Book Review – The Shape of Things to Come (Audio)

  • Title: The Shape of Things to Come
  • Series: Big Finish Classics
  • Discs: 2 CDs
  • Author: H.G. Wells (original novel)
  • Adapted by: Guy Adams
  • Director: Lisa Bowerman
  • Characters: Dr. Philip Raven, Jane
  • Cast: Sam Troughton, Nicola Walker


I was first introduced to Big Finish back in 2001, when I discovered their full-cast original Doctor Who audio plays. I liked the audios, and even subscribed to the main monthly line for a while. I continue to purchase Big Finish audios, when I can, to this day. H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come is a full-cast audio drama of Wells’ famous novel. Although I have read some of Wells books (The Time Machine, The Invisible Man) I have not previously read The Shape of Things to Come so I had no previous expectations for this story, other than a few general assumptions about Wells.

The audio is really good. It’s extremely well-produced. The acting is extremely good. It draws you into its’ world completely, even though I listened to it while driving back and forth to work during an extremely trying week. Even though it is a full-cast audio drama, in many ways it feels like a two-hander (e.g. a play starring only two actors) – yes there are other parts besides the two main characters, and they are performed by others (this is not a dry oral reading of Wells’ novel), but the majority of the novel is about Dr. Philip Raven and Jane. Philip is a diplomat, who, when the story starts is on a plane heading for the UN in the US on a diplomatic mission. Jane is a historian and archivist from the future – from an alternative future.

Jane meets Philip on the plane and takes him on a journey. A journey through events in his future and her past. As these vignettes covering a future history are told and experienced by Jane and Philip, Jane explains her mission. She shows him horrible events: a world war where toxic gas is dropped on civilian populations; the complete disintegration of any sort of political or social order; disease and plague (including bubonic plague); a world where society has fractured to not even towns or villages but neighborhoods where everyone is armed to the teeth and shoots to kill any “strangers” without even finding out who they are, why they are there, or if they need help; a world where zookeepers are forced to kill their charges. It is bleak and unrelentingly depressing. And, at the end of Disc 1, Jane tells Philip that she doesn’t want him to prevent this horrific alternative timeline – she wants him to ensure that it happens.

Disc 2 explains why. Jane shows him how, once the old world had been completely destroyed – with no government, no order, no law, and even no social order – it began to come back. The transportation unions banded together and took control, controlling first all air transport of goods (with no government, no law, and no rules – goods were no longer moved from place to place, neither necessary goods like food or luxury goods. And with no markets, the factories producing those goods collapsed), then all shipping, and finally all roads. The transport unions had their own private police, they developed and imposed the first law and order for decades. Eventually, what developed was a single world state. Initially ruled by the Transport Union, it eventually just became Control. There wasn’t even a single leader, though a man named Essington becomes a figurehead of a sort. But Jane is quick to point out, laws are not issued by a person, nor a dictator, nor even a ruling council – they come unsigned and are merely “Control”. Jane shows Philip the rise, and fall, of Essington. Then she takes him to her home and her wife – the Utopia that Jane is desperate to preserve. This future world is the one that she wants Philip to create – because he will be in the right place at the right time. For Jane, all the pain, all the destruction, all the death of the past, is worth it to create her perfect world.

In the end, Philip is returned to his timeline, to his diplomatic meeting. He is met by Jane one final time, and given a case. And the story ends on a question – Will Philip open the case and use its contents on the world leaders gathered for his conference? It’s implied the case contains a deadly gas – it’s Philip’s job to kill the diplomats. Or won’t he? Will he think that the cost is too high? That may be the world could reach a world like Jane’s Utopia without such drastic action and without the pain and death that would result before the new world could be born. By leaving it open-ended as to what Philip would do – the entire play becomes a moral exercise for the listener. As with much of Wells’ work, it asks, What would you do?

Also, as an adaptation, though it deals with alternate timelines and history – the play addresses the here and now in a very real way. And it addresses the long view of history. The character of Jane, as a historian and archivist, has a view of her history, based on what she’s been taught in her world’s schools. It’s based on the histories she’s read, even the documents of the path to her world. But history is written by the winners – when Philip questions her (such as about her world’s banishment of religion and the, albeit, she say non-lethal attack on the world’s last large religious gathering – and the establishment of the secular state) she dismisses his arguments of human rights to religious freedom with the “religion causes wars” argument and claims in her future no one fears religious persecution, prejudice or bigotry. When she shows him Essington’s Fall – it’s telling that the person accusing Essington, his wife, attacks him has a traitor, as an individualist. While too much individualism leads to the exploitation of the weak – too much emphasis on the opposite suppresses the spark of creativity, diversity, and the very notion of being different. One wonders what happens to the poets, writers, and artists of Jane’s perfect world? One wonders about people who are different? Does her world even have people of different races and cultures? She goes to great lengths to explain the World State is One – so there are no countries, but what does that really mean? Is everyone in the World State white and British? (no offense meant). Yet at the same time, the story parallels real history, especially the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, because it is a story of the fall and rise of civilizations.

Again, this dramatic presentation of H.G. Wells’ novel, The Shape of Things to Come is excellent. Yes, disc 1 is overwhelmingly depressing at times, but disc 2 is much more hopeful. The entire play ends on a question, a moral quandary, something that is often left out of dramatic entertainment today, but that was an essential part of H.G. Wells work. The CD version includes a trailer for another title in this range, The Island of Dr Moreau, and a panel interview with Sam Troughton, Nicola Walker, and Guy Adams. The Shape of Things to Come was originally published in 1933, and Wells lived from 9/21/1866 to 8/13/1946. Big Finish’s audio play is highly recommended.

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Note: No promotional consideration was paid for this review. I review because I enjoy it!