The appliance of science to fiction

Think of soap operas and scientists do not immediately spring to mind. But that could be about to change. By Gerard Gilbert
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Here's the pitch. A debonair, ambitious but reckless geneticist, George Clooney, is working on isolating the "ageing" gene - work that could make him a millionaire and possibly even win him the Nobel Prize. He's working alongside the more stolid David Caruso - an all-round better scientist whose hard work is really getting the results.

Clooney, meanwhile, is having a relationship with Sherry Stringfield (she's very excited about the role), a geneticist at a rival lab also working on the gene. Stringfield's boss (Jimmy Smits says he's interested), a major shareholder experiencing crippling alimony payments, is putting pressure on her to call a press conference before any results have been published. He wants to manipulate the share price upwards. The working title, by the way, is LA Lab...

Unlikely? After all, television drama's relationship with science is unhappy, unlike its successful alliance with lawyers, the police and doctors. Scientists are either a bit dotty (think Dr Who), bad (think the Dr Frankenstein-like Charles Dance cloning human beings in First Born) or just plain, boring old brilliant. They are never mediocre, incompetent, avaricious, envious or even - horror of horrors - normal.

But all that may change. David Milch, executive producer of NYPD Blue, is in the process of writing a pilot for a series about scientists in that show's style. But, as he told a conference of scientists and film- makers, scientists are a tough sell. "Frankenstein gets a lot of business, Nova doesn't," he said, referring to the Public Broadcasting Service answer to BBC2's Horizon. "Science is out of reach as perceived by the vast majority of people. There are deep misgivings in the public consciousness about the devil's bargain science has made."

These misgivings have not been lost on the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic organisation dedicated to "keeping Americans prosperous" by promoting science and technology. It has given a grant to Milch to develop the pilot, in the hope that he can do for scientists what LA Law did for lawyers. "If it works it will make a big impact," says Doron Weber, an author and former scriptwriter who heads the foundation.

The organisation traditionally helped to fund America's worthy, high- quality Public Service Broadcasting, but a couple of years ago decided to go "downstream". "We wanted to reach the mass market and try to humanise scientists on prime-time TV shows," says Weber.

The science community in this country is intrigued to see how the drama turns out. "I bet it's a bio-medical drama," says Dr Jon Turney, of University College, London, formerly Wellcome Fellow in science communication. "I'm not sure how it can be done. Science is incredibly boring. Your average science lab isn't the emergency room of an inner-city hospital. It's a question of dogged routine and repetition, not heroic surgery with electrodes in the chest. Mind you, they make docu-soaps about far less interesting things - airports, for example."

"I can't see how they can do it," concurs Sally Robins, of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which co-ordinates the annual National Science Week. "When you go into a laboratory you see that science is such a slow process."

A radical solution is offered by the playwright Stephen Poliakoff, writer and director of BBC2's Shooting the Past, whose brother is a scientist, and who has written several plays on the subject. When he came to write Blinded by the Sun, his play about fraud and competition among research scientists, he decided to dump the science.

"There's no point having characters speaking mumbo-jumbo," he says. "It's like having them suddenly bursting into Swedish. The actors sound very impressive but it loses the audience. The way into the subject is to show that there are just as many schmucks and mediocrities in the science world as in any other. Just because scientists deal in fact, it's tempting to think that they are brilliant and infallible. But science is full of mediocrities. And their world is just as jealous and competitive as the media.

"One way in is to show the pressures to get funding - to get results quickly into the public domain. That's why we get cure-for-cancer stories every month. Scientists are now spin-doctoring like everybody else."

Poliakoff sees the scientists' personalities as all-important. "What you need is a catalyst: write in a character who's winging it, somebody who's a bit over-cautious... if they're all brilliant they won't be interesting. But you don't have to make it like a soap - lots of characters talking mumbo-jumbo and then having sex with each other."

As it happens, it's been a long-term pipe dream of those in the profession of selling science to get a scientist into one of the major TV soap operas. Not that those making soaps are at all likely to bite.

"What people do for a living is rarely of any importance," says Kieran Roberts, series producer of Emmerdale. "It usually gets in the way. We have a lawyer in the show at the moment, but we realised that having her doing a load of legal-speak was quickly turning viewers off. Lisa Dingle's ex-husband, Barry Clegg, was an amateur inventor, but, to be honest, he was a pretty daft character. The sort of jobs people have in soaps tend to be ones that don't need much of an explanation - like the guy who runs the pub."

The soaps are no different from other television dramas in this respect. A survey of US prime-time dramas from 1994 to 1997 showed that only 2 per cent of characters were scientists, behind businessmen, entertainers, police officers, doctors and lawyers.

One problem is that film-makers - and scriptwriters - don't know any scientists. "And if you don't know any scientists, you just end up writing stereotypes," says Weber.

Just as important as the Milch project, according to Weber, is their sponsoring of six leading US film schools - the classic feeders for Hollywood. To influence the next generation of film-makers, the Sloan Foundation is offering funding of up to $25,000 (pounds 15,000) to students who make movies about science and engineering.

"We're funding people early in their careers so that they will be more open-minded towards scientists later on," says Weber. "Part of the stipulations for the funding is that they attend a seminar each year and meet scientists."

The Hollywood scientist whom Weber has been most impressed by of late was Jodie Foster's astrophysicist in Contact. I mention that the next Bond girl is supposed to be a nuclear physicist. "Chances are that the Bond girl's nuclear physics will be worth two lines in the script, and then she'll take her clothes off," he replies. Mistrust between the two sides, it seems, is still rampant.