By Ryan Francis Kelly
In the near future, there will be a reality show on Mars.
After NASA receives a substantial donation from a popular tube station, it will allow the station to cover the selection process for its Biodome Experiment. Over the course of one week, viewers all over America will inload the drama and intrigue as NASA’s remaining candidates battle for the last 50 tickets to Mars. This mini-series, Countdown to the Biodome, will be divided neatly into seven nightly one-hour programs. The majority of final selections will be made by NASA itself, but ten special candidates will be selected through interactive voting by the show’s audience.
When the tube station first arrives on the Washington, D.C. set, its casting directors will review background information and identify the most watchable and entertaining candidates. Countdown’s coverage will revolve around the most peculiar and outrageous participants and pay little attention to the hundreds of doctors, astrophysicists, anthropologists, geologists, university professors, journalists, and historians in the larger candidate pool. Cameramen will closely follow the cast members who add the most controversy or sensationalism: an honorably discharged police lieutenant; a horticulturalist with ties to radical environmental groups; an excommunicated Catholic bishop who opposes the doctrinal stance on celibacy; a midwife spokeswoman for subsidized contraception and government-funded abortions; a cruise line risk management consultant with a background in government intelligence and espionage. Countdown’s list of strange characters will grow as the week progresses, perhaps to a laughable and implausible degree.
Anonymous NASA employees will create a blog and release official statements to the media, claiming that the tube station planted certain individuals into the Biodome candidate pool. They will assert that many contestants featured on Countdown couldn’t possibly have passed NASA’s rigorous screening process. These anonymous whistleblowers will be hunted down by freelance hackers and immediately terminated by NASA’s front office.
The majority of Countdown’s audience will never read nor hear these reports of foul play, and they will continue to vote as if the show’s cast had been compiled organically. The tube station will recognize the mass appeal of a Biodome filled with everyday men and women, rather than a cast of stuffy academics and uncharismatic scientists. The station will understand the audience’s desire to see themselves within these hypothetical space pilgrims. They will bank on the viewer’s determination to believe.
After votes are tallied, the remaining 50 tickets will be awarded. The Biodome Project will be under way. The 250 selected American citizens will receive simulated training on Earth and then travel to Mars via rocket. Once landed, they will endure six months of orientation and acclimation to their Biodome habitat on the Red Planet’s surface. For a year and a half, viewers will eagerly await the fate of their beloved reality stars. There will be lots of speculation in the media and on Internet message boards, mostly about whether or not the tube station will be able to gain access to the Biodome or convince NASA to support a press voyage to Mars.
Just before the eighteen-month mark, a series called OctoMom Summer Camp will suddenly be interrupted by a sneak-peek trailer for a new series—The Biodome Project, the first reality show in history to be filmed entirely on Mars. The trailer will reveal the station’s clever scheme of planting hidden cameras throughout the Biodome structure, strategically, so that they will catch the areas of frequent interaction between the new Mars residents. Since the show’s participants will be unaware of these cameras, the tube station will guarantee audiences an authentic and unfiltered view of what’s really happening on the Biodome.
But that will turn out to be pretty boring.
Inhabitants of the Biodome will live harmoniously together and fulfill their given tasks with cheerful cooperation. Any tension caused by arguments or disagreements will dissipate quickly and resolve themselves through unspoken truces and distant cordiality. All Biodome romances will be mechanical and short-lived, like itches to be scratched out. Community members will not allow petty weaknesses like jealousy to interfere with their roles in the dome’s microcosm of society; their actions will reflect an admiration for the dome’s achievement and a reverence for its protection. The structure’s amenities will include a library, computer lab, swimming pool, gymnasium, greenhouse, recreation center, theater, infirmary, and cafeteria. Residents will have their intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs met. There will be little to no dissent among the ranks.
But when The Biodome Project suffers a huge drop in the weekly ratings, the tube station will recognize a need for pivoting in their programming strategy. In order to add shock value and increase public interest, the station will order its moles inside the Biodome to contaminate supplies and sabotage the structure’s homeostasis. Then the station will send an official satellite message to the Biodome community members, explaining how they have been surveilled and broadcasted to millions of viewers on Earth. Even though some cast members from Countdown suspected a sequel, none of them will have been privy to the secret filming inside the dome. The more brazen cast members will be unable to hide their outrage and indignation. A few of the eldest members will flush red and laugh nervously. The filmed reaction from the surprised community will serve as the opening shots for The BioDrome, a new spinoff of the original series.
The tube station will announce that all the rules are changing. Instead of a utopian haven, the newly named BioDrome will serve as a stadium of spectacle, an arena where contestants will do battle for survival. With limited supplies, the community will not be able to maintain its full population. Each week on The BioDrome, the two weakest members will be voted out of the project by the show’s participants and audience; those chosen will be jettisoned back to Earth in escape pods, a dangerous journey with a 12% chance of death.
After the cast members endure seven weeks of these discharges, two of the exiles will perish due to pod complications and extreme atmospheric conditions. They will completely incinerate into stardust while traversing the thermosphere in one of the most horrific reality TV deaths in history. Following the incident, a minority of viewers will boycott the show on moral grounds, but the tube station’s ratings will soar to unprecedented heights.
Under the harsh stipulations of The BioDrome, only certain cast members will shine. The tube station’s allegedly planted contestants will survive because of their popularity among viewers, a notoriety fed weekly by their constantly changing schemes and alliances. All-star BioDromers like the former police lieutenant and cruise line risk manager will become villainized by other cliques in the community. Factions will form out of fear and self-preservation. Lies will be told, and participants will be manipulated and sacrificed weekly. The twist of events will start to resemble that of psychological thrillers and whodunit mysteries. The show will grow increasingly dark and suspenseful in its branding. It will start incorporating eerie music, jump cuts, and prolonged close-up shots of contestants’ faces in order to create a feeling of melodrama and looming dread. The BioDrome will be designed to generate a sense of distrust and keen skepticism among its contestants.
Fans of the show will follow suit. They’ll separate into different camps and campaign for support of certain contestants. Heated online debates will ensue, mostly ad hominem attacks back and forth between groups. Message boards will flood with hateful posts that further polarize the fandom and increase the passion behind the weekly voting.
In one particular post, a fan with the username, @GetDromed, will argue reasons as to why a certain female journalist on the show should be voted off. This fan will describe the journalist as “uppity” and “tight.” His post will claim that the journalist’s “insistence on pointless dome meetings” and her “proposals for open and transparent dialogue” are ruining the game. The fan will add his distaste for the journalist’s “stupid hipster glasses” to his list of criteria. He will end his message by declaring that “the Drome would be better off without her, and maybe Earth would be, too. Let’s just hope that she’s part of the 12%.” His controversial comments will incite a chain reaction on the boards, a rampant flame war consisting of more posts with similar extremity.
The BioDrome will set a record for the most consecutive weeks at #1 in the TV ratings. After a few years of broadcasting, the Biodome community’s population will dwindle down to 40 remaining members. Nearly all of them will have been flagged as actors in the anonymously leaked report from NASA employees. Over 20 discharged Biodome members will have died in their treacherous return journeys to Earth. At this point, the cast of characters left in the dome will consist of nothing but fan favorites, divided neatly into two factions of 20. The tube station will take the show off the air for a few weeks, in order to build suspense for what they believe will be the most viewed series finale in history. When they return with the premiere for the last season, the show’s contestants will behave as usual. Their votes will be split evenly among four discharges, in a tie, just as the station will have predicted.
But the audience’s votes will never register that week. Not even a single fan vote will be cast, even though the ratings will have been the highest ever recorded. During the show’s brief hiatus, fans of the two factions will have called a truce over the Internet. Every post with a voting suggestion will have been met by several convincing refutations. Eventually, the fans will have become hopeless and confused about their loyalties. For the first time in the show’s history, they will have found every remaining character to be important and worth saving. They will surprise the tube station by completely boycotting that week’s vote, as a way of preserving the show’s shelf-life and challenging the programmers to once again change the rules.
The tube station will react by cutting the live feed and ordering its 40 planted actors to recast their votes unevenly, so that they can film that week’s two discharges. The station will even offer a special, safer transport home for those who take the fall. But the actors will be extremely moved by the audience’s boycott, seeing it as the ultimate praise for their combined performance over the years. The actors will refuse to betray their millions of fans. They will feign their agreement with the station’s terms, but only until the live feed returns. When they’re once again being broadcasted, the contestants will break the fourth wall and expose the whole sham to the audience. They will be unable to divulge everything before the power is cut, but they will have revealed enough to raise the audience’s suspicion.
Infuriated, the tube station will order its moles to dust the Biodome’s greenhouse with poisonous chemicals and then evacuate the premises. The moles will quickly follow their Situation C protocol, leaving no escape pods behind for the remaining community members. The moles will jettison most of the remaining supplies and food in the unmanned pods, sparing the Biodome a mere two-week’s worth of food for two individuals.
A few of the actors will retaliate by destroying every hidden camera they can locate in the Biodome, but there will be several that remain unfound or out of reach. The tube station will take sick pleasure in reactivating the live feed, this time without the sound. Fans will continue to watch as their idolized space pilgrims ration off the scarce resources and slowly starve. Knowing that they are most likely still being filmed, the actors will erect a makeshift stage and play out scenes from their real lives, devoid of their farcical roles on BioDrome. In the muted hum of their screens and speakers, fans will only be able to speculate as to what is being said. They will organize viewing parties where groups of fans reenact the silent performances, creating their own storylines and dialogue in homage to the starving artists on screen.
The actors will deliver new scenes until they are too weak and deteriorated to perform. By the time they start suffering from severe malnutrition and energy deficiency, the vast majority of fans will have stopped tuning in, preferring to remember the contestants as vital and exuberant. When the actors begin experiencing a loss of muscle mass, edema, and stomach bloating, only the most sadistic and perverse audience members will persist in their voyeurism. By the time the cast is motionless, broken only by the occasional writhe or twitch, the fans will have boycotted once more. The last episode will have the show’s lowest rating, as the fans finally agree to avert their collective eyes. No one will witness The BioDrome’s final breath.
To make a point about their power and control, the tube station will eat a week’s worth of profit by airing nothing but the dead bodies on the Biodome floor. They will lose out on millions of dollars’ worth of advertising, as they privately try to figure out a way to re-spin the Biodome angle to the audience. When their brainstorming fails, they will cut the live feed and halt production, walking away a hundred times richer than before Countdown’s premiere. Many years later, the tube station will sell the rights of The BioDrome to several other stations, who will then put the reruns into syndication.
The reruns will fail with older generations who remember the original show, but their condemnation of the program will increase interest among younger viewers. At first, youthful viewers will interpret The BioDrome as science fiction, unable to believe its atrocities. But once they discover and confirm it as nonfiction, they will be hooked. They will call it yesterday’s reality and follow it with cult-like passion. They will binge on dozens and then hundreds of episodes at a time, in an epic reliving of television’s greatest tragedy.
History will repeat itself, once again, before a whole new set of eyes.
Ryan Francis Kelly is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee whose poems, stories, and articles have appeared in dozens of online and print journals. To view a list of his published works, visit: www.ryanfranciskelly.com/publishedwork. Ryan often wishes he were the Cheshire Cat so that he could disappear and leave behind nothing but his floating grin. He hopes to one day be famous enough to use as many ampersands & exclamation points as he wants! But he’d also settle for being one of the three things that walks into a bar at the beginning of jokes. Follow him on Twitter @RFrancisKelly.