Episode 3 of the BBC’s The War Of The Worlds sees the humans ‘win’ the war but lose the battle for the audience’s attention
I would dearly love to say that nothing became “The War Of The Worlds” like the ending of it, but that harsh truth is that actually nothing much came of it at all. Never has a global alien invasion been portrayed with less action, incident or coherence than this.
In this week’s stultifying episode, we’re treated to a reveal that smacks of lazy writing and audience betrayal as it’s revealed that not only is George dead, but he died sacrificing himself to save Amy which makes all her earnestly searching for news of him in episodes one and two utterly pointless. Meanwhile, although the Martians have died off, everyone else is dying too and the Earth is a poisoned ruin, although it turns out that the real hope for humanity was the deadly diseases we picked up along the way.
With more of the action taking place in the ‘future’ and flashing back to the present, the structure actually works better but the improvement comes at the cost of clarity – clarifying just how ineptly this stultifying adaptation has been put together. H G Wells has always been a political allegorist – nearly all great science fiction is, its one of the foundational elements of the genre – but in adapting his novel for the small screen, writer Peter Harness has eschewed subtlety in favour of taking any and all subtext and making it not just text but BOLD UNDERLINED TEXT, vomited up in clumsy dialogue exchanges by anodyne characters who may as well have simply turned to the screen and broken the fourth wall by addressing the audience on how the story is actually critiquing the British Empire’s colonial history. But even then, this drab and drearily filmed sci-fi snoozefest can’t summon up the energy for polemic and as soon as the ‘war of the woke’ heats up, it fizzles out almost immediately in favour of a dash of low-budget “Alien”-style horror and a series of increasingly (accidentally) comical death scenes.
Meanwhile, in the future post-apocalyptic setting, the colonial allegory has been forgotten in favour of an ill-defined conflict between faith and science with a healthy dose of environmentalism thrown in but, like the narrative itself, there’s a thematic incoherence as the series vacillates between one badly articulated idea and another. Thankfully we actually get to see some aliens this week (the invasion has been pretty sparse in terms of actual invaders throughout) and the actual Martian creature design is adequately alien but disappointingly plain but while the stakes have arguably never been higher, the scale has never felt smaller or cheaper than in this episode which covers so little ground it could be performed as a stage play.
An exercise in opaque and inert storytelling, “The War Of The Worlds” has been a colossal waste of a great cast, the licence fee and, ultimately, three hours of our time. The war of the worlds is won but the viewers have lost.