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PG, gen. A look behind the scenes of that well-known sci-fi television series, Wormhole X-treme!
If you have never been in the same situation, it is hard to imagine the trials and tribulations that plague a new science fiction television series in production. Let us take as a case study just one series, the now reasonably well known ‘Wormhole X-treme’ and their adventures with just one issue, the ubiquitous futuristic weapon every sci-fi show needs.
The first one, the imaginatively named Mark I, was probably the least successful of them all. Which was why the cast and crew unanimously decided to move on to the next model, the Mark II. It was an improvement, but that was all that could be said about it.
You see, the problem with the Mark I was the fact it didn’t do anything. It was just the right size, small enough to hold but big enough to look impressive, and it was quite a tasteful shade of deep purple, and it had several interesting sticky-out bits that some misguided individual had sprayed green. All in all, it managed to give the impression that you didn’t want to mess with someone who had a death-ray gun Mark I in his hand.
But the fact remained – it didn’t do anything. It survived two episodes (“Getting Very, Very Old, Very, Very Fast” and “The Peaceful Aliens of the Night”) during which the intrepid Wormhole X-treme crew won through, triumphed, made marmalade out of the aliens and all the rest of it. However, no-one could fail to notice they had done it whilst armed with large pieces of plastic that had not been seen to do anything whatsoever, beyond of course looking impressive.
To prevent mass mutiny, creative consultant Martin Lloyd and the prop designers put their heads together. Two weeks, ten dollars, and innumerable cups of coffee later, they resurfaced with the Mark II. It was the same size and shape, but no longer purple and green. It was now red and yellow (and this is the good part coming up) with a small button that, when pressed, propelled a thin jet of water a distance of approximately ten and a half metres. This was an entirely unacceptable situation, but as Martin explained, one of the prop designers was Swiss and insisted on having all measurements in metric units.
The next episode (“Attack of the Tinkerbell Lookalikes”) highlighted the main flaw of the Mark II. It would appear that the floor of the set tended to become rather slippery when wet. The script had said nothing about the aliens being particularly unsteady on their (many) feet, and despite the fact much of the more spectacular unintentional acrobatics was left in the final cut, two broken legs and a concussion were enough to convince most people that the Mark II could do with some major improvements.
The prop designers were banished to the darkest corner of the studio, given pencils, paper, and some rather antiquated computers (all manufactured circa 1972) and told to make some changes and to make them fast. And that was what they duly did.
Now, I’m not saying the Mark III wasn’t a success, because in a lot of ways it was. It was a rather ingenious creation that involved not water but solidified carbon dioxide. When the trigger was pressed, the dry ice would sublime and a burst of white gas would blast through a nozzle at the front with a great deal of force. It looked impressive, and as there was no water involved, there were no accidents. As an added bonus, it took the minimum of tampering to colour the gas any colour the scriptwriters wished. These were all the advantages. The one and only disadvantage was it took three people to lift it off the ground.
This time, the prop designers were given a pat on the head and a few words of encouragement – they were doing better, after all, and the Mark III was put in storage until the season finale two-part episode (“Saving the World From the Serpents of Evil”) as it could be used for extra smoke in the inevitable explosions. And then the prop designers were sent back to work – as an afterthought, someone switched their coffee for decaf.
The Mark IV was the best yet. It consisted of nothing more or less than an ordinary laser pointer decorated artistically with the plastic debris left over from the previous three models. The main problem with this one was the fact the laser beams were almost impossible to see. With uncharacteristic ingenuity, Martin suggested the Mark III be allowed to run in the background just out of shot. In the smoky atmosphere, the lasers became as plain as day, albeit an overcast and cloudy day.
However, the prop designers were now so used to being sent to the corner and told to start again, they did it again from force of habit. And this time, they broke the pattern of a lifetime and actually did some research. Their results were nothing less than startling. However, I am faced with a writer’s dilemma when I come to describe what happened next. On the one hand, I do think it is a good idea to warn people of the dangers involved when playing with plastic, water, dry ice and an over fertile imagination. But on the other hand, if I describe exactly how our hapless prop designers managed to turn these simple ingredients into an explosion that could rival a hydrogen bomb, I may well be sowing the seeds for further catastrophe around the globe. All I will say is the moment Colonel Danning fired his Mark V at Evil Serpent Henchman Number Thirteen, there was a dazzling flash of white light and a blast of sound that deafened all those within a two kilometre radius. When the smoke cleared, there was nothing to be seen of the unfortunate extra who had played the even more unfortunate Evil Serpent Henchman Number Thirteen. There was simply a large, irregular, smoking-at-the-edges hole in the ground where he had been standing. Subsequent investigation proved the poor man had been instantly transformed into his component molecules, which were even now making their way out through the air conditioning ducts. This, incidentally, is why episode number twelve of the series contains no weapons at all, as every member of the cast was so shaken by this incident that a collective nervous breakdown would be imminent if anything more powerful than a defective peashooter was used. The episode features the colonel and his team reaching an agreement with the enemy through reasoned debate and negotiation (the fact they had previously sworn to battle to the death was conveniently ignored, and the episode was named “The One Where the Archaeologist Turns Lawyer”). But progress was at last being made – the problem with the Mark V wasn’t that it didn’t work, but it worked too well.
I think it would have been safe to say that the Mark VI, had it ever been built, would have been a flawless piece of pseudo-technology, seeing as how they had swung from one extreme to the other and now had nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, at this point, the Swiss prop designer walked out, and some time later, it was discovered that with him had gone the entire budget for the next six episodes. The money was almost enough to get him a cheap plane ticket, and so we assume he left the country. At any rate, no more was heard of him.
The show’s production was put on hold whilst its producers frantically rang up their insurance company to try and claim the money lost in the theft. The insurance company’s response was brief and to the point: “You don’t have insurance here, so stop calling us.”
That was why episodes thirteen through nineteen of season two of Wormhole X-treme had some rather questionable features. There were some aliens, all identical (from an episode entitled “Really Loud Noises You Can’t Actually Hear”) that bore more than a passing resemblance to a certain extra-terrestrial on a bicycle. And then there were some ships – I refuse to go into details, but one of them did bear the puzzling inscription “USS Enterprise NX-01.”
At this time, there was another serious problem – one of nomenclature. One might say, “What’s in a name?” but in this kind of television show, names are everything. Several of the scriptwriters and the cast had issues with one label, the ‘star portal.’ It was felt that something more catchy was needed, something that came easily off the tongue. This was one of the issues the intrepid crew were forced to compromise on. Human beings are born to abbreviate, and so it became just the ‘portal’ over time, but many people, the author included, feel the perfect, catchy, descriptive name is out there, just waiting for someone to think of it. Call me superstitious, but that’s what I think.
So far, I have discussed only Wormhole’s failures, never its successes. I am not being cynical or in any way deprecating when I say this is because there are no successes to discuss. I am simply being truthful. The series finished weeks behind schedule and millions over (stolen) budget, and there have been accusations of bribery, outbreaks of food poisoning, fights between various cast members, collapsing sets, and a regrettable episode involving one of the scriptwriters and a pomegranate sprayed pink to name but a few more unfortunate events.
But what can we say? Why has the series continued? Why are there calls for it to be recommissioned for another season? There can be only one explanation. Through all of its trials and tribulations, there is one thing Wormhole X-treme can always rely on. The show has a small but loyal fanbase who have stuck with it through red kiwis, borrowed spaceships, accusations of plagiarism, Levant-whumping and even the death-ray gun Mark V and its predecessors. The author has serious questions about the sanity of the aforementioned fans, but she is willing to let them pass. Let it be said they do exist, they have their own online communities, they are real people with a very real obsession. They do not need mockery or derision, but rather support and feedback. They are what stands between Wormhole X-treme and the abyss where sci-fi television series go to die.
And this concludes our case study. Thank you for listening, and I would like to take this opportunity to remind you – the next time you come across an obsessive fan, please refrain from judging them and show them a little compassion. Above all, try not to laugh. Remember, they can’t help being the way they are, any more than you can help being the way you are. That’s all.
Thank you and good night!
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