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TV REVIEW: FTN reviews The Great Martian War 1913-1917

December 15th, 2013 by Dave Bowling 1 Comment

The Great Martian War
History Channel

I’ll be honest, I was looking forward to this when I saw it advertised on The History Channel. Considering the closest they’ve ever come to science fiction is the insane ramblings of Giorgio Tsoukalos claiming that bad cave paintings are actually hyper-accurate drawings of aliens, this Wellesian steampunk mockumentary came as something of a shock.


Presented as a historical documentary recorded for the 100th anniversary of a Martian invasion (In reality the publication of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds), the show talks us through the lead-up to the invasion when Europe was on the verge of war in 1913. When an alien capsule crashes into the Black Forest and creates an 8-mile-wide crater, the world automatically assumes that Germany has tested some form of super-weapon and that war is certain. However, a few days later, Kaiser Wilhelm sends out a telegram pleading for help from the rest of the world: Germany is under attack from beings not of this world.

Within weeks, most of continental Europe is overrun by giant alien tripods (dubbed ‘Herons’ by the allied forces) and smaller tripod robots (‘Iron Spiders’), while small scavenger machines (‘Lice’) sweep the battlefields at night, clearing up everything in their path. Only after months of hard fighting do the Martians halt their advance, stopping dead across an enormous front stretching from Denmark to Italy.

As the stalemate grinds on, giant robotic submarines are launched out into the Atlantic, halting the shipment of arms from America and Canada. Allied generals gear up for huge assault after huge assault regardless, resulting in the deaths of millions of men and the expenditure of millions of tons of munitions for no gain. Eventually, after mines laid by British Empire forces destroy two Herons, several of the Spiders they control surrender. The mechanical Spiders are revealed to contain little exotic material beyond their power source and are built from recycled steel salvaged from the battlefield. A horrible truth sets in: the more they fight, the stronger the allies are making the enemy.

There’s a lot to like in this slightly odd offering. The interviews recorded with eyewitnesses and survivors of the war are authentically done, as if they were made in the 1970s and 1980s. The effects are nicely done, interspersing archive footage with authentically jerky CGI meant to simulate a hand-cranked cinecamera. Historical accuracy is good; there is even a parallel to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. In a similar vein to the end of The War of the Worlds, the Martians are discovered to be vulnerable to terrestrial illness, in this case the horse virus glanders. After vast amounts of the glanders virus are produced for a final attack, the disease jumps species and kills more people than the war did.

If there is a downside, it is that the human victory is somewhat unbelievable. No explanation is given how infantry and cavalry armed with bolt-action rifles were successful in making attacks against robotic drones, nor how herds of infected horses can spread glanders to Martians safely ensconced in 300-foot tall tripods. The power source of the Martian machines, a liquid metal with organic properties called ‘victicite’, is described as having created a huge technological revolution and may in fact be alive. Apart from a hypothesis that the metal is in some way acting like a parasite, changing a society’s behaviour to promote their spreading it throughout the universe, no in-depth analysis is made. What technological advances did victicite allow? How has the world changed from the reality we know?

All told, perhaps this is best described as an interesting curiosity. Sadly nothing more than that.

2.5 out of 5 Nerds

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Dave was born at an early age to parents of both sexes. He has been a self-confessed geek for as long as he can remember, having been raised through the 80s on a steady diet of Doctor Who, Star Trek, Red Dwarf and (sigh) Knight Rider. Throw the usual assortment of Saturday morning cartoons into the mix and we have something quite exceptional: someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of utter tosh; a love of giant robots and spaceships fighting; and the strange desire to leap tall buildings in a single bound while wearing his underpants over his trousers. The death ray is currently in the works and one day you shall all bow to him, his giant space station and fleet of funky orange space shuttles...