Archive for August, 2012

Stanley Schmidt retires from ANALOG

August 31, 2012 1 comment

I just heard the sad news that Stanley Schmidt is stepping down as editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact after 34 years, a tenure matching that of the magazine’s most famous and longest-running editor, John W. Campbell, Jr. The press release was posted on Locus Online. Stan is quoted as saying:

“I have now been editor of Analog for 34 years, tying or (depending on how you count) slightly exceeding the previous longest-tenure record of John W. Campbell. I still enjoy it thoroughly, but am leaving to pursue a wide range of other interests. Two of the most important of these are doing more of my own writing, and reading Analog purely for the enjoyment of it, which I expect to remain at a high level under Trevor Quachri’s direction.”

I owe my career largely to Stanley Schmidt. When I was submitting my early stories to editors and getting them rejected, Stan saw something in my work that was worth cultivating and began sending me personalized rejection letters with advice that helped me raise my game and improve my work. He wasn’t the only editor who did that for me, but he did it the most, and ultimately he was the one who bought my first published story, “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide,” in March 1998, and then published it in the November ’98 issue. (By a startling coincidence, io9 illustrated its article on Stan’s retirement with the cover art from my debut issue, although the art represents a different story, of course.) The following year, he rejected an indirect sequel, “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele,” but his letter pointed out the story’s flaws and invited me to resubmit it if I fixed them. I didn’t listen at first, and sent it to a couple of other magazines, but finally I realized that he’d been right and I figured out how I could greatly improve the story. For the first time I was actually hoping a story would get rejected, and it was, so I was able to rewrite it and send it to Stan, who bought it and published it in 2000.

I didn’t have much luck selling my work for the next few years, and then my Star Trek writing career began in 2003 and kept me pretty busy from then on. But I committed myself to writing short fiction again in 2009-10, and two of the four sales I made in that period were to Stan, my humor stories “The Hub of the Matter” and “Home is Where the Hub Is.” I’ve been working on a third Hub story for well over a year now, and I’m disappointed that I didn’t get it finished in time to send it to Stan before he retired (though I’ll certainly be sending it to his successor, Trevor Quachri, who’s been the managing editor for some time).

I think Stan took an interest in me because of the things we have in common. We’re both hard-SF-oriented people, enjoying SF that focuses on the science and technology and big ideas. We both appreciate humor in our SF; I’ve been told that Stan was always eager for more humor stories in Analog, which may have helped me sell my Hub pieces. And we’re both from Cincinnati; in fact, I currently live on the same street as his old house. I’m sure that wouldn’t have gotten me into Analog if my work hadn’t been good enough, but maybe it helped get his attention at the start there. Whatever the reason, I doubt I’d be where I am today if not for him. Thanks, Stan.

Thoughts on Godzilla: The Heisei Era

I’m continuing my Godzilla film survey (which began here) with the movies of the Heisei Era, the first continuity reboot which began in 1984 and returned Godzilla to his original villain status instead of the kid-friendly Earth defender he’d become in the ’70s.  Unfortunately the first two films, The Return of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Biollante, are not available on DVD, so I could only read summaries of them online.  I gather they aren’t considered especially good anyway.

Although the Heisei series reboots the continuity, it nonetheless counts the original 1954 film as part of its canon; it just ignores everything since.  The ’84 sequel either resurrects the original Godzilla without explanation or introduces a second member of the same species; online sources are inconsistent on this.  There’s an attempt to reinject some allegory about nuclear energy and weapons, since Godzilla in this version is not merely resistant to radiation but directly sustained by it (and made larger, growing from his original 50 meters to 80), and the focus returns to Godzilla vs. humanity rather than another kaiju.  Still, it’s apparently more a conventional kaiju film with the focus more on how to defeat the beast than on allegory.

Due to economic hardships for Toho Studios, the Biollante sequel didn’t come along for another five years.  When it did, it returned to the format of films like Mothra vs. Godzilla in featuring a good kaiju (created via genetic engineering, when some scientist decided for some reason to put the genes of his dead daughter into a rose’s DNA and combine it with some of Godzilla’s cells) battling the villainous Godzilla.  The film is notable for introducing the longest-running recurring human character in the franchise — Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka), a psychic who could sense and sometimes communicate with Godzilla, and convey other psychic exposition as needed.  She’s in every Heisei Era film except the first, though her role is larger in some than others.

(UPDATE: I’ve subsequently been able to see The Return and Biollante and have reviewed them in the threads At last, the 1984 show: Thoughts on THE RETURN OF GODZILLA and Thoughts on GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989).)

The first Heisei film I was actually able to see (though only in the mediocre English dub) was 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.  This film involves time travellers from 2204 coming back with a plan to erase Godzilla from history — or so they claim.  Here we discover that Heisei is not merely a different timeline branching off of the 1954 original, but a retcon of its core assumptions about Godzilla’s nature and origins.  In the original two films, Dr. Yamane explained (assuming the subtitles in the original were correct) that Godzilla’s species had survived since prehistoric times, dwelling in the depths of the ocean like the coelacanth, but had been displaced from its natural feeding grounds by nuclear testing — and, implicitly, mutated with the ability to breathe atomic fire and to withstand virtually any injury.  The fact that the monster in the 1955 sequel was explicitly a “second Godzilla” suggests that what we saw was the natural form and size of their species.  But GvKG asserts that Godzilla was originally a much smaller carnosaur called a Godzillasaurus, maybe twice the size of a T. rex, and that it was mutated to giant size by its exposure to the atom bomb — meaning that Godzilla is a unique entity and must have somehow regenerated after “dying” in 1954.  Before then, in the waning days of WWII, it attacked the American soldiers invading its home on Lagos Island and incidentally saved a platoon of Japanese troops stationed there, who revered it as their savior.  The time travellers teleport the wounded Godzillasaurus to a distant part of the Pacific so that it will never become Godzilla — but they leave three small, genetically engineered winged lizards on Lagos so that they will instead be mutated by the bomb, and when they return to the present, the lizards have grown and merged into King Ghidorah.  The whole thing was a trick to destroy Japan and avert its destiny to become the dominant economic power on Earth (ohhh-kay, jingoist much?).  But first they needed to get Godzilla out of the way.  However, they failed to account for the proliferation of nuclear weapons; at some point a nuclear sub happened to crash where they left the Godzillasaurus, so it was mutated anyway, and the more potent radiation made it an even bigger Godzilla, now fully 100 meters.  This Godzilla is pure malevolence, and once he destroys KG he threatens to destroy Japan; but one of the time travellers who’s Japanese herself rebels against her group and helps by going back to the future, turning the 200-year-old corpse of King Ghidorah into Mecha-King Ghidorah, and bringing it back in time to defeat Godzilla.

Okay, this is weird.  I understand that the idea of the previous two films was to wipe away the later Shōwa era’s portrayal of Godzilla as a defender of humanity and restore his villainous nature.  So why is it that the first half of this film seems to be built around the notion of Godzilla as the traditional protector of Japan?  The Godzillasaurus saves Japanese soldiers from Americans, and the time travellers need to get rid of Godzilla so that Japan will be unprotected against King Ghidorah.  The “new” Godzilla is malevolent, but that’s implied to be a change from the original.

Also the treatment of mutation is silly; instead of a freak event, the film assumes that daikaijuism is a consistent and predictable response to irradiation — that even if the Godzillasaurus is exposed at a different time and in a different way, exactly the same genes will be mutated and it will transform into the same creature.  And any other creatures exposed to radiation will also grow into daikaiju.  If that’s the case, why hasn’t every human exposed to radiation grown into a 50-meter monster?  Well, granted, Godzilla Raids Again established that the second Godzilla was mutated with the same resilience and atomic breath as the first.  But mutation is normally something that happens between generations.  What if a mother Godzilla was the one exposed to the bombs’ radiation, and gave birth to mutated monozygotic twins?  The Godzillas we saw in the first two films could’ve been only a few years old — though it’s hard to imagine how much they would’ve devastated the ecosystem just eating enough to grow that big that fast.  But maybe that’s really what drove them out of their undersea feeding grounds?

The film has other problems.  The temporal mechanics are dreadful; after Godzilla is supposedly erased from history, the time travellers learn upon their return that Godzilla vanished — yet everyone still remembers he existed and was on the rampage until just hours before.  The WWII veterans who tell the story of the Godzillasaurus look hardly any older in the film’s 1992 setting than they did in the 1944 scenes.  The film’s prediction of Japan’s manifest destiny, in combination with its glorification of the nation’s Imperial forces in WWII, leaves a sour taste politically, and is strange since I gather that most Japanese themselves don’t think fondly of the military factions that drove Japan’s conquests in the 1930s-40s.  The music is by Akira Ifukube, the composer behind many of the  Shōwa-Era films including the original, but it doesn’t make use of his best themes.  And perhaps most disappointing, they didn’t get Godzilla’s roar right.  It starts out as the authentic roar, but then crossfades into a more conventional animal growl.  It’s just not Godzilla’s roar without that upward flourish at the end.

Fortunately, the next two films are better.  Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1992) is something of a loose remake of both Mothra and Mothra vs. Godzilla, combining elements of both.  Again we have a greedy businessman capturing Mothra’s foot-high girl-singer heralds, here called the Cosmos rather than the Shobijin, and drawing Mothra’s wrath as she comes to rescue them; but there’s a new twist, as Mothra gains a black-sheep sibling of sorts, a “dark Mothra” named Battra — a similar but much more sinister-looking and aggressive kaiju.  The Cosmos explain that Battra is a spirit of the Earth sent to avenge the destruction of its ecology.  The environmental themes are delivered with a sledgehammer.  It’s also the most spiritual-themed of the Heisei films, and focuses more on Mothra than Godzilla (who, along with Battra, is sucked into a volcanic fissure and absent for much of the film, until they both emerge from Mt. Fuji for the climax).  Godzilla is back to being pure villain this time, though the fearsome-looking Battra is more ambiguous, initially battling Mothra but then coming to terms and joining forces against Godzilla.

All in all it’s a pretty entertaining film.  Ifukube’s music is a high point, as he reuses his classic Mothra themes and brings back more of his Godzilla themes (though he’s still relying mainly on the main-title march from the original film, rather than the more ponderous theme that served as Godzilla’s leitmotif in the original film and many of its sequels).  The Cosmos perform both of their Mothra-summoning songs from the first two Mothra films, and the melody of the second, the beautiful “Mahara Mosura” from Mothra vs. Godzilla, is again used as Mothra’s orchestral leitmotif as it was in that film.  (I don’t think I like the Cosmos quite as much as the Shobijin, though.  The new actresses are a bit prettier in repose, but they’re mostly lifeless, just staring blankly rather than showing emotion or engagement, and that makes them less appealing.)  And Godzilla’s roar is back to its original sound, here and for the rest of the era.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) is next, and its concept is pretty cool.  The focus is on G-Force, an international Godzilla-fighting organization (actually the United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Division).  They’ve salvaged the remains of Mecha-King Ghidorah and reverse-engineered its future technology to build the battle robot Mechagodzilla, which is laden with all sorts of weapons and countermeasures.  It’s neat to see a story that revolves around Godzilla from the start rather than focusing on random new characters doing random stuff before they get caught up in the latest random kaiju attack.  There’s some of that too, though, as a team of archaeologists discover a live Rodan and an unhatched egg that eventually hatches into a baby Godzillasaurus, nicknamed Baby by the human woman it imprints on as its mother, Azusa (Ryoko Sano).  (Her name is pronounced “Azsa,” not “A-zoo-sa” like the California city.)  The introduction of a cute baby Godzilla into the series carries serious shark-jumping potential, considering how badly that turned out last time, but it’s handled judiciously here, with some serious themes of respect for life and animal rights coming into play.  Godzilla comes off more ambiguously here, but not in the same odd and awkward way as two films earlier; rather, when Mechagodzilla gets the upper hand, you can’t help feeling sympathy for Godzilla’s suffering, and the film reminds us that, however dangerous he is, he’s simply an animal going about his life and has the same right to existence as any creature.  Granted, there’s something to be said for self-defense, especially when the “self” is an entire city, but Godzilla is so resilient that the extensive bombardment needed to put him down feels more like torture.  I’m reminded of Dr. Yamane’s position in the 1954 original that Godzilla didn’t deserve to be killed since he was just a displaced animal following his instincts.  Ultimately, though, as per the film’s message, life triumphs over technology, and it’s an ambiguous ending since the technology was the good guys’ and the life that triumphs is a deadly threat.  But Miki psychically convinces Godzilla to adopt Baby before he leaves.  Perhaps fatherhood will tame his wild proclivities.

This time, the DVD Netflix provided actually had the Japanese-language soundtrack, and interestingly, the personnel of the international G-Force usually speak in English, although often horribly accented English by the Japanese actors and terribly acted English by the Caucasian actors.  So it’s a very bilingual film.  And interestingly, even in the Japanese-made version of the film, the people speaking English pronounce the kaiju’s name as “God-zil-la” rather than “Go-ji-ra,” and ditto for the Mecha- version.  So even the Japanese accept that as the proper English pronunciation of the creature’s name, which makes me feel better about using the American spelling.  And even Miki seems to pronounce the “ji” syllable more like “dzi” at one point when speaking Japanese.  (And these films were produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer of the whole kaiju series going back to the original.  So their officialness is not in doubt.)

All in all, it’s a cool film, with a lot of elements that come together pretty well, and a good return for Rodan, even if he plays kind of a strange role at the climax.  And Ifukube’s score is the richest assemblage yet of his classic themes; in addition to the main-title march, he finally brings back the Godzilla-rampage leitmotif I mentioned earlier in full swing, as well as Rodan’s theme and the very nice slow march from the Mothra vs. Godzilla theme.  And his Mechagodzilla theme here is wonderful, one of his best ever.  (I read it was based on his King Kong vs. Godzilla theme, but the English dub I saw of that film replaced the music.)

Unfortunately, the following film, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, is awful in comparison, made by a mostly new and inexperienced production team (except for the FX crew) and feeling like a throwback to the cheesy Shōwa films of the late ’60s and ’70s. It opens with G-Force again, but apparently everyone was fired after the MechaGodzilla debacle except for the indispensible Miki and the G-Force leader Commander Aso (Akira Nakao), who’s in all three G-Force films and is the only human character other than Miki to appear in more than two Godzilla movies. Still, they haven’t learned their lessons, since they’ve built a new fighting robot, Mogera, an update of an alien robot monster from the Shōwa-era Toho film The Mysterians. Which is just one of several Godzilla-management schemes jockeying for the film’s scattered attention, including a project to control Godzilla by amplifying Miki’s telepathy and the vendetta of the renegade Major Yuki, seeking to kill Godzilla with a blood-coagulant bullet to avenge his partner’s offscreen death. For some reason, the telepathy team makes no effort to stop Yuki from interfering with their experiment. Maybe the point is that they don’t much care if G lives or dies; the moral ambiguity of the previous film is replaced by Miki whining to everyone that Godziwwa has feewings too and they’re all mean for trying to kill him.

All this goes down on the island where Baby Godzilla (now called Little Godzilla) lives, since Big G periodically visits there.  Unfortunately, Little G has been drastically redesigned to look more babyish and cartoony, like Minya from the Shōwa-era films but even cutesier, and he serves no purpose beyond comic relief. Earth soon comes under attack by SpaceGodzilla, which looks like the love child of Godzilla and the Fortress of Solitude from the Superman movies, and apparently was spawned from some of Godzilla’s cells which were taken into space by Mothra or Biollante, merged with alien crystal life, and were nuked by supernovae.  After a horribly cheesy space battle with Mogera that looks like it was shot in the ’70s, SpaceG lands on the island, gives Godzilla a good thrashing, and imprisons Little G in a crystal cage  — an event which is ignored by every character immediately after it happens. I suppose I should be glad the dumb thing’s out of the movie, but still.

Anyway, there’s a lame borderline romance between Miki and one of the soldiers, Koji, and there’s a pointless digression where the Yakuza kidnaps Miki and copies her brainwaves to take telepathic control of Godzilla for no clearly defined reason. (Well, I guess I can imagine. “That’s a nice major metropolitan area you’ve got there. Be a shame if anything… happened to it.”) Eventually SpaceG builds a nest around a landmark skyscraper (since kaiju can’t resist those) and Yuki, now Mogera’s pilot despite the whole loose-cannon thing, must learn to set aside his hatred of Godzilla and fight alongside him to defeat SpaceG. Miki senses that Little G is free again, and everybody’s all affectionate and chummy toward Godzilla now even though he just devastated at least three major cities in Kyushu just because they were in his path while he was coming after SpaceG.

Like I said, it’s a rehash of the Shōwa films that turned Godzilla from villain to antihero, and I feel it weakens Godzilla’s impact just as much as those did.  The film also suffers from inconsistent effects (especially the dreadful space stuff) and the lack of an Akira Ifukube score.  The music is okay, but kind of generically ’80s, even though it’s a 1994 film. All in all, a forgettable and regrettable installment.

Fortunately, it’s barely referenced in the final Heisei film from later that same year, so it can be safely skipped. The concluding film’s title is rendered Godzilla vs. Destoroyah on the DVD, but the monster’s name is clearly meant to be simply Destroyer (which is how it’s pronounced in the English dub), so that’s what I’ll call it. Little Godzilla’s island undergoes spontaneous nuclear detonation at the start of the film, the only reference to the previous movie. Miki fears that the “Little One” is dead. But there’s a bigger problem, which rears its head when Godzilla goes out for Chinese!  Yep, he attacks Hong Kong under the main titles, finally spreading the love to someplace other than Japan. And he’s glowing red-hot, which is apparently called “Burning Godzilla” mode.  Unfortunately the Hong Kong attack is a brief interlude and doesn’t lead to the awesomeness that would’ve been Jackie Chan vs. Godzilla. The world is poorer for it.

But what we get instead is still quite cool, because this is not only the Heisei finale but a 40th-anniversary tribute, and it draws on a lot from the original film, including the reintroduction of the Yamane family to the franchise.  Dr. Yamane’s grandson Kenichi — actually the son of a character from the original film who was orphaned by Godzilla and taken in by the Yamanes — is a college student who’s conveniently the world’s greatest Godzilla expert (even more so than all the employees of G-Force, somehow).  He figures out that the  island explosion has changed Godzilla, sending his nuclear-reactor heart into critical, and when he goes up, the energy release will be an extinction-level event.

Meanwhile, Kenichi’s sister Yukari, a reporter, interviews a Dr. Ijuin, who’s invented a “micro-oxygen” with the potential to help the world. This concerns the now-elderly Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kōchi reprising her 1954 role — awesome!), who fears its similarities to Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer (the weapon that killed the original Godzilla in ’54) and its potential to be the ultimate weapon. Ijuin dismisses the concerns at first, but Tokyo is soon attacked by a horde of relic Precambrian creatures reanimated and mutated by the effects of the Oxygen Destroyer 40 years before. They grow into 10-foot-high crablike monsters with really scary heads, and we get a very different kind of monster-movie sequence (inspired by Aliens) as they massacre the Self-Defense Forces. Finally, after being harried by the military with freezing beams that Ijuin believes will neutralize their micro-oxygen and kill them, they merge into a single giant creature, the Oxygen Destroyer’s power manifest in daikaiju form, and Ijuin dubs it Destroyer  (Desutoroia).

Meanwhile, the SDF has tried to slow Godzilla’s meltdown using similar freeze weapons (launched from a super-jet whose pilot is the lead actor from Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, though he’s playing a different character), but it’s only been a stopgap and he’s heading for a super-China Syndrome meltdown that will destroy the world. (Though shouldn’t the Japanese call it the South America Syndrome?) Kenichi says the only way to stop Godzilla now is with the same force that stopped his predecessor: Destroyer. As it happens, Godzilla Junior (as he’s now called) has turned up alive and in a much less stupid-looking form, like a leaner, smaller, longer-snouted Godzilla, and the big G is tracking him. (We can assume that the same natural uranium deposits that caused the island to explode were also responsible for mutating the young Godzillasaurus into daikaiju form, per the concepts established in GvKG.) So we get a bit of a replay of the moral dilemma from two movies ago, since again Junior must be used as bait, and Miki must reluctantly accept the necessity of it. So G-Force orders the evacuation of Tokyo and sends Miki to lure Junior there, bringing Godzilla back to where it all started. I don’t want to spoil the rather epic, no-holds-barred battle that results, but it goes through a few different stages including one where Destroyer breaks up into mini-Destroyers that swarm Godzilla, a novel and effective twist. The battle is quite cataclysmic, though it builds to a conclusion that’s a bit abrupt and ambiguous, a weakness after the strength of what preceded it. But if the online summaries interpret it correctly, it was nonetheless a pretty satisfactory and fitting end to the career of the Heisei Godzilla (as well as that of Miki Saegusa, whose telepathy was apparently fading as she matured). All in all, it’s a good finish to the series, which is a relief after the disaster of SpaceGodzilla.  It’s also an effective anniversary film, nicely tying back to the original’s characters and themes. The first half explores some of the same ethical dilemmas about the Oxygen Destroyer that the original did, and while it doesn’t carry the same weight in a later era (and is squandered once the OD just turns into yet another big monster), it makes the film feel deeper than most of its predecessors. They even coaxed Ifukube out of retirement to score one last G-film, and while this isn’t as good as his penultimate score, it’s refreshing to hear his distinctive style again, and appropriate for this film that brings everything full circle.

So that’s the Heisei continuity, or at least the 5/7 of it I was able to see. I’d say that the 4th, 5th, and 7th films are among the best Godzilla films I’ve seen, while the 3rd is mediocre and the 6th is one of the worst. Maybe someday I’ll get to see the first two and be able to make a more complete assessment. But overall, the Heisei Era was stronger and more consistent in quality than the Shōwa Era, though the 1954 original remains in a class by itself. I liked the ongoing continuity with Miki and G-Force, though I wish there’d been a larger continuing cast (Azusa should’ve stuck around as Junior’s advocate/friend, and it would’ve been nice to have the Yamane heirs as recurring protagonists). Although it has its missteps (the worst of which, SpaceGodzilla, can fortunately be ignored completely), it’s a reasonably solid continuation of the Godzilla mythos, and the most consistent multifilm continuity in the franchise. It remains to be seen whether the standalone alternate realities of the Millennium series will be as satisfying.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

I finally made the climb

I’ve mentioned before how I realized that Findlay Market, the city’s main farmer’s market, is within walking distance of my apartment but way, way downhill. Once I went downtown by bus and decided to brave the really steep steps that would take me back up to my street, and it was really exhausting; so as I described in that earlier post, I got to thinking that maybe it would be easier to walk the more roundabout route that the bus takes — a longer trip, but not as overwhelmingly steep. But I never got around to trying it.  The one time I almost did, I was too exhausted by the time I got to the first bus stop along the route home, so I gave in and took the bus the rest of the way.

This morning, I wasn’t even planning on going to the market; I was just out for a walk in the park near my place. But the park was getting a bit crowded for me, and I remembered that at the grocery store yesterday, I’d forgotten to get a green pepper.  (How I was reminded was odd; apparently the clerk inadvertently entered the code for green pepper when ringing up some other produce item and then cancelled it, and I happened to notice that on the cash register screen and realized that I should have gotten green pepper, but it was too late to go back.) So I got to thinking, maybe I should forget about the park and get my exercise by walking to Findlay Market and back. I wasn’t sure I was in good enough shape to attempt it, but I decided to take a chance, figuring the downhill part would be comparatively easy and if I really exceeded my limits I could take the bus back. So just on the spur of the moment, I headed down to the bottom of the street and the really long staircase.

I was wrong about the downhill part being easier; walking down a slope that steep is hard on my knees. But I made it to the market, and I picked up a nice-looking green pepper and a couple of ears of corn.  Then I sat and rested for a few minutes before heading back, and I paced myself.  I rested again for a bit once I reached the bus stop, assessing whether I was up to tackling the rest of the trip on foot, and this time I decided to go ahead with it — again, by the more roundabout but less steep route.

And it turned out pretty well. It was an effort, but it wasn’t nearly as exhausting as going up the steps.  And I finally got to take a long, slow look at the scenery I’ve only driven or ridden by before, particularly of the cliff face that drops down from the park to the street below.  I stopped to take a look at a big stone construction and wondered what it was, and then realized it must’ve been the support columns for the old incline track that used to run between the park and downtown. I checked the aerial view on Google Maps when I got home, and indeed it was in just the right place for that.  I probably knew that at some point but had forgotten it.

The corn was a mixed bag, though.  It tasted fine, but there was some kind of worm or larva inside at one end, which kind of creeped me out. I cut off that end anyway since there was a bit of a brown, rotted (or eaten?) area, and I didn’t even discover the worm until I noticed that one of the brown bits that had fallen into the sink was moving. Eww. I checked the other ear of corn to make sure it was worm-free, then hastened to dump the husk residue out on the yard-waste dump behind the building while the corn was cooking in the microwave. So that turned out okay, but it was a part of the whole organic-food-buying process that I could do without. Why does nature have to be so darn… natural?

So anyway, that turned out pretty well and wasn’t as hard as I feared, and I got a good workout. I’ll have to do it more often.

Categories: Uncategorized

WAR OF THE WORLDS: THE SERIES: Overview and final thoughts (Spoilers)

Well, I undertook this DVD rewatch with the expectation of revisiting a show (or at least a season) that I’d somewhat enjoyed the first time around.  But it’s revealed to me that my memories of the original show are somewhat rosier than the reality.  All in all, this hasn’t been a very enjoyable revisit.  The writing was mostly weak and the production values bordered on the amateurish.  Even the thing I liked most, the chemistry among the main cast, isn’t as good as I remembered.  At least, it took a while before the actors seemed to settle into their roles and start giving decent performances.  Some of their early work is kind of embarrassing.  And overall, the show made way too little use of its own leads, often spending 10-20 percent of the episode dealing with the alien plot and guest stars of the week before Team Blackwood even showed up.

I think one reason I liked the idea of this show was that, at least in theory, it treated the original, unaltered movie as part of its continuity.  Most TV series based on movies change things about the events of the films to set up the series — like the Starman series retconning the events of the film to happen a decade or so earlier so the title character could have a teenage son, or Men in Black: The Series ignoring K’s retirement at the end of the first film.  So it’s refreshing in those few cases where you can treat the movie and the sequel series as a continuous whole.  Sure, the series introduces a lot of retcons about the aliens’ abilities and origins, and makes bizarre and implausible assumptions about the aftermath, but hardly any of it contradicts what we were actually shown in the film, just recontextualizes it.  We weren’t explicitly told in the film proper (just in the prologue) that the aliens were from Mars; that was just a speculation that was offered but never confirmed.  We never saw the film’s aliens possess human bodies, but that didn’t prove they couldn’t.  The two aliens we glimpsed were much smaller and flimsier than the ones in the series, but they could’ve been a different species or subspecies, perhaps some kind of helper animal or genetically engineered scout.  And the series incorporated actual footage from the movie in its titles and flashbacks, brought back Ann Robinson as her original character, recreated the war machines fairly faithfully, and so on.  I appreciated that regard for the original work, even if the series’ idea of what happened afterward was pretty lame.

Only a few episodes really amounted to much.  The pilot was kind of okay, but flawed by its premise.  The reuse of the movie’s war machines in the climax was a high point, but marred by the fact that the aliens had no chance of success, and it was more a matter of running out the countdown timer than any real kind of suspense.  “Eye for an Eye” was fun, though mainly for its homages to the 1938 Orson Welles broadcast (and the fact that it was both set on and aired on the actual 50th anniversary of that event was kind of cool).  There was a run of decent episodes from about #9-#13, but even they had weak and silly moments.  All in all, there are only two episodes I’d call genuinely good, “The Prodigal Son” and “Vengeance is Mine.”  And there were quite a few ranging from stupid to just atrociously bad.  I really didn’t remember the show being this consistently lame.  Did I just have different standards back then, or was this a show I just tolerated despite its badness because I liked the cast?  I do remember not being very fond of the horror elements and feeling the writing could use improvement, but I don’t remember thinking it was this bad.

In any case, I definitely remember how awful the second season was, and I have no intention of rewatching it.  In an attempt to boost the show’s flagging ratings, Paramount brought in a new production staff led by Frank Mancuso, Jr., who’d previously (and contemporaneously) produced Friday the 13th: The Series.  His ideas for how to “fix” the series were bizarre.  Somehow he thought it would be more appealing if the fairly normal world of the first season were replaced with a relentlessly dark, dismal dystopian near-future in a state of perpetual decay.  I gather his reasoning was that the world should have been more devastated by the ’53 invasion and this was the aftermath, but that doesn’t work in the context of the first season, and just springing the changed world on us without explanation didn’t work.  I tried to believe at the time that four years had passed between seasons and the arrival of the new alien force at the start of the season was the one Quinn had foreshadowed, and that the deterioration of the world was the result of four more years of the aliens’ evil schemes; but that didn’t work because Debi (who became a more prominent character in season 2) was only a year older.

The worst change Mancuso made was killing off half the cast, and destroying the chemistry that was the series’ only real high point.  And which half he killed off is telling.  Both Paul Ironhorse and Norton Drake died in the series premiere, and were replaced by a mercenary named John Kincaid, played by future Highlander: The Series star Adrian Paul, who was just as dull on this series as he would be on that one.  Ironhorse was the most popular character on the show, the breakout star, and yet Mancuso apparently thought it would “improve” the series to kill him.  (And the way it was done was just painfully wrong.  I cried when I saw it, but not in a good, cathartic way like when Tasha Yar died on TNG — I was hurt and angry at how completely, painfully wrong the story was in how it treated and disposed of the character.  Okay, they had Paul sacrifice himself to keep his evil clone from killing Debi, but the way it was executed just felt so ugly and forced and hollow and unfair to the character.)  He never offered a clear reason for this decision, as far as I recall (beyond claiming that he had no idea Ironhorse was popular until after the deed had been done), but his excuse for killing Norton was that the team was losing the Cottage and going on the run, so it wouldn’t be practical for a guy in a wheelchair to be on the team without a steady home base to operate from.  This was a blatant lie.  The team moved into a new permanent home base at the start of the second episode of the season, barely any time at all after the Cottage was destroyed.  Norton could’ve functioned just as well in that environment as the Cottage, with a few access ramps and computer upgrades put in.

So I think it’s self-evident why the Native American and the black paraplegic were the characters who got killed off, while both white leads were kept and a new white lead was added.  Because it’s not just the racial diversity that was lost.  Harrison also lost all his eccentricities, becoming an entirely bland character; essentially his only personality trait in the entire season was that he grew a beard.  Even the aliens lost their weirdness.  The Mor-taxians were replaced by a new faction of their species who called their planet Mor-thrai and themselves the Morthren, and who worshipped a living deity called the Immortal.  Unlike the weird-looking, weird-sounding, weird-dressing, body-snatching Mor-taxians, the Morthren transmogrified themselves to look permanently human — all of them white, as far as I recall — and spoke entirely in English.  (The leader Malzor was played by Denis Forest, last seen in “Vengeance is Mine,” and his second-in-command Mana was played by the lovely Catherine Disher, who would later become one of the numerous WotW veterans to star in the ’90s X-Men animated series, where she voiced Jean Grey — and who reportedly hated her time on WotW and refuses to talk about it to this day.)  So essentially everything about the first season that didn’t conform to the majority, mainstream view, every trace of diversity or eccentricity, got cut out or whitewashed, and we were left with a cast that was utterly bland.

The first half-season was relentlessly dark and dismal and horrible, and it’s all a homogeneous blur to me; I seriously don’t know why I even kept watching for as long as I did.  The second half got a little better with the addition of Jim Trombetta as story editor (just when I was on the verge of giving up altogether).  There were a couple of halfway-decent episodes there.  There was one episode where they went back in time to shortly after the original invasion, with new actors playing the young Clayton Forrester and Sylvia as Harrison’s adoptive parents, which was the first time in the entire season that it felt like it was really a continuation of War of the Worlds in any way.  Also it was just a relief to see actual daylight in the past scenes, as opposed to the perpetual polluted gloom of the second season’s present day.  However, the past scenes were in black and white, which was silly because the movie was in Technicolor.  But there was one episode I really liked, which was mainly about the team and their allies trying to arrange to give Debi a happy birthday in the middle of this dismal, horrible world, and was rather sweet and optimistic.

But the series finale squandered any goodwill those episodes earned.  For whatever bizarre reason, after a whole season of unrelenting darkness and ugliness, the writers decided to end the series with a tacked-on, forced happy ending that required betraying prior continuity all the way back to the original film.  The finale introduced the enormous retcon that the Morthren were mostly a benevolent, decent bunch, that the ’53 invasion had actually been a peaceful scouting party that fell into a misunderstanding with the humans and fought them in self-defense, and that the evil Malzor misled the other aliens and tricked them into launching the second wave of invasion as a ploy to seize power.  Thus, just killing Malzor was enough to let the two species make peace and live together on Earth happily ever after.  Which is just… completely… insane.  There is no way the pre-emptive, brutal, genocidal alien invasion seen in the George Pal movie could possibly have been the result of a misunderstanding or self-defense on the aliens’ part — unless they were somehow fatally allergic to white flags.  The first interaction between species in the film was the aliens heat-raying a trio of harmless locals trying to make friends, and it just got worse from there.  The War of the Worlds was a systematic, planned ethnic cleansing on the aliens’ part, an aggressive war rather than a reactive one; the movie made that very clear.  And the first season of the series made it even more blatant that the aliens were bent on conquest and genocide and were a cold, ruthless race by nature.  Even the second season, for all its retcons, did nothing to change this basic characterization of all the aliens, not just Malzor, as ruthless and genocidally inclined — at least until it became convenient for them to rewrite the rules so they could force a completely incongruous happy ending.  It was a terrible way to end a terrible season of what I now must admit was a pretty terrible series on the whole.

Oh, well.  At least the original movie is still awesome.

So the question I’ve been pondering is, how would I have preferred to see this series done, or how would I have approached it myself?  First off, I would’ve probably kept the cast.  They started out weak, but they did have pretty good chemistry for most of the season.  I also would’ve incorporated a recurring or regular role for Gene Barry as Clayton Forrester, and brought back Sylvia in a more respectful way than reducing her to a babbling lunatic.

I definitely would’ve had the world remember the ’53 invasion.  Most of the planet’s major cities were destroyed, and the death toll probably exceeded that of WWII.  The invasion would’ve interrupted the postwar recovery, and would’ve interrupted the Cold War as well.  Whatever came afterward would’ve been very different.  Would the nations of Earth have put aside their differences and banded together to guard against further invasions?  Or would the East and West have entered a new, more dangerous arms race as they competed to reverse-engineer the aliens’ weapons and technology?  Either way, we would’ve probably seen a more advanced civilization by 1988 — and perhaps one with a significantly smaller population, so maybe its environment would be healthier.

I’m not sure if I would’ve kept the body-snatching.  I don’t care for it, but I can understand the necessity to represent the aliens with human performers.  It’s less expensive than constant prosthetic/animatronic effects, it’s more dramatically effective to have human actors as the enemy, and since a weekly series would need to be more about an ongoing infiltration than an overt invasion, giving the enemy the ability to pass for human makes sense.  Still, there could’ve been another approach.  When a nation lacks the strength to invade another, sometimes they ally with local factions and use them to help overthrow the establishment, like when Cortez fought alongside the Mexica people who rebelled against Aztec rule, then stepped into the power vacuum their revolution had created.  Maybe in my version the aliens are mostly offscreen and have coopted (or mind-controlled?) a human faction that serves as the main antagonists, perhaps a megacorporation that’s thrived from reverse-engineering alien tech and whose power-mad leader is happy to betray humanity in exchange for the aliens’ promise that he’ll rule the world.  Something like Tobias Vaughn in Doctor Who‘s “The Invasion.”  (I’d love for John Colicos to have played the role, but that would mean basically rehashing Baltar.  Maybe given time I could think of something a little more original.)  It might not play out too differently from what we got, with the aliens seen occasionally in their base making plans while their agents in the field are human.  Although if the bad guys were genuinely human, it would’ve been harder to justify the good guys killing them, so that might’ve changed the dynamic of the action.

I might’ve tied it in a bit more closely to the original film by establishing that the Mor-taxians had used Mars as a staging area.  Maybe some had remained there since ’53, unable to move on Earth until they tackled the immunity problem.  But in that case, surely humanity would’ve worked harder to develop spaceflight sooner and take the war to them.  (I gather some people have written sequels along those lines to the original H. G. Wells novel.)  Maybe there’s been an uneasy cold war between Earth and Mars for decades.  This would be public knowledge, so you wouldn’t have the same secrecy cliche the actual series had.

I mean, seriously, keeping the whole thing secret was a terrible idea if you think about it.  If there’s a group out there that’s actively threatening the safety of the public, and if they can be fairly easily identified by their decay/radiation burns, their tendency to congregate in threes, and the weird noises they use to communicate, then it would only make sense to alert law enforcement and the general public to be on the lookout for them.  Keeping it all secret and relying on just four people to protect the whole world from these genocidal beings was obscenely irresponsible.  It gave the aliens far too much freedom to act and do harm.  The secrecy trope is something genre shows use to pretend they’re happening in the real world, but it’s often a bad idea in-universe.

And it’s so much more interesting to create a world different from our own.  There could’ve been a wealth of stories to tell, 35 years into the global recovery from an invasion that nearly destroyed the world.  What a shame we never got to see them.

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WAR OF THE WORLDS (1988) Reviews: Eps. 21-23 (Spoilers)

Last three of the season!

“So Shall Ye Reap”: It’s Mor-tax Vice!  The aliens are in Chicago, trying to develop a super-addictive drug that will turn humans murderous.  They use Alien Hookers! to pick up men and abduct them as guinea pigs.  One of the captives is a vice cop, Sawyer (Jonathan Welsh).  Meanwhile, Team Blackwood is impersonating DEA agents to investigate the alien plot, and local Chicago cop Lt. Teri Novak (Dixie Seatle) and her department are in full turf-war mode, obstructing the “feds” at every step even at risk of endangering the public.  Pretty darn unprofessional if you ask me.  In between searching for Sawyer, she’s trying to get confirmation that our guys are who they claim.  Norton didn’t set up their cover very well at all, and she soon blows it and has them arrested.  Yet once General Wilson contacts her and reveals they’re an “anti-terrorist” squad, she’s suddenly super-cooperative, despite her previous extreme resentment toward anything federal.  Just goes to show that “terrorist” was a panic button for Americans well before 9/11/01.

The Advocates have sent a badly-acted envoy to kibitz the head scientist, whose failures get him executed offscreen, but his geekier assistant does a much better job upon taking over and has soon perfected the drug, which looks like pink lemonade and which they insist on injecting into the ear for grossout effect even though it can be taken by mouth.  Sawyer is their test subject, and in keeping with the vice theme, their chosen killing ground is a strip club, where the stripper languidly dances even as a raging lunatic bashes everyone around him with a baseball bat.  Now, that’s professionalism!  Not so much the cops who then drive up and run into the club, completely ignoring the victim who flies out the door and lands on the sidewalk just as they arrive.  The aliens pick up Sawyer and drive away, but the cops chase them, and the envoy tells them not to lead the cops back to their base.  They end up driving into the river, though it’s unclear whether this was intentional or the result of Sawyer’s throes of withdrawal in the back seat.

Once Sawyer dies, Novak’s determined to bust the bad guys and tries to call in reinforcements, but Team Blackwood warns her they can’t handle what’s out there.  They finally confide in her about the aliens, and we get the usual token disbelief followed by quick acceptance, since there are only 43 minutes per episode.  (Here Harrison says it’s been “nearly a year” since the aliens’ return, when the last mention was that it was more like a year and a half.  Either this was delayed from earlier in the season, or the writers were getting forgetful.)  Novak talks with an informant, a mob boss who was a friend of her parents and told her stories when she was a girl — “It’s Chicago,” she says.  He tells her the new drug operation is based in an abandoned prison, and Omega Squad moves in for the raid — which proves unnecessary, since the aliens, in their haste to evacuate, left the keys and a supply of the drug in reach of some of the addicted prisoners, and the resulting riot kills all the aliens.  The team comes in to the disgusting sight of the addicts writhing on the floor in broken glass to lap up every drop of the drug, just to make the episode’s “drugs are bad” message that much more heavy-handed.  (Not that I don’t support that message; drug abuse is a terrible thing.  But there are less ridiculous ways to make that point.)  The Advocates finally catch onto the obvious flaw in their plan: making humans violent creates more danger for the aliens too.  Well, back to the ol’ drawing board!

Ugh.  I remember considering the last two episodes of the season to be very weak, but that implies I must’ve felt it had been decent up until then.  This is the third-last episode and it’s one of the worst of the lot.  There are some nice moments of banter among the team, which was the main thing I liked about this season, but the team spends a lot of this episode offscreen and nothing else is enjoyable to watch.

“The Raising of Lazarus”: The Air Force digs up an alien scout ship of some kind (the size of a large filing cabinet and with no resemblance to any previously seen Mor-taxian ship, due to low budget), and Team Blackwood is called in to a nuclear research facility (?) in Wisconsin to study the craft and the pilot within, only to find the investigation taken over by a black-ops USAF division called Project 9, run by Col. Alexander (Nicolas Coster), your typical arrogant authority figure who shuts our guys out.  His team has no luck cutting into the alien hull, even with a super-powerful laser, but Norton has found a theory in Dr. Forrester’s notes that lets Harrison use sonic signals to break the ship’s magnetic lock (and its hatch unscrews in a nice homage to the movie).  There’s no attempt at any kind of quarantine or security procedure even though Harrison is aware the alien might still be alive — which naturally it is, though it plays possum long enough for Alexander to take some tissue and blood samples when nobody’s looking.  Turns out Project 9 is your standard conspiracy-fodder shadow government group researching military applications of alien technology, and Alexander wants to inject himself with alien cells in hopes of understanding their thinking.  He wants to make peaceful contact, and all in all seems pretty clueless about this whole ongoing alien invasion thingy, given his position.

Anyway, the alien breaks out and wanders through the ducts for a while, and it’s the first time we’ve really gotten an extended look at a Mor-taxian outside of a human host.  After watching for a while, it simply grasps the cables next to Alexander’s lab and thus is able to superimpose a hovering green triangle before his computer screen and communicate with him through the computer.  This is an alien that apparently crashed on arrival and has had no prior contact with humans or taken a human host before now, yet somehow it knows English and is able to interface with Earth computers just by touch-telepathy.  Anyhow, it gives Alexander a formula that will help with the “cell matching,” and the colonel injects himself, after confining Team Blackwood to quarters “for their safety.”  Ironhorse slips out, claiming that he interprets “quarters” to mean the whole facility.  Then the alien mind-meld-hacks Harrison’s computer, which is hooked to Norton’s, so it learns everything about Project Blackwood and the ’53 invasion, including the stuff about the bacteria and how the radiation killed them.

Then the alien cuts the power, and the next time we see our heroes, the whole confinement thing has been forgotten, since Harrison’s checking in on an Alexander who’s now content to leave the alien hunt to them, since he and his aide are busy documenting the “changes” following the injection, not that there are any to speak of.  Meanwhile, the alien takes a nuclear rod from the reactor and begins taking it room to room, exposing each room to its radiation and then moving on.  It’s basically sterilizing the base for its own protection.  The writer here seemed to be making the classic mistake of confusing radiation with radioactive material, saying that as soon as any room has been exposed to the rod’s radiation for a few seconds, that makes it permanently uninhabitable.  Unless that rod is actually shedding plutonium dust or something, it doesn’t work that way.  Once the radioactive material is gone, the radiation doesn’t stick around, any more than the light sticks around once you take a flashlight away.  True, exposure to intense radiation can sometimes transmute a material into a radioactive isotope, but I think it would take more than a few seconds’ exposure from a single reactor rod.  Also, the computer-graphic status map of the contamination shows it spreading so fast from room to room that the alien would have to be moving at Roadrunner speed, even though it’s moving about a hundred times slower when it’s on camera.

The alien finally comes to Alexander’s lab and takes over his body, rendering that whole plot point about injecting alien cells completely moot, and kills the aide.  Harrison shows up then and gets the brushoff, but remembers seeing something amiss about the room.   Alexander continues irradiating the base, and Harrison meditates and remembers that the lab’s radiation alarm was shut down, meaning Alexander must be the alien.  They track him and discover he got outside, but not before contaminating everything around the room they’re in, trapping them.  But Ironhorse climbs through the somehow-uncontaminated vents to get to the lab with the super-laser, and even though he doesn’t bother to explain his intentions, Harrison magically knows that he’s going to shoot Alexander with the laser clear through the wall.  The first shot lands way ahead of Alexander’s vehicle, so Harrison says they should lead it a little with the next sho — [convulsive head shake] you what??  For whatever reason, this contradictory strategy works and Alexander-alien gets blowed up.  The team abandons the base through the vents.  “What about Alexander’s research?” Suzanne asks, and Harrison paraphrases Rhett Butler’s “Frankly” line.

Well, this was a mess.  It hardly feels like an episode of the same series, what with the lone alien having all these weird powers, and Alexander not seeming to be on the same page as anyone who’s in the loop about the events of this series.  Not that a departure from formula can’t be good, but, well, this one wasn’t.  And the radiation thing was just so outstandingly inept that it remains one of my most vivid memories of the show.

“The Angel of Death”: After some really, really bad FX shots of space, a swirly video-effect fishbowl thingy descends on the site of the upcoming 1992 World’s Fair in some city (no doubt a fictional identification of the location, since the only 1992 World’s Fairs were in Seville and Genoa) and drops off — hey, it’s Ozzy Osbourne!  Or rather, it’s a woman (Elaine Giftos) with big frizzy hair, big square black sunglasses, and a dark trenchcoat (there’s probably some ’80s hair musician that would’ve been a better referent for my joke, but I don’t know that genre well).  She knocks out a security guard with the words “Remember nothing,” then reports into a video-effect ribbon thingy that rises out of her hand and says she’s starting a 7-day mission to find and kill the Advocacy.  She then cuts a swath through the Mor-taxian population of the Pacific Northwest, slaughtering them en masse since she can recognize them on sight (they have green faces in her POV — hey, are those sunglasses like the ones in They Live?).  Team Blackwood notices the killings but is caught off guard, and the Advocates are convinced it’s the humans who are after them.  One group of aliens — gathering flowers as food in a botanical garden, the first time we’ve heard of that gimmick since the Halloween episode — recognizes her as a Synth from the planet Qar’To, but gets mulched before they can report it.  Suzanne determines that the new kind of residue left from the alien bodies shows signs resembling what happened to human bodies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so they realize somebody’s got “atomic bullets,” as Paul quaintly puts it.  Harrison realizes there’s a new player, a second alien species fighting the first.

In need of intelligence (oh, I could make a crack, but it’s just too easy), they set up a plan to catch some Mor-taxians alive for questioning, using a bacterial weapon Suzanne’s conveniently devised.  Norton lures them in by playing back their old transmissions, even though he doesn’t know what they say (but it includes “Don’t drink the water in Mexico; this includes ice”).  Damn, over a year of this, and he hasn’t even made the slightest headway at decryption, even though the signals are about things he should have referents for?  He’s not as good at this as he lets on.  But then, the aliens are just as incompetent to keep sending these transmissions even though they should’ve figured out by now that the humans can track them.  (Although, granted, the grunts’ inability to think or plan without the Advocates’ instructions could make this an unavoidable risk for them.)  Anyway, the Advocates know it’s a trap, but send in their people anyway, needing to find out what the humans’ new weapon is.  The trap goes nicely, until the Synth shows up and starts nuking aliens (which she does by striking a silly action pose and shooting cheesy red video effects from her hands).  She also knocks out Paul and says “Remember nothing” again.  A surviving alien snaps a photo of Suzanne and gets away, somehow assuming that she’s the Synth.

Harrison is convinced that Ironhorse has been killed; in fact, the opening preview voiceover line was “Paul is dead” (not even backward-masked), though the line actually spoken in the episode is “Ironhorse is dead.”  But there’s some evidence Paul may have been taken by the other alien, which, in fact, he has.  He wakes up in her custody and they interrogate each other, with her having the upper hand but professing her friendly intentions.  She introduces herself as Q’tara, which sounds like “Katara,” but she doesn’t do any waterbending.   Instead, she just does some weird posing/interpretive-dance thingy while she talks in a stilted, robotic way, like a cross between a Power Ranger and a Shields & Yarnell routine.  Oh, and she gives off a loud electric hum all the time.  She says she’s from the same system as the “People of the Three” (a neat name for the aliens, which unfortunately we won’t hear again) but is dedicated to their destruction, and to the preservation of humanity.  She mind-reads Paul, then tells him “Remember nothing” upon waking him from his trance, then immediately tells him what she just told him to forget she’d done to him!  Huh?  Wha?  Seriously?  Then she kinda-brainwashes Paul into telling the others that she’s a friend who’ll help them.  When he returns to the Cottage, he’s put through the security checks he instituted to ensure he’s not an alien — but somehow he’s allowed to walk all the way to Harrison’s study before the security check rather than being stopped at the gate.

Paul tells them in a kind of pre-programmed way that Q’tara is a friend, and the team figures out that Paul was hypnotized, but nonetheless decide to trust in Q’tara, and go to see her at the fair site.  The aliens track her down there and call in reinforcements, which the Advocates personally lead, taking on the bodies of firemen.  Inside, Q’tara tells the gang that she needs to return home before the space fold she travelled by folds back (I guess this is how she got here ahead of the Mor-taxian invasion fleet), but she’ll be back with reinforcements within a year (i.e. during the second season).  Our guys are thrilled to have such a powerful ally.

Though they’re not so thrilled when the aliens surround them and they realize they’re wide open.  Paul is armed, and so is Suzanne (thanks to a “gift from Uncle Hank”), while Harrison and Norton rely on makeshift staffs to repel the alien attack, which the Advocates supervise from outside.  (For some reason, the Advocates speak in dubbed alien gibberish while in their firefighter bodies, even though they always speak English when they’re in their rad-suited alien forms and shouldn’t actually have the anatomy to speak English.)  A firefight ensues, and the whole subplot about the aliens thinking Suzanne was the Synth is rendered kind of pointless since Q’tara is right there.  I think the idea was to set up Suzanne getting shot, but everyone else gets shot during the battle too, though the aliens manage to use a weapon that damages Q’tara before they retreat.  Suzanne does suffer the most severe injury, but Harrison and Paul pretty much just leave her there to die while they go to check on Q’tara — whom they’re somehow surprised to discover is an android even after hearing her called a Synth and listening to her constant electric hum and her processed “robotic” voice.  Apparently all four of them die or go into comas or something while Q’tara spends a few hours healing (since the scene dissolves from daylight to nighttime), and then she brings them back to life by restoring their “lost life energy.”  (Lady, it’s not life energy they lost, it’s blood!)  They’re all happy to have a new, wonderful ally — and are somehow able to avoid laughing every time she does that silly posing/dancing thing while she talks.  Harrison escorts her to the roof so she can return home, and then she reports into her hand-ribbon thingy, speaking in her language now even though she used English before.  And the subtitles tell us what many of us probably saw coming: That her mission is to “preserve” humanity as a food source.  It’s a cookbook!

All in all, a pretty silly episode — perhaps intentionally so, since I’m not sure they were even bothering by this point.  There was some decent stuff in the concept, and a few decent lines of dialogue here and there (though between this and his TNG episode “The Last Outpost,” scripter Herbert Wright evidently had a bit of a Sun-tzu fixation), but the execution is pretty lame (the episode was also directed by Wright, who has very few other directorial credits on his resume, his previous one being “Choirs of Angels” earlier in the season).  Elaine Giftos’s really goofy look and dance-robot performance are farcical and really undermine what could’ve been a decent new twist in the series.

Of course, this was the last we’d ever see of this version of WotW.  The show would be completely retooled for the second season, any lingering threads such as the Qar’To abandoned.  And what came next would make even this silliness look good in comparison.  I’ll talk about that in my overview post to come.

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WAR OF THE WORLDS Reviews: Eps. 18-20 (Spoilers)

“The Last Supper”: Our scientist-heroes are being shuttled by bus to a high school in Philadelphia, which turns out to be the site of a secret summit meeting with their counterparts from other nations, mostly UFO researchers and paranormal investigators working for various governments.  The group includes a few fairly well-known actors, including James Hong as the Chinese delegate, Efrain Figueroa as the Peruvian representative, and Colm Feore as Soviet representative Argochev, who was a last-minute replacement whose heat signature wasn’t on file with Ironhorse’s security people, making him an “anomaly” — along with the Sri Lankan representative Menathong (Suzanne Coy), who couldn’t go through the heat scanner due to a pacemaker.  Right off the bat, it’s a safe bet one of them will turn out to be an alien infiltrator, though Ironhorse is oddly blase about it (aside from his general mistrust of anything Russkie — you’d think the fact that Argochev has no trace of a Russian accent would draw comment from him).

The meeting is a chance for everyone to compare notes about their alien experiences, and any experienced TV watcher can sense where this is going.  Yes, it’s the obligatory money-saving clip show (also a bottle show, taking place mostly inside a single gymnasium).  Our team’s “presentations” are basically just an excuse to rerun clips from previous episodes (plus plenty of action footage from the ’53 movie), and we only get to see a smidgen of the Peruvian presentation with some archive footage of an archaeological dig to accompany it.

And yet, as clip shows go, it’s actually kind of interesting.  Hearing the team lay out what they know about the aliens, while the presentation is a little haphazard, actually offers a new perspective on things and conveys the sense that these guys actually know what they’re doing and are making some progress.  We even learn some new things about the aliens: Suzanne explains that the reason they can osmose into human bodies is because they’re boneless, with liquid cores held up by a muscular framework.  She likens their body structure to jellyfish, though that’s a bit hard to reconcile with their extraordinary strength.  And the acknowledgment of the events of past episodes helps give a sense of continuity that’s been lacking at times.  (They even lampshade the fact that microbiologist Suzanne suddenly became an expert psychologist in the awful “He Feedeth Among the Lilies,” with one of the delegates commenting on what an unusual combination of specialties it is.)  Moreover, the international summit helps create a sense that this isn’t just a secret shared by a few, that at least to some extent the world remembers what happened in ’53 and is aware of the widespread destruction the aliens are causing now, and that’s refreshing.  Clip shows can be worthwhile if the stuff between the clips actually adds something to the series rather than just being filler, and this is such an episode.

Of course, there are sources of suspense: the aliens are hunting for the summit meeting in order to destroy Earth’s top alien-hunters, and the delegates are clashing with each other, with Argochev in particular being disruptive.  Eventually Argochev reveals his government has intelligence that there’s an alien infiltrator in the meeting.  Suzanne can find the alien with a simple blood test, but several delegates insist on contacting their governments before agreeing — and then we learn that the aliens have been tipped to the summit’s location by their spy inside, so they launch an attack.  (For some reason, it never occurs to anyone to use a Geiger counter to detect the alien.)  Once the attack begins with the delegates trapped inside, Argochev reveals he’s actually military intelligence (and is somehow armed despite all Ironhorse’s security) and offers to help in their defense (I guess; at first it actually looked like he was threatening them, but it didn’t play out that way).  Still, they’re quickly surrounded and outnumbered.  Ironhorse and Omega Squad battle the attacking aliens for a while, then Ironhorse gives them a speech which is basically “We’re hopelessly outnumbered, so each of you will have to be ten.  I’m counting on you.  Meanwhile, I’ll be back inside where it’s safe.  So long!”  Okay, in his defense, he’s actually going in to secure the delegates, but still.  (And we have to take his word that his team is outnumbered, since they couldn’t actually afford enough stunt performers to show the entire attack force.)

Learning of their dire straits, Harrison does his tuning-fork meditation thing to think of a plan — and proposes surrender!  He spins a line about opening a dialogue with the aliens, which (as he planned) draws out the alien spy — who, completely unsurprisingly, is Menathong, who, aside from being the only one left who hadn’t had her identity confirmed by the scanners, has had an ominous and malevolent look on her face every time she’s been in closeup.  She somehow manages to grab Ironhorse’s machine gun and tries to shoot them all, but the gun is empty.  She flees and jumps out a window rather than be taken alive.

So Harrison’s “plan” didn’t actually save them from the army of mostly unseen attackers, so they have to hide most of the delegates and Suzanne under the gymnasium stage while the others (including Argochev) retreat to the boiler room and… I guess there’s some sort of strategy involved, but it just comes down to a bunch of shooty-bangy stuff until all the aliens are dead and Harrison gets an ominous closing line about how they may have won today, but tomorrow is another day (which sounded a lot more optimistic when Vivian Leigh said it).  You know, it was actually kinda more interesting when it was a clip show.

“Vengeance is Mine”: This one opens very powerfully, as Ironhorse narrates a tragic incident wherein he fired on and killed what he believed were three aliens, only to discover that one of them was actually the aliens’ hostage, an innocent woman named Sarah (Carolyn Dunn).  The opening voiceover line, for once, is not an excerpt from later in the episode, but the beginning of this flashback narration, which is a clever variation.  For some reason, instead of talking to Suzanne or some other therapist with military clearance, he’s describing the incident to some random psychiatrist (Bernard Behrens) who doesn’t even know about the aliens.  The therapist says he can’t help if Paul won’t even tell him his name or what the war and the enemy are — but offers to schedule another session so they can investigate why Paul came in the first place.

Unknown to Paul, he’s being tailed by Martin (Denis Forest), Sarah’s husband, who’s more than a little unstable in the wake of her death and who’s frustrated at the lack of help from the police in identifying her killer.  He talks to himself about vengeance, quoting the Bible.  Meanwhile, back at the Cottage, Paul’s trying to act like nothing’s wrong, but is behaving erratically — at first slow to react when there’s solid evidence of alien activity in Sacramento, saying he doesn’t want to go off half-cocked, and then a couple of days later getting all gung-ho when there’s only a tenuous lead.  He brushes off Suzanne’s attempt to talk, but Harrison is more persistent, trying to tell Paul that what he’s going through is understandable.  When that doesn’t work, he tries to talk Paul into taking some R&R, which Paul interprets as an accusation that he’s burned out — no doubt voicing his own fears.

What the aliens are doing is trying to obtain high-grade rubies with which to build an arsenal of hand lasers.  They decide they can’t steal the rubies because they’re too precious and well-guarded, so they’ll have to steal money so they can buy them.  Because… money isn’t considered precious or well-guarded, I guess?  So they begin knocking off armored cars, after placing an advance order for a bunch of rubies with a sexy gem dealer (Canadian singer-songwriter Alannah Myles) who gets turned on by large quantities of money — a rather pointless digression, but not an unpleasant one to watch.  Pretty soon they decide the heists are going too slowly and they need to go to the source, which means taking over the bodies of the armored car company’s bosses and getting the gold out of their main vault.  (I’d expected they were going to take over the gem dealer instead — then there’d be a point in having her in the episode — but I guess she’s just the broker and wouldn’t have the money on hand to obtain the rubies.)

Eventually, after a second, inconclusive visit with the unnamed psychiatrist, Martin follows Paul and runs him off the road with a toy helicopter laden with explosives.  Paul wakes up bound and gagged, and Martin confronts him about who he killed, promising to kill him in return.  (Martin removes the gag, but says he doesn’t want Paul to say anything.  He’s not exactly stable, did I mention?)  Ironhorse warns him that the police will be onto him soon, getting Martin upset enough not to notice that Paul is freeing his hands.  Soon the tables are turned and Paul has Martin tied up.  He tells Martin that he’s now realized that what happened was an unavoidable consequence of war, and though “I wish to God it wasn’t so,” he’d do it again in the same circumstances.

Paul contacts Norton and learns that the others have headed off to Sacramento to stop the aliens, having deduced their plan.  Paul convinces Martin to help him if he wants to stop the people really responsible for Sarah’s death, and they head for town — just in time to chase the aliens, who are escaping in an armored truck after spotting Omega Squad’s approach (you’d think a crack military squad would’ve realized that an armored-car company would have security cameras around its HQ).  Luckily Martin has a spare bombicopter in his van, and he and Paul use it to stop the aliens, thus resolving their differences in the traditional masculine way, by blowing stuff up together.

Although this episode has a lot of the awkwardness that characterizes the series, it’s surprisingly strong and emotionally potent.  Definitely one of the high points of the whole series.  The guest appearance of Denis Forest (pronounced the French Canadian way, Deh-nee For-ay) is notable, for in season 2 of the series he will return in a regular role as Malzor, the leader of the new faction of aliens who displace the Advocacy.

“My Soul to Keep”: For once, not a Biblical title, although it’s from a common children’s prayer (published in The New England Primer in the 1680s, if anyone’s curious).  The occasion is that the aliens are trying to procreate, but the caverns are too nuclear-hot for their babies to survive, and if they lose this litter, they won’t enter pon farr or whatever again for nine years.  So they need to ship them someplace cold (conveniently forgetting that whole plot thread from episode 2 where they successfully stole a large supply of coolant so they could survive in the caves).  They do this by taking over a refrigeration plant.  “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” says a security guard when the aliens park their truck there on a Sunday.  “Yes, you would,” says one of the aliens, and proves it by becoming him.

Meanwhile, we meet an obnoxious reporter named Cash McCullough (Michael Parks), Suzanne’s ex and Debi’s father.  He’s meeting (in a Korean bathhouse, of all places) with a “mysterious” source who stays hidden, but whose voice, despite a feigned Southern accent, is unmistakeably that of John Colicos.  Quinn is back!  More, he alleges to have been the actual Deep Throat, and now he has an even bigger expose than Watergate: the Blackwood Project.  Except he tells Cash that they’re a death squad killing illegal aliens from Mexico.

So Cash contacts Suzanne for the first time in two years (he hasn’t even remembered Debi’s birthdays) and claims to be a changed man wanting to reconnect with family.  Ironhorse, knowing Cash’s reputation as an investigative reporter, is skeptical, but Suzanne finds herself responding to his charm against her better judgment.  At least until he confronts her at dinner with the “death squad” story, something he evidently does specifically to make her storm out angry so he can tail her to the Cottage.  Why he does so is unclear, though, since he then rushes back to Quinn for more intel.

Meanwhile, Norton has noticed transmissions that sound to him like “baby talk,” and he pinpoints their location (which, judging by the computer map, is exactly the same location as the hospital from the last “alien baby” episode, except now it’s the industrial district in the town adjacent to the Cottage).  Ironhorse and Harrison stake it out and determine it’s an alien operation with tight security — security that becomes conveniently lax when they sneak in and abscond with one of the totally unmonitored eggs.  Suzanne’s fascinated at the scientific potential of this find, until it hatches and almost tears her arms off through the isolation-box gloves.  Paul kills it with fire, and then they go off to make sure the other eggs don’t hatch.  Suze tags along, though she stays outside when the big strong menfolk go in, so she spots Cash and his camera crew going inside, tipped off by Quinn.  She follows Cash, who’s convinced he’s seeing a death squad in action — but then she’s attacked by an alien that’s both conveniently “naked” (not inside a human) and conveniently very, very inefficient at strangling her, giving Cash enough time to follow her screams, see the alien for himself, and tackle it, only to be verrrrrry slowwwwwly strangled himself while Suzanne screams helplessly (who would’ve thought the ’80s were so much like the ’50s?), until Paul shows up and ventilates the alien.  Somehow Cash’s camera crew got killed by other aliens while this was going on, and then Cash sees the fiery finish as Omega Squad torches the eggs, and says that nobody would believe him if he reported what he’s seen.

As a return episode for Quinn, this is very weak.  We never learn why Quinn, who parted with Harrison on reasonably good terms last time, is suddenly trying to hurt the Blackwood Project.  And the idea of a story about the heroes trying to kill hundreds of babies, even monster babies, is rather distasteful.  On the plus side, Suzanne really looks gorgeous when she dresses up for dinner with Cash.  Big ’80s hairdos have their merits.

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Mirror quest

No, this post isn’t about some new Mirror Universe story I’m writing, but about my efforts to replace the cracked side mirror on my car.  My sister suggested that I should find an auto salvage yard and get a used mirror there, then get a garage to install it, which would be cheaper than the alternative.  I found the prospect a little intimidating, but I researched it.  I found a relatively nearby yard with a “self-serve” policy — you bring your own tools, pay a small fee to get in, and detach the desired parts yourself.  Okay, but did I have the tools?  Hmm, I realized, I have that emergency kit I bought for the trunk — that probably has some tools in it.  I checked, and indeed it did — plus I realized it also included jumper cables, which would’ve been useful to know when my battery died a few months ago.  I haven’t used the kit since I bought it a couple of years ago, so I’d forgotten what was in it.

However, one thing I was hoping to get was a new wheel cover (why don’t they call them hubcaps anymore?), since the one on the front left wheel has some noticeable cosmetic damage.  And the emergency kit didn’t have a socket wrench attachment big enough for the wheel nuts.  Okay, I thought, that won’t work.  But then later I thought, Wait a minute — logically the car itself would come equipped with the necessary tools for changing a tire.  So I went back out to the car and checked the manual, and it took me a few minutes to figure out where the tire-changing tools were kept — behind a flap on the left wall of the trunk that I’d never realized was there.  I really should’ve put more effort into figuring all this out when I got the car.

So now that I knew I probably had the right tools, I checked the yard’s website this morning to make sure they had my make and model of car — plus I noted the location of another one from a year earlier as a backup.  That didn’t guarantee they had the parts I wanted, though, and the person I talked to on the phone confirmed that they didn’t keep track of that and I’d be taking my chances.  Still, I decided to go ahead and drive up there.

The cars were all laid out in rows and I had to track down my target vehicle myself; it was just at the far end of the row, wouldn’t you know it.  And it was missing both mirrors and all its wheel covers.  Darn!  I half-heartedly looked to see if it had anything else I might find useful, but no luck.  Then I remembered the other car from a year earlier, and made my way over to it.  No wheel covers, but voila, there was an intact driver’s-side mirror!  Carefully, remembering how my mirror had come loose and how I’d been able to pop it back on and pull it off again (which I shouldn’t have done because that’s what broke it), I pried loose the mirror from the mechanism that reoriented it, and that left it dangling from a pair of blue wires.  Okay, so how to disconnect the wires?  I didn’t see any way.  The connectors looked fused to the mirror.  I remembered some instructions I’d looked at online about how to dismantle a mirror, and I pulled off the panel inside the door, exposing the wire connections within.  I managed to unplug a set of five wires in a plastic thingy, but I couldn’t figure out how to disconnect the two blue wires from the thingy.  I tried detaching the entire mirror assembly (conveniently, it was the right color), but the bolts were too rusted for my toolkit pliers to work, and they must’ve been metric since none of my socket wrenches would fit them.  (Is there a non-metric size between 3/8″ and 7/16″?)  So much for the handy-dandy ready-for-anything emergency kit.  (I should look into getting another one, maybe.)

Finally another patron walked by and I asked him if he knew anything about how to disconnect a car mirror.  He took one look at it, asked for pliers, and pulled out the blue wires from the connectors in the mirror (apparently for its built-in heating element).  I had misread what I was looking at before; the parts that were fused to the back of the mirror were the bits that the wires clipped onto, not part of the wires themselves.  The connectors were of a type I’m not familiar with, so I hadn’t recognized how they worked.

So now I had the mirror, but looking at it, I wasn’t sure it was the right shape; it seemed too wide.  I told the guy who helped me that it was from a year earlier than my car’s model and wondered if it would fit, and he said it probably wouldn’t.  “Think about it,” quoth he.  “That would make it too easy.”  But it was the only option I had, so I went to the checkout place and told the clerk that I was unsure of the part’s suitability.  She let me leave my license with her while I checked it out, and it turned out to be a perfect match.  The reason it looked too wide is that I was used to looking at my mirror from an oblique angle rather than head-on, of course — and probably because the shape of the housing made it seem rounder.

Satisfied, I collected my license and paid for the mirror, then wrapped it carefully in rags for the drive home.  I would’ve liked to try installing it then and there, before I had to drive anymore, but there was a sign saying not to work on cars in the parking lot, so I had to wait.  Also, I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to risk installing it myself.  What the guy at the yard had done looked simple enough, but I’d broken the other mirror trying to reattach it; maybe it took a more skilled hand to do it right?  Maybe I should stop by the local garage and ask them to do it?  But then, the “skilled hands” at the garage in Pennsylvania had cracked it even worse than it had been before.  And it did seem pretty simple, so long as I was careful.  But wait, I wondered.  How do I avoid getting the two blue wires mixed up?  But the answer quickly came to me.  There was a roll of electrical tape in the toolkit; all I needed to do was mark one of the wires with a bit of tape.  And what if it turned out that, despite having the same shape, there was some difference in the rear connection and it wouldn’t go on easily?  But no, I figured that since it was the exact same shape, and only one model year off, they probably just reused a standardized component.  So I decided that I would try to install it myself.

And it was quite easy.  It was so quick and simple to disconnect the one mirror and attach the other that I hardly even needed the tape to tell the wires apart.  (I’m not even sure it would’ve mattered if I swapped them, but better safe than sorry.)  And it did click into place properly, although I was too tentative the first time and it didn’t fully engage.  So I pushed a little more firmly, but carefully, and as far as I can tell, it’s now properly attached.  Then it was just a matter of spraying on some glass cleaner and gently wiping it off, then getting in the driver’s seat and adjusting the mirror angle.  The replacement mirror still has a couple of tiny smudges or scrapes on it, but that’s a whole lot better than the multiple cracks on the old one.  (Come to think of it, it’s hard to believe I could’ve broken the mirror just by removing and reattaching it.  It doesn’t seem they’d be that fragile.  It seems more likely that the impact caused a hairline crack or two, and my subsequent handling exacerbated them.)

So I feel relieved and kinda proud now, and grateful to my sister for the idea.  I have an intact mirror again, I can feel safer when I drive, and I was able to achieve it for just over ten bucks, a lot less than I would’ve had to spend otherwise.  And while I didn’t get a new wheel cover, I gained a better understanding of my car and its onboard tools.

Now the one lingering issue I have with the car (aside from the slight cosmetic damage here and there, most of which was already there when I got the car from my father) is that the ride seems bumpier since I left the garage in PA.  I wonder, did they somehow tighten the suspension when they did the alignment after replacing the tires?  Or is it like my bicycle, the way it transmits the shocks more when the tires are freshly filled and rigid?

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