Send in the Clones
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Thursdays at 10 PM ET/PT on CBS
Written by Mick Davis
Directed by Danny Cannon
Well of course the first episode in Eleventh Hour is going to be about clones; anyone watching the pilot Thursday night would have gotten a case of whiplash mixed with deja vu. Haven’t we seen all this before–the dark, brooding genius who knows there’s more “out there” than meets the eye, the flashy female government agent sent to mind/rein him in? The conspiracy, the dark atmosphere, the pervasive climate of impending doom and mysterious forces at work? Hello, X-Files. No, wait, the genius is played as an absent-minded eccentric; it must be Chuck! No, wait again, this guy is played by a dark, brooding Englishman. Must be Fringe, no? No. What we’re seeing is Rufus Sewell, a perennially excellent English actor best known recently in SF circles for his turn as Prince Leopold in The Illusionist, and less recently but just as memorably in the critically acclaimed SF feature Dark City, (which Roger Ebert called “one of the great modern films”). He’s playing Dr. Jacob Hood, whose mission (from God? the government? voices in his head?) is to prevent “the abuse of science”. Wow, there’s a loaded issue. What constitutes an “abuse” of science? Some would say stem-cell research, others would say the shutdown of stem-cell research. These are political, not legal or literary issues.
So we start this new series with a couple of strikes against it–ambiguous premise/mission, stale characterizations, warmed-over conspiracy theories. Why would we even bother? I’ll give it to you in one word: character. From their first scenes, Dr. Jacob Hood and his handler, Rachel Young (Marley Shelton, Grindhouse) (!) establish themselves as so not Mulder and Scully. Sewell plays Hood as an almost hostile, brooding man completely oblivious to almost anything around him. Best of all, he’s the smartest guy in the room, he knows it, he’s not ashamed of it, and he neither hides it disingenuously nor flaunts it arrogantly. He does not suffer fools gladly and is happy to let them know it. Shelton plays Young as a no-nonsense bodyguard obsessively dedicated to succeeding in her mandate to protect Dr. Hood from harm. Yes, she wears the obligatory black pantsuit and white shirt, and yes, she’s blonde. Any resemblance to Dana Scully, Sarah Walker (Chuck) or Olivia Dunham (Fringe) ends there, however. There’s something snappy, self-aware, almost predatory in Shelton’s presentation; her FBI agent definitely stands out from what is becoming a cliche-ridden herd.
The pilot involves an investigation into what looks like a medical waste disposal case; a young man drives frantically along a snowy road, tossing jars marked with biohazard labels out of the window. When opened, they contain fetuses of various ages. He leads investigators to a spot where he has buried others. Dr. Hood arrive on the scene and almost immediately identifies all 18 fetuses as being identical. Hood recognizes the work of a clone maker he’s been tracking all over the globe, and he knows that there is at least one pregnant woman out there carrying a cloned fetus. Delivery Boy leads Hood and Young to a makeshift clinic in an abandoned warehouse, and says the whole shebang ran under the auspices of a shadowy character named “Geppetto”.
At which point I laughed, and I don’t think I was supposed to. Geppetto, for those of you not hooked on Disney trivia, is the name of Pinocchio‘s “father”, the wood carver who created him. The name rings a bell with our British genius, who concludes that someone is trying to re-create a lost son. Exeunt omnes to the local morgue (the newspaper kind, not the CSI kind), where Rachel discovers that a local billionaire lost his son several years ago. It does not take long to establish that the billionaire is the money behind the cloning attempt, and that he’s expecting a payoff very soon.
Weaving in and out of this story is the pregnant woman Hood is pursuing. Kelly Frost (Lindsay Pulsipher, CSI: NY) is young, pregnant and stupid. She has consented to carry a “childless couple’s” fetus to term, not suspecting that she’s carrying a clone. Convinced by shady Dr. Hayward (Damien Leake, The Young and the Restless) that the state will take her four year old son if she shows up at a hospital, she accepts medical treatment in a warehouse, cavalier dismissal of her fears, and outright neglect of her physical condition. Dr. Hayward knows she has a deadly complication of pregnancy that will kill her if she goes into labor, but tells her nothing. When Kelly does go into labor and winds up in a hospital, she is so brainwashed that she flees into the night with her son. Eventually, “Geppetto”s people track her down and drag her back to the warehouse to deliver. Hayward fears losing his patient and wants to call the cops; his icy assistant kills him and calls “Geppetto” to come do the work himself.
Hood and Young arrive in time to kill the assistant in self-defense, and Hood desperately tries to save the life of Kelly, who is dying on the table. He is assisted by a woman physician who was “called in at the last minute”; it dawns on him eventually that this is, in fact, Geppetto (Kate Nelligan, Premonition). She greets him cordially and walks out. Hood saves the girl but not the fetus. And then delivers to the father the speech I have always wanted someone connected with a cloning story to point out–that DNA is only part of what makes a person. “Your son is the accumulation of every day you spent with him,” Hood declares passionately. Cloning is not the same as photocopying; a clone may be identical to the host in terms of DNA but that DNA may be expressed very differently. And Hood rightly distinguishes between body and soul, host and personality; no matter how close a clone may look to the host, it will never be the same person but will be a new and unique individual. Didn’t we already see this in The Boys From Brazil?
I don’t care. I was drawn in by Sewell’s mesmerizing stare, his effortless portrayal of a super intelligent man who is also sweet and a little simple (forgetting to turn off his panic button when he goes for a drink). He can be ruthless or charming, but he is always likable. I look forward to more of him. The female character has less to offer at first, but what few scenes she had–toppling an intrusive agent, responding to aforementioned panic button–were adequate in establishing her as a cool, efficient and reliable bodyguard.
I wasn’t sure whether I should review this show or not; like Fringe, it purports to be on the cutting edge of science while it really may not be. Scientific discovery moves at light speed, but TV culture evolves slowly. Thus we are still treating human cloning as an impossibly weird excursion into forbidden territory, when patents are already being sought by scientists who claim to have achieved it. However, future episodes claim to be examining issues in patented food stocks and advances in human intelligence, so I suppose this must be considered an SF show after all, even if the future it’s examining is only fifteen minutes ahead of us.
Debuting after the season premiere of CSI, Eleventh Hour benefited mightily from its lead-in show. Tone and content matched the aging procedural nicely, at least for the first half. After scoring 7.3 million initial viewers, audience fell off after the first half. We’ll see if these numbers hold up next week, head-to-head against the other acclaimed newcomer, Life on Mars. Almost makes me want to buy a TiVo.