Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Interview: J. Michael Straczynski

One of the most popular science fiction writers in Hollywood, Straczynski is best known as the creator of the TV show Babylon 5, for which he wrote almost a hundred scripts, and he also has countless other writing credits for various TV shows, comic books, feature films, cartoons, books, and articles. Together with the Wachowskis, he co-created the Netflix original series Sense8, which we reviewed in episode 157 and which was just renewed for a second season.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.

You said that as a child you would steal science fiction books and read them, then bring them back?

Back when I was a kid, libraries tended not to stock a lot of science fiction. They did give a few necessary things they had to, like 1984, Brave New World, a couple of Bradburys, but to find anything with more meat to it, you really had to go somewhere else. They didn’t consider science fiction to be literature. So the options I had for finding science fiction books were limited. But when I was a kid living in Newark, twelve or so, the corner stores had a section where they sold books on the spinner racks; romance, crime, and science fiction by the best writers of the time that came out from very small publishers. I didn’t have money to buy them, so I would figure out where the mirrors were positioned so I could create a blind spot, pick out one or two books—usually the ones that said “Hugo Winner”—put them in my notebook or pocket, buy a candy bar at most, read it at home in such a way that I would not break the spine, and put my school books on top of it to flatten it back out again. Then I would bring it back to the store, put it in the spinner-rack, and take the next one; it became my library. My only concern was that I would get caught putting them back, because who would believe I was trying to put the books back?

It’s interesting that you were so scrupulously honest as a twelve-year-old. Do you think you were naturally an honest person? Or did you absorb some sort of lesson somewhere?

Certainly comic books gave me a sense of morality; I always looked to Superman as a role model, in how he dealt with the world and people. Plus, my father was a crook and a terrible human being, and I thought I would always go the opposite direction from him. He would’ve kept the books, so I had to be sure to return them.

Would he have destroyed them? I heard you say that he actually tore up your comic book collection at some point.

Yeah, he was a pretty evil guy. We moved every six to eight months, when I was a kid. For the first ten years of my life, I went to a different school every year, and so my grades were never great. He was always looking for an excuse for that, and one particular time I had mouthed off to him when I probably should not have done so. And I was poor and really had to trade to get what I wanted; I had a pretty good collection, and kept my comics in pristine condition. I had a complete run of X-Men, the first issue, and Fantastic Four—All these books, complete runs; the first appearance of Spider-man and Amazing Fantasy; books that now would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in value, I kept in a box with a circle on the outside, and written inside the circle was “Joe’s Comics.” And as I sat there, he put the comics in front of me and began tearing them up until all that was left was the box. Which is why later on I made it my company—Joe’s Comics. In later years, he would lament the fact that he had done it, only because he could’ve gotten the money for it, but at the time no one knew they had value. They had value to me on an emotional basis, and he wanted to hurt me.

You’re obviously a hardcore science fiction fan; you’ve read all these books, and then you went up to Hollywood, where my impression is that people don’t read a lot of science fiction novels. Is that true? What was it like for you showing up there? Did you feel out of place, or did you connect with other people who were interested in reading science fiction?

I think that science fiction now is more a literature of Hollywood than when I got here. Back then, it was a lot of suits who were afraid of science fiction because they didn’t know what it was. It’s worth pointing out that when I first came to LA, I came here in the persona of a journalist. I’d been working in San Diego for San Diego Magazine, San Diego Reader, the LA Times San Diego bureau. I got the opportunity to come to Los Angeles when I got my first contract for a book, so for the first three or four years, I was primarily working as a reporter. I knew a number of television writers, most of them in animation, and they were in the science fiction genre. I was a fan of the genre. I went to bookstore signings, hung out with science fiction writers, but I wasn’t really living in that world until I sold a couple of short stories here and there and then got into animation.

If there’s any one thing that I would point out about that time versus now, it’s I had about twenty friends who were television writers primarily working in the science fiction genre, and virtually all of them are no longer writing in television. What happens sometimes, with writers in any genre, is that they define themselves to death. They say, “This is what I do. This is the kind of story that I tell. This is how I write.” And that’s great, as long as the market keeps buying that. When the market shifts, if you don’t shift with it—at least in terms of learning new ideas, new technology, being open and responsive to the changes in society—you get left behind. And I think that points to the importance of staying fresh and current as a writer and not becoming complacent. Complacency kills careers faster than anything.

You mention that you started out in animation, and you worked on a lot of my favorite cartoons as a kid: He-Man and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors and The Real Ghostbusters . . .

I’m sorry.

Well, I liked them when I was a kid. I still think The Real Ghostbusters is a pretty well written show. I went back and watched it recently and I was noticing that, in addition to you, Michael Reeves and David Gerrold also wrote episodes, these writers that I know from science fiction. Did you get a lot of other science fiction writers working in the animation departments?

Yeah; what was good about the show was that it was a groundbreaker. DiC Entertainment had done a number of shows, but until that one they primarily did gang credits—they put all their writers’ credits in the back of an episode in a group so that you never knew who wrote what. I said, “I can bring in good science fiction writers, who know their stuff, but they’re going to want to have their names up front where they, quite frankly, belong.” I was able to use that pressure to pry loose the single-credit process, and once we did it, other shows were able to do it as well. So, to me, it was important, not just to change the credit situation, but because I wanted us not to be just a kids’ show. I wanted it to delve into the history and language and literature of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Because of that, the show had a maturity to it that, with some glitches here and there, persists and is still appreciable now.

Also, somewhere in there you met Harlan Ellison? Or you gave him a phone call?

That happened earlier, when I was still living in San Diego. I had been writing and selling things for a while, and then I hit this stretch where I wasn’t selling anything. I didn’t realize at the time that every writer goes through a series of plateaus, where you know you aren’t writing where you should be writing, but you can’t write at the level you were, and everything you write in-between just explodes in front of you and won’t sell. Growing up as someone who wanted to be a writer, the introduction that Harlan Ellison did to his stories really sustained me. I was a street rat, had grown up a street rat, I come from nothing, my family has no connection to literature or writing, and in his introductions I found a kindred spirit. Harlan Ellison was a street rat. He had run with gangs; he was considered trouble. I remembered that in one of his introductions, he had given his phone number. “I wonder if that’s real,” thought I, so I dialed the number and waited and it began to ring. There was a click and I heard, “Yeah?”

“Is this Har-har-har-lan Ellison?” says I.

“Yeah, what do you want?”

“My-my-my-my name is Joe,” I say, stammering through the whole thing, “And I’m a writer and my stuff isn’t selling and I thought you might have some advice.” Which is the stupidest thing to ask any writer; it’s like saying to someone, “What are you doing to my wife?” There is no good answer to that question.

So he says, “All right. Here’s what you do: If it’s not selling, it’s shit. My advice to you? Stop writing shit.”

“. . .Thank you, Mr. Ellison.” Years later, I got to LA and we met in bits and pieces and eventually we became friends, and I finally reminded him of that conversation. And he said, “Were you offended?” And I said, “Had you been wrong, I would’ve been offended.” But he wasn’t.

Another show you worked on that I loved as kid was the new Twilight Zone that Harlan wrote for, along with a bunch of other big science fiction authors. Did you bring all those people onto that show?

No. There were two iterations of that: the CBS version that Harlan worked on, and when they finished up that version, they wanted to do thirty additional half hours direct to syndication in order to fill out the package; back then, you needed to have at least ninety episodes to syndicate. That crowd had, for the most part, moved on and chose not to be involved in our version, even though I thought, in many ways, we were going back to Rod’s morality fables.

I did one episode for the network version and was told flat out by Philip DeGuere that, “We’re not trying to do morality tales. We’re not trying to do Rod Serling. We’re not trying to do anything edgy and dark.” And I remember thinking, “Well, then why do you call it Twilight Zone?” When we did our version—and people get upset when I say this, but I’m just repeating back what I was told and what he said flat out in interviews—we went back towards that morality-fable point of view, and a lot of them opted not to come and play with us. We had a copy of Alan Brennert’s adaptation of the “The Cold Equations,” which we produced, but otherwise it was other writers who came in, and many of them were quite new.

I know George R.R. Martin worked on the show, I think on the earlier iteration, but I was just curious if you had worked with him at all.

When I first sold an episode to the network version, I heard that George was trying to discourage them from buying my script, because I think he enjoyed being the resident science fiction representative after Harlan left; I don’t know that for a fact, that’s just what I was told. Regardless, I had nothing to do with him beyond that, on the first version or my version.

Then, obviously, you launched Babylon 5, and it’s famous for creating this idea of the five-season arc. It seems like it’s really hard just to get a science fiction show made in Hollywood at all. Could you talk about how you came up with the idea of the five-season arc and what made it feasible?

Bear in mind I’m Russian, and Russians tell long stories. We don’t know how to tell short stories or give a short answer to a question, as you’ve seen so far. It always frustrated me that, having grown up reading sagas like Lord of the Rings and Childhood’s End, nowhere in television did you find something of a parallel construction. When I came up with the storyline for Babylon 5, it came in as a saga, not as a series of episodes. Back then, episodic science fiction was all there was, and that applied to most television as well. No one had ever done a story that said, “Look, we’re going to do it in five years, beginning, middle, and end, and every season based on the section of a book in the sense of introduction, rising action, complication, climax, and denouement.” When I went around to talk about this, I was told repeatedly that’s not going to fly. People haven’t got the attention span for it. Back then, all science fiction hit the reset button at the end of the episode, but I knew that this would work.

It wasn’t until Chris-Craft Television came on at Warner’s to make the deal that we were finally able to get this thing on the air, and even then people kept saying that other than Star Trek, no space-based science fiction series—American shows, at least—have gone more than three seasons in twenty-five years. I would tell them, “I’m on a mission from God, motherfucker.” We got it, and the funny thing has been seeing that spread over the subsequent years. When Damon Lindelof came on to develop Lost, he said straight up to me, “We want to pattern this after the five-year arc you have in Babylon 5.” And Battlestar did a similar thing. Now, it’s become “the thing,” at least in terms of the attempt. I had a meeting at a network a couple years ago where I was talking about a show I wanted to do with the five-year arc and the main guy in the room said, “Look, we have people coming in all the time saying ‘we want to do a five-year arc.’ They can never pull it off successfully; what makes you think you can do it?” I invented it, all right?

One thing that’s interesting about Babylon 5, that I’ve seen a lot of people talking about, is that you had the idea of gay marriage as just an ordinary fact of life. How did it come about that you wrote that into the story? Did you get any pushback?

Surprisingly, no pushback. They are always more open to doing that in a science fiction context rather than a mainstream context, at least back then. My sense was that if we hit a point where we are actually having interaction with alien civilizations, the differences between ourselves become far less important. Gender, sexuality, ethnic background—those pale into the background when you’re sitting across from something with fangs and fur and three heads. And I thought, that being the case, then gay marriage shouldn’t even be an issue. So we have Franklin and Marcus going off to Mars as a married gay couple as their cover, and no one said boo about the social aspects.

What sort of reactions did you get when that aired? Did you get positive and/or negative responses from viewers?

We didn’t make a big deal out of it; it was just there, and those who saw it responded, for the most part, very positively. Most people just accepted it as context and let it roll right off of them.

That’s great. When you’re looking back on Babylon 5 now, what would you say are some of the big lessons that you drew from that experience that you would apply to television shows you’re making now?

Because no one had ever done it before, I was making up the structure as I went; now, looking back, if I were to do it again, there are certain elements I would adjust. I would put more visible arc stuff in the first season. Most of it is “when writers talk to each other” kind of stuff, which makes for terrible radio or podcasts, but suffice to say that whenever you write something, you learn the lessons that thing has to teach you. That’s why a lot of people who want to be writers, who spend years working on one script or book, I tell them, “You’re doing this wrong. Finish that, whatever it is, and move on.” As a writer, your job is to acquire tools for your toolbox that will allow you to write more, and more complex things; every time you write a story or a script, you acquire another tool for your toolbox. For me, that show provided a lot of tools; can I say specifically that, “this tool taught me this?” No, but in the aggregate, I learned a lot of lessons from that that are able to feed into my work now.

I saw you give an interview a couple of years ago where you were asked about collaborating on screenplays, and you said, “I tend to personally avoid it, only because gunfire erupts at some point. I don’t play well with others.” So I thought, given that, it was interesting you decided to collaborate with the Wachowskis on this new show, Sense8. What made you want to collaborate this time? And how long do you think it will be before gunfire erupts?

Fortunately, our temperaments are much the same, our interests and social perspectives are very much in sync with each other. I was hesitant going in, but to delve more deeply into the root of what you asked, that question was about collaborating on the script with someone, so you’re both in the same room writing something versus what we did on Sense8, which was they would write two scripts and hand them off to me; I would read them, revise them, make changes. I would write the next two scripts, fire back at them, they would read, revise, check, then write their next scripts. And because we were both writing and rewriting each other, we ended up sharing credit on everything. We did sit together for months to work out the structure of the show, talking about the characters—where they were going, what they wanted, what they believed in, what they were afraid of, and what they hoped to achieve—but when the actual writing started, we went off to our separate corners of the ring and did our thing. This season is more of a direct writing, with all of us in a room, so that should be interesting. I think there will probably not be gunfire, but you never know.

Would you say that you focus on a particular area more than they do? Like character, action, setting, or dialogue?

If I had to break it down very mechanically, they’re terrific on action, really good on plot; structure I think they struggle with a little bit, and character they’re also good at. In my case, I’m a structural demon. I lock on to structure like nobody’s business. I’m soft on plot. I love action but I can’t often make it work in a script as well as I would like to, and I’m also good on character. So like two keys, when you put them side by side, they mesh really well; their strengths make up for my weaknesses and my strengths make up for whatever they’re still working on. It’s a very good combination.

From the earliest concept to the final version, were there any major changes you made along the way in how the story turned out?

Whenever you write something for the first time, you’re really telling the story to yourself. We did a couple versions early on that were us feeling our way through the story, the world, and there was more of Whispers involved. One sensate was in Iraq. It was a very different kind of a story, and we thought, “Okay, is that what we actually want to tell the story about? Do we want to, just like every other show, cut to the bad guys, or do we want to stay in subjective camera?” And that became the anchor for all the subsequent iterations.

If you look at the show, after the first opening sequence where the sensates are born, the entire story is told from their perspective. Usually, in any kind of science fiction show, you cut away from your good guys to what your bad guys are doing, and along the way you can get information from the characters that helps move the plot along. But because our characters didn’t know what was happening to them, and we couldn’t cut away, we realized that we were going to stick the audience in that same position, which is a very risky proposition, particularly because science fiction shows tend to be very much oriented on the plot, the gimmicks, the gadgets, the mission, and that’s all spelled out pretty quickly early on in the process. Here you wouldn’t find out what that was all about for several episodes. It was a calculated risk, but we figured that the Netflix model lets us do that and the audience is hip enough and strong enough to wait to figure it out. We’ve shot it, really, as kind of a twelve hour movie, and the first four hours are the first act, and the next are the second act, and the last four hours are the last act. If you were in a movie theater and you were twenty minutes into the first act of a mystery, you wouldn’t expect to have all the information. We figured we’d use that same approach, and people will stick around or they won’t. Happily, they did.

So when you’re setting your story in places like India, Kenya, and South Korea, how familiar were you with the countries going in? Did you have to do a lot of research or travel?

We did a buttload of research on each area. When we were in India, Mumbai, we would sit down with people who ran a restaurant, because one of our characters is the daughter of a guy who runs a restaurant, just to get to know them, and that would feed into the story. Fortunately, Tom Tykwer has shot previously in Nairobi quite a bit and his experience let him direct those sequences with a certain degree of verisimilitude. The Wachowskis had lived in Berlin for a number of years, I had visited there numerous times and worked on projects there, so we had a fairly good foundation of things, but we then took advantage of the location scouting process to immerse ourselves, so we could make the revisions of the script that much more authentic.

The cool thing about this is, as we were starting prep, we had a meeting with a guy in San Francisco who was the production coordinator assigned to us from the company in India that would be working with us. He said, “As a rule, we have two kinds of productions happening in Mumbai; the first is our own stories about us and our culture, our language, history, and religion that we make for ourselves and they never really get much release in the Western world. The other kind we make are Western stories set against an Indian backdrop; we’re just the curtain hanging behind them. This is the first Western show about us, and we can’t tell you how much that means to us.” For Lana, Andy, and myself, that was a really great personal moment, to have that kind of feedback and know we had done it right.

Speaking of their religion, there’s this subplot in India where there’s this clash between the more modern-oriented people and the more religious fundamental people. Is that inspired by some specific events that have been happening in India?

Yeah, there was a case about four years ago where there was a fellow trying to pass laws against religious panhandling, where they could do charms or curses for you, providing fraudulent religious practices for money. And he was assassinated, much as our character in Sense8.

That’s interesting. I would guess that a lot of times the reason there aren’t stories made in Hollywood about people in India, or set in India, is because they don’t think it will sell; did you have any pushback from money-making people in terms of having those characters set in those locations?

Zero, because we aren’t dealing with movies; we’re dealing with a television network, and Netflix really got behind the show and the international aspect of it. They are looking, on their own, to expand their international horizons and broaden their opportunities. They saw this as a net positive all around; in point of fact, the show is sitting very high up in every market, while other shows they do may do well domestically, but don’t have the same success overseas. That shows it was a pretty worthwhile gambit on their part.

Netflix has never been anything but supportive. They never questioned us or stopped us from doing anything. Their main role, as we went along, was really to keep us on target. On any big project, halfway through, everybody forgets what the hell they signed on to do in the first place, and their task was to nudge us back on track.

There was an article on io9 and the headline was, “Sense8 is the Philip K. Dick adaptation we always wanted.” When we discussed the show previously on this podcast, I said I thought it was more the Theodore Sturgeon adaptation we always wanted. I was curious to get your opinion on which science fiction books or authors had the most influence on the show.

That’s more a fan point of view, because whenever something comes on, the first impulse is to compare it to what went before, but that doesn’t really involve the creative side of it. As we sat down to create the story, Philip Dick, Ted Sturgeon—none of that was ever mentioned. It really came down to, “Who are these characters? What countries are they in? What’s their family background? What do they want to achieve with their lives? And what happens if they find themselves suddenly in each other’s heads?” That being said, obviously we all stand on the shoulders of giants and there is a subconscious or cultural debt there, but in terms of specifically saying, “Ted Sturgeon did this, so we should do this, or Philip K. Dick did this . . .” That never happened.

What do you think about the critical reaction to the show overall? It seems like it was a little negative at first, but as the show went on, the critics got more and more positive. Do you agree that’s what happened? What’s your overall take on that?

It seems like there’s two kinds of critical reactions: those who didn’t like the show, and those who saw more than three episodes. Persistently and consistently, as critics and people got past the first three, they fell in love. This also speaks something to a . . . maybe prejudice is the wrong word, but certainly an inclination to view science fiction through a different lens than mainstream shows. If you look at series like The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire—no one ever said of House of Cards, episode three, “When are they going to get to the point?” or “What’s the plot?” But science fiction tends to be lumped in with those that must show their cards early on, because traditionally it has been about the mission, the gadget, the McGuffin, and when we made a show about the journey, a lot of critics rebelled at that. We were being too ambitious or thinking outside of what we should be as a science fiction show. We were trying to change the definition of science fiction, how it’s perceived on television. Our hope is that this will change the standard by which science fiction shows tend to be evaluated.

Absolutely. Were there any critics that you thought really got it, or said something really astute that made you look at the show in a new way?

Not that I can think of offhand; that being said, there have been some critics who have come back and requested to do second reviews of the show and say it’s a pretty good show. So I think the problem was just making the first three episodes available and not the rest; had more been seen, the initial reaction would’ve been much better.

How about fan reaction? Do any really stick out in your mind?

More the totality than the singularity of it. When the show went up, I made a point to park myself on Twitter and just start watching the reactions. They started off very slow: “What is this new thing in on Netflix? What’s it all about?” Of course, you can’t jump ahead, they have to watch every episode. You’re watching them watch it in real time: “I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. What’s going on?” And then over the next several days I was seeing the speed of the tweets increasing, the energetic, positive responses increasing. After about two or three days, I was watching 200 tweets a minute about the show, and suddenly it became a Thing. If you weren’t watching it, talking about it, or about to watch it, you weren’t hip. As someone who’s never been hip his entire life, that was pretty cool. So, really it was that the word-of-mouth acceptance of the show that really drove it. The sheer number of reviews and positive comments was breathtaking.

There’s an old saying about critics, when you get a questionable review: “No one liked it but the audience.” And that’s kind of the case here, where it was the audience who drove the show, not the critics.

It’s very exciting that Sense8 has been renewed for a second season. Is there anything you want to say about that, or that you can tell us about what’s going to happen in season two?

I really can’t; we’re in the process of pulling together all of our bits and pieces to get the thing mounted as fast as we can. We’d much rather have that revealed in the course of showing the second season than talk about it.

What do you think were the key factors in the show getting renewed? If it’s an online show like this, do they have the same ratings, or is it social media tension or reviews? What are the factors that go into making that decision?

I think it’s a stew of all those things. Netflix doesn’t release the figures, but what I’ve heard from them internally is that it’s done ridiculously well for them. It’s certainly been massively successful overseas, which is a big goal of theirs. And they really believe in the message of what we’re doing, and they dialed into the social and gender elements early on. They’ve been our unflagging supporters on some pretty controversial stuff that’s in the show. There were some behind-the-scenes business things that had to happen with elements that were outside of our control that held up the renewal for longer than we would’ve liked, but the good thing was that when everything was finally settled, it happened to coincide with the birth of the sensates, on 8/8.

Was there anything in the first season that you held back on because you weren’t sure how it would be received, and now that the show is a success it’s off the hook, anything goes?

We showed full frontal male nudity and babies crowning. The thing that’s cool about the Wachowskis, and myself, is that we are kind of fearless, so at no time—either in the writing or the shooting—did we say, “Are we going too far? Or should we pull back?” The moment you start thinking about the audience, you’re doomed. You need to tell the story that works for you in the hope that someone else will buy into it. Mark Twain made the argument that within us we contain all of humanity. We all want the same things. A better life for ourselves and our kids. We want to achieve joy, happiness, love. If you write for yourself, and you are true to those emotions and those motivations, then the writing will be true and people will identify with it. The moment you start second-guessing yourself, the writing becomes false.

Going forward, if people like the show and they want it to continue into season three, what can they do to help make sure we get a season three?

Well let’s make season two, first. Ultimately, it comes down to the numbers and the reception, so the fans have done their part; they stepped up and offered their support and kind words for season one. Now it’s up to us to make season two as good as we can.

What do you think the success of Sense8 heralds for science fiction on television? Does this mean we’ll be getting more science fiction shows in the future?

When we set out to do this, we were very cognizant of the fact that—as I’ve said, probably impolitely—a lot of television science fiction is either written by, or aimed at, guys who are afraid of girls. It tends to be a genre about the gimmick, and not as strongly oriented toward character or the journey. Not all of them, but that tends to be the case, particularly when it comes to sexuality and serious subject matter. There’s always been this weird dance between science fiction and politics, how much one will get into the other, and the way science fiction television has dealt with this has been just to ignore politics, gender, and sexuality unless they could attach it to some other race. So we have aliens that can change gender and isn’t it amazing? That lets them explore general themes without making it about real people. We just figured we’d go for broke and make this about us going through these things. To use the show to examine issues of sexuality, gender, privacy, politics, and religion, not from some weird alien race, but from ourselves. My hope is that, having cracked that door open, we’ll begin to see more of that mature level of science fiction being done elsewhere.

Prior to a certain point, cop shows were not considered a franchise; they were niche programming of interest to those who liked police procedurals, they were never a big ratings thing, much as networks tend to do with science fiction. Two shows changed that. The first was Dragnet, which was the first—as corny as it is in retrospect—that showed cops on dates. They got married, divorced, and it made them human. But it stayed niched genre until one show concluded that process: Hill Street Blues, which not only showed everything right that had been done in the other shows, but also cops had drug and drinking problems and issues dealing with sex. Suddenly, that show transformed the cop genre into a franchise, where there were all kinds of shows opening up with more mature storytelling. Science fiction has had its Dragnet moments, but we’re hoping this will be the Hill Street Blues moment, to say to people who are smarter and brighter and better writers than we are, you can go to places you didn’t think you could go. You can tell stories about topics and issues you thought you couldn’t handle in the genre, not because you couldn’t tell it personally, but because there wouldn’t be a reception for it. We encourage people, other shows, to not worry about writing down to kids. This is a genre that can handle adult stuff.

What do you think about the prospects of good outer space science fiction in particular? I’ve heard you say that network executives have told you the show has to be set on Earth or no one will care.

I’m not sure where that rule seems to have come from, but in the last few years it really tends to be a big bugaboo for them. That’s kind of a misnomer. When you’re watching a dramatic series about a family, you’re really into what that family does to and with each other and where they’re going to go, not worrying about the rest of the planet blowing up. When you’re watching a science fiction show about a family on another planet, you’re not worrying about what’s happening on Earth, you’re watching that particular family. So, like we saw before with the critical reaction, there are all these rules and stipulations and perceptions about science fiction that are different from every other genre, particularly in the mainstream. No one says of mainstream police drama, “You have to set it in New York because if it happens anywhere else, no one’s going to care about it.” Science fiction television is a genre of rules and limitations, which, for an art form that is all about speculation and possibilities and the broadness of human vision, is counterintuitive. It’s really a case of whittling away at those perceptions.

Why do you think there’s such a difference between film and television in this arena? No one would say that nobody cares about Star Wars, which takes place in outer space, but somehow if it’s television like Battlestar Galactica, you even have the actors saying, “No, this isn’t science fiction.”

Again, it’s perceived as a genre of limitations. So for an actor to say, “We’re doing a science fiction TV show,” it comes with all the limitations that are attendant upon that. Film tends not to worry as much about it because a movie is a one-shot. They don’t worry about you coming back every week, whereas television says that, if you want them to come back and have repeated viewings, it has to be based on Earth. The good thing, right now, is that because film has really become brand-driven, and it’s hard to get original stuff out there, we’re seeing a huge influx of directors and writers coming from film into television. That’s why you’re seeing a new golden age of television. Eventually, that type will go back the other direction, and would like to bring back with them the lessons they learn from television, and film will have its own explosion again.

I had a bunch of people that wanted me to ask you about a Babylon 5 reboot, or your adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. Is there anything you can say about either of those?

My plan is, this year, to finish up the script for a B5 reboot, and then hopefully get funding for it to shoot it next year. For Red Mars, I turned the pilot script in. Spike likes it a great deal. I’m working on the series bible now. I’ll get that done before we get too deep into Sense8, and we’ll have some news about that in the next month or two.

Do you have any other projects you want to mention?

We’re working on Night Gallery; we launch with Universal right now . . . I actually have three other shows in development, one or two which may go ahead, which is cool, but I can’t really talk about them at this moment. We’re also closing a deal right now for me to do a ten-episode adaptation of a very famous science fiction book. I hope to make an announcement in the next three or four weeks. I’ve got two movies that I’m writing . . . Lots of things are happening. Last year was the busiest year I’ve had as a writer, and this year promises to be even busier than last. I find that remarkable.

A lot of writers in Hollywood, the average career span is ten years, because by then the town has figured out who you are; they know all your tricks and lose interest. And I’ve been writing pretty much non-stop, television, then film, then back in television, since 1984. That I’m busier now than I’ve ever been is cool, considering that I have no social skills whatsoever. I think you get to a point where they realize they can’t kill you, can’t put you in prison, they may as well keep hiring you. It’s been very rewarding to have projects come my way that are just exciting and fun and I’m having a blast. I’m working sixteen hours a day, but I’m never tired by it. I get to get up every morning and do what I love for a living. What’s better than that?

We certainly wish you the best, and hope you write tons more stuff. And we’re really looking forward to the second season of Sense8—I love the show—and I just want to thank you for joining us on the show.

Thank you. My pleasure.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.