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Series / War of the Worlds (1988)

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You may be looking for War of the Worlds (2019) or The War of the Worlds (2019), different television adaptations of The War of the Worlds (1898).
"In 1953, Earth experienced a War of the Worlds. Common bacteria stopped the aliens but it didn't kill them. Instead they lapsed into a state of deep hibernation. Now the aliens have been awakened, more terrifying than before. In 1953, the aliens tried to take over the world. Today, they're taking over our bodies."
First season opening narration from Harrison Blackwood

"There's rioting breaking out through the city. Fire is continuing to burn everywhere. Troops are shooting people. My God, I...I don't know why! There's a woman dying in front of me, and no one's helping her! There are conflicting reports about who or what started the chaos. Will someone tell me what's happening? This is madness! What is this world coming to?"
Second season opening narration showing an off-screen news reporter as the camera flies around a model night-time cityscape

War of the Worlds (1988-1990) was a television series inspired by The War of the Worlds (1898).

Based on and serving as a sequel to the 1953 movie, War of the Worlds added Cold War sensibilities and a liberal dose of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to create the prototype for alien invasion Sci-Fi in the 1990s.

The two-hour premiere retconned the ending to the George Pal movie (and, for that matter, the H. G. Wells novel), deciding that the aliens were really Not Quite Dead, but simply comatose. A terrorist attack on a storage facility exposed the alien bodies to radioactive waste, neutralizing Earth bacteria and awakening the aliens, who promptly revealed a nifty new ability: they could absorb themselves into human bodies, at least until radiation (and the fact that the host was essentially an animated corpse) caused the body to break down. The aliens were also eventually revealed to be from the planet Mor-tax 40 light-years away in Taurus, rather than Mars, as was assumed in the original movie (though never confirmed except in the prologue narration).

Since, as part of the show's gimmick, almost no one remembered the 1953 invasion, the only opposition to the alien plot were the members of the Blackwood Project, a secret military taskforce assembled to repel the alien menace. The Blackwood project was approximately a team composed of:

  • Harrison Blackwood (Jared Martin, previously of Dallas), project leader, an eccentric scientist and adopted son of the movie's Clayton Forrester. Equal parts The Spock and the male equivalent of Granola Girl.
  • Suzanne McCullough (Lynda Mason Greene), psychologist and biologist.
  • Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse (Richard Chaves), Native American military leader and Blackwood's personal character foil.
  • Norton Drake (Philip Akin, later of Highlander), The Lab Rat. As he was both black and wheelchair-bound, a Twofer Token Minority.
  • Debi McCullough (Rachel Blanchard, later of 7th Heaven), Suzanne's young daughter. Rarely involved in the action in any way until season 2, but the only major supporting character with an ongoing presence in season 1.

Taking a cue from the movie, the first season included a heavy religious allegory, with most of the individual episode titles inspired by Bible quotes.

After a season of fighting aliens who were, essentially, stand-ins for communists, the show was taken out of the hands of executive producers Sam and Greg Strangis and given to Frank Mancuso Jr., who radically retooled the show. Chavez and Akin were written out, replaced by Adrian Paul, and the world of the series was reimagined as a Cyberpunk (minus the futuristic technology) Dystopia in the midst of collapse, with the new tagline "Almost Tomorrow" usually taken to mean that the show had shifted 20 Minutes into the Future, though this never became explicit. A "second wave" of invaders, calling their planet Mor-thrai instead of Mor-tax and themselves Morthren, arrived on Earth following the destruction of their homeworld by a "light storm". Physical possession was replaced with a cloning process and, basically, everything else about the show changed. (The only remaining sign that this was meant to take place in the same universe as the original movie came in the episode "Time To Reap", when the characters traveled back in time to 1953, and in the series finale, "The Obelisk", where footage from the movie was used in a flashback montage.) The alien race was even renamed.

The Retool is generally reviled by fans, so much so that many believe Mancuso intentionally sabotaged the show in favor of one of its perceived competitors, Mancuso's own brainchild, Friday The 13th: The Series. Over the years however the second season has developed quite a few defenders.

The show's violence was substantial, starting as early as the first season. Each time an alien was killed or otherwise injured, they spent significant time focusing on excessive alien gore and an almost Fanservice-like fascination with showing the putrefying alien corpses. Think of a floor spill consisting of smoking egg whites cooked sunny side up with a side order of mucus and radiator fluid, and you get an idea of the milder forms of some of the gore factor. Being that it was a syndicated show the human gore factor wasn't particularly restrictive either, being almost R-rated in terms of human gore. It was relatively toned down during the second season, but still somehow became even darker.

Noteworthy guest-stars included Ann Robinson, who reprises her role from the film as Sylvia Van Buren, the now-insane love interest of Clayton Forrester (who became his wife and adoptive mother of Harrison), and John Colicos (of Battlestar Galactica fame, see Large Ham) as the renegade alien Quinn. Not to mention a cameo by Australian rock legend Billy Thorpe, who also provided the music for the first season.

Though the show is now mostly forgotten (for many years, the show's owners at Paramount denied that it had ever even existed), its influences can be seen in many of the series that followed, such as First Wave, The X-Files, Earth: Final Conflict and Dark Skies.

In June, 2005, no fewer than three new and unrelated feature films based on The War Of The Worlds were released. No official ties to the TV series were made, though it has been noted that the poster for the Tom Cruise version bears a marked similarity to the first season logo. The show was also (finally) released on DVD, with the second and final season put out five years after the first season set.

The show now has a recap page.

This series provides examples of:

  • Absurdly-Spacious Sewer: The Blackwood team lives in an underground maintenance system for the duration of the second season. In one episode, Harrison and Suzanne investigate a water blockage in a sewer large enough for them to stand in.
  • Action Survivor: Harrison Blackwood, who goes through most of the entire first season stopping aliens without using any actual fighting skills.
  • Alien Blood: Both the Mortaxans and the Morthrens bleed green, with Morthren blood being florescent.
  • Ambiguous Ending: in the final episode the humans and aliens broker a peace agreement between them. Whilst there are at least 2 other potential threats out there (a possible second alien fleet and Q'tara) for now humanity is safe and our heroes can enjoy their victory.
  • Anyone Can Die: The show made a point of killing off or stuffing supporting characters in shocking and increasingly gruesome ways to drive home the fact that no one was safe. If you were anyone other than a series regular your survival rate was low. A lot of guest stars were BRUTALLY (and unceremoniously) killed.
    • Most notably, Ironhorse and Drake both die in the second-season premiere when the clone Ironhorse brutally kills Drake before being downed by the real Ironhorse, who shoots himself in the head to prevent the clone from killing Debi.
  • Anti-Hero Substitute: John Kincaid replaces Col. Ironhorse. He's also an army guy but there's some bad history between him and the Colonel. Kincaid was more of a mercenary and not the spit and polish officer that his former SO was. Being much more informal this allowed Kincaid to be closer to Blackwood, Suzanna, and Debi.
  • An Arm and a Leg:
    • The third episode of season 1 involved a scene where some disguised aliens participate in a hockey match, which quickly goes south when one unlucky player has his arm torn clean off by an alien before the latter of whom is shot dead.
    • Later on in an episode involving an alien hybrid, there's a scene where a nurse is brutally torn asunder by the hybrid in explicit detail.
  • Asshole Victim: The gang of terrorists who inadvertently let the aliens loose in the pilot episode and get possessed by them.
  • Big Bad: Malzor, who is a Morthren that orchestrated the 1953 invasion, thus making him the Greater-Scope Villain of the movie before the series came out.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The series ends with the team victorious, Malzor defeated and the Morthren intending to destroy their base, but the victory came at a cost (many lives, including the death of Ceeto, Debi's Morthren friend).
  • Body Horror: The first season. In spades.
  • Broken Aesop: The second-season episode "Synthetic Love" tries to paint the owner of a pharmaceutical company, Laporte, as an evil man for wanting to accept a deal with the obviously-shady Malzor, who wants to give him a new experimental drug because the former is concerned with big profits (to the point that he would sell out his own daughter for it). However, despite the episode's message that Drugs Are Bad, everything else shows that Laporte is quite possibly the least evil businessman in the series, as he owns and operates his own rehab centres, runs his business at a constant loss, and is happy to support a drug that would cure personality disorders and allow people to (albeit temporarily) escape the hellish Crapsack World.
  • Broken Badass: Ironhorse after he kills a civilian hostage.
  • Canada, Eh?: Shot in and around Mississauga and Toronto in the Ontario area. Many significant landmarks can be spotted during the series, including Toronto and Mississauga City Hall, the Lakeview Generating Plant (the Morthren base for the entirety of the second season) and the Ontario Place Cinesphere pavillion.
  • Catchphrase: In the first season the Mor-taxians frequently said "To life immortal", usually as a "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner.
  • The Cavalry: "Omega Squad", Ironhorse's elite troops.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: The first season had more explicit gore, but it also had more humor and had a brighter, cheerful mood. The main characters were allowed personality quirks and banter. In the cyberpunk second season, all of the humor and banter vanished, and most of the season's episodes were set at nighttime. The opening credits for the first season followed the standard fare of most adventure shows of The '80s, an upbeat theme and mood. This was not the case in the second season, where the opening credits was accompanied with a fly-through of the corridors of an abandoned, dilapidated building, accompanied by news bits of escalating violence and crime. It ends by showing us that this abandoned building is a city hall building in front of which is a sculpture of what appears to be the Spirit of 76. In a dramatic, symbolic fashion, the sculpture topples over and crumbles.
  • Characterization Marches On: By the second season, Harrison Blackwood had lost touch with his kooky pacifist ways and completely dispensed with the tuning fork and other nutty professor hijinks. He also grew Perma-Stubble and had no reservations about carrying guns. The friction between him and Ironhorse of the first season was not transferred to Kincaid (the second season's army guy). The loss of Blackwood's comedic Token Black Friend (Norton) meant that he had no comedic partner in the second season.
  • Chest Burster: How the disguised aliens in the first season attack other people, via a third arm that springs out of their chests.
  • Child Soldier: The second season sees Debi move more towards this, as she's often conscripted into the group's plans (despite the fact that she's only 13) and is forced to arm herself with a gun at several points. This finally culminates in the series finale, when she takes part in the group's raid on the Morthren base and shoots Malzor herself.
  • Clip Show: The first season episode "The Last Supper".
  • Crapsack World: The 20 Minutes into the Future aesthetic in the second season runs smackdab into this, with the world having devolved into lawlessness, near-apocalyptic conditions, and constant shortages in food, water and supplies. There are attempts to explain what happened in the interim between seasons ("Synthetic Love" claims that the world's problems can be traced to The War On Drugs), though previous episodes also show that the world's soil is infertile, exacerbating the problems).
  • Creepy Monotone: How the aliens frequently sound when they're impersonating humans, though they're capable of speaking more naturally if they need to.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Midway through the second season, the Morthren invent a drug called "Crevulax", which is intended to fix personality disorders and cause instant euphoria in those who use it (not to mention, it's made from human brains). Even worse, the president of a pharmaceutical company (that is, the people that are seemingly responsible for turning Earth into a Crapsack World via the legalization of drugs) agrees to fund and distribute the drug and share in the profits. Despite this, the plan falls apart when Malzor (instead of keeping the true nature of the drug secret) leaks its true nature to the press in a bid to destroy the company, costing the Morthren a potential way to make money with a breakthrough product.
  • Cyberpunk: In the second season, Earth (or, at least, America) becomes a dystopian cyberpunk world.
  • Death of a Child: Multiple episodes in the second season show children or young teens being stabbed, shot, tortured to death and (in at least one case) used as Human Resources for a Morthren drug.
  • Death Ray: Used by the War Machines in the pilot episode.
  • Diegetic Soundtrack Usage: One of the aliens' plots from the first series was to hide hypnotic messages in a hit pop song, which was a variation on the end title music.
  • Downer Ending: Some episodes of both seasons had some very dark and disturbing endings.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: In the second season premiere, Norton is shot multiple times by the clone Ironhorse, then shot again when he manages to activate a panic button. Ironhorse is cloned, left behind in a weakened state to be used as a power supply for his clone, and then decides to shoot himself in the head to take care of the clone. Then, their bodies are blown to smithereens in their old residence.
  • Dwindling Party: Interestingly, this occurs to both sets of villains in the series.
    • By the time the second-season premiere begins, Malzor notes that the Mor-Tax have been reduced to their senior leadership (the Advocacy) and a handful of soldiers, having been thoroughly routed by the Blackwood Project over the intervening time between seasons.
    • In the series finale, Malzor himself notes that the Morthren have been reduced to only 40 members, a shell of what they were when they arrive on the planet. By the end of the episode, that number drops to 36, with Mana telling the remaining members that they'll have to find a way to integrate with society.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: In one episode, Debi gets a dog just so it can bark at an alien infiltrator. This doesn't go well for the dog — the infiltrator promptly kills it and hides the body.
  • Evil Twin: Ironhorse's clone in the second season premiere, who nearly destroys the Blackwood Project himself.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Many episodes end in a standstill, with the Blackwood team only being able to stop an immediate threat, instead of stopping the aliens outright. This is likely also why the Advocacy was executed by the Morthren.
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence: For a show that ran in syndication, the show was brutal, showcasing all manner of shocking deaths and melting aliens.
  • Fantastic Drug: The crystal in "The Second Seal" and the Mind-Control Music in "Choirs of Angels". Harrison suffers a painful withdrawal from the latter.
  • Fantastic Medicinal Bodily Product: In one episode, the aliens reduced a number of human brains into a drop of fluid that cured them of the flu.
  • Forgotten Phlebotinum: In the first season Episode "Vengeance is Mine", the aliens want to get their grubby tentacles on a lot of rubies so they can build some laser guns. They decide that stealing them would draw too much attention, so they decide to buy them by stealing money, instead of using their well-established ability to simply take someone over to get what they want.
  • Genius Cripple: In the first season, the wheelchair-bound Norton Drake is often portrayed as the super-genius of the main cast.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: In the first season, an alien goes to a hair salon and promptly sets to work cutting a woman's scalp off with a handheld saw. The camera focuses on the alien as her blood splashes across his face.
  • Handicapped Badass: Norton, who is a badass martial artist despite being in a wheelchair, handing Ironhorse his ass in a sparring match.
  • Harmful to Minors: The death of Ceeto in the series finale causes Debi to snap, and fires upon Malzor several times while still in shock.
  • Hopeless War: On both sides, specifically in Season 1.
    • For all the attempts the Blackwood Project make to impede the Mor-Tax, several episodes show that their plans haven't been thwarted at all. This is then subverted in the Season 2 premiere, where it's explained that the team's attacks have been so effective that the Mor-Tax have become a Dwindling Party with no influence, who haven't been able to conduct an attack at months.
    • The "proxy war" between the Blackwood team and the Mor-Tax in Season 1 eventually becomes a moot point anyway, as the world is driven to a near-collapse state due to a combination of factors, including mass drug legalization, a tanking economy, failing government structures and a dismal environment.
  • Hypocrite: In the second season episode "Breeding Ground", Dr. Gestaine attempts to justify his actions to Blackwood and Kincaid by saying that he's always taken the moral high-ground, and is fighting a "war against murder, disease and despair". This happens after he forcibly impregnates an elderly woman with alien spores against her will and uses her to bear a child.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: The first-season episode titles are taken from Bible quotes. This was abandoned in the second season.
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: Several alien devices are stolen by the Blackwood Project during the course of the series. These devices usually allow them to access the Mor-taxians/Morthren's memories or work as weapons, and are usually destroyed/broken by the end of the episode.
  • Intoxication Ensues: In one episode Blackwood and McCullough accidentally get zapped by an alien device that causes them to lose their inhibitions.
  • Large Ham: Philip Akin in the pilot episode, who uses an exaggerated Jamaican accent when he talks. (In fact, all his pilot dialogue is overdubbed, suggesting he performed it with a Jamaican accent and was then asked to re-record it with an American accent, which still sounds oddly semi-Jamaican due to the cadence.)
  • Magic Floppy Disk: An alien infiltrator in the first season episode "Among the Philistines" is able to fit everything the Blackwood Project knows about the aliens on a single 5" Floppy disc. Which then, a couple of scenes later, has somehow turned into a CD-Rom.
  • MacGyvering: Both Harrison and the aliens, who can build WMDs out of anything.
  • Mythology Gag: A war machine discovered buried for thousands of years is described as a more archaic model of the infamous manta-ray shaped craft in the 1953 film. Like the fighting mecha from the original H. G. Wells, it has three physical legs to be a proper tripod.
  • Negative Continuity:
    • Both the second ("No Direction Home") and third ("Doomsday") episodes of the series deal primarily with the aliens attempting to convert religious figures to their cause by cloning them and using said clones to influence the population. Despite the fact that "Doomsday" takes place after the previous episode, it runs into massive problems — the aliens' copy of the Bible changes from one episode to the next, Malzor (the leader of the Morthren) seems to forget that he was told what the Bible was in the previous episode, Ardix (a Morthren scientist) runs into Harrison and Suzanne in-person and forgets that he saw them on a Morthren engram machine before, and the Morthren all collectively forget that they just tried the same abduction plot shortly before this (which backfired spectacularly on them). This may be mollified by the knowledge that the airing order for the early episodes was changed, with the fourth episode ("Terminal Rock") intended to be the original third one aired.
    • Notably, Ardix sees Blackwood no less than three times (two in person, once on a hologram) in the first six episodes alone, but either forgets or is unwilling to learn his identity, even after seeing him at the scene of several plans they try to enact.
    • In "The Defector", the Morthren leadership (who think imperfection is a sin) attempt to kill one of their scientists who has been scarred by an exploding computer, only for him to turn on them and start working with the heroes instead. Come the next episode, "Time to Reap", it's revealed that the Morthren have a machine that's capable of giving the Morthren plastic surgery and changing their faces, thus calling into question why they didn't think to use it.
  • Not Himself
  • Oh, Crap!: In the pilot, Blackwood and his team, having just dealt with a merged Akin, suddenly hear an all-too-familiar noise coming from the three war machines in the warehouse as the sensor arms start to rise... and do the only logical thing. It's Run or Die, pursued by the war machines and their newly merged human/alien hybrid crews, a fusillade of alien weaponry landing all around them...
  • Opening Narration: Harrison describes the premise of the series in the first season; in the second, a radio news report talking about death and destruction plays over footage of a destroyed city.
  • Plausible Deniability: The government convinced the population before the events of the series that the 1953 attacks were a case of "mass hysteria".
  • Plot Armor:
    • The Blackwood team, big-time, in the pilot. 1-Dimensional Thinking prevails as the team flees the newly activated war machines. Despite the fact that they never missed in the 1953 movie, the new hybrid crews apparently went to the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy.
    • Lampshaded in the novelization of the pilot, when it's explained that the aliens piloting the ships are already succumbing to radiation sickness affecting their performance. This suggest that their tactics (trying to shoot the trio of main characters, who are otherwise running in a straight line away from them) wasn't just due to Plot Armor, but had an in-universe reason.
    • In one episode, the aliens catch Suzanne alone, pretending to be a brainwashed bystander. One alien suggests they kill her, and another that they absorb her body. The scene then cuts to the rest of the team running in to find the aliens gone and Suzanne unharmed, with no explanation given why the aliens left her alone.
  • Puppeteer Parasite: The Mor-taxans are this, and this is how they manage to infiltrate society. They can possess people by liquifying thmselves, and then seep their way into their victim's body before taking control of the host's cells. They can also absorb the host's memories this way. The only downside is that due to the radiation they have to treat themselves with as to not get ill again, their host bodies gradaully break down over time, so they have to keep replacing them every 24 hours. This makes them more suspicous to onlookers as their time runs out.
  • Ridiculously Human Robot: Q'tara, a "Synth" from the planet Qar'to. Moved like a cross between a Power Ranger and a Shields and Yarnell robot sketch.
  • Rock Beats Laser: The aliens, despite being centuries ahead of humans technologically, are thwarted repeatedly, once even by apparent shamanistic magic, when they attempt to reactivate a very old war machine which more closely resembled the tripod machines described by H.G. Wells in the original novel than the flying manta ray designs seen earlier.
  • Rule of Three: Following from the film it's sequelizing. The Morthren have three arms in their native form, they have only one eye with three distinct lobes, the Advocacy is made up of three members, three crew are required to operate a war machine, and the novelization of the pilot episode indicates they even have three genders (a male to fertilize an egg, a female to produce an egg, and a "carrier" to bring the fetus to term — a male and female having sex with no carrier present, thus no chance of reproduction, is scandalous).
  • Scary Dogmatic Aliens: In the first season, it was aliens as communists. In the second season, the Morthren became thinly-veiled versions of Nazis, mixed with religious fundamentalism.
  • Stranded Invader: During the 1953 invasion, an alien discovered early that it could meld into a human body, and took over a man named Quinn, adopting his identity. Quinn has been merged with a human for so long that he cannot leave the way other aliens can, and finds himself too adapted to a human lifestyle to want to aid his fellow aliens in completing their invasion, frequently aiding our heroes in fighting them, though usually for his own ends.
  • Time Skip: Between the first and second season. The second-season premiere suggests that only months have passed between the ending of "The Angel of Death" and "The Second Wave", while "Synthetic Love" suggests that four years have passed between seasons.
  • Time Travel: In "A Time to Reap," when Malzor (and soon after, Harrison and Kincaid) travel back to shortly after the events of the 1953 film in order to stop the former from delivering bacteria-resistent drugs to the surviving aliens.
  • Trash the Set: The cottage headquarters of the Blackwood Project is blown up in the second season premiere (in a glorious model miniature explosion).
  • Video Phone: Made sporadic appearances in the second season.
  • Waif Prophet: Sylvia Van Buren, driven insane by her mental connection to the aliens.
  • Wham Episode: The second-season premiere functionally turns the entire premise of the show on its head. Earth has become a Crapsack World. The government, environment and economy have functionally collapsed, with General Wilson said to be missing and presumed dead. Half the main characters die by the episode's end, including Ironhorse, Norton and the entirety of Omega Squad. The Blackwood Estate is blown up, while the surviving characters (including Debi, who suffers a Heroic BSoD through the next episode) are left to figure out how to pick up the pieces, with only a Mildly Military teammate (Kincaid) to help them.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Blackwood's girlfriend suddenly disappears midway through the pilot episode. Her entire subplot seemed tacked on as filler, as it wasn't referenced at any other point in the pilot.
    • Q'tara explains at the end of "The Angel of Death" that she would be returning within a year with a backup force of fellow androids to help the Blackwood Project. She never appears again.
    • Omega Squadron (Ironhorse's military unit) joins the fight against the Morthren during the Blackwood Estate assault in the second season premiere. They fight off several Morthren, and at least one soldier (who is shown to have been injured) is seen killing the last two enemies before the real Ironhorse goes inside. Then, they suddenly disappear after the house is destroyed, and are never seen or referenced again. Considering they were loyal to Ironhorse and Kincaid, they end up being no more than Red Shirts.
    • In the second season episode "Doomsday", our heroes set an explosive with a timer on a blockage in the city water supply, which we never see go off and is never mentioned again.
    • Quinn, a radiation-resistant alien who was stranded on Earth after the first invasion; Q'tara, who helped the Blackwood team and promised to bring reinforcements (actually intending to preserve humanity as a food source ); the threat of another invasion force that would be coming in five years; the fate of an alien/human hybrid newborn taken by aliens in the episode "Unto Us A Child Is Born."
  • When It All Began: The actual beginning of the invasion.
  • Writer on Board: Frank Mancuso Jr., who took over production at the beginning of the second season and promptly set about changing many aspects of the story and characters to fit a newly-revealed Crapsack World.
  • You Have Failed Me: The Advocacy does this constantly.
  • You Wouldn't Believe Me If I Told You: In the pilot episode, "The Resurrection", Harrison makes a point of saying this.