Reenacting real scientists on screen
ReGenesis guru Aled Edwards
20 January 2008
Management can veto entire stories – maybe there’s not enough tension, not enough human interest...or too much science. It must be a real pain in the ass to be a TV writer.
Editor’s note: Aled Edwards is a structural biologist, Banbury Professor at the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research at the University of Toronto and the Director and CEO of the international Structural Genomics Consortium. LabLit.com recently caught up with him to find out more about his role as a science advisor for ReGenesis, a Canadian TV series about crack team of scientists who police the biotech industry.
Who is your favorite scientist in a work of fiction and why – not counting those in ReGenesis?
The Professor from Gilligan’s Island. Just kidding! I don’t have any. They don’t behave like real scientists. They’re not doing any experiments – when I see scientists on screen, I just turn off my brain. There’s no way they’re going to do it properly and convey how science is really done, and if you are expecting otherwise, you just get pissed off.
How did you get involved as a science advisor to ReGenesis?
Well, Shaftesbury Films wanted to pitch the idea to the Movie Network to get money to make a pilot. They hired three top writers to write three episodes – who quickly realized that they didn’t know anything about biotech. They started contacting biotech companies in Toronto and got in touch with the one I’m involved with. But our HR person said no: they were worried the show might be fear-mongering and it would be bad for business. But HR recommended they contact me at the university, giving me strict instructions: “Do not have them over to your lab”. So I invited them home for an evening!
So what were they like?
It turns out they were just normal guys – for TV writers, that is – very talented, with good CVs, have won major awards. They wanted to discuss their idea for one of the shows, which involved a baby being used as a vehicle to spread a virus. We started talking, and it was great. They realized the advantage of having a molecular biologist on board, but I declined their initial offer to be involved.
Well, there was a low probability that the show would be extended beyond pilot stage, so I didn’t think it would be worth the time and distraction. Six months later I got a call: they’d had thirteen shows approved, and would I agree to consult now?
So that’s when you signed up?
No, then I thought I really was too busy! Only a few months before, I had taken on the role as head of the Structural Genomics Consortium, which involves a lot of travel. So then they put the Hollywood producer onto me. We “did lunch” – and he convinced me. And anyway, I had realized that this could be important: in my new scientific job, I wanted to make public outreach a critical part of our remit, and this sort of thing could be perfect. When I give a science lecture on Sunday afternoon, the average age of the audience is 88. But with TV – it’s hip and sexy, and these kids might actually learn something. It’s like the bait and switch.
Well, I said I’d only do it if they stick to real science. No white coats. Show scientists who actually drink coffee in the lab, like we all do. They have to make the occasional mistake! And none of this doing an experiment that would take a month in real life being resolved in one day. For example, they wanted to have the guys solve a pandemic in three hours. I said, no, you can’t discover a new drug in one day. So we had them screening pre-existing compounds, which is actually more feasible.
The writers must hate this!
They do say it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done, because they can’t just make it up – I won’t let them. It’s tiring for everybody. Plus they’re getting it from both ends. Management can veto entire stories, which happens about thirty per cent of the time: maybe there’s not enough tension, not enough human interest...or too much science. It must be a real pain in the ass to be a TV writer.
So do you just input at the beginning?
No, within the constraints that the studio puts on the general story, I’ve got complete editorial control all the way through. And I have the last look at the script. They’re around fifty pages long – I see them too many times! If anything is factually inaccurate, I tell them they have to change it, and we discuss the best way of fixing it. They’re very good about this. They even have agreed to avoid the trite, easy plots like “big pharma bad, little guy good”; because most times this is not reality. We’re trying to take the higher road, and I give them a lot of credit for this.
Do you think ReGenesis is different from your average thriller?
The scientists on this show are more like real scientists than anything else on screen. They have to publish, they make mistakes. We place caveats into the dialogue, trying to convey that on the edge of science, nothing is certain: we deal in hypotheses and uncertainty. The science in the show has real-life ambiguity – there’s no CSI-like wrap-up at the end in many episodes. And there’s an order of magnitude more science on the show than any other I’ve seen on film or TV.
Do you think it’s too much detail?
Well, it’s true the audience can’t handle too much science, so we have to be careful. We have a website where anyone who’s interested can go to learn the “Facts behind the Fiction”, which also includes discussions of the ethical questions that the show brings up. One of Canada’s most famous TV science communicators, Jay Ingram, told me he avoids saying the word ‘nucleotide’ on his show on Discovery. But in ReGenesis, they say stuff like this all the time.
Do you think this verisimilitude comes at a cost?
I’m not sure how well we’d do on general TV, though they say we’re doing pretty well. The show can be seen in every major market now. Our audience is twenty-to-thirty-somethings with a techy bent.
Any no-go areas for the producers?
In the first season, we had this idea to do a programme about gay genes. We had a company developing a molecule to influence gender preference – but the idea was nixed as being too sensitive and over-the-top. But by the second season, they went for it. We asked all the gay people in the studio if they would find it offensive, and they were all up for it. See, you can’t hide from scientific advances. You can either ignore them – or do a story about it.
Has ReGenesis ever predicted future advances?
Well, we did a story about a person in a permanent vegetative state, and they hooked him up to an MRI and found out he was thinking all sorts of thoughts and his brain was very much alive. Six months later, they published something like that in Science. It was eerie.
Is it difficult sometimes for you to get into the swing of fiction, of having to entertain as well as be accurate?
I’ve definitely had more of an open mind since I started working with these guys. They’d come up with some crazy idea, and I’d say, “That’s impossible.” Then they’d come back at me: “Are you sure it couldn’t happen, Al?” And then I’d think…well, maybe it could. Scientists are much more conservative about coming up with ideas. Listen, imagine this scenario: a man happens to be in a hotel room in Hong Kong next to another person who has what looks like the flu; he flies home to Toronto to be with his family and gets sniffles and a fever, gets worse and goes to hospital, stays in a hallway for a long time. Happens every day. Then others get ill, people die, they start quarantining people, the economy of the city and country are affected, no one from Toronto can travel to Asia, no doctor can travel to Toronto from abroad – they quarantine my son! This was the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003, and it was like science fiction. If you’d have described this to a scientist before 2002, they’d have said, “yeah, right”. I heard on National Public Radio that when the US government wanted to brainstorm about the logistics of a biological weapons attack, they asked science fiction writers instead of scientists, because they’re more creative!
Could you see your field, structural genomics, as being the basis of a Hollywood film?
God, no. It’s too cerebral; all the excitement takes place in math world. On the other hand, maybe if you went for some issue about intellectual property…
Do you ever get your lab to help out with the consulting?
Yeah, to make sure that the actors perform well in the lab, we make sure that ‘lab experimental consultants’ are there every time they shoot a lab scene, so sometimes my students and post-docs help out. They’re on scene for a whole day, they get paid. They even get free food (lots!). One of my post-docs once got to be ‘stunt hands’ – the actor just couldn’t get the hang of the p20 pipettor. He was on the opening credits and everything. Two UT professors got cameo roles as lab techs – and I got to be a janitor!
How much mileage do you think ReGenesis has?
I think it could get renewed again. But I don’t know if we will. People are getting tired of working under such a slim budget. Someone told me that one of our episodes costs as much as a car crash on The Dukes of Hazzard. And it is bizarre. If you do well, they don’t give you more money – because they figure, you’ve proven you can do it. You must know where to squeeze more out of less! I guess in that way getting funding for TV is very much like getting grants!
Any future plans to delve deeper into the science/art scene?
The show turns out to be a good discussion vehicle. We organized two round-table events. Three hundred people distributed among thirty or so tables. One scientist or grad student per table and lots of people from the general public. Peter Outerbridge, the star of the show and a self-proclaimed science nerd, served on the panel as did two scientists and an ethicist. We’d show clips and then have discussions at each table, which we would moderate at the Panel. It was really useful. The idea came from an opening party for Season Three where we invited a lot of politicians, and they all showed up. They did not come to meet scientists, as you can imagine: they came to meet TV stars! This gave us the idea for that bait and switch again. Science and TV is a good combination. So I got to thinking, we should have more events and invite politicians, policymakers, leaders of business. I’m really, really concerned about science literacy, or more accurately, literacy about the scientific method and its critical way of thinking. I am also keen to communicate science more effectively. If we’d been better communicators, without all our highly suggests and it’s possible thats, would the global response to climate change have been so delayed? In the end, it took Al Gore to do it properly – I really think he deserved his share of that Nobel.
ReGenesis Season 1 is now available on DVD in the UK.
Learn more about ReGenesis on its official website.