Five Things that Surprised Me Most About Being a Hollywood Boundary Spanner (Nee Science Adviser)- Part 1

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I found out moments ago that my boss on Eureka, Executive Producer and co-creator Jaime Paglia, delivered our final episode to the network within the past hour. Everybody involved with the show is disappointed, feeling the series ended a little early, but nevertheless it was a fantastic run of five seasons.

FIVE seasons! Has it really been five seasons? Where did all the time go? It’s trite, but time really does fly when you’re having fun. Since I started working as a science adviser on Battlestar Galactica in 2004, I’ve been working continually on at least one series at any given time (Battlestar, The Zula Patrol, Eureka, The Event, and now concurrently Falling Skies and SyFy’s upcoming epic Defiance), all of them with both unique challenges and awesome creative talent.

I’ve been having so much fun, in fact, that I’ve transitioned from working full time as a scientist/part time in the entertainment industry, to part-time scientist (though my collaborators and I did manage to get a paper off to the journal Icarus last week) /full time in the entertainment industry. The transition was slower than I would have liked, and not without pain, but things are starting to happen, and quickly. Scarily quickly in some ways.

So when Marty Perreault of The Science & Entertainment Exchange (The Exchange) first asked if I would consider doing a blog post here, I was leaning toward a discussion of the short science-fiction film I just helped produce (It’s called D.N.E.: Do Not Erase – “Like” us on Facebook.) Even though Marty visited us on set during a green screen shoot, she recommended a far better topic for me: “How about ‘The Five Most Surprising Things About Being a Science Adviser’?” That was a great idea, because there are so many aspects of the job that are counter-intuitive, and few people really know what it is that science advisers do!

One thing that is surprising – but not so much so that it makes the list – is how few of the items on my “Most Surprising” list have nothing to do with my interactions with writers, directors, or producers, but rather with people not even “in the Biz.” Since I graduated from university the first time way back when, I have tried to make it to at least a couple sci-fi/fantasy conventions (known to fans as, simply, “cons”) every year. Since 2004, though, I’ve been attending as a professional, and it is such a different experience than being a fan (though I make it a point to get in some fanboy time at every con – I’m still an überfan of Doctor Who!).

One of the pros of cons is that I interact with dozens, even hundreds, of fans who, for the most part, love the shows on which I work. Most appreciate the effort that the creative team puts into our series. Many ask about what, exactly, it is that I do for shows like Battlestar Galactica (BSG) or Eureka. Many ask how I got into the Biz, and how might they do similar? Some even ask the kind of fanboy questions of the “do people REALLY ask that?” form: “Thirty-five minutes and sixteen seconds into the third episode of season two of BSG, we first see the Cylon DRADIS, and I was wondering why it was a parabolic dish and not a phased array?” (1)

In addressing my top five surprises, I simultaneously address some of these. So, the top five things that surprised me about being a science adviser are:

The degree to which writers and producers with whom I’ve worked are just “regular people.”

Regarding how scientists are depicted in television and film, legendary film producer/director James Cameron once opined that, in Hollywood, scientists are either portrayed as “idiosyncratic nerds, or actively the villains.” Whether or not those stereotypes are used with any regularity these days can be debated (and I vehemently vote “No”), they were certainly true at one point in time. Ironically, one industry about which Hollywood has constructed similar oft-used archetypes – is Hollywood itself. On television and in films we’re used to seeing Emo Writer, sometimes working side-by-side with Alcoholic Writer. There’s Artsy Director, Really Really Angry Producer, and Stuffed Shirt Network Executive. We, the audience, have seen these people as many times as we’ve seen Super Villain Mad Scientist or Just-Barely-Socially-Adept Scientist in 1950’s B-grade science-fiction flicks.

My experience is that these archetypes reflect reality about as accurately as Mad Scientist Guy reflects the scientists and engineers exploring our Solar System at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The writers and producers with whom I’ve worked are regular people with families and regular lives – they just happen to have highly coveted jobs that are seasonal, high profile, and super intense for short periods of time. Most don’t care for, even actively shun, anything that resembles limelight. Taking that one step further, many would (and do) blend in at science-fiction conventions, because a prime motivation is that they’re fellow nerds whose motivation is simply to make a great television series – the kind that THEY would want to watch.

One of, perhaps THE, most exclusive party at San Diego Comic-Con is the SyFy Channel Party. Everybody who’s anybody is there – which is why I haven’t been able to get in for the past few years. Science advisers are G-listers at best. The last year that I did manage to get in, I was busy chatting with somebody when there was a commotion by the entryway. Battlestar Galactica Executive Producer Ron Moore had just walked into the room. With two successful, critically-acclaimed seasons of BSG under his belt, EVERYBODY wanted to speak with him. His BSG partner-in-crime David Eick had already been there for some time, and had made the social rounds. I worked for the both of them, I could wait a little.

Half an hour later I saw Ron standing by the bar. Alone! He was looking down at his PDA or a notepad, I don’t recall which. When I walked up and said, “Hi Ron!” he looked up from what he was doing and said, “Hey man! Now, in [episode] 317 what we’re shooting for is….”

The requisite schmoozing behind him, Ron’s focus returned to making his show as cool as he humanly could, so we got to work (and 317, “Maelstrom”, was one of our better efforts). That the people in the entertainment industry with whom I have been fortunate to work are wired in a very similar manner as the JPLers with whom I explored Saturn for 15 years, was a big, though very pleasant, surprise.

How sympathetic and forgiving Ph.D. scientists are of the science issues in shows on which I consult.

You might expect that somebody who is a Ph.D.-level scientist would be highly critical of science done less-than-perfectly in television and film. Sometimes that is true. It is certainly true that some get uncomfortably snarky when they feel that it is their science that is being impugned by being portrayed at a level of accuracy that falls short of what they would have preferred.

More often than not, though, they’ll point out to me an aspect of science on one of my shows that doesn’t quite add up, then before I can even answer, they’ll try to get into my head, and attempt to determine what it was I was thinking. I’ve had a surprising number of (one-sided) conversations that started with a question/complaint, but finished with the form, “If you assume X, consider Y, and ignore Z … then that would lead to P, D, and Q … yeah I can see that!”

The amazing thing is how often they will address their own issues, and how little I have to say.

The number of people who think science advising is just telling writers what they cannot do.

Whenver I do a public talk/panel/convention, it is almost a certainty that I will be asked, “So how does your job work? You just get a script and tell them what they did wrong?” It is nearly always phrased that way, or quite similar, every time.

It’s true that for episodes for which I was not included from the onset, I receive a copy of the script and a window of time in which I can submit notes to the writers and showrunners. But if all I did was point out what was wrong, what purpose would that serve?

Let’s use a real example from the last season of Eureka. In the first draft of episode 403, “All the Rage” (one of my personal favorites), we have the line:


Grace says:

Interesting possibly exposure to certain radiation. Maybe a fluctuating stochastic process…

It is true that often a science adviser’s job is done when something incorrect or implausible written in the first draft does not make it onscreen. That said, if all there was to the job was to say, “No. No! NO! WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! BAD WRITER! BAD BAD BAD!” What would get accomplished, especially when the line above is not that bad, most viewers would take no notice, and the story is not impacted at all?

Step back and put yourself in the writer’s spot. You have a line that you’re happy with, you have a gut-wrenchingly tight deadline, and you’ve bigger fish to fry. Not only do you have to have a said amount of work done by that deadline (to wit: a 51-page script), you have to be at your creative best at the same time. Why spend time thinking up or researching a change to a line with which you’re already happy, when your biggest care-about is getting Allison, Tess, and Jo out of a medical facility that is surrounded by hundreds of rage-induced Eurekans hell-bent on tearing them to pieces?

So it’s also the science adviser’s job to point out why a change might be preferable, and to recommend at least one alternative. My note for the above example was:


Grace says:

Interesting possibly exposure to certain radiation. Maybe a fluctuating stochastic process…

The term “stochastic” means “random.” A “fluctuating random process” doesn’t say much. Neither does, “exposure to certain radiation”. Since we’ve established that Grace has a sense of humor, perhaps something perfectly true, but tongue-in-cheek nevertheless?

Indeed. Pair annihilation would have caused a huge gamma ray burst. We’d have noticed the EMP.

Which is the line that was eventually used. Here’s another example, also from episode 403, in which we have a scene with Dr. Trevor Grant (James Callis) and Dr. Henry Deacon (Joe Morton).

Check back next week for Part 2, to see more script consulting examples as well as the other two things that have surprised Kevin about being a Hollywood Boundary Spanner (nee Science Adviser).

Kevin R. Grazier, Ph.D. is a recovering rocket scientist: after spending 15 years on the Cassini/Huygens Mission to Saturn and Titan at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory he’s now a full-time writer/producer.  He served as the science adviser on such productions as Eureka, Battlestar Galactica, Falling Skies, the upcoming summer blockbuster Gravity, and SyFy’s new epic series Defiance.

(1) The answer is, of course, being that I DID recommend that it be a phased array, but the writers thought that the audience would find the shape so counter-intuitive as to be distracting.


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.