On Diversity.

Since the talks of a rebooted version of PIONEER ONE started up, Bracey and I have had many discussions about the original show and what we’d want to see in a revival.

One of the things we discussed regarded diversity on the show. More specifically…the lack thereof.

When we put out our initial casting call for PIONEER ONE back in March of 2010, we held two days of open auditions at a friend’s space in New York City. At once one of the most diverse cities in the world as well as one with one of the highest concentrations of actors anywhere. We did not specify race in the character descriptions (nor gender in some cases), but the actors who responded were still overwhelmingly caucasian.

Now, some caveats: we were lo/no budget production on a tight schedule, so our search wasn’t as exhaustive as it could have been. Bracey and I cast the best actors for the parts and ended up with a cast heavy on white males and light on people of color and women.

We love and admire our cast and crew and no one should think for a second that we are saying anything to denigrate their work or talent. But the fact remains that they were mostly white, and there are many factors that contributed to that. I’m going to leave the discussion of what exactly those factors are to someone more qualified than I am, but there is one thing that I feel confident taking away from our experience: that color-blind casting doesn’t seem to yield diversity.

And in full candor I will say that our cast’s lack of diversity didn’t bother me at the time as much as it did Bracey. “We did our best,” I thought. “It is what it is.”

I’ve since come to understand why diversity and representation is so important (beyond the obvious reason that it’s a more realistic reflection of the world we live in). Simply put: diversity in casting has a real impact on how people in the audience come to regard people in real life. This is true for both white people and people of color. A white person will grow up seeing that a black person isn’t always always the gang member or the convict but the doctor or the president. And a young person of color will grow up knowing that they in fact can be a doctor or a president…or an actor.

Same goes for gender and sexual orientation. I’ll be the first to admit that when I look back at the PIONEER ONE scripts I wrote when I was at the tender age of 25, I now see it very starkly as coming from a straight-male perspective. And that’s all well and fine, because I was learning and writing from my own experience. But now I think I have tools that better equip me to write outside of my own personal experience and incorporate other points of view.

Despite what certain people who last year successfully rigged the Hugo Awards will have you believe, science fiction has always been a genre on the forefront of diversity and exploring diverse points of view. The works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany and James Triptree Jr. have always loomed large over the sci-fi/fantasy canon.

(And if you want to get all what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, their contemporary counterparts include the likes of China Miéville, N.K. Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders…basically anyone being talked about by Phil Sandifer and the folks over at Eruditorum Press is a good bet ;).)

Film and television has always been a few decades behind the curve on literary science fiction, but we’re starting to see those attitudes going mainstream. DOCTOR WHO succesfully gender-swapped one of the series’ longtime characters, and it would be hard to imagine the next actor chosen to play the Doctor not being either a woman or a person of color.

Another very recent example is the controversy surrounding THE 100, whose creators were taken to task by a vocal fandom for unknowingly playing into tropes familiar to LGBTQ viewers. (Here’s a Variety article detailing what went down and why, but be warned of spoilers for season 3.)

That incident alone demonstrates that these are very complicated issues that can be hard to navigate. Underestimating that is the path to patronizing tokenism. But the conversation is evolving and ongoing. The possibility that a reboot of PIONEER ONE could be a part of that dialog excites me. I hope, if given the chance, we can make our mark on science fiction television and put our ideals where our mouths are.

Some more honesty: I almost didn’t write this post. There’s been a lot of frustration and anger in the discussions about race going on recently, and it can be overwhelming. At times, it feels as if the views of opposing sides are based on two wholly-separate realities.

That strikes a chord. PIONEER ONE was conceived in 2009 during the debate over healthcare in the United States. The rhetoric at times made it seem like we couldn’t even agree on the same *facts*, much less policy. It occurred to me as I was listening to the news in the car one day: if a person came to Earth from space, one of the biggest hurdles would simply be convincing people that their story was really true. That’s the context in which PIONEER ONE was born and which we tried to explore in the first season.

With that in mind, I’d like to link to this op-ed from The New York Times called Race, Truth and Our Two Realities. I encourage anyone, no matter what views you hold, to give it a read. And keep it in mind the next time you have a discussion with someone who’s coming from a different point of view.

Normally I would sign off with “Keep Watching the Skies.” But not this week. This week, keep your sight on Earth. Look at your neighbor in the eyes. You might find yourself reflected in them.


Thoughts on Pioneer One, plus five.

It was exactly five years ago that I started writing the first documents that would form the basis of PIONEER ONE, the “TV on the web” series that I created and produced with my partner Bracey Smith. (Along with so many, many others who provided invaluable support and resources along the way that I hesitate to name just one because this post will become a list of acknowledgments too long to bear. You guys know who you are.)

Five years. Ancient history in internet time. When we crowdfunded the budget for the pilot on Kickstarter, every plea for a donation had to be followed by an explanation of what Kickstarter was. Today, everyone’s brother and cousin is crowdfunding something on Kickstarter. Lots of things have changed.

Bracey met his wife while making the show, and just welcomed his second daughter into the world last month.

I moved my life from Astoria, New York to Los Angeles, California to pursue a career writing for television. Or film. Or anything with a screen, really. (Fuck it, I’d be happy writing for the Tuscaloosa Community Players if I’m being honest.)

I’ve wanted to write for television since I was 19 years old, but I never had the stones to make the move to LA. Pioneer One got me out here. We were courted by producers of varying stripes trying to reboot the show for television. We’ve had many false starts, and came extremely close a couple of times, only to have things fall apart at the eleventh hour. But then, that’s Hollywood for ya. The odds of the show continuing in any form, either on the web or on television, become increasingly slim with each passing day. But that’s okay. It’s what finally got me to make the leap that I needed to make for my career and for my life.

I do think we were really on to something. The six episodes of that first season still hold up (even the pilot, though it does make me cringe in places). You can see us learning how to make the show with each successive installment, and the finale episode, I think, is as solid an episode of dramatic television as any.

At the 2010 New York Television Festival, where we won for Best Drama Pilot, the show was praised for its originality. But, again, a lot has changed since 2010. Maybe there was something in the ether, who knows. But there have been a lot of shows and movies and books since then that have elements in common with Pioneer One. I’m thinking of shows like THE AMERICANS, an early 80s Cold War thriller, which has certain themes and plot points that would have come up in our second season. The novel THE MARTIAN, about an astronaut stranded on Mars, set to become a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. Syfy’s ASCENSION, which deals with a secret space mission launched in the 1960s during the height of the Cold War (I mean, come on). A recently announced pilot about a new space race between two private corporations and their billionaire founders written by Eli Attie (THE WEST WING) and produced by Peter Berg (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS). And they just announced that J. Michael Straczynski (BABYLON 5) will be adapting the RED MARS trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson for SpikeTV. (I find it hilarious that in this new phase of jms’s career, there’s nary a mention of B5 in any industry publication regarding him. He’s an A-lister now!)

Does that make more Pioneer One moot? I don’t think so. There’s room for our show in today’s (albeit more crowded) landscape, perhaps with a little emphasis tweaking. But whether or not that happens isn’t up to me at the moment.

For now, my immediate and more achievable goal for Pioneer One is to get Phil Sandifer to do a psychochronographic review of our little show on his TARDIS Eruditorum blog.

And my own immediate goal is to write some new shows.

Here’s the trailer for Pioneer One: