“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” – HG Wells
There are few more recognisable quotes in all of science fiction history than those, penned by Herbert George Wells in 1897. The premise for his story was a simple one: what if the United Kingdom, at the time still riding high at the height of its empire, were invaded by an implacable, undefeatable foe? This was written at a time when tensions were high in Europe, with several powerful nations suspiciously eyeing each other up across their borders, their allegiances murky and their intentions unknown. The Edwardian people were very much into works of fiction surrounding the premise of their homes being forcibly occupied by a foreign power, a craze that was known as “invasion literature”. Wells, however, went one step further. Not for him the powerful masses of Germany or the tough and exotic Russians, his invaders came from the stars. Mars, to be exact.
The War of the Worlds has never been out of print and has seen several television and movie adaptations, most of which are invariably relocated to the United States and a more modern setting. Whilst I am a fan of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 movie, starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, I had always longed for a version set in the proper time period and setting. So, when the BBC announced an upcoming miniseries that was going to be just that and filmed locally to me, I couldn’t help but be bitten by the hype bug (or blasted by the hype heat ray, as the case may be.
After an unreasonably long wait, the BBC’s version of The War of the Worlds was released last winter. What did I make of it, though?
Amy – Eleanor Tomlinson
George – Rafe Spall
Ogilvy – Robert Carlyle
Frederick – Rupert Graves
Nicholas Le Prevost – Chamberlain
Susan Wooldridge – Mrs. Elphinstone
Harry Melling – The Artilleryman
In the dying days of the nineteenth century, several explosions were observed upon the surface of Mars by famed astronomer Ogilvy and his two acquaintances, George and Amy. Whilst the scientific community finds this of interest, George is too occupied trying to balance his career as a journalist and the fact that Amy, who he shares a home and bed with, is actually his mistress, leaving his estranged wife to simmer on the sidelines. This unusual relationship is affecting his career prospects and his wife refuses to sign the divorce papers, her anger driving her to refrain out of spite. As if all of this controversy wasn’t enough, things go from bad to worse when a mysterious meteorite looking object crashes into a nearby common. Whilst accompanying Ogilvy to check it out, along with a bunch of scientific community types, the meteor suddenly cracks open, turns into a floating black ball of death and starts flash frying the observers as they make a run for it, understandably causing a bit of stir in Whitehall as James, George’s politician brother, observes the order given to mobilize the army to Horsell common to deal with the situation.
In the meantime, George and Amy make it home, followed shortly by the next (and perhaps most recognisable) phase of the Martian invasion: the arrival of the Martian war machines, the Tripods. George and Amy are separated as the machines attack Woking indiscriminately, causing a huge rout of the local populace. As they are forced to go their separate ways, the military is swept aside on Horsell common by a single Tripod.
Unfortunately for those that enjoyed the novel, the story plays out pretty differently from here on out, though to be fair replacing the Martian’s cylindrical landing pod with a floaty black sphere and adding two new lead characters and period drama story about infidelity into the mix has probably got fans scratching their heads already, for the narrator in the original goes unnamed for the duration of the story and is pretty faithful to his wife, thank you very much! Interestingly, the character of George is riffing quite heavily on HG Wells himself, incorporating the author’s unhappy marriage to his cousin and career as a journalist, for instance.
Unfortunately for the die hard fans, the changes don’t stop there either. The series also introduces a bit of a secondary timeline, in which Amy is living in a post-invasion apocalyptic version of London. The infamous red weed, the means by which the Martians change earth’s atmosphere to suit themselves, has well and truly taken over and a pinkish orange fog covers the landscape as small groups of survivors cling together. It’s an intriguing premise, but not something which ever came to happen in the original story. Missing from the story are some of the books’ seminal moments, such as the battle between the army and the Tripods, the HMS Thunder Child’s heroic sacrifice and even the harvester Tripod, which snatched up humans to churn into red weed. There are certainly similar bits, but much lower key and missing the spectacle of the events as described in the original work. The only change that worked out quite fun was replacing the harvester with a Martian hopping down from his war machine to stalk a group of survivors in person, which had something of an Alien vibe as it stalked them among the ruins of a large building.
Perhaps the biggest travesty in all of this, and one that I feel is probably deserving of the scorn heaped upon it, is the ending. The closing portion of the book was an interesting twist, in that it wasn’t humanity that defeated the Martians, but instead the common cold. Thousands of years upon the earth has made us pretty immune to a lot of illnesses, but the Martian immune system just wasn’t made for it and their arrogance cost them their lives. The miniseries robs the viewer of this poignant ending (which even Hollywood kept to!) by instead having Amy and Ogilvy turn into bio-terrorists and weaponise typhoid, which they deliberately introduce to the red weed, which then in turn…. well, we never find out. It just kind of… ends. Where was the big, sad Tripod covered in crows, I ask ye?
Finally, I feel I need to address some of the criticism heaped on the character of Amy. Whilst doing some research into this, I discovered a surprising amount of negative reviews blasting the Beeb for their “woke” decision to have Amy do a lot of the narrative leg work, as the story mainly follows her misadventures and perhaps sidelines George a little. Reading the enraged comments about an Edwardian woman having the strength (or indeed right) to survive the event of this story in place of its’ original unnamed narrator really left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. What does it matter what the gender, colour of sexuality of the main character is in The War of the Worlds? I thought we were here for the Martians? (Also, it’s the 21st Century, isn’t it time to stop being so butthurt by people different to you having some equality and success?)
Plot wise, this interpretation of The War of the Worlds introduces a few new ideas and completely rewrites the main characters to mixed effect, though removing some pivotal parts of the story wasn’t the best move to keep the fans happy.
Set Design & Effects
First of all, let me get my personal attachment to this production out of the way, for I’ll gush about it to anybody who will listen. The village that stood in for Edwardian Woking in the first episode was Great Budworth, in Cheshire, Northwest England. Anyone who’s read any of my Grandad’s poems on this blog will know that this is more or less in my backyard and I’ve been to a good few events there over the years and enjoyed a few pints outside the pub in the summer too. I was even married in the church there, the same one which an inconsiderate Tripod knocks the top off during this miniseries. There is something very cool about seeing a location you know well, transformed into another place from a different time, especially when it’s for a production of one of your favourite stories.
So, how well did the BBC do in transforming Great Budworth into Edwardian Woking? Pretty damned well to be fair. Between street dressing, props, costumes and some CGI application it really does look like something from over one hundred years ago. Standing in for London is Liverpool, with St George’s Hall making a pretty visually impressive version of the Office of the Admiralty. The rest of the series was all filmed around the Liverpool area to good effect, the set designers did a good job making it all look of-the-period and convincing.
Which, I guess, brings us onto the more out of this world effects. Let’s talk about Tripods. They’re huge, three legged (obviously) and have big old heat rays for atomising annoying humans. Whilst Wells’ original versions were lurching, steampunk-esque things, complete with jerky movements and big plumes of smoke, these ones look more like the Kree warships from Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel, angular and almost as if made of stone, with a big old blue light/eyeball/heat ray dispenser on the front, like the Geth from Mass Effect. Whilst I didn’t mind this take on the ‘Pods, I do think that Spielberg’s 2005 versions looked a lot better and perhaps a little more loyal to the source material’s descriptions. The black sphere used in lieu of the Martian’s cylinder looks decent enough, though I imagine it would be quite difficult to badly render such a thing, so that’s an easy pass for the designers. What about the Martians themselves then? I was pensive as to what they would look like, as the Spielberg movie’s take on the alien invaders were a little underwhelming, something between your typical Grey and a little fleshy version of their own Tripod war machines.
The BBC version did do better with the Martian design, though it does, for some reason, still look a bit like a tripod. At least this version looks more menacing though, with sharp clawed arms and a spear-like tongue for up close human killing.
Unfortunately, the quality of the CGI isn’t the best, though I feel that it maybe isn’t as bad as some of the reviewers on iMDB have made it out to be. It’s certainly no worse than the average episode of the BBC’s big sci-fi series, Doctor Who, though if you go into this expecting Hollywood level CGI you’re going to be disappointed. Also up for a bit of a bashing are some of the physical effects (though not all of them). During the Martian’s attack on Woking, George and Amy are separated when a building explodes, blocking the road between them. The destroyed building actually looks more like a small pile of bricks and a burning log, I suspect George could have carefully climbed over it if he wanted to!But then other scenes actually quite impressed me, the Martian assault on the beach actually looked pretty impressive and believable and, when a battleship brings down one of the Tripods, the effects do give a good feeling of weight as the war machine slams into the sand.
Visuals wise, The War of the Worlds is a bit of a mixed bag, limited by, I suspect, budget constraints and possibly some limitations in what the crew could get away with in heritage protected old villages. The alien designs are decent enough, though not really very much like Wells’ visualisations which may turn off some diehard fans.
Whether you like the characters or not, there are some good performances to be seen here. First of all Eleanor Tomlinson, playing Amy, does a good job as the headstrong heroine. Early on she comes across as stubbornly clinging to happiness, living in the shadow of her relationship with a married man and all of the taboo that came with that in the Edwardian era. When the proverbial effluence hits the fan and the Martians begin their assault, she is freed from her life under fire from society and becomes something of a hero as the story plays out. Tomlinson gives an energetic and convincing performance, showing the right amount of horror and bewilderment that one would in a situation like an alien invasion whilst also playing the role of a headstrong woman who is perhaps a bit fed up of all of this male dominated, olden days nonsense.
Playing alongside her is Rafe Spall, son of the legendary Timothy and the baddie from Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom (not as bad as people make it out to be!) Spall plays George, journalist, estranged husband and brother to a powerful politician. There have been complaints that Spall’s acting is a little wooden and lacklustre in The War of the Worlds and, in a few scenes, I can certainly see where some of this vitriol may have come from. When the Martians attack Woking with their heat rays and Tripods he does just seem to stand there gormlessly among the chaos, but in other scenes his sense of emergency is far more present and the spell remains unbroken. Overall he doesn’t do a bad job at all, perhaps he was just not feeling it in some scenes, who can say?
Also worth a mention is Rupert Graves, playing George’s brother Frederick. Graves really hammers home the pomposity and arrogance of Frederick early on, almost acting like George doesn’t exist due to his affair with Amy lest it stain his own reputation. When things go wrong, however, and Frederick ends up travelling with Amy for a spell, he steps up to the plate a little more and uses his military experience to help others, including George, to survive. Frederick’s character is all shades of grey and Graves helps this to happen.
It’s also good to see Robert Carlyle again, it feels like forever since I’ve last seen this talented Glaswegian actor in anything so seeing his name in the cast list for The War of the Worlds was very exciting. Usually playing hard edged, wiry characters like Trainspotting’s Begby or the lead role in The Full Monty, Carlyle here plays the role of the astronomer Ogilvy, a far softer and more intellectual character than most of his back catalogue. Fair play to him though, he does make it work. I found Ogilvy to be interesting enough, though perhaps giving him a little more to do would have been welcome (I mean, come on, they’ve changed the story enough already!)
The rest of the cast keeps up the good work throughout, including Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter as the Artilleryman among many other talented actors. I could list every one of the here, but let’s not get bogged down, give it a watch yourself and see what you think!
Russ Davies has composed a solid and atmospheric score for this miniseries, with plenty of orchestral swellings, spacey sounds effects and slow building moments that all complement the story well. I must admit I find it hard to talk about in too much detail, there is no strong central theme like Predator, for instance, but a flowing soundscape that keeps things moving along nicely.
My only regret is that Davies didn’t incorporate some of Jeff Wayne’s famous themes from the stage show, imagine an orchestral version of The Eve of the War as the capsule comes to life and the Tripods rise from the embers!
The War of the Worlds is very much a BBC production, with all the trappings and limitations that come with it. The special effects are on a par with the likes of Doctor Who, anybody expecting Hollywood production values may be a little put out by this fact. Changes to the story might also bend the HG Wells diehard fans a little out of shape, but in my opinion most of the changes are acceptable. George and Amy aren’t a bad addition (it’s an interesting angle, to add a period love story into the mix) and the Tripod and Martian designs aren’t bad at all. Some of the narrative streamlining is fine, though removing the Thunder Child and Martian harvester scenes is a very strange decision, akin to removing the D-Day scenes from Saving Private Ryan or the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers! The soundtrack is very fitting, complements the visuals well but maybe could have done with a good central hook like The Eve of the War or Forever Autumn from the musical.
The cast are strong overall, with standout performances from Thompson and Graves, even if leading man Rafe Spall seems a little uninvested in places.
I would definitely recommend sci-fi fans to give it a watch, as there is plenty to enjoy here. But, if you’re a die hard Wells fan who was expecting the novel to come to life on the screen, you may well be disappointed also.
Overall Score: 7/10