Voices: Why do writers and filmmakers keep using lazy science?

·5 min read
After Midwich falls asleep for a day, all the women of childbearing age suddenly find themselves pregnant (Sky UK)
After Midwich falls asleep for a day, all the women of childbearing age suddenly find themselves pregnant (Sky UK)

Halfway through the second episode of The Midwich Cuckoos I found myself wishing I didn’t have a science degree.

For those unfamiliar with Sky’s show, the source novel by John Wyndham, or one of the pair of movie adaptations, after the village of Midwich mysteriously falls asleep for a day, all the women of childbearing age suddenly find themselves to be pregnant.

The resulting children have some disturbing features and abilities. They are the cuckoos of the title.

The Sky adaptation seeks a female perspective to the story, which is very much in its favour. It’s mostly the men whom we see trying to deal with the problems presented by the cuckoos in the book, which is perhaps its biggest flaw given they’re not the ones who have to deal with being used as human reed warblers (a favoured cuckoo host in Britain).

But modernising it clearly presented the makers with some challenges. Abortion is legal today. It wasn’t in 1957 when the book was published. And then there’s DNA, which was cracked only in the 1950s by Watson and Crick, assisted by the work of Rosalind Franklin, but bears down heavily on the story, given today’s tech.

The way the writers got around the first of those made me wince a bit (mild spoilers coming).

The cuckoos have mind-controlling powers. In contrast to the novel, they appear to use these in utero. They do this at a stage at which, were the children fully human, they would presumably be little more than a collection of cells. It’s not terribly helpful to have them already having higher mind functions at an early stage of pregnancy in a post-Roe v Wade world, at least for those of us on the pro-choice side.

But it was when the story got down to DNA tests that my head really started to spin. The babies, the viewer is informed, have only maternal genetic material (in the novel they have no connection at all to the mother). So, wait... in theory, that ought to make them clones. And there wouldn’t be baby boys. Except there are.

Of course, the sinister Home Office woman could have been lying to cover up a really scary truth, but this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Why do the mothers not ask about clones, or Y chromosomes or what it means? These were all fairly obvious questions that occurred to me during the episode, and the lack of even a vague answer spoiled it.

Watching it was almost as bad as watching Star Trek Voyager, which made DNA a magic substance that could do almost anything. Star Trek gets more of a pass for referencing science, but mucks around with it because it’s set several hundred years in the future with faster-than-light “warp” engines facilitating interstellar travel, artificial gravity, inertial dampeners and other stuff clearly designed to upset physicists (like the astrophysics student who wrote into my university newspaper bemoaning Trek’s scientific cheating). But magic DNA was going too far.

Star Wars, of course, scarcely bothers to mention science at all and asks us to just roll with it, which of course we do because it’s Star Wars.

Context is everything. But if you’re doing a frightener set around about now, or in a near future, you need to ground it as closely as possible in scientific reality, partly because the more real it feels the scarier – and thus more fun – it is.

Wyndham’s Cuckoos does that. It leaves us to speculate about the children’s ultimate origin, although it is clearly hinted at.

Clever and creative use of actual science can actually work spectacularly well on screen, which is why it’s disappointing you don’t see it more often.

Take Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which does something radical. Filmmakers mostly ignore the fact that sound can’t travel in a vacuum. Gravity (largely) does not. Watching space debris tear through Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s spacecraft in near-earth orbit in silence, with only Steven Price’s excellent score running, greatly adds to the power of the scene.

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I know, I know, Clooney’s jet pack is dodgy and scientists have pointed out that Bullock wouldn’t have been able to go space station hopping to get back to Earth the way she does in the movie. Orbital mechanics wouldn’t allow for it.

But Gravity does better than a lot of movies in at least trying. It shows what can be done if storytellers experiment with reality. It received high praise when I raised the question of films and TV making good use of science with a trio of actual scientists from the University of Central Lancashire during a Comicon talk on the science of superheroes (they’ve done a book).

Margaret Atwood is a great advocate of sticking to what is at least scientifically possible, as evidenced by her MaddAddam trilogy, for which an adaptation is reportedly in development (I’ll leave readers to speculate how it might deal with certain aspects of the story that might make censorious TV executives blanch). Not to mention The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set after an environmental collapse, but is chiefly a social satire, depicting a future that America appears to be edging towards at a frightening pace.

I’m not arguing for rigidity here. Stories have to move along. Sometimes that means cheating. But it might make for better stories if writers sometimes tried a bit harder not to.

It should be said, at this point, that Wyndham himself earned a scientific raspberry for his needlessly indulging in Lamarckism (a debunked pre-Darwinian theory) in The Day of the Triffids, which otherwise also remains very relevant today. Hey, nobody’s perfect. Except maybe Atwood.

But a more considered use of science in pop culture wouldn’t do any harm when it comes to the wider culture, in which I see science mentioned a lot in debates, often without reference to scientific fact or research.

Is that a cuckoo I hear outside? Why is it that I suddenly feel sleepy?