Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 6 & 7): The Trials & Faint Hope

Clinical trials are about odds and risk ratios. Testing to see if new treatments are safe, and making sound judgments without obsessing the what-if’s. In these episodes the NorBAC team is asked to mediate a dispute in a clinical trial. How this plays out is impressively unpredictable.

The dispute is between two researchers in a trial for a gene therapy that cures leukemia. Dr. Julius Booker is the one running the trial, and one of his lead researchers, Dr. Lauren Foley, is claiming that the treatment may not be safe. But then the whole point of a trial is to find out if it’s safe.

Three kids with leukemia have been given the experimental treatment. Two are in remission doing very well, and one is dead. The dead boy, 11-year Maxwell Peterson, died from a stroke four hours after receiving the treatment. Foley thinks that the boy’s immune system over-responded to the treatment — maybe the dosage was wrong, or the timing — and she’s furious that Booker wants to write off the stroke as a normal occurrence in an AML patient. David is skeptical and doesn’t think Booker was necessarily wrong to do that. Kids with leukemia do die, after all, and if two other kids were saved by the treatment, then the Peterson boy could just be a one-off. Foley also thinks it’s about money: her university wants to keep money flowing into research, and Julius Booker is a money magnet. But that’s just capitalism; it doesn’t mean that Booker is making the wrong professional call. But what exactly does the gene therapy do?

Virus Injections

Booker’s gene-therapy treatment appears to be cutting edge science. The procedure involves injecting a healthy virus into the patient — a virus that’s had all its nasty bits removed, and replaced with health instead of harm — that goes to the cancer cells and “infects the patient with health”, killing the bad cells. So what happened to the Peterson boy? This is what three members of the NorBAC team debate in pouring over the bio-data of the three kids:

Carlos Serrano: “This shows the cancer cells of the Peterson boy one hour after treatment. [Click.] Two hours, most of the cancer cells are infected with the virus. [Click.] Four hours, the majority of the cancer cells are dead or dying.”

Mayko Tran: “Everything is going great, and then the kid gets a stroke and dies.”

David Sandstrom: “So what went wrong?”

Mayko: “What if the Peterson kid had a hyper-response to the virus? He could have had an allergic reaction, that caused the swelling that led to his stroke. He had high cytokine levels that could have caused vessel damage.”

David: [Looking at Carlos] “You got a problem with that?”

Carlos: “Yeah, look. [Click.] All three kids had high cytokine levels. One is dead, the other two are in remission.”

David: “Jesus. So is it the treatment or the disease that killed the kid?”

Carlos: “Maybe Peterson’s brain was set to go, you know, it’s not uncommon in AML [leukemia] patients. He might have suffered a stroke with or without the treatment.”

Mayko: “Are you willing to bet lives on that, Carlos?”

David: “Listen, the question we’re dealing with here is, if 3000 kids get this treatment, will 1 of them die or 1000?”

That’s what it’s about: odds and risk ratios. After extensive research, David can’t find any reason not to proceed with the trials, and he gives the green light to continue. The trials resume… and there’s a repeat tragedy. Five more kids are given the treatment, and four of them go into remission. But the fifth, a boy named Justin Ricci, goes into blast crisis and is left in a coma. Foley, enraged, confronts David at his home, and David mockingly patronizes her until she tells him that Justin Ricci is in a coma, thanks to him. David beats himself up at first, but did he really make the wrong call?

David has Mayko review the bio-scans of the eight kids. They all show the same abnormality: an 8-11 translocation, which is the kind of chromosomal mess-up you’d expect in a leukemia patient, but nothing other than that. There’s no evidence that Justin Ricci’s blast crisis (a phase in leukemia when more than 30% of the cells in the blood or bone marrow become dangerous “blast” cells) or his subsequent stroke were triggered by the treatment. David stands by his judgment, telling Caroline he made the right call at the time, despite what happened to the Ricci boy. There was no good reason to stop the trial.

A Tale of Two Assholes

The assholes being Doctors Julius Booker and David Sandstrom. We’re used to David, as he’s the show’s lead and endearing in his own way. Booker is easily pegged as the callous villain. Against these two, Lauren Foley comes off as a lone voice of caution and compassion. It doesn’t help that David brushes off her concerns with a fair degree of contempt and hardly takes her seriously — except for his attempts to get her in the sack with him. In the Me Too age, David is a politically incorrect protagonist to say the least.

But assholes aren’t necessarily wrong, and the NorBAC team can’t find anything unsafe about Booker’s treatment.

David: [Exploding] “Look, we’ve got six kids in remission, two are negatively affected, but without this treatment, eight kids would be dying. If I’m wrong, somebody convince me.”

Caroline: “So Justin Ricci was just unlucky?”

David: “Yeah, maybe!”

Caroline: “Can we be clear about anything here?”

Bob: “I think Justin was unlucky. To have a blast crisis and a stroke, all within four hours. That’s like having two car accidents on the same trip home.”

David: [Leaning forward] “What did you say?”

Bob: “I said –“

David: [Waving him to silence] “Justin Ricci couldn’t have been that unlucky.”

Mayko: “Yeah, it does seem kind of quick.”

David: “Why are we fighting this? If it couldn’t happen in four hours, it couldn’t happen in four hours.”

Bob: “He must have been already in blast crisis when he was given the treatment.”

Mayko: “He wouldn’t have been accepted in the trial in that condition.”

David: “He shouldn’t have been accepted into the trial.”

Mayko: “David, we have his records. Justin wasn’t in blast crisis when he was approved for trial.”

David: [Long pause] “What records?”

David’s hunch is right. Dr. Booker faked the paperwork and admitted Justin Ricci into the trial when he was already in blast crisis. But not out of gross malpractice. He did that only because the kid’s parents begged him to. Justin was dying anyway; the chances of him coming out of blast crisis were zero. His parents thought he had nothing to lose. So Booker gave him the treatment. David — ready to shoot Booker when he realized the paperwork was faked — admits in the end that there’s nothing the treatment could have done at that point to make Justin’s situation any worse.

As David tells Caroline in the end, “We weren’t asked to judge Booker. We were asked to judge his trials.” Once again he advises that the trials should continue. They could end up saving many kids’ lives, and so far there’s no evidence that the treatments caused the death and coma in the two boys. David can be arrogant but he knows his science, and he mediated this dispute by the book.

The Spanish Lady

Which isn’t to say that David Sandstrom does everything by the book. When it comes to his pet obsession, he completely disregards proper channels. In the midst of the leukemia trials, he flies up to Nunavut to retrieve a sample of what he believes to be the Spanish Flu from a corpse that’s been frozen since 1918. This corpse is off the radar of all the known digs, and only an Indian knows of it. David pays the Indian for his help and silence, and then returns back to the lab, putting his new virologist Jill Langston on the sequencing and PCR tasks at once. To their utter astonishment, the RNA is completely intact — all 8 viral RNA segments of the Spanish Flu.

Jill is a bit deflated however, when David refuses to share his results with the World Health Organization. He wants NorBAC to make the vaccine, and gives her strict orders that no data leaves the lab. Jill tells David that their protected patent protects them from being ripped off, and that WHO has the manpower and equipment to crank out a vaccine in less than a year’s time. But David won’t budge; he wants to go all the way with his precious discovery.

David’s ego and recklessness with the Spanish Lady will spell dire consequences by the season’s end. For now he hosts a party at home in celebration. It’s perhaps fitting that right as he’s dancing and boozing it up, Lauren Foley comes crashing in with the news that Justin Ricci is in a coma (see above), and that he is to blame for it. He’s not, as we’ve seen, but an asshole like David Sandstrom surely deserves to have his unpleasant moments of self-doubt.

Tearful End

These two episodes pick up Mick’s story from episodes 1-3, and terminate it dramatically. In the final scene of Faint Hope, he dies in Lilith’s arms — a heartbreaking end on a beach in Quebec.

The subplot of Lilith and Mick’s journey to Quebec complements the main plot of the leukemia trials, as both deal with kids about to die. Mick wants to see a whale before he dies, and so Lilith (much like her father who takes off to Nunavut without accounting for himself) leaves with Mick for Quebec. She has her father’s credit card, and so she and Mick can pay for the bus rides, eat, and stop at a motel along the way.

The motel scene is one of the most touching of the series, where Lilith, breaking down crying, asks Mick if he wants to have sex before he dies. And here is the final moment, Mick’s death on the beach. The scenes speak for themselves.

The Trials and Faint Hope are a great pair of episodes, second only to the double-bill premiere.

Original air dates: November 21 and 28, 2004

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 4 & 5): Prions & The Oldest Virus

I’d never heard of prion disease before watching these episodes, so for those who are ignorant as I was, here’s a 101 course in a paragraph: Prions are dangerous proteins usually transmitted by diseased or infected meat products. They trigger normal proteins in the human brain to waste away, but it takes seven to eight years before noticeable symptoms occur — dementia, hallucinations, muscle stiffness, fatigue, and difficulty speaking — after which point it takes about 6-12 months to die. There’s no cure for prion disease, and no vaccine; the best some medications can do is delay the brain-wasting process by a few months.

It’s nasty in other words, but typically rare. Only one or two people for every million die each year from prions. But in the fourth and fifth episodes Regenesis, the NorBAC team is called to investigate four sudden cases of prion disease in the U.S. Each victim died within a single week (not months) of showing symptoms; three elderly victims (one in Texas, two in California), but the fourth was a five-year old girl from Florida — which should be impossible since prions take at least seven years to tear down the brain. The question becomes how these unrelated people living far away from each other got what appears to be an extremely virulent form of prions.

But first things first. There are other crises in the NorBAC lab, not least the episode 3 tragedy hanging over everyone like a pall: Hira Khan’s death.

Down a team member

In the aftermath of the random shooting, Team NorBAC isn’t taking it well, especially David and Mayko, who have different ways of handling grief. David blames himself mercilessly (since Hira took the bullet that was aimed at him), but is outwardly stone cold, showing no compassion to his colleagues, especially Mayko who is visibly upset and unable to focus on her job. The tension between them festers until David tells her that she fucked up a report on the prion case, at which point she explodes, telling him to fuck off.

Mayko finally reaches a peace with herself, and is able to make the first dent in the prion case using her bioinformatics skills. By isolating the DNA of the four dead victims and looking for common genetic patterns, she finds that they all shared a rare transporter gene found in one in ten million people. This transporter shuttles proteins fast and doesn’t prevent certain toxic chemicals from entering the brain. It’s what fired the prions into the victims’ brains at an incredible rate, killing them in a week instead of years. While this says nothing about where the prions are coming from, or how many normal people have been infected, it’s the first illumination on a strange case.

Synthetic growth hormones

There is also the side plot of Danny Dexter, an old school friend of David who turns up. He’s a minor league hockey player, and has undergone gene therapy with an unusual synthetic growth hormone. The hormone has killed two other hockey players — their hearts suddenly stopped — but Danny is for the most part unfazed, despite David’s warnings.

David puts his team onto research in this area, and Mayko finds that a muscle hormone has been developed to help those with cocaxia and AIDS, with trials done by an Atlanta biotech company called Bioxene. The stuff that Danny took, however, is not the Bioxene growth hormone. What’s in Danny’s blood, rather, is a mutated version of skeletal muscle growth hormone; his cells are producing this skeletal muscle growth hormone instead of his own natural skeletal muscle growth hormone. So technically he’s not cheating at hockey; his body is cheating. Instead of continually injecting something into him that shouldn’t be there, he gets his body to make it, from a single injection of the DNA. Even though he has high levels of growth factor, no one can say with certainty that those levels are the result of gene doping.

But whose gene therapy is it, if not Bioxene’s? The NorBAC team finds that it was made by an Italian company, basing their work on the American Bioxene one, but in order to duck a patent infringement, they altered it just a bit — and it’s that change that inadvertently caused the hormone to act on the heart muscle, causing it to explode in the other two hockey players. (The Italian compound was never put into human trials, and so they didn’t detect the side effect.) David thinks he can reverse the gene therapy in Danny — whose muscle mass in increasing every day, 24/7; his heart is on borrowed time — but Danny refuses. Hockey is his life; he’ll take his chances. But hockey isn’t his life anymore when he’s cut from the team; he kills himself by swallowing a jar of pills.

The New Virologist: Jill Langston

In the fifth episode, Sarah Strange joins the cast as Hira’s replacement. David meets her at a Chicago convention, at Caroline’s request, none too happy about it. His resentment and contempt for Jill turns to lust when he realizes that she shares his obsession for the Spanish Flu and has actually published research on it. (Hence the fifth episode’s title, The Oldest Virus.)

Here begins a chain of events that will play out until the season’s end, with catastrophic consequences. In Jill’s conference speech, she explains how she acquired a fragmented sample of the Spanish Flu. Her crew found it in a victim from 1918 buried north of the permafrost line in Norway; but it wasn’t a sample with intact viral RNA. Nevertheless she was able to sequence the fourth of the eight segments’ polymerase. David is shocked to hear this and after her presentation asks her how she sequenced polymerase, to which she evasively replies the answer will be in her upcoming published paper. David guesses that she got the sample from a brain and not a lung, which she admits to, and he tells her that’s exactly how he did it, when he sequenced Spanish-Flu polymerase two years ago. She calls bullshit on him, since he didn’t publish (and doesn’t believe he could have acquired a sample of Spanish Flu), but David had no desire to go public without the entire genome.

He then tells Jill that he has a lead on a perfect specimen of the Spanish Flu (we will see where it is in episode 6), which leads to a lot of dithering on her part, as to whether or not she wants to come work at NorBAC — especially for an asshole like David, who already interviewed her in his hotel room that morning without any clothes on, and shat all over her accomplishments. That was before he knew she was a Spanish Flu guru. At the end of the day, she accepts the offer to join NorBAC, and after glasses of champagne takes a tumble in bed with her new boss. That’s how David and Jill go from mutually hating each other to joining forces in the space of twelve hours.

Shades of Covid-19: Business must go on

Back to the prions. Carlos finally discovers that ALV (avian leukemia virus) was in all the victims, a virus that causes cancer in chickens. The team realizes there must be a huge supply of infected chickens out there somewhere, and thus thousands more victims, maybe more, though of course these victims won’t show symptoms and die for another seven to nine years.

Through more detective work, the team learns that the four dead victims ate either chicken or eggs from local fast food restaurants, and that the wholesaler for each restaurant is a company called Shasco Foods. Shasco advises the team to investigate their biggest supplier, Wide Valley Farms, which leads Caroline to a meeting with their legal representative. She requests that Wide Valley Farms shut down their shipments until NorBAC tests their birds and eggs, to which the legal representative indignantly replies: “You’re asking us to put 500,000 people out of work? On a hunch?”

Caroline retorts that it’s more than a goddamn hunch, and the lawyer, wanting to avoid a public PR nightmare, compromises by allowing NorBAC to test samples of their birds and eggs, while refusing to shut down operations until actual proof is provided that their chicken is contaminated. That proof follows in short order, and Wide Valley agrees to depopulate three of their chicken farms, which will cost them 24 million dollars. And yet that sacrifice isn’t enough, because as David points out, there were probably roosters who spread the prions onto specimens that went to some of the other farms. He urges that those farms be shut down too, to which a congresswoman’s reply is: “Let’s not destroy the entire poultry industry that employees 500,000 Americans, Dr. Sandstrom.” And when Caroline suggests that the FDA should issue a public warning about Wide Valley Farms, they are stonewalled for the PR nightmare it would cause.

There’s no happy resolution. Wide Valley Farms, despite its noble shutdown of three chicken farms, is still shipping product that could be carrying a death sentence to tens of thousands of people. No one will know for sure for another seven to eight years, when symptoms start showing, unless the prions happen to claim more victims who have the rare transporter gene. What resonates during today’s Covid-19 pandemic is the prioritizing of jobs and economy over lives. To be sure, the economy is an imperative concern, and I have no patience with those who dismiss it lightly. Recessions are deadly, especially to poor people. When people are out of jobs and lose their homes, that cuts into their life spans; suicides increase; domestic violence skyrockets. But none of this means that governments shouldn’t respond responsibly to pandemic threats. The NorBAC team tries to get the government to do that in Prions and The Oldest Virus, and they are half successful.

Original air dates: November 7 and 14, 2004.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Regenesis (Season 1, Episode 3): The Face of God

As the Miranda Virus plot recedes and a religious crackpot is introduced, Regenesis takes its first swing at resurrection. (The second will come in the penultimate episode.) The Reverend Stephen Walsh wants to resurrect Jesus the modern way; the scientific way. He believes one of the nails that crucified Christ has been discovered, and that his savior can be genetically called back to life from DNA preserved on the nail. Thus the episode’s title, The Face of God, which truth told, is the lamest plot of the season. Thankfully there’s other good stuff in this episode to atone for it.

Like the opening scene. It picks up where Spare Parts left off — with David’s mad dash into a quarantine bay to stop Daisy from killing her baby. His exposure to Miranda means that he stands a good chance of dying in less than 24 hours, so he’s put under quarantine as well. Lilith pays him a visit, and it’s a well-played scene between the two of them, with David telling her to go back to Salt Spring Island (on the west coast, where his ex-wife lives), and Lilith furious that he might be dying and is trying to shoo her away. The next day David is pronounced clean of the virus, and he pays Daisy a visit before leaving Hazmat City — and gets a tray of food thrown back in his face for his kindness.

You can’t blame Daisy; she won’t ever see her baby again. But we’ll see Daisy again before the season’s end. Her fiance who weaponized the ebola/camel pox virus is still at large, and the Miranda plot will continue to unfold around new crises that emerge.

Is Mick a clone or not?

Not, as it turns out. Shelby Sloane isn’t that good a scientist. But he did pull off a pretty amazing stunt.

There’s something to Mick’s claim that he’s a clone, because the DNA tests run by Bob a the NorBAC lab confirm that Mick and Cal’s DNA are identical, and yet they were born two years apart. So they apparently can’t be twins. But David doesn’t buy it, thinking there’s no way in hell that Sloane cloned a human being fifteen years ago (in 1990). He tells Carlos and Bob to run full sequences of the boys’ DNA, and specifically to run PCR tests on gene CF-268 — the gene that causes bone marrow cancer, which is what Cal died of. There at last is found a difference in the two boys: Mick’s bone marrow is healthy, while Cal’s was not.

David guesses the truth and confronts Sloane about it: Mick is Cal’s identical twin, but they were both conceived in vitro. Cal’s single embryo was implanted in Sloane’s wife, while Mick’s twin embryo was stuck in a freezer. When it was discovered that Cal had bone cancer, Sloane began manipulating Mick’s DNA to remove the defective gene that caused the bone marrow cancer, so that he could save Cal with Mick’s bone marrow. In the process he made other unintended changes which led to Mick’s illness. Mick isn’t dying because he’s a clone; he’s dying because his father thought he knew what he was doing in playing God.

After David tears Sloane a new one in his own home, Sloane later comes to David’s home, where he finds Mick hanging out with Lilith. He admits to his son that he never stopped to consider the consequences of his actions, in a well acted scene. Mick’s story redeems The Face of God and showcases the fine young talents of Mark Rendall and Ellen Page, back when no one knew or cared who they were.

Hira’s link to jihadism

The weakest thread of the episode — even weaker than that of the Reverend Walsh — is Hira Khan’s. She’s been barred from the lab as a possible terrorist link, and rightly so, based on what we’re presented with. Her brother is part of a terrorist cell in Pakistan, and has sent Hira emails which Caroline has uncovered. The emails contain requests for dangerous biochemical substances, and while Hira insists that she refused her brother’s request, anyone running a lab like NorBAC’s can’t take the slightest risk that she’s lying. And anyone with a shred of common sense — certainly a scientist like David Sandstrom — would have to agree that Caroline Morrison’s hard-nosed security approach is the right one, even if David is willing, on a personal level, to give Hira the benefit of the doubt. David’s opposition to Caroline is implausible. He’s smarter than that.

The issue becomes swiftly moot, however, in the final scene where Hira is shot. As the Reverend Walsh leads a rally outside the NorBAC lab, David denounces him as a crackpot, and a deranged fanatic in the crowd pulls out a gun to shoot David. The bullet hits Hira instead and kills her. Regenesis certainly isn’t averse to bumping off its cast, even by something so random as a lone crazy gunman.

Original air date: October 31, 2004

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2): Baby Bomb & Spare Parts

David Sandstrom: “Poxes look like bricks, hemorrhagics look like worms. Do these bricks look like worms to you?”

Carlos Serrano: “No, but they’re acting like worms.”

Hira Khan: “But ebola and camel pox together?”

Carlos: “Maybe… a genetic hybrid.”

David: “No, camel pox is made of DNA, ebola is made of RNA. The two split and went their separate ways over two billion years ago.”

Carlos: “Well maybe they’ve kissed and made up.”

It’s hard to imagine a worse viral combo. Ebola, one of the deadliest viruses on Earth, but doesn’t spread easily. Camel pox, spreads easily, but can be fought with a drug. What if the two connected, and the ebola got a free ride on the camel pox? You’d get a supervirus that spreads fast and kills faster, with no vaccine or drug to fall back on.

That’s the nightmare facing the NorBAC team in the double-bill premiere of Regenesis. People in the Toronto region are suddenly dropping like flies, bleeding inside their skin, and dead within hours. It looks like ebola, but it’s spreading and killing too rapidly. The NorBAC team scrambles to locate patient zero and contain the outbreak as best they can, while working to identify the virus that strangely resists identification.

The problem is that they can’t find a single trace of ebola in the virus. What they find is camel pox, which human beings normally don’t get sick from; DNA-wise, there’s no genetic information indicating the ebola gene is anywhere in this camel pox genome. The reason for this, they finally realize, is because the virus is a chemically synthesized gene — man-made, apparently for purposes of bio-terrorism.

That it’s man-made explains the mystery. The DNA recipe for ebola isn’t in the supervirus, because the same amino acids that make up ebola have been coded by an engineer with different DNA. As David Sandstrom illustrates to his boss in layman’s terms (I made a youtube clip of this little bit here):

“Whoever made this knew that we’d be looking for this:

‘Great oral sex’

So they wrote it like this:

‘Grate aural sects’

Now we know what we’re looking for.”

Of course, that puts an uglier spin on an already disastrous situation. Imagine if Covid-19 was an act of bioterrorism. To be clear, it isn’t. That conspiracy theory was easily debunked. But the coronavirus has made us realize how woefully unprepared the U.S. would be for a biological attack. As we approach the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the scenarios presented in Regenesis don’t seem like science fiction.

Baby Bomb

Patient zero turns out to be a baby (Miranda) who has been on a road travel with her mother (Daisy). They are both quarantined with a bus load of passengers when the woman sitting next to Daisy starts bleeding from her mouth. Miranda has what appears to be a sore throat, but nothing beyond that, and Daisy is perfectly fine. When tests are run on Miranda, the results are startling. The baby’s throat cultures are filled with RNA, causing the NorBAC scientists to wonder what it’s doing in the middle of her DNA.

David figures out the RNA in the baby’s throat is siRNA — “small interfering RNA” — which is RNA that kills viruses in plants, though it’s in people too. Somehow the siRNA has been engineered in Miranda’s throat to make her immune to the supervirus that she’s been given. In other words, she has the virus but can’t get the disease. Her mother Daisy is also immune, because of a procedure she was given while Miranda was still in her womb, which exposed her to the virus.

Daisy is wholly ignorant of this, having no idea that Miranda was engineered to be a bio-weapon, and she certainly can’t believe that her finance (now in England) is anything other than he claims to be. When Caroline and David present the truth to her, it’s a bit hard to watch. Regenesis isn’t a show of happy endings. Miranda has to be quarantined for the rest of her life, and Daisy will never see her baby again. And the quarantine will go on for quite a long time in Hazmat City.

Kid Clone

Around the terrifying plot of the Miranda Virus is the sidebar of Mick Sloane, a 15-year old kid who is dying and thinks he’s a clone. Played wonderfully by a young Mark Rendall, Mick has read David Sandstrom’s science articles and worships him as a hero, and begs him to save him from dying. David (in his usual asshole way) shits all over Mick, dismisses the kid as a mental case, and tells him that clones are impossible.

Having no luck with his hero, Mick starts stalking his daughter, played by a young Ellen Page. At first she tells Mick to get lost (and like her father, to get psychiatric help), but eventually the two become friends. She starts to believe there may be something to his claim about being a clone, because he has the birth certificates to prove that he and his brother Cal were born two years apart (and thus, he says, they can’t be identical twins), and that his mother died before he was born (and thus that he must be a clone who was born in a lab).

And if there’s anyone who could have created a clone in the year 1990, it would have been Mick’s father — the brilliant scientist Shelby Sloane, who has butt heads with David Sandstrom in the past. Dr. Sloane apparently created Mick in order to save Cal, who was dying of bone cancer. Cal ended up dying anyway, and Mick (whose bone marrow was given to Cal) ended up with all sorts of medical complications (on top of being a clone, if that is true) that makes his own death imminent. He doesn’t have long to live, and that conclusion will play out long before the final episodes of season 1.

Verdict

When I first saw Baby Bomb and Spare Parts, I thought they were a thrilling premiere to a cerebral TV series. They still are, but they’re more than that in the time of Covid-19. They’re quite educational — about viruses, genetics, biochemistry — and frightening. Regenesis was billed as a scientifically realistic series, and that realism gains added resonance as we quarantine at home and wear masks when we go outside.

Original air date: October 24, 2004 (for both episodes)

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Regenesis (2004-2008): The Canadian Bio-Tech Thriller No One Talks About

regenThe name NorBAC probably means nothing unless you were a fan of the TV series Regenesis. It was a pandemic thriller out of Canada that came and went with little recognition, though it deserved plenty, and if it were running today during the Covid-19 threat, you can bet it would be a runway success. Look at what’s happened with Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.

Unlike most sci-fic thrillers dealing with related issues (CSI, Orphan Black) Regenesis is realistic, thanks largely to the scientific advisor who insisted on it. It’s less about saving the day than learning to live with irreversible damage. Like reality. The main cast comprises NorBAC — the North American Biotechnology Advisory Committee — based in Toronto, represented by scientists from Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Sarah Strange plays the virologist, Dmitry Chepovetsky the biochemist with Asperger’s Syndrome, Mayko Nguyen the bioinformatics guru (she analyzes and interprets biomolecular data with computers), and Conrad Pla the MD specializing in genetic diseases. They labor with few breaks and no vacations under the molecular biologist played by Peter Outerbridge; he’s not the boss you’d want to have by a long shot, but he does know how to light fires and get results. Across the North American continent, the team investigates scenarios like the present Covid-19 threat: pandemics, superviruses, bacterial outbreaks, environmental dangers, and sometimes even bioterrorism.

Regenesis is a bit hard to come by. Of the four seasons, only the first two have been released on DVD (and only in a few countries), but you can stream it on Amazon Prime. The first season is the best, and features a young Ellen Page playing the daughter of Outerbridge’s character. Her story-arc practically steals the show, as she befriends a dying boy who thinks he’s a clone. She has great chemistry with Outerbridge, for example, in her ice cream scene (as her father explains the ebola virus) and her grief scene (when Mick dies).

If you are able to watch it, be prepared for a binge-fest. It’s compulsive drama and hits the ground running, with people in Toronto dying as they bleed inside their skin. The virus seems to be a hybrid of ebola and camel pox — the worst of both worlds, since ebola is super deadly, while camel pox has a fast infection rate. There’s more tech talk than in most sci-fic shows, but it’s never overwhelming, and it’s part of the show’s refreshing realism. And whenever the NorBAC team find solutions, those answers usually send them back to the drawing board. Vaccines aren’t created overnight. In the year 2020, Regenesis looks almost prophetic.

Retrospective: Weaveworld

True joy is a profound remembering; and true grief the same. Thus it was, when the dust storm that had snatched Cal up finally died, and he opened his eyes to see the Fugue spread before him, he felt as though the few fragile moments of epiphany he’d tasted in his twenty-six years – tasted but always lost – were here redeemed and wed. He’d grasped fragments of this delight before. Heard rumor of it in the womb-dream and the dream of love; known it in lullabies. But never, until now, the whole, the thing entire. It would be, he idly thought, a fine time to die. And a finer time still to live, with so much laid out before him.

Weaveworld (1987) was a milestone for me, and the kind of novel that comes along once a decade. The fifties gave us Lord of the Rings; the sixties Dune; the seventies Shogun; the nineties A Song of Ice and Fire carrying up to the juggernaut A Storm of Swords. For me the epic of the eighties was and still is Weaveworld, a tale of magic-users fighting for their wonderland among human inferiors, and failing tragically. To say that it’s well written is an understatement. The prose is a feast and the narrative never flags. Clive Barker may have lost his mojo in the ’90s, but Weaveworld excuses those later sins. To review it is to spoil it thoroughly, so proceed at your peril.

The premise involves a race of magic-users who for centuries had carved out a niche for themselves in England, until forced into hiding. The magic-users are the Seerkind; their geographical wonderland the Fugue. At the novel’s start, both have been preserved in suspended animation (since 1896), shrunk and woven into a magic carpet. Now eighty years later, they are unwoven and unleashed again into the human world, fully unprepared for the hostility that awaits. On the one hand, there is the alliance of a rogue Seer and a nasty salesman, though they each have conflicting motives. The Seer, Immacolata, wants to destroy her kind for making her outcast, while the salesman Shadwell wants to sell the Fugue to the highest bidder and make himself rich. Or at least at first he does. When he sees its glory first hand, he decides that he wants to rule it and initiates a war in paradise. This ends up destroying paradise and most of the Seerkind with it. The salesman then retreats to a lifeless desert in the Middle-East and recruits Uriel (a demon that thinks it’s an angel) to “cleanse” England of the hundred or so remaining Seerkind.

The protagonists of this drama are Cal and Suzanna, drawn to each other as they try to save the Fugue from those who would sell, abuse, or extinguish it. And find themselves, in the end, by curious roads. They fall in love over their passion for wonderland, but never have sex, worried that physical intimacy might somehow diminish their potentials. When Suzanna has an affair with the Seer Jerichau, it’s not understood to betray Cal; and when Cal’s girlfriend Geraldine learns that he’s in love with Suzanna, she continues to support him. What Cal and Suzanna share enables the preservation of the Fugue as it’s destroyed at the end of part 2; and, ultimately, its recreation in the novel’s final pages.

Fantasy elements are fleshed out with the right amount of detail — not so much that it bogs down the narrative, but just enough to take the world seriously. There are four families of Seers: the Lo, who work magic through dance; the Aia, who do it by music; the Ye-Me by weaving (it was they who created the carpet to hide the Fugue), and the Babu through hieroglyphics. There are places in the Fugue worthy of the best fantasies: the Orchard of Lemuel Lo; the town Nonesuch; the Firmament; and the sacred Gyre that houses the Loom. Paradoxes erupt the closer one gets to the Gyre, and awful things happen when blood is spilled inside.

Horror elements are horrific by even Barker’s standards. Weaveworld isn’t a clean fantasy — as if the author of The Damnation Game and The Books of Blood could ever write such a thing — but a yarn of broiling terrors. The Magdalene and her by-blows are exhibit-A. The Magdalene is Immacolata’s wraith-sister, murdered by Immacolata while they were in their mother’s womb, and enslaved by the rogue Seer ever since. She has an appetite for raping human men and giving birth to their offspring within hours. These are the hideous by-blows — “bodies turned inside out to parade the bowel end stomach; organs whose function seemed simply to seep and wheeze lining the belly of one like teats, and mounted like a coxcomb on another’s head”. The by-blows are completely insane and starving to kill from the moment they are born, especially their violated fathers. Most creepy is that their faces bear a sick resemblance to their fathers. There are other horrors: the Hag (Immacolata’s other wraith-sister), the Rake, and of course, the utterly petrifying Uriel.

Barker has called Weaveworld a meditation on memory and how it fails us in the scheme of life’s mysteries. The first time the Fugue is unleashed (at the end of part 1), it is soon woven up again, as the Seerkind are still too vulnerable to live among humans. Cal begins to forget the Fugue’s wonders, and the more he tries remembering, the more he loses. It’s a bit like Raymond Feist’s Faerie Tale, which also explores the idea of forgetfulness: individual forgetfulness, but also long-term cultural forgetfulness, as myths become lost or distorted throughout history. Both are present in Weaveworld, and the climax depends on the latter. As the invincible Uriel arrives in England and lays waste to all and good, Cal is able to defeat the demon on a gamble — by making it remember what it was before the desert perverted it.

He pays the price for that confrontation, losing more than memory this time, but his mind. He goes catatonic for weeks, until Suzanna’s persistent care triggers a return to self-awareness; in the final pages they initiate wonderland’s rebirth. Few literary characters have bonded so purely. There’s Frodo and Sam; Blackthorne and Mariko; Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery. To that gallery we should add Cal Mooney and Suzanna Parrish — two “Cuckoos”, human inferiors, who saved the Seerkind from extinction.

The Twelve Children of Paris

U.S. publishers wouldn’t touch this book, but I never understood the fuss. The Twelve Children of Paris (2013) is hyperviolent like its predecessor The Religion (2006), but in a Quentin Tarantino-like way that’s hard to take too seriously.

Tim Willocks is a serious writer though. His narratives move like juggernauts and are weighted with philosophy. He has a gifted command of language. If his hero has a superhuman complex, the author uses it effectively to examine the worst of human nature — represented by the worst in himself.

That hero is Mattias Tannhauser, a former jihadist who left Islam to become an opium and arms merchant, and then, of all things, a crusader — a Knight of St. John fighting against the Muslim hordes at the famous Siege of Malta (1565). That story was told in The Religion. In this book he enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572), which began as a royal stab against an elite group of Protestants but quickly degenerated into a full-blown massacre of Protestant civilians by the Paris militia.

Tannhauser has come to Paris for his wife, but learns that she has been abducted for unknown reasons. As carnage ensues, he goes on a slaughter-mission of his own, tearing up the city to find her. He still wears the cross of St. John (see book cover above), but he’ll decapitate Catholics as often as Protestants, thank you. His personal moral degeneration matches the city’s, and as a result he becomes a more believable character than the “superman” of The Religion. Most of the opposition he faces are poorly trained city militia, everyday thugs, and politically appointed knights hardly worthy of the title. In the first book he beat up his own size, or generally those who deserved it, and he joined forces against invading Muslim hordes. Now he kills without second thought people who scarcely get in his way.

His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of children he rescues along the way. Some have been abused horribly, others are starving and destitute, and two are Protestant girls whose father has been burned on a pyre outside their home. The innocence of children is the thin ray of light in a city that’s become hell on earth.

If you liked The Religion, you should love The Twelve Children of Paris. What makes it controversial is what makes it a superior sequel.