Suspension of disbelief can make or break a story. In science fiction, it usually centers on believable applications of science. We asked this week’s panelists:
Is your favorite show listed among their answers?
My own specialty is the biological sciences, so I’ll let other Mind Melders talk about physics. Biology is complicated, messy, and often slow, particularly when humans are involved. That means that for dramatic purposes the depiction of cloning, genetics and other biological sciences is usually pretty bad on screen.
So often it seems that SF productions hire science advisors who are physicists or astronomers, rather than biologists. I suspect that is one of the reasons why the depiction of biology. It also seems that many people mistakenly assume that biology is an “easy” science that they know and understand, so that they don’t need any advice. Add to that the fact that bad biology is often used as a sciency-sounding substitute for magic, and we end up with the current state of bad science in on-screen SF. Of course it could just be that the depiction of bioscience seems especially bad to me, because that’s my area of expertise.
Which SF misrepresentations of biology annoy me the most?
- Mutations that either provide superpowers or turn men into monsters, or both.
It’s a staple trope of comic book-style SF such as X-Men and the TV series Heroes, as well as SF-fantasies like Sanctuary. It’s not just that altering someone’s DNA is unlikely to make it possible for him to defy the laws of nature and be able to fly or shoot lightning from his fingers. It’s that every person with a mutation gets a different power. I’d much rather see Harry Potter-style genetics where those that carry the “magic” gene(s) are pretty similar when it comes to abilities.
- Alien-human hybrids.
Hybrids are a staple of Star Trek: ToS had the human-Vulcan (Spock), Voyager had the human-Klingon (B’Elanna Torres) and TNG had the human-Betazoid (Deanna Troi), among many other minor characters. Babylon 5 did it a bit better: the ability of the human Sheridan and Minbari Delenn to have a son was due to Delenn’s unusual heritage and almost-magical transformation a human-Minbari hybrid herself. And Stargate avoids that particular issue by making the human-appearing aliens actually human (there are problems with the biology of that too, but at least the baby-making would work).
- Fast-growing humans.
If and when human clones are created, you would have to wait 15 or 20 years for them to be mature enough to be useful. That’s not fast enough for many SF stories, so there is usually some vague handwaving about making them mature much faster than normal. Some examples of such super-fast maturation clone troopers in the Star Wars universe, the “temporal RNA” in the clone of Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek Nemesis, and even the humanoid cylons in Battlestar Galactica that emerge fully formed from their resurrection tanks.
Of course that’s the tip of the bad biology iceberg. I’d also include super smart (and often telepathic) clones/mutants/future humans that tap into the “90% of the brain that is normally unused”, the depiction of evolution as having a goal and a purpose, there are telepathic clones, communicative microbes, and planets with completely uniform ecologies.
That having been said, some SF is worse than others. If I want an example of inaccurate biology my go-to TV series is Star Trek, particularly The Next Generation. If there is an episode centered on bioscience, it’s almost certainly going to be wrong scientifically. Of the shows that are currently on the air, Fringe usually has plots based on bad science. They get a pass from me, though, because the science is clearly meant to be silly. And if I want a send up of bad SF tropes, I watch Futurama.
It’s harder to point out shows that have consistently good depictions of science. The movies and TV shows that are the most scientifically accurate also tend to be the most mundane. For example, the Canadian series ReGenesis does a pretty good job of portraying science accurately, and has worked with the Ontario Genomics Institute to provide information about the science behind each episode. Here in the US, there is Eleventh Hour. I haven’t seen it, but at least some reviewers seem to think that the biology is fairly realistic, albeit very negatively portrayed.
I’m not really the best person to say which movies get the science right, because I don’t watch that many movies – and the ones with accurate biology are pretty few and far between. But a few that come to mind:
The one that usually comes up in discussions like these is the 1997 movie Gattaca, which depicts a society where the upper classes select their children from embryos with the “optimal” genetic traits. It quite rightly has been used as the basis for discussions about the ethics of discrimination on the basis of genetics.
The original 1971 Andromeda Strain movie has a pretty good depiction of the way scientists might take on a new lethal bacterial strain. It’s much better than the recent miniseries version which swapped the microbiology for time travel and aliens.
The 1978 movie Boys from Brazil, about growing Hitler clones isn’t bad. At least the clones seem to be growing at the normal rate, and aren’t telepathically linked or anything like that. There have been a few other “mundane” cloning films, such as the 1997 made-for-TV movie Cloned.
I can’t think of any recent movies that I’d include on the list, although maybe they are out there just waiting for me to watch them.
Unlike some, I don’t get annoyed by shows like Firefly, or movies like Armageddon, which are obviously Not Meant To Be Taken Seriously from a science or technology point of view. Those productions are about characters and adventure, and more power to them. The productions that do annoy are shows with pretensions of seriousness, but in which the science and technology is so wrong as to be obvious to anyone with the most basic level of scientific literacy. Fringe wanders across this line on a regular basis (although props to John Nobel for playing the best mad scientist since Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein). But the production that absolutely made my blood boil is Brain De Palma’s Mission to Mars. This is a movie which clearly prided itself on what it believes was a commitment to realism. Objects on screen move in ways that bear no relation to how anything moves in Earth or in space, the centerpiece of movie is the thoroughly debunked face on Mars (which makes as much sense today as pitching a movie set in a lush jungle of Venus), genetics and evolution are portrayed in their cargo-cult versions.
On the opposite end, my favorite science in science-fiction movie is Primer, the best time travel story since H.G. Wells. I liked this movie for a number of reasons: it shows that discovery of the time-travel phenomenon proceeds any real theoretical understanding of what’s going on. To often in science fiction, we’re presented with a theorist’s blackboards full of equations, which are then reduced to practice without much trouble at all. But it often works the other way in science — Einstein won his Noble prize for explaining the photoelectric effect; we still don’t have a perfect grasp of superconductivity. The movie also shows that, unlike many other time machines, a technology that is not magic — you can’t just go to any time and place in space. As with most real technology, there are limits and trade offs to Primer‘s method of time travel — here, the idea is that if you want to go back in time for six hours, you need to sit in the machine for six hours, and you can’t go back in time before the moment you turn the machine on.
Within the bounds of dramatic license that any interesting TV show must have, I also like the Stargate franchise — they’ve done a really good job of staying internally consistent within the rules of their science fiction technology, without violating much of our real world knowledge about space. Battlestar Galactica made a strong effort, with special kudos for their “being exposed to space without a space suit” scene. Eureka can stretch the bounds at times, but in general stays on the side of light. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has been doing some interesting and well thought out things with both time travel and machine intelligence.
I’d like to focus on the part of the question that involves science-fiction films and TV shows that possibly miss the mark with respect to science.
Imagine that you are walking through the Nevada desert with Captain Steven Hiller, the hero of the science-fiction movie Independence Day. Suddenly you hear a sound in the sky as a huge alien ship appears above you veiled in fiery clouds.
All over the Earth alien crafts launch an incredible attack. The alien destroyers are fifteen miles long, and the mother ship is two hundred miles in length, both impossible for any Earthly weaponry to destroy. An alien appears before you. It must be a hoax. If the creature evolved on an alien world, why should it look so humanoid? The alien stands upright and is bilaterally symmetric; that is, its left and right side look the same. It has fingers, two jointed legs and arms, a head with two eyes, and a large cranium. Despite the alien’s strange appearance, from a distance of 50 yards at dusk, you might mistake it for human. But this seems somewhat unrealistic. In fact, the alien stripped of its biomechanical armor looks more like a human than does an Earthly lemur, with which we share greater than 95 percent of our genetic material.
Science-fiction writers have explored a far greater diversity of alien life forms in books than Hollywood can ever explore in movies, because the Hollywood alien must trigger instantaneous emotional impact; this requires a design based on recognizable human facial expressions of threat and menace. In fact, most of the “evil” Hollywood aliens since the 1950’s War of the Worlds have had a tendency to look mean and cranky, or like skullfaced sex-fiends. In reality, if we ever meet real aliens we will have a hard time understanding their moods by looking at them.
The best way we can guess at how alien life might appear is to consider the evolution of animal shapes on Earth. The idea that alien evolution will lead to creatures that look like us is far-fetched — despite the fact that on Star Trek, Mr. Spock looks almost exactly like us even though he was born on planet Vulcan to a Vulcan father. Mr. Spock’s mother was human, yet somehow his father from an entirely different planet was able to fertilize her — something less likely than you or I being able to mate with our close evolutionary cousins such as the octopuses and squids. The aliens in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind have large, smooth heads and huge black eyes. Again, they are also a little too human looking considering the quite different evolutionary pathways we’d expect on different worlds. Obviously, Hollywood production costs can be kept down if aliens are simply humans wearing sophisticated masks and makeup with dripping goo. Why is it that so many of the recent Hollywood extraterrestrials tend to be wet — the slimy goo variously suggesting amniotic fluid, mucous, evisceration, and dangerous body fluids? Perhaps all the alien drool reminds us of rabid animals and therefore is something to be feared.
In our actual universe, there are many reasons why human forms are unlikely. For one thing, the diverse rates and directions of evolution on Earth, with many types of creatures becoming extinct, show that there is no goal-directed route from single cells to an intelligent human. With only slightly different starting conditions on Earth, humans would not have evolved. In other words, evolution is so sensitive small changes that if we were to rewind and play back the “tape” of evolution, and raise initially the Earth’s overall temperature by just a degree, humankind would not exist. The enormous diversity of life today represents only a small fraction of what is possible. Moreover, if humans were wiped out today, humans would not arise again. This means that on another world, the same genetic systems and genes will not arise.
I don’t watch very much science fiction on TV or in the movies, so my “votes” don’t count for much. I think that 2001: A Space Odyssey was the most realistic SF film I’ve seen, and Star Trek did a fairly responsible job on TV. The most ludicrous film I ever saw was City Beneath the Sea, a made-for-TV movie in the 1970s (I think).
Whilst watching Babylon 5 I often frequented a B5 Usenet group, this was in the old days, before the blogs. On that group we entered a discussion about Tachyons, to which I made some comment that they didn’t exist. Someone replied I’m a theoretical particle physicist, they do exist! I replied I’m an experimental particle physicist, they don’t exist! (I was doing my PhD at CERN at the time.)
Which sums up the dilemma quite nicely, if a SF film or TV show uses real science, without any extrapolation, is it really Science Fiction? Well, maybe. I’d suggest that SF can speculate on the application of real science and still be SF. It’s one of those blurry lines which is probably more about whether it feels like Science Fiction.
There are some films which feel like they are realistic without being factually realistic. For example Primer, wonderfully intelligent, mind bogginglingly crazy and yet through its style and execution feels real. I think it’s the lack of techno-babble. The more that the future science is swathed in techno-babble the less I tend to like it and the less real it feels, which is why Star Trek (post original series) irritates me immensely. Lost is another example of feeling real, despite all the bonkers stuff that happens it never yanks me out of the story, due to a combination of style, great writing and characters I’ve come to love.
There’s also the question of something seeming unrealistic only to be overtaken by science in a decade or two. Again, Star Trek comes to mind: hand-held communicators and automatic doors! Or Space 1999: a computer that can understand your voice and print out ticker tape in response!
I find myself less concerned with science reality in films than any other medium. Maybe it’s what I’ve come to expect? Some of my favourite films are wildly impossible, from Back to the Future to The Matrix. And even the ones that feel real, like Aliens, don’t try to adhere to current science but derive their realism from feel.
On the other hand, when it comes to books Science reality is more important to me. I (somehow) read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, whilst shouting at the book, with its utopian image of CERN and all that anti-matter nonsense. I should avoid the coming film adaptation for health reasons. After reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy however I wondered why on Earth, erm, on Mars, we weren’t on Mars already, doing those things. KSR has set the plan, why not just follow it? What do you mean its fiction?
I don’t think it’s setting the bar very high, but I’ve never been too offended by the science in Star Trek. It’s always had its absurder moments, but at least they got the basic relationship between planets, stars and the galaxy right, with a clear understanding of the mechanics of interstellar travel, as opposed to the simple business of jaunting around a solar system. Later on they even had a go at rationalising the humanoid alien thing.
I may not have been exposed to the absolute worst offender, but for my money Space:1999 takes some beating. In contrast to Star Trek, Space:1999 absolutely failed to grasp the rhetoric of scale, with the writers appearing to have only a hazy notion of the distinction between asteroids, planets, stars and so on. The Star Wars universe probably makes even less sense, but since that never made any pretence to be anything other than a swashbuckling space fantasy, it’s difficult to hold it to the same standards. Doctor Who, which I love with a passion, swings between very sensible and very silly depending on the writers. None of this matters, really – the BBC made a “realistic” space drama entitled Star Cops, and it was much less fun and memorable than Doctor Who or Space:1999 at their daftest.
“Suspension of disbelief” is a more natural prospect for a viewer when the subject matter of a sci-fi TV show is completely removed from our everyday reality. It’s not such a leap to think that completely unexplored worlds–like the distant future, or the far reaches of space–could have mind-bending technologies and physiological manifestations that stretch our current understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, energy, and other fun stuff that I completely avoided studying in college. (Hooray for “social” sciences!)
A microwave-oven-looking device that creates a cup of hot cocoa out of thin air at the touch of a button? Sure. I buy that. A “doctor” who travels through time in a glorified phone booth? Yeah. Why not. Doesn’t seem any more far-fetched than Joss Whedon subjecting himself to a Friday night time slot on Fox all over again.
‘Cause, really…what do I know? Although I have a, uh… “regal” nose and would look devilishly handsome as a bald guy, in no other way do I resemble a Starfleet Captain. I have no basis in my normal life as a geeky dude in the early part of the 21st century for judging whether or not food-manifesting microwave-oven-thingies should or could exist a few hundred years from now. Who knows what Wal-Apple-Mart Corp. engineers will be developing in the future? And perhaps with the help of aliens, no less. The possibilities are wide open!
The problem with disbelief becoming, well… un-suspended comes when a TV show sets itself in contemporary, “real” life and puts forth “science” that’s too disjointed with the reality we know to be anything but “fiction.” Most reasonably-well-informed people have a pretty good idea where the limits of science exist today. We more or less know what’s feasible given the current state of technological and scientific research and knowledge.
And visiting the memories of a dead person via electrodes stuck to your head is not within the scientific realm of possibility right now. I’m looking at you, Fringe. I won’t delineate your other ridiculous affronts to rationality–mostly because you’re so darned entertaining–but don’t distract from the entertainment value by painting “make believe” as “fringe science.”
I’m not saying that the show is commuting from the township of Fabrication, USA, every week. It probably doesn’t venture completely outside the realm of scientific possibility with every episode. I mean, anything’s possible(ish), right? As we speak, DARPA might be trying to breed battle-chimps who can teleport in and out of underground enemy bunkers for the CIA.
But probably not. Real “fringe” science is a lot less interesting than what we see on TV.
I haven’t watched a lot of recent TV shows, or seen every movie that’s come out. I’ll focus on some of the serious movies and TV shows that are especially good or bad with the science and consistency. For the most part I’ll ignore comedies and shows that are really unabashed fantasy.
First, the movies with realistic science. The king is 2001: A Space Odyssey, with every scientific detail meticulously rendered, from artificial gravity to human exposure to vacuum, to the silence of space. Other films with realistic science include Contact, Gattaca, Predator, and Minority Report (if we ignore the future-seeing psychics). Contact enjoyed the technical expertise of Carl Sagan in the way 2001 benefited from Arthur C. Clarke. I love Predator for its realistic portrayal of high-tech camo and alien vision in the thermal infrared, with the plot turning on these points.
There are more movies with bad science than good. Armageddon averages over an error per minute, and the opening minutes get so many things so badly wrong I couldn’t believe anything in the whole film. Utterly ridiculous. The Core is the geological version of Armageddon. I didn’t even watch Sunshine since the premise was so unbelievable: the sun has stopped burning (?!) yet humans can restart it with a manned mission (?!) to deliver nuclear weapons to restart it. Dumb, dumb, dumb. I understand they had a science consultant to handwave something plausible, and I read an article about this, and still thought it was totally dumb. I might watch the movie if it comes on TV and I’m drunk and bored. Reign of Fire looked so cool with its dragons — I love a serious dragon movie — but they’re supposed to eat ash? ASH? After all the chemical energy has been extracted by burning? And the entire species had a ridiculous evolutionary niche and reproductive cycle that was completely implausible. XXX had a set of binoculars that could look through walls, and when that scene happened a new low of stupid had been set. But rising to that challenge is John Woo’s Face Off, which features a face transplant that somehow renders perfect copies that make it impossible for people to tell the difference between John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. I don’t think anyone needs to see their faces to tell them apart. Oh, the James Bond movies, like XXX, have often slid into silliness with Q’s gadgets.
As for television, my first thought was that I couldn’t think of any tv shows with consistently good science. After some more thought, I still couldn’t. I’ll list some shows that often try and sometimes do a good job, although non consistently in my opinion. Battlestar Galactica has some intrinsic flaws, such as the way Vipers zip around solar systems in hours or less without very much fuel, but the ships also fly through space silently and vacuum is treated realistically. CSI has ridiculously sophisticated expensive tests available and occasionally makes some gaffes (e.g., giving the acceleration due to gravity as a velocity), but has plots revolving around science and logic. ER gets its medicine and procedures correct, everything very realistic for a hospital show. The Big Bang Theory is a comedy, but they do a good job avoiding science errors and do provide some clever jokes. Star Trek, for all its boner episodes (like when Spock’s brain was stolen, or the Enterprise was almost hit by a chunk of white dwarf star), does try and sometimes gets things right.
Almost everything on TV has worse science that knocks me out of my suspension of disbelief. For a while I enjoyed Heroes as a fantasy, but they kept pushing the science side so hard I finally had it. Almost everything on the show fails to make sense when any thought is applied. I found Northern Exposure similarly implausible as the science-oriented character, the doctor, failed to believe fantastic events week after week (as opposed to the X-files where Scully evolved into a believer, with good reason). The rogue moon of Space 1999, flying past a different alien world every week, made no sense whatsoever. The Six Million Dollar Man should have torn his body apart about six million times. And finally, a fan favorite, Firefly, had terraformed moons and some sort of planetary system that still makes no sense to me, and as an astronomer and science fiction writer I can’t even figure out how to make it all plausible.
I am a gullible reader and watcher and will believe almost anything as long as it’s said authoritatively enough. That said, stuff done wrong in the one field I do know, computer science, will send me screaming.
Getting science wrong – Fringe (OMG the genetically created bat/asp/mosquito thing), the computer logic on Dollhouse (they have a computer set up so when someone runs a search it says “yes, it’s here and I’m erasing it”? I don’t think so).
Getting science right – Fringe‘s gentle pokes at parapsychology, BSG (I will believe any science if enough grit is rubbed on it), and anything computer-y said in The Big Bang Theory.
Let’s start with a caveat, because one person’s realism is another person’s impossible bullshit. To say nothing of the fact that hubris is just another word for declaring something Totally Unrealistic/Won’t Never Happen. So I’m wary of overly rigorous guidelines. In fact, I think the only things that truly count are:
- Have some rules that derive (however loosely) from what we know or suspect of the universe.
- For fuck’s sake, keep them consistent.
- Don’t just focus on the “straightforward” stuff either.
Ironically, (c) is usually the most egregious. For example, Star Wars always gets read the riot act for its explosions-making-noise-in-space and embarrassingly crowded asteroid fields and single-climate planets and all that crap. . . but at the end of the day, what got me was less its butchery of the physical sciences, and more the mockery it made of the social ones–e.g., I dare you to show me anything in history as simple as Big-Ass Evil Empire vs. Plucky Heart-of-Gold Underdogs. To say nothing of the balls-up mess it made of the science of military tactics . . . like that final robot battle at the end of Phantom Menace: as though you’d see any significant ground combat in a world where all differences would be settled in space, because whoever won up there could then bombard the other side into submission from on high. And God knows a lot of us would have liked to see Jar-Jar nuked from orbit . . .
[openly fantasizes for a few moments…]
Anyway. As to who really DOES get points for realism, here are my top 5:
- 2001 tried harder than basically everybody else combined
- Gattaca is a great case study of what happens when you wrestle hard (and effectively) with the inexorable implications of a particular tech innovation
- Alien explored the biological life-cycle to create a far more interesting alien than anyone had seen previously.
- Outland: An astonishingly underrated movie, if you can get past the handwaving tech to deal with Io’s low gravity. And with Connery as sheriff, I can.
- The Black Hole: for its mindblowingly accurate depiction of the science of event horizons and singularities. Give me this over any of Stephen Hawking’s papers any day.
And throw in a tab of acid while you’re at it.