Warehouse 13: “Where and When”

Glass Houses

Warehouse 13

Syfy Channel, Tuesdays, 9/7 c
“Where and When”
Written by Drew Z. Greenberg & Andrew Kreisberg
Directed by Stephen Cragg

“Physical time travel is an impossibility.” —H(elena). G. Wells

All SF fans have their bêtes noirs, the one theme or trope that just won’t work. Some entirely reject the notion of faster-than-light travel, or psiability, or anti-gravity devices. For me, the buck stops at time travel. As commonly conceived, it is merely a variation on travel through space, as though time were a physical medium. Rarely do I meet with any time travel concepts more sophisticated than the level of a Journeyman or Slidersepisode; most writers use time travel as a plot device, to put their characters into interesting milieus, with little or no regard or respect for the mechanics of the thing. Worse, the focus of most of these stories is on how to change the past, as if the universe could be tricked.

Theories about time travel divide the world into Newtonian and non-Newtonian physics. To adhere to one or the other camp is to stake out intellectual territories in physics, theology, and philosophy. We begin to have serious ethical problems involving consent and free will, not to mention material artifacts (like the military dog tags and rifle cartridges dug out of a pre-Columbian burial mound in Howard Waldrop’s Them Bones). So to have H.G. Wells herself, inventor of the Time Machine, tell us that physical time travel is impossible, just made my night. Rather than have her time machine physically transport itself and its passengers into the past, it swaps their minds with those of people who lived in the past.

“What if one were to connect with the mind of someone who lived centuries ago?” —H(elena) G. Wells

Well, of course, we’ve seen this story before. It was called Quantum Leapand ran for years. I loved that show, if only because it didn’t have Sam jumping into the middle of the Vietnam War with a taser or some such. In this episode of Warehouse 13, newly reinstated agent HG is explaining to Pete and Myka why her machine will send them “back” into the “gestalt consciousness” of a couple of Warehouse agents from 1961, agents who by their own testimony are “missing” 22 hours and 19 minutes of time. Said testimony is provided by Rebecca St. Clair (Roberta Maxwell, The Postman), who previously appeared in a Season One episode “Burnout” as a retired Warehouse agent. She is now much older than she was in 1961, having travelled through time the same way we all do—one heartbeat at a time. Still mourning the death of her partner and lover Jack, she’s looking for a murderous artifact which turns women into glass, then shatters and kills them. Four women died in 1961 by means of this artifact, which remains at large. A long-lost 16mm film, a note from 1961 in Pete’s own handwriting (which makes his handwriting older than Pete himself), and some hints from Rebecca persuade the team that “sending” the team “back” into the past (i.e., into Jack and Rebecca’s minds in 1961) is the only way to investigate this mystery. I liked this approach to time travel, one that made at least as much or as little sense as climbing into a bit of steam punk tech to physically move into a former time.

Naturally, they do not ask Artie’s permission to do this. Which I applaud.

Claudia: If we’d asked, you’d have said no.

Artie: (yelling) You bet your ass I would have said no!

I haven’t seen Artie this cranky, egotistical, or arrogant as in this episode all season. I wanted to boot his butt out of the Warehouse and off the show. Who needs this irascible curmudgeon, who consistently and deliberately leaves his own agents out of the loop and then lectures them on the importance of looking after agents in the field? Artie routinely jeopardizes lives by not telling people things they need to know, but God help anyone who leaves him out of the loop. He yells at Claudia, who was his best friend last week. He childishly shuns HG Wells, and dumps Myka from a vital mission just because he’s peeved at her. He pulls a gun on Helena Wells when he realizes she has made an end-run around his authority. She needs to strap Artie into that time machine and send him back into the tenth century where he belongs. The writers have pretty much forfeited any respect I had developed for this character over the last couple of episodes.

Pete and Myka swap bodies with the agents (didn’t we see this body-swapping idea recently? Like—two weeks ago?) and wind up in 1961. Mercifully, we are spared the host of Mad Men references that a cheaper show would have indulged in. Rather, we get a few fish-out-of-water remarks from Pete (who refers to Jacqueline Kennedy as “Jackie O” years before she marries Aristotle Onassis). We get cool retro outfits (I want Myka’s cats-eye glasses) and some not-so-cool gender politics; I enjoyed Myka losing her temper at a ’60s-era chauvinist who calls her “honey” and “sweetheart”. The scenery and clothing were reasonably period, and Armin Shimmerman (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as the equally irascible, 1961 version of Artie was wonderful.

“Pete, you know you can’t stop this!” —Myka

Pete realizes that the four women who were dead in his time are alive in 1961, or at least two of them are. He is determined to save them, despite both Myka’s and HG’s assurances that events in the “past” cannot be changed. David Anders (Alias), plays Jonah Raitt, the editor of Where & When magazine; he is Rebecca’s top suspect in the deaths of three women and his own wife, who were turned into glass. Pete stalks Raitt through a men’s club while Myka uses her wits to search Raitt’s receipts for hotel bills; both of them are convinced that Raitt is a serial seducer and killer. Unfortunately, Raitt is not a very coherent character. In most scenes, he condescends to (“This is not a sewing circle, ladies”) or objectifies (“They should be treated like works of art!”) women. In a conversation with Pete/Jack, he deplores the fact that his own magazine makes Jackie K “boring”, and then invents the swimsuit issue. Yet when Pete and Myka accuse him of sleeping with the three women who die(d), he goes into some proto-feminist rant about his undervalued underlings:

“They were completely undervalued by that company, and capable of so much more!” —Jonah Raitt

The artifact turns out to be a glass knife, later identified by Artie as the “origin” of the Cinderella glass-slipper tale. I appreciate the irony: an early-’60s artifact, from the era of female repression and infantilization so celebrated by Mad Men, is the instrument used by a jealous wife to kill other women. Locked into the fairy tale mindset encouraged by the Frigid Fifties, Beth Raitt projects her insecurities onto other women rather than facing the reality of her fears of abandonment. The Prince has rescued her (by marrying her), so she cannot loose her anger at him; instead, she turns it outward and objectifies, in her turn, the women in his professional life as wicked witches. The Cinderella story is so apropos to the early Sixties feminine mystique; the only artifact more appropriate might have been a Barbie doll (I’ll confess at one point I suspected Beth’s Donna Reed style pearls of being the artifact). Either way, though, the passive/aggressive behavior of our villainess is perfectly in tune with the toxic sexual dynamics of her time.

Beth: I wish you’d loved me more.

Jonah: Those poor girls. I wish you’d loved me less.

Having established that physical transport through time is impossible, Pete and Myka bury the artifact even as their time runs out (ahem) and they snap back to the present. Pete recovers it, now aged some forty years. Yeah, I saw this bit, too, in Frequency, one of my favorite “time travel” movies in which no physical time travel takes place. I can readily accept the idea of information travelling through time—the caves of Lascaux are a case in point. Ultimately, this has been a buried-treasure story all along.

Despite some stumbling with the characterizations, the writing and in-jokes in this paean to geek love are, as usual, fantastic. References to classic and not-so-classic time travel movies abound: Claudia and Pete bond over a reference to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. HG’s actual time machine incorporates a device that looks suspiciously like the flux capacitor fromBack to the Future. Jack/Pete’s reference to Total Recall, a shout-out to his future self, references a classic of mind manipulation. Or, in typical Pete fashion, he’s mixing up his movies and trying to refer to the Terminatormovies. No matter how you shake it, it’s a fun assortment. Best of all, the actors playing Jack and Rebecca channeling Pete and Myka (stay with me) absolutely nail the mannerisms of those two. As in the body-swapping case two weeks back, we get to see two actors essentially doing impersonations of other actors, and once again pull it off very well.

When I heard that this was going to be a time travel episode, I was afraid, very afraid. This could have been a bad version of Doctor Who. A gold star to the writers and actors for giving us a version of this idea I can appreciate. Now if only there was an artifact that could convince the producers to cast Simon Wells, the real great-grandson of the real H.G. Wells, who directed the recent remake of his great-grandpa’s novel The Time Machine. That would be too cool for school. Besides, he’s from 1961, too.