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Death Slot: The Wars of ‘The War of The Worlds’

October 30th, 1938 was the date that changed the world.

Orson Welles broadcast his now legendary radio invasion of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey… “shocking” the world. Sure the panic was far far smaller than the newspapers at the time related but this broadcast still changed all of media. It showed that a well crafted piece of fiction, told in a realistic way, could genuinely effect people and their feelings.

While Welles broadcast may have been the most famous iteration of H.G. Wells (no relation) 1898 novel, The War of The Worlds, it was hardly the only one. Besides numerous other radio remakes of the Welles version (in 1968 and 1978 most famously) there was the 1953 Byron Haskin/George Pal movie and even the disastrous 2005 Steven Spielberg version not to mention various Direct to Video pieces of garbage (with the source book being in the public domain anyone can make this book into a movie).

Among all of that who remembers there was a 2 season television series in 1988 (the 50th Anniversary of the Welles broadcast)?

Paramount had produced the 1953 movie and with the big anniversary coming up they decided it was time to make a sequel to the film… as a television series. Why television in 1988 when in the 1970’s producer of the 1953 version George Pal had failed to get a TV series off the ground? The tail end of the First Run Syndication boom gave them the opportunity that did not exist in the 1970’s.

In 1983 the pilot episode of Tales From The Darkside, airing Halloween weekend, beat out 2 of the 3 major networks in ratings with only 40% coverage of the country covered. This was unprecedented. See with First Run Syndication a program bypasses a network and is sold directly to (usually) independent TV stations allowing them to have original programming.

What followed in the wake of that Tales From The Darkside pilot was a new wave of programming; Friday The 13th The Series, Freddys Nightmares, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Fame, The Munsters Today, Superboy and War of the Worlds were just part of a long list of TV series made to be sold direct to independent TV stations bypassing the network system entirely.

Paramount jumped full bore into the First Run Syndication market with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Friday The 13th The Series and War Of The Worlds. They were so confident that First Run Syndication was the next big thing that a few yeas later they attempted to create a new ad-hock network based off of it and eventually a real one with UPN in 1995. Universal and Paramount tested the waters with a mini-network of 3 shows meant to see if this kind of thing could operate as a kind of floating channel during this period after the culling of wave one of First Run Syndication.

She-Wolf Of London (later retitled to Love And Curses), They Came From Outer Space and Shades Of LA were sold as a package to stations under the banner of “Hollywood Premiere Network”. Before this though Paramount had the 3 from the late 1980’s and War Of The Worlds happened to be the one that didn’t work.

Star Trek: The Next Generation would obviously go on to be a legend and I have to already gone into what happened with Friday the 13th The Series.

What about War Of The Worlds though?

This being the 50th anniversary of the famous broadcast, Paramount went all out with this. It was an official sequel to the movie showing us what happened in the aftermath of that fateful and failed invasion. Unfortunately things did not go as planned with the show.

Created by network television veteran Greg Strangis, War Of The Worlds was meant to push science fiction television in terms of content and storytelling. 1988 was the famous Writer’s Guild Strike though and this derailed everything.

After the two-hour pilot was made, the strike hit dead on. The next six episodes were shot with first draft scripts as nothing more could be written and man you can tell. Sloppy stories and complete illogical plots more or less doomed the series from the get go.

The show was meant to be the adventures of Harrison Blackwood (a survivor of the 1953 invasion) who, as an adult, uncovers the fact that the aliens didn’t actually die but went into a kind of super hibernation and are now awakening. Teamed up with biologist Suzanne McCullough, computer expert Norton Drake and team leader Colonel Paul Ironhorse the “Blackwood Project” would attempt to find and stop the aliens before the public could become aware of them.

That was what the show was MEANT to be. In reality, the bulk of the first season was aimless (due to the Writer’s Strike) and directionless with stand alone episodes many of which contradicted one another in terms of continuity from week to week. After the writers strike things would even out but man those early Season One episodes were rough. Each week the aliens would take over a human’s body, try a plan to take over the world and be thwarted. The only thing that was good were the characters themselves.

Season One starred Jared Martin as Harrison Blackwood, Lynda Mason Green as Suzanne McCullough, Philip Akin as Norton Drake and Richard Chaves as Colonel Paul Ironhorse with Rachel Blanchard as a regular as well.

The show was not without it’s controversies (aside from the script issues) as it being First Run Syndication it was far looser with standards and practices. The series was intensely gory with melting bodies, exploding heads and gruesome wounds regularly featured alongside copious amounts of female skin just this side of softcore porn.

The first season took place in contemporary 1988 and was “reality” based but when Season Two came around… everything changed.

The ratings for Season One were not even close that of the other Paramount shows, so the highers up ordered a complete overhaul for Season Two.

Now titled “The Second Invasion” it took place at an unnamed time in the future where America has become a rundown cyberpunk wasteland of ruin and decay. This abrupt change is never explained, nor is the Season One cliffhanger ever dealt with. A new wave of aliens comes down to replace the season 1 set who it turned out were a failed first wave. The Blackwood Project is now facing issues within the government and in the Season Two premiere Ironhorse and Drake are killed, scattering the team as fugitives due to the new aliens placing a clone in charge of the government. Adrian Paul joins as the new military expert John Kincaid and Denis Forest and Catherine Disher are the main new aliens.

The second season is very, very dark. Literally and figuratively. The world has gone to shit and the aliens capitalize on this. The big change though this season is continuity. The show is pretty much serialized at this point with only a few stand alone episodes. It could be reasoned that Season Two was trying to ape Max Headroom in terms of look, and there is merit to that claim especially with director Francis Delia helming many episodes of both series.  In fact, the two series sharing more than one director in common.

Season Two also was a tad ahead of it’s time in a few ways. The internet was a regular feature on the show and in reality was still pretty much scifi to use in the real world… a political scandal in a Season Two very much mirrored one that would happen in the real world a year later as well.

In Season Two it seemed as if the producers chose to use the stories to make points about the world outside the main narrative… rather using that narrative to tell the stories. Many episodes in this season use the characters as supporting cast to rail against or expose some social ill.

Subliminal messages, mind control through the media, police corruption, Détente, drug legalization, embryo selling, marginalization of farmers and so on. In many of these episodes the Blackwood team and the aliens would take a backseat to an almost anthology style show with them as the connecting pieces.

Alas, Season Two’s ratings dropped even more and the show was cancelled after only 20 episodes with a rushed and frankly bullshit finale. Many Season One fans passionately hate Season Two for the bloodbath killing of Ironhorse and Drake and for departing so far from the shows’ initial path, but I happen to like Season Two even more than Season One.

Alongside some great genre directors such as Armand Mastroianni many notable guest faces appeared over the 2 seasons. Ann Robinson reprised her role as Sylvia van Buren from the 1953 film for one. Other familiar faces included John Colicos, John Vernon, Patrick Macnee, Colm Feore, James Hong and Mia Kirshner.

Here is a rundown of some Season Two episodes and pay attention to the narration… both Robert Ridgley (Thundarr) and Peter Cullen narrate these.


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