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Science theatre on telly? No thanks.

TV producers could learn from Carl Djerassi’s latest play, but should avoid the didactic nature of ‘science theatre’.

David Bowden

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We are constantly assured that we are living in the age of the geek.

Certainly, there seems to be an insatiable appetite for science and the big questions it raises. The opening ceremonies of the London Olympics and Paralympics Games paid homage to the likes of Stephen Hawking, Tim Berners-Lee and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. If so inclined, you can see hit comedy shows such as Festival of the Spoken Nerd or Robin Ince’s Happiness Through Science, proudly announce yourself as a ‘skeptic’ at national pub meetings, or read books with titles like The Geek Manifesto or Geek Nation. London’s Royal Court Theatre, once a byword for gritty social-issues drama and Brechtian agitprop, has recently enjoyed two acclaimed hits with plays dealing with climate change and overpopulation.

All these things attempt, with varying degrees of success, to move science communication out of the classroom or laboratory into the public arena. Yet even the notoriously conservative medium of television continues to approach the topic with a rigidity resembling a courtly poet: it can do deadly serious and factual, or sexed-up pizzazz with only a vague pretence at educating and informing, but it likes to know where it stands. Yet apart from those invariably naff reconstructions featuring shadowy men in wigs or white coats dashing about, there are rare attempts to bring science to life as serious drama, one of TV’s most popular formats – perhaps understandably so. For example, viewers of the BBC’s climate-change drama Burn Up in 2008 would have certainly been convinced a catastrophe was afoot, but more of the televisual kind than one connected to the environment.

How to tackle complex scientific questions in a satisfactory way through the medium of drama has long been a preoccupation of Professor Carl Djerassi, whose new play Insufficiency opened at London’s Riverside Studios this week. Djerassi, whom I spoke to this week, certainly has more of a scientific pedigree than most playwrights: he is famous as the inventor of the Pill (for which he was awarded the National Medal for Science), but also for a long and successful research career (he also won the National Medal of Technology for promoting approaches to insect control). Yet, for the past 24 years, he has developed his own separate literary path with plays, novels and poems tackling everything from the sexual revolution (inevitably) to politics, philosophy and art criticism.

While, unlike yours truly, he has yet to add the highly desirable and respected title of ‘TV columnist’ to his oeuvre, the challenges posed by the ‘science-in-fiction’ genre is something he has written extensively about. Theatre has had some notable successes in this field – Brecht’s Life of Galileo, Lawrence and Lee’s take on the Scopes Monkey Trial in Inherit The Wind (memorably filmed by Stanley Kramer), and, most recently, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (concerning Nils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and the birth of the Atomic Age). But there are countless more failed experiments in the pile.

Djerassi himself notes that since Copenhagen came out in 1998, there has been an ‘explosion’ in science plays. Most, however, have remained unperformed: those involved in the performing arts are invariably ‘threatened, if not terrified, by the subject’ of science when it moves beyond the realms of the protagonists’ private lives.

After years of tacitly accepting that his plays are more likely to exist on the page, or perhaps in the much more ambitious world of radio drama, he has concluded that if you want to see your work performed, ‘keep your science impeccable, but underplay it’. Probably many a science-documentary maker has learned that lesson, too, even though their very job is to be didactic.

How Djerassi has tackled these issues in his new play, however, is instructive. Insufficiency deals with a professor who does groundbreaking work in a subject not considered suitably serious by his peers: bubbleology. It has a particular focus on bubbles in beer and champagne. Shut out by his colleagues and denied tenure by his institution, the professor seeks support outside of academia – from the alcohol industry – which, of course, makes the problem worse. Tragicomic consequences occur.

In an age where peer review is gospel, and the merest whiff of corporate funding will see you dismissed as a stooge or shill, Djerassi’s critique of the tribalism of scientists who are susceptible to fashion and hostile to criticism is an engaging, even shocking, one. It recalls, in subject, the theme of one of the aforementioned Royal Court plays, The Heretic, which presented the travails of a scientist attempting to maintain a semblance of scepticism in a difficult debate against a backdrop of shrill media and celebrity-science scaremongering. Tellingly, its author was Richard Bean – the satirist whose One Man, Two Guv’nors is a Broadway smash. In a reversal of the trend that Djerassi has noted, there was plenty of sneering about Bean’s lack of scientific training, but few solid criticisms of what he had to say about science.

The other Royal Court smash possibly fell into Djerassi’s didactic category. Ten Billion offered a ‘dramatised lecture’ by Professor Stephen Emmott, eschewing dramatic flourishes for the pared-down style of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Critics and crowds swooned over his Malthusian predictions of a world facing 10 billion people. Without overt attempts to curb our population growth, Emmott concluded, ‘we’re fucked’.

Faced with the didacticism of much contemporary science theatre, it might be better for TV drama producers to steer clear from doing any adaptations for the time being. But if they do return, they could learn the lesson from Insufficiency, which is that, no matter how terrifying its subject may be, science can always do with a dash of human drama.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist. He is chairing a Battle Satellite on Insufficiency and the drama of science on Saturday 6 October at the Riverside Studios, London.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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