War of the Worlds review, episode 3: Too patronising to be an anti-colonialist allegory
The series finale smacks of well-meaning condescension
The penny drops for Rafe Spall’s George in the third and final episode of The War of the Worlds (BBC1). “This is what we do, isn’t it?” he says, as the Martians continue to wreak violent havoc upon England’s green and pleasant lands. “We’ve been doing this to people for years. People who don’t know better. Just think what it would have been like for a man in the jungle to have seen white people for the first time, to not have received friendship but death.”
I wondered last week whether this was really the time to be adapting, once again, HG Wells’ 1989 disaster novel – the tale of an unknown foreign species arriving in England and destroying the natural order of things. Surely such a story might feed into xenophobic Brexit rhetoric?
It’s clear from tonight’s episode, however, that writer Peter Harness’s intentions were the opposite – that he is attempting to make more explicit the theory that this is an anti-colonialist allegory. I’m just not sure he’s managed it. For one thing, “people who don’t know better” smacks of well-meaning condescension. And the monologue that closes the show? Well, we’ll get to that.
The episode itself jumps erratically between the present day (which has been transposed from Victorian to Edwardian times) and the apocalyptic future. In the former, George, his partner Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson) and his brother Frederick (Rupert Graves) – with an ailing woman and rescued child in tow – have made their way to a safe place in an attempt to outrun the 20-foot spiders from Mars. They find it abandoned.
George is incapacitated, because he drank some “rather unpleasant looking water” – an understatement, given that it was basically black – and so Frederick and a pregnant Amy are doing most of the work, scavenging for food and water.
Despite their best efforts, they are picked off, one by one, each person speared through the torso and then eaten by the aliens. It’s unpleasant stuff, but having been teased for two whole episodes, the monsters – when they’re finally seen in all their gory glory – are just a little Stranger Things-lite.
In the red-hued flash forwards, meanwhile, Amy and her scientist friend Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle) are studying the “cursed” red weed that has destroyed the landscape and killed the crops. Her son, George Jr, is “starving and his sickness is getting worse”, says Amy – within earshot of George Jr, which seems a bit insensitive, but they have bigger things to worry about.
There is a glimmer of hope. Ogilvy has a theory that the aliens, who seemingly died soon after arriving on Earth, were killed not by the army but by diseases caught from the humans they ate. This might just be the key to restoring humanity. Though whether it deserves to be restored is a sticky issue.
The best the episode has to offer is a five-second revelation: a memory Amy has been conjuring repeatedly – of her running, laughing, back in the good old days – is not what it seemed. That laugh is actually a plaintive wail, emitted as George is sacrificing himself so that she can escape.
The worst comes a few minutes later, right at the close. George Jr asks Amy to tell him about life before the aliens landed. “Where I grew up, people had brown skin,” she says in a soothing bedtime voice, of Telangana, India, one of the provinces of the British Empire in which she spent most of her privileged life. “Often they were very poor, didn’t always have enough to eat. But do you know what? They were so cheerful and so happy.” It is beyond patronising.
For all its good intentions, the series has never really worked out what its moral message is supposed to be. And what we’re left with just isn’t sharp, innovative or entertaining enough to get away with it.