Steampunk has been hitting books, films, video games, and RPGs for the last few years – but can it finally work on the small screen today? We have had steampunk shows in the past (many point to the 1960s television-run of Wild Wild West as an example), shows that have steampunk elements to them (like the Chinese-tinged space western Firefly, the props in Warehouse 13, or the last couple of seasons of Doctor Who), and the occasional brass & cog cameo episodes in TV series of other genres (such as the episode “Punked” in season 3 of Castle or that terribly mediocre one from NCIS). We’ve seen steampunk done great, done haphazardly, or done, well, blah. So far, though, according to community consensus, nothing on current television has ever been done 100% right.
Meet the creative team behind Lantern City, then, a group of people who are serious about “doing it right.” Executive produced by veteran actor Bruce Boxleitner (best known for his work in Tron and Bablyon 5), Lantern City is already reaching out to the steampunk community for help. Already, top steampunk propmakers and artists have been recruited as creative collaborators and consultants: Thomas Willeford of Brute Force Leather, Joey Marsocci of Dr. Grymm Laboratories, Art Donovan, curator behind the Museum of the History of Sciences’ Steampunk Exhibit in Oxford, and leatherwork artist Tom Banwell. And, if you check out their website, fellow steampunk fans can also contribute ideas to the show.
I heard them speak first at Dragon*Con about this new project, and had the opportunity to ask co-creator and executive producer Trevor Crafts and head writer Matt James Daley further questions.
The series explores the basic questions, “How far would you go to be with the person you love?” and “What lengths would you go to in order to survive?” For Maxwell Adams, the answer to that is plunging into another world. After his girlfriend Rachel Kierson discovers an antique lantern in an old shop in San Francisco she is transported into an alternate world, the tiered metropolis of Lantern City. Maxwell, searching for her, follows her into this convoluted realm of heavy industry, political unrest, and government corruption. They are also joined by Miles West, a detective tracing the whereabouts of the missing couple, and the three of them each go on separate journeys inside the City in an attempt to find their way back to our world.
The project was first conceived by Trevor Crafts, Lantern City’s co-creator and executive producer, three years ago. Before he even knew what steampunk was, he wrote a visual novella in 1996 about an inventor and his clockwork robot in the 1700s called Journal of a Clockwork God. Later on, in bits and pieces, the ideas behind Lantern City began to develop. When he thought this plans were solid enough, Crafts brought it to Boxleitner for his help. “Bruce is a rare type of person in Hollywood; A great actor, great writer, has a true love of the fantastic genres, and is a very genuine person,” Crafts says.
But the final piece of the core creative team wasn’t complete until Matt James Daley got onboard. Daley is a professional writer who’s worked with Crafts since 2007 and has developed multiple science fiction and fantasy projects. Though Lantern City is Daley’s first big steampunk project, Craft liked the ideas he brought to the table and had Matt write the two-part pilot.
The whole collaboration has been an exciting experience for the both the writer and producer. Matt’s greatest challenge with Lantern City was in the world-building: “A fictional world has to have rules that the audience understands and has to feel legitimate. Fans should want to go to the world that you create. Another challenge is to develop all the characters, even the minor ones. A fictional world is useless if people have no interest in the characters.” Already, Matt has a cast list of 40 re-occurring characters for the show, and plans to incorporate inspiration drawn from class warfare, 19th century political movements, and dynamic groups of refugees that have immigrated to the city over time. “Politics were fiercely local and movements and parties could spring up at any moment (and feel that they could challenge the status quo),” Matt explained. “We do not have a federal government in our world of Hetra, so everything will be concentrated inside of Lantern City, but there are clear political movements for the upper class, working class, and Underground. These three will intertwine in very wonderfully messy ways.”
Trevor also spoke a bit about the challenges of TV development, too: “Working with Bruce and Matt hand in hand to create an entire universe is what this is all about. The biggest challenge is to get it on a network. The volume of shows that don’t make it to screen is staggering. We are going to use every weapon in our arsenal to move the show from the development table to TV screens across the world.”
To add to the spirit of collaboration, Lantern City is not only gathering top talent from the steampunk community, they are also looking for fans to contribute their ideas to the project by submitting art designs, music, and props to be considered for the show. While they are still working on legal details concerning fan credit for items selected, the creative team is very interested in seeing to what the fans can offer. “We don’t want to be the Hollywood guys that screw up everyone’s favorite genre,” Trevor stresses. “We need to make sure that the makers and the creators, artists that have been doing this long before we even came up with Lantern City, are well represented. This isn't just our world we are creating. Our vision is that everyone that creates steampunk style can have a chance to contribute to the look of Lantern City. We want this to be a huge multinational gallery show of the best work in steampunk today.”
With these sentiments at hand, fan responses for Lantern City have been overwhelmingly positive. They have packed rooms at San Diego Comic Con, Dragon*Con, and other conventions, and they plan for more news and information to be distributed through their website and social media platforms. They hope that the buzz will extend beyond the steampunk community, though. “Our goal is to produce a great television series, not just a great sci-fi series. A great example of this is the reboot of Battlestar Galactica: the show tackled so many issues through a great cast of characters that viewers who aren't ‘typical’ sci-fi fans embraced it,” Trevor says. “Game of Thrones is another show that has transcended the genre gap and found fans in every county.”
But will mainstream TV be ready for a steampunk show with such a heavy fan investment? Already, competition is on the horizon, with two other steampunk shows being recently announced in development. But Lantern City stands out for its outreach toward its core audience. And I hope this is the show that will live up to our fannish hopes.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker does not own a TV, but that may change in the future. In the meantime, she is the founding editor of the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana and a published academic scholar. She also tweets.