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Working on ''Eleventh Hour''

Creator of UK science-fiction series explains how science TV dramas can produce backstage dramas of their own

By | July 7, 2006

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 or ER?), 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 and X-Men 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. Yet. Stephen Gallagher sgallagher@the-scientist.com Links within this article A.Grimwade, "Glued to another tube," The Scientist, April 21, 2003. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/13732/ B. Maher, "Get me the NIH," The Scientist, September 24, 2004. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14945/ H. Black, "Science goes to the movies," The Scientist, June 17, 2004. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22233/ L. Nordling, "Boffins on the box," Guardian, January 17, 2006. http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/research/notes/story/0,16508,1687600,00.html K. Hopkin, "Coming full cycle," The Scientist, May 1, 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/23370/ I.Ganguli, "A lab goes to Hollywood," The Scientist, March 1, 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/23150/
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Comments

Avatar of: Gordon Couger

Gordon Couger

Posts: 23

July 8, 2006

I would like to get Stephen Gallagher opinion if the media is anti science and want to continually paint science and scientists in a dark role or if they think their audience just won't accept anything else?\n\nThe different response and perception to issues of science, medicine and food safety in the UK and USA are very different. While both food systems are extremely safe the UK destroyed its beef industry over Mad Cow Disease. A disease that affected a very small fraction of the UK cattle heard and less than 200 people. The cost to binfit ratio on BSE has to be the worst the world has ever seen. The same thing happened in the EU. In Canada their beef industry was given a serious set back when the fist case of BSE was found and in the USA we lost our exports when we had a case of BSE but we couldn't fulfilled them with out the beef we get from Canada so the beef industry hardly felt a ripple.\n\nThe same is true with Whopping Cough in the USA is still remains firmly under control and a year or two ago 20 or 25% of the students in a school in the UK had Whopping Cough at the same time.\n\nOne hundred years ago England lead the world in individual interest in science. Today the UK has the best amateur scientific clubs and societies in the world. Yet their public health vaccination system is failing even though the vaccines are free. I am concerned that the world is valuing TV, movies and newspapers as more valid sources of information than schools, scientists and the information arms of government. The UK's Royal scientific societies need to speak and be heard and discredit those that are leading us back to a time of disease and famine.\n\nThe damage done by media linking vaccines to autism is terrible. Even professionals in the field of autism are buying it. All the vaccines are being reformulate to leave out mercury. Enough children are going unvaccinated to cause a break down in disease control. In the USA the vaccines are not always available as drug manufactures are reluctant to sell into our high liability market and there are only one or two suppliers for some vaccines.\n\nGordon Couger\n624 West Cheyenne Dr\nStillwater, OK 74075 1411\n405 624 2855\ngodon.couger-at-gmail.com\n
Avatar of: Michael Keating

Michael Keating

Posts: 6

July 8, 2006

As a UK ex-pat living in France I often see the disaster brought about by non-scientists writing/correcting the script for scientific programmes. Even simple terms like 'H' - '2' - 'O' can be misunderstood by non-scientists, this gave one atom of hydrogen and two of oxygen.\nIt's a bit like swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth then being required to answer "yes" or "no" to a loaded question.\nScientists should refuse to participate in programmes where the text is modified by those who have no knowledge of the subject.
Avatar of: John Hawcock

John Hawcock

Posts: 1

July 14, 2006

The point that producers wouldn't dream of inventing their own laws for a crime drama, yet are happy to invent their own scientific laws for a science drama is a good one.\n\nWith the science content of school science courses being reduced yet further, the situation is not going to improve either.

July 19, 2006

This piece has given birth to a great forum thread (see http://forums.lablit.com/viewtopic.php?t=177) n LabLit -- created by Jennifer Rohn, one of our contributing editors -- on Stephen Gallagher's work and science on television. Gallagher himself has even taken part. Join it, or add your comments here. And join us every Friday for The Scientist's Culture Friday, featuring pieces on similar subjects.
Avatar of: Alom Shaha

Alom Shaha

Posts: 1

July 21, 2006

I am a TV producer who has worked on lots of science "documentaries" and have been in numerous situations where I've had to explain to some producer or exec that what they were suggesting made no scientific sense or that their "simplification" of science rendered it effectively meaningless - only to have my advice ignored. There was (and continues to be) a ridiculous notion that science programmes are better made by people without a science background because, in the process of making the programme, they will have to understand the science for themselves and will therefore be better at explaining it to the TV viewers. Guess where that argument breaks down...

July 22, 2006

Before Eleventh Hour went out, I posted on my website that 'I'm trying to do something different this time. I think audiences are fed up of being told "all science is evil" by Arts graduates with BUPA plans.'\n\nI don't think that the media are innately anti-science. But they all interpret the world in story form, and stories always call for certain elements... someone to cheer for, someone to threaten their happiness, something to threaten their happiness with... secrets to be uncovered, obstacles to be overcome. The same principles apply whether it's a simple news story, a chat show interview, a documentary, or a complex drama -- and when science enters the picture it's it's inevitably going to be manipulated to serve the form. \n\nAnd up to that point I would defend the process. I'm a dramatist and my job is to dramatise, which means to draw upon common experience to render situations of universal human concern.\n\nBut where I seem to differ from some of my peers is in my take on how science fits into that common experience, and with what due diligence it should be treated. Even on a lightweight, fantastical show like BUGS I'd trawl my science-trained drinking buddies for cool notions to extrapolate from.\n\n(My experience was that the drunker the scientist, the more creative the extrapolation)\n\nAs I see it, the problem with the MMR drama was that its makers were unreasonably persuaded of the emotional truth of its David-and-Goliath tale of a lone crusader and a self-interested medical establishment... a 'truth' that was never supported by the facts. As a result, the film made a genuinely dangerous case. An actress curled her lip at the term 'herd immunity', as if this typified the kind of cold-hearted science that paled before the kind of conviction that's underpinned by a mother's love. Now, the herd immunity that has protected our children is being compromised by the falloff in vaccination. I'm not saying that it's a consequence of the drama. But it is a consequence of the mindset that the drama played to.\n\nPerhaps a part of the general problem lies in the fact that one of the effects of science has been to make fantasies real. Yesterday's Icarus myth is today's Challenger disaster. Or, on the positive side, yesterday's miracle is today's miracle cure. This can lead some to believe that the line between fantasy and reality must therefore be somehow indistinct, and need not be regarded.\n\nI can recommend checking out the Lablit forum mentioned above -- some better brains than mine have been tackling the issue!\n\n
Avatar of: Scott Bieser

Scott Bieser

Posts: 1

December 5, 2006

I know this is tangential but I find the passion with which many people disparage the vaccine/autism linkage quite remarkable. Especially since recent surveys in the U.S. are showing a falloff in the rate of new autism-spectrum cases, starting about five years after the pharmcos removed thimerasol from childhood vaccines. Allowing for the time required for existing stocks to be depleted, this is what one would expect to find based on the theory.\n\nAs the father of an autism-spectrum afflicted child I have a personal interest in this matter.\n\nI agree that science ought not be manipulated the way it is in our storytelling, but scientists should remember that established theories are not Revealed Truth but always subject to falsification and revision. And that scientists are human beings and therefore just as subject to concerns of self-interest and group-loyalty as anyone else. Often they seem to forget that.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

October 10, 2008

Vaccines help, and vaccines harm. It's long past time for the CDC, physicians and consumers to comprehend this dichotomy, and deal with it ethically. Some children's biopsies show vaccine-strain measles in lesions lining the gastrointestinal tract -- just one of many unfortunate side effects of vaccines. Thousands upon thousands of parents report their children's physical and mental regressions shortly after administration of multiple vaccines in one day. Vaccinosis is being treated at the Rimland Center in Virginia, Thoughtful House in Texas, and by DAN! doctors from the Autism Research Institute in California. The Federal Autism Omnibus Proceedings ("Vaccine Court") begun in 2002 are finally reaching conclusion, with verdicts expected in 2009. How tragic that reports of vaccine injury go ignored, rather than having scientists investigate and prevent them.

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