Comic-Con Gauntlet Thrown: Fringe Producer Says Scientific Fact Must Yield to Story

By Eric Wolff | July 24, 2010 1:33 am

300.comic.con.logo.052708Spring boarding from Amos’ post on Thursday’s Discover panel, I want to delve into some unexplored tension. The panel focused on how science could make storytelling better, and it included a mix of scientists and TV writers.

Jamie Paglia (Co-creator of Eureka) conceded that sometimes he’s had to “stretch the boundaries a little thin for my comfort zone,” and he was somewhat abashed thinking of those moments. But Fringe producer Zach Stentz threw down the gauntlet.

“Sometimes you have to break the rules to tell the story you want to tell,” he said, and ran a Fringe clip in which Olivia and Peter realize that Bell has  extracted memories from Walter’s brain by removing actual pieces of Walter’s brain.

“He literally had his memories removed,” Stentz said. “We knew when we wrote it that memories aren’t stored in a discrete portion of your brain.”

Which I thought was a pretty direct challenge to Kevin Grazier, Sean Carroll, and Phil Plait, all scientists trying to make the case that accurate science can ratchet up the tension and provide a more satisfying resolution.

Alas, the argument never got going, and it left me wondering: where’s the line between acceptable and unacceptable scientific rule breaking?

Obviously we accept violations of physical laws all the time in our science fiction, but to my mind, it’s OK to break rules when doing so is a fundamental and permanent feature of the fictional universe–Fringe‘s alternative dimensions and creepy crawlies, Star Trek’s faster-than-light travel, The Force, etc.  Those concepts are fundamental to the universe of those shows, and once established, they become scientific laws unto themselves that other events must bend to.

And the audience is in on it. Everyone knows we can’t travel faster then light, so we accept a universe where we all agree that the technology exists. But the brains/memories plot device hinges on the audience being too ignorant to understand the inaccuracy. The rule-breaking isn’t based on the paranormal or on advanced technology. It’s based on the audience not knowing better. That seems like the wrong kind of rule-breaking to me.

Maybe I’m just being pretentious, I don’t know, but this seems as good a space as any to pick up the argument. Readers, what do you think? Am I just being a poor man’s Sheldon Cooper?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Utter Nerd

Comments (19)

  1. I disagree that that Fringe premise rested on the audience’s ignorance – take, for instance, the genetic splicing of a bat and a lizard and something else in an earlier episode, or the giant cold virus…. or the LSD induced psychic stuff. Similar things, that are, realistically, absurd, but are part of the conceit of the show – that it pretends ‘science’, in order to lend a aura of credibility to its phantasmagoria. Like much sci fi, it breaks rules in order to ask what people would do if things were different to how they are – the fundamental premise of, indeed, most fiction.

  2. I have to say I agree with Zach Stentz. Whenever there is a way to include accurate science of course that is what the writers should do, but at the end of the day they are in the entertainment industry not the education industry. For me, it is enough that they are popularizing science as a whole, even if you can’t take their episodes as standalone accurate physics lessons.

  3. Donna

    Everyone watching Fringe knows and accepts that the “science” depicted on the show is mostly garbage. The reason why the conceit works in Fringe is because the writers throw so much junk-science at you so quickly, that it has become part of that show’s fictional universe. The show is really a fantasy in police procedural clothing, and that is implicitly understood by the viewers. But something that’s interesting about Fringe’s junk-science is that there are phenomena which different characters are trying to study/exploit in different ways — for instance, we’ve established there’s an alternate universe, but there seem to be various ways to travel back and forth between it which have been discovered by various characters. Each travel method has its particular advantage or drawback. That, to me, depicts scientific realism even though the science itself is hooey. Fringe actually is a good show about BEING a scientist — particularly the ethical challenges — rather than a show with good science.

  4. #Donna – I agree. I have felt from the beginning that it was more fantasy than science fiction. I think the fact that their supernatural phenomena is being investigated by a scientist, doesn’t change the fact – its supernatural.

  5. With due respect to everyone’s opinion, Stentz and other Fringe writers have said in the past tah they make an effort to get the science right where there’s real science to be applied. But Donna, I do think you make a good point, in that, we like it when the rules are established and then followed.

  6. And for that matter, you can’t just blow off the argument and say that you expect the science to be bad. We expect a certain level of reality in all shows – there have to be rules. Why is it acceptable to blow some off, but others make us cringe? There’s a line somewhere.

  7. Michael T.

    In the movie Gladiator, Commodus murders his father Marcus Aurelius to succeed him as Emperor. In Agora, Hypatia meets her demise at the hands of her lover. These examples run contrary to the known historical record yet work brilliantly as story telling devices. I don’t expect to learn history from the movies and neither do I expect to learn science as well.

    Despite the panels judgment that Armageddon was the worst film ever made it did $500M worldwide at the box office and followed the golden rule of Hollywood – make money! It does make me uncomfortable that scientists are setting themselves up as gatekeepers for content. Seems to me like a solution looking for a problem.

  8. NelC

    Michael T. @7: What makes scientists “gatekeepers” when they offer a critique more than, say, Roger Ebert? I don’t know what Ebert has to say about Armageddon, but he criticises according to the rules of story-telling (such as they are); if a physicist criticises the movie according to the rules of physics, is that somehow a less valid criticism?

  9. Allen

    I personally love Fringe, but the suspension of disbelief can be a bit hard to keep up. When it puts up the front of paranormal phenomena being explained by science, that’s hard to ignore.

    To me, however, I think the story should unceasingly yield to science unless parts of the science that it breaks is consistent (The Force, FTL travel, etc.). We have a bad enough understanding of science in the public as it is, and junk science in our movies and television exacerbates things. It can be like the CSI Effect, but for other fields.

  10. Michael T.

    @NelC. Because nobody cares about what a scientist has to say about the content of a film just like no one cares what a historian has to say either. It has zero impact on the box office but Ebert’s opinion does. They are far from equivalent by any stretch.

  11. magetoo

    (I have not seen Fringe, so this is more a general view)

    Internal consistency is the key, as several people have said. And perhaps consistency more generally, I don’t buy “making an effort to get it right” and then just ignoring that when it’s convenient; if the story is already given and the science is something you add where it fits rather than something that feeds back to the story then you’re in fantasy territory. (Which is perfectly fine!)

    IMHO, part of the charm of science fiction is that in sticking to the rules, you can get a sense of “holy crap, this could actually happen” out of it. (Yeah, ok, “it could actually happen” given some set of extraordinary and unlikely circumstances, but still. I the viewer am willing to suspend disbelief to some degree. But the writer shouldn’t make me work too hard to do it.)

  12. magetoo

    Michael T: I believe that was exactly NelC’s point.

  13. Michael T.

    magetoo, I wasn’t arguing his point about the validity of the comparative criticism only its relevancy.

  14. olderwithmoreinsurance

    I knew there was a good reason I don’t watch Fringe, and its producer laid it out in plain English. Its “science” is even worse than that on Eureka. You can tell the exact same stories, make the exact same points, and NOT insult the intelligence of your audience. Oh, that takes GOOD writers and SMART producers though…….or else you’re down at the level of most of the SyFy channel pretty damn quickly. (and yes, I’ve watched enough of Fringe to know I don’t need to watch any more).

  15. You’ve hit the nail on the head for me!

    I’ve always been happy with shows that change the basic laws of physics, as long as it’s all consistent. Stargate SG-1 was great for that – their “science” was actually reasonably self consistent (at least once they found their feet). We accept the impossible, and move on.

    If, however, we wouldn’t accept the improbable except for the fact that we don’t *know* it’s improbable, well, perhaps any self respecting sci-fi show should actually be teaching us some science at that point? (Ok, not really – but it would be nice!)

  16. M.E. Baz

    Expecting accurate science from fiction is like expecting a storyline in porn films – if it’s there, consider it a bonus. If it’s not and you fret about it, you’re seriously going to miss out.

  17. Yeah I want to run out and give my data me too

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