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

Science Not FictionBy Eric WolffJul 24, 2010 10:33 AM


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Spring 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?

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