From 'Tron' To Steampunk: Discovering 'Bruce Boxleitner's Lantern City'

Bruce Boxleitner would like very much to talk to you about steampunk. In my recent chat with the Tron and Babylon 5 actor, I found that he'd become something of an evangelist for this bit of mash-up culture. So much that he's looking to build a television show around it with his project Lantern City.

The series, which is currently in development with Boxleitner serving as co-creator and executive producer, sees three characters thrust from our world into that of the titular steampunk metropolis, struggling to survive that's similar to our own, but with a dangerous, stratified Victorian flourish. Mixing political intrigues and drama, the series will feature the designs of steampunk engineers Art Donovan, Thomas Willeford, Joey Marsoccci, and Tom Banwell in what in Boxleitner's vision will be an expansive universe that, to his mind, does justice to steampunk.

Right now, the series is in its earliest stages of development, but I spoke to Boxleitner recently, along with co-creator and fellow executive producer Trevor Crafts and writer Matthew James Daley about their vision for the series and why it was so important to use steampunk to tell this particular story.

At the start of our conversation, Crafts was quick to explain that this wasn't first and foremost a steampunk project--it was important that Lantern City which was character-focused on its trio of heroes: "Outsiders" Rachel, Maxwell, and Duke who are transported via a mysterious lantern into Lantern City. There, they find a society split between the monied rulers of the Grey Empire to the fringe denizens of The Underground, to the closely-controlled members of the Working Class who live in a kind of surveillance state under the Grey Empire.

To hear Boxleitner tell it, the story, which he likens to the connected, cross-cutting narratives of Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones, is kind of his way of exposing mainstream audiences to the under-represented genre of steampunk:

To tell you the truth, even though steampunk is a very big thing with genre fans, to mainstream audiences it’s still a very unfamiliar world. They’ve seen bits and pieces of it throughout the years, but I’ll walk up and talk to someone about steampunk and they’ll look at me and go “What is that?”

It’s also hard to explain to someone what steampunk is to someone who has absolutely no knowledge of science fiction, literature, what have you. So I think I agree with Trevor that this is a world that will be brand new to people and I think it’s so rich and visual, just to talk about the filmmaking aspect of it.

When he describes steampunk, you can hear the excitement in his voice about the possibility of working in that world and introducing it to a wider audience. He explains to me that it's a world that fascinates him while Crafts adds that it also incorporates their shared love of history, science, and Victorian-inspired elements.

Bruce Boxleitner's Introduction to Lantern City from Lantern City on Vimeo.

Now here's where I should point out a curious thing about steampunk: it's hard to really nail down what it is. I mean, it's an aesthetic, but then it's also kind of a platform for telling stories about a nexus of technologies that are both advanced and antiquated. I think Crafts puts it into perspective when he explains that like the space station setting of Babylon 5, it's really a setting where you can mix and match narrative elements.

Boxleitner also explains that from where he's sitting, Lantern City is also a nice way to move genre TV out of the same cycle of supernatural/vampire/zombie stuff that fills the airwaves now. While he says he enjoys The Walking Dead, he's a little tired of them and think they need to take a rest.

As for the story, the Lantern City team's hope is to keep it complex, Boxleitner explaining that it incorporates crime, punishment, politics, and at its core, "a wonderful love story." Craft added that some of the themes the series will explore are “How far would you go to find the person you love the most,” “What would you do to survive a place that you know nothing about?” The admit that this is basic monomyth stuff but heightened by paring away the different cross sections of the city and really seeing this living, breathing environment at work.

Writer Matt Daley added to the list of influences something like The Wire, not in terms of the vast numbers of characters in that brilliant series, but instead in terms of focusing on and elaborating on different corners of the world. For Daley, it's important that it feel natural for the show to work with these different strands of narrative and work with the different types of stories being told between the classes: "If you're with the workers for a long time then it makes sense... whereas extending outside of the world, we're still working on that and looking into that, but we don't want to get too big before we really explore the world that we have."

Scope is very much at the forefront of the trio's thinking about Lantern City. Earlier in our conversation, Boxleitner joked about having the money to match their ambition for the project, but later he talked about working on a project of similarly sprawling scope in Babylon 5, and how showrunner/writer J. Michael Straczynski had a lot of ambition for the series that was also limited by budgetary concerns. "I love how it was very stripped-down, we did it in a low-budget way but it was [about] the writing." He had nothing but praise for Matt Daley's writing on Lantern City in terms of this project's attempts to reach the same type of scope as B5.

Crafts says that they may be able to reach some of their vision for the show thanks to advances in technology: shooting digitally, being able to cut on the fly, but they'll also be getting a little help from the fans with some fan-made content--props, etc.--making their way into the show. He says that he admires the distinctive community built around steampunk and it was in part for this reason that they're enlisting enthusiasts in that community to contribute to the show.

"The thing is, we couldn't succeed with the first steampunk show [or] wear that stamp without support from the community," Crafts explains, saying that one of their early ideas was to create a fan contest where people could submit their props, costumes, and designs. "You see all of this rich, beautiful work that artists are doing, and sort of in a different way, why does it only have to be Hollywood prop people that can provide props? I mean, there is work out there that is on par with people doing this work constantly in Hollywood." He describes it as potentially a vast international gallery of steampunk content in TV form, allowing them to engage the fans and vice versa with plans to detail on the show's website where each prop came from.

For Boxleitner, it's also a matter of establishing trust with the steampunk community which he feels hasn't been particularly well-represented onscreen. He feels that Hollywood prop designers might be able to come up with "some general looking things" that would lack the specificity of something created by the community. Crafts added that this is in part why the four steampunk artists they have onboard were brought on: to lend the project some additional authenticity.

Before we ended our chat, I asked if there was one property they could give the steampunk treatment to, what would it be. Daley says he'd love to approach Batman with a steampunk take, with Boxleitner chiming in that as he was watching The Dark Knight Rises he could see some elements of their project taking shape in Nolan's film. While Crafts proposed the how-would-it-even-work-I'd-watch-that Tron: Uprising for a steampunk remix, Boxleitner says he wishes The Wild Wild West TV series could be revisited, honoring the "James Bond in the Old West" series.

You can follow the development of Lantern City on its site, where you can also submit your props to be featured in the show. Additionally, the show's creative team will be at Dragon Con next week on Sunday, September 2nd from 2:30-3:30 PM in the Westin Peachtree Hotel Atlanta Ballroom. You can find out more about their panel here.

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