In the multichannel cable universe, branding is all. Thus, the relatively unbranded Odyssey Network will be reborn as Hallmark Channel. Known in television terms for its sentimental Hallmark Hall of Fame pics and its special-effects laden miniseries, Hallmark will launch the rechristened net with a kind of hybrid of these two genres. Six-hour world premiere miniseries “The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells” provides polished production values and some quality acting (thanks to those English thesps), and with a notable lack of edge is clearly targeted to a broad, family demographic as opposed to an age- or gender-specific niche.
While well-produced, particularly in terms of its period elements, these episodic adaptations of six Wells stories ultimately feel watered down with cutesiness. This cutesiness stems from what’s credited to producer Nick Willing as the “format” of the mini. It begins in the 1940s, with Wells as an old man (Tom Ward in well-done old-age makeup) being visited by Ellen McGillvray (Eve Best), a woman seeking some information about one of Wells’ former friends, the genius scientist Cedric Gibberne. Wells launches into a series of reminiscences, and the piece flashes back to the late 19th century, when the six stories take place. Each story is presented as if it were a recollection of actual events, with Wells injected as a character into his own tales, investigating scientific anomalies along the structural lines of “Murder, She Wrote.”
By doing this, writers Chris Harrald, Clive Exton, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet find a way to incorporate some vague biographical details of Wells’ life into the stories as well. While each story is self-contained, the one throughline in all of them is the growing love between Wells and his muse, Jane Robbins (Katy Carmichael), later to become Mrs. Wells. In the first piece, based on the story “The New Accelerator,” the two attend a Gibberne lecture at Imperial College of Science, where a sudden, inexplicable event leads them to investigate a scientific discovery. Fortunately for their futures, this discovery marks the undoing of Wells’ rival for Jane’s affection, clearing the path for them to become a Victorian Mulder and Scully for the remaining five tales.
The eccentric but always enthusiastic Professor Gibberne (Nicholas Rowe), his ever-reliable assistant Whittaker (Matthew Cottle) and their blowhard boss Dean Masterson (Barry Stanton) become recurring figures in these stories. The pieces themselves involve classic sci-fi scenarios such as accidental time travel (“Brownlow’s Newspaper”), the discovery of a mysterious, other-wordly gem (“Crystal Egg”), a character’s sudden ability to witness a far-away event (“The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes”), an obese man receiving a magic potion to help him lose weight (“The Truth About Pyecraft”) and, the most clearly relevant in contemporary terms, the stealing of a synthetic substance that’s released into the water supply (“The Stolen Bacillus”). The WWII-era story, from which we flash back, has revelations in it as well, as Wells discovers the real motivation behind McGillvray’s prying.
The stories all are solidly told by director Robert Young, and technically there’s barely a hiccup throughout the six hours, with the believable special effects properly serving their purpose of advancing narrative without overwhelming the storyline. The pieces have a few decent twists and moral dilemmas to contemplate, but they’re never very thrilling or thought-provoking.
In fact, there’s a tone of nostalgia hanging over “The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells.” With catalysts such as electrical charges and magic potions, there’s something innocent and highly unthreatening about all this, and even the tales with high stakes sputter into easy resolutions. Wells as a clever spinner of yarns comes through, but Wells as thinker, as social philosopher, does not. He gets reduced, quite literally, from artist to bland romantic lead, from creator to caricature.