Biology in popular culture – FORTITUDE (season 1)

Couple of weeks ago, as I was driving to classes, I saw a big billboard that showed couple of people and a word “FORTITUDE”. At first, I thought it was some kind of fantasy drama, but after looking it up, it turned out to be crime related TV show starring actors I like. And as a true crime buff who enjoys all crime related content, I decided to watch it. After all, if it stars Christopher Eccleston (the best Doctor Who) and Stanley Tucci, it must be great, right?

Well, not quite –  there are parts of the series that I loved, especially ones regarding biology, despite some of them being naively incorrect. Other parts were not so well executed, but today I want to focus mainly on biology (obviously). Fortitude, the name of the show, is also a name of the imaginary town on an island in polar circle. As it is in small towns, they have a doctor, police force, one hotel, some houses, and many secrets. Oh, and research centre, of course!

Spoilers below!

(skip to the last paragraph for pure Biology)

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Photo by Om Malik on Unsplash


In the first episode, we see a scene where hungry polar bear eats a person. Also, we are introduced to an ambitious post-doc whose research focuses on apex predators; he has a theory that due to environmental changes, predators change their behaviour and develop cannibalistic urges (yes, there was some talk about bear eating another bear). Also, they make a point of making fun of him because he researched that in Britain, where badgers are only the predators. I don’t know why was that supposed to be funny, because I’d rather encounter a wolf than a badger, but I decided to let that one slide. Another story-line follows two children, a boy and a girl, who find a mammoth tooth; this boy later develops mumps-like symptoms and frostbite on his feet (he wandered off); there is also a murder of The Ninth Doctor, and we are led to believe that the murderer was father of the girl who found the mammoth tooth. Why, you may ask? Because he didn’t want to surrender the thawed carcass but sell it to The Ninth. And due to global warming, the carcass has already started to thaw.

Now, that immediately rang a bell; old preserved animal, suspicious disease… Despite some lazy writing, I continued to watch the series, despite not being really satisfied with the direction of it; some of the characters were very well characterized, especially Richard Dormer’s Sheriff, but I generally dislike series where everyone is cheating on everyone with anyone – it feels as if writers think that’s the only way to induce tension and drama. Also, Sheriff’s obsession with one female character was a bit too much – this amount of stalking and re-reading her files is not normal and has no place in adult behaviour. And he’s kind off supposed to be a good guy in the end. I digress, because this post is about biology.

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Hello human, are you tasty?

Photo by Bao Menglong on Unsplash


The aforementioned boy ends up first in the hospital, and then in the research centre where they are developing a method to treat frostbite. Not a lot has been said about this, so I can’t actually comment on it, apart from the fact that he’s being held sedated, in a tank, where it’s not exactly clear how they feed him (I haven’t noticed any openings for infusion pipes). Also, who’s caring for him in the research centre? Someone has to wash him and change him every day, but they made it a point that he’s not supposed to be woken up, due to frostbite pain. So, not exactly biology,  but big mistake anyway.

Also, at one point, their only doctor is almost murdered (by her own daughter who developed symptoms similar to the boy and then died due to heart failure) and they have to preform a lumbar puncture on the boy. Again, why you may ask? Well, during the autopsy of  murderous daughter, the post-doc and his veterinary boss discovered some molecules;  some anti-bodies and IgE. And immediately they developed the theory that this was some different kind of disease that turns people into murderers. Which wouldn’t been such problems, apart that IgE’s are the common antibodies that could indicated allergy of some sort? And in their research lab, they don’t have electronic microscopes, which are used to see viruses? A mess. That’s the only word I can use to describe this plot jumps, a big headache-inducing mess. However, let’s go back to the lumbar puncture. Doctor, I presume general practitioner, is incapable of helping, since she’s basically on her death-bed. So a post-doc and his boss decide to do the lumbar puncture, because why not? (Hint: NO.) They do it perfectly, but before it, they ask the boy’s mother for permission, because lumbar puncture is painful. (Hint: It’s not! Headache that comes after is painful, but the puncture itself doesn’t actually hurt. Source: been there, done that.) Anyway, boy’s spinal fluid doesn’t show presence of whatever thing they were looking for, which de facto labels him a murderer of The Ninth Doctor (excuse me?), despite having positive anti-bodies in his blood, which indicated that he might have had that mysterious disease. My only comment is, no, it doesn’t work like that, and please everyone stop thinking that you understand immunology, especially when we have specialized doctors who spend their lives learning about our immune system.

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Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash


Anyway, back to the mammoth carcass, and the rest of mammoths that are thawing on this island. I would just like to say that there are also some Russians involved in the whole story (they work in a mine), the Governor wants to make an ice hotel on a glacier (I’m not kidding – on. a. glacier.), and literally everyone has a secret and/or secret agenda.
Well, before mammoths, let’s talk about one thing they got right, and that’s IgE – it gives us immunity to various parasites. And as it turns out, the mammoths were infected, just not with a virus, but parasitic wasp. Basically, larvae survived in mammoths, and were now making humans their hosts – since they were as old as mammoths, the humans didn’t actually have some real defenses against them. This is also definitely confirmed after post-doc finds some live wasps in the doctor (he then sets the whole room on fire, in order not to get infected or allow the wasps to find new hosts – yes, he survives).

Ichneumonidae, also known as Darwin wasps, are indeed parasitic wasps with 25 000 described species. Honestly, I think they were a very good choice for the main bad guys in the series, and were quite well described. Basically, these wasps reproduce in a bit gruesome way – they lay their eggs into a living host, which is then eaten by newly-formed larvae. Apart from this family, there also exists another similar wasp, called Emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa). This wasp, of the family Ampulicidae, injects cockroaches with it’s eggs; the peculiarity is that the wasp also injects the cockroach with the toxin directly in thoracic and cerebral ganglia, which prevents cockroach to move, effectively turning it into a zombie. It was explained that this is what happened in the Fortitude as well, the wasp larvae have taken control of human bodies, and they turned on people closest to them, when they felt threatened.

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Excuse me Sir, do you have time to help me search for cockroaches? (this is NOT an emerald wasp)

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash


All in all, I wouldn’t call Fortitude’s first season exceptionally bad, but I wouldn’t exactly call it good. They had some excellent moments, and the mammoth-wasp story-line was, in my opinion, on point, but was often overshadowed by multiple story-lines that don’t necessary bring anything to the overall plot. If you want to watch something that doesn’t require a lot of thinking, and can overlook some of the obvious biological mistakes, I would recommend it. However, I think it’s time that filmmakers educate themselves, or ask for help, when tackling topics they don’t quite understand.
(I read on Wikipedia that the writer did consult a parasitologist, which is probably why that part of the story functioned well; I don’t know why they didn’t do it for the other aspects of biology in the show.)

So, what do you think? Should we focus more on biology being correctly represented in popular media? Did you watch Fortitude – if yes, what did you think about it? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂

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