One of the final WonderCon panels started late due to technical difficulties, but few fans complained as it just gave them more time to travel to the back of the very long line. The panel was moderated by Craig Tomashoff (TV Guide’s West Coast Bureau Chief), who discussed all things sci-fi with Jeph Loeb (co-executive producer of “Heroes” and writer of “Wolverine”), Billy Campbell (Jordan Collier on “The 4400”), Ira S. Behr (executive producer of “The 4400”), Chase Masterson (Leeta on “Star Trek: DSN”), and Richard Hatch (Tom Zarek on “Battlestar Galactica”)
At the start of the panel, Craig Tomashoff opened by introducing himself to the crowd as he explained TV Guide’s current enthusiasm in focusing on more Science Fiction articles and news in their (now larger format) magazine. He told the audience that television is not the smartest industry, by giving the example of “Friends” past popularity spawning over 27 shows all simply based around the interactions of 6 young, attractive people. The “stupid” industry needs the fans suggestions to improve itself, and hopes no one will hesitate to send TV Guide their ideas.
The panel guests were then introduced to loud applause as they each took their seat in front of their name plate. In a humorous move, Billy Campbell turns his name plate face down as he just seemed too tired to talk.
The discussion got off to a quick start as Tomashoff asked everyone if the ‘Golden Age of Sci-Fi’ was here. Jeph Loeb answered with a simple, “I guess,” but went further by saying there was a lot of good stuff out there right now.
Richard Hatch dove deep into the question by explaining that the genre currently has some of the best writers and directors working on projects than ever before. The genre is more character driven than its ever been before, as more and more stories focus on deeper subjects such as ‘mysteries of life and the universe.’ The genre is popular because it is able to put life in a different context that allows for new insights into humanity.
Chase Masterson added that sci-fi is the best it has ever been, as it continues to reflect current events and people. Ira spoke his opinion on the matter by simply saying he and the writers are simply trying to make it to the end of the week, they’re not focused on creating a golden age. Although it’s fun to debate the question, it’s not important to the overall process of creating a show (specifically “4400”).
The panel continued as Tomashoff asked where the inspiration comes from for their creative work. Billy Campbell is not a television fanatic, but he is a fan of the show “Rome.” But he added at the end that “Star Trek” probably helped.
Loeb draws his inspiration from anthology television series such as “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost,” “Smallville,” all versions of “Star Trek,” and especially “The Twilight Zone.” The shows are all examples of having well-written characters making the ‘far out’ elements acceptable. He added he had respect for the show “Lost” for shooting in Hawaii, while “Heroes” is simply shot at different locales around Los Angeles with no budget for settings such as India or Japan. “Lost” can focus their full attention on the characters and story, while “Heroes” may have to worry about making sure a scene shot in LA will look like Texas.
Tomashoff pushed the panel forward by asking the actors, why sci-fi? Masterson responded first by saying the genre’s “reward” is great stories and great characters. She explained she’s able to be more powerful on screen in a Sci-Fi story than she could ever be in real life. She also added that all those medical and crime shows don’t have these great conventions, which received enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
Hatch said that Sci Fi is about the characters, which makes them intelligent and meaningful. The fans know that the stories are far deeper than the surreal settings may imply. He gave the example of “Battlestar Galactica” being such a powerful show for being culturally and socially relevant. The show (and the genre) has the guts to look at a situation that previously many criticized and make the situation seen from another angle be sympathetic. As in we all have flaws, but it’s a hero who struggles against them. Closing out his example by saying that the humans and Cylons are two sides of the same coin.
Loeb spoke for his cast by saying that the genre doesn’t play by any rules. Speaking specifically on his show, he said that anything is possible as twists and turns won’t become realized until a week before the script is due. He gave the example of new cast member Christopher Eccleston (Claude) coming over to the show from the BBC series “Doctor Who.” In England, the “Doctor Who” series was fully realized ahead of time with each episode being written far in advance. Eccleston was in a completely new environment as he now never knew what was going to happen each episode until shooting began.
Ira S Behr added to Loeb’s comments by saying, “We think we know where we’re going, but plans always change as if the show was a living beast making its own decisions.” He gave the example of Sean Marquette (Boyd in “The 4400”) thinking his character would turn out to be a hero after his first few episodes instead of winding up as a suicide bomber.
Campbell simply said he never knows what’s going on, and he prefers it that way. It makes it so he’s just as surprised as the fans are at the twist and turns his character may take. He also added that he still doesn’t know if ‘Jordan’ is a good guy or a bad guy.
Behr revealed here that the “The 4400” has moved beyond the plot line of the apocalyptic future and is now focused on the ramifications of the promicin drug.
A quick question was given to Masterson about the impact of women in the genre and she answered that mainly women are portrayed as equal to men.
The big question on everyone’s mind was uttered as Craig asked everyone what was coming up in their projects.
Loeb started by saying tomorrow night’s episode (Monday, March 4) of “Heroes” will end the current story arc as well as reveal and introduce the character of Mr. Linderman. After that episode, there will be a 5 week break of re-runs until the show returns with the final 5 episodes of the season. Every question left unanswered since the first episode will be resolved by the season finale. Except there will be new questions to be answered in the form of a season cliffhanger to ensure viewers return for the next season.
Hatch wasn’t able to reveal much, although he jokingly said that everyone is actually a Cylon and they all die. He also added that he’s not given a lot of information beforehand, but after searching for the proper word, he promised that, “A lot of Frak will hit the fan!”
Behr said it was time to learn if “The 4400’s” Jordan had the goods or not and that it was also time to examine that ‘ball of light’ from the first episode. He ended by stating that Shawn will come out of his coma and the ramifications of Kyle’s promicin shot will be revealed.
One fan asked why the shows need to take such long breaks filled with reruns between new episodes. All the panelists agreed they hate having long breaks between episodes, but in a machiavellian sort of way, it ensures viewers will tune in to a channel each week just in case. Loeb added by saying it’s just not possible to have all the shows completed and ready to air in a nice, neat bundle. There is not enough time, nor is there enough money, to have all the episodes completed at once.
One fan asked if the DVD market had any influence on the TV shows. The panelists all agreed that it helps a lot. Their shows are expensive to make and the sales of DVDs help ‘pay the bills.’ “Lost” started a precedent by selling the previous season on DVD before the start of the next, and thus all shows are following suit to ensure a full budget (if not a bigger one).
Jeph Loeb was asked specifically how his comic work experience compares to his work in television. Loeb jokingly said, “people recognize me more,” but added that in comics he is only working with a single collaborator. In comics he is only limited by what can be drawn, while in television he works with around 400 collaborators as well as being restricted by a budget.
The panel ended with one last question for Billy Campbell about whether or not there is any hope for more “Rocketeer.” Surprised by the question, he answered with, “I hope.” But it doesn’t seem likely.