When NBC’s new sci-fi drama, Debris, drops on Mar. 1, it will be almost exactly seven years to the day since writer/executive producer J.H. Wyman (Fringe) has given audiences new television. The finale of his futuristic A.I. cop series, Almost Human, ended after one season in 2014, and Wyman then went into development. With his company, Frequency Films, Wyman spent a lot of time trying to figure out his “what’s next?”
From a tech and audience habits perspective, over seven years, the television landscape has practically advanced by dog years as viewers have flocked to streaming services and premium cable to get their episodic fix. And that is especially true when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy TV, where the scope there is often more cinematic and expensive in light of recent successes like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things. But Wyman, whose entire television career output has been for broadcast networks, now returns with an original sci-fi series idea that he says brings more of a “cable sensibility” to the broadcast space.
In development for six years, Debris is an idea that refused to leave him alone. “It just kept coming back to me, saying that I really need to tell this story,” Wyman tells SYFY WIRE.
Set in the near future, the premise posits that humanity has discovered an alien spaceship, abandoned and derelict in our solar system. It’s falling apart and raining down pieces onto Earth, and that debris is doing some very weird things to us. To determine the overall impact, America’s CIA and Great Britain’s MI6 create a joint investigation department called Orbital. And via their very human field agents, they track down and investigate in hopes of determining the bigger picture.
“It's a fun popcorn show, but it's also intimate, and talks about things that I think people are emotionally concerned with now,” the former Fringe showrunner says. And for a guy who has always created sci-fi storytelling that’s emotion-based, Debris is definitely going to be about a lot more than mech flotsam and jetsam landing in people’s backyards, Wyman admits.
“The thing I'm currently obsessed with is that it feels like there's too much cynicism. And too much darkness,” he says, describing humanity on the whole right now. “It's easy to be cynical. Anybody can be cynical. But it's a special few who work hard enough to maintain hope. In this dark year, I wanted to tell a show that was firmly ensconced in the idea that there are things out there that you don't know... that you don't know. There are things that are good that are coming that you don't know. There are things that are bigger that you don't know. But there's the possibility of wonder, and the possibility of discovering something that could change your life. It may be dark right now, but keep going. There's wonder in the world again.”
The two agents throwing us into the field with them in the pilot are U.K. Agent Finola Jones (Riann Steele) and U.S. Agent Bryan Beneventi (Jonathan Tucker). They are new partners in Orbital, and they see the world from very different perspectives. Jones’ father created Orbital and instilled a great sense of hope and wonder in his daughter. While Bryan is a combat vet hiding his PTSD and keeping his distance from the people around him. As they investigate the Earth and human reaction to every found piece of the fallen ship, Wyman says the structure of the series gives him the opportunity to explore a lot more than the seemingly “unexplainable” science.
“I was always more interested in the human reaction to these things, and using those as a mirror to show what we are,” Wyman says. “The debris is like science. It can be used for good, or it can be used for bad. Who knows what it's going to bring? It's up to us, as human beings, to figure it out. I really wanted to tell stories that have the concept of identifiable human condition stories –– issues that people are going through now about loneliness and isolation, and that life is guided by the human connections that you make. We have to keep that hope alive. That's the crux of what I'm trying to do.”
Like Fringe, Debris will mix a lot of mythology with a “debris of the week” procedural-esque element to it. But Wyman says he learned a lot from that hit series and those lessons are baked into creating a sci-fi series for today’s savvy viewers. “When I wrote ‘White Tulip’ [for Fringe] it really was a benchmark,” Wyman explains. “I took that lesson, and brought it here. I'm not interested in poking out with some mystery box that I don't know what's in it. I know what's in it! And I'm not afraid to tell you what's in it, and you're going to find out what's in it. This is part of it, and I want to share it, because I really think the fans that like the kind of science fiction that I like to write, are looking for that, and demand that, and want that.”
He continues, “Every episode is going to have a very healthy dose of progressive movement towards larger answers and dimensionalizing the story behind the story with the mythology. It's wrapped in these cases — sometimes big, sometimes small — but always, hopefully, emotionally engaging with what they're looking at every week.”
Through Finola and Bryan, Wyman hopes audiences will get to live vicariously not only in their adventures, but also their emotional journey as these two people's lives are going to get shaken up a lot. “In the pilot, Bryan's asked to withhold something pretty important to this woman, who at that point is only somebody who works for another government. Any other time, Bryan would do exactly as he's asked, but he starts to get enveloped in what this story is, and finds himself entrenched in that more than he even realized. He finds himself understanding that maybe the government can't be trusted, and maybe there is something that's going on here. And then this relationship blossoms because of it, and they really dig it out of each other, which is fun.”
Debris premieres Monday, Mar. 1 at 10:00 p.m. ET.