Interview with Aaron Johnston, Co-Creator of Extinct
Discover humanity's second chance with Aaron Johnston's new sci-fi series Extinct.
Four hundred years after the extinction of the human race, a small group of humans is revived on the earth by an alien civilization. The aliens claim they want to restore the humanity, but the "reborn" humans uncover new dangers, hidden agendas, and powerful secrets that challenge and threaten to annihilate the species once again.
Thus begin's Aaron Johnston and Orson Scott Card's Extinct, a new sci-fi television series on BYUtv. In Extinct, we follow the Reborns as they attempt to understand, and even trust, a group of mysterious and advanced aliens known as the Originators.
Extinct is brought to us by the minds of Aaron Johnston and Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game). Johnston and Scott Card's ongoing collaboration began with the film adaption of Ender's Game, with Johnston serving as associate producer,and has continued in the comic universe (Ender in Exile, Speaker for the Dead) and with the First Formic War trilogy, co-authored together as a prequel series to Ender's Game.
An accomplished writer, creative, and producer, Johnston's new series Extinct is all about second chances, family, forgiveness, commitment, and exploring the unknown together. Learn more about his take on science fiction, alien life, dystopias, and more in this exclusive interview.
Futurism: What was the first science fiction film you ever watched?
Aaron Johnston: I can’t recall which science-fiction film I saw first, but I can tell you the films I saw at a very young age that made a lasting impression. There is Star Wars, of course, which pretty much defined my childhood. Action figures, trading cards, lunch boxes. My mother even made me a birthday cake in the shape of Darth Vader’s head. Then there was Flash Gordon, which I didn’t realize was so campy and awful. Time Bandits both fascinated and haunted me. I’ll add Richard Donner’s Superman, which I’ve watched more times than I can count. Spielberg’s E.T. also holds a special place in my heart.
I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies, though, so there are a lot of films from that era that I never saw and shamefully still haven’t. Alien, for example. Or Mad Max. Blade Runner. I’ll lose some cred for owning up to that, but my parents tried to shield me from gore and nudity and violence, as every parent should. They knew me well, I suppose, because I still have no stomach for splattered blood. That’s why I have zero interest in shows like The Walking Dead. Well, that and the fact that I find the concept of zombies utterly ludicrous.
I have no excuse for not having watched Blade Runner as an adult, though. I need to remedy that.
What is your definition of “science fiction”?
Writers and readers of science fiction have a much broader definition than the general public, I think. You say science fiction to the average person, and she thinks space, aliens, Star Trek. “No, no, that’s not for me.”
But of course science fiction is the most prevalent genre of speculative fiction in pop culture today. Everyone consumes it, whether we realize it or not. Orphan Black, Stranger Things, Alias, Westworld, Lost, The Flash, Arrow, even The Walking Dead (though some might call that horror fantasy).
And I’d bet good money that some people wouldn’t classify Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as science fiction, but that’s exactly what it is. One of the best, in fact.
So my definition is somewhat broad. Science fiction is any story with its root in science, whether that science be real science or invented. It’s not a story rooted in, say, magic, which of course is fantasy.
How important do you believe scientific accuracy is in creating a modern sci-fi tv show, novel, or movie?
Consumers of science fiction, and especially readers of science fiction, are generally highly intelligent and highly observant. Plus their respect for and admiration of science are often what drew them to the genre in the first place. So if a writer makes a mistake in the science, readers are going to know. And they’re not going to like it. It removes them from the scene and disrupts their immersion into the universe of the story.
For some readers, a science mistake spoils the entire book. Every achievement in the novel is forgotten, everything they love about the story is immediately disregarded, and they slap you with a one-star review. And this is for one mistake in a book of, say, 140,000 words. That’s how seriously some readers take the science. Which is why I do a lot of research for everything I write and often consult with scientists in the field. For the last novel, for example, I pestered a chemistry professor at UC Riverside.
Consumers of science-fiction films and television, however, are a much broader audience. It’s less likely that they are deeply knowledgeable in physics or chemistry. That doesn’t give writers license to be lazy with science. It just means that you’re less likely to be burned for some scientific inaccuracy.
However, what you can’t do in novels, films, or television is break your OWN rules. If you establish rules of your world — and every story does — you better stick to those rules. Even if the science if ridiculous. If people can only fly during a full moon, for example, and you suddenly have a character flying in broad daylight, the fans will lose their minds and grab their pitchforks. That’s sloppy writing.
Tell us about first meeting Orson Scott Card. How did your relationship with the Ender’s series develop, and how did it lead to your collaboration on Extinct?
After I graduated from college, I took a job as an advertising copywriter with an ad agency in Greensboro, North Carolina, where my wife and I began attending a local congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It just so happened that Orson Scott Card and his family also attended that church.
Now, Mormons have a great love of theater and the arts. Nearly every LDS church building has a stage. Scott Card, who was a playwright before he was a novelist, decided to put that stage to good use and began directing free theater productions for the community. Musicals, Shakespeare, comedies. He did this as a volunteer and financed the productions himself.
My wife and I met in an improv comedy group in college, and we both participated in several of theatrical productions at Brigham Young University. When Scott Card learned this, he immediately invited us to participate in the productions he was staging. We did an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, followed by a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which is one of my favorites.
Thus began our friendship. As we got to know each other, Scott learned that I had studied screenwriting in college and was an aspiring writer. At the time, a producer in LA was developing one of Scott’s short stories into a feature film. The script needed a rewrite, and the screenwriter couldn’t do it because of scheduling conflicts. Scott asked if I wanted to take a stab at it, and the rest is history. We’ve been collaborating ever since.
My involvement in the Ender’s Game prequel novels first began at Marvel comics. I was writing the Formic Wars series for Marvel, and our publisher TOR was interested in continuing and expanding the story into novels. We’re now writing book five of that series, and the response from fans has been very kind. For me to be playing in this sandbox is a dream come true.
Does humanity deserve a second chance in Extinct?
This is one of the themes of the show. Second chances. Who deserves them and who doesn’t. We tackle that idea in the pilot episode, and it’s one of the questions that our heroes struggle with throughout the first season.
What I find fascinating about human nature is that we usually can’t process human suffering on a macro scale. There have been psychological experiments on this. Our brains can’t process big numbers of human casualties. Tell someone that four thousand people were killed in an act of genocide in Africa, and they’ll obviously be disturbed and horrified. But they likely won’t be any MORE disturbed if that number were five thousand. Or ten thousand. Or two thousand.
But if you tell them about one little girl. Her name, her home, her friends, her interests, the songs she likes to sing, her favorite foods, how she loves to give hugs. Then you tell them that this girl died tragically in a car accident, and people will often be more horrified by this news than they were at the news of four thousand lives lost.
My point is we’re not as emotionally invested in humanity on a macro scale as we are on a micro scale. We love the people in our small, tight circle. Extinction, therefore, would be a very personal tragedy. We would grieve more for the loss of our loved ones than we would for the loss of the human race.
You’ll see that in Extinct. Some characters care more about restoring family members than they do about restoring humanity. And that can be dangerous. When you’re trying to reinvigorate a species, you have to be somewhat detached and scientific about it. You have to create offspring. Our romantic ideas of courtship and procreation have to be discarded. You have to put the needs of the group above the needs and desires of the one. And yet it is our love and devotion to family that defines as us humans. Love is why we exist.
So how do you strike that balance? How do you maintain your individual humanity while also trying to think strategically and scientifically about population growth and maintenance.
Now, this is a show on BYUtv, a family entertainment network, so you won’t find a lot of conversations about sex. But this is one of the central questions of the show. What makes us human? Who we are emotionally? Who we are biologically?And how should we build humanity while maintaining what defines us as humans?
Science fiction often explores the Alien as a representation of the self or of the other. How does Extinct portray aliens and what is your personal take on how we perceive the malevolent or benevolent other worldly species?
Orson Scott Card and I decided early on that the aliens in Extinct would not follow the pattern you see on other shows. Real-life aliens would have a completely different evolutionary history than our own. Their protein structure would be different. They’re molecular structure, anatomy, physiology; they wouldn’t resemble us in the slightest.
And yet we often see TV shows wherein aliens are just humans with a prosthetic on the forehead or whatever. Or a mask over the face with a humanoid skeletal structure. Biologically that’s just silly.
So we made the conscious choice that our aliens were going to be legitimately strange. Like really, really strange. And that proved to be a wise decision because the biology of our aliens, once established, opened up all kinds of story possibilities.
The two principal aliens in the show are the Sparks and Skin Riders. Both of these sentient beings are legitimately bizarre. But without their strangeness, without the abilities that they possess as alien species, the show would not exist. They are the foundation of our story.
As for the second part of your question, regarding the benevolent and malevolent nature of aliens, this too comes to play in the series. There are obviously malevolent beings in the universe. The human race has been annihilated. But there are obviously benevolent beings as well. Because someone is bringing humans back. The question is, are their motivations sincerely altruistic, or are there other factors at play here? I won’t spoil anything by saying more than that.
Does Extinct present a tabla rasa for humanity or something much more complex?
The short answer is both. Yes, it’s a table rasa for these characters, but the reasons behind their rebirth are quite complex. And we only begin to scratch the surface of that in season one.
I find the character of Feena especially interesting. She’s been reborn, but she doesn’t know why. She doesn’t think very highly of herself because she made some grievous mistakes in her original life, and so for her to be one of the few humans who are restored to life is just baffling to her. Why her when there are millions of other people who deserve a second chance much more than she does? It’s an agonizing question to someone so loaded with guilt.
Why do you think readers and writers of science fiction are so absorbed with Dystopian presentations of our future? How does this trend speak to our current assumptions of the future?
I think all of us live in fear. We see the stupidity and arrogance of some of our leaders, and we consider the power they wield to initiate a global war, and we imagine the worst possible scenario. We think, what if North Korea legitimately has a nuclear warhead that can reach our shores? And what would happen if they fired it?
We can’t help but ask ourselves these questions. I think that’s who we are as a species. An existential fear is ingrained in our DNA. We evolved with that. The early humans who survived and thrived and created offspring were the humans who quickly learned to recognize threats in their environment and then to avoid them. The morons who turned a blind eye to danger died off pretty fast.
Plus we’ve seen the worst of our nature. We don’t have to look very far in our history to see how horrific and monstrous humans can be. We are very good at killing each other.
In fact, we don’t have to look at our history at all. Evil is very much alive and well in the world today. There are people so consumed with hate that they would wipe out all of western civilization if given the chance. That’s a cold hard fact. If there was a button that would drop the United States into the ocean and kill every one of its inhabitants, these terrorists would push it without hesitation and then dance in glee when it happened.
So I think we’re fascinated with dystopian scenarios simply because we’re subconsciously desperate for heroes that face and tackle what we fear. We don’t watch horror movies to see the bad guy kill people. We watch horror movies to see the bad guy lose. The same can be said for dystopian stories. We don’t watch them to see civilization rot. We watch them to see humanity survive, despite all the rotting. That pacifies our nagging fears.
What’s so unique about human civilization in Extinct that makes it necessary for it to be resurrected?
First off, we don’t use the term resurrected on the show. That has religious connotations to some people and means more than simply restoring something to life. So we intentionally avoided that term. You’ll never hear it used. Scott and I referred to it as the R word. Instead we say people are reborn or reconstituted, with the latter being an accurate description of what actually happens.
As for your question, I can’t answer that. To do so would be to reveal some of the deepest mysteries of the show. There is a reason why humans are being reborn, yes, but the other producers would have my hide if I shared that here. So yes humans are unique, but you’ll have to watch the show to find out why <grin>.
What discovery in space exploration are you most excited for?
The discovery of alien life. It’s out there. It’s ridiculous for us to think it isn’t. In some form or another, life persists on other celestial bodies. We’ve already identified planets that appear to meet some of the requisites for life, in terms of their position in their star system and perceived composition. And there are likely billions of other planets that we don’t yet know about that meet those same requirements. Statistically speaking there is a high probability for life.
I doubt very seriously that such a discovery will happen in my lifetime, or for many generations to come. We’ve got to reach far beyond the boundaries of our own solar system first, and that level of technology in spaceflight is a long ways off. But it will happen.
Until then, until science fiction becomes science fact, we’ll have to turn to own imaginations and shows like Extinct, where, hopefully, our faith in humanity will be somewhat restored.
Extinct is starting off with a two-episode premiere Sunday, October 1 at 7pm MT, and then will air weekly until the two-episode finale Sunday, November 19.
You can binge watch the first eight episodes of Extinct starting on October 1 at 7pm MT on any of the BYUtv apps or on BYUtv.org. Please download the BYUtv free app on Roku, iOS and AppleTV, Android, Amazon Fire TV, and more. Once you've watched the first eight episodes you'll have to wait until November 19 to watch the final two episodes. If you prefer to watch your shows week by week, you can watch Extinct through your cable or satellite provider every Sunday at 7 pm MT.
Follow Aaron on twitter @aaronwjohnston.