Bolting the Stable Door
~ or ~
Some Rules of Science Fiction
(for scriptwriters, television producers and directors)
1. Know your audience.
You may think that the 'typical science fiction fan' is a
fourteen year old nerd called Kevin who likes space battles and fancy computer
graphics, and that the favourite science fiction demographic consists of males
aged 18-35. If that's the audience you're aiming at, you're missing out a large
section of the fandom.
If science fiction conventions are anything to go by, female
fans outnumber the 18-35 male fans by at least two to one. They have the
commitment to turn up to convention after convention, and the surplus income to
spend, not only on the convention fees, but on merchandising as well. Like the
males, they are also represented in every age range from under ten to
The 'Space Age' began nearly fifty years ago with the launch of
Sputnik 1 on the 4th October, 1957. Science fiction is usually several steps
ahead of science fact. So are its fans. They also take an interest in the
sciences and are pretty well clued up, so don't try to fool them with
pseudo-science. They just find it patronizing.
We are now in the 21st century. Females are no longer dumb
bimbos, there for the dual purposes of serving the pleasure of the lead male
star and providing 'eye candy' for the 18-35 male demographic. Get over it! Do
not, under any circumstances, show a highly intelligent, mature, professional
woman as a scruffy, weepy, dithering and incompetent groupie who's fixated on
her leading man - at least, not if you don't want your balls frying in batter,
and yes I am referring to Slept-her-way-to-her-latest-promotion Lt. Col.
Samantha Carter here. I love the character which is why I loathe the hatchet
job that's been done on her.
Yes, for some females, there's a window in their teens
(around 15-17 years) where they may enjoy the occasional romantic
dalliance. Thereafter, they will realize that these, along with all the space
battles, fancy computer graphics, and running-up-and-down-corridors [TM], are
just fillers used by lazy and/or incompetent writers who can't be bothered to
put in the effort to write a full-length plot.
2. Cherish your characters.
Yes, a good plot is important, but not as important as your
characters. These shouldn't be merely two-dimensional cartoon people whose sole
purpose is something to peg the plot on. If your audience isn't interested in
your characters - doesn't care about them - then their interest in your work
will soon dwindle and, if they continue watching, it will simply be as a
stop-gap until something better comes along. Then they're gone.
Character development: Everyone changes with the passage
of time, and this should be reflected in your show's characters. The ones we
see today should not be the same as they were three years ago, but should
reflect both the passage of time and their experiences.
Building a three-dimensional character is best done with deft
brushstrokes here and there that drop tantalizing hints, not in large
explanatory chunks of episodes devoted to a character's backstory. That is a
sterile tactic which leaves nothing for the audience to do. Make them wonder;
make them ask questions; make them use their imagination. Hints at a life
outside what is seen on the screen give depth to a character - adds that
essential third dimension.
It doesn't matter if the audience's speculations are wrong.
That happens all the time in real life; we don't know everything there is to
know about those around us, and are constantly surprised when we find out
something we didn't know about them - like Fred Bloggs next door has a species
of dinosaur named after him. It makes life so much more interesting.
A good example of how to bring a character to life occurs in
Stargate. Daniel asks, "Don't you have people who care about you?
Do you have a family?" to which O'Neil responds, "I had
Now, as this was a movie, a one-off, we had already been shown
the tragedy behind those four words, but in an episodic series - and where the
loss of his son was not known - it would show very clearly that the
character had a life before the show began - that he exists beyond the reach of
the camera lens.
The import is one of great sorrow, tinged with bitterness,
which elicits both interest and sympathy from the audience; we have begun to
care about the character. And all it took was four little words.
Character consistency: Your characters' core values and
abilities - what makes them what they are, and what makes the audience love
them - should not change, however. For instance, a character noted for
protecting his fellow team members at all costs should not suddenly become
reckless of their safety without a very good reason, and a mature and
capable officer of smart appearance should not regress into an untidy
adolescence which interferes with her ability to do her job. Yes, I'm referring
to poor Samantha Carter again. ::sigh::
Please note that it is extremely irritating to the audience
when characters act out-of-character. The demands of the plot are not
good reasons for doing this. If you must do it, you had better provide a
rational and plausible explanation for it. If, for instance, your engineer
reveals a hitherto undisclosed knowledge of the medicinal values of plants
necessitated by the plot, a line of explanation should be given such as,
"My grandmother was a herbalist." That's all it takes. We accept it
and move on.
3. Avoid 'relationships.'
This is a bit of a Barnumesque conundrum, but with a little
care, you can please most of the people most of the time. Your audience
is comprised of four principal groups: 'gen.' fans, ''shippers,' 'slashers' and
>......The largest group
is probably the 'gen.,' or general fans. These have no particular interest in
any specific relationship. They do not mind the occasional romantic liaison
with a guest star so long as it doesn't become a standard ploy to pad out a
They would very much prefer not to see any two of the principal
characters romantically involved, as the show then ceases to be science fiction
and becomes a soap opera. If they wanted that sort of thing, they would be fans
of Harlequin/Mills & Boon nonsense, not science fiction. Basically, they
just want a rattling good yarn involving characters they respect.
'relationshippers' tend to be young single women who visualize themselves in
the role of the leading female character. They want to see romance -
with hugs and kisses - between their on-screen surrogate and one of the leading
male characters, regardless of a lack of romantic chemistry between the two, or
how unlikely this would be in The Real World. Resist the temptation to give in
to the demands of this exceptionally vocal group.
>......'Slashers' tend to
be gay fans and older married women. I know. It's bizarre, but there you are.
They like to imagine - but not necessarily see on screen - a
romantic/erotic relationship between two of the leading male characters (or
female characters for 'fem-slashers.') They also tend to have plenty of spare
cash and a willingness to spend it on your merchandising, so however homophobic
you may be, suck it up and deal, or it will hit your bottom line. In a manner
>......'Noromos' - an
abbreviation of 'no romance at all, thank you very much' - do not want
to see any romantic interaction involving any of the leading characters, full
stop, period. Ever! They are so not Harlequin/Mills & Boon fans.
So how do you manage to avoid alienating at least one group of
your fandom? Easy. In a single word, Friendship. All groups will
be happy to settle for a strong, mutual and inclusive bond of friendship
between all the major characters, such that they will move heaven and
earth to protect each other.
Hugs are fine. They are to be encouraged in fact, providing
that they are quick hugs of encouragement in a tight spot, or consolation when
things go wrong. A solid bear-hug when things go spectacularly well is also
acceptable; romantic clinches with one person's head on the other's shoulder
If you can manage to insinuate a few lines of heterosexual or
homo-erotic sub-text, so much the better. The 'shippers and slashers will adore
you for it and the gen. fans and noromos will be able to ignore it.
If you can avoid showing any particular pairing 'in yer
face' on screen, most of the fans will love you for your forbearance. They are
more than capable of reading between the lines and filling in the off-screen
blanks in their fan fiction. A word to the wise. Whatever you may feel about
fan fiction, do not discourage it. It is the cement that holds your
Does this emphasis on Friendship mean your audience wants
everything to be sweetness and light with nothing to disturb? No
way. Friendship does not preclude acrimonious arguments between your
characters, even to the extent of knock-down, drag-out fights. But, where bad
feeling has been generated, this must be resolved within the next three
episodes or by the end of an 'arc,' and harmony and camaraderie restored.
Tension is great, but not if it drags on too long or remains
unresolved. That just leaves a bad taste in the mouth that will alienate at
least a part of your audience.
4. Do some research.
You can only reverse the polarity so many times - like once,
and it's already been done. To death! So take out subscriptions to scientific
journals and find out what's going on in various scientific fields. Once you
know what people at the cutting edge of science are working on and worrying
about, you can extrapolate this into exciting and futuristic stories.
Research should also extend the setting of your show. If you
are going to have a character state, quite categorically, that the town near
which your show is set has no zoo, make sure that this is the case, or you will
have fans on the other side of the world leaping up and down in indignation.
It does not make this any better to pass the snide comment that
the character is so focused on her work that she could drive past said zoo to
and from work for eight years and not notice it. It's demeaning to suggest that
she's not only unobservant but also not competent enough to drive and
read road signs. Yes, Sam Carter. Again...
In conclusion, fans of your show probably do know more
about it than you do, but they don't want this confirming. You're getting paid
for your writing so you might at least try to look professional!