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Crises and oddities

Eleventh Hour on CBS

Åsa Karlström 21 December 2008

Brooding: Jacob Hood sublimates personal tragedy into his scientific investigations

Scientists are more effective crime-solvers than the medical doctors who usually turn up in literature and on television dramas

Eleventh Hour is an American remake of Stephen Gallagher's 2006 British miniseries of the same name. In the current CBS version, Dr Jacob Hood (Rufus Sewell) is a biophysicist who solves a variety of unusual cases with the help of his FBI “handler” Rachel Young (Marley Shelton). Dr Hood has a huge passion for science and is called in by the FBI in “the eleventh hour” as the last line of defense when something that no one has been able to make sense of needs explaining. Similar to the modus operandi of Sherlock Holmes, Hood goes about his investigations in a scientific way, examining all possible paths only one is left, no matter how strange. Along the way, the FBI agent makes it easier for Hood to access the various people and files one might need.

The first episode brings Hood and Young to Seattle to investigate nineteen fetuses that have been discovered in a shallow grave. But these are no ordinary aborted babies: they are all genetically identical, leading Hood to conclude that someone has been trying to clone a human. Delving into the complex community of infertility treatment leads to more interesting questions than the main case, which is solved by the good doctor, and the viewer is left with a feeling that this is something we need to think about more.

The second episode leads the team to a small town in the middle of Georgia where otherwise healthy eleven-year-olds are dying of heart attacks. The initial feeling is that the town is hiding some big secrets, like in any scary movie, although this atmosphere is quickly dissipated by the rationality of Hood's scientific investigation. The answer to the mystery is not too arcane, although it has a nice little twist that I failed to anticipate and which made me smile because the details reminded me of some of the folklore I learned about in undergraduate chemistry courses.

The series in itself has interesting science, even for me as a post-doctoral microbiologist. The fourth episode, which dealt with GMO, made me pause and think, especially as it was right on the edge of what can be done today, what sounds plausible and what is legal. The science is presented in enough detail for non-scientists to grasp while at the same time offering a few specific tidbits for scientists – at least for this microbiologist.

So far, after six episodes, I have yet to see any paranormal explanations of the sort that some so-called science shows have been known to resort to after a while. Neither have we been subjected to the usual info-dumping and informative dialogue of programs like Crime Scene Investigation as when one scientists says to another, “I need to do a polymerase chain reaction” and his colleague replies, “Oh, you mean that thing we do when the bases of the DNA are recognized by other bases, thus building a new chain?” Perhaps these sorts of tedious strategies are mitigated because Hood has to explain things not to fellow experts but to the ignorant Young, which necessitates a simpler and more natural way of sharing technical information.

Hood's backstory, we learn early on, is that he lost his wife and young child a few years previously. Since then he has been immersed in his research and now he derives more meaningful pleasure out of life by taking on the challenge of solving these strange cases. The attraction between Young and Hook sometimes overshadows his work ethic, but the balance is more towards a bantering friendship than smoldering looks and pouty lips – which is a relief to this female scientist.

I was intrigued that the character of Hood, in this remake, was described as a biophysicist. It’s a rather obscure specialty to throw at the American audience: an interdisciplinary science that employs and develops theories and methods of the physical sciences for the investigation of biological systems, sharing significant overlap with biochemistry, nanotechnology, bioengineering and systems biology. In other words, a well-rounded scientist with fingers in many jars. Which brings me back to the Sherlock Holmes analogy. Like Holmes, or Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple (who both are experts in people), a biophysicist could be described as a multitasking person who looks at reality from different points of view and sees connections between things when those connections are far from obvious – a rather Aristotelian approach, in fact. For this reason, I think that scientists are more effective crime-solvers than the medical doctors who usually turn up in literature and on television dramas. When scientists are used, they usual work well: for example, the mathematician in Numb3rs or the anthropologist in Bones, both of whom play the role more as a logical, thoughtful person with some expertise in a related field rather than as a character with specific policing expertise.

Overall, I am quite happy with the way that Eleventh Hour depicts scientists almost like normal people, albeit super-smart ones. The show has so far introduced crises and oddities in the area of genetics, infectious diseases, agronomy and medicine. It will be interesting to see what new areas of exploration the writers can come up with.