Event: "Imaginary Worlds"
Date: Thursday 1st November 2007
Venue: The Guild Centre, King's Cross (not in the usual large conference room, but in the smaller area normally used just for networking - sadly the event seemed a bit undersubscribed.)
The Set Up: Panellists were Phil Ford (PF) writer on The New Captain Scarlet and The Sarah Jane Adventures, Ashley Pharaoh (AP), co-creator and writer of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, Adrian Hodges (AH), co-creator and writer of Primeval, and Phillip Palmer (PP), author of SF novel Debatable Space. Questions came from Edel Brosnan (EB), Chair of the Guild's Editorial and Communications Committee.
The Questions, The Answers:
Q. What was it that drew you to the 'imaginative' in your work?
PF: Simply, it's what I always wanted to do. I'd always read science fiction, and always loved the movies. It's great to create a fascinating new world, where you can turn things on their head; as long as you ground things - it has to be about people and relationships. If anything can happen, it doesn't make for good drama.
AP: I fell into it, really, via the premise to Life on Mars. I'm a recent convert, but really really enjoying it.
PP: I've never had a plan - every plan I've ever had has ended in disaster. When I wrote for TV, I went with what was there, which was shows like The Bill. Nick Elliott, ITV drama controller, once told me "We don't make science fiction, we don't like science fiction", so I never tried to pitch those projects in TV. I had a movie that didn't work out, but I rewrote it as a novel, and ended up with a three-book deal.
AH: I'm not so much a fan of science fiction, as I am a fan of a good story. I remember seeing a BBC drama in the early 80's,The Flipside of Dominick Hide, and thinking it was a love story, but told in a wonderfully fresh way. The same was true of Alien, which was at heart a thriller, and so on.
Q. Now that the genre has been revitalised, thanks to shows like Doctor Who and Life on Mars, do you see things going to back to how they were? Is this a fad, or is it here to stay?
AH: I don't think we can go backwards now - the audience has been awakened. Shows will only do well, though, if they're character driven.
PF: It's about stories, and it's about people. It's a shame that commissioning execs didn't realise this - they just hid behind the excuse that SF was too expensive.
AH: It's not a genre that's ever been considered posh.
PF: You can do these stories without many or any special effects.
AH: But technology has played it's part.
(The panel took a few minutes here to recommend a 90's SF serial from ITV, The Last Train - written by Ashley's sometime creative collaborator Matthew Graham - which used very few special effects. The consensus was that it really should have got a second series, and if you get a chance to watch it, do.)
Q. Are writers outside of the genre resistant to it?
AP: A prominent writer criticised Life on Mars in a newspaper, and I responded to that criticism. He thought that the point of writing was social realism, or social upheaval, making changes. But we've had fifty years of that.
AH: There are writers, and commissioning execs that are resisting, but it's always been that way. If you look at Nigel Kneale, he always occupied an odd place - it's always been an uneasy thing. Perhaps it always will be.
PP: There's a quality of imitation in British TV -
AH: Not just British TV.
PP: Just repeating things that have been successful. One detective drama is good, but by the time you've got wall-to-wall detective dramas, you just want to scream. The challenge is getting some variety in there.
Q. How are things different when writing novels?
PP: It's different from TV where fantasy /sci-fi is still something of a dirty word.
Q: All of the shows that you do are different - how would you define the genre?
AP: Anything that isn't social realism. Anything where you get a heightened response from the audience. I've never written a show before that had fan websites. Or where fans have been writing slash fiction. (Another pause here while slash fiction was explained to the uninitiated in the audience - see the wikipedia entry for a full definition.) After reading some Life on Mars slash fiction, you'll never look at a truncheon quite the same way again!
AH: I wouldn't dream of defining the genre, but the level of engagement, to praise or to criticise, is huge. It's a great thing to see.
Q: Phil, you've worked on Torchwood, and the Sarah Jane Adventures. Is there a different approach for pre- versus post-watershed SF drama?
PF: I think you instinctively know which sort of stories are suitable for which. It certainly didn't worry me going into it. With kids shows, you've got to be careful. You can frighten kids; it's exactly what they did in Fairy Tales, but you mustn't terrify them. That's the line you don't cross. And it's always possible to get it wrong - one of the episodes of Captain Scarlet I wrote was deemed too extreme, and was never made.
Q: Adrian, as well as your SF work in Primeval, you have done a lot of historical dramas, for example Charles II, The Pride and the Passion. Are there similarities in approach between the two?
AH: Someone clever once said: ”You can’t reproduce the past, you can only reinvent it.” A realistic portrayal of Charles the Second’s time would be truly alien, and wouldn’t be understandable by a modern audience. So, you’re dealing with a reinvented world. These genres aren’t as far apart as they’re perceived to be, just different ways of telling a story.
The clips & the reading:
Ashley Pharaoh showed a clip from Life on Mars, Series 1, Episode 4: Sam Tyler has a girl in his care: she spikes his drink, seduces him, and leaves him chained to his bed with a pair of Police handcuffs. Gene Hunt finds him the next morning, much to the hilarity of the rest of station.
AP: Everything in that clip stems from the original premise (a 21st century cop trapped in 1973) and I loved writing it. Not to be too pretentious or anything, but it’s closer to poetry when you get it right. But it took seven years of pitching to get it to screen, and that was a very painful process. I explained to one exec that it may all be in the central character’s head, or he may really be back in time. He said: “But that’s ambiguous”. “Well….yeah!”. People didn’t get it. In fact, we were told many times “Don’t do it – careers will end if you do this.” But John Yorke developed it with us, first at Channel 4, where it almost got green-lit, and then at the BBC. If you wait long enough, things will change – Doctor Who came along, and Lost, and that paved the way. I think we only got through the dark times because there were three of us - just when one person’s enthusiasm was flagging, the other two would remind him what was exciting about the project.
Q. What about the planned American remake of Life on Mars, by David E Kelly?
AP: They need a show to provide 60 episodes in America. You can’t keep a mystery of whether someone’s in a coma going for that length of time, so they’ve dropped the metaphysical aspect, and ramped up the comedy in its place. I don’t know if it’ll work. It shows that there is a strength to having short runs of shows, as we do here, as it allows you to tell more intense stories.
Phil Ford showed a clip from The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Eye of the Gorgon. Maria’s Dad has been turned to stone, and his estranged wife – thinking this is a statue of her ex – tells him what she really feels for him.
PF: This is what I meant by grounding SF in reality, here the reality of Maria and her family. In fact this was the first scene to be written – I knew in a gorgon story that someone was going to get turned to stone, and that someone would mistake them for a statue. The rest of the story flowed from there. It gave us a nice opportunity to find out how a character ticks – a nice emotional scene in an action-packed story.
Phillip Palmer read from Debatable Space. A very funny excerpt where the hero Lena, a 900 year old woman who was born in our time, has been kidnapped, and is being held by flame-beasts – highly intelligent creatures composed entirely of flame. She ponders her predicament, and some of the changes she’s seen in her long lifetime.
PP: That’s from the other end of the scale – the furthest extreme, space opera.
Q. How much do you think about budget?
PF: I don’t think about it all for the first draft. I let other people tell me afterwards if things can’t be achieved.
AH: It’s best not to self-censor. And the costs of CGI, for example, change all the time – you don’t know what you can or can’t afford. A herd of rampaging velociraptors might be achievable where two men talking in a car might be expensive!
Q. How difficult is it to pitch hard SF?
AH: It is harder. A show like Heroes plays on ABC and gets loads of viewers. Battlestar Galactica plays on the sci-fi channel and gets much less.
PP: On TV, SF has to come packaged with another genre.
PF: Yeah. IF you remember, the first season of Doctor Who was almost as much soap as sci-fi. Over the years, the sci-fi elements have built up – it’s the Trojan Horse approach.
Q. How easy is it to find an agent as a screenwriter specialising in fantasy?
AH: Don’t use the word fantasy if you’re worried.
EB: People want to see good writing, irrespective of genre.
Q. American SF was huge for years – what are the differences.
EB: There aren’t so many differences. The US loves Brit sci-fi – Heroes, all Joss Whedon’s work, Alan Moore.
AP: George Lucas is looking for British writers to work on the Star Wars TV series
And just to round off the evening with an exclusive, Ashley proceeded to tell us of two particular writers who have been invited to the Skywalker ranch for discussions about this. I’ve omitted their names as I don’t think it’s public knowledge yet!
Value for Money?: Guild events are always good value for money. Join the Guild! As usual, the event was followed by networking with wine and nibbles provided. All the panellists stuck around to talk. But the best part of this was that - having been to enough recent talks about pushing forward one's career - this was simply about celebrating good writing and good writers.