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ANDROMEDA: Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Allan Eastman
The producers on building Gene Roddenberry's new universe.
By Frank Garcia
November 20, 2000
'Space...the final frontier, these are the voyages of the
Starship Andromeda Ascendant, its two-year mission: to streak across the universe, rebuild the Commonwealth, to seek out new allies and new civilizations. To boldly go where
Star Trek has never gone before!'
With apologies to Gene Roddenberry.
Even with crib notes, building a fictional, futuristic universe isn't an easy task. Just ask Andromeda
co-executive producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe and executive producer Allan Eastman. To begin a TV series from scratch can be a Herculean task. All aspects of a seriesthe universe, characters, rules, special effects, costumes, plotsright down to the design of the props, have to be thought out and realized. J. Michael Straczynski showed us that when it took him roughly five years to find backers interested in supporting Babylon 5
, though, Andromeda
didn't take five years to launch. The name Gene Roddenberrythe revered creator of Star Trek
, Star Trek: The Next Generation
and the show that bears it, Earth: Final Conflict
, now in its fourth seasonconvinced Tribune Entertainment that lightning can strike four times. All it took was for Majel Barrett-Roddenberry to hand over a large stack of papers, rescued from her late husband's archives, and give them to Wolfe to see if he could craft a coherent TV series out of the materials.
'A lot of it was premises and scripts for shows that he was developing,' says Robert Wolfe, who wrote 30 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
episodes and served as a producer during the series' last two seasons. '[It was] different story proposals and things like that. It was diverse elements, including ideas for another starship show. There were a million ways you could have gone with the material. But I was developing specifically for a starship-based show. What did come out of it was the concept of an artificial intelligence-driven starship with full sentience and personality. The character Dylan Hunt was a guy who came from a civilization who basically sleeps through the fall of a civilization and tries to restore civilization. Those were the principal elements.'
Executive producer Allan Eastman grins, 'It began sitting around a table and sketching ideas out for each other, throwing cocktail napkins at each other with little drawings on them.'
If certain elements and ideas in Andromeda
appear familiar, that's because there are echoes from Roddenberry's unsold 1973 TV movie Genesis II
, which starred Alex Cord and Mariette Hartley. In that film, NASA scientist Dylan Hunt was accidentally frozen in an underground chamber and revived in a post-apocalyptic future world where civilization had crumbled and a group of scientists were determined to rebuild it.
Ultimately, in sifting through Roddenberry's materials, Wolfe melded elements from three different sources to conjure up Andromeda
. He brought in the Dylan Hunt name, which was a favorite of Roddenberry's, and the loose concept of Hunt being frozen and revived only to discover that civilization had fallen. He also brought in elements from a second series concept titled Starship
now being developed with Stan Lee Mediaand filled out the remaining aspects of the series from his own original ideas.
'The bottom line is that there is less of Gene's original material in this than, say, Earth
,' says Wolfe. 'In the case of Earth
he had written two pilot scripts and a bible. So it says 'Created by Gene Roddenberry.' In the case of DS9
, it was a totally different premise developed in a universe that he created. That's why it said 'Created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller. Based on Star Trek
created by Gene Roddenberry.' This one is in the middle! He developed the universe, and the peripheral characters he did not develop. But the basic situation and the character Dylan Hunt are Gene's. So the crediting is 'Created by Gene Roddenberry. Developed by Robert Hewitt Wolfe.' '
Eastman recalls deciding that the Andromeda Ascendant
's propulsion system would generate gravity waves. 'We also wanted a ship that had 'Transformer' elements. It's a warship. As it would go into battle, it would take on more aggressive form.'
An 'aggressive' looking starship was actually the early model of the ship, as illustrated by a painting hanging on Eastman's office wall. Appearing very similar to the final design, the early version had a different 'texture map' on its surface and had a green tinge to it. The general shape of the craft was familiar, but the ships' contours were more curved or sloped.
'We had a symmetrical kind of form that didn't have a 'front to back,'' says Eastman, who has directed a wide variety of episodic sci-fi TV as a freelance director. 'We went through many evolutions and played with many permutations. The last thing to do is make it beautiful.' Executive Producer on the superhero Nightman
series, Eastman's name is stamped on episodes of Sliders
, Star Trek: Voyager
and The Outer Limits
. Notably, he helmed the series pilot for Earth: Final Conflict
, and directed the first Andromeda
episode, as well.
'The other thing that I felt strongly about was that [sci-fi author] Arthur Clarke had said, 'Any suitably advanced technology would appear to be magic' from the less advanced technology,' continues Eastman. 'We took that approach to separate the Andromeda
from the Eureka Maru
, [the ship that rescues the stuck-in-time Commonwealth starship]. This is a couple of hundred years after the Commonwealth had fallen. A great deal of technology had been lost. It's like what happened in the middle ages. Technology fell backwards for a period of time in human history. Technology and advanced ideas disappeared for a while. That's essentially what happens to the Commonwealth.'
An interesting but discarded idea, reveals Eastman, was that the 'Slipstream' chairthe navigational console that a pilot uses to steer the ship in 'Slipstream sub-space'was originally conceived as a 360-degree steel ball, the kind that you might see at NASA or at science museums. A pilot would step into the ball, arms and legs stretched outwards and standing, manipulate the ball every which way he could since to navigate in space there is no 'up or down.'
'We tried to make that work,' says Eastman. 'We tried to adapt it as something we would put right at the center of the bridge. Technologically, that didn't work out. It was also a practical consideration of shooting a television show. We tried really hard and had to come up with something on the short term.' The idea was also abandoned when the filmmakers realized that 'We were imagining how the lead actors really wouldn't want to go into it after lunch!'
To cast the lead role of Captain Dylan Hunt, the decision came down to Barrett-Roddenberry, who had long admired former Hercules
star Kevin Sorbo. Once on board, Sorbo in turn had the luxury of choosing between the two premises that were in development: Andromeda
. Once that choice was made, Wolfe's next task was to fill the universe with characters that would surround and interact with Sorbo's Hunt.
'Relationship is pretty easy to infer from the material,' says Wolfe. 'It's surrounding Dylan with foils, people who represent opposite or drastic personalities and approaches to life. For example, if [Dylan] is motivated by the restoration of civilization, you don't want to surround him with six people who are also motivated by the restoration of civilization or you have a show where everyone agrees with each other! It was basically figuring out Dylan's character and finding characters that would complement him. I came up with a couple of different takes on characters.
'There was a point where Tribune approached me and they wanted to use Keith Hamilton Cobb on the show. He's very great looking, has presence and they asked, 'Can you develop a character for him?' And I had already gone through Gene's stuff and came up with my own ideas for bad guys. Originally, I had the idea that his character would be one of [the bad guys]. But, given the opportunity to incorporate him into the show, I split the Beka character into the human female salvage captain [still called Beka Valentine] and this Nietzschean mercernary [named Tyr Anasazi]. So now we have development of those two characters.'
As work continued, Wolfe had the unusual circumstance of having his lead actor assist and have a say in what actors would be joining the show. Casting can be a tricky game. Because it's not always possible to have chosen candidates rehearse scenes with each other, Wolfe says, 'Sometimes you have to do it in your head. 'Well, is his style of acting going to complement or contrast sufficiently with this actor's style of acting?' Sometimes it get to the point where you say, 'Well, Keith and Kevin are both really tall! Do we want Rev Bem really tall also? What about Harper?'
'We need people to contrast with that. We need a variety of different types. Do we want every woman to be blond? Do we want every guy to be 6'3'? No. You want a nice mix of faces and personalities. It's important to me to find people who are close to the personalities of the characters that we're casting. In television, its something that you do every day. The character is very much the invention of the actor and vice versa.'
Being co-executive producer and developer of the series, Wolfe is in the remarkable position of, literally, being in Roddenberry's shoes. Has this experience given him insights to what it must have been like for Gene in 1964, in the days when the original Star Trek
was first being made? 'I think soyeah, absolutely!' says Wolfe. 'I had a much bigger helping hand than he did. It wasn't as much work for me, I don't think, as it was for him. [There's]+ more of a tradition of doing these types of shows now than there was when he was doing it. I think he was breaking new ground in trying to do a serious science fiction show set on a starship. I don't have to fight those battles.
'Sci-fi is more accepted. People know that it will work in the market. They're not quite as nervous about it. It doesn't always work, but they know there's a possibility of it working, which they didn't know when Star Trek
went on the air. This is a better situation. Having the starting materials helped a lot. Eventually we had to sit down and develop a world. And that's fun! If that ain't fun, then I'm in the wrong job!'
What's also advantageous is that because Andromeda
is in syndication, the company was afforded a luxurious 44-episode commitment in which to explore new worlds and new civilizations. But that, too, has its downsides. 'Audience is not as large,' admits Wolfe. 'Timeslots are all over the place, so its more difficult to conduct an advertising campaign. The budgets are lower. A successful network show has a lot more money to play with. There's definitely upsides and downsides to not being a network show. The upside is having 44 episodes. That's a wonderful thing.'
Curiously, prior to the series' October premiere, there has been months of fan chatter on the Internet. Understandably, fans have often compared Andromeda
to it's stellar ancestor. Ultimately, says Wolfe, Star Trek
does not influence Andromeda
. 'We're trying to be true to Gene's philosophy and what he thought was important in storytelling, [which is] trying to present interesting moral and ethical dilemmas for all the characters. We're trying to distinguish ourselves as much as possible from any other show set in a spaceship. Star Wars
, Babylon 5
, Space: Above and Beyond
there have been a number of them over the years. We're trying to steer off course.
'It's not surprising to be [compared]. It's very natural. They're both shows about a starship captain based on material by Gene Roddenberry. It's not unreasonable to make those comparisons. Our hope is to distinguish ourselves gradually and present the show with its own merits.'
Reaction to the series so far has been mixed, according to Wolfe. 'People who have come to the show with an open mind have quite enjoyed the show,' says Wolfe. 'The ratings are very good. We've just gotten the word that we were the second highest rated show on Sky [the U.K. TV satellite service] for the week. We're building in a lot of markets week to week. That's good, because a lot of things go up against the [Baseball] World Series. That's a tough combination. Being a syndicated science fiction show, you might as well stab a big, fat target on your back!
'Some Star Trek
fans have been thrown out of whack, I would say,' continues Wolfe, 'expecting more of the same but getting something different. The difference between what they were expecting and what we're doing is jarring to some people. But, by and large, the response has been very good. There's a lot of fan Websites out there already. The buzz in the industry has been pretty positive. All things considered, the response has been really good. I think the episodes for the November sweeps are way better than what people have seen already. That would make the February sweeps even more of an event. The more we do it, the better we feel about it.'
'It's a real team effort,' adds Eastman. 'It very much reflects how Robert and I put the show together. We both have liked science fiction since we were kids. We've seen every kind of science fiction movie or show. And we've worked on a great number of them. The things that we wanted to do in science fiction we've brought to the show.
'After the fifth or sixth episode, we get to a point where things really coalesce. [We see that] the actors are comfortable with their characters and the interactions between characters take on more interesting levels. The process really starts to build. We have episodes coming up where a really significant part of the action is driven by the visual effects. You have to be able to tell the stories visually. It's astounding what's happening in that field, particularly in the last five years. It's more executable in terms of getting what you want in visuals.'
Although Roddenberry tried hard to launch other series during the 1970s, to little success, he continues to be universally identified as Star Trek
's creator. But Earth
's success, and Andromeda
's potential success, speaks to his ability to create other successful properties, as well as how hard the whole process of launching new series really is.
'I think it just goes to show how hard it is to get a damn show on the air,' agrees Wolfe, referring to Roddenberry's struggles. 'I don't think anyone outside of Los Angeles realizes the great difficulty of getting a television show up and running. Look at Harsh Realm
. It's [X-Files
creator] Chris Carter. He's got a great track record, but yet, that didn't make a big splash. There's a lot of shows that you never hear about, that never get launched, with a lot of very talented writers associated.
'There's a lot of failed pilots out there. I don't think its unusual that Gene was only able to get two projects launched in his lifetime as head writer/executive producer/creator[that's] pretty good! He worked on a lot of other shows. This is a business with a lot of ups and downs. Anyone who's been in it for a while begins to appreciate that getting a hit show on the air is an amazingly difficult thing to do.
'Gene's name has become associated with a certain kind of storytelling quality and there's a market for that. There's people who want intelligent science fiction shows. I think people want intelligent television shows period! The sci-fi genre is an attraction for some people. For others, it is a hard thing to overcome. But certainly there's always going to be a market for smart storytelling.'
's roots from the Genesis II
pilot, Eastman marvels at how Roddenberry's ideas have been resurrected for today's audience. 'It's funny, the kernels of ideas and where they go. There are important issues that Gene raised about freedom, liberty, and about the evolution and advancement of civilization from individuals. Those are things worth fighting for and certainly worth expressing on a show.'