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BYUtv delves into uncharted territory with new sci-fi series ‘Extinct’

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It’s been 400 years since evil aliens known as the Kariks caused the extinction of human-kind. But now, after four centuries, a small colony of revived humans, the Reborns, are treading the earth again under the mysterious supervision of the Originators, the highly advanced and seemingly peaceful alien species who brought them back.

That epic introduction is the premise of BYUtv’s latest scripted television original: a sci-fi thriller dubbed “Extinct.” The show is a vast departure from the channel’s regular content, as well as its previous scripted original, the Cold War drama “Granite Flats.”

“This is a new frontier for BYU Television,” said “Extinct” Director Ryan Little. “They’re saying listen, we want to give something different a try here and see how people respond. … It’s definitely fresh, definitely different than what people are used to seeing on BYU Television.”

Little is an acclaimed producer and director known for his work on the “Saints and Soldiers” films. Seeking a new frontier himself, he teamed with the show’s co-creator, Aaron Johnston, to bring to life a concept that was not only powerful, but original.

“From day one, (the network) has been supportive of the story content and creative decisions,” Johnston said. “I’m excited to see how BYUtv audiences respond. They’ve only done one other scripted television show, so this is only second foray, and scripted content is really the lifeblood of any network. I applaud BYUtv for jumping in with both feet, and I hope it leads to a longstanding relationship with lots more stories to tell.”

‘Extinct’ reborn

As mentioned, the plot of “Extinct” revolves around the Reborns – the humans who were brought back to Earth. But they aren’t the only thing about the show that’s been born again.

According to Johnston, “Extinct” was originally intended to become a film project before BYUtv producer Adam Abel became aware of the concept. He was intrigued, and immediately asked if the idea could be evolved for television, which is a far cry from the limited basis of a film. With films, you have about two hours to tell a story in what Johnston termed as a “very contained, finite time frame.”

“However, in television, you have to create a world that provides hopefully an infinite number of story avenues because you have no idea how long a television series can exist,” he explained. “You have to create a universe big enough and deep enough with back story and history broad enough that you can … have an ample number of stories to tell.”

To move from that finite film to unlimited television format for BYUtv, a majority of the story had to be scrapped and Johnston and his co-creator for the show, acclaimed sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card, had to begin again with the core concepts of “Extinct.”

“We knew what we had structured wasn’t what television had required,” Johnston said.

However, according to Johnson, world building is where Orson Scott Card truly excels.

“I’ve collaborated with him for a long time now, but I think one of the most rewarding parts of my job is to get to sit down with Orson Scott Card and create worlds that don’t exist,” Johnston said. “It’s fascinating to me, and hopefully it’s fascinating to others. People will find the world of ‘Extinct’ is not something people have discovered before. The story is built on the worst possible premise imaginable, which is we no longer exist. The human race is no more. Everything we love, cherish and have fought for since our creation has been wiped out. There’s no circumstance worse than that.”

Telling a story

Aside from just creating a world, show creators and producers had to find a way to fill that world and ultimately create a story worth telling.

“The big challenge in telling any story is to tell a story that’s never been told before,” Johnston said. “We didn’t want to be like anything else. We wanted it to be completely unique. Also, sometimes some of the best ideas stem from the restrictions in which you set the idea.”

With “Extinct,” the cast and crew used show limitations, such as the switch from film to television, to recreate the story. They began with a small cast and used the landscape of Utah for many of the scenes. Combining that with budgetary restrictions, they then began to build.

“Orson Scott Card and I created this universe because it sounded unlike anything either of us had been exposed to. It didn’t sound like anything we’d heard before and that’s when you know you have something that might be interesting to other people as well.”

A big part in building the story was the casting of the show, which definitely caused it to evolve.

“Television, as you know is a collaborative and evolutionary process,” Johnston said. “When we pitched the idea to the network, we had all 10 episodes detailed in their outlines and had the story arc very well defined – we knew where we wanted to go. The instant we started casting for the show, the instant started seeing actors reading lines and interacting with each other, we began to discover where the magic is, and wherever the magic is that’s what you pursue vigorously even if it means abandoning what you had built before.”

One big game changer for the story was the casting of Victoria Atkin in the role of Feena. Atkin is a British actress best known for her work on the television series “Hollyoaks,” as well as on the video game “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.”

“One of the great things about working on the show is we were able to, as actors, have a say,” Atkin said. “To have that creativity as part of the process, them being open to that, made it a delight build these characters.”

“On a TV show, there are just so many voices and things become extremely collaborative on almost every decision that is made on the show,” said Little. “That’s probably my most favorite part. I definitely do enjoy the collaboration of working with everybody, taking something and when we’re there in the moment … shaping it and making it even better and more elevated.”

Focusing on Feena

According to Atkin, the character of Feena is the first female to be reborn in “Extinct.” She, along with fellow humans Ezra (played by Chad Michael Collins) and Abram (Yorke Fryer), are working to discover why they individually have been brought back.

Though Feena, in her past life, was a hacker, Atkin says there’s still ample ways she can relate to her character.

“Every character I play has parts of me,” Atkin said. “I would say Feena is an extreme version of me when I’m being stubborn. She’s knows what she wants and she goes out and gets it. There’s little compromise. She has a big heart, but it’s covered in armor and she doesn’t let many people in. She holds a lot of information back from Ezra and Abram and is very distrusting in that sense. She’s trying to protect herself.”

According to Atkin, as the series goes on, it’s revealed why Feena is the way she is, but ultimately, she’s just trying to survive like everyone else in an environment that offers little luxury.

Despite the struggles her character faces, though, Atkin said she has loved working within the realm of science fiction.

“I love the genre,” she said. “It’s such a great playground for an actor – so fun. You get to use your imagination and really expand on what the world might be like.”

According to Atkin, she was hooked on the concept for “Extinct” from the moment she first read the pilot.

“I had not read a script for a long time that had such original, unique ideas,” she said. “It really sparked my curiosity, and I knew I wanted to have the part.”

Bringing the show to life

Casting is just the first step, though, in bringing a show to life. From there, words move from the pages of scripts and are mixed with sets, costumes and actors to ultimately create the world being portrayed.

“I’m traditionally a novelist,” said Johnston. “It’s very different from writing a television show. The most rewarding thing for me about writing for television is to put something on paper and watch life breathed into it when the actors are actually speaking those words. The performance adds depth and emotion that enriches the whole experience. … It’s incredibly rewarding for a writer, seeing something you created come to life in a way that far exceeds how you envisioned.”

The show was filmed in Utah, with locations including the Salt Flats, St. George, Kanab, Payson and Fillmore, as well as the main set in the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo. According to Johnston, the state provided the perfect, natural setting for the story.

“Utah is incredible in its geographic diversity,” he said. “It looks even alien in some places. If you’re going to do a post-apocalyptic show with Earth returned to its original state, Utah great place to do it.”

“I actually adore Utah,” Atkin added. “I’d never been there before and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to in my life, and to have the opportunity to film in that environment was so amazing. I’m excited for people to see it – the visually stunning environment is character in itself.

The take-away

“Extinct” debuts Sunday on BYUtv, and if viewers take nothing else away from the show, Johnston said he hopes it’s a new perspective.

“What do we lose when we lose everything?” he asked. “If you were given a second chance on life what would you do differently? Every day we try to improve on who we were yesterday. … It’s not lost on us that this show takes place on BYUtv. I embrace everything that BYUtv stands for. Their tagline is ‘See the good in the world.’ So many shows on television show us everything that is horrible about the world and horrible about human beings. You have to face the bad to see the good and I hope that ‘Extinct’ shines the light on what is good about humans, about us as a species, about us as families, and why we are worth fighting for.”

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