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.