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Opinion

How To Write Sci-Fi For The CW

Richard Lee Byers breaks down the formula


It’s nearly Christmas, so I’m giving you the gift of a career in television. If you want to create a sci-fi, horror or superhero show for The CW, here’s the formula.

The template is based on four shows, “Smallville,” “Supernatural,” “Arrow” and “The Tomorrow People.” I admit, I’ve never gotten around to watching “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Originals” or “The Secret Circle.”

Feel free to comment and tell me whether the latter shows walk the same well-trodden path. Even if they don’t, though, the elements below plainly speak to the CW executives, and you can’t go wrong by including them in your pitch.

1. Youthful protagonists and a mostly young supporting cast.

These should be either twentysomethings or teenagers (who will be portrayed by twentysomething actors).

2. Pretty protagonists and supporting characters.

Even by the standards of network TV, continuing characters on The CW tend to be darn good-looking.

3. Protagonists with special abilities and a messianic purpose or destiny.

Clark Kent “came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men” and saves the world repeatedly from the likes of Zod, Brainiac and Darkseid.

Oliver Queen returns from the island with phenomenal archery, martial arts and parkour skills, plus the resolve to rescue Starling City from the evils plaguing it.

Even if the protagonist belongs to a group that’s already special, he’s more special. Sam and Dean Winchester stand above other monster hunters. They’re so tough, resourceful and resilient (each has literally suffered the tortures of Hell without it destroying his sanity or crippling him emotionally) that they manage to save the whole world from the seemingly preordained Michael-Lucifer apocalyptic throw-down and the invasion of the Leviathans.

Stephen Jameson has a superpower — stopping time — that even the other Tomorrow People lack, and because his father, now MIA, was the great leader of his race, he is supposedly the key to their survival.

4. Despite or because of the protagonist’s exceptional qualities, he is on some level an outsider or even a pariah.

Thanks to problems associated with the manifestation of his powers, many of the other kids at school scorn Jameson as a psycho. Meanwhile, the secret organization Ultra seeks to control and ultimately exterminate all Tomorrow People.

Clark Kent hides his superpowers to preserve some semblance of a normal life. To one degree or another, the secrecy actually isolates him from normal life and complicates his relationships with his peers.

Monster hunters break the law to survive (hunting is a full-time but non-paying job) and fulfill their purpose. The Winchester brothers routinely commit credit card fraud and impersonate FBI agents. At one point, framed for murder, they’re the subjects of a nationwide manhunt and have to fake their own deaths to get out from under it.

The police want to arrest Oliver Queen’s vigilante alter ego. Meanwhile, much of Starling City views Oliver himself as a dissipated, irresponsible playboy. In Season 1, he tries to turn this image to his advantage, but in Season 2, it hinders him when he needs to take the reins of Queen Consolidated and do good for the city in his civilian identity.

5. Troubled relationships and complicated feelings involving fathers (who are often absent).

Stephen grew up thinking Dad was a jerk who deserted the family for no good reason. Now he knows differently, but Dad is still missing, and it’s vital that the Tomorrow People find him.

Clark’s father Jor-El died on Krypton. When a simulacrum of Jor-El emerges from the crystal computer in the Fortress of Solitude, he turns out to be a bitchy, punitive taskmaster.

John Winchester was so fixated on monster hunting that he neglected his sons and gave them a strange, lonely childhood. Alienated, Sam turned his back on the family calling, and that’s how we find him when the series begins, at a time when John has gone missing.

In the life raft, Oliver finds out that his father was actually a criminal. Before he can even begin to sort out his feelings about that, Dad dies. (We think. “Arrow” is turning out to be one of those shows where lots of supposedly dead people subsequently show up alive.)

6. Secondary father figures.

Note that here the formula allows for some leeway. The substitute dads can be benign, ambiguous figures or outright villains.

Gruff, tough Bobby Singer is as fine a surrogate father as the Winchester boys could have hoped to find.

Jedekiah Price, Stephen’s uncle, represents the other extreme. He heads up Ultra. Yet at the same time, in his sinister way, he does have life lessons to teach his nephew, and for the time being at least, he protects Stephen from the consequences of transgressions that would get any of Ultra’s other quisling super agents killed.

Walter Price is a good man; although, it takes Oliver time to warm up to his mom’s new husband. But “Arrow” also gives us Slade Wilson, who starts out as our hero’s mentor on the island but resurfaces in Starling City as the nemesis comic readers know as Deathstroke the Terminator.

“Smallville” really runs the gamut. In addition to Faux Jor-El, we get wise, kindly Jonathon Kent and even Lionel Luthor, who sometimes appears malevolent and sometimes well intentioned. (Rao only knows what was going on with that dude from week to week. It didn’t seem like the writers did.)

7. Star-crossed love.

Clark loves Lana Lang, but various obstacles like the kryptonite pendant she innocently wears keep them apart. Ultimately, her whole body is laced with kryptonite, which supers her up but prevents her and Clark from ever being together.

Oliver loves Shado, but she dies on the island. He also loves Laurel Lance, but a number of things — his cheating on her with her sister Sara, Sara’s subsequent death (not really, but Laurel doesn’t know that) and Tommy Merlyn’s death in the Glades — stand between them.

Stephen loves Cara Coburn, but she’s with John Young, the Tomorrow People’s current leader. (John is also one of the few Tomorrow People genetically capable of murder, so Stephen might do well to watch his back.)

In the pilot episode of “Supernatural,” a demon kills Sam’s girlfriend Jessica. As the saga unfolds, both he and Dean fall in love with women they could happily settle down with. But duty and unwillingness to let one’s brother face the perils of monster hunting alone end the relationships.

8. More star-crossed love.

These shows like to give the protagonist a sidekick of the opposite sex who knows about his secret life. She’s hot for him, but, hung up on someone else whom she will never have. He sees her as a platonic pal. On “The Tomorrow People,” this character is Astrid Finch.

If the poor pining female has skills that can aid the protagonist in his endeavors, well, so much the better. He’s happy to ask her to devote her life to accomplishing his goals and to expose her to the dangers of his existence.

As a case in point, Chloe Sullivan is Clark’s cute, nerdy computer whiz.

While Felicity Smoak is Oliver’s cute, nerdy computer whiz.

Now, I have to admit, this is the one point where a show deviates from the model I’m describing. “Supernatural” doesn’t have an Astrid, Chloe or Felicity. I think that’s because of the road-tripping nature of the story. It would be tricky to have such a character turn up on a regular basis unless she was a hunter, too.

Hunters of either sex are edgier and grittier than the characters I’ve mentioned, and besides, if a female hunter were pining for Sam or especially Dean, she wouldn’t have to pine for long. He’d bang her.

Anyway, moving on to the final element …

9. Characters keep secrets even when it’s counterproductive to do so.

When a case involves something that happened on the island, Oliver just hates to tell Felicity and Diggle what occurred there. It’s all too painful to relive by talking about it, and never mind that the info might help resolve a current crisis. Oliver also won’t tell Laurel that Sara is still alive even though this would end Laurel’s grief and there’s no rational reason to doubt she would keep the secret.

Stephen doesn’t tell his mom and kid brother Luca about Ultra and the Tomorrow People even though they have every right to know. Ultra represents a danger to them too in that Uncle Jedekiah is capable of threatening them to control Stephen, and it’s possible Luca is a Tomorrow Person whose powers haven’t manifested yet.

Sam doesn’t tell Dean he’s drinking demon blood. Dean doesn’t tell Sam he saved his life by arranging for an angel to possess him. Over the long haul, this reticence doesn’t serve them well.

Faux Jor-El insists that Clark develop his powers to deal with a cosmic crisis in the making but never explains what that crisis will be. Meanwhile, Clark won’t tell Lex about his superpowers even after it becomes apparent that sharing the secret could make all the difference in his alleged friend’s life. Indeed, “Smallville” can be seen as the tragic tale of how Clark’s persistent dickishness results in Lex embracing evil.

So there you have it. Your golden key to a glorious future with The CW. Go forth, take meetings and win Emmys (or at least a People’s Choice Award) and Happy Holidays!

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