Mark Altman is reverent when it comes to sci-fi. Hell, he helped write the book on both "Star Trek" and "Battlestar Galactica." And now that he has a chance to helm his own sci-fi TV show, he's not afraid to address the elephant in the room.
"It's super-important to me to use sci-fi as a lens to examine the world we live in through allegory and metaphor," Altman told Space.com. "So, we're dealing with religious evangelism, date rape on campus, corporate greed, and free speech. Any "Star Trek" analogies are well-placed. Because to steal a phrase from Gene Roddenberry, without that, 'It's just spaceships and zap guns.' "
Make no mistake: Altman loves zap guns as well, and he'll get his chance to flex both the zap and important issues on "Pandora," a new spacefaring series debuting on the CW network today (July 16). Altman is the series' creator, head writer, and executive producer. "Pandora" takes place at Earth's Space Training Academy in the year 2199, and follows the story of a young woman named Jax who just lost her parents in an attack on their space-colony home and is on a quest of self-discovery. Jax will try to discover what happened to her family, who she is, and ultimately, if she is humanity's salvation or destruction.
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Altman is no stranger to big-time TV, having logged time as a writer and co-producer on "The Librarians" and "Castle." And to Priscilla Quintana, the actress who portrays Jax, "Pandora" pulls from the interpersonal relationships seen in Altman's other shows.
"This show is about friendship, this show is about relationships," she said. "We are a very tight-knit group of characters on the show, and we wear everything on our sleeve, Jax especially. She has a sharp tongue and a sharp wit, but she's also kind and compassionate."
Jax falls in quickly with a group of other cadets, some of whom will be friends, some of whom are potential enemies, and all of whom have flaws. And while danger and intrigue will rule the day, the tone of the show is ultimately optimistic.
"Unlike so many sci-fi shows that are post-apocalyptic, this is a second Renaissance kind of show," said "Pandora" director Christian Gossett. "Earth has had some troubles. We've made it through a time of great crisis, and now humankind is back on its feet. This show is about, 'Hey, we've gotten past all this bad stuff, and we've survived.' It really shows that humankind can find a path beyond our current problems."
Altman agrees, and isn't afraid about addressing the elephant a second time.
"While there is some darkness, this is a show that basically said we will overcome the challenges we have today but we need to be eternally vigilant," he said. "At its heart, much like the original Star Trek, it's not Pollyannaish about the future, and it shows that family together can overcome any adversity, even when there are challenges. That message is really important to me given the nature of the times we live in."
Behind the curtain, "Pandora" also exists in a state of joyous chaos. As a mid-season replacement, production had to hit the ground running, and episodes are being filmed only about eight weeks in advance of airing.
"Mark doesn't ever tell me what is happening with the show and the character until the last minute!" Quintana exclaims. "I find out the week before, which is when everyone else on the show finds out as well. It keeps everyone on their toes."
Altman also like writing and rewriting to play directly to the actors.
"We've had some really funny and really embarrassing moments that Mark has heard about, and he's writing them into the show, storywise," Quintana said. "So it's really odd — we're playing the characters, but our stupid, funny, ridiculous moments in real life make it into the show."
And Quintana has found out just how this happens.
"Chris [Gossett] is the mole," she said. "We'll tell him about something funny that happened when we're all out drinking, and Chris will tell Mark! Chris is one of the best directors I've worked with, by far. He's a good drinking buddy. He's fun! You just have to be careful with the guy."
In all, Quintana is very happy with her role, both in real life, and in the show.
"We are doing fun space stuff. We have superpowers. We have laser guns. It's what you expect in the genre," she said. "But at the same time, we're doing the human, emotional stuff that will resonate with the audience. I'm so lucky to have got this part."
It's Altman's formula, and one that he hopes has legs.
"The show is a straight-ahead action series, but there's a lot of heart, a lot of fun and comedy as well," he said. "It has heart, but it's also about something meaningful. I hope fans will enjoy for many seasons to come."
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