Space Raiders: A Rip-off With Charm

How much time has to pass before a rip-off becomes an homage? Consider the following pitch: An embittered war veteran leads a rag-tag band of space pirates on a never-ending quest for the cash they need to keep their ship flying. Sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about Firefly. I’m talking about the 1983 low-budget Roger Corman cash grab, Space Raiders. One is a beloved though short-lived sci-fi series which borrows elements from Star Wars while injecting enough original elements to find its own identity. The other… is fondly remembered by some while being largely forgotten by most. But is Space Raiders a rip-off or does it have enough of a unique identity to stand on its own? Does the question even matter? When you boil it down, is it actually any good? Let’s have a look.

The late 70s and early 80s saw a glut of outer-space films designed to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Most of them focused on the superficial – space fighters in dogfights, strange aliens in droves, larger-than-life heroes and villains, and an emphasis on fun and adventure. Few if any of them touched on the mythic aspects at the core of Star Wars which was the key to its enduring success. Most of them, such as Star Crash and Message From Space survive today largely as curiosities. But others, including Space Raiders, have managed to garner their own cult followings. What makes the difference? In developing Firefly, Joss Whedon readily admits to drawing his inspiration from Star Wars, but he had the luxury of introducing his space opera over twenty years after the fact. And even though the Star Wars prequels were in the process of being released at the time, the cultural impact of the former saga had already soaked in. Star Wars is just part of the DNA of storytelling now. You can draw from it as readily as you might draw from Robin Hood or King Arthur. But when Star Wars was fresh, people were still trying to figure out what it was. A lot of producers didn’t even care. They just saw a space movie making lots of money and assumed that spaceships would be a draw. But others were still interested in trying to tell a good story. They saw the success in the space opera format, but they also knew that you still had to follow the rules of good storytelling. So into which category does Space Raiders fall? Well, a little of both.

The first thing a viewer will notice is the overall cheapness. The opening sequence, which takes place in a warehouse, is hardly futuristic. The exteriors are pretty obviously southern California, and one sequence takes place at a very present-day looking factory. What’s more, the special effects, sets, and music are all lifted from Corman’s earlier and far superior space film, Battle Beyond the Stars (which was also a Star Wars clone). When you know this, it becomes painfully obvious that Space Raiders was written around the existing effects rather than the effects being tailored to the script. To be fair, though, it was a smart business move. By comparison, Battle was lavishly-produced, featuring A-list talent like Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, and George Peppard. The sets looked great and the music was fantastic. All that doesn’t come cheap, so it’s understandable that Corman would want to get his money’s worth. The effects were originally created by James Cameron, and while not quite up to the standards set by Star Wars, they’re nevertheless impressive, especially considering the budgetary limitations. The stirring score was composed by James Horner, and it’s not surprising that both he and Cameron would go on to bigger and better things. Taken on their own, both elements integrate pretty well into Space Raiders, and it’s only when you know about the previous film that they contribute to the sense of cheapness. But such technical aspects aren’t necessarily everything. If the story and performances are strong enough, a film can rise above such shortcomings. So how does this film fare in that respect?

Space Raiders centers on Colonel C.F. Hawkins, or “Hawk,” played convincingly by veteran actor Vince Edwards. Once proud of his military career, he now laments his status, talking about the old days when “being in the space service really meant something.” Now he is affiliated with a criminal organization run by a reptilian creature called Zariatin. When a young boy named Peter (David Mendenhall) accidentally stows away on a ship Hawk’s crew is trying to steal, Hawk feels responsible and vows to get Peter home. The corporation that employs Peter’s father sends a robot ship (why does a robot ship have windows?) ostensibly on a rescue mission, but really in hopes of destroying Zariatin’s operation. Hoping to ransom Peter, Zariatin turns on Hawk, picking off the crew one-by-one. Finally Hawk bests Zariatin in a shootout but is wounded in the process. Fortunately, Peter paid really close attention when he watched the crew give first aid to a wounded comrade, and he manages to resuscitate Hawk, who then finally gets Peter home. It’s a pretty simple narrative, and it’s executed simply: setup, complication, payoff. As a cash-grab, that’s smart, and at 84 minutes, it’s definitely well-paced. That said, there’s such a thing as being too simple, and there are areas where Space Raiders probably should have been allowed to breathe. For one thing, aspects of the worldbuilding are implied rather than explicitly established. It certainly seems as if the galaxy is run by a single corporation but the movie doesn’t tell us that. We’re left to infer it. And that’s a bit sloppy.

But the most critical of these areas is in the relationship between Hawk and Peter. The entire film hinges on the bond between these two, and by extension, between Peter and Hawk’s crew. When the crew first discovers that Peter is aboard, he’s in the way and everyone is bemused and annoyed by his presence. Hawk even jokes about chucking him out the airlock. But when they come under fire by hostile space fighters, a critical ship component is damaged and they can’t get to it. Peter is just small enough that he can worm his way down into the engine to fix the problem, and presto! Peter has now earned his stripes and is treated as a full-fledged member of the crew. Just like that. It works… sort of. In reality that might earn him some token respect, but it’s hardly the sort of thing that makes people ready to sacrifice their lives for you. From this time on, they all act like Peter is a member of their family who has been traveling with them for years, or at least months. Contrast this with Simon and River, who occupy a similar role in Firefly. It’s the end of the two-hour pilot before Mal even invites them to stay aboard, and even that only if Simon earns his keep by acting as ship’s medic. And their position aboard ship is only ever tenuous. Indeed, in the big-screen film, which takes place eight months after Simon and River first come aboard, Mal actually loses his temper and kicks them off the ship. It’s only after Mal’s moral compass is triggered by the nefarious actions of the Alliance that he reverses and is ready to die for them if need be. Firefly earns that level of devotion only after fourteen TV episodes and half a feature film. Of course, Space Raiders doesn’t have that kind of time. But there are ways to accomplish that efficiently. The big-screen Firefly film, Serenity, is designed to still function even if you haven’t seen the show, and it manages to tell what in many ways is the same story much more effectively.

Part of the reason the dynamic doesn’t work is Peter himself. He’s frankly kind of annoying. Outside of that one instance when he saves the ship, and later when he briefly helps out by acting as gunner, he mostly just gets into trouble. After he comes aboard Hawk’s ship, the first stop is Zariatin Station, a hotbed of criminal activity not unlike the Mos Eisley Spaceport in Star Wars (complete with a cantina filled with aliens). Hawk puts Peter in a room and tells him to stay put. Naturally, Peter sneaks out and gets into trouble with a couple of thugs who look like the burglars from Home Alone. After chasing Peter through the bowels of the station, they finally catch him, forcing Hawk and company to go rescue him. But the company robot ship finds the thugs first and blasts them to smithereens. Peter gets away in an escape pod, sees Hawk’s ship in the distance, and actually yells, as if Hawk can hear him. When I was 10, I already knew that sound doesn’t travel in space, and I don’t live in a society where space travel is commonplace. What’s this kid’s excuse? Peter is not exactly a genius, and he’s certainly no Luke Skywalker. Even little kid Anakin had more charm. At least Anakin wanted to help out and save the day. Peter’s great ambition seems to be to get a job in an office and have an average, boring existence. Not quite the stuff that legends are made of.

But the biggest way in which the dynamic fails is in the fact that the movie wants us to think Peter sees Hawk as some kind of Big Damn Hero, but there’s never any point in the film that really shows us that. Peter never displays any kind of respect or admiration for Hawk. He just wants to go home. Yet Hawk even says out loud to a shipmate that Peter sees him as a hero. Where does that come from? Search me. Midway through the film, there’s a mislead where they think Peter has gone home and they’re all moping that he’s gone. But not enough has happened to really make us feel it. If anything, they should be relieved to be free of the responsibility so they can get on with their lives.

If any character in the film has a relationship with Peter that actually makes sense, it’s Amanda, who is played quite effectively by Patsy Pease. She spends almost all of her screen time annoyed by his presence. Really, she’s had enough of the space pirate life and is ready to bail. Hawk understands, and charges her with one last task: see Peter home. She agrees and it is when Peter is under her charge that they fall under attack and Peter has to act as gunner. He’s initially reluctant to take a life, but it finally sinks in that it’s kill or be killed and he manages to do what he needs to do. Amanda is suitably impressed, and it’s at this point that they finally bond. They crash on a planet, the bad guys close in, and she goes down fighting. One of the reasons this works is that it’s not just Peter who’s in danger. The bad guys are after both of them, so Amanda has no choice but to fight. We don’t need to bother with her having any ambiguity over whether she thinks Peter is worth her life. They’re just in it together and that’s it. The element of choice is taken away. Yes, it might have been more interesting to have an arc where she actually is ready to sacrifice herself, but given the tight running time it unavoidably would have felt forced, as it does with the other characters. At least Amanda is believable.

Rounding out the cast are Ace (Luca Bercovici), who is basically a non-character; Aldebaran (Drew Snyder) who has kind of a B.J. Hunnicutt vibe but otherwise doesn’t have much going on; and the alien Flightplan (Thom Christopher). Flightplan is probably the most interesting of the supporting cast, even if he’s something of a cliché. Thom Christopher seems to have been typecast as the aloof, mysterious alien, having played a similar character on Buck Rogers. This time he has psychic powers, which makes it a little different, but such characters are a dime a dozen in sci-fi, so it’s really nothing special. I’m also pretty convinced that Alan Rickman’s make-up in Galaxy Quest was based on this character.

Another aspect of Space Raiders that doesn’t quite work is Zariatin. He has the potential to be a great villain, and he almost succeeds. Played with gusto by Ray Stewart, Zariatin oozes pure evil in every scene. As an interstellar kingpin, it would be easy to dismiss Zariatin as an imitation Jabba the Hutt. He certainly functions in much the same capacity. The degree to which his character was influenced by Star Wars is up for debate. Space Raiders was already in production when Return of the Jedi premiered, so it’s unlikely that film had any real impact. But Jabba had already been mentioned in previous films. We didn’t necessarily know that Jabba was an alien, but we knew that Han Solo owed money to an interstellar kingpin named Jabba. So it would seem that the basic concept was definitely lifted straight from Star Wars. But is it executed well? For the most part, yes. Zariatin mostly works as a villain, even if he doesn’t have a lot of depth. And that’s sort of the problem. Hawk says that he and Zariatin have been friends for a long time, but there’s no indication of that friendship in their on-screen dynamic. Zariatan does nothing but yell and threaten and menace Hawk and everyone with him. When Peter gets kidnapped, Zariatin has what might be the best line of dialogue in the film: “This is why I never liked you, Hawk. You bring out the good in me. Go and get your kid.” At this point, it seems like Zariatin may actually have some depth, but the movie undoes that when Zariatin immediately double-crosses Hawk, not only deciding to take Peter himself to hold for ransom, but also to kill Hawk and his crew. If there had been some explanation for this, it might have made sense. Maybe if Zariatin had made Hawk promise to bring Peter back so they could ransom him and then word gets back to Zariatin that Hawk has reneged on the deal, that might have worked. But there’s nothing. Zariatin just flips and decides to murder everybody. Just cause evil or whatever.

With so many elements not working, it would seem like Space Raiders is an utter disaster. And, well, it kind of is. And yet there’s just something kind of charming about it. For everything it does wrong, it does something else right. Many of the film’s jokes fall flat, but many of them work. In particular, Roger Corman fans will enjoy a cameo by Dick Miller as a fast-talking salesman in a holographic commercial. The aliens in the cantina are a bundle of clichés and played for laughs. At one point, Ace flirts with what he thinks is a hot human blonde, but when she turns around she’s a hideous alien – which Flightplan finds attractive even though they’re not the same species. I guess all aliens are attracted to each other? I dunno. And the sci-fi cantina concept itself is shamelessly lifted from Star Wars. However, the Space Raiders cantina sequence has a food fight. Star Wars can’t boast that. The punchline is a bit much, with the proprietor trying to restore order only to get covered in food, but the scene itself is so over the top that it’s fun in spite of itself. For the most part, the alien masks are pretty bad, ranging from barely acceptable to the sort of thing you’d find in any given discount Halloween store. On the other hand, the make-up for Flightplan is pretty decent and Zariatin looks fantastic – truly alien and frightening. But above all, Space Raiders is fun. Maybe not as fun or immersive as Star Wars, but as fun as a knock-off drive-in version could have possibly been. It may not be Shakespeare, and there may be some gaps in the narrative, but screenwriter Howard R. Cohen certainly understands story structure. He keeps things moving, and even though key character moments are sometimes forced, at least they’re there. Other movies of this sort don’t even bother.

In the end, Space Raiders is unquestionably a knock-off of Star Wars. But given when it was released, that’s pretty obvious. When you go to the dollar store and buy a Transmorphers action figure, you know it’s a Transformers knock-off and you know what that means. You don’t expect Wal-Mart freezer pizza to taste like gourmet pizza from a pizzaria. When you know what you’re signing up for, you adjust your expectations. And sometimes the off-brand product surpasses those expectations. Such is the case with Space Raiders. It’s not Star Wars and it doesn’t have to be. And in a way, Space Raiders finds its niche. While films like Star Crash just recycled what the producers thought audiences liked about Star Wars – space battles and robots – Space Raiders takes a specific element from Star Wars and expands on it. Jabba the Hutt was just a sub-plot, a bit of character development for Han Solo. But it hints at a whole backstory with its own range of possibilities. Space Raiders seeks to deliver on that promise and despite its shortcomings, it mostly delivers.

And that brings us back to our initial comparison between Firefly and Space Raiders. Without a doubt, Firefly is superior. The characters in Firefly are more fully realized, the wit is sharper, the drama is deeper. But Firefly is very much its own thing. It’s not Star Wars, nor was it meant to be. In 1983, we all thought Return of the Jedi was the end of the road for Star Wars. Ten years would pass before the first expanded universe novel. The adventures of Han Solo before he met Luke were left to our imaginations. At the time, Space Raiders was as close as we were going to get, and it certainly scratched that itch. But if it has endured in the era of Star Wars as an institution, it’s because the people who made it cared. Its genesis was to quickly write a story around existing special effects culled from a previous Star Wars rip-off. That should have been a death sentence. But it wasn’t. Space Raiders rises above the pack thanks to the dedication of the people involved. Against all odds, they did the impossible: the took a project that should have been a disaster and turned it into something memorable. So does it matter whether something is a rip-off or an homage? I would say that depends on the quality of the work. Firefly is both an homage and an original work and it’s amazing. Space Raiders is absolutely a rip-off, a technically sub-par low-budget cash-in. But it’s got heart. And that’s enough.

Attack of the Creeps

My goodness, Attack of the Clones is terrible. Sure, we all know the prequels suck. But conventional wisdom tells us The Phantom Menace is the worst, right? Wrong. There’s something far, far worse than the maniacal screeching of Jar-Jar Binks. And it’s called The Hot Mess of Anakin and Padme.

I sat down to watch Clones this time around with the same attitude I’ve had watching all the Star Wars films recently. At all times, I would ask myself, “What would little kid Jon think of this?” And usually I figured little kid Jon would be pretty entertained by all of it. But in this instance, I just couldn’t look past the sheer suck of what was unfolding.

Right from the start, Anakin is off-putting. In the elevator car, as he tries to one-up Obi-Wan, there’s an instant sense that this kid is going to be insufferable. The second-hand embarrassment as he fails to impress Padme in their first scene together is bad enough, but we’re just getting started. Padme lays it all out up front: “Anakin, you’ll always be that little boy I met on Tatooine.” This will inform everything that follows.

In TPM, Padme was only sixteen years old, but she’d already been elected to the highest office on her planet. She was smart, capable, and she led her people through a crisis and saved them from the Trade Federation. Granted, Anakin helped with that, and that’s not to be overlooked, but bottom line, it was Padme’s show. It was her plan. She was in charge. Now, ten years later, she’s grown from an already impressive girl into a woman. She radiates professionalism and maturity. She’s the very epitome of grown-up. And here’s this little punk Anakin trying to get into her pants because he has a crush. EEEWW!!!

Every scene they share is awkward. From his confession that he’s been obsessing over her for ten years to his leering at her every chance he gets – which she tells him flat-out makes her uncomfortable. He trash-talks Obi-Wan behind his back, which clearly does not impress Padme, coming off as a whiny, entitled brat. He talks over her during an important meeting just to flex his muscles, which she clearly finds off-putting. And then he starts touching her inappropriately when she’s made it very clear she’s not interested. On their little outing to the countryside when he talks about how great fascism would be, not only does he make himself look stupid with his utter lack of understanding of politics, but this should have been the last straw in which Padme sends him packing and informs the Jedi she no longer needs their protection.

But holy crap, we’re not even done! We’ve got their super-awkward fireside chat in which she’s so uncomfortable she has to move to the other side of the room. And as painful as that is to watch, it’s nothing compared to Anakin confessing that he just slaughtered a whole village of Sand People – including the children – and she just brushes it aside, and then a few scenes later tells Anakin, “I truly, deeply love you.” What the ever-loving God Fuck?!!! There is absolutely no basis whatsoever for her to fall in love with this creep! All along, it has been played as a creepy stalker chasing an older woman with whom he has nothing in common. This should have ended with her making a full report to the Jedi council about what he’s been up to and his expulsion from the order. Certainly not them getting fucking married!!

“You like me because I’m a psychopath. There aren’t enough psychopaths in your life.”

I used to enjoy the set pieces – the chase on Coruscant, the fight on Kamino, the Battle of Geonosis, but all of these fell flat this time around because my skin was still crawling from the scenes between Anakin and Padme. Okay, fine, we’re supposed to see how this guy becomes Darth Vader. But in order for us to be invested in that, we need to see an essentially good man who is seduced by the Dark Side. Instead we get a whiny, creepy stalker sociopath who is completely off-putting. And it undermines the character of Darth Vader. In the original trilogy, Vader was a super-badass. He had his shit together. He whined about nothing. And for his backstory you give us this?!

Not only that, but for us to be invested in the doomed romance of Anakin and Padme, we have to want them to be together. We know going in they’re not going to have a happily-ever-after. But for that to mean anything, for us to follow them on that journey, it needs to be tragic. We need to see them happy up front in order to be sad that it’s not going to work out. Instead, we just want to scream to Padme, “Run! Run as fast as you can!”

This movie sucks. My god, this movie sucks. I wish there were something I could praise, but there isn’t. You could argue that it has nice visuals, but the CGI hasn’t aged well, and compared to any given modern movie, they’re nothing special. You could say it’s got decent action scenes, but if you’re not invested in the story, it’s just shit blowing up and I don’t care. This is easily the biggest botch job of the entire saga. And with the resources at their disposal, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Still more romantic than Anakin and Padme.

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.

War of the Worlds – episode 1.21: “So Shall Ye Reap”

Let’s turn the humans into a bunch of Incredible Hulks. Great plan!

We open in a nightclub where a dude is trying to score. He leaves with a woman and they head for his hotel room. In the elevator, he reveals he’s a cop and puts her under arrest. For prostitution, I guess. Even though she never quoted him any rates or anything, so I’m really not sure what’s going on here. Turns out she’s an alien, though, and she cold cocks him and throws him in the back of a van with some other people. Seems the aliens are kidnapping people to do experiments on them in hopes of producing a virus that will send humans into a blind rage so they start attacking and killing each other.

28 days later, Blackwood wakes up from a coma… wait, no. Blackwood and the others are posing as members of the DEA to work with the Chicago PD, ostensibly to combat a new drug that people are dying from. Obviously in reality, they’re after the aliens.

The experiments aren’t going well, so the envoy from the Advocacy bumps off the lead scientist and takes charge of the situation herself. Because that’s going to end well for her.

“Should we let her know we’re a legitimate government operation? Nah, that would be too efficient.”

A homeless dude finds a body in a dumpster. The cops and Team Blackwood go to investigate and determine it’s another drug victim. While they’re at the crime scene, the lead detective gets a call – the DEA has never heard of Blackwood! She arrests the whole team on the spot for impersonating government officials. Uh-oh!

But it’s okay. She calls their boss and he clears everything and tells her they really are government agents and they’re after terrorists. “You know,” she says, “you could have saved us all a lot of trouble if you’d told me that up front.” Hey, there’s a thought.

The aliens succeed in creating their drug. They test it out on Cop Guy and he goes totally ape shit. They unleash him in a titty bar and he hulks out and trashes everyone and everything in his path. Maybe I’ve missed the point of this show. Is this actually a brilliant comedy and the joke just went over my head? Someone calls the cops. Evidently Cop Guy still has the presence of mind to know when to cut and run, so he hightails it back to the car and they take off with the cops in pursuit. Realizing they can’t get away, the the aliens drive the car into the lake.

The lead detective is really cut up over the death of whats-his-face, and for some reason she’s able to figure out that Team Blackwood isn’t after terrorists. Inexplicably, Blackwood decides to spill the beans to her about everything. They go to a mob boss that she has close ties with, who tells them where to find the aliens. Yeah, that makes sense.

“Ya wanna get nuts?! Let’s get nuts!”

The alien plan has backfired magnificently. A careless orderly leaves both a supply of the highly-addictive rage drugs *and* the keys to the cages within reach of one of the prisoners. It’s rage-a-palooza as the drug-crazed prisoners escape and rip the aliens apart. Team Blackwood and the police arrive just in time to find the aliens have already done their work for them.

Realizing the aliens are utterly incompetent, Blackwood decides there’s no need to keep hunting them and retires to the country where he becomes a beekeeper. This is the final episode.

No. No, it isn’t. There’s more.

This episode is stupid. There’s not much to say beyond that. It’s just bloody stupid. There’s no suspense, the premise isn’t interesting, there’s nothing noteworthy happening with the characters. It’s just some stuff that’s happening. There it is.

War of the Worlds – episode 1.20: “My Soul to Keep”

“Gotta love me!”

Uh-oh! The aliens are breeding! And the baby aliens are so cute! With their cute little cyclops eyes and their cute little spindly arms! Aww! We don’t see anything of their reproductive process – I guess we can be grateful for that. Despite my curiosity, anything this show would’ve come up with probably would’ve been stupid as hell. Anyway, the babies need to be kept cold, so the aliens decide to move them into a warehouse full of, like, liquid nitrogen or something.

In Washington, D.C., some douchebag goes into a Korean bathhouse, says some racist shit to the owner, then goes into the sauna. There he meets a shadowy figure in a bathrobe, his face hidden by a hood, who totally isn’t John Colicos. In a gravelly voice that is totally not instantly recognizable as John Colicos, the shadowy figure tells the douchebag that he needs to investigate the Blackwood project. Evidently Douchebag is a reporter looking for a story. When Douchebag asks why, Not John Colicos tells him his ex-wife is involved. It’s Suzanne! Gasp! He also says that Team Blackwood is rounding up illegal aliens and exterminating them. Which… I guess is kind of true.

“What? John Colicos? Never heard of him.”

While Team Blackwood hand-waves their way through solving the latest alien plot, Douchebag shows up to manipulate his family into giving them a story. He tells Suzanne he’s sorry and wants to make things right and blah blah blah vomit. He takes her out to dinner and continues to lay on the sleaze. When Suzanne doesn’t bite, he shifts tactics and tells her he knows the Blackwood project is killing illegal aliens. She should just laugh in his face, but instead she’s hurt and angry. At least she has the good sense to walk out on him.

Can you just look at the camera and John Colicos for a bit? That’s perfect. Print that.

Douchebag goes back to the sauna for another meeting with Not John Colicos. I forget what they talked about because it’s been a week since I watched it and I probably wasn’t paying attention anyway. I could go back and watch the scene again to refresh my memory, but I don’t care enough. The important part of the scene is that when Douchebag goes away, the camera dollies in on the shadowy figure as he pulls back his hood to reveal… he’s John Colicos! Gasp! Wait, not gasp. I already knew that. With his eyes wide, Colicos looks right at the camera and lets out that trademark cackle. Because he’s John Colicos and that’s what John Colicos is for.

Blackwood and Ironhorse track the aliens to the warehouse. They go inside and find a bunch of eggs that look like scaly nutsacks. They decide to take one back to base for Suzanne to examine. Once back at the lab, it hatches and attacks Suzanne. Realizing the aliens are breeding, they decide to raid the warehouse and kill everything in sight.

I feel like we’ve seen this hallway before. In like every episode.

But Douchebag decides to follow them with a camera crew. They witness the battle but are then attacked by aliens. Team Blackwood comes to the rescue, but they’re too late to save the camera crew. Sadly, Douchebag survives. Realizing Team Blackwood is killing aliens from outer space and not Mexico, he calms down.

God, I hope Douchebag is not going to be a recurring character. He is neither interesting nor fun. He’s just… a douchebag.

This episode really needed more John Colicos. But then *all* the episodes need more John Colicos. It was nice to see Quinn again, but also confusing. When we saw him last, he was trying to broker a truce to facilitate a peaceful transition to alien rule while preserving a small percentage of the human population. When Blackwood saved his life, it seemed they’d reached some kind of understanding, or at least a degree of mutual respect. But here it seems like he’s just generally trying to disrupt things. It’s not even clear what his end game is. Why tell the reporter that Blackwood is killing illegal aliens? What does he have to gain from that? If the reporter investigates, either he’ll come up empty or he’ll learn the truth. Either way, how does that advance Quinn’s agenda? It just doesn’t add up.

This isn’t a particularly good episode, but it’s not an especially bad one either. It’s just kind of ho-hum. Well, whatever. Hopefully the next episode will have more John Colicos. Not holding my breath.