Case Number 08010

WAR OF THE WORLDS: SEASON ONE

Paramount // 1988 // 1086 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jeff Andreasen (Retired) // November 9th, 2005

The Charge

They sure don't die very pretty, do they?

Opening Statement

In 1953, Earth experienced a war of the worlds (clever, no?). Common bacteria stopped the aliens, but it didn't kill them. Instead, the aliens lapsed into a state of deep hibernation. Now the aliens have been resurrected, more terrifying than before. In 1953, the aliens started taking over the world. Today, they're taking over our bodies!

Back in the late '80s, syndicated television series were something of a boom industry. Except for game shows, most of these were late night or weekend afternoon fare: Silk Stalkings, Forever Knight, the fourth season of Airwolf, Friday the 13th: The Series, and War of the Worlds. Most of these shows were produced in Canada on, to put it mildly, conservative budgets. All featured second-string actors, third-rate effects, and were hit or miss on the scenarios they offered. War of the Worlds had its fair share of both, but were they bullseyes or can't-hit-water-falling-out-of-a-boat misses?

Facts of the Case

In the corny corner, wearing spectacles, hair spray, and enough diversity to appease even the most liberal of corporate conglomerates, is The Blackwood Project (not to be confused with The Alan Parsons Project). Led by kuh-raaaaazy scientist Harrison Blackwood (Jared Martin, a guest star in virtually every television series during the '70s and '80s), TBP finds, frustrates, and fries its opponent, who...

Fights out of the gooey corner, wearing open sores, nitrogen-cooled containment suits, and kooky, three-fingered arms on their chests. Led by the Advocacy, a triad of alien Nikita Khrushchevs, the invaders from George Pal's 1953 War of the Worlds have risen from their biologically-induced dormancy and want two things: to defeat the deadly bacteria that threatens their very existence; and to lay the smackdown on humanity as a species to show the imminently-arriving three-fingered colonization force that they chose the right slimy, one-eyed creatures for the job.

TBP is buttressed by mainstays of science fiction archetypes: the good-looking girl (Lynda Mason Green, fresh from career-making roles as "Hooker" in Terminal Choice and "Model No. 1" in the hopefully-not-aptly-named Highpoint), who is sometimes useful in ways other than having a pretty face around; the geek science specialist who can dope out anything (Phillip Akin, Highlander: The Series); and the thick-witted man of action (Richard Chaves, Predator) who keeps the others out of trouble when the going gets tough. Blackwood himself is sort of an amalgam of all of them, and yes, he has a pretty face.

War of the Worlds, the series, is a direct sequel to the eponymous 1953 film, wherein Earth was attacked by an alien reconnaissance squadron, which almost took over the planet. Fortunately for humanity, the bacteria we take for granted produced unfriendly results in the aliens. Good thing they never heard of tough actin' Tinactin! Incapacitated by prolonged narcolepsy, the aliens are reawakened in 1988 when a radical group's terrorist arm accidentally irradiates the metal drums storing the one-eyed monsters. Turns out the aliens not only have advanced technology capable of laying waste to our world, but they are also the ultimate infiltrators, possessing the innate ability to literally crawl inside human beings and take control of their bodies. The terrorists are quickly overcome and their three leaders get the honor of hosting the alien brain trust, the Advocacy.

Harrison Blackwood and his cronies, meanwhile, spend their days ruminating on, and searching for, signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. They find it when Norton Drake (Philip Akin), a wheelchair-bound computer nerd, intercepts a communiqué from the recently-awakened aliens on Earth. Fascinated, Blackwood grabs the eye candy, Suzanne McCullough (Lynda Mason Green), a biologist brought on board to speculate about the nature of alien life forms, and heads for the site specified by Drake as the source of the transmission. Upon arriving, they encounter Colonel Paul Ironhorse (Richard Chaves) and Blackwood has a nervous breakdown when he deduces the true origin of the alien signal.

Turns out Blackwood is the adoptive kid of Dr. Clayton Forrester, the scientist who advised the army in 1953 and who identified the cause of the aliens' demise. Now he has to finish his father's work and put the kibosh on this gooey alien scum once and for all! After talking up his game plan, Blackwood succeeds in convincing the army's General Wilson (John Vernon, Animal House) that the military must take the threat seriously. As it happens, they plan to do just that, by setting Blackwood and his buddies up in a top-secret headquarters called "The Cottage," and by assigning Ironhorse (the army guy, not the beer) as their liaison to the army. Drake gets all the state-of-the-art super computers he wants, McCullough gets all the Bunsen burners and petri dishes she can handle, Ironhorse gets carte blanche to test out any cool weaponry he wants to on the alien scum, and Blackwood gets the opportunity to say "I told you so" every episode.

The series' concept -- a small "in the know" group of saviors versus a sprawling armada of deadly foes only they know about -- works well not only as inspiration for a sequel to a very successful movie from the heyday of Communist paranoia, but also as a very effective template for low-budget syndicated television. With limited funds to work with, War of the Worlds producers Sam and Greg Strangis came up with an idea that would keep ornate visual effects to a minimum. There were stock moments that had to occur practically every episode, such as dying aliens disintegrating into slimy puddles of bubbling mucous, but the extravagant effects were relatively rare occurrences. The pilot episode, "The Resurrection," for instance, spent most of its budget on a relatively short passage at the climax, where our heroes must evade a trio of alien war machines until their sabotage efforts reach explosive fruition. Mostly, though, the concept of an enemy disguised as human beings kept costs low and the suspense high.

The quality of the first season episodes ranged from good ("The Resurrection," "Vengeance is Mine," "The Angel of Death," "The Prodigal Son," "My Soul to Keep") to decent ("The Second Seal," "Dust to Dust," "Thy Kingdom Come") to utterly lame ("The Walls of Jericho," "To Heal the Leper," "Epiphany"). None were helped by the terrible effects, film quality, and acting, but dreadful scenarios plunged the bad ones into the sewer, while thoughtful and/or smartly-paced plots helped the good ones overcome the budget limitations. Still, no matter the quality of some of these episodes, none can be considered science fiction, let alone television, classics.

The Evidence

There are those who will undoubtedly herald the release of this series on DVD at this particular juncture in human events as an eye-opening parable of our lives under the fear of terrorism. You can certainly draw the inference, with enemies bent on our destruction hiding in our midst yet conspiring to our end, but it must be mentioned that the series was created with a much more meaningful message: that humanity is destroying Earth and the aliens will be much more loving stewards of our planet than an ignorant and negligent race. That's a point hard to argue. Besides, the terrorism analogy was also drawn with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. So be careful of your reputation amongst your peers when drawing analogies.

Yes, the aliens are not only here to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth, they're here to terraform it back into the veritable Garden of Eden their own home planet was before its sun began failing. A noble justification for invasion, but let's face it, they're still alien scum and we're still the squatters they have to remove. Gentlemen, sight in on the parade of episodes and thumb your rapid-fire selectors!

* "The Resurrection"
* "The Walls of Jericho"
* "Thy Kingdom Come"
* "A Multitude of Idols"
* "Eye For an Eye"
* "The Second Seal"
* "Goliath Is My Name"
* "To Heal the Leper"
* "The Good Samaritan"
* "Epiphany"
* "Among the Philistines"
* "Choirs of Angels"
* "Dust to Dust"
* "He Feedeth Among the Lilies"
* "The Prodigal Son"
* "The Meek Shall Inherit"
* "Unto Us a Child is Born"
* "The Last Supper"
* "Vengeance is Mine"
* "My Soul to Keep"
* "So Shall Ye Reap"
* "The Raising of Lazarus"
* "The Angel of Death"

I've read a lot of reviews of this series that applaud its originality and invention in the face of censorship (it was an exceedingly gruesome series that never would have been aired in its entirety on network television) and hail it as a genre classic. To tell you the truth, I remember this series from its first run and from its various airings on the Sci-Fi Channel, and it holds a special place in my heart. But I also have to face the facts: sometimes a good concept can be hopelessly scuttled by budgetary limitations. Said lack of budget forced the producers to hire a career guest star as their series' go-to guy and a gang of who-dats as the primary players. Contrary to fan assertions, the acting in War of the Worlds is terrible, even by syndicated television standards, and while it doesn't eighty-six the series, it does hurt it. However, while noting that, it must also be mentioned that there is an earnestness in most of the performances that haul the product above the waterline.

The first few episodes of the series are out of control as far as performances go. Philip Akin is so wide-eyed, loud, and over-the-top he is embarrassing to watch, and it's not until the third episode that he decides to can an intermittent Rastafarian accent. I liked Richard Chaves in Predator, but he's out of his depth in a role of more than passing interest. He perseveres throughout the series, and gives very good performances in "Dust to Dust" and "Vengeance is Mine," but most of the time he's trying too hard and comes off as so stiff he can't even be called a parody of a military officer.

I like Jared Martin, and think that, given the right material and decent direction, he could headline a series. War of the Worlds isn't his bag, though. He seems to be trying to decide throughout the first season whether or not he wants to be a scientist who loathes weapons, or an ass-kicking man of action. In the action scenes and other hectic moments in the first season, Martin seems most at home, and that is in direct contradiction to the character he is trying to portray. His earnest moments come off as stiff or arch, and it takes too long for the veteran actor to find his stride. It doesn't help that he has virtually no talent around him to play off of.

Lynda Mason Green is just there. I detected no discernible acting ability in any episode, and that's a pity. For all the inadequacy of the acting, I feel something could have been made of this series had there been more diligence paid to the direction of each episode. It is apparent what veteran leadership could have brought to the show when you see how much better episodes with proven talent are than the rest. When the great John Colicos (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica) appears in "The Prodigal Son," Jared Martin's performance is superior, and Colicos's presence on the set lifts everyone's delivery. Likewise, when he returns in "My Soul to Keep" with Michael Parks, the two veteran actors make the episode a keeper.

The DVD presentation of this long-awaited series is a total bust. While it's nice to see War of the Worlds finally available on home video after all these years, a little effort put into the presentation would have been appreciated. Paramount looks to have pulled these episodes off well-worn VHS copies pirated from the Sci-Fi Channel. The video is awful, with color bleeds, ghosting, echoes, aliasing, and focus issues present in full force. Lamentably, the best episode in the collection, "The Prodigal Son," suffers from the absolute worst video transfer I have ever seen. The Dolby Stereo audio is serviceable, but probably no better than the original presentation of these episodes. There are instances when a more dynamic soundtrack would have been a powerful force in the series (such as the warship attack scene in the pilot episode, or the tripod rising in "Dust to Dust"), but, for the most part, the audio is a direct victim of the series' budget. It wasn't great to begin with, and it's no better here.

The menus are simple static sheets with the episode titles, nothing more, and there are no extras whatsoever: no text or audio commentary, no deleted scenes, no links, no nothing! This is as bare bones a DVD presentation as you will ever find.

However, for those who love advertisements, Paramount has pulled out all the stops for previews of MacGyver, Charmed, The Brady Bunch, and Enterprise. These ads sound very much like Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and are impeccably mastered. Paramount certainly knows where its bread is buttered. Too bad a little of that effort couldn't have been spared for the actual feature presentation.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

There's no getting around the inadequacies of the DVD presentation, but there are redeeming qualities to War of the Worlds as a television series. No syndicated television series at the time had a huge budget except for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in the early going that show was no great shakes either, lending support to the theory that a big budget doesn't necessarily mean a quality product. Thus, it's spurious to chide War of the Worlds for deficiencies brought on by lack of budget. Someone had to star in the show, and the producers did the best they could with the casting. To be fair, the actors' efforts improved over the course of the first season and by the time "The Angel of Death" aired it seemed an intriguing prospect to see how the performances would evolve in the second season.

Similarly, it's pointless to lay blame on the special effects, which were as good as they could be. True dramatic moments were achieved in both the pilot episode, when the alien war machines rise from the government storage facility to menace our heroes, and in "Dust to Dust," when the alien tripod rises from the Indian burial ground. The makeup isn't bad, and is convincing enough when the bad guys melt away into puddles of phlegm or show up with their faces falling off due to the radiation poisoning. I'm also partial to the nifty score provided by composer Billy Thorpe. Another computer-generated soundtrack, but it's catchy.

On the plus side, this collection is presented in a handsome slipcased DigiPak, a format I very much prefer to the gate fold style of frustration irksomely favored by Warner Bros. So at least I'm not delivering the platter to my DVD player with my teeth gnashing in fury.

And, hey! I really am looking forward now to Enterprise: Season Four, so this DVD at least has that going for it!

Closing Statement

For the release to home video of a series as anticipated as this one amongst fans, this DVD is an absolute travesty. Absolutely no effort was made to restore the worst-preserved episodes or to polish up even the most glaring video deficiencies. Commentary by creators Greg and Sam Strangis, at the very least, would have been excellent additions to this collection. It might've been nice to have found one or two of the stars, all of whom are very much among the living. Maybe a retrospective of the original movie could've filled a few minutes of supplemental time, but there was no such effort made.

Syndicated television was often looked upon as the trash of the medium when it first appeared, the lowest common denominator able to see the light of day not because it was good, but because there was finally a venue for it. It's too bad Paramount continues to treat some of its properties with the same disdain.

The Verdict

Sam and Greg Strangis are found guilty of trying to bring an inventive and original concept to life within the limiting parameters of budgetary constraints. Their Herculean efforts are applauded by the court, and the bench's sympathy is with them in light of the dismal treatment their baby has met at the hands of its distributors.

Paramount is found guilty of negligent homicide in the death of the War of the Worlds: Season One DVD and is sentenced to be mutilated and consumed by a triad of voracious and vengeful alien scum. In the event that the second season sees the light of the DVD day, this court sincerely hopes that a modicum of effort is put forth by the studio to appease the hunger of the shows fans.

To life immortal!

Review content copyright © 2005 Jeff Andreasen; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 65
Audio: 70
Extras: 0
Acting: 60
Story: 85
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile
Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* English

Running Time: 1086 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* None

Accomplices
* IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0094578/combined

* The Complete War of the Worlds Site
http://www.war-of-the-worlds.org/