BBC War of the Worlds Review: Rafe Spall Frowns for an Hour With Good Reason

By Gary Cutlack on at

OK look, I'm not a TV reviewer. I don't get things weeks in advance on DVD, or a special link to a password-protected iPlayer, or invited to advance screenings with a director/cast Q&A and herby sausage rolls after at the Bafta HQ in London. I watched the BBC's new adaptation of War of the Worlds on the telly, like a normal person, and found the experience so harrowing I felt I must immediately pen a warning for the pages of my local newspaper.

First of all, let me confound your expectations. I am not angry with the creation of all-new, entirely female scientist character Amy. Let me tell you a small story about that. My youngest boy is nine years old, and he reads the Beano comic each week. A few years ago, the Beano introduced a young female scientist who happens to use a wheelchair. How I rolled my eyes at this predictable, politically correct diversity episode! But now, a few years older and sadder, I am glad that this representation is normal for my son to see. He will grow up to be less judgemental and a nicer person than his tiresomely cynical dad, and for that I am grateful.

So yes, bring on the all-new, all-woman scientist and show kids that that's the way it can and should be. The problem with Amy, though, is that she's used to shoehorn in the most unbelievably boring brand new storyline about turn-of-century marriage controversies, a plot that takes up at least half of the entirety of this first episode... of a thing that's supposed to be about Martians bringing about the massacre of mankind.

Talking (about relationships).

I summoned the family to the living room, for god's sake, telling them there's a new War of the Worlds on the BBC, and what do we get? A default costume drama story in which someone fancies someone else and ooh! the locals don't approve because it's 100 years ago and apparently, we are supposed to work out for ourselves, that was not fine back then. I understand this is the BBC and budgets are tight and we can't waste all of the licence fee money on CG tripods methodically destroying Surrey as we realise that even London is not safe. But my goodness, was that ever some boring exposition on relationships and clearly telegraphed character motivation development to lower the mood on a Sunday night.

I've never really noticed character motivation in film or on TV before, until War of the Worlds. Here they may as well have cut to a flash card saying "This girl is going to be crushed under a pile of suspiciously well-aimed bricks soon so here's why you should care about her death."

What is on screen here is literally the opposite of the book. The book is so tightly written and concisely worded that you may pull out any sentence at random and find a wonderfully to the point phrase. Not a word is wasted in the telling of the original pillaging of the Home Countries and beyond, unlike the verbose padding of this baffling conversion into a TV soap opera. A daytime Australian one at that.


The continuous close-ups of Eleanor Tomlinson's Lovely Face (TM) also grew tiresome after the first 15 minutes. Why yes, she does indeed have a lovely face and I am not against the idea of looking at it at whatever resolution my iPlayer connection deems me worthy of receiving today, but once she's gone watery-eyed at the camera nine times we get the message. It's a lovely face and she's great at smiling, and filming her smiles is no doubt cheaper than getting a team of 1,000 nerds in America or South Korea to create CG fighting machines and painstakingly de-scaffold Big Ben.

Rafe Spall -- who is usually excellent in everything -- was extremely off key here too. All he did was frown. Girlfriend sad about career? Frown. Wife not happy about divorce? Frown. Boss threatening career? Frown. Massive Martian tripod wheeling over local church tower having just obliterated a large proportion of the population of Woking with an invisible heat ray? Frown. Dog barking? Frown. Maid dead now? Frown. Leave her, she's dead, the audience never remembered her name anyway. By episode three he's going to have a significantly more muscular and lined forehead that will need attention in post production for continuity's sake.

We also saw Spall's character emerge, frowning a bit at the imposition of it all, from a pile of wood that must've fallen from the sky as the houses around him were still standing (and made of stone). How he got there wasn’t shown, as he'd made his girlfriend run off on a horse. It felt like another flash card should've come up with "SCENE MISSING."

Seriously where did that wood come from? Are the Martians logging up the trees?

And besides, if you're going to wreak havoc with the character list and create entirely new plots for TV, what was the point of the BBC getting out its sole heritage black Edwardian-style lamp post and going to such lengths to conspicuously place it within every external shot, and spreading some gravel about the place to make this look like it's set in the olden times?

If you're going to rewrite a famed story so thoroughly, why not ape Tom Cruise's blockbuster WotW -- which has gone up three estimation slots this week -- and have it happen in the present day? Milton Keynes council might've put some money into it if it was set there in the year 2018 and Rafe Spall was a political blogger trying to convert Amy into a Liberal Democrat, because he's just found out his current wife's a shy tory.

The one good thing to emerge from this is that Jeff Wayne's musical interpretation remains the definitive translation of the sci-fi novel, and the household here is ringing out to it once more as we attempt to flush away the memory of this disastrously dull BBC reworking. No way are we watching episodes two and three, my forehead's wrinkled enough as it is.