That Monster Show

By Bart Meehan

Ice Age

sfgenreAll Hollywood stories start with a lunch. And this one started at the Ice Age, a semi fashionable restaurant off the Strip.

I’d been invited by John Hendry, who told me it would be worth my while.

When I arrived, the place was only half full and several people looked up to see if I was anybody. Satisfied I wasn’t, they returned to their meals.

I looked around and saw Hendry sitting in a booth at the back of the room.

He waved me over, gave me the Hollywood hug, then told me to take a seat.

“I’ve already ordered for you,” he said. “House specialty. Walrus steak.”

I grimaced. “Tell me they cook it, at least.”

“Pickled. Trust me, you’ll love it.” He leaned forward and his voice dropped. “The chef’s an Eskimo, but we’re not allowed to call him that any more.”

While we waited for the lunch to arrive, we talked about the industry, or rather he told me about the industry.

“Reality, that’s what it’s about now,” he said. “Audiences want to feel like they’re looking through someone’s window.” As he spoke he shaped circles in the air with his hands which had no relationship to the point he was making and seemed more designed to showcase enthusiasm for the idea he was about to pitch. “But everyone is doing it. That’s the problem. You need an angle to break through. Something no one else has done.”

(Hendry had always been good at finding angles. His last three shows had decent runs and made money. Nothing spectacular but enough that networks took his calls.)

He reached across the table and placed his hand on my arm. “Jack, I’ve got something big, ” he started in a whisper that was cut short when the steaks arrived.

He let me take a bite, then smiled the “what’d I tell you smile” before starting up again.

“This is going to be the biggest thing on the box next year. It’ll make headlines. It’ll make millions.”

He let the last word linger. It meant something in this town. I cut off another slice of pickled walrus.

“You ever seen that old movie Frankenstein?” he asked me.

I nodded. “Sure. I read the book as a kid, as well.”

“There’s a book? I should get that. Anyway, you know the story then. A doctor builds a guy for the spare parts, hits him with lightning and boom.” Hendry slapped his hands together loud enough to attract some attention from the surrounding tables. “Big surge of electricity and it’s: He’s alive. He’s alive.”

“It’s alive,” I corrected him.

“What?”

“The line was: It’s alive.”

Hendry shrugged. “All you writers are the same. So goddamn picky about words.” He returned his attention to his plate, cutting the steak into small pieces and rearranging them. “Anyway, that’s what the show’s going to be about,” he said after he had completed his meaty jigsaw.

“You’re going to remake Frankenstein?”

“In a way. I’m going to make it as a reality show.”

The look on my face made it clear I was confused. He smiled, obviously pleased with the reaction.

“It’s like this, Jack, there’s this doctor — a goddamn genius — who has found a way of making a...” He stopped momentarily thinking about the appropriate description. “Making a kind of bio-tech man. Bits of machine and bits cloned in his laboratory. Think Robocop.”

I laughed, then stopped when I realised he was serious.

“John, that’s just nuts,” I said. “No one can do that and even if they could, they wouldn’t be allowed to. There are laws.”

He smiled again. “There are countries that aren’t as picky as us. And I’m telling you this guy can do it. I’ve seen the work he’s already done with cats and dogs.”

I sat there in silence for a moment, wondering if I was being punk’d.

“Now the Doc’s ready to move onto a human and I intend to cover his every move, from day one in the lab to him yelling: He’s ... it’s alive. There is Season 1.”

I was still convinced there was a camera hidden somewhere but decided to play along anyway. “So, there’s a Season 2?”

“There’s always a Season 2 if you get it right. The audience will watch him being made and they’ll get invested,” he said. “That’s what I need you for, Jack. There’s going to be a lot of gibberish, but this isn’t the Science Channel — no-one’s interested in details. They want the human story and I want you to write it.”

I smiled. “Isn’t it a reality show?”

He shrugged. “Sometimes reality needs help. The Doc, like I said a real genius, but you need to make him sound like ordinary folks. That technical shit will have our audience reaching for the remote.” He pushed his plate away, the lunch reshaped but largely untouched. “Will you do it?”

I’d been working in this town a long time and had a good reputation, but I didn’t make enough money to say no to guys like Hendry.

“Send the contract documents over to my agent,” I said and popped the last bit of walrus into my mouth.

Season 1

He was right. It was big. A real event. And it started before a single scene was shot.

Hendry was his own kind of genius. He knew where to drop snippets of information so they’d end up in the media — mainstream and social. A whisper here and there, and before he’d washed and dried his hands, it was trending worldwide. By the time he called the press conference to announce the show, speculation was at fever pitch and the press crowded into the hotel ballroom. Most were expecting to be disappointed — Hollywood is that sort of town — but instead they got the headlines that editors dream of: Frankenstein lives (wrong of course, because Frankenstein was the doctor not his creation) and Dead man walking (technically incorrect as well, given the intention was not to reanimate a corpse, but then maybe Hendry was right and I was just being picky about facts.)

My job during all this hype was to come up with some story lines that they could edit into the footage. I would be uncredited of course — every word uttered by the characters had to be their own and every twist in the narrative part of the natural flow of reality, so this meant I didn’t get to meet the Doctor and the menagerie of research assistants populating his laboratory. Instead I got a very thick file, with photos and biographies, accompanied by a note from Hendry saying: Make me care.

The show premiered to the largest debut audience in network history. The title, He’s Alive (Hendry smiled when he told me) didn’t stick and by the end of the second week, people were calling it That Monster Show.

The first episode was a disappointment for anyone who had tuned in to see gory images of the Monster being created. Most of it was introduction. We met the Doctor, edited into the perfect mad scientist cliché. He would occasionally turn to the camera offering some insights into the process of creating life. The ideas were his, the words (nothing over eight letters and no Latin) were mine.

Then there were the assistants. John and Hayley (coworkers and partners) and Kate (Hayley’s ex-girlfriend), all of whom in real life had come to terms with their current and former relationships and were now focused on their research. Through the magic of a professionally sculpted narrative and strategically placed lines, their lives became a soap opera of jealousy, treachery and ultimately reconciliation.

Marion was next. She had been with the Doctor for years and a few cut away shots of what appeared to be longing looks were enough to suggest an unrequited love for a man who was married to his work.

Then came the villain of the piece, Hans, a senior researcher who rarely smiled and had an accent. Hendry had insisted that he grow a goatee before filming started to ensure the audience had no doubts about who they should boo. The only comments Hans made that survived the cut were the ones he made about himself. They left him looking like Salieri to the Doctor’s Mozart.

And finally, there was the “star”, who was little more than a jumble of circuits on a bench and tissue growing in sealed tubs. With each new episode those components — organic and mechanical — began to take shape, though the progress was slow.

As it turned out, too slow for some of the audience, which began to drop off, so to maintain interest Hendry planted stories that the whole thing was a giant hoax that would be revealed in the final show. He then secretly paid several bio-ethicists and lawyers to write op-ed pieces or appear on talk shows, to argue whether a creature created in this way was in fact human and, if not, would it be a subclass without rights (think Planet of the Apes before Caesar started talking and learned to shoot.)

It worked. The audience for the season finale was bigger than the premiere.

We made sure the episode was drama packed. A couple of lines that hinted the hoax rumour might be true, a suggestion that Hans may have sabotaged the project and the Doctor’s hour-long worried look implying that failure was inevitable. Of course, that was never going to be the case.

The final ten minutes were editing genius. Short shots of all the characters, against a commissioned musical score that reaches a crescendo as the camera cuts to the creature in a sealed tank. The music stops and there is a painfully long silence. Then slightly, ever so slightly, a finger twitches. Cut to the Doctor whispering: “He’s alive.”

The credits roll.

Season 2

Hendry’s work on creating audience anticipation began well before the second season started (again to record numbers.) He asked the 24/7 cyber world for suggestions on what the creature should be called. Millions arrived and he made his way through them until he found the one that matched the name he’d already chosen.

Episode 1 ended with the Doctor explaining to a confused creature that from now on he would be known as Carl. Full name Carl Lauf — pronounced Karloff.

“Corny? Sure,” Hendry said. “But the audience will get the joke.”

After that, the narrative for the season was the ‘Education of Carl’: the programming of the chips and tissue that made up his brain so he could understand the world around him. Of course, there had to be ups and downs, so I wrote a few scenes showing inappropriate responses to social situations and unintended double entendres. They were funny in a sitcom sort of way, but more importantly they were meant to create a loveable orphan. Someone the audience wanted to succeed.

Early on, there was talk about taking him to LA, walking him down Sunset or having him pump weights at Venice Beach, but Hendry decided against it.
“We’d lose the mystery,” he said. “He’d just be another freak and this town is full of them.”

So, under instruction, I built up the relationship between the Doctor and his creation until it was clearly one of father and son. The back stories involving the others in the laboratory faded as the season progressed, which apparently caused a lot of tension on the set. I suggested to Hendry I could integrate them into the new storylines, but he shook his head.

“Don’t bother. They won’t be there next year.”

In the final episode — which had solid ratings though a little off the highs of the first season — we gave Carl his Eliza Doolittle moment.

He tells the Doctor a joke — a pretty funny one if I do say so myself — that proves he is now ready to live in the wider world.

Cut to the Doctor with tears in his eyes, as Carl asks (oh so sweetly): “Did I tell it right?”

 Season 3

By the start of Season 3, the press had found the secret location — a minor country with a major asshole as President for Life. Reporters, as well as fans, started turning up in front of the compound every day. Some footage of confrontations with the local police ran in the pre-season advertising and fed into the opening episode in which the Doctor announces that it is no longer safe for Carl to stay in the laboratory.

The two of them move into a large, guarded estate somewhere in the jungle — leaving the research staff and their various storylines behind.

“The theme this season,” Hendry told me at one of our now regular lunches (which had moved from the Ice Age, to various A list places on the Strip), “will be Bride of Frankenstein.”

“What? You’re going to build a woman for him?”

Hendry shook his head.

“No, absolutely not. That would be distasteful .” His expression suggested he didn’t see the irony, then he smiled and lowered his voice, “It’s going to be much classier. Six girls come to stay at the estate and by the end of the season, he picks one.”

Now I could have asked how he was going to find six women willing to rush off to South America to be humiliated on a weekly basis in the hope they would be selected as the Bride. But that would have been stupid. The real question was how he was going to narrow it down to six from the thousands who would apply.

Still, he managed to do it as part of a mid-season replacement show that produced a mixed bag of personalities, all attractive and enhanced in some way, who were then shipped to the compound in a storm of studio produced-publicity (and associated controversy about mating a soulless creature with a human bride) that was intended to build audience anticipation.

The problem was it didn’t. The first episode where the finalists were introduced to Carl rated well, but even the best editing couldn’t hide the fact that he just wasn’t interested in them. That became more evident as the weeks passed and social media speculation about Carl’s sexuality began to grow. Whatever the reason for his indifference, it undermined the premise of the season and as a result the ratings began to drop.

This was compounded by a growing tension between Carl and the Doctor — often manifested in sarcastic one-liners or long silences with accompanying stares.

Hendry asked me to write some narratives about the generation gap.

“I don’t think it’s that,” I said. I had seen the unedited footage and in most of it, Carl sat alone, hands clasped tightly in front of him, as he stared into space. He looked lost.

Hendry shook his head. “He’s just a kid coming to terms with his life and he thinks everything the Doc says to him is crap.”

So, I wrote the scenes, but Carl and the Doctor refused to speak the words. Instead, they retreated to separate wings of the mansion. Desperate, Hendry asked me to write some subplots bringing back the research staff from the first season and conflicts that would keep the six girls occupied, while we decided what to do with them.

It didn’t work. The ratings plummeted and Hendry knew it was only a matter of time before he got the call from the network, so he did his best to create some closure on the show. Smart editing that would provide a reconciliation of sorts between “father and son” and the promise of romance once the cameras stopped rolling.

Then, one morning, the maid found the Doctor floating face down in the pool, a pink cloud spreading from the dent in his skull.

 Ice Age

“Was he murdered?” I asked.

Hendry shrugged. “That’s one theory. The other is he drank a bottle of gin, fell in and drowned. Brilliant guy but liked the juice.”

“Surely the police can work out how he died?”

“They don’t have CSI down there, Jack.”

“They could bring experts in.”

He nodded, though not convincingly and stirred his salmon salad with this fork. “Sure, they could do that,” he said, dropping his voice to a whisper (which seemed pointless as it was mid-afternoon, and we were the only ones in the place.) “But the uncertainty works better for us.”

I was confused.

“We were gone for next season. Finished. But now look what we have.”

“What?”

He shook his head.

“Haven’t you learned anything on the show? What’s the biggest thing on reality TV?”

I had no idea.

“Jesus, Jack. The celebrity trial. The celebrity fucking trial. We could get a season out of that and probably a season for the appeals if he’s found guilty.”

“You mean Carl? He’s going to be charged?”

“Well that’s up to the authorities down there, of course.”

There was a sly smile that suggested he already knew their decision.

“This is going to be big. I might even be able to convince them to allow the audience to decide if he’s innocent or guilty. Imagine that — a jury of millions.” He was planning now. “I’ll need you to write some stuff of course. There needs to be other suspects. Hans hated the Doc’s success, and there was Marion’s obsession with him. Do a back story for all of them, even the six girls. I want the audience thinking that anyone could be the killer.”

I nodded slowly.

“Even you,” I said, smiling.

Hendry stopped and thought for a moment, then shook his head.

“Nice twist, but it wouldn’t work. I’m behind the camera. No one knows me.”

He lifted a fork full of salad to his mouth, waved it under his nose and then let it drop. “I don’t like the smell of seafood,” he said.

“Why did you order it then?” I asked.

He shrugged. “It looks good on the plate.”

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About The Author

Bart Meehan

Bart Meehan lives in Canberra, ACT. He has published several stories in magazines and e-zines, including AurealisMattoid and Alien Skin.

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garry dean narratorGarry Dean lives on the Mid Coast of New South Wales Australia, and has been a fan of SF for most of his natural life. Being vision impaired, he makes good use of voice recognition and text to speech in order to write. Many of his stories have appeared in AntipodeanSF over the years, and his love of all things audio led him to join the narration team in 2017.

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pixie willo 100Pixie is a voice actor, cabaret performer & slam poet From the Blue Mountains in NSW.

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timonthy gwyn 100Timothy Gwyn is a professional pilot in Canada, where he flies to remote communities. During a lull in his flying career, he was a radio announcer for three years, and he is also an author.

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mark english 100Mark is an astrophysicist and space scientist who worked on the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn. Following this he worked in computer consultancy, engineering, and high energy research (with a stint at the JET Fusion Torus).

All this science hasn't damped his love of fantasy and science fiction. It has, however, ruined his enjoyment of rainbows, colourful flames on romantic log fires, and rings around the moon. He has previously been published in Stupefying Stories Showcase, Everyday Fiction, Escape Pod, Perihelion and also on AntipodeanSF where he is part of the narration team.

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marg essex 200Margaret lives the good life on a small piece of rural New South Wales Australia, with an amazing man, a couple of pets, and several rambunctious wombats.

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lauriebell 2 200Laurie Bell lives in Melbourne, Australia. She was that girl you found with her nose always buried in a book. She has been writing ever since she was a little girl and first picked up a pen. From books to short stories, radio plays to snippets of ideas and reading them aloud to anyone who will listen.

She is the author of The Butterfly Stone (YA/ Fantasy — available now) and White Fire (Sci Fi — available now)

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Carolyn's work spans devising, performance, theatre-in-education and a collaborative visual art practice.

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david whitaker 200David Whitaker is originally from the UK though has travelled around a bit and now resides in India. He has a degree in Journalism, however decided that as he’s always preferred making things up it should ultimately become a resource rather than a profession.

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Upcoming Cons

Nullus Anxietas VII: The Australian Discworld Convention — will be held in Melbourne on April 12-14, 2019, and is themed on Going Postal. More information: <https://ausdwcon.org/>.

Swancon 2019 — 18/04/2019 - 22/04/2019,  Esplanade Hotel Fremantle by Rydges 46-54 Marine Terrace, Fremantle WA 6160. Swancon is Australia's longest-running science-fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction convention, and is the premiere event in Perth for fans of all forms of speculative media. More information: <https://swancon.com.au>.

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