Review: The First Men in the Moon

Loving but winking

The First Men In The Moon

In the UK: Tuesday, 10pm, BBC4

HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon is one of Wells’ lesser known sci-fi books. While The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and even The Island of Dr Moreau get remade all the time, The First Men In the Moon had a rather lovely 1964 film adaptation starring Lionel Jeffries and co-written by Nigel Kneale, but that’s been it.

Now, there are few UK TV writers today who are bigger sci-fi fanboys than Mark Gatiss. If he’s not writing Doctor Who, starring in Doctor Who, appearing in documentaries about Doctor Who, presenting documentaries about horror movies, appearing in documentaries about Nigel Kneale, writing Lucifer Box stories that pastiche 19th century fiction, updating Sherlock Holmes, et al, he’s thinking about it. I know he is. I can sense it.

So leave it to Gatiss to not only realise there’s this gap in the HG Wells adaptation record but to fix it by writing a 90 minute TV movie based on the book – and, naturally enough, starring in it.

Now, BBC4 isn’t exactly big budget, so you might be expecting something put together with some local theatre stars, a couple of pieces of string and a bit of papier mache. But The First Men in the Moon follows on from previous low budget, high gloss sci-fi productions, such as The Quatermass Experiment (which also starred Gatiss), A for Andromeda and Parallel Quest, by being very good looking, having a great cast (Rory Kinnear) and some quite extensive CGI, all while staying reasonably faithful to the source material – both the book, and because this is Gatiss, the movie.

It’s just a pity everything was done with such a knowing wink in its eye. Here’s a trailer:

Mark Gatiss’s adaptation of HG Wells’s science fiction classic. July 1969, and as the world waits with bated breath for the Apollo astronauts to land on the Moon, a young boy meets 90-year-old Julius Bedford. He’s a man with an extraordinary story of how, way back in 1909, he got to the Moon first, and, together with the eccentric Professor Cavor, discovered a terrifying secret deep beneath its seemingly-barren surface.

Was it any good?
It was enjoyable, I’ll give it that, but it lacked a certain something, you know?

Now time has obviously caught up with the original’s science. We’ve been to the moon. We know what it’s like. There are no Selenites, no moon calves, no air, no jungles, no water (oh, hang on). Equally, inventive as Well’s gravity-blocking cavorite was, we know that it couldn’t work (cf Einstein’s General Relativity), you couldn’t make a cavorite-based spaceship in the way depicted (thanks to the weakness of gravity at a distance as well as the rotation of the celestial bodies) and even if you could, you’d need more toilets and a whole lot more inside to sustain people.

To Gatiss’s credit, he did his best to update this, changing Wells’ material to explain away the differences in the Moon as it is now and the way it was depicted in the book. The science is still a bit guff, but you know, this is escapist metaphorical stuff.

But that feeling that “Hey, we can’t take this seriously – air on the Moon! Brits on the Moon! Look at the naivety of the Edwardians!” seeps through the production. Gatiss, who, let’s face it, always is somewhat tongue in cheek, whether he’s in The League of Gentlemen, Sherlock, Doctor Who or anything else, is a walking caricature. You can almost see him revelling in how authentically 19th century he’s made everything, as he puts on another voice and mannerism.

Kinnear is mildly affected by this, so despite the general excellence of his performance, there’s a smirk just waiting to get out. And the supporting cast have the same problem – give someone a handlebar moustache and he’ll act like someone wearing a handlebar moustache and wanting everyone to know he knows it’s silly looking. Gatiss even extends this silliness with a dream sequence based on George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (which was based on both The First Men in the Moon and Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon) and which featured his League of Gentlemen pals Reece Sheersmith and Steve Pemberton.

Leaving aside this issue though, it’s an excellent bit of work, a little saggy in the middle where the budget fell through and the chance to have the huge fights with Selenites and Selenites farming moon calves of the book was obviously too much for BBC4, leaving us with Gatiss and Kinnear chatting a lot instead. However, the Selenites, the recreation of the moon, the spaceship, its travels through space, the Grand Lunar – they’re all incredibly well done. There are some lovely little homages to the 1964 movie (and the whole thing is dedicated to Lionel Jeffries, who died this year), including the interior of the ship and even the bookend narrative of the 1969 moon landing. Where Gatiss restructures the book – giving us Cavor’s perspective of what happens after Bedford leaves directly, rather than having it relayed by wireless from the moon later on, for example – the changes have all been for the better.

I wouldn’t say it’s compulsory viewing, although it’s a whole lot better than any number of dramas you could find on BBC1, thanks to the general feeling this isn’t a drama in itself, more of a homage to other dramas and a fond nod to the book and movies. But it is something you can nod to and say “Good work, BBC.” Worth catching on the iPlayer if you have 90 minutes to spare.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.