The Dream Team: Six Writers Who Could Make Syfy Great
Fans have had a love/hate relationship with Syfy — formerly the Sci-Fi Network — for two decades now. And let’s be honest, that relationship has tended toward the “hate” end of the spectrum more often than not. For every Farscape or Battlestar Galactica or Stargate, there are dozens of shows along the lines of Self-Professed Paranormal Investigators Overreacting to Random Sounds in Night Vision or Talented Cold Reader Convincing Grieving Families He Can Talk to the Dead.
But, all evidence to the contrary, I do still believe that Syfy could be saved, and could rally to become the network we all wish it was. There are a few lights in the darkness. Two of the talents responsible for some of Syfy’s greatest shows are returning with new projects: Farscape’s Rockne S. O’Bannon is back with this spring’s Defiance, and word broke just this week that Battlestar Galactica’s Ron Moore is working on a sci-fi thriller called Helix for the network. That’s a good start, but it got us thinking. If, through whatever unlikely sequence of events you care to imagine, we were handed the keys to Syfy tomorrow, which creative talents would we bring in to restore the Syfy name? Or rather the Sci-Fi Channel name, because the first thing we’d do is get rid of that god-awful moniker. Either way, here are our picks (and we’re not including Joss Whedon, because he’s way too obvious and his dance card is full anyway).
If you’re not a regular comic reader, you may not have heard the name Warren Ellis…but you should. Over the past 15 years or so, the British writer has penned tons of amazing comics, and many of them were crazy, far-out science fiction stories. With Transmetropolitan, he satirized modern society’s follies through a filthy, dystopian future, and through the eyes of a batshit-insane, Hunter S. Thompson-style crusading reporter named Spider Jerusalem. With Planetary, he created a dark, funhouse-mirror version of comic-book history, with a group of eccentric “Archaeologists of the Impossible” serving as our guides. With Orbiter, he served up a gripping story of a Shuttle that vanishes in space, only to return 10 years later, with only a single survivor aboard and the craft modified with alien technology.
Ellis’ stories dance on the fringes of modern science, exploring the hallways of what-might-be with crackerjack pacing and a pitch-dark sense of humor. If I were running my Syfy, my first question to Ellis would be, “What do you want to do and how much money do you need?” Few of his works have been adapted beyond the comics page (Global Frequency was made into an entertaining but ill-fated pilot for the WB in 2005), so his back catalogue is full of potential. That being said, I’d almost rather have him create an original show, simply because the man’s brain is overrun with madness, and whatever he came up with, you can count on it being unforgettable.
Gilligan is earning all manner of good press these days as the creator and showrunner of AMC’s justifiably acclaimed Breaking Bad, but there was a time not all that long ago when he was penning the adventures of FBI agents Scully and Mulder as part of the X-Files writing staff. He started out with “Soft Light” in 1995, which starred Tony Shalhoub as a man with a killer shadow, and went on to pen memorable episodes such as “Pusher,” “Bad Blood,” and “Drive,” which featured a pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston. After X-Files, he worked on the short-lived The Lone Gunmen and Night Stalker before catching pretty much everybody by surprise in 2008 by creating one of the best shows in television history.
With Breaking Bad set to wind up its run this summer, Gilligan will naturally be looking for what comes next. If I was in charge, I’d do everything in my power to ensure that whatever that project was, it aired on Syfy. Gilligan has long since demonstrated a knack for telling clever genre stories, but with Breaking Bad he’s taken things to a whole other level, giving us a twisting, addictive demonstration of how a good man can slide all the way down the road to Hell. Too few science fiction television series have succeeded as truly excellent character studies, and I have no doubt Gilligan could put Syfy back in the news as more than just a punchline about wrestling, “reality” shows, and horrible Saturday-night movies.
Poor Tim Minear. After breaking in on Lois & Clark and The X-Files, Minear’s subsequent resume reads like a monument to promising shows that never got a chance to find their footing, nor an audience. Let’s run down the list: Strange World, Firefly, Wonderfalls, The Inside, Drive, Dollhouse, and Terriers. Just typing that list breaks my heart. In spite of his seemingly cursed career — his Twitter name is “CancelledAgain” — Minear has also worked on classic genre shows such as the aforementioned X-Files and Joss Whedon’s Angel, and he’s currently working as a writer and executive producer on FX’s American Horror Story.
If there’s one throughline for Minear’s career, it’s that he seems to constantly wind up working on shows that are unlike anything else on television…and sadly, that’s why they so often fail. Shows like Firefly or Terriers or Dollhouse don’t fit comfortably inside the usual network-show slots, instead daring to explore concepts that blur the lines between genres and don’t reward inattentive viewers. But this is a guy who worked with TV titans like Joss Whedon, Shawn Ryan, and Chris Carter. So far he hasn’t really found a network that would let him run wild, with the budget and the commitment big enough for his next idea to find its audience. If I had the keys to Syfy, we’d damn well try to be the network that finally gave Tim Minear a real chance.
Speaking of Shawn Ryan, here’s a guy whose resume includes the amazing but doomed Last Resort, the underdog PI drama Terriers, The Unit — which he created with David freaking Mamet — and the flat-out brilliant The Shield, which stands beside Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Homicide: Life on the Street as one of the best crime dramas ever aired. This guy, frankly, does not make bad television. Like Tim Minear, he’s a student of Joss Whedon, having worked on Angel before knocking it out of the park with The Shield.
Aside from his time on Angel, Ryan hasn’t really dabbled in genre material much, but that’s all the more reason to invite him to Syfy. Ryan is exceptionally talented at creating complex, deeply flawed characters and then convincing the audience into rooting for them even at their most vile. His unforgettable Shield pilot introduced the world to corrupt cop Vic Mackey by having him murder a fellow cop — a guy who had been set up to look like one of the series’ primary protagonists — in order to maintain his off-the-books activities. The fact that Ryan hasn’t done a science fiction series before is all the better, because he won’t bring with him the baggage or pre-conceptions of longtime fans. I have no idea what kind of show Ryan would create for Syfy, but I’d sure as hell like to find out.
J. Michael Straczynski
I have a soft spot for J. Michael Straczynski. Part of that is because his Babylon 5 indirectly led to both one long-time friendship and one truly enjoyable job working on his B5 script books, prior to joining GFR full-time. But even if neither of those things had happened, I’d still hold Babylon 5 up as one of the best science fiction series of all time. And JMS’ constant presence online helped reshape the relationship between TV creators and their fans, establishing a template of interaction that is still being built upon to this day. Most of all, however, he gave us the long, twisting, tragic story of Londo Mollari and G’Kar, and even if that was the only thing he had ever accomplished, I’d still be singing his praises.
With Babylon 5, Straczynski created a complex, ambitious five-year space opera that dared to challenge many preconceptions about the genre, including the then-prevalent thinking that there was no place on TV for science fiction that didn’t have “Star Trek” in the title. While there have been several attempts to build on the legacy of B5 over the years, they’ve never managed to arrive with that perfect, elusive combination of “right place, right time,” and the thoughts of what Crusade could have been still makes me want to bang my head against the wall. The obvious approach for inviting Straczynski to Syfy would be asking him to create another Babylon 5 spinoff, but there’s one other project in the works that I think JMS would be brilliant for: the upcoming Blake’s 7 reboot. That British series has a cult following that’s likely going to approach the remake with more than a little skepticism, but in the hands of Straczynski, more than anyone else I can think of, this new Blake’s 7 might just become something incredible.
Brian K. Vaughan
Although he wrote for, and served as a producer on, ABC’s Lost, Vaughan is primarily known for his impressive work in the field of comics. His original creations account for some of the best comics of the past decade, including Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, and his current space opera/fantasy series Saga. His comics are often the sort of story that’s just begging for a TV adaptation, and I would greenlight series versions of pretty much anything he’s ever done without a single second’s pause. He also wrote the script for Under the Dome, a miniseries based on Stephen King’s book of the same name, which is finally set to air this June on CBS.
While Ex Machina, Runaways, and Y: The Last Man are all in various stages of development as movies, all three would be better suited for an ongoing series or a miniseries. My newly rejuvenated Syfy would be a great fit for an any of those, even if I had to blackmail the producers of the movies into abandoning their projects. I would also dearly love to add a series adaptation of Vaughan’s Saga to the primetime lineup, simply because it is so deeply, deeply weird that there would be nothing else like it on television. Bonus points if I can talk David Lynch into directing an episode or two.