Writing SF

Canadians Conquer the Universe:
Writing SF

Canadian SF writers go beyond gadgetry with a kid from Moosejaw Heights who is guardian of the universe; a rogue detective whose beat covers several universes; a team who discover the ancient city of Atlantis–in the Pegasus Galaxy; and 4,400 alien abductees returning to earth.

By Vern Smith

Alex Epstein thinks Canadian science-fiction writers shouldn’t worry about doing SF differently from Americans–or anyone else.

New Yorkers generally don’t fret over writing distinctly Big Apple Sci-Fi, so why should anyone tote nationalistic baggage into their future tense? They shouldn’t, Epstein says. (On the other hand, when was the last time you heard New Yorkers fretting over their distinctive identity at all?)

It’s hard enough for writers to keep pace with today’s technology while imagining tomorrow’s. So worrying about national identity may just serve as a distraction.

“That’s the thing,” says Epstein, head writer for the new Sci-Fi TV series Charlie Jade, which premieres April 16 on Space. “New York is not like other places. Montreal is not like other places. So when I work on a show, whether Sci-Fi or not, I don’t worry about whether I’m being Canadian enough.”

Whether they’re just telling good stories or also doing a bit of standing on guard for thee, Canadian writers are quietly doing a fair bit of business in the fictional speculation game–both for the domestic and export markets. We’ve got animation for kids (Atomic Betty), a show that bills itself as science-fact (ReGenesis), and top-notch character-driven adult drama (The 4400).

And there are lots more: from the pre-school stop motion show Lunar Jim to the German-Canadian co-pro Ice Planet, about a handful of humans on a distant world, to Epstein’s Charlie Jade, featuring a rogue detective working in multiple universes. And, of course, David Cronenberg’s seminal feature Videodrome has got to rate on any genre geek’s top ten.

Science is stranger than science fiction
Instead of worrying about just how Canadian these and other SF shows are, Epstein says writers looking to the distant future or to an alternate present have to keep ahead of whatever’s going on now–but without losing the present as a reference point.

New technologies are clearly gaining on fiction. We can carry 20,000 tunes around in our pockets and the Americans air footage from roving cameras on Mars.

Epstein–author of Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made (Owl Books, 2002) and the forthcoming Crafty Television Writing–says a writer really ought to make sure to equip advanced civilizations with technology “at least as good as ours.” He says he’s pretty freakin’ sick of seeing shows like Starship Troopers in which marines with relatively antiquated rifles go up against mammoth insects.

“What happened to the artillery?” he asks. “If you pitted the US marines against Starship Troopers’ marines, the guys in green would take the science-fiction guys apart. And,” he adds, pulling out an old SF fan saw, “How come the Enterprise isn’t equipped with seatbelts?”

You’ve got to have a starting point in order to stretch, and that means staying on top of current gadgetry, and especially weaponry, by reading everything from newspapers to specialized publications. (Gun Tests magazine anyone?)

It’s the same idea if you’re fictionalizing science in general. Brad Wright, showrunner with Robert Cooper for Stargate SG-1 and co-creator of Stargate: Atlantis bases his stories on how we know science to work, taking it from there.

Wright says he tries to incorporate a lot of real science into the show, such as Atlantis’ power sources, which are based on a magazine article he read. Wright says he added “a Sci-Fi
element to the real concept,” and it became a fundamental part of the series.

“Since both series are set in the here and now, it’s important that they be rooted–at least on the surface–in real science and technology,” Wright says.

SF as social commentary
Nifty weapons and gadgets may be fun, but they’re not going to sustain a series.

Epstein says that what the folks watching at home really want is something that responds to anxieties about their world–stories that speak to contemporary societal choices.

“Mary Shelley wrote about man violating the laws of God because she was writing in the early 1800s when factories were destroying rural England,” Epstein says. “Some issues we’re dealing with these days are terrorism, plague, the disappearance of privacy, identity theft… If you extrapolate those problems far enough, you’ve got Sci-Fi that makes sense to people now.”

Making sense to people now is what Scott Peters’ hit cable show The 4400, which airs in Canada on the Space channel, does best.

Peters, a native of Windsor, did like many other Canadians and headed to the States 16 years ago. Since then he’s returned to Canada, though he’s mostly worked on export shows. Before
creating and writing The 4400, he joined The Outer Limits as the show approached its 100th episode and won a Gemini and a WGC Top Ten Award while serving as writer, story editor, director, and producer.

But unlike the B-movie schtick of The Outer Limits, The 4400 became the most-watched basic cable show in the history of American basic cable by avoiding most things techie and all things Ed Wood Jr. There is a spaceship involved, but you never really see it.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why we have such a huge audience,” says Peters. “It has a lot of cross-over interest. If we had guys running around with lasers, we’d get a very small segment. The show spoke to a lot people who are not necessarily Sci-Fi fans.

“We have a large Sci-Fi premise in the pilot, but you can sort of see that wane as you go through the episodes. It’s not about the technology. It’s not about the freak of the week. It appeals to a lot of people because these characters are now outsiders trying to get back in. It’s about life interrupted and that’s really more to the point than any ball falling out of the sky.”

Picking up where Close Encounters left off
The series tells the stories of 4,400 alien abductees returning to earth, and season one, packaged with the two-hour pilot, is doing brisk business on DVD.

Making the actual abductions backstory–such as a black American soldier who was last on earth in 1951, having a relationship with a white woman–the series is decidedly human for a genre often sent-up for its technical wizardry by spoofsters using lots of string, china, and tin. Peters says the human angle comes in because he’s sort of picking up where Close Encounters of the Third Kind left off.

“Where they’re walking off that spaceship is where our story begins. [Close Encounters] is one of my favourite films and I honestly must have just had it stuck in the back of my head. Looking back, clearly those influences found their way in. I just thought it would be a really cool place to tell a character- driven story instead of seeing people getting snatched and seeing the spaceship.

“The character-driven story is what happens in the aftermath of when the rock drops into the pond. I’m more examining the ripples than the actual drop.”

Conversely, The Outer Limits often involved little green men and, presumably, a goodly amount of dry ice.

Great characters win over great gimmicks
One of the dangers of SF shows like The Outer Limits is how quickly they date–even when compared to relative granddads.

“Someone mentioned once that the reason The Twilight Zone holds up is that you can watch an episode in 2005 and think that was really cool,” says Peters. “As opposed to The Outer Limits, where you’re not going to get that all the time because it relied on a guy in a rubber suit or cheesy special effects. As you evolve in terms of your ability to achieve those effects, you’re always going to be much further along down the road than you are now. Those things are never going to hold up and it’s going to hurt the story.

“The Twilight Zone was all very psychological and ‘what if?’ It was really about great acting and great characters and characters that find themselves in dilemmas that parallel what’s really going on, and that’s what the best science fiction does.”

While some of the best western fiction provides a mirror into then and there, the best crime fiction often deconstructs the here and now. And some of the best science fiction tells us pretty accurately what’s going to happen.

Pretty much everything from 1984 has come to pass–“War Is Peace” and the assault on privacy in particular. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is looking more real by the day, and so has the general outlook of a society heading in the direction of a medieval Rollerball. (How about Todd Bertuzzi’s sucker punch on Steve Moore and the adoring fans who continued to flock to him?) Cronenberg’s Videodrome foresaw underground networks airing snuff films, and there are now plenty of them available online.

The prophecy business is a tough one though, and it can quickly age a show.

“I did a time travel episode in season four of SG-1 called ‘2010’ which is going to seem awfully quaint in another five years,” says Wright, who also worked on The Outer Limits.

“In my episode ‘2010’ the earth has made a treaty with ostensibly benevolent and powerful aliens. Unless that happens in the next five years...”

See the Spring 2005 issue of Canadian Screenwriter for the complete interview.


Canadian Screenwriter summer 2018 is on newsstands now. View excerpts, and subscribe here.

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