Preview: War of the Worlds (UK: Fox)

In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, Fox. Starts March 5

HG Wells is one of the founding authors of literary sci-fi. That in itself wouldn’t explain why there have been so many repeated adaptations of his work – other authors such as Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain get the occasional adaptation, but adaptations of Wells work are vastly more common. It might be because there being so many adaptations ensures a cultural familiarity with Wells’ work or it could be because he came up with so many fundamental science-fiction ideas, such as time machines, invisibility, alien invasions and eugenics.

Even so, that wouldn’t explain why in the past six months alone, as well as a movie adaptation of The Invisible Man, we’ve seen not one but two adaptations of The War of the Worlds. The first by the BBC, The War of the Worlds, was a relatively faithful, period affair set in England.

And now we have a far looser adaptation, War of the Worlds, set in modern day France and the UK.

Fox's War of the Worlds
Elizabeth McGovern and Gabriel Byrne in Fox’s War of the Worlds

Alienated

It introduces us to a whole gaggle of Brits and French people, but predominantly British/Irish neuroscientist Gabriel Byrne and his estranged wife (Elizabeth McGovern), as well as French scientist Léa Drucker (Le Bureau Des Légendes) who has sister issues.

Drucker is tasked by the European Space Agency to monitor signals from outer space for signs of alien intelligence. On top of that, she actually sends signals out, too – music encoded as binary. Then one day, she starts to receive signals from a far away star that has a known exoplanet. The world is shocked – more shocked as the signal starts to get stronger and things start coming towards us.

Do they mean us harm? Well, the clue is in the title.

War of the Worlds
Léa Drucker in War of the Worlds

Worlds weary

Originally, I had high hopes of previewing the first two or even three episodes of this. However, given the viewing app Fox made me use for this:

  • Required two-factor authentication and the completion of a sign-up agreement every time I logged in, all of which took about three minutes.
  • Crashed every three minutes, forcing me to go through the previous step each time.

It turned out I didn’t have quite as much time as I’d wanted. You do the maths. So let’s confine ourselves to episode one.

That, at least, is a return to form for writer Howard Overman (Misfits), following the horrors of Atlantis. It takes a certain degree of gumption to both adapt a classic and decide to massive changes, and he does a pretty good job of it, while negotiating all the difficulties you might expect of a French/UK co-production.

On the down side, we do have to sit through a lot of daft character work. We meet lots of people “whose lives will be changed forever” and who might have to “come together through adversity”, all of whom have to do lots of dramatic things like push their love adversaries down stairs, reassure their blind daughters who are getting messages from the alien, call their nervy little sisters to tell them to hide in a hole because they’re about to get killed and more.

There’s also a lot of daft science. It’s the usual kind that doesn’t seem to worry how fast light travels, how brains work and that sort of thing. But it does bring everything up to date, and save a bit on the budget when the aliens’ super weapon is revealed at the end of the episode – (spoiler alert) they overload everyone’s brains with power radio signals .

Plus what we gain in sci-fi, we lose in social message. Wells, who was Edwardian ‘woke’, was creating an analogy between his invading Martians and what it must have been like for Africans and others to experience the might of the British Empire and its technological advantages. Here, we have no equivalent comparison, making it seemingly (for now) a simple adventure tale.

Brave new worlds

But there are plenty of positives. Given there’s a lot of filming in France and we’re going for excitement, they’d have to be a bit loopy not to have some French stunt driving and thankfully, there’s plenty of that.

First contact with and the subsequent arrival of the aliens is handled with a decent amount of verisimilitude, as well as a certain amount of creepiness. There’s hardly a second where anyone considers the aliens mean no harm, and hardly a second where the aliens do mean no harm, so it’s tension galore from the moment they show up. And the ending of the first episode is a really doozy.

Certainly, the show is trying to be intelligent and largely succeeds, even if some of the audience will be grumbling into their GCSE Physics textbooks. Drucker is on top form, although she has a lot more to work with than McGovern and Byrne do, who correspondingly throw in passable but not especially powerful performances.

All of which means that I’ll probably be watching the other seven episodes. Just not with that ***** viewing app.