is enjoyable to watch.
“The Raising of Lazarus”: The Air Force digs up an alien scout ship of some kind (the size of a large filing cabinet and with no resemblance to any previously seen Mor-taxian ship, due to low budget), and Team Blackwood is called in to a nuclear research facility (?) in Wisconsin to study the craft and the pilot within, only to find the investigation taken over by a black-ops USAF division called Project 9, run by Col. Alexander (Nicolas Coster), your typical arrogant authority figure who shuts our guys out. His team has no luck cutting into the alien hull, even with a super-powerful laser, but Norton has found a theory in Dr. Forrester’s notes that lets Harrison use sonic signals to break the ship’s magnetic lock (and its hatch unscrews in a nice homage to the movie). There’s no attempt at any kind of quarantine or security procedure even though Harrison is aware the alien might still be alive — which naturally it is, though it plays possum long enough for Alexander to take some tissue and blood samples when nobody’s looking. Turns out Project 9 is your standard conspiracy-fodder shadow government group researching military applications of alien technology, and Alexander wants to inject himself with alien cells in hopes of understanding their thinking. He wants to make peaceful contact, and all in all seems pretty clueless about this whole ongoing alien invasion thingy, given his position.
Anyway, the alien breaks out and wanders through the ducts for a while, and it’s the first time we’ve really gotten an extended look at a Mor-taxian outside of a human host. After watching for a while, it simply grasps the cables next to Alexander’s lab and thus is able to superimpose a hovering green triangle before his computer screen and communicate with him through the computer. This is an alien that apparently crashed on arrival and has had no prior contact with humans or taken a human host before now, yet somehow it knows English and is able to interface with Earth computers just by touch-telepathy. Anyhow, it gives Alexander a formula that will help with the “cell matching,” and the colonel injects himself, after confining Team Blackwood to quarters “for their safety.” Ironhorse slips out, claiming that he interprets “quarters” to mean the whole facility. Then the alien mind-meld-hacks Harrison’s computer, which is hooked to Norton’s, so it learns everything about Project Blackwood and the ’53 invasion, including the stuff about the bacteria and how the radiation killed them.
Then the alien cuts the power, and the next time we see our heroes, the whole confinement thing has been forgotten, since Harrison’s checking in on an Alexander who’s now content to leave the alien hunt to them, since he and his aide are busy documenting the “changes” following the injection, not that there are any to speak of. Meanwhile, the alien takes a nuclear rod from the reactor and begins taking it room to room, exposing each room to its radiation and then moving on. It’s basically sterilizing the base for its own protection. The writer here seemed to be making the classic mistake of confusing radiation with radioactive material, saying that as soon as any room has been exposed to the rod’s radiation for a few seconds, that makes it permanently uninhabitable. Unless that rod is actually shedding plutonium dust or something, it doesn’t work that way. Once the radioactive material is gone, the radiation doesn’t stick around, any more than the light sticks around once you take a flashlight away. True, exposure to intense radiation can sometimes transmute a material into a radioactive isotope, but I think it would take more than a few seconds’ exposure from a single reactor rod. Also, the computer-graphic status map of the contamination shows it spreading so fast from room to room that the alien would have to be moving at Roadrunner speed, even though it’s moving about a hundred times slower when it’s on camera.
The alien finally comes to Alexander’s lab and takes over his body, rendering that whole plot point about injecting alien cells completely moot, and kills the aide. Harrison shows up then and gets the brushoff, but remembers seeing something amiss about the room. Alexander continues irradiating the base, and Harrison meditates and remembers that the lab’s radiation alarm was shut down, meaning Alexander must be the alien. They track him and discover he got outside, but not before contaminating everything around the room they’re in, trapping them. But Ironhorse climbs through the somehow-uncontaminated vents to get to the lab with the super-laser, and even though he doesn’t bother to explain his intentions, Harrison magically knows that he’s going to shoot Alexander with the laser clear through the wall. The first shot lands way ahead of Alexander’s vehicle, so Harrison says they should lead it a little with the next sho — [convulsive head shake] you what?? For whatever reason, this contradictory strategy works and Alexander-alien gets blowed up. The team abandons the base through the vents. ”What about Alexander’s research?” Suzanne asks, and Harrison paraphrases Rhett Butler’s “Frankly” line.
Well, this was a mess. It hardly feels like an episode of the same series, what with the lone alien having all these weird powers, and Alexander not seeming to be on the same page as anyone who’s in the loop about the events of this series. Not that a departure from formula can’t be good, but, well, this one wasn’t. And the radiation thing was just so outstandingly inept that it remains one of my most vivid memories of the show.
“The Angel of Death”: After some really, really bad FX shots of space, a swirly video-effect fishbowl thingy descends on the site of the upcoming 1992 World’s Fair in some city (no doubt a fictional identification of the location, since the only 1992 World’s Fairs were in Seville and Genoa) and drops off — hey, it’s Ozzy Osbourne! Or rather, it’s a woman (Elaine Giftos) with big frizzy hair, big square black sunglasses, and a dark trenchcoat (there’s probably some ’80s hair musician that would’ve been a better referent for my joke, but I don’t know that genre well). She knocks out a security guard with the words “Remember nothing,” then reports into a video-effect ribbon thingy that rises out of her hand and says she’s starting a 7-day mission to find and kill the Advocacy. She then cuts a swath through the Mor-taxian population of the Pacific Northwest, slaughtering them en masse since she can recognize them on sight (they have green faces in her POV — hey, are those sunglasses like the ones in They Live?). Team Blackwood notices the killings but is caught off guard, and the Advocates are convinced it’s the humans who are after them. One group of aliens — gathering flowers as food in a botanical garden, the first time we’ve heard of that gimmick since the Halloween episode — recognizes her as a Synth from the planet Qar’To, but gets mulched before they can report it. Suzanne determines that the new kind of residue left from the alien bodies shows signs resembling what happened to human bodies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so they realize somebody’s got “atomic bullets,” as Paul quaintly puts it. Harrison realizes there’s a new player, a second alien species fighting the first.
In need of intelligence (oh, I could make a crack, but it’s just too easy), they set up a plan to catch some Mor-taxians alive for questioning, using a bacterial weapon Suzanne’s conveniently devised. Norton lures them in by playing back their old transmissions, even though he doesn’t know what they say (but it includes “Don’t drink the water in Mexico; this includes ice”). Damn, over a year of this, and he hasn’t even made the slightest headway at decryption, even though the signals are about things he should have referents for? He’s not as good at this as he lets on. But then, the aliens are just as incompetent to keep sending these transmissions even though they should’ve figured out by now that the humans can track them. (Although, granted, the grunts’ inability to think or plan without the Advocates’ instructions could make this an unavoidable risk for them.) Anyway, the Advocates know it’s a trap, but send in their people anyway, needing to find out what the humans’ new weapon is. The trap goes nicely, until the Synth shows up and starts nuking aliens (which she does by striking a silly action pose and shooting cheesy red video effects from her hands). She also knocks out Paul and says “Remember nothing” again. A surviving alien snaps a photo of Suzanne and gets away, somehow assuming that she’s the Synth.
Harrison is convinced that Ironhorse has been killed; in fact, the opening preview voiceover line was “Paul is dead” (not even backward-masked), though the line actually spoken in the episode is “Ironhorse is dead.” But there’s some evidence Paul may have been taken by the other alien, which, in fact, he has. He wakes up in her custody and they interrogate each other, with her having the upper hand but professing her friendly intentions. She introduces herself as Q’tara, which sounds like “Katara,” but she doesn’t do any waterbending. Instead, she just does some weird posing/interpretive-dance thingy while she talks in a stilted, robotic way, like a cross between a Power Ranger and a Shields & Yarnell routine. Oh, and she gives off a loud electric hum all the time. She says she’s from the same system as the “People of the Three” (a neat name for the aliens, which unfortunately we won’t hear again) but is dedicated to their destruction, and to the preservation of humanity. She mind-reads Paul, then tells him “Remember nothing” upon waking him from his trance, then immediately tells him what she just told him to forget she’d done to him! Huh? Wha? Seriously? Then she kinda-brainwashes Paul into telling the others that she’s a friend who’ll help them. When he returns to the Cottage, he’s put through the security checks he instituted to ensure he’s not an alien — but somehow he’s allowed to walk all the way to Harrison’s study before the security check rather than being stopped at the gate.
Paul tells them in a kind of pre-programmed way that Q’tara is a friend, and the team figures out that Paul was hypnotized, but nonetheless decide to trust in Q’tara, and go to see her at the fair site. The aliens track her down there and call in reinforcements, which the Advocates personally lead, taking on the bodies of firemen. Inside, Q’tara tells the gang that she needs to return home before the space fold she travelled by folds back (I guess this is how she got here ahead of the Mor-taxian invasion fleet), but she’ll be back with reinforcements within a year (i.e. during the second season). Our guys are thrilled to have such a powerful ally.
Though they’re not so thrilled when the aliens surround them and they realize they’re wide open. Paul is armed, and so is Suzanne (thanks to a “gift from Uncle Hank”), while Harrison and Norton rely on makeshift staffs to repel the alien attack, which the Advocates supervise from outside. (For some reason, the Advocates speak in dubbed alien gibberish while in their firefighter bodies, even though they always speak English when they’re in their rad-suited alien forms and shouldn’t actually have the anatomy to speak English.) A firefight ensues, and the whole subplot about the aliens thinking Suzanne was the Synth is rendered kind of pointless since Q’tara is right there. I think the idea was to set up Suzanne getting shot, but everyone else gets shot during the battle too, though the aliens manage to use a weapon that damages Q’tara before they retreat. Suzanne does suffer the most severe injury, but Harrison and Paul pretty much just leave her there to die while they go to check on Q’tara — whom they’re somehow surprised to discover is an android even after hearing her called a Synth and listening to her constant electric hum and her processed “robotic” voice. Apparently all four of them die or go into comas or something while Q’tara spends a few hours healing (since the scene dissolves from daylight to nighttime), and then she brings them back to life by restoring their “lost life energy.” (Lady, it’s not life energy they lost, it’s blood!) They’re all happy to have a new, wonderful ally — and are somehow able to avoid laughing every time she does that silly posing/dancing thing while she talks. Harrison escorts her to the roof so she can return home, and then she reports into her hand-ribbon thingy, speaking in her language now even though she used English before. And the subtitles tell us what many of us probably saw coming: That her mission is to “preserve” humanity as a food source. It’s a cookbook!
All in all, a pretty silly episode — perhaps intentionally so, since I’m not sure they were even bothering by this point. There was some decent stuff in the concept, and a few decent lines of dialogue here and there (though between this and his TNG episode “The Last Outpost,” scripter Herbert Wright evidently had a bit of a Sun-tzu fixation), but the execution is pretty lame (the episode was also directed by Wright, who has very few other directorial credits on his resume, his previous one being “Choirs of Angels” earlier in the season). Elaine Giftos’s really goofy look and dance-robot performance are farcical and really undermine what could’ve been a decent new twist in the series.
Of course, this was the last we’d ever see of this version of WotW. The show would be completely retooled for the second season, any lingering threads such as the Qar’To abandoned. And what came next would make even this silliness look good in comparison. I’ll talk about that in my overview post to come.
“The Last Supper”: Our scientist-heroes are being shuttled by bus to a high school in Philadelphia, which turns out to be the site of a secret summit meeting with their counterparts from other nations, mostly UFO researchers and paranormal investigators working for various governments. The group includes a few fairly well-known actors, including James Hong as the Chinese delegate, Efrain Figueroa as the Peruvian representative, and Colm Feore as Soviet representative Argochev, who was a last-minute replacement whose heat signature wasn’t on file with Ironhorse’s security people, making him an “anomaly” — along with the Sri Lankan representative Menathong (Suzanne Coy), who couldn’t go through the heat scanner due to a pacemaker. Right off the bat, it’s a safe bet one of them will turn out to be an alien infiltrator, though Ironhorse is oddly blase about it (aside from his general mistrust of anything Russkie — you’d think the fact that Argochev has no trace of a Russian accent would draw comment from him).
The meeting is a chance for everyone to compare notes about their alien experiences, and any experienced TV watcher can sense where this is going. Yes, it’s the obligatory money-saving clip show (also a bottle show, taking place mostly inside a single gymnasium). Our team’s “presentations” are basically just an excuse to rerun clips from previous episodes (plus plenty of action footage from the ’53 movie), and we only get to see a smidgen of the Peruvian presentation with some archive footage of an archaeological dig to accompany it.
And yet, as clip shows go, it’s actually kind of interesting. Hearing the team lay out what they know about the aliens, while the presentation is a little haphazard, actually offers a new perspective on things and conveys the sense that these guys actually know what they’re doing and are making some progress. We even learn some new things about the aliens: Suzanne explains that the reason they can osmose into human bodies is because they’re boneless, with liquid cores held up by a muscular framework. She likens their body structure to jellyfish, though that’s a bit hard to reconcile with their extraordinary strength. And the acknowledgment of the events of past episodes helps give a sense of continuity that’s been lacking at times. (They even lampshade the fact that microbiologist Suzanne suddenly became an expert psychologist in the awful “He Feedeth Among the Lilies,” with one of the delegates commenting on what an unusual combination of specialties it is.) Moreover, the international summit helps create a sense that this isn’t just a secret shared by a few, that at least to some extent the world remembers what happened in ’53 and is aware of the widespread destruction the aliens are causing now, and that’s refreshing. Clip shows can be worthwhile if the stuff between the clips actually adds something to the series rather than just being filler, and this is such an episode.
Of course, there are sources of suspense: the aliens are hunting for the summit meeting in order to destroy Earth’s top alien-hunters, and the delegates are clashing with each other, with Argochev in particular being disruptive. Eventually Argochev reveals his government has intelligence that there’s an alien infiltrator in the meeting. Suzanne can find the alien with a simple blood test, but several delegates insist on contacting their governments before agreeing — and then we learn that the aliens have been tipped to the summit’s location by their spy inside, so they launch an attack. (For some reason, it never occurs to anyone to use a Geiger counter to detect the alien.) Once the attack begins with the delegates trapped inside, Argochev reveals he’s actually military intelligence (and is somehow armed despite all Ironhorse’s security) and offers to help in their defense (I guess; at first it actually looked like he was threatening them, but it didn’t play out that way). Still, they’re quickly surrounded and outnumbered. Ironhorse and Omega Squad battle the attacking aliens for a while, then Ironhorse gives them a speech which is basically “We’re hopelessly outnumbered, so each of you will have to be ten. I’m counting on you. Meanwhile, I’ll be back inside where it’s safe. So long!” Okay, in his defense, he’s actually going in to secure the delegates, but still. (And we have to take his word that his team is outnumbered, since they couldn’t actually afford enough stunt performers to show the entire attack force.)
Learning of their dire straits, Harrison does his tuning-fork meditation thing to think of a plan — and proposes surrender! He spins a line about opening a dialogue with the aliens, which (as he planned) draws out the alien spy — who, completely unsurprisingly, is Menathong, who, aside from being the only one left who hadn’t had her identity confirmed by the scanners, has had an ominous and malevolent look on her face every time she’s been in closeup. She somehow manages to grab Ironhorse’s machine gun and tries to shoot them all, but the gun is empty. She flees and jumps out a window rather than be taken alive.
So Harrison’s “plan” didn’t actually save them from the army of mostly unseen attackers, so they have to hide most of the delegates and Suzanne under the gymnasium stage while the others (including Argochev) retreat to the boiler room and… I guess there’s some sort of strategy involved, but it just comes down to a bunch of shooty-bangy stuff until all the aliens are dead and Harrison gets an ominous closing line about how they may have won today, but tomorrow is another day (which sounded a lot more optimistic when Vivian Leigh said it). You know, it was actually kinda more interesting when it was a clip show.
“Vengeance is Mine”: This one opens very powerfully, as Ironhorse narrates a tragic incident wherein he fired on and killed what he believed were three aliens, only to discover that one of them was actually the aliens’ hostage, an innocent woman named Sarah (Carolyn Dunn). The opening voiceover line, for once, is not an excerpt from later in the episode, but the beginning of this flashback narration, which is a clever variation. For some reason, instead of talking to Suzanne or some other therapist with military clearance, he’s describing the incident to some random psychiatrist (Bernard Behrens) who doesn’t even know about the aliens. The therapist says he can’t help if Paul won’t even tell him his name or what the war and the enemy are — but offers to schedule another session so they can investigate why Paul came in the first place.
Unknown to Paul, he’s being tailed by Martin (Denis Forest), Sarah’s husband, who’s more than a little unstable in the wake of her death and who’s frustrated at the lack of help from the police in identifying her killer. He talks to himself about vengeance, quoting the Bible. Meanwhile, back at the Cottage, Paul’s trying to act like nothing’s wrong, but is behaving erratically — at first slow to react when there’s solid evidence of alien activity in Sacramento, saying he doesn’t want to go off half-cocked, and then a couple of days later getting all gung-ho when there’s only a tenuous lead. He brushes off Suzanne’s attempt to talk, but Harrison is more persistent, trying to tell Paul that what he’s going through is understandable. When that doesn’t work, he tries to talk Paul into taking some R&R, which Paul interprets as an accusation that he’s burned out — no doubt voicing his own fears.
What the aliens are doing is trying to obtain high-grade rubies with which to build an arsenal of hand lasers. They decide they can’t steal the rubies because they’re too precious and well-guarded, so they’ll have to steal money so they can buy them. Because… money isn’t considered precious or well-guarded, I guess? So they begin knocking off armored cars, after placing an advance order for a bunch of rubies with a sexy gem dealer (Canadian singer-songwriter Alannah Myles) who gets turned on by large quantities of money — a rather pointless digression, but not an unpleasant one to watch. Pretty soon they decide the heists are going too slowly and they need to go to the source, which means taking over the bodies of the armored car company’s bosses and getting the gold out of their main vault. (I’d expected they were going to take over the gem dealer instead — then there’d be a point in having her in the episode — but I guess she’s just the broker and wouldn’t have the money on hand to obtain the rubies.)
Eventually, after a second, inconclusive visit with the unnamed psychiatrist, Martin follows Paul and runs him off the road with a toy helicopter laden with explosives. Paul wakes up bound and gagged, and Martin confronts him about who he killed, promising to kill him in return. (Martin removes the gag, but says he doesn’t want Paul to say anything. He’s not exactly stable, did I mention?) Ironhorse warns him that the police will be onto him soon, getting Martin upset enough not to notice that Paul is freeing his hands. Soon the tables are turned and Paul has Martin tied up. He tells Martin that he’s now realized that what happened was an unavoidable consequence of war, and though “I wish to God it wasn’t so,” he’d do it again in the same circumstances.
Paul contacts Norton and learns that the others have headed off to Sacramento to stop the aliens, having deduced their plan. Paul convinces Martin to help him if he wants to stop the people really responsible for Sarah’s death, and they head for town — just in time to chase the aliens, who are escaping in an armored truck after spotting Omega Squad’s approach (you’d think a crack military squad would’ve realized that an armored-car company would have security cameras around its HQ). Luckily Martin has a spare bombicopter in his van, and he and Paul use it to stop the aliens, thus resolving their differences in the traditional masculine way, by blowing stuff up together.
Although this episode has a lot of the awkwardness that characterizes the series, it’s surprisingly strong and emotionally potent. Definitely one of the high points of the whole series. The guest appearance of Denis Forest (pronounced the French Canadian way, Deh-nee For-ay) is notable, for in season 2 of the series he will return in a regular role as Malzor, the leader of the new faction of aliens who displace the Advocacy.
“My Soul to Keep”: For once, not a Biblical title, although it’s from a common children’s prayer (published in The New England Primer in the 1680s, if anyone’s curious). The occasion is that the aliens are trying to procreate, but the caverns are too nuclear-hot for their babies to survive, and if they lose this litter, they won’t enter pon farr or whatever again for nine years. So they need to ship them someplace cold (conveniently forgetting that whole plot thread from episode 2 where they successfully stole a large supply of coolant so they could survive in the caves). They do this by taking over a refrigeration plant. ”I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” says a security guard when the aliens park their truck there on a Sunday. ”Yes, you would,” says one of the aliens, and proves it by becoming him.
Meanwhile, we meet an obnoxious reporter named Cash McCullough (Michael Parks), Suzanne’s ex and Debi’s father. He’s meeting (in a Korean bathhouse, of all places) with a “mysterious” source who stays hidden, but whose voice, despite a feigned Southern accent, is unmistakeably that of John Colicos. Quinn is back! More, he alleges to have been the actual Deep Throat, and now he has an even bigger expose than Watergate: the Blackwood Project. Except he tells Cash that they’re a death squad killing illegal aliens from Mexico.
So Cash contacts Suzanne for the first time in two years (he hasn’t even remembered Debi’s birthdays) and claims to be a changed man wanting to reconnect with family. Ironhorse, knowing Cash’s reputation as an investigative reporter, is skeptical, but Suzanne finds herself responding to his charm against her better judgment. At least until he confronts her at dinner with the “death squad” story, something he evidently does specifically to make her storm out angry so he can tail her to the Cottage. Why he does so is unclear, though, since he then rushes back to Quinn for more intel.
Meanwhile, Norton has noticed transmissions that sound to him like “baby talk,” and he pinpoints their location (which, judging by the computer map, is exactly the same location as the hospital from the last “alien baby” episode, except now it’s the industrial district in the town adjacent to the Cottage). Ironhorse and Harrison stake it out and determine it’s an alien operation with tight security — security that becomes conveniently lax when they sneak in and abscond with one of the totally unmonitored eggs. Suzanne’s fascinated at the scientific potential of this find, until it hatches and almost tears her arms off through the isolation-box gloves. Paul kills it with fire, and then they go off to make sure the other eggs don’t hatch. Suze tags along, though she stays outside when the big strong menfolk go in, so she spots Cash and his camera crew going inside, tipped off by Quinn. She follows Cash, who’s convinced he’s seeing a death squad in action — but then she’s attacked by an alien that’s both conveniently “naked” (not inside a human) and conveniently very, very inefficient at strangling her, giving Cash enough time to follow her screams, see the alien for himself, and tackle it, only to be verrrrrry slowwwwwly strangled himself while Suzanne screams helplessly (who would’ve thought the ’80s were so much like the ’50s?), until Paul shows up and ventilates the alien. Somehow Cash’s camera crew got killed by other aliens while this was going on, and then Cash sees the fiery finish as Omega Squad torches the eggs, and says that nobody would believe him if he reported what he’s seen.
As a return episode for Quinn, this is very weak. We never learn why Quinn, who parted with Harrison on reasonably good terms last time, is suddenly trying to hurt the Blackwood Project. And the idea of a story about the heroes trying to kill hundreds of babies, even monster babies, is rather distasteful. On the plus side, Suzanne really looks gorgeous when she dresses up for dinner with Cash. Big ’80s hairdos have their merits.
“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.
“Choirs of Angels”: The aliens go into the recording business! We see a trio of aliens (including CSI‘s Alex Carter) recording a subliminal “trust us” chant around a microphone. They then barge into the studio of musician Billy Carlos — actually the show’s composer, rock musician Billy Thorpe, playing a roman a clef of himself. And playing an alternate arrangement of the show’s end title theme, actually the one piece of music from this show that I like. It’s a brief cameo, for Thorpe/Carlos quickly meets his end at an alien’s hand, and they then embed the subliminal message in his not-yet-released new album.
But this isn’t for general release; they’re hoping to snag a particular scientist to help devise a vaccine against Earth bacteria. And as usual, their target just happens to be connected to our heroes — Dr. Von Deer (Jan Rubes), an old teacher of Suzanne’s that she comes to for help with her alien research, a month after the previous scenes. He’s playing the Billy Carlos tape nonstop (CDs were common by then but cassette tapes were still popular) and is caught up with his own project, barely remembering his promise to help Suzanne. Harrison is also a Carlos fan (though Suzanne can’t stand the music), and Von Deer gives him a spare copy of the tape. Uh-ohs! Harrison drives off while Suzanne stays for the weekend.
Soon, Suzanne discovers that Von Deer has a trio of sneaky associates, while Harrison gets hooked on the music and its “The Travelers are your friends” message and becomes convinced that the poor widdle aliens only attacked Earth in self-defense after they saw all our scary nuclear bombs and pollution and stuff (conveniently forgetting the first strike force at Grover’s Mill in 1938), weirding out Ironhorse and Norton, though the latter decides it’s just one of Harrison’s practical jokes. And the same two pieces of music get played over and over again, the end title theme and a very similar one (or maybe just a different portion of the extended version of the end title?).
The alien trio apparently camps out in the back seat of a limo for two days straight while Suzanne pieces things together and confronts Von Deer about the work he’s doing for the aliens. He tells her the aliens are our friends and the truth is in the music, and that the flask she’s holding contains the key to the future. She’s mollified by his words and agrees to cooperate. Oh noes! Has the evil subliminal masking taken over her mind too? No, she’s just playing along until she can lock him in the storeroom. Meanwhile, Ironhorse and Norton catch on that Harrison’s hooked, and Norton takes the tape to analyze while Paul shepherds Harrison through withdrawal (kind of a nice scene character-wise, though the dialogue writing isn’t too hot).
Suzanne figures out that Von Deer’s devised a vaccine against Earth’s bacteria. And he must be incredibly brilliant to have devised one vaccine that can work against every species of bacteria in the world. I really don’t think you can even use the word “vaccine” for something that broad-based. For that matter, I’m not sure how the whole disease-vulnerability thing works. I thought it was the radiation that protected them, but does being inside human bodies give them protection too? That seems to be the reason they have to “wear” human form outside their cavern, though we have seen them going “naked” outdoors for brief periods. Maybe they’re drawing on the human immune system for protection, though if anything, given how full our own bodies are of bacteria of all sorts, I’d think that the interior of a human body would be an even more toxic environment to the aliens than the outside world.
Eventually Harrison’s all better and he and Ironhorse rush to Suze’s rescue after she tells them about the vaccine. But the aliens are calling in to check up on Von Deer, and there are some fear/suspense beats that would never work in this age of ubiquitous caller ID, with Suzanne afraid to answer the phone, unsure whether it’s Norton or the aliens calling. Eventually the aliens get tired of waiting and break into the lab, and Suzanne has the music blaring and pretends to be hooked. She says she’s been helping the exhausted Von Deer finish the vaccine, and hands it to them, convincing them she’s drunk the Kool-Aid. They debate whether to kill her or take over her body (same thing as far as she’s concerned). But when our heroes arrive, they find her still dancing to the music. Is she hooked? No, she was wearing earplugs. The aliens left her alive for no reason beyond main-character immunity. And she contaminated the vaccine with an undetectable trace of ammonia, which the aliens are severely allergic to. The featured trio of aliens gets the first doses and spend an inordinately long time dying horribly and decaying before the episode finally ends and we hear the “Love Theme from War of the Worlds” (or whatever the heck it’s called) one last time over the end credits.
Not a particularly bad one, but I didn’t find the dialogue writing very good. And the premise had flaws. If the aliens have such a powerful technology for addicting and mind-controlling humans with subliminal embeds, why use it only to co-opt one scientist? Why not use it on the whole world?
Then again, the dreadful second season will rehash the subliminal-brainwashing gimmick twice. I won’t be rewatching that season, so I’ll mention them here. The first involved music again, I think, and the message was designed to make people violent or something; it was about as unmemorable and unpleasant as most of the first half of season 2. The final one was interesting in that the subliminal message (also designed to make people violent) was embedded in a perfume commercial that was just about the raciest thing ever seen on broadcast television at the time, featuring levels of nudity and implied sex on a par with what the supposedly groundbreaking NYPD Blue started doing three years later. In fact, my local station wouldn’t even broadcast the episode. It wasn’t until I managed to catch it over the air from Dayton, 50 miles away with a faint, staticky picture, that I saw the racy content and realized why it was banned in Cincinnati. As awful as season 2 was, I’ve always kind of admired that episode’s daring.
But the music was better in this one.
“Dust to Dust”: On a Native American reservation, a tribal shaman, Joseph (Ivan Naranjo, who was the voice of Tonto on Filmation’s 1980 Lone Ranger series), is taking his son to commune with the spirits, while a grave robber, Newport (R.D. Reid), desecrates a burial mound nearby. He finds a headdress with a large tetrahedral crystal in it, one that makes a drumming/chanting sound when he puts it on. Joseph has a narrower but similar crystal on top of his staff (obviously this is alien tech), and he can use it to control the weather, summon lightning, and turn into a bear, or at least project the illusion of a bear’s head in the middle of a vast whirlwind. The son recites his rather unimpressive list of accomplishments (including “I’ve been to college” and “I feel good about who I am”), but apparently the ancestors are not in a receptive mood, perhaps because of the jerk stealing their stuff nearby.
For some reason, the Blackwood Brigade is watching the news conference as Newport announces his find (and somehow Norton’s got a live streaming video window on a 1989 computer). Ironhorse is outraged at the desecration and Harrison agrees, but Suzanne’s noticed the crystal. Norton is somehow able to analyze the crystal just from a low-resolution video frame capture and determine it was machined by technology beyond our own, so the others go to investigate. Meanwhile, the Advocates watch the same news footage and recognize the crystal as the starter for a warship (though apparently it doubles as an MP3 player).
Newport is trying to sell the artifacts over the phone ( it turns out the chanting isn’t in his head, since others can hear it) when Shaman Joseph teleports in (apparently) and says he’ll die if he doesn’t return them. Not that Joseph will kill him, just that death will come to him. But Newport doesn’t take it that way and calls the cops. Joseph disappears, but when next we see him, he’s somehow in police custody. Harrison and Ironhorse confront Newport, not bothering to show any official ID or anything, so he dismisses them as crackpots and threatens to have them arrested like “the old Indian.” They go bail out Joseph, and Paul drives him home to the reservation. Meanwhile, aliens body-snatch some Indian Affairs agents and go kill Newport and take the crystal, just before Harrison and Suzanne show up to talk to him again. They pass at the elevator, and Harrison gives them a look that suggests maybe he’s thinking what I was thinking by this point in the season — that they need to start being suspicious of people travelling in threes. Anyway, they find Newport dead and the crystal gone.
At the reservation, Joseph goes off to do mysterious stuff and Paul hits it off with Joseph’s hot daughter Grace (Robin Sewell). They talk for about five minutes before getting to the “We come from different worlds, it would never work, we shouldn’t even try, so let’s make out now” routine. Although it is a good opportunity to learn more about Paul: He’s Cherokee, he was raised to be ashamed of his heritage, but he learned later to take pride in it. And he has no comeback when Grace points out that Paul shares his West Point alma mater with General Custer.
Eventually, Joseph pops up out of nowhere and tells Paul to come with him, summoning a bit of lightning to convince him. They go off on the same spirit quest that Joseph’s son flunked, and Joseph says that the spirits approve of Paul as if he were one of their own tribe, which Paul is honored by. (I don’t quite remember the name of the tribe, but it might have been fictional; it was something like “Westeskewin,” and there’s a city in Alberta called Wetaskiwin, but I don’t think that was it.) He says his people were visited by beings from beyond “before white man’s time,” which would mean the aliens have been visiting Earth for centuries, but this is never explored. While Harrison and Suzanne hook up with Joseph’s kids and go to find him, and the aliens use the starter crystal to track their ship, Joseph begins chanting — and continues to do so through everything that follows, as the aliens arrive and point guns at them, and the wind summoned by Joseph blows away the dirt covering the alien warship (why now?). The Advocates are thrilled that the warship works, apparently convinced that they can conquer the whole world with just a single centuries-old ship, and they tell their scouts not to kill Ironhorse and Joseph, but to let them live and spread terror to demoralize the populace (come on, are you kidding me???). So the aliens go inside the ship just as Harrison and the others arrive. Suzanne goes back to the car to warn the authorities what’s happening — but the rest just kind of stand there and watch (and Joseph chants) as the ship activates and rises up.
Now, the ship is seriously one of the coolest things in this entire series. It’s based on the aesthetics of the familiar war machines, but with the heat-ray lens in the nose rather than a gooseneck — and best of all, it’s got tripod legs like the war machines in the original novel! That’s a nifty homage, and the miniature effects are actually handled pretty well considering this show’s puny budget. (Although for what it’s worth, the movie war machines were “walkers” of a sort, with the filmmakers substituting mostly-invisible force rays for the legs.)
So anyway, the heat ray lights up and makes the familiar rattlesnake scanning sound and then the voom-voom-voom sound that heralds imminent death and destruction, and nobody bothers to try running or anything; but Joseph finally stops screwing around and calls down a few lightning strikes, then sucks the warship into a whirlwind (bear not included) and blows it up. Afterward, Harrison realizes the crystal in Joseph’s staff must be powerful alien tech, and is thrilled when Joseph just hands it to him — but he reveals to his son afterward that he gave Harrison a fake. That’ll teach ‘em to pay for Manhattan in beads!
Basically it’s your usual “the aliens visited Native Americans and gave them Sufficiently Advanced Technology” plotline that shows up in a lot of sci-fi shows (Smallville springs to mind), and it raises similar problems that are never addressed. Although I guess it’s not entirely implausible that the aliens could’ve surveyed our world centuries before the imminent destruction of their own world prompted them to invade ours. That could be how they knew about Earth in the first place. (Perhpas you could even say that they “regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”) Still, the power demonstrated by Joseph’s crystal is beyond anything the aliens have possessed either in the movie or the series. On the other hand, Joseph had no problem with the idea that the aliens who took the ship were enemies of his spirits; maybe his crystal came from different aliens, enemies of the Mor-Taxians? This might be worth keeping in mind once we get to the season finale.
“He Feedeth Among the Lilies”: After ransacking a hospital OR for some reason (and quietly enough that the hospital staff doesn’t discover it until they wheel an emergency patient in), we see the aliens experimenting on a strapped-down human in their cavern, but he “spoils” too fast in the radiation. They need a better way to plumb the secrets of the human immune system. We cut to Team Blackwood interviewing people with alien-abduction stories, which all seem to be real and describe the aliens accurately (though one interviewee amusingly describes them as a cross between a giant frog and a big, slimy walnut). You’d think there’d be at least some crackpots in the mix. Anyway, one of the interviewees is a hot blonde, Karen (Cynthia Belliveau), whom Harrison wastes no time getting flirty with, rubbing her shoulders as part of a “relaxation technique” (yeah, sure, I didn’t see you trying that with the old married couple). She only remembers jogging and waking up ten hours later, and has been to a variety of doctors and therapists before getting shuttled here.
Ironhorse argues that they’d be better off interviewing veterans of the ’53 invasion to find more alien disposal sites — probably the best idea anyone in Team Blackwood has had in half a season, but we’ll hear no more about it. Instead, Harrison’s getting swiftly and mutually romantic with Karen, which is just creepy. He pays lip service to it being a bad idea to get involved when she’s turning to him for help, but he doesn’t resist very hard. Come on, man! Whether she seems to want it or not, you’re still taking advantage of her vulnerable state and an unequal power dynamic! It gets even creepier when he has Suzanne give her a psych evaluation (like all biochemists are trained to do, right?), and as soon as Suze springs “alien” on her in a word-association test, Karen fires back “rape” and has an emotional breakdown. After that, it’s completely intolerable that she and Harrison end up in bed together — and the next morning she has an alien-rape dream while still in bed with him. And any talk about whether Harrison’s doing the wrong thing is already forgotten, and his teammates seem perfectly fine with it beyond a little ribbing. This is disgusting.
Meanwhile, the aliens have stolen an ambulance (and its drivers’ bodies) as a mobile operating platform for their tests, and there’s a weird sequence where the ambulance pulls over a motorist (well, he pulled over to the curb as it went by, as you should, but it felt oddly like a police pullover) and the aliens grab him. It’s a cameo appearance by Julian Richings, a cadaverous-featured character actor who’s been in many Canadian-made shows (including appearances as Death in Supernatural), and who will have a regular role in season 2 of WotW as the chief alien scientist. Anyway, the aliens are later shown implanting a device into their captive and expositing to each other that they’ll come back and “harvest” him in six months. Which does clear up my earlier confusion about the timing of when the abductions started vs. when things were happening in the cave and the ambulance. I guess what we saw in the cave was one of the harvestings.
So you can probably see where this is going. Harrison has Suzanne hypnotize Karen (like all biochemists are trained to do, right?) and regress her memory, and she describes the aliens attacking her and inserting an instrument into her body. For whatever reason, Suze has her forget the details of the session, and then Harrison fills her in later — claiming that she described details that we didn’t actually hear her say. She’s initially disbelieving about the aliens, but is reminded (distastefully) of her “alien/rape” association from before (and you still aren’t seeing why this relationship is a problem, Blackwood?!) Harrison shows some restraint and actually doesn’t spend the night with her again, but only because he’s caught up in his work and goes to talk to the team about getting her medically examined for possible alien implants. But by coincidence, it’s been six months that very night! She calls Harrison about having “a bad night” and he rushes over, but then the alien implant kicks in and she’s compelled to walk out to the curb, unable to talk to anyone or ask for help. Harrison pulls over to let the wailing ambulance go by, and the aliens pick her up and take her away just before Harrison comes into visual range. He parks and rushes into Karen’s building… and then the scene freeze-frames and we just get his voiceover saying “I have no proof, but in my heart I know the aliens have Karen McKinney.” Which is one hell of an abrupt ending for the episode.
Oh-h-h, this was just ill-conceived. Even leaving aside the gross violations of professional and personal ethics, the whole alien-abductions thing was a bit weird. The attempt to explain all alien-abduction tales in terms of the Mor-Taxians’ experiments is odd, since they’ve only been active for about a year at this point in-story, but alleged abduction experiences go back decades. (More like millennia, probably, since they’re rooted in neurological causes — night terrors, magnetic fields or subsonics affecting the mind, that sort of thing — but in the past they would’ve been attributed to spirits or demons rather than aliens.) I think it was a bad idea to try to graft “real” alien mythology onto the WotW aliens. If anything, even if we accept that the details of the ’53 invasion were repressed or forgotten, it’s likely that people worldwide would have dreams and visions and recovered memories about these aliens, and their image would be the dominant pop-culture image of aliens rather than the “Greys.” This show really suffered from failing to explore the consequences the ’53 invasion should’ve had on the world.
“The Good Samaritan”: Another obvious pseudonym for the writing credit, “Sylvia Clayton.” Which is odd, since this is the first remotely decent episode in a few weeks. However, it takes nearly a fifth of the episode before the good guys show up. Instead, we learn that the aliens are developing a deadly toxin, which they test by taking over a restaurant and serving it in the chicken soup (proving that they have a sense of irony). They’re still looking for a wider delivery system, though. There’s a completely pointless bit with a young coed in bondage, with the alien scientist explaining that his researchers have been waiting for a live human subject for dissection. Whatever happened to that cage full of live human captives they had last week? I guess they took my suggestion to pretend that episode never happened. Anyway, the coed is dragged off and never mentioned again.
We spend most of the first act getting to know Marcus Madison Mason (Alex Cord), a corporate magnate who’s developed a “Feed the World” supergrain, claiming it’s for humanitarian purposes but telling his board of directors that he intends to make the world pay through the nose for it. His board includes the Chairman of OCP (RoboCop: The Series‘s David Gardner) and perennial Canadian character actor Barry Flatman, who was the voice of Henry Gyrich in the ’90s X-Men animated series, the US President in Earth: Final Conflict, and the corrupt senator father of Tamara Craig Thomas’s character in Odyssey 5. We also briefly meet Mason’s wife, but spend more time getting to know the two blondes he’s having separate affairs with — his secretary Teri and some other blonde whose identity is never established as far as I recall.
Eventually, finally, we visit our heroes at the Cottage and learn that Suzanne is struggling to develop a radiation-resistant bacterium to kill the aliens. Biological warfare, how heroic! But guess what, Mason’s grain is all over the news, and among all its other remarkable properties, it’s radiation-resistant (which the cynical Mason later explains is to ensure it’s still viable after the inevitable nuclear war). So Suzanne arranges to meet with Mason, though he’s clearly more interested in getting into her pants than sharing his secret process. Ironhorse is oddly, almost sophomorically interested in whether this makes Harrison jealous, but there are some nice moments of banter and chemistry among the three.
Naturally, the aliens also latch onto the news of Mason’s grain, seeing it as a much better method for widespread toxin delivery than restaurant soup. So they possess his paramour (the non-secretary one) and then get to him through her. The now-alien Mason comes in with new “advisors” and begins issuing strange orders, saying he’ll give away the grain for free and having his “team” spray it with the toxin over the scientists’ protests. Amusingly, one of the signs that he’s not himself is that he doesn’t cancel dinner with his wife. He also shows no interest when Suzanne (at Ironhorse’s prompting) tries to seduce him into giving her a sample of grain, making her think she’s lost her touch (which I can attest she definitely hasn’t); but she does manage to steal a sample somehow. While she’s testing it, her daughter Debi lets her lab mouse (which is only there “for appearances,” whatever that means) out of its cage and he becomes the designated tribble, dying from the poisoned grain and alerting the heroes to the risk. Suzanne tries calling Mason, and the jealous secre-Teri gives her the brushoff until Suze tells her the grain is tainted. Teri rushes to one of the freighters about to ship out the grain and warns Mason, but she just ends up getting, err, alienated. So much for that character arc. (The problem with horror is that “and then she dies” isn’t really much of a resolution. A lot of the time it just feels like a waste of effort to develop a character who’s just going to be randomly killed/zombified anyway.)
Ironhorse is all “Yes, it’s terrible, but it’s not aliens so we can’t warn anyone and risk exposing ourselves,” to which Harrison naturally objects; but then Norton conveniently triangulates an alien transmission to Mason’s freighter, rendering the argument moot. Harrison and Ironhorse go out to the ship as government inspectors and try to stall until reinforcements arrive, and they get stalked by aliens in the engine room and manage to outfight them. They chase the Mason alien to the deck, with Harrison saying they need him alive for some unspecified reason, and he hurls himself into the water far below, presumably fatally, to escape them. We hear that all the ships have been stopped in time. So for once the heroes have managed to score a victory, though secre-Teri and the other aliens tell the Advocates that it’s only a matter of time before they find another way to distribute the toxin. I wonder if we’ll ever hear about that plot point again. (Spoiler: No, we won’t.)
“Epiphany”: Oh, for… they’re not even trying now; this script is credited to “Sylvia Van Buren.” Why so many pseudonymous scripts? I wonder if it had something to do with this being a Canadian show, and thus having a quota for the number of Canadians participating. I remember that on Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, de facto producers like Zack Stentz & Ashley Miller had to be credited as “consultants” because they were American. Maybe something similar was going on here, and the writers got around the limits by using pseudonyms. (Maybe a better analogy for that is Gene L. Coon writing for Star Trek‘s third season as “Lee Cronin” because he’d made an exclusive arrangement with another production company but still had to discharge some lingering commitments to ST.)
Anyway, after observing some scenes of people being mean to each other and letting muggers get away and such, the aliens conclude that there’s better than a 96% chance we’ll destroy ourselves with nuclear war. (As seen in the previous episode, this was actually a common belief during the Cold War, that it was only a matter of time before the inevitable armageddon.) But they still want to give us a push over the edge, so they steal some plutonium from a surprisingly poorly guarded nuclear power plant and build a nuclear bomb with which they plan to blow up a US-Soviet disarmament event (which Ironhorse is all upset about while his three hippie liberal scientist colleagues are all grinning). This plan is masterminded by the same alien commander from last week, who’s apparently abandoned the whole biotoxin thing, but hey, at least they’re stepping up their game to something genuinely cataclysmic. The commander literally stakes his life on the success of this plan.
Naturally, since there’s only one place in the world, the conference is taking place very near the Cottage, and Harrison gets a call from a visiting Russian “nucular” physicist, Katya (Deborah Wakeham), an old flame who wants to meet him. He slips out, but Ironhorse follows and takes pictures, and then sees Katya’s KGB handler — a slumming Patrick Macnee! — taking pictures of her. Ironhorse and Ivan Steedovich take pictures of each other taking pictures of each other, during which Harrison and Katya slip away — only to show up back at the Cottage since Katya wants to defect and Harrison couldn’t think of another place to take her than the most super-secret operation in the entire country. (I was going to say “highest-security,” but from the evidence here, a public library has better security than this joint.) Ironhorse meets with Macnee and they agree a defection is too sensitive with the disarmament thingy going on.
Meanwhile, the aliens park the nuke in an RV near the conference site, reporting that they expect 10 million casualties. (“Is that all?” the female Advocate gripes.) Apparently this is a full-fledged nuke rather than just a dirty bomb, leading me to wonder why a power plant would have weapons-grade plutonium on hand. They abandon the RV, but an impossibly adorable little girl gives them an adorable lecture on the importance of feeding parking meters. One of the aliens has taken over a cop and claims to be ticket-immune, but the moppet points out that Mommy says even the police should follow the same laws as everyone else (a principle I’ve seen some police-car drivers fail to remember), so in a cute-creepy moment, the evil alien cop picks up the girl and lets her feed the meter before leaving her to imminent immolation in nuclear hellfire.
Except the explosion’s timed to go off when the conference starts, so there’s plenty of time for the RV to accumulate three parking tickets and to be flagged as a stolen vehicle, whereupon the bomb is discovered. Lousy planning on the aliens’ part. Why not wait to plant the bomb? It’s not like they needed to get clear before the blast; the alien cop (David Ferry, who looks a bit like Mark Hamill) actually hangs around near the RV the whole time, so it’s clearly a suicide mission. Anyway, Harrison and Ironhorse are arguing about Katya’s defection when they find out about the bomb. Katya’s upset that the team knew something like this would happen and didn’t tell anyone, but Harrison finally lets her in on their secret behind Ironhorse’s back, rationalizing that she can help them by leading the fight against the aliens back in the USSR. Anyway, Katya convinces Ironhorse that her expertise building newkyuler bombs will let her disarm this one, so they and Harrison go out to the bomb site and we get the standard “Cut that wire–wait! It’s that wire instead!” routine, and they disarm the bomb and everyone’s happy. The alien cop is still there, just standing around and having done absolutely nothing to interfere with the disarming process. Why was he willing to sacrifice his life again?
So now that Katya’s a hero, Ironhorse tells her the government’s approved her defection, but she goes back to Russia to fight aliens instead. The failed Commander makes penance by throwing himself into the Bottomless Pit of Horrendously Cheap Video Effects, and the Mark Hamillesque cop is appointed the new commander, although the actor won’t be seen again in this role (he returns in season 2 as a different character).
This was at least a fairly coherent episode (mostly), but it wasn’t as much fun as the previous one. Wakeham’s Katya isn’t particularly appealing, and Patrick Macnee is largely wasted, though he does a fairly good job with what he has.
“Among the Philistines”: We open with alien truckers passing an accident site that slows them down — and it turns out that for once it’s the good guys who are mounting a stratagem, having staged the accident scene to detain the aliens with a large military strike team. Harrison insists on taking them alive for questioning, but the three aliens somehow kill themselves by thumping their chests. When informed that their drivers are dead, the female advocate says, “At least we’re doing something right.” They were meant to be lost!
Turns out the team was tipped off by a scientist studying dolphin communication, Adrian Bouchard — who’s played by Cedric Smith, the voice of Professor X from the ’90s X-Men series. Meeting them in a safe house, he says he picked up alien transmissions on his ham radio and correlated them to various “terrorist” attacks, and has used his dolphin-translating computer to make some headway cracking the code. Our gang clues him in that the transmissions are from alien invaders (he evidences no awareness of the ’53 invasion, but he accepts this right away). And here it becomes evident that this episode was aired out of sequence, because the characters have access to knowledge they won’t gain until “The Prodigal Son,” which aired four episodes later: that the aliens are from a planet called Mor-Tax and have a massive invasion fleet coming in four years’ time. We’re also told that the team has been fighting the aliens for over a year, even though we’re only around the middle of the first season.
The team invites Professor X to help translate the alien signals, but the safe house’s computer overloads, and he has a hissy fit when he learns they have a supercomputer back at home base but wouldn’t let him use it. But his clean-as-a-whistle security clearance has finally come through, so they convince him to come to the Cottage. Whereupon Debi has conveniently gotten a new dog whose only reason to be there is to bark uncontrollably at Adrian and tip off the audience that he’s Not What He Seems.
The characters aren’t genre-savvy enough to get suspicious, though, and they all have a love-fest over Adrian — particularly Suzanne, who’s clearly attracted. And they don’t get worried when the dog disappears. (At this point I was futilely hoping that the obvious clues were a red herring and that it would turn out the dog was the alien spy.) But speaking of genre-savviness, when they included a scene of Norton (and his wheelchair Gertrude) quarterstaff-fighting with Ironhorse and kicking his tail (with an iron-cored staff), it was obvious that was the Chekhov’s Gun for the week.
Adrian decodes a transmission about an upcoming theft of chemical-weapon ingredients, so the team goes out to intercept them, leaving Adrian alone with Norton, Debi, and the 2-person Cottage staff. And we get confirmation that Adrian is an alien when we see him shirtless in his room — and how convenient that his body’s decay is confined to the areas covered by clothing. (Also, you’d think they could smell the decay on him.)
So a trusting Norton leaves Professor X alone with his computers, and then Debi comes down to the lab and Adrian entices her with a video of his dolphins, recognizing her potential hostage value. The strike team reports that a whole bunch of aliens is lying in wait for them, so Harrison and the others figure out Adrian set them up. Back at the Cottage, the groundskeeper Kensington discovers the dog dead in a closet and alerts Norton, who independently figures out Adrian’s an alien and has Kensington cut the phone lines so he can’t send their vital intel to the enemy. This gets the guys in the field to come back, but Alien Adrian has activated the security system so Ironhorse has to get in the hard way. Meanwhile, Kensington grabs a shotgun while Norton goes down to retrieve Debi, who’s more interested in dolphins than the bowl of soup he tries to entice her with. Eventually Norton gets it through her thick skull that she’s in danger and needs to get out, but Adrialien catches on and Norton has to stay behind to ensure Debi gets away. Norton wheels for cover, and Kensington — an accomplished combat veteran, as we were told back in episode 2 — comes down to confront Adrian, fires at point-blank range with his shotgun, and somehow only manages to graze Adrian’s shoulder. He gets strangled for his trouble. Adrian comes after Norton, thinking he’ll be easy prey, but Norton and Gertrude hold their own, and even being thrown from his chair doesn’t stop Norton, who manages to defeat Adrian with help from the power lines, his iron-cored staff, and Gertrude’s voice controls.
So the day is saved, but the cast mourns the fallen Kensington, and the episode closes on his funeral with still shots of his face projected over the gloaming sky. Which was a really nice idea, not going the redshirt route but having the characters actually face the loss — or at least, it would’ve been if we’d actually seen Kensington at any time since episode 2 and had any reason to care about it as much as the episode asked us to.
For once, the writer is credited by his real name; it’s Patrick Barry, who the year before had written “Angel One,” one of the most-hated episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But this one is actually a pretty decent episode, one of the better ones I’ve seen so far.
Oh, and while Adrian and Norton are decoding the alien signals, we see a computer screen graphic that gives us a spelling for the alien-language salute that translates as “To life immortal.” It’s rendered as “TOO DOE NAKOTAE.”
A while back, Turner Classic Movies showed several of the early daikaiju (giant monster) films from Toho Studios in their original Japanese, including Gojira (Godzilla), Radon (Rodan), and Mosura (Mothra). Since then, I’ve been watching a number of other films in Toei’s kaiju series and reading about the series as a whole. There are three eras of Godzilla/kaiju films: the Shōwa, Heisei, and Millennium series. The first two are named after the titles of the Japanese emperors at the time (Hirohito was the Shōwa Emperor, Akihito is the Heisei Emperor), according to Japanese calendar conventions. The third title, of course, comes from the Western calendar. All Godzilla films accept the original 1954 film (or a variation thereon) as canonical, but branch off from it into several distinct continuities. Shōwa is one continuity, Heisei another, and Millennium was characterized as an “alternate realities” series, exploring different takes on the Godzilla legend. with only two of its six films sharing a continuity with one another (although several count at least some of the Shōwa films as part of their backstory).
The original 1954 Gojira, directed and co-written by Ishiro Honda and produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka with effects by Eiji Tsuburaya and music by Akira Ifukube, is really in a class by itself. It’s not what one would expect of a kaiju film. It’s actually a very dark, intelligent, philosophical film, an allegory for the spectre of nuclear devastation that still hung over Japan at the time, and is driven more by characters and ideas than by the spectacle of the kaiju smashing things. The memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hovers over everything that happens and gives it weight and power. And the plot is largely a rumination on the ethics of using weapons of mass destruction: can unleashing such a horror ever be justified? Gojira (“Godzilla” is an imperfect approximation of its pronunciation) is a force of nature, an ancient dinosaur of a species that (assuming the subtitles were translated accurately) had survived in the ocean depths for millions of years but had been displaced by the American nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands (the same tests that led to some giant octopus problems for San Francisco in the Ray Harryhausen classic It Came From Beneath the Sea a year later), as well as mutated so it could breathe atomic fire. Even nuclear weapons can’t kill it, so it seems nothing can. The crux of the plot is Dr. Serizawa’s (Akihiko Hirata) invention of the Oxygen Destroyer, potentially a weapon even deadlier than the atom bomb. He refuses to unleash that horror on the world even to stop Gojira. Ultimately his fiancée Emiko and her boyfriend (yep, this is a pretty adult and morally ambiguous film) persuade him to use it, but he takes drastic steps to ensure it will never be used again. At once it seems to be absolving America for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — admitting that unleashing such an evil can sometimes be an unavoidable necessity to stop a menace that can’t be stopped any other way — and chastising America for allowing that unleashed evil to propagate further after the immediate need had passed. After all, it was the continued bomb testing in the years after the war that unleashed the horror of Gojira. At the same time, the paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) argues that Gojira shouldn’t be killed — not only is it just an animal with a right to exist, but studying its regenerative abilities and resistance to radiation could be a boon to medical science, helping humanity understand how to cope with disease, injury, aging, and particularly the radiation sickness that was one of the legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All in all it’s a surprisingly thoughtful film with a lot of ethical dilemmas. Yes, the special effects are sometimes cheesy, but not intentionally so; they did the best they could with the resources and knowhow at their disposal, and a lot of the visuals of the destruction of Tokyo are actually fairly effective, particularly given that we’re shown a lot of the human cost, the terror of the populace and the despair of the survivors afterward, so that the emotional impact carries it when the visual effects don’t. This is a dark, powerful film, one of the most classic and important monster movies ever made.
The American version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters from 1956, is a mixed bag as an adaptation. It famously adds new material focusing on Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin, who hangs around the periphery of many of the film’s events and has them translated for him by another character, and sometimes talks to rough doubles of the film’s cast (facing away from the camera or hidden by equipment in front of them) to create the illusion that he’s interacting with them. It’s interesting that a lot of the Japanese dialogue was thus not overdubbed, but it also means that a lot of the substance and characterization in the film is lost. Naturally the Hiroshima/Nagasaki allegories are mostly eliminated, since they would’ve been seen as anti-American, so most of the symbolism and philosophical weight is missing too. And the cast that dubbed the main leads was pretty terrible. It’s painful to see shots of Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) emoting powerfully while the English dubber just drones on dully as if she were reciting the phone book (with a Southern accent, no less). They also alter the story a bit so that Steve is the one who convinces Emiko to come clean about the secret of the Oxygen Destroyer, undermining her arc in the original where she makes that choice on her own. G:KotM is an interesting artifact, and it does a decent job of trying to maintain the dark, apocalyptic tone of the original, but it’s a much shallower and less satisfying film.
Unfortunately, the same goes for the sequels Toho made. The success of the original film led them to rush out a sequel, Godzilla’s Counterattack, known in the West as Godzilla Raids Again. The film used a different director, writers, and composer than the original, and was far less interesting or deep. The story builds on a suggestion from the original film that Gojira was just one member of its species. Dr. Yamane is briefly brought back for bridging and exposition, and he confirms that this Godzilla, the one we’ll follow for the rest of the Shōwa series, is a second member of the same species. (This time I am certain the subtitles were correct. My Japanese-English dictionary from college confirms that Yamane says “dai-ni no Gojira,” meaning “second Godzilla.” And from this point I’ll use the Anglicized spelling for convenience, since the Gojira of the original film was an entirely different creature in more ways than one.) A second monster, Anguirus (or Angirasu, a shortening of the Japanese pronunciation of “ankylosaur”), is also featured battling Godzilla, but both are presented as threats; this is before the pattern of having a “good guy” kaiju emerged. But there’s no allegory or philosophy in this film, and the character story is rather dull. In a way, it’s interesting that the film focuses less on the battle to defeat the kaiju and more on simply getting by in a world where kaiju exist. The story is largely about the ordinary people of Osaka just trying to carry on with their lives in the face of an unavoidable threat, as people tend to do, and when it does focus on the scientists and military, their efforts in the majority of the film are more about managing Godzilla than trying to destroy him, using flares to divert him from the city lights that enrage/attract him (and it’s nice to finally get an explanation for why Godzillas smash up cities, though this explanation will not be used again as far as I know). But that idea is more interesting in concept than execution; all in all it’s kind of a dull movie. Eventually they do defeat Godzilla by burying him in an avalanche, but there’s no philosophical conundrum; it’s more just a disaster movie than the allegory the original was.
After this, Toho branched out into similar films featuring other monsters, including Radon (short for “pteranodon,” and Americanized as Rodan to avoid confusion with a brand of soap at the time, or something), Varan (whose film I’ve never seen), and Mothra. Most of these films were directed by Ishiro Honda (with music by Akira Ifukube) again, but they aren’t as deep as his original. Rodan (1956) is much like the second Godzilla film, a disaster movie that portrays the monster as a serious threat but doesn’t show the death and despair as overtly as the original film, and whose ending is more about just solving the problem without any ethical conundrums. Varan the Unbelievable (1958) sounds much the same, from what I read. The ’54 film’s frank portrayal of human death and suffering is not repeated in the later films, which focus only on buildings being destroyed after the populace has fled in terror, or at most imply deaths offscreen.
Mothra (1961) tried to mix it up a little, though, giving us the first benevolent (or at least neutral) kaiju and trying to inject a message again, though going for a lighter tone than Gojira. It’s also the most overtly spiritual of the kaiju films. I believe that Godzilla, in the original film at least, had an element of Japanese animism to him; in animist belief, everything has an embodying spirit, and if a dragon can be the spirit of a river (as in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away) or Totoro can be the spirit of the forest, then perhaps Godzilla is the embodiment of the spirit of nuclear destruction. (Okay, now I want to see Totoro vs. Godzilla…) Indeed, I’ve read that Ishiro Honda referred to Godzilla as “the sacred beast of the Apocalypse.” But Godzilla is usually portrayed more as a dinosaur, a mutated animal (although the people of Otoshima in the original had long worshipped Gojira as a sea god and made virgin sacrifices to it; this is where the name came from, and I think the film was implying that what they worshipped was the real kaiju before it was displaced from its feeding grounds, rather than a case of mistaken identity). Mothra is overtly a deity, or at least worshipped as one by the people of Infant Island. She’s also the first female kaiju, though this is often obscured in English dubs that call her “he” or “it.” Mothra has a pair of heralds, I guess you’d call them — the doll-sized Shobijin (“Small Beauties,” called fairies in English), played by a popular singing duo called the Peanuts. Having gained experience at making stuntmen in monster suits look giant, Tsuburaya now went the other way and dabbled in miniaturization.
What’s interesting about Mothra is that it’s largely a retelling of King Kong. The bad guy, Carl Nelson, is clearly based on Carl Denham. He’s from a nation called “Rolisica,” which is a stand-in for the US (Nelson speaks English with an American accent even in the Japanese-language original, and comes from New Kirk City), though it has elements of the USSR thrown in (mainly in its flag and military uniforms). Nelson captures the Shobijin and puts them on display, which draws Mothra’s wrath as she comes to rescue them. She’s not evil or predatory, but any people or cities that get in her way are in danger from her sheer power. But Nelson refuses all personal and diplomatic pressure to free the Shobijin, thus provoking devastation as Mothra comes after them, until the heroes finally free them and find a way to draw Mothra to a safe rendezvous point. Despite being a lighter film, it’s more critical of the West than any film in the franchise since the first, even though it substitutes a fake country for America (and let me tell you, it’s weird to see that done to your own country instead of somebody else’s). It’s one of the better kaiju films, and Mothra would become probably the biggest Toho daikaiju star (no pun intended) other than Godzilla.
The following year, Godzilla returned in King Kong vs. Godzilla, which was based on an idea originated by Willis O’Brien, the animator of the original King Kong. Despite being directed by Honda, it’s unfortunately not up to its predecessors’ standards. I was only able to find the American version, which is lame; it follows the Raymond Burr “reporter” route, but instead of adding a reporter as an actual eyewitness to events, it just frames the film with a series of TV-anchor segments introducing and commenting on the events of the story, which is boring as all get-out. But what I could see of the underlying film was pretty lame too. They clearly went for kid-friendly comedy this time, with broad characters mugging and doing silly things. The kaiju weren’t portrayed as particularly dangerous, and are generally kept well away from populated areas. Godzilla is a real pushover compared to previous appearances, held off by an electric-fence tactic that was totally ineffectual against the original in 1954 (why didn’t he use his atomic breath to melt the towers this time?), and while the military can’t stop him, they can at least slow him down. He’s also photographed far less impressively (and in color for the first time), looking more like a rubber-suited stuntman on a miniature set, and begins acting more comically at times, jumping around and waving his arms. It’s a harbinger of the future direction for the series.
But next came a far better film around a similar formula, Mothra vs. Godzilla in 1964. This is my second-favorite kaiju film of the Shōwa era. Godzilla is back in more menacing form again, for what will be the last time in this era/continuity. Like the first Mothra film, it has a message about exploiting and abusing nature, and some social commentary; when the heroes first have the idea to ask Mothra for help against the menace of Godzilla, the people of Infant Island refuse to help because they’re angry at how atomic tests have devastated their land; but the hero and heroine make a poignant speech about how the innocent masses shouldn’t be punished for the crimes of the few and how all nations are neighbors and fellow humans who need to help each other. The apocalyptic darkness of the original is long-gone, but this is perhaps the richest and most effective of the more kid-friendly kaiju films of this series. And the actual battles between the monsters are handled pretty well. I also really enjoy Akira Ifukube’s musical themes for this film, particularly the Shobijin’s song “Mahara Mosura,” and its melody which serves as Mothra’s leitmotif.
After this, for the rest of the ’60s, Godzilla started to become more hero than villain, beginning later in the same year with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. King Ghidorah (a Japanese approximation of “Hydra”), the triple-necked dragon from outer space, would become the greatest recurring villain of the series, allowing Godzilla to be pushed more into the role of hero — a role he first adopted reluctantly, effectively under peer pressure from the heroic Mothra, when she convinced Godzilla and Rodan to fight King Ghidorah together. And yes, this film did establish that the kaiju were intelligent beings whose thoughts and conversations could be translated by the Shobijin, and Godzilla became kind of like Marvel’s Incredible Hulk, a big guy who just wanted the mean humans to leave him alone but could occasionally be grudgingly convinced to help them or at least fight the evil monsters that threatened them. The kaiju trio drove off King Ghidorah, but the next movie, Invasion of Astro-Monster, revealed that KG has been sent by alien invaders who convinced Earth to “give” them Godzilla and Rodan (ostensibly to save them from KG) in exchange for a cure to all disease (lousy bargainers — we would’ve let them take the kaiju for free), then brainwashed the monsters into becoming their weapons against Earth. Of course, the Earth kaiju came through in the end.
This is as far as I’ve been interested in going in the Shōwa series for now. That is, I’ve seen most of the rest on TV over the years, maybe even all of them, but I’m not currently interested in revisiting them, because the series got increasingly cheap and campy from here on. The next couple of films in the series were very low-budget and kid-oriented, even giving Godzilla a cute “son” called Minya or Minilla. (Contrary to what’s often assumed, this is not the same character as the winged “Godzooky” from the ’70s Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon.) I’ve heard that the next one after those, Destroy All Monsters, could be worthwhile, but neither Netflix nor the library has it; and the one after that was horrible, the whole thing just a dream of a bullied kid who imagined becoming Minya’s friend (Minya could talk in his dream) and watching Godzilla battle a kaiju with the same name as his main bully. After that, in the ’70s, Godzilla moved beyond antihero status to a full-fledged champion of Earth and friend to children, emulating the popular Gamera series from rival studio Daiei. The series went on for a few more films until it finally ended in 1975 due to failing audience interest. It would be nine years and a change of emperors before Godzilla was rebooted in the Heisei continuity. I’ll be covering those (except for the first two, which aren’t available on DVD) in a subsequent post, and the Millennium films after that.
“The Second Seal”: The low budget is showing. Norton’s discovery of the location of Dr. Clayton Forrester’s buried files and captured alien materials leads to an episode set mostly in a dingy underground government vault. The general in charge is played by none other than Mission: Impossible stalwart Greg Morris, who’s largely wasted here; his character’s only personality trait is sexism, and he’s taken over by an alien in the first act. Harrison and Suzanne spend most of the episode scrounging around in the vaults, with Norton back in the lab tracking down vault numbers over the phone and Ironhorse off at the banquet that general Greg Morris was supposed to attend before he was zombified. Much of the episode’s running time is wasted on H & S finding a pyramidal alien crystal that basically gets them stoned, making Harrison hyper-aggressive and Suzanne hyper-sexual, because she’s a woman and this was 1988 so of course she was. (Not that it wasn’t fun to watch, though. She was very hot.) More time is wasted on a mousy lieutenant with an unrequited crush on her hunky superior officer, which lets the alien who zombifies him use her to get past the voice sensor and into the vaults.
This is the second episode in a row where the aliens just happen to be going somewhere at the exact same time that the heroes develop an interest in it. Either the aliens have intercepted the team’s communications, or the writing is just very contrived. I vote B.
Anyway, there’s some mildly fun stuff as Zombie Greg Morris and his zombie soldiers raid the warehouse while hyperaggressive Harrison and wacky Suzanne hide from them, and it turns out, conveniently, that the feelgood crystal also makes a handy makeshift weapon when attached to a flashlight. Zombie Greg Morris finds an alien weapon of his own, a V-shaped hand weapon that fires miniature versions of the green disintegrator bolts from the ’53 movie. It turns out the aliens are searching for a file listing dump sites for 10,000 more dormant aliens — and hey, the officer who finds the file is played by James Kidnie, who six years later would play recurring baddie Pudface Morgan in RoboCop: The Series. I thought he looked familiar. Anyway, the aliens plan to blow the place up and rather foolishly set the timers on the charges before they’ve secured their exit, so Harrison & Suzanne manage to trap them down there when the bombs go off, retrieving the file first. Meanwhile, Ironhorse has been alerted and launches a one-man raid against the alien guards up top, including a desk guard who shoots first but whose aim is worse than Special Edition Greedo’s. The three are reunited and are pleased to have retrieved the list, but Alien Pudface has climbed up the elevator shaft and snatches the list. Ironhorse shoots him just as he’s going around a corner, but the list is gone, suggesting it may have fallen into alien hands (what? Was there someone waiting around the corner?). It doesn’t make much sense, but apparently you’re not allowed to have happy endings in horror stories.
“Goliath is My Name”: Whee, more undeground tunnels. This week they’re under a university (allegedly in Ohio, though it doesn’t seem far from the aliens’ Nevada cavern base), where a group of aliens disguised as college students (inexplicably dressed as Blues Brothers, complete with a leitmotif combining a stop time blues riff with the ominous downward glissando that represents the aliens musically) are searching for Y fever, a deadly bioweapon that a group at the university was developing for the US military. Also in the tunnels are a group of college students playing “Aliens and Asteroids,” which is supposed to be some sort of D&D-type thing, but is more of a cross between Live-Action Role Playing and Lazer Tag (plus there are hot girls playing the game alongside the nerds). One of the students randomly stumbles across one of the alien Blues Brothers, “shoots” him, and gets killed for his trouble. And here’s where the enormous coincidences kick in even more than in the past. Not only did this randomly killed student just happen to be a former participant in the very bioweapon program the aliens are searching for, but he worked on that program with Suzanne McCullough before she joined Blackwood’s team. So Suzanne gets word that her friend is missing, and Harrison goes with her to investigate, with Ironhorse tagging along to ride herd on them, thinking it’s a distraction from their alien hunt.
Anyway, the aliens keep wandering around the tunnels fruitlessly because their spies were lousy mapmakers, but then one of the LARPers, a big strong jock (yeah, because we know that jocks, like hot coeds, just love to play RPGs along with the nerds), gets possessed by an alien, and somehow he knows just where the secret biotoxin lab is (the aliens get the memories of the people they possess). He steals the vials but klutzily drops one, and the exposure to the toxin “mutates” him, so that he runs off and hooks back up with the LARPers, believing the game is real and going at it with the homicidal ruthlessness of his species — and clutching two glass vials of deadly toxin in his beefy hands the whole time yet somehow not breaking them. Eventually Team Blackwood gloms onto what’s happening (and of course the college nerds’ computer encryption is harder for Norton to hack than the Pentagon’s), and somehow Harrison is able to make such a huge intuitive leap to figure out this ridiculous chain of circumstances that even Ironhorse points out he’s got no evidence. Luckily, Harrison played Aliens & Asteroids when he was in college (he was a Planet Master), and apparently A&A is far more constrained in its gaming scenarios than D&D, since Harrison knows exactly how to fit himself into the scenario the jock alien is following and get the alien to chase him across campus where they lock him in the biohazard vault and Suzanne sucks out the air — and of course, this being a grossout horror show, vacuum has the same effect on the human body that it does in Total Recall.
Oh, and did I mention the part where Ironhorse machine-guns a bunch of aliens and only afterward checks to make sure they weren’t carrying the glass vials full of horrendously lethal brain-melting virus? Which I suppose isn’t much worse than Harrison leading the jock alien in an outdoors chase across campus while he’s holding those vials in his hands.
So basically what I’m saying is that this episode is stupid. The fact that it’s an attempt to depict gaming culture by a writer who knew nothing about gaming is far from the worst of its problems. It’s increasingly looking like my fond memories of this show’s first season were very, very selective. Now that I think about it, there was a lot I wasn’t crazy about at the time, a lot that I found problematical. But I didn’t remember it having quite this many bad episodes or production values that were quite this cheap.
“To Heal the Leper”: Oh… dear… lord. Remember what I just said about the last episode being stupid? At least it had some semblance of a coherent plot and in-universe logic. This… this… aiigghhh.
Okay. So let’s see if I can describe this mess in a remotely coherent way. Apparently one of the three Advocates went out for, I dunno, pizza or a movie or something, and caught a virus that’s killing it. And apparently with one Advocate down, the other two are suddenly too stupid to think clearly, and they fear that without them, the whole invasion force will be directionless. Indeed, Norton notices that the aliens’ transmissions have become random — so, losing just one of the leaders means that not one alien anywhere can think or act coherently? (Well, the aliens do constantly tell the Advocates “We are nothing without your counsel,” and maybe it isn’t just toadying.) Anyway, it seems to be catching, since Team Blackwood’s dialogue as they discuss this issue is equally incoherent and random.
So anyway, the aliens’ plan to fix this involves stealing a bunch of brains from a morgue (including the one the attendant is still using), and rigging a makeshift electrical still to brew up some kind of curative brain juice. But it’s not working, so the Advocates take over the bodies of three of the human prisoners they just happen to have sitting around — even though it was established in episode 2 that the Advocates were unable to leave their host bodies because of the radiation damage! And they go out in search of fresher brains, since evidently the scriptwriter’s wasn’t good enough for them.
Anyway, once the Advocates go walkies, all alien transmissions cease — and once again, Ironhorse, the military guy whose job it is to be alert to any possible threat, instantly jumps to the conclusion that the threat is ended and they can all go home now. But Harrison is deep in cliched B-movie scientist mode, angrily insisting the monsters are real when nobody believes him (sheesh, how many times have we gotta go through this?), and is more irritable and isolated from the others than ever. On the other hand, Sylvia Van Buren has suddenly recovered from her decades-long mental illness because the aliens have stopped transmitting, and she’s eager to get back out into the—
Hold on. Let’s think this through. The aliens were in deep hibernation for 35 years. They only woke up and started transmitting again a few months ago. Sylvia’s mental illness was the result of her clairvoyant abilities somehow induced by years of working with alien technology and remains, and has been ongoing for many years. The alien transmissions didn’t cause her mental illness, so there’s no reason their cessation would suddenly cure her.
Anyway, after Sylvia confirms Ironhorse’s ostrichlike conviction that the aliens are gone, Harrison isn’t mollified in the least, because it’s the scientist-hero’s job to be the doomsayer. A newspaper headline about the mass cerebrectomy at the morgue conveniently supports his belief, so he and Ironhorse rush to the scene and contend with the most horrendously overacted homicide detective in recent memory. (There is a mildly amusing exchange here. Clueless overacting detective: ”What would you do with all those brains?” Gilliganesque police officer: “Make detective, sir.”) After some more obligatory Harrison weirdness, he deduces that the theft must’ve been done by the aliens rather than cultists or cannibals or something, because they left behind the diseased brains (no Abby Normal for them).
So the sick Advocate is getting sicker, which for some reason causes her host body to age. The Advocates find fresh brains at, of all places, a hair salon, which is prophetically named “You’re Out of Your Mind.” (“How about a little off the top?” says the alien with the bone saw.) Then they go to the local power plant to energize their brain-still. Harrison is off on his own, clueless; somehow investigating the hair salon massacre leaves him doubting alien involvement. There’s an interminable sequence of the aliens setting up their still and dumping the brains in; I fast-forwarded through much of it. But as soon as the aliens turn on the brain-still, Sylvia screams and goes crazy again. Suzanne and Ironhorse rush to her side, and find she’s drawn a symbol on the wall resembling two lightning bolts in a triangle (so they say, though it looks like an SS insignia to me). They call Harrison and tell him about it, and of all the places he could happen to be, he’s directly next to the power-plant sign with their
Nazi lightning bolt insignia. (Deductive reasoning? Who needs it? We’ll just drop the answer in his lap.) And this is despite saying on the phone that he’s at the hair salon! For some reason, even though he’s figured out where the aliens are, he just hangs up on his team rather than calling in backup.
So apparently the brain-still takes hours to work, long enough for the guys to get to Sylvia’s institution and back, but the aliens realize they Need More Power! and turn the switches to maximum, blacking out most of the country, apparently. Norton is playing a video game that goes out and then he manages to call up a display of the power grid despite the power loss — and the window he was playing the game in was already titled “Power Grid Schematic” before he had any reason to check the power grid! Wasn’t anybody in the production paying attention to anything this week?
So Harrison watches as the brain-still drips its sweet, sweet brain juice into the sick Advocate’s mouth, and she de-ages, sits up in front of a rock-concert laser light display (which changes appearance over the act break), and preens. Harrison accidentally kicks a wrench and tips them off, and they come after him, though there’s some argument about whether it’s more important to get back to their troops. Anyway, Harrison barricades himself in a room as the Advocates pound on the door, and he makes a tape recording in case he doesn’t make it. His last words for those who follow him in the fight: “The aliens can be beaten. I know that now.” He knows that because he’s seen them healing one of their own, which means it must’ve fallen prey to some kind of bacteria or virus (what, it couldn’t have had space cancer or something?), so that tells him they’re vulnerable and can be beaten. So –
Hold on. Just… hold on. Umm. ”I know that now?” That the aliens can be beaten by disease? Uhh, didn’t we already figure that out 35 years earlier, at the end of the movie? Doesn’t the opening narration of this show include the phrase “Common bacteria stopped the aliens” every damn week?! How is this a revelation for Harrison?! Heck, I think somebody on Harrison’s team mentioned the aliens’ vulnerability to disease earlier in this very episode, though I can’t bring myself to go back and wade through that morass of unconnected bits of dialogue.
Anyway, the door finally bangs open, and it’s Ironhorse and Suzanne; apparently the aliens decided to leave after all. They left their brain-still behind, and the two scientists share a geekgasm over the supremely elegant alien technology (actually a cheap Lucite pyramid), whose material composition Suzanne is somehow unable to determine just by looking at it, which means it must be some inconceivably advanced alien technology, because obviously there’s no other way it could elude the ability of a microbiologist with no engineering training whatsoever to identify by sight alone. They’re thrilled by what this technology can teach them about the aliens, but as soon as Harrison touches it, it glows and disintegrates into plastic confetti, freeze frame, the end. Because of course the heroes of the show can never be allowed to actually succeed at anything.
Can we just pretend this one never happened? Should be easy enough, since the characters didn’t learn anything they didn’t know 35 bloomin’ years ago, Sylvia’s recovery was short-lived, and the three new Advocate host bodies will never be seen again; the usual radiation suits and Advocate voice actors will be back next week. Although the three actors who played the new hosts were all people I recognized from later work. Kim Coates has been all over the place, one of those actors whose faces I recognize but whose names I can’t place. Paul Boretski was Commander Seth Goddard on the Peter David/Bill Mumy-created Nickelodeon series Space Cases. And Guylaine St-Onge played another alien invader in the fifth season of Earth: Final Conflict, probably one of the few things in her filmography that rivals this episode for stupidity. Although for me the most notable guest star was voice actor Len Carlson, who did the voice of an alien doctor. He was a prominent voice in ’90s animation, with roles including Senator Kelly in X-Men and Mayor Maynot in the Beetlejuice animated series, and he had a featured narrator role in one of my favorite episodes of RoboCop: The Series, “RoboCop vs. Commander Cash.”
“Thy Kingdom Come”: This episode, written by Star Trek: The Next Generation staffer Herbert Wright, reintroduces us to Ann Robinson, reprising her role of Sylvia Van Buren from the 1953 War of the Worlds film. We learn that Sylvia stayed with Clayton Forrester as his assistant studying the aliens, and was Harrison Blackwood’s adopted mother. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t treat her well; it’s revealed that some effect of working around alien bodies for so long gave her some kind of EM precognitive powers that let her sense impending earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and alien invasions, yet she was regarded as insane and subjected to shock therapy that pretty much made it a self-fulfilling diagnosis. Anyway, in her histrionic, rambling way, she lets Harrison and Ironhorse know the aliens are on the move in the Pacific Northwest, and the team is on the road to try to stop them. (There are no scenes in the Cottage this week, so no awkwardly looped audio, mercifully.)
The aliens are a scouting party tracking down a bunch of dormant aliens the Canadian government dumped in a lake. The go through several sets of bodies to get there, since alien-possessed human corpses are prone to decay. First they’re hunters, then they hitch a ride with, of all things, a prison hockey team crossing the border to Canada, and take over some prisoners’ bodies during a rest stop (and the guards are so inept they don’t notice the alien/prisoners smuggling a large silver case onto the bus). Oddly, they actually maintain their cover to the point of playing in the hockey game, yet their aggression gets out of hand and there are casualties; one alien is killed and the others escape, then taking over a mother, father, and grandmother while their young son (who’s been playing with Galoob ST:TNG action figures) is in the restroom. They’re oddly nurturing toward the boy, even while acting all alien and uttering the alien catchphrase “To life immortal” (which debuted last week, but here is heard in the alien language for the first time, which sounds like “Tu doe nakotay”).
Meanwhile, our heroes get caught by the Canadian authorities and thrown in jail for reasons that are never adequately explained, and for some reason are unable to establish their bona fides. Harrison notes the guard is a chain smoker and offers him a meditation technique for quitting, which actually lets him hypnotize the guard so they can get away. They find the aliens awakening their brethren in the lake, and Suzanne picks up the idiot ball and needs it explained to her why blowing up an adjacent electrical tower and dropping the high-voltage wires in the lake might be an effective way to kill the aliens who are immersed in water. Sheesh, I know scientists tend to overspecialize, but you’d think a biologist would know that electrocution is not healthy for living things.
All in all, a freaky weird episode and not an especially coherent one. I think it was going for a kind of humor/horror approach that was very ’80s, but it just comes off as absurd and awkward. And it’s a disappointing showcase for Ann Robinson, who deserved better (although admittedly her character in the original film spent most of it screaming and hysterical, so this wasn’t really that different for her). Unfortunately, the episode establishes that Clayton Forrester is dead, which is a shame because Gene Barry was still alive and active at the time, so they could’ve included him as a recurring character too. It’s odd and unfortunate that they didn’t.
“A Multitude of Idols”: The alien leaders, the Advocates, discuss how to bring together the key ingredients for their plan of conquest: radioactive waste to wake up more dormant aliens, a secure location they can work in, and lots and lots of humans they can possess. There’s a little veiled social commentary about how reckless and cavalier humans are about driving “nucular” waste around the country (though the same voiceover actor pronounces it right the second time), so it’ll be easy to obtain. Meanwhile, fame-hungry reporter Elise, played by future Alien Nation female lead Michelle Scarabelli (and her cameraman played by an almost unrecognizably young Von Flores, who would later play major roles in the TekWar movies and Earth: Final Conflict), is doing an expose on that very same issue, and happens to witness an alien attacking and possessing one of the truckers, though she doesn’t see it clearly. Meanwhile, back at the literal ranch, Norton has programmed his computers to tag significant keywords from transmissions all over the country, and no sooner has he explained it to the team that he intercepts Elise transmitting the footage to her boss back at the station. The boss dismisses it as indistinct shadows, and Ironhorse agrees until Norton does your standard TV zoom-and-enhance magic to reveal an alien hand (though at least he pays lip service to the limited resolution of the source material).
The team is still bickering a lot, both over the general difficulties of working and living together and over how to gather more information to follow up the lead, and Ironhorse is still overly bureaucratic and obstructionist, though the others manage to convince him to go along with hacking the Pentagon’s satellite data so they can track the alien-driven trucks. Meanwhile, the aliens have found a ghost town abandoned decades ago due to a radiation leak, and by posing as FBI agents they manage to corral hundreds of local folks (apparently — all we see is one church social’s worth in a school bus) and drive them to the ghost town to be absorbed. Elise tracks down the trucks herself, and she and the cameraman get captured not long before Harrison and Suzanne arrive. The town is called Beeton, and Suzanne gets in a good one about it being “off the Beeton track.” But Harrison recognizes the name from somewhere, and we get another trademarked Harrison Blackwood Idiosyncratic Moment as he uses a tuning fork as a meditation aid to call up the memory (and this is after already learning that he likes to stand on his head to stop his organs from sinking). He remembers reading (in a newspaper decades ago?) about Beeton’s abandonment — so why are there hundreds of people here?
They call in Ironhorse, who arrives incognito and wearing a ridiculous shirt and shorts — but he’s also carrying his custom-made high-tech tomahawk, which he uses to thwack a suspected alien guard in the forehead (what if he’d turned out not to be an alien after all, I wonder?) so they can sneak into the warehouse and see the alien-reawakening, human-possessing assembly line in operation. (Harrison calls it “an alien Bates Motel,” which isn’t a very good metaphor at all.) They debate how to destroy it — blowing it up would scatter too much radiation into the atmosphere — but they’re discovered and have to beat a hasty retreat. They come back with the military (including a tank that’s bizarrely camouflaged by branches and leaves that are only around its middle, not its treads or turret, so that it looks like it’s wearing a bird nest), but of course the aliens are long scarpered — they’ve won this battle, and now they’re out there among us. Cut to a scene of Elise at the anchor desk, reporting that claims of alien activity have been discredited by the military and no aliens have come forth to refute it. Clearly she’s now one of them. Not that we’ll ever see her again.
Still a very uneven show. Some of the interplay among the main characters is entertaining, but Lynda Mason Green and Philip Akin are still too broad. And the guest characters aren’t served all that well, since they’re basically just sacrificial lambs.
“Eye for an Eye”: This is something of a classic episode of this series, or at least one of the more memorable ones. It aired on Halloween night, 1988, the 50th anniversary of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and the story was set on the same date and occasion. The premise is that General Wilson has dug up buried evidence that the “Martian” invasion of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey in Welles’s broadcast actually happened, an advance scouting mission arriving 15 years ahead of the main invasion fleet, and that the radio broadcast was part of the government coverup to confuse the issue. It’s actually more plausible than you’d expect that H. G. Wells’s novel and the Mercury Theater broadcast based on it could exist in a universe where the events of the George Pal WotW movie were real, since the movie has very little in common with the preceding versions beyond the fact that the invasion begins with asteroids falling to Earth, that the hero spends some time trapped in a house adjacent to the aliens, and that the aliens are killed by Earthly diseases. The parallels are vague enough that it’s plausible that Wells just made some lucky guesses. Although it’s harder to buy that Orson Welles and the government were able to interview the survivors and concoct the radio play within the same day as the attack itself, soon enough that the broadcast could serve as a smokescreen for the real event.
Still, the episode plays out fairly nicely in some ways. The aliens have sent a possessed biker gang, of all things, to dig up a buried ship from the ’38 attack — though it’s not explained why they happen to be doing this right on the 50th anniversary of same, when there’s bound to be more attention than normal on the area. Meanwhile, Our Heroes are in town to interview the old folks about what they remember from 50 years ago. Once again the characters discuss the collective amnesia that’s befallen the world, but there are a few people in Grover’s Mill (or the Canadian location subbing for it) who still remember the invasions, notably a quartet of old soldiers who were members of the militia that somehow fought off the aliens, the chief ones being Flannery (Jeff Corey) and Harv (John Ireland). Corey is playing the kind of scatterbrained, half-senile character he played a lot in his later years; Flannery has a reputation for his fanciful boasts about his actions in ’38, and at first he isn’t believed (even by Harrison) when he sees evidence that the bikers are alien-possessed. (The aliens are given a new mannerism just to tip him off, a tendency to eat flowers, which he saw them doing in ’38.) Finally he’s proved correct, and it’s actually rather moving the way Ironhorse treats these veterans of a forgotten battle with long-overdue respect and gratitude, and eventually accepts their help in fighting off the aliens.
Due to the show’s tiny budget, the aliens can’t get the buried war machine to work, so they have to take off the gooseneck heat ray (or rather a very cheap, crude full-scale mockup thereof) and mount it on a hearse to make it mobile. Somehow they’re stupid enough to let Ironhorse decoy their whole group toward Flannery’s barn, where Harrison has rigged a parabolic dish to reflect the heat ray back and destroy the aliens (somehow getting the hearse and the whole biker gang in one shot). There’s a decent attempt to replicate the original wavery disintegration effect from the movie, but for some reason the heat-ray visual effect (created by a spray of sparks from a burning welding wire) is confined within a narrow, straight beam shape instead of the open spray of the movie and the series pilot.
There are some cute, quirky touches to the episode like the PA announcements at the anniversary festival, and though the acting is still a bit awkward, we’re starting to see the warm rapport among the cast that made me like this show so much the first time around. But the show still suffers from a terribly low budget and mediocre production values. The worst part was the treatment of the scenes of the Advocates. They’re just a random assortment of stock shots of the radiation-suited extras standing around and bobbing their heads with dialogue superimposed, and there’s no effort at all to synchronize the dialogue with the head movements or the intercutting between shots — so for instance there’s a long shot of a single Advocate bobbing its head during a sequence where all three Advocates take turns speaking, so there’s no way of telling which one we’re supposed to be looking at. And some of the shots seem to be used twice in the same episode. It’s really very crude.
Still, overall this is possibly the strongest episode yet, and made me more sanguine about carrying forward with this rewatch.
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…
Back in 2010, I decided to revisit the Christopher Reeve Superman film series, which I’d had a negative view of in the past, under the impetus of the release of the Richard Donner cut of Superman II. Watching Donner’s films again (or for the first time in the case of the recut S2) gave me a renewed appreciation for them, while my opinion of the theatrical version of S2 that was largely reshot by Richard Lester remained as low as ever, if not lower. As for the third and fourth movies, I dismissed them out of hand as not worth my time.
But ComicsAlliance’s columnists Chris Sims and David Uzumeri have been doing a weekly series of vintage-movie reviews lately, offering opinions on familiar superhero movies that are often surprising and unconventional but always interesting. They were actually a lot harsher on the first Superman movie than I was, and didn’t think much of S2 either; but their review of the much-maligned Superman III (Part One, Part Two) is emphatically positive, and it inspired me to revisit the film myself. I recommend reading their review in full, and feel it would be redundant for me to go into too much detail, but I thought I’d offer a few comments of my own.
I think Sims and Uzumeri are right about this film — it really does perfectly capture the goofiness of Silver-Age Superman stories from the ’50s and ’60s. And it is a lot more unified in script and tone than the prior films, which suffered from extensive rewrites and director changes. This film may be fluffier and more overtly comical, to be sure — and yes, it’s largely a Richard Pryor vehicle (though the majority of deleted scenes on the DVD are his material, so it’s less so than it could’ve been) — but it has a clear, cohesive vision and is tightly scripted and directed throughout. There’s a ton of stuff happening in the film, lots of little bits of business in the very complex scenes, but it all fits together and is deftly orchestrated by Lester.
There’s good character work here too. Clark matures into less of a bumbler and more just a nice guy, and Superman gets more facets while getting plenty of opportunities to do good, solid superheroing (the chemical-plant sequence is superb). Lois is barely present, but what there is of her is just right. Jimmy is well-handled in his brief role as well, showing some of the intrepidity of the comics character. Pryor’s Gus Gorman doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers hoped, but the other new characters work very well. Lana Lang was a fantastic character; Annette O’Toole was lovely, warm, and luminous as a love interest who actually preferred Clark to Superman. I’ve always remembered her fondly (more so than Margot Kidder, in fact) and considered her a highlight of the film and the whole franchise. Robert Vaughn’s Ross Webster, as Sims and Uzumeri point out, is a prototype for the corporate-magnate version of Lex Luthor who would emerge in the comics about four years later, and he pulls it off well. I actually find him a more credible villain than Hackman’s Luthor, who was just some goofball hanging around underground with an idiot sidekick and obsessing about real estate. Webster actually owned a huge conglomerate and had the resources to dominate the world. He’s a cartoony villain, but a cartoony villain who works better than movie Luthor did. (And the set design of his office/lair is ingenious, with all these elaborate gags for displays hidden behind the fireplace and the fountain and such, a hilarious parody of Bond-style supervillain lairs.) His sister Vera is kind of a wasted character, but his requisite moll Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson) is sexier than Miss Teschmacher and her “genius pretending to be an airhead” act is kind of funny (if you can tolerate the squeaky Judy Holliday voice she puts on).
It’s far from a perfect film, to be sure. In particular, the “Clark vs. Superman” sequence went on too long and could’ve used more dialogue and character interplay, not just physical action to symbolize the conflict; having the two halves just fight each other undermines the good-vs.-evil theme. Plus I have issues with its look; some of the effects are kind of cheap, the opening titles are very badly done, and there’s something weird going on with Reeve’s hair color in a lot of the film, light streaks that make Superman look rather odd. But a lot of it does work, especially the Clark-Lana material, and it’s mostly a very competently directed and structured film. So I was wrong to discount it before. I think it stands up there with Superman: The Movie and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut as a pretty solid, if flawed, trio of films, even if it’s very different in tone from the first two.
(And how does it fit in with my preferred viewing approach to S2:TRDC where I stop it just before the recycled turn-back-time sequence, so that Lois still remembers that Clark is Superman? I think it fits fine, since we see so little of Lois here that it’s possible she’s just pretending not to know. If anything, it makes her subtle jealousy toward Lana at the end work better, since otherwise Lois would’ve had no reason to be interested in Clark.)
I missed this until now… over the weekend, TrekMovie.com’s Robert Lyons posted his review of DTI: Forgotten History. The “money quote,” as they say:
Bennett spends generous and balanced time in each timeline, balancing the delicate need for gradual revelation of the Kirk-era timeline in order to leave the reader teased and somewhat in the dark about the development and ultimate resolution of the crisis that presents itself in the later era. In doing so, Bennett revisits and ties together many time-travel incidents from the Original Series and the Animated Series, allowing them to form a consistently woven tapestry behind the formation of the DTI. While the race to ‘connect the time-travel dots’ seemed overkill in the previous DTI installment, the addition of the formative storyline to embrace the original Enterprise’s temporal hopping serves to strengthen the author’s attempt to bring forth a consistent theory of time travel in the Star Trek universe.
I’m sorry I haven’t yet updated my website with information about this book. I’ve had another project demanding my attention for the past several weeks. But I’ll try to get around to putting something up soon.
I was browsing the library’s DVD shelves the other day, and I came upon one labeled “Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn.” ”Hey,” thought I as I pulled it out and looked at the cover. ”It’s a Hitchcock film I never heard of! And Ingrid Bergman’s in it!” So I checked it out and brought it home — but once I watched it, I realized why I’ve never heard of it. It wasn’t one of Hitch’s more successful films.
One expects thrillers from Hitchcock, but Under Capricorn is more of a historical romance, based on a novel by Helen Simpson. (The screenplay is by James Bridie, and Hume Cronyn gets a credit for “adaptation” — a credit that often shows up in older films, but whose meaning I’m not clear on. I’d guess it’s what’s now called a “screen story,” the outline on which the screenplay is based.) This 1949 film is set in Australia in the 1830s and revolves around class tensions between gentry and commoners, with the latter consisting mainly of paroled felons who can be sent back to prison at any time if they misbehave. The plot is a love triangle between stable boy-turned-land baron Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), his upper-class wife Henrietta (Bergman), and her old friend Charles (Michael Wilding), a dissolute gentleman who helps her recover from the drunken and helpless state that she’s been guided into by jealous housekeeper Millie (Margaret Leighton), making it more of a love quadrangle, I guess (though her jealousy is as much about maintaining her absolute control over the household as it is about desire for Sam).
What makes it intriguing is that Hitchcock experimented here with the same kind of really long, uncut master takes that he’d employed in the previous year’s Rope, though not to the same extent. There are some technically ambitious set pieces of the camera following characters through the various rooms of the Fluskys’ mansion, from downstairs to upstairs, and even from outdoors to indoors (though there are some visible cuts when that happens if you pay attention). The camera must have been on a crane throughout, and I imagine there were stagehands hastening to maneuver wild walls in and out of position while the camera was pointed elsewhere. But while this was an ambitious experiment, it didn’t always work. Sometimes the long takes were just extremely static shots of two people having a conversation. That can be a good way to showcase the actors’ performances, let them shine on their own without a lot of camera work and intercuts getting in the way, but here the performances tended to be underwhelming and the story not especially engaging. Cotten in particular gave a cold, flat performance that failed to create the sympathy for his character that the story required. The others were pretty much in that wry, detached idiom that was commonplace in ’40s British films, except for Bergman, who was overly melodramatic. I think Hitchcock was so focused on the technical side that he didn’t bring out the best performances in his cast, and Cotten was simply miscast. So there are a lot of cases where the performances and dialogue alone aren’t all that engaging and some camera movement or intercutting would’ve helped liven things up. And note I’m saying this as someone who loves long master takes as a rule.
It’s also somewhat laughable to hear the Swedish Bergman, American Cotten, and English Wilding using their normal accents while playing characters who are frequently described as Irish. Leighton is the only one who even approaches an Irish accent; everyone else has an English accent even though they’re all either Irish or Australian (and at the time of this film, more than 40 years after the settlement of New South Wales, a distinct Australian accent would have already existed). It’s all rather bizarre and off-putting, and I wonder if the casting played a role in the poor box-office and critical reception for the film. Apparently it was such a huge flop that its financiers actually repossessed the film.
Anyway, the DVD release (from Image Entertainment) is quite minimal. It’s got no features, and the only menu it has is the chapter selection menu. It would’ve been nice to see some behind-the-scenes info on the production (in addition to the ambitious long takes, there are also some nice matte paintings or glass paintings of the city of Sydney and Flusky’s mansion), but I suppose there wasn’t much interest in documenting this film.
This past weekend, the premiere episodes of The Legend of Korra, the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender which debuts on television next month, were made available for legal online viewing on KorraNation.com. They were only up for the weekend, and are apparently gone now, but I watched the episodes twice, and here are my thoughts. If you didn’t catch them over the weekend, then you may want to hold off reading this until after they premiere on Nickelodeon on Saturday, April 14 at 11 AM Eastern. I’ll try to avoid any huge spoilers, though. (This is mostly a repost from my review on the Ex Isle BBS.)
This was a great beginning, a gorgeously made continuation of the Avatar universe. The animation was spectacular, feature-quality work, continuing everything that was great about the original but ramping it up. It felt like a Miyazaki film, even more than A:TLA did. Even the 3D computer animation on the cityscape and airships was very smoothly integrated with the 2D animation; the opening shots of the cityscape and the statue of Aang looked like paintings but had 3D movement. The “satomobiles” (cute) looked a little more like digital constructs when in motion, but I guess that’s been done for so long that today’s viewers are probably used to it, and it’s certainly not unprecedented for this franchise.
Korra is a good character, well-played by Janet Varney. She’s got a nice strong voice that reminds me of both Mae Whitman (Katara) and Cricket Leigh (Mai). It took me a few minutes to realize it, but in a real sense, Korra is Aang, or rather the same soul in a new life. And she does have Aang-like qualities in her impetuousness and self-doubt, and in her impulse to heroism. But she’s different too, and her difficulty with airbending drives that home. She’s a lot more aggressive than Aang, and a lot less polite.
Great to see “Master Katara” again, but it’s a shame that Aang, Sokka, and evidently many of the others are gone. That’s surprising, really, considering that it’s only been 70 years and A:TLA showed us a number of characters who were well over a century old. I guess they wanted to keep the A:TLA characters’ presence to a minimum so they wouldn’t overshadow the new cast and storylines, but it’s still a bit odd.
Oh, and that was wicked of them to tease us about what happened with Zuko’s mother. (I think that story’s being told in the new comics.)
It’s interesting to hear J. K. Simmons as Tenzin; I’m used to hearing him play angrier, sterner characters (J. Jonah Jameson, Generator Rex‘s White Knight), so I didn’t initially recognize him in this softer-spoken role. Although Tenzin does seem to have a Jameson-esque temper boiling beneath the surface. It’s interesting… he’s Aang and Katara’s son, but he takes more after Sokka in appearance and maybe in some aspects of personality (though he’s serious, not the jokester Sokka was).
And I guess that “roll eyes skyward, then give a world-weary sigh” business is pretty clearly going to be Tenzin’s “thing,” but what’s impressive is that the animators have him do it a bit differently each time. I love the attention to detail. Joaquim Dos Santos is probably the best animation director in television (though credit should also be given to his co-director here, Ki Hyun Ryu), and it’s great to see his work again.
Not sure I’m crazy about the sports focus that emerged in episode 2, but it was well-handled. The climax was entirely predictable, but the execution still moved me.
I still find it surprising that they’ve gone so quickly from the early-industrial tech of A:TLA’s Fire Nation to this early-20th-century environment with cars and electricity and radio and cameras. But then, this is a world where it took them about six months to go from the Mechanist’s first prototype hot-air balloons to a fleet of massive war zeppelins. I guess they’re just very, very efficient. But I would’ve liked it if the tech had been a little less advanced, a little more steampunk and bending-based.
By the way, if Republic City is in the former Fire Nation colonies, then Air Temple Island can’t be older than about 70 years. So how come there’s a 2000-year-old teaching aid there? I guess it could’ve been moved there from somewhere else, but that line still threw me. (Not to mention that I doubt wooden flats like that could survive 2000 years outdoors.)
In episode 2, the pro-bending folks are surprisingly blase about discovering the Avatar is on their team. I mean, the Avatar’s kind of the most important person in the world, this deeply sacred figure. It’s kinda like having the Dalai Lama or the Pope join a sports team. Yet the sports folks merely had a few moments of surprise and then just rolled with it. That seemed like something got glossed over for the sake of pacing.
Also, one thing that concerns me a bit is that so far, all the bad guys seem to be male. I know Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee are tough acts to follow, but it’s just not an Avatar-verse show without awesome, kickass young ladies on both sides.
On reflection, one other thing has been bugging me a bit. Korra is worth watching for the gorgeous animation and rich characterizations and good music and such, but so far there’s very little sense of danger or high stakes. By the end of episode 2 of A:TLA, we knew that the world was torn apart by war, that Aang had an urgent mission to pursue, that he felt guilty for abandoning the world and allowing the war to happen, and that he and his friends were being pursued by a driven and capable enemy who’d already done a lot of damage to Katara and Sokka’s home and would stop at nothing to capture Aang. There was a clear, palpable sense of danger and urgency. Here, though, the stakes don’t seem all that high. The opening narration sets up the current situation but doesn’t give any indication of danger or trouble. The first episode does establish the core conflict in Republic City — the unrest between benders and non-benders, the crime and social inequality, the risk of failing to fulfill Aang and Zuko’s vision for the city. It suggests that Korra has a role in resolving those problems, and it introduces the villain Amon who will be her main rival. But this is all more potential than actual at this point, and then episode 2 de-escalates things and spends the whole time focusing solely on Korra’s training and character interactions. So any sense of high stakes hinted at in episode 1 faded in episode 2, and it’s hard to feel at this point that what we’re seeing is anywhere near as important as A:TLA’s saga.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional episode that has low stakes and focuses on character rather than danger and fighting. ”The Headband” in A:TLA’s season 3 is such an episode, and it works very well. But if the intent was to debut the series with two back-to-back episodes, then it would’ve worked better to have a second episode that escalated things like “The Avatar Returns” did. As it is, it feels kind of like the producers are coasting — like they expect us to watch out of loyalty and so aren’t trying as hard to give this series a really compelling storyline. I’m hoping that subsequent episodes will prove otherwise, but the opening of this series is simply not as narratively strong as that of its predecessor.
Continuing my run through the Season 1 DVD set:
“Little Orphan Airplane”: The most entertaining episode yet, courtesy of writer Elroy Schwartz (brother of Gilligan’s Island creator Sherwood Schwartz, though some sources say he’s Sherwood’s son and IMDb says both). A US agent played by Mission: Impossible stalwart Greg Morris is shot down over Africa, Steve parachutes in to save him, they’re taken in by a pair of very funny Dutch nuns, and Steve bionically rebuilds the plane so they can escape. Effective and fun on every level, except for the fact that most of the anti-American rebels in this African country have wholly American accents.
“Doomsday, and Counting”: Gary Collins plays another cosmonaut friend of Steve’s who’s working to convert an old Soviet missile base into a base for a joint US-Soviet Mars mission, but an earthquake endangers his fiancee and they must go down into the depths to save her, oh, and defuse the nuclear self-destruct mechanism while they’re at it. William Smithers is a Soviet general who bonds with Oscar as they mutually agree to stay and support the people down below in their hopeless effort to defuse the bomb. A nice one, though it again suffers from the blatantly American accents on the Russian characters. (Collins’s lines were clearly written to convey “foreigner speaking slightly stilted English,” and he even delivers them that way, yet without trying to change his accent at all; it’s bizarre.) It’s fascinating to see the Soviets again portrayed in such a friendly light; the episode basically treats the Cold War as a relic of the past and looks forward to a new era of cooperation. I wonder, were US-Soviet relations really this warm in 1973-4, or was this a consequence of US television being reluctant to risk antagonizing the Soviets by portraying them as outright bad guys? And Collins’s proposal for a nuclear-powered Mars rocket was poignant to hear, given that in 1974, this would’ve actually been seen as a realistic possibility for the relatively near future.
“Eyewitness to Murder”: Steve identifies a sniper (Gary Lockwood) with his bionic eye and must try to save a federal prosecutor while keeping his classified abilities secret from the authorities. Decent, but a classic example of the much more leisurely pace of ’70s TV, to the point that it gets tedious at times. The best part is the interplay between Oscar and Steve early on, when Oscar is trying to talk Steve out of getting involved in a civilian matter. The dialogue between friends on opposite sides of an issue feels very real and natural and Anderson is in superb form.
“The Rescue of Athena One”: This episode by former Star Trek story editor D. C. Fontana comes close to being an absolute classic. Majors’s then-wife Farrah Fawcett-Majors plays the first American female astronaut, trained by Steve and clashing with him at first. (And yes, her famous hairdo is there as well at the beginning and end, though she spends most of the episode with her hair tied back and is hardly recognizable.) When her mission suffers an accident that injures her copilot, a rescue mission led by Steve must rendezvous with them at Skylab and figure out how to get them down safely. The early stuff at NASA is magnificent; as with the pilot, it has great verisimilitude and feels like the Moon-landing stuff I actually watched on the news when I was a small child. It’s a palpable reminder of how the Space Age looked to us back then in the early ’70s, when we really believed we’d continue forward from Apollo rather than all but giving up on manned spaceflight. I almost wept at getting to relive what it felt like to be in those times. And the idea of the US sending a woman into space nearly a decade before Sally Ride was an engaging fictional premise, another facet of this show’s delightful optimism about the possibilities of spaceflight in the ’70s. Unfortunately, this marvelous vision of spaceflight is badly undermined by the episode’s zero-budget effects (pretty much entirely stock NASA footage and simulation animations/paintings) and the worst attempts to fake zero gravity that I think I’ve ever seen (you could see the characters moving their upper bodies as if to pretend they were floating between handholds, but due to inept directing, the camera was far enough back that you could clearly see them walking). So, yeah, a marvelous evocation of the golden age of spaceflight, except for the actual spaceflight parts.
“Dr. Wells is Missing”: Alan Oppenheimer makes his first post-pilot appearance as Rudy, who’s lured to Austria and kidnapped by a bad guy hoping to force Rudy to make a bionic goon for him. Steve tracks him down and manages to get himself caught, but Rudy is clever and resourceful at conning the bad guys. But the head bad guy tricks Steve into revealing his bionics and pits him against several of his goons in a slow-motion gauntlet. A mediocre episode aside from Rudy’s resourcefulness, and there are moments where Steve is remarkably callous about dealing with bad guys in lethal or potentially lethal ways, more so than I remember him being or than was typical for ’70s action heroes (indeed, in the pilot and “Little Orphan Airplane,” Steve made a point of not wanting to use guns or lethal force). It is notable, however, as the first time that the later-familiar “ta-ta-ta-ta-tang” sound effect was used to represent Steve wielding his bionic strength — although it’s only used once that way and is then, bizarrely, used twice more to accompany a freakishly but naturally strong goon swinging a lamppost at Steve.
“The Last of the Fourth of Julys” (Shouldn’t that be “the Fourths of July?”): Bad guy Steve Forrest (plus a young Kevin Tighe) plans to use a laser in a major terrorist strike, and Steve must be trained for an infiltration mission involving being launched in a torpedo, climbing a cliff, and pole-vaulting an electric fence. (Here it was established that jumping a 30-foot fence even with a pole was at the very limits of Steve’s capabilities; I think maybe later his jumping ability was amped up in the usual sort of power drift that superheroes tend to get. But then, maybe Rudy made some improvements.) But the radiation from his nuclear-powered bionic limbs tips off the bad guys’ sensors (hope you weren’t planning on having kids, Steverino) and he’s caught. But not to worry, double agent Arlene Martel helps him escape and sabotage the laser, and again Steve is a lot more casually lethal in dealing with the bad guys than I remembered. Interesting mainly for the training sequence, the idea that Steve had to be specially prepared for a mission instead of already being a superagent ready for anything.
“Burning Bright”: This is William Shatner’s notable guest turn as Josh, an astronaut friend of Steve’s whose brain gets supercharged by some kind of “electrical field” in space, rendering him superintelligent but unstable. It’s an interesting and unusual episode by screenwriter Del Reisman, more a character drama than an action piece, and at times quite a compelling one as Steve tries to help a friend who’s becoming increasingly, tragically beyond help. I’m enjoying the extent to which this season has embraced Steve’s astronaut identity almost as much as his secret-agent identity, and the way it continues to reflect the seventies’ sense of optimism about the future possibilities of manned spaceflight. Of course, even watching the show back in its initial run (though probably a couple seasons later than this), I was aware that the show’s space program was a whole lot more active than the real one, but still, it’s an enjoyable alternate history to revisit. The episode does have a few drawbacks, though. There’s some silly technobabble about “the Sun as the origin of space” (origin in the coordinate sense, not the generative sense, so it could be worse) and about how Oscar’s OSI computers are somehow able to prove the validity of Josh’s ideas from a distance and with only Steve’s single-sentence summaries to go on (and it’s amusing to see the idea of testing something on a computer presented as a major investment of funds and effort that only a government agency was capable of). In fact, Oscar’s whole presence serves little purpose beyond contractual obligation. There are some silly bleepy sound effects representing Josh’s “computer brain.” The climax is a little weak, and Shatner is kind of hammy at times, though otherwise not bad. Also, Shatner’s wearing the scraggliest and most unflattering toupee I’ve ever seen on him, though not the fakest (that would be the one in the first TekWar movie). Overall, though, it’s still an excellent episode (and is producer Harve Bennett’s favorite, as well as his first time working with Shatner, whom he’d later work with on several Star Trek movies).
“The Coward”: Another strong dramatic episode, though with an action plot too. Steve is sent to retrieve sensitive files from a recently-discovered WWII plane that crashed just outside of China, and learns that his long-lost biological father was accused of bailing out of the plane in cowardice and causing his crewmates’ deaths, so he’s on a quest to learn the truth about his father as well. It’s an excellent script from Elroy Schwartz (and uses the same location seen as the mission house in Schwartz’s earlier “Little Orphan Airplane,” also involving a plane wreck), and in addition to giving us a couple of nifty scenes with Steve and his mother (Martha Scott), it features a bumper crop of Star Trek veterans, predominantly George Takei as an Army mountain-climbing instructor who trains Steve, and also including France Nuyen (“Elaan of Troyius”), Ron Soble (“Spectre of the Gun”), and stuntman/actor Robert Herron (“Charlie X,” “The Savage Curtain”). Also notable for two more uses of the “ta-ta-ta-ta-tang” sound effect for Steve’s bionics in action in the climactic fight, once when he swings a heavy pole, once for a flying kick. So far if there’s an underlying theory to their use of that sound effect, it seems to be “use for things forcefully swung through the air during slow-motion shots.”
“Run, Steve, Run”: After two gems, the abbreviated first season ends with a whimper, and worse, with a clip show. Well, it’s only partly a clip show. Dr. Dolenz (Henry Jones), the robot builder from “Day of the Robot” (who pronounces it “robut” like Dr. Zoidberg on Futurama), has been hired by George Murdock to build more robuts, but he wants to build bionic robuts so he observes Steve from afar and causes an accident to test his strength. Even though it looks like an assassination attempt, Steve somehow deduces that it was the work of someone who knows he’s bionic, and spends a lot of the episode reminiscing about villains who knew of his abilities, starting with the bad guys from “Population: Zero” and “Dr. Wells is Missing” before finally remembering “Day of the Robot.” Oscar, however, is bizarrely complacent for the head of an intelligence agency; when presented with the possibility that his most secret and valuable asset might be under threat, he doesn’t take even the most rudimentary precautions, but just dismisses Steve’s concerns as his imagination and tells him to go on vacation. So we get a bunch of fairly tedious horse-ranch stuff (mainly involving convincing a highly skilled, tomboyish young horsewoman that she should stop trying to compete with men and embrace being pretty and feminine) before Dolenz finally captures him. (The fact that half of Murdock’s lines are complaints that Dolenz’s plan is taking too long to get anywhere should’ve tipped off writer Lionel E. Siegel that he was in trouble here.)
In general, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Steve’s wit, the casual, deadpan snark with which he deflects questions about his bionic powers (“I eat a lot of carrots”) or interrogation by villains (“What is your name?” “Must’ve slipped my mind. It’ll come back to me.”) He was quite the wisecracker, and it’s a style of wit that Majors’s particular, narrow range as a performer is well-suited for. Still, there were times in the more dramatic episodes — particularly when playing against Shatner in “Burning Bright” and doing emotional scenes with Steve’s mother in “The Coward” — where Majors’s limits as an actor work against the story.
Overall, though the Larson-produced pilot movies and some episodes like “Operation Firefly” were in the vein of the cheesiness I thought I remembered, the first season as a whole was much smarter and more sophisticated than I remembered, especially in the latter half. (And you know, I’m surprised how much I’ve forgotten about this show, given how constantly I used to watch it in first run and reruns in my younger days. I guess it’s been off television for a pretty long time now.) On the other hand, I hadn’t realized just what a low budget this show had, with very little in the way of optical effects aside from Albert Whitlock’s work in the second movie. It relies mostly on stock footage, slow motion, and judicious editing to convey action (or sometimes not so judicious, as for instance in “The Last of the Fourth of Julys” where a shot of Steve grappling a rock in stateside training is reused when he’s on the actual mission in the Pacific). I wonder if that continued in later seasons.
The bonus features on the season 1 DVD set aren’t that great. The highlight is a 74-minute interview feature with Harve Bennett, just him talking about the show without any cutaways or clips or images. It was mostly interesting, and I learned some things, like the fact that the voice in the opening titles saying, “Steve Austin. Astronaut. A man barely alive” was Bennett himself. But it went on maybe a bit too long, and some portions of it are used in three of the other features. There’s a feature on real-life bionics which is kind of interesting but a bit superficial. There’s one on the construction of the main title sequence which is pretty interesting, and one about the first-season guest stars that’s kind of dull (and mis-edits a part of Bennett’s interview talking about Majors’s relationships with Farrah Fawcett vis-a-vis Lindsay Wagner so that something he actually said about Majors & Wagner’s friendship and chemistry was misrepresented as being about Majors & Fawcett). And there’s an “interactive dossier” about the bionic parts that’s really just a bunch of clips of their various uses in the show — cute at first but not worth watching every clip. And the features don’t include things I would’ve liked, such as more discussion of the pilots and maybe an episode commentary or two. So all in all, not a great set of features.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid I have to stop here, since Netflix doesn’t yet have the later seasons available for rental. I guess this turned out to be a pretty brief review series, at least for now. (They do have The Bionic Woman, apparently, but I don’t want to revisit that until I’ve gotten through season 2 of 6M$M, since I don’t want to jump ahead in the continuity.)
I’ve been Netflixing the first DVD volume for The Six Million Dollar Man, containing the three pilot movies and the first season, and I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts, but haven’t gotten around to it until now. These can’t be the kind of detailed reviews I gave for Mission: Impossible, since I don’t remember enough details and don’t have the time or inclination right now, but I’ll just give some general observations.
6M$M was based on Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg, which as I recall was more of a violent spy novel than the series, and also treated the technology in a relatively more realistic and limited way; for instance, Steve Austin didn’t have superspeed so much as improved endurance, and his bionic eye was just a disguised film camera that didn’t give him any actual vision. The series, of course, ramped it up to give him superstrength, superspeed, and telescopic/infrared vision.
The original pilot movie, called simply The Six Million Dollar Man, was written by Howard Rodman (pseudonymously) and Terrence McDonnell and produced and directed by Richard Irving. It’s a prototype for what’s to come, and some things haven’t quite fallen into place. Steve is a civilian astronaut here, and instead of the novel’s and series’s Oscar Goldman, the man behind the bionics project is the stern, manipulative Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin), who’s introduced in an interminably slow, boring, and totally unnecessary elevator sequence intercut with the far more fascinating sequence of Steve’s preparations for the test flight that will lead to his crippling accident. Those portions are compelling because of the evident cooperation the production had from NASA and/or the Air Force, letting them film with an actual test vehicle and use real flight footage. The sequence feels totally real with all the technical chatter over the radios and is intriguing to watch.
After Steve’s crash, Spencer convinces Dr. Rudy Wells (portrayed here by Martin Balsam) to give Steve his prototype bionics, the price being that Steve will be essentially chattel to Spencer’s intelligence agency and run special missions for him. This fairly dark idea is one that didn’t last past the pilot movie, and has been explored more fully in later superpowered-spy series like The Invisible Man (2000) and Jake 2.0. Anyway, the bulk of the pilot is devoted to Steve being convinced to accept the bionics and then trying to learn to use them while coping with the post-traumatic stress from his crash, plus his developing romance with his nurse (played by Barbara Anderson, fresh from a recurring stint as Mimi on Mission: Impossible). Eventually he gets sent on a rescue mission that turns out to be just a test of his abilities, he survives it, and then the movie just kind of ends, with no resolution to the romance or to the question of Steve’s future with the agency. It’s a disappointing fizzle after an interesting beginning.
Lee Majors actually surprised me here and in the movies to follow. My impression was that he was a pretty bland, one-note actor, and while it’s true that he’s fairly deadpan and understated, I found he was pretty good at conveying an underlying emotional intensity or sincerity, at least up to a point. And his performance style fits his character, an astronaut trained to be cool and controlled under pressure.
A lot was retooled for what followed, so the pilot can’t be considered quite canonical. Steve was retconned into an Air Force colonel, and Spencer was forgotten, with Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson, of course) being retroactively established as the man behind his creation. The latter two pilot movies were produced by Glen A. Larson, who approached them as James Bond-style spy thrillers, complete with a horrible theme song written by Larson (“He’s the ma-a-a-a-n!”).
Wine, Women, and War is the more Bond-like of the two, opening with Steve attending a party in a tuxedo that then converts into a wetsuit — though Steve isn’t quite the womanizer Bond is, spending most of the movie mourning the death of a female contact from that initial mission and rebuffing the advances of the curvaceous Michele Carey, though he eventually ends up at least literally in bed with Soviet agent Britt Ekland. And Larson gives Steve some of the most sophomoric, crude sexual innuendoes in history, like “Sorry I had to violate your porthole.” The movie has a somewhat unfocused story in which the grieving Steve is trying to avoid further assignments but gets manipulated into taking his vacation right next door to the bad guys, and eventually gets with the program just in time to discover an underground bunker of stolen nuclear missiles (including an American Polaris missile that everyone said had to be fake because none were missing, but turned out to be real after all, without any explanation being given), culminating in a totally ridiculous climax whose death toll must implicitly have been enormous. The only advantages the movie has are special effects by the great Albert Whitlock and a score by Larson’s frequent collaborator Stu Phillips (who employs a leitmotif that’s a prototype for his Battlestar Galactica theme a few years later).
What surprised me about this movie was how the Soviet agents weren’t portrayed as the enemy; rather, they and the US had a mutual enemy in Eric Braeden’s arms-dealer character, and they formed an uneasy alliance to defeat him. (David McCallum gets to haul out his Ilya Kuryakin accent as a cosmonaut friend of Steve’s who’s also moved into intelligence work.) That kind of friendly attitude toward the USSR was unexpected from Larson, given how in the original Galactica, every peacemaker character in the entire series was either a deluded appeaser or an evil quisling.
Oscar is introduced here and portrayed as the same kind of manipulative hardass as Spencer, but Richard Anderson is a much more amiable performer from the start, so it doesn’t really fit him as well as the characterization he developed in the series. And the role of Rudy is taken over by Alan Oppenheimer, best known these days as the voice of Skeletor in He-Man, as well as numerous other animation credits such as Ming in Filmation’s Flash Gordon (using the exact same voice he later used as Skeletor) and Merlin in The Legend of Prince Valiant. He, too, is more amiable than Balsam.
The second Larson movie, The Solid Gold Kidnapping by Alan Caillou (story) and Larry Alexander (story and teleplay), is the better of the two. It involves an attempt to expose an international kidnapping ring led by the ever-charming Maurice Evans and rescue an American official pivotal to peace talks with China. Elizabeth Ashley, who impressed me greatly in her two Mission: Impossible appearances, plays a scientist who injects herself with memory RNA from a dead kidnapper in hopes of discovering where the bad guys are. This leads to some interesting debates with Steve about the ethics of human experimentation (Steve knows a thing or two about being a guinea pig and is still ambivalent about his lot in life), and a subplot involving the risk that the procedure could damage her in some ill-defined way, yet that subplot fizzles out as abruptly as the romance in the pilot. Future Galactica regular Terry Carter appears as a US agent who shepherds the ransom in gold bars, hoping to track it to the kidnappers, although they manage to sneak the gold out from under him through a clever misdirect. All in all, it’s probably the best of the three movies, although it has the same weak-ending problem as the first and some more of the painfully bad sexual innuendo from the second.
The portrayal of Steve’s bionic powers is slow to develop. He doesn’t even use his bionic eye in the pilot, and in the other two it’s mainly for night vision, though I think it has telescopic uses as well. But it has no “boop-boop-boop” sound effect yet, and the sound effect for his bionic limbs hasn’t emerged yet either. Also, he never uses a bionic jump in any of the movies. Still, aside from the problematical ending of WW&W, I’d say these two fit fairly well with series canon.
The weekly series was produced by Harve Bennett (no relation), future producer of Star Trek II-V, and introduces the familiar musical themes of jazz musician Oliver Nelson. Lee Majors and Richard Anderson were the only regulars at this point; Rudy was occasionally mentioned, but Alan Oppenheimer appeared infrequently. Steve’s ambivalence about his work was largely dropped, although he retained an everyman, do-gooder mentality that sometimes clashed with Oscar’s more bureaucratic priorities and a tendency to break the rules and do things his own way; however, Anderson made Oscar such a sweetheart that it was always a given that he’d come around and do the right thing. I know I always liked Oscar, but watching these episodes again has reminded me just what a fine, charismatic performance Anderson gave and what a good rapport he had with Majors. In the series, the characters rapidly become best friends, routinely calling each other “pal.”
A quick look at the first several episodes:
“Population: Zero”: A whole small town near where Steve grew up has seemingly been struck dead and Steve goes to investigate, with shades of The Andromeda Strain. Turns out they’re just unconscious thanks to a sonic weapon developed by a disgruntled scientist. An okay story, but the main thing that stands out for me is Nelson’s music. Features the debut of the paradoxical use of slow-motion photography to represent Steve’s superspeed and other bionic feats.
“Survival of the Fittest”: Two weeks in and they’re doing a plane-crash episode, with Steve and Oscar stranded on an island with two agents sent to kill Oscar. Feels like an attempt to cash in on the airline-disaster-movie trend. Not bad, but has an awkward conceit: the agents have an unrevealed accomplice they call Bobby, and there are multiple characters named Bob, Roberts, etc. to create a multiplicity of suspects (though I guessed well in advance who it actually was).
“Operation: Firefly”: The title refers to an advanced laser powered by firefly glowjuice, developed by a scientist who’s apparently been kidnapped. Luckily, his daughter has ESP (oy) and can lead Steve to him through psychic flashes. Lots of slow scenes of canoeing through the Everglades (with a kookaburra sound effect left over from a jungle picture), a fight with a rubber alligator, the psychic girl falling in quicksand in one scene and having her jeans magically clean again by the next shot, etc. Forgettable overall, and notable mainly as the debut of the bionic-eye sound effect.
“Day of the Robot”: Steve’s friend John Saxon gets kidnapped and replaced by a robot built by Henry Jones so he can steal an antimissile defense system. Saxon acts stiff and robotic throughout but Steve is slow to catch on. Still, Saxon strikes a good balance between robotic and convincing, and it’s fun to watch the bad guys dealing with the glitches in this imperfect prototype technology. Culminates in an extended slow-motion robotic/bionic slugfest, and the familiar bionic-limb sound effect makes its debut as one of the noises made by the robot, while the whistling sound effect that will come to be used for objects bionically hurled through the air debuts as the sound of antimissile missiles. Most of the music is stock, but Nelson kicks in with a major musical set piece in the final act, one that will often be heard as stock later on. (Oddly, the robot’s leitmotif here is a variant on the timpani rhythm that opens the show’s main-title theme.)
More to follow…
I just finished a novel I picked up at the used-book store recently, Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel. This 1997 novel was my first exposure to Zettel’s writing; I bought it because the premise sounded interesting and because I’m interested in reading more SF/space opera from female authors. And it turned out to be a solid, engaging hard-SF novel whose approach and values were similar to my own in some ways.
Fool’s War is set in a starfaring human civilization over 500 years in the future. There’s FTL travel and communication, called “fast-time” and never really explained, but otherwise the treatment of physics and engineering in spaceships and space habitats is very realistic (for instance, there’s no artificial gravity). There are no aliens, but there are artificial intelligences which occasionally become fully sentient, their birth pangs wreaking havoc in the highly computerized, networked human civilization of the novel. The interstellar community is held together, not by a government, but by the banking network that manages all transactions. (However, this is not a work of libertarian SF, refreshingly enough; one of the main characters comes from a libertarian sort of society and scathingly indicts the brutal anarchy he grew up in.) And to a large extent, the peace is kept by the Fools’ Guild. These are Fools in the Shakespearean sense (there are numerous references to the Bard herein, with a lot of the action taking place among the Shakespearean-named moons of Uranus), professional jesters who serve as social release valves and easers of tensions. The story focuses on the packet ship Pasadena, whose crewmembers come from a variety of different cultures with sharply conflicting values. The co-owner and engineer of the ship, Katmer Al Shei, is a devout, veiled Turkish Muslim woman in a future where anti-Muslim bigotry has become far worse than it is even today (startling that this was written before 9/11/01). The pilot is a Freer, a member of a habitat-dwelling society that reveres sentient AIs, believing they have captured and effectively reincarnated the souls of dead humans. Whereas the communications officer (a position cleverly labelled the “Houston”) is a survivor of a disaster wrought when his colony’s AI became sentient, and is fanatically, paranoiacally anti-AI. And the ship’s co-owner, who timeshares it with Al Shei on alternating missions, may have left some dangerous contraband onboard. So tensions are high in this enclosed environment, and ship’s Fool Evelyn Dobbs has her work cut out for her, using comedy and wit to entertain and calm the crew so the ship can run smoothly. It’s a charming notion, and Dobbs’s presence makes the book quite entertaining — at least in the first half, before things end up becoming deeply serious and increasingly dark.
But the Fools have a deeper goal, a secret mission to keep the peace on a far more sweeping scale, and there are others with a conflicting agenda that may destroy that peace once and for all. I don’t want to go into specifics, because it turns out that Dobbs has her own deep dark secret that is very deftly concealed. I absolutely did not see it coming, even though I was given clues, things I was shown and allowed to interpret through my own preconceptions, leading me to the wrong conclusions. It’s a deft bit of misdirection, befitting characters like Dobbs and her fellow Fools.
Perhaps reflecting its origins in the ’90s, there’s a lot of cyberpunkish stuff, characters diving around through cyberspace, and a lot of the descriptions of how that happens feel rather fanciful to me, though perhaps they’re just metaphors for otherwise incomprehensible processes and program interactions inside a computer network. Still, this is the first SF work I’ve ever seen or read that actually offered a plausible justification for the premise of the mind “leaving” the body upon diving into cyberspace, and being potentially in danger of bodily death if something goes wrong.
So this is the kind of story I like, both to read and to write. A hard-SF setting, richly textured worldbuilding, a witty central character with depth, a celebration of multiculturalism, a message against intolerance, and — I felt — an ultimately positive, optimistic tone, even though some very dark and awful things happen (or have happened in the characters’ pasts). It’s one of my most satisfying impulse buys in recent memory, and I’m definitely going to be checking out more of Zettel’s SF (though I see she also writes fantasy and paranormal romance — making it doubly cool that there’s so much hard science in her SF).
In the comments to my recent review of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, I mentioned (not for the first time on this blog) that the original Mission: Impossible TV series was partly inspired by the 1964 heist movie Topkapi. Since I’ve run out of M:I episodes to recap/review (until I can get my hands on the DVDs of the ’88 revival, which Netflix is taking its good time getting in stock), it occurred to me to check out Topkapi as a sort of adjunct to my review series. Fortunately, it is available for streaming on Netflix.
Topkapi was written by Monja Danischewsky, based on the novel The Light of Day by Eric Ambler, and directed by Jules Dassin. It stars Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell, and Robert Morley. Ustinov won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
And it’s very different from what I expected, very different from M:I. It’s more of a screwball comedy, opening with Mercouri talking directly to the audience to explain her goal, to steal a priceless emerald-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. (Hey, I like it that she’s into emeralds.) Her character, going by the name Elizabeth Lipp, is a thief, but one who’s never been caught, nor has her old flame Walter Harper (Schell), whom she recruits to help her steal the dagger and replace it with a replica she’s created. He insists that they need to recruit a team of amateurs, people who also have no police records, since if a heist of this magnitude succeeds, the cops will be looking at the high-end thieves, all known. Here we can see the ancestry of the M:I trope of assembling a team of “amateur” spies — magician, supermodel, engineer, professional bodybuilder — for off-book, deniable missions too sensitive to leave a paper trail back to the government (though this implied concept was abandoned by the show soon enough).
The team they assemble consists of eccentric inventor Cedric Page (Morley) — sort of the “Barney” of the operation in M:I terms, though more like a spiritual ancestor to Blade Runner‘s Sebastian — plus the volatile strongman Hans (Jess Hahn) and the mute acrobat Giulio the Human Fly (Gilles Segal), who reminds me of the non-English-speaking contortionist in the George Clooney Ocean’s Eleven. (How many movies borrowed tropes from this movie, anyway?) The last “recruit” is the unwitting patsy (or “schmo,” as they call him) — Arthur Simpson (Ustinov), the world’s most hapless tour guide, whom they hire to drive a valuable rented car across the border to Istanbul, with some of their heist gear hidden in the door. They don’t plan on Simpson having an expired passport that gets him questioned and his car inspected at the Turkish border, revealing the hidden rifle and smoke grenades. The Turks arrest him, thinking he’s part of a terrorist plot to attack a major meeting of important officials, but his bumbling defense convinces them that he’s probably a dupe, so they let him prove it by spying for them, carrying on his assignment as though nothing happened. Once he delivers the car to Cedric, a cop working for the government tells Cedric that only the registered driver can drive the car under Turkish law, so Cedric is forced to bring Simpson with him to meet the other plotters. There’s a bunch of character-based wackiness that doesn’t amuse me, largely involving a drunken, incoherent male cook (Akim Tamiroff) who keeps coming onto Simpson and picking fights with Hans, or else involving the rather unattractive Mercouri playing a seductive vamp who claims to be a nymphomaniac.
It isn’t until nearly halfway through the movie that the heist begins to unfold and we begin to see some more elements relating to M:I. A notable one is when, before the heist, a fight with the cook leads to Hans getting his hands crushed in a door so he can’t play his part — a trope used with Wally Cox’s safecracker character in the M:I pilot. This requires them to bring Simpson into their confidence so he can fill Hans’s role of lowering Giulio into the museum on a rope. So Simpson lets slip that Turkish Security thinks they’re terrorists and is watching them, so they have to adjust the plan.
I guess the heist sequence itself, which kicks in during the final half-hour of the movie, is the main part that inspired M:I — and not just the show, as it was a direct inspiration for the famous lowered-on-a-wire sequence in the first Tom Cruise M:I movie. The meticulousness with which the planning and execution are shown step-by-step is the main inspiration. But at the same time, there’s a lot that’s different. These thieves are less of a well-oiled machine than the IMF, with lots of stumbles and hitches and improvisations and barely averted disasters as they execute the heist. The sequence is carried out with very little dialogue, like M:I, but with no music whatsoever throughout the entire heist, very unlike M:I. And the plan turns out to have one tiny but fatal flaw, so the outcome is rather different than it is in M:I.
Bottom line, I wasn’t crazy about the film. Even aside from not being the kind of film I was expecting, it was a little too weird and eccentric, and I really disliked Mercouri as the lead actress. And too many of the plot points depend on these supposed master thieves making stupid decisions. If they were going to pick Simpson as their dupe, they should’ve researched him more first and made sure his passport was valid. Worse, their decision to bring him aboard as a replacement for Hans makes no sense. We were shown that the team was assisted by at least one member of a carnival that had set up shop next to the Topkapi Museum (which, come to think of it, may have inspired the similar use of a carnival in M:I’s first two-parter “Old Man Out”), so if they needed a strongman, why not recruit one from the carnival, instead of pinning the success of their plan on a flabby middle-aged coward whose involvement brings them close to disaster time and time again? The plot just doesn’t add up. Maybe it’s not supposed to, maybe these characters are intended to be bumblers attempting something beyond their abilities, but that’s hard to reconcile with the premise that the masterminds are too good to have ever gotten caught. So it just didn’t work for me. I almost wish I hadn’t seen the film at all. The only thing I really gained from the experience was having my misconceptions about the film clarified. It’s not nearly as much a spiritual ancestor of Mission: Impossible as I was expecting.