No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.
Thus speaks Richard Burton’s inimitable, mellifluous voice at the start of the 1978 Musical War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne’s most famous creation. My mother has eclectic musical traits (a trait I am endlessly grateful to have either inherited or had inculcated) and a copy of this has been in her music collection for as long as I can remember. It may be a dreadful thing to confess, but this was my introduction to H G Wells and was one of my formative speculative fiction experiences. As a girl of primary school age, my initial reaction was one of awe: never would I consider bacteria the in the same way as I had. My mum has been known to tell family friends that my first comment was, “I’ll never put bleach down the toilet again.”
That’s what good speculative fiction should do. Change the way you think.
The sound effects, chilling in isolation and fed through the score until the guitars became gibbering Martian voices while the synthesisers spat blistering heat rays and spread shivering fronds of red weed across the soundscape, remain as effective now as they ever were. The actors and musicians, used to working live in front of theatre audiences and minus the visual extravaganzas now employed, conveyed their roles with conviction and feeling. The depiction of the Thunderchild crew sacrificing themselves and their ship to save the passenger liner is something I can clearly visualise to this day, despite never having physically seen more than an artist’s impression in the album’s accompanying booklet.
I can see an Ironclad warship going down under the irresistible assault of a Martian heatray, because Jeff Wayne’s composition utterly nails it.
Many years later I picked up an album called Ulludubulla Volume 2, which I reviewed at the time. There I said I didn’t see any reason not to update a musical, but overall the album didn’t really work for me. It was not, however, a remake of the original, but a series of tracks inspired by it.
2012 saw a brand new version of this iconic album hit musical theatres and CD/MP3. Richard Burton’s part is now played by Liam Neeson and David Essex’s artilleryman has been given to Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs. Justin Hayward’s part is sung by Gary Barlow, who manages to sound like he’s mostly asleep and only doing it for the paycheque. Phil Lynott’s throaty, gargly Parson Nathaniel is now Maverick Sabre with some weird mishmash accent and the beautiful, emotive voice of Julie Covington has been replaced by that of Joss Stone, which is more operatic JCB than concerned but fatally optimistic angel.
The original score has been “updated” with some odd little riffs of electronica and bass, which serve no purpose other than to indicate that this is New! Improved! Hip! and On Trend!
“Hey kids! We know you like dubstep and psytrance these days, so we put in some tweaks just for you!”
Then there’s the script, which has also been altered. There’s an entire additional passage of exposition-heavy dialogue, in which the Journalist explains how the Martians gave up sex and got rid of bacteria. This is, obviously, based on the original work, but part of the joy of the original is that it stands on its own — there is no need to have read the book. When I heard this, I stopped what I was doing and stared at my player. “How in the hell did he find that out? He’s been trudging round a red-weed infested London trying to survive, not conducting scientific research into the mating habits and pathology of the alien invaders!”
I haven’t seen this in the theatre, where they have introduced whizzy special effects. I don’t especially want to now that I’ve heard it. The original didn’t need them, as it was carefully crafted to do without. The 2012 version has suffered from revision and, possibly, part of that is because there are whizzy special effects in the show.
Only one thing stood out as remarkable. Remember I was talking about Ulludubulla Vol. 2? That album starts with an interesting spoken word piece by Papa Ootzie, looking at the Eve of the War from the point of view of the Martians.
“The problem is, of course, the humans,” are the last words spoken in the epilogue, and they sounds suspiciously like a straight lift from the above track.
Unless you are the sort of person who buys things just to have them in the collection, I wouldn’t recommend this version. The original is by far superior in every way, from score to script to performance. Get a copy of that, instead.