REVIEWED: ALL EPISODES | WHERE TO WATCH: BBC IPLAYER
The grandfather of all science fiction invasion stories and an omnipotent presence in genre entertainment for over 100 years, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds has a strange history of adaptations. Ranging from Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast to Jeff Wayne’s rollicking 1978 musical, new takes on Wells’ novel have either been unable or unwilling to stick closely with his original formula. In that regard, not much has changed with the BBC’s long-awaited take on the story (one of two new adaptations released this year, the other produced by Fox and StudioCanal). It just about manages to spin a new relevance on Wells’ original ideas and reinvent the story in some creative ways.
It is the classic story of Martian invasion, retold with some new characters and more-or-less abandoning the book’s first-person narration. The pacing is peculiar, the instantaneous start of the novel abandoned in favour of a slower prologue. This build-up is given too heavy a focus, resulting in a painfully slow feel even when things start to take off. The tripods go down under fire too easily - somewhat undermining the idea that warfare and conquest are the cause of the invasion, rather than the solution - and never make the desired impact. There are the briefest morsels of all-out action, and then nothing, the backstories of characters taking too much time away from the war in The War of the Worlds.
But the characters grow as Peter Harness’ screenplay reels off the scenes, especially Eleanor Tomlinson’s Amy. Right from the word go, where she opens the show with a recital of the classic monologue, she takes a central role. Swapping between the Edwardian era and a post-apocalyptic future plays out Amy’s journey piece by piece, revelation by revelation. Harness’ script reaches its peak towards the end when Amy’s experiences become increasingly defining, a stand-off with the aliens paving the way for a beautifully contemplative finale to the series.
The plot is given a new relevance for the 21st century. The themes of colonialism and the imperialist mindset remain, now coupled with a critique of nationalistic bullishness and an attitude of “love thy country” meant to resolve all problems - as opposed to, you know, the facts. The red scarring of the earth that remains following the invasion points to a world soaked in blood due to warfare and blind destruction, again with some stark parallels inviting themselves to be made. Personifying this idea is Rupert Graves’ government minister and his cronies, who believe that the global wave of Rule Britannia will send those Martian rascals packing. It doesn’t. And without the risk of spoiling a 100+ year old story, the demise of the Martians is far more humbling. The trouble is it feels like it takes until the final episode for all of this to become clear, and when it does it lacks the subtlety that fans of the novel could admire.
The final episode has some real moments of beauty, and a more claustrophobic haunted house approach that works well, but the big issue for The War of the Worlds is that it is too underwhelming. The scale of the destruction and the sense of a global invasion is very rarely captured. The story is executed with a slow burn when it could really do with lighting it up more often, even scenes of great promise flatlining too soon. Wells’ novel is immeasurably rich and memorable upon first reading. By comparison, this latest attempt at reviving the show falters. And although Tomlinson deserves great praise for her leading turn, it is not quite enough.