A Pilot's Philosophy, pt. 1

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While ramping up to producing the first episode of Starcalled, I quickly realized that there is a lot hinging on a show’s pilot. The first episode has to provide, in some form, a complete arc with enough tangible world context to give the audience a sense of the narrative scope. The first episode also determines whether the audience will listen to the second.

It’s got to have enough style to get the audience’s attention and enough substance to hook them.

As a drafting board concept, Starcalled had to be several things:

  • character focused; with a colorful diversity of core alien characters, we knew Starcalled would need complex and emotional characters with strong personalities who could clash, unite, and grow across the stories; finding ways to feature and develop those characters

  • operatic; with our core characters so integral to the identity of the show, we knew Starcalled needed to build up over time and evolve from a gritty exploration to an opera level narrative as the characters surmounted more difficult challenges and faced more difficult choices

  • action focused; we knew from the beginning that Starcalled would be consistent in its delivery of action sequences and maintaining the pacing and tone of an action series

  • cool sci-fi; from the start it was clear that this was a sci-fi series which had to feature exotic aliens, cool ships and flight sequences, laser guns, space tech, and strange, distant planets

When it came time to writing the pilot episode, I felt that it needed to include elements of the reality and the potential of the project — everything the show was committed to representing with hints of everything else the show could develop to be over time. The pilot had to be the perfect whirlwind of everything that makes Starcalled what it is.

But, still, I felt like there was something more important to consider before putting words on the page.

If the first episode was the audience’s gateway into the rest of the season, the opening scenes — maybe even the opening seconds — of the pilot were the audience’s gateway into the first episode itself. I came to the realization that if the audience is not impressed, curious, surprised, or otherwise hooked in the opening moments of an episode — especially within the first minute of a 40-45 minute affair — then they simply won’t be interested in committing to get to the “good” parts promised to them by the premise of the show.

So the opening scene, even the opening second, of the episode — of the entire show — became the target of my intense focus over the course of several drafts. I experimented with opening with narration from Lt. Kron in the form of entries from his officer’s log or personal journal, but felt that this would force me to either commit to representing Kron’s personal thoughts or recaps through the entire series, thereby putting more of the series’ focus on Kron; commit to representing the personal journals of other characters, thereby creating a method of directly communicating character motivation, purpose, and emotion to the audience rather than leave it to interpretation in-narrative; or drop it after some amount of time.

Ultimately I decided that, in the opening seconds of the episode, the audience would hear a solo variation of the show’s opening theme which would then transition into an action sequence in medias res and continue at a high tension level until the proper opening theme song kicked in.

This conceptual approach helped me guide the writing tremendously, and guaranteed an opportunity to showcase the core principles of Starcalled — exciting musical pieces underscoring dramatic sci-fi action sequences.

Next time we’ll focus in directly on Chapter 1 of Book 1 and break down the process of creating the opening sequence of “The Frontier.”

G.