The biggest pleasure about HG Wells’ writing is that it’s more about the characters and the underlying lessons or thought experiments than it is about the hardcore science-fiction. Published in 1901, some 35 after Jules Verne’s seminal From The Earth To The Moon, Wells’ scientific romance The First Men In The Moon, perhaps more than some of his better-known works like “The Invisible Man”, “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds”, is HG Wells both having teaching some moral lessons and having some simple adventurous fun.
And make no mistake – there is tons of fun to be had in the new Big Finish audio adaptation of Wells’ work by Jonathan Barnes; comparing it with the company’s recent adaptation of “The Invisible Man” is tonally like night and day, with “First Men” very much the straighter, simpler comedy. It’s very much an ‘odd couple’ story, telling what happens when the eccentric, optimistic and chronically naïve Professor Cornelius Cavor (Nigel Planer) meets businessman and ‘adventure capitalist’ Mr Bedford (Gethin Anthony) en route to the opportunity of a lifetime.
Scientist Cavor has created a ‘gravity-opaque’ coating that calls Cavorite, which allows a travel sphere – essentially an unsophisticated turn-of-the-century diving bell – to be propelled from the Earth to the Moon by just freeing itself of Earth’s pull, and then eventually allowing it to be captured by the Moon’s gravity. Bedford sees the commercial opportunities that both Cavorite and the moon might hold, and determines to stick with his clueless scientific genius at all costs, not only to escape his current debts, but to become the head of an enormous Cavorite-based business empire, not least of which will be moon tourism operations…
The trip to the moon though shows up enormous gulfs of understanding and approach between the two men, and this is Wells teaching his lessons. When it turns out that the moon is not only alive with rapidly growing vegetation, but has an advanced technological insectoid civilisation in its innards, Bedford is spooked and terrified by everything he sees, convinced the moon-dwellers intend them nothing but harm, while Cavor, bringing clueless naivety but scientific open-mindedness to the party, attempts to find common ground and a means of communication with our satellite neighbours. There’s a lesson there that what you bring to the business of exploration and discovery is what you find – fear or wonder – but it’s ultimately Cavor in his naivety who brings the greatest danger, both to the moon dwellers and ultimately to the Earth too, by simply recounting some highlights of Mankind’s history of war. Because he’s willing to take the universe as he finds it, he naively expects the moon dwellers will too – even when he’s told them about Man’s history of slaughtering and imprisoning any indigenous species in their path for their own financial benefit and gain.
The science in the science-fiction – as was always the case with HG Wells – is dubious in the extreme, while sounding just about plausible enough to hang a story on. While there’s plenty of gloriously speculative invention about what the moon might be like – sixty years before Mankind ever set a space-boot on the satellite – Wells’ moon has an atmosphere, jungles, a vast internal cavern network, heaping deposits of subterranean gold and of course, moon-people, although he does play well with the scientific realities of weightlessness and gravitation.
Wells – and now Big Finish – more or less use the Moon as a subject for a rollicking good adventure story that asks questions along the way about quite how ready we are as a species to go introducing ourselves to the rest of the universe. The lessons are never too hard or too heavy though, and despite a tweaked ending to the story which ups the danger level of Cavor and Bedford’s trip to the moon, the abiding sensation you’re left with after finishing this new audio version is of having had a good chuckle.
The Big Finish version has great pace, and if anything punches up the odd couple comedy of Wells’ original, Planer giving his scientific ingénue an utterly maddening cluelessness, and Anthony sounding like he’s about to burst blood vessels at the Professor’s relentless chirpy optimism. There’s good work too from Chloe Pirrie as Maria Bell, the young woman to whom Bedford, having safely returned from his exertions on the moon, tells his tale.
Director Lisa Boweman keeps the story bouncy and breezy, allowing the comedy to have its beats while all the while delivering those growing lessons of uncertainty over which, if either, approach is better – the Professor’s optimism and his aim of simple scientific brotherhood, or Bedford’s more suspicious, fearful profit-eyed worldview. By the end, you’ve learned some lessons, absolutely, but more than that, you’ve had a great deal of fun and some moments of genuine wonder.