Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On Warehouse 13's H.G. Wells

I have recently had occasion to return to the work of H.G. Wells--and found myself thinking of Warehouse 13's inclusion of a Victorian figure by that name in the core cast.

The show's premise regarding the character is that H.G. Wells is not the famous writer we knew, but his sister--never mind that he had no sibling named Helena, and for that matter, no sister by any name in his lifetime.1 The show then goes on to claim that the man we think of as Herbert George Wells was really Charles Wells (why we thought of him as H.G. is never explained), and made his fame with Helena's ideas, for which he claimed full credit--again, never mind that Helena was bronzed in 1900, while the H.G. Wells we know not only lived another forty-six years, but was productive throughout that period, giving the world such novels as A Modern Utopia (1905), The War in the Air (1908), Tono-Bungay (1909), The History of Mr. Polly (1910), The New Machiavelli (1911), The World Set Free (1914) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and nonfiction works like Anticipations (1901), The Outline of History (1920) and The Science of Life (1930), an opus hardly reducible to pre-1900 inspiration.

For anyone who assumed a connection to Wells' actual biography this can only seem confusing, the liberties the show takes too great for the concept to work as a compelling secret history (not that Wells is much of a candidate for such a story anyway, given how public a figure he was for a very long time). So what, one wonders, is going on here? Are the writers of this famously concept-light show playing a postmodern game with the audience?

If this is a game, it does not seem much of one, actual use of Wells' character or ideas being very scarce, as was probably inevitable. For instance, how likely is American television to feature a character making the case for a secular, socialist world state? (The closest we come to this is Helena's expression of disappointment at the state of the world she found a century after her bronzing.) No one seems to have noticed the shocking disparity between the rationalism for which Wells so famously stood, and the magical artifacts with which the warehouse deals.2 And even superficial reference to the stuff of Wells' best-known books is rare. (We do see Helena employ a time machine of her own design at one point, but it bears no conceptual resemblance to the device of that novel, or even physical resemblance to the iconic realization of it in the 1960 film version of the book, and in the end the plot of the episode really looks like just an excuse to send Myka and Pete back to the era of Don Draper, lazily milking the Mad Men cult just like everybody else on American television.)

And so it seems less an attempt at a game than the mere spicing up of the show with a character named so as to grab a bit of unearned attention from the steampunk-inclined. On the whole I do think the show is better off for Helena's (and Jaime Murray's) presence in it, but it has to be admitted that tying her character up with H.G. Wells in the way that they have is rather lazy and cheap--and for an admirer of Wells, rather grating in its disrespect for the great author and his achievements.

1. Wells' parents in fact had only one daughter, Fanny, who died two years before Herbert George was born.
2. George Orwell famously paid tribute to Wells as the English-speaking world's prophet of reason in the first two decades of the twentieth century in "Wells, Hitler and the World-State"--in which he ironically went on to lament that "since 1920 he has squandered his talents in slaying paper dragons."

My Posts on H.G. Wells
6/29/13
My Posts on Warehouse 13
12/17/13
My Posts on Postmodernism
11/21/13

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