• Bayo Gbadamosi in ‘War of the Worlds’. (SBS)Source: SBS
Six billion people were slaughtered by alien invaders who look like us. We ask showrunner Howard Overman what that revelation means for humanity’s last stand.
Stephen A. Russell

27 Aug 2021 - 10:09 AM  UPDATED 27 Aug 2021 - 10:09 AM

Spoiler alert! The phrase “Kill your darlings” should be posted as a trigger warning before every episode of hit series War of the Worlds. First, showrunner Howard Overman offed Elizabeth McGovern’s Helen, just as she was getting cosy once more with ex-husband Bill (Gabriel Byrne). Then, with the audience still reeling from the shocking discovery by Emily (Daisy Edgar-Jones) that the unseen alien enemy looks a whole lot like us, Overman cruelly plucks another fan favourite.

Chuckling mischievously, he reveals he’s entirely unphased by writing the show’s murderous twists. “Everyone gave me a really hard time for killing the little girl in the freezer in series one, and I would just point out that I’ve killed six billion people prior to that, but everyone’s worried about her and the dog Bill left behind in episode two.”

This is war, after all. Based loosely on H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic, the story is more focused on the quandaries faced by humanity’s survivors. “It’s really important, and shows like Game of Thrones know this, that this is a dangerous world,” Overman says. “If all of your main characters survive, then there is no threat. You’ve got to have characters you care about die, or else it doesn’t feel very real.” You have been warned.

While the first few minutes of season two tease us with who the enemy might be, underlining their connection to Emily, the action quickly jumps forward four months. Overman wanted to avoid repetitive exposition as the goodies discover what Emily now knows. It also allows him to reintroduce us to old friends subtly changed by their experiences. He points to Emily’s younger brother Tom (Ty Tennant) as a great example of why the time jump works. “He was a really innocent college kid, scared and confused all the time, and then when we meet him in season two, he’s been fighting non-stop for four months. He’s shaved his head and become a soldier. We see that in real combat zones, that children lose their childishness and change quite quickly.”

The humanoid appearance of the other side sees the so-called good guys confronting the inconvenient truth about war. “We always think of our enemies as massively different to us, but chances are, they are probably very similar,” Overman says. “That’s why military strategists over the years have always tried to dehumanise their enemies, because it’s easier to kill people you don’t relate to.”

He was never interested in writing a story about little green men zapping us with lasers. “Now we know who they are and that they are like us, it makes us ask a lot of questions about why they hate and want to kill us. And one of the big issues is how far [the characters] are prepared to go, what they’re prepared to do to people who they see as both alien and human, in order to win.”

Bill is driven to a very dark place by the death of Helen, holding Emily responsible for her loss. Her strange connection to the other side and torn loyalties cracks open a fault line between them. That also puts Bill at odds with her mum Sarah (Natasha Little), just as her husband Jonathan (Stephen Campbell Moore) resurfaces with his new partner Chloe (Stéphane Caillard) and her creepy son Sacha (Mathieu Torloting). “If you take a normal mum or dad, what would they be prepared to do to protect the kids?” Overman asks. “And I think the answer is pretty much anything.”

After all, he points out we were barely moments into the real-world pandemic when great swathes of everyday folks went all Lord of the Flies in supermarkets, to hell with everyone else. “It only took a little bit before people were panic-buying toilet rolls, let alone something as bad as an alien invasion. So hopefully the show reflects that, the best and worst of us.”

Across the Channel, there’s a strange sort of calm flourishing in the halting love emerging between scientist Catherine Durand (Léa Drucker) and soldier Colonel Mustafa Mokrani (Adel Bencherif). But even this is tested by her Bill-like fixation on understanding – and possibly defeating – the enemy. A flashpoint ignites with Mustafa when they disagree over what to do with the last lot of antibiotics stashed in the observatory where they’re hiding out in the French Alps. Her sister Sophia (Emilie de Preissac) tries to draw Catherine out of her obsessive studies.

“That’s an ongoing process for Catherine across this series, that she has to learn maybe she’s too focused on the science, that she sometimes forgets about humanity. Sophia helps her to understand that and, actually, by thinking more about the people, Catherine gets some really good scientific insights into the situation.”

Our shared humanity with the desperate invaders isn’t the only murky moral line crossed in War of the Worlds. If you’re still peeved about the abandoned pup in season one, wait until you realise there’s more to the murderous robodogs than you might think. Turns out Overman’s more perturbed by their ill-treatment than the billions of humans he casually culled at the outset. “There’s a bit when some soldiers are kicking one of them, and the idea was always that you should feel pity for them,” he says. “Even though they are these murder creatures, you come to realise in season two that they actually have a relationship with their masters.”

Maybe their masters deserve more credit too. “You come to care about some of the aliens,” Overman teases. “There’s always two sides to any war, isn’t there?”

War of the Worlds season two airs weekly Wednesdays on SBS at 9:30PM with episodes available on SBS On Demand the same day as broadcast. You can catch up on season one at SBS On Demand now.

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