When the creators of Salvation were tasked by CBS with creating the ultimate asteroid-is-going-to-smash-into-the-Earth-in-187-days summer series, they turned to Battlestar Galactica and The Martian to figure out "how people react under extreme pressure," said Liz Kruger and Craig Shapiro in an exclusive interview with SYFY WIRE. For some, an "extinction-level event" will bring out the best ... and others the worst.
Salvation follows tech superstar Darius Tanz (Santiago Cabrera) and MIT grad student Liam Cole (Charlie Rowe), who bring Pentagon official Grace Barrows (Jennifer Finnigan) a staggering discovery - that an asteroid will collide with Earth in just 187 days. Salvation was created by executive producers and show runners Kruger and Shapiro, based on the story by Matt Wheeler, and premieres tonight on CBS at 9PM.
Liz Kruger and Craig Shapiro (Extant) chatted with us about creating a real science fiction series, about the philosophical implications of telling the people what's headed their way and what they would do if they had 187 days to live.
Spoiler Alert! There are spoilers ahead!
Salvation is a real science fiction series and you don't see a lot of those these days on television. What was it about this material that made you want to take it on?
Craig Shapiro: I wouldn't have thought normally that we would sit down to write a show about an asteroid coming to destroy the Earth. What's so fascinating about the writing process is we fell in love with the characters and we fell in love with the world. This might be one of our favorite things that we've every written. Part of that is because the way into the story is not really necessarily through this asteroid, but it's really about how people react to an asteroid. How people react to an impending extinction-level event.
And so the science and the science fiction all grows really out of character and how people act under those kind of conditions. One of our main touchstones in television is Battlestar Galactica, which is one of our all-time favorite shows. And that show is a touchstone because it looks at how people react under extreme pressure. Some people are going to react great and become heroes and some people are going to fall apart and do terrible things. And out of that conflict grows something that's so fascinating, which is how people interact with each other under extreme pressure.
Liz Kruger: The question is how the worst of times can bring out the best in us. Craig and I talk about that a lot. Very few of us have been tested in terms of our heroic potential and the sacrifices we're willing to make. And no one really knows until the gun is to your head what you're going to do. We find it very interesting to put these characters in that situation ... Liam and Grace, a single mother who got this job at the Pentagon who has always been a by-the-book person, and Harris, who's a company man. What happens when the gun is to your head. How far are you willing to go?
Considering you wrote the pilot for Salvation in just two weeks and how quickly this came together, I don't imagine you've gotten a lot of sleep.
Craig: It's kind of been a dead run. Liz describes it as someone told us we were pregnant and two weeks later we had the baby (laughs). And it was like, "Go, go, go." And we're like, "Wait, we weren't planning on that baby." But that's part of the fun and adventure of it ... It's really interesting and the research has been so much fun on this show about how we would deflect asteroids, and what's coming down the pike in the scientific [realm] with asteroid deflection and space. In this case about Darius Tanz, who's sort of similar to an Elon Musk. How will we get to Mars? How will we pick who gets to go? And what technology is going to be required to get us there and allow us to live there. And these are all the kind of things we spent a lot of time digging into, and it's so fascinating.
Craig: An element of the show is what we call sci-fact. Like I thought The Martian was so effective at this, which is it takes interesting science and it humanizes it, and it makes you realize it can be exciting because it's about that human condition stuff where you're put to the wall to solve the most challenging problems facing human beings and to see what people can come up with when they really have to. That's one of the most interesting and fun things that we've delved into with this show was things like how would a gravity tractor operate? How would you get an asteroid to go off course? We look at what's called an EM drive, an electromagnetic drive, which is still in theory, but it's in the works. It could get you to Mars in like four weeks. How would that be built?
We're working with our science adviser, who's Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. And he's been helping us try to craft the science so it's realistic. We compress time a little bit, but we take the science very seriously.
Well, you're allowed to compress time a little bit.
Craig: In a few places we just have to. Look, a gravity tractor really is a viable technology. It can work. It probably can't work as fast as we're making it work, but there's no reason it can't work. And so it's just about getting it up there and making it do its thing. That stuff is very compelling to us. We love that kind of research.
What's one thing you two would do if you had 187 days left to live and an asteroid was coming?
Liz: I think that once you know it's so hard to figure out really what you want to do because nothing would have the joy. What do you do? Read a book on a beach? I really thought about that and I just don't know what I would do. I'd probably sit around with my friends and go, "Can you believe this is happening?" I'd probably eat a lot of muffins, because I never eat muffins. If it doesn't matter ... just do a tour around the world of the best food and drink a lot, I guess.
What about you, Craig?
Craig: We've had a lot of discussions about do you even want to know, because what's to be gained. I'm kind of a Type A control freak. I like information. I like to know. But the truth is what's to be gained really by knowing. Especially because this is not a 100% guaranteed. There's wiggle room here. It's a percentage. And so it doesn't seem like such a great idea to blow all your money or go commit a crime or something crazy. You could easily find yourself like a doomsday cult, the next day after the asteroid passes you would find yourself in bad shape.
So the worst thing is that you would live after you've spent all your money?
Craig: Yeah, you have no money or you're in jail.
Liz: But I think that actually goes to the reason the government keeps what appears to be a paternalistic stance about releasing the information. We talked about it from a philosophical perspective not just a political perspective, but does the populace finding this out actually serve the greater interests of the whole? … Does it really serve anybody to have this information six months in advance? On a philosophical level there are arguments to be made that don't human beings have the right to know. But at the same time if you are trying to protect civilization from itself are there some secrets that are better left kept, at least in the moment. And so we felt it was a really fair question for the government to ask without it looking like it was sort of mustache twirling.
Liz: If you could know when you are going to die ... If someone said, "Okay, you have a choice. We're either going to tell you you're going to die or you don't have to know," I'm not sure I would want to know.
But does somebody have the right to decide that for you?
Liz: And that's the question ... A lot of times legal cases, you'll weigh the first amendment right against the sixth amendment right. Sometimes those rights compete. And I think in this story the safety and the welfare of the people competes with the right to know. There are competing interests and I think that's why it's a debatable question.
At the core of Salvation there appears to be a government conspiracy, which is really interesting as it plays out.
Liz: There is a bigger conspiracy at play that we're going to find out about that in some ways... I don't want to say larger than an asteroid ... but it's got wide-reaching implications in the story and it's a very interesting analysis of geopolitical considerations. Let's put it that way.
Craig: Without saying to much the center of the story becomes a bit like a Cuban missile crisis. And shit could get out of hand real fast and we might end up killing ourselves before the asteroid ever gets here.
Okay, so you have something bigger than an asteroid crashing into the world.
Craig: There is something bigger.
Liz: I think there are ideas and things at play that are bigger in the sense that they are of human destruction opposed to an extinction level event that is deus ex machina that comes from inside as opposed to something we bring upon ourselves.
So you have 187 days, or about six months. Will it be just one season or is there the possibility for more?
Liz: Here's the thing. This is not a story about an asteroid coming to Earth. This is a story about what happens when people discover an asteroid is coming to Earth. This first season, the question of the first 13 episodes is will we destroy ourselves before the asteroid gets here. We're building to a climax that in some ways is not quite predictable. This is not a show that has 11 seasons in it, but there are places to go once we either deflect the asteroid or the asteroid does hit.
It's great to see a new entry in the summer shows for CBS.
Liz: For us as creative people it's such an exciting adventure because we get to tell a story in 13 episodes. It's provocative. It's not your run of the mill network show. They give us a lot of creative freedom at CBS. They're really wonderful to us. We feel so lucky. They let us run wild with the show in ways that we really have enjoyed.
What's been your biggest challenge, besides time, of course.
Craig: I will say this. It's always about time really with any TV show. This one was particularly challenging. I will say I had a great moment when we were writing the pilot. And I said to Liz, “Of course this is never getting picked up. We're writing the whole thing in 12 days. But the world that we put on the page, which is essentially a combination of the world of the Pentagon, but on the other hand is Darius Tanz's world, similar to Elon Musk's SpaceX. We do not have any way that we could build this set. There's no where you could go that you could build it, but we can't build it because it's going to be so huge and so enormous and so expensive. We can't do it.
Well, flash forward four months and there we were standing on the set … and I really marveled at what we had managed to pull off this is a giant world that we've created and I really, really didn't know that we were going to be able to pull it off. So it's one of our best accomplishments.
Liz: That and building the Pentagon. If you look forward to the upcoming episodes you'll see the production quality of this is feature film quality. It's unbelievable what we have been able to build here in Toronto. Our sets are magnificent. Darius' tree house, Grace's house ... We have so many sets here. And we just – SPOILER ALERT – built the Oval Office ... So I think the big challenge is every ten days we are making a new movie that is epic in scope and our production team here, they're like magicians. I don't know how they do it. They get these scripts, then probably have a heart attack, and then they turn around and [create it].
Well you must both be excited. Everyone's going to see the baby soon.
Craig: It's so true (laughs).
Liz: Hopefully they hold the baby and love the baby (laughs).
What would you say to people to turn into CBS tonight to watch Salvation?
Liz: I would say whatever cynicism they have about network television or summer shows or asteroids, they should put it all aside because this show will surprise them at every turn. It is a fun, telling, provocative story with phenomenal actors and I promise that they will get hooked. And it will take them places I promise they won't suspect. If you love political thrillers and you love science fiction and you love love stories, you will find all of that in Salvation.
Salvation airs on CBS on Wednesdays at 9PM ET.