• A still from the SBS series War of the Worlds (Distributor)Source: Distributor
A catastrophic alien attack leaves few people on earth, and scientists and military figures huddled around screens trying to devise a plan to save 'mankind', but does the latest War of Worlds rendering continue to sugar-coat the legacy of HG Wells and his most famous work?
Laura La Rosa

14 Jul 2020 - 3:12 PM  UPDATED 14 Jul 2020 - 3:13 PM

The Australian premiere of 8-part sci fi mini-series, War Of The Worlds (2019) commenced on SBS on Thursday last week, exploring timely themes of global surveillance and a dystopia.

Created by BAFTA-winning television writer Howard Overman, the drama is presented through a subtle 2000s sci-fi aesthetic, with a strong cast featuring Daisy Edgar-Jones, Gabriel Byrne, and Bayo Gbadamosi.

Early on in the series, astrophysicists pick up on a transmission from another galaxy. Panic sets in with the city quickly going into chaos. Shortly after, a catastrophic alien attack leaves few people on earth, producing the classic picture of scientists and military figures huddled around screens as they devise a plan to save 'mankind.' 

From here, the complexities of human behaviour are teased out as those humans remaining seek to survive.

H. G. Wells’ Racist ‘Legacy’ Remains Unchallenged

The series comprises decades of varying adaptions of H. G. Wells’ nineteenth-century novel, The War of The Worlds (1898) - a classic title understood to have pathed the way for science fiction as an expanding genre.

But like many of ‘the greats’, the English legacy of the author and historian has undoubtedly been sugar-coated, obscured, and grossly glorified over time. Frequently repurposed is the conjecture that Wells advocated personal compassion for victims of colonisation. 

According to Wells, his 1898 novel was loosely ‘inspired’ by learning of the genocide subjected to Tasmanian First Nations people by British imperialists.

“Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” Wells wrote. 

A closer look at Wells’ body of work reveals a bizarre portfolio of anti-semitism and a dedicated fascination for eugenics. Yet, each time War of the Worlds resurfaces through reproduction, so does this mythologised tale of good consciousness.

Wells is almost always framed as a pioneering and benevolent thinker who possessed a “desire to use writing to make the world a better place.”

“The Tasmanians,” Wells wrote, “in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants.”

While the language in these musings reflects ignorance arguably reflective of his era, it gets worse. A 2017 Guardian article quoted his 1901 work: “those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people” that fail to be “efficient” would have “to die out and disappear.” Here, columnist Yarden Katz calls on western society to “take the ‘great’ white men of science off their pedestals.”

Similarly, in 2017 academic and author Sarah Cole wrote, “in the pages that follow, I will make no effort to apologize for the despicable ideas that occur at times throughout Well’s writings.”

Still, Cole dedicated an entire book to Wells’ trajectory, attributing him as a significant figure in modernism and twentieth-century imaginative literature. That is, despite how racist and problematic his influence remains.

While Overman’s 2019 series may prove to offer a fresh and nuanced talking point for all things dystopia, the remake poses a call for examining how the genre has historically and typically situated ideas of nationalism, imperialism, and white supremacy. 

In the meantime, Wells’ fictional conjuring of extraterrestrial invasion as any way comparable to Britain's invasion of Tasmania is a baffling analogy we can well and truly let go of.

War of the Worlds double episodes premiered Thursday 9 July on SBS and will continue weekly at 9:30pm from Thursday 16 July. Episodes will be available on SBS On Demand each week on the same day as broadcast.