Lunatics: The First Two Scripts

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 21, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Some of the articles I write have a way of lingering with me. My recent report on Lunatics is one of those. Free culture? Science fiction? Animation? Producers Terry Hancock and Rosalyn Hunter couldn't have pushed more of my buttons if they tried. So, wanting to learn more, I asked to see some of the scripts.

Hancock obliged by sending me the drafts of the first two scripts, "No Children in Space" and "Earth."

The first thing to say about the first two Lunatic scripts is they are amateur only in name and not in execution. Both are shootable scripts, formatted to the usual standards of TV and film. "No Children in Space," the more finished of the two, even includes suggestions for the musical scoring of each scene.

The second thing to say is that reading them made me aware of how much modern short drama is shaped by the artificial constraints of the television industry. Structurally, starting with a teaser makes little dramatic sense, but because of the spacing of commercials, that's what we are conditioned to expect. Consequently, I was a little surprised by the structure of "No Children in Space," since the credits appear thirteen minutes into a forty minute script. But then I realized that online is a different medium than TV, and no good reason exists for conforming to a structure that has nothing to do with the needs of story-telling.

Furthermore, as I read and re-read the scripts, I was aware that Lunatics is unusual in two ways. To start with, it's animation for adults. Not animation with a few references thrown in to keep Mommy and Daddy entertained while riding herd on the kids, but animation that a general understanding of the world.

For instance, in "Children," an interviewer asks whether taking children into space is dangerous, and her mother replies that her daughter will be safer than being driven to school. Later, on another talk show, a guest accuses the mother of being irresponsible and a street interviewer complains about the cost of space colonization. These are not concerns that a series aimed at children would bring up, but I suspect that we'll hear the same sort of comments when children actually do go into space.

Similarly, while the main language of the series is English, when people speak in another language, they speak that language. Not accented English, or a convention like the one that has ancient Romans or high Nazi officials speaking upper class English, but the actual language. It's another small sign of the adult-oriented realism for which the series strives.

Another rarity in Lunatics is its hard science approach. "Children," in particular, dwells on shots of space technology and landscapes that, when shot, will probably be reminiscent of some of the reverent scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike the average science fiction film, these two scripts lack battles or the sounds of weaponry in space – viewers are obviously expected to enjoy the spectacle of space and technology for their own sake. In other words, Lunatics is very much about what earlier generations of science fiction fans used to call "sense of wonder."

The Episodes

 In general, I am all in favor of sense of wonder, which modern science fiction films tend to neglect for epically boring battles. However, I do wonder whether it can carry a forty minute show.

That question looms particularly large in "No Children in Space." The pilot episode is a prologue in the most literal sense – it is about what happens before the story begins. The trouble is, it is narrative without plot. Relying on sense of wonder, it has no conflict, just a depiction of the itinerary of three characters on a routine trip to the colony. This seems a large risk in a pilot, because many viewers might conclude that the rest of the series has the same lack of direction, and not bother exploring any further.

Yet with very little effort, the needed plot could easily be added. The script already has people criticizing the idea of colonization. Since an online series has no time constraints, why not add another ten minutes and depict an organized effort by a government or special interest group to prevent the daughter going into space? Why not have the mother and daughter one step ahead of a court order for custody? Perhaps the character trying to serve the court order could be one step behind them, and in the end, prove to have endangered everyone far more than the mother? Such a plot would give "No Children" the spice it needs to make viewers hungry for more, while remaining true to its chief concerns.

If viewers did judge the series from the current state of the pilot, that would be unfortunate, because "Earth" is much stronger dramatically. While "No Children" introduces characters, in "Earth" we actually seem them interacting. There is a wonderfully annoying guest to the colony and some subtle humor at the guest's expense, as well as a sub-plot that is developed and resolved with some skill. At the same time, the members of the colony start to emerge as individuals – no mean trick when so much else is happening at the same time.

In addition, "Earth" also introduces what I suspect will be an ongoing theme in the series, with the colonists struggling to overcome restrictions imposed by a remote and generally unsympathetic bureaucracy. This is a theme that should resonate strongly with Lunatic's target audience.

In fact, while I would hate to sound like the hapless FOX executive who decreed that Firefly be shown out of sequence, I am tempted to say that with minimal rewriting "Earth" would be a stronger introduction to Lunatics than "No Children." Reading "No Children," I worry about the series' ability to build an audience. By contrast, reading "Earth," I conclude that, if other episodes can reach the same standard, the series has an excellent chance of finding the viewers who would appreciate it.

Raw materials

After reading the two scripts, I come away with a stronger sense of exactly how ambitious Lunatics is. A free culture series of two dozen episodes is ambitious in itself. Yet Hancock and Hunter raise the stakes by having strong ideas of not only the story they want to tell, but also how they want to tell it. After reading the scripts, I find myself hoping that, despite my reservations about "No Children," that they manage to pull it off.

Hancock tells me that, in keeping with the free culture spirit, these scripts will soon be posted to the project's web site. Although some people might be wary of spoilers, how the story of Lunatics is told is going to be as important as the story itself, so keep an eye out for them and see what you think. If you're anything like me, then reading the raw scripts should leave you wanting to donate so they can actually be shot.

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