[Atlantis : Revolutions] What inspired you to do this project, and why did you want to concentrate on actors and actresses from sci-fi?
[Martin Firrell] I started investigating the meaning and significance of heroism in 2007. I was very fortunate to interview Nathan Fillion about his creation of Mal Reynolds in Firefly, and I also interviewed a large number of people from different walks of life – scientists, philosophers, writers, soldiers, and individuals whose lives had taken them on challenging journeys. This work was shown in 2009 in collaboration with the Household Division of the British Army (the division that guards the Queen) and was a great success. So looking at heroism had been good for me. I then realised that I could create a new work which looked at a very specific portrayal of heroism by investigating the sub culture of science fiction. The more I looked, the more I realised there was more value and richness in sci fi than simply depictions of heroism. So I decided to widen the search to include any philosophical truth that could be inferred from popular American television science fiction. I am interested in works that help us to live more fruitifully and it seems to me that valuable life lessons can be inferred from sci fi and shared between us to the benefit of all.
[A:R] Even now, at the relative beginning of your project, you have chosen a wide variety of subjects. Have you discovered anything that surprises you, either about the characters and how the actor sees them, or about the actors themselves?
[MF] I have found many similarities between contributors when they talk about the practical stresses of making television sci fi – very long days and long weeks, the need to be quick, to memorise lots, no time to waste, the need for stamina and a highly developed sense of humour!
[A:R] “Star Trek” was a building block that helped perpetrate ideals of equality for the people, and encouraged the desire to better ones self through education. Do you think the “Stargate” franchise has some of those same attributes?
[MF] I do think Stargate can be viewed as the natural successor to Star Trek – not that Gate replaces Trek – but it can be seen to continue the work Trek began. If you look at the original bridge of the Enterprise, ‘difference’ or ‘otherness’ was regarded as valuable rather than menacing: mixed cultures, races and even aliens worked harmoniously together in order to ‘boldly go…’ The same can be seen In Stargate. And I believe this is important work. It becomes more and more important for us to embrace ideas of difference and otherness as more and more of us crowd onto the earth. We need to get along, and life is better when we do.
[A:R] These characters you’ve chosen to focus on – do you see them as a global representation of humanity’s endeavour to explore the unknown, or more of a singular will to survive the odds? Not every man, woman, or child is made of the same stuff these particular people are, yet they are just your everyday heroes. Put in their shoes, do you think – or hope – you’d be able to face the same adversity with just as much courage?
[MF] I think the characters I have chosen so far express a very Western sensibility about the endeavour to explore – I decided to concentrate on American television sci fi so this is hardly a surprise, but it’s important to be clear that these examples are culturally specific. If I looked at Russian, Indian, or Asian programme-making, everything would have a different cultural tone. Of course the characters represent something we can relate to, so in that sense they are similar to us. And who’s to say what is a daring and bold thing to do? I imagine raising one child well is far more heroic than anything depicted in sci fi. As far as my own sense of adventure goes – I’d be useless in any challenging situation – an important part of my own fandom is watching from the safety of my own bed as people venture into space and encounter intriguing alien races!
[A:R] As you’ve focused on the heroism of these characters, it seems they are mostly reluctant heroes who feel compelled to step up and do what is right. Do you think that is a major component in a real hero or simply makes a good fictional character?
[MF] I have interviewed some very heroic people in real life – April Ashley who was one of the first people ever to change gender / soldiers who have been decorated for extreme valour in the face of great physical danger, and they all decline to regard themselves as heroic. So I think it’s safe to infer that this kind of reticence is the mark of a true hero.
[A:R] Though many heroes seem to be maverick loners at heart, they usually end up with at least a sidekick or ‘gang’. How do you think the role of a sidekick betters the hero and do you think they would be an independent who might develop into a hero or are they a non entity without the lead character?
[MF] We like hierarchies, they work well for us as human beings. So we’re keen to understand who the big hero – the lead – is in any work. Then we fall in love with the sidekick for being more like us and less like the hero. We can identify easily with the less-than-perfect person. Of course, if the sidekick becomes the hero, they lose that special place in our hearts, but gain another perhaps.
[A:R] Each of the characters you have focused on so far have inherent flaws – they are very much “human”, as opposed to the stereotypical comic-book type characters who so often seem to populate current sci-fi shows. What is it that drew you to these characters in particular, and not some of the more obvious subjects?
[MF] I have chosen the subjects for the Sci Fi Series on a purely subjective basis. So these characters and the actors who created them appeal to me personally – Kate Mulgrew for being the first ‘girl in the seat’ as she puts it, and showing how powerful and different female command can be – Joe Flanigan for his character’s fierce loyalty to the authority and wisdom of Weir, and at the same time, his reluctance simply to obey authority. I see the characters as helpful roots into more fundamental ideas like the loneliness of command, the sacrifices women make in a male-dominated world, our relationship with authority, ideas of security, surveillance and paranoia, and so on. I did take a decision to focus on the biggest franchises for this work, so Star Trek and Stargate in all their flavours are the foundation of the project, with cult additions like Farscape, and Firefly. And now Warehouse 13 because I am about to work with Eddie McClintock, which we are looking forward to very much.
[A:R] Have you ever considered introducing the concept of string theory into your character profiles? It might be interesting to see ‘the man in the mirror’, alongside the characters and heroes we know so well. Sort of like a kaleidoscope of personalities, all rolled into one. ‘Rainbow Realities’, if you like.
[MF] I don’t understand string theory and so I don’t understand this question. I don’t understand M theory either, but because it has my initial in it, I like the sound of it.
[A:R] We tend to use art as a means of interpreting the unknown, and when looking at the universe, there’s an awful lot of it out there that needs translating. You’ve successfully managed to marry the two, but what sparked the initial idea? Do you have a particular hero/character you’d like to explore more in depth? Maybe something that doesn’t quite ‘make it’ on the TV screen, but you can see and feel within a story?
[MF] The initial idea for the Sci Fi Series project was sparked by meeting Nathan Fillion. I worked with Nathan on Complete Hero which took a broad view of heroism, in association with the British Army. The extraordinary thing about Nathan is that he is as smart, funny, kind, considerate and supportive as he seems on television. I have come to regard Nathan as my muse (and he has kindly taken on that job!) and so he has been immensely instrumental in the development of this project. I believe that art should be useful in the sense that it should give us helpful ideas about how to live. After all, none of us has done this before, so we are all as puzzled as each other – any helpful ideas that make life kinder, richer, and more fulfilling have to be welcome. And I am coming to the conclusion that it is popular culture rather than ‘high’ culture that has the answers and the power to deliver them – if we only know how to look. There is one particular hero I would like to explore further and that is Capt Mal Reynolds. Nathan and I discussed Reynolds but as part of a wider conversation about heroes and heroism and I would relish the opportunity to spend time with Nathan digging deeper into Mal’s character, his love of his crew, he determination to do the right thing however impossible the odds or powerful the opposing regime.
[A:R] Joseph Mallozzi (former producer for SG1 and SGA) was recently quoted as saying “I was inspired by my lifelong appreciation for ‘bad guys,’ and a deep-seeded disdain for heroes.” Your inspiration seems quite the opposite. Can you elaborate on that at all, seeing as Joe Flanigan and Ben Browder are both in the hutch?
[MF] Our heroes show the kinds of people we think are admirable and so presumeably we’d like to be more like them and we’d like other people to be more like them. If you follow this argument to its logical conclusion, our heroes suggest the kind of society we’d like to live in. So heroes, rather than bad guys, strike me as more useful when it comes to looking at good ways to live. That said, I am absolutely in thrall to the Borg Queen, and whilst she was pretty dreadful, not all her ideas were heinous. If Janeway rose to the top of her profession as Captain of the Federation Starship Voyager, then we can also see that the Borg Queen was at the top of her ‘profession’ as leader of the hive mind in the Borg’s quest to assimilate everything! And I think it’s interesting to see the good and the bad embodied by two powerful female characters.
[A:R] This isn’t your first piece of work to focus on heroism. What is it that intrigues and inspires you on the topic? What keeps you coming back to explore it in different ways?
[MF] Heroes are like signposts saying ‘this way to a better world’ – and I want to go to that better world! Each time I look at the topic of heroism, I find something new, so I think of it as a mineshaft: if gold and diamonds are still being discovered in the rock, it makes sense to keep digging!
[A:R] Are there any literary or historic heroes you’d like to be able to explore? If so, who? Why would you choose them and what do you think they might say about their own antics?
[MF] Next up, I would like to look at sci fi in the cinema (currently I am focusing on television only to give the project some sharpness and discipline). I would like to work with Carrie-Anne Moss, exploring her creation of Trinity in The Matrix, and Shane Carruth who made and appeared in Primer. Because cinema is so huge, I would like to focus on the most enigmatic creations from that world – I’d like to look where most people don’t, hence Trinity rather than Neo, Primer rather than 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example. Beyond that I am not yet sure. I am very keen on interviewing people who are connected to these cultural phenomena because it creates a way for us to relate to ideas through the human, through personality, and that’s not possible with historical or literary figures because they are obviously either imaginary or dead.
[A:R] Is it hard to get the subjects of the videos to talk naturally, or does the fact that most of them are actors/public speakers make them appear more open than ‘normal’ people would?
[MF] Sometimes, it can be more difficult to interview an actor because actors are usually very polished and able to give a performance. How do you know when you are receiving a performance, and when you are actually meeting the person behind the performance? In an attempt to get down to the truth, I interview by candlelight and sit close to the subject so the experience feels welcoming and intimate – and so encourages intimacy. I also work in very long takes – so just roll the camera and keep speaking and gradually we forget we’re in an interview. By not stopping and starting, I think it becomes possible to get deeper and deeper into the conversation and behind the ‘surfaces’ of things. It is also very important to prepare well. Typically I will work for several days preparing for an interview, writing questions, reviewing performances, really getting to know the material. Interestingly I have found that it is one thing being a fan and enjoying a show, and quite another to watch it in preparation for an interview.
[A:R] You’re clearly very much a sci-fi fan – your passion comes across in the snippets you’ve put on your website. Would you go so far as to call yourself a geek, and what inspired your passion for the genre?
[MF] I have always loved the look of space, from when I was a very small boy: those great curvatures of distant worlds, the colour, the haloes of atmosphere, the immense contrasts between light and dark. I love the way up is sometimes down and vice versa. But my first great sci fi love was Planet of the Apes, the tv series with James Naughton and Ron Harper made in 1974. It ran for one season only, but absolutely captured my imagination because it was so simple – the world was merely ’tilted’ slightly, and everything was different! When Star Wars appeared in 1977, it opened up the whole galaxy for me, in particular those great interplanetary landscapes and the expression of scale. The great opening shot of the first movie, with the great prairie of the planet beneath, and the unending imperial cruiser that just keeps coming and coming and coming. I am probably not cool enough to be a geek, although I am obsessive about detail in my own work. There was a time when geeks were sad fellows, and now I meet people who proudly declare themselves to be geeks – they are usually very young and very groovy and so now I associate geekdom with being groovy, wearing funny hats and trousers that don’t fit properly. My trousers fit properly so clearly I cannot be a geek.
[A:R] Whilst your work is very visual you obviously appreciate words and the power they hold. How do you prefer your sci-fi to be – visual or written?
[MF] Like most people, I am seduced by Ray Bradbury. His writing is so simple, direct, and so limpid. Because of that directness and simplicity, I find the experience of reading Bradbury more pictorial than anything else. For me, being a fine product of the 20th Century, science fiction IS television. I am of the great television generation! Those epic sagas like Trek and Stargate are immense cultural phenomena. My sister, who is a painter, wrote me a note about the Sci Fi Series saying how much she like the project because ‘Star Trek and Star Gate are like sagas handed down through generations’. Much is said of the Norse sagas and their importance as feats of story-telling. But I see Trek and Gate as no different – merely of their time. So I favour the visual. And I favour television because of its power to reach so many of us, reach into our homes, and give us windows onto other worlds. The Sci Fi Series project aims to honour television science fiction, the stories, characters and people behind those shows, and to help us look more deeply into the truths that lie coded in the genre.
[A:R] Dystopia or utopia? Which, in your opinion, seems to be our likely future?
[MF] I hope for the second and, unfortunately, expect the first.
[A:R] What would you tell someone who wants to pursue art as a livelihood? What are the pros and cons? Heck, how does one pay the rent or medical bills?
[MF] I’d say you can’t pursue art as a livelihood. Art can only be pursued because you have something to say. If you want to pursue a good living become a banker or a bank robber. If you are an artist you will find you have no choice but to make works, regardless of the material return, because you are driven to it. The rest of it, the rent and the bills, you’ll have to figure out some way. But it is not the main event, and never will be. You will most probably be poor for a good amount of time. And you will most probably not mind that much because there is nothing richer than following your own passion.
[A:R] Do you think the United States would be ready for art like yours? If not, why not?
[MF] I get loads of emails from people from the US saying they like the work and inviting me over – so it seems like folk are ready, and I am very appreciative of the encouragement.
[A:R] Now for a couple of short, fun questions, if you don’t mind?
If asked to accompany Dr Weir and her team through the stargate, what would your one chosen item from home be?
[MF] My sister because she much braver and more resourceful than I am.
[A:R] Cheese or chocolate?
[MF] Neither – I’d prefer cake.
[A:R] Wine or beer?
[MF] Kir which is white wine with a little creme de cassis added to it.
[A:R] Trek or ‘Gate?
[MF] Both – I think they are related.
[A:R] Jack O’Neill or John Sheppard?
[MF] Jack – just because he was the first.
[A:R] Sam Carter or Elizabeth Weir?
[MF] Elizabeth Weir – the seminal female authority figure of our times, in my opinion, diplomat and academic.
[A:R] Skiing or sunbathing?
[MF] Skiiing would make me fear for my bones, sunbathing would make me fear for my skin. And I aim at all times to be as pale as possible, like an uncooked prawn.
[A:R] Dogs or cats?
[A:R] Pizza or Chinese?
[A:R] What shows are you watching at the moment?
[MF] Warehouse 13 – in anticipation of interviewing Eddie McClintock; Fringe – Anna Torv’s character seems like a huge soul for the show, Joshua Jackson is touching, John Noble is a genius, and Walter Bishop is a wild ride that makes an enormous amount of sense.
[A:R] What shows do you wish had never finished?
[MF] Stargate SG1, Star Trek Voyager
[A:R] In response to your request for potential future characters, fans submitted a number of names for the “Sci-Fi Series”:
- David Hewlett
- David Tennant
- Rachel Luttrell
- Paul McGillion
- Robert Picardo
- Dan Payne
- Richard Dean Anderson
- Leonard Nimoy
- Joe Morton
- Adam Baldwin
- Zachary Levi
- Chris Kramer
It would be interesting to see something from the “bad guys’” point of view as well, almost as a counterweight to the power of the heroism pieces – perhaps exploring the perceived heroism from the point of view of the “other side”, as it were? Some suggestions:
- Robert Davi
- Cliff Simon
- Connor Trinneer
- Christopher Heyerdahl
- John De Lancie
[MF] I really love the idea of the bad guys – we are currently working on interviewing Alice Krige – ain’t no one badder than the Borg Queen!
[A:R] Is there anything else you’d like to say regarding your project?
[MF] Thanks for great questions and support for the project. Really appreciate it. Thanks for the suggested contributors – interesting how we seem to agree on so many. I have great ambition for this project – to make it encyclopaedic in its depth – and I want to thank Nathan Fillion, Kate Mulgrew, Joe Flanigan. David Nykl, Ben Browder and Eddie McClintock for taking part so far – and I am so looking forward to working with Torri Higginson, Jonathan Frakes and Connor Trinneer.
Many thanks go to Martin for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Also, an extra big thank-you for the exclusive line-up shot he provided us with. We wish him the very best of luck with his continuing endeavour to explore our favourite sci-fi characters, and hope he keeps us up to date with the results of his work. You can view the ongoing “Sci-Fi Series” as it unfolds at http://www.martinfirrell.com/ or follow him on Twitter at @martinfirrell.
Also, thanks to the following people for submitting questions & suggestions:
And thanks to everyone who promoted and re-tweeted the announcement!
If you want to comment on the interview, go HERE - guest posts welcome!
Interview: © Atlantis : Revolutions 2010. Photo: © Martin Firrell 2010. If you want to use, that’s fine – just let us know!