Thursday, May 21, 2015

War Of The Worlds: The Resurrection


War Of The Worlds: The Resurrection, by J.M. Dillard
September, 1988  Pocket Books

Mostly forgotten today, War Of The Worlds was a syndicated TV show that ran for two seasons, starting in the fall of 1988. I watched the first season at the time and loved it, though I didn’t know anyone else in my high school who watched it (even the sci-fi geeks didn’t). In years to come I usually found that I was still the only person among my various groups of friends who had even heard of it.

Flash forward all these years later and War Of The Worlds (sometimes subtitled “The Resurrection”) is still obscure and has not garnered much of a cult following, or at least one that I could find on the interweb. The complete series has been released on DVD, though, and last year I picked it up, but so far have only watched the first few episodes. The show was clearly low budget, filmed in Canada, and had a definite campy/dark comedy vibe, coupled with some still-unsettling gore effects, and to tell the truth it was all pretty entertaining.

Picking up from the 1953 George Pal film (not the HG Wells novel nor the Orson Welles radio production), the TV series veered more into horror than sci-fi, with the aliens (not Martians, but revealed to be from some planet called Mor-Tax) now cast as creepy monsters in the vein of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. Able to pull their slimy, “apelike” bodies into humans, they now walked around in host bodies and waged an undercover war against mankind. The show traded more on suspense and horror than the big-budget action of the George Pal film, with the canvas much more reigned in than the global chaos of the movie.

The series kicked off with a two-hour pilot film, which served as the basis for this novelization courtesy J.M. Dillard, an author mostly known for her Star Trek novels. Dillard’s book achieves the ultimate goal of a novelization: it reads like its own work, and not just a synopsis/rehash of a TV episode. Also of note is that Dillard’s book, while very faithful to the pilot episode, features elements and incidents that didn’t make it to the final cut, and likely weren’t even filmed. In one particular case an entire character exists in Dillard’s book that was absent from the show: Dr. Clayton Forrester, the hero of the ’53 film who in Dillard’s novel is a supporting character.

Rather, the main protagonist of the novel (and the series) is Dr. Harrison Blackwood, a 40 year-old scientist who was raised by Clayton Forrester, Harrison’s parents being killed by the aliens during the ’53 invasion. Clayton Forrester raised the boy as his own, and these days Harrison is a top astrophysicist at the Pacific Institute of Technology; he’s also a government-hating left-winger who has vowed to continue the research his foster father started after the aborted alien invasion. He’s also one of those types who rides a bicycle to work and constantly “munches” on granola bars.

As for Clayton himself, he’s long retired, and in ill health with a plumb heart. He’s barely in the narrative at all – and a good thing, too, as every time I read “Dr. Clayton Forrester” I kept picturing Trace Beaulieu’s character from Mystery Science Theater 3000. My assumption is the producers were uncertain if they would really have Clayton in the pilot episode, as the character is so incidental to the plot, and so seldom featured, that you can see how he’d easily be removed without affecting anything. And for that matter, when Clayton does show up it’s in very superfluous scenes.

One of the hardest elements to buy about the show was that no one in the then-current world of 1988 remembered the alien invasion of 1953. Dillard tries her best to make this palatable by calling it a “mass denial” the human race has adopted when dealing with the events of ’53, with most people having successfully pushed it out of their minds. Those who lived through it refuse to think of it, and those born after it have only learned the bare minimum about it. There’s a vaguely-explored conspiracy angle that the government has been behind this mass denial, mostly so as to stave off any potential panic – the aliens were killed by Earth bacteria in 1953, and that’s that.

Only, Clayton Forrester knew this view was shortsighted, that the aliens very likely could return, and raised his adopted son to believe it as well. Hence Harrison retains Clayton’s distrust of the government and the military, and also shares his obsession with researching the aliens, despite the mass disbelief in them. Harrison’s sole associate is Dr. Norton Drake, a black parapalegic who specializes in studying radio waves and whatnot. As we meet them they’ve brought in a new associate: Dr. Suzanne McCullough, hotstuff brunette who has come here to California from Ohio along with her young daughter, Deb.

Suzanne is a microbiologist and has no idea what job she’s even been offered here at the “PITS.” This leads to instant chemistry/dislike between her and Harrison, something which per TV tradition went on throughout the series. At great length Suzanne learns that Harrison wants her to analyze various alien DNA from ’53, including even a corpse he’s managed to get hold of (another of those scenes not in the actual pilot film). Suzanne was a toddler when the aliens invaded and only has bare memories of it, unlike Harrison and Norton, who himself lost family in the attack. In the novel, we also learn that Suzanne is “second cousins” with Suzanne Van Buren, the woman Clayton Forrester was going to marry, before she went insane after the ’53 invasion.

But like everyone else Suzanne refuses to think much about the aliens, and it’s only after much struggle that Harrison wins her over. This is mostly done through the first of the novel’s few action scenes, as a group of hippie-style terrorists, the People’s Liberation Army, attack a remote army base in Jericho Valley, Arizona. The place holds radioactive waste, and the terrorists want to use it for their nefarious goals. Dillard spends a goodly portion of the early quarter in the perspective of Lena Urick, the sole female member of the terrorists.

What the terrorists don’t know is that Jericho Valley is one of the places where the army stockpiled the alien “corpses” from ’53 – aliens that weren’t really dead, but in stasis. What they also don’t know is that the leaking radiation at Jericho Valley has gradually destroyed the bacteria in the aliens’s system, so that now they have come back to life – right after, coincidentally enough, the terrorists have blown away the few soldiers manning the base. Now comes the icky stuff from the pilot, as the few awake aliens take on the corpses of the terrorists as host bodies – this leads to lots of dark humor in the novel (and especially the pilot film), as they’re basically decomposing corpses walking around.

Dillard spends a lot of the narrative in the perspective of the aliens, all of it written in ugly-looking italics. (Also, in true cheesy sci-fi standards, all of the aliens have names that begin with “X.”) Interesting too that here, even with the aliens, Dillard writes from the perspective of a female: Xana, a member of the “Advocacy,” ie the trio who rule this particular grouping of aliens. Throughout the novel Dillard writes mostly from the perspectives of either Suzanne or Xana, which gives the novel an almost feminine tone – strange, when compared to the “boy’s world” tone of the actual pilot and series.

Anyway, the awoken Advocacy beams a message to home planet Mor-Tax, off in the Taurus constellation, and this alerts Norton’s computer back at PIT. Harrison breaks off a date with his ultra-annoying fiance, Charlotte (a character promptly removed from the series after this pilot film – even the producers must’ve realized how annoying she was), and drafts Suzanne for a several-hours drive to Jericho Valley. There they find the army has moved in, inspecting the destruction; leading them is Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse, Delta Force badass (played most memorably by Richard Chaves in the series – a guy most known for playing Poncho in Predator).

Harrison immediately realizes that the worst has happened: several aliens have reawoken and have stolen away with the few hundred other barrels stored at Jericho Valley, each of which contains a comatose alien. However, this leads to more stonewalling and disbelief, as the army insists it was just the terrorists who took off with the radiation. Most of The Resurrection is given over to Harrison proving his case to both his colleagues and the government, and you start to wish it would just get to the fireworks. But there’s no more action until much later, when Harrison again tracks the aliens down to a farmhouse in the countryside.

Ironhorse is here, once again, about to lead his Delta squad on an assault against the place. The ensuing action scene is a lot bigger in the pilot episode than in the novel, but it has the same outcome: all of Ironhorse’s men are killed, and the aliens again escape. Here though the heroes finally learn how the aliens can take on host bodies, including the gross-out factor that their host bodies melt when killed – as Ironhorse puts it, “like something out of a grade-B horror flick.” This was one of the crazier elements of the series, and always fun to watch, as the aliens would dissolve into puddles of gray goo.

We move into the homestretch as Harrison and team are set up on a secret ranch by the government (the mover and shaker behind the arrangement being Suzanne’s uncle, military bigwig General Wilson) to wage a secret war against the aliens. Why doesn’t the army just go after them? Because if people found out the aliens were still alive, it would cause mass panic! (And more importantly, because that would cost a lot more to film.) They’re even given a (single) military representative: none other than Paul Ironhorse, who by the way enjoys cultivating his “Indian mystique.”

Norton breaks the alien code and learns that they are heading for Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Harrison belatedly remembers something special about that base – it’s where Hangar 15 resides (Hanger 18, he says, is disinformation spread by the military; Hangar 15 is legit). This is where the government stockpiled three of the alien spaceships from ’53. If the aliens were to get hold of those ships, there would be no stopping them. But again, instead of calling in the cavalry our heroes must resort to subterfuge, Ironhorse posing as Delta Force instructor making an unplanned, unscheduled visit to the base for cross-training purposes.

Dillard well captures Harrison’s state of fear as he looks upon the alien aircraft, flashing back to his childhood memory of watching his parents blasted apart by one of them. This is something else the pilot episode was unable to capture. But then, something the pilot did better was the ensuing firefight between our heroes and the aliens, who of course arrive at Hangar 15 at the same time, having gotten onto the base due to their Delta Force host bodies. But Harrison et al are able to escape even as the aliens get in their ships – ships which Ironhorse has hidden explosives inside.

This was the only part of the pilot episode that used footage from the ’53 film, as the ships came out of the barn and exploded; I don’t think the show ever again used any of the footage, or ever showed the alien ships again. As mentioned, it was a very low budget affair. The finale of the pilot however was a precursor of practically every episode to follow, with Harrison and team tracing the surviving aliens somewhere, going undercover to roust them, and then turning them into bubbling puddles of goo before the end credits rolled.

Another thing missing from Dillard’s fine novelization is the campy and dark humor of the show, but then it seems that this became more evident in the later episodes. Also worth noting is that the complex alien subplot Dillard works into the novel is rendered moot by the actual show; Dillard has lots of scheming and plotting among the aliens, which in truth I think the show was better without. But then, all this scheming was rendered moot by the second season, which saw a complete overhaul of the series, with Ironhorse and Norton written out and the Mor-Tax aliens replaced by more humanoid foes.

Anyway, I enjoyed Dillard’s book, though in truth I would say it’s only worth seeking out if you are a big fan of the series and want to read an author’s take on the thoughts and feelings of the various characters. But as is the case with most novelizations, you’d be better off just watching the actual show.

8 comments:

Bob R Milne said...

You're not alone in your geek appreciation for this, Joe. I was a huge fan of the shown when it first ran, and snatched up a copy of this as soon as it came out. I didn't care so much for the second, post-apocalyptic season, and felt it was weaker without Ironhorse and Norton, but I still have fond memories. It'd be interesting to see if the book or the show stands up to revisiting,

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Bob, glad to hear from someone else who watched the show. I don't think I watched all of Season 2 back then, but I have it on DVD now so I plan to someday. It doesn't seem like too many people liked that season, though, for the reasons you just mentioned.

Greg said...

Loved this show (S1 more than S2).

The alien war machines did in fact appear twice more, both times in S1. In one episode, a pre-Columbian war machine with actual physical legs was uncovered on an Indian reservation (for all of a bout 5 minutes before it was destroyed), and the "cobra head" from another machine (buried after the 38 invasion -the Orson Well's broadcast was REAL, not a radio play) was recovered and almost made off with by the aliens before being destroyed as well.

Gary R. Peterson said...

Count me in as a fellow fan of WAR OF THE WORLDS. I watched it every week, followed by FRIDAY THE 13th: THE SERIES (at least on the NYC station that carried it). And I agree that only the first season was excellent. I watched in horror the first episode of the second season and never came back. Yes, Norton and Ironhorse were integral to the show. I did NOT know there was a novel, so something new to add to my growing list of gotta-read books.

Felicity Walker said...

I also loved War of the Worlds, the series, both in high school and later when I found it online, and like previous commenters, I liked the first season more than the second. I still have some fondness for the second season, but it was definitely a colder, less-fun experience than the first season.

In general I don’t like novelisations of filmed media because I don’t enjoy the author speculating as to what the characters are thinking and feeling. It either comes across as padding or basically fanfic. However if I’m really intensely nostalgic for something and want to enjoy it in book form, I’ll put up with it.

You’ve inspired me to rewatch the first season now!

Felicity Walker said...

PS: Synchronicitously enough, a day or two before finding this review on your blog, my friend was playing Tangerine Dream’s “Dolphin Dance” on his Internet-radio show and I was trying to remember why it sounded so familiar:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qkg2hn_DegI

And then I realised it sounds like the closing credits music for War of the Worlds season one!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gR46dePtHCo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHynPcYKdd4

The two were written about the same time, “Dolphin Dance” in 1986 and War of the Worlds in 1988. A case of parallel thinking, of there being only so many chord progressions in existence, or was Billy Thorpe a fan of Tangerine Dream?

Felicity Walker said...

There’s also three notes of the old Doctor Who theme in the War of the Worlds theme, now that I think about it.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, Felicity, as well as the other ones you've recently left on the blog. That's interesting on the similarities between the two songs. My guess is Tangerine Dream is the original and the WotW composer might've been "inspired" by it, but who knows. I still haven't finished watching season 1 but plan to get around to it someday.