Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review: War of the Worlds, the series ep 24

The twenty-forth episode of War of the Worlds, the series is called The Second Wave.  It features some significant cast changes, a new executive producer, and completely redone credits.  Additionally, the fundamental scope of the series and the universe underlying it takes a huge shift.  Not all of that is immediately apparent, though, as this episode serves as a very effective transition from season 1 to season 2.

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 walks rolls in on him and they chat amicably, at least until he gets Blackwood's phonecall. At that point, there is a brief struggle with little doubt as to the outcome; Norton Drake ends up with a bullet in his chest, lying on the floor. He gets one last victory, though, when, dying,  he manages to set off the panic alarm.  There's chaos as the clone manages to locate Debi and hold her at gunpoint.  He offers to let Blackwood, Kincaid and McCullough go before the place explodes, but informs them that he and Debi are staying put.  It's an odd strategy, one that's more based on the drama of the situation than in any kind of logic. The real Ironhorse, looking extremely worse for wear, confronts his "brother." When he realizes that they are linked, he commits suicide to get Debi free.  It works; the clone dies with him. With seconds to spare, the team evacuates the cottage.  It explodes, leaving Harrison, Debi and Suzanne without a home in the company of this new resistance fighter, Kincaid. 

 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.

The Bad: There are major, major continuity issues at work here. Leaving aside dangling plot points like Quinn and the Synths, who may or may not make an appearance later (they won't,) there are some pretty huge shifts to the underlying mythology of the show.  The aliens now have a different home planet; they no longer do things in threes especially, and there is a heretofore unreferenced deity. Note that, had they gone with the name The Immortal, the third objection would be gone.  They also seem to have undertaken a huge technological shift. No longer do they use inorganic technology, like war machines. Now their tech is organic in nature. They do seem to have a lot more of it, though. Less bad is that they've at least explained that these aliens have undergone a metamorphosis into a more true human form, making them able to exist comfortably on the planet. I thought about criticizing their lack of a space ship, until I remembered that the 1953 invasion didn't use ships either, just one-way canisters. They should have brought war machines, though, they really should have.

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.


The Sultan of Sarcasm said...

Ahhh, the infamous "The Second Wave" episode. You know, I've re-watched the episode and it is not as bad as I originally thought- although there are plenty of flaws (and Phil Akin apparently hated the script from an interview I read).

I think my major gripe is this being a continuation from season 1 without real explanations on how things happened in between seasons. Gone is the real world foundation that made it so easy to relate to the characters and their struggle. I think the show would have been great if it was a different show entirely and not a continuation of WOTW.

Personally, I love the opening theme. Very dark and eerie and the music by Fred Mollin is fantastic.

BTW, Catherine Disher's character is named Mana. I always thought Catherine Disher was a good find and she was one of the highlights of this season for me.

I think my major gripes are how the world came to be like this. Apparently, it is the aliens but there was no alien activity for months according to Ironhorse so how? And also, I just don't buy the whole Advocacy and alien forces just surrendering like this.

The alien hierarchy also is different- in the first season, it was established that it was the Council, the Advocacy, the soldiers, then the lower classes which includes scientists. Mana, is a scientist, and thus, a lower class. Thus, she should have no high ranking- but there she is.

Again, I can chalk it up to the new producers not really watching the first season in-depth but still the Advocacy would not surrender to anyone except maybe the Council.

I must admit, I did laugh at the random llama I spotted in Plato's Bar.

I have no clue how the Morthren were able to figure out who their enemies were. Again, something we have to accept.

I think my problem with this season was the lack of character development- there was no real evolution with these three (and Debi), whereas in the first season you had all those different personalities that worked together and became friends.

I thought Ironhorse's death was superb though. Great acting from Richard Chaves and the "Close your eyes, Debi" line was perfect.

I need to send you the differences in the script to your email.

Jimtron said...

I'd love to see the differences. And yeah, I know that it's "Mana," but for some reason my fingers always time "Mala." I guess that 'magic' and 'sustenance' makes less sense to me than 'bad' for her character.

I can't argue with you; the differences in continuity are jarring and unexplained. They're a little less so in the first episode than later, though, at least in my opinion.

I think the most sensible fan explanation for the reason the world is as we see it is a three or four-year time jump. More time for aliens to wreck havoc that way, and it makes Malzor and Mana the alien council. True, they were promised millions of colonists, but it looks like they didn't all survive the trip. A time jump also allows for the Synths to have arrived, which could also help explain the devastation. I know it's hand-waving, though, so ultimately don't try too hard to reconcile the two seasons.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you about the war machines. They definitely needed to show up again. It's odd that the iconic symbols of War of the Worlds had so little screen time in the series...but, then again, I'm sure it was difficult for the writers to come up with counters to the aliens' invincible ships. After all, if the aliens had access to all of their technology from the movie, the Earth would've been conquered and the series would have been very short.

I hated the new aliens organic technology. Instead of fear inducing or awe inspiring, it was just disgusting.

In terms of the episode itself, I was extremely disappointed with it when I first saw it, and still am today. It does nothing whatsoever to tie up any of the loose ends of season 1. What happened to the rest of the alien colonists? Are they still on their way? What about Quinn? Was he executed also? If so, how did the new aliens find and capture him? And the fact that the aliens show no outward signs of being aliens (i.e. radiation scars) is never fully explained either. And how did the new aliens know about Blackwood and the team? Plus, I feel the outright slaughter of the Advocacy and rest of the old aliens was a slap in the face to hardcore fans of the series. It's like the writers were saying; "This is how the aliens are going to be from now on, and screw you if you don't like it."

Overall, I just didn't like this episode, nor season 2 in general for that matter. The departure from the norm was just too jarring, especially with the side story of what has happened to the Earth...which is also never explained. Season 2 leaves way too many threads untied, and creates new mysteries of its own that it never bothers to solve.

Jimtron said...

You know, Anonymous, I can't disagree with you about the shifts being abrupt and jarring.

On the other hand, I don't think S1 had that many loose ends that needed clearing up. More like... abandoned potential. I'd have liked to have seen Quinn again, but I'm not sure we NEEDED to see Quinn again.

I disagree about the new writers disrespecting their fans, though. I think this episode is an excellent transition from the first season to the second. Now, I can completely understand and respect not liking the second season, and therefor this episode. But I think that if you accept the second season for what it is, then the virtues of this episode become apparent.

(I think that, either in this or another early S2 episode, they explain that the aliens have undergone a full biological metamorphosis into humanoid forms. Hence, no radiation scars and different physiology.)

Anonymous said...

I understand your points. I just really missed the Advocacy and old style aliens, and felt the writers had established something extremely creepy and well, alien, in season 1, and there was really no need to totally revamp the aliens for season 2. The whole point of radiation scars and three fingered hands coming out of chests was to remind us that these guys were from another world, even though they took human disguises. The aliens from season 2 basically look like normal humans, except when they die. Everything that viewers like myself had come to love about the aliens was abruptly scrapped.

The Sultan of Sarcasm said...

I think a big problem I had with the second season was Mancuso's insistence that the first season Mor-Tax aliens were too "alien". To quote Herb Wright, "What the hell is too alien?!"

I think the second season aliens were designed to resemble Nazis on thorazine. I did enjoy the presence that Catherine Disher (and Julian Richings) gave as the Morthren but I think that making them more human in ways is cheap.

I do think if the second season was a completely different series altogether it may have worked.

Here's a tidbit I gathered from a TV Zone article with Jared Martin. Apparently, in the second season the story editor fell ill (I'm assuming it is Jeremy Hole) and Jared Martin and Adrian Paul became the de facto story editors. According to Jared, they would receive scripts in splints and bandages that made little rhyme or reason, and it was up to them to polish them and have it make sense.

Anonymous said...

Well, they certainly did look like Nazis with those military style uniforms they wore, and I agree, it seemed to me their attempts to make the aliens look more human was cheap, and season 2definitely seemed like it was a whole other show. That's funny...what the hell is too alien. That's what these guys were.

dysamoria said...

i'm resisting the powerful urge to comment on the obvious issues, as it's been done to death (including by myself) so i'll just say this: Mancuso was the wrong choice and it was a political action to put him in charge. that said:

i think that this episode was excellent for what it is. more favorably, for the show's production team (at this stage) is that the first THREE stories are actually pretty much a sequence of transition stories and i like them consistently. it's a shame that the progressiveness and richness stopped there. even the appearance of extras and sets got notably cheaper after a short time. but...

we did get: persistent alien technology, more present visual effects (the hand weapons of the aliens), a very moody and dark tone (yes i miss S1's dark humor), much richer cinematography, Blackwood seemed more like the damaged goods he ought be based on his life experiences (especially losing Norton and Ironhorse) and Suzanne and Debi finally got some development and more presence. (i hate the whole "keep your kid in the dark, even though she's exposed to the dangers of your work sometimes" nonsense so this was a welcome change for me).

i enjoyed the three new primary aliens in the cast, but i think they should have gotten proper billing instead of "guest starring" credits since Forest and Disher (and Richings?) were in all 20 episodes and were primary/key presences.

i would have liked if someone (Ironhorse, especially) would have looked at Malzor and said "Marcus Cole?? Oh... they got you." to tie in Forest's earlier appearance ;-)

lastly, this season provided TV with one of the coolest series intros ever, IMO.

the never-mentioned bad: the series inherited the overused and very very quirky and standout cheesy sound effects and foley recordings of the new production company. after watching S2 through, go watch Captain Power... the foley artists in S2 ... sucked, as too did most of the special sounds (except the alien's hand weapon sounds which weren't necessarily appropriate but i always kind of liked, especially the wooshing part). it's just one of the many peripheral examples of why the new production company/team were not suited for a realistic, dark, moody, dramatic science fiction. they came from a line of fantasy programming and very low budget production (and it's worth noting that Friday the 13th had LOWER ratings than S1 WOTW yet that team was put in charge of WOTW S2...!).

ok, that's enough from me.

i can't wait to get the DVDs and finally have a proper recording of the theme music (and see it in good quality).

Anonymous said...

Agree with Sultan re the characters. The character of Harrison Blackwood annoyed the hell out of me. I only found him tolerable because of his bromance with Ironhorse. I recently rewatched the show and now I've grown out of my teenage Iron horse crush I can still say that he was the most interesting character in the show and killing him off still seems crazy. The justification for it also makes no sense. In a dystopian future surely a soldier is the only one who would fit in? Proven by the the fact that Blackwood was rewritten from a vegetarian pacifist to - yes - a fighter. And as for Norton, the idea of a paraplegic computer hacker was resurrected and done well in Dark Angel years later. To my mind a computer genius and a soldier would have worked better in season 2.