Darwin's Darkest Hour

NOVA's Focus on Evolution: A Q&A with Senior Executive Producer Paula S. Apsell on NOVA's fall 2009 evolution programs

This fall, NOVA will air three programs on evolution: "Darwin's Darkest Hour" (premieres Oct. 6), "Becoming Human" (premieres Nov. 3, 10, 17), and "What Darwin Never Knew" (premieres Dec. 29).

Q: Describe the evolution programs that will air this fall and what's unique about each.

Paula S. Apsell: "Darwin's Darkest Hour" is a special two-hour scripted drama, produced by National Geographic Television, that brings to light the inner turmoil that Charles Darwin (portrayed by Henry Ian Cusick of the ABC series Lost) suffered in deciding whether to publish the Origin of Species. To come forward with his theory of evolution challenged traditional orthodox views of the Church as well as those of his own devoted wife, Emma, portrayed by Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park), who was a devout Christian. The format of a scripted drama, with well-known actors, vividly conveys the compelling human story of the scientist and his groundbreaking theory. Audiences witness Darwin's vulnerabilities while in the midst of deciding whether or not to "go public."

It was wonderful to partner with National Geographic Television, as we have in the past with other programs, this time to tell the story of one of the most important scientific figures in history. Producers consulted top Darwin biographers in vetting the script and also relied on Darwin's own correspondence with colleagues to create an intimate and accurate portrait of Darwin. The goal from the outset was to draw audiences into the personal struggles that Darwin experienced before launching his brilliant theory, and this film does just that.

(For more on the program, see the "Darwin's Darkest Hour" website.)

"Becoming Human" is a three-part comprehensive special on human evolution that focuses on the key questions surrounding what makes us human and how we got here. Each of the three programs in the series focuses on a fossil find of an ancient hominid ancestor and highlights both what the latest technology can tell us about our human past and how each new finding fits together with earlier ones to reveal a truly compelling story of survival. For instance, how did our ancient ancestors survive in African landscapes teeming with vicious predators? The series combines interviews with foremost experts in their fields shot in the locations where some of the most groundbreaking discoveries were made. And, to bring the story to life in vivid detail, producer Graham Townsley worked with a team of top movie animators, actors, paleontologists, and a paleoartist, to create the most accurate images of early humans to date based on fossil evidence. Audiences are in for a treat when they experience these original, animated sequences presented throughout the series.

What's particularly exciting is that since NOVA's last in-depth exploration of human evolution, new techniques in genetics and in the lab analysis of fossils have helped reveal new clues about our origins—from when and why we began walking upright and what factors led to brain development and socially modern behavior to how we eventually spread across the globe.

(For more on the three-part special, see the "Becoming Human" website.)

"What Darwin Never Knew" is a two-hour special that explores the new science of evolutionary developmental biology, or "evo devo," which uses the revolution in the study of DNA to shed light on the inner workings of how species evolve—from the diverse living world Darwin knew to the underlying world of genetics he could have scarcely imagined.

NOVA has taken on the challenge of explaining this amazing new science of evolution with the help of passionate and accessible science communicators like evolutionary biologist Sean Carroll, author of popular evolution-themed books, including Endless Forms Most Beautiful and The Making of the Fittest. This is an exciting new frontier of evolutionary science, and NOVA is thrilled to share it with our audiences.

Q: Why do three television specials about evolution?

Apsell: At NOVA we strive to inform and inspire a broad audience about science and research. Each of the three programs on evolution is unique in its approach, and we hope each appeals to a variety of audiences. Some may enjoy the scripted drama format of "Darwin's Darkest Hour." Others may prefer to watch "Becoming Human" or "What Darwin Never Knew."

We also wanted to recognize and celebrate this special anniversary year in evolution's history. 2009 marks the 200th year of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his famous book, the Origin of Species. So, to mark this special anniversary year and to fulfill our mission, NOVA is offering three new programs, spanning seven hours that will explore the origins of biology's "biggest idea"—the theory of evolution by natural selection—and illuminate how evolutionary science continues to influence modern biology in the most profound way.

Q: What would you like viewers to take away from these programs?

Apsell: The theory of evolution forms the core of our understanding of the natural world and life on Earth today, yet among the general public, it is still among the least understood of all scientific theories. We hope that viewers learn something new about evolution and are excited and inspired by how the theory impacts their daily lives and the world around them.

Q: How does evolution impact our daily lives?

Apsell: Having a foundation in evolution is key to our understanding of so many issues facing us. It's paramount to many scientific disciplines. For example, in medicine, the outbreak of the new H1N1 swine flu is a perfect example of evolution in action. The principles of evolution explain how flu viruses manage to constantly change, becoming resistant to our best antiviral drugs and vaccines.

Q: Are you doing anything besides a broadcast series?

Apsell: Yes. Here are some of the broader things we are doing:

Evolution website

At the end of October, NOVA will launch a newly designed website to provide supplemental content, including interactive activities, that complement all three new evolution films. The site also links to past evolution content based on prior documentaries produced by NOVA.

Share your evolution film

The WGBH Lab has partnered with NOVA and PBS Engage to launch an "Open Call" on its website for user-generated content around the theme of evolution. The challenge to viewers is to create a three-minute video that offers a personal perspective on the world in which they live. Selected submissions may be presented, via broadcast and broadband, in conjunction with NOVA's spotlight programming on Darwin and evolution.

(For more information, visit the Open Call website.)

Teaching resources

In 2010, NOVA Teachers will be expanding on its popular educational resources to teachers and their classrooms. For each new topic area such as evolution, "teaching pathways" will be available on the NOVA website's teachers page to guide educators through the vast array of new and existing NOVA tools, including teaching guides, video clips, and two new interactive features specifically on the topic of evolution. Teachers who visit the site or who sign up for the weekly teacher e-newsletter will now have expanded choices for how NOVA resources can best fit their existing lesson plans and student needs.

Visit the Teachers page.

Sign up for the weekly e-newsletter for teachers.

Sign up for NOVA's weekly e-newsletter updates.

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Charles and Emma

NOVA's two-hour scripted drama "Darwin's Darkest Hour" presents the remarkable story behind the birth of Darwin's revolutionary theory of evolution and reveals his deeply personal crisis: whether to publish his earthshaking ideas, or to keep quiet to avoid potential backlash from the Church. Here, Charles (Henry Ian Cusick) walks with Emma (Frances O'Connor).

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paleoartist mask

"Becoming Human" producer Graham Townsley worked with a team of top movie animators, actors, paleontologists, and paleoartist Viktor Deak to bring each hominid in the three-hour series to life. This image shows Deak at work his New York City studio.

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Sean with turtle

In NOVA's two-hour program "What Darwin Never Knew," author and biologist Sean Carroll takes viewers on a journey from the Galapagos Islands to the Arctic, and from the Cambrian explosion of animal forms half a billion years ago to the research labs of today to learn more about how evolution works at the genetic level.

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Rick Potts

Paleontologist Rick Potts thinks that sudden climate change was an essential creative engine that helped shape the emergence of our ancestors. Here, Potts is at the site where 500 Acheulean stone hand axes were discovered, Olorgesailie, Kenya.

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