Strange World: “Lullaby”

Birthing Pangs

by Sarah Stegall

copyright 1999 by Sarah Stegall

written by Tim Minear
directed by Joseph Scanlan

Dr. Paul Turner’s mission is to combat “criminal abuses of science”, which makes him sound rather like a modern version of Captain America. This could easily turn into farce, with the cardboard bad guys and tinsel good guys of your average medical or legal drama. Fortunately, this is not going to happen as long as the producers and writers of “Strange World”, ABC’s new science fiction drama, keep tossing ambiguous story lines at us, like last Tuesday’s “Lullaby”. It’s easy to suck us into a drama about good versus evil, where the moral lines are clearly drawn and we can whole-heartedly root for the good guy. It’s easy–and boring. What’s more interesting is a drama where nobody’s totally clean, where no one’s motives are above suspicion, and where we have to confront a moral choice between bad and worse. It’s the essence of film noir, and I’m glad to see someone taking a crack at it these days.

In “Lullaby”, Dr. Paul Turner is asked to find out why pregnant Cassandra Tyson (Monet Mazur) is convinced that her obstetrician is trying to kill her baby. Right away, Turner’s girlfriend, Dr. Sydney MacMillan (Kristin Lehman) is drawn into the case, leaping to Cassandra’s defense when she seems threatened by her boyfriend Vince (Callum Keith Rennie). Turner’s reluctance to take the case is assuaged when the mysterious Asian Woman (Vivan Wu) tells him her case is important, and when he sees multiple needle tracks on Cassandra’s abdomen. The case unfolds like origami after that, with a twist around every corner: Cassandra’s baby is not her baby; the couple whose baby she supposedly is carrying are not what they seem to be, and her obstetrician’s track record with young surrogate mothers is not encouraging. In the most fantastic twist of all, we learn that the “babies” which have been miscarrying with frightening frequency among these young women are not “babies” at all.

Two contemporary themes weave in and out of this tangled story: surrogacy and organ donation. Both raise difficult questions on both medical and legal, not to say moral grounds. Which is the more criminal abuse of science: farming out women’s uteri to raise a cash crop of babies (even with their consent), or twisting a technology that gives hope to the infertile into an organs-for-profit scheme? Women who have fought long and hard not to be seen as sex objects or baby incubators are uncomfortable enough with women who rent out their wombs for money; the idea of making babies for profit strikes at the core beliefs of many in the audience. To carry it even further into an exploitation of that practice ratchets the tension even higher and leaves us with a profound sense of unease. What about the idea of growing organs for transplantation inside women’s wombs, harvesting them like so many eggplants? What devil’s bargain makes science choose between organs that will save lives, and babies that will bring hope? It would be bad enough if the women were part of the scheme, but in “Lullaby” they are not only cheated of their babies (and their surrogacy fees) but of the truth about their “pregnancies”. Worse, we discover that after the “deliveries”, the women are infertile. This is not easy, turn-off-your-mind-and-relax television. It challenges us, disquiets us, alarms us, as a series about potential abuses of science ought to.

In the face of this high level of ambiguity, Turner’s moral compass does not waver. His motives may not be entirely disinterested, since his life depends on cooperation with the Asian Woman, but his care and concern come through in every scene. Likewise, Kristin Lehman’s Sydney shows courage and compassion, and defends her patient admirably. Which is why it was such a terrible disappointment, in the final act, to have Sydney fail to inform Cassandra of the true nature of her pregnancy, and its consequences for her. I felt distinct revulsion at seeing a modern day doctor resort to the outdated (one hopes) practice of concealing bad news from a patient, merely because it might disturb her. This is precisely the kind of parochialism and condescension women have been fighting in medicine for years. I was appalled to see it in Sydney, and I hope it doesn’t surface again.

I must admit, however, that Cassandra herself did not inspire one to great hopes for her growth as a person. Naive, pliant, gullible, and manipulative, she was clearly not well suited to the responsibilities of motherhood. Of course, she has to be this way for the story to work at all, but it makes it difficult to sympathize with her. Monet Mazur did a good job of showing us a woman overwhelmed by her circumstances, for whom complex questions and simple medical procedures were a little too much. One sees such people, adrift and unable to cope with a modern technological society, bewildered and defenseless and easily exploited. Mazur caught that dazed, deer in the headlights look quite well; I can easily see her Cassandra (named, of course, for the Greek priestess who was condemned to tell the truth and not be believed) a few years from now, going from man to man and homeless shelter to homeless shelter, looking futilely for the child she thinks is “out there”.

I was delighted to see Director of Photography Jon Joffin’s name on this episode. Joffin, who worked under John Bartley on “The X-Files” and later took over for him after Bartley’s departure, knows how to use shadow effectively, knows close-ups, and tells a story with light and camera angle very well. I was particularly struck by his use of close-up in some of Lehman’s scenes, which caught her shock and her sympathetic reaction well. I loved the spotlit operating theatre in Act Four, and the rainy, murky underwater feel to some of the stakeout scenes. Joseph Scanlan paced the episode well, never letting the tension flag. There’s nothing at all wrong with the production values on this show, and the writing is first rate. Writer Tim Minear let us eavesdrop on medical conversations without talking down to his audience; he assumed we didn’t need blastomeres explained, and I appreciate that respect for his audience’s intelligence.

“Lullaby” gives a strong push to the show coming out of the gate, and portends well for future episodes. It left me pondering questions raised in the show, above and beyond the story itself. I like a show that leaves me debating medical ethics and social conditioning. Again, well done, gentlemen.