The War of the Worlds review – doom, dystopia and a dash of Downton | Television & radio


Prior to its debut, there was some grumbling that this latest adaptation of The War of the Worlds (BBC One) would be a “woke” revision of the story, taking liberties with HG Wells’ source material to promote newfangled ideas like the existence of women and gay people. Besides, what better time to produce a drama about the end of the world as we know it than this? You can’t move for contemporary parallels: war, the climate crisis, an authoritarian insistence that all will be well despite copious evidence to the contrary. This tale of an alien invasion and the mass destruction of humanity will do little for the sense of dread that seems ever-present and pressing, but it does put on a jolly good show.

We know this will be a stylish take on The War of the Worlds from the off. Its opening credits are very “American prestige drama”, with archive military footage spliced with clips of parasites at work, all scratched and screwed up. While there have been notable changes to the story, it is hard to imagine any Wells purists being upset with what the writer/executive producer Peter Harness has done. The action has been shifted from the Victorian to the Edwardian era, and the unnamed narrator now has a name, George, who has in fact handed over narration duties to his partner, Amy, played by Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson. Despite bits of sculpting here and there, Harness is not ripping up the novel and starting again. This War of the Worlds is thoroughly and entirely respectful.

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It is also very respectable, which makes it a solid, reliable adaptation rather than an earth-shattering reimagining. For the first half an hour, save a few booms and ominous-looking flares in the area of Mars, this is positioned as a slow-burn period drama mostly concerned with the personal lives of its protagonists. We creep towards apocalyptic disaster by way of a Downton Abbey-esque subplot involving our two dashing leads. George (Rafe Spall, shocked and awed) is living in sin with Amy, which is obvious because they can barely keep their hands off each other, and therefore have clearly not spent the past decade arguing over whose turn it is to take out the dustbins. As a result of George still being married – to his cousin, no less – he is living in exile with Amy in Woking, which puts me in mind of the classic line given to Virginia Woolf in The Hours: “If it is Richmond or death, I choose death.”

They are “pariahs”, as Amy tells their new friend Ogilvy (a sprightly, twinkly Robert Carlyle), who hints that he is also a pariah, though he does not have time to tell them why as the alien invasion has been dropping hints at its arrival. This show is rarely subtle. George and Amy have a conversation about how they will survive financially if George is driven out of his newspaper job. They have her father’s money, says Amy, which George deems “not very progressive”. “It’s perfectly progressive. I don’t need to be kept,” Amy shoots back. Every time we see George and Amy being shut out of polite society because of their relationship, there is a looming sense of Perspective lurking just behind them. See, Edwardians! Love is love, particularly when the Martians are about to unload their giant spinning orb of flames on to the population of Woking.

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But when the Downton flourishes turn into Doctor Who, it kicks into life. As soon as that “shooting star” begins to crack like a rotten egg, all the classier elements that have been slowly established come together as a convincing whole. The score is tense and driving. The Tripods are scary, and there is no skimping on the scale of the catastrophe. Pleasingly, there are plenty of moments of humiliation for the old guard, whose arrogant belief in racial superiority makes their imminent demise more satisfying than tragic. Later, we see a wall of notes and photographs left behind by people desperate to find their loved ones; it is the most moving moment in the episode, given that it is an all-too-familiar sight today.

The only issue for me was to do with the lack of urgency. In addition to the slow start – fine for a six- or eight-parter, but too indulgent when there are only three episodes – it kept jumping to what turn out to be flash-forwards. These dusty red hellscapes left me unsure where we were, or when or with whom, until the final moments. I think that was the point – to make the audience do a bit of work, and to ramp up the tension – but it interrupted the flow of doom. And if there’s one thing we all want from a weekend drama, surely, it is an uninterrupted flow of doom.



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