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Mars attacks: Eleanor Tomlinson and Rafe Spall in The War of the Worlds. Photo/Supplied

The War of the Worlds adaptation is a blast from the past

A Martian invasion of Britain is part-period romance, part-Armageddon and wholly British.

Back in 1938, Orson Welles caused a certain amount of panic when the faux newscasts of his adaptation of HG Wells’ classic novel, The War of the Worlds, convinced some radio listeners that the aliens had actually landed. These days, the spectre of unwelcome visitors from outer space seems low on the anxiety scale. Our outlandish earthbound overlords are doing a pretty good job of overseeing the potential destruction of the planet without requiring any extraterrestrial assistance.

So, the latest adaptation of The War of the Worlds, the first to be set in the times in which it was written, feels more of a blast from the past than a nightmare glimpse of the future. The blurb on the TVNZ OnDemand website for the first episode economically encapsulates this iteration’s audacious mix of scandalous upper-middle-class love affair and Armageddon: “In London during the Edwardian era, George and Amy’s attempt to start a life together is interrupted by a Martian invasion of Earth.”

Dashed inconvenient. The original three-part miniseries is screening here as two episodes. The first is so remorselessly British it’s as if Doctor Who’s Tardis has touched down at Downton Abbey. Lord knows, there are endless moments when a sonic screwdriver would have come in handy. Here we see that, when faced with a giant tripod full of dyspeptic Martians up to no good, thundering, “You are in Great Britain!” at them has little effect.

When a huge black ball lands in Woking, the consensus at first seems to be that it’s a meteorite or an implausibly large bomb sent by those pesky Russians. Journalist George and the woman he has left his wife for, amateur astronomer Amy, go to take a look, accompanied by amiable scientist Ogilvy. Cue a lot of standing about looking gobsmacked. Never fear, the Royal Astronomer has arrived with a table, chairs and a gramophone. “Put a tablecloth on it, Cyril!” he declares authoritatively, and settles in for a cup of tea. This explains a lot about the Brexit debacle, really.

Don’t touch it, advises George. He clearly hasn’t seen many sci-fi movies. Soon, everyone is ill-advisedly messing with the ominous orb, even though it has begun to hiss, tick, smoke, crack open and generally transmit a clear message that “run for your lives!” is the only sensible course of action. The Royal Astronomer touches it and gets his hand covered in what is technically known as black gunk from outer space. Not to give too much away, all hell breaks loose. Or, as one government minister puts it, “Commandeer some porters! We’re not having corpses decorating the Thames!”

Period alien invasion presents its own challenges. It can’t be easy dealing to Martians while dressed in a suit, starched collar and tie or an ankle-length Edwardian day dress. Still, manners prevail. The worst thing anyone has to say in the face of possible annihilation is an exasperated “Use your noddle!” or, when the chips are really down, an impassioned “Sod it!”

This adaptation uses a neat time shift to follow Amy into a sort of refugee camp where everything is seen through a Martian-red filter. Will the lovers be reunited? Never mind the Martians, will George’s furious spurned wife ever give him a divorce? I’ll be tuning in to see, if only to watch such talents as Rafe Spall, Eleanor Tomlinson and Robert Carlyle execute all of this with admirably straight faces (Tomlinson does look improbably gleeful at times, given the circumstances). And it’s not a bad time to be reminded of humankind’s relative insignificance in the greater scheme of things. As Wells wrote, “Few people realise the immensity of vacancy in which the dust of the material universe swims.” It’s still a fair call.

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, TVNZ 1, Sunday, 8.30pm, and TVNZ OnDemand.

This article was first published in the October 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.