Writer, Broadcaster

Tag: Adrian Mills

Faster Than Light: The Second and Third Pilots

An excerpt from Something Technical:

As I’ve written earlier, after the success of the Faster Than Light pilot, we did not receive a green light to proceed with a series. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The Director of Radio Programming at the time, Adrian Mills, did not reject the show outright. The following summer James Roy, now Acting Director of Radio Drama, approached me about doing another pilot for a summer run of the show. Presented in a half hour format, it would be Faster Than Light “light”.  Unfortunately, James had no budget for it.

Robert J. Sawyer
Host of Faster Than Light

No problem. We took a radio play directed by Bill Lane from the archives and built a show around it. I wrote a frame for the show about auditioning for a new host. Rob’s main competition was a robot called Huey (played by Julian Ford) whose main claim to fame was starring as a robot in the classic science fiction movie Silent Running with Bruce Dern. Huey didn’t get the job. Linda Spence also acted in this pilot as a fictional Associate Producer. The concept for Faster Than Light was gradually crystallizing in my mind: it would be a fictional show about making a science fiction radio show. A show within a show. Very meta.

Faster Than Light #2

The summer series didn’t pan out, though. James was willing to proceed, but with no funding and very little time to write and produce ten episodes, I didn’t think I could do the show justice. Seeing as it appeared we’d have an opportunity to try again later with proper funding and adequate time, I opted to wait. 

That fall we did get funding to do another pilot. For this attempt, I brought in Fergus Heywood to co-produce. Fergus had been highly recommended to me by Greg Sinclair. He enthusiastically agreed to help out. We were assigned Alison Moss as Senior Producer, who I always loved working with. I would eventually work with her on the summer replacement series Next with Nora Young. So it was a good team.

Chris Boyce, Head of the Program Development Committee, organized a facilitated session to help us further define the show. Fergus, Alison, Rob Sawyer, Chris Boyce and I all sat down to figure it out. Richard Handler, an experienced Arts producer, was also involved. This third pilot was a serious effort, but the whole spirit was completely different than the first pilot. The show would be half hour instead of an hour. It would include one full cast radio play instead of two, and it would not include a continuation of Captain’s Away, although I had written several episodes.

Chris had us come up with a mandate:

“To fire the imaginations of Canadians by presenting thought provoking encounters with masters of science fiction and fantasy along with engaging dramatizations of their work.”

When we were finally ready, I hired Wayne Richards to write and record original theme music for the opening of the show. We would use an original composition from Fergus Heywood for the closing. Having decided to make the theme of this pilot “The Other,” we secured the services of Cathi Bond, an experienced freelancer, to produce a short documentary on “the other” in science fiction films throughout history.

I wrote a high production frame for the episode that consisted of three parts. In the opening, a mad scientist creates a host for the show in an homage to Frankenstein, a classic “other” in science fiction. The mad scientist was played by Tony Daniels, who did a brilliant German accent as Dr. Frankenstein. Once the host has been created, he takes over and introduces the show. After the first part of the show, a second interlude or frame features the mad scientist conducting an experiment in which he accidentally transforms himself into a fly (an obvious homage to The Fly). Rob the host returns to usher us into the next part of the show, an original adaptation of Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson, adapted and directed by Barry Morgan. The end credits featured Rob as the host along with the mad scientist. Not realizing that the fly trapped in the studio with him is the mad scientist, Rob swats him.

FTL #3

I was attempting to seamlessly mix representational radio with presentational radio. The drama and the high production intro, middle and extro were all representational. You listened to those the way you would watch a movie or television show. They weren’t talking directly to the audience. They were meant to be entertaining as opposed to informative. Whereas the bits with Rob talking directly to the audience, and Cathi Bond presenting her short documentary, were presentational. The trick was to guide the audience from one style of radio to another without confusing them.

Ultimately the fate of the show would be determined by the Program Development Committee, a group of several experienced broadcasters assembled by Chris Boyce. I remember one of the members of this group listening to the opening of the show after I had finished mixing it. I was quite proud of it. I thought it was funny and that the sound effects and mix had achieved what I’d set out to do. This person listened to it, gave me no feedback whatsoever, and left the studio. My impression was that he didn’t get it, and didn’t like it. This did not bode well.

We finished the pilot and submitted it to the Program Development Committee. A representative of the committee phoned me sometime afterward to tell me the bad news. They weren’t going to pick up the show as it stood. They just didn’t think it worked. More work was required.

I didn’t entirely disagree. I didn’t think it had worked as well as the original pilot. The original pilot had had room to breathe. It possessed a certain charm. We hadn’t overthought it. The elements stood on their own. Rob brought a passion and an authenticity to it. The second pilot had itself been a Frankenstein monster. I liked the frame we had created for it. But I had been forced to edit the heck out of the radio play that I’d borrowed from the archives to make it fit. Even the audio quality of the radio play hadn’t been up to snuff; it had originally been recorded on tape and sounded a few tape generations old. The third pilot had more going for it. I liked the frame. I liked the opening and closing music. I liked Barry Morgan’s Richard Matheson adaptation. I liked Cathi’s piece. But somehow it didn’t all gell the same as the original.

Nevertheless, the committee still hadn’t given us a definitive “no.” They offered us a chance to make yet a fourth pilot. By now people in the drama department were calling me Wing Commander Joe, I had so many pilots under me.

 So, with a thread of hope still dangling before us, Fergus, Rob, Alison and I got together to talk about it. Rob made the point that maybe the show needed to be more serious, that our problem was trying to mix humour with seriousness. Thinking of shows like MASH and Life is Beautiful, I didn’t think that was the issue, though it could well have confused the Development Committee. Rob also objected to the CBC’s obvious efforts to make the show “stealth” science fiction. They didn’t want the show to be overtly about science fiction and fantasy. They wanted it to be something else that happened to include science fiction and fantasy. I agreed with Rob on this point. There seemed to be a slight bias against science fiction and fantasy. And not only that: against radio plays, too. Against storytelling. Against the representational. (This would be made abundantly clear when the entire radio drama department was shut down a few short years later, ostensibly as a response to financial pressures.)

Which was too bad. Because by now I had refined the concept even further. I was thinking that the host should be a sonic sorcerer, with the power to do anything, be anywhere. This concept, coupled with effective, liberal use of sound effects, would have several virtues. It would allow us to harness the enormous imaginative potential of radio. If the host wanted to be on the surface of Mars, he could be there in the blink of an eye—faster than light, if you will.  If he wanted to lasso a comet by the tail, he could.  He could pilot a spaceship, visit Heaven or Hell, single-handedly battle an army of knights… or simply conduct an interview. It solved the conceptual problem of how to veer from the fantastic portions of the show’s “frame” to the magazine elements of the show:  

SFX: STATIC

FEMALE VOICE: (TREATED) Incoming vessel. You have three seconds to identify yourself before we open fire.

HOST: (TWO SECOND BEAT)  (TREATED)  I’m Robert J. Sawyer, commanding Faster Than Light on CBC Radio. Be advised that if you open fire, we will respond.

FEMALE VOICE: Acknowledged, Faster Than Light.  What, may I ask, will you respond with?

ROB:   How about an interview with Canadian Independent author Maaja Wentz?

You see how it would work? Playful and imaginative. Veering seamlessly from fantasy to reality. It would itself be science fiction and fantasy while presenting the same to our listeners.

Alas, it never happened. The committee never did say no outright, but the truth is, Faster Than Light as we conceived of it never stood much of a chance. What we wanted to do was too much at odds with what the powers that be at the time were willing to let us do. Greg Sinclair was head of the drama department at the time (but did not represent the Program Development Committee… I felt he was on my side). We discussed the project and mutually decided to pull the plug. To make it work for the CBC, we were going to have to turn it into a show that none of us believed in or wanted to do. Greg informed Rob Sawyer.

We never got the green light that I had dreamed about for so long.

Rollback, by Robert J. Sawyer

Still, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. I’m proud of all three pilots. Rob and I became friends. I thank him for his generosity and time in trying to make it work. Later, he asked me to read and comment on the third draft of his novel Rollback (about a man and a woman in their eighties who agree to undergo a procedure to make them younger. It only works on the man. Of course, this has huge implications on their relationship. It’s a great read.) Rob made the protagonist a CBC Recording Engineer/Producer, which is what I aspired to be. He also featured me as a character in the novel, on page ninety-nine.

I went back to my normal life working on other people’s radio shows. That year CBC Radio launched a show called WireTap. I could barely make myself listen to it, out of jealousy, I suppose. Finally listening to an episode one day, I found myself impressed. I wrote the producers of Wiretap and told them how much I liked the episode, which had included some scby Roience fiction. I used my cbc.ca email address so that they would know that it came from a colleague. Nobody from the show ever responded.

Had I managed to get Faster Than Light on the air, I would have personally responded to every single email the show received.                      

Faster Than Light

One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

Once upon a time I made my own radio show. I mean one that was actually mine, as opposed to someone else’s (I’ve made plenty of those).

I only ever made one of these that actually aired. You might well ask, what’s the big deal? So you made one lousy radio show. Other people make their own radio shows all the time. What’s so special about this one?

Nothing, really, except to me, and maybe those who helped me make it.

It was, of course, a science fiction radio show. (This is me we’re talking about, after all.) It was a radio show about science fiction, featuring science fiction, hosted by a science fiction writer, and, on a meta-level, was science fiction itself. I still think it’s a cool idea.

You see, I’ve loved science fiction ever since I was six years old. I’ve loved it since I stumbled upon this crazy low-budget television show from Japan called Johnny Sokko and His Giant Robot. Johnny Sokko was extremely low budget and super cheesy, but it didn’t matter. What kid doesn’t want a giant robot as a best friend? Especially one that can fly, and clobber alien villains. Once I could read, it was Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles (Have Space Suit Will Travel, Rocket Ship Galileo) and James Blish’s adaptations of the original Star Trek scripts (unlike most people, I read most of the original Star Trek television episodes before ever seeing one on TV), and then Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, and Cordwainer Smith (The Ballad of Lost C’Mell) and A. E. Van Vogt (Slan), and David Brin (The Postman), and on and on and on.

My favourite TV show when I was six

It so happens that the CBC has produced some excellent science fiction and fantasy over the years. My pals Bill Howell and Matt Willcott both worked on Johnny Chase: Secret Agent of Space, a radio space opera that aired for two years (featuring music by the Canadian Progressive Rock band FM). There was also Vanishing Point, a science fiction anthology series produced by Bill Lane, and Nightfall, a supernatural/horror anthology series created and produced (for the first two seasons, at least) by Bill Howell.

Working for the radio drama department, I aspired to join this select club. One day I mentioned this to producer Barbara Worthy, who doubles as a ball of enthusiasm. She promptly suggested we pitch a science fiction show, so off the top of my head I suggested a show based on science fiction magazines such as Analog, Asimov’s, and The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy. I thought it would be fun to produce full cast radio adaptations of classic science fiction stories interspersed with interviews of science fiction luminaries and other fun, fantastical elements. Never dreaming that anything would come of it.

James Roy happened to be Deputy Head of the Radio Drama Department at the time. Shortly after our conversation, Barbara marched into his office and pitched the idea. To my astonishment, he gave us a greenlight, providing a budget and a broadcast slot for a pilot.

Barbara and I got right to work. The first order of business was finding a host for the show. Years earlier, I had worked on a couple of episodes of Ideas about science fiction produced by a young freelancer by the name of Robert J. Sawyer. Rob and I had a lot in common. We both loved science fiction and we were both interested in writing. Rob told me that he had a novel coming out soon called Golden Fleece. I told him I’d keep an eye out for it.

Secretly, I thought that Rob Sawyer would vanish into the ether like so many other freelancers I’d met and never heard tell of again. After all, I was going to be the famous author, not him. But in the time it took me to write one novel (debuting this coming October, 2017, thanks for asking), Rob wrote twenty-three novels. He also won many (if not all) of the field’s major awards, such as the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. In short, Rob became one of the most successful writers on the planet (of any genre, let alone science fiction).

Robert J. Sawyer in Studio 212

I read Golden Fleece, along with many of Rob’s other novels, and watched his growing success from afar with something akin to amazement. From time to time I would send him notes of congratulations. Rob always responded warmly. Once, he suggested I call him to chat, but he was already pretty famous by then, and I was kind of shy, so I didn’t. Until it became time to produce a science fiction radio show.

“You know who would be the perfect host?” I told Barbara. “Rob Sawyer.”

“Call him,” she said.

I was still kind of shy. I emailed him instead.

Rob was interested.

Rob, Barbara and I met to talk about it. We agreed that it would be modelled after classic science fiction magazines. That Rob would host. That it would include one adaptation and an original drama, the latter of which would be the first part of a potential serial. I would write and adapt the dramas and Rob would contribute an essay. Rob would also interview a science fiction personality still to be determined. Rob was enthusiastic and perfectly willing to collaborate.

I wrote what I thought was a fun opening involving Rob taking off in a spaceship of his own to launch the show (this was the meta-science fictional component, which grew more elaborate in subsequent pilots). We picked Canadian science fiction author Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber) to interview in between the two radio plays. Once we had part one of the original drama (Captain’s Away) and the adaptation (Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations) in the can (more on them in separate posts) we recorded all the other bits, including SF poetry by Carolyn Clink (read by Barbara Worthy) and Rob’s intros and extros. I also included a brief station ID recorded by William B. Davis, aka “Cancer Man” on the X-files, which I’d asked Davis to record when we worked together on a radio adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

I had some corrections for Rob’s essay. I feared this was rather presumptuous of me, considering Rob’s track record of having written several award-winning, best-selling novels versus my track-record of having (at that point) sold a mere short story or two.

I apologized as I gave him the corrections. “Who am I to correct your work?”

“You’re the producer,” he reassured me. “If it needs correcting it needs correcting!”

We needed a name for the show. Early on I considered “All in a Dream”, a lyric from a favourite Neil Young song—I even wrote a draft of the script using that name—but even now, a decade and a half later, I cringe at the thought. Fortunately, somebody—probably Rob—suggested Faster Than Light, which, in three simple words, perfectly encapsulated what we were up to. You could shorten it to FTL and literate fans would still know what we were talking about. We all loved it instantly.

Creating Faster Than Light was the most fun I’ve ever had making radio. I loved every single second of it. All the fussy producers I’ve ever worked with—and I’ve worked with some damned fussy producers—didn’t hold a candle to me on this show. Everything—every line, every level, every edit—had to be absolutely perfect. And it was, by the time I was done with it.

Faster Than Light broadcast Sept 22nd, 2002 on Sunday Showcase (in mono) and again Sept 23rd on Monday Night Playhouse (in stereo). We had a listening party at my home. Barbara Worthy, Rob Sawyer, Rob’s wife Carolyn, my family and several friends attended. It was great fun, though I have one regret. I happened to be watching my pennies at the time (public broadcasting, remember) so I purchased flimsy 4 ounce hamburgers to barbecue instead of nice plump 5 ounce burgers. What a cheapskate! Nobody complained, but I still wince every time I think about it. On the plus side, the show was well received by Rob and my friends.

Yes, these are the cheap burgers I’m frying up during the FTL get together, which somebody thought necessary to record for posterity.

The response from our listeners was even more positive. Faster Than Light did pretty good for itself. It was named a finalist for the Prix Aurora Awards 2003 for the Best in Canadian SF and Fantasy. One of its elements, “The Cold Equations,” a full cast adaptation, was selected by CBC’s internal jury for the New York Awards. The show received an unprecedented response for the drama department. Many listeners wrote to convey unbridled enthusiasm for the show. Particularly gratifying was feedback from as far away as California and Australia, from listeners who tuned in over the internet. James Roy informed me that it was the biggest response any Sunday Showcase show had ever received.

I would like to think that the response was a consequence of the effort we’d put into the show, and I’m sure that was indeed a factor—but I know it also had a lot to do with Rob Sawyer’s role in the production. Faster Than Light had been quite well promoted by Rob and his fans before the broadcast. I suspect that many of those who wrote in were already fans of Rob’s. Still, the feedback boded well. Everyone wanted more.

Adrian Mills, the Director of Programming at the time, invited me into his office to talk about the show. He asked me what I thought of it. I told him honestly that I thought it was the best work I’d ever done in my life on anything. I was inordinately proud of it. I still am.

We were asked to make a second pilot, and then a third, and even a fourth, but with each pilot the concept seemed to stray further and further from its original conception. In the end, I’m afraid the stars never quite aligned for Faster Than Light.

I treasure the experience just the same. I became friends with Rob Sawyer and his wife Carolyn Clink. I learned how to adapt a short story into another medium. I got to write, mix, and broadcast an original drama of my own. I discovered that directing was a lot harder than it looked watching from behind a console. And I acquired a modicum of empathy for fussy producers.

In a sense, Faster Than Light lives on. In the fictional universe of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel Rollback, published a few years later, Faster Than Light did become a regular series on CBC Radio. Where, for all I know, it continues to be broadcast to this day.

Rollback, where Faster Than Light the radio show lives on…

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