BBC One’s The War of the Worlds is pretty much perfect Sunday night TV

The story of alien invasion doesn’t so much speak to our times as bawl at them through a loudhailer.

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HG Wells’s novel of 1898, The War of the Worlds, doesn’t so much speak to our times as bawl at them through a loudhailer. And no, I’m not talking about an earth that is in the process of being destroyed, the sun unable to poke through the smog, and the land so degraded it will support no crop – though obviously there’s a certain contiguity there, what with climate change and everything. Actually it’s the aliens I’ve got in mind. Think about it. When we went to bed on the night of 23 June 2016, all was (just about) right with the world. When we woke up, however, we found that we had indeed been invaded by a creature with “oily brown skin” and “two Gorgon groups of tentacles”. Just as in the book, no weapons have yet been found that can cope with the threat to civilisation presented by these “inhuman, crippled and monstrous” visitors from another planet.

But that’s enough about Nigel Farage and his friends in the European Research Group. What about the BBC’s new adaptation of The War of the Worlds (17 November, 9pm)? Does it live up to the hype? Though I approached it with trepidation, fearing bad CGI and a preachy, explicatory tone, I was soon seduced: it’s pretty much perfect Sunday night television. All I would say is that it does rather trail off (I’ve seen all three episodes). If it begins by being immaculate – thrilling, eccentric and beautifully played – it ends by descending, rather dramatically, into cheesiness. No spoilers, but in the final scene it’s as if Greta Thunberg has strolled accidentally into an old Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark video.

Its writer, Peter Harness, has taken several liberties with the novel, and most of them work. In his hands, Wells’s nameless narrator becomes George (Rafe Spall), a journalist who has left his permanently aggrieved wife for an aspiring scientist, Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson). This adorable couple met at a Society for Free Thinkers, for which reason it’s doubly a shame they are now living in (pre Pizza Express) Woking, where their unmarried state makes them pariahs – though of course, it’s here our Martians have unaccountably opted to land (perhaps they could feel the sexual glow emanating from George and Amy even up there on the red planet).

Anyway, thanks to these two – and to George’s uptight brother Frederick (Rupert Graves, on brilliant form), who works at the Admiralty, where his minister is somewhat in denial about events in Surrey – the story has a powerfully involving arc. Will George and Amy, having become separated on the day of the invasion, find each other again? And if they do, what kind of life will they have? One good thing about an apocalypse, I suppose, is that people who are starving and fighting typhoid tend not to be quite so sententious as the plump and the contented.

I’m being a bit tongue in cheek, which is both fair and unfair. Harness has some fun himself in the first episode, sending up Edwardian mores for all he’s worth. There’s a wonderful scene in which the pompous Astronomer Royal arrives to look at what everyone believes to be a meteorite, only to tell his man to lay a tablecloth for tea (little does he know that his picnic is about to be interrupted by some light human combustion). But this version of The War of the Worlds has, as it should, a sincere heart. There’s such awe in it: the amazement that accompanies the advancement of science (before the invasion, Amy saw the surface of Mars through a telescope); the terror that comes with seeing the aliens’ tripod-like machines stalk the land (conical flasks aside, some things still cannot be explained).

What prescience Wells had, the destruction he describes anticipating two world wars – and what conviction, too, for aren’t the Martians only doing as the British did across their empire? Harness ensures all this is felt, with the result that even as you’re gripped, you’re always thinking; your conscience is involved as well as your adrenal glands. Above all, though, there is something unexpectedly touching about the relationship of George and Amy, and it’s this that stayed with me. The end is always coming. Be with the one you love if you can. To do anything else is only cowardice. 

The War of the Worlds
BBC One

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over