Published a year before Joseph Conrad’s controversial, anti-colonialist work Heart of Darkness, The War of the Worlds was a clear allegory against European powers taking over weaker countries. Wells flipped that around, using alien death-machines from Mars. Screenwriter Peter Harness attempts to do the same, and more, in his new three-part BBC adaptation: achieving a frightening, harrowing sci-fi drama that can’t help but recall some unnerving, present-day realities.
The series mostly follows the amateur scientist Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson)
Harness shifts the period forward slightly to 1905 – the era of suffragettes and first-wave feminism, implicitly embraced by the amateur scientist Amy (Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson). Her partner George (Rafe Spall), a journalist at the London Evening Chronicle, leaves his loveless marriage to be with her.
They’re both shunned by the Woking community (yes, that’s right: like the novel, a large chunk of the story takes place in Surrey). Rafe struggles to find work and the scandal breaks the relationship with his brother Frederick (Rupert Graves).
But by episode two, it’s clear this is Amy’s story rather than Rafe’s. She’s not a damsel in distress or a princess or someone to be saved and protected, but neither is she unrealistic in her heroism. Both she and Rafe take solace in the friendship with the astronomer Ogilvy, played with empirical mirth by Robert Carlyle.
Ogilvy is played with empirical mirth by Robert Carlyle
Once the period drama is out the way, the series sharply turns to the spheres that have fallen from the sky, from Mars. It takes a while for those alien objects to open, but Harness uses that time wisely; building up this past but uncomfortably familiar world.
The deeply rooted attitude of British superiority spits everywhere (‘the best, most human, most honourable’), especially from the old conservative minds in charge. And it’s about to be supplanted by more advanced beings from a different, unknowable world.
At the end of episode one, James Friend’s camera tensely tilts up to a Martian tripod machine for the first time. Its bright blue eye and mechanical cry seem to pierce the screen, in a shot seared with terror – one of the strongest in TV this year.
Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson) and George (Rafe Spall) escape from alien disaster
But then, the series creeps back and forth to the post-war future, after the Martians blighted the planet. Red dust and deathly disease swamp refugee camps, evoking similar real-life images from present-day warring countries and fleeing citizens. Harness draws plenty of uncomfortable parallels between this alternative history and the current reality, especially in Britain. Here the might of the British, the supposed glory of the Empire, burns to a crisp by unplanned heat-rays.
The War of the Worlds trudges in the trauma and wallows in the sadness of a war-torn world. But it’s not all hopeless; even if, for a long while, it seems that way. Harness is bravely bleak, but there’s a microscopic potential to make things better. It’s not hard to see the present world with the same sense of hope and hopelessness.
The War of the Worlds airs on Sunday 17 November at 9pm on BBC One
|What||The War of the Worlds, BBC One review|
17 Nov 19 – 17 Nov 20, 9:00 PM – 10:00 PM
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