WAR OF THE WORLDS (1988) Reviews: Eps. 12-14 (Spoilers)
“Choirs of Angels”: The aliens go into the recording business! We see a trio of aliens (including CSI‘s Alex Carter) recording a subliminal “trust us” chant around a microphone. They then barge into the studio of musician Billy Carlos — actually the show’s composer, rock musician Billy Thorpe, playing a roman a clef of himself. And playing an alternate arrangement of the show’s end title theme, actually the one piece of music from this show that I like. It’s a brief cameo, for Thorpe/Carlos quickly meets his end at an alien’s hand, and they then embed the subliminal message in his not-yet-released new album.
But this isn’t for general release; they’re hoping to snag a particular scientist to help devise a vaccine against Earth bacteria. And as usual, their target just happens to be connected to our heroes — Dr. Von Deer (Jan Rubes), an old teacher of Suzanne’s that she comes to for help with her alien research, a month after the previous scenes. He’s playing the Billy Carlos tape nonstop (CDs were common by then but cassette tapes were still popular) and is caught up with his own project, barely remembering his promise to help Suzanne. Harrison is also a Carlos fan (though Suzanne can’t stand the music), and Von Deer gives him a spare copy of the tape. Uh-ohs! Harrison drives off while Suzanne stays for the weekend.
Soon, Suzanne discovers that Von Deer has a trio of sneaky associates, while Harrison gets hooked on the music and its “The Travelers are your friends” message and becomes convinced that the poor widdle aliens only attacked Earth in self-defense after they saw all our scary nuclear bombs and pollution and stuff (conveniently forgetting the first strike force at Grover’s Mill in 1938), weirding out Ironhorse and Norton, though the latter decides it’s just one of Harrison’s practical jokes. And the same two pieces of music get played over and over again, the end title theme and a very similar one (or maybe just a different portion of the extended version of the end title?).
The alien trio apparently camps out in the back seat of a limo for two days straight while Suzanne pieces things together and confronts Von Deer about the work he’s doing for the aliens. He tells her the aliens are our friends and the truth is in the music, and that the flask she’s holding contains the key to the future. She’s mollified by his words and agrees to cooperate. Oh noes! Has the evil subliminal masking taken over her mind too? No, she’s just playing along until she can lock him in the storeroom. Meanwhile, Ironhorse and Norton catch on that Harrison’s hooked, and Norton takes the tape to analyze while Paul shepherds Harrison through withdrawal (kind of a nice scene character-wise, though the dialogue writing isn’t too hot).
Suzanne figures out that Von Deer’s devised a vaccine against Earth’s bacteria. And he must be incredibly brilliant to have devised one vaccine that can work against every species of bacteria in the world. I really don’t think you can even use the word “vaccine” for something that broad-based. For that matter, I’m not sure how the whole disease-vulnerability thing works. I thought it was the radiation that protected them, but does being inside human bodies give them protection too? That seems to be the reason they have to “wear” human form outside their cavern, though we have seen them going “naked” outdoors for brief periods. Maybe they’re drawing on the human immune system for protection, though if anything, given how full our own bodies are of bacteria of all sorts, I’d think that the interior of a human body would be an even more toxic environment to the aliens than the outside world.
Eventually Harrison’s all better and he and Ironhorse rush to Suze’s rescue after she tells them about the vaccine. But the aliens are calling in to check up on Von Deer, and there are some fear/suspense beats that would never work in this age of ubiquitous caller ID, with Suzanne afraid to answer the phone, unsure whether it’s Norton or the aliens calling. Eventually the aliens get tired of waiting and break into the lab, and Suzanne has the music blaring and pretends to be hooked. She says she’s been helping the exhausted Von Deer finish the vaccine, and hands it to them, convincing them she’s drunk the Kool-Aid. They debate whether to kill her or take over her body (same thing as far as she’s concerned). But when our heroes arrive, they find her still dancing to the music. Is she hooked? No, she was wearing earplugs. The aliens left her alive for no reason beyond main-character immunity. And she contaminated the vaccine with an undetectable trace of ammonia, which the aliens are severely allergic to. The featured trio of aliens gets the first doses and spend an inordinately long time dying horribly and decaying before the episode finally ends and we hear the “Love Theme from War of the Worlds” (or whatever the heck it’s called) one last time over the end credits.
Not a particularly bad one, but I didn’t find the dialogue writing very good. And the premise had flaws. If the aliens have such a powerful technology for addicting and mind-controlling humans with subliminal embeds, why use it only to co-opt one scientist? Why not use it on the whole world?
Then again, the dreadful second season will rehash the subliminal-brainwashing gimmick twice. I won’t be rewatching that season, so I’ll mention them here. The first involved music again, I think, and the message was designed to make people violent or something; it was about as unmemorable and unpleasant as most of the first half of season 2. The final one was interesting in that the subliminal message (also designed to make people violent) was embedded in a perfume commercial that was just about the raciest thing ever seen on broadcast television at the time, featuring levels of nudity and implied sex on a par with what the supposedly groundbreaking NYPD Blue started doing three years later. In fact, my local station wouldn’t even broadcast the episode. It wasn’t until I managed to catch it over the air from Dayton, 50 miles away with a faint, staticky picture, that I saw the racy content and realized why it was banned in Cincinnati. As awful as season 2 was, I’ve always kind of admired that episode’s daring.
But the music was better in this one.
“Dust to Dust”: On a Native American reservation, a tribal shaman, Joseph (Ivan Naranjo, who was the voice of Tonto on Filmation’s 1980 Lone Ranger series), is taking his son to commune with the spirits, while a grave robber, Newport (R.D. Reid), desecrates a burial mound nearby. He finds a headdress with a large tetrahedral crystal in it, one that makes a drumming/chanting sound when he puts it on. Joseph has a narrower but similar crystal on top of his staff (obviously this is alien tech), and he can use it to control the weather, summon lightning, and turn into a bear, or at least project the illusion of a bear’s head in the middle of a vast whirlwind. The son recites his rather unimpressive list of accomplishments (including “I’ve been to college” and “I feel good about who I am”), but apparently the ancestors are not in a receptive mood, perhaps because of the jerk stealing their stuff nearby.
For some reason, the Blackwood Brigade is watching the news conference as Newport announces his find (and somehow Norton’s got a live streaming video window on a 1989 computer). Ironhorse is outraged at the desecration and Harrison agrees, but Suzanne’s noticed the crystal. Norton is somehow able to analyze the crystal just from a low-resolution video frame capture and determine it was machined by technology beyond our own, so the others go to investigate. Meanwhile, the Advocates watch the same news footage and recognize the crystal as the starter for a warship (though apparently it doubles as an MP3 player).
Newport is trying to sell the artifacts over the phone ( it turns out the chanting isn’t in his head, since others can hear it) when Shaman Joseph teleports in (apparently) and says he’ll die if he doesn’t return them. Not that Joseph will kill him, just that death will come to him. But Newport doesn’t take it that way and calls the cops. Joseph disappears, but when next we see him, he’s somehow in police custody. Harrison and Ironhorse confront Newport, not bothering to show any official ID or anything, so he dismisses them as crackpots and threatens to have them arrested like “the old Indian.” They go bail out Joseph, and Paul drives him home to the reservation. Meanwhile, aliens body-snatch some Indian Affairs agents and go kill Newport and take the crystal, just before Harrison and Suzanne show up to talk to him again. They pass at the elevator, and Harrison gives them a look that suggests maybe he’s thinking what I was thinking by this point in the season — that they need to start being suspicious of people travelling in threes. Anyway, they find Newport dead and the crystal gone.
At the reservation, Joseph goes off to do mysterious stuff and Paul hits it off with Joseph’s hot daughter Grace (Robin Sewell). They talk for about five minutes before getting to the “We come from different worlds, it would never work, we shouldn’t even try, so let’s make out now” routine. Although it is a good opportunity to learn more about Paul: He’s Cherokee, he was raised to be ashamed of his heritage, but he learned later to take pride in it. And he has no comeback when Grace points out that Paul shares his West Point alma mater with General Custer.
Eventually, Joseph pops up out of nowhere and tells Paul to come with him, summoning a bit of lightning to convince him. They go off on the same spirit quest that Joseph’s son flunked, and Joseph says that the spirits approve of Paul as if he were one of their own tribe, which Paul is honored by. (I don’t quite remember the name of the tribe, but it might have been fictional; it was something like “Westeskewin,” and there’s a city in Alberta called Wetaskiwin, but I don’t think that was it.) He says his people were visited by beings from beyond “before white man’s time,” which would mean the aliens have been visiting Earth for centuries, but this is never explored. While Harrison and Suzanne hook up with Joseph’s kids and go to find him, and the aliens use the starter crystal to track their ship, Joseph begins chanting — and continues to do so through everything that follows, as the aliens arrive and point guns at them, and the wind summoned by Joseph blows away the dirt covering the alien warship (why now?). The Advocates are thrilled that the warship works, apparently convinced that they can conquer the whole world with just a single centuries-old ship, and they tell their scouts not to kill Ironhorse and Joseph, but to let them live and spread terror to demoralize the populace (come on, are you kidding me???). So the aliens go inside the ship just as Harrison and the others arrive. Suzanne goes back to the car to warn the authorities what’s happening — but the rest just kind of stand there and watch (and Joseph chants) as the ship activates and rises up.
Now, the ship is seriously one of the coolest things in this entire series. It’s based on the aesthetics of the familiar war machines, but with the heat-ray lens in the nose rather than a gooseneck — and best of all, it’s got tripod legs like the war machines in the original novel! That’s a nifty homage, and the miniature effects are actually handled pretty well considering this show’s puny budget. (Although for what it’s worth, the movie war machines were “walkers” of a sort, with the filmmakers substituting mostly-invisible force rays for the legs.)
So anyway, the heat ray lights up and makes the familiar rattlesnake scanning sound and then the voom-voom-voom sound that heralds imminent death and destruction, and nobody bothers to try running or anything; but Joseph finally stops screwing around and calls down a few lightning strikes, then sucks the warship into a whirlwind (bear not included) and blows it up. Afterward, Harrison realizes the crystal in Joseph’s staff must be powerful alien tech, and is thrilled when Joseph just hands it to him — but he reveals to his son afterward that he gave Harrison a fake. That’ll teach ’em to pay for Manhattan in beads!
Basically it’s your usual “the aliens visited Native Americans and gave them Sufficiently Advanced Technology” plotline that shows up in a lot of sci-fi shows (Smallville springs to mind), and it raises similar problems that are never addressed. Although I guess it’s not entirely implausible that the aliens could’ve surveyed our world centuries before the imminent destruction of their own world prompted them to invade ours. That could be how they knew about Earth in the first place. (Perhpas you could even say that they “regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”) Still, the power demonstrated by Joseph’s crystal is beyond anything the aliens have possessed either in the movie or the series. On the other hand, Joseph had no problem with the idea that the aliens who took the ship were enemies of his spirits; maybe his crystal came from different aliens, enemies of the Mor-Taxians? This might be worth keeping in mind once we get to the season finale.
“He Feedeth Among the Lilies”: After ransacking a hospital OR for some reason (and quietly enough that the hospital staff doesn’t discover it until they wheel an emergency patient in), we see the aliens experimenting on a strapped-down human in their cavern, but he “spoils” too fast in the radiation. They need a better way to plumb the secrets of the human immune system. We cut to Team Blackwood interviewing people with alien-abduction stories, which all seem to be real and describe the aliens accurately (though one interviewee amusingly describes them as a cross between a giant frog and a big, slimy walnut). You’d think there’d be at least some crackpots in the mix. Anyway, one of the interviewees is a hot blonde, Karen (Cynthia Belliveau), whom Harrison wastes no time getting flirty with, rubbing her shoulders as part of a “relaxation technique” (yeah, sure, I didn’t see you trying that with the old married couple). She only remembers jogging and waking up ten hours later, and has been to a variety of doctors and therapists before getting shuttled here.
Ironhorse argues that they’d be better off interviewing veterans of the ’53 invasion to find more alien disposal sites — probably the best idea anyone in Team Blackwood has had in half a season, but we’ll hear no more about it. Instead, Harrison’s getting swiftly and mutually romantic with Karen, which is just creepy. He pays lip service to it being a bad idea to get involved when she’s turning to him for help, but he doesn’t resist very hard. Come on, man! Whether she seems to want it or not, you’re still taking advantage of her vulnerable state and an unequal power dynamic! It gets even creepier when he has Suzanne give her a psych evaluation (like all biochemists are trained to do, right?), and as soon as Suze springs “alien” on her in a word-association test, Karen fires back “rape” and has an emotional breakdown. After that, it’s completely intolerable that she and Harrison end up in bed together — and the next morning she has an alien-rape dream while still in bed with him. And any talk about whether Harrison’s doing the wrong thing is already forgotten, and his teammates seem perfectly fine with it beyond a little ribbing. This is disgusting.
Meanwhile, the aliens have stolen an ambulance (and its drivers’ bodies) as a mobile operating platform for their tests, and there’s a weird sequence where the ambulance pulls over a motorist (well, he pulled over to the curb as it went by, as you should, but it felt oddly like a police pullover) and the aliens grab him. It’s a cameo appearance by Julian Richings, a cadaverous-featured character actor who’s been in many Canadian-made shows (including appearances as Death in Supernatural), and who will have a regular role in season 2 of WotW as the chief alien scientist. Anyway, the aliens are later shown implanting a device into their captive and expositing to each other that they’ll come back and “harvest” him in six months. Which does clear up my earlier confusion about the timing of when the abductions started vs. when things were happening in the cave and the ambulance. I guess what we saw in the cave was one of the harvestings.
So you can probably see where this is going. Harrison has Suzanne hypnotize Karen (like all biochemists are trained to do, right?) and regress her memory, and she describes the aliens attacking her and inserting an instrument into her body. For whatever reason, Suze has her forget the details of the session, and then Harrison fills her in later — claiming that she described details that we didn’t actually hear her say. She’s initially disbelieving about the aliens, but is reminded (distastefully) of her “alien/rape” association from before (and you still aren’t seeing why this relationship is a problem, Blackwood?!) Harrison shows some restraint and actually doesn’t spend the night with her again, but only because he’s caught up in his work and goes to talk to the team about getting her medically examined for possible alien implants. But by coincidence, it’s been six months that very night! She calls Harrison about having “a bad night” and he rushes over, but then the alien implant kicks in and she’s compelled to walk out to the curb, unable to talk to anyone or ask for help. Harrison pulls over to let the wailing ambulance go by, and the aliens pick her up and take her away just before Harrison comes into visual range. He parks and rushes into Karen’s building… and then the scene freeze-frames and we just get his voiceover saying “I have no proof, but in my heart I know the aliens have Karen McKinney.” Which is one hell of an abrupt ending for the episode.
Oh-h-h, this was just ill-conceived. Even leaving aside the gross violations of professional and personal ethics, the whole alien-abductions thing was a bit weird. The attempt to explain all alien-abduction tales in terms of the Mor-Taxians’ experiments is odd, since they’ve only been active for about a year at this point in-story, but alleged abduction experiences go back decades. (More like millennia, probably, since they’re rooted in neurological causes — night terrors, magnetic fields or subsonics affecting the mind, that sort of thing — but in the past they would’ve been attributed to spirits or demons rather than aliens.) I think it was a bad idea to try to graft “real” alien mythology onto the WotW aliens. If anything, even if we accept that the details of the ’53 invasion were repressed or forgotten, it’s likely that people worldwide would have dreams and visions and recovered memories about these aliens, and their image would be the dominant pop-culture image of aliens rather than the “Greys.” This show really suffered from failing to explore the consequences the ’53 invasion should’ve had on the world.