Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Writing Science Fiction: Trying to Avoid “The Button” (Physics in Hollywood, Part 2)



In the future, which may include mean aliens destroying our planet and us migrating to another world, or wacko aliens eating our brains and completely obliterating our existence, or warm and fuzzy aliens who want to “friend” us on Facebook, there will be problems. Mo’ aliens, mo’ problems, as they say.


But in science fiction, when writing about the future, while you may not want to shun aliens, you definitely want to avoid “the button”, said Bill Prady, Co-Creator and Executive Producer of the TV hit “The Big Bang Theory”. He spoke at a session at the recent APS April Meeting about one of the biggest problems in scifi – “if there’s a button that solves everything [say on a spaceship or in an underground bunker of the future], there’s no conflict,” and conflict, of course, is what makes all forms of fiction interesting.

So whether you are writing much delayed fan fiction for Star Trek or Star Wars, or a script for the newest blockbuster concerning beautiful physicists who are also secret assassins, make sure you don’t include “the button”. Rather, write your characters as if they were, um, people, solving their own challenges. And if you can, said Prady and the panelists, do your best to make sure the science is accurate.



Science plays an important part in Prady’s hit, as well as other shows such as “Eureka” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. But there must be a reason for the science to be present and there must be some (even a modicum of) understanding of it by the public. “Eureka” is set in a town in the future, populated by geniuses, and therefore has some flexibility in terms of the science they explore and exploit. But the audience has to relate to the characters and understand why they are conducting this measurement, or building that black hole, stated the panelists. Bruce Miller, Executive Producer of “Eureka”, explained that the character of the sheriff, who does not possess the technical expertise of the rest of the hamlet’s inhabitants, acts as a guide for the audience to understand what the heck is going on and why it is important to the story.

This insight led John de Lancie, who played Q on “Star Trek”, to comment on knowing when to say when, when you write science into a script. de Lancie’s opinion was that in science fiction, sometimes the best “technobabble” in a script allows the audience to “almost” understand what is going on. This is enough for the public to enjoy the show. But for a more seasoned audience, say one that consist of scientists, there is a different level of expectation. Even though the majority of viewers of “The Big Bang Theory” are not physicists, Prady was well aware that there would be a few watching. He joked that in deciding how much physics to include and what specific scientific subjects to mention, “I wanted [the physicists watching] to have a little cringe, but not a big one.”

The panelists also opined about the many reasons to write for television, especially when a show involves science. Prady recalled that David Saltzberg, the science consultant to “The Big Bang Theory”, once told him that “'if you are reading a script on an airplane, women will talk to you…'", to which Prady added jokingly, "that’s why we do this.”


But there is another motive that seems to tug at writers, particularly those who value science and/or have a science background themselves. As Prady puts it, “I am offended by the anti-intellectualism that seems to be part of this country…I enjoy being in a world where science is [correct] on TV.” No need to hit any button when you have an Executive Producer who shares that conviction.


[Photo of David Saltzberg, science consultant to "The Big Bang Theory", used with permission]

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