Tag Archives: Orson Welles

Wells, Welles, Wells: Patterns

Wells, Welles, Wells: what have we here?

Dawn Wells won the title of Miss Nevada in 1959.  She went on to star in TV, live theater and movies, most memorably as Mary Ann in the Gilligan’s Island TV series.  Still a beauty at 81, she and Tina Louise (Ginger) are the last surviving actors in that ‘60s TV show – which continues to live on in re-runs.  Wells was born in October 1938.

Also, in 1938 – just a few days after Miss Wells’ birth, on the Sunday night right before Halloween – a series of “news” flashes and reports were broadcast nationwide over the Columbia Broadcasting System.  The news went out as part of a regular show: Mercury Theatre. But unless listeners were tuned in at the very beginning, they might well have not realized that the “news” was a spoof — part of an entertainment show. [2]

Orson Wells, on CBS’ Mercury Theater

The news shocked and, briefly, terrified more than a few people – and a bit of panic broke out. (The panic was not nearly as widespread as legend has it[3]).  Even some who understood that the “news reports” were fake did not understand it was actually a radio show dramatization of H.G. Wells’ famous novel, “War of the Worlds.”  

The creator and producer of the 1938 radio show? Orson Welles. (He also played several voice-roles in the dramatization.)

So, Welles produced a show based on a novel by Wells?  Put on the air the same week as Wells’ birth?

Wells, Welles, Wells. These are simply coincidences.  A sequence of events and names that present a curious pattern of no significance.

But as humans, we cannot help but notice such coincidences.  Coincidences look a lot like patterns.  And humans have evolved to be probably the best pattern recognizers in the world – outside, perhaps, of advanced Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning Algorithms. (Such as: whatever on the internet seems to know what I might be shopping for?)  As humans, we’ve used pattern recognition to help us survive and thrive, evidence of Darwin’s theory. We hunt prey, avoid predators, plant, harvest, and socialize – including finding mates – according to evolved inherited skills of pattern recognition. 

One of the most important is patterns for weather forecasting. We recognize “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning.  Red sky at night sailor’s delight”.  It was already ancient when Jesus said “When it is evening, you say ‘it will be fair weather for the sky is red.’  And in the morning: ‘it will be foul weather today, for the sky is red.’  O hypocrites. You can discern the face of the sky, but not the signs of the times!” [Matthew, 16:2-3].

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Long ago humans recognized patterns of movement in the night skies.  For example, every 780 days the red-orange planet Mars appears very bright in the sky, and almost directly overhead at midnight.  (This phenomenon, called “opposition”, would likely have been tracked by counting lunar months, and predictably occurred every 26 lunar cycles, plus 19 days).  Such celestial movements and tracking have meager connections to our lives, try as astrologists might to make them.  On the other hand, the single biggest influence on ocean tides is the moon.  Plus, constellations and the north star have been trusty navigational tools that pre-date history. So, our planet and our fates are not fully disconnected from all celestial patterns.

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In 1894 Mars and Earth met in their regularly scheduled dance of syzygy. Astronomers were ready and turned their telescopes toward the planet named for the god of war.  Their observations, sketches and conjectures helped inspire a novel: “War of the Worlds”, by H.G. Wells. 

Percival Lowell saw the great Canali on Mars and fancied that they were massive water projects, undertaken to manage water by a civilization on a nearly barren planet that was drying up.  H.G. Wells’ imagination: Would they be interested in coming to water-rich earth? 

Further exciting scientific speculation: great flashes of light were seen on Mars during that alignment.  From the respected astronomer Perrotin in (Nice, France) to the Lick Observatory in the hills outside San Jose, California, Mars-gazers confirmed to each other that the bright Martian lights were real.  H.G. Well’s imagination: Might these flares of light be the firing of a giant gun, to send a spacecraft to earth at this opportune planetary alignment?

Like most science fiction writers, Wells was pretty well attuned to scientific developments.  And world affairs.  Thus armed scientifically and culturally, and with a great imagination, Wells wrote “War of the Worlds.”  Initially published as a series in 1897, the work was published as a novel in a single volume in 1898. 

I’m not sure why the title has the word “Worlds”.  In the Wells novel, per my recollection and re-perusing of the fairly short book [1], the only locale inflicted with invasion and destruction of the Martian “heat ray” was southeast England, in and around the London area. [4]

In Welles’ 1938 radio show, the Martian invaders’ destruction was mostly limited to New Jersey and around New York City, although he does make brief passing mention – almost like an afterthought – of Buffalo, Chicago and St Louis. [2]  

I’ve seen the 1953 movie a few times, mostly as a kid, and the “invasion” was limited to California.  Writers can be so parochial.  If it were really “War of the Worlds”, the whole human race would have been affected, and united in an effort to fight (or at least survive) the invaders. [5]

Alas, uniting our race would have done no good in any of the versions of the story.  The Martians were virtually indestructible. The annihilation from their heat ray was total. Their only weakness was that they lacked an immune system adapted for earth.  At the end they all perished due to exposure to simple common germs.

Martian Death Ray — War of the Worlds movie, 1953

Virology was not even in its infancy when Wells wrote his novel; the very existence of anything like a virus was postulated (and indirectly proven) only a couple years before that Mars-Earth alignment.  Scientists and novelists knew, of course, about bacteria.  But those are usually many, many times larger than most viruses, and had been observed under microscopes.  Humans would not truly “see” a virus until 1931, with the development of the electron microscope.

If Wells had known about viruses when he wrote his novel, he might well have included them in earth’s “victory” over the Martians.  If he wrote the novel today, he might have included a “novel virus” (ha, pun intended) as the “hero.”

Returning to patterns (like novel & novel), and the current novel virus (AKA SARS-CoV-2 and 2019-nCoV – the “n” indicating “novel”), we can understand a bit how the US under-reacted, at first, to this threat. 

The virus that causes COVID-19 is a “new” virus (that’s what novel means) but is closely related to the corona viruses that caused SARS in 2002-3 and MERS in 2015.  From a US-perspective, these were mostly well contained to Asia and the Middle East, although a nasty outbreak of SARS occurred near Toronto. 

More novel viruses will come.  They mutate easily and quickly. Some will be worse than SARS-CoV-2 or even the H1N1 variant that caused the pandemic of 1918-19 … more fatal and more transmittable.  Concurrent with another existential catastrophe, they might even threaten the species.  Not sure when … next year … next decade or in a few generations. But they will come.

In my imagined minor and more modern re-write of Wells’ story, it is a virus that saved the Homo Sapiens species.  In future, perhaps the lessons-learned from this 2020 virus pandemic will save us too.

Mary Ann and Ginger, again

Final thought: By the way, from way back in the ‘60s until today, I always preferred Mary Ann over Ginger. No contest. Is it because she was a brunette, or because Mary Ann was … well she was Mary Ann?  Or because she was Dawn Wells?

Be well, stay healthy, be nice.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

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[1] Wells’ novel, War of the World, is in the public domain and can be read many places, including  here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/36/36-h/36-h.htm

[2]You can listen to the 1938 Radio show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs0K4ApWl4g
or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzC3Fg_rRJM

[3] There was not widespread panic caused by Welles’ production of WoW, as legend has it.  https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/war-of-the-worlds/ 
Also: https://www.neh.gov/article/fake-news-orson-welles-war-worlds-80

[4] Backstory spoiler: Wells was disheartened by the methods and human impacts of British worldwide colonization and empire building.  So, in his novel, the roles are flipped. The Brits are set upon and invaded by strange and powerful foreigners who have come to take their resources, without regard for human life, or for destruction of a civilization.

[5] Screenplay Script, War of the Worlds, 1953 movie:  http://www.scifiscripts.com/scripts/WARWORLDS.txt