Dean Devlin explains why 'The Ark' isn't 'woke' sci-fi: 'There's an attempt to politicize everything now'
The veteran producer says his new Syfy series is about humanity becoming the best version of itself.
Star Trek fans rallied 'round the U.S.S. Enterprise last year when conservative critics claimed that the venerable science fiction franchise was heading into an undiscovered country: woke politics. But as any good Trekkie knows, every Trek production from The Original Series to Discovery has boldly gone into that territory thanks to the franchise's longtime emphasis on pluralistic casting and storylines that react to what's happening in our present. Don't take our word for it — just ask prolific producer, Dean Devlin, who has a personal connection to Star Trek. His mother, Filipino actress, Pilar Seurat, guest starred in the 1967 episode "Wolf in the Fold."
"Every week Star Trek was talking about race relations or the Vietnam War," the 60-year-old Devlin says now, revealing how those conversations played out in his own biracial family. (His father, actor and writer Don Devlin, was born and raised in New York City.) "My uncle couldn't talk to my dad about Vietnam, but they could debate that week's episode of Star Trek. What's great about science fiction is that it has allowed us to talk about issues that we can't talk about face-to-face."
For Devlin, none of that is "woke politics" — it's just good storytelling. And he makes a point of embracing the same spirit in his own contributions to the sci-fi canon, which encompass big screen blockbusters like Stargate and Independence Day as well as his latest TV series, The Ark. Currently airing on Syfy, the far-future show takes place aboard a starship bound for a distant planet where the cryogenically-frozen passengers hope to start a new home for the human race. But then an accident in deep space decimates the ship's sleeping population, and a diverse group of survivors awakens to discover that they have to form a new society amid the stars with limited resources and a whole lot of problems, from a murder mystery to an outbreak of space madness.
"It wasn't an attempt to check boxes," Devlin says of the show's multiethnic cast, which includes actors from North America (former Twilight star Christie Burke), the U.K. (Richard Fleeshman), Serbia (Tiana Upcheva), Sri Lanka (Shalini Peiris) and Zimbabwe (Stacey Read). "We were just looking for the best actors that we could get and we got incredibly lucky to find a beautifully diverse cast. When I did Independence Day, we had a Black guy [Will Smith] and a Jewish guy [Jeff Goldblum] save the world, and that had never happened before! We didn't do these things to be woke then, and we don't do them to be woke now. We're just trying to tell a good story.
"There's an attempt to politicize everything now, and there's a whole machine to feed that anger and divisiveness," Devlin continues. "And there are going be people are going to reject [this show] just to reject it. But I think when people actually watch the show, the content of what we're talking about is what they're going to want to debate. And I'd much rather have a debate about the content of these characters than the casting of the actors."
Interestingly, while there's a lot of drama onboard The Ark, there isn't necessarily a lot of divisiveness. And Devlin says that approach was intentional. "There's been a trend over the last few years in television of sci-fi series getting very, very dark and very, very edgy," he says, gesturing towards shows like the Battlestar Galactica revival, where shipboard divisions were rife. "While I can enjoy watching those shows, I really didn't want to make one of those shows. The Ark is really about this idea of: 'What if every single person who was meant to be in charge all died in the opening scene, and everybody that was left had to become the best version of themselves?'"
The Galactica reboot overseen by Ronald D. Miller and David Eick premiered in 2004 in the shadow of Sept. 11 and the Iraq War, and the impact of those real-world events were felt onscreen. Devlin says The Ark takes some of its inspiration from humanity's collective "existential crisis" brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he sees the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — which is about to mark its 10th anniversary in April — as a more direct analogue for the kind of story he wants to tell.
"If you saw the video footage in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, people were initially running way," he recalls. "But within seconds, they actually ran towards [danger] hoping to help. That's the human spirit in a nutshell: in times of crisis, people who reveal who they are, and that's what I wanted to explore in The Ark: the competing philosophies of, 'Are we in this together?' or 'Is this survival of the fittest?'"
In the world of the show, those questions have to be answered by a younger generation, as the ship's elders all perish in the accident that opens the series premiere. Into that leadership vacuum steps Burke's Lt. Sharon Garnet, who appoints herself the leader of the ragtag remaining crew. "She steps into the void before others could," explains Devlin. "Not for her own ambition or sense of pride, but simply because the pipe is leaking and she knows how to fix it, so she's going to fix it."
Of course, not everyone is happy that Burke has stepped up to take charge. Her main nemesis in that regard is Spencer Lane (Reece Ritchie), a fellow lieutenant who makes a point of second-guessing all of her decisions. That conflict jibes with current workplace stories told by women in positions of power, but Devlin says that the show's approach to this specific personality clash has less to do with gender.
"What tends to happen is that some people regret that they didn't step up, and rather than berate themselves they're angry at the people who did," he says of Lane's reaction to Burke's actions. "I find that to be a very human response to power vacuums. I never wanted to make it all about Burke's gender. It's about the content of her character."
The Ark is taking flight on Syfy in a post-Mandalorian, post-Star Trek: Discovery world when original sci-fi shows are having a harder time gaining traction with audiences. And Devlin — who previously created the transmedia Stargate franchise with Roland Emmerich that's spanned films, television and video games — is uniquely aware that it's increasingly rare for a network to greenlight a show not based on established IP.
"Usually, it has to be a remake or sequel or based on a video game or YA novel," he says, with barely-concealed resignation. "Everyone wants some guarantee that there's already an audience. I had this argument with a studio head a few years ago: he said that they wouldn't do a project of mine, because it wasn't based on something, and I remember telling him, 'If your philosophy had always been around, there wouldn't have been an Independence Day!'" And he replied, 'Well, we wouldn't do Independence Day today unless you called it War of the Worlds.' And that's really sad, because that means there's a lot of great art we're missing out on."
"There's no guarantee that an audience will show up for The Ark, but I hope they do and I hope they embrace it," Devlin continues, brightening as he contemplates the show's future. "The thing that I've talked about with my team is that we don't like it when a show overstays its welcome. So we decided very early on that, no matter what, after eighteen seasons we stop! We just stop at eighteen no matter how many people want more."
The Ark airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Syfy