Halfway through the second episode of Midwich Cuckoo Clocks I found myself wishing I didn’t have a science degree.
For those unfamiliar with Sky’s show, John Wyndham’s source novel, or any of the pair of film adaptations, after the village of Midwich mysteriously falls asleep for a day, all women of age childbearing suddenly find themselves pregnant.
The resulting children have disturbing characteristics and abilities. These are the cuckoos of the title.
The Sky adaptation seeks a female perspective to the story, which is very much in its favor. It’s mostly the men we see trying to solve the problems presented by the cuckoo clocks in the book, which is perhaps its biggest flaw given that they’re not the ones who have to deal with the use of warblers. humans (a favorite cuckoo host in Britain).
But its modernization has clearly presented manufacturers with some challenges. Abortion is now legal. It was not in 1957 that the book was published. And then there’s DNA, which wasn’t cracked until the 1950s by Watson and Crick, aided by the work of Rosalind Franklin, but which weighs heavily on the story given today’s technology. today.
The way the writers got around the first one made me wince a bit (slight spoilers ahead).
Cuckoos have mind control powers. Unlike the novel, they seem to use them in utero. They do so at a stage where, if children were fully human, they would likely be little more than a clump of cells. It is not very useful that they already have higher mental functions at an early stage of pregnancy in a post-Roe vs. Wade world, at least for those of us who are on the pro-choice side.
But it was when the story came to DNA testing that I really started to turn my head. Babies, the viewer is informed, have only maternal genetic material (in the novel they are unrelated to the mother). So wait…in theory, that should make them clones. And there would be no baby boys. Except there are.
Sure, the sinister Home Office woman could have lied to cover up a truly chilling truth, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Why don’t mothers ask about clones, or Y chromosomes or what that means? These are all pretty obvious questions that popped into my head during the episode, and the lack of even a vague answer ruined it.
Watching him was almost as bad as watching Star Trek Travelerwho made DNA a magical substance capable of doing almost anything. star trek gets more than a pass for referencing science, but doesn’t care because it’s set several hundred years in the future with faster-than-light “warp” engines facilitating interstellar travel , artificial gravity, inertial dampers, and other things clearly designed to annoy physicists (like the astrophysics student who wrote in my college journal lamenting Trekscientific cheating). But the magic DNA went too far.
star warsof course barely bothers to mention the science 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 making a scary game now or in the near future, you need to ground it as closely as possible in scientific reality, in part because the more real it feels, the scarier it is — and therefore more fun.
Wyndham’s Cuckoos is it that. This leaves us to speculate on the ultimate origin of the children, although it is clearly hinted at.
Clever and creative use of real science can actually work spectacularly on screen, which is why it’s disappointing you don’t see it more often.
Take that of Alfonso Cuarón Gravity, which does something drastic. Filmmakers are mostly unaware of the fact that sound cannot travel in a vacuum. Gravity (largely) not. Watching space junk tear apart 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 the scientists pointed out that Bullock couldn’t have flown to a space station back to Earth like she does in the movie. Orbital mechanics wouldn’t allow it.
But Gravity does better than a lot of movies trying at least. It shows what can be done if storytellers experience reality. He received praise when I raised the issue of movies and TV putting science to good use with a trio of real-life scientists from the University of Central Lancashire at a Comicon conference on superhero science. (they made a book).
Margaret Atwood is a big proponent 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 it to readers to speculate how it might deal with certain aspects of the story that might get censored TV executives whitewashed). Without speaking about The Handmaid’s Talewhich takes place after an environmental collapse, but is mostly social satire, depicting a future that America seems to be heading towards at a frightening rate.
I am not advocating rigidity here. Stories must move forward. Sometimes that means cheating. But it could make for better stories if the writers sometimes tried a little harder not to.
It must be said, at this point, that Wyndham himself has earned a scientific raspberry for unnecessarily indulging in Lamarckism (a debunked pre-Darwinian theory) in The day of the Triffids, which, by the way, also remains very relevant today. Hey, nobody’s perfect. Except maybe Atwood.
But a more thoughtful use of science in pop culture wouldn’t hurt when it comes to the wider culture, where I see science mentioned often in debates, often without reference to scientific facts or research.
Is it a cuckoo that I hear outside? Why do I suddenly feel sleepy?