The Martian Invasion of Earth – Starring Richard Armitage, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Hywel Morgan, Ewan Bailey, Helen Goldwyn, Richard Berrington, Christopher Weeks, Benedict Briggs & Nicholas Briggs – Written by HG Wells. Dramatised and Directed by Nicolas Briggs – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Yes, before you ask.
This is War of the Worlds. The one you know – the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, the cylinder, the heat ray, the –
It’s at this point of course that someone should really tap the reviewer on the shoulder and mention that perhaps – just perhaps – there are people in the 21st century who have still yet to encounter War of the Worlds in any form. People who might not know the story. People, even, who’ve been waiting for an enterprising audio drama company like Big Finish to come along and adapt the bejesus out of it so they can absorb the story.
In 1897, HG Wells imagined what might happen if the Earth was to come under attack from creatures from another world. There was some tradition of alien invasion stories even then, but Wells absolutely nailed the idea to the page and the popular imagination. Before Wells, there had been some dabbling with the idea of invasion from outer space. After Wells, there was real science fiction. And the Martians were coming.
The Martians have been coming ever since. Not without reason has Wells’ War of the Worlds (here re-titled The Martian Invasion of Earth) always been a definitive piece of work. Like much that becomes ‘classic’ literature, it tells one tale, but allows enough flexibility in its bones to be an allegory of whatever you want it to be.
Orson Welles’ version scared the pants off some listeners, because he presented it as if it were happening in real-time America through (ahem) fake news broadcasts. George Pal’s movie version in 1953 used it as a Cold War story of intelligence and arms races. Steven Spielberg, just four years after 9/11, used it as a story of terrorist threat with which there was no reasoning. That’s the wonder of Wells – his alien invaders can be anybody, any ‘other’ used to give us a chill. It’s far more rare for them to be treated as Big Finish does in its new version, and arguably as Wells wanted them to be used, as ‘us’ – as a power of invasion, throwing their weight around, certain that they have a moral imperative and a moral right to take whatever they can conquer.
That’s one of the joys of this Big Finish version – it sticks closer to Wells’ script than many of the versions with which we’re familiar. There’s little about it that’s updated or made especially socially relevant to the 21st century, at least beyond the extent to which Wells’ work is timeless. That gives this version a vintage quality that will be as relevant ten years from now as it is today.
One way in which this version differs from the book is in placing Wells and his wife firmly, by name, at the heart of the action. The narrator in the book is never named, but has been widely assumed to be a ‘version’ of Wells himself, his wife more or less a distant avatar of hope, something to strive towards through the madness of a world under invasion. Big Finish put Wells and his wife Amy right into the drama, but beyond that what you get here is a fairly straight adaptation by Nicholas Briggs, which actually comes as an enormous relief. The opportunity is always there to turn the Martians into the latest people in black hats, but Big Finish steers clear of overt political relevancy, taking the story back to its bones as a novel of imperialistic conquest, Wells in both the book and this adaptation making the point that the Victorian army conquered ‘less civilised’ people because the opportunity was there to expand Britain’s territorial possessions, and that the Martians are doing little more than that – they just happen to be more technologically advanced than we are.
Don’t get us wrong here – you can absolutely listen to this version and apply your own take on it drawn from the world around us. You can imagine it as a toppling of Western smugness and a lesson about the way the modern ‘civilised’ West treats refugees, by turning our society into the people fleeing from an unreasonable aggressor. But such an interpretation would be more on you. Big Finish, along with Wells and unlike the likes of Pal, doesn’t preach, doesn’t overtly turn its aliens into an object lesson. It keeps fairly close to the story and tells a science fiction invasion tale, as entertainment first and foremost.
In terms of performances, we’re in a pretty high league here – Richard Armitage as Wells brings a brown-voiced sense of old-fashioned right and wrong to the piece, challenged by some of the things he has to do, or to allow in order to survive. Lucy Briggs-Owen, a regular in the Big Finish ‘repertory’ company, brings good balance to him, both in terms of her voice and her performance as a frightened but steel-spined late Victorian woman, adding value, rationality and conscience along the journey into the world of the oppressed. Christopher Weeks and Helen Goldwyn play Edward, Wells’ brother, and Agatha, a woman he meets on his escape from the Martian terror, and while far from being an alternative, or a more morally dubious version of Wells and Amy, they show different strands of personality and the challenges they overcome on their journey to claim the right to survive.
There are other slices of morality given flesh here too – Ogilvy, the astronomer who first spots the flares on Mars that signal the disaster coming to Earth is what might be thought of as the personification of our better natures, attempting to welcome the aliens, to neutralise fear, to stretch out the hand of friendship across the gulf of space. He’s the great ‘What-if?’ that could make The Martian Invasion Of Earth a great story of interplanetary brotherhood, but neither Wells nor Big Finish allow that optimism to survive – the Martians are written as a warning to us, and warnings need consequences. Nevertheless, Richard Derrington gives an almost exultant optimism and potential to Ogilvy that makes you want him to succeed. He makes you want to be part of a universally better species in this story, which is as effective as hearing what our Martian reflection does to the world on which it finds itself.
As for the Martians themselves – this is where there have been at least a couple of definitive versions, and any other version is always going to struggle to live up to them. Visually, Pal’s version takes a lot of shifting from the mind. In audio, the Jeff Wayne musical version is hard to displace, and the Big Finish version ends up being more threatening in what you hear people say they’ve done, and how people tell you they look, than in the sound of the creatures themselves. There’s plenty of drama to spare though, and Big Finish makes a solid fist of delivering a War of the Worlds that celebrates the original in all its multi-faceted, socially relevant genius.
Pick up The Martian Invasion of Earth for the rock solid performances, the love shown to the original story, and the faith it keeps with that story, shaking the certainties of a civilised world. If you want to, you can listen to this version as a commentary on the West’s treatment of refugees, and it would be no worse for a listen with that mindset first and foremost, but the Big Finish version sticks closer to the original than many, and allows you a pure escapist pleasure with several science fiction stings along the way. Tony Fyler