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December 30 2008

Writers taking us into higher dimensions of science. Joanne Ostrow of The Denver Post contemplates how recent TV shows are making her use her brain. "I've been thinking - TV has been forcing me. If it's not string theory or electromagnetism it's Einstein's relativity. We ache to understand mysteries bigger than ourselves and science-y television let's us pretend we can." Also, she likes Dollhouse.

*took out "pontificates" because I wasn't using the word seriously, but some people might not get me. ('No one ever gets me.') ;D

[ edited by NYPinTA on 2008-12-31 16:19 ]

Its definitely amazing how casually Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles throws time-travel paradoxes at the audience. Its such an example of the times, I think, to have shows that assume you're saavy about such a complex logical matter, on a weekly basis.
Okay, scientist members of Whedonesque, tell us truthfully: do the shows she mentions actually contain anything resembling real science? Apart from "Myth Busters," I haven't seen much that's seemed truly science-based on TV. (Tho' maybe I'm just scarred from having watched X-files in the company of a very literal-minded geneticist...)
I don't know about those shows specifically, but at their best in tv dramas you'll get a bit of real science to add sciencey flavor to your dramatic dish of choice. It means the writers are pursuing a certain line of inquiry, not that the science is entirely realistic. Geneticists have a legitimate gripe with science onscreen, since genes are the current era's biological phlebotinum. It gets very hand-wavy very fast. CSI is like that-- they don't do chemical analyses. They do magic with chemicals based on real tests that are a lot more dry and limited.

Dollhouse will raise interesting questions using science, but the show's as much about what the characters do in regard to the questions raised as House is about how a medical team interacts and makes decisions in really bizarre high-pressure cases. Science is just the backdrop to get to House stabbing someone dramatically with a syringe, and getting the audience to a context where you might think he was right to do it or you might not. The science is only supposed to be real enough to get you into the story.
Ah but 'House' promotes the mindset of science more than any other show IMO, science isn't just a tool the writers use, it dictates House's entire worldview - i'd even say that at its best the validity (or not) of that worldview is the fundamental point of suspense the show rests on.

'Fringe' has about as much to do with science as 'Happy Days' did so that's a really bad example IMO, folk thinking they're being blinded by science on that show says more about the woeful state of science literacy amongst the general public than anything else. Most shows (quite sensibly) just wave their hands regarding the actual science of their various Macguffins (and I expect Joss to do the same on 'Dollhouse').

In general, nah, not really seeing it. The paradoxes in T:TSCC for instance are story engines, they're not science and only related to logic because they're illogical (that's kinda what makes them paradoxical ;) - which is to say the show accepts paradoxes as real whereas in our world they seem to be impossible (not only that but I remember an episode of 'Doctor Who' with Tom Baker - i.e. at least 27 years ago - which featured a logic problem based around an apparent paradox so it's not a new thing in science-fiction).

It might be truer to say that sci-fi TV is becoming more mainstream so that people not used to science are seeing more of it.
I think in Dollhouse the focus will be not so much on science, but on technology.

funny conincidence: real science seems to catch up with TV too.
House is better than most sciencey shows, true. It doesn't quite get to where I'd like to see the fiction go, though. As morally ambiguous as House can be, it's a recurring theme that he's a misanthrope and in many ways a monster his colleagues fear becoming themselves. He's much too warped and self-serving to represent science overly well. He's more of a medical detective than a scientist. That works great for the show-- he's fascinating to watch-- but I think it says something that the show with the most scientific worldview has a guy who often seems to lack compassion at its center.

I liked the X-Files early on because as crazy as Mulder's ideas were, Scully was pretty grounded in the scientific method much of the time. Bones is the newer version of that-- a psychologist working with a partner with the perspective of a "hard" scientist. Although I wouldn't call Scully's MD and Brennan's PHD in physical anthropology "hard" science, that's the mindframe they're meant to represent. They both value logic and empirical evidence above anything else in a case, and they wade through weird stuff to find both.
TawnyJayne, being a biochemist who likes watching TV, Sunfire put it excellently with "They do magic with chemicals based on real tests that are a lot more dry and limited." Sometimes there is a (very) small grain of truth in there, but most of it is pure fantasy. My partner, who is in IT, says the same can be said of most computer-based plotpoints.

(We always have to pause when they come up so he can rant about how you couldn't do that, it wouldn't work etc... where as I get to laugh when they string a group of legitimate scientific words together in a way that means pretty much nothing!)

Shows also tend to cut the experiment times down to about 1/10th how long it would actually take (a few hours as opposed to days), and also neglect to consider the expense of all the new equipment they use for the fancy techniques, thus making the labs incredibly unrealistic (CSI being an excellent example of both from the little I have seen).

Shows also like having an "expert" who understands every highly specialised cutting-edge technique in every possible field that is even vaguely related to what the show usually covers... which is highly unlikely but works well with their unrealistically equipped lab! Unfortunately, Fred falls under this category a bit in Angel, particularly in Season 5 (though the absolutely worst culprit I know of is Abby in NCIS).

I understand the writer's approach in the sense that one geek is enough for most any show, and it makes it all more exciting, both in terms of allowing the plot to move forward quicker and also to show us what leading edge science can do. (At least in most procedurals, the actual experiment is approximately based in reality minus the aforementioned much quicker in TV).

Also, Abby and Fred are awesome characters! (it's always nice to see girl geeks!).

The plus side to all this is that it can make science seem exciting, if it gets people interested and want to find out more, as it seems to have with the author of the linked article, that can only be a good thing. What might be bad is that some people might then go in to science thinking its all as fast and flashy as in TV.

Sunfire, it was also interesting you mentioned House, because a recentally graduated medical doctor friend of mine who loves watching House said that the scripts were all based on documented odd medical cases from medical journals, which, if true, is awesome!

As far as shows such as Dollhouse is concerned, I think its more about using psuedo-science to help the audience suspend disbelief long enough to get involved in all the mythological and philosophical questions raised.

To me, a stronger argument can be made that TV is becoming more philosophical, and that science fiction is a good window into that area.
Time compression is something that happens with every occupation/event in films and TV, without it films would be days long and hella dull ... OK, maybe except '24' ;). And yep, the way computers are used in films/TV is now and has been for, y'know, ever laughably unrealistic. Similar situation really - IT, like science, isn't generally that dramatic in reality and, with a few exceptions, certainly isn't cinematic so liberties have to be taken. Personally i'm long used to it and understand the reasons behind it so it's a non-issue for me but I know people that literally can't watch films featuring computers because it drives them crazy. So it goes ;).

... but I think it says something that the show with the most scientific worldview has a guy who often seems to lack compassion at its center.

Sure Sunfire, it says science can't tell you how to be a good person, which is a pretty important point I reckon. Fair comment though, to people watching it might well give the impression that being rational = lacking compassion, that it's all about "the cold equations" but then that's always the danger with abstract reasoning i.e. you might become too abstracted. That said, the Cottages (old and new) also apply House's techniques but (largely) without his misanthropy so there're counter examples in the show itself (enough, IMO, so that we know it's not rationality that's the problem but the emotional state of House himself).

I liked the X-Files early on because as crazy as Mulder's ideas were, Scully was pretty grounded in the scientific method much of the time.

Hmm, early on maybe. Scully pretty quickly became dogmatically anti-paranormal though. In our reality she's probably right but in the X-Files' reality she ignored good evidence that contradicted her worldview (or at least held it to a higher standard than she did other evidence) and that's bad science. She was a sceptic but not what i'd call a rational sceptic.
NYPinTA, Joanne Ostrow is the TV writer for the Denver Post, and her columns are "reprinted" in denverpost.com. So, this story in an important and favorable review of Dollhouse. "Pontificate" means to talk in a pompous or dogmatic way. Did you really mean to criticize her?
Science elements in TV shows can be a lot of fun, good brain teasers, or just great puzzles, as in the case of Lost, but too much can drive you insane. I gave up on all the Dharma Initiative arcane clues, and now the time travel elements, and decided to just go for the ride. I really don't have a lot of time or brainpower left after working all day with only weekends off to recuperate. Also, you have to walk a fine line between the human element and technology, which is what lately, has perked up Fringe a lot. I'm a little sorry she didn't mention The Mentalist, which while not strictly a science procedural, has elements of practical observation, hypnotism, etc. that make me watch closely.
She was a sceptic but not what i'd call a rational sceptic.

Yeah, she and Mulder switched positions in that way as the series progressed.
they're not science and only related to logic because they're illogical (that's kinda what makes them paradoxical ;)

Paradoxes are invalid, not illogical. It's like math. 1+1=3 isn't unmathematical, just wrong.

I was very happy to see her positive take on Dollhouse. More, please.

ETA: I just noticed pseu pseu pseudo-scientific. Good one, and I guess somebody else has been watching Commentary! over and over.

[ edited by dreamlogic on 2008-12-31 06:49 ]
Saje, I know time compression is common, and usually doesn't bother me at all.

What does bother me slightly, however, is that shows like CSI have led to such an increased popularity for forensic science that universities have created Forensic Science degrees to meet demand. At first glance, you think, yay! more interest in Science! However, if a student enters this degree thinking its going to lead to anything that more than vaguely resembles what s/he sees on CSI, then s/he are going to be sorely disappointed.

I also don't like the fact that scientists are often portrayed as cold and irrational and/or socially inept. And unlike TV, most scientists don't wear lab coats. Most scientists I know are just normal (slightly geeky) humans. The slightly geeky bit leads to conversations about the activation energy required to get a task done, and an epidemiology study on the disappearance of tea spoons in a university tea room! (here for those interested) - things that I think add to my enjoyment of life, but which I acknowledge can make scientist seem a bit wierd!

I realise these scientific stereotypes are useful, and also that there are other occupation-based stereotypes. Also, good writers head away from them early on in a TV series and deepen the character as opposed to the stereotype. For example, Fred may be a geeky scientist, but she's way more than that, and there's a very good reason why she was socially inept and crazy for a while (being stranded on another dimension would do that to anyone).

A tangent: one of the things I love about Firefly is that there is no sound when Serenity flys in space. The person who pointed this out to me (maybe its in a commentary/extra somewhere?) pointed out that this makes sense, space being a vacuum. So although I also love BSG, whenever their spaceships make noise in space, it niggles a bit.
'2001' and more recently 'Sunshine' did the same thing but I agree it's cool to see it in 'Firefly' (or hear it. Or rather, not hear it ;) - it's especially cool IMO because not only is it correct but the creators also use it to tell a better story (e.g. in 'Out of Gas' where we see the frantic commotion inside juxtaposed with a silent shot of the outside of the ship). BSG used to give us a "cockpit ear view" of sound in space i.e. the sounds we hear correspond to the sounds the pilots would hear in the cockpit though I must admit I haven't paid attention to that aspect enough to check if they've stuck to that or have broadened it out to more conventional sci-fi space sound.

And yeah, the false impression could well be damaging - i've read police officers complain that shows like CSI give the public unrealistic expectations of forensic science (and the criminals ready access to knowledge they might otherwise have to work harder for) - and stereotypes are never fun when you're the butt of them, all true. As you say Bluey, better writers use clichés as their starting point and round out (or subvert) from there.

Paradoxes are invalid, not illogical.

Hmm, surely they can be both/either dreamlogic ? For instance, the "liar paradox" ("'All Cretans are liars' the Cretan said" or "This statement is false") breaks the logical law of non-contradiction and is, therefore, illogical (and i'd say the "grandfather paradox" - which we see a version of in T:TSCC - does the same but with reality rather than language).
All good points Saje. I didn't know that about BSG, I will keep an ear out next time I watch an episode (I am waiting for it to finish before I buy season 4).
"Pontificate" means to talk in a pompous or dogmatic way. Did you really mean to criticize her?

No. I just like the word pontificates. It also means, "to officiate as a pontiff" ... so I could be saying I see her (and her article) as infallible.
Saje, if you really think I don't already know about those problems, I do. You're scattering apples and oranges all over.

[ edited by dreamlogic on 2009-01-02 11:07 ]
Saje, if you really think I don't already know about those problems, I do. You're scattering apples and oranges all over.

Err, what dreamlogic ? You said "Paradoxes are invalid, not illogical.". In the example of a paradox I give (which you were apparently already aware of) this is just wrong, for the reasons I mention (which presumably you weren't aware of or you wouldn't have posted an erroneous statement) - why is that comparing apples and oranges ? Cryptic comments do not a refutation make.

Unless you just had a brain fart, in which case fuhgeddabboutit, happens to us all ;).

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