Archive for July 30, 2012

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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