(Over the past few years, ARTC has been fortunate enough to have a number of well-known actors — Jonathan Harris of “Lost in Space,” Robert Trebor, Alexandra Tydings, Claire Stansfield, and Ted Raimi of “Xena” and “Hercules” — participate in our DragonCon presentations. The vehicle for these performances has mostly been “Rory Rammer, Space Marshal.” ARTC spoke with Ron Butler, who writes “Rory” for the Company, about the background of the series.)
ARTC: Why “Rory Rammer”? Like “rammers,” the Bussard ramscoop pilots in Larry Niven stories?
RNB: That’s probably in there somewhere; my subconscious sometimes throws up things even I don’t recognize. (Ted Raimi reminded me of that during the rehearsal for “Queen of the Spaceways,” and I’ll tell you about it later, if you’ll remind me.) But the name “Rory Rammer” — I grabbed “Rory” out of the air because I wanted a tough-guy name that might have come out of the Fifties, and thought of Rory Calhoun, the Western actor. “Rammer” was just alliteration. If I’d worked at it, I might have come up with something better, but Rory started out as just a throwaway name in a commercial.
ARTC: A real commercial?
RNB: A fake one. One of ARTC’s other series is “The Crimson Hawk,” a parody-of-slash- homage-to boys’ afternoon adventure radio serials of the Thirties. And some of the episodes include embedded commercials for “Whole Grain Flakes — the Breakfast of Americans!” They’re manufactured by the Cedar Springs Cereal Company, and I had an idea for a one- or two-minute piece about what’s happened to the company since then.
ARTC: And what has happened to them?
RNB: Well, they’re now “CSC International Comestibles, Inc.” and they make a breakfast food named “AdverCereal.” It has a sugar- and-testosterone frosting, and the spokesperson is a pit-bull plaintiff’s attorney, a sort of nightmare version of Alan Dershowitz.
ARTC: I don’t see where a Fifties space- adventure show fits in to this.
RNB: I’m getting there. The “AdverCereal” piece starts out with a letter from an old lady — whose name even I can’t recall — writing to ask about [Here Butler assumes a really terrible Monty-Pythonish old-lady voice] “Whatever happened to the swell folks at the Cedar Springs Cereal Company? You know, they used to sponsor ‘The Crimson Hawk,’ and ‘Rory Rammer, Space Marshal.’ ”
ARTC: Will you stop doing that voice? It’s annoying. And ageist, if not downright sexist.
ARTC: Okay, that gave you a name. A name isn’t a series. It’s not even an idea for a series. Well, maybe in Hollywood —
RNB: Oh, I’d say “Roseanne” tells me everything any sensible person needs to know —
ARTC: As may be. You had a lead character’s name, nothing to go with it, no supporting characters, no background information, and no plots.
RNB: Oh, those are easy. What I needed was a punch line.
ARTC: A punch line? Writing fiction starts with a punch line?
RNB: If you’re writing comedy. If you’re writing drama, you need some central image that the plot builds to and then develops from. C.S. Forester said his novel “Payment Deferred” started with the image of the main character in his bedroom with his wife’s dead body — and there’s a knock on the door.
ARTC: He must have been a hit at parties.
RNB: Is acting obtuse supposed to put me at ease? I said I was writing comedy. “Rory” would be part-homage, part-parody of Fifties radio space adventures, the same way “Crimson Hawk” bowed to boys’ radio adventure serials of the Thirties. Parodies need to be humorous, or they’re just imitations. And I find it easier to write comedy than drama.
ARTC: I thought “drama is easy, comedy is hard.”
RNB: Actually, I think that’s “Dying is easy…” It seems to be the reverse for me. Maybe it’s a matter of expectations. If you write bad comedy, people just don’t laugh at it. If you aim at drama or tragedy, and fail, people go, “Geez, that’s sentimentalist crap.” Or “mawkish.” Or —
ARTC: I get your point.
RNB: The punch line of the first “Rory Rammer” script [“Eye in the Sky”] was the Hubble Space Telescope.
ARTC: Is that funny? I have a calendar in my office of Hubble photographs. They look great.
RNB: This is the year 2000. We’re living in the future now.
RNB: Never mind. Literary allusion. Remember, this [the first script] was being written in the early Nineties. The Hubble had been launched with faulty optics, and it took a couple of Shuttle missions to set it right. Cost billions of dollars. So the punch line of the script — the only joke in it, really — was Rory saying, “Who would believe the Department of Science would launch a space telescope costing millions of dollars without checking the optics first? Sheesh! What sort of idiots do you think we are?”
RNB: Look, it took me a couple of hours to write, ran four minutes, and got a big laugh around Bill [Ritch’s] pool table. I know my audience, and that’s all I expected from it.
ARTC: So why didn’t it die there, as the in- joke it was?
RNB: I guess because it had so much potential for better — or at least lengthier — things, the same way that “Crimson Hawk” and Daniel Taylor’s “Bumper’s Crossroads” grew out of little throwaway scraps in Thomas Fuller’s “Don’t Touch That Dial!” proposal. They all tapped into radio genres that we knew well enough to play with and loved well enough to joke about. And a sufficiently robust series framework can also take present-day references without breaking down, so it’s not just all backwards-looking nostalgia.
ARTC: What genre was “Rory”?
RNB: Shows like “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.” “Space Patrol.”
ARTC: Buck Rogers —
RNB: No. Definitely not.
ARTC: What’s the difference?
RNB: “Buck Rogers” and “Flash Gordon” are from the Thirties, same as “Crimson Hawk.” “Rocky Jones” and “Space Patrol” are late Forties-to-mid Fifties.
ARTC: Like I said: What stands between them?
RNB: The Second World War.
ARTC: I guess I’m missing your point here. Not that you’re being real clear.
RNB: The war was a technological and a social revolution, and it showed in the entertainment products of the two eras. Let me get the nuts-and-bolts technical part of that out of the way first —
ARTC: I’d expect that. You’re an engineer.
RNB: Harrumph. I hope my profession only adds another dimension to my writing, of a sort not to be found in the work of people with – – say — a degree in medieval French poetry. Anyway, what does a spaceship in a “Buck Rogers” serial look like?
ARTC: A little model on strings.
RNB: Which it was. To me, they’ve always looked like silver-painted shoes with fins. My point is that nobody knew what a spaceship should look like. Their best guess was based on Thirties airplanes, which is why you see fixed landing gear and tailwheels on some of them. They were vague about space, too. Fly into space and you might go to Mars — you might go to “Mongo.” Who knew? Space was fantasyland, and they projected the usual sort of adventure stories into it.
ARTC: This was different after the war?
RNB: Rockets turned real, in an awful sort of way. Air forces were still flying open- cockpit biplanes when it started. By the last year of the war, Germany was firing ballistic missiles from the continent of Europe through the fringes of space, to land in downtown London. After that, if you wanted to show a spaceship in your science fiction movie, you inserted some scratchy footage of a V-2 rocket launch. It was a real thing.
ARTC: Science fiction had turned real.
RNB: In a lot of ways. Rockets — spaceships. Radar — seeing things far away, in the dark. Penicillin — magic cures for disease. And the atom bomb. This isn’t my insight. Robert Heinlein, Willy Ley, a lot of others made the same point at the time.
ARTC: Okay, let’s move on to the “social” side of it.
RNB: Sure. Who launched Flash Gordon to the planet Mongo? NASA?
ARTC: I thought it was Dr. Zarkov.
RNB: Two points! A lone inventor-cum-mad scientist building an interplanetary spaceship in his garage, and paying for it out of petty cash.
ARTC: All right, that sounds silly now.
RNB: But that was the popular stereotype of technical innovation in America, pre-World War 2. Henry Ford. The Wright brothers working out of their bicycle shop. Thomas Edison — not that he was really a “lone inventor.” That was public relations. But that’s how people thought about these things. And nobody was going to spend government money on wildeyed space-rocket schemes.
ARTC: Things were different after the war?
RNB: During the war, the government essentially took over the economy of the country, spent everyone into the poorhouse, and did big, big projects. Building an army from scratch in eighteen months. Manufacturing hundreds of thousands of tanks and airplanes. The invasion of Europe. Setting up a global air transportation system, whether they were delivering packages or bombs. Inventing radar and sonar. Jet airplanes —
ARTC: And the atomic bomb.
RNB: Yes. The Manhattan Project was the new archetype for technological progress: Government funding, run by university scientists, and always with an eye to military applications. It’s only with the rise of the personal computer and the Internet that the paradigm has shifted.
ARTC: Para– ?
RNB: Call it twenty cents. Before the war, space travel was wild adventure in homebuilt rocketships. After the war, it was bureaucrats and the military and —
RNB: The Space Patrol. Or the “Space Marshals,” in my case. I tried “Space Sheriff,” but it was hard to say without spitting.
ARTC: Okay, scratch out Buck Rogers. So your background was all pre-fabricated?
RNB: The bare bones, anyway. I had most of my fun during the writing of that first episode with the names.
ARTC: “Skip Sagan,” boy wonder?
RNB: Carl Sagan was still alive and well then. It may look like a cruel joke now, but I’m kind of stuck with the name. And it suggests intelligence, which I want from Rory’s sidekick.
ARTC: Intelligence? Skip? You’re kidding.
RNB: — coupled with incredible naivetÃ©. Okay, maybe the intelligence doesn’t show through too well, but I’ve been trying to avoid the Wesley Crusher-ization of Skip. He gets used a lot as a fireplug for Rory to explain things to.
ARTC: “Professor Irwin Feynman?”
RNB: Is there to explain things to Rory. There is a scientific point to be made in a lot of episodes, you know, and that’s Feynman’s job. His last name is from Richard Feynman, the inventor of quantum electrodynamics — who has also since died. The first name is from Irwin Corey, a professor of a completely different sort.
ARTC: “Kryssa Feynman,” his daughter?
RNB: The maiden-in-distress-to-be-rescued in that first episode. I had intended her to be a sort of Tess Trueheart figure to Rory’s Dudley Do-Right, but it hasn’t worked out. Kryssa’s damn smart and far less impressed with Rory than he is with her. Plus he acts like a perfect jackass whenever he gets near her. It’s hormones. I think. I won’t talk about her name. That part might be actionable, to a sufficiently aggressive attorney.
ARTC: “Rex Gorbachev,” space pirate?
RNB: Please to say “privateer.”
ARTC: Was that supposed to be a Russian accent?
RNB: It was trying to be.
ARTC: “Gorbachev?” Have you no respect for anything?
RNB: Certainly not for things that don’t deserve respect. Mikhail Gorbachev is the Homer Simpson of late-Cold War geopolitics. The man who tried to put duct tape all over the Soviet Union and ended up breaking it. I’d make fun of him even if he was dead!
ARTC: Uh-huh. If Gorbachev is Homer Simpson, does that make Ronald Reagan Mr. Burns?
RNB: Matt Groening would doubtless agree with you, but I refuse to push the metaphor that far.
ARTC: Buck-buck-ba-caw! “Space Station J. Edgar Hoover?”
RNB: It was 1985. Who knew? Nobody is going to name anything after Hoover nowadays without raising a snicker, but back then — and in Rory’s world — what better name for a space station used by a federal law enforcement agency?
ARTC: I’ve been meaning to ask about that. The announcer’s introduction says: “…the far- off future days of 1985 A.D. After men have landed on the Moon!” Why 1985?
RNB: Well, it’s obviously not our 1985, the real 1985 —
ARTC: Aren’t history and reality social constructs?
RNB: Go walk through a wall. This is 1985 as seen from about 1950 or 1955. Think about it this way: thirty-five years before 1950 was 1915. The United States hadn’t yet gotten into the First World War. Nobody had yet flown the Atlantic. Radio was brand- new. Take the rate of technological advance over those thirty-five years, and tack it onto the state of things in 1950, and you get Rory Rammer’s 1985 A.D. Cities on the Moon, colonies on Mars —
ARTC: Hasn’t turned out that way, has it?
RNB: Let’s just say I’m severely disappointed in certain parts of the last thirty years. On the other hand, we managed to get rid of the Soviet Union without going through the Presto War.
ARTC: Wait a minute! The Presto War? Where’s that?
RNB: Well, it’s not in that first script. But it’s in Rex Gorbachev’s character sketch in the “Rory Rammer Bible.” Rex was the Communist Party General Secretary in Sverdlovsk until the Soviet Union collapsed after the Presto War.
ARTC: There’s a scriptwriter’s guide for this? You sat down and made up all these details?
RNB: Yep. It was fun.
ARTC: Out of your head?
ARTC: You must be. Doesn’t a “bible” cramp your freedom to write stories however you want?
RNB: I find it actually stimulates my thinking and suggests new plots, so on the whole it’s an asset. Plus it helps me keep things straight. I keep trying to call Rex Gorbachev “Max,” and I’ve spelled “Kryssa” at least three different ways in different scripts. And I’m not going to hand you any more straight lines like that last one.
ARTC: Any possibility of putting the guide online?
RNB: I don’t have any problem with that. Why don’t you look and see if there’s a link around here somewhere…
ARTC: We still haven’t talked about the DragonCon performances.
RNB: And it’s getting close to noon. Why don’t we take a break and start back after lunch?
ARTC: Fine. There’s a Blimpie’s down the street.
RNB: I prefer Subway, actually, but if you’re buying —
ARTC: I’m not buying you lunch.
RNB: What? I’m doing this big-deal interview and the Company won’t even spring for lunch? What a bunch of cheap —