As a science consultant in Hollywood, Cosima Herter’s official job is to use her Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science, technology and medicine to help make TV and movies more believable. In an entertainment industry so closely monitored by fans that fake onscreen languages now have to operate like real ones, her expertise has become increasingly in demand—and it’s often a crucial factor in what makes or breaks a science-fiction show.
But with her biggest and most well-known undertaking—Orphan Black, the BBC America sci-fi thriller series about clones and corporate science created by John Fawcett and Herter’s longtime friend Graeme Manson, which aired its series finale tonight—that job description is a bit misleading. In fact, listening to her describe her workload, you might as well call her a co-creator of the series; Herter even inspired one of the many clone characters played by star Tatiana Maslany. Without her, there wouldn’t be an Orphan Black at all.
On the occasion of the show’s final season, which involved everything from a Dr. Moreau-esque final boss and parabiosis to a clone scooping out her own cybernetic eye with a wine glass stem, Herter spoke to Vanity Fair about Silicon Valley, mutant mice, making a smart show that proves you don’t need to rely on unrealistic ideas to make an impact—oh, yeah, and that eyeball scene.
Vanity Fair: How did your role work logistically over the years?
Cosima Herter: Graeme and [co-creator] John [Fawcett] had this idea, and Graeme asked me what I knew about clones. My question was, “What kind of clones?” We don’t have successful human clones yet, but lots of things clone themselves. It started out as a conversation like that: exploring all these different ways that you could conceive of clones, and what kind of allegories they could provide for rich narratives.
The way Tatiana as Cosima describes gene-editing and the LIN28A gene subplot this season was so fluid, yet still complex. How did you build that out into a plotline?
We spent a lot of time thinking about how to depict prolongevity science, both in its glory and in its sinisterness. Who gets to live forever? It’s kind of insane. But there are so many different ways people are exploring how to prolong life, be it calorie restriction or eating chocolate and drinking red wine, or all the geographical areas we call the Blue Zone, where people seem to live far past 100 years old. There are cult followings, especially in the Silicon Valley area, where people like Peter Thiel are funneling billions of dollars into almost cult-like research.
So we picked LIN28a for a few reasons. Any good scientist knows nothing is ever only one gene, [but] LIN28a does have regenerative properties, and it really is much more active in utero and in children. The example we used on the show, the spiny mouse—it does have that active gene. A predator can pick it up and its skin literally rips off and grows back. But people are calling it the “fountain of youth gene,” and it’s kind of outrageous. We have Cosima, in the show, point out the insanity of that endeavor. What kind of craziness and what kind of selfishness do you have to have, to be so stuck on there being a one silver bullet remedy?
Which basically establishes your villains and protagonists. You threw in a couple other junk science methods, too, like Westmorland’s parabiosis—shared blood experiments.
People here are doing that, you know?
They did it on Silicon Valley as a joke.
That idea has been around for a very long time. It keeps falling out of favor in scientific research, then reemerging. It’s so vampirish, so sinister. If you look at pictures of mice surgically attached to each other, it’s pretty gruesome. We wanted something also that could facilitate visual gruesomeness, if we wanted to end up depicting that on screen.
The show brings up a lot of volatile political issues around science, and this is a great time to be exploring them. But how do you keep a show that hinges on those kinds of issues from going off the rails? Did you run into any rough patches?
God, lots of them. It required long discussions. Look, I don’t have the answers. But we have to pull apart the assumptions about why we think that certain things that we do. Why do we continue to marginalize certain kinds of bodies and not others? You can be in a writing room with a bunch of people who are like, “We have equality.” I’m like, “No, we really don’t.” We had all kinds of people having conversations about what it means to be a woman, for example. And who gets to be a gatekeeper. It’s not always an easy conversation.
So you did a lot of social justice education, to bring this whole thing to life.
Absolutely. Science is always political. Biology is always marshaled into the service of political power and social control. There’s literally nothing you can talk about, in the biological sciences—especially in bioengineering and biotechnology—that doesn’t have a social or political impact. The bioengineering we have now comes from Darwin’s theory of evolution. If you can interfere with evolution, you can change it. And if you can change it, you can try to control it. So who gets to control it? Why do they decide which bodies are better than others?
You talk about using science to build science fiction. The clone disease, for example. How did you make that believable?
This was a real learning curve for me. I can have a great idea and say, “We should do this!” And they’re like, “Yeah, but it doesn’t look like anything on TV.” A lot of the science we use is an amalgamation of different kinds of things. Because we’re talking about a fictional clone disease. So we have to modify real life diseases and make them malleable enough so that they have visual impact as well.
We wanted it to be something that affected a body with female reproductive organs, like a uterus. I modeled it off of a few different ones, but primarily it was pulmonary or thoracic endometriosis, where the polyps actually start in your uterus, but they actually can migrate up into your thoracic or respiratory areas. Because we needed her to cough up blood.
You needed it to look gross.
Right. With endometriosis—nobody really knows what causes it. It seems to be a whole host of different issues. It’s also a commentary on women’s medicine, which is often overlooked or under-researched, because the money goes into things like prostate cancer, or whatever. We’re also trying to look at something that affects that particular kind of body. It has a genetic aspect. We don’t really understand it and it actually does have some of these visual and debilitating effects. But it’s clearly not that, because it’s a fictional disease. But that’s in my mind, what I was modeling it off of, among a few others. We don’t know how to treat or cure it because we don’t understand what it is.
In terms of Rachel’s eye, since that was a fun moment for everyone. . .
I had to pause it, honestly.
That just makes me laugh out loud, and later like, “Oh God, I can’t believe we even did that.”
It was very much a show-stopper. Only Rachel could have done that, right? Like, scooped out her own damn eye?
I know! Okay sorry, go on.
Where are we now, in terms of the development of biotech like Rachel’s eye? Are we pretty close to that kind of thing?
I looked at so many different kinds of things that people are trying and attempting to do. Like literally, putting little cameras in your eyeball. People are certainly researching how to create a cybernetic eye and attach it to your neurons. I don’t know how successful anybody has been—certainly not as high-tech as Rachel’s eye was. That’s us making the reality quite plastic, in the same way that these clones were being born in 1984.
But with that eye, we were trying to examine how we internalize, for example, classism or racism. We look at the world through how we’ve internalized them, until the moment we have to pluck out our own eye—”Holy shit. I’ve held these views and have been perpetuating these particular kinds of views of the world and what I think I deserve from it.” So the eye itself. . .
Is a metaphor?
Right. But nobody has a robot eye like that. To be sure, people are trying. I went into science papers and it’s patented, in case anybody’s trying to patent such a thing. That’s also where I go to curate certain kinds of science ideas: data banks full of patents, to see who’s trying to do it, and what they actually look like, because you actually have to show your diagrams in a patent application. Over the last six years, I have looked at so many disturbing things. If you saw the cache on my computer. . .the kinds of things I research are pretty brutal.
So you deserve the break that’s coming now that the show is over. What’s next for you?
The other projects I’ve been working on haven’t been announced in the trade press, so I can’t actually tell you. I’ve only been doing this for six or seven years now, but I love this job. We get to talk about things that matter. We never dumb anything down. Learning shouldn’t be elitist; I come from working-class, poor people. I’m the only person in my family who ever went to university. So, it matters to me. I come from an academic background—no more, though. Thank goodness.
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