Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

My Saturday night exercises in TV viewing resemble Mystery Science Theater 3000 as my spawn and I hoot at bad sci-fi offerings. On occasion, I seek these out in the interest of seeing how poorly scientists and science are portrayed in the pop cultural milieu. Last night’s trawling of the cable networks landed Pandemic which premiered (oooo, la, la!) on the Hallmark Channel, of all places, and the truly horrid Dark Storm on the SciFi Network.

“Dark Storm” was so bad, in the sense of “bad” that is not campy bad like the wonderful Mansquito but “bad” in the Lewis Blackesque I’d rather ram a sharpened pencil in my ear sense, that it deserved only a few minutes of viewing during the commercial breaks of “Pandemic.” Here’s the synopsis of “Dark Storm:

On a secret military base a group of scientists have made a discovery unequaled since the invention of the A-bomb; code-named Eruptor, it’s a device that supercharges Dark Matter and uses it to change the molecular structure of its target, thereby eradicating it. But when the Eruptor malfunctions and a leading scientist on the project is blasted with Dark Matter, he receives incredible abilities that allow him to control the weather, as the same device now threatens the world!

Actor (loosely speaking) Stephen Baldwin portrayed the “leading scientist.” As soon as the stream of dark matter escaped from its containment vessel and like a quantum version of the smoke-monster of “Lost,” wormed its way into the nostrils of Baldwin, we knew that the scientist would attain Incredible Superpowers! Too predictable. The dialogue and acting in general were abysmal, and the “science” was winceworthy. “Dark Storm” might have worked if more tongue-in-cheek humor had been used, but it took itself too seriously to vault itself into redeemable camp.

On the other hand, “Pandemic” was much better than I expected. Ray Richmond gave the production an obligatory tart review in the Hollywood Reporter. Mr. Richmond viewed “Pandemic” with the jaundiced eye of a film and television critic. Not to say that his critique isn’t legit, but Mr. Richmond, puh-leez! This is television. If the sequence of events was not condensed and dramatized, folks would have turned the channel. ‘Pandemic” is a drama, not a “Nova” documentary. Real science can be slow and tedious before those big “Ah, ha!” moments are achieved, so for TV, it has to be sexed up.

As a scientist, I thought “Pandemic” had its redeeming moments. In terms of attention to scientific detail, it far surpassed my favorite guilty pleasure, Outbreak, a film that is campy-bad and injected with an Ebola-virulent bolus of laughable “science.” That, and Dustin Hoffman’s chewing up of the scenery are what makes “Outbreak” such a noteworthy sci-fi film for Mystery Science Theater 3000 style viewing.

As an example of “Pandemic’s” details, one of the CDC-Atlanta scientists nicely explained the concept of antigenic shift that resulted in the virulence of the Riptide virus. To the writers’ credit, they did not take the cliched H5N1 route, but instead opted for a fictional (I think) strain called H3N7. The hemagglutinin piece is not fictional; it is the variant of the Hong Kong ‘flu virus of the 1968 pandemic. I’m not sure about the neuramidase variant, but I liked this touch. The writers used part of a strain that already infects people readily, and applied the antigenic shift to it. This is at least consistent with a “stuck-on-the-tarmac-make-small-talk-with-your-neighbor” conversation I had a couple of years ago with a virologist from Childrens Hospital in Philadelphia when we were stuck at the PHL airport. He noted that nasty flu strains often result from antigenic shifts from those that are already transmissible among humans. He allowed as how H5N1 deserved close vigilance, but that other strains could readily be the next big thing.

Another thrilling little tidbit was Tiffani Thiessen’s character, the lead CDC epidemiologist in Los Angeles, who rattled off terminology like “cytokines and chemokines,” although the latter (ahem) was mispronounced. But, hey, the very fact that an actress uttered these words on a TV drama made up for any technicalities. Thiessen’s portrayal of Dr. Kayla Martin as a cool, collected and competent woman physician-scientist was refreshing. Thankfully, unlike Rene Russo’s “Robbie” in “Outbreak,” she is not anyone’s love interest for the majority of the film.

There were a number of other familiar actors in the production (Eric Roberts, Bruce Boxleitner, French Stewart, Vince Spano) and Faye Dunaway portrayed the governor of California. To be honest, I was more interested in how the CDC scientists were going to ferret out of the nature of the virus than I was in the civic versus state politics and wise-guy steals the neuramidase inhibitor shipment sub-plots. Still, the acting in “Pandemic” stood in high relief to the brief and excruciatingly awful, yet hilarious, interludes of “Dark Storm.”

Bryce and Jackie Zabel wrote the screenplay for “Pandemic.” Bryce’s comments on “Pandemic” can be found on his blog For What It’s Worth. Thanks to the Zabels for creating a screenplay that prompted, “Hey, this is actually not bad,” and gave me an opening to explain what neuramidase is to my kids. Other than commercial break channel-flipping to “Dark Storm” (because I did so want to derisively hoot at something), “Pandemic” kept me entertained on a Saturday evening of enforced rest, and did not insult my intelligence.

Comments

  1. #1 Bryce Zabel
    May 27, 2007

    Thanks for making our day! Jackie and I labored mightily to do our research and although it all doesn’t make it into a final script, if you don’t start with some knowledge, you end up with even less after it gets through actors, directors, producers, editors and executives. We owe two shout-outs to Dr. Jeffrey Galpin who served as our technical advisor and to Dr. Stephen Ostroff of the CDC. There is also a wealth of information out there for anyone who actually chooses to read it. We also thought we could provide a service by going beyond just the scientific to the social. How will people react to the idea of a fast-moving virus, how will technology impact it, and what will the word “quarantine” do to people’s perception of the threat to their safety.

    By the way, this is a fascinating blog you have!

  2. #2 Doc Bushwell
    May 27, 2007

    We also thought we could provide a service by going beyond just the scientific to the social. How will people react to the idea of a fast-moving virus, how will technology impact it, and what will the word “quarantine” do to people’s perception of the threat to their safety.

    This makes me think of Zimmer’s words from “Red Dwarf:”

    “They say that every society is only three meals away from revolution. Deprive a culture of food for three meals, and you’ll have an anarchy.”

    I think the rapid spread of an exceptionally virulent disease might have the same effect.

    Taking note of the impact such an epidemic would have on hospitals and morgues (the hockey rink scenes – *shudder*) was also a good addition in the screenplay. Really, it was evident that you did your homework.

    By the way, this is a fascinating blog you have!

    Thanks so much! The Refuge is an unstructured hodge-podge of opinions, screeds, commentary, and rants, but then we’re an eclectic troop of bonobos.

  3. #3 Dr. Eye
    May 29, 2007

    Wait, Doc. B, are you telling me that the Dark Matter attacked Baldwin’s nostrils?
    No wonder those silly astronomers can’t find it, they’re using telescopes. Now I’ve got to get back to the lab to design the world’s first nasal tracking chamber.

  4. #4 Amy
    May 29, 2007

    Doc Eye, can you have that invented in time for the NYC lunch? I could use some nasal trackage. I shoved a dime up there about a month ago and haven’t been able to find the damn thing.

  5. #5 Dr. Eyeb
    May 29, 2007

    I bet no one ever asked Charpak to dig a dime out of
    her nose…so, I’ve got that goin’ for me.

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