Beware of minor SPOILERS for Season Five in the interview below!
A veteran writer of more than 20 years, Carl Binder admits he has never been more happy than he is now working on Stargate Atlantis. Season Five brings new challenges to the production team as Atlantis becomes a seasoned series with nearly 100 hours of entertainment committed to film.
In our latest interview with the writer, Carl tells GateWorld about “hitting the ground running” fresh from the Writers Guild of America strike, which ended a month after production on Season Five began. We discuss his favorite episodes coming down the pike, including one he has been toying with, the absence of Weir and Carter as regular cast members, and the introduction of Woolsey as a regular.
GateWorld’s interview with Carl runs almost 25 minutes. Listen online at your leisure, download it to your MP3 player, or subscribe to the iTunes podcast. The full interview is also transcribed below!
GateWorld: For GateWorld.net, I’m David Read. I’m once again here with Mr. Carl Binder. Thank you for taking some time with us, sir.
Carl Binder: My pleasure! Any time …
GW: Season Five [of Atlantis] just started. Have you been busy?
CB: Yeah. Very, very busy. Hit the ground running. I started the season on strike, so I joined the rest of them about a month late. I’ve just been spending the first month or so just really hitting the ground running and playing catch up and getting things going. But good to be back. Very good!
GW: What shows are you most excited about so far?
CB: Which shows am I very excited about? Well, I’m very excited about the one I’m doing right now. The one which is shooting right now, which is going to be a lot of fun is “Ghost In The Machine.” We are able to revisit some loose ends from last year, and tie them up in a different type of way than what might be expected. That’s a lot of fun.
I’m just starting another script. Well, not starting. I’ve done the first draft of “Tracker,” which is a lot of fun. Because it’s another “in the woods” adventure/action piece with Ronon and McKay. [They’ve] been teamed up to track down Keller who’s been kidnapped. And kidnapped by someone who is very similar to Ronon. So that one’s a lot of action. That one’s going to be a lot of fun.
GW: What do you think is being done differently this year or is unique that fans are going to most look forward to? Last year was this huge arc — Teyla’s baby and the Athosians — what’s this year about?
CB: Last year was great in that we had that real overriding arc. This [year] is kind of about new enemies, a new reality…how do I put this?
GW: A new reality?
CB: I just realized with science fiction, that’s probably not the right way to word that, because it can be taken a million [different ways] … just a new order. A new order to the galaxy. The results of what happened last year are going to be felt this year. The galaxy is a little bit … the Wraith are not as strong as they used to be. So the people of the galaxy are going to be stepping out a little bit more, and forming more alliances. As a result, other societies are going to emerge. Some very technologically advanced and some friendly and some not so friendly. There’s going to be this discovering the new order of the galaxy this year.
GW: What are some of these new races that you guys are looking forward to bringing up out of the woodwork? Now that the playing field has changed…
CB: Well, the one that Martin is working on for the mid-season two parter kind of introduces this new technologically advanced race that we don’t want to say too much about. Although I’m sure Martin’s probably told you everything about it…[laughter]
GW: Just a little! [laughter]
CB: I’ll let him fill in all of that. But it’s an interesting — we haven’t seen the last of the Replicators, even though we thought we had. But there’s a few loose ends in regards to what happened to Elizabeth Weir that will be addressed, and that storyline will continue. And also with the addition of Woolsey to Atlantis, there’s a new order as far as how Atlantis proceeds.
GW: Yeah! Tell us about writing for him.
CB: Oh, he’s a lot of fun. What’s interesting about him is… You know, I really enjoyed having Amanda [Tapping] on the show last year. And really loved having Carter. I was able to do one episode, “Quarantine,” where I was able to write more for her. And I really enjoyed it and really enjoyed what she did with it. She’s just a terrific actress. Woolsey brings in a different dynamic. He’s more of a foil. There will be a little more conflict. What is interesting is that we already see it happening is that Woolsey is becoming human. That the job forces you to behave in ways that you never thought you would behave…or Woolsey, anyway. And as a result, he’s gaining a much broader perspective and becoming a much better person because of it.
GW: Well, you have to make the character likable.
CB: I find him very likable in his faults. There are just these moments, these nice little character moments. These little revelations of personal things that are just included throughout that are a lot of fun.
GW: You have a classic character background. I’ve loved your character work over the years. It’s the best storytelling on Atlantis in terms of the characters. But you came from Dr. Quinn and more traditional types of story telling. How do you feel going several years on with Stargate? How do you feel about sci-fi storytelling for characters?
CB: The episodes I connect with the most are the ones that are smaller and more intimate. You know, it’s so funny, I do read the message boards and see the response that people have to episodes I do. And often times, I really like episodes that fans are like “Oh, that wasn’t one of my favorites.” Like “Miller’s Crossing,” or for me, “Missing.” You have the [contingent of fans that think] “Eh! Keller’s whiny!” But for me, that was one of my favorites of the ones that I did last year. That and “Quarantine.” Oddly enough, the two that the fans responded most to — “Midway” and “Lifeline” — were, eh, okay for me.
So it’s funny, because I don’t come from a sci-fi background. The stories that have good personal dilemmas — stories like “Miller’s Crossing” that had such a grat moral dilemma that Sheppard was placed in — I just eat that up. I love that kind of stuff. I do enjoy the big [ones]. “Be All My Sins Remember’d” with the big huge space battle. That was really cool. So I enjoy those episodes, too.
When we were trying to figure out [what] to do for a small episode, I think it was Joe Mallozzi who said “Well, what if we’re all trapped in different places?” and I was like “I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” I want to do that one. I’m more attracted to stories where we can really get into characters and just see them not behaving in their typical way.
GW: I loved “The Real World” in Season Three. There are no explosions. A lot of fans aren’t fond of it because there are no explosions. It’s kind of a dark and twisted character drama. And I wish that we could see more of that in Stargate.
CB: Well, you know, I’ll certainly keep trying. The thing that I loved about “Tracker” was that the idea was pitched by a freelance writer. When I heard about the idea — they would call me when I was on strike — they’d say “Here’s what’s going on. Here’s what we’re doing. We just took a pitch from this guy, and he pitched this idea.” And I was like “Ooh, that’s good. That sounds good!” And later they said “Well, he did an outline and we’re not quite happy with the direction it’s going, but is that something you’re interested in when you come back?” And I said “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
So when I came back, they’re like “Okay, you do it!” So I jumped on it. I love having this dynamic of McKay and Ronon, which we haven’t really seen. I also wanted to revisit Keller a year later. We saw Keller in “Missing” and now we’re going to see Keller in a different way in this episode.
GW: So it pays off?
CB: Oh, we’re going to see a growth from where she’s been a year ago to where she is now.
GW: [That’s] series television for you. That’s the best…
CB: Yeah, it’s fun.
GW: Well, the show is primarily an action-adventure show. But you can’t always do that. You have to have your lulls from the explosions. That’s where I particularly find some of the more interesting episodes. Because it’s not normal for something like Stargate. You know — going through the gate, going into battle, coming out of it again. But I think it explores the characters more. Explores them more as humans.
CB: One of the other things I pitched, but they rejected it, was the whole idea. You know a few years ago, one that Martin [Gero] did was “Sunday.” The day off on Atlantis. And the other thing I’ve always been intrigued by is, you know we always have these mess hall scenes, right? I mean, who’s there cleaning up and bussing the tables? They’ve come from Earth and they are in an entirely other galaxy, and there they are. To work in the mess hall.
GW: Kind of a “Lower Decks”-type episode.
CB: Yeah, “Lower Decks.” What if there was this group of friends that always ate lunch together, but they were like the janitor and the one S.O. who wants to be on one of the away teams but he keeps asking. And no, he’s just got to guard the gate when the gate activates. So these guys end up getting into trouble.
GW: Would it have been more of a comedy, like “The Other Guys?”
CB: No. Well, maybe a little of both. But what ends up happening in this pitch is that the guy who wanted to be on the away team actually gets his chance. And gets shot and accidentally left behind for dead. When in fact he isn’t dead. So the whole thing is kind of told in flashbacks.
We see everything that led up to what is going on right now. And the whole idea is that once Sheppard finds out that this insignificant “red shirt” is in fact not dead, but on another planet being held, he orchestrates this huge rescue to show that it doesn’t matter who the person is. We will go back for him. And no, it wasn’t received well.
But then again, “The Real World” wasn’t either. The first pitch of Season Two, Brad [Wright] was like “Mmm, maybe not now. But try it again next year.” So the next year I went in and re-pitched it, and they were like “Hmm, okay.”
GW: So you can retool these stories and approach them again?
CB: Yeah, you can adjust.
GW: Or do they ever say “I don’t want to see that again? Take it back!”
CB: You can just sort of tell where they go “Uh…no.” And sometimes they’ll say, like “The Real World,” where they’ll say it’s not right right now, and then when I pitch it the next year, they figure out that it would be a good follow-up for “Progeny.” And they say “Why don’t you do that as a two-parter?” So…
GW: There’s your lull.
CB: There it is.
GW: It’s a good story, though. What other stories do you have in your head this year that you’re thinking about spinning? Anything more to do with Woolsey?
CB: No. I’m just waiting to see how things play out in the first half. It’s interesting. Joe [Mallozzi] had an idea for the back half that, boy, I would just kill to be able to write. I love it. When he pitched it, I was like “Oh! Why can’t I do that one?” I do have ideas, and I’ve gotten better at coming up with the sci-fi ideas to pitch. Like “Ghost In The Machine” and last year, the ones I did last year. “Phantoms” from before, where I came in and pitched it.
My mind can come up with character dilemmas but inserting that sci-fi aspect into it is still a learning process for me. I want to see how the first half plays out and see what’s needed. That’s kind of what happened last year. We did have this overriding arc, and we knew we were going to end “here.” And we kind of do that this year. We know where we are going to end. We’re in the middle. But in these intervening…we need stand-alones. And those are the ones that I really enjoy doing. So I want to try and see if I can come up with something.
GW: What’s the idea behind “Ghost In The Machine”? Where did this come from?
CB: Ever since “Be All My Sins Remember’d,” when I saw and read the script, I was like “We have to … we can’t leave this hanging.” We’ve got to figure this out. So it’s finding out what happened to Weir, and where we go from here. Originally, it involved bringing Torri [Higginson] back, but then she declined. So we had to step back and figure out a new way to tell the story, which — I don’t know who came up with the idea — but it was a great way to do it. So I’m really happy about that.
GW: You enjoyed writing for Weir.
CB: Yeah, I did.
GW: Was it sort of a let-down?
CB: You know, I miss the character, and I miss her. But we have new people and new stories, and you move on. The show must go on. And I love the new additions. I love Jewel. I just think she’s terrific. And, as I said, I really just enjoyed having Amanda. She’s such a great actress to write for, because exactly how you envision the scene playing out in you head, she does it exactly that way. It’s so effortless, and she’s such a strong, strong actress.
I have Woolsey in “Ghost In The Machine”, and he gets to show some spine, which is nice. Robert Picardo has been a blast. A lot of fun. It’s a real tech-heavy episode. The good thing is that we get to find out what happened. What that last scene in “Be All My Sins Remember’d” was all about.
GW: One of our favorite characters from that was Michelle Morgan [“Fran”]. Can we hope to see some sign of her again this year?
CB: In “Ghost In The Machine”, she’ll be back. I was a huge fan of Fran.
GW: She just stole the show.
CB: Yeah, yeah. I was going into Martin’s office and saying “Be real careful how you cast this character.” Because she’s got to be just right. She can’t go over the top. She can’t be robotic. She’s got to have humanity, but at the same time an innocence. All these various things that she had to do in a very short period of time. And I thought she just knocked the ball out of the park. I was like “How can we bring her back?” And now, there’s a way. I was just talking to her yesterday about it. The template, the “Fran” template is stored in the machine. Whenever we need a Replicator, whenever we need to create something…
GW: Push the copy button and Fran comes popping out? [laughter]
CB: That’s it! And you can alter it to whatever you need. I don’t know how much the Replicators will continue to play a part in this series, but in this episode we will revisit it, and kind of wrap it up. But also keep the door open. In science fiction, the door is always open. Look at “Beckett!” He’s back. [laughter]
GW: I’m pushing for the third series to be Stargate: Fran.
CB: Stargate: Fran…that’s a very good idea. In fact, I did a guest thing on Joe’s blog after “Missing” where the fans ask questions and they said — this is before “Be All My Sins Remember’d” had aired — they said “If you could write for any character in Stargate, past or present, who would you write an episode about?” And I said Fran. And people were saying “Who’s Fran? Who’s Fran?” because the episode hadn’t aired yet.
GW: What do you think about the direction that the Wraith are going in this year as a species? You’re kind of reassigning them. They’re not as powerful as they used to be.
CB: But they’re still nasty. And we’re continuing down the line of the character of Todd. Giving him more personality and having them have their problems too. So I think they’re going to continue to become more of the … more “characters” rather than just “the villains.” Last year we learned a lot about them. How they’re made. We have this episode “The Queen,” where we’re going to discover more about this alliance that is being built up. And Todd’s place in it, and how we infiltrate it. It’s going to be evolving. One of the things I also like about what we did last season was getting rid of the Midway station.
GW: It’s not going to come back?
CB: As of right now, it’s not. But tomorrow we might come up with an idea and bring it back. It just became too … at a certain point, I thought wouldn’t they, if you worked a nine to five on Atlantis, you could go home in the evening. It’s thirty minutes. You go home. They put in the one-day quarantine. That makes it a little more difficult. You could still possibly go home for a long weekend. It just started to become convenient. I’ve been a big fan and I know Martin’s been a big fan of getting back to that lone outpost in the middle of nowhere with no way to contact home, and what do we do? I always like making life as difficult as possible for our people.
GW: Episode one-hundred is going to be coming up at the end of the season.
CB: Yeah, it’s going to be a good one.
GW: We were talking with Martin. That it’s a rare case where the milestone episode is the last episode, so it has to be doubly fantastic.
CB: It’s a little like SG-1 with the one-hundredth, “Wormhole X-Treme!”, and then the two-hundredth where it was done more for laughs. This is going to be more of a spectacular. This one’s going to be huge. A lot of fun. A lot of exciting … That was one that the idea came up when I wasn’t [here], I was on the picket line. When I came back I said “What are we doing?” and they pitched it to me and I was like “Oh, that is cool!” Cause Robert, I think, is doing nineteen. And nineteen will set up twenty. So there will be like — not really a two-parter — but one sets up the other.
GW: Will twenty be a cliffhanger?
CB: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. At least I believe it is a cliffhanger. You’ve got to have … you always have to have some sort of cliffhanger element, so that you can move on to Season Six!
GW: Exactly right!
CB: The show just keeps going and going and going. And then who knows about the third one. So we’ll see…
GW: Would you like to write for Stargate Universe? Would you be open to it?
CB: I’m open to anything. I don’t know a whole lot about it. Just the sort of extreme broad strokes. And I don’t even know the extreme broad strokes that I know of are accurate. It’s evolved. But it sounds really interesting. Are you kidding? This franchise …
GW: It’s got legs.
CB: It really does. What’s funny, because I’ve worked professionally as a writer for, like, twenty-two years now, is this is the longest job that I’ve ever had. I was telling the guys this, and they’re like “Really?” Because I did three and a half seasons of Dr. Quinn, and two seasons on Mysterious Ways and two seasons on Pocahontas. This is the longest employment on one show I’ve ever had. But it’s very strange because it doesn’t feel like it.
GW: Aside from the writer’s strike, is this the happiest you’ve been working?
CB: You know, I have to say yes. Because I had much more responsibility on the other shows. On Dr. Quinn I was pretty much, the final season and a half, running the show. And Little Men and Mysterious Ways, I created them and was the show runner for both those shows. And there’s just this whole level of stress that comes with that job that has been stripped away on this job.
I can focus on writing and editing, and music. The mix of notes. And casting. All the creative stuff. And you don’t have to deal with all the politics and the diplomacy and the managing of egos. I’m glad to not have that be a part of it. The only drawback to this job is that I’m away from home. Because my home is in the L.A. area. My wife comes up periodically, and I go home periodically. But it’s just not home. But that’s it. That’s the only possible drawback to it. It’s the best working environment I’ve ever been on, as far as the staff and the show runners and the actors and everybody.