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WAR OF THE WORLDS (1988) Reviews: Eps. 9-11 (Spoilers)

“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.”

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Shore Leave schedule is ready

The authors have just been sent the (hopefully) final schedule of panels for the Shore Leave convention this coming weekend.  In addition to the usual Meet the Pros signing event, I’m scheduled for five panels, four of which will let me talk about Only Superhuman, one of which will let me talk about DTI: Forgotten History.  Here’s the list of my appearances:

FRIDAY 8/3

 Superheroes In Between:  In Media Other than Films or Comic Books7 PM, Derby Room

Christopher Bennett, Kelly Meding, Peter J. Wacks, Keith R. A. DeCandido, Alan Kistler.  No doubt this will mainly be about the superhero novels that folks like myself, Kelly, and Keith have written (which could include my Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder and X-Men: Watchers on the Walls as well as Only Superhuman), but judging from the title, maybe there could be discussion of video games, toys, whatever.

Meet the Pros — 10 PM, Hunt/Valley Corridor

The annual mass signing event where all the author guests will be available to autograph whatever you bring or buy.  Of course Only Superhuman won’t be out yet, but I’m hoping there will be something OS-related for me to sign, even if it’s just promotional flyers.

SATURDAY 8/4

 Time Travel:  Writing it and Reading it – 10 AM, Concierge Suite

Peter J. Wacks, Christopher Bennett, Greg Cox.  We’ll be discussing our various time-travel books, including my DTI novels and Greg’s The Rings of Time and Assignment: Eternity.  Judging from the title, maybe we’ll be talking about other time-travel books we’ve read.

I have no other panels Saturday, but I’ll still be around the con.

 

SUNDAY 8/5

Media Tie-Ins vs. Original Fiction10 AM, Chase Ballroom

Keith R. A. DeCandido, Aaron Rosenberg, Kathleen David,  Peter David, Michael Jan Friedman, Christopher Bennett, Ann C. Crispin.  Another round of a panel topic we had last year comparing our experiences in tie-in work versus original writing.

Tor Books:  New and Upcoming11 AM, Salon A

Marco Palmieri, Christopher Bennett, Greg Cox.  Of course we’ll be talking about Only Superhuman, but no doubt Greg and Marco will be talking about other books they’re editing for Tor.

Female Action Heroes1 PM, Chase Ballroom

Greg Cox, Rigel Ailur, Christopher Bennett, Ann C. Crispin.  Yes, it’s a chance to tout OS some more, but it’s a timely topic in the year of The Legend of Korra, ScarJo’s Black Widow, and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman.  Let’s get together and talk about all the awesome female heroes we have these days!

 

Thoughts on Godzilla: The Showa Era

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.

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WAR OF THE WORLDS Reviews: Eps. 6-8 (Spoilers)

“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.”

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ONLY SUPERHUMAN page now up at Macmillan.com

The official site for Macmillan (the publisher whose imprints include Tor Books) now has information up for its October books, including Only Superhuman.  It’s not directly offering it for sale yet — the Tor online store is scheduled to go live at the end of the summer, so I gather — but it has links for ordering it from other sites.  The page is here:

http://us.macmillan.com/onlysuperhuman/ChristopherLBennett

Only Superhuman by Christopher L. Bennett

We’re less than three months away now!

WAR OF THE WORLDS (1988) Reviews: Ep. 3-5 (spoilers)

“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.

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WAR OF THE WORLDS (1988) Reviews: Pilot-Episode 2 (spoilers)

My latest Netflix acquisition is 1988’s War of the Worlds: The Series, a show that Paramount syndicated for two seasons as part of the same package that included Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It’s a direct sequel to the 1953 George Pal movie, and draws on a lot of elements from that movie, while changing or ignoring others.  I had mixed feelings about the show’s first season in its initial run.  I often found the writing weak and the production cheesy, but I really connected to the core cast: Jared Martin as Dr. Harrison Blackwood, Lynda Mason Green as Dr. Suzanne McCullough, Philip Akin as Norton Drake, and Richard Chaves as Col. Paul Ironhorse.  I felt they had a marvelous rapport and chemistry and were always fun to watch even when the story was silly.

I’m only going to be rewatching the first of this show’s two seasons.  For the second, producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. was brought in the “fix” the struggling show, and his “fixes” made it worse and more unpleasant in every respect, and turned it into essentially a different show.  I think I’ll save that discussion for the end of the season, though.

(Note: I actually finished watching and reviewing the whole season before deciding to go ahead and post these reviews, since my reaction to the series was more negative than I’d expected.  At times I was tempted to give up on the whole thing, but I kept going on momentum, and now that I’m finished, I might as well go ahead and post them.  But proceed at your own risk.)

“The Resurrection”: All of season 1’s episodes have Biblical titles, which is odd, since nobody in the show is particularly religious.  Anyway, the pilot opens with a bunch of generic and implausibly multiethnic terrorists raiding and taking over a military nuclear-waste storage facility with ATVs and machine guns, with the intent of threatening to blow it up and create a cloud of radiation over the US unless the President resigns and their other unspecified demands are met.  But they awaken creatures held inside storage drums marked “Classified 1951-53” — creatures that resemble the “Martian” seen in the 1953 film, but are burlier and bigger (enough to have human stuntmen inside the suits).  The creatures go Rambo on the terrorists, who then emerge looking zombified and speaking in tongues.  The aliens have body-snatched them!  They never did that in the movie, but hey, it’ll sure save money going forward.

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to three of our core cast.  Harrison Blackwood is aggressively established as a quirky scientist who plays practical jokes and takes an hourlong nap every five hours.  He’s paired up with the more “uptight” Suzanne, a biochemist and single mom, whom he wants to brainstorm about possible aliens so he can narrow down the list of search targets for his SETI project.  The conversation about aliens is strictly theoretical at this point, as though everyone’s forgotten that the whole world was ravaged by alien invaders just 35 years earlier.  (Get used to it.)  We also meet Norton Drake, Harrison’s computer genius, who was the first of a minor spate of paraplegic African-American scientist-heroes on ’80s/’90s sci-fi shows (the others being Dorian Harewood on Viper and Carl Lumbly on M.A.N.T.I.S.).  Norton has a voice-activated motorized wheelchair named Gertrude, and in the pilot he speaks with an odd, stilted cadence and all his lines are recognizably looped.  I figure he must’ve performed the lines with a broad Jamaican accent and then redubbed them without it, though some of the broad, affected cadence remains, and it comes off weird.

Anyway, Norton picks up transmissions from the nuclear-waste site which match transmissions they’ve picked up from space, so Harrison and Suzanne head off to track the signal and run into Col. Ironhorse — not a friendly meeting at first, but Harrison has info Ironhorse can use, so he gets in and sees the ruptured drums that held the aliens.  Learning that many more drums are missing, he storms off.  He tells Suzanne his theory that the ’53 aliens were only rendered dormant by the bacteria that supposedly killed them in the movie, and the radiation leakage from the drums after the gunfight killed the bacteria and awakened the aliens, who are still bent on conquest.  Harrison explains that he was adopted by Dr. Clayton Forrester, Gene Barry’s character from the original film (the villain on Mystery Science Theater 3000 was named after him), a colleague of his parents, after they were killed in the invasion.  (Martin was no doubt cast partly due to his vocal resemblance to Barry.)  Suzanne seems unaware that the ’53 invasion happened, though moments later she’s  stipulating the reality of it without any transition.   There seems to be a big chunk of dialogue missing from their argument, just from the flow of the scene and the way some exposition seems to be skipped over.  (In the novelization by J. M. Dillard, Suzanne and other characters were aware of the invasion as a historical event, just in denial that it could happen again.  I wonder how much of the more fleshed-out conversation in the novel comes from material cut from this scene.)

Luckily, Suzanne happens to be the niece of General Wilson (John Vernon), who at least is aware of the ’53 invasion, but unconvinced of the aliens’ return without further evidence.  Meanwhile, the aliens — their possessed bodies decaying like zombies — kill and possess a gas-station owner, which is witnessed by a Pat Buttram-esque, stereotyped drunken hick who later reports the event to Ironhorse.  The scientists pick up another transmission and track down the aliens, only to run into Ironhorse and his squad as they’re about to raid the “terrorists.”  The soldiers all get possessed save Ironhorse, whom Harrison rescues.  Now they have their proof, and General John Vernon appoints them as his alien-hunting team, moving them all to a high-security ranch called the Cottage.  Suzanne brings her preteen daughter Debi (Rachel Blanchard).

Oh, and did I mention that there’s a subplot with Harrison’s fiancee (Gwynyth Walsh), a rich interior designer who’s trying to get him into the private sector and constantly complains that he loves his work more than he loves her?  I forgot because it’s completely irrelevant to the story.  The fiancee is forgotten without a second thought as soon as Harrison moves to the Cottage; there isn’t even a scene of their breakup or her reaction to him moving away or anything of the sort.  The whole thing feels wrong and adds nothing.  They could’ve dumped this subplot and spent more time on worldbuilding, establishing a world aware of the ’53 invasion as a historical event, yet in denial about whether it could happen again.  (I’m thinking about how, the season before, TNG’s pilot was supposed to be 90 minutes but they decided to expand it to 2 hours and added the Q subplot to the script.  I wonder if the same thing happened here and Walsh’s character was written in to pad the pilot’s length.  If so, it was done much more sloppily than in TNG’s case.)

Anyway, there’s a nice scene where Ironhorse tells Debi a story about his shaman great-grandfather finding an ancient drawing of what seems to be an alien, a story whose truth Ironhorse doubts.  This is where we really begin to see what a charismatic actor Richard Chaves could be and how good the chemistry was among the cast.  Ironhorse quickly became the breakout character here.

So the brain trust does its brainery, and they use some captured maps and Ironhorse’s soldierly thinking to realize that the aliens are planning to raid the secret government vault holding three intact war machines from the invasion.  This leads to a final confrontation which is actually pretty cool.  The war machines and their weaponry and shields are pretty authentically replicated, given the limits of ’80s video FX technology.  The sound effects of the rattlesnake-like sensor sound and the heat ray firing are the authentic originals, although the sound effect of the green energy bolts is not quite right (they use the Star Trek photon torpedo sound, which is similar but not identical to the sound used in the movie), and they’re missing the warbling whistle of the war machines’ levitation fields (which is a slowed-down version of the same sound effect used for phasers in the original Star Trek, actually a recording of a swarm of locusts stridulating).

Unfortunately there’s zero suspense here, since the heroes already planted C4 in the war machines before the aliens took them.  So it’s cool to see the vehicles in action again, but the heroes have already won before the “danger” even begins, which is a terrible way to structure a climax.  The war machines blow up on schedule, and then we get the usual thing in these stories where one character (Suzanne) says “I’m glad it’s finally over” and the hero (Harrison) turns enigmatically and says “Is it?  Is it really?”  And of course it isn’t, since we cut to the abandoned underground nuclear test site in Nevada where the aliens are holed up and see them making plans to strike again.

All in all, it’s cheesier than I remembered.  The character introductions are pretty clunky, there’s too much lame humor, and the actors were worse than I remembered, particularly Akin and Green.  (I guess I forgave it in Green’s case because she was really stunningly beautiful.)  And some of the effects and production values are pretty lame.  Oddly, some scenes seem to be shot on videotape rather than film, and most of the dialogue in the interior film sequences is looped.

And the conceit that the world had forgotten the invasion was an odd choice, reflecting the tendency of too many genre shows to try to be as much like the real world as possible.  It would’ve been so much cooler to see this show set in an alternate history where the world had been radically transformed by the ’53 invasion.  Then again, that’s kind of what the second season tried to do in a retconny sort of way, and its version of that was deeply unpleasant, a perpetually dark and polluted world where society was disintegrating.  Maybe instead, it could’ve been set in a world where humanity had rebuilt its cities and infrastructure using reverse-engineered alien technology, entering a new golden age and growing overconfident.  That could’ve been cool.

“The Walls of Jericho”: The episode opens with the first use of the main title sequence, and the theme is an ’80s-synth pastiche of Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War” by series composer Billy Thorpe.  The images are a succession of clips from the pilot, heavily featuring the war machine battle from the climax — which is misleading, since the show didn’t have the budget to do that sort of thing often, and there are only a couple more episodes in the season that use the war machines even briefly.

This episode is credited to “Forrest Van Buren,” an obvious pseudonym (named after the lead characters in the ’53 film), but IMDb has no information on the real writer.  Yet the script is stronger than the pilot’s.

It’s six weeks after the pilot, and Gen. Wilson and Col. Ironhorse are convinced the alien threat is ended and it’s time to shut down the Blackwood Project.  They take their time breaking the news and letting the team get packed, so there’s a lot of time for conversation and character interaction.  We actually get an explanation of sorts for the global amnesia about the invasion, drawing on UFO lore about amnesia in alien abductees/witnesses, the idea being that either a) aliens have some effect on human memory and b) humans suppress the memory of aliens because they can’t cope with it, or a mix of both in Harrison’s view.  Wilson confirms that he fought in the ’53 war but remembers no details.  It’s still odd — how did people explain the global devastation to themselves? — but at least they addressed it.  And it helps explain why the military types here are so determined to believe the aliens are gone — that same suppression effect might be kicking in, and the more imaginative scientists are less susceptible.

Meanwhile, the aliens are dying from the heat in the radiation-rich caverns, and the triumvirate of Advocates (three of the possessed terrorists from the pilot) are pushing their scientists to find a solution before their stolen bodies rot away.  So they launch a series of heists — first draining blood from a herd of cows as some kind of coolant bath, then taking a special plastic to make protective suits (which we will see the Advocates wearing for the rest of the season, since it’s cheaper than using full alien costumes or paying actors to speak on camera — and indeed most of the Advocate scenes over the season will just be stock footage with new dialogue dubbed in), then trying to steal liquid nitrogen from a rocket base as coolant, then finally taking over a refrigeration plant and making their own LN.  In the first couple of cases, the investigating cops go out of their way to mention that they’re putting the reports on the national crime computer database, because that wasn’t taken for granted back then and they need to set up Norton discovering these crimes via his superhacking so the heroes can begin to piece the alien scheme together.  (Good grief, it’s startling to realize how long ago the ’80s were.  The interval between this series and the present is already more than 2/3 the interval between the original movie and this series.  God, I feel old right now.)

So the team convinces Ironhorse to go along and investigate the refrigeration plant, and they find the employees acting zombielike, so they call in John Vernon and they raid the plant.  Vernon gets to shoot up a truck and see the alien inside dissolve upon death (as alien invaders do), thus confirming that the threat is still active and the team needs to stay together.  But the aliens get away with enough canisters of LN to keep them alive for, ohh, at least one TV season.  Everybody wins!  Well, except for all the people (and cattle) the aliens killed.

This episode has the same odd production values, with all the lines in the Cottage blatantly looped except in the one scene that appears to have been on videotape.  (And Philip Akin’s delivery is even more broad when looping than when it’s live audio.  Odd, because he’s done a lot of voiceover work, such as Bishop on the ’90s X-Men animated series.  Then again, the voice acting on that show was never subtle.)  But like I said, the writing’s better, we learn more about the characters, and while the performances are a mixed bag, John Vernon does a really good job.  This episode does a better job than the pilot of reminding me why I liked season 1 of this show.

But will it stay this decent?  To be continued…