Sci-Fi has changed. Over the past fifty years, the topics and settings that capture the imaginations of viewers and readers everywhere have shifted. Where Star Trek once captivated millions, now the going boldly through outer space routine appears to have been worn out.
The transformation has led modern science fiction series to feature elements of futuristic technologies and discoveries, but set in modern day. Take Falling Skies, probably about as genuinely sci-fi in terms of aliens as you can get on mainstream television today, yet still set in a world we can recognise and understand. Why is that? Do we connect more readily with characters in situations we can easily imagine ourselves put into? Are we simply bored with space travel as a concept on television? Or has society simply changed?
The amount of patience we hold for new television is dropping. Whereas decades ago, one bad episode of a TV series didn’t do too much harm, nowadays it can lose you a million viewers the next week – and you may never get them back. We are cynical, as shows like Firefly have shown that even the best series can be cancelled within the next month, leaving you disappointed and with no satisfactory resolution to the storyline. Networks view shows as a game of numbers: bad ratings = cancellation. But what they perhaps do not realise is that flippant, trigger-happy cancellations damage network reputation; and, compounded, will make viewers ever-more hesitant and cautious when it comes to embracing a new show.
So how can budding and aspiring writers of science-fiction in all its forms create a new show that will captivate and draw in a new generation of fans?
1. Have a core principle.
Star Trek excelled when exploring the galaxy and the human condition. Those were Roddenberry’s core values. He used elements of science fiction to tell us about ourselves in ways we didn’t imagine possible. He explored race at a time when it remained taboo on television, going so far as to feature the first on-screen interracial kiss.
Similarly, Earth: Final Conflict was at its strongest in the first season, and most captivating when the real dilemmas of the series pilot – ‘Decision’ – were being explored. Who killed William Boone’s wife? Why were the Taelons on Earth? How could he discover the truth whilst maintaining his double agent status? It may seem simple, but suddenly you have a real human condition being explored here. Love, revenge, deception.
Gene Roddenberry sure had a knack of enticing set-ups, and there’s plenty to be learned from them. Earth: Final Conflict was set just a few years ahead of the present, and so remains a more marketable concept for today’s television audiences. This in itself is fine, so long as the core principle of your story and premise remains strong and carries through the continuing plot arc.
2. Don’t dumb anything down for networks/publishers etc.
Despite strong evidence to the contrary, human beings aren’t stupid. More crucially, science fiction readers are most definitely not stupid. The best plotlines lead the viewer or reader along, without being heavy-handed about it. No one likes to be patronised. “Oh, look, murder is ethically tough. You can learn from that folks.” No sh*t, Sherlock.
Instead, take Deep Space Nine‘s ‘In The Pale Moonlight’ where Sisko must weigh up whether the murder of a Romulan senator, and subsequent tricking of the Romulan Empire, is an acceptable price for saving billions of lives. Can murder ever be justified? And when you ordered it, how would you reconcile that in your own mind?
‘In The Pale Moonlight’ is a classic because it doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. It doesn’t preach, and it doesn’t dumb down the argument in order for you understand it. Crucially, it doesn’t tell you what the right answer is. It doesn’t have a happy ending, only an ambiguous one. That – along with Avery Brooks’ stellar performance – is why it is regarded as a genuine classic.
3. Don’t pick your cast based on sex appeal.
Americans look the same.
At least on television they do. There seems to be a belief amongst television executives that people won’t watch your show if the cast aren’t ‘sexy’ enough. Thus we appear to have been confronted by this genetically engineered super-race of attractive cast members who don’t look particularly distinctive. When I think of Fringe, which I haven’t watched in some time, the first thing I conjure up in my mind is the image of John Noble. Why? Not because he’s God’s gift to acting, but because he’s over sixty and on the regular cast of a mainstream sci-fi show. That tells you quite a lot.
In short, don’t do this:
It doesn’t work.
And I’m actually going to give Stargate Universe some praise here. Â Robert Carlyle stood out due to fine performance and the fact he wasn’t turned into just another American on television. He was allowed to remain Scottish. Â Eli Wallace was a character that springs to mind because he was fat, and depicted positively. Â As for the military guy? Â Not Colonel Young – another actor picked for acting capability, not how he looked and the results were very positive – but the second in command. Â Lieutenant… I just had to Google that. Â His name was Matthew Scott. Â And he looks like every supposedly hunky American on television. Â Just another clone.
Diversity and distinctiveness is good. It helps the viewer remember characters, names and plots and increases your chances of them coming back the next week.
4. Have a strong lead character.
Again, I hark back to William Boone in Earth: Final Conflict. Â The show began its decline as soon as Robert Leeshock appeared on the scene. Â As capable as I’m sure Mr. Leeshock is, the character he played had no where near the gravitas or appeal of Boone. Â The entire premise of the show revolving around Boone’s morale dilemma vanished, and with it did a lot of the strength of the series.
Pick a main character who will hold the audience’s interest. Â In this day and age, they don’t have to be the William Shatner-esque hunk, brave, heroic and charismatic. Â It’s okay to have someone darker, like Dexter. Â You can still explore so much, and most importantly, you’re more likely to tap into plot lines and character interactions that aren’t overused or maybe have never even been seen before! Â Why? Â Because a uniquely crafted main character can guide the progress of the entire show, and unique characters create unique interactions.
Sci-Fi in 2012 is allowed to be dark. Â Star Trek has intertwined the concept of sci-fi and a hopeful outlook for the future where humans succeed for all the morally right reasons. Â That’s all very well, and believe me, I have no problem with it. Â But you are allowed a different interpretation. Â After all, it’s your story.
5. Tell a good story.
There is nothing more important than storytelling. Â I was furious recently when someone told me they were doing a theatre performance based onÂ practical aesthetics. Â The script – which I had read – was full of plot holes that you could fly an Imperial Star Destroyer through. Â When I suggested that some of these holes be patched up, I got told, “We don’t worry about the story. Â It’s about character and place through practical aesthetics.” Â This is nonsense. Â All you’ll have is a well-acted, bad script.
On the internet, content is king. Â In television drama, story is king. Â Stories have to interest, inspire and challenge. Â Yes, acting is important, but plenty of classic science fiction was hardly Â ever going to win any Oscar performances for Best Actor.
That said, in 2012, back up your challenging, interesting story with fine acting, and you’re onto a real winner. Â That’s what television audiences expect today. Â They expect a fine performance from at least some of the cast each week. Â Get a good cast, and write a story each week that really takes the viewer surprise, and stays within the confines of reality of the show, and you can’t go too far wrong.
6. Special effects aren’t the be-all and end-all.
There’s nothing more frustrating than a special effects-fest without real ‘meat’ or substance. Â Spielberg’sÂ War of the Worldscould have been so much more, despite the magnificent special effects work, if a little more time was spent on the storyline.
Special effects are, nonetheless, an integral part of science-fiction. Â It’s how we travel from the present into the future, and is one of the primary methods of making that future believable.Use them with style. Â My favourite moment for this is a simple one: in Firefly’s pilot, Serenity (the episode, of course, not the film), the ship comes down to land in the Eavesdown Docks.
I can’t find a video, so a picture of the shot I’m talking about is below.
The effects shot here lasts only a second or two maximum, but features a ton of ships flying overhead with accompanying sound effects. Â For barely any cost, the shot gives the illusion of a busy spaceport, when in fact it’s a relatively cheap set. Â Clever use of effects like this can be subtleÂ andÂ effective. Â They can be cheap, and they don’t have to be in your face. Â And what’s more, finding ways to incorporate them will encourage some innovative thinking on the part of the director, and create camera angles and shots that you may not otherwise have enjoyed.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a huge special effects showdown from time to time, and if you can make them look good, fire away. Â But never let them distract from the core principle I talked about in Point 1. Â Telling a story, and asking questions, is the reason you’re here. Â Not to watch gargantuan dinosaurs eat spaceships in the middle of a fire nebula.
7. “It’s okay to leave them to die.”
Any story has a finite lifespan. Â Finish it naturally, before the network finishes you. Â Don’t drag on too long, don’t get boring.
Set a plan from the start of the story you want to tell, work out how long it will take, and then stick to it. Â Planned series are always better than series made up off the cuff. Â 24 Season 7 benefitted from the Writers’ Strike in that they could plan an entire season before filming started.
Suddenly, the quality of the show bounced back from the dire Season 6 that struggled as the writers ran out of ideas.