11 July 2008

BBC2's Lab Rats: pish*?

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.

Why?

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.


9 July 2008

Useful words for a thesis...

In order of most to least critical (and strong to weak):

Random posh getting-right-to-the-bottom-of-things words
Illuminate
Rationalise
Elucidate

Something-to-prove words
Justify
Prove
Demonstrate
Confirm
Show
Support [the notion that]
Indicate
Suggest
Claim

Digging deeper words
Analyse
Examine
Explore
Seek to understand
Probe
Question
Discuss
Assess

Describing words
Illustrate
Clarify
Define
Explain
Describe

7 July 2008

Naff explanation of the Doctor's return from the brink of death

Right. There's been a long running tradition of commentary on "the science content of science fiction" on this here blog. As there has been on Doug's blog - Doug, you might want to get in on this...

So Doctor Who. Assuming we're all comfortable with the fact that, having been obliterated by an over-sized thimble wielding a plunger, the Doctor was able to regenerate himself, let's deal with the real scientific misdemeanours of the season finale.

1) Whilst regenerating, the Doctor realises he is able to "siphon off" the excess energy from the regeneration process and channel it into his severed hand (which happens to be floating like a limp fish in a nearby glass case), thereby relieving himself of the inconvenience of changing bodies - and me of several months bemoaning the loss of David Tennant.

Wait. So is this because it's his hand? If so, why hasn't he been pulling off toenails and bits of hair and dotting them around the tardis (Tardis with a capital T?) in case of emergency? Being a timelord, you'd have thought it would have occurred to him before. And, according to Wired, he can only regenerate 12 times. Er, a) why has no one mentioned this before and b) is anyone keeping track? Oh and c) does this latest regeneration only count as half?

2) Now, I'm quite happy with the 27-planets-in-the-right-configuration-will-channel-enough-energy-to-destroy-all-matter theory. Yes, we'll let that one slip through. But did anyone understand how they towed the Earth back to the Solar System? Some sort of virtual lasso generated by a computer called "Mr Smith"... And let's not forget the dog. I'm sure he helped somehow.

3) If a human-timelord metacrisis is a problem, how long is it going to be before Billie's new beaux - Doctor Two (part Tate, part limp fishy hand) - gets into trouble? Or did it only cause a problem for Catharine Tate because her brain was too small to deal with it - yeah, probably. And do we care? Um, no. Despite certain similarities, e.g. actually being the same person, Doctor Two is nowhere near as attractive as our lord David Tennant. The Tate-isms are a real turn off.

Anyway, forget metacrises and fishy hands for a moment. Let's take a minute to remember Tate. Or not. As I've learned, the only way to enjoy her is to incorporate her into the now legendary Doctor Who drinking game*. According to The Rules, you must drink: every time there's a new monster (at least once an episode), every time the Doctor says "I am the Doctor" (at least a couple of times an episode), every time there's running (substantial proportion of most episodes) and every time Catherine Tate gets up your nose (=constant drinking). Dangerous.

*I'm not into drinking games. I'm very responsible actually. I was only enticed this once because it involved wearing silly hats.