Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Great Martian War

I forget when exactly it aired (last spring?) but I remembered my mixed reaction when I saw it.

It was a two-hour BBC program called The Great Martian War. It was all shot "mockumentary" style with actors portraying historians and survivors of a conflict called "The Martian Invasion of 1913." So you guessed it. It was a mash-up of World War I and War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

The 1913 portrayed in the mock-documentary is much the same as that of our actual historical reality. All of Europe is itchy and twitchy as it appears Germany is girding itself for war. So when a massive explosion booms out from the Black Forest, the world naturally assumes that Bismarck has tested a superweapon. That line of thought all changes when the German government sends out a telegram begging for help, stating that a "cylinder" full of alien war machines is laying waste to the nation.

And things just begin to deteriorate from there. The Martians (as they are somehow determined to be) have ominous technology at their disposal. There are the "Herons," towering tripod war machines much like the kind Wells described in his novel. There are the "Spiders," which are smaller versions of the Herons and act rather as the foot soldiers to the Herons battlefield commanders (more on that in a moment.) Perhaps most insidious of all are the "Lice."

After the armies of Germany, France, and Britain engage the alien enemy, they find themselves losing. After all, infantry and cavalry are no real match for what geeks might recognize as essentially "battle mechs." It's a slaughter. Perhaps even more disturbing than the carnage is the fact that the morning after a large-scale engagement, the battlefield is utterly barren. There is no wreckage. There is no debris. Creepiest of all, there are no bodies. Survivors tell the camera that they at first speculated that Martians took the bodies during the night for nefarious purposes. In a way, yes.

The Lice, stubby, crawly robots, move across the battlefield and devour whatever is in their path. They take what is useful to the Martians, namely things made of metal or composed of crude electrical components, and then discard the rest. "The rest" in this case being the corpses of humans and horses. They were ground up and dispersed back into the soil. The inorganic material became raw resources for the Martian military to resupply itself. With this kind of self-sustaining supply line added to advanced technology and firepower, the area under Martian control grew to extend as far north as Denmark, as far south as Italy, and westward into France.

The seas are no picnic, either. Just like in the real World War I, the United States and Canada encounter deadly lurkers in the deep as the two nations attempt to move men and supplies across the Atlantic. Instead of U-Boats, this time it's Martian robots "running silent, running deep."

Eventually, things start going right for the humans. Once a Heron steps on a landmine and is destroyed, the Spiders deactivate. Taking the hint, the Allies target the Herons as command and control figures. Additionally, a riff on the original Wells ending becomes the main reason that humans are able to turn things around. A Heron comes to an impotent stop in London. Inside it is a dead Martian who is found to have no resistance to the bacteria and viruses of Earth. Once again taking a hint, the Allies inflict the horse virus glanders upon the Martians. Sick and dying, the Martian advance utterly halts and the war is over.

A cool twist for history buffs is that this type of biological warfare forms a parallel to the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 where people begin to contract the virus and not just the Martians.  Instead of Wells' humility of humans being saved by the smallest of creation, however, we see a pavonine strutting of "oh humans are so strong" that left a bad taste in my mouth.

I'm left wondering just what the motivation was for this mock-documentary. It's a unique concept, yes, but where were the producers going with it? It's a quality production. I mean, you're not going to get anything less than that from the BBC, but it's just odd. It's almost as if it's too small in scope to be a feature event and not fully-developed enough to become a series. There is a springboard for a series (what that would look like I have no idea) in the sense that the recovered Martian technology called "victicite" has made it into the contemporary electronics of the world of the documentary. There is an insinuation that victicite might actually be biotech with a sense of sentience. Is it trying to make us into Martians?

Who the hell knows. They don't tell us.

This is not to say that The Great Martian War isn't worth a look online or the next time you see it listed on BBC. If you like history or if you like science fiction or if you're like me and you like both, this is one to see. Just don't expect much more than entertainment.

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