from the Introduction...
In this book you'll find a collection of essays that painstakingly collects documentation for 58 science fiction television series with voices from over 150 speakers. Each and every one of these speakers were intimately involved in the creation of their shows, as executive producers, writers, directors or actors. Each of them generously shared with us their thoughts and memories of creating a piece of entertainment that has resulted in, variously, groundbreaking TV series, memorable TV series, series that had strong merits but were blunted by some flaws or series that are just as well forgotten.
What do we look for when we watch and enjoy science fiction television shows? What is that aspect that allures and stimulates us to go back each week and spend an hour watching? That "It Thing" is the show's unique and exciting premise — the presentation of a fresh, original science fiction idea. It's too simplistic to say a series' premise is what can make a show live or die, so perhaps the revision is to say "the greatest thing about a science fiction show is a well executed fresh and original science fiction idea. We can easily point to programs such as Babylon 5, The Dead Zone, Quantum Leap, Star Trek: TNG and The X-Files, as being well executed. Consequently, such show resonates with an audience and live a good life. A show such as 1973's Starlost had a fantastic and incredible premise: Earth's remaining civilizations travelling through the depths of space in a spaceship consisting of self-contained domes. But it was an idea that was hampered by an incredibly low budget, contrived writing and poor visual effects.
A Look at Science Fiction on Television
Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who developed Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda series, admits that the pioneers of SFTV, such as Rod Serling, Joseph Stefano and Roddenberry, had it harder than he did — these legendary creator/producers faced strange network edicts, little fan support, skepticism of the genre by mass audiences, lower TV budgets and no computer generated effects. "I had a much bigger helping hand than Gene did," Hewitt says. "There's more of a tradition of doing these shows now. Gene was breaking new ground. I didn't have to fight those battles."
The debut of Roddenberry's aforementioned Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 was the show that opened up a robust, new world for first-run SF series in syndication. But even Next Generation had its own barriers to break through. It was criticized for being too mild in a modern era where it had free story reign without network interference. However, it did take an unusual step by killing off one of its major characters, Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), a first in Star Trek history. It also featured stories dealing with Alzheimer's disease and drug addiction, as well as a mature and sensitive handling of Starfleet's Prime Directive (non-interference with alien cultures).
As the 1990s ushered into our lives, certain SFTV series began to dominate the airwaves. The Star Treks: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, The X-Files and Babylon 5 were enormously popular. Four of these were space-based TV series whereas The X-Files explored the hidden, dark regions of our world.
The X-Files, where two federal agents walked into the night with flashlights investigating weird happenings, developed its own complex mythology and transcended its genre roots by exploding into an iconic phenomenon. The series made major stars of the previously unknown David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. It was a hip show that generated a flood of merchandising and magazine covers and received the respect of the mainstream audience and press.
As other shows premiered, there was a further move away from the episodic form, such as the five-year story arc of J. Michael Strazynski's Babylon 5 and the increasingly character-oriented plotting of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which also later engaged in deliberate serialization.
Lexx: The Dark Zone took the noisy and rude route, with anti-heroes who didn't give a rat's whisker about saving the world. They were hedonistic space travelers, each of them bullied by their hormones and each of them nuttier than a fruitcake, as they flew around the universe in a giant bug, satiating their own primitive needs before considering the worlds around them.
The protagonists of Firefly and Starhunter were engulfed in bleak, grubby galaxies, beset by collapsed alliances and corrupt conglomerates but often perceptive enough to sort things out with a battered sense of morality.
Century City, set in 2030, addressed adult themes that included virtual rape, genetic manipulation and the administration of drugs that could wipe out memories of abuse. It truly defined SF storytelling as dealing with how technology impacted human lives.
The officers, crew and civilians of Battlestar Galactica [2003- ] have been put through the inter-stellar ringer like no other SF characters, with near-assassinations, terrorist attacks, betrayals by loved ones, paranoia, food shortages and uncompromising sacrifices by leaders who have the responsibility of keeping the last remnants of humanity alive. Humor need not apply, these are stories of life and death, dark and unpredictable.
Other shows just want to have a good time. Those who can decipher the plotting of Andromeda may laugh (or cry) at the somersaulting antics of its bizarre crew. And there must to be blurry eyes somewhere, tracking Tracker at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., as a European-accented alien hunts down naughty ETs, while solving kidnappings and beating up art thieves.
Sometimes old shows return, philosophically changed. The original Outer Limits (1963-1965) encouraged viewers to push the envelope of their knowledge by challenging the human mind with science. The new Outer Limits was more cautious, suggesting scientific ambitions ought to be tempered in favor of submitting them to a higher power.
The key to what makes a SF show successful remains elusive. Such high-powered shows such as Surface, Threshold and Invasion all died mercilessly after a single (2005-2006) year. Many producers state that a good time slot is crucial but there are other factors. Greg Bear, the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author, whose novels include The Forge of God and Blood Music, offers his perspective. "Even a great ensemble cast and terrific characters can't save shows that are poorly formulated or unconvincing," he says. "New worlds, future or otherwise, must have their own logic, not too far from our own logic — but also their own history, myth and technology. What audiences expect include startling ideas and stimulating controversy but they also want to be comfortable within that world. That comfort level will allow viewers to accept additional challenges from a position of trust."
Whether shows are good or bad, it's clear that technology has allowed SFTV to flourish. In the 1960s and 1970s, the SFTV experience was limited to watching episodes of Star Trek or the Six Million Dollar Man on channels and at times dictated by broadcasters. Some fans audio-taped episodes from television, a positively prehistoric process today. Back then, fans were often unaware there were thousands of other fans hidden out there. Today, episodes are on DVD, or available for downloading from the Internet, reruns are on The Sci-Fi Channel (a cable network that TV Guide once predicted as being doomed, claiming its audience was too limited for success) and the Internet chat room and bulletin boards, where practically every SF show has a topic header. There are web sites, magazines and fan clubs that saturate shows in coverage. And whereas in the past, many fans were often reticent about speaking out publicly, or had to listen passively as critics rapped their favorite shows, viewers are now as vocal as media critics. One woman wrote TV Guide to angrily announce that she and her husband were giving up on Invasion because, "the constantly shifting cameras and quick cuts are making us seasick." Other fans rave over how these same techniques have made Battlestar Galactica a great-looking show. In the world of SF, differences of opinion is always encouraged and vigorously debated.
Today's SF creators, such as Chris Brancato (First Wave) and Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica) have personally engaged and discussed their shows with fans online, welcoming viewer feedback.
Dark Skies (1996-97)
Depicting the secret war between hostile extraterrestrial aliens and a secret government agency, Majestic-12, against the backdrop of historical events in the United States during the 1960s.
Interviews in this chapter: series creator/executive producer Bryce Zabel, supervising producer/co-creator Brent V. Friedman
Dark Skies came to light when two of Hollywood's most experienced producers met for the first time and sat down, ruminating for their next project. The discussion turned to the UFO phenomenon and that's when the electrical charge they generated became a neon sign. "It just came to us — what if we fused the two greatest conspiracies of all time together?" says executive producer and co-creator Bryce Zabel. "We came up with the Unified Field Theory of conspiracy — who killed JFK and why, and whether Roswell was a real event or not. The essence of the series is that John Kennedy was assassinated because he was going to tell the truth about UFOs in his second term."
"I told Bryce about a very credible Washington insider I knew who had told me there was intelligent, extraterrestrial life here on Earth," says supervising producer and co-creator Brent Friedman. "That sparked some conversations about Roswell and the possibility it really occurred. And if it did, how could events like JFK's assassination, Watergate, Vietnam, etc. — how could those events have any meaning historically unless they were somehow tied to the alien truth."
With the basis of the series firing up their imaginations, Zabel and Friedman went to work. The first task at hand was to shape the "series pitch" proposal into an unconventional form to generate interest, and provoke the network executives receiving it, to immediately pick up the phone and say the words, "We're interested!"
"We started creating an ultra-classified briefing book that was meant for high-level top secret people that basically told them about the UFO cover-up and how it all happened and made the case that, in 1994 and 1995, the government was going to have to come clean and tell people what was going on," explains Zabel. "And the best way to get the public prepared for it was to do a television series about the truth, so that they could see it as fiction at the beginning and later come to understand the truth. So we were already mixing reality and non-reality in a way that I think was pretty fascinating. We did this whole briefing book before we showed it to anybody."
Fun Fact: A cut scene from the series pilot recreated Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech in Washington D.C.
Malcolm Reynolds is the Captain of Serenity, a small cargo spaceship 500 years (2517 AD) in the future. He and his crew make a dangerous living in the frontier regions of space as they salvage, transport and cut deals to make a living
Interviews in this chapter: Writer Jane Espenson, Director Marita Grabiak
Canceled by Fox after only 11 aired episodes, Firefly did the impossible. Three years after cancellation, it returned as a full-length feature film in the fall of 2005 after its demise. The series had done so well in DVD sales , Universal Pictures took a gamble on reviving it as a feature film. The movie Serenity picked up where the short-lived series left off, reuniting all of its cast members.
When Whedon pitched the series to Fox, the executives' ears perked up in disbelief when he described it as Stagecoach in Space. Fox accepted the series, but more on Whedon's track record rather than a passion for the material. Whedon's inspiration came from reading the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Killer Angels (by Michael Shaara), about the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The heroism and the struggles of 19th century characters fascinated him. Captain Malcolm Reynolds never encounter aliens, time warps or other SF staples but instead bartered for fuel or tried to make payments for ship repairs. Mining, raising livestock, transporting food and hunting criminals was the chief means of making a living for ordinary citizens.
Some critics felt Whedon's space western idea was crazy but director Marita Grabiak strongly disagrees. "Whoever said a space western is not a good idea must be part of the dumbing down of America," she states. "Hasn't the western, a purely American art form, always been a staple of entertainment whose job it is to directly reflect the cultural and political climate of its time? It's an arrogant cultural elitism to say ‘a space western is not a good idea.' It's an illusion to believe there is such a thing as ‘not a good idea.' Genres don't contribute much to the success or failure of a show. There is only good writing and bad writing."
It was during the third year of Buffy in 1999 that Whedon's writing team first heard of Firefly. "We knew what kind of people Mal, Kaylee, Zoe, Wash, Inara and the rest were, before any actors came in to read for their parts, because Joss was talking to the Buffy staff about the Firefly characters long before he wrote anything," says Jane Espenson, a staff writer-producer on Buffy. But when Fox screened the pilot, they felt it was too western and wanted space aliens added. Whedon refused but he did placate them by adding more action and humor to later episodes. It was an unglamorous world outside the Serenity. Not only were peoples' clothes grubby, but so were their morals, compromised by the harsh life they led. Malcolm Reynolds struggled with his own integrity, Jayne set anchor in his selfish ways and everyone else battled their own demons. But generally, these were good people.
Fun Fact: Series creator Joss Wheadon "interacts" with the furniture during story brainstorming sessions, bewildering his staff.
Psi-Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal (1996-2000)
Following the adventures of the investigative team from the Office of Scientific Investigation and Research (OSIR) as they probe the existence of strange paranormal, extraterrestrial and creature sightings.
Interviews in this chapter: executive producer/writer James Nadler, creative producer Larry Raskin, co-star Barclay Hope
Barclay Hope, who was Peter Axon throughout the series, says he was unhappy with the half-hour story format in the first year. "I don't feel there's enough time," he says. "There's Dan Ackroyd's intro and extro which takes up a minute on top and bottom. There's commercials and you're left with about 18 minutes to tell and resolve the story. Find out something about the people telling the story. There's just not enough time.
"One of the best things about the show was that it did evolve. It started out fairly dry, fairly documentary. Once we really got into it, it evolved to an extent where we were actually doing a piece of entertainment."
And as the year progressed, the producers realized their initial approach was not working out. "We were adding characters even as we went into production," recalls Nadler. "In part, because originally the characters were not important. Some characters just didn't work and then we found out we had too many characters. Originally we had three Case Managers and they were supposed to rotate. One of them, a really wonderful actress named Elizabeth Shepherd, only appeared in one episode. Tamara Gorski was the other and Paul Miller. These characters were supposed to rotate equally."
Fun Fact: Famed novelist and screenwriter Harlan Ellison was invited to appear as a guest star in the episode "The Observer Effect."
The submarine seaQuest DSV patrols the colonized oceans of 2018 (and later, 2032).
Interviews in this chapter with: executive producers Rockne O'Bannon, Patrick Hasburgh, co-executive producer Carleton Eastlake, supervising producer William Rabkin, technical consultant Dr. Robert E. Ballard, writer Javier Grillo-Marxauch, director John Kretchmer,
Rockne S. O'Bannon, who had previously worked on the 1980s Twilight Zone TV series, created SeaQuest. "When I first met with Steven [Spielberg] regarding arenas for doing a potential television project together, he expressed a particular interest in doing an undersea adventure series. The idea I brought back to him was to do a series that took place in the relatively near future - no more than 25 years. A very accessible future, positive future, where humankind had developed the technology that would allow them to more fully explore and utilize and inhabit the world's oceans. A undersea series instantly presents challenges, but the premise Steven and I built steered clear of the claustrophobia, prohibitive production costs, etc. We worked very hard to present the ocean as the expansive, wide-open space that it is. Although it was never going to be an inexpensive show, we went into it with a design to make for a very manageable production."
Spielberg was there to launch the series. "He was very involved during the creation of the series, vital in bringing Roy Scheider to television, and was an amazing force in selling the series," says O'Bannon. "There's nothing quite like pitching a series to a network with Steven Spielberg sitting next to you and jumping in with his own enthusiasm."
Fun Fact: To the astonishment of the writer, NBC president Warren Littlefield recognized his sly, subtle approach to incorporating "Jungian psychology" into one episode.