Why Engineers Shouldn’t Watch TV: Smallville

It should come as no surprise that I love watching fantasy and superhero movies and shows. While most of these types of stories require some acceptance and some imagination, one of the cardinal rules of good fiction is a need to get your basic facts straight. As an engineer, I often find gaps in the science and therefore can’t in good conscience recommend any of these programs to anyone expecting to properly suspend their disbelief.

In this post in the series on “Why Engineers Shouldn’t Watch TV,” I look at an episode of Smallville.

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen these programs and want to be surprised when you do, please stop reading now. I’m not responsible for ruining the entertainment value of a good surprise even if the science is flawed.

I wrapped up watching Smallville not so long ago. While I liked what they did to introduce a younger Clark and show how he learned his skills, ultimately I found the show disappointing because the biggest battles seemed to be resolved in the most anticlimactic and offscreen ways possible, particularly in the last few seasons. And while the actor (Tom Welling) playing Clark grew on me, I thought the guy playing Green Arrow (Justin Hartley) was much more attractive. However, neither one of them can hold a candle to the current Arrow (Stephen Amell), but that’s a conversation for another day.

Then there was an episode of Smallville that stuck out in my mind as seriously flawed. The class is visiting a methane plant (suspicious within itself: how are they producing the methane?!), which happened to be fully enclosed.

Having worked in the natural gas industry, I can assure you this premise is an explosion waiting to happen. You do not enclose a flammable gas, lighter than air, odorless, with an excellent burning range, in a building for “production.” (And how they were producing it, of course, was never mentioned. But since they were in Smallville, I’m sure they had rigged something to all the cows…)

The aggravating problem with this episode was the one control valve (it was a small hand valve, not a control valve, by the way) breaks, and suddenly there is no possible way to shut off the flow of natural gas into the plant during this field trip, during which all the kids had their non-explosion-rated cell phones in their pockets.

Nevermind that a real chemical plant would have had a control valve, an emergency shutdown for the entire facility, and manual block valves on either side of the control valve, more manual block valves next to the source of the natural gas and more manual block valves at the inlet of wherever they were pushing it.

There is simply no way in a properly designed, legally compliant facility that the entire flow of a flammable gas into a potentially explosive atmosphere would have been controlled by one little valve.

Because otherwise, an investigator from at least one federal and one state agency would have shown up and cited them for “willful and egregious” behavior and fined them lots of money. Lots of money, and shut them down until they fixed it all, which is an additional loss of revenue for the facility.

This past fall, Supergirl became the new show to investigate, and while I’ve seen every episode, I have a lot of frustration with this show.

Do any other episodes of Smallville stand out to you as helplessly flawed?

Previous posts in this series:

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