“Science is no country for storytellers, baby.”: Bones as Forensic Procedural.
by Jules Odendahl-James — Duke University
March 10, 2010 – 00:23
In his 2005 compendium, Crime Fiction, John Scaggs describes the forensic pathologist procedural narratives of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs as distinct from the police procedural, mentioning CSI as the “televisual development of the forensic science procedural” (101), with its reliance on technology and scientific inquiry as the source and means of discovery. I agree with Scaggs that CSI expands greatly upon televisual predecessors such as Quincy, M.D. and posit that the forensic procedural finds its fullest expression in 20th Century Fox’s serial, Bones. Below are six central components of the forensic procedural at work in Bones (Season 1). In my video clip, I have selected extended moments from an episode, “The Woman in the Garden,” to support my observations.
Identification & Extraction. Although Brennan identifies gender, age, and race through a quick preliminary examination, exact cause and time of death are typically assessed at the lab, which serves as the locus of action for the forensic procedural. Even when Bones is working “on location”, she links via satellite to the lab. This constant interface underscores a synchronicity of discovery and analysis. Instead of lab technicians simply facilitating police work, their discoveries drive the investigation. Police and FBI agents are the muscle; the lab is the brain. Such a strategy allows creators to assert the scientists’ productive technophilia, as well as reassert the primacy of the visual for the solution of the crime.
Dissection. At the lab, the first task is to extract the bones from any remaining flesh and then separate particulates and surrounding trace evidence (soil, fungi, insects, etc.) from those bones. Often, bodies are far too decomposed for conventional autopsy, so dissection refers to dividing the body into component parts – bones, particulates, flesh – allowing specialists to scrutinize each element. This dissection of the body marks the specializations of the “squints,” while also requiring cooperation, as each brings separate findings to a central hub” (the examination platform).
Hyper-Visual-Verisimilitude. Brennan directs her team to “magnify” photographic or digital evidence, slides of particulates, or a cross-section or extracted pieces of bone. In these moments, the camera does not take us through the slide/screen and into the technology; rather, it forces us to connect the rendered close-up with the scientists’ technical description. While camera perspective in procedurals such as CSI allows the viewer to see as or with the forensic investigator, the viewers’ gaze is restricted in Bones. We see as Booth sees, outsiders to the scientific process.
Reconstruction. Perhaps Bones’ most unique contribution to the visual rhetoric of the forensic procedural is “the Angelator”, a fantastical projection of volumetric imaging, a technology more frequently used in geology, meteorology, and in medical applications. In seasons one and two, “the Angelator” was the central method for Bones three-dimensional facial and scenario reconstructions.
Experimentation. In addition to the bureaucracy of the FBI, there is another hierarchy at work: the competition among forensic specialties to solve the crime, frequently managed through another narrative component of the forensic procedural: experimentation. In Bones, experimentation becomes a more regular feature in season two once Dr. Camille Saroyan, a forensic pathologist interested in the “admissibility” of the evidence collected by the forensic team, takes over the Jeffersonian’s administration from archeologist Dr. Daniel Goodman.
Identification & Incarceration. These two elements coincide in the majority of episodes; however, there are times when the narrative implies that one or the other might elude the team, amplifying the tension between solving the mystery and punishing the guilty that exists in all procedural narratives. Nonetheless, the forensic procedural offers the viewer a measure of catharsis, letting viewers see for themselves the forensic evidence.
[My title takes its quote from Dr. Jack Hodgins in “The Girl at the Airport.”]
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