Working on ''Eleventh Hour''
Creator of UK science-fiction series explains how science TV dramas can produce backstage dramas of their own
Here in the UK there's a template for science-based TV drama
. It goes like this: a broadcaster fixes upon a hot issue of the day
, assigns a writer to fashion a 'human drama' around it, and locates some qualified scientist to advise the production. The press office issues a release asserting that "this is science fact, not science fiction."
Then about two weeks before the show goes out, the science advisor -- who maybe gave notes on the first-draft script and then saw nothing more of it until the cast-and-crew screening -- loudly and publicly withdraws from the entire enterprise. When it airs, any dramatic merit is far overshadowed by arguments over whether its "science fact" can stand up to inspection. The producers, who usually have no idea one way or the other, fall back on the argument that they were simply trying to "raise the issues for discussion."
And at the end of the day, nobody's happy. Especially the audience, who can deal with both science fiction and real-world science (for what else are the medical situations in House
?), but will always be cool toward drama that has no clear idea of what it's supposed to be.
Last year, I had a crack at breaking the template as the creator of a major series of feature-length TV movies
for the ITV network entitled Eleventh Hour,
starring Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek
fame. Stewart played Professor Hood, a senior advisor to the UK government, whose job it is to deal with any crisis of contemporary science before it has a chance to escalate. He was conceived as an emeritus physics professor with few domestic ties, living out of a suitcase and so unafraid of clashing with others that he needs a full-time bodyguard to protect him from reprisals. In short, the scientist as an old-style hero in an up-to-date setting.
Hood grew out of a promise I once made to the biochemist Paul Nurse
that I would someday try to put real science into a popular TV drama. He'd been unhappy with aspects of my teleplay of Chimera
, a science fictional miniseries about a rampaging human-ape hybrid, which followed the traditional practice of casting science itself as the real villain. (For which I don't apologize, by the way; science always makes a damned good villain, and the theme of 'creator undone by his creation' is an enduring one.)
My plan for breaking the "bad science" template was a simple one: Pick hot topics, research them properly, and only then build narrative from the stories and surprises that come out of the research
. This involved the same commitment to accurate detail that's taken for granted in other fields of drama -- the cases in Law & Order
may be fictionalized, for example, but they don't make up their own laws as well.
Selling the idea was challenging, but I wasn't prepared for the level of active hostility I was to meet along the way from an arts-educated mindset that felt it could match any scientific opinion with an equally valid opinion of its own. If I ever needed a reminder of what we needed to avoid, I had only to think of Hear the Silence
, a recent drama that had wholly embraced the notion of a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism -- unproven then, discredited since -- to the horror of health professionals. But it wasn't simply a matter of scientific probity for probity's sake: Hear the Silence
is remembered only for the controversy surrounding it, not as good drama.
I was quickly outnumbered and outvoted. My readiness to take on board our science consultant's input was "letting the tail wag the dog". A note on a virus outbreak story read: "At the very last moment Hood should invent a new antidote to smallpox." Another suggestion cited depleted uranium (DU) as the proven cause of Gulf War Syndrome. When our science advisor supplied data on the actual toxicity and effects of DU, one response was, "I disagree." My own contribution was meanwhile cut from four scripts to two.
A week before shooting began, I got a phone call to say that my two completed scripts were being taken out of my hands to be given a last-minute "polish" by the producers. There was nothing I could do other than watch the battle move on without me.
So how did it turn out? Did Eleventh Hour
fulfill the promise I'd made?
There were some victories. Most reviewers responded to the foregrounding of science and the positive, pro-science role played by its protagonist. But on the downside, Reuters
criticized the show's over-reliance on unsupported scientific rhetoric. And Lord Robert May, a former chief scientific adviser to the UK Government (and Hood's real-life -- if perhaps less swashbuckling -- counterpart), was caustic in criticizing the way that the science in the shows was "melodramatically misrepresented," and frequently inaccurate.
But for me, the most telling criticism came when I was taken to task by a science teacher, angry because his pupils absorb assumptions from TV that he can never fully dispel. Science is all theories, they seem to suppose, and one theory's as good as any other. And that's why it matters to get it right -- not for the scientists or the specialists, but for the ordinary viewer who can't be expected to know when it's wrong.
So, no. I don't believe I've delivered on my promise.
Links within this article
A.Grimwade, "Glued to another tube," The Scientist
, April 21, 2003.
B. Maher, "Get me the NIH," The Scientist
, September 24, 2004.
H. Black, "Science goes to the movies," The Scientist
, June 17, 2004.
L. Nordling, "Boffins on the box," Guardian
, January 17, 2006.
K. Hopkin, "Coming full cycle," The Scientist
, May 1, 2006.
I.Ganguli, "A lab goes to Hollywood," The Scientist
, March 1, 2006.