BBC Radio 3, 30 August 2009
Hailed on its first publication as one of the first major science fiction works, The Time Machine continues to fascinate readers of all generations. I was first introduced to the work one wet half-holiday at school, when we were all shepherded into an evil-smelling laboratory in the science building to watch a Super-8 film of George Pal's 1960 adaptation, with Rod Taylor valiantly struggling against some stop-frame animated Morlocks. Wells' story was recently remade - despite the millions of dollars spent on visual effects, it failed miserably, with the ex-Neighbours actor Guy Pearce proving no match for Taylor in the central role.
Jeremy Mortimer's radio version focused less on the story's frightening aspects, and looked instead at whether Wells' warnings about the future of humankind had actually been heeded. It began with an intriguing framing device, as the old H.G. Wells (William Gaunt) delivered a talk on the BBC before meeting up with a young American journalist Martha (Daniela Hayes). The time was 1943; and Wells took Martha on to the roof of a house near Broadcasting House, while he carried out his responsibilities as a volunteer fire officer during a German raid. There he recounted the story of the time machine, while speculating on its possible effect on people's understanding of the future.
The narrative subsequently moved back to the Victorian era, where the young Wells (Gunnar Cauthery) recounted his experiences of encountering the Time Traveller (Robert Glenister), and subsequently tried to make sense of what had happened. Mortimer's production thus retold the story on two levels: the older Wells described the experiences of the younger Wells, who in turn reported what the Time Traveller had told him. This device collapsed the distinctions between past and present - something further enhanced by the Time Traveller recalling his experiences in the future as if they had happened in the past. By such means Mortimer emphasized the arbitrary nature of temporal distinctions; mostly they are terms used by human beings in an attempt to make sense of the world. However The Time Machine looks forward to a time when such distinctions no longer matter; in the dog-eat-dog world of the Morlocks, everyone lives only for the moment.
This message would have had particular significance for Wells, a lifelong socialist who believed that the people's fundamental desire for material goods blinded them to the fact that they were destroying their world. However Mortimer's production went event further - by shifting the focus of attention to 1943, the director showed how the published text of The Time Machine was actually a watered-down of Wells' original. In the first draft the author had included a coda, showing how humankind had been reduced to cannon-fodder for giant crabs. This, according to the older Wells, what would happen if World War II was allowed to continue without someone stepping in to resolve the conflict. In view of what happened two years later at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, when the atom bomb signalled the dawn of the nuclear era, maybe he was right.
In an age where armed conflict endlessly continues, either in the Middle East or Afghanistan, Mortimer's production offered a chilling vision of humanity's imminent demise. No one seems capable of stopping it, whether in the present, past or future.