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Stargate’s Brad Wright: My Rules for New Sci-Fi Shows

Brad Wright, co-creator of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Stargate Universe, and creator of Travelers, explains how rules underpin science fiction.


My mother once told me that at the age of six or seven, I strenuously objected to my father attempting to park in no-parking zones. She said every time he tried, I kept reading the NO PARKING sign aloud over and over until he relented and found a legal spot. It was against the rules and I was having none of it. My first thought when she told me was wow, what an obnoxious little shit. But 50-something-plus years later, it’s still true to character. I am a rules follower.

Rules of logic help us to reason.

Rules prevent a rook or knight from leaping across the chessboard and knocking over an opponent’s king on the first move. (A favorite opening gambit of my two daughters when first introduced to the game at a young age.)

Rules are what separate professional sports from the act of randomly running, throwing, and/or hitting various shaped balls with various-sized sticks.

The rules of law hold civilization together, and I am, as a rule, very pro-civilization.

Some rules are more important than others. Murder, for example, comes with a life sentence, while parking in a no-parking zone is just a small fine. (I assume it’s a small fine, I’ve never actually done it.)

And, of course, some rules are meant to be broken. But the universe is full of rules that cannot be.

The laws of physics, relativity, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics are unbreakable. Collectively, they govern everything from the diminutive quark to the supermassive black hole.

They also govern science fiction.

The rules of science and nature need not apply to wizards, demons, mutants or gods. Breaking them is kinda what they do. But science fiction lives and dies by those rules. Gravity, mass, acceleration and inertia have real consequences, for example, when falling from high places.

If a story requires any of the laws of science to be bent or even broken to achieve a dramatic end, there must be a mechanism or concept that explains how. That is the distinction between science fiction and fantasy. To some people, this is a distinction without a difference. But, as a science fiction writer, I observe the rules of science.

Well, I try.

Okay, occasionally I have failed miserably. But the intent is always there. Mostly.

I confess I have no real background in science. In university, I majored in theatre, where math was not a prerequisite. Whenever I consult with actual scientists about a concept or idea I have for a script, it is humbling. I am Lennie to their George. And if we get into actual mathematics of the thing, I’m Homer Simpson to their… smarter person. Nevertheless, what I understand of science frames my worldview. It’s how I’m wired.

If I write a scene that defies one or more of those immutable rules of science, I try to come up with some sort of rationale or invention that explains why. Special Relativity, for example, demands some sort of “warp drive” or “hyperspace” or even a “stargate” to travel to planets beyond our solar system in any reasonable amount of time, because, to quote Douglas Adams, “Space is big.

If I can’t do that, I at least try to acknowledge it with technobabble. Star Trek – the eldest of the franchises that begin with the word Star – is technobabble’s undefeated champion. As I’m sure you all know, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle would have prevented transporters from functioning as advertised, so The Next Generation writers’ technical advisors came up with “Heisenberg compensators” and viola… Problem solved! The “inertial dampeners” aboard Enterprise never quite prevented the bridge crew from being thrown back and forth, but I’m sure the command of “full impulse power” would have had messier repercussions without them.

We need an upgrade on those inertial dampeners.

Further Reading on the Science of Star Trek

Explore our Science of Star Trek series of articles

Sadly, the recent movie reboots have taken decades-long established Trek rules and thrown them out the shuttle bay door. Beaming aboard a starship while it’s at warp speed? Madness! Beaming from a single-person ship halfway across the galaxy to the Klingon homeworld as Khan did in the second film? Impossible. Why even bother to build starships if you could do that? Rules matter. Even made-up ones.

Don’t even get me started on time crystals.

The problem is, it’s too easy to break your own rules and get away with it.

Star Wars is admittedly more of a fantasy than science fiction, but the science notwithstanding, if one builds a planet-sized “Starkiller Base” capable of sucking all the matter and energy from an actual star, one need not take the unnecessary additional step of “firing” that energy in a beam toward the planet whose star is now gone. The planet’s destruction was assured once their sun was taken away. The sudden absence of gravity, heat and light was quite enough indeed. A beam of any sort would just add insult to injury.

Bad guy 101, make sure they're dead-dead.

In the next episode we learned that all it takes to wipe out an entire Imperial armada is to crash into one of their ships at “lightspeed” – a tactic which renders unnecessary any conventional attacks on oh, say, a Death Star – the climax of two of the first three original films. Luke or Han or freaking R2-D2 for that matter, need only to have flown into the Death Star at “lightspeed” and the rebels triumph!

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