More on Imaginary Worlds

Last night’s Writer’s Guild forum on fantasy and science fiction writing proved a great success.  We had a full house of interested writers, many of them non-Guild members (there was a large contingent from the London Film School, where I’m a part-time lecturer.)  And the panel debate was, I felt, though I’m biased of course, lively and very informative.

Ashley Pharaoh was there to talk about Life on Mars, and he showed a splendid clip which demonstrates the show’s amazing stylistic range – from naturalism to surrealism to out and out verbal comedy. There was a stunning exchange between John Simm and Philip Glenister, in which Glenister’s character splurges a smorsgabod of offensive homophobic terms.

Ashley thinks of the show as imaginative writing rather than ‘sci fi’ per se.  And the chair for the evening, Edel Brosnan, described it as ‘uncanny’ writing which is a lovely word to use. 

The point though is that this is a show which has challenged the stranglehold of social realism and police procedural in British television.  It manages to be a great cop show - but it is also allowed to be weird, and strange, and philosophical, and thought-provoking. 

And is it SF? On the basis of what happens in the final episode of the last series, I’d say yes; but the power of the show was always the way it made the ambiguity of its own reality a part of the story. Is this actually happening or is it just fantasy? And of course what we saw in the final ep may just have been another dream…!  So I guess in many ways the show this is closest to is Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective - which was also a detective drama, and a mystery, but played beautifully with our ideas about what is real and what is imagined.

Phil Ford spoke about his experiences writing and script editing for shows like Dr Who, Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures.  Phil is a life-long science fiction devotee, who has suddenly discovered there’s now a sweet shop in his living room. 

I spoke about my experiences working as a development executive for Scottish Television, when I was told in no uncertain terms by senior ITV execs that they were never going to do SF, because it was stupid….! And audiences wouldn’t like it!  Phil nodded vigorously at this point;  he had obviously heard the same comments many times, in the days before Russell T. Davies’s Dr Who.  Phil has spent a career in TV swimming against the tide; but now the tide has changed…

And Phil showed a clip of the Sarah Jane show – the wonderful Gorgon episode  – which had us spellbound.

The third panellist, Adrian Hodges, co-creator of the bold dinosaur series Primeval, spoke about how he approaches the task of creating ‘worlds’.  Adrian has written a huge amount of historical drama, including the BBC’s splendid life of Charles II.  But Adrian is adamant that documentary realism is not possible or desirable for a dramatist; you have to create a world that’s credible, and accurate in its essentials, but which is also accessible and resonant for a modern audience.  And for him there’s no real difference in approach between writing an historical drama, a literary adapatation (he wrote  the movie version of Michael Hastings’ Tom and Viv) and dinosaur dramas.

Adrian also wrote The Lost World; so dinosaur drama really is a genre he has made his own!

I spoke about SF and fantasy in novels, and read a short excerpt from Debatable Space, which seemed to be well received.  The excerpt features a line in which Lena bemoans the fact that in her far future world some people have been bio-engineered so that their excrement emerges wrapped in polythene – to ensure that their shit does not smell.

How, Lena wails, can I stay sane, knowing a thing like that?

I’m delighted that the Writers Guild have organised this forum, because it really does mark a seachange in the way genres like SF are perceived by the ‘mainstream’ media.  For years, SF has been treated as ‘not posh’ (a phrase one of the panellists used.) But now TV execs have woken up to the fact that SF has a loyal and discerning audience, and that it’s a genre which offers different and exciting ways of telling a story. Different and exciting and, quite often, more imaginative ways.

However, Adrian did make the telling point that there was a time when TV audiences were very forgiving of wobbly sets and poor special effects – in the days of I, Claudius, and the early Dr Who.  But after the movie Star Wars, TV audiences got pickier; so one reason SF has been off British TV for so long is that our companies literally couldn’t afford to make big SF epics like Star Trek or Stargate. 

But that’s changing,  as the cost of CGI comes down.  And for my money, the production values of a show like Battlestar Galactica seem to me equal and at times superior to the values we’d expect from a feature film.  (When the Vipers fly out of the mother ship, it always send a shudder of awe down my spine.)

And, in my view, the potential of SF on television has barely been tapped.  So I’m looking forward to even more bold new shows in the next few years.  A British Heroes? Why not?

But the secret for me about creating a show like Heroes is that you don’t start by copying an existing show – you create something genuinely new!  So pale imitation superhero series interest me not so much; I’d much rather see shows that come from somewhere fresh, and unexpected, and original. 

(For an edited verbatim account of the debate, click here.)

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