War of the Worlds month continues with a very unusual entry, the 1988 first run syndication TV series. This show is a direct sequel to the 1953 film, which I discussed earlier this week. The tone of the show is VERY different than that of the film. It’s so different that it barely feels like the same universe, though that’s likely more a reflection of how entertainment changed between the 50s and the 80s.
The premise of the series is that the 1953 Martian invasion happened as pictured in the original film. However, the Martians were not killed by Earth’s bacteria, but rather went into a state of suspended animation. The bodies of the aliens were stored in metal barrels at various heavily guarded locations. An accident at one of these sites unleashes radiation that revives a small group of Martians, and these break out and free more of their fellows. As setups go, this is a solid one… “the bad guys aren’t really dead” is a trope because it works.
Of course, there is an A-Team style group that forms to oppose the Martians and their plans. You’ve got a computer whiz, a single-mom biologist, a conspiracy-theorist astrophysicist, and the obligatory military liaison that doesn’t believe half of what’s going on. I’m sure you can guess which actor plays each role just by looking at the cast photo above. I’ll be totally honest: the acting is pretty bad, here, though strong guest stars like John Vernon and James Hong elevate the production from time to time.
War of the Worlds was a syndicated show, and that means the budget was not as high as a traditional network offering. While the original film had amazing special effects, with plenty of tripods and heat rays and such, this only rarely happens in the TV show. The aliens are in hiding, you see, and have also conveniently developed the ability to dominate humans with mind control, leaving their bodies in gradually decaying states. What special effects there are are mostly makeup and some truly chilling gore. The effects pushed the limits of what could be shown on non-cable TV. When mind-controlled humans melt into smoking puddles of goo, it’s revolting. The aliens are also really fond of popping their hands out of the chests of poor dominated people to put the eyes out of even poorer other people.
My first exposure to the TV series wasn’t the show itself, but the novelization of the double-length pilot episode. On a late-night grocery store run with my Dad, I took a quick look at the comics, magazines, and books and saw it. Learning that it was a sequel to the ’53 film I loved, I just had to have it! Luckily, Dad agreed. I took it to school to read that week during standardized testing. You can bet I hurried through filling in those answer bubbles to get to the next chapter!
One of the best aspects of the TV show is the deep sense of continuity with the film. One of the main characters, Dr. Harrison Blackwood, lost his parents in the original invasion, and was raised by Clayton Forrester, the scientist from the film. Ann Robinson actually returns to play Sylvia Van Buren in a few episodes! My favorite episode ties back to Orson Welles’ broadcast. In the TV show universe, the radio drama was a coverup, and a Martian scout force really did invade Grover’s Mill, New Jersey in the 30s. In the 80s, the Martians look for a buried heat ray while our heroes attempt to stop them with the assistance of several old timers who were in the local militia during the original attack. This episode was a brilliant way to honor the legacy of War of the Worlds.
I picked up the series on DVD several weeks back. Watching it now is a bit of a struggle. As I said before, the acting isn’t the best, and the lack of big sci-fi special effects is a bummer. The show leans very heavily into the horror elements, and this is where it’s at its best. There are many genuinely creepy moments. There is an overall sense of impending doom and paranoia as the insidious aliens slowly infiltrate the world. It’s quite different from the film, and while I prefer the film’s themes and tone, the TV show’s take is equally valid. But the pace is glacial, and it tends to be formulaic.
I’m about ten episodes into the show, and honestly I’m not sure whether I’ll keep watching or not. Some episodes are entertaining enough, but others just drag on and on. Many episodes feel very samey, like I’ve watched it all before, but that is hardly unusual for shows from the same time period. I’ve heard season two changes the status quo up quite a bit, so maybe I’ll hang on long enough to check it out. This TV series version of War of the Worlds isn’t what I’d call a classic, but it does have its charms, and is an interesting adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic tale.