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 Worlds
— for 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).