How Actual Science Can Make Science Fiction Stories Cooler

How do the minds behind Battlestar Galactica, Prometheus, X-Men: First Class, and Torchwood go about juggling science fact and science fiction, to tell a believable story? Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait hosted a panel at San Diego Comic-Con yesterday to discuss this issue, along with the making and breaking canon in sequels and prequels.

Involving scientists when creating science fiction

When Plait asked about the role of scientific advisers in shaping television shows, writer Jane Espenson spoke about how insight from one physician impacted Torchwood: Miracle Day. Espenson painted a world with gruesome car accident victims and sick people who will never die, with pharmaceutical companies running amok.


The physician consulted by Espenson and the Torchwood writing staff pointed out one major downside to immortality — the unstoppability of cancer. Cancer cells are immortal, incessantly replicating cells. Turning off the "switch" that allows people to die within the universe could also deactivate the "switch" that prevents tumor replication.

One unused plot point brought up by the unnamed physician revolved around the very creepy side effects of immortal sloughed skin cells. A human sheds roughly 3.5 kilograms of skin a year. If each cell in this Torchwood storyline is truly immortal, each fleck of discarded skin lives on, clogging the sewers and streets with massive skin monsters. This plot point, luckily, did not make it into Torchwood: Miracle Day.


Hard science on the cutting room floor
Prometheus writer Jon Spaihts talked about the hard science he looked at, while researching his early screenplay for Prometheus. The idea that these giant "Space Jockeys" intermingled with humanity fascinated the author — leading him to hypothesize that the jockeys helped humankind make evolutionary leaps, after he looked at real-life research into how rapidly our civilization advanced against a background of climate change.

Looking at a time line of humanity amidst the number of catastrophic extinctions, ice ages, and other disturbances, Spaihts likened the growth of human civilization to a "heart attack on an echocardiogram, with all of human history taking place in this 12,000 years of climatic calm." This extensive research never saw the screen, as Spaihts finished by saying, "All of this (research and thought), by the time the movie hit the screen, ended up as a pictograph."


Spaights is not alone on the panel when it came to leaving scientific issues on the cutting room during the course of crafting a story. X-Men: First Class scribes Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller spoke of a desire to have Charles Xavier give his Ph.D. dissertation thesis to Watson and Crick, stalwarts of genetic research.


The duo believed the scene could be pulled off, thanks to a four- to five-year overlap in fiction and reality. The scene never made it to the screen. But now you can rewatch the scenes of Xavier worrying over his thesis defense with an additional twinge of suspense — knowing who might have been judging his graduate work.

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