More on Miskatonic University!

Posted: December 11, 2009 in Braak, Jeff Holland
Tags: ,

Because we put the work in, and, frankly, I have no idea what else to do with it. The engine of writing things for television is one whose operations are entirely opaque to me.  I asked Jon Rogers what I should do, but he hasn’t been forthcoming (in his defense, he is very busy)–and, as our early adventures in filming have shown (us, not you, because we’ll never show them to you), shooting the thing ourselves isn’t really feasible.

So, shit, at least you guys can get some pleasure out of it.  Comments? Suggestions?  Let’s all participate in the game.

When last we spoke, we’d just gotten a rough outline for the themes we’d expect to see in season 1.


Trustees, staff, other students – a large cast on the periphery we can bring in and out as needed, based on the larger structure (more “The Wire” than “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). (Maybe the entire janitorial staff is made up of reject-students who screwed up their brains with horrible chemicals, or simply went mad or catatonic after witnessing the horrors their studies had wrought!)


Or they are mind-controlled zombies, like from Reanimator.  Or maybe they look like mind-controlled zombies, but actually just turn out to be weird guys, in YET ANOTHER SURPRISING REVERSAL.


But regarding core characters, let’s think:

Jenny and her classmates are all, in ways that may or may not be apparent, potential mad scientists or practitioners of terrible and arcane sciences (in fact, one of them may be auditing Terrible and Arcane Sciences 201).

Jenny and the TA (my love of pun names dictates that his name should be something like Thomas Alexander Carpenter – both a nod to John Carpenter and I think it’s a good idea to stick with the English surnames that are also job titles) would be the central dynamic at first – Jenny, given her recent institutionalization and disgrace, would generally be a bit on the skittish side, personality-wise, so it’s a good idea if TA was just about the most low-key, unflappable person she could deal with. On the upside, that means he’s not at all judgmental, which might make him one of the few people she could find herself at ease with.

I believe we need a running joke about the “dead roommate means a 4.0 for the semester” urban legend – and the fact that nearly half the campus would have perfect GPAs. This would also introduce…

Melody Butcher. The Roommate. Despite initial promised perks of being able to live alone, a “housing snafu” (and this would be part of a running question of how much of the goings-on on campus are actually a social experiment, either designed or at least allowed by Dean Armitage) would have Melody moving in by the end of the pilot. Melody, with her automatic passing grades, would be a “party girl” – except on this campus, that means she freely experiments with making her own drugs.

And now, suddenly Jenny’s preferred solitary existence has been upended and her house is now a frequent social hub for all the freaks on campus. (For the sake of tying the cast together, maybe we can play with the idea that TA and Melody maybe had a brief fling, until things got weird. And here, when we say “weird,” we actually mean weird.)

Yes, let’s do a quick sketch of Jenny, too. I am picturing that she is kind of pale, light hair, cut very short (hallmark of her time in the asylum). Haunted expression, intense features. She doesn’t talk about math a lot, but when she starts to get excited about it, she rubs her wrists. For reasons that will become obvious.

So, the story opens with Jenny being finally discharged from the institution, where she had been committed. For what, yet, it is not revealed. Something serious, but something that she has apparently recovered from. She returns whom to parents that don’t know what to say to her, and she just doesn’t know what to do. She has no plans, no anything. She doesn’t think she can get into college, because she didn’t finish her last year of high school. Enter…shoot, uh….Zedidiah Waite, MKU trustee. He is very enigmatic, and kind of young-looking to be a trustee.

Huhm. This scene takes place at Jenny’s parents’ kitchen table. It is sunny, well-lit, nice. The scene is as creepy as it can possibly be. Wait! It has to start, I am changing it:

Jenny is in her room, lying on her bed listening to The Shins. Her mother enters.

Are you moping in here?


What did I say about moping?

I’m not moping.

You’re listening to the Shins.

No I’m not. (pause) Fine. (she turns off the music)

There’s someone here to see you.


He wants to talk to you about college. I said you were going to work at the Wal-Mart, but he was insistent. He’s in the kitchen.

(camera follows Jenny as she goes into the kitchen, where ZW is waiting)

Ms. Sever. My name is Zedidiah Waite. I’m a trustee for a small university in New England with a…unique educational paradigm.
Would I have heard of you?
No. We’d like to offer you admission.
What? Why?
The university I represent takes an interest in…unusual minds.
I didn’t apply. I didn’t finish high school. How…
When you are trying to find the unusual, you find yourself looking in unusual places. Do you know what this is? (he pulls out a paper from his briefcase, puts it on the table)
A…a standardized state assessment test? They made us all take them.
Correct. Do you recognize this one? It’s the free response portion of the math test.
That’s mine.
You ignored the given questions. Instead…what is this, Jenny? It looks like an advanced, multi-variable calculus.
It’s…an integratics theory. I…started thinking about it, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s a way. (she seems embarrassed) It was supposed to be an algorithm you could use to predict the future.
You did this when you were sixteen.
Fifteen. (Pause) I skipped a grade.
Z (takes more stuff out of his bag)
You’ll be receiving full tuition remission, of course, as well as room and board, a stipend for books and supplies, and a small, discretionary fund. For personal expenditures. Your studies will be directly supervised by Thomas Carpenter, in Cryptography and Linguistics. Classes start on September 3rd. Ms Sever. Welcome to Miskatonic University.

Braak–Also, now that I think about it: ZW’s right hand is going to be covered in horrible red burns. He’ll show it off in this scene, above, but wears gloves later on. All for reasons. IMPORTANT reasons.

First, a thought on the name “Zedidiah Waite.” Shortened, it is “Zed Waite.” Which sounds like a pun on the phrase “Dead Weight.” I don’t know if you were going for this or not, but that jumped out at me. Now that I write that out, I kind of like it.

We should also discuss the overall tone of the series before doing any serious scripting on it – are we putting together a comedic show with horror overtones, or a horror series with a good sense of humor? Given your initial pitch-line, “Harry Potter for grownups,” I had been leaning toward dark comedy, but the more we talk about it the more I think we’re actually developing a pretty good horror show. Not to discount the humor – if anything, I think that makes it all the more vital that we have a consistent sense of humor on it (especially since my main criticism of horror movies/TV is their general lack of such – a terrible thing when dealing with outlandish ideas, where humor tends to be a major defense mechanism).

BRAAK- I am always in favor of horror. My idea would be that this is a horror show that just doesn’t have any hesitation at putting wacky, funny stuff in it. Like the scene with the guy in the Cthulhu costume. The idea is that, by adopting such an absurd juxtaposition of the ominous and the regular college goofy, you’ll make things like the fact that the cricket mascot is jumping around in a Cthulhu costume creepier. Or something.

That said, I like the teaser, I like the idea of the Trustees as this ominous and hard-to-predict group of people (the entirely-too-young recruiter, for instance). [Braak–Also, of course, it gives available research content for fanboys. See, Zedidiah Waite must be related to the Innsmouth Waites, who were horrible old-money fish-men from Innsmouth. And Ephraim Waite is the father of Asenath Waite, one of the main characters in The Thing on the Doorstep, which is about a father switching minds with his daughter AFTER HE’S DIED. Whoah.] And I was picturing the exact same Jenny as you were – which actually means, I think we’re both picturing a more dramatic Hannalore from “Questionable Content.” Anyway. [Braak: Oh. Yeah. That is who I’m thinking of, now that you mention it.]

Scene One
Open on a classroom, Jenny at her desk, staring at her paper. First intrigued – even joyous – but then a bit frightened by what she’s putting down. She scribbles diagrams and notes faster, and faster. She rubs her eyes, wipes her hand down her face, gestures that give the impression that she’s trying to get these IDEAS out of her head and onto the page before they hurt her brain – and she’s losing the race.
The proctor announces, “Pencils down!”

Her paper utterly filled with notes, she snaps the pencil in two with her thumb and SLAMS the remains down onto the desk. Cut to Jenny’s face – her nose is bleeding. And then she passes out.

Scene Two
Later – Jenny in the asylum (do we DARE call it Arkham? [Braak– No. Arkham is the town.]), looking despondent. Bandages on her wrists. Sadly, idly drawing on the wall with her finger. Then something clicks, and she starts air-doodling faster. She taps her finger on the wall, like she’s punctuating whatever it was she was “writing.”

Oh. OHHH. NOW I get it.

The door opens, and we see an orderly and doctor come to her. She does not look confident in their presence.

Jenny? We think you’re ready to go home now.

…Your timing is just terrible. (Alternate line: “This…this is not a good time.”)

Scene Three
Jenny’s home. She paces around her bedroom (very teenage-girl, band posters and stuffed animals – except for one wall that’s covered in equations she scrawled with a Sharpie). She does this silently – but she’s thinking, and occasionally nodding to herself. Down in the kitchen her mom and dad discuss.

…I just don’t know what to say to her.
I know. Believe me, I know. But the doctors said to keep her engaged, keep her…tied in to daily life.
I’m open to suggestions. Because every time I look at her, she just…she looks like a ghost or something. And…have you SEEN her wall of crazy?
We are NOT using the C-word.
(Dad glares at her for her poor phrasing.)
Uhm. We’re not using ANY C-words.

Then your section – though I would tweak the dialogue just slightly, to make Jenny a little more defensive – who IS this guy, anyway, and what the hell does he understand about her work? It would give her a nice layer beyond shell-shock, that she believes herself incapable of interacting with people on a meaningful level, but she’ll be damned if anyone tries to simplify her work into something as pedestrian as “calculus.”

There’s also one moment that I think can be punched up for a little joke. Here, let me try:

I didn’t apply. I didn’t finish high school. How…
When you are trying to find the unusual, you find yourself looking in unusual places.
(A beat, as Jenny looks around this utterly normal, nicely sunlit kitchen. Tellingly, Waite was perfectly happy with his choice of words.)
Do you know what this is?”

Do they both look around? Or does she just look around? ZW knows exactly why he’s there; also, probably he means “PSSA tests” as an unusual place to look for things. Like, maybe MKU just has a guy whose job it is to sit around combing through PSSA tests in case someone puts advanced calculus into their math section

No, in this case she’d look around, he’d be fine with what he said. We’ll need to nail down the tone of the scene, what each character’s state of mind is, but ultimately Jenny is obviously a mix of curious and intimidated, while Waite would push on without much concern for her worry. As far as he’s concerned, he’s offering her what she wants – and is confident she’ll grasp that once she gets past her confusion.]

This is the kind of humor I think we should punctuate the scripting with. Nothing wakka-wakka knee-slapper HI-larious (though I am, obviously, pro-sight-gags), but a general recognition that this is an odd world bumping shoulders with normal ol’ reality.

So, the pilot structure (I’m thinking in standard TV format – five acts, broken up by commercials, which has its limitations but is impressive in the way it builds to a mini-cliffhanger every seven minutes) –
Pre-credits: Jenny in class during her episode
Act I: The teaser, stretched out to full run time
Act II: Jenny’s first moments on campus – introduce the set, give a hint of core and peripheral characters, finish with Jenny meeting Dean Armitage.
Act III: Expository, Dean Armitage explaining the campus; then Jenny in class, where we meet TA Carpenter.
Act IV: The actual episode plot. We will need to think about this.
Act V: (See above.)

And, last lines of dialogue before Act 3 break:

You seem ill at ease, Ms. Sever.
Stop doing that, I’m just Jenny. I just don’t get it. What this place is.
It’s a college. I thought you were supposed to be smart…
It’s NOT just a college. It’s weird, and the students all seem, I dunno, crazed, or drugged, or plotting, or…well, all that at once. And what…WHAT is up with that Armitage guy?
Ah, okay, I got it. You want the mission statement. The one that’s not on the website.
…Do I?
I think you do. Well, Jenny, it’s like this. Here at Miskatonic University…we make mad scientists.

Okay, that’s a good way to start. But let me posit a slightly different approach. Let us say that this is what happened: Jenny got obsessed with a particular bit of math. She worked it out on her PSSA, and later used it. Maybe she wrote it on her wall, okay? (Or a whiteboard, because I HAVE a whiteboard, and can’t draw on Jeanine’s walls) She used it to see the future, and she did see the future and, in typical HPL fashion, it was horrible and terrifying. She tried to kill herself by cutting her wrists, but failed. She was institutionalized, and after many, many months of therapy, she’s finally been convinced that what she saw was a delusion brought on by her anxiety.

HOLLAND: Maybe we could have her equations START on the whiteboard, and, once she’d realized she needed more room but didn’t want to mark up the walls – crazy mixed with considerate! – continue onto some tacked up sheets of long white paper? All depends on access to long white paper, I guess.

BRAAK: Okay, right, so that’s what happened. But we don’t KNOW that that’s what happened. She knows it, but the first we see is her coming home, getting out of the car, talking about the scenario and implying the institution. We save this reveal for later. Because! It lets us do a couple things: for one, it lets us drag out the reasons why Jenny was institutionalized. And, once we find out that she’s been institutionalized, it lets us drag out what she saw, and what the significance of her work is. That’s a whole-season reveal we can work on there.

Now, when she gets back home–her math is still up on her whiteboard. The first thing she does is come in, erase it–I’ll do a scene for this. The point is that she isn’t super-excited about math like she likes it–she’s obsessed with math like it’s heroin. That’s a good one, because it lets us bring “trance states” in as a valid sort of a thing. Entheogenic drugs, hallucinogens, those things are all going to be a major part of other peoples’ work, and this lets us establish that her “math frenzies” are a kind of altered state of consciousness. And so anyway, she’s embarrassed about what she now believes was a neurotic breakdown about calculus.

Here is what that gives us: plot for Episode 1. The Dean does not approve of ZW going over his head to push Jenny’s admissions through. Because Jenny is still neurotic and freaked out about advanced math, she starts kind of flipping out in her general requirement math course (her first scene with the TA is probably him telling her that she has to take it, and her being all, “no, wait, no, boo!”). So the episode is: Jenny feels like she doesn’t belong, goes a little crazy, almost gets kicked out. It resolves wiiiiith….something. ZW maybe comes in and fixes everything (precisely so I can set up a scene later in the season where Jenny comes to him and he’s all, “I’m not your personal genie, young lady,” blah blah blah).

But anyway, the pilot serves double-duty as exposition AND the incident that you have when you get to college and your parents leave, and you suddenly flip out because you’re all OH GOD WHAT AM I DOING HERE?

Maybe an alternate act breakdown like this:

Act I: The teaser, stretched out to full run time
Act II: Jenny’s first moments on campus – introduce the set, give a hint of core and peripheral characters, Jenny meets her roommate. (Wacky seen, this one; it takes place in the dorm common room. When Melody opens the freezer, there is a severed head in it, but no one notices).
Act III: So, shifting Carpenter to more of a tutor position, or advisor position, here is where she meets him and finds out she’s got advanced topography and calculus E and F, or something, and she wigs a little.
Act IV: So, flips out in math class. Dean Armitage gets on her and tries to get her thrown out.
Act V: Something occurs, probably including Jenny’s “reveal” that she gets into these states where sometimes she has vivid hallucinations. The episode ends with her position in school secure, but also it is late at night and she is writing math on the wall.

Also, for to considering: “Episode 1: Madman in the Attic.” Jenny is the Richard Upton Pickman scholar of mathematics at MKU. That’s her scholarship position. The first episode maybe resolves around, “Just what happened to the PREVIOUS Richard Upton Pickman scholar of mathematics? The answer, of course, is that he went insane and has been lurking in the spooky tunnels under the campus, and he maybe tries to eat Jenny, but is defeated. And we think, maybe killed, or sent to jail? No! Dean Armitage has got him locked up somewhere!

Also a scene with “Chad”–really, uh. Cheswick Pickman. Cheswick is the go-to character for university history, because his family has been at MKU for generations. They have conversations like:

So my scholarship is named after one of your relatives?
Yeah, one of his relatives that molested the corpse of his dead wife and then shot himself.
No, you’re thinking of Richard DERBY Pickman. Richard UPTON Pickman went to jail for killing young women and feeding them to a cannibal orangutan he kept in his basement.

  1. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “…but a general recognition that this is an odd world bumping shoulders with normal ol’ reality…”

    How about an odd world bumping shoulders with normal ol’ reality and abnormal reality, with a group of people who are kind of like the link between the two, but always mocked by real world folk? Maybe the janitors were once radical academics who have long been disregarded and mocked for their persepctives. They feel a need to remain on the campus grounds and band together into a sort of unrecognized, underground cult. Like something from “The Wicker Man” but probably less sexual and definitely funnier. I don’t mean tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists, but people who were, either, on the brink of certain discoveries or had taken their perspectives on social theories to some extreme level. Maybe they can even act like messengers between the two groups–maybe the special oddballs even need them. Of course, the special people know the aca-radicals have often been right on target, while everyone else just thinks they’re crazy and maladjusted; lots of humor ensues, at the unfortunate expense of the janitors.

  2. V.I.P. Referee says:

    The janitors are kind of like demi-gods to the godlike special folk, while everyone else are mere mortals: Both sides always put the demi-gods through Hell.

  3. braak says:

    Well, the problem that I have with that is that I’d want to shy away from the typical “theorists rejected by mainstream science” vibe that you so often end up with when you’ve got mad scientists. I’d want Miskatonic to be the place where radical science happens. There are no crackpot theories at Miskatonic University–the scientists here aren’t Walter Bishop, stuck in the basement with a cow and a piano trying to rebuild his zany theories. This is the place that is, in my opinion, more frightening–it’s the place that gives Walter Bishop a lab and a budget and says, “Go for it.”

    “You want to make a serum to reanimate the dead? Here’s a million dollars. Do it. You want to build a machine that lets your brain visit alien dimensions of horror? What would you need to make that work?”

    You’d be able to fold it into a kind of, “Just going to college mentality”–the human experience of going to college and discovering not just that the world is much bigger than you’d ever imagined, but that it’s full of people who understand more about it than you do, with the idea that the science you’ve been learning throughout your life is a parochial shadow of the real work.

  4. braak says:

    I guess, actually, wait. Who would be the “regular folk” in this case? I had been looking at it as, the incoming students are 90% regular college students, with 10% crazy shit going on, abutting up against the faculty, where everything is 100% crazy. As the series progresses, the challenge becomes “how do you retain normalcy in an environment like this”?

  5. Hsiang says:

    Can you have a character in the Architecture Department? His dorm-mate comes in the room as the arch. student is working with Fome-KoreTM and balsa wood.
    “Watcha working on?”
    “Proposal for a bus shelter. Could you open the window more, this glue is stronger than I thought.”
    “Sure”, roomie walks back from window and leans down to get a closer look at the 5″ tall model.
    Shudders, “Why do I get the feeling that it’s so… huge?”
    “The word is ‘cyclopean’.”

    Later, whacked out on glue fumes he remodels the room, altering the very walls just so. When the screaming subsides and the EMTs are paid off the RA busts him for keeping dogs in the dorm.

  6. wench says:

    I want this show. I want it more than I want a tattoo that swims around on it’s own under my skin, and that’s a pretty big want.

    I also want a department of post-death studies, where people learn to talk to the dead, raise the dead, reanimate corpses, extract remaining life-force, etc.

    Think of the pranks you could pull if you could talk to your room-mate’s dead girlfriend!

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    They (those diabolical bastards) say if you haven’t gotten a tattoo by the age of 25, you’re unlikely to ever get one. I suppose because you have developed special reasoning capabilities that warn you about the long term.

    I am ten hours away from this crappy ol’ body turning 30. And man-o-man, would I get a subdermal swimming tattoo in an instant.

    OH, right, “Miskatonic University.” Yeah, Braak and I had a very good time concocting this proto-series bible, and I firmly believe it will see some level of fruition at some point. Maybe not as the aborted webseries Braak attempted, but if I ever get my hands on a wacom tablet, perhaps one day as a comic.

    (Right after I start drawing new “Hand of Danger” episodes. Of which we have a few scripts now. Aaaaaany day now.)

  8. Mr. Jonsson says:

    This has got to be one of the best ideas for a TV series I have ever heard. This would be perfect for the Sci-Fi Channel, probably filmed a lá Sanctuary, mostly done on Green Screen.

    As for the story and feel and such I think that one of the biggest mistakes writers of TV shows to is to have only one story arc at a time. It usually ends up feeling disjointed and breaks immersion into the show’s world as one story arc replaces another like a badly stitched sweater or something. What I’d like to see, in tiny, tiny bits, of course, would be a power struggle/political maneuverings kind of thing between the dean, the other professors and/or the board of trustees. Also, one of the biggest pitfalls for show like this is the tendency for “monster of the week” kind of thing. Also, also, bad actors… do I really need to elaborate on that?

    As I said, I’d love to see this show on TV but, to be honest, I doubt it would appeal to many people that are not already Lovecraft fans but pitched in the right way to the right people, it might become a single season cult thing, like American Gothic and others.

  9. braak says:

    No, Mr. Jonsson, I agree–I think actually that one of Sanctuary’s problems is that the first story arc ended, and now it’s almost a whole different television show. I’ve been experimenting with some ideas about short and long term story-structure–a kind of web of micro, macro, and super- plot arcs. And we’ve actually got the ultimate fruition of the super-structure planned out well into season five.

    (I’ve actually planned for the end of the series, but I haven’t really discussed those ideas with Holland, yet.)

    Sadly, you’re probably also right that I’d be unlikely to get the at least five seasons that I’d want out of it, but I’d be happy with myself if I could make a solid one or two season cult hit.

  10. richie says:

    I think you do. Well, Jenny, it’s like this. Here at Miskatonic University…we make mad scientists.”

    Do they think of themselves as mad scientists? Is that really the term they would use? Shouldn’t there be some form of self- or outward-denial? What do normal people know about this college? Does it have an outward face? Have the alums helped shape happenings in the outside world? Hopefully not in a “these people have helped shape every major event in human history” way but in a “the staff of this school has a nefarious scheme that is so counter to what you normally think of as a nefarious scheme that it’s been happening for a really long time and no one noticed” way?

  11. braak says:

    This may be a place that Holland and I diverge; though I think it’s possible that the TA might think of MKU as a mad-scientist factory, I think the general sense at the University is that they’re doing the real science and everyone else is just pissing around with transistor radios.

    In my dream plotline, what we first apprehended as a kind of monolithic evil conspiracy among MKU’s Alumni (like if Yale were really evil the way David Icke thinks they are) would be gradually revealed as a bitterly divided, fractious group of people who all have their own individual goals, further muddying up who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are.

  12. Jeff Holland says:

    I was letting Chris handle the “big picture” stuff, but the mad-scientist line was very purposeful, in the sense of giving a bit of self-awareness to this cast of characters – only people who WEREN’T totally insane would actually feel comfortable – even proud – to call themselves Mad Scientists. And this is not a school for the insane. This is a school for people who want to do science that is impressive as all hell. Which can generally be called “mad.”

    (For instance, if I were a lot smarter, I would drag that one out ALL THE TIME.)

    (Only tangentially related: One more reason that “Better Off Ted” is a recent Greatest Show Ever: Phil and Lem do not consider themselves Mad Scientists, even though their bowling shirts would claim otherwise.)

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