On Being the Stargate Universe Creative Consultant: Answers!
Having given you most of a day to ask questions about my gig as the Stargate: Universe Creative Consultant, I will now start answering them. Prepare yourselves!
Roger E: I’d like to hear a bit of the story of how you came to get the actual gig. (Are the producers fans of OMW?, etc.)
Well, the short version of the story is that a couple of years ago I got an e-mail from Joe Mallozzi, who was a producer on Stargate: Atlantis, letting me know how much he enjoyed Old Man’s War. We started up a friendly correspondence after that, and at some point he asked if I might be interested in doing something for Atlantis, or possibly for another Stargate series they were thinking of for the future. I demurred on Atlantis, because I hadn’t watched enough of it to feel qualified to do anything for it, but I said when or if they got the new series off the ground I might be interested in doing something.
And that was that for about a year. Then about a year ago Joe pinged me again, told me they were getting the new series off the ground, and wanted to know if I was still interested. I was, and in our discussions we decided the best fit for me might be as the creative consultant. Last January I flew out to Vancouver to meet the producers and writers to make sure it was indeed a good fit, and when we decided it was, I got the gig.
Justatech: As a creative consultant, do you stand back and keep an eye on the “big picture”, making sure that if the writers/crew wander off on a tangent they don’t end up down a dead-end, or are you a fixer who saves the day when they have painted themselves into a corner? Or is it something else entirely? Also, will you get your very own SG:U uniform?
No SG:U uniform, although I suppose if I asked for one I could get one.
But yes, I do two main things as the creative consultant:
1. I advise on technical, scientific and character issues as they present themselves in the scripts;
2. I keep an eye on the overall arc of the series and help to make sure the show stays consistent over the course of the season.
What this means is that I’ll get early versions of the scripts, and I’ll go through them and give notes, pointing out where I think the science could be tightened up, or where I think a character is doing something inconsistent, or where I think there might be a real world repercussion for something that’s been put into the script. While I’m doing that I’m also looking at where the script and the events fit into the larger picture, and calling attention to things I think are significant, which the producers and writers will have to deal with later. This latter bit is particularly important in the case of SG:U because the nature of the series — a bunch of people thrown to the ass-end of space with very limited resources — means that they have to pay attention to things other series can take for granted.
To give you a very small example: bullets. The characters come into the ship with a certain number of bullets. It is very difficult for them to get any more of them. So I count the scenes where bullets are used and I send notes that say “now, you know you have that many fewer bullets now, right?” The point is not just to be OCD anal (although there is value in that in this case), but to remind everyone that realism is something we’re looking for, and the choices we make now will have an influence later. So what the producers and writers have to do is to decide whether they want to spend their bullets now, or find some other, non-bullet-related way to solve a particular problem. Sometimes you need a bullet, sometimes you don’t.
As to being a “fixer” — no, not really. Part of this is because the writers and producers are smart people who know their own universe, but the other part is because when a script comes to me, it’s an early draft, and scripts are understood to change over time. I’m not a last-minute part of the process; I’m somewhere in the middle of it.
Rabid Android: How much input/control do you have over the plot/storylines? Do they come to you for ideas or do they simply bring ideas your way for feedback? When is your cameo?
I do have a cameo of sorts at one point in the series; I won’t tell you what it is but you’ll know it when you see it.
As for input: At this point as noted I offer suggestions on the scripts as they come in, and some of the suggestions will have have an effect on the plots and storylines, although those effects are usually minor (in terms of a specific episode) and cumulative (in that some changes make a difference for future scripts). A lot of what I do isn’t changing plot, it’s making sure that the mechanics of an episode support the plot in a way that resembles realism. And in a very real sense, the way a TV show works is collaborative; I might suggest something, but one of the writers or producers might take that suggestion and turn it into something workable, and also a bit different from my original suggestion. It’s not proper for me to take credit for that; I’m part of the process.
That said, one of the effects of looking at all the scripts and seeing the overall arc of the first season is that I have some definite ideas about where things could go in the second season, so presuming that I’m asked to stay on for season two (assuming that you all watch the show enough to justify season two, HINT HINT), I’ll have some stuff to share before the scripts start getting written, which the producers/writers will be free to use or not.
Arthur D: Do you get to consult on each script, as part of the overall writing process, or are your services mostly on demand?
I’ve consulted on every script of the first season, and I’m generally available for the producers and writers if they want/need a consult on any particular thing, even if it’s not related to a specific script.
Nisleib: How does it feel to be in the same position as Harlan Ellison? Do you like or hate that comparison?
I’m assuming you’re talking about Harlan Ellison being a creative consultant on Babylon 5. I neither like nor dislike the comparison; being a creative consultant is a nice gig, and I’m happy for anyone who gets to do it. I don’t know how much his own experience as a CC is like mine; frankly, I haven’t talked to any other CCs about how they do their job. If I ever meet Harlan, maybe I’ll ask him.
Robert Cruze, Jr.: How does being a Creative Consultant stack up with being a writer in terms of workload, fun factor, and sheer coolness?
Well, I like the gig, to be sure, and I think it’s a pretty cool job. But as to workload, it’s hard to answer directly in comparison to writing, simply because it’s a different kind of work. I mean, it takes me more time to do this than to write my AMC movie column but less time than to write a novel, which is the sort of comparison that’s not very helpful.
As for fun factor, it is fun, although I don’t know that “fun” is the right word. One of the things I like about the job is that it allows me to do something different than writing; I lot of what I do is problem-solving, for lack of a better phrase to describe it, and the dynamics of the gig are closer to that of being an editor than a writer. When a script is sent to me, I don’t ask how do I make this better, because by and large the writers are pretty damn good, and “better” isn’t the right word. What I ask is, how do I help the writer do what he or she wants to do here, and then I go through and make those suggestions. A lot of what I do is to come in from an informed perspective on science and technology and otherwise offer another perspective on character on story — which is where my writing experience comes into play, in a distaff way.
I don’t have the final word on a script — that would make me a producer — but I will say it’s cool when a suggestion I’ve offered gets incorporated or is a launching point for something else new in the script. I derive a lot of satisfaction from the process, basically.
Johan Larson: Do you have more or less influence than you expected?
I didn’t know what to expect when I started, to be honest. When they asked me to come on as a consultant one thing I did say to them is that while I understood that it would be unrealistic for them to take every suggestion I offered (which was of course absolutely correct), at the same time I didn’t want to be a consultant in name only — if they weren’t going to use me, they might as well save the money in hiring me. What makes me happy is that I do feel the producers listen to me and rely on me to help them do the show, and that the advice I offer gets into the show in a practical and relevant way.
So, I think I have influence on the show, and I’m happy with the amount of influence I have. I do recognize (prepare yourselves) that in many ways I’m an outsider to the television process, so the producers would have to filter my suggestions and advice through the practical, real-world considerations of getting out a television show that costs millions, employs dozens (if not hundreds) and has deadlines to meet. I don’t get bitchy if they pass up a suggestion I make. I do think what suggestions they have taken so far have been to the benefit of the show.
The Other Keith: Do you encounter- and if so how do you handle- the “Never let facts get in the way of a good story” school of thought?
Heh. Well, let me say two things here:
1. One reason they hired me was to have someone who could help make the “science” part of their science fiction more realistic.
2. In this scenario “more realistic” does not mean “totally realistic.” It means “realistic enough to get through the episode while at the same time letting us do the cool stuff we want to do.”
I take both of these points seriously. At the end of the day, what Stargate: Universe is, is entertainment; we have people in an impossible situation, trying to get through the best they can, and our job is to package it into one-hour bits with sufficient drama and action and special effects to get you all the way through it. That’s the deal; that’s the gig. And I get that, because in my job as a novelist, my gig is to do the same thing, just over 100,000 words instead of one hour at a time.
That said, whenever possible — and it’s often possible — it’s nice to get your facts right, or at the very least not get them so wrong that it throws your audience out of the moment. So what I do is go into the script, look at the science bits, and write up notes that say “just so you know…” and drop a few hundred words of geek on them, explaining how what it is they’re trying to do works in the real world, and then offering suggestions to get what they’re trying to do closer to the way it might work in the real word — or, equally usefully (from the point of view of the story) offering a suggestion that, if it’s not exactly how it works in the real world, at least hasn’t been disallowed by our current understanding of science. Hey, the other word in the phrase “science fiction” is fiction. I’m a big believer that both words in the phrase carry equal freight.
The goal is not to get the science 100% verifiably right; it’s to get you all the way through the entire episode and to the credits before you say “hey, now, wait a minute…” Because if we get you to that point, that means you’ve suspended disbelief long enough to enjoy yourself for an hour with what we’ve done. And then maybe you’ll come back next week for more of the same.
David Carrington, Jr: Like others, I wonder if you will do any writing for the show. Which I guess means: do you WANT to, and would they want you to?
For the first season, I and the producers felt my job should be to focus on the entire series rather than to drill down and write a single script, and I think that was the smart thing to do. Does that mean I won’t ever write a script? Nope; presuming the series is renewed and the Stargate folks were interested in me doing it, I might try my hand at one. But, you know. I do like the gig I have, too, and they already have lots of good writers.
So, the short form: Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.
Rob: If I’ve seen the movie, and a few episodes of the original series, will SG:U make any sense to me, or is there too much to catch up on?
Inasmuch as my experience with Stargate more or less mirrors yours, Rob, you can believe me when I say that someone who doesn’t have a huge amount of Stargate experience will still get a lot out of this show. I also showed it to Krissy and my in-laws, none of whom followed the earlier shows, and they had no problems enjoying it. So you’re good.
Thanks everyone for the questions! Given the number of questions remaining, I might do a follow-on piece on Friday, so if there’s still something you’d like to know, go ahead and ask.