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The First Men In The Moon (2010)
Director: Damon Thomas

review by J.C. Hartley

What would we do without Mark Gatiss? He helps steer Doctor Who, he revives Sherlock Holmes in our own century, he gives us a three-part documentary on the horror flick, and stands up for science fiction and fantasy everywhere. And here, in a remarkable bit of literary compression, he manages to convey the wonder and adventure, and some of the poignancy, of the great H.G. Wells.

If there is a better line in science fiction than, "Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us." - then I don't know what it is. That line, of course, is from The War Of The Worlds; but in The First Men In The Moon, Wells considered man's 'invasion' of another world, and his abrupt confrontation with an alien race, the Selenites.

C.S. Lewis greatly regarded The First Men In The Moon, and it was to be an inspiration for his own 'space trilogy' - comprising Out Of The Silent Planet, Perelanda, and That Hideous Strength. Lewis, of course, was totally opposed to Wells' mindset, his politics, and his ethical motivation, and probably his morality. He satirises Wells as the deluded cockney director of NICE, the fascistic demonic organisation attempting to take over Britain in That Hideous Strength. Lewis deplored what he saw as Wells' faith in a reductionist science and his apparent rejection of Christian faith.

We had a secondary school headmaster who read to us from Lewis' theological works in religious education lessons. Even at that age we could see through Lewis' simplistic philosophy. This particular headmaster insisted on RE lessons where boys and girls were segregated on separate days, and was horrified to discover that we actually discussed the lessons when we got together. He banned all physical contact between the sexes and displayed the worst kind of priggish attitude to sex and the healthy companionship of male and female. Consequently, I have been unable to separate my attitude to C.S. Lewis from my memory of this particular headmaster.

It is notable that the character Jane in That Hideous Strength is condemned as the new-fangled kind of female who does not defer to her husband, and the lesbian Miss Hardcastle is a sexual sadist. Of course, female characters in Wells' SF are marginal, or few and far between, despite his more liberated approach to morality and equality. Lewis was of course a wonderful writer, and the Space trilogy is a great read, despite being encumbered with the writer's personal philosophy. The same flaws appear in the Narnia books; and while this was obviously not Lewis' intention, the sense of anger and despair that follows a reading of The Last Battle cannot be underestimated.

Wells at least used literature as a platform for belief and instruction in a wholly more edifying way. The First Men In The Moon manages to satirise both capitalism in the character of the cynical and incompetent entrepreneur Bedford, and science in the unworldly theoretician Cavor, while celebrating the men's unlikely friendship.

Gatiss' adaptation follows the 1964 film version in bracketing the Edwardian tale with a modern-day prologue. In the film, a modern Moon landing team were amazed to discover a Union flag on the lunar surface. In this TV version, on the day of the 1969 Moon landing, a small boy stumbles into a booth at a fair, and watches the kinematographs of a 90-year old man who claims to have been the first man in the Moon.

On the run from creditors, Bedford (Rory Kinnear, currently playing Hamlet at the National) meets Cavor (Mark Gatiss), who has invented a substance which suspends the effects of gravity. While Bedford sees Cavorite's commercial potential, Cavor proposes using the invention to facilitate a trip to the Moon. Inevitably there is a Wallace and Gromit aspect to the application, but - as with the best SF - there is a willing suspension of disbelief. The two companions reach the lunar surface and discover a race of insectile beings, Selenites, living within the shell of the satellite.

A confrontation between men and aliens results in Bedford killing some of the Selenites, and Cavor allows Bedford to escape back to Earth, opting to remain behind on the Moon. Bedford eventually discovers Cavor's fate from a transcript of a Morse code broadcast. Having met the Selenite leader, The Grand Lunar, Cavor foolishly described humanity's love of war. The Grand Lunar urged Cavor to create more Cavorite, and the scientist, fearing that the intention was to invade Earth, used the substance to steal the atmosphere of the world presumably condemning himself and his captors to death. There is a nice twist at the end.

Inevitably, the story proceeds at some pace and the hordes of Selenites of the book are somewhat minimally reproduced in its adaptation. But the characters of Bedford and Cavor come through well, and the relatively small budget is used to its best effect. All credit to Gatiss, who is rewarding both network and viewers by using his current ascendancy to create intelligent and entertaining programmes.

The First Men in the Moon



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