The Coming Of The Martians – Starring: Colin Morgan, Ronald Pickup, Dan Starkey, Nigel Lindsay, Olivia Poulet, Luke Kempner, Molly Hanson, Stephen Critchlow, Nick Scovell & Lisa Bowerman. Written by HG Wells. Audio Adaptation by Nick Scovell. Directed by Lisa Bowerman. Limited Edition DVD (Sherwood Sound Studios)
On paper, everything about this production screams joy. It should work on absolutely every level. Firstly, it’s based intensively on one of HG Wells’ best and most regularly re-told science fiction stories – The War of the Worlds. That in itself is rich and vital and timely – Wells wrote the mother of all alien invasion stories as an allegory of British imperialism, the technologically superior power overwhelming the technologically inferior, and treating them as inferior themselves as a result. It’s as easy to read today as a flipped script on British (and indeed Western) attitudes towards refugees – when we ourselves become the refugees from a violence that overturns the certainties of our world, how do we react? What price humanity in those circumstances? Wells is uncannily rich in angles for subtext even to this day. So the source text is superb.
Second, Sherwood Sounds knows its stuff, and this production is positively crammed with Big Finish alumni, meaning both sides of the recording desk are stuffed to the gills with people who know how to get you emoting, how to bring out the drama, the tension, the power of a script. You can literally scan down the cast list, stop at any name and think ‘Oh they’re excellent in…[Insert one of several things]’. And they are, and they’re excellent here too, so there’s no problem there.
And third, Sherwood has gone above and beyond to be faithful to the original novel, and to seek a purity in the sorts of sound effects it uses – no sounds in this production have been specially created in the electronic universe, they’ve all been created from scratch or sourced from real sounds, and then suitably tweaked and filtered within an inch of their lives. One of the extras on the DVD reveals Producer Martin Johnson’s joyful twinkle-eyed obsession with the reality of sounds, and when, as it is here, an audio drama is presented in 48kHz/24-bit 5.1 surround sound, what that means is recording sounds and voices in a lovely cosy studio, and then building up an incredibly complex three-dimensional picture in your head of the audio effects of where the sound is taking place in the script, and tweaking the bejesus out of it to make it convincingly sound like it’s outside, in a slight mist, with buildings on three sides of the speaker. Be under no illusions – there’s time, and dedication, and a striving towards an ultimate audio version of Wells’ War of the Worlds, and a love of both the medium and the material here – it’s evident in every clip-clop, every ooo-laaa…
Which means it breaks our hearts to have to ask why it doesn’t work better than it does.
If we had to choose a reason, it would probably be a translation-failure from a purity of intention to a gripping listen. Sherwood’s take on The War of the Worlds is to include little or no ‘narration’ as such, to take it as far from being a straightforward audiobook reading as possible and stage it as an audio drama of scenes, while staying as faithful to what actually happens in the book as possible. That’s fine in theory – and may yet, in future adaptations, prove to be fine in practice, but it runs into three main problems. First, the book itself is written as a narrative, a remembrance of things seen and experienced, so in order to go narrative-free, you’re immediately stepping away from the tone of the book. Second, it’s the narrative of someone who survives the war, and one of the reasons they survive is that they’re trapped under debris for over a week, while the denouement of the war takes place – the Martians in full glory, then their being attacked by microbes and defeated all takes place for the most part while the narrator, George in this production, played by Colin Morgan, is trapped, miles from home, under debris with a ranting, annoying curate (Ronald Pickup in this performance). Now, for the most part, the scenes with Morgan and Pickup are truly stellar – they’re two first-rate actors, giving it their all, and they leave a deep impression on the mind. But the faithfulness to the text rather leaves this feeling like The Coming Mostly Elsewhere Of The Martians, like a war that rarely if ever punches with the weight of its true impact, spectacle or grandeur because to maintain the faithful rendering of the book, the audio drama takes the Martians only so far and no further, while to maintain its no-narration idea, it relies on the audio to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and sometimes, the audio-forward approach appears not to be up to the job.
Thirdly of course, even HG Wells knew that to give a broader sense of his invasion as a worldwide affair, he had to contrast the semi-rural incidents of one narrative thread with a more cosmopolitan edge – he adds in a storyline about the narrator’s brother, the battle of the Thunderchild against the Martians and so on, to give that broader scope. Here, though there’s good and faithful action on board the Thunderchild, the whole cutaway to that section feels a little underwhelming in terms of the horror, despite the effective Martian machine-sounds, and so it doesn’t do the job Wells intended it to do.
Ultimately, while there’s clearly love and a boatload of skill involved in this adaptation, it ends up feeling like an abridged version of the story – plenty of highlights are here, including Horsell Common, the heat ray, the fighting machines, the red weed, the black smoke (very few versions bring in the black smoke, and they really should), the Thunderchild, the curate and the artilleryman’s plans for the future – but ultimately, it feels as though the purity of the intention to go narration-free leaves the drama oddly disconnected, like ‘Scenes From The War of the Worlds,’ rather than a full-throated, emotionally satisfying rendition of the story as a whole.
Is it worth getting the Limited Edition DVD version of the story? If you’re going to get the story at all – and again, the talent that contributes to it makes it irresistible, in spite of our conclusions here – then yes, get the DVD version. There are some sumptuous extras, including a short documentary that will tell you, for instance, what sounds were recorded to render the fighting machines, and what gives them their ooo-laa groan (which, yes, sounds almost entirely unlike any other version you may have heard, but is something rather monstrous and creepy). You also get the trailer on the DVD version, which is a little work of genius in itself. The Coming Of The Martians might not quite achieve all its goals, because the balance between a pure intention and a gripping story of Martian invasion is skewiff, but as an advert for the integrity, commitment and sheer rock solid talent the company brings to its projects, it promises exciting things for the future. Tony Fyler