H.G. Wells‘ The War of the Worlds is an undisputed classic of the science-fiction genre, so it seems fitting that in this so-called ‘Golden Age’ of television, the BBC have produced a three-part adaptation, courtesy of writer Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Doctor Who). With an all-star cast including Eleanor Tomlinson, Rafe Spall, Rupert Graves and Robert Carlyle, is this new adaptation any good, or should it be sent back to the red planet?
The story opens in the early 20th Century, with George (Spall) starting a new life with his lover Amy (Tomlinson), away from his wife and brother (Graves). When a meteorite crash-lands in Woking, George, Amy and their astrologist friend Oglivy (Carlyle) investigate, only to discover an object from another world. Soon, England is besieged by menacing tripods from Mars and the world must prepare for an almighty war…
Firstly, I found it quite odd that a 2019 TV series focuses so much on a ‘forbidden love’ element between a wealthy, white, heterosexual couple and, even more unusual, how much it’s designed to make you sympathise with our leads. Worryingly, there are no real stakes to this character conflict: Worst comes to worst, they live out happy lives with plenty of money in their pockets, even Romeo and Juliet had it tougher than these guys. While writer Harness explained this was, indeed, based on the life of H.G. Wells himself, as a sort of in-joke, it actually feels like a shallow attempt at audience empathy, as opposed to establishing two likeable and compelling leads. And, considering how poor the pacing of this first episode is, I could have done without this superfluous plot element.
The aforementioned pacing issues aren’t helped by frequent glimpses of what appears to be a post-apocalyptic future, which interrupts the flow of the story in favour of trying to provide a shallow sense of foreboding. In the present-day scenes, director Craig Viveros never really slows down to create a feeling of palpable tension, meaning that when the episode climaxes with the reveal of the first tripod, it falls a bit flat. Because of the lack of build-up, I never found myself on the edge of my seat, merely waiting impatiently for the Martians to come out and blow stuff up. Also, despite some clear and awkward edits to the episode, there’s not much momentum, and I’d have rather sat through a longer, better-paced episode than this clunky mess. Even when the tripods finally show up, it’s only briefly, and it’s apparent that the budget was slashed enough to limit their screen-time; a particular disappointment in what’s supposed to be a big-budget adaptation.
The tripods themselves sadly don’t look too impressive either and Viveros doesn’t really show off how menacing they are. Say what you will about Steven Spielberg‘s War of the Worlds film but his were absolutely terrifying but here they never manage that threatening presence. It could be that we’ll get to see much more of them, and their destruction of Edwardian England, in the next two episodes but the ‘Next Time’ trailer didn’t fill me with much hope.
Harness’ script is either fortunately and unfortunately exactly what you’d expect from the author of such Doctor Who episodes as ‘Kill the Moon’ and ‘The Zygon Invasion’: it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face with its themes, with frequent comments on institutional sexism, the class divide, imperialism and colonialism. This comes across somewhat ham-fisted, making Harness’ comment about ‘not being interested in writing allegories’ seem spectacularly misguided. Harness is by no means a bad writer but lacks subtlety and nuance, which is frustrating when one simply wants to escape into an Edwardian tale about Martians taking over England. He’s clearly a writer with a lot on his mind but seems to write with an emphasis on theme as opposed to character or story, which may work for some, but I personally find that this makes The War of the Worlds feel quite cliched at points.
On the plus side, the cast are uniformly excellent, the production design exquisite, the music eerie alongside cinematic cinematography. On the downside, the title sequence is spectacularly dull, the editing inconsistent and the direction, despite some strong moments, also inexplicably loses characters during big scenes. Both Tomlinson and Carlyle disappear in an elaborate and chaotic sequence for absolutely no reason, which makes the events unfolding even more confusing. To make matters worse, a good chunk of the Martians’ first attack is shot in slow-motion, which drains a lot of the tension and excitement from the sequence.
Overall, The War of the Worlds is off to a rather shaky start. There’s clearly a lot of potential in the premise, but the aforementioned issues hinder this potential in favour of making something more generic and, on this evidence, less interesting. Nevertheless, I am intrigued to watch what’s coming but it’s more in the hope that the show will improve over time. With only two episodes left though, I’m not sure if the show can stick the landing. If nothing else, The War of the Worlds is fairly watchable and has a great cast to keep your interest but maybe one that’ll benefit from the box-set, we’ll all have to wait and see…