Science-fiction grandee Dean Devlin welcomes DQ aboard The Ark, his latest series, to discuss how it’s a love letter to the genre and share the lessons he has learned from a career that has included Stargate, Independence Day and Leverage.
As a prolific writer and producer of science-fiction television and films, Dean Devlin has quite the CV. He wrote 1990s features Universal Soldier, Stargate and Independence Day and co-wrote the 1998 version of Godzilla, while his TV credits over the past 20 years include series as varied as The Librarians, The Outpost, Leverage and its sequel Leverage: Redemption.
Now, Devlin’s latest TV project has taken him back to the sci-fi content for which he is best known. The show in question is Syfy’s The Ark, which he describes as a love letter to the kind of genre shows he grew up watching.
“And when you watch it, it definitely has a retro feel to it,” he tells DQ. “It’s meant to feel like the way we used to do sci-fi before we got uber-grounded and uber-dark and gritty. In the beginning, it’s like a comfortable chew. It’s like, ‘Oh, I know how to watch the show.’ But then it develops. If you stick with it, it goes to places you don’t expect it to go.”
Debuting earlier this year, and with a second season recently commissioned, The Ark is set 100 years from now, when planetary colonisation missions have become necessary to help secure the future of the human race. The first of these missions takes place on a spaceship known as Ark One, but when it encounters a catastrophic event more than a year before it is due to reach its intended destination, the remaining crew must band together to stay on course and survive.
Devlin and Jonathan Glassner (Stargate SG-1) are co-showrunners and executive producers on the 12-part series, which stars Christie Burke, Richard Fleeshman, Reece Ritchie, Stacey Read and Ryan Adams. It is produced by Devlin’s Electric Entertainment, which has also sold the series into Spain, France, Portugal, the Balkans, Romania, Poland, Germany and the UK, where it will launch on Sky Sci-Fi on May 25. The show was also screened during the Berlinale Series Market in February.
Having already done so much work in sci-fi, Devlin could be forgiven for struggling to come up with fresh ideas to surprise viewers equally versed in the genre. But he says that one of the things he has learned about television is that the premise of any show only lasts for the first 15 minutes – “and then it’s all about the characters.”
“Then [as a viewer] either you’re involved with them and you care about what’s going on or you don’t. And I had to learn that lesson the hard way in feature films when I got overly excited about digital effects early in my career. I was like, ‘Oh, it’s all about the effects,’ and then I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot to write some good characters. That’s why that movie didn’t work.’
“In this show more than most sci-fi, because we don’t have the ‘aliens of the week’ or giant laser battles, it’s really about these characters and them trying to not get killed, while everything around them is trying to kill them all the time. Someone said, ‘Well, who’s the villain on The Ark?’ Space. Space is constantly trying to kill you every step of the way. It’s trying to murder you.”
In an action-packed opening, The Ark certainly doesn’t waste any time establishing the life-or-death predicament at the heart of the show as the ship hurtles through deep space. Then once the immediate danger is over – for now at least – the show sets about establishing a group of characters Devlin says will be fully developed over the course of the season, despite any initial archetypal qualities they may have.
“It’s character development with characters you thought were cliché but then you go, ‘Oh, that’s not who I thought it was.’ And that’s kind of the fun,” he says. “There were people watching it going, ‘Oh, that’s a cliché character, these characters are dumb, I’m turning it off.’ Yeah, if you’d have hung in there for one more episode, everything you thought about this character would be wrong.”
The situation they find themselves in also means every character – each with a different role on board Ark One – is squeezed under the pressure of life on board the ship.
“This is a show about a group of characters who are not ready to run a ship, who now have to run a ship, and every decision they make is life and death. We wanted it to be a pressure cooker,” says Devlin, who describes himself as a huge Doctor Who fan. “I believe people don’t make their best decisions out of fear. And at least in the beginning of this, they’re very frightened people who are going to screw up. They’re going to make the wrong decisions, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Devlin wrote the pilot of The Ark and then brought Glassner on board to work alongside him, after they previously collaborated together on fantasy-adventure The Outpost. Devlin also created the Stargate movie, which Glassner developed as TV series Stargate SG-1.
That “common language” was then passed into the writers room, where Devlin would hold back his own ideas about where he saw the story heading in order to take suggestions from the rest of the writing staff.
“Very often I liked what they wanted to do better than what I had in my head,” he says. “And then once in a while, I’d say, ‘Alright, that was good but here’s what I was going to do.’ It was a lot of collaboration.”
In writing the series, the exec also enjoys seeing how potential story points can emerge from the actors’ performances and the way they interpret their characters.
“I can’t stand it when someone comes in and pitches me, ‘In season one, this happens. And then in season two…’ We haven’t even cast it yet, what are you doing?” he continues. “The most interesting thing is when I’m watching dailies and suddenly this actor looks at that actor in a way that I wasn’t anticipating. And I go, ‘Oh, what’s that? Why does he hate that guy? Let’s change the script.’
“I remember on Leverage, Tim [Hutton, playing Nate] stared at this one photograph of his father and you saw the hate in his eyes. I was like, ‘Oh my God, he hates his dad.’ So we wrote a whole dad episode. You want to make room for the creative process that happens on set. Otherwise it’s all just an echo of a memory you had in the writers room.”
The Ark is filmed in Serbia, where Devlin and his production team were able to build all the ship’s sets and utilise an international cast. In an effort to avoid a claustrophobic atmosphere akin to that on wartime submarine drama Das Boot, he ensured Ark One felt particularly spacious, with a large observation deck and a two-storey-high window. The ship’s greenhouse, where vital crops are grown, was built on an outdoor stage so that when it wasn’t in use, the roof could be opened up to provide sunlight for the real plants.
Devlin also took inspiration from Emmy-winning political drama The West Wing when it came to The Ark’s numerous walk-and-talk scenes.
“On the first day, I told the actors, ‘Watch The West Wing. Smart people who walk fast and talk fast, that’s going to be our show,’” he says. “One of the things you don’t normally build is a roof, because you need to light it, but because we have these long shots, we had to build the roof on most of the sets. It meant that when you’re walking around set, you feel like you’re on a spaceship and suddenly you’re 12 years old again.”
As well as season two of The Ark, Devlin is also working on two Freevee series: action-drama Leverage: Redemption and Almost Paradise, a series about a private investigator, which is being shot in the Philippines.
But when it comes to creating sci-fi stories, the exec says he always likes them to have one foot in real science while not becoming overly grounded.
“When you overly ground the show [in reality], then the slightest thing that’s wrong makes everything wrong,” he notes. “For instance, parts of the ship rotate, and that’s to create gravity, but it would never create gravity the way we have it create gravity in the show. That wouldn’t work – so it’s grounded in science, but it’s a science that doesn’t exist yet.
“They can’t go faster than the speed of light, but they can get right up to the speed of light. Theoretically, we could do that. We don’t know how to do that yet. So there are a lot of things like that where you can find the real science, but it’s not like this is a NASA-based show where everything in it is like exactly the way it would be.”
For Devlin, it doesn’t matter what genre or arena he’s working in, storytelling just comes naturally, whether it’s on the internet or broadcast or in a movie theatre.”
“For me, all of this is telling bedtime stories,” he says. “There’s a rule at my house that my kids made that is I have to make up a new story every single night. Telling stories is primal and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. There’s always another story to tell.”