❉ Big Finish’s adaptation is an enjoyably authentic scientific romance, with some timely things to say about imperialism and nationalism.
I imagine most people’s memories of The First Men in the Moon will come from the colourful 1964 movie by director George Pal, a staple ingredient of Saturday morning TV in the 1970s, which saw Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), Bedford (Edward Judd) and the obligatory female interest, Kate (Martha Hayer), who wasn’t in the novel, explore a subterranean moon culture brought to engaging life by Pal’s inventive special effects team.
The film riffed on contemporary interest in the 1960s’ space race – the British Empire had got to the moon before the Americans – while Big Finish’s offering addresses the darker legacy of the way the United Kingdom colonised most of the world in the 19th century.
The contradictions of late-Victorian English society are explored through the two main characters. Bedford (Gethin Anthony, upright, likeable but roguish) is a businessman who can see profit in anything. When he meets the amiable, open-minded but naive English scientist Professor Cavor (a perfectly cast Nigel Planer, making you instantly forget Lionel Jeffries), he spots possibly his best-ever business opportunity in cavorite, an invention ofthe Professor’s that can make objects weightless.
Only an H.G. Wells novel could reveal a scientific miracle in the idyllic English countryside, and this combination of the domestic and the outlandish, as the two men get to know each other, gives the adaptation much of its charm: Bedford’s nose for exploitation tells him the Professor’s invention will make both of them rich – ‘This cavorite of ours is the future’ – while the Professor, on the other hand, is every inch the enthusiastic but naïve scientist-explorer, passing on his theories in layman’s terms to Bedford, oblivious of the massive commercial potential his process offers, despite Bedford’s best efforts at persuasion. There’s much to enjoy in this section as the two miss-matched men get to know each other, which ends amusingly with the distillation of a successful cavor compound that sends the Professor’s house and its contents skywards.
When Cavor’s sphere takes both men to the moon, Cavor is in his element, relishing ‘a kingdom to haunt the mind’ (and, in places, reminding you of another eccentric, Victorian-styled space explorer.) Bedford, on the other hand, dreams of space liners with casinos between the Earth and the Moon, initially seeing ‘nothing here [he] can sell’, until he discovers the subterranean Selinite civilisation (named after the moon goddess Selene).
Effectively devised with minimal sound effects and backgrounded soundscapes, the mind is inspired by insectoid creatures the size of children, ‘moon calves’ the Selinites use as cattle and plants that germinate at an incredible rate. At this point, Bedford’s avarice and ignorance towards the new culture he’s discovered enters the realm of tragedy: the most powerful scene in the play, it’s horrifying for the dismissive, matter-of-fact way he deals with the ‘bugs’ who populate the moon. Later, Cavor’s naïve honesty about the warlike nature of man sees the story take an even darker turn, as a superior culture takes steps to subdue a more ‘primitive’ one. The irony of this situation, totally lost on characters who believe they are only behaving as Englishmen should – who are, of course, always right – is nicely underplayed.
The main innovation of this adaptation is having Bedford relate his story – after returning to Earth –to a charming dinner companion, Maria Bell (Chloe Pirri), who turns out to be working for a ‘secret wing of the government’ [Torchwood, perhaps?]. In the adaptation’s only unconvincing scene, she introduces him to an asylum inmate who can (somehow) pick up Cavor’s morse code signals from the moon through a steel plate in his head. Why this was changed from the more believable experimental radio equipment in the novel is anyone’s guess, but this curious change does set things up for a possible sequel.
With references to the prejudice shown to those people who are ‘different’ – John Merrick – the lucrative empires lost by the native Americans and Aztecs because they were ‘children’,and Bedford believing it’s his patriotic duty to exploit the moon’s resources, Big Finish’s The First Men in the Moon has a powerful contemporary resonance.
The real joy of the play is in hearing these powerful themes played out in such an enjoyable double act as Planer and Anthony.
❉ ‘Big Finish Classics: The First Men in the Moon’ was released on 6 March 2017. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until April 30th 2017, and on general sale after this date.