TV review: The War of the Worlds, Seven Worlds, One Planet, and Novels That Shaped Our World

22 November 2019

BBC/© Mammoth Screen

An image from The War of the Worlds on BBC1

An image from The War of the Worlds on BBC1

WRONG church, wrong concept. An added frisson to my first schoolboy reading of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, whose lavish new adaptation is BBC1’s current Sunday-evening costume drama, was its setting in our then home town, Woking. More than that, he described as one of the first Martian acts of wanton destruction the vaporising of our very own place of worship. Now St Paul’s, Maybury, is a brick Victorian church, and late-19th-century Woking was a modern commuter town built around the railway to London. Wells deliberately chose this everyday, banal place rather than anything more romantic or mysterious — the horror of his tale is greatly heightened by its very ordinariness of setting.

This new version completely subverts Wells’s purpose: here, Woking is a quaint chocolate-box village, and the church is ancient, medieval. The whole thing panders to clichés of Victorian Britain; did the hope for international sales overcome boring old faithfulness to the book? The first episode contained huge chunks of additional subplot about the hero’s adulterous domestic arrangements, mirroring Wells’s own life, but, instead of adding anything, it fatally clogged up the narrative, and the novel’s frightening pace here was turgid and confused. Oh dear.

Wells’s radicalism extended even to some sympathy with the murderous Martians; for, he asks, was their brutal extermination of humankind any worse than our own cruelty to, and annihilation of, the natives of Tasmania?

Sir David Attenborough’s magnificent Seven Worlds, One Planet (BBC1, Sundays) reached last Sunday the Antipodean continent. This theme of human destruction of the natural world tolls a repeated death-knell throughout the series. Australasia’s unique isolation from other land masses heightens Western technology’s powers of destruction: in a bare two centuries, we have managed practically to wipe out a delicate balance reflecting aeons of discrete evolution.

Not only man is vile, however: squeamishly, I characterise each of Attenborough’s brilliant vignettes as he focuses — with camerawork that can scarcely be imagined — on this or that remarkable species as a question of how long we have to wait before one of his subjects eats alive the other. Nature, I have always thought, is essentially horrid, and requires some subtle theology to reconcile with belief in a God who is supposedly revealed to his creation through all-encompassing love.

Humankind’s infinite ability to subjugate and decimate also fuelled The Empire Writes Back, last week’s episode in Novels That Shaped Our World (BBC2, Saturday); but here it was our own species that we wrecked, through the evils of slavery and imperialism. We travelled from Robinson Crusoe’s unexamined assumption (on both sides, according to Defoe) that Man Friday would serve rather than take charge, to today’s transforming fiction written by those whose whole heritage is of being treated as inferior. A vitally important theme. Yet it felt neither urgent nor searing, but worthy.

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