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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.
For the novel that inspired this series see The War of the Worlds
The two-hour premier 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.
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 Five-Man Band 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. Hot Scientist.
- Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse (Richard Chaves), Native American military leader. The Brigadier 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.
- Debbie McCullough (Rachel Blanchard, later of 7th Heaven), Suzanne's young daughter.
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 (later of Highlander), 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 Twenty Minutes Into the Future, though this never became explicit. A "second wave" of invaders arrived on Earth following the destruction of their homeworld by a "light storm". Physical possession was replaced with 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 Thirteenth 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 Fan Service-like fascination with showing the putrifying 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.
Noteworthy guest-stars included Ann Robinson, who reprised her role from the film as Sylvia Van Buren, the now-insane love interest of Clayton Forrester, and John Colicos (of Battlestar Galactica fame, see Large Ham) as the renegade alien Quinn. Not to mention 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.
- Absurdly Spacious Sewer - The Blackwood team lives in an underground maintainance 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.
- 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 mortality 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 Debbie.
- 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.
- Artist Disillusionment - Catherine Disher (Mana in the second season) has made no secret of the fact that she hates the show because of irate fans who sent her derogatory and negative letters during (and after) the production of the second season. To this day, she won't talk about the show at fan conventions or participate in DVD commentaries about the show.
- Big Brother Is Your Friend
- Body Horror / Nausea Fuel - The first season. In spades.
- Broken Badass: Iron horse after he kills a civilian decoy.
- Canada, Eh? - Shot in and around the Mississauga and Toronto in the Ontario area; many significant landmarks can be spotted during the series.
- Catch Phrase - In the first season the Morthren frequently said, "To life immortal". It's usually uttered as a facing-the-bullets one liner.
- The Cavalry - "Omega Squadron", Ironhorse's elite troops.
- 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 Black Best 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, up close and personal.
- Cyberpunk - In the second season, Earth (or, at least, America) becomes a dystopian cyberpunk world.
- Death Ray - Used by the War Machines in the pilot episode.
- 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.
- Evil Twin - Ironhorse's clone
- Executive Meddling - The second season
- 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.
- Five Rounds Rapid
- 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 bad ass martial artist despite being in a wheelchair, handing Ironhorse his ass in a sparring match.
- Harmful to Minors - The death of Debi's alien friend in the series finale causes her to snap, and fires upon the Morthren several times while still in shock.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Would you believe that the Big Bad of season two is Sweet Eddy? Or that his scientist is Mimete and her assistant Death?
- Hopeless War: On both sides, specifically season 1
- 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 Morthrai/Morthren's memories or work as weapons, and are usually destroyed/broken by the end of the episode.
- It Only Works Once
- Large Ham - Philip Akin in the pilot episode, who uses an exaggerated Jamaican accent when he talks.
- MacGyver - Both Harrison and the aliens, who can build WMDs out of anything.
- Not Himself
- 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".
- Recycled: the Series
- The Reptilians - The Martians.
- Ridiculously Human Robot - Katara, an alien from the planet Qa'tax.
- 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.
- Stuffed Into the Fridge - The Advocacy, who are brutally executed by the Morthren in the second season for no valid reason.
- Theme Tune Cameo: One of the aliens' plots from the first series was to hide hypnotic messages in a hit pop song, which was based on the theme tune.
- Trash the Set - The cottage headquarters of the Blackwood Project is blown up in the second season premiere (in a glorious model miniature Special Effect Failure).
- Unresolved Plot Thread - Quinn, a radiation-resistant alien who stayed on Earth after the first invasion; Katara, who helped the Blackwood team (and promised to bring reinforcements ); the threat of another invasion force that would be coming in five years.
- Video Phone - Made sporadic appearances in the second season.
- Waif Prophet - Sylvia Van Buren, driven insane by her mental connection to the aliens.
- What Happened to the Mouse? - Omega Squadron (Ironhorse's military unit) join the fight against the Morthrai during the Blackwood Estate assault in the second season premiere. They fight off several Morthrai, and are last seen holding the perimeter (which is empty) at the estate. Then, they suddenly disappear after it's 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.
- Blackwood's girlfriend suddenly disappears.
- When It All Began - The actual beginning of the invasion.
- Writer on Board - Frank Mancuso Jr.
- You Wouldn't Believe Me If I Told You - In the pilot episode, "The Resurrection", Harrison makes a point of saying this.