Nat Geo's 'Breakthrough' premieres with a 'Walking Dead'-style hour

Thursday, 29 October 2015 12:21 PM Written by 

FightingPandemics 006 Breakthrough blog

Sunday at 9 p.m. National Geographic Channel debuts its new documentary series "Breakthrough," a six-part series with each episode devoted to a different realm of scientific breakthroughs, each hour helmed by a famouse director and narrated by a famous actor, sometimes the same person does both tasks.

I'll have more in Sunday's Post-Gazette on this weekend's episode, "Fighting Pandemics," and its local connection, but I also wanted to review the episode, which was directed and narrated by actor/director Peter Berg ("The Leftovers").

Read more after the jump. ...

The hour is about the 2014 Ebola pandemic and with all the blood shown, it often resembles an episode of "The Walking Dead" more than it does a somber medical documentary. The film introduces viewers to scientists on the front lines of the Ebola fight, showing them in dramatic poses -- or weirdly normal activities Berg attempts to make dramatic, like drinking tea in slow motion -- that make the scientists appear to be as tough as zombie killers.

But the heart of the hour's story is the tale of infectious disease specialist Dr. Ian Crozier (pictured above), who contracted Ebola but managed to survive. His story is by far the most compelling element of the hour.

What's most disconcerting about "Breakthrough" is the involvement of GE which "developed" the series with NGC and gets an awful lot of product placement at the end of this first hour, including mobile medical labs that can be dropped into remote locations. It would be one thing to include that if it's in fact the only one of its kind and if GE was not involved in the making of the show, but because GE was involved it feels overly commercial and gaudy.

I asked about GE's involvement in the editorial process during a Nat Geo press conference during the TV critics summer press tour.

Writer/executive producer Kurt Sayenga "no, not really," when I asked if GE had editorial control.

"The journalists integrity of the show is pretty much overseen by National Geographic," he said. "My major mission has been scientific accuracy and GE has certainly been onboard with that. They actually haven't been intrusive in this process at all."

Perhaps, but those GE products on display and that GE talking head sure smacks of quid pro quo.

Here's how Nat Geo describes the six episodes:


Fighting Pandemics (Directed and Narrated by Peter Berg)

Premieres Nov. 1 at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT

Berg will take viewers into the dramatic, inspiring and sometimes heartbreaking world of pioneers scrambling to stop an outbreak and save the world from future plagues. The recent Ebola outbreak forced medical science to evolve as quickly as the virus it is fighting, provoking breakthroughs that may give birth to a world virtually free of pathogens. From antibiotics and vaccines to computer programs that predict how viruses will spread, new lifesaving tools will be used to fight a wide range of viruses in the near future, including HIV, influenza, dengue fever, malaria and a host of other killer diseases. Follow Dr. Maria Croyle, who has developed a revolutionary way to introduce a vaccine into a common cold virus; Erica Ollman Saphire, who organized a world-wide consortium to find an antibody treatment for viral hemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola; and Dr. Ian Crozier, a World Health Organization (WHO) virologist who fought Ebola in Sierra Leone until he contracted the disease himself and spent 40 agonizing days locked in an isolation ward at Emory University Hospital. Crozier recovered — only to find the virus was still multiplying in his eye.

More Than Human (Directed and Narrated by Paul Giamatti)

Premieres Nov. 8 at 9 p.m. ET/8  p.m. CT

Chances are you either are, or you know, a cyborg: a person who is aided or enhanced by embedded technology, such an artificial limbs or pacemakers. But advances in science are taking us beyond replacement parts and into a new realm that is changing the nature of the human body and the human mind. The fusion of biology and technology is making us better, stronger, faster and smarter. How we think, how we feel, how we experience the world: Everything is changing. Now we are learning how to manipulate our genetic code and seize the keys to creation. But as the natural and man-made worlds merge, will we become more than human? And do we risk losing our humanity? Watch Trish Aelker at Lockheed Martin Exoskeleton Technologies build exoskeletons that give mere mortals super strength, and Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a brain-machine interfaces expert whose work with the Walk Again Project is giving hope to people with traumatic spine injuries.  


Decoding the Brain (Directed by Brett Ratner; Narrated by Adrien Brody)

Premieres Nov. 15 at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT

After millennia of speculation about what goes on inside the human brain, we now have the tools to explore its hidden reaches. These tools are leading to research that may help those suffering from afflictions such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. They are also shedding light on the mystery of consciousness and what makes us who we are. Meet leading researchers and scientists, such as Dr. John Schenck, who helped pioneer MRI technologies and was the first person to have his brain imaged by the machine in the early 1980s; Dr. Mohamad Koubeissi, a neurologist who developed a groundbreaking way to treat epilepsy; and Dr. Steve Ramirez, who is investigating how to implant or erase memories and hopes his work could help people suffering from PTSD.


The Age of Aging (Directed and Narrated by Ron Howard)

Premieres Nov. 29 at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT

In recent years, close study of the aging process has opened up new ways that could help us all live healthier for longer. Can we move beyond treating individual diseases and instead treat the aging process itself? Would a longer life necessarily be a better life? A loose-knit group of researchers believe the real breakthrough is extending our health span — the period of life spent free of disease. Hear from Laura Deming, who dropped out of M.I.T. at the age of 14 and committed herself to finding and funding projects that can expand the human health span, and Dr. Brian Kennedy, whose work in the basic biology of aging has been crucial to the development of countless other researchers’ work. 



Energy From the Edge (Directed by Akiva Goldsman; Narrated by Jason Bateman)

Premieres Dec. 6 at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT

We are surrounded by clean, raw energy waiting to be tapped — energy that could eventually replace fossil fuels. Finding new ways to harness the energy around us takes a rare breed of scientist/engineers: men and women with a combination of technical skill, imagination and unwavering focus. This hour will follow innovative alternative energy projects and the colorful people behind them, like engineer Louis Michaud, who is building a tornado machine — and harnessing the energy it produces; and the team at the National Ignition Facility, who are trying to save the worldby harnessing the power of controlled fusion.


Water Apocalypse (Directed and Narrated by Angela Bassett)

Premieres Dec. 13 at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT

California is on the brink of an apocalypse. The state faces a future of drought that will cost billions in lost farm revenue and thousands of jobs. The challenges facing the state are not unique: All over the world, governments are struggling with bigger populations and a diminishing supply of freshwater. Bassett will focus on inspiring stories of people working to change the world, such as Sandra Postel, who is trying to bring water back to the Colorado River Delta, which became a dried-up husk after the Colorado River was diverted to feed the western United States; Aaron Mandell, whose solar-powered desalinization project offers a way to conserve and reuse this precious resource; and Italian architect Arturo Vittori, whose quest to build a water-collecting tower in a remote village in Ethiopia dramatizes all the triumphs and challenges of innovation. 





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