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How the Magic & Economics of Canadian Sci-Fi TV Helped Create ‘Continuum’

How the Magic & Economics of Canadian Sci-Fi TV Helped Create 'Continuum'

For decades, Vancouver has been a very familiar backdrop to fans of shows from “The X-Files” to “Stargate,” and the time travel drama “Continuum” has been celebrating the tradition of Canadian-shot science fiction since 2012. (It’s even actually set in Canada!) The series, created by Simon Davis Barry, has run for three seasons on Syfy, but yesterday it was announced that its upcoming fourth season will be its last. In two separate interviews — one conducted in October at the Vancouver International Film Festival, one via phone today — Barry told Indiewire about how the decision affects previous plans for the series finale, why the fourth season will be more focused than the third and what it’s like to cast your show from a fanboy perspective. An edited transcript is below.

I remember, when I first watched “Continuum,” being surprised by how Canadian it is.

Because we were anchored with a Canadian broadcaster, and because I was living in Vancouver and most of the team who helped put the team together were in Vancouver too, we almost blindly said: “Screw it. Let’s do this in Vancouver, we’ll set in Vancouver,” and then at some point someone might say, “Generic North American city setting.” We just assumed that might happen and it never did. What we ended up with was an ability to embrace the “Canadian-ness” of it, which was really nice because we just thought let’s just make Vancouver a character, let’s build our mythology around what might happen in the city in 60 years and let’s not hide it. Let’s use it and enrich the mythology of the show. In that sense we did kind of become Canadian overtly, and I didn’t try to hide it which I thought was a refreshing change from all the shows that shoot here, that make a huge effort to pretend they are somewhere else.

I’m glad I was picking up on something you were doing purposefully.

We were overt, we really were. We were saying, “Screw it. Let’s put Vancouver in the credits, in the titles, let’s have Canadian flags.” At this point in the future there are no Canadian flags, but in the present we were sort of saying, “It doesn’t matter — hopefully our mythology is larger than any setting.”

Like a lot of people with nerd inclinations, I grew up on Canadian science fiction — it’s a very special genre of television. In the ’90s, you were working up here?

As a cameraman. I started my career in the camera department as an assistant. I was working on mostly movies, I did a couple of TV shows. I did the pilot for “Broken Badges” which was a Stephen J. Cannell show with Miguel Ferrer, and then I would do a lot of day call. I worked on all the standard ones, like “Jump Street” and “MacGuyver.” I never worked on “Stargate.”

You are maybe one of eight Canadians who can probably say that.

[laughs] I never worked on “Stargate” ever, at all, and then when I finished working as a camera technician and I moved to L.A to become a writer, that was kind of it with my relationship with Canadian production for a decade.

It’s so funny, whenever we have a “Stargate” actor on “Continuum” the internet lights up, because people have such a great connection to that show and sci-fi fans, as you know, they have a great sense of who’s been in what, and when and there’s this knowledge base of connecting actors, writers, filmmakers to all these shows which is kind of cool. I remember doing that when I was a fan of “Star Trek” and I’d see an actor from “Star Trek,” the original series, on like “Hawai Five-0” or some other cop show. I knew the name of that actor even though they had a small part on “Star Trek.” I was like: “Oh, that’s like a star.”


It’s funny, I didn’t watch a lot of “Stargate” when it was on. It just wasn’t on my radar. But I was a huge fan of “Battlestar Galactica,” the remake. When I was casting “Continuum” and casting actors from “Battlestar,” I was this giddy fanboy… We got to use Tahmoh [Penikett] on “Continuum,” and I saw him in a very different light, because I was such a fan of the show. Even Alessandro Juliani, when we cast him as a guest star, it was exciting for me as a showrunner to work with someone who I was a fan of. It is interesting how you perceptively shift your assessment of people based on, being a fan on a show, or not knowing the show as well. I would see that in other people because for example, Tony Amendola [Kegame on “Continuum”] had a huge following from “Stargate,” but I didn’t really know “Stargate” that well. However, I could see the reactions of other people, because he was such an iconic character from “Stargate.” Even Jennifer Spence, too.

Remind me who Jen Spence is?

Jen Spence plays Betty on “Continuum,” and she also had some major exposure on one of the “Stargate”s.

By Canadian law.

[laughs] Exactly.

What went into the decision to make the fourth season the final season?

I’m obviously not privy to the conversations that happen inside the network, but I think from their perspective… whether it was an issue of internal profits or the money that gets recycled back into the broadcaster, to cover what they’re paying out or whether we’re simply making a creative decision, I think ultimately we were probably on the bubble in terms of how we were bringing money back in for the Canadian broadcaster. In terms of their decision-making process, we probably received the benefit of the doubt in terms of not being canceled, which a lot of shows are when they’re not performing to expectations. They wisely recognized there was an opportunity to service the fans, and also to make more of an event around this final season. It seemed like a lot of things lined up in our favor in that sense. Obviously, I’m speculating, because you never get to hear the inside information.

You seemed pretty confident, back in October, about the show getting picked up.

We definitely had indications early on. When there’s a delay and there’s no cancellation, you know people are working on finding a solution. That’s pretty clear. The delay is usually because somebody is working hard to find a solution that isn’t cancellation. The longer it went, the more I felt we had momentum, and I certainly started hearing things early on in terms of getting prepared for ideas and getting ready to present plans for Season 4, which gave me the indication that we had a final chance. But a lot of that has to do with how everything comes together, because we still have to do our jobs as producers to put together the mechanism by which the show gets made, which is the right people and the right budget, things like that that everyone has to agree on.

Every season on “Continuum,” we’ve had less money. One of the reasons we have less money is because when a show succeeds in its first season, usually the first season is the gamble season to launch it — much like opening a business. You put a lot of effort and a lot of energy and a lot of money into having a strong launch, then you kind of hope that the longer you last the more you can claw back that investment and the show can generate revenue in a positive sense.


The first season is the “gamble” season, so the second season’s budget then reflects what they feel like the first season performed?

Essentially the second season is now the chance for everyone to capitalize on that. You’re not in a position now where you’re trying to launch a show, you’re trying to sustain a show. The goal is always to get the next season, so how do you that in a way that’s fiscally responsible, but that doesn’t compromise the quality of the show? A lot of times you can tie the money to the quality — in terms of time, in terms of talent that you can bring in. It’s always running that fine edge of how much can we still make a quality show for, and still stay within the financial restrictions of people who don’t want to spend more than the show is making.

So, this is my nerdy time travel question–

[laughs]

It’s so hard to make time travel work narratively in just a two hour movie. For you, hitting Season 3 and going into Season 4, how do you handle every complication that you’ve created?

It’s a good question. There was probably a time where we went into the show feeling like time travel had to be something that was touched on all the time. But we realized in the beginning, that once we’d set up the time travel event there was a ton of stuff to mine before we did time travel again. Really, for me, the challenge was how much of this story can we really exploit before I use this time travel trope, or that time travel device — I mean time travel device, literally and figuratively — to create more drama.

We had an idea, at the beginning of Season 2, that we wanted to have another time travel event in the show, just as a component of our experience. The goal after Season 1 was let’s work toward a travel time moment, because we knew we hadn’t done it. We had really kind of avoided using time travel, because it does kind of get you in a ton of trouble. As you know, out of Season 2 and Season 3 that this one decision for Alec (Erik Knudsen) to go back in time reverberated in so many ways. I’m really glad we didn’t do more time travel. [laughs] Because it’s been so complicated dealing with that one end-of-Season-2 moment. Season 3 was incredibly complex as a result.

We had a great dramatic moment at the end of Season 2 with Alec going away, but I don’t think we appreciated, when we wrote that, all of the things we would have to deal with in Season 3. Season 3 became a really hard lesson — not a hard lesson in the sense that it was difficult, but a hard lesson in that we felt an obligation to pay off the results of that time travel choice. It was much more impactful than I realized, in terms of how it would affect the drama, how it would affect the characters. They were great opportunities, dramatically, but I think with the complexity of people trying to track it and follow it, we didn’t anticipate how hard it would be.


I was looking at Wikipedia to brush up for this and Wikipedia’s Season 3 episode guide is literally broken down by “Green Alec” and “Red Alec,” and then “Green Kiera” and “Red Kiera.”

It’s funny — in my head, it’s very clear. What you realize is that sometimes the things that are in your head are not clear to anyone else. This is a true story: Halfway through Season 3, halfway through, one of the producing writers came up to me and said to me, “I get it.” [laughs] What? We’re halfway through and now you get it? You were supposed to get it before we were started! I thought, “That was my fault.” I had created an atmosphere where people were afraid to say they didn’t know what was going on. It all worked out in the end, hopefully. I know that the audience that have binge watched Season 3 had a much easier time understanding.

The end of Season 3 really opens things up, in a cliffhanger-y way. Was that a deliberate reversal on the end of Season 2?

We definitely were thinking that the goal of the show each season is to try and create a new chapter in this new legacy, and this story. How do we make each season feel like a self-contained chapter? That’s a conscious decision.

Did you always have, in your head, an idea for the series finale?

I’ve always known how the show ends, from day one. It was the first conversation I had with the writers — “Here’s how the show will end” — just so everyone knew where we were heading and that we understood that we couldn’t violate certain rules to get to that point. It wasn’t necessarily just how the show would end, it was like: “Here are the rules of time travel that I’m adhering to in the philosophy of time travel,” so that everyone kind of understood what we could hint at.

How close is what you’re planning for the finale to what you initially had planned?

Well, it’s certainly a shortcut to the original idea we had. I think we’re definitely staying true to the plan. We’ve had to adjust a little bit as to where we left off and where the story needs to go, so we’ve built a story bridge, if you will, to link the ending we wanted to where we left off. So I feel very good about how these things are connecting.

When you say shortcut, how many seasons were you expecting the show would last initially?

I always expected it to be cancelled every year! So it was less about what I expected and more about what I was hoping for. I was hoping we could get seven years to tell the full story and all the various chapters. There were certainly opportunities to tell half a dozen specific, episodic stories — we had chatted about it internally, but ultimately it’s still a linear story and I don’t think we’re compromising anything by getting to the ending in four seasons as opposed to seven. It’s maybe some other stories that won’t get told, but those, at the end of the day, didn’t make a difference as to how the show would end or not.

Given how complicated things got in Season 3, will Season 4 be scaling back or will it take all those threads and take them to the next level?

It’s hard to sort of qualify “complicated.” We’re definitely building off of Season 3 because that’s the natural evolution of storytelling. You’re always building off what you just did. But I would say that because we’re now dealing with a shorter season in six episodes, it’s also an opportunity to not deal with the reality of thirteen, which is to tend to want to have more layers of storytelling and multiple threads. Now with six, we’re actually more focused on one clear story, which means the show could be closer to more of a limited series than a traditional 13-episode series.


How different is the rhythm of a six-episode season?

Well, it’s naturally different because it’s shorter. But it also provides opportunities that the longer seasons don’t. I’m actually excited for the shorter number, in the sense that it allows for a different style of storytelling, which is more appropriate for finishing the story, rather than trying to service the balancing act of 13 hours, which tends to balance more serial and episodic.

Looking forward, what is the thing you’re most excited for about the final season?

I’m excited for the ending. I really like our ending, and I think it’s going to be an ending that surprises fans in a way that I’m excited to see the reaction to. We’ve been building, we’ve had our eye on this for a long time, so it’s exciting to be able to plug in all these ideas we’ve been collecting over the years and execute them.

Do you have any idea on when it will premiere in Canada or in the U.S.?

I don’t know yet. I think it’s probably going to be summer or fall, but they have not let me know yet.

And do you know what you’re planning on going out with next?

Yeah. I’ve already been lucky enough to set up several new sci-fi concepts at a variety of different places. The question will be which one gets production going first.

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