Why ‘Prometheus’ gets it all wrong, and why it matters

There were a lot of things wrong with Prometheus (daft dialogue, ridiculous character behaviour, odd-pacing, odd-editing and incongruous music), but I’m only going to focus on the greatest error the film made: its ridiculous distain for scientific fact. I’m going to explain just how badly the writers got it wrong and why it matters. I almost laughed before I realised how tragic the tale is.

If you’re telling a fantasy story you can pretty much get away with anything. With science fiction, depending on how “hard” or “soft” you want it: you can get away with a lot less or a bit less respectively. Prometheus fails as science fiction because there is nothing more scientific about its premise than the Never Ending Story’s. But even if you want to say that Prometheus is a bit of fantasy fun set in space, it still fails because it contradicts some of the most important and established knowledge we have, just as any fantasy story that depicted the earth as being the fourth planet from the sun would instantly lose all credibility and connection with the audience. Similarly, even a fantasy about humans must depict them as creatures with two arms, two legs, and not, for example, 100 tentacles.  We know that the earth is not the fourth planet from the sun, so whatever planet “earth” we are told is the fourth from its sun, it’s not ours, and it’s not our earth, and it’s not us, just like we might connect with a 100-limbed fantasy species and even empathise with them, but if you call them “human” you’re just being silly. But imagine that a large politically-powerful group of people had a vested interest in perpetuating a myth that our earth is in fact the fourth planet from the sun. All the evidence notwithstanding, Mars is the third planet and Earth is the fourth. What seems like a scientific faux pas and bit of fantasy fun takes on a darker and worrying shade. Well that is the problem with Prometheus.

The basic plot of Prometheus is: an alien race dropped their DNA in the oceans of earth long ago and so created humans. This is about as scientific as saying that you can take a drop of blood from a dog, inject it into a giraffe, and expect the giraffe to give birth to dogs or giraffe-dog hybrids. The very definition of “species” in fact is a community that can only breed successfully with itself.

During the film, it’s discovered that these aliens called “Engineers” have a 100% DNA match with humans. This is either rubbish or meaningless, take your pick. If the writers were trying to say that the Engineers are genetically similar to humans, the match is trivial: every living thing that lives or has ever lived on this planet shares the same DNA. A lot of DNA is arguably junk anyway, but “there is more than 95% to 98% similarity between related genes in humans and apes in general. (Just as in the mouse, quite a few genes probably are not common to humans and apes, and these may influence uniquely human or ape traits.) Similarities between mouse and human genes range from about 70% to 90%, with an average of 85% similarity but a lot of variation from gene to gene…” [source] So if they have the same DNA code as us, so what? That only proves that they evolved on earth. But if the insinuation is that they are a 100% DNA match with humans, despite being aliens, that is nonsense because…they aren’t human! That would be like a forensic detective placing you at a murder scene 5000 miles away and 5000 years in the past, because your DNA was a 100% match to a criminal in the past, which is impossible, or matching you because you both happen to be human beings…

But, even if aliens could drop something in earth’s primordial oceans that could somehow mingle with DNA…even that doesn’t make sense because evolution simply doesn’t work that way. A few Star Trek episodes tried to do something similar with evolution and failed for the same reasons. In those stories, the premise was that evolution could be sped up and the results observed in hours or days instead of millions of years. This is such a spectacular misunderstanding of evolution that it makes me depressed just thinking about it. But before I explain that, let’s start at the beginning:

All living things on this planet are the product of common descent. We all share the same DNA and metabolise energy in the same way because those fundamental parts of life happened once, billions of years ago, and not again. All life is descended from very simple self-replicating molecules. On this planet, DNA eventually got this job and the code used is the same today as it was 3 billion years ago. (If life exists on another planet, it too almost certainly started with very simple self-replicating molecules, but it’s overwhelmingly improbable that it would evolve the same DNA code as Earth’s, if it even used DNA at all.) Today, there are thousands of computer programming languages because each was designed by a human computer programmer for a specific need. But in nature, there is only one programming language and it had to be modified and utilised only by trial-by-fire selection in the wild over a very long time. (Incidentally, the ubiquity of this one (and only one) natural language is another argument against intelligent design.)

The “Engineers” could not have any DNA similarity with us unless they came from earth, which they clearly did not do. But we didn’t see the Engineers dropping DNA into the earth 3.5 billion years ago (unless the opening scene of the film was supposed to be earth at that time…in which case I suggest History of the Earth 101 for the writers to give them an idea of what this planet was like so early in its life. Let’s just say Hell would’ve been more hospitable.)  But suppose the engineers got DNA started in the first place (which isn’t implied in the film) all those aeons ago. Is that any better? Nope. Which brings us to:

Humans look the way we do because on this planet we are a member of the primate family. We share a common ancestor with all apes alive today, and our nearest relatives are chimpanzees. The modern human being as we know it today is only about 150,000 years old. But, we didn’t have to evolve this way. On earth, countless unpurposed events directed life in different directions. To name just two: the great oxygen catastrophe and the Cretaceous–Paleogene event (which wiped out the dinosaurs) – two events which forever shifted the course of evolution on Earth, and which were unplanned and devastating in their own right. The oxygen catastrophe didn’t have to happen, but it did. A meteor didn’t have to hit the earth and wipe out the dinosaurs, but it did. On this planet in the past, creatures that we would call primates today found it advantageous to walk upright thus freeing their hands for manipulating the world. On this world, that gave them an advantage over their competitors in the wild. Those creatures which would become us developed higher intelligence as tool-using thinkers. But as Chuck from sfdesbris.com says: “it’s not enough to be smarter, smarter has to give you a distinct advantage.” It’s not a foregone conclusion that evolution will lead to intelligent life, although given time and the right conditions one might expect it to. One might also expect that intelligent life on other worlds would be analogous to humans as tool-using thinkers, using their appendages to manipulate the world and freeing up their bodies to evolve larger brains. But that is not to say at all that such life would also evolve from creatures that would look anything like primates – they could just as easily look like walking octopuses. Again, on earth – we look the way we do, not because some alien dropped some DNA in a pool 3 billion years ago (and most certainly no sooner), but because we evolved from similar looking creatures who evolved from similar looking creatures, all of whom can call themselves descendants of apes, who in turn can call themselves descendants of whatever small mammals remained (or evolved) after the mass destruction of the dinosaurs left niches in nature for new creatures to fill.

To say that aliens created humans is absolutely stupid because we already know how life developed on this planet and everything we know and have ever learned in biology, genetics and geology confirms it – just like we know the Earth is the third planet from the sun. And this makes the entire premise of the film pointless, (much like the Answers in Genesis website). It’s like a great mystery novel akin to the space equivalent of Angels and Demons, but the final startling revelation being: the earth is flat and the sun orbits it.

No matter how wild your story premise is, there must be a part of the audience that thinks “this could happen, this is how things might’ve have been, even if they weren’t.” For example, imagine a story where aliens brainwash Hitler to invade Poland. Silly, yes, but at least it can’t be disproved. (Of course, something isn’t proven true just because it can’t be disproved.) But with Prometheus, it simply can’t be true, because we didn’t pop into existence with unique DNA 150,000 years ago – we evolved from other species very slowly and share our DNA with all other life on earth. The story is not reflective or metaphorical, it’s dumb.

The only way to have Prometheus’s story make any sense as regards its DNA claim is to say that aliens created DNA itself and put it on earth 3 billion years ago, but even that doesn’t explain why the aliens are almost identical to humans: you cannot predict which path evolution will take because evolution, by very definition, is simply the change of gene frequencies in generations responding to the pressure of natural selection. Natural selection can be caused by sexuality and/or environment, but it’s location specific. The millions of varieties of life you see on earth today are only possible because it takes evolution that long to produce any noticeable change at all, especially speciation (although evolution on every meaningful level is an observed documented fact.) To illustrate this by contrast: if a species were already perfectly suited to its environment and its surroundings never changed, that species would never change (and evolve), not in ten million years.

But why does it matter? It matters because Prometheus is a major international release that completely abuses a wondrous field of science. It’s rubbish at best and slander at worst. It matters because there are people in positions of power who deny evolution because it contradicts their ignorant beliefs about the universe, and they want to push those beliefs on you and your children, by law, in the classroom. It matters because evolution is as established and beautiful a scientific fact as anything the human race has ever discovered, and it’s a travesty that it’s so badly misunderstood in the 21st century, so much so that most people who see Prometheus won’t even notice anything wrong with its “science”.

And the moral of Prometheus the film? Our protagonist Elizabeth Shaw regains her faith in god (of course, the personal choice of god of the writer, which is the Christian version). At one point she is teased about her faith with the claim “I guess creating life is easy…anyone can do it…you just need some DNA.” But that’s the kind of nonsense strawman of evolution that no evolutionist ever claimed! Life didn’t happen on earth because of some DNA in an ocean…DNA is only a coding language. It is genes that allow characteristics to pass from generation to generation, and NATURAL (or sexual) SELECTION is the only method by why nature can pass on some genes and withhold others. So no, you need more than just a bit of DNA…and that fact is totally ignored (deliberately?) by the writer(s) of Prometheus. Is there any other scientific field that could be so grossly disfigured and butchered by a film writer in this day and age and still get approved? I don’t think so. What do you think?

The irony here is sadly amusing: if the moral of the story was to have the protagonist reclaim her faith in god and challenge the notion that life on earth evolved naturally…it speaks volumes that such a notion was only possible in a fantasy land where the real world can be ignored and the movie script can make the impossible possible, just like the bible has the sun stand still in the sky. Most people don’t take those stories seriously, with good reason. But some do unfortunately, and they even try to re-write scientific fact to suit their beliefs. Some even use their big chance writing a Hollywood screenplay to push their creationist agenda on a worldwide audience. The sad thing? Many people don’t know any better.

***

Further reading:

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. Not arguments, no debate. Read this if you doubt the facts.

Evolution at Wikipedia (if I were ever to endorse compulsory education this would be the second thing on my list.)

Other good critical reviews:

http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/ridley-scotts-prometheus-anti-science/

My Top 10 TV Shows of all Time II

It’s been over 3 years since I last considered this topic, so I thought an update was in order.

When judging a TV show, I can only try to do it as objectively as possibly from what I have seen, which means establishing some criteria coupled with my own tastes and preferences. For one, a show should primarily achieve what it intends, whether it be drama or comedy. Further to this, if it is trying to achieve something, for example a particular message or thought, does it? If so, how well? Most importantly, is that message positive and meaningful? Then HOW it achieves that must be considered, in other words, quality of writing and structure. Other factors, such as acting and use of music are also important. Then it should get bonus points for how long it keeps this quality up. Also worth considering is the context of the show in culture and time. I added this little specification to avoid judging older shows too unfairly, considering how TV styles and attitudes have changed, especially in the last 10 years.

10. Spaced

A short-lived but really clever and funny sitcom. That it was so short-lived is definitely in its favour. It never got stale. Every episode is a treat, full of little gems that can be spotted for the first time with each re-watch.

9. Battlestar Galactica

A very intense, very raw drama. Lots of fantastic action scenes, lots of excitement. Some absolutely superb stories, and a truly mindblowing set of actors. This is dirty on-the-edge sci-fi at its best. Having said that, it loses points for me for a few reasons: I am not convinced the writers knew where they were going from the start. Secondly, the “heroes” of the show are despicable. They are mostly foul obnoxious back-stabbing unprincipled parasites you could hope to meet. I can only think of one character who stays mostly true to himself for the whole show. You might say that humans on the edge lose all friendship and rules and honour. If that’s true, I say I’d rather the Cylons have killed me. Fighting for survival on its own isn’t enough, and this major philosophical point is totally lost on the writers, hence the lower score. (Not to mention the statism/socialism/collectivism/mysticism that is often applauded in the series).

8. Scrubs

A sitcom. Does it make you laugh? Very much so. This is one of those shows that, assuming it’s up your street, will definitely make you laugh out loud so many times. It is also very well written, and has just enough realism when necessary to still make you care about the characters. It has tears-in-your-eyes LOL moments, and shivers-down-the-spine WOW moments (My Screw Up, anyone?). Problems: after season 4 it got too big for its own good and fell away from the originality that made it special. Recurring guest stars became main stars; the regular cast ran out of stories; the interaction between them just didn’t work anymore; and most importantly, it simply stopped being funny. I think it’s because the story was about young doctors growing up and finding their place in the world, the hospital, and amongst each other. But this was achieved by season 4. The story was told. After that I think it just stopped working. Give me 8 seasons like 1 and 2 and this would be higher.

7. Prison Break

Addictive TV at its best. Again I have to say, very well thought out stories and stuff that really makes you think “oh crap! How is he going to get out of this mess??” There are so many twists and turns you’ll never know what to expect, and I can’t think of any dumb ones thrown in just for dramatic effect. It also has its touching moments too, especially the finale. There is an element of it being dragged out a tiny bit and every single event being slightly embellished, but that’s high-paced modern TV drama for you. The only downside of a great show like this is that re-watchability suffers. But I’d strongly recommend everyone give this a try.

6. 24

Most of what I said about Prison Break could apply to 24. I scored 24 slightly higher because I think it’s more re-watchable and there are more of those special moments. 24 is exciting, and grabs you straight away, keeps building up the tension, and intrigues you. It combines all the best sci-fi/drama/cops-and-robbers moments with brilliant characters. The problem with 24 is that it went on too long, and became formulaic. There are only so many times you can re-use a plot idea before it loses its impact. There is only so “big” you can make a terrorist attack before it becomes ridiculous. There are only so many times you can “save the day” in the last second before the tension is lost. And ultimately, they didn’t end the show how they should have.

5. Firefly

With only 14 episodes, it must take something special for a cancelled TV show to come in this highly. Firefly is that special. It is probably the most unique sci-fi show you will ever see, and that will ever be made. No aliens, no kids, no silly costumes. This is a story about a very diverse bunch of people, some friends – some not, making their way in an unfriendly galaxy. The dialogue is totally brilliant. The actors are superb. There are enough funny moments to make you think it was written as a comedy. The characters are so deep the show could run for years and we’d still want to know more. THIS is how a television show should be done. Unfortunately, because FOX are retards and the show never caught on right away, it was cancelled, never to return, save in film form (Serenity). Do yourself a favour, buy the boxset, watch the 14 episodes, and weep that that’s all there was.

4. Babylon 5

In some ways, I wish B5 was more like Firefly. B5 is a very unique show – and was a big divergence from sci-fi at a time when Star Trek had the monopoly. All the things that Star Trek TNG did bad, this did well. Characters that are actually believable, stories that go somewhere, issues that really matter, consequences that aren’t forgotten in 40 minutes. The use of special effects and music is also far superior than any other sci-fi show too (Battlestar Galactica had the right idea). The way the story arc builds, with little hints dropped in every now and then, is just fantastic. The battle scenes are exciting. The Shadows are just, well, awesome. The attention to detail in how the races look and talk and interact, and how the universe “works” with space-stations and jump-gates – all builds a very believable and realistic view of the future. And yet, despite the gritty realism of it, this Tolkien-esque dramatic background of ancient races, spirituality, epic issues and fights beyond our imagination – was definitely a first for popular sci-fi.

The problem with B5 is that it does have some rather corny, cheesy, and cringing episodes, especially in its first season. I think it takes a while to get going, and I can’t promise it will grab anyone, even half-way through season 1. However, this is like much 90s TV. The episodes are generally more self-contained and you don’t have to invest too much to begin with. From season 2 though, it’s non-stop fun and the arc intensifies to the point each episode is more like a chapter in a book.

3. House

Talk about superb writing. I have never seen a TV show where every single episode was jam-packed of so much good dialogue, humour, and drama. I still notice new jokes re-watching it. Obviously, this show is clever and fascinating. It’s a “who-done-it” every week with the culprit being some rare condition. How we get to find out is much more important that what it is. Every scene with House’s sarcasm is a joy. And the sad moments are certainly not contrived to make us think “oh this is a serious show too” – the humour and despair in the show work off each other so well because the source is the same. I can’t work out if House is uplifting or depressing; it’s probably both, with the lean towards the former, eventually. The episodes are admittedly, and almost deliberately, formulaic – because it’s hard to tell them another way. What’s important is what happens around it.

The only downside of House is that from a philosophical perspective, the character is praise-worthy and despicable at the same time, due to the misguided notions in pop culture and writing of selfishness and value. If a drug addict is selfish, then what is a fitness-focused personal trainer? Selfless?? This is a finger I can’t point just at the House writers, but at the “intellectuals” in philosophy who are nihilistic and Kantian.

Everyone must watch “House.”

2. Star Trek

I was cheating here somewhat at first because I was going to lump them all together and pick out the parts I like. But to be fair, I’ll stick with the original series and those films. You have to remember, it’s the 1960s – and NOTHING like this has been before. There is no template, nothing to compare, no words or phrases like “tractor beam” to nick off other shows. This is what started it all off. The best part of the original Star Trek, which was lost on so many future audiences, is that it’s NOT a geek show. It’s not about tachyon particles and warp-core breaches or whatever other nonsense the TNG writers thought their fans wanted to be impressed by. It’s not.

Gene Roddenberry wanted a “wagon train to the stars”; a story about HUMANS and the human condition, but set in space. Amidst a real world that was on the brink of nuclear war, with so much racial and social unrest, he imagined a world where people working together overcame those differences and reached out into space, building a great federation and making friends of aliens. The villains in ST are BAD and must be destroyed. The good guys are GOOD and try to do the right thing. The three main characters, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy – interact wonderfully. The show also gets the comedy right when it tries to as well. Kirk is perhaps the greatest fictional Captain and leader of all time. He is what a true hero should be. This believable and engaging universe sparked imaginations across the world, and directly influenced pop culture, fashion, technology, and inspired dozens of other sci-fi shows. The first US aircraft carrier and the prototype NASA shuttle were christened Enterprise in honour of the fictional starship.

Star Trek lost its way in my opinion even as early as The Next Generation. Picard and Data aside, show me another character in that stale miserable lot who were different from season 7 to season 1 and I’ll eat my hat. DS9 was a better show, but it wasn’t Star Trek. Voyager is the best one of the lot for being true to Star Trek, and Janeway the best captain since Kirk.

Don’t let the geeks and the Klingon speakers and the conventions put you off – Star Trek the original series was a revolution and changed the world. Even almost 50 years on, those episodes and films are timeless. There are negative points, but more cultural and time-specific ones that I won’t mention.

1. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer

When I started, I said let’s consider what a show tries to be and how well it does at that. BtVS INTENDS to be dramatic, comedic, theatrical, outrageous, and metaphorical. It succeeds. Despite some of its more outrageous notions (and demons) it takes itself seriously and it asks you to do the same. If you do, you will love it, and if you don’t you’ve missed the point. Created by the same genius as Firefly, this has the same brilliant dialogue and character interaction. It is superbly funny. The characters are real and deep, and they change and grow up. The ability of the show’s mood to reflect the characters’ mood is staggering. It can feel so light-hearted and fun a show to watch, and also dark and dangerous and depressing. It accomplished feats never seen before (26 odd minutes with NO dialogue) or those rarely seen and even more rarely done well (the Sleepless dream sequences; or the Once More With Feeling musical).

This is a show that excels at virtually every quality you would want in a TV show, and on a very modest budget too. It’s a show about young people growing up, and how the monsters they face are metaphors for personal and social problems that we all do. Pain, friendship, unpopularity, social awkwardness, the first crush, the first love, the first loss, heartbreak, depression, death, grief, fear – these aren’t words I am just rattling off – this is what the show is about fundamentally. That the tools used to drive the story, fantastic demons and epic life-or-death end-of-the-world battles, are also brilliantly done is just a bonus.

It is so addictive, especially when it gets going – and ALSO so re-watchable that it gets bonus marks for that alone. As with all 90s TV, especially those set in “sunny” teen American high schools, there are some cheesy moments. I also think the title itself puts people off. But this isn’t a story about vampire-teen-angst though (like some of the shit swirling around today). This is a story about YOU. This is the story of YOUR life, if you were in Sunnydale and had the weight of the world on your shoulders. And yet, who of you hasn’t felt that way at some time in your lives? Can you pick yourself up when there is seemingly nothing to fight for, and battle on one more time against your own demons and the other horrors in life? Our heroes can. That is why they are heroes. But they are just normal people who are friends, and in that respect that are what each of us can and should be. BtVS is a show that glorifies good and positive values, and slays the bad. Evil is something to be defeated, in every tiny way, every day. 

And if you are positive and fight for the good against the demons in your mind and the real world – you can succeed. Now, give me a TV show that exemplifies this spirit, with amazing funny and likeable characters, with wonderful music and a barrage of laughs, with heart-sinking moments and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dialogue, and a plethora of other “female-lead-hero” inspired TV shows that followed, – and I’ll show you the best TV show of all time. Oh hang on, just did…

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