Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Campy Season That Grows Up Over Its First Year, War Of The Worlds Season 1 Has Its Moments.

The Good: Some of the stories, Moments of acting, Moments of character
The Bad: Most of the special effects, Very clunky acting by Philip Akin, Vast gaps in the story
The Basics: Watching the television series War Of The Worlds for the first time since I was a kid, I find it to be much worse than I remember it being, but not as bad as it could have been.

Recently, my wife and I sat down and watched the 1988-89 first season of the television show War Of The Worlds and as I consider it now, I find I have an uncharacteristic little to say about it. I actually picked up the season 1 boxed set because I recalled watching the show when I was a kid. I am proud to say that my tastes have matured some from when I was twelve years old. But even as I try to muster up the enthusiasm to write about the twenty-three episode first season (the first episode is double-long), I have to acknowledge that the show is not all bad and elements of it that are dated are far more problematic than the writing or production of the season.

Released on DVD to coincide with the release of Steven Spielberg’s vision of War Of The Worlds, War Of The Worlds follows the 1950s film version of War Of The Worlds in 1988. The idea is an interesting one for a weekly series and it certainly had precedent in the form of V: The Television Series (reviewed here!), but the first season suffers some because the serialized elements are serviced by writers who seem to be working more episodically. That problem is very evident when one sits down and watches War Of The Worlds Season 1 now. It is hard to see how it got by fans at the time.

When a terrorist attack occurs on a military depot, the terrorists involved accidentally rupture steel drums with radioactive waste. That waste happens to be where all of the bodies of the aliens from the 1950s invasion were stored and now, the alien leaders are able to escape. The aliens have the ability to melt into human bodies and take control of the bodies as well as gain access to their victims’ memories. Learning about the attack, Dr. Harrison Blackwood investigates with his new research specialist, Dr. Suzanne McCullough. Blackwood’s wacky theory quickly pans out and it draws the attention of the straightlaced Colonel Paul Ironhorse. Ironhorse gets Blackwood, McCullough and Blackwood’s expert hacker friend Norton Drake a place in a secret military facility where they combat the alien threat.

The threat quickly grows. While the aliens relocate to underground, they hatch many plans to bring humanity to its knees. The aliens burn through human bodies, so they prioritize their healing and they try to resurrect their fellow aliens that are still hibernating in military drums. As a result, Ironhorse and Blackwood have to stop the aliens from reactivating their warships, unearthing more aliens and ending the mind control attempts the aliens make to take over the world. In softening up humanity, Blackwood gets harder and the team explores how they may best stop the aliens while retaining their own humanity!

The first season of War Of The Worlds has a good premise. The aliens are created both with enough strength to make them formidable and some weaknesses, enough to give viewers hope that humanity might survive. So, unlike, for example, the new V Season 1 (reviewed here!), viewers of War Of The Worlds Season 1 are given the idea that the goal of saving the world is attainable and that the right team is in the right place working to save the planet.

Unfortunately, the basic premise of the series undoes much of its own menace or appeal. The aliens are basically walking around radioactive. Thus, as the first season of War Of The Worlds goes on, it is utterly baffling that people as smart as Blackwood, McCullough, and Ironhorse are not constantly scanning people with Geiger counters. At least the wheelchair-bound Norton has an excuse for not scanning everyone. So seldom do aliens make it to the hidden compound, that he has little reason to believe anyone he meets might have been taken over by an alien. Far too often in the series, characters get separated and in their time apart, a guest character is absorbed by the aliens and used against Our Heroes. At some point, it seems like Blackwood might trade his tuning fork (which he uses as a memory trigger, bafflingly enough sometimes for events that happened minutes before) for a radiation detector.

As well, the special effects are just terrible. In the season finale, a character arrives who fires energy bolts from her hands. This takes the form of little red animated triangles and they are just plain silly looking now, especially in high definition!

The other serious problem with the first season of War Of The Worlds comes in the form of storytelling gaps. Midway through the season, Blackwood notes in an episode that the team has been fighting the aliens for a year and a half and they reference many specific details about the aliens, like knowledge of their name and star system! This comes without anything in the series to back it up and is a serious issue.

The main characters are interesting enough. Blackwood is clever and an easy precursor to Agent Mulder. McCullough is a pretty straightlaced sidekick to the often-absurd seeming Blackwood. Her big problem is inconsistency. She is a mother and for much of the season, she seems to forget that she has a daughter. Her daughter appears pretty much only when it is plot convenient for her to be around. Similarly, Norton is only brought into the field when his physical handicap will allow the story to have added tension when Norton is menaced. Arguably the coolest character in the first season, though, is Ironhorse. He is tough as nails, but he has a Native American Indian spiritual side to him that gives him a bit of depth. Moreover, despite being military born and trained, when he is faced with the extraordinary event of an alien invasion, he takes it seriously and professionally.

The acting in the first season of War Of The Worlds is all right. Jared Martin is excellent as Harrison Blackwood. Richard Chaves is spot on in almost every scene as Ironhorse as well. In fact, the most serious acting issue comes from the fact that both men sound very much alike with their deep voices! Sadly, Philip Akin is a weak link on the acting front. He starts the series with a Jamaican accent that quickly erodes. He gets through the technobabble just fine, though.

If you’re looking for science fiction camp and you don’t want Star Trek or something so convoluted as Invasion (reviewed here!), War Of The Worlds Season 1 may fit the bill!

For other science fiction television shows, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Star Trek: The Next Generation
The X-Files


For other television reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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