There are some series by some authors that seem destined to never be adapted as movies or TV series. Now, of course, sometimes this is a very good thing. Some series were simply better off not being made. And we’ve had some pretty narrow escapes; like the CW’s recently aborted Wonder Woman series. But such comfort rings hollow when good projects get pulled or passed over, while Kristen Kreuk’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ lurches onward for another season. Or yet another spinoff of CSI. Or any unscripted piece of garbage you may see. (Don’t get me started.)
But there’s a different kind of frustration when it comes to some properties that don’t get made. What kind, I hear you asking? Well, ask the folks who’ve been impatiently awaiting the adaptation of Arthur C. Clark’s ‘Rendezvous With Rama’ if they feel excited about the latest Transformers movie. Ask any person whose hopes were just dashed of getting Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ on HBO if they’re jazzed about the new Dominion series about angels on Sci-Fi. What you’ll see is a species of cynical frustration that one fandom is all too familiar with. We are of course talking about fans of The Dragonriders of Pern. And why? Come with me...
It’s a fair question. One that might get disdainful looks from a lot of ‘I’m more well read than you.’ types of literary sci-fi fan. The better type will immediately frogmarch you to their shelf and fill up a grocery bag full of books for you to read. They’ll look deeply into your eyes and say, “You go home and read ‘Dragonflight’ right now. We can talk about it when you’re done if you’re not sucked immediately into the next one.” You can see this behaviour in any one of the Sullied. (AKA: People who’ve actually read Game of Thrones.) But... to answer your question.
The Dragonriders of Pern is a series of science fiction novels, masquerading as fantasy novels. Considered by some to be the Grand Dame of Science Fiction, Anne McCaffrey was very rightfully made the first woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula award back in 1968 and 1969 for her story, ‘Weyr Search’ which the Pern series grew out of. She is also the first woman to break into the New York Times Bestseller list.
Beyond this bit... there may be spoilers. If you like your fantasy and sci fi with dragons in, go and read them. If you don’t mind hearing a bit about what these books may be about, proceed.
The story follows the story of the descendants of interstellar colonists from earth. These people set out into space to colonize a planet called Pern circling about earth’s distance from a star called Rukbat. The system had even snagged a rogue planetoid that spun it close to Pern at erratic intervals. They got there. They settled the place along with some uplifted Dolphins that came with them. They even started some work uplifting some of the really smart and adorable little dragon-like lizards they found there. If you’re a fan of Kitty Pryde and Lockheed, you may see here what may have inspired the little purple guy.
However... and there’s always a however, disaster struck. When the small red planetoid came in close for a near pass by Pern, our colonists were horrified to find that voracious spore-like ejecta from the ‘Red Star’ crossed the distances between the two bodies. Worse, these spores when they hit Pern’s atmosphere spooled out into filiment like clumps of ‘Thread’. Even worse still, this thread when it hit any place lush and green immediately burrowed into the ground, consuming anything organic that it touched, and spread like wildfire.
One scientist noticed that the little lizards they’d been working with voraciously attacked, ate, and even chewed a form of stone that enabled them to breathe fire and destroy the thread. And a plan was hatched. Literally. The humans uplifted and worked over the lizards’ genetics. Growing them. Breeding them. Getting them bigger and bigger to aid the humans’ fight to survive their new home. They even bred telepathy into the things so they could be communicated with by humans. And the plan worked. But at a cost.
Over successive generations of survival, the dragons did indeed get bred bigger and bigger. Thousands of years pass, with humanity surviving more and more passes of the red star in tandem with their ‘dragons’. But with each pass, mankind loses more and more knowledge of their past in the ensuing destruction. Romana in Doctor Who once quoted the effect. “A society that evolves backwards must be subject to some even more powerful force restraining it.” And in this case, semi-regular extinction events certainly qualify as a force to be reckoned with. In fact, by the advanced time of our first novel, mankind is in a pretty precarious position.
Like with Winter in ‘Game of Thrones’, the semi-regular calamity that decimates the life on Pern hasn’t come for 400 years now. It’s been a crapload of time since thread fell from the skies. Society, by the time of what should be the 9th pass of the red star, has regressed back to the technology of the middle ages. Mankind is eking out something of an agrarian existence. Much of the high technology that brought mankind to Pern has passed into legend and has been lost. And while people aren’t dumb enough to think the red star and thread weren’t real, they’ve certainly fooled themselves into thinking that it may never happen again. Which... makes them turn something of a leery eye at the Dragonriders.
If you’re thinking that the Dragonriders here may turn out to be like the Night’s Watch from Game of Thrones or the Gray Wardens from Dragon Age, you’re absolutely right. They may have been the prototype for which such stalwart defenders of humanity from semi-reglular catastrophes like these sprung in the early 70's. The Dragonriders are exactly that. People who ride the titular Dragons of Pern. In this day and age, the beasts were as large as mid to full sized passenger jets.
And like the Night’s Watch and Grey Wardens, Dragonriders were traditionally supported by all the kingdoms or ‘Holds’ on Pern. The fortresses or ‘Weyrs’ of the Dragonriders were allowed to recruit as they pleased back in the day. They were tithed to and fed by the Holders. But now that the red star doesn’t look like it’s coming back, the Holder folk are resentful.
Again, much like the Night’s Watch, society has allowed the Weyrs to dwindle to only one working Weyr. And in that Weyr, there was only one breeding queen. And in her latest clutch, only one queen egg. The riders are now seen as paraiahs. Antiquated moochers who are merely supported for the sake of tradition and antiquity. The defenders of the planet are now hanging on by a very slender chance. Like one other lady said, “The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail to the ruin of all.”
And now... the red star is once again seen in the sky by one young woman... biding her time with her own machinations... and it’s all about to hit the fan again.
Winter The Red Star is coming... And with the sorry state of the Weyrs... this may be the time when humanity falls for good unless someone does something awfully damn quick.
You find all this stuff out later as the books progress. This is just where we START from. What follows, through at least 10 more novels, (list to follow) is a gargantuan story about how mankind pulls itself up by its bootstraps and saves itself from a planetary extinction event, all the while courageously throwing off the shackles of its ignorance and reclaiming its technology and birthright again. It is a tale of courage, discovery, rediscovery, action, adventure, politics and intrigue, fantastic themes with a solid science fiction base, a fantastic world with no magic underlying it, there’s even some sexual themes that might make it a little problematic for network television if you’re looking for the occasional bit of nudity and Game of Thrones-ish sexytimes. It’s followed by even more books that show some of the pivotal points in Pern’s past. Like the great dragonlady, Moreta and her legendary ride to save the planet. Or ‘Dragonsdawn’, which chronicles the story of Pern’s settlement by the spacefaring colonists from Earth That Was.
This series is a worldwide bestseller with a solid history and fandom that dates back 45 years. Its books have sold in the millions. You will find them in every library and bookstore you go to. Likely without exception. You’ll find whole tracks devoted to this series at most reputably large science fiction and fantasy conventions. And while the late great Anne McCaffrey is no longer with us (RIP 2012), her son Todd McCaffrey is still writing more of these novels.
So... why hasn’t this been turned into a TV series or Movie yet?
Other media have surely been tried with the Dragonriders series. Hell, back in 1983, EPYX entertainment even did a videogame for us burgeoning computer nerds that had Commodore 64's and Atari 400/800's. The rights were optioned several times, but the series never seemed to reach that critical poiling point. The closest it came before 1995 was an animated series that eventually got ‘redeveloped’ into ‘Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders’.
Dodged a bullet there, I think.
Then, in 1996, the McCaffrey sold the rights to a company who got together with Alliance Atlantis with the intention of doing a TV series. They were going to use some rather state of the art non-polygonal CGI to animate the Dragons by putting a virtual skin over ovoids they called ‘nurbs’ to simulate musculature, chasing the whole Jurassic Park mojo of Stan Winston. They weren’t getting too far with the idea til they got up with Ronald D. Moore, fresh off his time with Star Trek: The Next Generation and Roswell. He was going to make it and present it to the folks at ‘The WB’ as it was called back when it was still running Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
He was already a fan of the series, and apparently wanted to do it up right. Some things would have to change to bring it to broadcast TV, but he wanted it to very recognizably be the world and the story that fans of the last 33 years expected to see:
Well, I read the books in college and they stuck with me through the years. I just sort of always enjoyed them, and they were in the back of my mind. As I approached the end of my tenure at Star Trek, I thought about what I wanted to develop on my own and what could be potential science fiction franchises, and Anne McCaffrey’s books came to mind.
And it seemed we were poised to get just what we needed as far as the series went. A producer willing to do what was necessary to get it done right. Hell, I remember his going on about working with Mrs. McCaffrey to make sure all the little fiddly bits were done the way they were supposed to. But there was a problem. A big one. How do they say it? No script survives the first encounter with the studio intact?
In 2002, things were swimming right along. All the sets were built. The crew was hired. The dragons were rendering away in their workstations. The roles had been cast. They were just a few days away from filming... when Warner Brothers stepped in. Having sent the script to the WB, they came back at him with absurd changes to the material. They wanted to ‘Buffy’ it up for their Dawson’s Creek and Neo-Whedonite demographic. They figured this was a teen series. Why would adults watch something as fanciful as this? Moore was appalled, and described this moment while he was on a museum panel in Beverly Hills:
The second encounter occurred years many years later after I had become an established writer and had been invited to participate on a panel at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills along with several much bigger names, including J. Michael Straczynski and… Harlan Ellison. It was the first time I’d met the man and in all honesty, I was too embarrassed to say very much, to him lest I start to gush, so satisfied myself with a simple “Hello, I love your work” and then we went into the panel.
Now, this panel occurred at a very particular moment in my career. I was working on “Roswell” as an executive producer, but I was deep into preproduction on the ill-fated pilot I’d written for a series based on Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” books. It had been a difficult and unhappy development process, but we were only five days away from the first day of principal photography. A major problem had arisen, however. The network had commissioned another writer to rewrite my draft over my objections and in my opinion, had eviscerated everything that I loved about the project. I didn’t want to shoot that draft and they did. As I drove into the parking lot of the Museum I learned via a cell phone call from my agent that a critical conference call with the network was scheduled to take place the next morning which would determine the fate of the entire project, and when I took my seat on the panel I was frankly distracted by the thought that my very first pilot, my very fist shot at running my own series was in serious jeopardy of coming to ruin right before my very eyes unless I “played ball” as they like to say.
The panel discussion was fun and interesting and after a while I forget my Pern problems and simply enjoyed being on the same stage with some legendary figures of the genre. At the end, the final question was put to all of us was “Do you have any advice for young writers starting out?” It’s a familiar question, and to be honest, I have a stock response, (which I will someday bore readers of this blog with when I really need material) and I gave it in my usual inimitable fashion, congratulating myself on having held my own throughout the night.
But when the question came around to Harlan, he leaned forward into the microphone, and with all the passion and ferocity I remembered so well from that convention stage in Stony Brook he said:”Don’t be a whore!”
The world quite literally spun around me under the hot lights and it felt as though the Universe was conveying a message directly to me. It was so simple. “Don’t be a whore!” Don’t write crap because they pay you well. Don’t put your name on something that you know will suck. Don’t sacrifice whatever integrity you have as a writer for a check.
The next day, during the infamous conference call, there came the point my agent had warned me would come, when I either played ball and went with the script I knew in my heart was terrible or my beloved pilot was going to die, and when that moment came, Harlan’s words rang in my ears like the church bells above Quasimodo’s head.”Don’t be a whore!”
I wasn’t. The project died. And I have been grateful to Harlan Ellison ever since.
So within days of filming, WB unceremoniously pulled the plug on the production. It was shopped around, but no-one else bit. The option on the rights expired and went back to the McCaffreys. On the cancellation, at the time Mr. Moore said,
“It was a different show... I had tried ... to keep the spirit of the books alive ... and make it a classy, interesting show. And ... what was evident in the draft they commissioned, they wanted a different show. It was more Buffy-esque and Xena-esque. It was something they felt more comfortable with on The WB. ... There wasn’t a way to split the difference. Ultimately, they decided we should just let the project go. It was their decision. It was very disappointing for everybody. ... A lot of people put a lot of hard work into it.”
Since then, the fellow has been coy about the whole thing. But understandably so. I imagine it was rather painful for the guy to not be able to make a thing he was that passionate about. And for better of for worse, when Brian Singer flaked out and decided to do X-Men 2 with David Hayter, Ronald Moore got the job of doing the Re-imagined Battlestar Galactica for the Sci-Fi channel. And ever since that happened, he’s been asked about Pern at all the conventions he goes to. And he’ll hint that it’s still a property that’s near and dear to his heart.
Apparently 12 years isn’t enough time and distance though. He’s still off doing other things. And Pern... is laying fallow.
In 2006, in a somewhat strange degree of seperation from Moore, the rights were optioned again. This time by Steve Hoban’s, Copperheart Entertainment. (The company that gave us ‘Splice’.) They’d even managed to get screenwriter David Hayter (X-2, The Usual Suspects, Watchmen, etc...) to write the script for a movie adaptation of the first of Anne’s novels, “Dragonflight”. They’d managed to finagle Don Murphy to produce. (Natural Born Killers, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Transformers.) They’d even had the idea they were going to start filming in early 2012. Said Anne McCaffrey...
“The fans and I have been waiting, not so patiently, for a long time to see Pern and her characters on the big screen. I couldn’t be more thrilled that a writer with David’s tremendous creativity and track record of translating beloved source material into fantastic movies has decided to make this his next epic adventure.”
However, checking the IMDB, there’s no mention of Hayter or Hoban’s company at work on it. No one’s been cast. No scripts turned in. There’s no information at all aside from the project being categorized as being ‘in development’ Which to me sounds like it’s fallen back into development hell, which if so, is probably one of the sadder Hollywood losses to limbo in recent years. Coupled with the loss of Moore’s series, it’s probably right up there with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s DUNE never getting made. (The one that HR Giger did all that work for.)
Cos reasons! But if you like, I can read off a list of em.
Back in the late 90's and the early naughties, the geek revolution was really just starting to get underway. There’d been rumblings of it for years. But by 1998 and 1999, I’d just read how New Line Cinemas was about to get started adapting the Lord of the Rings. That guy Peter Jackson... that guy that did The Frighteners and Bad Taste was going to do it! But still!! Since then... the geeks have truly inherited the earth. We are the zeitgeist. And soooo many dragon movies have graced our screens and shelves since then. All with varying degrees of success. Hell, as you can see from the example above, we’re even about to have a release of the SEQUEL to a major motion picture in which our main character becomes.... wait for it.... a Dragonrider!
It had been a while since someone thought fantasy based TV could really go places. We had young teen horror like the Buffyverse series. And in 2004 to 2005, we got a double shot in the arm for the sci-fi genre with shows like the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and the resurrected Doctor Who. Since then, we’ve had the advent of the Marvel movies and The Dark Knight which propitiated the resurrection of the superhero genre. But as far as fantasy-esque shows were concerned... what did we have? Hercules and Xena was a while ago. And the shadow of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings loomed like a great looming thing over the idea of a fantasy series. The bar for fantasy had been set... rather high.
And then we got Game of Thrones. Which showed us that fantasy was still alive and well. It could be a series that for the most part was about people. They showed us that we didn’t have to be constrained by what could and couldn’t be done on broadcast television according to the byzantine departments of standards and practices. And it’s been off to the races ever since to try and find something that can even approach the gravitas and the professionalism that’s been poured into that show by HBO. People are looking for the next comic, the next novel, the next franchise. The next megahit that will sustain their studios or networks for the next decade.Folks...
Pern is waiting. We just need someone who can do it right.
All right.... Now this is no slight on visual effect creator, James Jacobs. he’s gone on to do much better things. Look him up if you want to. But at the same time... look at this concept for the earlier Pern series we would have got on the WB...
Which was about as good as you might expect from TV back in the late 90's, right? We weren’t that far out of all of Sam Raimi’s ‘Action Pack’ shows and the CGI you got in those. You’ll want to remember that was state of the art stuff back then.Now look at the black dragon sitting beside Danerys Stormborn from last year’s Game of Thrones. Or any dragon you’ve seen on film in the last 4 years for that matter. We’re finally there. We can make this happen without what you’re seeing looking like a photoshopped in bit of graphics from a Playstation 2 title. (DO NOT BRING UP DRAGON WARS TO ME) Hell... we’ve been doing GOOD dragons in film for the last 15 years. Look at the guys we got in Reign of Fire or Dragonheart. I hadn’t seen something that good since they were done with practical effects in the early 80's with Buena Vista’s ‘Dragonslayer’. And the state of the art now? Well....
But those had MOVIE budgets to get that kind of visual. NOW we’re getting that kind of realism on TV. Which is just what we need to bring to life the dragons we’d be seeing in a Pern series. The dragons are going to make or break it. And it has to be believable from moment one. These aren’t just going to be honkers or a trio that show up every episode or three... These are characters and the main drivers of the plot every time the camera comes on. As much as I lament the loss of Moore’s series, we have an atmosphere now where it can be made so much better than it could have been before.
Much consternation has been made over the idea of series like George Double-R Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ novels not being complete. There has been much gnashing of teeth over the idea that as the series careens toward the limit of available material, suddenly the show will catch up and not have anything more to do.
The main story arc, from beginning to middle to end, for the Dragonriders of Pern is for the most part done. Now that Anne’s passed on, her son Todd’s still doing new books. But for the main part of the story, this saga is finished. On the page. no drama, no waiting for the author to finish his latest press junket or deal with the pressure of getting it done before the networks come for him. It’s ready NOW.
It’s been a long road to now. With disappointments, missteps, and calamities of, in the end, good fortune. If the Dragonriders of Pern had been made in the 90's, or even the early naughties, it would have been subject to the whims of a TV network and insufficient technologies to adequately pull it off in the way it deserves. And let’s be honest here, Warner Brothers can’t even get a Wonder Woman series started without butchering it. And she’s their own property over at DC. In the end, we may have dodged a bullet there too.
But now, we have the tech to do it. We can make the characters and the world and the dragons with a verisimilitude that can carry the concept. The genre has done a lot of growing up since Xena and Herc were bouncing and ululating across our screens. As anyone who saw the red or purple weddings on Thrones will tell you, this isn’t just kid stuff any more. We can do epics.
We have alternatives to the broadcast networks, as well as standards and practices. We don’t have to worry about what will and won’t fly on network TV anymore. We’ve got an atmosphere ripe for the next big classic work of sci-fi or fantasy literature to be adapted and made into something that will rake in the dough beyond the dreams of avarice. We’ve got a public and a zeitgeist full of people who will appreciate it. People who go see Lord of the Rings. Who stream and pirate Game of Thrones. Who WILL go and see How To Train Your Dragon II in the next weeks and make it a multimillion dollar success.
All some savvy studio exec needs to do is go to his bosses and go, “I got an idea. Big franchise. Megabucks potential. How to Train Your Dragon meets Game of Thrones for grownups on HBO or Showtime. Do 14 to 20 episodes a year. With more source material than ANY of that Lord of the Rings stuff. It’s already developed. All we have to do is adapt it and shoot it. Whaddaya say?”
If they’re wise, or savvy at all, they’ll say “SHUT UP AND TAKE OUR MONEY AND MAKE IT!”
And our long ordeal will come to an end.
And the adventure can finally begin.
-Edward WinterRose is 46, and has been beating this dead horse for 14 years now on any webpage, chat room or message board that will put up with him. He maintains that a steady diet of TV, Comics, Novels, Movies, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, Speculative Fiction, Erotica and Fanfiction are toxic to the personality and the imagination, and offers himself as an example.
ADDENDUM (3 years later) Since this article was written, we’ve gotten the series for Outlander, The Shannara Chronicles, and in development someone’s doing The Wheel of Time, as well as Amazon just signing a deal to RE-do the very well-trod Lord of the Rings as a series. We may see The Dark Tower turn into a series as well based on the lackluster reaction to the sequel movie from this summer. We’ve had a redo of Westworld that is ridiculously good. And apparently being out of books and ideas, HBO is off to do a spin-off series of Game of Thrones. Star Trek has been dubiously redone again now that CBS has found someone’s concept they can rip off. (See the whole axanar debacle.) Disney also announced this week that they mean to do a live action Star Wars series and a whole trilogy of new movies that may have nothing to do with the Skywalker clan. Between the streaming networks and regular networks, we have for Marvel: Jessica Jones 2, Daredevil 3, Gifted, The Runaways, Agents of SHIELD, The Punisher and Cloak & Dagger as series that are either running or in the works. Last I heard, the Wachowski Sisters and Joe Scraczynski were developing Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Nothing has been heard about development on any DragonRiders movies or television since WB optioned it to do a series of movies. Given that their current darling of a cash cow is a whole new run of Wizarding movies by JK Rowling and co-producing Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings... I’m not holding my breath.