I like to keep track of references to Georges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon, which is already the most thoroughly referenced film here at Spectacular Attractions. The latest sighting comes in the BBC’s recent adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, one of the acknowledged influences on Melies’s film. Gatiss’s version of the story incorporates a framing narrative where a young boy at a fairground wanders into a tent where an old man sits guarding his cinematographe films on the day of the Apollo Moon landings. Persuaded to tell his tale, the old man spins a yarn, accompanied by a film show, of how he and his friend Professor Cavor (Mark Gatiss) became the first men to land on the Moon and to meet its inhabitants, the Selenites. Wells’s book ends inconclusively – we don’t find out what happens to Cavor when he is left behind on the Moon. Gatiss gives a solution to the mystery that explains why Neil Armstrong wasn’t met by spindly, air-breathing aliens when he made his giant leap. It’s all rather fun, but the highpoint, at least for my all-consuming self-interests, came during a hallucinatory sequence where Bedford (Rory Kinnear) imagines returning to the Moon to rescue Cavor, all told in the style of a Melies movie. Bedford has been forced to flee the Moon, leaving Cavor stranded amongst the Selenites, and suffers from feverish visions as the spacecraft tumbles back to Earth.
In H.G. Wells’s book, Bedford imagines himself separated from his body, looking back with disdain upon “Bedford”, who he came to believe was “just a peephole through which I looked at life”:
I can’t profess to explain the things that happened in my mind. No doubt they could all be traced directly or indirectly to the curious physical conditions under which I was living. I set them down here just for what they are worth, and without any comment. The most prominent quality of it was a pervading doubt of my own identity. I became, if I may so express it, dissociate from Bedford; I looked down on Bedford as a trivial,incidental thing with which I chanced to be connected. I saw Bedford in many relations–as an ass or as a poor beast, where I had hitherto been inclined to regard him with a quiet pride as a very spirited or rather forcible person. […]
For a time I struggled against this really very grotesque delusion. I tried to summon the memory of vivid moments, of tender or intense emotions to my assistance; I felt that if I could recall one genuine twinge of feeling the growing severance would be stopped. But I could not do it. I saw Bedford rushing down Chancery Lane, hat on the back of his head, coattails flying out, en route for his public examination. I saw him dodging and bumping against, and even saluting, other similar little creatures in that swarming gutter of people. […]
I still reasoned that all this was hallucination due to my solitude, and the fact that I had lost all weight and sense of resistance. I endeavoured to recover that sense by banging myself about the sphere, by pinching my hands and clasping them together. […]
Enough of this remarkable phase of my experiences! I tell it here simply to show how one’s isolation and departure from this planet touched not only the functions and feeling of every organ of the body, but indeed also the very fabric of the mind, with strange and unanticipated disturbances.All through the major portion of that vast space journey I hung thinking of such immaterial things as these, hung dissociated and apathetic, a cloudy megalomaniac, as it were, amidst the stars and planets in the void of space; and not only the world to which I was returning, but the blue-lit caverns of the Selenites, their helmet faces, their gigantic and wonderful machines, and the fate of Cavor, dragged helpless into that world, seemed infinitely minute and altogether trivial things to me.
In Gatiss’s version, Bedford still suffers from hallucinations, but he doesn’t forget about Cavor, but instead reimagines the perilous situation as a comic trick film. We know that the pair were filming their adventures, and that Bedford’s story would never be believed, so this filmic apparition seems consistent with themes of the film. It’s not a perfect simulation of Melies’s style – there are too many close-ups, not enough extreme long shots, and the sets are less elaborately detailed, but it’s an affectionate homage that tips a hat to the long history of Wells adaptations, and to Melies’s pivotal role in making them cinematic. (You might also notice the cunning casting of Gatiss’s colleagues from The League of Gentlemen, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, as the Moon and the Sun.)