The War Of The Worlds episode 2 review: a dreary dystopia

The BBC’s War Of The Worlds is a serious adaptation drenched in global politics… and a bit of a dreary slog. Spoilers…

This review contains spoilers.

Pressures on A&E departments being what they are over the festive season, it’s probably for the best that this wasn’t shown at Christmas. (Word had it that this adaptation was originally pencilled in for last year’s festive BBC One drama slot, but Martian fighting machines and complex visual effects being what they are, it wasn’t to be.) So much bleakness against a backdrop of tinselled stress and drink and who knows what might have been the result. They’d have to have made the Christmas Day EastEnders a full hour of Sonia playing upbeat little parps on her trumpet just to offset the jubilance deficit. 

Jubilance is in very short order in The War Of The Worlds. As a serious war story with serious real-world parallels and serious points to make, that’s to be expected. Hoped for, even, particularly from an adaptation this deeply plugged in to the politics of Wells’ world and of our own. 

The hubris of British colonial rule was skewered in episode two, an hour of dramatic irony that continually exposed the bloody-minded arrogance of those in charge. “Be like shooting fish in a barrel,” said the officer at Byfleet pond, minutes before his entire unit was obliterated. “There cannot be more than two of them against our millions,” boasted the Minister for War. Cut to three of them plus a shed-load more pinging in to the atmosphere from space. “The Great British army are rivalled by neither man nor monster,” he yelled over footage of the Great British army being very much rivalled indeed. “This is nothing for anyone to be concerned about!” shouted the Minister, seconds before a giant smoke-belching fighting machine loomed into view and the screaming began.

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The Minister’s death made its point with some effective horror imagery. Blinded by colonial greed and ranting about establishing “an Empire beyond the Earth!”, his words literally turned to black poison bubbling from his throat as he was enveloped by the encroaching cloud of smoke.

Episode two was stronger on visuals than the first. The fighting machines loomed creepily overhead and when they came down, they came down with satisfying weight. There was  scale to the wide-shot landscapes too – Byfleet pond, the bridge over the Thames and the under-attack beach. Even before the tripods arrived, that beach scene was convincingly populated with chaotic action. Like so much about the episode, it was a reminder of real-life war scenes, evoking images of D-Day and fleeing refugees.

Thematically, episode two was strongly critical of jingoism and the old lies told about national identity and warfare. George was told to “Do [his] duty like an Englishman. Make [his] child proud,” like so many others who fought, and died, under their country’s flag. The old attitudes endured even beyond the battlefield, we saw, as George Jr’s comic book told the story of “The Great Victory” and “the repellence of the Martian invaders” while the survivors continue to sing God Save The King, even in a dystopian wasteland. 

But oh, the one-note dreariness. Episode two left all those 1970s TV sci-fi dystopias about women called Barbara for dust. It out-woed all those 1950s war films about men called Frank. Dread, grief, death, separation, devastation, more death, desperation, great heaping piles of death, so much death… 

The first wave of Martian attacks reduced Mary the housemaid to a bloody streak on the cobbles, and she was one of the lucky ones. The rest of Woking were burned alive. Soldiers burst into flames and begged for help that didn’t come. A baby’s cries were heard and then, ominously, silenced. We saw rivers of bedraggled people made homeless by the attacks, and refugees dying by the roadside. They lost the dog. Harry Melling’s Artilleryman (yes, Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter films) was buried in corpses …

There was one moment of brief respite as George and Amy, reunited (but thanks to what we know from the flashbacks, for how long?) determined to think of the future and to allow hope in – but even that gentle exchange was interrupted by an old woman expiring in the corner. Even then, George’s “You’ll never lose me, ever” sent the dramatic irony needle spinning. 

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Losing George might not be the worst thing to happen to Amy. She’s a more dynamic character played well by Eleanor Tomlinson – quick, clever and not suffering fools gladly (especially when they’re Edwardian dickheads who treat her like a child and refuse to believe her testimony unless it’s backed up by a man’s). If anybody can survive the howling-wind apocalypse, it’s probably her. That’s if, with conditions so dire, she can muster the will to carry on in this dreary place. How many more tins of rancid beans can she take? 

How much more can viewers take of this gloom is the real question? This grave story offers only bleak real-world parallels and zero escapism. Its political landscape, and the powerlessness of those inside it is depressingly recognisable. “Unless we can think of some way to stop this, this won’t be our planet anymore,” said Ogilvy. Who, in the last few years, hasn’t felt the same.  

Decent cliff-hanger for next week though. They came out of their machines…

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here. And here’s a host of new British drama arriving over the next year or so.