REVIEW: The First Men in the Moon

If you're wondering why this piece of telly is being reviewed here (where have you been?), then you should know that this latest production of the HG Wells classic novel not only stars Who alumni Mark Gatiss, but it's also written by him too.

The First Men in the Moon
tells the very British story of homemade escapades to the Moon; a bit like Wallace & Gromit, except about 90 years before them. It centers around "scientific investigator" Professor Cavor (played by the aforementioned Mark Gatiss), failed playwright/businessman Julius Bedford (Rory Kinnear) and their journey to our orbiting satellite, and the adventures therein. All told within the framing device of the latter recounting the tale to a young boy on the day of the lunar landing in 1969.

As soon as the two men meet, the laughter and the fun begin. Gatiss is the veritable riot from the get~go; bothering Bedford with his, unbeknownst to Cavor, involuntary noises - a bit like a gurgling splodge as his thoughts grind away. He also manages to create a marvelous catchphrase in the word, "Probably." Throughout the ninety minutes or so, the League of Gentleman actor imbibes the theatricality of Lionel Jeffries, so magnificently gregarious in the 1964 film version (thoughtfully, the producers have added an onscreen tribute for the late actor). It's certainly one of the most memorable of Gatiss's many performances, and my favourite - he manages to fit so many subtle quirks, delightful idiosyncrasies and wonderfully delivered lines into his larger~than~television performance.

Tempering this is his straight man Kinnear (pictured above). The actor impressed greatly in another top~notch BBC Four drama, Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, as the bumblingly absent Dennis Thatcher and more recently in BBC Two's Vexed. Kinnear plays the more complex of the roles with great aplomb; immediately likeable and yet displays so many unpleasant traits - he lies to Cavor and sees the mission as financial reward. Prospecting and diamonds are his goal.

It's these two very different men, and their aims, that make for such a fascinating, and hilarious, watch. Cavor is endearingly idiotic in his naivete and thirst for adventure whereas Bedford comes off as the slightly jaded money~man, whose creativity has failed him. The differences are never more notable than when Cavor demonstrates the properties of his invention, Cavorite (a substance that defies gravity). Bedford sees the "practical applications," making them "rich beyond the dreams of avarice," whereas Cavor simply seeks knowledge. Two very different kinds of "hero".

Countering these British buffoons are the inhabitants of the Moon - named, in advance, as the Selenites. Although the production could be described as "small", the CG aliens are designed and realised in impeccable fashion with a stop~motion feel. For the most part, the Selenites are an impressive creation, especially in close~ups during conversations. Their voices and sounds are suitably other~worldy and befitting the mood of the piece.

Similarly, the CG landscapes, interiors, "space~ships" and space itself are almost perfect throughout with only one or two effects that don't quite convince. Without patronising, the homespun feel of the story, with men punching above their weight (as it were), is mirrored in the TV production that looks and feels like cinema (there's even a remarkably similar reverse shot of the famous Star Wars scene where the escape pod travels through space towards Tatooine when we see their ship leave Earth).

The script from Gatiss contains much warmth and humour for the majority of First Men, with delicious touches like: the men pulling back curtains to look at the Moon from space; comparing space travel to pottering about in a boat; and Cavor's shock that Bedford hasn't taken a book with him to read on the journey, for example. But the drama kicks in when the men are separated, and the joy of the opening half gives way to the more serious points raised by the HG Wells novel (man's violent nature, greed and Empire building).

And this is perhaps one of the only negatives about the production. The latter third is serious and I did miss the relationship between the men (one wishes for a First Men in the Moon sitcom every week). The, it has to be said, quite shocking violence (mainly as it was a surprise), will take you out of your warm fuzzy feelings and remind you of the text being adapted. Once violence enters, everything changes. But, a small point. It's not "meant" to be a roustabout laugh~fest.

A strong criticism I do have is not of the production itself, but of its transmission. I'm at a loss as to why the BEEB think this outstanding piece of television is fit to debut on an unremarkable Tuesday in the middle of October on BBC Four. The production values (tremendous sets and loactions), magnificent score (from Michael Price) and delightful performances rank this as one of the best things you'll see on the small screen this year and deserves a bigger audience than all the Only Connect fans who watch the channel. One hopes a festive repeat on BBC One (or Two, at least) bodes for Gatiss & Co.

The First Men in the Moon is pure, unabashed and unashamedly science~fiction from the past, including numerous nods to the both the 1964 version and Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (look out for some interesting cameos in that sequence). A time when reality wasn't on the agenda; a time when everything didn't have to be scientifically explained; a time when imagination meant anything could happen; a time when men could walk on the Moon without a space~suit. Most of all, a time you can let yourself go and enjoy.

A rare feat in the current television climate.

The First Men in the Moon airs
9pm, Tues Oct 19 on BBC Four & BBC HD


Thanks to the BBC

Labels: , , , , ,