Jaws: A Lifetime of Memories

The Great White Shark glides into frame – and into my subconscious.
Image credit: Universal Studios

There’s little I could possibly say about Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece that hasn’t already been said. So instead I’ll focus on my own personal memories. My relationship with one of my all-time favorite movies.

My family. Back row from left: my brother, my mom, and my dad. Front row: moi.

My parents were your average middle-class suburbanite couple. They were both slim, fit, and attractive, and their teaching jobs at the local high school had allowed them to purchase a pretty nice house with a great big yard. That house would be my home for the remainder of my childhood. We had just moved in and were still getting comfortable. It was 1980, and I was three years old. I wandered into the family room one evening where my parents were watching a movie. I asked what it was and they told me it was Jaws. For some reason, they let me join them, even though I was easily scared and prone to night terrors. But I’m glad they did, because it was a revelation. I was utterly captivated by what was playing out on screen.

I’m not sure exactly at what point in the movie I started watching, but they were already aboard the Orca. It might have been the scene when they’re comparing scars. I have a vague memory of the planks bending in as the shark attacks the hull and Brody falling down with water under him. I didn’t know what a shark was, so my parents had to explain it to me. I had seen fishing boats on Mr. Rogers, so I sort of understood that. I thought that when they went down through the hatches to work on the engine that they were in the hold where the fish are kept. I also didn’t really know the difference between that and the forward cabin. I just knew they went down into the bowels of the boat to do things. When the boat starts flooding, I didn’t understand that it wasn’t supposed to be that way. I didn’t understand how these things work. I figured they kept water down there for the fish to swim in. You know, so they’d be fresh, I guess. I was three, okay? What do you want from me? When Hooper went down into the cage, I didn’t understand what that was. I thought he was going down into the bowels of the boat again, and somehow the shark had gotten into the boat. Then when it pops out of the water and lands on the deck, I thought it was coming up out of the hold. I wasn’t sure how the shark had gotten into the boat, but there it is.

From that moment on, I was utterly obsessed with sharks in general and Jaws in particular. I talked about both topics constantly, probably annoying everyone. For my fourth birthday, I got a children’s book called Whales, Sharks, and Other Creatures of the Deep. This was my first encounter with many sea creatures, such as manatees, manta rays, giant squid, and others that would also fascinate me for the rest of my life.

The next few years were a dry spell for me. I didn’t see Jaws or any other shark movies for what seemed like forever. Remember, this was the early 80s – before Netflix, before home video. You had to wait for things to come on TV. Finally there was a movie on HBO called Beyond the Reef about a young man and the tiger shark who befriends him. At the time, I found it a bit tedious, but I watched it anyway because there was a shark in it. I saw it several times, but then it disappeared from my life. I would think of it from time to time, but I didn’t see it again until recently – a span of more than thirty-five years. Watching it as an adult, I found it to be a flawed but entertaining film – though perhaps I’m viewing it through rose-colored glasses, filtered through memories of my toddler self watching it with my brother and grandmother.

One day I asked my brother if he’d ever seen Jaws and he told me he’d seen Jaws 2. He had to explain sequels to me. His only memory of it was a woman on a boat seeing a shark fin and yelling, “Uh-uh-uh-SHAAAARK!!!-uh-uh-uh-uh.” He was clearly referring to when Brody and Ellen find a traumatized Tina lost at sea. Somewhere during this period, I must have seen Jaws 2, or at least part of it. All I remember is the shot where the camera follows Brody out to the end of the dock, where Hendricks is aboard the police launch. I guess I couldn’t tell the difference between Roy Scheider and Don Adams, and since I didn’t know the character’s name, I started calling him “Get Smart.” At some point, someone told me they killed the shark with a power line. I thought that meant they just threw the power line onto the shark.

In the summer of 1982, we took the first of many annual vacations to Jacksonville Beach, Florida. I would have been four years old. I have a vivid memory of running out across the vast expanse of sand between our motel and the Atlantic Ocean. The beach was huge, not at all the narrow strip of sand I had been expecting. Because I didn’t know the actual setting of Jaws, I arbitrarily decided that it took place at Jacksonville Beach and that Brody killed the shark from the end of Jackonville Beach Pier. The first time I went swimming in the ocean, I was terrified of getting eaten by a shark. There actually was a day when we couldn’t go swimming because of a shark warning. Despite straining my eyes as I stared at the ocean, I did not see a shark.

It was around this time that I saw a documentary about sharks and learned of the extinct giant shark, megalodon. The host erroneously stated that the shark in Jaws was a megalodon. I took this to heart, and assumed that the shark in Jaws was a hundred feet long.

The following summer, Jaws 3-D was released. By now I was in school, and a classmate saw it and told me about it. I was excited to see it, but missed it in the theater. I didn’t catch up with it until it played on HBO. I think I found the premise a bit odd, a little sci-fi compared to the others, but it was scary and I dug it. I was also surprised to find that it was about a regular great white and not a megalodon. There was still much for me to learn about sharks, of course, and I didn’t understand how utterly absurd it was that this film’s great white was thirty-five feet long. Real great whites grow to a maximum of twenty feet long, so despite calling it a great white, it really was much closer to a megalodon in size. I was too young to realize what a stink-bomb the movie was. There was a shark in it, so that was good enough for me. My brother watched it with me and even though he thought it was stupid, he embraced it for my sake and we obsessed over it together for a while.

Jaws 3-D may have been a box-office bomb, but it was a staple of my early childhood.
Image credit: Universal Studios

We decided, my brother and I, that we were going to make Jaws 4. The neighbor kid, however, told us that they’d already made Jaws 4, so we changed our plan and said we were going to make Jaws 5. The neighbor kid then told us that they’d already made both Jaws 4 and Jaws 5. In my gut, I knew he was messing with us, but my brother believed him, so we changed our plans yet again. Despite knowing perfectly well that there are only four Jaws movies, I still occasionally go searching for part 5 thanks to that idiot neighbor kid. Anyway, we got to work. My brother would write Jaws 6 and I would take on Jaws 7. Probably just to be a jerk, my brother decided that his shark was going to be so big, the only way to kill it was to blow up the world – which they did, with a doomsday bomb. But he left the door open for part 7, saying that Earth had a sister world called Amnesia where the Jaws saga would continue. Sigh. Thanks, Collin.

Writing an entire novel proved to be an overwhelming task for a five-year-old, though, and I eventually gave up. My brother and I briefly talked about using the family’s Super-8 camera to film a Jaws movie, and we approached our Uncle Ron about playing Brody because we thought he bore a passing resemblance to Roy Scheider. But those plans came to a halt when my uncle refused to work without his daily wages. Years later, I would encounter the same problem with professional actors.

For a long time, it seemed like Jaws 3-D was the only Jaws movie I was ever going to get to see. It played multiple times on HBO, and I seized on every chance I had to watch it. It was a Jaws movie goddamn it. But of course, a part of me longed to see the original. I wondered if I would ever get to see it again, and I asked my mom to tell me the story. Initially, she just said a bunch of people got eaten by a shark, but I knew there had to be more than that. I pressed her, and she continued. “The chief of police and an oceanographer went out on a great big boat. Aaand… some people on the boat got killed. And they… shot the shark… yeah, they shot it. And the chief of police and the oceanographer… swam back to shore.”

The VHS release of Jaws, featuring one of the most iconic images in all of pop culture.

1985. Everything changed. We got our first VCR. We drove to a video store called Nite Owl Video to get our first video membership. When my mom and I walked in, I started browsing titles, and there it was. That iconic image of the shark hurtling up under the unsuspecting swimmer. That bold font. Jaws. I grabbed it and showed it to my mom and obviously she had to rent it for me. To my utter disappointment, we couldn’t rent it that day. I’m not sure why – something to do with the process of signing up. But we would be able to next time.

The wait was agony, but finally there we all were – me, my parents, and my brother. By now, my brother had made it clear that he didn’t really care for the Jaws movies, and I had the sense that my parents were indifferent. They were indulging me. I recorded the event with my tape recorder so I could at least enjoy the audio after we’d returned the film. “Jaws,” I said. “Jaws One. Starting.” Duh-dunn. Duh-dunn. The movie began to unfold. Instantly I sensed that this was a better film than the third one. Everyone laughed at the jokes, and the shark attacks were bloodier and more intense than the ones in the third film. I was enjoying what seemed to be to be a pretty good Jaws movie. And then the switcheroo happened.

I knew from my mom’s telling of the story that they would eventually go out on a boat to kill the shark, but I figured that would be at the very end, and I had no idea what the movie was going to pull. The camera dollies in on the jaws of a shark mounted on a window, the Orca visible beyond, heading to sea, as if sailing right into the jaws of the shark, and John Williams was suddenly scoring a different movie. Not a horror movie. An adventure movie. I still get chills every time I watch the movie and it gets to this point. But this was only the beginning. After a while of hanging out on the boat, I began to realize that we were nowhere near the climax. And then the shark pops out of the water. Rather than a horror set piece, suddenly it’s adventure on the high seas! Quint, Brody, and Hooper leap into action as the score builds the excitement. It’s fun, funny, and thrilling, and then… that harpoon comes into view as John Williams delivers six musical notes that would forever change the way I experience movies. Holy. Goddam. Shit. This isn’t just a Jaws movie. This is Jaws.

The rest of the movie played out. There were more exciting chases, more thrills, and then some mind-bending terror. When it was over, my brother and I went upstairs and went utterly ape shit. Later that day, I came up with QBH, a sitcom which I performed live with my action figures in which Quint, Brody, and Hooper get an apartment in New York and have many comedic adventures together, including run-ins with Superman and Lex Luthor, a giant mechanical arm, and a trip to space. QBH became a way of life for me and my brother, dominating the rest of our childhoods.

Due to a great cosmic injustice, there were no Jaws action figures for us to play with, so we had to substitute. For me, Emperor Palpatine became Quint, an ATST pilot with Luke Skywalker’s head was Brody, and a little astronaut figure from my Construx set stood in for Hooper. For my brother, Quint was a Chief Quimby figurine from Inspector Gadget, Brody was Luke Skywalker in his Jedi outfit, and Hooper was a jet pilot. It was the best we could do, and it served us well enough at the time. But we needed a playset, and that’s where Grampap came in.

Grampap shows off the catch of the day on one of our many trips to Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

Grampap was an interesting man. With his high cheekbones and weathered complexion, he was like a wooden Indian come to life. A veteran of World War II, he was full of stories from a colorful past. He was a carpenter, and it seemed as if he could build anything you wanted in his garage. He’d already made numerous wooden toys for both of us, so it seemed only natural to ask him to build the Orca. Working from memory, I drew the boat to the best of my ability and gave it to him for reference. A few days later, I had my first highly inaccurate model of the Orca. Not long after that, my brother spent a week in the garage with Grampap building what he called, “The Ultimate Orca.” The overall shape was wrong, but the details were all there and it was functional. It had a removable fighting chair, removable barrels, and a fold-up shark cage. Many hours were spent on the further adventures of Quint, Brody, and Hooper using this model of the Orca.

“Quint,” “Brody,” and “Hooper” head out to “sea” aboard the Ultimate Orca.
Grandma enjoying her patio.

My grandmother was a roly-poly bundle of love who had seen some hard times and had learned the value of family. She was also a hard-core shopper, and if there was something you wanted and it could be found, she would find it for you. So I asked her for Peter Benchly’s original Jaws novel in hardcover. I figured I had set her an impossible task, and in a way I had, since Jaws was not even in print at the time. But she came through, sort of. I don’t know where she found them, but she picked up Jaws 2, by Hank Searls – in hardcover, no less – one each for me and my brother. And she inscribed it on the first page: to Jonathan, from Grandma, “1986.”

I took the book to school and began reading it – my first grown-up book. It was a bit difficult for me, and I kind of slogged through it. Much of the book dealt with gangsters and police work. I felt a bit guilty for finding it so dull, but I kept at it. It took me all year to read it, but I did, reading through the final few chapters in one sitting and with trembling hands. It had been a tough book to get through, but the ending was a good payoff. However, there had been a price for taking it to school. The dust jacket had been ripped to shreds. I was mad about that, holding a plain red book in my hands with no picture of a shark on the cover. I put it on the shelf in my bedroom closet, where it stayed for many, many years.

Jaws 2 may have been tough to get through, but I still wanted to read the original, so my Grandma took me to Nancy’s Fireside Book Exchange, which she thought was our best shot at finding it. Sure enough, there it was. Not hardcover, of course – the mass-market paperback that had flooded book stores in advance of the film’s release. I didn’t start reading it right away, and by the time I did, my brother had already read his copy and spoiled much of it for me. But I read it anyway, zipping through it much faster than Jaws 2. There was much more shark in this one, and even the romance and mafia stuff held my interest. Maybe I was growing up; who knows?

The movie version of Jaws 2 played on ABC, and we taped it. I was surprised at how different it was from the book. It drew me in pretty quickly. The opening attack on the two divers was cool, and the attack on the speedboat was downright awesome. But then it ran out of steam. Talk, talk, talk, talk. Where the hell was the shark? By the time it showed up again, it was time for me to go to bed. I had to wait until after school the next day to finish watching. The second half was much more satisfying than the first. I was a little bored by all the scenes of the teenagers drifting around at sea, but there was enough shark action to hold my interest, and the climax was pretty slick. My verdict at the time was that it was okay, but not as good as one and three. Still, it was the first Jaws movie that we actually owned, so I watched it quite a bit.

And then, on our next trip to Florida, the original Jaws played on ABC and we taped it too. We had to set the VCR to record it automatically, and I recall being really tense for the whole trip, worrying that something had gone wrong and it had failed to record. But I put that out of my mind when we stopped at a motel on the way down and watched the movie in our room. To my surprise, there were several scenes that hadn’t been in the version we’d rented. My brother didn’t believe me, and it wasn’t until the movie aired on HBO several years later that I was finally able to prove that the TV version was different.

The novelization of Jaws: The Revenge, by Hank Searls

One day my grandma informed me they were making Jaws Goes to Hawaii. The title sounded like a joke, and I didn’t know where she heard that. Grandma was very good at the things she was good at, but there were also lots of things she was just clueless about. I figured she didn’t know what she was talking about. Over the course of the next year or so, anytime I brought up Jaws, she reminded me that Jaws Goes to Hawaii was going to be coming out. I took this with a grain of salt, of course. A new Jaws movie would be nice, but I wasn’t getting my hopes up. And then one day we were at strip mall a few miles from home. She was busy hunting bargains when I asked her if I could go over to the drug store to look at the books. She said yes and I headed over. I spotted it immediately: Jaws: The Revenge, a new novel by Hank Searls. Holy crap, it was true! As I’d suspected, the title was not Jaws Goes to Hawaii. The destination, it turned out, was the Bahamas. Still a tropical setting, but not Hawaii, and with a much more sensible title. Needless to say, I got Grandma to buy it for me.

I started reading it at once and was horrified to discover that Shawn Brody dies in the opening scene. Partly because I was so shocked, but also partly because I decided that I didn’t want to spoil the movie for myself, I set the book aside for the time being. Finally the movie came out and my whole family went to see it. The marquee said Jaws 4. So that settled that. There was no Jaws 5 and I could permanently put that matter to rest. (Please wait while I conduct a Google search for Jaws 5.) It may seem strange to you, but I actually enjoyed Jaws 4 quite a lot. Maybe it was just because this was the first time I was seeing a Jaws movie in the theater, or maybe it was just because it was brand new. But whatever the reasons were, I loved it, and it completely escaped my notice how utterly stupid it was. Hey, I was ten, okay? I was still at the age where I was watching He-Man. Cut me some slack, will ya?

Not only did I enjoy it, but I liked it enough that I dragged my poor Aunt Patty to see it just to have an excuse to see it again. Every so often, I glanced over to see how she was reacting to things. She just sat like a statue, not reacting at all. I’m sure she was thinking, “What the hell is this garbage?!” When it was over, she told me she’d enjoyed it. God bless her.

By the time high school rolled around, Jaws was an old friend. I not only knew all the dialogue by heart, I could actually watch the movie shot-for-shot in my head with almost perfect clarity. I’d come around to the notion that the sequels weren’t worth anyone’s time, and I hadn’t watched them in years. My brother had always said his favorite movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had never really settled on a favorite movie. For a while, maybe between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I would often say my favorite movie was Dawn of the Dead. That didn’t quite feel true, though. I loved it, but was it really my favorite? Then one day, my brother said that while he still loved 2001, if pressed he would have to say his favorite movie was Jaws. Whoa, buddy! You don’t get to go claiming that! I’m the Jaws nut in this family! I didn’t say that, of course, but on the spot I decided that Jaws was my favorite movie of all time. That felt much more true than Dawn of the Dead.

In my senior year of high-school, I needed a sound byte for an audio drama I was working on. I pulled out our old copy of Jaws 2 so I could record the sound of the shark being electrocuted, but the audio quality was not that great, so I went down the street to the nearest video store and rented it. I was surprised at how much better the picture quality was on the studio-produced copy. Since I’d paid to rent it, I figured I may as well watch it. To my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. In fact, it was pretty good. Not good like the original, but pretty good.

My experience with renting Jaws 2 had convinced me that the taped-off-TV copies we’d been watching weren’t going to cut it anymore. I had to get factory-made copies of both Jaws and Jaws 2. Not 3 and 4, mind you. I still thought of those as crap. But the first one for sure, and the second one, meh, why not?

After all these years, I finally encountered a hardcover edition of the original novel – in, of all places, the high-school library. It wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. Instead of the famous artwork from the movie poster, it was a plain black cover with a basic-looking shark. If this had been what my grandmother had given me, I likely would have been disappointed. It occurred to me that perhaps I could photocopy the dust jacket from my brother’s copy of Jaws 2. But color photocopying was not as advanced then as it is today, and I wasn’t happy with the results. Still, at least my copy had a cover again, albeit an imperfect one.

Many times on our vacations to Florida, we would go deep sea fishing aboard a big party boat called the Miss Mayport. It was fun, but crowded, standing elbow-to-elbow with strangers. The summer after I graduated from high-school, however, Grampap had a surprise for us. We showed up at the dock and my brother and I headed for the Miss Mayport as usual when Grampap called to us. We turned around to see him standing on the deck of a small charter boat. At first we thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. He’d done what we’d been talking about doing since we’d first seen Jaws. He’d chartered a small fishing boat like the one in the movie. Usually when we went fishing we’d each come home with maybe one or two small-frys. This time we caught so many fish – big ones, king mackerels – that we had to throw some back. It was the best day at sea I ever had and one of my fondest memories.

Heading out to sea for real – a surprise gift from Grapap.

Life marched on. I did a semester at Cal U, I went to film school, I got a job. I made my first feature film. I got my first grown-up job working as a projectionist at various local theaters. I dated. I had my heart broken. My uncle and my grandparents died. I struggled with creative success. I made friends. I lost friends. My twenties disappeared into a black hole. And I emerged from it all… changed. And kind of tired. I decided that in the interest of looking smart, I had turned my nose up at a lot of movies I’d once loved – sequels especially. After a long time away, I revisited Jaws 3 and Jaws: The Revenge. And God, they were so… awful. By any objective standard, they were prime examples of the worst drek Hollywood had churned out in the early 80s. And I loved them anyway. Every godawful frame of them, I loved it all.

Thanks to the internet, I was able to obtain a new dust jacket for my copy of Jaws 2. Also, Random House released a new edition of the original novel, this time with the cover art from the mass-market paperback. It was exactly what I’d hoped my grandma would find for me all those years ago, and it made a nice companion edition to what she’d bought me. I decided to revisit the novel of Jaws 2 and it was a different experience reading it as an adult. I was able to appreciate the subtle nuances of character development that I’d missed as a kid. The mafia stuff didn’t bore me this time, and I plowed through it quickly. Ultimately, I did decide that the movie was better. In the novel, Brody doesn’t even suspect there’s a shark until the very end, instead wasting his time chasing after a two-bit crook. It makes him look like a fool. His arc in the movie is much more satisfying. But I didn’t care. I was able to enjoy this childhood gift with a new level of appreciation. As I read the final chapters, I trembled with the same excitement I’d had the first time, and when I finished, I closed the book and looked at it for a moment, then hugged it as if it were my grandma.

My hardcover Jaws books – a beautiful set I waited a lifetime for.

One day my brother declared that he’d always suspected that Jaws wasn’t really my favorite movie. He said he thought The Thing was my favorite movie. At the time, I insisted he was wrong, that Jaws really was my favorite movie. But these days, if I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure I really do have a favorite movie. I love Jaws. I also love The Thing. And I love Dawn of the Dead. And Back to the Future. And Raiders of the Lost Ark. And a host of others. I have a lot of favorite movies, not just one. And that’s okay. I don’t think it’s necessary to single out one movie as your tippy-top favorite. There’s room in my heart for more than one movie.

As of this writing, I’m forty-one years old. In many ways, I couldn’t be more different from the little toddler who wandered into the family room to find his parents watching a strange, scary movie about a shark. In other ways, it’s like I’ve come full-circle. Or perhaps almost full, the starting point forever out of reach. I’ve lived this long life full of discovery and change, and now it’s like I’m trying to reconnect with myself. Or maybe I’m just grasping at a simpler time, my fingers closing around water, the reflection dancing and rippling before me, teasing me. But at least I know now that I don’t have to impress anyone. It’s okay for me to like whatever I want, even if it’s bad, and I owe an explanation to no one. When a friend saw blu-ray copies all four Jaws movies sitting on my shelf, he was baffled. He could understand owning the original. He could even understand owning the second one. But the third and fourth? Surely I had better taste than that. Why did I own them? The answer is simple. Because a little boy I used to know likes sharks and wants to watch movies about them.

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War of the Worlds – season nada, episode zilch

A Martian invader gives up the ghost in the original 1953 classic.

Okay, I’ll say it. Uncle.

I tried. I really tried to watch the whole thing. Last time I posted, I said I had one more episode on disc one and that I was going to at least watch that before calling it quits. But I couldn’t even bring myself to do that. Season two is just… so, so bad. So bad it makes the crappy first season seem like gold by comparison. I fully intended to at least watch that last episode, but when the time came, I just couldn’t. I thought maybe I’d watch it the following week, but nope. Week after week, this went on, and I felt like I couldn’t write about anything else till I’d finished all the episodes, hence no new posts. Well, okay. I’m throwing in the towel. Maybe someday I’ll polish it off, but it probably won’t be anytime soon.

It’s kind of a shame, too. I have to confess that one of the main reasons I bought the collection was that I had always been curious about season two. I’d never watched any of the episodes, although I’d caught snippets here and there and was somewhat intrigued. I had heard that the premise of season two was that the Earth had been overrun by the aliens and Blackwood was leading a ragtag band of rebels against the aliens. That not only sounded cool, but much more in keeping with the novel.

In Book II, chapter VII, “The Man on Putney Hill,” the narrator encounters an artilleryman he’d met in a previous chapter. The artilleryman outlines a plan to resist the invaders by setting up bases in the sewers. Together, they will recruit more survivors, watching and learning from the aliens, collecting stores of knowledge where they can until they can mount an effective counter-attack, perhaps even taking control of some of the Martian War machines and mounting a real offensive. Right here we have a premise for a War of the Worlds TV series that I would absolutely watch. And season two easily could have played into this.

A promotional still from season one. The show wound up looking nothing like this, but season two could have. This could easily been the survivors of an alien holocaust making their way across a hostile landscape.

In season one, Quinn had already told Blackwood that a new invasion force was on the way. Season two could have opened with the arrival of that invasion. The season finale had also introduced a new race of aliens, enemies of the Mortaxians, who wanted to harvest humans for food. This also harkens back to the novel, in which the Martians fed on the blood of humans. Having two races of invaders fighting over Earth could have been interesting too, with humanity caught in the middle. There was a lot of potential there, and it’s a real shame it was wasted.

If season two had given us more of this sort of thing, it would have been way more interesting.

One might argue that they never would have had the budget for such an ambitious concept, but I disagree. Going completely on the cheap, they could have used stock footage from the movie for many of the effects. Or, if they wanted to splurge on an impressive season opener, they could have created new special effects for the premiere and then recycled the footage for the remainder of the season. Many of the episodes would see Blackwood and Ironhorse or whoever else sneaking around in the woods or in ruined backlots and such, every so often cutting to a stock shot of a war machine on patrol. It could be done very easily, with big fx set pieces only occasionally needing to be freshly created. Sure, the premise deserves better than to be done on the cheap like that, but those were the conditions, and I think I would have been satisfied with it, especially at the time, when expectations from TV shows were lower than they are now.

But alas, they did what they did, it was disappointing, and there it is. And I’ve got other stuff on my mind. Peace out, War of the Worlds. You were fun for a while, but it’s time to move on.

War of the Worlds – episode 2.3: “Doomsday”

Plug up one water pipe, bring a whole city to its knees. Yep. Sounds legit.

The title makes quite a bold promise. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t deliver.

The aliens have blocked off the city’s water supply in the middle of a heat wave. The city sends exactly two people into the tunnels to investigate and they’re handily dispatched by alien soldiers. With no water, the residents are going full Mad Max, ready to knife each other for a jug of water.

In the world of Team Blackwood, Debbie comes down with heat stroke, so they need to get her some water pronto. Kincaid says he knows a place and they take her to a church. The church doesn’t have any water, though, so I’m not sure why that’s a good idea.

Well, the aliens come through, though. They’ve been reading the Bible and they get the idea that if they perform some “miracles” they can get people to worship the Eternal. So they make water flow from the holy water basin and everybody’s just delighted. Then they stage a “healing” where a woman with distorted joints is suddenly fine.

“Believe in aliens and ye shall be healed! Or… something.”

They clone the preacher and his son, make it look like the kid dies, and then “resurrect” him. The people are whipped into a frenzy and Kincaid gets suspicious. He goes to investigate and learn the truth, quickly getting sidetracked and killing aliens.

Blackwood and Suzanne find alien tentacles in the basement and sort out that the aliens are behind the water miracle. Somehow they trace this into the tunnels and find the blockage. They meet up with Kincaid, have a shootout with the aliens, and plant charges to free up the blockage.

“We’re totally not aliens.”

They find the real preacher and rescue him so he can duke it out with his clone in some kind of weird battle of wills that kills them both, along with the kid clone. The aliens vaporize the clones – in front of everybody – and then bail.

Then it finally rains, breaking the drought, which Harrison calls a miracle.

If my synopsis makes any of this sound remotely interesting, be assured it isn’t. The whole thing plods along like a tortoise on valium. There’s no suspense whatsoever, the characters are bland and uninteresting, and what little action there is fails to entertain.

Beyond that is the sheer strangeness pervading not only this episode, but the entire season so far. Why the hell is everyone dressed like it’s 1950? Why is there no color in the production design? Why does the church look like something you’d find in a third world country? Why does the city put so little effort into emergency relief efforts? Where’s the rest of the world? What city are we even in? What is the alien agenda? How many of them are there? Why does it feel like we’re in some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape when nothing has happened to indicate that an apocalypse has happened? So far, every episode has left me asking WHAT’S GOING ON?!!!

This episode was frustratingly bad. It may actually be the worst thing I’ve ever seen on television, and I’ve seen some pretty bad television. Season one of this show was a train wreck, a blend of bad writing and bad production quality that made Ed Wood look like a genius. But at least it had a sort of campy charm that made it somewhat fun. There’s none of that here. It has all the flaws of season one without being remotely fun or interesting. It tries to be dark and edgy but winds up just being bland and boring. I gotta be honest … I’m not sure if I’m gonna make it to the end of the series. There’s one more episode on this disc. I’m going to watch that. And then I may just have to call it quits. We’ll see.

War of the Worlds – 2.2: “No Direction Home”

The new HQ – Kincaid’s bunker.

So it’s not cloudy anymore. Guess we’re dropping that whole thing. No explanation is given for that.

Following the destruction of their cottage headquarters, Harrison, Suzanne, and Debbie (Suzanne’s daughter) are riding with Kincaid in his van when they spot a black car following them. Blackwood immediately goes for a gun. Because that’s something Blackwood would do. Kincaid manages to lose the car when it spins out of control and crashes. Although our heroes get away, the aliens snatch up a priest to use in their experiments.

Kincaid takes the others to his bunker, which will evidently serve as the new base of operations. For some inexplicable reason, control-freak overbearing know-it-all Blackwood asks Kincaid what to do next and what to do about Debbie, who is evidently in shock following the events of the previous episode. Kincaid tries to contact the military, but they totally blow him off. He lies to them about having been in contact with Blackwood and is generally evasive and uncooperative. He terminates the call and concludes that they no longer have the support of the government.

Like… what the shit?!!!!

“MY BALLS!!!”

Meanwhile, the aliens clone the priest. During the cloning process, the priest mentions God, which causes one of the alien scientists to scream like someone is squeezing his testicles. I’m not sure what that’s all about. The cute alien scientist chick reports to her boss that things are going well. “I hope so Commander, for your sake,” he tells her. “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what he says. I’m not sure what’s going on there. The priest clone decides to devote himself to the one true god, the Eternal. Whatever that is.

Back at the ranch, things are dark and gloomy. Leaving Suzanne at home to knit them sweaters or whatever, the manly men rush out to do action. (I can’t help but notice that the only two cast members to get axed were people of color – funny, that.) They go to the warehouse where the aliens were holding Ironhorse and find the cocooned remains of humans. Two aliens show up and obligingly die when shot. Then Blackwood finds an icky thing on the floor and decides to keep it. He figures if they study the alien technology, they can find a way to stop the enemy. Kincaid thinks that’s dumb and would prefer to … I dunno, lose or something.

Gross! Lets keep it!

They take it back to the bunker where Suzanne realizes it allows you to read minds. That night, Blackwood and Suzanne don’t sleep well and wake up not feeling rested. They also discover that overnight the alien thingy has tripled in size. It also projects holograms of the aliens walking around. Because Kincaid is utterly stupid, he doesn’t realize they’re holograms and wants to shoot at them. Fortunately, Blackwood and Suzanne are able to stop him before he riddles the place with bullets.

Debbie is watching the monitor and sees the alley that Kincaid is spying on for whatever reason. A crazy guy is talking about a priest who’s not really a priest. The team figures out that the priest in question must be a clone and they race off to deal with him, taking the alien gizmo with them.

They find the priest clone, who his holding the crazy guy hostage. For some reason, they touch the gizmo, which for some reason causes the priest clone to double over in pain, allowing Kincaid to shoot him, which for some reason causes the gizmo to self-destruct. For some reason, the clone dying doesn’t kill the actual priest. Naked and covered in slime, the priest gets out of the cloning device and is happy. Evidently the aliens don’t care if he leaves, because in the next scene he’s back at the shelter fully clothed and thanking the team for rescuing him.

For no obvious reason, the team arrives back at the bunker laughing about something. Even Debbie, who I guess isn’t in shock anymore. She says she’ll miss Ironhorse and Norton, which for some reason makes the others smile.

Nothing in this episode made any sense. When the first episode didn’t make any sense, I figured they were just leaving certain things to be explained later. But now I’m convinced that those things are never going to be explained. Everything in this season so far is utterly half-assed, even moreso than season one. It takes a supreme lack of talent to make me long wistfully for the good ol’ days of season one, but new showrunner Frank Mancuso Jr. (of Friday the 13th fame) has pulled it off. We’re only two episodes in and things are not looking good.

With the Mortaxians dead and the team cut off from their military resources, the last elements from season one have been swept away. As incompetent as they were, at least the Mortaxians were loosely based on the aliens from the original film. At least we occasionally got to see the original war machines. At least Sylvia Van Buren made occasional guest appearances. At least we had John Colicos. I doubt we’ll see any of these things again.

As awful as season one was, it had a certain campy charm that made it kind of watchable. I’m not sure what we’re left with now. Boring villains, boring heroes, and boring plots. It’s got that early 90s vibe of generalized dullness that infected so many shows of that era. It’s just a bunch of people standing around in dimly-lit rooms looking glum while mood music plays. That’s not interesting. That’s not fun. That’s not art. That’s just boring.

A very different Harrison Blackwood (Jared Martin) heads up the cast of season two, minus Norton and Ironhorse.

And what’s up with Harrison? It’s like we’ve completely ditched his whole character. Season one Harrison was an arrogant overbearing vegetarian who hated guns and solved problems with a tuning fork. New Harrison is edgy, has a beard, goes for his gun at the first sign of trouble, and asks Kincaid, who he barely knows, for advice. Who the hell is this guy? Yes, season one Harrison was stupid and annoying, but that’s not the point. You can’t just arbitrarily change a character like that. Take Buffy Summers for example. In season one, Buffy is bouncy, jovial, and girlish. By season seven, she’s far more serious, more cynical, less innocent. What happened? Seven years of shit went down, that’s what happened. And yet as different as later Buffy is, at her core she’s still the same person. She still has the strength of character, the courage, the dedication to her duty, the loyalty to her friends that the season one version had. The core identity is the same, but how she behaves, how she interacts with the world around her, that has been changed by her life experiences. That’s called a character arc, kids, and it’s what makes stories interesting. I could buy that season one Harrison could evolve into season two Harrison. I could see a battle-weary Harrison who has seen too many friends die start to let his principles slip. But we jump over that narrative and just overwrite the old Harrison with the new. That’s sloppy writing.

Incoming producer Frank Mancuso Jr. seems to have adopted a scorched-earth policy regarding every aspect of the show. In replacing Greg Strangis as showrunner, Mancuso displays arrogant disdain for his predecessor. The on-screen execution of the advocacy for their incompetence even plays as a symbolic execution of the previous producer. It’s as if Mancuso were publicly saying, “You suck, Strangis! Let me show you how it’s done!” But in so doing, he has put his own balls on the chopping block, and if he doesn’t deliver, it’s going to end very badly for him. Well, snip snip, buddy, cause what the shit are you doing?

How do you get rid of body-stealing aliens only to replace them with more body-stealing aliens? How do you manage to serve up an alien menace that’s actually *less* threatening than the Mortaxians? The Mortaxians were global in scope. So far, these aliens seem confined to a single warehouse. The Mortaxians were stealing every body in sight, hopping from body to body at will and leaving a path of destruction in their wake. These guys seem to just be cloning people here and there. How many of them even are there? Are they global or is it just the handful we’ve already seen? What’s their plan? Are they seriously going to invade Earth by cloning one person at a time? What are they doing? WHAT’S GOING ON?!!!!

War of the Worlds – 2.1: “The Second Wave”

Fascist aliens invade Earth in the original V (1983-1985).

Let me get this straight. The vastly superior alien invasion series V gets canceled after only 19 episodes and this crap-fest gets picked up for a second season? Who sold their soul to Satan to make that happen? Whatever.

The terrifying Martian invaders destroy everything in their path in the 1953 classic, The War of the Worlds, which this show does not do justice.

We open with Harrison and Suzanne standing on the terrace looking up at the night sky. They wax philosophical for a bit about the aliens and whatnot. And then Harrison spots a falling star. And another. And another. They’re coming down in a deluge – close. One of them lands just over the next hill. Horrified, Harrison realizes it’s a full-on invasion. The swan-shaped machines rise out of their pits, their heat rays spewing death everywhere they go. First New York falls. Then London. Then Moscow. City after city after city is wiped out by the merciless onslaught. Harrison and his beleaguered team flee their headquarters just as an alien war machine blasts it to smithereens. The military is powerless to stop the invasion, and this time Earth’s bacteria is useless against the aliens. Within days, humanity is brought to its knees. Harrison and company take refuge in a subway tunnel. As the aliens patrol the devastated countryside picking up stragglers for extermination, the ragged and demoralized team begins making plans. The first step will be to find any survivors they can and bring them back to the tunnel. Cowering in sewers and subway systems, Harrison and his people prepare to strike back. Somehow, though they don’t yet know how, humanity will rise from the ashes of their ruined civilization and take back their world.

An illustration from the 1906 edition of The War of the Worlds. I wonder what H.G. Wells would think of this show.

That’s what I wanted to see. What I hoped I would see. What I knew I wouldn’t see. Here’s what we got:

An alien planet blows up. A dot flies to Earth and makes it… cloudy. Or something. New aliens have arrived on Earth. They’re called the Morthren and they decide to execute the Mortaxians for being completely incompetent. Can’t say I blame them, because they’re not wrong. What I can’t figure is why the Mortaxians just obediently step into the disintegration machine. Well, whatever. The Mortaxians never were that bright. The Leader of the Morthren communes with a hologram of their leader, the Big Giant Head (a huge one-eyed tick), and receives instructions.

Harrison goes to an S&M bar to meet up with someone – we’re never told who. He gets into trouble and is about to get his ass kicked when some military guys randomly show up and bail him out. But they turn out to be aliens here to kidnap him. Fortunately some dude named Kincaid shows up and saves him. They go back to HQ where we learn that Ironhorse knows Kincaid and doesn’t like him.

Ironhorse goes to investigate a building where the aliens are supposedly hiding and gets captured. The aliens clone him and send the clone to wipe out Team Blackwood. Blackwood and Kincaid get worried and go to rescue Ironhorse. They find him and and escape together.

Meanwhile the Ironhorse clone kills Norton (!) and plants charges to blow up the building. He takes Suzanne’s daughter as a hostage. Harrison shows up with Kincaid and Ironhorse and they catch the clone in the act of abducting Suzanne’s daughter. Ironhorse concludes based on nothing that he and the clone are linked and kills himself, thereby killing the clone. The team escapes the building just as it blows up.

The boring aliens from War of the Worlds – season 2.
You don’t scare me. Work on it.

This episode was… confusing. Who the hell are these new aliens? What is their relationship to the Mortaxians? Why do the Mortaxians allow themselves to be executed? What’s going on with the clouds? Why are Ironhorse and the clone linked? The aliens say that the cloning process would kill Ironhorse. But if the clone dies when Ironhorse dies, how is that useful? There are a lot of new elements introduced in this episode. I don’t have a problem with that. The show needed a new direction. But they handled it very poorly.

Overall, however, I will admit this is an improvement over season one. For starters, they shot it on higher-quality video, so the picture is a lot sharper. It’s lit better and the production design is more inspired. The cheese factor is greatly reduced and the overall tone is darker, more serious. That could go either way. The stupendously awful train-wreck that was season one offered a lot in the way of unintentional laughs, which actually made it fun in a way. If season two lacks sufficient camp to make it funny and takes itself too seriously, it could wind up just being really dull. But this episode at least held my attention, despite being really confusing.

Bottom line, though… this still has nothing to do with the 1953 movie or the novel it was based on.

War of the Worlds – episode 1.23, “The Angel of Death”

“Scene 23, take one.”

There’s a new player in town. A glowing ball of energy deposits a woman dressed in black who never, under any circumstances, stops doing yoga. She can fire energy beams from her hands and she is determined to track down the advocacy and eliminate them. She does this by finding all the aliens she possibly can, ordering them to tell her where the advocacy is, and when they refuse, killing them. She’s… not a very good tracker.

Team Blackwood gets suspicious when the alien bodies start piling up. Blackwood thinks maybe there are new aliens in town. They set a trap by luring some aliens to a warehouse, hoping the tracker will show up. She does and starts blasting everything she sees. Because they’re stupid, the aliens think Suzanne is the tracker and run off to report to the advocacy. The tracker disappears and everything’s back to square one.

“Wake me up when this episode is over.”

The tracker takes Ironhorse captive and amidst unnecessary yoga moves explains that she’s Q’Tara from the planet Q’arto and she’s here to stop the Mortaxians. Ironhorse decides they have a common enemy and can help each other. He rushes home to tell the others.

The advocacy decides to take the offensive, leading their troops into battle, and heads out to ambush their enemies.

The whole team goes to Q’Tara’s hideout to discuss strategy, but the Mortaxians follow them. A shootout ensues in which Q’Tara and all of Team Blackwood are gunned down. Having accomplished this, the Mortaxians leave. It’s not made clear whether the advocacy has been taken out or why they stop the assault after their enemies have been overwhelmed, but not killed.

Some time later, Q’Tara fixes herself – having been revealed to be a robot – and then heals team Blackwood. She has to go now, but promises to return in a year to continue the fight. Blackwood is delighted to have found new aliens who are friendly. But once he’s out of earshot, Q’Tara radios back to her planet that humans are still endangered as a potential food source. Uh-oh!

Q’Tara has to be the cheesiest thing I’ve ever seen in just about anything. Like seriously, Ed Wood himself couldn’t have out-cheesed this lady. Like so much in this show, she has to be seen to be believed. She’s just so over-the-top. She’s got some serious 80’s hair, sleeps leaned against the wall like a plank, and then there’s all the ridiculous yoga moves, a hilarious warble to her voice, and a stilted and laughable delivery for all her lines.

In addition, the whole episode is completely disjointed. Plot threads are introduced and then dropped, the action scenes are poorly staged and nonsensical, and the whole thing is just so utterly cornball that I challenge anyone to make it through without laughing. In short, it’s a fitting end to a season made up almost entirely of trash.

But we made it through! Hooray! We’re finally done!!

Wait, what? There … there’s another season?! …

SON OF A … !!

*sigh*

Okay.

*Does shot of whiskey, slams the glass down on the counter*

Let’s do this.

War of the Worlds – episode 1.22: “The Raising of Lazarus”

“Spread out, everybody! We’re gonna try and figure out the shape o’ this thing!”

We open with a construction worker who is totally losing his shit because he thinks he found a flying saucer. I got a bit excited for a second, thinking we were going to see a war machine, but alas, it’s just a tiny capsule. The military takes possession of the capsule and takes it to a bunker in a remote location. They contact Team Blackwood to have a look. No sooner do they get there, however, than an Air Force colonel shows up and takes charge, having been authorized to do so by authorities higher up than Ironhorse’s boss. Blackwood and his people are salty about it, but cooperate.

The colonel pokes and prods at the capsule with drills and lasers but can’t get it open. He’s ready to give up, but Blackwood suggests using sonic waves to get it open because Dr. Forrester had been working along those lines back in the day. They try it and it works. The capsule unscrews – just like the cylinders in the original film! That bit is nifty. Inside is a perfectly preserved alien and Blackwood just can’t wait to dissect it. But the colonel overrules him and decides to let the alien sit overnight. For… reasons.

That night the colonel sneaks into the lab wearing a Spider-Man costume and carrying some lube… No, just kidding. Actually he’s carrying a petri dish and a syringe. He takes some samples and sneaks away with them. For… reasons.


“No question… It’s using the air tunnels to move around.”

So… guess what happens next. No, seriously, see if you can guess…

It’s alive! The alien’s not dead! Did you guess correctly? Of course you did. It pops out of the capsule and immediately goes into… wait for it… the air ducts! I guess while it was chillin’ in that capsule, it must’ve watched a lot of sci-fi movies.

Team Blackwood and the air force people discover that the alien is missing and begin searching for it. Needless to say, no one thinks to check the air ducts.

“Oh, this is better than injecting LSD into my eyeballs!”

The colonel decides to inject the alien fluid he extracted last night into the soft tissue under his tongue. I guess he figures it’ll get him high. Just kidding. He thinks he’ll absorb the alien’s knowledge. The alien overhears this from the air duct and thinks it’s a fantastic idea. It grabs a power cable and hacks into the colonel’s computer to tell him so. Encouraged by this, the colonel goes ahead and does it. And… nothing happens.

Blackwood is on the phone with Norton. The alien seizes the opportunity and grabs the power cable again, hacking into Noron’s computer and absorbing all their data. Now it knows about the Earth bacteria and how to defeat it with radiation. It makes a beeline for the bunker’s nuclear reactor and steals some plutonium. It runs amok, spreading radiation everywhere so it will be safe from the bacteria. Blackwood realizes what the alien is doing, watching the radiation spread on a monitor (man, that critter moves fast.).

“I sense… danger. And cheese. Lots of cheese.”

Realizing the soldiers are coming, the alien decides to hide by taking over the colonel’s body. But Blackwood uses his magic tuning fork to figure out the alien has done this. Having saturated the bunker with radiation, the alien decides to… leave. In a car. Ironhorse uses the air ducts to get to the lab, because I guess radiation doesn’t like air ducts or something, and uses the laser to fry the escaping alien.

By any objective measure, this episode is a mess. The story is as half-baked as anything else this series has done, a blatant mix of The Thing From Another World and Alien, only this time the production values are so shameless as to be downright embarrassing, even for this show. Every time we see the alien moving through the air ducts, it’s the same goddamn shot! At one point when it attacks someone, the shot of the alien pouncing is lifted from another episode. And the shot used is an exterior shot, inserted into an interior scene. I mean, it’s just pitiful.

All that said… I have to confess I enjoyed it. The monster-on-the-loose plot, though derivative, was entertaining, and the alien stayed in its natural form for the bulk of the episode, which was a refreshing change of pace. I’m not saying it was a particularly good episode, mind you, but it held my attention more than the previous several episodes, which have been pretty dull for the most part. So I guess the lesson here is that you don’t need good writing or production values to deliver solid entertainment. You just need a guy in a monster suit.