Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: War of the Worlds, the series ep 17

Unto Us a Child Is Born is the seventeenth episode of War of the Worlds, the series.  It opens with an alien chemical weapons test gone awry, resulting in an alien soldier getting pursued by local authorities.  When he casts off the body he is inhabiting in favor of a new disguise, a very pregnant woman, things start to get interesting.  The alien is disoriented and unsure of what's happening, which is in fact the beginning of the birthing process.  Her compatriots rescue her from a hospital after the birth of an apparently healthy boy, which is when the real fun begins.

The alien is still too weak to change bodies, prompting a distress call to the Advocacy.  The Advocacy immediately recognizes the potential of this situation and sends them to retrieve the child.  This call also alerts the Blackwood Team, who realize something is up when they find the mutilated corpse of the baby's father.  The baby's accelerated growth is another big indicator. We then rack up an impressive, and gory, body count in the hospital as the alien soldiers attempt to retrieve the child, the alien mother attempts to reabsorb the child and become whole once again, and the Blackwood team attempts to study the child for their own purposes.  In the end, the alien soldiers slay the mother, the Blackwood team slays the other two soldiers, and the child ages to decrepitude, dies, and leaves behind a healthy human baby boy.  Suzanne spends a month testing it before releasing it to the grandparents, who happily drive off while spouting "To Life Immortal" in their native tongue.

The Good:  This episode could only be an episode of War of the Worlds.  You really couldn't transpose this script into any other series and make it work.  It explores the osmosis process by which aliens infiltrate human host bodies, answering the question of what would happen if one entered a pregnant body.  Tonally as well, few shows could pull off this level of gore and more-or-less make it work.  Kudos to them for examining a logical and necessary question raised by the premise of the series itself.

After the father finds out he has a healthy son, he excitedly passes out cigars to everyone around him ... including the two alien soldiers, waiting to collect their fellow.  Their reaction is beautifully confused. Also, the actor playing the father is wonderfully enthusiastic.  It makes his death all the more tragic.

The aliens are as horrible as ever.  When we see the alien mother, longing to be reunited with her child, we naturally assume that it's some kind of maternal instinct.  No, no, no!  It's a purely selfish reason, a desire to become whole once again.  Presumably a good fraction of the alien's cells crossed the placental barrier and merged with the child, explaining the alien's weakness and disorientation through most of the episode.  Kudos to Amber-Lea Weston for her acting here.  She pulls off stoned alien quite well, sharply contrasted to her good-natured pregnant human.

The alien mother's urgent insistence on accompanying her fellow soldiers despite her weakness, and the fact that humans can identify the body, causes uneasiness among her fellow soldiers.  Their cautious instinct proved correct when she's identified, and later when she attempts to subvert the will of the Advocates.  Without remorse, they chuck her off a stairwell, mirroring a scene where she did the same to a human.  Their reaction to their compatriot's mental state was all-around terrific, and offers good insight into inter-alien relations. It's also fun when the two decide not to wait for the third member during the chemical weapon test; they reason, somewhat selfishly, that he'll catch up to them. He didn't.

I also rather liked their initial attack on the shopping mall that sets things off.  I especially like the clumsy alien first bumbling into Weston's character, then dropping the case containing their chemical weapon, before finally kicking over a bucket of oil which leads to their discovery.  Nicely set up.  I also like how the toolbox is set to implode to keep it from prying human hands. 

Still on the aliens, it's good continuity to once again see a technique where they are able to telepathically extract information from a human by physical contact. In keeping with the tone of the episode, though, this time it results in a hole in the head, rather than lesions. 

It's nice to see Sergeant Coleman again.  It's always good for a show to expand it's repertoire of characters.

The dark ending, with the grandparents revealed as aliens, is perfectly in keeping with the overall mood of the series.  Who knows what evil the Advocacy will be able to perpetuate with this child?

The Bad:  There is a LOT of gore in this episode, even for this show.  I wonder exactly what motivated that.  I actually really like the brutality of this show, normally, but the premise of the episode was already so disturbing that to pile on the bodies seemed unnecessary.  It even earned the episode a Jeer from TV Guide, one that I can't even argue. The idea behind the episode was good enough that it didn't need to be padded out with all the death. 

Those mall security guards were pretty tough!  They're all armed with guns, and they deploy quite a few of them to try to catch the alien saboteur. It's a fine scene, but doesn't really hold up to scrutiny.  I loved the soldier hurling a bystander off the railing during the chase though, though!

The aliens should have changed bodies a lot more.  They infiltrated the hospital by killing paramedics and stealing their ambulance and uniform ... why not just take their faces and knowledge too?  Ditto, after they disguise themselves as doctors.  I understand that they didn't want to keep getting new actors, but it is a weakness.

The Blackwood team tries to secure the hospital, rather than moving the child to a secure location.  Now, eventually the child gets free and starts killing, which takes the matter out of their hands, but they should have at least come up with an excuse for staying in a place that the aliens were sure to attack.

Also, having a healthy human left behind feels like a cop-out.  Now, this is somewhat salvaged by the grisly fate that awaits said human child, but I don't think that payoff was worth the unlikeliness of that turn of events. 

The Ugly:  Now, normally here I pull out the worst of the worst, but this episode deserves a special treatment. In chronological order:

 #1: The father's death and corpse.

#2: The murder of the nurse by the halfbreed child.

#3: The child murdering one of Ironhorse's men.
#4: The alien child, aged a hundred years in a few hours. 

Honorable mentions to the corpse of the alien and the nurse with a hole in her head.  The sticky fingers of the alien as he withdraws from her mind are well done. Oh, and of course, the alien child itself is pretty hideous by the time it grows up. 

An observation neither good, bad nor ugly: this really isn't a Team Blackwood-focused episode.  That's not a flaw, since it was intentional and the episode works anyway, but there are non of the really juicy character bits that we normally get.  Those are, it seems, reserved for non-humans this time around.  I'd have like to have seen a bit more of their reaction to things, but not so much so that I feel the need to label this as a 'bad.' I also wonder if the V babies were an influence.

So, there you have it, probably the most infamous episode of the series and thus singled out for some special treatment.  Let me say that I genuinely like this episode.  While I believe the excessive gore is a flaw, and a big one, it's not enough to ruin what is a really interesting idea.  The charming acting all around, especially on the part of the alien trio, goes a long way. While this definitely isn't the best episode of War of the Worlds, in some ways it's a perfectly representative episode of the series.  From the gore to the dark humor to the interesting and unique premise to the "To Life Immortal" ending, this episode captures what the essence of what War of the Worlds is all about, warts and all.   War of the Worlds - The Complete First Season  is thankfully available on DVD, so you too can watch all these wonderfully horrible moments.

1 comment:

The Sultan of Sarcasm said...

Great review as always. I also like this episode- mainly because of the alien storyline (the Blackwood team are barely in the picture at all).

This episode was written by David Braff, who happened to be one of the writers of the V: The Series (and later on wrote for Freddy's Nightmares). Now, whether or not the episode was re-written by Greg Strangis, Tom Lazarus or Herb Wright- I'm not sure. Herb did tell me that he and Tom had to rewrite most of the first season scripts that came from outside sources.

It was nice seeing the great Clark Johnson (from Homicide: Life on the Street, Gus Haynes from THE WIRE) portray the fleeing alien in the teaser. And I agree, him tossing the bystander in the teaser was enjoyable.

And I agree, his clumsiness was beautifully set up. It reminded me of how Jefferson (from "Goliath is My Name") was set up as a guy who fumbles the ball a lot, and then fumbled and dropped the Y Fever toxin after possession.

I'm not sure exactly why the episode was so gory. I heard that Paramount suits were insisting on more gore from the series from things I've heard. Either that, or someone happened to catch "It's Alive" on cable before writing the script.

Is it just me or did the one alien operative seem very confrontational in tone when he contacted the Advocacy (then, of course, he submitted to their will)?

I love the scene where she was going to merge with the offspring and become whole again. It's the first time we've seen an alien disobey the Advocacy (Quinn is an exception) for their own interests. Then again, her weakened state/mindset could be the reason for this. But this show pulled off that moment beautifully.

According to Herb Wright, there was going to be a follow up to this episode- where we see the child again.

Also, I love the little inside jokes on this series. On the intercom you hear them asking for Dr. Skiba.

Nan Skiba was the production designer for the series.