Though best known for their prolific output of audio dramas based on the long-running BBC series Doctor Who, the British company Big Finish Productions has been branching out for several years now. One of their more intriguing ranges has been a series of adaptations based on the works of H.G. Wells, the man who is in many ways the father of British science fiction. Following on their adaptations of The Invisible Man (which starred the late Sir John Hurt) and The First Men in the Moon, the company this month released its adaptation of another of Wells' works: The Shape of Things to Come.
On the surface, Wells' 1933 book would seem an unlikely candidate for adaptation. Anyone who has read or even just flipped through the book will realize that it isn't a novel at all. What it is instead is a future history told through the dream diary of one Phillip Raven, one of Britain's representatives at the League Of Nations (the proto-UN organization that existed between the first and second world wars) who wrote down what he could remember of his dreams of the future before passing away, thus leaving the book to Wells. As a BBC Radio 4 documentary aired earlier this year pointed out, Wells was surprisingly right about some things and remarkably off about other things. However accurate it was or wasn't, it is a book far more about ideas than anything else.
All of which makes the fact that it was adapted into an audio drama even more remarkable. Writer Guy Adams certainly had his work cut out for him given that the book lacked characters and specific incidents. Plus there was the simple fact that given we are now half way through the timeline Wells laid out, large portions of it have failed to happen. How does one adapt a work about a future history that is already receded well and truly into the past?
Admirably as it turns out. Adams combines two different approaches with this adaptation which finds Raven (played by Sam Troughton) as a UN diplomat representing the UK in the present day who, on a flight from London to New York, is approached by a woman named Jane (played by Nicola Walker who will be familiar to Big Finish listeners from her work in their Doctor Who ranges). Jane reveals herself to be not only from the future but from an alternate time-line as well with Raven being the only one who might be able to get it back on the right path. The story then becomes a journey done through something called psychic projection (which is “more than dreaming” according to Jane) as she takes the diplomat on a journey through her history and eventually to the world she is trying to save. In taking this approach, Adams is able to keep many of the events that Wells' book alluded to while also creating characters and events that the listener can attach to. It takes the sweeping scope of its source material and attaches to it a plot that works both on a personal level while also giving it a sense of urgency as well.
Part of what makes it work on those levels are the performances. Troughton and Walker make for compelling protagonists with Troughton's Raven, despite his status as a UN diplomat, becoming an everyman from our world being taken through another version of what might not only have been but still could be. Leading him on this journey is Walker's Jane, a historian who finds herself perhaps the best placed to explain the events Raven is experiencing and why hers might be the best of both worlds. Even with Adams' script, lesser performers might have left this a dry piece of work but instead Troughton and Walker make the philosophical and moral elements of Wells' narrative come to life with a 21st century perspective on the world that was envisaged more than eighty years ago. They are surrounded by a supporting cast playing multiple roles that brings this epic history to life from German soldiers to American presidents and so many people caught in the middle of extraordinary events under the direction of Lisa Bowerman (who herself makes a cameo). It's a remarkable story brought superbly to life by a remarkable cast.
There's also the production values, as well. Those familiar with Big Finish's output will be aware of their reputation for creating what are in effect audio movies with soundscapes and scores that are downright cinematic at times. The Shape of Things to Come is no exception thanks to the work of Ian Meadows and Howard Carter. Meadows' sound design evocatively creates everything from the outbreak of the Second World War to crumbling cites and international conferences all in the ear of the listener. Carter meanwhile continues to be one of the company's unsung heroes with a score which fits the story well, often being what a good score should be: subtle but evoking the right mood. Together, they show just what can be done with a bit of sound and music to create both a mood and a world.
Big Finish's The Shape of Things to Come then might well the most successful release of the company H.G. Wells range thus far. Guy Adams deserves a large amount of praise for turning a seemingly unadaptable book into a fully functioning and dramatic piece of audio drama. Hats off as well to the cast and crew who brought the script to life with all of its complexities both as a story and as a production. It is another example both of the company at its best and just what audio drama is capable of.
The Shape of Things to Come is currently available on CD and download through the Big Finish Productions website.