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The Terraformers

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First aired: The Signal: Season 6, Episode 19
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Helen Eaton
The Terraformers… Building better worlds.

Creating an episode of The Terraformers is in most ways no different from many other segments on The Signal: a writer is assigned to come up with a script, which then goes through the normal reviewing, recording and editing process. So what I’d like to focus on is the writing process and tell you a little bit about my experiences writing The Terraformers over the last two years. How does an idea become a script and where does the idea come from in the first place?

Let’s start at the very beginning. The original idea for The Terraformers came from Signal host, Les Howard. (He may have mentioned this once or twice in passing…) The set up was established in the season 4 holiday special. The episodes would focus on the misadventures of two rather inept terraformers, by the names of Sarah Brunel and Taya Ray Parsec, and their attempts to hide their incompetence from Mr Spall, their irascible boss. The first episode aired was episode number five, “Attack of the Space Pirates”, in which there were no space pirates whatsoever and no one attacked anyone or anything (except for some cheesecake). This set the tone for the series, and the melodramatic episode titles, which always suggest a far more epic tale than the mundane disasters usually contained within.

The first episode I wrote was called “Aliens”, and, yes, there were no aliens in it. Instead it was inspired by my favourite scene in Father Ted:

Ok, one last time. These are small; but the ones out there are far away...

Ted and Dougal were looking out at cows, but Sarah and Taya Ray would see some people in the distance on a supposedly uninhabited moon and mistakenly believe they had discovered aliens.

They’re moving!

Appropriately dramatic music cue…

(Awed voice.) Are they people, or animals, or…?
They seem to be standing upright, but they are fairly short in stature.
Well, they are far away.

The ideas for many episodes which I wrote started this way: the main joke or punchline came first, and then the writing was all about getting there. Some plots grew out of suggestions from fellow crew members - thanks, Les, for the inspiration for “Invasion of the Killer Squirrels”:

Ok, all set. Here goes.

Boom! Then silence. No birdsong, and (rather ominously) no squirrels chattering…

(In awe.) Was it supposed to be that big a boom? Sarah, where’s the tree?

And once I realised how much fun could be had with sound effects, I found myself writing scenes around cool ideas for sound effects that would take advantage of first Wayne Hutchinson’s and then later Andy King’s skills as editors:

(From a distance. Come here, little froggie, if I can just…
Careful, you don’t want to—

Big splash.

(Beat.) —fall.

I think my favourite sound effects though were the ones which clearly situated The Terraformers in the ‘verse we all know and love:

Location: Docks on New Melbourne. By the sea. Spaceships are landing and taking off, waves are breaking in the distance, there’s the occasional squawk of a seagull and general background noise of people talking, hustle and bustle.

(Flatly.) No… This did not go well.

Musical cue to indicate passing of time.

Could that scene be set anywhere other than New Melbourne, the place to go when one has the overwhelming urge to gut sturgeon?

And yes, the opening line in that episode was a reference to Trash. Throwing in allusions to Firefly has been one of the most enjoyable parts of writing The Terraformers. The chances are that anyone taking the time to listen to The Terraformers knows Firefly backwards so in-jokes are clearly the order of the day. All it takes is a simple line said with a certain intonation and memories of Firefly can be evoked:

(over com): (à la Mal in BDM.) What was that?

Coming up with some ‘verse-inspired similes has also been a lot of fun:

Well, that’s as clear as a puddle of Higgins’ Moon mud.
Taya Ray, this place is as barren as a spinsters’ day out in Isis Canyon.
Man alive! This ground is as hard as a St Albans snowball!

Firefly has not been my only source for references though. I have enjoyed hiding in the dialogue a few subtle (and not so subtle) references to other television series, films and books that I enjoy, and that I expect many of those listening also enjoy. Bonus points to you if you spotted references to Red Dwarf, Doctor Who, Sugarshock, Dollhouse, Buffy, Star Trek and The Day of the Triffids, amongst others. (Other references have been maybe a little bit too specific to my world for anyone else to notice. A reference to the linguistic classification code for Swahili springs to mind, for example. But that’s a writer’s prerogative for you.)

Humorous plots, settings with cool sound effects and pop culture references are all very well, but without some believable and well-defined characters, I think The Terraformers would lack heart. Fortunately for me, although only one episode had been written before I came on board, there was already a clear understanding of who the characters were and how they related to each other. Sarah was to be sarcastic and dry-witted and Taya Ray off on a wacky planet of her own and generally blissfully ignorant of the sarcasm directed at her. Mr Spall was to be quick with a withering put-down and positively vitriolic towards his two terraformers on discovering their latest disastrous shenanigans.

With three very different characters, and three different performances to match, it isn’t hard to put words into the mouths of the characters. In fact, it’s a whole lot of fun:

(Sarcastically.) Excellent deduction, Detective Parsec. I’ll let Mr Spall know at once. I’m sure when the settlers arrive next week, they’ll be reassured to know they have a convenient non-toxic tanning bath of mysterious origin in their backyard.
(Finishing a long and bizarre story.) …So I say, “If you’re gonna try and eat that much halibut, it’s no wonder your lawyer can afford such a great shuttle. (Sarah is giving her a bemused look) What?!
(Laying on the sarcasm very thickly.) Oh, well, now the prize is a million credits, I guess it’s time for me to own up. (Beat.) I worked it out ages ago. I was just waiting for the prize fund to get nice and high before I let everyone in on the secret. (Beat. Scathingly.) Oh, you bunch of backbirths! Of course I haven’t worked it out! You think I’d still be here with you if I had?

I wrote the final trilogy over a weekend, and had really quite a ridiculous amount of fun coming up with a fitting way to round things off, and concocting some suitable episode titles that hint at rather more famous trilogies. If you have even half as much fun listening as I did writing, then I’ll be happy.

Listeners who have been paying attention to the episode numbers of The Terraformers may have noticed that we jumped from episode 18 to 30 a little while ago. What’s happened to the missing episodes, I hear you ask? Will they be unearthed one day and turn up on future Signal episodes? We’ll have to wait and see…

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