CULT TV FLASHBACK #144: War of the Worlds: "The Resurrection" (1988)

“In 1953, Earth experienced a war of the worlds.  Common bacteria stopped the aliens but did not kill them.  Instead, the aliens lapsed into a state of deep hibernation.  Now the aliens have been resurrected, more horrifying than before.  In 1953, aliens started taking over the world.  Today, they’re taking over our bodies…”

– Opening narration to War of the Worlds (1988), Season One, read by star Jared Martin (Dr. Harrison Blackwood).

The tremendous success of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) in syndication led to a veritable genre TV explosion by the end of the 1980s.  New series such as Friday the 13th: The Series, Freddy’s Nightmares, Monsters and The Untouchables  all competed for audience attention on local stations, often during the late weekend hours. 

One of the most notable syndicated hits to follow  in TNG’s footsteps was the two-season initiative, War of the Worlds (1988 – 1990).  Created by Greg Strangis, this “alien invasion” series adopted the name of H.G. Wells’ famous alien invasion novel, but was actually a direct sequel to the George Pal/Byron Haskin cinematic blockbuster of 1953.

Specifically, the War of the Worlds series resurrected not only the famous three-fingered alien invaders, but  also their famous (and highly-destructive) manta ray-like war machines, along with that craft’s memorable sound and visual effects. 

Events and stock footage from the Pal film were re-purposed for new stories in the series’ first season, and even the movie’s female lead, Ann Robinson (as Sylvia Van Buren), appeared in an early episode, “Thy Kingdom Come.”

The premise of the syndicated War of the Worlds was that alien invaders had attempted to take over the world in 1953.  However, “common bacteria” stopped the technological invasion in its tracks.  When Dr. Clayton Forrester (no, not the one from MST-3K…) learned, following the invasion, that the aliens were not dead, however, the U.S. government suppressed the news for fear of widespread panic. 

Instead. the U.S. army sealed up the alien bodies in black drums (shades of 1985’s Return of the Living Dead) and sent the barrels to an undisclosed condition, a military depot called “Jericho.” 

Meanwhile, the world at large seemed to “forget” entirely about the alien invasion.  Whether this global amnesia was caused by the aliens themselves, or by the vicissitudes of the human mind (needing to block out something alarming or unacceptable…) wasn’t clear.  But by the year 1988, the “war of the worlds” was totally forgotten.
As the two-hour pilot, “The Resurrection” commences, a group of terrorists take control of the military depot where the alien barrels are stored, and unwittingly awaken the invading aliens from their dormant stage. 
It turns out that atomic radiation kills the common bacteria that rendered the aliens inert in the first place.  The downside to this discovery, however, is that when the aliens assume human form (through an alien form of osmosis…), the radiation that keeps them alive also damages their human hosts. 

As the weeks progressed on War of the Worlds, the alien insurgents — led by a trio called “The Advocacy” — had to seek new means to stay alive as their frail human bodies were further destroyed by the effects of radiation.

Leading the fight against the aliens on Earth was a team of stalwart scientists and one military men.  The unconventional Dr. Harrison Blackwood (Jared Martin) was the team leader.  Raised by Dr. Forrester, Blackwood had lost both of his parents in the original 1953 invasion, and as the series wore on, began to remember more and more of his childhood and the “war of ’53.” 

Working with Blackwood was his technical support wizard a wheelchair-bound genius (who off-and-on had a Jamaican accent…) Norton Drake (Philip Akin).  Also critical to the team’s success was Dr. Suzanne McCullough (Lynda Mason Green), a micro-biologist tasked with creating a weapon that could kill the aliens without destroying humans.  Dr. McCullough was sometimes joined on assignments by her adolescent daughter, Debi (Rachel Blanchard). 

And protecting the team in times of danger was the series’ most popular character, Lt. Colonel Ironhorse (Richard Chaves), formerly of “Delta Squad.”   Ironhorse and Blackwood often clashed over how best to proceed, but both men were true-blue crusaders against the aliens.  Together, Blackwood’s team operated from an idyllic government ranch called “The Cottage,” and reported to General Wilson (John Vernon) on their progress.

Throughout the first season, Blackwood’s team was called upon to investigate strange phenomenon that might be alien related, such as cattle mutilations in “The Walls of Jericho.” 

In the third episode, “Thy Kingdom Come,” the team sought the help of Sylvia Van Buren, who had become psychic due to her exposure to the aliens while working with Forrester. 

In some ways, the initial format of War of the Worlds eerily suggested the post-9/11 intelligence milieu, as the stories involved a secret terrorist cell operating inside America, seeking to do the nation grievous harm.
Shot in Canada and produced on the cheap, War of the Worlds tended to focus more on horrific qualities than its spectacular cinematic predecessor.  In the first episode, “The Resurrection,” for example, the aliens were seen to literally burst out of their human hosts on occasion.  Also, the aliens’ radiation sickness was dramatized in exceedingly gory terms, with the aliens often sporting red blotches, bloody wounds, and decaying skin.  Only very rarely were the aliens seen in their “true” form, and then only in glimpses.
Although the series was clearly made very cheaply — as many of the special effects sequences make clear — the aliens (eventually identified as the Mor-Tax) proved an interesting guerrilla group in some ways.  The aliens did not have access to their original technology after an attempt to retrieve their war machines from Kellogue Air Force Base failed in “The Resurrection” and so began to mix-and-match Earth technology to suit their needs. 

For example, in one episode, the decaying Advocacy had to construct protective environmental suits out of available resources.  In another episode, the audience saw the Advocacy’s jury-rigged portable communicator, and it was a delightfully baroque hodgepodge of 20th century human devices, including an old-fashioned typewriter.  As retro and cobbled-together as the suits and devices appeared, they also seemed weirdly authentic: very much like something an insurgent group of aliens would construct on the fly, harnessing our technology for insidious purposes.

Although the writing and performances were often of variable quality on War of the Worlds, the series — because of the gore and on occasional very quirky sense of humor — drew quite a large and committed fandom in its first season.  Accordingly, the producers and writers worked hard to develop a consistent story background and arc for the aliens and human characters. 
Alas, much of their good work was undone with the advent of the second season in yet another case of “first season wonders and second season blunders.”
Specifically, as the second season of War of the Worlds commenced, the world miraculously “morphed” into an apocalyptic one of societal breakdown.  The Cottage was eliminated and the heroes of the series were suddenly on the run from the aliens.  The Advocacy itself was dispatched and new aliens, the Morthren, replaced them.  The series’ most beloved character, Ironhorse, was killed off during the first episode of season two and replaced with Adrian Paul’s John Kincaid.  Virtually all of the season one background and continuity was dropped, and he series limped to the end of the season before untimely cancellation.
Today, War of the Worlds is seldom remembered in the sci-fi/cult tv genre, perhaps because, unlike Star Trek at the time it suffers woefully from its budgetary limitations. 

Today, programs such as Falling Skies or even last decade’s Lost (2004 – 2010) boast first-class, unimpeachable production values.  War of the Worlds looks very cheapskate by comparison. 

And yet War of the Worldsfor all its variability in acting, writing and production values — today plays like a gung ho, B-movie from yesteryear, filled with audacious gore and violence, and buttressed by a droll quality that papers over some of the series’ seams.  

In other words, this program remains an insomniac’s delight.  If you watch it at 2:00 am or thereabouts, with expectations firmly in check, you may just get sucked in by the program’s trademark weirdness and by the Rube Goldberg-styled production design and props.

To life immortal,” the Advocacy often declared, and yet things didn’t quite turn out that way for War of the Worlds: The Series. Still, the program is kind of a weird missing link between V: The Series in the 1980s and the current Falling Skies (2011).

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7 responses to “CULT TV FLASHBACK #144: War of the Worlds: "The Resurrection" (1988)

  1. That's the thing that bothered me about the show. Everybody forgot that their world was invaded by aliens. C'mon whole cities were destroyed,did the various governments just buy up every newspaper that covered it. Let's say the Martians had some sort of amnesia ray how do you explain the destruction of much of their world.

  2. I liked this one, but couldn't watch more than 2 or 3 episodes. Then I got… bored, annoyed. Not sure. You're spot on when you say it looked cheap. But it was interesting, and if I were to catch it on late night tv I'd sure watch it again.

  3. Hello, my friends.Will: Yep, you put your finger right on the problem with War of the Worlds. Even if the aliens had erased human "knowledge" of the war, how do you explain the ruined buildings, lost lives, destroyed infrastructure, and so forth, that comes with a war? In other words, the physical evidence! You can't, obviously, and so there's something fishy going on here. It's hard to get over the premise, even though, I must say, the writers worked hard to validate it, with discussion of an alien motivation behind the mass amnesia.And Claudiu, I can't quibble with your assessment, either. The show looks so cheap that it actually distracts you from the plot. It's a shame that the series didn't have a bigger budget. A bigger budget would surely have meant a longer life for War of the Worlds, especially if the producers had left well enough alone with the first season format.Great comments on War of the Worlds!best,John

  4. I rather liked War of the Worlds for its – as you put it – 2am scheduling (at least it was here in the UK). I was shocked how gorey and nasty the show was in its first season – and quite pleased to see a show break that "taste" concept that plagued sci-fi on television. The second season I actually quite liked – yeah, it didn't match up at all with season one, but I think what made it work was it had an end. A show – especially an uneven one – which gets an end episode feels complete, and while that completeness maybe somewhat mixed, it does feel like a story. TV needs more of that. If you invest in a show, a show should finish – even if its a rushed ending like War of the Worlds!

  5. Hi James,Yes — a primary strenth of War of the Worlds was how absolutely gory and nasty it was. Very well said, sir. I couldn't agree with you more.I have bad memories of the second season, but in fairness, I have not seen episodes of the final year in quite some time (twenty something years?!) so perhaps I am being unfair in my assessment. It's nice to know that the series had, in the end, a sense of closure. Makes me curious to go back and see season two…Great comment!best,John

  6. Hi, JohnI loved your post, you covered some points about the series very nicely, points that are sometimes glossed over in reviews of the series' quality – like the Aliens' cobbled-together technology feeling authentic for instance. Thanks for the great read!I have been a fan of WotW since seeing it at 8 years old during its first US run in 1988. Needless to say I was phenomenally crushed when my absolute fave character, Col. Ironhorse, was killed off. It left me so hollow I could never watch Season Two without just dying on the inside for missing him. I've quite often thought how awesome it would've been to see his character fight against the new bleaker odds brought on by the Morthren. He was, after all, the one with the most connections to the government infrastructure. So I think he would've showcased the lack of that infrastructure in a way the show never could do as well when it tried without him. But in a way, having our beloved colonel die in the war reflects the horrors of real-life war in such a gutting and honest way: soldiers don't always come home. WotW always had that edge of honesty to it. The good guys didn't always win, this wasn't a Saturday romp in the park, this was all-out war. The highly-criticised extreme gore went a long way to helping support that about the series. In a way WotW showed alien invaders, and Earth's struggle to prevent take over, in a way that other glossy sci-fi has never achieved with the same wit, panache, and clarity. IMHO :)I'm still a huge fan of the show (invariably Season One for obvious reasons), and it really is a testament to its "Immortality" every time someone watches it on its new DVD release, or remembers it fondly from childhood, or writes a brilliant article about it like you did. I think it will always have a place in the annuls of sci-fi television history because it filled such a special niche to its fans when it aired, and still today among new viewers who like its unique rendering of its story. And what a good story it is too. Harrison, the man whose life was taken from him by the invasion, fighting against almost impossible foes, and finally winning some form of victory over them by the final episode – there's just something that will always be compelling about a man and a journey like that. Even low production values can be excused in hindsight if in exchange we are left with such stories and characters to cherish and thrill along with their battles.–ThirdBass

  7. One thing that is very important to note is that Greg Strangis was basically kicked off as producer at the end of season 1 and replaced by Frank Mancuso Jr, the son of then Paramount CEO Frank Mancuso SR. I don't know what Paramount was thinking, the whole premise of the first season was axed. Everything from the biblical themes through the lens of alien invasion, the massive cliffhanger at the end of season 1 and all the canon of the show was eliminated to basically bring in a bootleg invasion of the body snatchers meets blade runner cyberpunk show.I still remember the disappointment myself and friends who watched the show felt when Season 2 started and most of the memorable characters we're killed off. Season 2 had none of the humor, intelligence and character, it was a dud and deserved the death it received.

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