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BBC Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of the Cell

So BBC 2 made a documentary about the inner workings of a cell, which also has sweet animations, AND is narrated by a former Doctor Who??? OK, I’m pretending to be excited about that last bit, I’ve never actually seen Doctor Who, but obviously a lot of you all have. All of that aside, this is a fairly impressive BBC documentary.

Much like XVIVO’s Inner Life of the Cell animation, which was made in conjunction with Harvard’s Molecular and Cellular Biology Department, this documentary demonstrates the intricate cellular protein machinery that makes life happen. However, while XVIVO’s animation was styled in aquarium colors, a great deal of falloff, and soundtracked with soothing classical music; the BBC animation was fashioned as an interstellar sci-fi action movie. There are some beautiful examples of subsurface scattering and moody, dramatic lighting. These both lend a great deal of realism to the animation. Also, the quantity of animation is a bit staggering; it makes up the majority of the hour-long runtime.

Subsurface scattering is what happens in materials like skin. Light penetrates the object and is obvious in thinner portions, like Gollum’s ear here.

The documentary uses the plot of viral invasion to explain the evolutionary arms race between tiny (living? not living?) viruses and larger (definitely living) cells. The virus (in this case, adenovirus) is glittering, black and menacing. The kinesin motor proteins (also a runaway star in XVIVO’s animation) is again adorably anthropomorphic; and dyneins are also featured this time around. Microtubules assemble and break apart at a moment’s notice. The RNA created from the viral DNA become menacing and serpentine on their journey to replicate the invading alien virus. I found myself thinking “Oh, the humanity!” when the nucleus became filled with shiny replicated viruses and started to break apart. There is a sort of Brownian motion to the DNA, but it’s pretty subtle. Also, the DNA looks as if it were made from rock candy or amber.

The music is much like what you’d hear in a sci-fi movie and has lots of foley sounds for things bumping into each other. It’s worth noting that sound and color effects at this microscopic level are not physically possible, but they do add something nice to the animation. Endocytosis of a viral particle is tense and edgy, kind of like when you’re watching a horror movie and are saying to the clathrin units “No, Jamie Lee, don’t go through that door! Michael’s going to kill you dead!”

Photo Courtesy of AMC Movie Blog

One criticism I had for the documentary was that it didn’t think the lay audience needed to hear terms like ATP, RNA, clathrin, or the names of other enzymes involved in transcription. It did name endozomes and a few other cellular structures such as ribosomes, but why fall short and miss the teaching moment? ATP was just “energy” and RNA was just “instructions.” I understand that this is infotainment, but why not just name things a little more? The narration certainly had room for it. I see that much of this may be supplemented by the interactive Secret Universe site, which is very nice; but how many people will take that additional step?

Photo Courtesy of BBC Two

The monologues from various biologists were instructive (and often charmingly quirky), and served the larger story more than the details. This included Professor Bonnie L Bassler of Princeton University, Dr Nick Lane and Professor Steve Jones of University College London, and Cambridge University’s Susanna Bidgood.

In all, I’d say this is worth an hour of your time. It’s worth knowing what is constantly going on in your 120 trillion cells. Check local times if you get BBC, or, failing that, try the Google Machine.

Images: Cell Membrane View courtesy of BBC Two, Gollum courtesy of Animation World Network, Jamie Lee courtesy of AMC Movie Blog, Secret Universe Site image courtesy of BBC Two.



Katie is an animator and illustrator of human innards living in Chicago.

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