In Depth

Peabody Award Winners: ‘Nova,’ Vulcan Productions, Big Table Film Co., 'Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial'

PBS’ “Nova” tackled the subject of evolution in an eight-part series of the same name that aired in the fall of 2001. But Paula Apsell, “Nova’s” senior executive producer, nonetheless watched closely in September 2005 when the trial of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District began in a federal courthouse in Harrisburg, Pa.

The lawsuit was brought by parents of students in rural Dover, Pa., who alleged the school board violated their constitutional rights by requiring that teachers in high school science classes include intelligent design in their curriculum, offering it up as an alternative to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Intelligent design posits that an “intelligent designer,” and not just evolution, is responsible for the complexity of life; critics contend it is a way of sneaking religion into schools.

Of the trial, Ms. Apsell said: “It was just kind of hard to believe, after all the rulings of the Supreme Court, that again this issue of teaching intelligent design in the schools was coming up.” Despite her interest, she said, “I couldn’t wrap my head around a new way to do it.”

Then she read an article by Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker, which, she said, strongly articulated the role that science itself played as evidence in the trial, convincing the Republican-appointed judge, who ruled against the intelligent-design proponents, that “the case is virtually closed. It was a very broad ruling. He’s not ambivalent,” Ms. Apsell said.

She called Richard Hutton, who had executive produced the “Evolution” series and later went to work for Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions, which co-produced “Evolution.” Mr. Hutton had been pushing to do a program on the trial and came on board as co-senior executive producer for “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.”

In addition to interviewing the citizens of Dover, the pair decided to dramatize portions of the six-week trial, culled from 3,000 pages of transcripts. Ms. Apsell called the process cost-effective but “tricky. You have to change words, you have to condense.” The legal department was called in and the scientists who had testified were asked about changes that were made.

The dramatizations were handled by Gary Johnstone’s Big Table Film Co. in the U.K.; Mr. Johnstone is one of the program’s producers and directors. Vanessa Tovell of Big Table also was a producer.

Integrating the interviews and dramatizations became a challenge, Ms. Apsell said, and the program wasn’t finished until 36 hours before air time.

“The big question here was, we had to be fair,” she said. Not balanced, because the science supporting evolution had won out, after all, but fair.

“You have to make sure you don’t ridicule fairly weak arguments” for intelligent design, which were, she said, “made in all sincerity. How do you make sure they literally get their day in court? How do you make this a kind of dignified battle?”

“Nova’s” Joseph McMaster, who wrote the program and was one of its producers and directors, accomplished that, she said, noting, “He’s wonderful at dealing with complicated material.”

The show had numerous critics, including the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that advocates for intelligent design and had previously issued a 150-page rebuttal of “Nova’s” “Evolution” series. One PBS station decided not to air the program.

The episode will be rebroadcast in February, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. And “Nova” will revisit evolution in November 2009, on the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species,” with a program on the cutting-edge biological field of study known as “evo-devo,” which examines the evolution of development at the embryonic stage.