Sometimes, marauding Martians just aren’t enough. Every iteration of H.G. Wells’s 1898 book The War of the Worlds has come bundled with deeper allegories. For Wells himself, it was a meditation on imperialism and Social Darwinism; for Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film, it was a study in parenthood; while for Jeff Wayne and his 1978 musical album, it was an excuse to use every synthesizer he owned. Be that as it may, the BBC couches its latest effort in the pre-War period, where progressivism, or lack thereof, is the flavour of the day.
This manifests itself in different ways. Journalist George (a thoughtful Rafe Spall) is desperate for a divorce, his new love Amy (an intrepid Eleanor Tomlinson) wants to progress her studies in a male-dominated world, while there is the insinuation that scientist Ogilvy (a sprightly Robert Carlyle) is gay. As a result, the opening half of this first episode feels more like a period drama than a sci-fi epic, and it is only the screaming emergence of a meteor that shatters this sense and sensibility.
By changing the setting to 1905, the impending Martian doom is reminiscent of the real-life sleepwalk into the Great War. The Stiff-Upper-Lip Gents, convinced of their natural superiority, feel unbeatable in their dominance on earth. Yet the power of this period setting is that space, at this stage, was still a complete mystery, glimpsed only in the lens of a telescope. As Wells’s opening, which is also used as an opening narration here, said of this myopia: “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.”
Something is coming, even if those in power are too preoccupied with the glories of the empire, or the threats of the Russians, to take notice. To highlight this foreboding, Russ Davies’s excellent score is riveted with the same creeping dread as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Sicario and the thundering ‘Braaahms’ of Hans Zimmer. But when the war does come, it begins in earnest, with the distinctive, terrifying tripods only emerging after 40 minutes.
Though this interpretation depicts glacial social change, there is the gnawing feeling that the show cannot afford to be quite so leisurely. With only two more episodes left in this mini-series, it seems like a tall order to marry engaging character development with, frankly, the enormity of a Martian invasion. The slightly shaky CG work may also struggle on this broader canvas. That said, the red-washed future we are given glances of looks so eerily dystopian that it may be worth sticking with the ride to see how we get there.