After we evacuate, this facility will be like Chernobyl.
It is May 8, 1989. Manuel Noriega has just lost the presidential election in Panama. Wednesday, he will declare the election invalid on account of he does not wish to stop being president. If this seems like a bizarre and unlikely turn of events, just wait till November! Friday, a freight train will derail in San Bernardino, California, destroying seven houses, killing four people, and damaging a gasoline pipeline. Two weeks later, the pipeline will explode, killing two more people and destroying eleven more homes. Space Shuttle Atlantis returns from its latest mission, which I mentioned last time. British Rail employees start refusing to work unpaid overtime and start just leaving when their shifts end.
Cyndi Lauper, John Mellencamp and Simple Minds all have albums out this week, none of them among the artists’ best-known, though Mellencamp’s Big Daddy is really good. A Night to Remember features Lauper’s version of “I Drove All Night”, a song that was written for Roy Orbison (Due to Orbison’s death, his version of the song would not be released until 1992), which is best known for its 2003 cover by Celine Dion. In the Hot 100, Bon Jovi overtakes Madonna. New in the top ten are “Rock On”, “Patience” and “The Wind Beneath My Wings”, displacing “Funky Cold Medina”, “She Drives Me Crazy” and “Room to Move”, three songs at least one of which, maybe two, are not disgustingly transphobic.
Earth Girls are Easy is the only worthwhile thing out in theaters this week, for a very loose definition of “worthwhile”. Home video is even more dire. The only thing I could find is a VHS release of a couple of episodes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. A plurality of prime time shows have already gone on their summer break. The fourth Amityville Horror movie has its TV debut Friday. MacGyver is new, “Renegade”, an episode I don’t remember. ALF ends its third season with “Having My Baby“. Star Trek The Next Generation is “Q Who?”, the first introduction of the Borg. Friday the 13th the Series gives us “Wedding in Black”, a rare episode where the magical artifact of the week, a snowglobe, isn’t covered by the physical indestructibility that protects the usual cursed objects, because who can resist smashing a snowglobe. Also, Satan is in this one.
As I have said far too many times by now, War of the Worlds as a television show suffers tremendously from nothing grander or more complicated than that it was made in the 1980s. Because this is a show which would’ve benefited greatly from a consistent narrative voice and clear and coherent world-building, and that is just not how television worked in the 1980s. When you look at modern mythology-heavy franchises, like the MCU or Star Trek, a thing that they emphasize is that there is a complete and coherent backstory and world in which these events are taking place, and either there is someone behind the scenes who has a full picture of what is going on, or, at the least, there is someone who makes sure as each new piece of mythos is introduced, that it slots naturally into what came before and will continue to fit moving forward. That trend was, to a significant extent, “invented”, at least for genre television, by Babylon 5 and codified by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and just straight-up was not a thing in the ’80s. In the ’80s model of television writing for the most part, every episode exists in a sort of vacuum – a kind of Halloween or Highlander franchise model, where each installment could be treated, explicitly or implicitly, as a direct sequel to the first, and any other installments that happened in the middle may or may not be canonical any more, in whole or in part, with no rhyme or reason to what’s left out or in. So KITT gets the same new feature six times, and Angus MacGyver has about ten million old buddies who mean a lot to him but who he mentions exactly once and never again and genetic engineering is an absolute taboo in the Federation except for that one time that a group of scientists were genetically engineering superhumans and everyone is completely chill about it and it occurs to exactly no one to mention the near-destruction of human civilization the last time someone tried that.
This isn’t simply a matter of television writing being immature. In many ways is was immature – television in the 20th century largely evolved from the “low” theatrical traditions, particularly vaudeville. But primarily, it was about the material reality of television distribution. Even when there were only three channels, very little television had the luxury of being able to assume a consistent audience from week to week, and once television stopped being a primarily live-to-air affair, the reality of distribution meant that individual episodes could be preempted, reordered, or dropped altogether, and this happened a lot. Reruns were sporadic at best and home media was nonexistent. Trying to tell a single, ongoing story a fool’s errand if you were going to alienate casual viewers and even devoted viewers stood a solid chance of having their attempts to follow the story foiled because the President decided to declare war on drugs that evening, or because the local affiliate got the tapes wrong, or because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction for you to get the DC stations that night. There was a tradition of serial television, originating back in the radio days, but it was restricted to soap operas, considered, in their way, the most disposable sort of entertainment. You had things like the prestige TV mini-series, but those were definitionally “special events” – it wasn’t something you could sustain for more than one very special week. It wasn’t until the proliferation of cable television, home media, and digital distribution, coupled with increased production values that came as the visual style of TV converged with that of film, that it made sense for “serious” television to become properly sequential, fusing elements of the fully serialized daytime melodrama with more tightly plotted episodic stories.
War of the Worlds is a product of that tradition of show-writing, but it desperately wants to be a show with a rich and heavy mythos. The writers have a very good sense of how to signify that an element is meant to be important and carries gravitas in a mythological sort of way. But they have absolutely no follow through. The alien burial site list from “The Second Seal“; Harrison’s Russian girlfriend from “Epiphany“; Harrison’s American girlfriend from “He Feedeth Among the Lilies“; Ironhorse’s spiritual journey from “Dust to Dust“; the ongoing misadventures of Little Bobby in “Thy Kingdom Come“; the only plot element that ever gets brought up more than once is Quinn, and if we’re being honest, that’s less of a plot element and more of “We had two chances to get John Colicos to ham it up so of course we were going to do that.”
And maybe you could convince yourself that had this show gotten a second season, they would’ve come back to these things, but to be honest? I don’t really see it. Because in the mode of ’80s TV storytelling, there is no such thing as forward motion. Just look at how many episodes end on an essentially nihilistic statement about the impossibility of progress. The standard ending of these episode is a draw: the plan of the week gets derailed, but not in a way that brings the Blackwood Project any closer to defeating the aliens, and also now a bunch of people are dead. This isn’t a show that is gearing up for an evolving storyline, even though it absolutely should be.
So here we are, in the next-to-last episode, and it’s time to add in another big and overly signified element to the essential War of the Worlds mythos which will, of course, appear once and then never again. This time, it’s “Project 9”, which is an evil shadowy government conspiracy working with alien stuff. Which is kind of a weird flex in a show about a shadowy government conspiracy working with alien stuff.
The obvious difference between Project 9 (Whose name, I assume, is a reference to Plan 9 From Outer Space) and the Blackwood Project is that Project 9 is evil. In particular, while the Blackwood Project is explicitly tasked with fighting the aliens, Project 9 is focused on adapting alien technology for military use. This isn’t without promise; Stargate SG-1 would pick up on the same themes years later, introducing a human cabal that exploits alien technology for profit without regard for Earth’s place in galactic affairs. The big problem with Project 9 in War of the Worlds is, well, everything to do with it is complete nigh-incoherent garbage.
Just at first blush, is it dumb that there are two military projects working on the alien problem? Well no, not really; what’s dumb is that there’s only two. Everyone ought to want a piece of this. What’s dumb is the whole conceit of “America is being invaded by an adversary with massive numbers and a technological advantage, and the adversary already has a foothold within the continental United States, and our plan to fight it consists of three nerds and a Lieutenant Colonel, because we definitely want this done on the DL.”
But hey, acceptable break from reality for the sake of having a show. Okay. But now we’ve got two projects, and the new one is even more secret than the first, and the two projects do not share information, and one of the projects doesn’t even know about the existence of the other. Now, “They are deliberately bad about sharing information because of territorialism and professional pettiness,” I could buy, but no, it’s deliberate that the alien-fighting project knows nothing about the alien-studying side and the people trying to prevent the aliens from conquering the Earth are not permitted any of the benefits to come from exploiting alien technology.
So what is Project 9 all about? Admittedly, it’s only Norton’s guess that Project 9 studies alien technology to try to adapt it for military use. The problem with that explanation is that the representatives of Project 9 that we meet seem almost serenely uninformed about the aliens and their technology. They don’t seem to know anything about the aliens. They don’t know about the alien capacity for cryptobiosis. They seem only vaguely aware of alien possession. And they don’t seem to take the danger posed by the aliens very seriously.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for the sake of the story. You could imagine an interesting twist here where, say, Project 9 has only had access to alien technology, not the aliens themselves, so their view is extremely skewed – maybe they don’t even know that the aliens are alive and active again because that’s been withheld from them. Maybe they view the aliens purely from an engineering perspective and have no sense of them as a civilization…
Except that the Project 9 scientist in this episode, a Colonel Alexander, doesn’t seem especially interested in alien technology; he’s interested in the alien itself as a biological specimen and his particular obsession is understanding the alien psyche. And on top of that, for someone who is obsessed with understanding the alien psyche, he seems to know nothing at all about it – certainly less than he’d have picked up from watching the presentation the Blackwood Project gave at that international conference a few weeks back. No, the only mode that Colonel Alexander really fits into is just straight-up mad scientist. But this is not a setup or a story that calls for a mad scientist. The mad scientist is not the dude the Pentagon puts in charge of the evil secret conspiracy to exploit alien technology; the mad scientist is the guy who gets rejected from that job and seeks revenge. This is like if the DOD called in Doctor Robotnik to help find a powerful alie- FUCK.
Anyway, integrating Alexander into this story leaves us with a clusterfuck of plot on top of what was already a bit of a speculative fiction plot orgy. Because this episode is sort of a mashup of The Thing and Alien and maybe sort of Die Hard… And Jeckyl and Hyde, a bit? It’s a big old mess, is the thing. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot of good stuff in here. It looks very good, and there’s a lot of good action, and the sense of tension is developed well, and it’s another one of those rare episodes where the whole cast gets enough to do. But the big picture just doesn’t quite gel into something properly cohesive. It’s not exactly that it’s meandering – in fact, the story is pretty focused both in plot and tone, avoiding the penchant for odd comedy subplots that have made the rest of the series on the one hand endearing but on the other, hard to pin down. The plot doesn’t wander: it moves in a straight line. To nowhere. The pity is just that the core they chose to focus on and build the story around is a pretty dumb contrivance.
At a US Air Force Geological Site conveniently close to a US Air Force Nuclear Research Facility (I am not clear on what the US Air Force has geological sites for or what they do. Or why they are just randomly digging in them with excavating equipment), some excavation equipment digs up an alien space ship. It is moved to the convenient nearby Nuclear Research Facility because why not, and our heroes (Sans Norton, who more reasonably remains back at the cottage to provide support over the phone) are called in to have a look at it. There’s an interesting moment here where Norton asks whether Harrison is sure the craft is associated with “their” aliens. This is the first time all season that they’ve referenced the possibility of aliens other than the Mor-taxans, and despite there only being one episode left after this one, it won’t be the last.
It is indeed the gang from Mor-tax, of course, because there’s too much going on in this episode already to introduce another faction into the mix. But Norton’s question is fair: this ship looks very different from the ones we’ve seen so far. Twice this season, War of the Worlds has tried to reproduce the original movie’ fighting machines, with mixed success. They came pretty close both times, but the compositing was a little shoddy and the proportions of the “cobra-head” looked off. On the other hand, the alien hand weapon in “The Second Seal” and the ancient ship in “Dust to Dust” look fantastic, and despite not looking quite like anything in the original movie, they both look very consistent with the original movie. The materials and the colors and the odd combinations of curves and angles all feel very consistent with the design aesthetic of Al Nozaki’s design.
The alien craft here isn’t done as well as those, but it still shows an earnest effort to depict something consistent with the alien technology we know from the movie. It looks to be made out of the same materials and it’s the same copper color and it’s got similar triangle motifs. But the overall design is more Star Trek than War of the Worlds, with more straight lines and 45-degree angles. There are none of the fresneled lenses we’re used to seeing on alien ships, or the gentle lenticular curves. Instead, there’s sections of exposed – let’s say it’s supposed to be “crystal”, though it looks more like what it certainly is: crumpled cellophane. The overall shape screams “shuttle” pretty loudly, and Harrison identifies it as likely a scout craft. It also has a window in the front, through which we can clearly see an intact alien. Harrison buries the lede when explaining this to Norton for comic effect.
Recalling that Harrison was able to open the hatch on an alien warship back in the pilot, he explains here that this ship has a different opening mechanism, and sets Norton to researching it. This is when they are interrupted by the introduction of Colonel Alexander and Project 9 From Outer Space, who promptly takes over the project. Harrison and Ironhorse grumble angrily to each other about this, but orders is orders.
Norton manages to turn up some of Forrester’s research notes indicating the possibility of using ultrasound to activate the alien technology. They let Alexander embarrass himself by breaking a diamond drill bit and reflecting a hydrogen-fluoride laser off the ship before telling him. Alexander is all haughty and waves off their silly attempts to open the ship even after his own efforts have failed, but of course it works.
This is really where we get into what I was trying to say before about Alexander and Project 9 being a big old mess. On the matter of opening the ship, he was dismissive of Harrison’s expertise, despite his own efforts clearly demonstrating that he had no idea what he was doing. A scene later, we see him finishing up a conversation with Suzanne about alien biology where it’s clear that he’s humoring her and isn’t really paying attention… Except that Suzanne claims he’d been interrogating her intensely, desperate to learn everything she knew about alien biology. He’s dismissive of Ironhorse’s security concerns, instantly assuming the alien to be dead and apparently ignorant of their capacity for cryptobiosis. The alien politely waits until no one is looking to open its eye and look around, then promptly plays possum until the middle of the next act.
Everything points to Project 9 being profoundly ignorant about the aliens themselves. Which would be fine if the idea was that Project 9 had only ever been exposed to alien technology, not the aliens themselves. Except that Alexander is also apparently completely ignorant about alien technology. And more, we never see Alexander take any interest in the ship itself: in fact, all he seems to care about is the alien. Now, if you had a broader backstory here, maybe something good could come of this. Maybe Project 9 was denied access to the aliens themselves and Alexander is so eager to finally see a real alien that his judgment is compromised. There’s the faintest shadow of hinting that Alexander is frustrated with his inability to comprehend the alien mindset and is desperate to bridge that gap. That’s a story with a very different scope to this episode, though, and something that really should be explicit. Heck, there’s a good place for some setup here with Alexander’s failure to open the craft. Throw in a scene later where he laments about the fact that Harrison is easily able to do what he couldn’t despite his own years of study and have him explicitly link it to Harrison’s firsthand experience with the aliens. Instead of leaving Project 9 as a complete cipher, give us some sense of what it’s like from Alexander’s perspective. That would go a long way to tie his motivations together into something that makes sense. But I think they wanted to preserve Project 9 as being purely “the shadowy, evil version of the Blackwood Project,” and possibly didn’t even notice how incompetent they come off.
We lack the insight into Project 9 to fully make sense of Alexander’s actions. But there’s hints, at least, that he’s not on the level. In particular, Alexander slips into the room with the alien craft, dismisses the guards, then takes a scraping of the alien and draws a syringe of its internal goo. Which, okay, that is fine; he’s a scientist studying the alien. This all makes sense. But he’s incredibly furtive about it, repeatedly looking over his shoulder, making sure no one sees him. He’s in charge here, so why does he need to be sketchy about it? It feels like there should be another character here – someone bureaucratic, who’s pitting the Blackwood team against Project 9, and thus pressuring Alexander to make rash decisions in order to advance his work. In the story as it stands, Alexander is doing double duty as the desperate scientist taking stupid risks to prove himself and also as the dispassionate Peter Principle “suit” who gets in the way of the heroes doing their plucky heroic Sciencetm. Meanwhile, the regular cast is playing the plucky hero band who has been sidelined by the bureaucratic process, except half the time they’re… not really?
In my hypothetical imaginary rewrite of this episode, Alexander would be the Golden Boy of Project 9, used to being respected and treated as a wunderkind (I would probably cast someone younger as Alexander and keep Nicholas Coster as the “suit”). He rolls in expecting to show up Harrison and his gang of misfits, but is quickly and very publicly humiliated when Harrison opens the capsule where he failed. The “suit” character hands the mission back over to Harrison and Ironhorse, with a veiled threat that maybe Project 9 isn’t working out the way they wanted. Harrison tries to make peace with Alexander, showing respect for his scientific abilities, but Alexander’s ego won’t stand for it, and he starts making increasingly rash decisions in his desperation to show up Harrison and get a major breakthrough.
That would certainly be a much stronger build up than we actually get to what comes next: without much in the way of explanation or preamble or justification, Alexander starts musing on whether or not he could learn to think like an alien by shooting himself up with alien goo. This is not actually where the episode goes, with Alexander slowly becoming more alien in his thinking and ultimately struggling to retain his human identity; he just gets possessed the usual way. Which is even more the pity since that would also be more interesting than what actually happens.
To Be Continued…
This post first appeared on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging | Welcome To The WORL, please read the originial post: here