Prophets Of Science Fiction debuts tonight on Science Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Like a mad scientist embarking on an insanely ambitious project, expectation control is key to enjoying Prophets of Science Fiction, an eight-part series describing the real-life technologies that mirror those in classic science-fiction, like the way Mr. Show predicted we'd one day have the technology to make movie adaptations of nothing. Most episodes cover prolific authors like Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein, who have whole college courses of fascinating speculation to power weak connections with modern science, but tonight we’re resting all that technological progress on just one text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (or, as Roland Emmerich calls it, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Frankenstein). It’s a singular problem for the series, and an unfortunately timed one, but this premiere is working so hard to convince us of arguments it can’t quite support, it gets lost in the scary power of Frankenstein and the awesome potential of cutting-edge research.
Just so we know this week is going to be light on the substance and heavy on the exaggeration, we open with three portents of doom. The first is our awesomely intense narrator, whose habit of gravely spinning our story into the macabre over a bombastic score recalls that Goofy Movie trailer edited to look like a Lynch film. He’s constantly saying things like “Death is wheeled into his office on a regular basis” and “If man creates life, what’s to stop him from unleashing something far more powerful than himself?” After the title credits, we meet our host and producer Ridley Scott, who younger viewers will know as the mind behind A Good Year and older viewers will know as the mind behind GI Jane. But seriously, the guy who shot Alien spends a few minutes talking about how Frankenstein is so darkly gothic—indeed, according to Narrator, “Stitching together body parts was considered impossibly ghoulish when Mary Shelley wrote about it in the early nineteenth century”—that all of Mary Shelley’s friends must have been worried about her. Which is some serious concern trolling, but only to disguise his real intention: to introduce the running thread that Frankenstein is the craziest fucking thing Europe’s ever heard of, even though the continent grew up with Titus Andronicus, the Spanish Inquisition, and “Greensleeves.” And finally, right when you think the show could not get more ominous, they bust out clips of the Kenneth Branagh Frankenstein when the James Whale (and the Terence Fisher and the Mel Brooks and even the Paul Morrissey) are sitting right there. It’s gonna be a bumpy night.
A good third of the episode is the Wikipedia version of Mary Shelley’s life, intent on finding every conceivable connection to her masterpiece. My narrator friend tells us, “Mary’s education unfolded during a time of unparalleled advances in human knowledge,” because he’s not big on history. They make a huge deal out of (everything else and also) the fact that Mary visited her mother’s grave and talked to her, which I don’t personally have experience with but strikes me as a pretty understandable way to grieve. On the bright side, the historical reenactments have some inspired moments, like a double-exposure shot of Mary writing a novel haunted by a doppelganger, and an Abercrombie haircut for Percy, the better to reflect how far ahead of his time he was. At one point, there’s a dream sequence of Mary wandering around her house that’s more expressive of the Mary Shelley Has the Scariest Imagination Ever theme than Kenneth Branagh ripping his shirt off over his failed (or is it?!) experiment. As History Channel-style reenactments go, bravo, Science.
Speaking of science (nailed it!), we stumble our way into the real goal of the series with some half-baked portals from Frankenstein: “With the monster’s advanced learning capabilities, Mary Shelley prophesized man could one day construct an intelligence greater than his own.” No she didn’t, but whatever, at least they’re glancing at something, the concept of the cautionary tale. Shelley didn’t invent it, but talking heads argue that so much of modern science is laced with concern over its uses that people think CERN is going to destroy the world. It’s the program’s most supportable assertion: Frankenstein may not have predicted superintelligent robot ninjas, but it absolutely promotes the kind of scientific watchdogs that greet every new advance, from Dolly the sheep to Kate plus eight.
Of the several applications of science that could be inspired by Frankenstein even though they weren’t, the first is the most interesting. You know how dead people’s limbs twitch? It’s okay if you don’t: we get a hilariously lay demonstration involving a balloon of water and LED cups that’s basically a clip from Look Around You. Anyway, even with the brain not communicating with limbs, many impulses for walking come from the spinal cord, and UCLA doctors are studying how to shock the spinal cords of paralyzed patients into recoordinating with the brain, you know, like how a certain Doktor galvanized a jigsaw puzzle corpse. It’s already helping one man, paralyzed from the waist down five years ago, into standing. The results we get aren’t very in-depth, so it’s hard to judge the prediction that, as his brain and spinal cord recover their pathways, he’ll be taking steps in a year and walking in five, and you wish they’d just let the established results stand instead of hyping the future potential, but it’s inspiring nonetheless. Bonus: We get to see a rat standing up on a treadmill.
We also get a tour of the LA county coroner’s office—Narrator again: “Mary Shelley knows that studying the dead is crucial if one wishes to unlock the secrets of life”—through a Vampyr-style cadaver-eye view. Somehow they discuss hand transplants and German Gothic without even a photo from The Hands of Orlac, but we’re quickly off to the Human Genome Project. Not content with mapping our insides, the scientists there have created synthetic bacteria that self-replicates, hoping to use it for not just medicine but energy and counterfeit money. Finally we arrive at IBM to talk about artificial intelligence. They don’t mention Watson, the computer that found Ken Jennings' kill screen, but we see his cousin Blue Jeans, a supercomputer hooked up to a rat brain to better understand brain function. And as long as we’re talking about missed opportunities, we conclude with discussion of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and a future where we know the eventual height, skin tone, and eye color of embryos without even broaching the potential dangers. What would Mary Shelley do?
Mostly it’s a Powerpoint-inflected news package, a collage of informative talking heads, historical reenactment, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, comic book panels, photos, science animations—wake up, it’s almost over—but the research is interesting, and if the big flaw is overreaching, well, future episodes won’t need to stretch so much. The entire HG Wells oeuvre, for instance, ought to have plenty of speculative ideas relevant to modern science, which means less time for biography and more time to see how The Island of Dr. Moreau is coming true.