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Friday November 16, 2012

Warriors of the worlds

Warrior of two worlds: Killraven was one
of Marvel’s more offbeat characters from the
1970s, inspired by The War Of The Worlds. Warrior of two worlds: Killraven was one of Marvel’s more offbeat characters from the 1970s, inspired by The War Of The Worlds.

THERE’S a certain Malaysian-made 3D animated movie making the rounds right now that is a sequel of sorts to the classic HG Wells novel The War Of The Worlds.

But War Of The Worlds: Goliath is far from the only spinoff to Wells’ tale. WOW takes a look at the more notable WOTW derivatives.

We won’t dwell too much on the obvious candidates – George Pal’s classic 1953 movie adaptation with Gene Barry and Steven Spielberg’s 2005 Tom Cruise starrer – but will go a little off the beaten path to show just how far and how wide the book’s influence has reached.

What a novel idea

Although not the first alien invasion tale in literary history, Wells’ original certainly is the best remembered from its time – it has never gone out of print in almost 115 years. Seen variously as a “scientific romance” (taken at face value) to an indictment of British imperialism (invaders using superior technology to the natives to gain an advantage) with elements of social Darwinism (the powerful and “superior” Martian “class” thrives by decimating “inferior” humanity and then preying upon the survivors), it inspired unofficial sequels and ripoffs even at the time of its original publication.

According to online sources, some of the notable companion pieces of the time include one unauthorised revision of the story retitled Fighters From Mars and a followup story which had Thomas Edison leading a counterattack to the Red Planet! (See, it’s not such a “new” thing to put historical figures or famous folk of the times into fictional tales.)

It would not be far off the mark to say that hundreds of prose stories have been written around Wells’ original. Some of the noteworthy books are the effort of Kevin J. Anderson, bestselling science fiction author and known in genre circles for co-authoring several Dune books with original writer Frank Herbert’s son.

Writing as Gabriel Mesta, Anderson gave us The Martian War in 2005, where he wrote of HG Wells actually witnessing the alien attacks and then participating in a favour-returning voyage.

Wells’ other fictional creations Dr Moreau and the Invisible Man appear, along with real-life astronomer Percival Lowell and Wells’ mentor TH Huxley. The book was recently reissued under Anderson’s own name.

Almost a decade before that, Anderson also put together a collection of war stories in 1996’s War Of The Worlds: Global Dispatches. Anderson edited the anthology, and set his contributors a challenge: they would have to write their stories through the viewpoint of a famous person living in those times. Foreshadowing Goliath’s inclusion of Theodore Roosevelt in its narrative, this book had a tale of Roosevelt slaying a Martian in Cuba. Other points of view included those of Albert Einstein, astronomer Lowell, authors Jules Verne and Mark Twain.

One more notable novel is 2010’s The War Of The Worlds: Aftermath by Tony Wright, which is as direct a sequel as you could ask for – it takes place right after the events in Wells’ book, features the same narrator, and is even written in the same style. The premise is that humanity only thought it won the first Martian war, and mixes in figures like Sherlock Holmes and Winston Churchill.

This bandwagon doesn’t look like it’s going to stop rolling anytime soon.

Don’t panic

Everyone knows about the famous Oct 30, 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War Of The Worlds that panicked citizens across the United States who thought it was for real. But not many people have seen The Night That Panicked America, a very nicely done TV-movie from back in 1975.

I was fortunate to catch this on the old Movie Of The Week slot one Sunday night (not much bargaining needed to be done to stay up on a school night – I was in the afternoon session back then) and have vivid memories of how Welles’ sound effects men recreated the sound of the Martian cylinders unscrewing by unscrewing jam jars (I think they were jam jars) inside a toilet bowl.

The movie captured the enthusiasm and drive of Welles in putting the show together, and also depicted quite amusingly how entire communities went all paranoid – and then outright crazy – during the broadcast. One group of farmers was even shown firing shotguns at a water tower, imagining it to be a Martian tripod.

Combat! star Vic Morrow was in it, along with Three’s Company dude John Ritter and character actor Paul Shenar as Orson Welles.

This is one made-for-TV effort that truly deserves a DVD release.

Music of the battling spheres

When it comes to concept albums, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds (1978) has proved to have legs as long as a Martian tripod’s. Nearly 35 years on, it still gives me goosebumps on my occasional re-listens.

Think of it as a rock opera interpretation of Wells’ story, even divided into two parts (the war, and the Earth under the Martians) like the book. It’s filled with memorable tunes (Forever Autumn, wherein the narrator reminisces about his fiancee, was a top five single in Britain and a version of it both opens and closes the Goliath movie), trippy sound effects, and the Martian war cry of “Ulla” reverberates throughout.

Thunder Child, in which a valiant warship crew buys valuable time for a fleeing passenger liner hunted by tripods, is as stirring as any similar sequence in a movie might be, and it’s only an aural experience here.

This album holds a special place in my geeky memory, as I discovered it in a music shop in Bukit Bintang Plaza as a teen and couldn’t afford the LP – heck, we’d long since got rid of the household record player anyway – so I had to resort to, er, grey means to listen to it. I kept those duped cassettes with their handwritten track titles for years, and later bought both the double CD set and a DVD of the Live On Stage concert.

Richard Burton’s masterful narration, his encounters with the big-dreaming Artilleryman (David Essex) and the deranged Parson Nathaniel and his perturbed wife Beth (Phil Lynott and Julie Covington, the latter being the original Evita in the studio recording of the musical) are burned into my subconscious from repeat listens.

The best news about JWMVOTWOTW is that there’s a new version coming out! The New Generation features new narration by Liam Neeson, a new cast and (probably) songs and will explore in greater detail the relationship between the narrator and his fiancee, and use modern production techniques to record new performances of Wayne’s original compositions. It’s due out in late November, which is just two short weeks away!

In addition to the album (which spent a staggering 290 weeks on the British album charts), JWMVOTWOTW has become a little franchise of its own with numerous live shows/concert tours (I must catch one someday – it’s on my bucket list), a still-in-development CGI movie, and several videogames including a 2011 game for iOS devices.

Drummed out of the Corps

Some of you may remember the late 80s TV series bearing the title War Of The Worlds. It was actually a follow-up to the 1953 movie, so the Martians looked like Pal’s interpretation with the tri-lobed eye and three-fingered hands than Wells’ brains-with-mouths-and-tentacles. But for budgetary reasons, it was soon established that the aliens could take over human bodies, thereby avoiding the need for having too many creature effects.

The premise was that the bacteria that laid our invading foes low didn’t kill them but just rendered them dormant. In true Area 51 style, the alien “corpses” were not burned at the end of the movie but sealed in metal drums (if memory serves). Exposure to radiation killed the bacteria keeping these ETs slumbering, and they then declared guerrilla war on Earth.

Along the way, it was also revealed that the aliens were not really Martians, but used the Red Planet as a staging ground.

This series lasted just two seasons (some say it was killed by a big tonal shift in the second season), and remains both an intriguing curiosity and a waste of potential. Adrian Paul, who voices one of the characters in Goliath, came on board the show in Season Two as a mercenary.

Warrior of the Worlds

In the early 1970s, Marvel Comics was looking for far-out sci-fi concepts to expand its catalogue beyond superhero offerings. Killraven, Warrior Of The Worlds was one of these, first appearing in the pages of its Amazing Adventures comic in issue #18 in May 1973.

The premise was that the Martians invaded the Earth for a second time in 2001, enslaving the population and establishing a gladiatorial class of humans for their own sport and entertainment. Killraven was one such fighter, and he escaped the gladiator pens with several others, establishing a resistance movement against the Martians.

Comics legends Neal Adams and Gerry Conway created Killraven, but it was writer Don McGregor, who took over the title with issue #21, who imbued the series with the kind of dreamy, heady elements that made this series one of my favourites from those days. Artists came and went on the series but P. Craig Russell (Elric, Sandman) made it his own right from his first issue, #27.

Killraven ran only until 1976, but the character has subsequently appeared in graphic novels, one-shots and miniseries. He has also guest-starred in several other Marvel titles such as The Avengers, and it was established that his “Martian future” was one of many possible alternate futures in the Marvel Universe timeline.

The McGregor-Russell run is one of the most offbeat, gorgeously drawn and elaborately written arcs from early Marvel and remains, criminally, unavailable in a colour compilation (just one of those black-and-white Essential volumes).

The above examples of “direct” spin-offs should give an idea of the huge influence HG Wells’ The War Of The Worlds has had on our entertainment. Yet its influence is not confined to the pop culture scene.

One of the most momentous achievements in history can be attributed in part to Wells’ visionary work. Physicist and rocket science pioneer Robert H. Goddard read the book at age 16 in 1899 and became fascinated by space – and getting there. He spent a great deal of his life inventing rockets, and his research was carried on by others, culminating in the Apollo moon landings.

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