Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Carleton Eastlake takes us from a Farscape to The Outer Limits

I’ve been a Science Fiction fan since as far back as I can remember. I grew up watching shows like Star Trek, The Time Tunnel and The Twilight Zone. Back then sci-fi (or is it SyFy?) shows were few and far between.

One of the best science fictions series ever to air, in my opinion, was Farscape. I know a lot of Battlestar Galactica fans will probably take umbrage with that, and don’t get me wrong, I liked BG, but there was something unique about Farscape that I’d never seen before and haven’t since. The cast, the premise, the writing, the stories all came together in an oddly appealing formation that came at you from out of left field. How a show like that ever made it onto the air I have no idea. Chalk it up to the genius of Rockne O’Bannon and the guts of the Sci-Fi channel.

So imagine my excitement when I became friends with one of the series writer/producers several years ago. During his tenure with the series, Carleton Eastlake had written one of my favorite episodes, the two-parter titled, “Infinite Possibilities.” Yeah, even writers get a little fan struck from time to time.

So with that in mind I grabbed a few moments with my friend, Carleton Eastlake.

In addition to being a Sci-Fi writer, Carleton’s credits include work in crime fiction, historical fiction, action-adventure, and comic action-adventure. He’s written for V, SeaQuest DSV, Star Trek Voyager, Earth Final Conflict and Farscape. Carleton has also written scripts for Airwolf, Murder She Wrote and The Equalizer. Currently, Carleton is running for the Writers Guild Board and was the first nominee I personally endorsed. Fortunately, that hasn’t detracted other writers from endorsing him too.

Jeffrey Berman: You’ve written for some of my favorite Science Fiction TV series. So how does writing Sci-Fi differ from say, a drama or procedural series?

Carleton Eastlake: I think good science fiction and fantasy, because they break some or many of the rules of the real world, require that the rules of the imagined world be interesting and consistently applied. So much more attention needs to be paid to the mythology.
At the same time, there’s more room, if done in a credible way, to keep things fresh by evolving those rules, making new discoveries…here come The Borg with all sorts of new moral and psychological issues – and very different spacecraft!

On the other hand, it’s a little harder to keep the dramatic, psychological side of a science-fiction show compelling. It’s easier to ignore those concerns or be distracted from them. But if the show is consistent about its rules, then the character side of the show can absolutely work. Crichton and Aeryn on Farscape were very much in love and very much troubled by the moral conflict between running away and having a life, or staying and fighting to save their societies.
It’s also important in a science fiction show that the plot issue of the day be motivated by the implications of the world the show is set in. Attempts to do actual medical or criminal or legal procedural shows in a science fiction setting are very, very hard to pull off – the science fiction side undermines the credibility of the procedural issue, and the procedural issue rarely delivers on the magic and wonder of the setting.

JB: What kind of research, if any, did you do when you were writing/producing episodes of Seaquest DSV?

CE: Very little. In its first season, when I wasn’t on it, the show had the famed Bob Ballard as a consultant. The new team second season dropped his deal and approached SeaQuest mostly as fantasy without much arcing or attention given to the implications of its own imagined technology.

I had actually spent five days on a U.S. Navy guided missile frigate, and drew on that experience and on my general love of military science fiction and technology, but it wasn’t a requirement of the show.

Burning Zone, on the other hand, in its first several episodes, made good use of medical and science consultants. In my first episode, when the team synthesized an antiviral drug from ingredients on board the 747 so the pilot might live long enough to land the plane, the real science team devised at least a scientifically conceivable way of doing so.

JB: Farscape was by far one of the greatest Sci-Fi series that ever aired. When writing for a show like that, or any of the other series you were on staff for, was there a bible you were required to follow or were you free to write pretty much anything you wanted? And if there was a bible, does that in any way restrict your creativity?

CE: Farscape didn’t have a written bible after, I think, the first season, but absolutely had a deep respect for the continuity of its characters’ histories. You just had to learn it, and of course David Kemper would guarantee you followed it.

The shows had season or even series-long arcs, so most things had to fit into the sequence. The last episode I wrote – near the end of the last season – had 18 regular and recurring characters to service!

But within that context, there was plenty of room and need for creativity. I did an episode in which I had to service the arc’s requirement that the heroes discover two opposed alien enemies are in fact forming a secret alliance that will jeopardize all the alien civilizations. At the same time, as a lark, the preceding episode established all the males had gone off on a macho guy thing. So my episode had to be about the females – who in general were probably more competent and formidable than the males – going off alone.

But then it was up to all of us to make a story around that. So we had the females go to a spa world to get make-overs…but for their starship, changing its sensor profile when scanned at long range so it seems like a different type of ship. (This then became part of the continuity and yes indeed, in later episodes, other writers used the identity generator to sneak the ship into places where it didn’t belong. And it’s good S-F – U.S. Navy warships use fairly similar technology to disrupt missile attacks.) While waiting for the ship mod, they are horrified to stumble across the evidence that the new alliance is forming. To escape, etc., some of them have to get make-overs themselves, changing their DNA signature…and turning our Black-And-White Girl into a Technicolor marvel for awhile. That’s an example of creativity interacting with continuity.

I’ve been on another series where the writers had contempt for, or fear of, the genre and the audience and laughed about the written bible, which had been produced only to assuage the network, and then abandoned. That was a sad, sad experience.

JB: Were your episodes of the new Outer Limit series based on original ideas or were they pitched to you? What are the rules a writer should follow when writing for an anthology series?

CE: I wrote two episodes on which I had sole credit. (Trilogy had a smart policy that showrunners could only write one episode before shooting began and a second over the Christmas break – producing an anthology show was just too time consuming to allow the showrunner to take more time away from the daily production and from rewriting to budget.)
The first episode was about a resource exploration team from Earth who discover a valuable planet and eliminate the native savages who get in their way. It turns out the “savages” were the alien equivalent of boy scouts on a camping trip – which the explorers learn when a Star Destroyer (an alien warcraft that looks like it could eat even a star for lunch) roars out of hyperspace responding to the dead kids’ emergency beacon…and incinerates our guys before heading toward Earth.

This episode was inspired by a newspaper account of the jolly adventures of a company of Serbian mercenaries raping and pillaging their way through a copper-rich province of the Congo. They had a great time, and thought that they were far superior to the savages…until they ran into a unit of the South African Army special forces. Ooops!

The second episode was about an engineering graduate student who flunked out of school after being badly treated, he felt at least, by various faculty and staff. Turns out that an exam question demanding he download the reasons why cold fusion is impossible inspired him to actually see that it is possible. To prove his point, he builds a cold-fusion bomb and returns to the university demanding that the people who treated him badly be executed by the government or he’ll destroy the entire city. The hostage negotiator finally realizes to his horror that the student is in part so nihilistic because he sees that the genie is out of the bottle. The insights he had were inevitable and so, soon, many people will be building city-destroying bombs in their kitchen sink.
The director actually rebelled over this script initially, telling me it was immoral to suggest that the government would start shooting innocent people to stop or appease a terrorist. Obviously, this was before 9-11.

Anyway…this script was inspired by an account I had read of the history of the atomic bomb. It mentioned that possibly the first person in the world to realize an A-Bomb could be built was a graduate student in Germany who was riding on a subway while reading a technical journal with a note reporting an excess release of energy from the neutron bombardment of fissionable material. It occurred to him, hey, since the reaction also released more neutrons, if this was a big enough lump of uranium…it would release a whole lot of energy all at once.
I am deeply concerned that mankind will engineer its way into a kitchen-table means of killing itself. And then somebody will do it. This was meant as a totally serious cautionary tale.
As for anthology writing, I suppose the major rule is that the episodes of an anthology need to have enough thematic consistency that the series feels like a series., i.e. that it offers a sufficiently predictable type of experience that the audience gets what it was looking for when it tuned in. I think not many people really understand this rule, which is one reason why most anthology series fail and we have so few of them.

JB: What is it about writing Science Fiction that attracts you and what advice would you offer for up and coming writers who are fans of the genre?

CE: As you can see above, I enjoy writing social-science fiction that explores moral themes. Most, not all, so-called science fiction is really fantasy or technologically enhanced action adventure, which I also enjoy. Like nerds everywhere, I love technology and its implications, and love military and social history.

Fans of a genre, whatever it is, of course need to be good writers generally and respect the genre and love it. They need surprisingly little actual knowledge to write television science fiction. On the other hand, if they intend to write prose, they need a deep grounding in technology for hard-core SF, or in medieval and ancient history and the conventions of the genre for sword-and-dragon fantasy. And so forth…