Remember those old TV serials, like Flash Gordon, where each episode ended in a cliffhanger? Well, Syfy's new online web series, The Mercury Men, made that old format new again with a black-and-white tale involving glowing aliens, a moon-crashing plot to destroy the Earth and a raygun-equipped aerospace engineer named Jack Yaeger.
(The Mercury Men premiered July 25 and now all 10 episodes are online at www.syfy.com/rewind/mercurymen.)
Creator Chrisopher Preksta, who made the 10-part serial for a mere $7,000, admits, "I just want to shoot something with rayguns, because I knew there was no way I was going to get rayguns into a feature script." And in fact, "anything with a jetpack instantly wins my heart."
The retro raygun-filed web series takes place in Pittsburgh in 1975 and is about a drone of a government employee named Edward Borman (Mark Tierno), who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a plot involving murderous glowing men from Mercury who are attempting to crash the moon into Earth. Helping Edward survive the invasion of his government building—and save the Earth—is aerospace engineer and all-round hero Jack Yaeger.
"It's a throwback to the old serials of the '40s and '50s," said actor Curt Wootton, who plays Jack. "Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers ... It's really just a great old-fashioned adventure story. A great story about a man (aka Edward) coming to his own and pretty much having to go through the trials, and is he going to save the world or what? There's a lot of Star Wars elements and Indiana Jones elements."
Preksta admits he was inspired by Star Wars and Indiana Jones, which were, of course, famously inspired by the likes of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
"It's a great throwback to the old classic cliffhanger adventure," said Preksta. "And it's that Twilight Zone-esque idea of a government employee, of an average Joe, normal guy. And Edward Borman is that type of guy that you hate to be a customer of. You hate to see that kind of guy at the DMV or the government office, and I speak here from experience. He's the type of guy that's not going to help. He's the kind of guy who's going to pass the responsibility on to the next person. He's going to try and weasel his way out of having to do anything, and so we take that guy and we throw him into this world where his building is suddenly overrun with these invaders from the planet Mercury. ... And so they come down on this building to use the building as a giant magnet to pull the moon down and crash it into the Earth."
"Jack is heavily inspired by the old test pilots of the '50s and the astronauts," said Wootton. "Jack, for me, is just one of those characters ... He's the type of character I got into acting for in the first place. I grew up absolutely loving Indiana Jones and Star Wars and Han Solo. Anything Harrison Ford ever did. So it's just great to actually, finally, as an actor, do so much. You go through doing plays and all these characters. You like 'em, but you really just want to get that one character that could define why you do this and why you got into this. I think Jack is that character for me. We have just scratched the surface with him with what we plan on doing with future seasons."
Jack and Edward are forced to rely on each other and try to stop the aliens in an effort to save the Earth over the 10 cliffhanging episodes, which run about seven minutes long.
Wootton and Tierno are no stranger to Preksta's projects. They both worked on Captain Blasto, which was nominated for two Streamy Awards, as well as the Mercury Men concept film.
"It's so nice to see that transformation from the first episodes, where they are very distant, very quiet, and it's almost a silent film in those first episodes. Because you're getting everything just simply visually. You're getting everything by just experiencing the adventure alongside them and witnessing the events alongside them. But then it's great, then, to flip that coin for those later episodes, when you finally see the two of them start working together," said Preksta.
"I think it's such a fantastic story. I mean, there's so much heart poured in this project, and it really shows," said Wootton. "It was a passion project for everyone involved."
In fact, the beautifully shot black-and-white retro look and the surprisingly good special effects were somehow produced on a $7,000 budget. It's the kind of Hollywood success story every fledgling filmmaker loves to hear.
"That might be, like, one meal on a Hollywood big-budget summer show," said Wootton with a laugh.
"We had shot a concept short for Mercury Men in late 2007, just a little 10-minute short film," said Preksta. "And that was my pitch to the actors and the crew to get them involved. I was like, 'Listen, I got a couple hundred bucks I can spend on a short film.' I said, 'I really want to shoot rayguns. Would you be willing to come out and work for a weekend on a short film about rayguns?' And that was enough to win over Curt and Mark."
Then the question became what format would be best for The Mercury Men. "You're not going to get away with black and white, rayguns, glowing aliens and a Twilight Zone-style series. You're not going to get away with that on TV. There are very few executives in the world are going to greenlight a series like that for either television or for film. However, in the web series world, or digital online, you're able to be a bit more daring. Take some more chances. You tell stories that are a little riskier. So it just felt like a no-brainer. It felt like a perfect place to tell something on this level."
Once the series was completed, The Mercury Men was noticed by Syfy and ended up being the perfect fit for their website, which had success with its online original Riese: Kingdom Falling.
So far Preksta said the reception of the series has been positive. However, The Mercury Men has "a plot which could only work in a serialized throwback, and the funniest part of that is we get a lot of fans that will critique. They'll point out little silly things like 'This is supposed to be 1975. There shouldn't be Braille on the elevator buttons, 'cause Braille elevator buttons were not standard until 1998.' And you're like, 'Really? That's the thing you're going to point out?'" he said. "So that's kind of funny what they choose to nitpick and what they ignore."
"Chris just has such a unique vision, so clean and heightened, and the way he talked about it beforehand, it was just, he's amazing. Whatever he talked about ended up on the screen. It's just, he's like the next Steven Spielberg, I swear to God," said Wootton.
As to whether there will be future seasons of The Mercury Men, "Chris has stories. He's talking about stories for years to come. And they're all amazing. It's just depends on what our viewership is and if the fans want it," said Wootton.
If that comes about, "you're going to see a lot more from the organization of the League. Of course, you're going to see much more from my character, Jack, and, of course, the Mercury Men will be involved, because there's going to be a lot more developed with the men of Mercury. So we've only scratched the surface with these guys, " said Wootton.
"We so badly want to continue to do a second season, and we've got a fantastic story already beaded out. ... Now that you can see that there's clearly the ability to tell a great story, even with very meager resources, could you only imagine what we could do with a million dollars?" said Preksta with a laugh.
Beyond that, Preksta has other plans. "We would love to explore this in comics and books and that kind of stuff," he said. "I still maintain all the rights, so no matter what Syfy decides ... some way we'll continue."