It’s hard to know what readers in 1896 would have made of the H.G. Wells novel of which Big Finish have made their latest adaptation, but if there’s an issue with Ken Bentley’s reworking, it is perhaps in that by being as faithful as it is, our familiarity with the text renders the pacing of this audio play something of a sticking point. There are a couple of scenes in the first of these two hour-long episodes that would to nineteenth-century eyes have read as thrilling developments in the narrative, but which to anyone familiar with where the story’s going, instead play out almost interminably. That said, they’re a small price to pay for another classy production in Big Finish’s Year of the Wells.
Ronald Pickup is no Marlon Brando as the eponymous disgraced scientist, and thank goodness for that. The morally ambivalent doctor is actually a relatively minor character in the story, essentially the star turn of its middle act, and Pickup infuses him with the appropriate combination of gravitas, enthusiasm and corruption to render him just the right side of improbably irresponsible. It’s an unshowy performance that nevertheless lends credulity to the extraordinary deviancy of the character’s experiments, and centres what might otherwise be a rather slight if nightmarishly fantastic affair. Heffernan and Cilento are somewhat more anonymous, quite believable but lacking in obvious charisma as the two men of science conversely in horror of and in thrall to Moreau’s work – and that’s as it should be, allowing even a subtle Moreau to hold court between them. That said, Heffernan’s Prendick is an engaging enough narrator, nudging the story along without overbearing on it, and it wouldn’t have been unwelcome to have had even more of him.
The novel, for those who don’t know, concerns itself with the philosophy of man playing God – a common enough theme among the speculative fiction of the period – and, as emphasised more prominently here, the notion of nature reasserting itself against all incursions. The unnamed island of Moreau’s occupation is filled with the blasphemous results of his surgeries, animals remodelled into the shapes of men and with a limited amount of speech and understanding. The question of the soul and its place in all of this is but briefly touched upon, the ironic twist being that it is the ungodly scientists who invoke God as sanction for their actions, but modern audiences will recognise the basic thrust of Wells’ subject as a metaphor for any number of contemporary anxieties. Like the best of Wells’ work, this transcends its time and place to encompass a greater meaning for all of us.
Both chilling and rollicking, this is another success for Big Finish.
THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / DIRECTOR: KEN BENTLEY / ADAPTED BY: KEN BENTLEY / STARRING: RONALD PICKUP, JOHN HEFFERNAN, ENZO CILENTI / RELEASE DATE: ON SALE NOW FROM BIG FINISH, ON GENERAL SALE FROM 1ST SEPTEMBER