This is the end, but was the moment prepared for?

A couple of weeks ago, in the regular list of [notable radio programmes](http://blogs.thestage.co.uk/tvtoday/2009/07/turn-off-the-tv-radio-picks-july-18-24/) I prepare each week, I plugged Radio 2’s relay of a recent live performance of **[Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds](http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00lqpl7)**. That mention spurred me to listen once more to the album. This prog rock opera contains some of the most well-known riffs and melodies, but what really makes it is Richard Burton’s narration — and even more so, HG Wells’ original story.

It’s not for nothing that the original novel has become known as one of the greatest in the history of science fiction literature. It has a real sense of terror occurring in the most mundane of places — Martians landing in Woking, of all places. And while the anonymous journalist who is our narrator makes his way to a similarly ravaged London, it’s the effect on individuals that still resonate.

The ending, though? The ending sucks.

(Despite the novel being over 100 years old, I should warn you now — _there be spoilers ahead…_)


Devoid of all hope, the journalist heads for the Martians, to sacrifice himself because there is now nothing left to live for. Humanity is being routed, and he effectively chooses suicide rather than waiting for exterminaton to come to him.

And the machines start to die. Exposed to Earth’s bacteria to which they have no resistance, the invaders suddenly grind to a halt, and the Earth is saved.

And that’s it. The ‘defeat’ of the invading Martian hordes bears no relation to anything that has preceded it in the novel. I’d always found it deeply unsatisfying in book form, and listening to Burton’s narration in the Jeff Wayne version just reminded me how annoying that abruptness is. It’s one of the best examples of a _deus ex machina_ plot device in science fiction.

The use of _deus ex machina_ devices is a criticism often levied by fans against Doctor Who’s outgoing head writer Russell T Davies. It’s a charge which, with the possible exception of Series 1’s _Boom Town_, he has always resisted, as far as I know. And if you compare his stories against Wells’s invasion story, you can see that Russell’s right.

That’s not to say his endings are perfect. As I said in my write-up of [**Doctor Who** Series 2’s first episode, _New Earth_](http://matthewman.net/2006/04/15/new-earth-beyond-the-end-of-the-world/):

> In both [New Earth and The End of the World] it’s as if the production team are saying to us, “forget the sci-fi, it’s not important; look at the character work, that’s the real story”. And they’re right, in a way. In both cases, the subplots that benefit from the extra screen time (the fate of the Doctor’s people, the redemption of Cassandra) involve superb writing and acting from both leads and guests. But the rushed endings leave the whole episodes with the impression that they’re missing something.

I pretty much stand by that. As faults go, though, “so much going on that one has to concentrate on character rather than ‘plot'” isn’t a bad one to have. And no matter how many times I rewatch them, or how may times I reread _War of the Worlds_, I will always prefer Davies’ endings to Wells’.

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Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.

2 thoughts on “This is the end, but was the moment prepared for?”

  1. I thought there was a point behind the ending of The War of the Worlds, rather than it being a purely arbitrary deus ex machina, in that it is a small and seemingly insignificant natural organism that defeats the Martians, rather than all the technology humans can muster. So the book is showing up the hubris and dangers of an over-reliance on scientific and technological progress, both by the Martians and humanity. This seems to be a theme present in other of Well's work too (for example, The Time Machine). So, while I can understand why you think it is unsatisfying structually, I think thematically it adds a lot to the novel.