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The secret to the science on ‘Frankenstein, M.D.’
Dr. Frankenstein has forgotten her gloves.
Dr. Frankenstein has forgotten her gloves.
It’s the second to last day of taping for Frankenstein, M.D., the newest production from Pemberley Digital and PBS Digital Studios’ first foray into fictional series. Dr. Victoria Frankenstein and Iggy are about to go in search of the monster, but just as Anna Lore, who plays the titular character, is about to exit, she pauses and goes, “Oh I forgot my gloves. I actually did.” The set erupts in giggles.
It’s not much of a joke unless you’ve been following the voracious fandom that’s grown up around the show. Frankenstein, M.D. is a modern retelling of the Mary Shelley novel that incorporates modern science and medicine into the storyline, something Pemberley and PBS take seriously. However, some aspects of science prep were a little too dull and time-consuming for the tight webseries, and so in the first few episodes, Frankenstein forwent gloves in experiments that would normally require them.
“Real science and real-life procedures aren’t sexy for entertainment,” explained creator Bernie Su. “For example, the putting on gloves is a process. You have to find ways to cheat that. It’s a balance of finding entertainment versus realism.”
But fans noticed, and they began commenting about Frankenstein’s lack of protection. When new episodes were filmed, gloves appeared, and now forgetting the gloves is an inside joke and a shout-out to their diligent and passionate fans.
“We’re making the gloves a running joke,” Su explained. “That’s a direct wink to that. We want to see those massive science discussions, and if they debate about it, that’s great. We want people to talk about the science and the story. If they’re talking about it, and we’re inspiring that thinking in our audience, that’s a great thing. Whether or not they like the show… that’s a great thing.”
The mechanics are just one tricky science aspect for the cast and crew on location at YouTube Space L.A. Language is even more precarious, since Frankenstein and Iggy need to rattle off complicated medical terms and pharmaceuticals with the ease of final year medical students. That’s where phonetic translations come in handy.
“I come from the comedy world, so it’s very hard for me to look at these big massive actual science words,” said Steve Zaragoza, who plays Iggy. “It’s very easy for me to stumble over them. I have a real hard time, they have to phonetically spell them out for me, otherwise I can never get them right.”
That job falls to co-executive producer, writer, and oftentimes teleprompter operator Lon Harris.
“The other thing about science that I didn’t realize when we started the show is the prop work gets more exacting,” explained Harris. “We have a lot of doctors and med students and people who know what they’re doing watching. If our actors do a little thing they wouldn’t do—they don’t use the stethoscope exactly right—they’re happy to jump on us and tell us we’re wrong. We have to be very careful about the actual action on screen when we’re doing science.”
The team isn’t going into the science blind or even with educated guesses. They have a legitimate scientist on set to make sure they’re keeping things realistics—or as realistic as they can be when talking about reanimation of human corpses.
Joe Hanson, who fronts PBS Digital’s It’s Okay to Be Smart program, joined the team after meeting with Su and PBS Digital Studios at VidCon this summer, using his background as a biologist to become an indispensable part of the production. On set, he’s chief pronunciation officer, among other things.
“I make sure all the difficult words are said correctly, stuff us nerds are used to,” he laughed. “We make sure that she’s wearing gloves at the right time, but we don’t want to pull someone out of the story. [We make sure] the things are in the right place in the set, that they’re acting how scientists would act in that situation. As we’re shooting, if they’re unsure, they just call ‘science!’ and I run in to help them figure out how to hold instruments, et cetera. It’s like our Bat Signal.”
Hanson also works in the writers’ room, making sure the story can be grounded in scientific reality.
“There’s a story that needs to be told first,” said Hanson. “That’s the glue. Then I come in, and we say, ‘How can science help enrich the story?’ The structure is written out and planned, and then we say, ‘What does modern science have to say about what Victoria would be using to help the creature here?’ or ‘What does it say about why the creature acts the way it does?’ The story is the core, and the science helps that along.”
Harris said that the only time science and art bumped heads was when he wanted dramatic moments outside the realm of possibility. That’s when art edged out science.
“The big argument is I really wanted Victoria to face off against the creature and try to poison it, and it doesn’t work,” Harris explained. “I wanted her to have this dramatic moment facing her own impotence. The ending doesn’t really work unless you have that. I would come up with ways and Joe would tell me, ‘No, that would really kill him.’ I needed the monster to not be killable, but there’s no scientific reason why he’s immortal. Eventually I just wrote around it. We don’t want to take things completely out of left field. Everything has the underpinning of real science, but with a dash of fantasy.”
For the creators, who are science fans but not experts, having Hanson is essential to making the show they and PBS wanted to create.
“He’s on a big old conference room screen,” laughed Su. “The story comes first, Victoria has to go through these arcs, and the steps have to work with that. We need to reconstruct the monster’s bones, and Joe will come in and explain how to synthetically construct bones. It may not be scientifically what can be done today, but it’s one or two steps away… We want to be as close to real science as possible, so people can imagine they will hit this ability in a few years.”
Of course, as much as the science is real, on set it’s still a lot of movie magic.
“We fake everything, it’s totally all B.S.,” Harris laughed about the idea of actual experiments on set. “There’s an episode where we’re training a mouse. That was impossible; it was really hard to fake. We left a rat in there and left a camera on it, and took our lunch break. We made it through editing look like the rat is doing what we want it to do.”
Still, the faked science gives real inspiration. Lore and Zaragoza were both verified geeks before being cast, but being a part of such a science-heavy show has sparked individual interest and learning.
“The science side has been a challenge, but a fun one,” said Lore. “I am a big science buff, I love Joe Hanson’s channel. I’m a big Cosmos fan. In general I tend toward science. A lot of the words were familiar to me, but there’s obviously some science that just goes way over my head. It was fun to get exposed to new techniques, and that the people in the comments can say, ‘I just learned about that!’ or ‘it’s so relevant to my studies.’ The biggest challenge is not having as much time as I’d like to explore everything. And, of course, you can’t paraphrase science terms. It has to be pitch-perfect for the science lingo. It’s important for me to be accurate.
Zaragoza admits he’s more of a tech geek, but the show’s use of 3D printing and other high-tech medical trends has left him excited.
“I love how there’s a modern take on a lot of the science in the show,” he said. “I love that they involve 3D printers. I’m more of a techy guy, I love my tech. The science does get pretty advanced, and that’s way beyond me. It’s fascinating.”
In the series’ grand finale, which premieres today, Victoria will deal with her decisions surrounding her scientific experiments once and for all.
“I think for someone expecting something along the lines of other Pemberley Digital shows, this may be a little traumatic for them,” Lore said. “Hopefully it’s not shocking, but I think for people who really love the story and good filmmaking, it’s going to be awesome. What we’re doing, you’ve never seen in a webseries before. I’m so excited to see the fan reaction, because I don’t know.”
Su thinks while Frankenstein is different from other Pemberley shows, it still adheres to the kinds of characters and stories to which his audience responds.
“Because the story is Frankenstein, bad things happen in Frankenstein,” explained Su. “Bad things will happen on our show. I can’t predict how fans will feel when bad things happen to the characters. In our other shows, we have breakups and betrayals. In this show, we have death and shaky moral ground. I’m a big fan of characters who are steadfast in their resolve—those are the type of characters I like to see—and those characters have consequences to their actions. I hope fans come out of the series saying they love it.”
And as for those gloves, Hanson has one shocking reveal for the fans.
“They’d be shocked by how many scientists actually don’t wear gloves,” he laughed.
Screengrab via PBS Digital Studios/YouTube
A former YouTube reporter for the Daily Dot, Rae Votta has more than a decade of experience in the digital and entertainment industries. Her work has appeared on AOL, Huffington Post, Out Magazine, Logo, VH1, Current TV, Billboard, and NYMag. She joined Netflix in 2016.