With the anti-science Bush Administration finally groaning to a halt, we may finally be willing to admire scientists. There are three new TV shows with scientist heroes coming this fall, creating a genre that hardly existed until now. We've always had lots of shows about doctors, lawyers and other highly paid professionals, but the science-hero show is a new phenomenon — and it may be more political than the existing genres. Minor spoilers ahead.
Are we finally ready to admire the scientific process the way we do medical diagnostics or forensics? A key feature of the doctor/lawyer/forensic show is the fetishization of jargon, the obsessive examination of evidence and the attention to process. Are we ever going to see television shows stare deeply into the process of scientific experiments, posing hypotheses, and making discoveries in the same way? (In a present-day setting, I mean — not aboard the Starship Enterprise or a far-future Earth.)
I say a TV show about heroic scientists could be more political than doctor or lawyer shows, much less forensics shows, because of the range of hot-button issues they could tackle. Issues ranging from stem-cell research to climate change promise to be hot-button issues in the presidential campaign. And the focus of these debates is often over whether we believe scientists when they talk about global warming, and whether we trust them not to clone a million babies for unethical research. So it's a good thing if we're seeing more admirable scientists on television.
We may be taking the first baby steps towards the heroic-scientist show with a few new shows coming this fall.
First there's Eleventh Hour, which is a remake of a British show that starred Patrick Stewart. In the American version, Rufus Sewell plays a heroic biophysicist named Jacob Hood, who's on call for the FBI to investigate "scientific crises and oddities." (For a while, it seemed like CBS was changing the name of this show to Elemental, but the network seems to have gone back to the British title.) According to the CBS Eleventh Hour site:
His jurisdiction is absolute and Hood is dogged in his pursuit of those who would abuse and misuse scientific discoveries and breakthroughs for their own gain. His passion and crusade is to protect the substance of science from those with nefarious motives. He is called in at the eleventh hour and he represents the last line of defense.
He's helped by his sexy bodyguard Rachel, who beats up unethical scientists for him.
And then there's Fringe, another show featuring the FBI. In this show, FBI agent Olivia Dunham needs to enlist the aid of a mad scientist, Walter Bishop, who's been institutionalized for years. She learns to trust him after she takes part in one of his weird experiments, involving donning electrodes in her underwear.
Judging from what I've heard so far about the pilot, Bishop is unorthodox and maybe a little freaky, but he and his son Peter become Olivia's main helpers. Bishop gets all the best lines in the show's trailer, and all the coolest images involve his electrodes and weird substances.
The final new show featuring a heroic scientist is the ongoing Knight Rider TV series, based on the "backdoor pilot" TV movie that aired last year. Its hero is Mike Trace, who drives the super-intelligent car KITT.
But Mike's main helpers are super-scientist Sarah Graiman and her dad Charles, who built the car. Here's how actor Deanna Russo describes Sarah's credentials in an interview:
Sarah is an assistant professor although it's not quite exactly stated what she teaches but it has something to do with nano-technology. She's also the daughter of Charles Graiman, played by Bruce Davison. And the two of them built the initial algorithms for KITT.
I love that on television, you can be a professor of science, without going into detail about what type of science.
There have been a few present-day shows with heroic scientists in the past — Surface, NBC's one-year wonder about weird sea creatures, comes to mind. The Sci Fi Channel's Eureka has a whole cast of loveable scientists, who sometimes create some genuinely useful inventions in between causing crises and calamities. And CBS still has The Big Bang Theory, a nerd sitcom which includes some likeable scientist characters. But hourlong dramas in which scientists are the main characters or major supporting characters are still pretty rare.
There have been tons of novels about heroic scientists, meanwhile, going back as far as Sinclair Lewis' 1926 novel Arrowsmith, in which a gifted doctor turns to research and develops a new type of anti-bacterial phage. Many "hard science fiction" novels feature a heroic scientist who invents something or solves a presing problem. It's permissible, in written fiction at least, to look up to scientists.
The real question is: Does having a scientist hero mean that TV shows are going to show how science can make the world a better place? Based on a cursory examination of the three new shows, I'm going with "no." At least, not necessarily. Eleventh Hour and Fringe both feature our heroes fighting against evil science. In the Eleventh Hour clip that's already been released, Rufus Sewell discovers human cloning is going on, and calls it an abomination. In Fringe, there's a mysterious science conspiracy that sees the world as its laboratory, and the fringe sciences our heroes investigate include "mind control. Teleportation. Astral projection, invisibility, genetic mutation, reanimation, fertility." Weirdly enough, the only one of these shows where the scientists have developed something unequivocally good is Knight Rider. Who doesn't love a smart car?
It's not surprising that Bad Science, or the misuse of good science, will be the enemy in these new shows. (In the case of Knight Rider, some bad guys want KITT for their own.) In the traditional white-collar drama, the specialist knowledge of the hero is instrumental in putting all the pieces of the universe back where they belong. The specialist restores the status quo.
This is especially true of a doctor-drama like, say, House, where the patients have a mysterious and baroque illness, and the doctor has to puzzle it out. The courtroom drama, meanwhile, usually seems to be half about untangling the truth of a knotty situation, tangled by lies and omissions, and half about solving complicated social dilemmas. And the forensic drama is more straightforwardly about reconstructing the past, often miraculously, thanks to science's ability to turn tiny clues into a coherent story. None of these genres are about changing the world, or creating something wholly new.
So could we eventually have a TV show about a science hero who does leave everything better at the end of an hour than at the beginning? Probably not — the more I ponder the mechanics of an hourlong TV drama, the more I think the best we'll ever get is a noble scientist hero who defends our way of life against scientific abuses — and maybe occasionally invents a slightly useful gadget. But what do you think?