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ReGenesis: Season One (2004)
Creator: Christina Jennings

review by Steven Hampton

Good science-based drama is extraordinarily difficult to produce for television. There is a seemingly unavoidable tendency on the part of programme makers to exaggerate when it comes to the technothriller antagonist (human, bio-weapon, or whatever) or, worse still, the nervous producers are prompted to dumb down any difficult scientific aspects for fear of losing the audience. These problems have been overcome by the makers of innovative series, ReGenesis.

Although we already have detective shows like C.S.I. (since 2000), using cutting-edge tech to determine the when, where and how of crimes - leading cops to undercover messy human motives, and diagnostic adventures such as House M.D. (from 2004), starring former British comedian Hugh Lawrie as a brilliant though eccentric doctor - who investigates rare health problems and solves medical mysteries on a weekly basis, there's obviously room for a show that probes the wider, and more fascinating, fields of biotech and genetics. The risk is that such a serial drama would end up being just another overstated save-the-world series, in which the scientific elite facedown global threats, win against impossible odds, and then everything and everybody returns to business-as-usual status.

The simple fact is that we are living in the proverbial 'interesting times', and there's just no such thing as 'normal service' to be resumed (preferably A.S.A.P.), nowadays. Canadian series ReGenesis is perhaps the first science fiction TV drama to accurately portray modern research scientists working on the seemingly intractable puzzles of genetic engineering and viral epidemics. This is entertainment that's unmistakably less about solving problems and fixing damage than it is concerned with accepting that some changes are irreversible. For example: the human genome has been mapped and, no matter what the critics say, nobody can stick that particular 'genie' back in its bottle. The ethical challenges that scientific advances bring upon humanity will become the 21st century norm. Every year, month, week or day will throw fresh moral dilemmas at multicultural societies and international lawmakers. With that in mind, series' creator Christina Jennings has latched onto a winning formula about 'policing' the biotech industries, and this topical theme is quite skilfully explored in ReGenesis.

David Sandström (Peter Outerbridge) is chief scientist in the pre-eminent 'NorBAC' labs run by efficient ex-CIA agent Caroline Morrison (Maxim Roy). The multi-racial staff include: Mexican doctor Carlos Serrano (Conrad Pla), Asian doctor Mayko Tran (Mayko Nguyen), Bob Melnikov (Dmitry Chepovetsky), and top virologist Hira Kahn (Mishu Vellani), who comes from a Muslim family and so has trouble just getting into work due to the paranoia of Homeland Security. Sandström's teenage daughter Lilith (Ellen Page, Hard Candy) also plays a significant role in the show's quickly developing ensemble, yet thankfully, as with the set-up for C.S.I., there's actually very little screen time given over to the ultimately boring soap opera routines and domestic subplots that have, over the years, derailed many potentially interesting television dramas.

The first episode, Baby Bomb, establishes the cinematic style, and hard science content, of the show, as hapless single mother Daisy Markovic (Kristin Booth) is discovered to be unwittingly involved in a heinous plot using a genetically modified newborn infant to spread a seemingly incurable plague. In a separate case, highlighting a different set of issues about reproduction, we are briefly introduced to supposedly dying boy, Mick (well portrayed by the young Mark Rendall), who believes that he's a clone, created only to provide spare parts to replace the failing organs his 'twin' brother. The Face Of God examines the media hype surrounding the claims of Reverend Walsh (John Boylan), who intends to clone Jesus Christ from the crucifixion's blood smears. The full impact of such media-circus events on the science team is highlighted by the shocking tragedy of one character's death in a shooting incident, and lingering suspicions of links to Islamic terrorism.

Prions takes an offbeat look at 'mad cow disease', and the roster of resident geniuses at NorBAC is supplemented by new virologist Jill Langston (Sarah Strange), who has a prior relationship with Sandström, muddying the waters of the lab's 'office' politics with sexual tensions. By now we have also met the show's supporting characters, like US Congresswoman Shuler (Rosemary Dunsmore), who supports Morrison's position at NorBAC, and British intelligence agent Colin Digby (a ruggedly handsome Vincent Walsh), who's Morrison's old flame. The Oldest Virus follows Sandström on his secret quest to extract a sample of the Spanish flu, from a frozen corpse discovered in arctic tundra, but this intriguingly X-Files' styled episode sows the proverbial seeds of doom for all concerned, when the overexcited Sandström allows his ego to cloud his usually impartial scientific judgement.

Faint Hope reveals a possible cure for AIDS, while Blackout uncovers the surprising cause of mysterious power failures that affect the whole of North America for several days. Subsequent episodes continue or bring closure to earlier subplots or strands of ReGenesis' main story-arc, until season finale The Longest Night charts the progress of an outbreak of the Spanish flu, in Denver...

What makes this show such an engrossing drama is the plotting, and the crackle and fizz of interactions between the main characters. Here's just a couple of standout scenes to illustrate this... First we have Sandström patiently explaining some crucial details about genetic engineering to scientific novice Morrison (frequently a stand-in for the perplexed viewer, of course), with no props and nothing more than straightforward dialogue and a bit of hand-waving to communicate the daunting complexity of biotech procedures. No C.S.I. style computer graphics are needed here, and it's very much to Outerbridge's credit that such expository scenes work so well, as he effortlessly projects a natural authority and apparent familiarity with the abstruse subject matter of his learned character. In another key moment from one of this season's later episodes, Langston is shocked to learn that her reputation as a professional scientist is ruined, because of gaffes made in the experiments for a research paper that was published years ago. Her distressed physical reaction, on having those earlier mistakes explained to her by a NorBAC colleague, is understandable and very human, and wins Langston much audience sympathy. Once again, it's a credit to the creative team involved (especially, in this particular case, the bravery of actress Sarah Strange) that such an obviously pained display of recognising individual weakness and accepting a hard lesson is so dramatically effective without succumbing to those clichés of bitter remorse, drunken rage, or self-loathing. While acknowledging that science can be an exciting field to work in, ReGenesis reminds us that science is unforgiving when it comes to human error.

If you're interested in sci-fi TV drama that bears more than a passing resemblance to hard-SF novels by the likes of Greg Bear, this show is definitely for you. A second 13-episode season of ReGenesis was broadcast during the first half of 2006, and a third season is due for airing in 2007. Let's hope it will not be too long before both of these further seasons are released on DVD.
ReGenesis DVD

Peter Outerbridge as Sandstrom, in ReGenesis

Sandstrom looks for clues, in ReGenesis

Sandstrom's writing jargon, again!

play ReGenesis game



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