Sense8 Is Sci-Fi That’s Not Afraid of Girls
Sense8, a Netflix original series created by J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix), was recently renewed for a second season. That’s good news for the show’s many fans, who were drawn in by the well-developed characters and interesting twist on telepathy featured in Season 1. The show is also notable for appealing to a wider audience than most sci-fi on television.
“A lot of television science fiction is either written by or aimed at guys who are afraid of girls,” Straczynski says in Episode 166 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Particularly when it comes to matters of sexuality or serious subject matter.”
Sense8 is anything but fearful when it comes to sexuality. One of its lead characters is a trans woman, played by real-life transgender actress Jaime Clayton, and an eight-way hallucinogenic orgy is par for the course.
“We showed, right in front of your face, full frontal male nudity and babies crowning,” says Straczynski. “At no time either in the writing or the shooting did we say, ‘Are we going too far?’”
The show is also remarkable for its international cast, its focus on character over plot, and its refusal to idiot-proof its early episodes. That lack of easy hooks mystified some viewers (and critics) but led to a richer experience for those who stuck with the show.
“We’re trying to change the definition of science fiction, how it’s perceived on television,” says Straczynski. “We’re not trying to do a show about the gadget, the gimmick, the mission, the job. It’s about these characters and their journey.”
Now that Sense8 has thrown down the gauntlet, Straczynski hopes more writers and producers will take chances on sci-fi stories aimed at adults.
“Our hope is that this will change the standard by which science fiction shows tend to be evaluated,” he says.
Listen to our complete interview with J. Michael Straczynski in Episode 166 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
J. Michael Straczynski on Harlan Ellison:
“In one of his introductions he had given his phone number. ‘I wonder if that’s real?’ thought I. ‘Well, let’s find out.’ So I dialed the number, and waited, and sure enough it began to ring, and after about two rings there was a click and I heard, ‘Yeah?’ Oh crap, it’s him. ‘I-i-is this H-h-arlan Ellison?’ said I. ‘Yeah, whaddya want?’ said he. ‘Well, m-my name is J-joe,’ I said, stammering through the whole thing. ‘And I’m a writer, and my stuff isn’t selling, and I thought you might have some advice.’ … So he says, ‘Let me get this straight. You’re writing stuff and it’s not selling. Is that it?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘All right, here’s what you do. If it’s not selling, it’s shit. My advice to you—stop writing shit.’ ‘Thank you, Mr. Ellison. I appreciate … I … thank you.’ And he hung up, and I was like, Oh god.”
J. Michael Straczynski on five-year arcs:
“People kept saying, ‘Look, other than Star Trek, no space-based science fiction series—American show, at least—has gone more than three seasons in 25 years. What makes you think you’re going to do it?’ And I would tell them, ‘I’m on a mission from God, motherfucker.’ And we got it. We were the first show to start that process. And the fun thing has been seeing that spread over the subsequent years. When Damon Lindelof came on to develop Lost, he said to me straight up, ‘We want to pattern this after the five-year arc that you had in Babylon 5.’ And Battlestar did a similar thing. … I had a meeting at a network a couple years ago where I was talking about a show I wanted to do with a five-year arc, and the main guy in the room there from the network said, ‘Look, we’ve got people coming in all the time saying they want to do a five-year arc. They can never really pull it off successfully. What makes you think you can do it?’ I said, ‘I invented it, all right?’”
J. Michael Straczynski on writing Sense8:
“If you look at the show, after the opening sequence where the sensates are born, from that moment onward you never leave the point of view of one of our sensates—the entire story is told from their perspective. Usually in any kind of a science fiction show you can cut away from your good guys and see what the bad guys are doing. … But because our characters didn’t know what the hell was happening to them, and we couldn’t cut away, we realized we were going to stick the audience in that same position, that the characters and the audience will learn what’s happening at the same time, which is a very risky proposition. … So it was a calculated risk, but we figured the Netflix model lets us do that, and the audience is hip enough and strong enough to say, ‘OK, we’re going to wait for a while and figure this out as we go.’”
J. Michael Straczynski on TV science fiction:
“There’s always been this weird dance between politics and science fiction, and how much of one to get into the other, and the way science fiction television has dealt with this was just to ignore politics and gender and sexuality, unless they could attach it to some other race. So they would write some aliens that could change genders, isn’t that amazing? And that let them explore general themes without actually making it about real people. We just figure let’s go for broke—as I mentioned earlier—and make this about us going through these things. Let’s use this show to examine issues of sexuality and gender and privacy and politics and religion, not with some weird alien race but with us, and show that it can be done and you can survive. So my hope is that, having cracked that door open, we will begin to see more of that mature level of science fiction being done elsewhere.”