Continuing on the theme of science (fiction) communication, I'm going to attempt a blog on the BBC's new sitcom, Lab Rats. I say "attempt" because it's sure to get a little off track somewhere along the way, as things often do when I haven't got a deadline or a word limit. (And okay, it's not science fiction in the normal sense, but it is fiction based on science).
Now firstly (and this is where we might get a bit off track), in year one of my science communication degree, we were asked repeatedly to come up with ideas for science communication projects. As well as the many Good Ideas that made it into project plans, presentations and the like, there were inevitably a number of Bad Ideas, which were generally covered in doodles and lost under piles of lecture notes quicker than you could say 'The Man Who Discovered that Women Lay Eggs**' The idea of a science related sitcom never made it into any project plan or presentation, despite the fact that I heard it mentioned on more than one occasion.
Because it's a Bad Idea.
Think about it for a minute. If we're going to persist with this Bad Idea of making a science sitcom, we're going to have to approach it in one of two ways. The first way is to approach it from the perspective of the lay person, in which case, jokes that centre on running PCR*** gels in the wrong direction are off limits. The second way is to approach it from the perspective of the scientist, in which case, they are most definitely on limits (which, as it turns out, isn't the antonym of "off limits"). If we're all agreed that no BBC comedy programme commissioner is going to see the funny side of PCR, then we're all agreed that the first way is the way in which we should proceed. The problem then, is what is funny about doing science that we can all understand?
Clearly, coming from my background (ex-editor of the Journal of Unlikely Science), it isn't that I don't believe in funny science. You can do funny science, BUT, maybe, you just can't do it in a sitcom. If you've got good writers (and I don't know much about Chris Addison or Carl Cooper, but Lab Rats does seem lacking in that respect) you can certainly do funny jokes in a science lab. But whether you can have them be about the science is another matter.
Now, of course, I'm getting into a debate about whether situation comedy is comedy in a situation or comedy about a situation. But I digress...
You can't do jokes about science because most of your audience is simply not going to get them. So this means you're going to have do jokes about a) ordinary things, like people stealing Toblerones off each other (and evidently, those jokes, at least when written by Addison and Cooper, aren't funny) or b) things that the audience thinks are science, but actually bear no relation to it, like cloning giant snails (even less funny).
I suppose a) isn't a Bad Idea. But then if you're a TV producer, why throw in the science part at all? If I've learned anything in science communication classes, it's that the general public aren't particularly turned on by science. So if you've got good writers (I say "if") why risk your viewing figures on a dicey subject?
From a science communicator's point of view b) is a very Bad Idea. We Who Communicate Science may as well throw down our carefully crafted articles/podcasts/puppet shows and stamp on them if "funny" shows about cloning giant snails are going to take off. Hey, why not start on the Frankenstein foods and MMR-autism debate too...
If, in the spirit of a true science communicator, you're trying to portray scientists as real life people - to "humanise" them as we might say - then doing jokes about things that are completely unrelated to science is definitely your best bet. Possibly the funniest part of Lab Rats, and that's not saying much, was the annoying (and predictably incapable) girl scientist mixing up the tune of one song with the lyrics of another - ooh look, so memorable was that scene that the two songs have completely slipped my mind...
Anyway, I'm getting into ranting territory, so I'll break off in a minute. What I guess I'm saying is that it's very difficult to have a sitcom about science unless it has absolutely nothing to do with science.
And if anyone has anything (bad) to say about Lab Rats, do jump in. See that picture at the top of this blog? That's how I feel about their "science sitcom".
*Someone said pish the other day and I just had to use it as soon as possible.
**Bizarre science puppet show oft quoted in science communication circles - at least mine anyway...
***An intensely boring experimental procedure, only vaguely funny because it invariably goes wrong.