Science fiction scribe Marc Zicree has an impressive list of writing credits on several major genre television series of the past two decades, including Start Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, and Sliders. He’s received Hugo and Nebula award nominations for his work on the Web series Star Trek: New Voyages Phase II, and a Humanitas Prize nomination (shared with wife Elaine) for the “Common Sense” episode of the animated children’s series Liberty’s Kids.
Marc is currently involved in an innovative feature film project called Space Command, a new sci-fi movie franchise. Funded (and with overwhelming success) by a Kickstarter, and with four films planned, the first movie will begin shooting this spring.
Featuring a host of genre regulars, including Mira Furlan (Babylon 5), Armin Shimerman (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Deep Space 9), Robert Picardo (Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis, Star Trek: Voyager), and Dean Haglund (The X-Files), Space Command will honor the long tradition of science fiction space exploration dramas, but through a modern lens. I recently spoke with Marc about his new project, the science fiction genre, and another of his passions—the classic TV series, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.
I’m glad we’re having a chance to talk a little bit about your latest project. So tell me why you decided to do this, and in the way you’re doing it.
Where to start? I’ve been a writer, producer working in TV for, gosh, like 30 years, and I’ve written for a lot of franchise TV shows, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, Sliders, and on and on. I think the idea of creating a science fiction show and basically building a universe was very appealing to me. I’ve created hundreds of hours of produced programming for the networks and the studios, but then I was noticing a lot of young people talking about Kickstarter, and I thought, well, let’s see if I can raise some money on Kickstarter [to do my own project].
I met and affiliated with Neil Johnson, a young producer/director, who had been making low-budget science fiction films with a very high level of production quality, to do a series of films. It would basically be like doing a TV series, but [instead] it would be as a series of films. I wanted to do something set in space; something that was a hopeful vision of the future along the lines of Star Trek, or even Star Wars, really, and so I came up with Space Command. Our target was to raise $75,000 over two months, and we raised that in just over three days.
I’d read that.
By the end of the two-month campaign, we’d raised $221,000. And so now what I’m doing is writing the first four films, back-to-back, and then we’ll be shooting them back-to-back in the spring. I’ve just reached out to a lot of people I’d worked with: a lot of actors, concept artists, and so forth, and they’re all taking this journey with me. It’s really quite fun.
Sounds like an ambitious project. So these are feature-length films, then?
I finished the first one, I’m writing the second one now, then I’ll write three and four. I know what they are already. We’re also going to be doing a Web series, and novels, and all sorts of stuff. So it’s a big project, but that’s exciting to me.
So these are going to be released, then, in movie theatres? Or are you going to distribute via new media platforms?
At the moment, we’re looking at Blu-ray, DVD, and downloadable content. On the other hand, if someone steps up and wants to release them theatrically, that’s certainly a conversation we’ll have. So we’re open to any number of platforms. It’s just basically whatever’s going to get us to as large an audience as possible.
I’ve had several conversations with the amazing genre television writer Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.) about her fabulous Web sitcom Husbands, which she funded with Kickstarter money for its second season. That allowed her to raise the production values of the entire enterprise. And the more people I’ve talked to, I’ve learned that this idea of using Kickstarters to doing something really, really independent, and outside the mainstream studio system, seems to appeal to a lot of creative minds in Hollywood.
Back in the 2007, 2008, I co-wrote, directed, and executive produced a Star Trek Web episode with George Takei (who played Sulu on the Star Trek: Classic), done without a studio or a network. (The show was nominated for both the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards.) We did it online. Certainly all the [network] shows I’ve written for have been great fun. But if you have an idea and they don’t respond to it because it doesn’t suit their corporate needs, in the past, you would just sort of put in the drawer. But you don’t have to do that anymore. Now, you can have a direct conversation with the audience where you basically say, well, if you guys are willing to foot the bill, I’m willing to make this. My creative instincts have always been very much in alignment with the science fiction audience. I grew up with Star Trek and Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. I wrote Twilight Zone Companion as a way of educating myself about how to do television series. And because of that I have a very strong sense of if I like something, the audience will respond. And so I was very gratified when I put out the word about Space Command that people really stepped up. Now it’s just a matter of doing it with quality, and that’s a challenge, but one I’m pleased to take on.
So tell me about Space Command.
What really was the impetus of this was, there’s a ‘50s TV show called Space Patrol that I’m a big fan of. I actually got to meet the star of that show and the head writer. They’re both sadly deceased now, but they were great, really talented. I’m also a fan of Forbidden Planet, and a lot of the science fiction of the ’50s. Although I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, the science fiction I read was from the ’50s: Ray Bradbury, [Robert] Heinlein, and [Isaac] Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. There was this really hopeful view of the future, this assumption that we’d go out to colonize the solar system then jump out to the stars. In a way, they were all writing in sort of a [unspoken] shared universe. There were a shared group of assumptions: that we would have a base on the moon, that we would colonize and terra-form Mars, that we would develop faster-than-light (FTL) travel, and so forth. And then in recent years, of course, we fell right off the tracks [on space exploration]. I mean, no science fiction writer ever assumed that we would go to the moon and then stop.
Right. Even the Space Shuttle program is scrapped now.
And so I thought it would be really fun to explore that, but to put it in a modern context. I mean, we have a bit of ’50s design aesthetic, but also use modern technology. I was also very interested in the whole notion of this being a multi-generational story. It basically starts with colonizing our solar system, and then things escalate. We develop a faster-than-light drive, and then we explore the stars, encounter sentient races, and all of that. All that while, the movies basically focus on two families, the Kemmer family and the Sekander family, over four generations.
First – in the early years – we’re just in the solar system, using a fusion [sub-light] drive. There was no FTL travel. Then things happen that lead to the development of an FTL drive, and then we go out into the stars and we encounter alien races and all of that. But we’re covering two centuries in the lives of these two families.
There is an organization called the United Planets [as a tribute to] Space Patrol and Forbidden Planet. The governing organization [for both of those] was the United Planets, and then of course [Gene] Rodenberry in Star Trek (which was basically Forbidden Planet more or less), created the United Federation of Planets.
So there’s a consistency with the other great sci-fi space exploration fictional worlds of the past…
So my idea is that there is United Planets, and the exploration, and military/police arm and protection arm is Space Command. And interestingly enough, there really is a Space Command that’s part of the Air Force. They’ve reached out to us, and we’re now looking to them to be helping us with this project. They won’t have story approval, but they’ll be very, very useful in terms of resources and, you know, information and all of that.
And I imagine, technology, etc. So, where are you in the writing and casting process?
I’ve written the first screenplay and I’m writing the second one now. The first script I wrote takes us further down that [200 year] chronology to when we’re traveling between the stars. The one I’m writing now takes place in the very beginning of the chronology, when we’re still just in our solar system. So I’m fleshing out the universe as I go, and reaching out to a lot of my friends who are actors to appear in Space Command, for example Mira Furlan who I worked with on Babylon 5; she played Delenn. Armin Shimerman, Ethan Phillips (Star Trek: Voyager), and Doug Jones (The Watch), and, Bob Picardo, and others, of course; everyone I’ve reached out to so far has said yes, which is great. And it’s really fun; it’s really fun.
And Dean Haglund (The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen), too. I spoke spoke with Dean the other day about his involvement. He was very excited about the project.
So your vision for Space Command, I understand, runs a bit contrary to the current sci-fi trend towards dystopias. Yours is a very optimistic sort of ’50s vision, ’60s vision, right?
When I was watched Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and Star Trek, there was a moral standpoint that allowed for hope. The basic notion was that if you reached out to others, if you were an honorable person, if you were courageous, hopefully you could create something. It wasn’t all despair; it wasn’t all hopelessness. The problem I have with dystopic science fiction is that often the message is no matter what you do, you’re essentially screwed. And this is not the type of world that I see around me. The power of love, and the power of courage, and all of those things, I don’t think are Pollyanna-ish at all; I think they’re vital. I want to create something where people will watch it, and be inspired, and be moved and see possibility.
I would love to see a return to manned exploration of our solar system and colonization; I think it’s worth doing. As long as we disintegrate into fighting among ourselves, and petty wars, and all of this nonsense, we become less than we might be. But the moment we look to the stars, and the moment we have a larger vision, we become something greater than any animal on this planet has ever been. And I think that’s worth pursuing.
When we landed man on the moon, it’s very interesting, because the reason for that, the political reason was the Cold War. It’s like, well, we’ve got to beat the Russians. But the reason that all of humanity celebrated that when we did it was because we all recognized it was something great for humanity. It was a time for all of us. And so the petty reason behind it fades away and the larger vision of it stays, stands, it stands the test of time. So yeah, I think this is what inspired me. This is one of the reasons I’m a writer today and I think it’s worth continuing that vision. Ray Bradbury was one of my good friends and a mentor to me for the last 15 years, and I was very inspired by him. His mantra was “live forever.” He saw humanity living forever by traveling out into the stars. As long as we’re stuck here on Earth, we’ve got an expiration date, but if we go out to Mars and then beyond, then we might last awhile.
It an interesting perspective, and it’s refreshing. As much as it’s sort of a “days of future past” approach, it’s still gives some hope; that we’re not all going to turn into zombies and eat each other.
No. No, and this doesn’t mean that we won’t have challenges. It doesn’t mean that we won’t take our weaknesses out into space with us. I mean, obviously, there will be warfare. Obviously there will be all sorts of challenges. There’ll be great, great challenges, but I think there’s also great possibilities. I like zombie movies as much as anybody, but, you know, there’s something else to talk about, there’s something else to explore. And so I’d much rather be doing this than, you know, the next zombie apocalypse film.
You’ve written for lots of different shows, writing in other creators’ universes, essentially. And Space Command is very much your own thing. How do you go about creating a unique science-fictional universe?
The way you do it – well, the way I’m doing it – is to start with the notion of “Okay, I want to do something that’s a melding of sort of 1950s science fiction with looking forward from the 21st Century.” And then you start saying, “Well, okay, who are the people? Who are the characters? What is the story about? I’m very interested in how we either live in the shadow of the great things our parents have done, or try to live down the terrible things they’ve done. So that gave me something to start with, because I’d never seen something along those lines in a science fiction show. I, you know, I’ve seen a lot of things that dealt with – I mean, for instance, Star Trek: The Next Generation takes place 70 years after the original Star Trek but [the characters] aren’t the children and grandchildren of those original characters.
I thought it’d be very interesting to have a multigenerational story and some back and forth through the timeline. I was also very interested in the notions of how we would really establish, what would happen if we went out into space, how would we set up colony worlds, how would we mine the asteroids; what would that entail, and what would that be like? And then there’s the whole issue of how things change between people over these generations. That also interested me.
I knew I wanted a lot of diversity, so, I’ve got African-American actors – many different ethnicities among the actors I’m working with. Additionally we’ve got a lot of different ages [in the cast], so people from their 20s to people in their 50s and 60s. I wanted it to also be a mixture of sort of things that you’ve seen in science fiction – aliens, and androids, and so forth. But with that, you say, well, what haven’t I seen in those areas? ‘Cause you don’t just want to be doing Data [from Star Trek: The Next Generation] again. What’s going to make this fresh? What’s going to make this relevant to what we’re living through now?
And you’ve also involved the actors in helping to craft your Space Command universe…
Yes. Once I started writing the script and sending those scenes to my actors, they got very, very excited. Sometimes fans would ask me questions and get me thinking as well. Someone asked [for example], “are there religions out in space?” So I created the character that Ethan Philips plays as Jewish. He’s a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, and they settle on New Jerusalem. Their colony was starving; a relief ship [to rescue them] didn’t come, and they couldn’t eat the food on that world. So they had to merge their genetic makeup with the predator on that planet – sort of a tiger. It allowed them to survive, but as a result they could never be human again, not fully. But he’s Jewish; he’s Jewish but he doesn’t look human anymore. He looks very different.
And another character, Eustis Sekander, Robert Picardo’s part, is Muslim, but it isn’t the defining part of his nature. I met a young actress who speaks Serbo-Croatian, and I knew that Mira Furlan also speaks Serbo-Croatian; she’s from that part of the world. I thought it’d be great fun if they played mother and daughter. When they’re having scenes together in space, they speak Serbo-Croatian but when they’re speaking to everyone else, they’re using English. So mainly I’m just writing things to interest and entertain myself and I trust that the audience will like it, too.
Well, this sounds like a really great project. Of course, I have to ask you about The Twilight Zone. You wrote what is probably the definitive book on that classic series. The show remains relevant as it was 50 years ago.
The reason it holds up so well is because Rod Serling never intended to be a science fiction writer. That wasn’t what he set out to be. He set out to be a mainstream dramatist. But the networks were censoring him, so he couldn’t write about race, he couldn’t write about social issues, he couldn’t write about politics. He turned to Twilight Zone with the idea that he could write what he wanted to write about and sneak it by the censors by hiding it as science fiction and fantasy, and that’s exactly what happened. That’s exactly what worked.
The reason Twilight Zone has endured is because although it’s wonderful fantasy and science fiction, that’s not what’s underneath it. What’s underneath it is a real commentary on our lives, and what it’s like to have the human condition. And so even when you know what the gimmick is of a given episode, you’ll watch them again and again and again because they’re such wonderful stories. That’s why I think these stories last. They’re terrific and they’re deeply, deeply human.
I was very lucky to be able to crawl through Rod Serling’s attic and go through his files and his scrapbooks. I started that book when I was 22 years old, so it was a great education in how to write and produce meaningful television. So, when years later I came up with “Far Beyond the Stars” for Deep Space Nine, or any of the other things I’ve done, I always use the Twilight Zone, the original Star Trek, and the original Outer Limits sort of my high watermark for what’s possible in television. Rod was an amazing inspiration as are the other writers. I produced the Blu-ray recently, the Twilight Zone Blu-ray, so I got to do commentaries on 50 episodes.
Do you have a favorite episode?
Hoo! I love “Walking Distance,” which is about the guy who goes back to his home town and he’s back on his own path of his childhood. That was Rod’s favorite episode. It was very autobiographical. I love a lot of them. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with the gremlin on the wing is great. You know, there’s hour-long episode, “Miniature,” with Robert Duvall, which is terrific. And “On Thursday We Leave for Home,” that’s another wonderful hour-long episode with James Whitmore. Those aren’t shown as often as the half-hours, but there’s some really good episodes in there. “Deathship,” that’s another great one, an hour one, by Richard Matheson. There are still a hundred episodes I haven’t done commentaries on, and I’m thinking at some point of doing it as downloadable content, where people could download commentaries on all the episodes, because there’s really something to say about all of them.
Marc Zicree will be joining me Monday night November 19 for Let’s Talk TV Live, so if you have questions about Space Command, his involvement with Babylon 5, Star Trek, or Twilight Zone, be sure to tune in.