Screenwriter and novelist
Notes toward a pilot show for a proposed series that was eventually to be realised by Rockne S O'Bannon as FARSCAPE.
Originally drafted for Jim Henson Productions in May 1993.
We slam straight into the heart of things, no setting-up. The whole cold-sleep thing has been a part of screen culture since 2001, and there's nothing to be gained by introducing or explaining it; there is, however, an advantage of mystery in having our character wake up somewhere totally different from where he expected to be. His spacecraft is a kind of delivery bullet about the size of a big car with a bubble on the top under which he lies. Just a package of payload and life-support and fuel, it gets fired at wherever it's supposed to be going and is to be scooped up by the recipient at the other end. This one has a set of big starry shatter-lines on its dome; the dome's integrity held, but obviously it took a big impact from something somewhere along the line.
The craft stands in what looks like a workshop, and is tilted at an angle. The dome suddenly pops open and a burst of warm air condenses as it rushes out. A gentle beeper goes off and our Hero hits a button that is clearly marked snooze. But then when he becomes aware of his surroundings through half-open eyes, he snaps awake. This isn't right. Sitting up, he bangs his head on the half-open dome… and becomes aware of the near-break in the plastic. He pushes the dome up and clambers out for a better look. It's clear that he's had a narrow escape. He's alone in here, and he doesn't know where he is. Taking his little suitcase with him, he goes to look for someone to ask.
Out in the corridors, he comes face-to-face with the biggest, ugliest monster he's ever seen. Sitting on its shoulders, like the top half of a double act, is the tiniest, ugliest monster he's ever seen. The monster stops in its tracks, drops the bag of tools that it's carrying, screams at the sight of him, and runs.
He runs after it, calling out. The closer he gets, the more it panics. He follows it onto what is obviously the bridge of the ship, staffed by a weird and wonderful crew - humans, aliens, intelligent slime mould, a dolphin with his head sticking up out of a water tube. Every head turns. And every single crew member screams and deserts the bridge. The place is empty in three seconds flat, the doors sealed after the departed. Dismayed, our Hero bangs on one of the doors… but no-one will open it. He looks around. The ship that he's on is now effectively rudderless. He calls out that he's a courier with an urgent package for someone. This has no effect.
Exploring the bridge, he finds a big window with some of the crew on the other side of it. They're prepared to converse by intercom. He'd been left in deliberate quarantine, and has put them all at risk by emerging and breaking it. Now they're going to have to isolate him in this area, and pump out the bridge and other areas in order to flush and sterilise them. It'll take time. They'll work out a way of getting someone in an isolation suit onto the bridge to retake the helm, but they were in the middle of a manoeuvre and with every minute they're speeding further off-course. He protests that he had a medical check before the launch… and they say yeah, but who knows what you might have been incubating over the last 180 years? This takes him aback somewhat. He was only supposed to be in transit for a month. So much for the urgency of his package.
The chief navigator's the one who dons the isolation suit and enters the bridge (the dolphin's his apprentice). The isolation suit is patched with tape. This is not an upmarket operation. While our Hero broods over the dismaying passage of time and loss of everything he's known for what was supposed to be a simple little courier job, his main contact (through the glass) is with the ship's woman Paramedical officer. Her mind isn't entirely on this; it seems that she and the chief navigator have something going, and she's worried for him. If anything happens, she's going to blame our Hero. She shows him the proof of how long it's been. He tells her how he only took this one-off job because he needed the money to pay off a debt… God only knows what the interest on it will be by now. He learns that the ship he's on is a Scrapper, a vast flying breakers' yard that takes in derelicts and breaks them down. The size of it literally defies the imagination. Any one of its main workshops could contain an entire city block… and no-one knows exactly how many there are. Some of them are like lost Underground stations, blocked-up during renovations and their names almost legendary. He's in the self-contained Command area now; they'd planned to cannibalise his craft for something they need on the bridge. The Command crew don't venture out of the Command area unless they have to, and then in force. But more on that later.
Right now they're way off-course. Between the rudderless spell and the piece of equipment that needs replacing, they've pretty well come to be lost. Nobody's got much sympathy for him at this moment, but the crew start to perk up and mellow a little as things begin to improve. It wasn't exactly his fault, after all; the temperature rise triggered the wakeup. Some of them start to take interest in him, as a novelty. He's still behind glass. But thinking about what it would have been like if he'd never been picked up at all, this isn't quite so bad.
But things take a downturn. Just as they're considering ending his quarantine, the humans in the crew start to drop in their tracks. It's a mystery disease, its spread now rapid, its effects devastating. There have already been a couple of deaths when the woman Paramedical officer (the Paramedical bit is just a part-time assignment on top of her regular duties - she's essentially a first-aider with some very sophisticated technical backup) starts an intensive and desperate programme of research on the problem. The first area of interest is the package that our Hero was carrying. They open the package in a containment unit and find it… empty. Sealed, double-locked, and empty.
More deaths. It's only hitting the human crew members. Those who aren't yet dead are developing symptoms, those who don't yet have symptoms are imagining that they do. Attention turns to our Hero himself. Every piece of medical gear comes into play. He's sampled, scanned, biopsied - you name it. The biggest mystery is that if he brought it in, why hasn't it killed him? The Paramedical officer feels desperately out of her depth, but she persists. The chief navigator starts to develop the symptoms now, and that pushes her closer toward breaking point.
Auto-autopsies of the dead have turned up something unknown, something in the bloodstream that destroys cells and goes straight for the central nervous system. It destroys antibody cells just as happily as anything else, and so is utterly irresistible. The blood scan on our Hero turns up the answer. There's another organism in there that performs exactly the same function, but it's non-biological; it's a tiny, self-replicating, silicon-based, cell-sized machine. She tries to isolate it, but it seems to be host-specific; it won't grow on the bench. More have died, her boyfriend's slipping under, she has the answer to a vaccine, but she can't produce it.
So she breaks quarantine, and walks in with him. She injects the blood plasma, direct. She tries it on herself first and, the moment it seems to be working, gives it to the others. Too late. All the human crew go under with the exception of the chief navigator, who doesn't die but is in a vegetative state.
So we're left with two fit humans, one living corpse, and a crew of dismayed and grieving aliens. Through the grief, deduction. There was no trace of the killer virus in our Hero; he wasn't the carrier because the virus gets wiped out the moment it enters him. And the package was just a blind. So where did the contamination come from? They know some more about the virus now. Transmission is airborne, carried in moisture. It can survive in warm, damp air for about an hour, then it dies. It had to have arrived with our Hero… but how has it managed to survive for 180 years?
They go to his spacecraft. The big alien with the little one on his shoulders (HuggerMugger) is working on it to get out the component that they need… with the chief navigator permanently out of action, his apprentice (Dolphe) is going to need all the backup there is. These two are a team, brains and brawn. I'm the brawn and he's the brains, insists the little one.
Investigation of the spacecraft brings a big surprise. It has a false floor which hinges up to reveal a second body hidden in a compartment below. This one's brain-dead and being kept alive only by the intensive care equipment into which it's hooked. Its sole function is to incubate and carry the virus. The virus had been tailored to human DNA but there's plenty of spare capacity on the molecule to tailor and fine-tune it to any species. Our hero knows nothing of any of this, but it would seem that the small spacecraft's occupants constituted the two unwitting halves of a biological weapon; an uncontrollable virus, and a strictly controllable antidote. It would seem that our hero is a walking defence factory, and he's unique. The antigen works in anyone, but it only self-replicates in him.
Cheers and congratulations from the bridge. Dolphe, the unready apprentice who's been thrown into his master's job, has managed to get them oriented and they can now target communications with the nearest civilised outpost. They can report their status to their owner/operators, and can search for information that will be of help. Records show that the agency that originally hired and sent out our Hero, innocent-sounding though it was in his day, was revealed 50 years later to be a front for a covert operation so up to its armpits in dirty tricks that it made the CIA look like the Samaritans. The ship's crew have been the innocent victims of an act of state terrorism from so long ago that no-one can even remember the reasons for it.
This brings us roughly to the end of what would be the first act. Before we go on, a few asides and digressions…
The dolphin navigator's a lovely idea, but we'll have to check out the work of David Brin. He's advanced this concept in his writing (Earthside), but I don't yet know in what kind of detail. That hasn't prevented me from reflecting on the following…
How does he integrate with the crew? I see him having complete freedom of movement via a network of transparent water pipes that run all over the ship, passing through all of the sets at various angles. They glow, they bubble, they're a distinctive design feature. There are pop-up hatches everywhere that he can bang open, appearing like a jack-in-the-box with an eruption of water that pools on the floor around the hatch; when he withdraws, the hatch bangs shut and little pin-sized nozzles in the floor around it suck all the water back in, leaving the floor dry. He has his own navigation post on the bridge. Before it are five brightly-coloured symbols like on a baby's play blocks, mounted on levers that he pushes with his snout. Order and repetition allow for quite complex input. While they're lost, we see him trying various combinations and failing. He persists, alone on the bridge in near-darkness while the others all sleep. With each attempt, he looks hopefully at a little hatch on the end of the panel. But nothing happens. When he finally gets it right, we see what we've been set up for; a bell rings as if for a jackpot, the hatch flips open, and a fish is fired up into the air. We follow its arc in slow-motion as Dolphe leaps, catches it, and somersaults to go nose-down back into his tube. Then we see him do a victory circuit of the ship at high speed, flashing through every tube on every deck to end up bursting back into the bridge in a huge shower of spray. Everyone gets drenched, no-one even flinches or seems to notice - they flick the water from their faces and carry on.
When anyone has a conversation with Dolphe, it's like talking to Edd the Duck. He speaks in a series of whistles and quacks in a pattern that approximates human speech. Nobody seems to have any trouble understanding him… except for our Hero who, like us, can't understand a single word. Fortunately, we can usually work it out from only one side of the conversation. A one-to-one conversation between our Hero and Dolphe is a bizarre affair. Although after a while he's taken aback to realise that he's just understood and responded to some passing remark of Dolphe's.
Dolphe does just about everything the rest of the crew do. He even plays cards… although when we circle around the table, we see three normal hands of cards and a stand before Dolphe carrying cards that bear his five basic symbols. They don't match the others in the deck, but only our Hero thinks this at all odd.
He's got his own quarters. Imagine what he might have hung on his wall.
The near-present-day character whom I'm calling our Hero has the status of a piece of salvage. Technically he belongs to the owners of the Scrapper that has picked him up. Knocked off-course and lost so long ago, his ship has been a charted and numbered piece of debris for some time. Those who sent him would have come looking for him if they'd known, but he was so far off-course that no-one made the connection. He was only picked up at all because he happened to be close to the Scrapper's route.
The style of the Scrapper should be a kind of retro design - wood panelling, buttoned velvet, Victorian design features, riveted boilers and pipes. Spaceships in TV SF seem to fall into two very narrow styles; school of Kubrick (Star Trek, Space 1999) or school of Ridley Scott (V, Red Dwarf, just about everything else). But I've never seen a Steampunk look being attempted before (maybe Dune inched toward it). In some of the details, the future has regressed. For example, our Hero walks at a door and it doesn't open. So then he speaks to it, waves at it, shows his palmprint, presents one eye for scanning. At which point one of our creatures, ambling by, generously explains that if you press this button alongside the door, then it opens.
Back to the plot.
Beyond the self-contained command deck, trouble is brewing. The crew in here only fly the Scrapper. The Scrapper resembles an immense whaler, dragging in derelicts to be messily dismantled on its killing floors. All the heavy grunt-work is done by hordes of low-level workers of various species. They're tough as nails and respond to no-one's authority. They dismantle ships to the sound of the Anvil Chorus, played loud. Some of them sock each other in time to the music, just for the hell of it. Because of their numbers and the size of the ship, traditional command lines have broken down. They're organised into self-contained gangs, each with its own 'turf' over which there are occasional demarcation disputes that can even erupt into brief armed gang wars. Nothing gets done except by negotiation, with tradeoffs to get grudging co-operation. Each gang has its own distinctive character and its own leader, who's constantly watching his back. Those from the command area sometimes have to negotiate with the leaders. But they only ever venture below-decks in teams, in armoured vehicles, with guards, in bright light.
When word gets out that the command structure on the bridge has fallen, the gangs erupt and move in. Fighting each other to be first, they strike a truce and storm the bridge. They smash through one of the exposed dolphin tubes and come in up the pipework. They riot, they loot. If they can take over the bridge, they no longer need face the ultimate sanctions of being deprived of power, water and air if they don't play along. What's left of the Command crew, plus our Hero, goes on the run into the rest of the ship. All except Dolphe; he's trapped in his pipe network and he doesn't get away.
The gang leaders' possession of the bridge coincides with the return message from the earlier enquiry. There's great interest in our Hero, and there's a reward on his head. A huge reward.
Jaws drop. Eyes widen. Drool runs.
Meanwhile, some of the gang members are getting sociable. They're going to have a barbecue. They're going to barbecue Dolphe.
But the ex-Command crew - motley crew, now - come to his rescue in true Robin Hood style. As they're getting him away, the Paramedical officer won't follow. She won't leave the chief navigator. It doesn't matter that he's comatose and will almost certainly never revive, she still won't leave without him. So she, our Hero, and one of the creatures go sneaking back in while the others take Dolphe to a place of comparative safety. The Paramedical officer has softened slightly towards our Hero, because he distinguished himself in the rescue. He distinguished himself a lot. But she only softens slightly.
They get the chief navigator away by lifting the portable Life Support unit from our Hero's spacecraft, the one that was keeping the living dead person breathing under the false floor. After a further hair's breadth escape and a confrontation with a gang leader who'll feature as the major villain in future developments, they go through the Scrapper and meet up with the others at a rendezvous point. They can't stay. They've no hope of retaking the Command centre and, if they did, they couldn't defend it any more - the defences are being torn down even as they speak. And they can't hide, because the gangs are all uniting to make a thorough search. What could possibly unite them when nothing else ever has? The size of the reward for finding our Hero. It's planet-sized.
In fact, the reward is a planet.
Why so much? Because without the unique antigen manufactured in our Hero's body, the ultimate biological weapon - which those who inherited the mantle of the agency still have, frozen and in a secure facility - cannot be activated. He has become, quite simply, the key to immense power. Him, and those they'll get by breeding from him.
Which presents a question. Why should the motley crew protect our Hero? The danger to them would be less if they handed him over. The danger to everyone would be removed if he were to die right here and now, and returned the virus/antigen combination to the status of a great idea that got lost. The Paramedical officer still doesn't think she has much to thank our Hero for. The thought has actually crossed her mind.
But she couldn't quite face doing it.
So, as the sweep begins, they plan their escape. This involves a lost workshop in which stands the partly dismantled carcase of an old space cruiser that they hope to be able to power up, which they're led to by a member of one of the Scrapper tribes who's getting too old to be useful and who sees that his only hope is in joining them. His great age and low cunning get them through, and will be of use in the future when dealing with the Scrapper tribes. Once they've activated the ship, they'll have to navigate various hazards and chart a course through the belly of the Scrapper in order to break their way out. Once they're out, the Scrapper will almost certainly give chase; but being smaller and faster, they should be OK.
Some of those hopes die, though, when they find the cruiser and see the state that it's in. Once a famous-name ship with a reputation rather like the Cutty Sark or the Flying Scotsman, it's now openly a shadow of its former self. Lots of stuff is missing. But…
But it can still fly. The ship's disadvantages intensify every peril, and there are new problems to be discovered with every danger; but by the skin of their teeth, they get out. Like a Supertanker following a dinghy, the Scrapper turns to follow. The fabulous speed and manoeuvrability that they were anticipating simply isn't there; this is going to be a grim chase for survival. They're faster, just, but the Scrapper will never be far behind. The ropy condition of the ship means that they'll lurch from one crisis to another, always having some reason to seek out somewhere new to land but equally never being able to stay for very long. It'll be impossible to ask for outright help or protection because when word of the reward gets around, our Hero will be such a prize that there will always be someone to betray them. And always, always, the Scrapper will be coming on; like a great, insatiable hulk manned by a crew of bloodthirsty pirates. There may be coups and internal fights, the leaders may change, but the Scrapper will always be coming on as surely as Captain Hook's crocodile.
These are some further proposals, relating to how we may carry this forward.
Looking beyond the pilot to the series that we're hoping may follow, I reckon that we shouldn't leave the situation too settled at the end of the two-hour show but should leave some loose ends that we can pull together in episode one to create the ongoing format. Stylistically I think that this project should be light on its feet, irreverent, completely jargon-free and, within the parameters that we've set, realistic. We should decide what's credible within the world that we've created, and stick within that. Science fiction offers lots of easy solutions to story problems that wouldn't be credible in other forms, and they shouldn't be acceptable here. 'Beaming down', for example. Or accessing a computer belonging to an alien culture with just a few minutes' experimentation at a keyboard. In this same class of belief-stretchers I'd put telepathy, telekinesis, magic and shape-changing. I'm not saying forbid them, because we could get a contributor who'll come up with a fascinating and persuasive premise… but I am saying, let's not assume that just because this is a future setting, every single fantasy device is routinely available as part of our arsenal.
You'll notice that I haven't yet committed on any character names. This is because we need to strike an exact note that balances the strange with the familiar and I'd like to progress a little further before anything gets too fixed. I believe that the names ought to be drawn from the more exotic end of the spectrum of present-day reality, and I also think that this opens up a more general issue of approach. I've a theory that in all the forms of imaginative genre fiction - SF, fantasy, horror - popular success lies not in the wild and outrČ but in the narrow zone where the familiar and strange rub up against one another. I found it interesting when working on the show to learn that the highest ratings for Doctor Who were earned by stories set against a background of Earth's history. The imaginative appeal of The Terminator lay not in the fact of him being a killer robot - lots of those in the genre ghetto - but in him being a killer robot in the here and now. Think of Quatermass and the Pit without its postwar atmosphere and the London Underground. In a show like Space Chase we're giving up the possibility of a familiar setting and so we really have to concentrate our sense of familiarity into the characters. This seems to me to be where Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine are falling down; the settings are strange and remote, and so are the people.
This is why I made our Hero an uninformed courier rather than a physicist. We live in a world where we can record and play back within seconds images of events on the other side of the planet. Except that when we come to play it back, we get The Sooty Show because we never quite mastered how to set the video timer. That's the kind of relationship to technology that everyone can recognise and feel an empathy for. If we make him a physicist, we've got to have the physics. The worst SF of the last decade has been written by a bunch of people who once worked for NASA or JPL.
We should also cultivate a general sense of the difference between what's refreshingly bizarre, and what's out-and-out stupid. I had a certain affection for the miniseries V because it was handsomely-done and moved along with great verve, but it fell badly at the Stupid fence. It wasn't just a matter of wondering how, after the aliens pulled their rubber masks off, their heads suddenly got bigger underneath; it was the entire premise that they'd hatch their elaborate plot in order to steal water, the commonest and most easily-manufactured compound in all of chemistry. In the end, V was revealed as the commonest form of naive SF; the po-faced allegory.
By contrast, there's a lizard-disguised-as-human unmasking in Bill, The Galactic Hero that I think works considerably better. Not that it's any more credible. The top of the human's head pops open on a hinge and the enemy, a six-inch long Chinger, leaps out and shouts a few defiant slogans before disappearing under the furniture. Inspection of the human's head reveals a tiny control room with TV screens and levers and a driver's seat. But I suppose that what it comes down to is that this unmasking is witty, whereas the other was witless.
It seems to me that we have a tremendous amount of flexibility within this format. We could do shipboard drama, we could do a new world every week. Sometimes the Scrapper could be involved, sometimes it need never appear. In one episode, the motley crew could steal back onto the Scrapper to get hold of something vital. But to give us a sense of a through-line, I think we should devise an arc for the season that balances the episodes up and also gives us a season-finale episode with a special sense of wallop. The main through-line, I believe, should depend on the relationship between our Hero and the Paramedical Officer. There's endless mileage in a relationship where two people are denying their attraction to each other (remember Sam and Diane in the original Cheers?) and we have the constant presence of the chief navigator, not quite dead but he'll never come back, to increase the sense of resistance as the sexual energy builds up its charge.
To keep a genuine sense of danger, we should plan for a firmly-established character to die somewhere around episode three (and, playing by the rules we've established, there's no get-out clause to magic the dead back into life with miracle technology). In the final episode, they get caught by the Scrapper and everything that can go wrong for them, does. They get betrayed by the oldster who originally switched sides and helped them to escape; and then maybe we pull a reverse and reveal that it was a deliberate plot to get something vital out of the Scrapper so that near-death turns into a major nose-tweaking. Here we have a choice; we can either engineer their re-escape around a forced major leap-forward in the man-woman relationship, or we can leave it in a series of huge cliffhangers awaiting resolution in season two's opener. Either way, capture and re-escape gives us the opportunity to retune the format for the second season based on whatever we learned from the first.
As far as getting a range of good and interesting stories is concerned, it strikes me that there's an interesting lesson to be learned about TVSF from past examples. There's a pattern. In the original Star Trek, some of the best episodes came about when a practising SF writer was approached for material. The writer would then turn in a script which would be great writing but not produceable. A hasty rewrite by the production team on the night before shooting would produce a cut-down and more TV-conventional version which would a) earn eternal enmity and sometimes litigation from the writer, and b) go on to win awards and admiration and generally be remembered as one of the series' best achievements (cf Harlan Ellison's City on the Edge of Forever, and Norman Spinrad's The Doomsday Machine).
At the opposite end of the scale, there's the result that you get when you play safe and farm out all the scripts to established TV professionals with no literary SF background but a reliable screenwriting sense. What you get, essentially, is Space 1999.
My suggestion is that we can take these lessons and use them to produce something that has the chance of being consistently exceptional. Firstly, agree a list of genre names whom we can approach - real names with track-records and followings and an unquestioned facility with this form of fiction. I've a lot of contacts in this area and if there's anyone I haven't met or can't reach, I can at least get hold of someone who can. Explain the format and from those who show an interest, commission an idea (this doesn't have to involve much expenditure at this stage but, based on a story that I heard Harry Harrison tell about being approached by Gene Roddenberry, one is likely to get short shrift when requesting ideas from working pros for free. The ones most worth getting on board are the ones who'll have heard it all before. When word gets around, you can be guaranteed that there will be plenty of submissions sent in for nothing). If the idea sparks, commission development to a blow-by-blow, three-act treatment… and then, unless you've a writer who's demonstrably keen and capable of progressing into script form, have it understood from the beginning that you then bring in a team of house writers to finish up the job. This way the function of the Name is to storyline, just as in most soap operas, while the use of house writers brings consistency and eliminates a lot of the friction that you get when you see your finished script torn apart and refinished by other hands.
As for who the house writers should be… I don't know but please, God, not me, not me.