Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Future of Television - Lost. In Space

I thought of an excellent idea for a new science fiction television show that would follow a similar pattern of Battlestar Galactica, at least as far as revamping seriously a laughably camp old sci-fi hit from the 1970s. I’m thinking about Lost in Space. Consider the basic premise of the show: An exploration ship is sabotaged and crash-lands on an unknown world, the crew being forced to work with the very saboteur who caused the mess in the first place. Of course, apart from the first and last episodes, the original series executed this premise as if it was Gilligan’s Island in space (with a comparable budget). But with a few tropes lifted from recent critically acclaimed hit sci-fi programs, and a few ideas of my own, I think I have a pretty good pitch. It could be worth developing further, at least.

The Ship and Its Crew.

The setup of the original show was too simple: The Robinson family of scientists and their best friend are the crew of the ship, and the only foreign entity in the crew is the villain-turned-walking-joke Dr Smith. What we’ve learned from shows like Lost and Stargate: Universe is that a larger, more diverse cast can constitute more complex storylines simply by their being stuck together. A large ensemble cast of singular characters with diverse histories and many different reasons for being on the ship provides a comparatively large potential for different character arcs as individual stories are developed, and different people come into different kinds of conflict as they try to survive on an alien world.

How to Travel in Space.

I only thought of the idea this afternoon walking back from the market, so I haven’t yet considered all the details of how this technology would work. I’m imagining some kind of wormhole creation and manipulation technology. This is partly why they’re stranded so hopelessly for quite some time into the series. Only ships carrying a wormhole generator can travel faster than light; signals can’t. So they can’t send a decent distress signal at all, because they’re too far away from human worlds, and can only signal them at light speed.

Key to the narrative is that humanity didn’t invent the wormhole technology - they discovered and reverse-engineered it on a sublight expedition several centuries ago. So a major narrative arc of the series would be that the cast slowly discovers evidence that they are wrecked on the homeworld of the beings who invented the wormhole technology.

The Villain.

I’m a pretty big Doctor Who fan, as regular readers will have discovered by now. And one of the Doctor’s favourite aliases, especially when he was stuck on Earth working for a planetary defence task force, was Dr John Smith. So I thought of making the central villain, the saboteur, a remixed version of our favourite Time Lord. The Dr Smith of the regenerated Lost in Space would be a manipulator of the rest of the characters, with his own nefarious ends regarding the planet's mysteries.

No one, not even the audience, would know he sabotaged the ship, and engineered it to crash on the Mystery Planet. Dr Smith would be a brilliant, eccentric, manipulative asshole. He would, effectively, be the charming rogue scientist at the centre of the show, using his considerably wide-ranging expertise to take at least partial charge of the cast.

There would probably be some other characters who would take charge of the day-to-day problems of survival for the cast on an alien world. And those characters would drive ongoing power struggles with Smith because they’re more obviously helping the cast survive on the planet. The cast also grows more suspicious of Smith over time, as they become conscious of his manipulating them, and his investigations into the planet’s mysterious nature.

One idea I had for the character is that he would be an older man, with some echoes of the Hartnell and Pertwee versions of The Doctor. And a story arc for the first couple of years would involve him discovering technology on the island to build an android body that would eventually resemble a young man, and eventually copy his own personality into it, cloning himself into a practically immortal body. This brings me to my favourite idea for the new Lost in Space.

The Android (or, Danger Will Robinson My Ass!)

At the 24 Hour Art Marathon in St John’s this summer, I wrote a short story about a future society that has invented a race of android servants and companions, whose brains were powerful computers and scanners based on chaos mathematics. Their long lifespans and incredibly fast learning curves make them intellectually and perceptually superior to humans. Because the intellectually successful androids were built as companions, they were basically T800 style robots with flesh that repaired itself by absorbing ultraviolet light, and couldn’t eat or drink, because the light would recharge their power plants as well. Pretty much every power source built to work in terrestrial environments, of course, would be solar or wind based by this point in human civilization, androids included.

By the time of Lost in Space 2.0, the androids will have long ago won their rights to self-determination, integrated into society, and to some degree have been forgotten. The android character from my story, Alice Chesterton, would be on the ship. A major narrative arc for her would be the crew’s eventually discovering that she is an android. Her immensely powerful brain would cast her as a rival to Dr Smith, and his envy and conflict with her would be partially what drives him to create his android replica.

Probably the most important element of Alice that the writers would have to keep in mind throughout the show is that Alice’s intelligence and learning speed is beyond the greatest of human geniuses. All androids are this way. Probably a very fascinating part of the Lost in Space 2.0 mythology is discovering the history of how the prominence of androids in society would have disappeared over the previous centuries. They are intellectually and physically superior to humans in every way. So one of the great mysteries about human history in this universe would be how and why the androids disguised themselves, or hid themselves away. Perhaps there's a secret society of androids somewhere in the human worlds, something like the Freemason conspiracies.

After Dr Smith created his android replica, he would have to be written with the same caveats as Alice. After that point, both Alice and Dr Smith can perceive all the possibilities of every object they see, giving them a fantastically fast learning curve. But Alice, unlike Dr Smith, is already centuries old, and was built by a corporation that became massively successful building high quality android companions. Android Smith, however, would not be built by such experts, and would be hampered by mechanical problems.

One of these would be impotence, because Alice was originally designed as a sexual companion for a professor on Earth, and so the physical processes for sexual activity would be an integral part of her brain. Her sexual relationships with other members of the cast would be excellent narrative fodder as well. Dr Smith's android would be something of a patch job. This would just add to the conflict between them, even as Android Smith begins to sympathize with Alice more than the human crew as he learns to exercise the immense potential of his brain. Alice has always been an android, so comes from a much more enlightened ethical perspective. Smith built his android self for egocentric human reasons, like envy of Alice and yearning for immortality. The breakdowns of his mechanical body would be quite ironic, given his advanced age as a human in the first two seasons of the show.

The Planet.

This is where the direct analogue to Lost comes into my idea. A mandatory feature in the hypothetical show’s bible would be that nothing like the God-ish aspects of Abrams and Lindelof’s island would ever come into play in Lost in Space 2.0. It’s a standard trope that most stories about stranded people take place in some jungle environment, but I’d prefer to set the crash site on a steppe near a mountain range, the kind of environment that would make shooting in British Columbia or California fairly easy.

All the long-range arcs of the story, again riffing from Lost, would have to do with the mysteries of the planet where they’re wrecked. Over the course of the first series, the cast, particularly those more loyal to Alice, would discover that human expeditions have visited the planet before, and evidence of these prior investigations (and perhaps some of their sticky, violent ends).

The steppe-mountain setting departs from the tradition of stranded stories, and would give the writers extra flexibility in setting. Some episodes would take place on the steppe, some at a nearby lake, and some exploring the mountains. Another narrative arc of the show would be a quest by some characters to discover the sea on the other side of the mountains, and that would probably integrate with the reveal of the indigenous species, described a bit later.

Most important about the planet’s mythology is that there is an alien race that lives there, the descendents of the inventors of the wormhole technology. And I would have them be as absolutely unlike humanity in every way possible. Perhaps they’d be a species something like amphibious cephalopods. The most important scientific consultant on the show would be the biologists who would brainstorm ways that intelligent amphibious cephalopods could evolve and become the dominant technological species on a planet.

The cephalopod culture would have to be immensely detailed as well, because the major narrative of the show would be the cast discovering their technology, culture, and mysteries, eventually learning to communicate with them. This would probably be the most difficult part of designing Lost in Space 2.0, even more than having one (and later two) major characters who are advanced android geniuses. At least androids and humans share a common history. The cephalopod culture would have nothing at all in common with Earth, but with a history just as detailed, and ethically complex, as humanity's.

There could also be conflicts because some of the humans (probably Smith and his cronies) would catch small cephalopods to eat at the beginning of the series. But because androids can perceive all the possible states of an object as well as its current actual state, Alice would stop the cast from eating them, and provoking the adult intelligent cephalopods. The human-cephalopod misunderstandings and conflicts would be another central story arc of the show.

I think this show sounds like a really cool idea. Let me know if you have any character ideas for anyone other than Alice and Dr Smith, because they’re the only people I’ve thought of so far. I don’t really want to see anyone who is too much like a character from Lost or BSG. If this whole academic career doesn’t work out, or it turns out that I can make more money as a tv producer, I know I at least have a good idea I can attach my name to.

1 comment:

nualareilly said...

If I ever got into sci fi...
but I know so little about that genre. Sigh. How did you ever get your teeth into my work I'll never know (but still grateful, lol).
This sounds like a fascinating project though.