Monday, December 08, 2008

The Doctor And His Companion

No, not that one, but as you'll see the comparison is probably more than a little apt.

I've been meaning to review Eleventh Hour practically since it began, but there have been problems. For reasons not related to the show – at least I don't think they were related to the show – I had a tendency to fall asleep during the episodes. Fairly quickly during the episodes as a matter of fact. This obviously constitutes a violation of my first rule of reviewing: "don't review a show that you haven't seen in its entirety". The repeated nature of it bothered me too; it made me wonder if I should add a fourth rule of reviewing (the other two being "don't review a show when you have a raging headache," and "don't give a good review to any show that gives you a raging headache"). The new rule would be something like "don't give a good review to a show that consistently puts you to sleep – it's obviously boring... or on too late for most folks." Fortunately, of late, I've managed to stay awake for the whole show, and while I can't say that it's the best thing out there I have to say that I'm really coming to like it a lot. It's not without its faults but there's something about it that grows on me.

Dr. Jacob Hood (Rufus Sewell) is the special scientific advisor to the FBI, a biophysicist with what is obviously an intense interest in scientific ethics. Because his work has made him some dangerous connections FBI Special Agent Rachel Young (Marley Shelton) of the Bureau's executive protection detail has been assigned to both protect him and smooth his path with local law enforcement agencies. Hood is sent out to deal with science based mysteries.

TV critics – both professional and amateur – have a tendency to try to find something to compare shows too. When Bones first appeared with its non-scientist FBI agent and his science expert partner, the immediate comparison was made to The X-Files. Actually a lot of shows get compared to The X-Files. In fact Fringe was compared to The X-Files without anyone actually seeing the series. In that case at least the comparison was at least slightly valid; the scientific mysteries that Fringe deals with are the sort of things that Fox Mulder would believe in and would be perfect grist for the X-Files writers. However, the fact that the characters and the circumstances in which they come together and operate in are entirely different from The X-Files, is what makes Fringe totally different from The X-Files. Agent Dunham is not an unbeliever, and her group are not outsiders. Yes there is a conspiracy – actually it seems like more than one (and after the most recent episode I'm not sure if what seems to be the main conspiracy are good guys, bad guys, or – and I think this is both the most intriguing element and the most likely case – bad guys who are less bad than the other bad guys) – but the nature of the conspiracy(ies) has been clear from the beginning even if the aims are not, for now, completely obvious. And of course The X-Files never had a character quite like Walter Bishop.

I bring this up because Eleventh Hour gets compared to another show too. That show is Fringe, which I find rather bizarre for a number of reasons. For one thing Eleventh Hour is based on a British series that predates Fringe. The characters of the principal protagonists – Hood and Young vs. Walter Bishop and Dunham – are light years apart. The big difference though is that while both shows deal with "scientific mysteries" the cases that appear on Fringe are science fiction, pushing well beyond the realms of possibility now and in any foreseeable future. The mysteries in Eleventh Hour are eminently believable, with science that is either current or being talked about with more than a little real scientific validity. In fact the Biotechnology Industry Organization has started a blog called Eleventh Hour Facts
to discuss issues related to each episode of the show. It is perhaps that aspect – the idea that the cases that Jacob Hood investigates could be taking place right now – that makes Eleventh Hour both fascinating and maybe a bit frightening.

I the episode on Thursday night (which I'm just getting around to reviewing now thanks to painting a bedroom) a young woman dies of the bends... aboard an airplane at 30,000 feet! What's more, she's not the first person from her college to die of the same problem. And though the bends are inevitably associated with scuba divers, not only have the students who developed the bends not been scuba diving, the go to college in Tulsa! Hood and Rachel go to Tulsa to find out what's going on and quickly determine that it is physical exertion that triggered the bends. The girl on the plane had just finished joining the "Mile High Club" with her boyfriend before she died, while the other student who died from the bends just finished moving to a new apartment. Hood initially thinks that the deaths are being caused by a new designer drug that the couple on the plane had taken, which supposedly led to "great sex." The drug turned out to be a sugar pill. Something else is the cause of the situation.

What that something else is appears to become clear when a third person suffers the bends. He's a young engineering student who is out running with his older brother, the school's top football star who is leading the team to the Cotton Bowl for the first time ever. When Jacob and Rachel get the report of the new case of the bends they are able to order a decompression chamber from the nearest Coast Guard station. The problem is that although the chamber temporarily stops the production of nitrogen bubbles within the blood stream, unlike normal cases of the bends they can't gradually reduce the pressure. In fact after a time at a specific "depth" the production of nitric oxide recommences and he has to be taken deeper to stop it again. Unfortunately there is a limit to the amount of pressure the human body can withstand.

Once the "great sex" pill has been eliminated from consideration as a cause for the bends, Hood turns to other possible situations that all three patients have been exposed to. The one thing they had in common was that all three had flu shots recently and they start to think about possibly tainted flu shots. And yet none of the vaccine samples they are able to test is abnormal and no other students are suffering the bends. This leads Hood to look at the specific qualities of the gas bubbles in the blood stream. It turns out that the bubbles aren't the normal nitrogen as is normally found in cases of the bends but rather nitric oxide (NO) a compound which is used in the body as a "signalling molecule." In this case molecule serves as a vasodilator which leads to increased blood flow (it's part of what Viagra does, specifically focused on the penis). This discovery, along with the flu shot and an examination of the blood of the girl in the plane leads Hood and the college's leading geneticist to discover that the three people who suffered from the bends have a virus which is carrying a gene that leads to extreme production of nitric oxide. However the gene is poorly designed and once started (by production of lactic acid due to physical exertion) doesn't have an "off switch." And it turns out that all three of the people who have the bends are the siblings of top athletes at the school – the sister of the girl on the plane was an Olympic calibre diver until she was caught in a doping scandal. Two other students, one of whom worked as a volunteer during the flu vaccinations and another who works as a trainer for the athletic department, are responsible for creating the gene and testing it on the siblings of the leading athletes on campus. When the diver, filled with remorse over the death of her sister, threatens to reveal all of the details she is threatened by them. She then composes an email to someone (I didn't catch the name on the "To" line but I think it was the campus newspaper) but it is intercepted and deleted by the more dominant of the two students behind the plot. The diver commits suicide by doing a high dive into an empty pool. While Hood works with the school's geneticist to come up with a solution to the genetic problem – they eventually design their own gene which will counteract the effects of the original genetic modification – Rachel and college's head of security (a former FBI agent with whom Rachel shares a definite attraction) manage to track down first the guy who gave the flu shots to the siblings and then the one who was with the athletic department. Rachel finds out that he had injected the football player before they found out about the problems with the gene. Hood and Rachel manage to get to him just before the start of a football game and stop him from playing. Eventually they manage to cure both the football player and his engineering student brother, to the point where the football player will probably be able to compete again.

Key to this series is the relationship between Jacob Hood and Rachel Young. It has to be since they are the only two characters who are constants in the series. When I titled this post The Doctor And His Companion and then added "No, not that one..." the reference was quite deliberately to Doctor Who. One of my brother's girlfriends – it may even have been my ex-sister-in-law – once asked me what the purpose of the Doctor's companions was. My response was that their purpose was to be threatened by the menace of the serial, and to allow the Doctor to explain things to someone which brings the audience up to speed on the situation. Like Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the Doctor's companions are a surrogate for the audience. In some cases Doctor Who companions also had a third role. Sometimes a companion would do physical things. That was particularly true during William Hartnell's period in the role and to a lesser extent in Patrick Troughton's. Hartnell was playing a version of the Doctor who was elderly (and his own health wasn't particularly robust), so the physical action was usually taken on by a younger male companion (Ian, Steven, Ben). I bring this up because Rachel's relationship with Hood fulfills two of these three "purposes;" she is our surrogate, the individual of essentially average knowledge that Hood has to explain the science to in a manner that we can understand, and she is the one who does things that her "Doctor" can't do – everything from chasing down a suspect to getting subpoenas, to invoking the Patriot Act to get information. (And yes, in one episode involving a possible Smallpox release, Rachel was under threat from the episode's "menace." It turned out that what she had been infected with was Chicken Pox.)

Inevitably there are potential questions of sexual tension in show like this. The writers and producers seem ambivalent about this potential. Initially (like in the first episode aired) the relationship between Hood and Rachel seemed to border on the adversarial – she ordered him to keep his panic button with him at all times, leading to a funny scene when it went off while she was in her underwear and she raced to him in a terry cloth robe – it turns out he sat on the panic button when he went to the bar for a drink. Subsequent episodes have made the relationship increasingly more playful. At one point when he liberates some macadamia nuts to illustrate something he discovered she says "minibar – expensive!" In the most recent episode she was with Hood at his nephew's birthday party and was so integrated and comfortable in this situation that she bought the boy a present (a football). Hood's sister even suggests that maybe her brother, who lost his wife to cancer several years ago, might consider a relationship with Rachel. Hood, it seems, has never considered the possibility. We're less sure about Rachel though. She seems rather protective when other women seem to be making approaches to him, giving "the look" when someone suggests possibly hooking up with him. At the same time any true sexual tension seems to be buried. Certainly Rachel seems extremely interested getting together with the former FBI agent who is now the college head of security in the most recent episode, and only the urgency of the case and the need to stick with Hood keeps her from doing something about it. To be sure the sexual tension between Hood and Rachel is far more hidden than the tension between Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon on The Mentalist.

Looking at this series with a fairly critical eye, I have to say that it must be described as a typical CBS series. It's very workmanlike and like shows such as Numb3rs and The Mentalist it has at its heart a criminal investigator who comes from a field that you would normally not think of. The shows themselves are very self-contained and like most of the CBS series Eleventh Hour is eminently repeatable. No one is breaking any new ground with this show, and this is doubly true since this show was based on a British series. Rufus Sewell as Hood is quite watchable and does well as the brilliant and just slightly arrogant scientist. Still it isn't a role that particularly stretches his acting muscles (beyond trying to suppress his normal British accent of course). Marley Shelton is probably more interesting for me, but maybe that's because she's a very attractive woman whose character tries desperately to maintain a business like air. Most of the time when we see her she's wearing her hair up in some way. The character is all business when she's working and we only rarely see her in a relaxed situation, when she literally lets her hair down.

I wanted to spend a little time dealing with the writing for the series. As I say it is not something that attempts to break new ground. At the same time the notion of dealing with scientific mysteries – not really crimes in most cases although deaths do often result – is an interesting one. These aren't the conventional subject for a television mystery, which inevitably deal with a deliberate murder and solving that sort of crime. Eleventh Hour has deaths but in most cases they are the result of a cavalier disregard for ethical treatment of scientific discovery. In the most recent episode (the one with the "gene doping") the "villains" don't set out to kill anyone but deaths result because they feel it is perfectly acceptable to test their "discovery" on people. You see the same thing in other episodes, where scientists or companies use science in a cavalier manner and take the attitude that the ends justify the means. The issue, that science is usually neither good nor bad but is used by people for good or bad ends, is a frequent theme in the series. More than in just about any of the CBS crime dramas questions of responsibility and ethics are an underlying but ever-present aspect of this series.

Eleventh Hour is a series that I find to be increasingly interesting as the show has developed, and it's not really because of the mysteries or the evolution of the characters. I suppose this might be something of an "old guy" thing on my part but I'm finding this series to be easy to watch because it isn't pushing the envelope. And in a way I find that vaguely disturbing. Pushing the envelope is how you get the innovative shows that in eight years are going to be what everybody is doing today. It's hard to remember after all that there was a time that CSI pushed the envelope; people, we were assured by TV Guide (at least in Canada), might be leery about watching scientists solving crimes. It was too smart. And yet the fact is that the innovative shows over the past few years that have been pushing the envelope haven't been pulling an audience – at least not the size or sort of audience that the corporate masters of the TV networks (and the companies that buy advertising from them) want them to produce. And when we come down to that, maybe there's something to be said for playing it safe and producing shows that aren't innovative that draw audiences. Whatever the reason, I find that Eleventh Hour keeps pulling me back in spite of its limitations.

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