On August 14, 2011, I appeared in the Discovery Channel Curiosity series episode titled “Alien Invasion: Are We Ready?” A longer version of the show aired May 20, 2011 in the UK as “When Aliens Attack” (not to be confused with the contemporary show of that name produced for the Natoinal Geographic Channel.)
Hosted by Michelle Rodriguez, and featuring luminaries such as Michio Kaku and Seth Shostak, not to mention my friends Chuck Gannon and Chris Weuve, the show is a realistic scenario of an alien attack as envisioned by scientific minds, rather than screenwriters.
See some video clips at:
A rough cut of the show was in the can, but Discovery had some issues with it. It was problematic; the live-action docudrama sequences had no dialog, and there was no narration, so the talking heads had to tell the story. This was complicated because the goal was to teach some real science – cool stuff – in the context of the specific invasion scenario. The topics ranged from plasma weapons and celestial mechanics to biological warfare and military tactics. That’s one reason why they ultimately hired Michelle Rodriguez – to add cohesion to the script. (The other reason should be obvious; in addition to her many charms, she added star power to the promotional campaign, having starred in LOST, Avatar, and Battle: Los Angeles.)
So with only a month left before the UK premiere, Atlas Media Corp., the production company that created the show on commission from Discovery, had some narrative gaps to fill. This was before the decision to hire a host, when the show was still a two-hour slot. Atlas went to its list of contacts to find a few more experts to fill the gaps. Chris Weuve was evidently one of those, having been involved in the early concept stage the year before.
Here I should backtrack. Last year Atlas held a brainstorming meeting in New York with Analog editor Stan Schmidt, Chris Weuve, Chuck Gannon, Paul Levinson and Mike Flynn. Others were consulted as well including Doug Beason and David Brin.
But Chris and Chuck got the opportunity to appear on camera, while most of the brainstormers did not, due to location logistics. (Mike Flynn’s self-deprecating claim that the reason in his case was “because they were not shooting in wide-angle” doesn’t bear weight.) Another talent sought was Anne Simon, biologist and science consultant on X-Files. Anne lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. and Chris had recently moved to Charlottesville, VA. There were several other people to interview in the DC area, so Atlas set up a two-day shoot.
Producer Matt Koed was looking for more, and he contacted the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA). “Ideally, I am looking for an author of “hard” science fiction who can speak broadly about extraterrestrial life, space travel, possible alien technologies, current human technologies, military strategy, and last but not least physics.”
And that’s where I came in. As a member, I saw Mr. Koed’s request on the WSFA forum, expressed interest to the presiding officer, made “first contact”, and generally followed up. WSFA did not have a meeting during which to discuss the matter until just after the shoot, so I was on my own. So with some good fortune, I was able to demonstrate how I could add value to the program.
Atlas also needed a venue for the shoot, and since I work for a company that is involved in aerospace, they asked whether I had access to an airplane hanger. I do not, but contacted my friend and fellow Analog writer Tom Ligon, who suggested a perfect “set” nearby where an experimental aircraft is displayed. That company ultimately declined, and the shoot resorted to what I gathered was Plan B: an empty retail space in a bustling Crystal City mall. It may look post-apocalyptic, but we had to ask the cooks in an adjacent diner to kindly turn down their music.
This is where Anne, Chris, Matt Davis and I were interviewed. Other people were slated, but time ran out because it took all of the previous day to rig and light the set. (Nice cross-lighting on the background pillars.) I had my own malfunction; my GPS died on the way in, so I had to get out of the car and sniff every so often. EMP perhaps?
Each interview took about 3 hours. The crew was small, but included director Bill McClane, Matt Koed, a local director of photography, grip, and production assistant. There were two cameras, one stationary “master” that was zoomed in for close up, and a craned rig that was much closer, but shooting wide angle. This setup was matched for all interviews, so that they had the same general feel, though the backdrops differed. (Sorry for the detail – I have a background in film myself.)
During my sound check I informed the crew that I was very sorry, but since it was national talk like a pirate day, I would have to conduct my interview in that character. They almost bought it. My jokes continued throughout. You wouldn’t know it by the interview – I look awfully serious. And no, I was not acting, but I did want to convey a certain urgency during certain topics. It’s television, right? At one point I was asked about the destruction of the wave caused by the kinetic attack. A real cataclysmic tsunami had just hit Japan only days before, and I did not want to appear flippant. So I did try to place myself into the scenario to an extent.
I had been given a series of talking points during the previous days. Understand, the shoot occurred only a week after I first caught wind of this. I identified the topics I could confidently address, and did a little research. Much of what I said on camera was said by others in the final cut, largely because I was to an extent filling gaps in the rough cut. In some cases I was encouraged to expound on my own ideas, but little of this made it on air. I have yet to see the two-hour cut, but perhaps some of it is there.
I did explain in layman’s terms what plasma was, for example. They liked it dumbed down. I was taken aback when I was asked to repeat a statement, but without the word “ballistic”. Huh? “Imagine the viewers just flipped to this show from American Idol,” explained the director. Ah, that kind of layman. Later Chris Weuve was asked to rephrase to avoid the word “hull”. He immediately came up with “skin” which I thought was brilliant.
On another occasion I was asked to repeat a comment, but this time starting with the word “remember.” The reason was that this bit was right after a commercial break, so I had to remind the viewer what we were talking about. Great, I thought, that means they won’t be cutting that out. They’ll need it for continuity. None of that topic was in the final show.
Another major topic edited out was the captured alien. In the show, an alien lies on a table, but nothing ever comes of it. In the original scenario, the humans captured one of the harvester machines, and managed to use it against the aliens. The machine is mind-controlled, and I was asked to speculate on whether and how we might be able to learn how to control the machine. I went on about how human experimentation might crack the code. We would not have to learn to read minds, but only to map rough thoughts to the harvester’s subsequent behavior. It’s something I gleaned from transaction shell theory years ago. I threw in an inside joke for the benefit of WSFA members, but it was a bit too bizarre, and the entire sequence was cut anyway.
Later that evening, Matt Davis, who was flown in from California, was interviewed. He writes, “I was interviewed for a solid hour and shared all kinds of ideas about how humans act in response to disaster situations. I talked about theories of altruism, what makes people more resilient to trauma, and how Holocaust survivors coped with finding meaning in their day to day lives despite the horrors they were living through! From that they gave me… 25 seconds total when you combine the two scenes!” This boiled down to him merely saying, “People would be under a lot of stress,” he added. Matt also complained about the unflattering angle used in some shots. Chris joked, “I have the perfect face for radio.” Let’s face it – our job was to make Michelle look good by contrast.
I thought Chuck Gannon wrapped up the show extremely well (especially since I owe him a big favor) when asked whether humanity should really worry about preparation for alien invasion. My own answer was that we should, but not because of the remote chance of an actual invasion. We also need to prepare for asteroid collisions and, in my opinion, manned exploration of space. These activities would also have application in many invasion scenarios.
I already knew Chuck (but was unaware he could morph into Micho Kaku in that one scene) and was familiar with some of the other participants. It was a pleasure meeting Chris and Anne, who entertained us at lunch with stories of her adventures working on X-Files. She was great in the show, and I wish they used had more footage of her.
Another local lady that would have been great is physicist and SF writer Catherine Asaro. I suggested her to the producers, and they said they had contacted her agent, who had declined. At the eleventh hour I learned from Catherine that this was a mistake. She had been unable to attend the initial round of interviews, but could have done the pick-ups. The cast of experts was highly diverse, but women have long been under-represented in the sciences. As a consolation, Matt Koed commented that a woman with Ms. Asaro’s stellar resume and a countenance to match ought to be able to make a living as a TV personality. I hadn’t thought of all that, but it makes sense.
This show did make a good attempt to be realistic scientifically, and avoided a lot of idiocy that’s been plaguing Hollywood invasion movies for years. Okay, the mothership hovering below geosynch is a close encounter with Will Smith. The means of the virus spreading was an unnecessary eye-popping special effect. That the thunder well is, in my words “a long shot” is the underexaggeration of the century. But this is television, and I appreciate that. Being turned onto science justifies the means.
Besides, I think they did a fair job of rationalizing the thunder well problems in the end. The problem is, if you have a stationary cannon, which is what the well is, how do you aim the thing at something in space? With only a slide rule and the back of a napkin, it would be a miracle of timing. Then you have an irregular projectile flying through a turbulent atmosphere. The thing would tumble wildly. All these objections were neatly dismissed by the visual of the buckshot thunderwell spewing enough metal discs to ensure that at least a couple of them will hit. (Good thing they left out the plasma shield bit, which might have offered the aliens a defense against the flying snow saucers.)
For the initial US airing, poor Chris reported that his power went out, causing him to miss the show entirely. But this was not the night the lights went out in Georgia. I was on the homeward road from the Florida Keys. We found a decent motel at the last minute, and watched both showings in a town that smelled like a toilet. I-95 Paper mills, yeesh. I would have liked to have hosted a viewing party, but it was not to be.
The UK version of this aired two months after my shoot, on May 20, 2011. It was two hours instead of one, and was called “When Aliens Attack”. I presume Discovery changed the title because National Geographic had a similar show with that title out at the same time. Michelle Rodriguez was not in this version. Also, the UK version erroneously credited me with a PhD, which I do not have. Just an atrophied bachelors in astrophysics, I’m afraid.
For some reason the UK ad for the show featured only myself and Chris Weuve. The US ad featured only myself (for a handful of frames) and Michelle Rodriguez. This is not because I am important. I just happened to own the sound bites that fit the bill. I might have had bragging rights, had my love scene with Michelle not ended up on the cutting room floor. Hmm, there’s a song in there somewhere. “Love on the cutting room floor” – David Bartell, 17 August 2011
PS – I subsequently appeared in National Geographic’s EVACUATE EARTH in Fall 2012, and the spin-off series HOW TO SURVIVE THE END OF THE WORLD in 2013-2014.
“Zeno’s Roulette” is a novelette set in Larry Niven’s Known Space universe, specifically the Man-Kzin Wars series. However, I consider it only peripheral to Man-Kzin Wars; it is not a war story. The story appears in MAN-KZIN WARS XIII, available in bookstores and on-line.