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.