© 1996 Duncan J.C. MacIver
In the late 1980's, with the whole science fiction era taking a firm hold, there came the idea to try and follow the great author H.G. Wells and create a series based on his epic story "The War of the Worlds." So, during the late 1988 writers strike, a syndicated show was created and broadcast under the watchful eyes of the talented Sam and Greg Strangis, the father-son, producing-writing double-act.
Even in these capable hands, however the show had a number of flaws from its outset. The most noticeable of these was the official explanation of what had occurred since the invasion of the 1953 movie. Apparently the whole world had undergone some sort of collective amnesia, forgetting entirely the whole invasion and the existence of the aliens.
Also, being on a tight budget, the show had to fall back upon the tried and tested approach of aliens taking on human bodies to move around unnoticed and be generally sneaky, as most evil sci-fi aliens have a habit of being. Surprisingly enough, these aliens really did turn out to be sneaky, unlike the norm who are just not quite sneaky enough to ever defeat the good guys. Sometimes the aliens would win a round. Unfortunately, the contest never got a satisfactory conclusion, as the series was axed after its second season.
War of the Worlds starred Jared Martin as Dr. Harrison Blackwood, a student of Dr. Forrester from the original story. Blackwood is one of the few people left in the world who believes that the aliens ever existed, and knows that they have returned. He is determined to stop them. In some ways, Blackwood is very similar to another alien-hunting lead man, the X-Files Fox Mulder. Both seem to know everything and always work with somewhat unorthodox methods (Blackwood is into various Oriental memory rituals, and frequently ignores the military rules that he should be working under).
With Blackwood in the hot spot, the series took a well-versed formula to create his companions -a soldier, a beautiful, yet intelligent female lead, a computer genius, and a child.
Richard Chaves plays the wonderfully named Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse, the military connection to the group. It was Ironhorse's job to run around with various big guns and knives, try to keep his friends safe, and leave a stream of the ooze that was dead aliens behind him. Arguably the most popular character, Ironhorse brings the native American Indian culture to the show, giving that little bit of contrast to his hardened military outlook.
Dr. Suzanne McCullough is Scully to Blackwood's Mulder. She is the by-the-book, no nonsense microbiologist and psychologist who was equally good at analyzing alien remains, screaming for her daughter to "get away from here....NOW!," blasting the aliens that her daughter was trying to get away from, and looking sexy for the camera (on occasion, all at the same time!). Lynda Mason Green brings together McCullough's 5 or 6 separate rolls into a generally rather promising character who, unfortunately, seemed to develop very little over the course of the two seasons.
No modern science fiction would be complete without some sort of computer-whiz, and War of the Worlds is no exception. Norton Drake may be disabled, but that never seems to slow him down, especially when he gets given the top computer system the US Government can lay their hands on. Probably the most difficult task given to any of the cast was the one laid in front of Philip Akin when he took on this role. As Drake is wheelchair-bound, his action is frequently confined to staying at home looking after the computer or, at best, sitting in the back of the team's van with...um...a smaller computer. Akin manages to cram a good amount of character into the smallest space given to any of the four main parts, and Drake comes out battling with Blackwood for the show's "Most Likeable Character" award. Akin later went on to play Charlie Disalber alongside 2nd season War of the Worlds-er Adrian Paul's Highlander.
Rachel Blanchard gets the kiddy part, which seemed almost compulsory in shows at around this time (quite possibly the unwanted legacy of "Star Trek: The Next Generation's" infamous Wesley Crusher). Playing McCullough's teenage daughter Debi, Blanchard gets the rough end of the War of the Worlds stick with her stereotypical child's curiosity bringing her into constant danger from explosions, runaway vehicles, various brushes with the nasty human-looking aliens, and other such fates, all of which she seems to get out of at the last minute (even though she seldom seems to manage to remember her mother's continual advice to "get away from here.... NOW!"). The character does get a little more solidity during the second season (possibly one of the only improvements made to the show), with Debi even going so far as to pull a knife on her mother while under alien influence during an episode named Terminal Rock.
It is really very difficult to either praise or criticize Miss Blanchard, as the roll is so ludicrously standard, and really more of a character trait for McCullough than a character in her own right. Still, to give Miss Blanchard full credit, she can scream very well, and does an excellent job of looking frightened at just about every opportunity.
The action centres around our team of heroes working for the US Government to rid the Earth of the dreaded Morthren (the new name given to the Martians for the TV series). Using a secret Government safe-house (safe-mansion would be more appropriate!) as their base of operations (which came with its own housekeeper Mrs Penniworth and handyman Kensington), Blackwood and friends keep alert for any signs of alien activity. At first they do a pretty good job: one week they monitor the radio frequencies and home in on the aliens like that, another they find the Morthren through confidential CIA/FBI/Police reports which could only describe these out-of-town enemies. Very quickly though, the team begin to discover less, and stumble more into the Morthren's schemes. Fortunately for our heroes, the aliens never seem to remember who they are (perhaps this has something to do with the faintly ridiculous outfits the Morthren are forced to wear -they look like a cross between scuba diving suits and the left-over curtains from early-1980s game shows). Still, week by week, the good guys seem to win a battle here and there, with the aliens even occasionally scoring a point back.
One novelty that War of the Worlds has over most other TV science fiction is that most of its good stories came nearer the start of the series than the end of it. Thy Kingdom Come (all of the first season titles were biblical phrases) re-introduced the character of Sylvia Van Buren back into the war. Van Buren was the female lead character in the movie of the 1953 invasion, and Ann Robinson reprises her role in at least 3 of the series' episodes. Van Buren has become sensitive to the aliens presence, and has been kept in the Whitewood Mental Health Care Center since their resurrection. (This episode is worth watching alone for its American Football scene -the aliens have taken over some of the players' decaying bodies and are literally ripped apart during the match!). An episode that I remember with particular fondness is Goliath Is My Name -an episode about a group of role-players taken over by the Morthren. There was a little joke by the writers of an episode named Epiphany -the writer named at the start of the episode was one Sylvia Van Buren!
The show has had a number of guest stars, including, amongst others, star of "The Avengers" Patrick McNee as a KGB agent in Epiphany.
The War of the Worlds crew made a fatal error, however, when they came back for their second season. Frank "Friday the 13th TV series" Mancuso was asked to completely rework the new season, and unfortunately managed to rid the show of almost all of its good points. Martin, Mason Green and Blanchard were all kept on, whilst Akin and, surprisingly, Chaves were both dropped from the show. Both the main characters were given a new appearance -Blackwood opted for the thin, rough-living-type beard, whilst McCullough found time to get her hair re-styled. The action man role was taken by newcomer Adrian Paul as John Kincaid. (Paul later went on to star in the "Highlander" TV series). Kincaid was a lot moodier than his more likable predecessor, although had a rather interesting character (which was never fully developed). The team's base of operations (referred to as "The Cottage") was blown up in the first episode of new series, killing the old characters on-screen, to Mancuso's credit. The team was forced underground when they discovered that the U.S. Government and Military had both been infiltrated by the Morthren. The whole world seemed to suddenly change in a very short time -humanity became a lot more violent and selfish (some would argue we already are). The whole of society became very dark and nasty. Whether this was something to do with the Morthren was never explained, although it made life for our heroes much tougher.
The one episode from season two that I can name is Terminal Rock, which sees the Morthren losing control of their sector of the city to a human gang influenced by a heavy metal group. The aliens, naturally, clone the leader of the group and try to control the gang that way. Through a bit of well-timed irritation from Kincaid at having his home invaded by a family (and Debbie's music driving everyone round the twist), Harrison and co manage discover the aliens' handiwork.
The whole series lost its purpose and direction. After trundling down a well-trodden road, suddenly they took a small, under-used path off the main road, a path which could not sustain them. After just two seasons, the show was cancelled, a blessing to those of us who suffered its poor second series in abject silence. There is a lesson to be learned from this, one that fans of such shows as "American Gothic" or "Dark Skies" should heed: Sometimes, having a show cancelled is the best thing for it.
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