“You must have the best job in the world,” my sister-in-law once marveled. “You just sit around all day making stuff up.” Yes, I’m sure this is how some envision the writing process: the writer, furiously tapping away at his or her laptop, turning the ideas on and off like tap water. But the reality is scriptwriting can be a long and arduous process replete with delays, disappointments, and dispiriting setbacks. And the very first step in this difficult (yet wholly satisfying!) exercise is that kernel of an idea, that brilliant notion that makes you sit bolt upright in bed at three in the morning and shout “That’s it!”, scaring the beejeebers out of your sleeping wife.
But coming up with the brilliant ideas is only half the battle. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to share these magnificent concepts with the rest of the writing department. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to … “Pitch to The Room.”
By “The Room,” I mean the writing department. In this case, the Season Seven writing department that gathered in Robert’s office over the hiatus: Robert Cooper, Peter DeLuise, Damian Kindler, Paul Mullie, and myself. The nice thing about being on staff is that you don’t have to go it alone. If the premise you are pitching happens to possess even the littlest something that connects with someone, you can count on everyone helping to “spin” it into a workable idea.
Brad Wright, our former executive producer, was a master at this. He’d always joke: “You want to do a story about a monkey and dog? Okay. Let’s go!” If you felt passionate enough about an idea, he’d find a way to make it work. And that’s really the beauty of working on Stargate. You can always count on your fellow writers to help you flesh out a concept. (The same, of course, does not apply to freelancers. No half-baked ideas or vague notions for these outsiders. They must come in and prove their worth with fully developed, well-researched story ideas. Sometimes, they succeed — as in the case of Damian Kindler whose pitches for “The Other Guys” and “Cure” earned him a staff position.
Other times … well, I remember a freelance pitch in Season Five that went something like this: “SG-i visit a planet and are separated from Tee-alc.”
(But I digress.)
The Time: Hiatus. Sometime between Seasons Six and Seven.
The Place: The Bridge Studios.
We gather, armed with our ideas for the upcoming season. Robert, the show’s exec-producer, starts off with a general overview of where we’re headed in Season Seven and where we want to end up. We’ve got a big, bad uber-goa’uld to tackle, the character of Daniel Jackson to bring back, and a now symbiote-less Teal’c to deal with. We then address some production considerations. Amanda will be directing an episode this season, so we will have to come up with two storylines that can be Carter-light to allow her the time to prep and shoot. (Check out “Prodigy” and “Double Jeopardy” when we were faced with a similar situation re: Michael directing.) Given Rick’s tight shooting schedule, we are going to have to come up with some stories in which the character of Jack O’Neill is present but not necessarily the driving force (a la “Smoke and Mirrors” and “Forsaken”).
Finally, we begin tossing out the ideas. Robert wants to do a story that ultimately dispels Carter’s “Black Widow” tag, focusing on her relationship with a new boyfriend who doesn’t know anything about her work at the SGC. This relationship will be tested by the secret she keeps and, over the course of the episode, the boyfriend will become increasingly suspicious and attempt to find out what she is hiding. Maybe he will unwittingly become involved in some SG-1-related situation despite Carter’s best efforts. But what is the situation? Well, Robert also wants to do a story that reunites Daniel with Osiris. Maybe there’s a way to combine the two stories.
We discuss, throw out ideas, and the story is filed away under the working title: “Black Widow Carter.” (One of the best things about these initial pitch sessions is the ridiculous place-holder titles we’ll often come up with to remind ourselves of a given story. “Black Widow Carter,” “Young O’Neill,” “Bubble World,” and “Felger Gate Screw-Up” are just a few of the episode titles, worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos, you’ll never get to see. Remember Season Four’s “Ad Infinitum?” Season Five’s “Teal’c Interrupted?” Season Six’s “Ice Woman?” Didn’t think so. Suffice it to say we eventually come up with a proper title for the episode. Often this can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the script-writing process. But more on that in the next installment.) And on we go.
So we sit in the room for hours, the five of us, tossing, turfing, and transforming ideas. Robert is the master-spinner. No one is his equal. He has the incredible ability to come up with plot developments that will send the simplest story into wild, new directions. Everyone else in the room will be in the midst of discussing when Robert, silent up to this point, will suddenly interrupt with: “What if …?” What if the wonder-drug these people are using is actually made of ground Goa’uld symbiotes? What if O’Neill can’t trust the former Black-Ops buddy who is supposed to be watching his back? What if Daniel does try to stop Anubis, but gets “taken away” before he can act?
If Robert is The Master-Spinner, then Paul earns the title of Commander Logic. If the story makes sense to him, then it’s as good as “go,” for Paul is extremely adept at picking out the potential story flaws and iffy science that can make or break a prospective episode. Nothing puts the brakes on a spinning session like Paul suddenly interjecting with his trademark foreboding: “I just realized something …”
Peter, meanwhile, is our SG-1 oracle, a font of Stargate mythology. As we build on the idea, he’ll offer up backstory elements that neatly tie the story into existing canon. Maybe the Goa’uld who first started the research was Imhotep from Season Five’s “The Warrior.” Perhaps the queen supplying symbiotes for the tetronin turns out to be Egeria. Damian and I, meanwhile, adopt a similar low-key “pitch room” tact — carefully picking our spots and throwing out ideas, objections, or tearful recriminations when warranted.
I pitch an idea about SG-1 visiting a planet where the people live under the rule of a benevolent Goa’uld. As it turns out, the only reason he’s benevolent is because his memory has been wiped and he is unaware of his true nature. But when the planet comes under threat from another Goa’uld, the only way to save its inhabitants is by reawakening his long-dormant memories. Sadly (for me), the pitch doesn’t engender much interest. Crash and burn.
Peter seizes the opportunity presented by the return of Daniel Jackson to pitch another Unas story. It’s something he has wanted to do for a while. We spin the idea and come up with a good starting point. “Unas Story” is put on the list.
Damian wants to do a story focusing on Carter’s relationship with her father, perhaps an episode in which Carter is placed in a dangerous predicament and must rely on Jacob to save her — only Jacob’s desire to save his daughter is opposed by his symbiote Selmak who feels they must sacrifice her for a worthier cause. It’s an intriguing premise that holds a lot of promise … and gets shelved for the time being.
I want to do a one-off story where SG-1 visits a civilization trapped on a toxic planet. SG-1 wants to relocate them but this is easier said than done because the people hide a horrible secret! Alas, Paul bumps on the backstory. But Robert has an idea and spins it in another direction. Maybe … SG-1 wants to relocate them but its easier said than done because the people hide a (different) horrible secret! Now, we’re talking! The story is added to the list.
On and on we go, through lunch and into late afternoon — pitching, spinning, rejecting, and proposing over salted dry ribs and spicy dynamite rolls until, finally, we look at the list. We have twelve episodes! Well, twelve titles at least. We divvy up the spoils. Rob, finishing work on part one of the opening two parter, “Fallen,” will get started on “Heroes.” Paul and I, finishing work on the second part of the two-parter, “Homecoming,” will tackle “Bubble World” and “Felger Gate Screw-Up.” Damian gets “Young O’Neill” and
“Space Race.” Peter is handed “Unas Story” and “Orpheus.” Brad Wright, our designated hitter, will write the Daniel Jackson tour-de-force “Voices.” The other stories will await whoever has the time to write them.
So there you have it. The idea has been approved, everyone has had their say, and now all that’s left to do is write the script. Right?
Wrong! Going from pitch to first draft is a license granted to the privileged few — the ballsy, the brash, the — Brad Wright. Time and again, this fearless individual has thrown caution to the wind, tempting fate by foregoing the all-important next step in the process and coming back, weeks later, with a top-notch script. For the rest of us mere mortals, however, it’s back to our offices to hammer out a blueprint for our respective scripts, a document we affectionately refer to as “the outline.”
NOW it gets interesting!
Unfortunately, NOW is when we’re going to have to end things for the time being.
In my next installment, I’ll focus on how the story is built, from a lowly idea into a lofty pr‚cis, like an architectural marvel meticulously constructed to weather the test of time (or occasionally come down like a house of cards).
NEXT: The Outline