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.”