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New CBS Show Scorpion Riddled with Errors
Tuesday, 2014 September 23 - 1:12 pm
I could swear I saw promotional materials for CBS's new tech-y series "Scorpion" promising that the show would feature technically accurate hacking techniques based on real-life stories.

That went out the window in the show's first few minutes. If you plan on watching the show and you don't want spoilers, then stop reading here. But trust me, you probably don't want to watch this show... so read on for just a couple dozen of the hundreds of plot holes and implausible elements to this show.

The main premise of the first episode is that a software update to the air traffic control systems at LAX and two nearby airports has knocked out communications to all incoming aircraft. Hundreds of planes are circling the airport and will crash when they run out of fuel. The planes are also apparently affected by the bug; they are unable to radio each other, or other airports.

Problem 1: Software updates to mission-critical systems are not done during the middle of the day.

Problem 2: When airplanes lose all communication, pilots are trained to operate under visual flight rules. They wouldn't just circle around until they crash. It's a bright, sunny day in LA; visual landings would not be difficult.


The Department of Homeland Security enlists the show's main characters, a group of misfit geniuses, to help them recover the control systems. The group's first idea is to restore the software from the last backup. They are on their way to LAX to solve the problem, but realize they won't get there in time. So they stop at a restaurant where one of them has just installed the WiFi network, because they need a place with reliable Internet access in order to work on the problem remotely.

Problem 3: What kind of IT idiot doesn't think of restoring from a backup?

Problem 4: Just because a genius installed the WiFi at a restaurant doesn't make the Internet as a whole more reliable. There are dozens of possible things that can knock down your connection. Fortunately the Internet is designed to be reliable and resilient... so really, you were probably fine stopping at a Starbucks, or just hacking into the WiFi of the building next door.


The geniuses decide they need to drive to the off-site backup facility to retrieve the hard drive containing the backup. Oh no, a crisis! Backups are performed at a set time every day, and the last good backup will soon be overwritten by the new faulty updated software.

Problem 4: If you can send backups to the off-site facility over the network, then you can also retrieve them over the network. You don't have to drive there to get them.

Problem 5: When you have backups, you keep daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly backups. You don't just store one copy that gets overwritten every day.


The team finds the backup facility locked and unattended. To get into the facility, they decide to break into a nearby power station and send a power surge to overload the electronic lock. It works!

Problem 6: The doors are electric too (they're like automatic garage doors), but are somehow unaffected by the power surge. The backup servers themselves are also unaffected; I guess the one place the backup facility decided not to put surge protectors is on their electronic door locks.


They find the backup drive inside the facility (where no interior doors are locked, thankfully) and yank it seconds before the backup is to be overwritten. They race back to the restaurant so the backup can be uploaded to LAX... but they've corrupted the hard drive by placing it too close to the car stereo speaker.

Problem 7: What kind of "genius" just tosses their precious cargo into a car map pocket?

Problem 8: Speaker magnets are strong, but are unlikely to demagnetize a hard drive that's inside a metal case.


So what now? Oh, apparently airplanes also carry a copy of the air traffic control software. But oh, sad trombone, most of them are corrupted too because they were on the ground when the faulty update was applied. But wait! If the plane took off early enough, before the update, then they'll have a clean copy of the software!

Problem 9: Planes don't carry air traffic control software on board.

Problem 10: Even if they did, how did planes originating from other airports around the country get the bad copy of the software, if the software was installed at LAX?

Problem 11: If some of these planes have a clean copy of the software, then their radios should be working, so they should be able to land somewhere else.


So how to reach the plane? Most of the cell phones on-board would be off, or at least out of range of a tower. But if there's a guy who has an analog cell phone and has kept it on, then maybe they could reach him? Like an older guy who is a salesman? They find him. On their first try. Over the phone, they instruct the pilot to fly low over a nearby municipal airport so they can connect to the plane's WiFi and download the uncorrupted software from the plane. (The airplane is too big to land at this airport.)

Problem 12: Even if you're an older guy, and a salesman, would you really keep your phone on during a flight, knowing that no one can reach you at 30000 feet? And even if it was on, would you actually answer it?

Problem 13: The plane's onboard WiFi network wouldn't be connected to its control systems.

Problem 14: You couldn't possibly download a large software package like an air traffic control system in the few seconds that an airplane would be in WiFi range. Here's a way to demonstrate that: try connecting to Starbucks' WiFi while driving by it at freeway speeds, and while connected try downloading a new version of Firefox.

Problem 15: Wouldn't it be easier just to tell the pilot to land at LAX, now that you've reestablished communication with him?


The team must race to the airport to meet the plane there. Katherine McPhee (playing a waitress in this show; it's hard to say whether McPhee or her character has made a worse career choice here) drives with one of the geniuses at 100 MPH down the city street, as another team member hacks the traffic system so the lights remain green.

Problem 16: Even though they've turned all the lights green, there's still cross-traffic at intersections that they have to dodge. (Well, to be fair, it is LA.


Oh no! One of the traffic lights cannot be changed. A car enters the intersection! A crash is imminent! Oh, phew; one of the Homeland Security guys sacrifices his black SUV and rams into the car first, sparing our heroes.

Problem 17: An SUV T-bones a car at a hundred miles an hour, and no one is hurt.


They make it to the airport. As the plane makes its first pass by the airport, they are unsuccessful at connecting to its WiFi: go figure. So the new plan is to steal a sports car that can go 200 MPH. They'll drive along the runway as the plane flies eight feet overhead; someone on the plane will drop an Ethernet cable down to them from the wheel well so they can connect to the plane's network directly.

Problem 18: Planes have extra 25-foot Ethernet cables in their wheel wells?


They are successful! The air traffic control software is downloaded to the hero's laptop, and instantly re-uploaded to LAX, and all the systems are immediately back on line!

Problem 19: All the communications systems on the airplanes themselves were knocked out too, right? How did they get back on line?


And so everyone lives and they are offered jobs working for Homeland Security. This includes the waitress, who is hired for her people skills, because whatever. The end.


Other gripes:

Problem 20: The "geniuses" mentioned their IQs multiple times during the show: e.g., "Einstein had a 160 IQ; mine is 197." Real people with high IQs don't go on and on about how high their IQs are.

Problem 21: The characters are all so smug; how are we expected to like them?

Problem 22: CBS assumed that "Big Bang Theory" watchers would like this show, because they're both shows about nerds, right? Here's a show I want to see: the cast of the "Big Bang Theory" ripping apart the technical inaccuracies in "Scorpion".

Problem 23: The show's logo is "</scorpion>". I guess that makes it look tech-y, but anyone who recognizes the syntax would look at it as an unmatched XML tag. Actually, it means "the end of scorpion", which in hindsight, would be a blessing.

Verdict: No way anyone should watch this show, ever.
Permalink  2 Comment   Bookmark and Share
Posted by Ken in: television


Comment #1 from Stephen J (Guest)
2014 Sep 23 - 1:56 pm : #
Wasn't planning on watching, now definitely won't.

19a: if the whole Ethernet cord to sportscar thing took anything more than about 30 seconds, that runway was long enough for the plane to land.
Comment #2 from e. (Guest)
2014 Sep 23 - 2:28 pm : #
also, 7a: disk-based backup targets don't work that way. you don't back up anything to one single solitary drive, especially things that need lots of streaming bandwidth like backups. you're configuring those in big disk or raid groups, thus they would need to pull, oh, probably a dozen of them. and then carry them around. with the storage system. oh and...

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