EXCLUSIVE! Defying Gravity interview

Forget warping around the outer reaches of the galaxy. Defying Gravity stays a little closer to home as the international crew of the Antares set out on a mission to explore our own solar system. With the show kicking off tonight with a double bill on BBC Two from 9pm, we speak to the show's creator James Parriott.

There aren’t that many space-set shows on the telly right now. What made you feel this was the right time to make Defying Gravity?
We used a different model to make this show, a sort of an independent film model where we sold rights and became partners with foreign companies first, and then brought it back to the United States and sold it to ABC– we kind of did it backwards. We were looking for a model that would have worldwide appeal, and a couple of years ago, Mike [Edelstein, Parriott’s production partner] saw the documentary Voyage To The Planets. It took two years for them to put it together and it looked fabulous and very realistic, and we felt it was a good model – if we can do an international mission through the solar system, that’s the kind of thing that would appeal to everyone, worldwide,

Space-based TV is often set hundreds of years in the future. Why do something in the relatively nearby 2052?
That’s what’s appealing to us about it. Our technology is actually what it could be in 2050. Our spacesuits are what they will probably look like. What’s interesting about space technology is that it’s always about 20 years behind real technology. For instance, the International Space Station has 486 computer chips rather than the latest technology because that’s what was around when they were designing it, and on the Space Shuttle, most of the parts are from the 1970s – they have to use a special company that makes the old chips that go into the shuttle, so it’s really out of date. So we looked at what the technology will be in 2020, 2030 and everything that we have is sort of based on that.

Does that mean there’s no get out of “jail card free” cards like warp drive and magic gravity?
We have real gravity in rotating arms on our ship that will be very similar to what NASA or somebody else will use in the future. The astronauts have to have that to maintain their bone density on any kind of long mission, but in the rest of the ship, because our ship is very large, they have magnetic gravity that they can turn on and off at the flick of a switch. That’s a stretch. We spoke to NASA and they said, “Well, we could do something like that, but probably not,” so I don’t think that’s a realistic thing. But I think that’s probably the only departure that we have.

Did you do much research into real-life space travel?
We got NASA involved early. Mike and I both took trips down to Kennedy Space Centre, and we went down to Houston, and we took astronauts out to dinner and got to be friends with a couple of them. In fact, one of them called me when he was commanding the international space station eight months ago called me from space, so it’s been a really fun ride.

For a writer, the cooped-up life on a spaceship must be great for creating unusual situations…
It is, but we also have what’s happening in mission control. We have stories that are happening on the ground, and we also have flashbacks to five years earlier to when the crew are all training together, so we’re only on the ship I’d say 20 minutes each show. Stories are spread, so you don’t feel claustrophobic. We don’t just do the hull puncture of the week or the system down of the week – we have a little bit of that, but not much. We’re pretty much character-based all the way through.

When you’re building a crew, do you have to hit specific bases?
You sort of start out with characters that you try to make as distinct as possible in the pilot episode, so you tend to start out with archetypes a little bit, and then you dimensionalise them as the series progresses. But what you want people to do in that first episode is go, “He’s the funny big guy who tells the jokes who shouldn’t be on the mission, that’s the guy who really believes in fate and destiny and I get who he is.” You want to set these archetypes so people remember who they are and don’t get confused. That’s just a storytelling thing in television, but it’s very helpful.

With this being a co-production, was it tricky keeping all of your financiers happy?
I think everybody sort of had the same vision. Everybody bought the vision that we sold, they were excited about it. Yes, we did certain things, like when [German company] ProSieben came into it they said they would really like a German actor. We had a Russian actress written in, and we said, of course we can change that to a German actress and Florentine Lahme was the first person we cast in the show. Other than that there were really no restrictions. Everybody gave their notes on the cut, on the script, and I’d wade through the ones that I think are worthwhile and valid for me and I throw away the ones that aren’t, and everybody has been happy with that and happy with the product.

You were filming in Vancouver, the home of science fiction television. How was that?
It was a wonderful crew, just terrific, but they’d all been doing more rubber mask-type sci-fi, with the aliens and the spooky lighting and the lighting that comes up from the table and lights their faces in scary ways. We found that we had to actually ween everybody off that, and say, “No, no, no, we’re doing real, we want it to look real and not sci-fi spacey,” so that was an adjustment I think for them, but they made the adjustment very well. Their skill in doing big productions was just crucial to making our schedule and getting the show to look as good as it looks.