War of the Worlds: Grouchy Gabriel Byrne and creepy Daisy Edgar Jones get under your skin

TV review: This interpretation of HG Wells’s work is dour and slow, but full of mystery

Gabriel Byrne (Bill Ward) is a professor trying to crack the code of the aliens’ DNA

Gabriel Byrne (Bill Ward) is a professor trying to crack the code of the aliens’ DNA

 

The chances of two decent adaptations of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds arriving in the same calendar year were a million to one they said. And so it proved in 2019 as the BBC’s costumed retelling of Wells’s early sci-fi classic proved all ruffles and no bodice. At the time, far less attention was paid to a rival series from America’s Fox Network and Studio Canal. Yet it has proved to be the Martian odyssey with legs and now a second season lands on Disney + (Friday).

This isn’t Wells’s War of the Worlds. There are no tentacled, squirmy monsters, no soldiers zapped on Horsell Common. Instead it is a glum interpretation that carries in its soul the core “prestige TV” values of being very dour and very slow.

But, as the new run of episodes begins, this War of the Worlds is revealed to have several things going for it. One is the presence of Daisy Edgar Jones, a break-out star of Normal People. In War of the Worlds, she’s Emily Gresham, a young English woman with a strange connection to the intergalactic invaders.

The other big name is Gabriel Byrne, wonderfully grouchy as Bill Ward, a professor trying to crack the code of the aliens’ DNA. In a world teetering on destruction, he’s the closest thing to an authoritative voice. If there was an alien invasion equivalent of the National Public Health Emergency Team, Bill would be in charge.

Daisy Edgar Jones, a break-out star of Normal People, in War of the Worlds as Emily Gresham
Daisy Edgar Jones, a break-out star of Normal People, in War of the Worlds as Emily Gresham

The good news is that he’s solved the central mystery of why the earth has been attacked. The extra-terrestrial genomes are a dead ringer for those of humans. They’re here to juice up their ailing soft tissue with delectable earthling DNA (note: Bill’s findings may not stand up to peer review).

He’s in London, where the bodies of the victims of the interstellar incursion are strewn all about the streets. And where the invaders’ donut-shaped landing craft loom across the skyline. Think 28 Days Later or Leicester Square the morning of the Euro2020 final, only slightly less existentially terrifying.

War of the Worlds also reintroduces Emily. She still has that creepy psychic link to these elusive and unknowable creatures – just like Marianne with Connell in Normal People, then. The big difference is, of course, that, rather than being handy at underage football, the aliens are All-Star planet wreckers. But why restore Emily’s sight? And now that she has returned from six months on one of their spaceships what’s with her weird new tattoo?

So there are lots of questions in part one and not much in the way of answers. Yet the show weaves an elaborate mystery and even if you couldn’t tell HG Wells from DJ Carey this all-new War of the Worlds gets under the skin. What it lacks in spectacular, rampaging aliens it more than compensates for with its creepy atmosphere and rising dread.

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