Professor CHALLENGER

Professor George Edward Challenger enjoys a kind of odd placing in popular fiction — that of an “almost” iconic character. He only appeared in a small handful of short stories and novels, but as they were written by Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that makes him the 2nd most important character created by one of the most famous authors in the English language! As well, Challenger was a principle character in Doyle’s The Lost World, a seminal novel in adventure/fantasy fiction, and which has been adapted innumerable times to film and radio, with Challenger played (on screen) by, among others, Wallace Beery, John Rhys-Davies, Patrick Bergin and Bob Hoskins and on radio/audio by Armin Shimerman and others.

So within certain circles Challenger is an iconic character — yet other than The Lost World (which remains perennially in print), his other appearances tend to be more obscure (or simply get re-issued in hopes to cash in on the Lost World/Sir Doyle connection). Other than The Lost World I don’t think any other Challenger story has been adapted to film or TV.  And part of that is because I’m just not sure his other stories were really, well, that good. They are fantasy/early SF stories (rather than the secular mysteries of Sherlock Holmes) and Doyle himself seemed to approach them often with tongue-in-cheek — or at least so the rather vague and loose logic would imply, where “plot” and “character” could seem subordinate to simply presenting an outlandish concept. While Challenger himself was deliberately eccentric — a brilliant scientist but arrogant, bombastic, aggressive (assaulting those with whom he disagreed) — he was supposed to be outrageous, but as such not easily relatable (Doyle might have been better to treat the characters of The Lost World as a set cast, rather than simply re-using Challenger).

Anyway, at long last in 2011 the BBC produced two half hour adaptations of two of the original Challenger short stories, When the World Screamed and The Disintegration Machine. Bill Paterson is nicely cast as Challenger, capturing the jaunty tone and outrageous personality while keeping it grounded and real. But as I say, the stories themselves were uneven as simply stories. In the When the World Screamed Challenger attempts an experiment to prove the planet earth itself is a living being (told you the ideas were a bit scientifically dubious) while the other has him investigating the invention of a disintegration machine that authorities worry will be sold to foreign spies. In both cases the idea seems to take precedence over the plot, and they are tongue-in-cheek without quite being comedy. I’m not faulting the adapters, who do a good job, but the source material.

One wonders if these adaptations were all that was intended, or whether the producers had hopes to adapt all the Challenger stories as a series, maybe even climaxing with another version of The Lost World. Perhaps the longer stories might have had better developed plots (though years ago I seem to recall reading the short novel, The Poison Belt — or some of it at any rate — and not finding it that effective). Certainly with Paterson on board as a consistent element it might have been interesting to have tried a complete cycle of adaptations. But as it stands, the two radio dramas basically are interesting simply as chance to experience Doyle’s “other” hero, but fail to quite reveal themselves as lost classics.