Sometimes science isn’t the solution. That’s the reality of science consulting and something Kevin Grazier, Planetary Scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and one of The Exchange’s consultants, knows well. “Until a story starts shooting, and often times even after, the script is a living document,” he explained. “Over time, different story elements can either increase or wane in their importance.”
So, while a screenwriter might need information on say, astronomy, it might not make it into the final cut of the script. In the case of Grazier’s recent consult for FOX’s Terra Nova, writer-producer Brynne Malone asked for geologic concepts for the episode “Proof.” Malone contacted The Exchange, and we happily contacted Grazier, who has a background in both geology and geophysics. “In short, what they needed were some geologic concepts that were close enough in their ultimate outcome to be mistaken for one another, but disparate enough to be contradictory,” said Grazier.
“Proof” follows several plotlines but one revolves around esteemed Dr. Ken Horton, a geologist returning to Terra Nova after a six-month expedition. One of the main characters, Maddy Shannon, idolizes Horton (describing him as “Marco Polo, Darwin, and Shackleton all rolled into one”) but she soon grows suspicious of Horton. The geologic concepts Grazier provided were meant as a means for Maddy to interrogate the imposter. “To give a specific example, we discussed a situation where Maddy brings up the topic of plate tectonics, and effects that can influence the rate of plate motion—a topic on which Dr. Horton had written in one of his books that Maddy read,” Grazier explained. “The imposter Dr. Horton begins a discussion about serpentinization (a geochemical process by which water alters basaltic igneous rock into ‘slipperier’ serpentine, thus lubricating the slabs on either side of a fault) when Maddy is actually referring to the real Dr. Horton’s writings on slab pull (a geophysical effect in which the weight of a descending subducting slab of crust speeds plate motion).”
It’s a great idea, but one that ultimately didn’t make its way into the script. “Proof” casts doubt on Horton’s identity by inconsistencies in a letter he sent to Maddy and forgetting information the real Horton would know. But Grazier is still happy Terra Nova’s writers called on him for some scientific help. “It is highly encouraging to see screenwriters caring about the science in science fiction,” he said. Plus, he understands that sometimes science is not the solution for a storyline: “If it comes down to story vs. science – to telling a ripping yarn with nearly-correct science, vs. telling a less compelling story with perfect science—story wins every time, as it should. Terra Nova is not a documentary after all.”
But science can make for a compelling storyline, which is why The Exchange exists with consultants like Grazier, knowledgeable and willing to help. Even though Grazier’s consult didn’t end up in the final cut of the episode, the writers still thanked him by including his name in the episode. Horton mentions he went on an expedition in 2144 with a Dr. Grazier! “To be honest I watch and really enjoy Terra Nova,” said Grazier. “More importantly, I believe that if you polled scientists to discover what motivated them to choose a life in science, the responses would overwhelmingly fall into two categories: space and dinosaurs. With me it was both. Yes, in second grade I was that annoying little nerd who knew every dinosaur fact knowable at the time, and would regale anybody who would listen with dinotrivia. So you can imagine what an honor it was to contribute, even in a small way, to Terra Nova. So after a rockin’ first season finale, I look forward to an equally-fun season two."