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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links