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War of the Worlds (Rafe Spall/Eleanor Tomlinson) - First episode review

War of the Worlds

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

JUST hours after the latest episode of David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet showcased yet another threat to our planet, the BBC aired a new drama showcasing an imagined extinction-level event.

War of the Worlds may be based on HG Wells’ seminal science fiction classic novel but it’s arrival couldn’t be more timely. At a time when mankind has, in real life, carelessly brought Earth to the brink, so the people who populate Peter Harkness’ screenplay were also complacent to the point of self-destruction in the opening episode of this latest adaptation.

That being said, Harkness has opted to keep things in the past rather than hold an obvious mirror to current events by setting it in the present. He’s moved things on from Wells’ original Victorian setting to an Edwardian backdrop, with events also taking place in rural Surrey [or Woking]. This, in itself, makes a refreshing change from countless American invasion backdrops.

But while undoubtedly spectacular in places, and with a well managed sense of foreboding, the opening episode wasn’t always a complete success.

The first half an hour or so tried to place more of an emphasis on character than sci-fi, with the main focus on Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson) and George (Rafe Spall) as they attempted to find a life for themselves despite the controversy surrounding their relationship.

George, it seems, is already married, to his cousin. But their relationship is toxic. Rather than remain in a loveless union, George has found true love in the arms of Amy and the two are obviously smitten, taking any opportunity to steal a kiss, while attempting to get George’s career as a journalist back on track.

It’s a true Sunday night drama dilemma. Can love prevail? Perhaps we’ll never know.

By the midway point, the martian threat had arrived, embedding itself in the forest outside Amy and George’s home. With the help of astronomer friend Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle), the happy couple investigate: partly out of interest, but also because it would represent a major scoop.

But as the townsfolk begin digging around the alien object and take photographs of it, the vessel starts shaking. It’s not long before a giant tripod has risen from the Earth and is striking down everything in its path.

Interspersing these scenes were one or two shots of a woman and child traversing a barren, red wasteland. This, it turned out, was a flash-forward, a glimpse of a future in which Amy and George remain separated, but with their as-yet unborn child now up and on his feet.

There are now two episodes remaining in which to find out what happens in this lengthy interim period. And, so far, we’re kind of hooked.

The one big fear, however, is just how Harkness will be able to cram everything in to two remaining episodes. It seems like a big task given the time frame involved.

But in George and Amy he has two likeable central characters, while the dystopian backdrop has been effectively realised.

There are nods to contemporary events, albeit subtle ones, and it will be interesting to see whether Harkness draws more parallels. Steven Spielberg’s take on Wells’ novel, for instance, drew harrowing but highly effective parallels to 9/11.

Thus far, Harkness touches upon Brexit (by allowing events to unfold at a time when Britain was part of an Empire and arrogantly so), while also showcasing a scorched Earth in the wake of the martians’ trail of destruction.

But it will be interesting to see whether the romance can co-exist with the sci-fi elements, or whether one will eventually triumph over the other. With Amy and George separated, how much time can be devoted to their personal crisis, which extends to the refusal of George’s wife to grant a divorce. Perhaps death will provide an answer? Or lazy writing?

And what of Carlyle’s engaging Ogilvy? Or Rupert Graves’ Frederick (the brother of George)? Will these characters develop into more rounded individuals, or remain peripheral to the central events?

It’s fair to say that the early emphasis on character did come at the expense of some of the more traditional build-up associated with alien invasion screenplays (from Independence Day to The Day The Earth Stood Still. There were only fleeting glimpses of the alien threat before it landed.

That Harkness managed to maintain a sense of atmosphere perhaps lay with our own inherent knowledge of the subject matter, or the flash-forwards that always hinted at a different time frame. Whatever, the stage is now set for a rollercoaster couple of hours.

Let’s just hope that Harkness and company can do justice to the source material while delivering viewers a satisfying and – sometimes – surprising journey that works on both an emotional and sci-fi level.