Guest Post: Getting STARSHIP TROOPERS on the Small Screen
The other day I was having a conversation on Facebook with Matthew Stienberg, an aspiring writer from Canada I know from the alternate history forum, about what the Robert Heinlein novel Starship Troopers would look like as a television series, in light of a possible remake of the 1997 film. I suggested Matt write a guest post and he was up for it.
So here goes...
Getting Starship Troopers in the Small Screen
By Matthew Stienberg
Recently I blogged about how Starship Troopers would not be “too controversial” to be made in the 21stcentury as a more faithful adaption. I think it could play a role in generating discussions around voting rights and even military service. However, in conversations with Quinn, we discussed how it would be possible to use the story and expand it into a television series.
Now this may seem crazy at first, how do you expand a single novel into a television series? Well this isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds. A sadly unremembered series aired way back in 1999 and ran for a single season, but that was the Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, which managed to take the content from the book and expand on it. Using ideas and imagery from both the original novel and Verhoeven’s film the series was, in miniature, what a successful and entertaining Starship Trooperstelevision series could end up being.
Now before you say if a movie is controversial surely a television series would be even worse, well look at it this way, the market isn’t exactly saturated with sci-fi television epics at the moment. The Expanse is probably one of the best known, with the emerging Altered Carbon coming up on its heels through Netlfix, but the genre is currently missing something like Battlestar Galactica or even a fun serial series like Stargate, and something that might explore complex ideas and stories like Deep Space 9 did back in the day. All those previously mentioned shows (Galactica especially) proved that the market could handle a serious military themed story, and people wouldn’t be repelled or turned off by it (unless there was a writer’s strike but that’s another story). Even The Expanse shows you can have successful, thoughtful, intense, and interesting military action when it is attached to a good story.
And one thing to remember is that Starship Troopers can certainly provide a good story. It has good characters who are built in, can be fleshed out, and added to. Juan “Johnnie” Rico for instance would be a Fillipino main character (and with the stunning success of Black Panther that can hardly be a bad thing) and has numerous friends and comrades to add to his journey. There is a strong female character in the form of Carmencita "Carmen" Ibañez who becomes a fleet pilot, and then there’s the supporting characters such as Carl Jenkins who is Rico’s best friend, Sergeant Jelal and Sergeant Zim, Isabelle “Dizzy” Flores (again easily kept as a woman as in the 1997 film), Jean V. Dubois, and even the only briefly seen Fleet Captain Yvette Deladrier of the Rodger Young could be given an expanded role alongside her ship. All of these characters can be expanded on and given a place in the building story, and they all could shape the complex tale that we can tell with this world.
There are numerous themes which can be explored too. One of the books oft overlooked themes is that the entire reason Johnnie joins the Mobile Infantry is because he is rebelling against his wealthy father and striking out against the “free ride” he feels like he would otherwise get. A coming of age story for all the main characters would be good, and could add to their growth as the series progresses. Military life itself is a theme which, like in Galacticacould be explored with more depth. Then of course, the main contention of the novel that citizenship is a right which must be earned through Federal Service is an issue that could be referenced time and time again as one of the reasons men and women are serving.
On that issue, what kind of society is it where only a few have to care about politics? In the books most civilians don’t care so much about the franchise but there are some who resent their jobs not being seen as Federal Service and are pissed about it, so a plot could revolve around those conflicts. How to civilian contractors and citizen soldiers (well, not yet citizen soldiers) get along and interact? How do these upcoming citizens clash with their peers who are citizens? The novel also mentions that the Federation fights other planets, so how do other human worlds get along with the Federation? All of these are stories that can (and should) be explored.
Though when it comes down to it, how do you go about telling this story? I would see each season having 10-12 episodes each in order to keep the writing tightly paced and the action suitably exciting. It also cuts down on bloat and gets any messages that would be conveyed across much clearer.Personally, what I would do is mix and match some with the original novel, and the Roughnecksseries.
I would begin the pilot episode with, as in the novel, the raid on the Skinnie homeworld, showing off the abilities of the powered armored soldiers and the destructive nature of futuristic warfare. This action scene then is revealed to be in medias res and we cut to Rico back in class, being bored with a lecture from Professor DuBois and the remainder is the conflict with his father. From there the show branches out into the training all Mobile Infantry go through, discussions of why they do things, and the emotional moments when the three main characters get split up. Next we get to the beginning of the Bug War with the Arachnid attack on Buenos Aires (and how it personally effects Johnnie and his friends) and then get to the attack on Klendathu as the midpoint of the season, the reaction to that disaster (like in the book Lt. Rasczak dies and he has been mentoring Johnnie here), and end the first season cutting back to the attack on the Skinnie homeworld as Johnnie is evacuated while wounded.
Season Two would begin explaining that presently the war is not going well and the Bugs have mankind on the back foot as they underestimated them. Unlike Verhoeven’s film where waves of grunts with futuristic assault rifles are sent to their deaths against bugs that only fight in close combat, instead have the bugs (who have spaceships and lasers in the books) be a technologically advanced foe who fight with both numbers and cunning. Keep the basic bug design we saw in the 1997 film (and the TV series) but give them welded on lasers and armor. Even keep some of the cool specialist bugs like bombardier monstrosities, and flying bugs, but they can be made much cooler. This serves to make the action scenes intense as bugs swarm individual powerful, but grossly outnumbered Mobile Infantry with deadly fire.
We would pick up Season Two with the Terran Federation trying to strip away some of the bug alien allies and make them our own, while perhaps struggling to keep many of their own allies on side. This could have episodes (like in the TV series) where humanity is trying to give a rough wooing to the Skinnies by showing the Arachnids cannot protect them so they change sides. The main driver of this season could be understanding the aliens as Johnnie overcomes a now deep seeded xenophobia of all nonhuman life and could even have him and others making friends with a Skinnie as they try to understand their culture. Smaller plots could include humans who desire a separate peace and some planets trying to leave the war effort so the Federation has to hit them as well, bringing some moral complexity into the war for all involved. Season Two would then end with the revelation form the Skinnies, of the Brain Bug which leads the characters to be ordered to Planet P.
Season Three (which I would envision as the last season) starts off heavy. Rico is on a station (a fleet base, or even Sanctuary) where he meets with all his friends for the first time in a while, but a huge Bug attack fleet appears and engages. Here Carl would be killed, Dizzy wounded, and Rico given a field promotion when another officer above him is killed. Carmen will command the Rodger Young when Captain Deladrier is killed in the battle and everyone realizes that now they’re playing for keeps. The second episode is again picking up the pieces as they are sent to battle. This would be a combined Federation and Skinnie offensive to show the progress the two sides have made together, and the Skinnies will help capture a Brain Bug. You can even get into the minutia with psychics being used, the special K9 units sadly absent from the movies, and the not so frontline engineers who pack suit mounted flamethrowers. These could all be shown earlier, but could be brought out in force for this arc.
The last half of the season would revolve around the fighting on the planet, and the triumphant capture of a Brain Bug, as well as the surprise discovery of human prisoners on Planet P. The revelation would be that each side is trying to understand the other, and so they’re taking prisoners. The series could then end with the idea they will be returning to Klendathu which will hopefully end the war. Ending it on a hope spot is good in my opinion as it would give all the characters the closure they need, and if desired leave plot openings for a fourth season while tying all the major stories up in a nice bow.
Through all this you would have minor stories, Rico and his parents (or dealing with their loss after Buenos Aires), the mentor-student dynamic between Rico and his commanders and Carmen and Captain Deladrier, discussions on the reasons why they fight, and the political problems they face with the war, and the loss of friends.
With these stories and overarching themes you have lots of room for good writing and good stories to go with it. The action would be an undeniable plus though.
Now this is just how I would envision the series going, others might disagree, and I think here there’s still room for improvement over a rough draft such as this. Even so, I think it shows that there is a lot of material that can be covered to flesh out this world and the stories it can tell.