Audio Articles – Longreads from The Companion

Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Universe co-creator and Travelers creator Brad Wright explains how rules make great science fiction, with plenty of references to Stargate, Star Trek, Superman, and Star Wars.

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Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Universe co-creator and Travelers creator Brad Wright explains how rules make great science fiction, with plenty of references to Stargate, Star Trek, Superman, and Star Wars. 

Read by Lawrence Kao and written by Brad Wright. Theme song by Lofi Geek. 

The original article on The Companion: 

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Creators & Guests

Lawrence Kao
Co-founder @thecompanionapp & StargateA.I. • Official photographer of my rescue Hugo 🐕 He doesn't pay, but it's good experience • Prev EP in Docs & Fact-Ent
Ben Herbert
Part of the team building @TheCompanionApp for fans of sci-fi (He/Him) I enjoy creative things, sports and whatever hygge is
George Mole
He/Him | Community Manager @TheCompanionApp 🖖🏼💻🏳️‍🌈🚀#TransRightsAreHumanRights #LiveLongAndFuckTERFs #BlackLivesMatter #StopAsianHate
Hattie Smith
Producer & dog lady
James Hoare
Tusken Master of Teräs Käsi. Writer of military history, witchcraft and weirdness. Editor @TheCompanionApp. He/Him. Big Doc Energy.
Nick Hayward
Project Lead, Product & Talent and Podcast Producer 📱🎙 @TheCompanionApp excited to be part of the team building the new home for sci-fi! He/Him

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I'm Lawrence Kao. I'm thrilled
to be presenting an article

written by showrunner Brad
Wright. And not just any

article, one that he wrote for
us here at The Companion. This

article originally started out
as a conversation in my first

meeting with Brad over two years
ago, before we even launched The

Companion. I remember it fondly
as we debated what made science

fiction. Well, science fiction
versus say, something more

speculative or fantastical.
Rules, Brad said, rules, and

thus the topic for this article
was born. This is Brad writes

rules of sci fi. Spoiler
warning, this article contains a

spoiler for his own Netflix
series Travelers.

My mother once told me that at
the age of six or seven, I

strenuously objected to my
father attempting to park in no

parking zones. She said every
time he tried, I kept reading

the no parking sign aloud over
and over until he relented, and

found a legal spot. It was
against the rules, and I was

having none of it. My first
thought when she told me was,

Wow, what an obnoxious little
shit. But 50-something plus

years later, it's still true to
character. I am a rules

follower. rules of logic, help
us to reason. rules prevent a

rook or knight from leaping
across the chessboard, and

knocking over an opponent's king
on the first move. A favourite

opening gambit of my two
daughters when first introduced

the game at a young age, rules
are what separate professional

sport from the act of randomly
running, throwing and or hitting

various shaped balls with
various sized sticks. The rules

of law hold civilization
together in I m. As a rule, very

pro civilization. Some rules are
more important than others.

Murder, for example, come to the
life sentence. While parking in

a no parking zone is just a
small fine. I assume it's a

small fine, I've never actually
done it. And of course, some

rules are meant to be broken.
But the universe is full of

rules that cannot be the laws of
physics, relativity,

thermodynamics and quantum
mechanics are unbreakable.

Collective. Collectively, they
govern everything. From the

diminutive quark to the
supermassive black hole. They

also govern science fiction. The
rules of science and nature need

not apply to wizards, demons,
mutants or gods. breaking them

is kind of what they do. But
science fiction lives and dies

by those rules. Gravity, mass,
acceleration, and inertia have

real consequences. For example,
when falling from high places.

If a story requires any of the
laws of science to be bent, or

even broken, to achieve a
dramatic end, there must be a

mechanism or concept that
explains how that is the

distinction between science
fiction and fantasy. To some

people, this is a distinction
without a difference. But as a

science fiction writer, I
observe the rules of science.

Well, I try. Okay, occasionally,
I have failed miserably, but the

intent is always there. Mostly.
I confess I have no real

background in science. In
university, I majored in

theatre, where math was not a
prerequisite. Whenever I consult

with actual scientists about a
concept or idea I have for a

script, it is humbling. I am
Lenny to their George, and we

get into actual mathematics of
the thing. I'm Homer Simpson to

their smarter person.
Nevertheless, what I understand

of science frames my worldview,
it's how I'm wired. If I write a

scene that defies one or more of
these immutable rules of

science, I try to come up with
some sort of rationale or

invention that explains why.
Special Relativity for example,

demand some sort of warp drive,
or hyperspace. or even a

Stargate to travel the planets
beyond our solar system in any

reasonable amount of time
because, to quote Douglas Adams,

space is big. If I can't do
that, I at least tried to

acknowledge it with technobabble
Star Trek. The eldest of the

franchise's that begin with the
word star is techno babbles

undefeated champion. As I'm sure
you all know, Heisenberg's

uncertainty principle would have
prevented transporters from

functioning as advertised. So
The Next Generation writers,

technical advisors, came up with
Heisenberg compensators and

voila, problem solved. The
inertial dampeners aboard

Enterprise never quite prevented
the bridge crew from being

thrown back and forth. But I'm
sure the command of full impulse

power would have had messier
repercussions without them.

Sadly, the recent movie reboots
have taken decades long

established Trek rules and
thrown them out the shuttle bay

door beaming aboard a starship
while it's at warp speed,

madness, beaming from a single
person ship halfway across the

galaxy to the Klingon Homeworld
as Khan in the second film –

impossible. Why even bothered to
build starships if you could do

that? Rules matter, even made up
ones don't even get me started

on time crystals. The problem
is, it's too easy to break your

own rules and get away with it.
Star Wars is admittedly more of

a fantasy than science fiction.
But the science notwithstanding,

if one builds a planet sized,
Starkiller Base capable of

sucking all the matter and
energy from an actual star. One

need not take the unnecessary
additional step of firing that

energy in a beam toward the
planet who star is now gone. The

planets destruction was assured
once their son was taken away.

The sudden absence of gravity,
heat and light was quite enough

indeed, a beam of any sort would
just add insult to injury. In

the next episode, we learned
that all it takes to wipe out an

entire Imperial Armada is to
crash into one of their ships at

lightspeed a tactic which
renders unnecessary any

conventional attacks on say a
Death Star. The climax of two of

the first three original films,
Luke or Han or freakin are two d

two for that matter. need only
to have flown into the death

star at lightspeed and the
rebels triumph. Then in episode

nine, we found out that it
wasn't necessary to build the

Death Star or Starkller at all.
Turns out planet killing weapons

fit neatly underneath any garden
variety Star Destroyer. And

there's a whole fleet of them
complete with crews hiding on a

secret hidden planet just
waiting for. Oh, nevermind. I'm

sure there's a reasonable
explanation that doesn't appear

on screen. I like to think I
could write a kickass Star Trek

or Star Wars movie that respects
both science and their own long

established rules. But the
reality is, I play in a more

junior league. Even if I were
asked what I had thought of any

of those scripts, like that's
ever gonna happen now. My

concerns would likely have been
answered with blank stares from

the entire room, followed by a
polite thanks for coming in.

They all grossed billions. I
lined up with my kids to see in

myself. What the hell do I know?
I do think some superhero movies

like The Avengers saga, have
successfully straddled the line

between fantasy and science
fiction, while staying more or

less true to their own unique
set of rules. Sure, Ant Man

could have flown up Thanos's
ass, made himself 50 feet tall,

and ended the movie pretty darn
quick. But I didn't think of

that until I was walking out of
the cinema with a smile on my

face. Who cares of inertia would
turn Iron Man into a gooey jam

mess inside a suit with every
high velocity impact he endured?

I'm confident Tony included an
inertial dampening mechanism

just like Enterprise and didn't
bother to mention it. Captain

America wasn't born with super
strength and stamina. He was

scientifically enhanced to be a
super soldier. Oh, by that Thor

can't fly without generating
centrifugal force by spinning

his hammer, which is like
throwing a rock into the air

very, very hard than flying by
hanging on to it. But hey, he's

a God. Without his impossibly
powerful suit, Tony Stark. He's

just your average super genius
billionaire. Without Black

Widow's guns or Hawkeye's bows,
they're both... Well, pretty

much this They've actually, at
least they admitted it.

Okay, the city is flying. We're
fighting an army of robots. And

I have a bone arrow. None of
this makes sense.

Other superhero movies and
series don't bother to

acknowledge the rules of science
at all. With someone, please

tell me how Superman can fly, or
explain the physiology that

allows him to shoot heat rays
out of his eyes, or have X ray

vision, or how by flying around
the world backwards, at what

appears to be several times the
speed of light. Superman manages

to halt then reverse Earth's
rotation without sending

everyone and everything on the
surface flying east at several

1000 kilometres per hour. And
somehow that reverses time. Hmm.

Well, you can, it's just silly.
Did I throw down my three bucks

back in 1978? To see it? Hell
yeah. Could I have written it?

No. For me, it has to make some
scientific sense.

Because if we started talking
about it, then we're gonna be

here all day talking about and
making diagrams with straws. It

doesn't matter. I

hurt myself. It changes your
body says what I do now change

your memory doesn't matter. Just
because I enjoy something

doesn't mean I could write it.
In a zombie apocalypse. I would

be among the first to die while
arguing with the zombie horde

that the laws of thermodynamics
preclude their existence, even

if they represented the slower
moving version. And I am a dead

man if I ever run into an actual
vampire or werewolf, because I

can't even remember which of
them is killed by silver bullet,

or sunlight or a cross or garlic
or why I'm equally screwed if I

ever encountered a real life
ghost. Because I would be just

full of questions. I'd probably
die some ghastly ghostly death,

while asking them to co write a
screenplay. But do I enjoy

zombie ghost and vampire
stories? Hell yeah. I just can't

write them. Because they're not
science fiction. Their rules are

either arbitrary or magic or
both. Some may wonder how a guy

who spent most of his career
writing a television show in

which people step through a
watery ring to other planets has

the nerve to talk about sticking
to science? I hear Yeah. But the

fact is we tried. We came up
with rules for how a stargate

works and we stuck to them
mostly. First, we built upon the

simple rules establishing the
feature film, a stargate only

works in one direction while
active by creating a stable

wormhole or Einstein Rosen
bridge, one must dial the

correct coordinates on the other
side to return. That is

basically the entire plot of the
original movie. What struck me

as I was walking out of a cinema
back in 1995, was if there were

39 symbols on a stargate that
represented coordinates in

space, it must be able to go
beyond Aptos the planet from the

film in my mind that made the
Stargate one of the best

potential television
storytelling devices since the

enterprise. The movie skipped
the dialling process on Abba

dos. So we came up with another
device to do the dialling, which

we not so cleverly named d h, d,
or dial home device. This

created a vulnerability. How
would we know who was about to

step through the earth Stargate?
One of our own teams are the bad

guys. We came up with a device
that transmitted a special code,

so Earth knew which team was
dialling home and called it a

GDO never calling the device by
its full name, garage door

opener. What we lacked in
imagination we made up for in

sheer volume of episodes. How
would we know if a planet was

safe for our team explore? Sure.
We had a little robot vehicle we

called a MALP mobile analytics
something something that went

ahead and reported back. But how
could it report back if

Stargates only worked one way?
This required a new rule. Within

a wormhole. Radio waves are not
bound by the same limitations of

matter. Rules beget rules, while
developing SG-1 back in the

1990s John Glasner and I
realised that an enemy could

wipe us out just by dialling
Earth and throwing a big bomb

through the gate. And so we
discussed creating a huge blast

door that would come down in
front of it. Fortunately, our

production designer Richard
Hudolin was smarter than we were

and told us that A, it wouldn't
really stop a bomb from coming

through the Stargate and B, it
would completely hide the icon

of our series. Instead, he
proposed the idea of an iris

that closes right up against the
surface of the event horizon,

preventing objects or enemies
from reintegrating on our side.

Problem solved. But don't ask me
where the iris retracts. We came

up with a 38 minute maximum time
a Stargate could remain open.

Otherwise an enemy could dial
Earth and leave the gate open

indefinitely, cutting us off
from the galaxy. This led to

several stories. What if the
enemy could dial in faster than

we could dial out? What if we
dial the planet close to a black

hole and thereby become affected
by relativistic time dilation on

the other side, rules create
story. Sometimes we found

ourselves lamenting the new
rules we made up Jonathan

realised that the body count was
alarmingly high every time we

fought our good old enemies. And
so he came up with a new weapon

called a Zat'nik'tel or Zat gun.
A name I never warmed to. It was

basically a phaser except more
phallic. One shot stunned. A

second shot killed fine. Then
one day on set in an earnest

effort to lower the body count
of bad guys dead on the studio

floor. He added a third setting
a third shot made the bad guy

disappear. This was downright
silly to me. And we eventually

stopped doing that. But it's in
the episode. Sometimes your own

rules bite you in the ass. In
SG-1's premiere, Children of the

Gods, we very nearly broke the
one way rule in the opening

scene. To briefly recap, a group
of soldiers are playing poker

where the Stargate has sat idle
for years. Then suddenly Apophis

shows up. His Jaffar guards
shoot up the joint and he takes

a woman with him back through
the Stargate – back through the

Stargate. Whoops. We didn't
realise the problem until we

were in the editing room working
on our first cut. I honestly

wasn't a fan of the scene in the
first place. But without massive

reshoots, we were stuck with it.
So we had to add a shot, which

stands out like a sore thumb to
me of Apophis ordering the use

of some sort of remote dialling
device before he returns back

through the Stargate otherwise,
we would have been forced to

assume he or his Jaffa guard
access to control room, figured

out the dialling system on our
earth computers and return to

the gate before General Hammond
arrived with his men. Not all

rules are created in the first
episode, series evolve and grow.

But if there's sufficient
continuity, that evolution is

bound by the rules that came
before it, that is, unless those

rules should be undone. In
season two, Rob Cooper correctly

pointed out that the sarcophagus
advice from the movie, which

could literally bring people
back from the dead, was too much

of a Get Out of Jail Free card
for our characters. He came up

with a story that made its
continuous use both addictive

and destructive. Problem solved.
Although that didn't stop us

from bringing them back from the
dead from time to time in other

ways. In the Travelers writers
room, we spent a full week on

establishing rules, eventually
filling our entire whiteboard.

Travelers was a show about
operatives from the future,

returning to the present to save
humanity from suffering a

terrible end. Instead of sending
actual people, Travelers sent

their own consciousness back
into a host body of a person

that was historically about to
die, then resumed their hosts

life as an imposter, while
performing missions to save the

world on the side, three seasons
on Netflix if you haven't seen

it yet. It's actually way better
than I just described. To start,

we had a pilot script that I had
finished and a document that I'd

written to help make sense of
it. But there was much more we

needed to come up with to
understand our own internal

logic for ourselves. And so we
could answer those tough three

part questions at ComiCon. We
came up with a list of rules and

called them protocols. Protocol
one, the mission comes first

protocol to never jeopardise
your cover or use knowledge of

the future for personal benefit.
Protocol three, don't take a

life. Don't save a life.
protocol for don't reproduce

protocols. Five, in the absence
of a directive, maintain your

hosts life protocols six, no
inter team communication unless

directed or in an extreme
emergency. Then our characters

spent the next 34 episodes
breaking all of them. Like I

said, some rules are made to be
broken to other protocols were

eventually added. And spoiler
alert, protocol Alpha meant that

there was an existential threat
to the director, the AI in the

future that decided which
historical events needed to be

altered to save the future. That
led to a fun time loop story

involving skydiving. Protocol
omega, meant that the director

had given up on changing that
given timeline, and so abandoned

travelers to live out their
lives as they wished. That story

was our final episode. I also
had to come up with our rules of

time travel. In order to take
over a host. The future required

the precise time, elevation,
latitude and longitude of the

host in the moment, just before
their historical death, or tell

te ll

that meant time travel was only
possible within the computer

era. When exact timing could be
determined. Close doesn't work.

We call that a misfire. It also
meant we couldn't go back and

kill Hitler or Stalin. to
impersonate their hosts.

operatives were limited to the
historical record and social

media. That was half the fun of
the show, because they got so

much wrong and had to improvise.
Since in Travelers consciousness

overwrites the hosts as they
arrive in the 21st century, the

director only chose as
candidates, people who are about

to die. This wasn't technically
necessary, as we explored in the

series, but was done for ethical
reasons. As a result of our

mucking about in the past, a
rival group sprouted up in the

future which, in yet another
stunning display of imagination.

We called the faction, they had
no compunction about taking

hosts in the 21st century that
weren't about to die, and

believed in human decision
making over AI. One of the most

important rules was that an
operative can only be sent to a

time after the most recent
traveller. I say most important,

because I made it up on the spot
during the Netflix pitch in

answer to the question, why
couldn't the travellers just

keep trying to change an event
over and over in the event the

first team failed. I spun some
technobabble about ripples in

space time that made it
impossible, and they bought the

show. In the end, of course, we
broke that rule too. But we had

like a really good reason. Rules
and science fiction give our

heroes the boundaries of what's
possible, limiting their

options. When they succeed.
Despite those boundaries, their

victories are all the more
sweet. Conversely, when a

science fiction film or
television show breaks a

fundamental law of science, or
even one of their own made up

rules without good reason. It is
at best alienating, and at worst

of betrayal. Science fiction
demands internal consistency,

however complex the rules are.
Finally, for me, one rule stands

above all others, a story must
have heart. If it doesn't move

the audience to laughter or to
tears, to love its characters to

surprise or to wonder, than all
the rules in the world won't

matter. One of the new series I
have currently in development is

spelled IV but pronounced Ivy.
There I go again with a clever

names. I believe it has heart,
but it also has an even more

complex set of rules than
Travelers. If I've done my job

coming up with them, those rules
will create story. seven seasons

worth at least

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