There is nothing quite like the catnip of public domain IPs for television and movies to plunder. H.G. Wells’ 1898 scifi novel War of the Worlds — made most popular by the infamous 1938 radio drama — is one such property that’s been regurgitated so many times I’ve lost count. Of the most famous is the 1953 Academy Award-winning film adaptation, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 attempt, and a current series that’s been running on TV since 2019.
Yet the most impactful upon my life was one that most of pop culture’s seem to have forgotten: a two-season series that debuted in 1988. I’ll never forget the Saturday I was hanging out at my friend’s house and his dad turned on the pilot episode. It was far darker and gorier than most anything I’d seen on network TV, and poor little Justin’s psyche fled screaming the first time some actor got his arm ripped off and another possessed. Oh, and there were eye gougings. 1988, people!
My memory of this wasn’t faulty; War of the Worlds became slightly notorious for how gruesome and icky it was. This was largely due to the shift of its premise. Obviously, the television studio didn’t have the budget to show large-scale war machines tromping all over cities and blasting people with death lasers. So the idea was to take the threat to a more personal level — with body horror.
So the concept of War of the Worlds is that this is a sequel of sorts to the 1953 movie. The aliens were defeated at the end, but not terminally so. Instead, their bodies went into stasis and were locked away by the government instead out outright killed. This seems like it was for the sole purpose of setting up a potential alien comeback, which indeed happens once a terrorist group plunders an alien storage facility and frees the Mor-Tax.
Oh, and due “collective amnesia,” virtually nobody on earth remembers the invasion back in the ’50s. This is the biggest plot hole you’ll ever see in your life, so bring the family, take pictures, and make a day of it.
Now awake but without giant death machines, the Mor-Tax make it their mission to infiltrate humanity and overthrow the world in a few years to make room for incoming alien colonists. They also have to figure out a way to combat the germs that proved their downfall in the movie.
The aliens’ are able, somehow, to physically inhabit a human host’s body like a parasite, controlling them for a short time until the radiation from the Mor-Tax cause the body to goop itself apart.
Combating the stealthy alien menace is the Blackwood team, a group of scientists, soldiers, hackers, and even aliens devoted to rooting out the Mor-Tax. It was almost a pathetically small group for such a large task, but such are these types of TV shows.
Things got super-crazy (but not in a good way) in the second season. The Mor-Tax are outright slaughtered by ANOTHER alien group — the Morthren — from their planet. The Morthren then make a lot more headway in the whole “world domination” department, with the whole season a race to victory or defeat for both sides. The show ended in 1990 with a climax and conclusion of sorts, wrapping up the saga with a bittersweet win for humanity.
It was a very weird, freaky, and wildly violent show for television in the ’80s. Maybe we didn’t really need a hockey player have his arm ripped off for all to see, but why else would we remember this show? The amazing writing? The lead actors, Captain Whats-his-name and Mistress You-know-that-lady?
Perhaps War of the Worlds is best seen as a prototype of The X-Files, what with its mixture of conspiracy, horror, scifi, and government coverups. In that light, it deserves some recognition.