Review: Scorpion

Many years ago I coined the phrase “plot-driven technology”. It describes that point in a sci-fi story or even a non-sci-fi story that involves some sort of high tech equipment wherein you ask the question “Why don’t they just___(fill in the blank)__?” and the answer is “Because the plot of the story required it to work that way.” You’ve seen it hundreds of times. “Why can’t a Klingon warbird fire its weapons while cloaked?” And then later movie “Why can the Klingons now fire while cloaked?” The answer to both questions is “Because the plot required it.” While all technology has its natural limitations, way too often a lazy author invents a reason for the technology to fail just at the right moment to move the plot in the direction that he wants it to move. This is especially true in sci-fi where the technology is made up in the author’s mind anyway so he feels free to impose whatever limits he wants to.

Well written sci-fi or technology-based drama can say “What if we had a particular technology that doesn’t really exist? What might happen under those circumstances?” And at that point you have a technology driven plot. Not plot driven technology.

I really, really wanted to like the new CBS series “Scorpion” and you can probably see why if you know me at all. It’s about a group of four young geniuses who are hired by the government to solve the problems that mere mortals cannot solve. They are all socially awkward introverted super geeks with a combined IQ of 700. “Scorpion” is the hacker name of this band of misfits. In the first episode they pair up with a diner waitress who has a young son who is withdrawn, noncommunicative with anyone except his mother, and as it turns out perhaps even a bigger genius than the heroes of our story. The basic plot is that they are going to help her understand what it means to have a genius for a son. And she is going to help them to get along in the world that they don’t understand because they are stuck in their heads.

The previews for the show promote it to be an action-packed thriller and indeed that’s what we got in the first episode. Our gang of heroes has 45 minutes to keep 50 passenger jets from “falling out of the sky”. Along the way they have to hack into numerous databases, physically break into a cloud storage facility, steel hard drive, steel of Ferrari, drive it down the runway as a jet airplane flies overhead and dropped a computer cable down to their laptop so that they can fix the software bug while driving hundred 50 miles an hour towards a crash barrier.

I love the premise of the show and the characters look reasonably interesting. But my problem with the show is that it is just totally unbelievable because it has wall-to-wall plot-driven-technology. The basic problem there trying to solve is that a bug was found in newly uploaded air traffic control software. It crashed their entire airport systems and simultaneously cut off all and I mean ALL ability to communicate with the aircraft. I’m just not buying it. Are you really telling me that there is no analog radio or backup communication system available at all between the ground and jet airplanes? So the whole crisis upon which the entire episode is based is totally unbelievable. Then the repeated statement “the planes will fall out of the sky if we don’t do something!” Doesn’t make any sense. The skies were clear. You can land the plane using visual flight rules if you had to rather than just deliberately run out of fuel and crash. Then of course is the whole James-Bond-like solution of sealing a really fast car, driving down the runway at high speed with an airplane flying 10 feet off the ground. The copilot climbs down into the wheel well to feed a network cable down to our heroes were carrying a laptop. Then they can download a fresh copy of the software from the airplanes, install it in the ATC towers and solve the problem. Oh I forgot to mention that the original software was backed up in a cloud storage facility but that backup gets overwritten every few hours. Any cloud worth its money keeps multiple revisions intact just so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen. It was just all too much manufactured crisis for me.

In any sci-fi or high-tech show, you naturally ask the audience to engage in a mild suspension of disbelief. Sci-fi is all about the question “What if?”. This show asks us “What if you had a bunch of 20-something-year-old geniuses can solve problems using mental powers way beyond those of mortal men?” So we suspend our disbelief and give them that premise. But the rest of the show needs to be smart enough to play that what if game with some credibility. In recent advertising for the show they’ve added the tagline “inspired by actual events”. My guess is that they realized that the show stretched credibility way too far and there trying to convince you this kind of stuff could really happen. I can believe in a bunch of geeky geniuses solving problems using brainpower and technology and that you can have a good action show based on the premise. But this one just doesn’t work very well.

I will probably continue to watch it for a few episodes because the human interaction between the characters does show some promise. It does seem to have a lot of heart at times as the geniuses try to counsel the mother to a deeper understanding of her young son. And as ridiculous as they were, the action sequences were a lot of fun with well done special-effects. So it’s not really a bad show. It’s just not nearly as great of a show as it could have been and it left me sorely disappointed. I’m giving it a tentative “Could Be Watchable” rating.

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