By Matthew Kresal
Future history and alternate history come hand in hand. Often with the former becoming the latter as events overtake them, the visions of tomorrow becoming what might have been. HG Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, the 1933 future history penned by one of the fathers of science fiction, has become a prime example of that in both its prose and 1936 cinematic versions. All of which makes the fact that the UK company Big Finish did an audio drama of it in 2017 as part of an HG Wells strand all the more remarkable.
On the surface, Wells' 1933 book would seem an unlikely candidate for adaptation. As anyone who has read or even just flipped through the book of Shape of Things to Come can tell you, Wells wrote something that isn't a novel, at least in a conventional sense. It is Raven's visions of the future, left in a dream diary, that Wells is relating after the diplomat's death. As a BBC Radio 4 documentary aired in 2017 as part of Archive on 4 pointed out, Wells was surprisingly right about some things and remarkably off about others. However accurate it was or wasn't, it is a book far more about ideas than anything as mundane as characters and plot, something which leaves it perhaps with an air of clinical detachment.
All of which makes the fact that it became an audio drama even more remarkable. Adapter Guy Adams certainly had his work cut out for him, given that Wells' work lacked characters and specific incidents. Besides, there's the simple fact that we are now halfway through the timeline Wells laid out, with large portions of it, such as a civilization-ending version of the Second World War, having failed to materialize. How does one adapt a future history whose origins have already receded well and truly into the past?
Make this Shape of Things to Come into an alternate history.
In adapting Wells's book, Adams combines two different approaches. This Phillip Raven (Sam Troughton) is a modern-day UN diplomat representing the UK, taking a flight to New York amidst an international crisis. Mid-flight, he's approached by Jane (Nicola Walker), who reveals herself to be not only a historian from the future but from an alternate history. One whose existence is at stake, with Raven being the only one able to set things back on track. Combining time travel with alternate history, Adams's take on Wells is a journey made through psychic projection (a neat update of the novel's original dream book) as Jane takes the diplomat through her history and eventually to the world she is trying to save. In taking this approach, Adams can keep many of the events that Wells' book alluded to while also creating characters and events that the listener can follow. It takes the sweeping scope of its source material and attaches to it a plot while also giving it a sense of urgency and tension the original novel lacked.
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 journeying through not only have been but still could be. The guide for Raven and the listener alike is Walker's Jane, with the actress bringing all of her presence and determination to bear as the historian. Even with Adams' script, lesser performers might have left this a dry piece of work. Instead, Troughton and Walker make the philosophical and moral elements of Wells' narrative come to life with a 21st century perspective on the world he created almost ninety years ago, especially with a downright thought-provoking ending. Around them is a supporting cast playing multiple roles from German soldiers to American presidents and many others caught in the midst of events both extraordinary and seemingly mundane. All brought together under the watch of veteran director Lisa Bowerman, there's a strong cast bringing Wells' story to life.
There's also the production values. Those familiar with Big Finish's output, such as their myriad Doctor Who audio dramas, will be aware of their reputation for creating what are in effect audio movies with soundscapes and scores that are downright cinematic at times. This release was no exception, thanks to Ian Meadows and Howard Carter. Meadows' sound design evocatively creates everything from the very different outbreak of the Second World War to crumbling cities and international conferences, all in the listener's ear. Carter's music gives the production a score that adds to its big-budget feel, evoking both the drama of individual scenes and the dramatic 'arc of history' scope of the narrative as necessary. Together, Meadows and Carter show what can be done with a bit of sound and music to create an entire world and its history.
As both an adaptation of Wells and as an alternate history drama in its own right, the Big Finish Shape of Things to Come is a triumph. Scriptwriter Adams deserves a large amount of praise for turning a seemingly unadaptable book into a fully functioning piece of drama. With a first-rate cast and production, it's also a showcase not only for Big Finish's talents as a company but also what the medium of audio drama can do for alternate history as a genre. So why not sit back and listen to the sounds of a tomorrow that might have been?