2009 two-hour BBC Radio adaptation (aired in two parts) of the classic Arthur C. Clark novel about an expedition sent to investigate a vast, mysterious space craft that has entered the solar system. Decently acted, with a cast that includes Richard Dillane and Archie Panjabi, and when the script sticks to the crew investigating the vessel, it’s moderately effective (even if it requires a lot of dialogue describing the awesome things they see).
But cutaways to the surrounding political/religious stuff just feels drily academic, as does a framing sequence where it’s being told years later by the characters reflecting back on the events for a documentary — which means it can feel like you’re well into it before the story proper even starts! Plus, like a lot of these kind of SF stories, it’s more a procedural than a human drama (the characters are likeable, but not well defined, or given any soap opera-y plot threads) and despite all the build up, with the characters reflecting back on the events, and cryptically suggesting the whole truth has never before been told…it builds to a predictable and rather Shaggy Dog ending.
Some of these may be attributable to the source novel, some to Mike Walker’s adaptation, but the result is mixed…and better in the second half than the first. I haven’t read the source novel (but I did read a bit about it) and certainly some criticisms of the novel seemed to be it was largely a procedural, devoid of much real characterization.
My impression is this adaptation stuck close to the book in some respects but — and somewhat atypical for a radio dramatization — re-imagined the story in other ways, perhaps to make it seem more relevant to the modern world. The emphasis on political in-fighting among the planetary governments (analogous to U.N. squabbles) and heavy emphasis on religious vs. secular debates may’ve been added to the radio story (adapter Mike Walker also wrote the original SF radio drama, Alpha, which likewise put a heavy emphasis on religious/secular debates — I’ll be posting a review of that shortly, or might already have done so depending in when you’re reading this). Obviously, one can sympathize with a scriptwriter, charged with adapting a novel that may have inherent weaknesses. But all the bells and whistles of the radio version (political/religious talk, the documentary framing) seems like it’s just an attempt to distract from an inherently weak narrative — without actually improving it.
Much of the scenes and dialogue (including banter among the crew) is repetitious and just feels like it’s stuck in to pad the running time, or to add to a sense of cinema verité “realism”, rather than because it contributes to the story or emotion. And the philosophical/political talk just feels like a place holder for political/philosophical talk, rather than because it’s truly insightful or provocative or offers anything fresh (First Contact stories are kind of bread and butter in SF). The characters may spout on about religion and politics — but that doesn’t mean the scriptwriter is actually grappling profoundly with these ideas.
Ultimately, without characters (and relationships) to engage us, without a human connection, all you’re left with is a pretty basic story of astronauts finding a derelict vessel, wandering about and ooh-ing and awe-ing at a few mysterious-but-never-explained sights, and then it ends without even a token twist or significant climax.