Before Firefly and Farscape there was Martian Law – A. Martinez and Ben Browder took on David Carradine to bring justice to the lawless surface of Mars.
Despite the clear influence of the old west on popular science fiction stretching back to the listless Civil War veteran John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, actually setting out to make a dedicated space Western – as opposed to a space opera influenced by Westerns – was altogether less common. This dual heritage can now be seen running through the poncho-clad likes of The Mandolorian, Cowboy Bebop, Defiance, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and others, but 25 years ago – when Firefly was still a sepia glint in Joss Whedon’s eye – executive producer Richard C. Okie, a veteran of Quantum Leap and Earth: Final Conflict, and writer Herbert J. Wright, a regular contributor Star Trek: The Next Generation, birthed Martian Law.
The pilot episode, which never made it to series and – according to rumor – received a hastily edited TV movie treatment in 1998, gathered up a Magnificent Seven of talent both on and off-camera, took over the Old West set at Universal Studios, and dusted the heart of John Ford country in Utah with a deep red Martian glow. Every detail is wilder than the last as Kung Fu’s David Carradine and Candyman’s Tony Todd joined the future stars of Farscape and Roswell, under the watchful eye of a British wild child of cult horror.
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How Martian Law Began
Dubbed “Gunsmoke on Mars” by the trades (apparently a cursed description, as John Carpenter later used it for his critically panned 2001 movie Ghosts of Mars), the pilot of Martian Law went into production in 1997 at Universal Television and Rysher Entertainment for the UPN network.
In February 1998, the name was copyrighted by Martian Law was copyrighted in February that year by Rysher Entertainment and Martian Law Productions, Inc. Beyond that, the early stages of the show are a mystery and so we turn to some of our interviewees to follow the trail of their involvement.
Chris Zapara: I was head of Digital Effects at Calico Entertainment at the time. While it sounds impressive, I had little experience in the industry. The company traditionally did hand-drawn animation, along with some motion control camera work. They wanted to get into digital effects, and I happened to have some film experience, and I knew some of the desktop VFX programs that were changing the industry at the time. Our team had done a few projects at Calico just before Martian Law (two features and a pitch for a series), and we had been literally learning techniques on the go while simultaneously building out a new department. My job was to be on set when they were shooting VFX scenes to ensure things get shot properly for us to do the effects later. After the shoot, I built some of the CG models and did much of the animation work on the show. I also managed our small team as we tackled the shots.
Jamais Casico: My backstory: I was (and am) a professional futurist, and in the mid-late 1990s I worked for a company called Global Business Network, based in the San Francisco area. One of the founders of GBN, an academic named Jay Ogilvy, had a habit of bringing over former students and friends to hang out and meet people. One of those students was a guy named Rick Okie, who was a TV writer. Rick — best known at that point as the showrunner for Renegade, with Lorenzo Lamas — had just been hired on as the showrunner for a science fiction production called Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict.
Part of the conceit of the show was that it was set in the very near future, so Rick needed some brainstorming about what a near-future Earth (with resident powerful aliens) could be like. Although a number of GBN folks contributed to the discussion, I really got into it. I exploded with ideas and plot concepts (to the degree that I was paid as a story consultant for one of the episodes) and worked well with Rick.
A couple of years later (having visited Rick during the production of Earth: Final Conflict to talk stories and science fiction), Rick pinged me and said that he was putting together a new science fiction show, Martian Law, set on a newly colonized Mars. He asked if I wanted to come down and work on the show as a credited consultant, and he’d even give me a shot at writing a script or two to see if I like that. You don’t turn that kind of offer down, so in 1998 my wife and I packed up and moved to West Hollywood. That process took a few months, so I visited the Martian Law set and production house several times as the pilot was put together. I met David Carradine (and saw the shooting of a scene with him that I had come up with to solve a plot problem, which was completely surreal), A. Martinez, and Ben Browder, and got to see the special effects in process and talked with the director.
By the time our boxes were unpacked, the show had been killed. So that’s my connection to it.Jamais Casico (Technical Consultant)
The pilot’s director was Anthony Hickox, then known for video rental terrors Waxwork (1988) and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992). Today, the idea of film directors working in television (or vice versa) is unremarkable but in the ‘90s, there was an iron curtain separating TV and film: typically those in the former ached to join the latter where they would finally be ‘taken seriously’, and the latter was dismissive of the former as cheap and dowdy. Hickox’s journey to Martian Law is as unorthodox as the man himself.
Anthony Hickox: I grew up in Switzerland, so I’m a big skier. I had just come back from a ski vacation and a friend of mine was with the head of Universal’s girlfriend, and she said, ‘You got to come in and meet on the show we’re doing, Extreme, with James Brolin’. And I said, ‘Well, I’m not really the guy for this now,’ – ‘But you’re a skier.’ I got the job and had the greatest time ever getting paid to ski and then that turned into a Universal deal. Five years. So it was weird because I love to be in control but I accept [that] in TV I’m not really in control. It’s their script, they approve the cost, everything – I just shot it. I did four pilots – three of them got picked up. Every year I get to choose what pilot I wanted to do. It was only about 10 a year made because there were three channels so it was a great time until Martian Law didn’t get picked up and nobody called me
You know, you’re on the top and [then] nobody wants you. Actually, I turned down the pilot that Ben Browder was in called Chrome Hearts and once I did that was kind of off but my office at Universal was in the Hitchcock Building, which is now Jurassic Park Ride, so it doesn’t exist.
I remember the first day – I had a car space with my name painted on it. I was so proud. I was like Johnny Depp in the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood. I made it to Universal Studios.Anthony Hickox (Director)
I’m not good with studios. I made Prince Valiant , which was my first studio picture, and I’m getting notes on dailies. I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’ It’s like, ‘This is my movie. I wrote it. I’m directing it.’ In TV, I accepted it because it was TV: Okay, it’s not a movie. It’s television. So I’ll follow those rules. But I only did pilots, I wouldn’t do episodic which pissed off Universal because I was on a yearly fee. I’d do pilots because at least with a pilot, you create the world. In episodic, you’re a DP [Director of Photography]. I did one on New York Undercover’s first season. They said, ‘Get down there, we hate what they’re doing – try and save it.’ It went on for five years, so I guess it was okay.
The Setting of Martian Law
Martian Law was a Western on Mars. Literally. The setting seemed to owe more to the steampunk weird western than anything traditionally set in space.
Anthony Hickox: It was basically based on a book even though legally, I wasn’t allowed to say that. It was about a new gold rush on Mars. It was just about this sheriff arriving on Mars and having to set up a police station to deal with all these gold robbers and all that shit. So that was a basic premise. It was going to be a cop show on Mars. which I loved.
Chris Zapara: The setting was Mars, the new frontier. People were staking claims out beyond the city, which was a scalloped domed structure. Inside was a literal wild west town. We actually shot on the wild west set at Universal Studios. I think that was my first time on a professional set, and I got a kick out of waving at the tour trams as they drove by.
Anthony Hickox: They had a Western town set at Universal, who I had my TV deal with, and they said do you want to use it? I said, ‘Yeah, but you got to make it so the whole thing is chrome’. So they literally kept the same architecture, they just made it all chrome.
Kevin Farrell: The pre-production work was performed in Los Angeles. We did interior/exterior location and technical scouts in L.A. I believe that the exterior vistas were to be shot in Utah – we were looking for the most alien-but-interesting regional locations.
Anthony Hickox: I had shot three movies [in Utah], like Sundown at Moab, and so I knew it really well. It’s such an amazing landscape.
Chris Zapara: When we are inside the town, you can see the glass dome overhead in some shots. Other shots at night we enhanced with stars and meteorites. We also had sundry work, like painting out wires, etc.
Jamais Casico: There was a scene at night with two massive Mars moons hanging in the sky. Mars’ moons are (a) small, much smaller than our Moon, and (b) moving rapidly around the planet. You simply would not have two big full-moon-size objects resting in the sky. When I said something about it to the director and to Rick, the director just said (IIRC) “I like how this looks.”
Kevin Farrell: I remember that there was visible plant life everywhere even in the deserts, so some mention of Martian terraforming needed to be included in the script/story premise.
Jamais Casico: There were other wildly non-scientific items, and I learned very quickly that if the show doesn’t care about being vaguely accurate, there’s nothing that a consultant can do. Part of my job was to try to come up with justifications for things that simply weren’t plausible.
Kevin Farrell: There was a no-weapons restriction law inside the domed colony (for obvious reasons). Marscorp was the story’s corporate element. There was to be some artificial atmosphere factory to supply additional breathable atmosphere to the planet. The science of it was sketchy.
The look was to be semi-futuristic with the silhouette of a Western. Six shooters and rifles – no ray guns.Kevin Farrell (Illustrator/Storyboard Artist)
Anthony Hickox: I mean, it was kind of ridiculous, but you could go outside the city and breathe and somehow the guns worked. And we figured it out ‘cos they were revolvers. It was cowboys on Mars. There’s no getting around that fact.
Ben Browder: I do remember the discussion of bullets in a vacuum… To which I responded something along the lines of ‘Bullets can be fired from underwater. The oxidizer is in the cartridge, why not in a vacuum?’ Google was not there to answer these questions.
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The Cast of Martian Law: The White Hats
Information is understandably hazy about who played what, with a set of concept art for the show having very different names from those on the script. The good guys – or white hats, to keep it Western – were A. Martinez (Longmire, Cowboy Bebop) as the marshal; Ben Browder (Farscape, Stargate SG-1) as a newly arrived deputy; Rae Dawn Chong (Commando, The Color Purple) as a brothel madam; and Katherine Heigl (Roswell, Grey’s Anatomy) as a young widow.
Anthony Hickox: A. Martinez was a lead – he was great – that that was an absolute [from Universal] and then they put a woman in there that he didn’t think was right but it was an absolute but then I got to choose and Katherine [Heigl] was my friend and [David] Carradine was my friend. But with TV, they expected it to go to series so they are figuring out the long term when it comes to casting. ‘Is this someone that people want to watch?’ I thought they made big mistakes, but got paid, [and] did my job.
[Martinez] was the rock of the series. Everybody else would have different motivations. He was just a straight, clean, American sheriff. He couldn’t be swayed by money. They tried to bribe him – no, no, he’s gonna clean up the town. And the town was a Wild West town, there were gunfights on the street. There was no law it was a lawless Mars.
His office was very cool. I remember that set really well. Like a big circle with a huge sheriff’s star in the middle in tiles on the wall.Anthony Hickox (Director)
[Ben Browder’s character] is the one you know, the audience would support through the series because he’s the young hot guy. The sheriff will be the one, but Ben Browder will bend the rules to get things done. Just cliche after cliche now we talk about it.
Ben Browder: I do remember pushing for a backstory that involved his being a survivor of a colony ship disaster, but can’t remember if that was in the series bible or some idea I dreamed up one night in a cold sweat. My nod to that story was that every child survivor on the ship was tattooed with the number of the colony ship. I had makeup draw up a number tat for my character which was visible for one scene. No explanation, just a number.
Jamais Casico: I got to see a couple of scenes being filmed. One was the scene with David Carradine, and the other was one with Ben Browder and the female lead. The latter was interesting to watch, as the director had the two redo the scene multiple times, but with different driving emotions (“Ben, say these lines like you hate her” – “You’re both secretly in love but can’t tell the other” etc.). Watching professional actors do that successfully was cool.
Anthony Hickox: [Katherine Hiegel’s character] had a plot of land for mining. It was a material that was sent back to Earth and became like gold, it was like a new energy form. It was made out of rocks. So that’s the whole Gold Rush thing. She had deeds to land and the bad guys were trying to take the land off her, so that was the basis of the story. And then the sheriff investigates because there’s a murder on their land, and Ben [Browder] played the kid that was kind of fired from his Earth job and was a kind of rookie cop that, of course, comes full of attitude, but changes at the end and saves the day.
[Rae Dawn Chong’s character] is also having an affair with the sheriff. Even though we don’t really go there. We know that gonna happen. Because he goes in there to raid it. And then she’s always rolling her eyes. They just start back up the next day. So I even have a barroom brawl. I’m a big Western fan.
The Cast of Martian Law: The Black Hats
The black hats consisted of the legendary David Carradine, then fresh off Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, as a hired gun with a cybernetic hand; Robert Carradine playing his real brother’s fictional brother; the statuesque Tony Todd (Candyman, The Crow) as another hired gun sent by Marscorp when Carradine’s gunslinger goes rogue; and the coolly sinister William Sadler (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey) as the boss of Marscorp, the overarching big bad for the show’s first season.
Anthony Hickox: [Tony Todd’s character] is supposed to be tracking David Carradine. But of course, he gets killed. Carradine is untrackable. Carradine had been hired by Marscorp to take down all the minor gangsters on Mars, so he’s killing off the bad guys because people would hire bad guys to protect their land. He’s in there to clean everything up and make it all controlled by Marscorp. Typical Western.
Anthony Hickox: I loved Carradine. When we did Sundown, we just got along. Every morning, he’d come up to me with a polystyrene cup of coffee stinking of bourbon. And I would be like, ‘David, why don’t you just bring a glass everybody knows it’s not coffee?’ He was great and we became friends. He always was so professional never was always on time always knew his line. So whatever he was doing, it was working.
Then he came and just did that Waxwork II thing for me. I’d be able to call David and say ‘Can you be on set in two days?’ – ‘Fine’ – Make the deal, pay him 25 grand a day, whatever. He was actually like that character in Kung Fu in real life. He was very spiritual. He used to go play the guitar every night, do meditation, and that was just him.
I never kind of knew what was really going on underneath, but when he doesn’t like somebody, he lets you know. He just kind of liked my craziness and that was it.Anthony Hickox (Director)
Ben Browder: David was a truly unique presence onscreen and off. He carried himself as a different kind of human. The fact that he was a famous icon when I met him, magnified his roguish qualities. Watching him work was like watching a top predator take down an elephant. Part fascinating, part terrifying. He embodied iconoclasm.
Anthony Hickox: Robert Carradine’s character] gets kidnapped at the end. To bring Carradine down because Carradine’s kind of gone out on his own. He doesn’t work for Marscorp, he’s going his own shit. And Marscorp kidnaps his brother. He has to go in and save him. Yeah, that’s a big kind of finale.
Ben Browder: I spent more time with Bobby. Bobby was an iconoclast in a quieter way. [He was the] first person I knew that untethered from wired communication before most of us even had cell phones, Bobby was fully wireless. He was like a techno-hippy. Smart and really fascinating character. That’s a talented and, seems to me, fearless family.
The Tech of Martian Law
Martian Law’s visual effects were a collaboration between Calico Entertainment, which was responsible for the motion control camera, digital effects, and on-set supervision by Chris Zapara (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Voyager), and Wonderworks, run by the venerable Oliver Ray ‘Brick’ Price, which built the props and miniatures. Price, whose work includes phasers and ships for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and the capsule for Apollo 13 (1995), was responsible for a cargo helicopter seen in the pilot’s opening sequence, and the Judge Dredd (1995)-style flying motorcycles and the Thractor, a glorified garbage truck.
Chris Zapara: The opening shot shows a Marscorp transport helicopter flying over a digital Martian landscape. It turns to reveal the domed colony in the distance. At the time, I balked at the idea of a helicopter on Mars, but the Ingenuity drone currently flying on Mars has made me eat my words. The copter was a miniature with a CG rotor, while the city and terrain were entirely digital.
Anthony Hickox: I’m not joking on this, they traveled around in a dust cart. That was their mode of transport. Universal loved it. It was an orange dust cart. I love a sci-fi artist called Chris Foss, I painted everything with giant numbers and, you know, giant stripes, and it was kind of cool. But I never got over the dust cart. I’m like, ‘At least give me a military-looking something.’ But the bikes are cool. The flying motorbikes – they were cool.
Anthony Hickox: They were converted jet skis, but it suited it because they flew. So you look like you were comfortable sitting on one. If it was too thin like a motorbike would have kind of been weird and yet for some reason if you had something solid below you and it flew, it felt it was okay. Little wings would come out the side and it would fly. Very Thunderbirds now I think about it.
Chris Zapara: Once the marshal’s bike is airborne, he and it are both fully CG. Animating the bike and its rider was the most fun I had on that show.
Jamais Casico: The shots of the marshal riding his speeder bike thing over the Martian landscape were terrible (bad compositing, really obvious CG for distance shots), and non-CG shots had scrub and plant life all over the place (spray-painted red to roughly match the ground).
Chris Zapara: The last big effect was the [deputy’s] special gun, which fired a plasma bolt that slowly disintegrated whatever it hit…
Another of Wonderworks’ creations was a much-maligned robot sidekick, that started life as a gargantuan curmudgeon – an industrial Marvin the Paranoid Android perhaps – and finished up as an unreliable pedal bin.
Chris Zapara: There was a prominent robot character named Drudge. I remember his name because I read the legal department’s script clearances, and they determined the only significant use of ‘Drudge’ was a little-known guy from Texas who wrote stuff on his website. A couple of years later, ‘The Drudge Report’ would break the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal.
Drudge worked for the marshal and was originally a big lumbering thing befitting his name. That turned out to be too expensive, and he ended up being a small wheeled robot that reminded me of Tom Servo from MST3K. Drudge wasn’t working well on set, and his character was eventually written out. He actually does appear in a few shots, but he’s never mentioned or explained.
Anthony Hickox: I could not make it work and usually I find a way to make anything work. That one just could not do it. That was my frustration. Because it was such a great character in the script. I wanted it to work. He was angry, [he] thought nobody knew what they were doing, what was right, and he was always complaining. So he was a great character, but I had to take him out. Visually it was just stupid.
Jamais Casico: The original story outline had a non-humanoid robot as a character interacting with the marshal. Over the course of the production, the designs for the robot kept getting cut down, smaller and less complex each time. The last version was essentially a little toy truck, and the character was scrapped.
Anthony Hickox: It kept on falling over. It could only go in a straight line on a totally flat surface. He was kind of like R2-D2, which is also ridiculous but somehow [George] Lucas made that trashcan work. And it was a better trashcan – mine couldn’t go more than one foot without falling over. R2-D2 stands up the whole time. Never put R2-D2 on a surface that has a tilt – I promise you he’ll fall over.
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The Climax of Martian Law’s Pilot
The episode’s climax was the archetypical Wild West shootout atop an atypical Martian train. All eyes would have been on the visual effects money shot, in which A. Martinez’s marshal or Ben Browder’s deputy – recollections vary – fires his plasma shotgun, disintegrating David Carradine and saving the day.
Chris Zapara: Speaking of the marshal’s gun… he only fired it once, and that was to kill [David Carradine’s character]. He shoots him in the belly, which glows red, then he disintegrates outward, exposing his skeleton until his arms and skull fall away. They shot the scene at the Long Beach Generating Station – a popular shooting location for factory, industrial, or science fiction scenes. It was lit beautifully, and they shot all day with the actors fighting and running through the machinery.
Anthony Hickox: We filmed it in a factory. And – very steampunk, now think about it – I built the top of a train on one of the big huge pipes, so the end scene happens on top of a train even though it’s not a train. We had these huge pipes and we painted stripes on them, did the Chris Foss kind of touch – the numbers that meant nothing – and yeah I put them on the roof of a train, and because of all the steam in the coming from real pipes, it looks like they’re moving even though they’re still.
Chris Zapara: The death scene was that last shot of the day (around midnight, I think), which happens a lot in VFX. The plan was to shoot the background without Mr. Carradine, along with all the smoke effects in the scene. We would then clear out the smoke, and bring in David, and he would act out his disintegration in front of a small blue screen.
The first half went fine. The crew then brought Mr. Carradine over and he, the director, and I quickly went over how he should move to sell the effect and make it doable given the budget. I said we have to wait for the smoke to clear and for the blue screen. Mr. Carradine was not having it. He’d had been in prosthetic makeup all day running around a freezing set, and now some green kid was telling him they had to wait at midnight?!? He said, ‘Let’s just shoot the shot and go home!’ I don’t remember his exact words, but they were ‘more intense’ than that. I said ‘…okay, let’s shoot it as is!’ We rolled camera, we were done in three minutes, and the shot eventually worked out fine. I learned that day that supervising VFX on set isn’t always about how to best shoot something, but also how to quickly determine what way is cheaper in the long run. Our artists spending a little more time on that shot was much cheaper than having people wait around on set and for everyone to get home a little sooner (and happier!).
Composer Greg Edmonson – who went on to score Firefly and the Uncharted videogames – adds his recollection of the series’ soundtrack.
Greg Edmonson: I do remember that we were originally going to do a ‘space’ score ala Jerry Goldsmith, but when the idea of doing something more electronic – [like] Crystal Method, etc – was introduced it just felt so right. Futuristic music for a futuristic show. I was looking forward to having the opportunity to dig deep into that world but as so often happens in the entertainment biz, just as you get started, here comes the rain.
Firefly was the same story but at least they got to make a few episodes!Greg Edmonson (Composer)
Alasdair Stuart pays tribute to the most human of John’s traits: his retreat into popular culture when confronted by the unknown.
What Happened to Martian Law?
Like so many pilots, Martian Law just wasn’t meant to be. Its concept was perhaps too ahead of its time, its ambition far beyond its ability, and despite positive noises from the network and perhaps as many as 10 episodes already planned by showrunner Richard C. Okie, it was buried in Boot Hill.
Had Martian Law made it to series, two of the shows which followed could have been substantially different, as in 1999 Ben Browder took on the role of John Crichton in Farscape – a swaggering Southern boy who always had a touch of the gunslinger about him – while Katherine Heigl and William Sadler returned to the desert – albeit much closer to home – as Roswell’s Isabel Evans and Sheriff Jim Valenti.
Anthony Hickox: The head of [UPN], which is a pretty powerful position, really wanted the show. He called me personally and congratulated me when he saw the cut. He loved it. So at that time, I was like ‘Great, another TV show’ but then the audience speaks and that’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. They let me come in for part of the first showing of Extreme and it’s like the Family Guy episode where they bring in the people to speak about Family Guy and they literally have a thing in their hand which they press if they’re enjoying something they take their thumb off if they’re not while they’re playing the movie. And that’s how your future is chosen.
Chris Zapara: Parts of it were fun, and other parts less so. Overall it felt a bit cheap, which is fairly common for pilots, but it probably didn’t have an extravagant budget to start with. Since they killed off the biggest star [David Carradine] in the pilot, a series might have been cheaper, but with less of a draw. The literal space western aspect probably turned off potential buyers. I think I moved on to another studio soon after that to work on a fully CG animated series. I remember it being a good time for the most part; The project had its ups and downs, but it can be fun throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
Jamais Casico: From my perspective, the show had some really great ideas but was stymied by a combination of insufficient funding, less-than-stellar effects, and a director who didn’t much care about science fiction. I was told (and had absolutely no way to confirm, of course) that the company funding the pilot was up for sale, and nobody wanted to buy a show when they didn’t know who’d they be dealing with. Regardless of the cause, from what I could see at the time, the production was shut down.
Anthony Hickox: When you create a world that that crazy, you want to be involved. I probably would have become an exec producer and then directed three episodes a season, because it was as insane as The Walking Dead.
Chris Zapara: As a concept, a sci-fi western is cool, but at the time, I felt it was a little on the nose. People had revolvers and cowboy hats, and as I said, the city was a literal wild west town. Movies like Outland were westerns without the visual trappings; perhaps if they had not been so literal, I think it would have worked better. When Firefly came out, I definitely thought of Martian Law, especially during ‘The Train Job’ and ‘Shindig.’ Later when I worked on Serenity, the town that the Reavers attack also reminded me of our Martian colony. As heavy-handed as that universe was, their western towns looked to be made of metal and plastic, and not unexplained Martian lumber.
Ben Browder: Who knows what was or could have been, but when I saw Firefly, I remember thinking, ‘YES! That’s where we were going.’ The timing was probably off for network TV of the period… 1) it was sci-fi, 2) It was a Western, and 3) The show had a full steampunk vibe, and steampunk as an aesthetic had not yet landed – if it ever did. So either ahead of its time, or a show that will never find its time? Who can say?
I remember when I saw Firefly, I was like, ‘Fuck, that was us.’Anthony Hickox (Director)
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