Happy 30th anniversary to War of the Worlds….the TV series?

In 1953, Earth experienced a war of the worlds. 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….”

The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells’ classic 19th century novel of Earth’s invasion by aliens from Mars, remains one of the most influential works of science fiction literature. It’s been adapted numerous times and has spawned several sequels, prequels, and re-imaginings over the course of the 120+ years since its original publication. The 1953 film adaptation of The War of the Worlds remains one of the more popular and fondly remembered interpretations of Wells’ seminal work.

The film’s producer, the legendary George Pal, had attempted to launch a television sequel to the movie back in the early 1970s. That effort stalled early in its development, and the idea was not revisited until the late 1980s. Paramount Pictures’ television arm, at the time enjoying much success in the relatively new first-run TV syndication arena with Star Trek: The Next Generation, decided to try expanding its offerings and a new interpretation of The War of the Worlds was greenlit.

“The Resurrection,” the two-hour premiere episode of War of the Worlds, premiered October 7, 1988 – thirty years ago today – in first-run syndication. Producer Greg Strangis stuck with Pal’s original notion of a sequel to the 1953 film, adding a new wrinkle to the movie’s ending by postulating that the germs which supposedly killed the alien invaders instead sent them into a deep coma that looked very much like death. Following the aliens’ defeat, the governments of the world collected the alien bodies and their technology and stored them in various repositories scattered around the world. Over time and helped by a concerted government cover-up campaign, all evidence and knowledge of the 1953 invasion seemed to just fade from the public consciousness.

(More on that later….)

One such cache of aliens is accidentally revived in 1988 when a group of terrorists infiltrates one of the sites and causes a spill of radioactive waste. Unknown to the terrorists or any of the soldiers at the base, the contaminated material acts as a trigger, re-animating aliens stored there, and then things go completely to hell.

Faced with the prospect of a revived alien armada picking up where they left off 35 years earlier, the U.S. government assembles a task force with the singular mission of hunting down and neutralizing the aliens before they can assemble a large enough force to resume their invasion or – worse – contact their homeworld for reinforcements. The team, led by quirky scientist Dr. Harrison Blackwood, microbiologist Suzanne McCullough, computer wizard Norton Drake, and no-nonsense Army colonel Paul Ironhorse, quickly get to work trying to tackle the new alien threat from multiple fronts: scientific, technological, and military. Their efforts bear fruit almost immediately and the tone of the series is set, with “the Blackwood Project” constantly trying to get ahead of the revived aliens and thwart their plans to regain control of their lost technology and resume “the war of the worlds.”

All that sounds pretty awesome as a general premise, right? At least, that’s what I thought during the summer of 1988 when I first heard the show was coming. I was stationed overseas at the time and so didn’t get to see the series until later when my wife (then my girlfriend) would send me VHS tapes with episodes recorded off the TV. All I had during that summer and fall was the novelization written by J.M. Dillard, and after reading it I was super stoked to see the show.

Only after checking out that first tape of episodes did I realize this was a better premise than it was a TV series.

And yet….I still kinda dig it.

As the series was devised as a sequel to the 1953 film, it is teeming with references to the movie’s events and characters. Harrison Blackwood (played by the late Jared Martin) is an orphan whose parents were killed during the original invasion, and who was adopted as a child by Dr. Clayton Forrester, the character played by Gene Barry in the film. Though Forrester and his work are referenced throughout the series and he is an integral part of Dillard’s novelization, he’s never seen on the show. On the other hand, actress Ann Robinson did reprise her role from the film, Sylvia Van Buren.

The show even found ways to weave in lore not just from the original novel but also from the classic 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast version of The War of the Worlds, itself a re-interpretation of the story.  One notable change for the show was the decision not to refer to the aliens as “Martians,” instead referring to them as “Mor-Taxians,” who now possess the ability to “absorb themselves” into the bodies of humans. This doesn’t end up working out so well for the humans, you understand.

The show’s biggest disconnect on its premise is the notion that 35 years after a global alien invasion, no evidence seems to remain and public awareness of the “war” is practically non-existent. For me, this was the series’ gravest sin, but given its obviously low budget and the visual effects capabilities of the day, showing a world so ravaged by the lingering effects of attempted alien conquest would be all but impossible.

After its first season, the series underwent a drastic retooling under the direction of new producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. A time shift occurs between seasons, pushing events from the “present day” to an indeterminate period in the near future, which suddenly has become a wannabe dystopian somewhat clumsily explained by the aliens’ continuing efforts to seize control of the planet before a new invading armada arrives. We’re introduced to a new set of aliens, who promptly kill off all the remaining aliens from the film and the series’ first season before getting on with their own version of extraterrestrial conquest. The biggest change was the decision to remove both Ironhorse and Norton Drake from the cast, replacing them with a pre-Highlander Adrian Paul as mercenary John Kincaid.

Thin plots, even thinner budgets, and mediocre production values saw to it that War of the Worlds was canceled after its second season. Still, the series managed to hastily and somewhat inelegantly bring about a “finale” of sorts to the storyline begun in the 1953 film, rather than leaving us hanging like so many other TV science fiction shows of the 1980s and 90s tended to do.

So, is War of the Worlds (the series) worth checking out? While it will likely never appear on anybody’s “Best of TV Science Fiction” lists, it’s still something of a guilty pleasure for me, flaws and all. This is due in no small part to my being a fan of pretty much all things War of the Worlds and my ongoing fascination with decades of sequels, adaptations, and new interpretations of the original novel. Though I never was able to fully get past the first season’s attempt to convince us that no one remembered the 1953 invasion, several episodes take fun dives into the lore established by the film, which is like chocolate-covered meth for a movie/TV nerd like me.

(So, it should come as no surprise that I own the series on DVD, and I still have my copy of J.M. Dillard’s novelization. The book is actually a really fun read and better than the episode it adapts, especially if you’re a fan of the film and want to see how Dillard was able to connect far more dots between the movie and the series. I also own a few fanzines devoted to the show and featuring new stories with the characters, and one of my earliest attempts at writing was a :: gasp! :: sequel to the series. It’s never been published, or seen by anyone who’s still alive to corroborate its existence, so don’t bother asking. 😀 )

Hard to believe it’s been 30 years since this show premiered. Yep, this might very well clinch it: I’m old(er).

To life immortal, yo.

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3 thoughts on “Happy 30th anniversary to War of the Worlds….the TV series?

  1. I reviewed the first season on my blog a while back. I liked season 1 in first-run for its great cast chemistry, but in retrospect, I realized it was quite badly written (largely by pseudonymous non-union writers during the ’88 strike, apparently) and had lousy production values. Season 2 was far worse, though, in large part because it killed off half that great cast — specifically, both of the non-white cast members were killed, and all of the new cast members were white. Somehow I doubt that was a coincidence.

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