Let's start with the opening credits. In muted colors, the camera pans through an explosion in space and up to Earth. It then enters the atmosphere and finds a city, which it films from above. Televisions play on buildings, reporting about violence and chaos. It ends by panning up to what looks like a city hall, with three revolutionary war statues in front. This disolves to a sickly green glowing logo, jagged and organic looking. The keen-eyed will notice that there are now only three main characters, Harrison Blackwood, Suzanne McCullough and John Kincaid. This does not bode well for our heroes, no.
The episode proper starts out with a bang, literally. We see another planet floating in space ... a white dot fires off from it, and then the planet explodes rather unconvincingly. The dot then makes its way to Earth. After it lands, shadows engulf the planet. I don't think the shadows are meant to be taken literally, but everything else probably is. We then jump to Harrison, driving along in a rather rundown urban environment that intertitles tell us is "Almost Tomorrow." Harrison was lured out of the comparative safety of the Cottage for a purported meeting with General Wilson. (Uhhh ... drink? It remains to be seen if he'll still be referenced, but I figured I'd drop it in for old-time's sake.)
It turns out that it's all a plan for the new wave of aliens who have arrived from Morthrai (not Mor-Tax anymore.) Malzor, played by Denis Forest (previously seen in Vengeance Is Mine,) is the new alien leader. He functions as a kind of high priest for the Eternal, the living god of the aliens. At his right hand is Catherine Disher's Mana, the alien science officer. Making up the third leg of the alien triumvirate is Julian Richard's Ardix. Note that these are not three equals, there's a rigid hierarchy between these three. Ardix is very much the man in the field, with Mana the brains and Malzor the leadership. The aliens no longer do things in threes, sadly, nor will the phrase "To Life Immortal" ever be uttered this season. The Eternal was originally to be named The Immortal, but that plan got dropped along the way. In between the execution of all of the previous aliens for their failure, including the Advocacy, we learn that their plan is to capture Blackwood and make a clone of him, to destroy the Blackwood Project from within. It's sad to see the previous guard gone, it really is. The Advocacy were great villains, so disdainful of humanity. We see a few pasty human-aliens with radiation scars get fried, complete with odd clothing and an alien arm bursting from the gut. It's a nod to what went before, but no more.
The cloning plan is foiled, at least initially, by the arrival of Adrian Paul's John Kincaid, who blows away the two aliens sent to collect Blackwood from the meeting they set up. We learn that Kincaid used to serve under Ironhorse before being drummed out of the service, but still does occasional jobs for Wilson. He and his brother were sent into an alien ambush, and Kincaid has been tracking them ever since. Norton manages to locate the aliens, so Ironhorse takes Omega Squad to their position for recon. Sadly, it does not go well. His squad is obliterated, and he becomes the first test of the cloning device. The copy seems to have Ironhorse's memory and personality, only with a complete and utter devotion to the Eternal. Blackwood and Kincaid, who had followed behind Ironhorse, manage to rescue the original Ironhorse and make their way back to the Cottage.
At the Cottage, the new Ironhorse plants plastic explosives in the lab. Norton
The Good: As far as transitions go, this one was pretty good. The directing was solid, the pacing fast and the overall plot exciting. By starting off with the feel of season one, the producers are able to quickly ratchet up the stakes as beloved characters and settings are offed left and right. The new producers seem to understand what was important about the last season, even if they didn't agree with it. The Cottage and the old aliens each get dispatched almost lovingly. It's sad to see them go, but necessary for the new format.
The new cast members, especially the aliens, are all superb. Forest's Malzor is calculating and full of menace, while the understated Mana and Ardix move to carry out his will. Of Kincaid, I'm less sure for now. It's not an acting issue, it's a writing issue.
Norton Drake and Paul Ironhorse each got a good death. Ironhorse gets a chance to say goodbye, giving the character a real sense of closure. The new producers have stated that the decision to off Ironhorse was based on how he wouldn't fit into the new format of the show, but that after the deluge of fanmail he got they decided to make the first episode about his exit. This they accomplish. Goodbye, Ironhorse, you'll be missed. Drake's death is much quicker, and he has a lot less to do this episode. However, it seems appropriate, and gets a bit of heroism along the way. While I'm not sure I agree that Ironhorse couldn't fit into this new, darker world, I'm positive that Drake couldn't. The team is already scientist-heavy, and a paraplegic just wouldn't fit in the more underground war with the aliens.
When Paul confronts his clone, he looks just awful. Great makeup and great acting on that scene. I rather like the clone insisting that he is the "real" Ironhorse, then greeting the original as a brother. I don't know why it feels right, but it feels right.
Going back to transitions, Harrison is offered a gun this time and actually takes it. I wasn't sure where to put this, but given that he's killed aliens with electricity, makeshift flamethrowers, and bo staffs, he can hardly claim to be the pacifist he was back in the beginning of season 1. Note that he doesn't fire the gun, which is ultimately what made me decide that this was a good transition and not a bad abrupt shift.
Continuing on this vein, the world around our heroes seems to have shifted. Some of this will be more apparent in future episodes, but the seeds have been planted. The world of "Almost Tomorrow" is a dismal, dystopian place. Max Headroom, perhaps the seminal dystopian science fiction series, is an obvious influence. Even the new tag is reminiscent of the "20 Minutes Into The Future" of that show. The tagline makes me want to think that we've gone forward a few years to explain things, though Debi of course hasn't aged correctly. I suppose she could have been tall for her age before and small for her age now, but that's ultimately just handwaving. A four-year time jump WOULD allow these new aliens to be the 'colonists' we were promised in S1, though we're clearly short of the millions who were supposed to be on the way. Perhaps Malzor lied to the Advocacy? (Again, handwaving.)
For some 'Bad' elements that aren't based on the S1/S2 transition, the security on the Cottage seems awfully light. Blackwood rides in with a stranger, in a new (awesome) vehicle, and they don't question it. Likewise, Ironhorse's clone comes in with three aliens dressed as Omega Squad (almost wrote Project Omega; I've still got Animated on the brain, apparently) troopers. Should the soldiers know each other? There's only maybe two-dozen of them, tops. Oh, and speaking of, the Omega Squad goes down really quickly inside the alien base. Maybe it's because he only brought two or three soldiers? Still, these guys are trained for this, and should have put up more of a fight. Oh, and once again Omega Squad is riding around in a station wagon. Really, the show should have sprung for a jeep.
The clone's plan, to hold Debi hostage but let the others go, seems just terrible. It's dramatic, but it doesn't make a lick of sense.
The Ugly: There's a lot of new elements here, but let's just go with a new alien corpse. Gone are the rotten-eggs and cast-off human body parts; instead we are treated to glowing green guts and melting bodies. On the whole, this season was a lot less gruesome than the first, so we'll see how "The Ugly" goes from this point forward.
And there you have it, the opening salvo in The Second Wave. New aliens, new environment, new threat. It's actually a really good episode, the best we've had in quite a while, though much of that comes from the shock of the destruction of the familiar.
For the record, I don't agree with all the changes the new producers made. I think Ironhorse was one of the strongest characters in the show, and should have been kept around in S2. Suzanne I'm not so sure about; maybe she could have been replaced with a bad-ass chick? Just spitballing here. I'm sure they kept her because of Debi, though. Having a kid along actually makes a lot of sense in this darker underground war. I agree with the producers that Drake had to go, though.
As much as I'll miss the Advocacy, I think having alien villains with recognizable actors week after week makes a good deal of sense. I think that more consistency between aliens, though, would have been nice. There was no reason to change the homeworld. (Perhaps Morthrai is the system and Mor-Tax is the planet? Maybe they colonized other worlds before and these are offshoots?) Anyway, here's a still from Starlog showing the execution of one of the Advocates. It also offers a clear view of some of the alien tech.
The continuity shifts are abrupt and jarring, but my feeling is that by continuing to watch the show I'm making a tacit pact to accept that they have happened and avoid complaining about them too much in the future. DID they change the premise? Yes. Was it explained? No. At least, though, they were upfront about it.
One last observation. At the end of Earth: Final Conflict season 1, the main character has an ambiguous possible death. For the second season, the replaced him with the character "Liam Kincaid." I remember at the time thinking how funny it was that two different science fiction series would replace a main character with a newer, younger, cooler character named Kincaid. Coincidence? Yes, of course, but one worth noting.
War of the Worlds has not yet had the second season released to DVD, and probably won't for a long while. Perhaps when the underlying economics of on-demand DVD pressings change, we'll see it. Until then, there's always YouTube.