This War of the Worlds review contains spoilers.
So that was the deal with the babies. Their box-fresh stem cells were needed to grow replacements for the Invaders’ failed organs and cure the genetic weakness wiping out their species. Or more properly, our species. The alien Emily met in the closing moments of season one wasn’t just humanoid, it was human. And it wasn’t alone.
That’s one mystery cleared up, and a secondary one about how a bunch of genetically weakened humans psychically connected via a quantum web ended up invading Earth in massive spaceships is for season two to solve. The Invaders’ new ‘Kill Bill’ mission has such a strong 12 Monkeys whiff to it that time travel has to be a factor. Perhaps the bullseye tattoo crowd have gone back in time to stop Gabriel Byrne’s character from releasing the biological weapon that will eventually turn us into them?
Whatever the answer, War of the Worlds will get there, and by the looks of this opener, moving at a faster pace than before. In season one, this show’s luxurious lack of hurry to arrive anywhere in particular tested some viewers’ patience. They’d been drawn in by a title that promised pew-pew heat rays and waving-tendril Martians, and so were disappointed when presented with a series of beautifully composed insignificance-of-man-in-a-vast-landscape images, and with emotionally complicated characters for whom an alien invasion was the least of their worries.
The season two opener hasn’t lost its apocalyptic bleakness – the rotting corpse-strewn streets, bullets to the heads of teenagers, and the survivor with his “people just want to believe things will get better, it doesn’t mean they will” philosophy, is proof of that. That guy’s death scene was very neatly done, incidentally, and very War of the Worlds. As he wordlessly stepped off the edge of that half-built tower, we heard only a scuffing shoe and a distant pavement thud. There one minute, gone the next.
That was just one instance of the excellent sound design in this season opener. More could be heard in the ultra-tense cyberdog stalking scene as Kariem, Tom and co. waited to blast the disruptor signal, and in the groaning, creaking alien ship and tower block. Along with its uncompromising bleakness, War of the Worlds’ tension and atmosphere have also carried over between seasons, courtesy of director Richard Clark and his team (kudos, by the way, for being perhaps the first UK production to get off its feet and figure out a safe way to film during the pandemic, which is no small achievement.)
Two things about the show have changed: plot speed, and premise. Season one eked out its mysteries and drip-fed discoveries about the Invaders over eight very deliberately paced episodes. This episode barrelled through several revelations in minutes. Explainer-in-chief Bill recapped the bullet points at the speed of someone with elsewhere to be: the aliens are human. They’re suffering from crippling genetic weakness. They’re trying to cure themselves with stem cells. They’re cured! It would have taken season one at least four episodes to unburden itself of all that info, but we got it all in one.
With the Invaders both cured and human, the premise has shifted towards the ‘war’ part of the show’s title. In the six months since we last saw them, the characters have found other survivors, made a community with a leader – Zoe, played by Pearl Chanda – and formed an army (even if it is made up of graphic designers. Nice line). Instead of pockets of people vs deadly cyborgs, now it’s humans fighting humans for territory, with missions, traps, weapons and potential double agents – in other words, a classic war/spy story.
Emily is one potential double agent. She spent six months on board an Invader ship, and now she’s been released and given a secret mission to kill Bill Ward. Bill, Ash and Zoe don’t trust her, and we don’t know if we can trust her either. As one of ‘them’, whose side is Emily really on?
We could ask the same of new character Micah, played by Robert Emms, an Invader scientist who talks about torsion and monopoles and appears to have defected in pursuit of a solo mission. He’s sure to have answers for Catherine about the new signals she’s picking up at the Observatory, but in wartime, can she afford to trust him?
That’s lining up to be season two’s thematic territory, underneath the shoot-outs and chase scenes. If the first eight episodes were all about family, survival, and the lengths we go to for the people we love, these next eight are shaping up to be about loyalty, otherness and where we choose to place our trust. A promising return.
War of the Worlds is currently airing on Canal+ in France, Epix in the US, and is due to arrive on Disney+ in the UK from Friday the 16th of July.