Who knows when Steampunk really hit the mainstream? Some point to the long article in the New York Times last summer as a harbinger of ascendancy. Others to the moment when many of us found that our ears contained tiny golden clockwork gears instead of cartilage and bone. Still others to the spontaneous appearance over Beijing last week of thousands of tiny nano dirigibles no bigger than a pinhead—which all winked out of existence a moment later—prompting me to wonder exactly what parallel universe exists just next-door).
But none of those sit well with me as indicators. Me, I say when the top rated new television series in these here United States of America starts thinking about shooting scenes in Steampunk bars, the Steampunk Revolution is here to stay. (Certainly, it now seems perfectly acceptable to reveal in polite company that I am working on the Steampunk Bible for Abrams Books in NYC, a cornucopia of steam goodness, with the aid of the brilliant archivist, Selena Chambers.)
Through sekrit intel sources deep in the Steampunk insurgency—otherwise known as my stepson Jason, who is one of the casting directors for both NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles—I discovered that the LA version had decided to shoot a Steampunk scene. I soon tracked down the mysterious Speed Weed in a clandestine Hollywood bungalow location to get the low-down on the up-high. Weed is one of the eight writers on NCIS: Los Angeles, airing at 9, Tuesday nights on CBS. Starring Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J, it’s the number one rated new show of the season.
Geoffrey “Heliocopter” VanderSteam: Where’d you first hear about Steampunk?
Speed Weed: From Greg Weidman, our writers’ assistant. But first, some background. NCIS: Los Angeles is a spin-off of NCIS, the #1 show on television. Our executive producer, Shane Brennan, who runs NCIS and created the spinoff, wanted to bring a character from the original show into the Los Angeles show. We brought Abby, the forensic specialist Goth-girl. She comes to LA for a fast-paced, scary episode. Shane asked me to write a scene where she goes to a Goth bar. I personally know nothing about Goth, so I asked Greg, who is younger and a lot hipper than I am. He instantly landed on the SteamPunk aesthetic, and I instantly got it: it’s lighter than true Goth, just like L.A. is lighter than D.C., and just like Abby, as a character is lighter than classic Goth. SteamPunk, when Greg showed me images, just fit.
VanderSteam: What drew you to the term, and what do you like about Steampunk?
Weed: In my episode, I’ve named the bar they go to, “SteamPunk.” And, with the set-dressing and the costuming of extras, we’re going to get the intricate and detail-oriented aesthetic that Greg was so jazzed about. There’s a certain beauty in something that looks old but can perform some technologically-advanced task. That reflects Abby’s character, actually: morally, she could be a heroine in a Victorian novel. But she wears platform boots and a dog-collar. And she’s the best person in the world at using high-tech equipment to hunt down bad-guys forensically.
VanderSteam: What’s your definition of Steampunk?
Weed: Well, clearly, it’s a Hyper-industrialized Victorian-Age mixed with fantasy elements. Okay, full disclosure: I asked Greg and that’s what he said.
VanderSteam: Why’d you decide to include the Steampunk bar scene in NCIS: LOS ANGELES?
Weed: Shane’s idea. We haven’t done an R&R scene on our show, and in 7 years, Abby never went to a Goth bar in her own show. I guess when you go away, you get to play.
VanderSteam: So did the actors dress up as Steampunks? If so, what were their clothes like? (Did any of them seem already familiar with Steampunk?)
Weed: Abby’s dressed in her usual. Extras at the bar are dressed as Steampunks, but true steampunks would probably consider it tame. In part that’s because it’s CBS, in part, that’s because we don’t want to steal focus from our characters with outrageously clad extras. I do make some fun of Eric, the character she goes to the bar with. He’s just a regular guy dressed in his usual flip-flops and surfer shorts. When Chris O’Donnell’s character comes in later and asks if anyone has seen Abby, an uber-Goth dude tells him she was here with a “creepy looking guy in flip-flops.”
VanderSteam: What’s the biggest challenge writing for the show, and can you give us some idea of what to expect from future episodes?
Weed: By far the biggest challenge for me personally is constructing the crime-puzzle. People who watch crime shows watch a lot of them, so they’ve seen every twist and turn and mystery you can think of. Coming up with fresh plots and villains and motivations that make sense and aren’t goofy? This is very hard and requires a lot more creativity than I think most viewers imagine. That said, this show has a lot of character humor and banter, that’s incredibly fun to write. Chris and LL really make the writing sing. We’re lucky to have them. As for future episodes, well, you’ll just have to tune in!
Jeff VanderMeer’s current projects include Finch, Booklife, Last Drink Bird Head, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, and The Steampunk Bible. For more information visit jeffvandermeer.com and booklifenow.com.