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Wednesday, 31 December 2008

My Year

Well, every other blogger seems to be doing it... but I'll keep mine short because, frankly, it's been one of those years where you can't run through the best of it without the risk of sounding like a total arse. Let's just say I've had a lot to be grateful for.

But to put that into perspective, here's how I started the year. I was working quietly on a book and my last half dozen screen jobs had included:
Sales to two successful shows created by other people and cancelled by channel controllers for reasons only an insider can know

A BBC commission torpedoed by a rival producer and followed by an ugly battle with Business Affairs over payment due

A project that I’d walked off two weeks before it went to shoot

And then, almost the last straw, an expensive two-parter that I was particularly proud of, hastily rescheduled to run against one of the biggest live football matches of the season. They didn't even waste money on a trailer. Don't ask me what I think of the £45,000 launch party for Merlin unless you've got an hour to spare.
(For the actual last straw, you'll have to look at a piece I wrote at the request of BFS chair Guy Adams for the next issue of Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society. A barefaced plug for the BFS? Whatever next?)

I think I learned two things this year.

1. Nothing ever turns out as you planned. But if you don't make plans, nothing happens at all.

2. The secret of happiness, in work and in all of life, is to go where you're wanted.

Happy New Year!

Crusoe Slash

I suppose it had to happen...

Monday, 29 December 2008

Future Proof

In the comments to Television Q and A, Piers Beckley writes:

"Riffing off the technology point: Lew Grade's ITC stuff from the 70s was shot in 35mm with a view to worldwide sales. And the thing about 35mm is that you can even now remaster it into blu-ray and other hi-def formats... (snip) Record your show in a sensible format and you've got an archive, something to build on. Sure, it costs more, but you make your money back five or ten or twenty years down the line."

A term in vogue for a while - I forget exactly when - was 'futureproofing'. The idea was that you aimed for the highest technical standard you could achieve, rather than the one that prevailed, in the certain knowledge that the prevailing standard will quickly date. Hardly a new idea - Richard Greene pressed for the 1950s Adventures of Robin Hood to be filmed in colour rather than black-and-white, which would have given them a broadcast life to this day. Within the past couple of weeks I heard that the all-colour Thunderbirds is to be remastered, repackaged and relaunched yet again.

But TV execs are like politicians. Less interested in long-term benefits than immediate ones. I can remember ITV huffing and grumbling about shooting a drama in widescreen even though 4X3 was patently on the way out. They cared only about next week's ratings, not long-term value.

(In the end they compromised on the awful 14X9, which was no use to anyone even then.)

But couldn't you weep to look at something like The Jewel in the Crown now? Such an enormous enterprise, and all that talent... all in a little square, and seen through a sock.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Television Q and A

How did you begin your career in television?

I was writing for radio at the time. It was a science fiction piece for Radio 4’s Saturday Night Theatre and Martin Jenkins, my producer, sent the script over to the Doctor Who production office. So out of the blue came this call to go over and talk to them.

Was it easy to find steady work writing for television?

I’ve never had steady work. The nearest to it was the time I spent on BUGS, where I wrote 10 shows over 3 seasons and acted as consultant on seasons 2 and 3. But even then it was a case of “one sale at a time.”

How much input did you find you had in a production of one of your screenplays?

That’s always going to vary. Once the script’s locked, there’s no reason to have the writer around except as a courtesy. You usually get a call when they’ve changed something and it’s caused them a problem and they need it fixed. If it’s something practical like a location they couldn’t get or a sequence that doesn’t work as planned, then great, that’s what I’m there for. If someone’s made a perverse change and failed to foresee the knock-on effect, I’m less sanguine.

How did you find you were treated by other members of the creative team when working on a project?

Again, that varies. In general I’ve been treated very well.

What was your biggest breakthrough in television?

I’d have to say Chimera. Prior to that I’d done just a couple of Whos and one episode of a crime show. Chimera took me from contributor to creator and put four hours of prime time drama on my CV.

Which gave you more creative input, being a writer or creator of a series?

It’s the difference between being paid to drive a car and being hired to design one. Actually that’s not entirely fair. But when you write for a series there’s a lot that isn’t on your shoulders. I can’t imagine why anyone might prefer that.

Were you ever frustrated by the workings of the television industry?

Daily! Dealing with the industry involves a whole separate set of issues from the act of writing.

Do you think writers are given enough credit when it comes to the creative process and audience appreciation?

Obviously I’m going to say no. But the fact is that there’s a very small number of names get on the front of a show and the writer’s place there can never be disputed. Although in feature films particularly, you get directors who encourage the notion that the writer’s role is to type up the director’s thoughts. One of the things holding back British TV is the resistance to a writer having a true executive producer role on a show.

What is your opinion of modern television drama?

On the plus side, it’s a relief to see that the drab hand of social realism is no longer holding it down. Throughout the 90s almost every British drama looked and played like an effing soap. And the kind of technology we’re getting now – HD, widescreen, downloads – is what I’ve spent my life waiting for. The downside is a lack of confidence and direction... of old-fashioned showmanship. Everybody wants to be edgy and relevant and issue-driven. And no one wants to see it.

What is your worst experience as a writer working within television?

Being excluded from a project I'd initiated.

What was your best experience as a writer working within modern television?

If I had to pick one moment, I’d say walking my dog down Gotham City’s main street on the Pinewood backlot after a meeting in the Chimera special effects workshop.

Which do you prefer, writing prose or screenplays for television?

Standard answer, and it’s always true... when I’m doing one, I yearn for the other.

Do you believe there is a big difference between writing for television and writing for feature films?

Yes. Mainly in choice of subject. A feature film is a one-off universal myth. TV’s a continuing parade.

Chimera photo by Stephen Morley

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Eleventh Hour USA

This just in from somewhere...

DISPLAYING SIGNIFICANT WEEKLY GAINS, ELEVENTH HOUR DELIVERS STRONGEST PERFORMANCE TO-DATE

Earning significant weekly increases among all 18-49 and 25-54 measures (ranging from +21% to 54%), as well as Households (+24%) and Total Viewers (+24%), ELEVENTH HOUR earned 1st place in its 10PM hour among those same demos. Delivering its largest audience to date (13.4 million), ELEVENTH HOUR also earned new or matched series highs among all 18-49 and 25-54 measures, Households, as well as Adults and Women 18-34.


That was last week. This week:

A repeat CSI built +93% on its MILLION DOLLAR PASSWORD lead-in, easily placing as the #1 program in the hour and for the night. Retaining 79% of its CSI lead-in, ELEVENTH HOUR earned 1st place in its 10PM hour and 2nd for the evening overall. CBS won Thursday night and outperformed 2nd place FOX by +16%.

And that one was a repeat. I wish I could claim some of the credit, here, but it's all down to the team.

It Quacks Like a Duck

The BBC has announced Defying Gravity, a 13-part science fiction series to be co-produced with America's Fox Network.

"Set in the near future, Defying Gravity will star Sex and the City and Band of Brothers actor Ron Livingston and will follow eight astronauts from five countries on a mysterious journey through the solar system."

Oh, sorry. It's not SF at all. It's a 'space travel drama'.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Truth in Escapism

Andy Greenwood's comment on Crusoe and the Doctor, directing us onward to a fan's mashup of Doctor Who images cut to the music from the Happy Days title sequence, made me think.

In today's Guardian, playwright Mark Ravenhill writes:

"in the minds of many programme-makers, there now seems to be a crude binary option: you're either safe or you're edgy. And, since very few producers feel happy to say they want safe shows, practically everything we see on our screens believes it is edgy."

British TV's most successful all-ages drama is a decades-old format that makes no pretensions of edginess, of being issue-driven or of being in any way 'relevant', but which sets out to create simple escapist joy. And by doing that well, it draws a response from its audience that is both complex and transcendent.

Just to extend it - how edgy was Oliver Postgate? And how profound the life experience he brought to those who grew up with his work and who mourn him now?

But if you're looking to break into the business, don't bother learning from any of that.

Write about how grim it is to be buggered in prison. There's a vanishingly small audience for it, but you'll have a much better chance of seeing it commissioned.

Mister Home and Handy

Between revising an outline on Friday and the studio notes call to discuss it on Monday, I found myself with a Saturday on which to catch up with all the stuff I can normally use the writing to get out of.

Made it through the day with just three wrong holes drilled and one smashed light fitting.

So as DIY goes, one of my better efforts.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Crusoe and The Doctor

I have no idea what brought this about. But it's neatly done and kind of beguiling.



Play it again. You know you want to.

Right There, Right Now

In her craft blog Write Here, Write Now, Lucy Hay posts on the reluctance of British and American writers to tackle sex scenes in their screenplays.

Which reminded me...

I once wrote a draft of a script with a sex scene where I constructed it as I would any kind of action - laid out the basic moves so it would reflect the characters and be a progression of the drama, not an interlude.

The script came back with a pencil stroke through the scene and the words Director's discretion in the margin.

So in the next draft I just wrote, "They shag enthusiastically".

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

And While We're Talking About Sexy Science...

From today's Independent:

"A respected research institute wanted Chinese classical texts to adorn its journal, something beautiful and elegant, to illustrate a special report on China. Instead, it got a racy flyer extolling the lusty details of stripping housewives in a brothel."

The text in question was used as cover art for the journal of the Max Planck Institute, the "Hot Housewives in action!" special. More here.

I particularly liked the aside about those unsuspecting people who are walking around with tattooed Chinese characters that look stylish but actually read, "This is one ugly foreigner".

"Physics is the New Black"

Recent editions of the Wired blog and The Los Angeles Times carry similar articles about the rising popularity of hard science in TV drama, reflected in the launch of the Science and Entertainment Exchange.

The Exchange is "a program of the National Academy of Sciences that provides entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines."

(The National Academy of Sciences, founded by Abraham Lincoln, is a US equivalent of Britain's Royal Academy)

Nearly a decade ago, Michael Crichton was urging the 'science establishment' to stop moaning about the way science and scientists were portrayed in news and drama and to get engaged in its own presentation. On the reporting of science issues, he said, "it's my impression that science has not kept pace with other professions. Scientists retain the old disdain for the press. To do interviews badly may even be a point of pride, establishing your intellectual bona fides. You are above the fray. But the truth is, the world has really changed and science is now suffering."

Part of his 'stop complaining' argument involved pointing out that drama can never give an accurate and direct portrayal of science in action, because the real action isn't that dramatic. And he was right. Science in drama, like all of life in drama, is dramatised. Rendered as a series of symbolic moments, never as-is. You only have to scroll down some of the comments in the Wired blog to see the extent to which some people don't get that.

But you can dramatise with probity. I once argued that science is like nineteenth-century Africa. It's big and it's real, and with some trouble and effort you can go there. While with no trouble and no effort you can stay at home and make up your own weird geography and exotic animals. Your audience may be none the wiser. Many will assume it's all equally true and, anyway, who cares if it is or it isn't? But my argument was that if you take the trouble and go, you'll bring home a different and better kind of traveller's tale.

The Science and Entertainment Exchange is a timely resource. According to the LA Times, "taking cues from the success of House and before that CSI, television is revisiting the lure of evidence. The pieces of the puzzle are all right there, if only you know how to put them together. Science is the new medicine, physics has gone mainstream."

Monday, 8 December 2008

Widget, I've got a Widget...

You may notice that over in the right-hand column there's an Eleventh Hour widget. Anyone can download it from the CBS site's Eleventh Hour pages, and it delivers a daily factoid to your website or blog.

A couple of days ago I learned from it that every time we sneeze, some of our braincells die.

There I was, imagining that the feeling of relief and well-being following a sneeze was related to some kind of endorphin rush.

When in fact, I'm just taking one step closer to a lobotomy.

Friday, 5 December 2008

I'm a Media Whore, Get Me Into There

I was in London earlier this week, and while walking down Westbourne Grove I was collared by a young woman with a clipboard and a man with a lightweight video camera.

They were collecting vox pops in the rain for I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here (a Survivor-style reality show).

She wanted to know if I had an opinion on fake boobs, as (worn? Sported? Deployed?) by one of the contestants.

Did I have an opinion to offer? Of course I did.

No idea if they'll use it... and I can't say I plan to watch to find out.

*UPDATE*

Just to add that in the following Saturday's Guardian, columnist Charlie Brooker wrote of the show and the contestant in question that "Nicola McThing spent hours grumbling on her back in a bikini, which made her fake tits resemble two giant wax testicles resting on her ribcage like immovable paperweights."

So unkind. But so true.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Separated at Birth?

I was organising the pictures on my hard drive, and here's a conjunction of images that got a smile out of me:

Clearly there's some common DNA in all my protagonists. On the left we've got Rufus Sewell as Eleventh Hour's Jacob Hood, on the right is Stephen Tompkinson as Jim Harper in my Oktober miniseries.

The two were contemporaries at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, old mates and no doubt old rivals too.

I just heard from JBTV that CBS have ordered another five Eleventh Hour shows. As TV Tattle puts it, "The British remake is inching closer to a full season with 18 total episodes."

More on that soon. And in case you hadn't noticed, there's now a free Christmas story available for download - check out the link in the sidebar.

Monday, 24 November 2008

You Know the Score

Lee Goldberg's comment on The Saint on TV has prompted me to plant another signpost to this underpriced gem, a 3-CD boxed set of Laurie Johnson tracks that includes over 70 minutes of Avengers cues including the full-length "mein liebe rose" track used to torment Mrs Peel in the episode The Joker. Although, I'd guess for some copyright reason, it's minus the German vocal.

(As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm tempted to have it played at my funeral. Imagine how it would creep everyone out!)

The other two discs in the set cover some of Johnson's non-Avengers themes and other orchestral work. Some of this was eye-opening; credits geek though I am, I'd no idea that he'd contributed to the score of Doctor Strangelove.

Right now, the set is on offer from Amazon UK at £4.98. Less than five quid! Unbelievable. Buy one for yourself and one for someone else, and you'll even get free delivery. The US price is higher, but Amazon dealers are offering it for a lot less.

A second 3-disc set expands the collection and includes a similar set of Johnson theme-and-cues from The Professionals, and doesn't cost much more.

Btw, if you go to Lee's blog, check out this rarity; a short test reel for an unnmade Batgirl show, featuring Adam West and Burt Ward and probably knocked out in half a day on an existing set to test the viability of the project.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Saint on TV

Ian Dickerson has drawn my attention to this DVD, the perfect stocking-filler for the certain-kind-of-TV-geek of which I am one.

Available as a web-only exclusive and currently on pre-order offer at £9.99, The Saint Steps in... to Television is an expanded documentary based on the interviews and extras gathered for Network's boxed-set releases of The Saint and Return of the Saint. There's more than two hours of material and you can view some sample interview footage on the Network website.

Here's how the blurb puts it:

"Previously only available with the best-selling Saint and Return of the Saint DVD box sets, this series of highly acclaimed documentaries has now been revised and expanded with new interviews to form one feature-length documentary. The Saint Steps In... To Television is the definitive look at the series’ production for Lew Grade’s ITC company, as told by those involved in its creation. It covers the full story of how Simon Templar came to the small screen in the early 1960s, the series’ evolution into colour and its revamping and reformatting to fit the shifting trends of a late 1970s audience. Featuring extensive contributions from Roger Moore, Ian Ogilvy, Robert S. Baker, Johnny Goodman, Patricia Charteris and many more, this two-hour documentary is the final word on Simon Templar’s time at ITC."

Network is a bit of a national treasure; unashamedly devoted to the 'other' classic TV, the mainstream popular stuff whose showbiz nous and solid craft are only now getting the appreciation they deserve, their releases can be pricey but are put together with knowledge and care. I've written before about their Man in a Suitcase set, but it's their release of Strange Report that opened my eyes to this short-lived, late-flowering series that now emerges one of the most interesting and forward-looking of the ITC shows.

"Criminologist Adam Strange (ANTHONY QUAYLE) takes on the cases that are too difficult, delicate or politically sensitive for Scotland Yard. With the assistance of forensic expert Ham Gynt (KAZ GARAS) and pretty young artist Evelyn McClaine (ANNEKE WILLS), Strange unravels some of London's most complicated crimes..."

While on the Network website I found myself eyeing wistfully their Edwin Astley soundtrack releases. These aren't your usual soundtrack albums, but comprehensive multi-CD sets containing the entire library of music cues composed for the show in question. As well as Astley's work on Danger Man, Department S and Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased, there are sets for Man in a Suitcase and The Prisoner and I'm told that an equally comprehensive set for The Saint is upcoming.

It takes a more specialised taste than mine to engage with every single sting, bumper and bar of incidental music from a show, and while I'm happy to see that someone cares enough to release these sets and that aficionados care enough to buy them, I'd be even happier to see a "slob's digest version" with the themes gathered together on a single CD! All my Astley material is on old cassettes, or on CDs with re-recorded cover versions that mean well but often miss the mark.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Frequently Answered Questions

On Getting Started
I was lucky enough to start as a reader when horror was a subtle art, and just as lucky to start my career at the point where it turned into big business. So my early reading was people like HG Wells, Conan Doyle, Joseph Payne Brennan, and all those marvellous Pan Books of Horror with their tacky head-in-a-bucket covers and some of the most incredibly well-crafted writing inside.

In the 80s it was people like Stephen King and Peter Straub who led the way for writers like me by taking horror into the mass market. Although I think that Ira Levin was there ahead of them with Rosemary's Baby, and John Farris with The Fury. Along with Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home they'd be my main candidates for the founders of the cycle that played itself out at the end of the 90s – I think horror's back to being a subtle art again, in written form at least.

On Breaking In
Whatever it is you want to do, chuck yourself at it at whatever level. I was getting my stories rejected from The Wizard when I was nine. If you write fiction, try the small presses. If you want to do something for the screen, get together and make something with friends. At that stage energy matters more than accomplishment – do stuff for the fun of doing it and don't try to ape big-time professionalism with tiny resources, which was one of my early mistakes.

In the case of film, read lots about the industry. And I mean lots, everything from the silents to Weta Workshop. Don't be one of those people who thinks that film history began with George Lucas. Then when it comes to looking for actual work within the industry, have specific goals – set out to be a runner, or an editor's assistant, or whatever. You aren't going to direct or land screenplay work until you've proven yourself, so make a calculated bid for a specific point of entry. And when somebody asks you what in the business you want to do, don't say "Anything" – there's no such job as an Anything.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Fnaar, fnaar

Been fixing some plumbing.


Don't ask.

F & SF

No, I'm not in it this month... haven't written any short fiction for some time, as it happens, but way back when I started The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction was my break-in point.

I can't tell you how proud I was. F & SF was - is - one of the classic genre magazines from the Golden Age, and it continues to this day with the same class and character under editor/publisher Gordon Van Gelder.

The reason I bring it up now is that the mag's just launched an Annual Bundle Offer where you can buy a full year's worth of back issues at discount price. That's eleven issues plus the double anniversary issue for $24 plus shipping.

Friday, 14 November 2008

You Know the Face

Probably as J Jonah Jameson or Juno's dad, or as Law and Order's Dr Emil Skoda, or any one of a zillion other shows or movies...

In Gareth Maclean's TV blog in The Guardian he asked the question "Who are TV's most underrated actors?" and I immediately thought of J K Simmons.

Simmons currently plays Police Chief Pope in The Closer. He shows up in quality character parts wherever you look, so it seems churlish to call him undervalued. But he's one of those actors who raises a drama's game and makes everyone look good, while almost never getting the spotlight to himself.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

A League of One's Own

In a feature-length episode of Rosemary and Thyme titled The Memory of Water, I wrote a scene in which one of the characters - a fully-qualified anaesthetist, and like everyone else in a 'tec show a potential suspect - explains over coffee in her kitchen a number of suspicious-looking phials that she keeps in her refrigerator.
Katie’s examining the medicine bottle in the light.

KATIE
It’s for the children’s little ailments. I make it up myself. Do you know how homeopathy works?
LAURA
You take a heavily diluted form of something that causes the same symptoms as the disease?
KATIE
Ah. You’ve done a study.
LAURA
Just what I read in the magazines.
KATIE
Of course, when they set the dilution levels, they failed to realise that you’d need to drink eight thousand gallons of the stuff to get one molecule of the additive. So then they came up with the Memory of Water.
LAURA
I was never that good at science.
KATIE
They say it doesn’t matter if the additive’s long vanished. The water (gives the bottle a shake) remembers it. Now, when I make up medicine for the children, I take that one stage further. I just show the additive to the water. And then the water (shake) imagines it.
LAURA
(catching on)
You... don’t believe in any of this, do you?
KATIE
I do believe in the placebo effect. The power of suggestion. And I don’t imagine plain water ever did much harm to anyone.

So, just to recap... a form of medicine that goes one better than homeopathy, where instead of the water having to 'remember' the nonexistent ingredient, you just show it the ingredient and the water 'imagines' it.

Of course, you do something like this, only to find that life outstrips art. A friend who's a science lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire told me, "I was on a course with a biologist and he'd met a bloke who insisted that all you needed to do was write the name of the chemical structure on a piece of paper and put it under the glass. And the water then reads the chemical structure and puts it into the solution. At the time I said you couldn't make this stuff up - seems I was wrong!"

The University made the headlines earlier this year. They'd been offering a BSc Honours degree in Homeopathic Medicine. Not as a rigorous dissection of a pseudoscience in which philosophical conclusions are transmuted into invented principles, but as "a recognisable academic and professionally recognised course for people interested in pursuing a career in homeopathy."

UCLAN is a former Polytechnic that was awarded university status and has been steadily raising its game to merit the name. Many of the staff were horrified to discover that the course was on offer. Now, as a result of "relentless attacks from the anti-homeopathy league", the course has been suspended.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Michael Crichton

A year or so after we moved into our current house we had a bookshelf collapse that was a consequence of a) the urge to display far too many cherished hardcovers on a screw-to-the-wall track system, and b) my total inability to put a secure screw into a plaster wall.

One of the most cherished, and one of the few volumes to take any damage from the fall, was my 1972 copy of Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man. It was only a slight tear to the jacket at the top of the spine, but it was still upsetting. I'm not quite your anally-retentive Mylar Snuggs fanboy, but that particular copy is unique.

For a while in the 70s, particularly in that run of stuff from Binary to Westworld, Crichton was one of my career gods in the days way before I had any kind of a career. In 1972, I was still in the Sixth Form. My copy of The Terminal Man was that year's Nancy H Bent Memorial Prize for English, a choice which I suppose would give plenty of scope for snarkiness to commentators who praise Crichton's narrative ability while cutting him down to size on literary quality.

I didn't care. As far as I was concerned, Crichton had nailed it. Then Westworld, precursor of both the Terminator and Jurassic Park franchises, nailed it in another medium.

My non-critical appreciation continued until Sphere when, despite myself, I was disappointed. Instead of a novel offering a solid template for adaptation, it felt like the novelisation of a movie that was yet to be made. If I backed off thereafter, my appreciation of the earlier stuff didn't fade. And I did back off... made uncomfortable by an overt misogyny in his treatment of female characters in Jurassic Park and Disclosure, and feeling myself being co-opted into a neo-con didacticism that first showed itself in Rising Sun.

But then I'd turn up something like Runaway, his overlooked (and great fun) 'gadget cop' movie with Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons, or Airframe, a crash-investigation novel that's light on character but an object-lesson in the mastery of detail, and I'd be reminded of all the positives. To my mind, the pilot of ER still stands as a self-contained gem of a TV hour.

Crichton spoke of the obstacles inherent in making drama out of science, and responded to criticism by scientists of the ways in which they saw themselves portrayed.

"Let's be clear," he said in a 1999 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "all professions look bad in the movies. And there's a good reason for this. Movies don't portray career paths, they conscript interesting lifestyles to serve a plot. So lawyers are all unscrupulous and doctors are all uncaring. Psychiatrists are all crazy, and politicians are all corrupt. All cops are psychopaths, and all businessmen are crooks. Even moviemakers come off badly: directors are megalomaniacs, actors are spoiled brats. Since all occupations are portrayed negatively, why expect scientists to be treated differently?"

Adding, quite reasonably: "I'd remind you Jurassic Park does have a scientist as its hero. He's right there, Alan Grant. He saves the kids, he saves the day, rights the wrongs, and looks dashing. Beside him is another hero, Ellie Sattler, a botanist. So in a movie where nearly every character has a doctorate, why talk about wanting to be heroes not villains?"

It's an insightful address, and recommended reading for anyone interested in the workings of the science-based thriller. David Milch's assertion that "the scientific method is antithetical to storytelling" may well be true, but Crichton's genius was in the dramatic work-arounds that bridged the gap between the two.

And now he's gone.

Damn. Didn't see that one coming.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Robin Romps

I'm still catching up, or I'd have pulled this post together before now... last Friday saw the broadcast of Andy Rattenbury's Crusoe episode The Mutineers and this week it's the show I've known all year as 'hour five', aka High Water by yer own James Moran.

(The 'hour five' business, for a show that goes out in week four, is an attempt to keep everything straight in my head after embarking on a 13-hour plan and then revising it to accommodate NBC's request for a two-hour opener.)

I promised to name names and here they are; Hour 3/week 2 was by Avrum Jacobson, and future episodes come from Nick Fisher, Debbie Oates, Cameron McAllister, Jack Lothian, and Rohan Gavin. I've taken care of the two-part season closer that brings the running flashback story into the present and wraps it up.

I haven't said much about the actual format, but a few weeks before the premiere I was asked to write something for the press release. This is from that:
Everybody thinks they know Robinson Crusoe, but what people really have is just a small handful of images – a man on a beach with a goatskin umbrella, and a footprint in the sand that everyone thinks is Friday’s (it isn’t). Although a lot of the novel is given over to Crusoe’s patient survival, it’s also a rollicking tale of captures, escapes, disasters, cannibals, mutineers and pirates. Defoe fed on the tales of adventure being conveyed back to England from the Caribbean and the Spanish Main, and he turned them into something that feels almost like documentary fiction.

It was never going to be a matter of translating the book page-by-page to the screen. The French did that brilliantly with the Robert Hoffman series in the 1960s, the one that everyone can sing the theme to. I’m not interested in competing with that memory.

What did interest me was Defoe’s world, and the prospect of being let loose in it. Certain things set me free. Part of the brief was to explore Crusoe’s backstory, and memories of the love of his life back in England. But the fact is, in the book there’s very little of one and nothing at all of the other. All we see of Crusoe’s family life is a mild disagreement with his father, and he doesn’t meet his wife or marry until the sequel, which takes place after his time on the island. But this cue to draw on wider elements pretty much opened up Defoe’s world before me. And when I read a couple of Defoe biographies as part of the background research, I knew where my pitch was going to go.

And it was pretty much this:

I grew up on great filmed adventure series that took characters from history and literature, created a world out of the source material, and then revisited that world on a weekly basis – Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, The Last of the Mohicans, Wyatt Earp, Long John Silver. I haven’t seen a show like that in years, and I really miss them.

So let's take that slice of the novel between Friday’s arrival and Crusoe’s escape from the island, and anchor our series arc to its two major incidents – the rescue of an un-named Spanish captain, and the arrival of a shipload of mutineers whose imprisoned crew offer Crusoe his best chance of escape. In amongst those unfolding stories we develop further tales of Crusoe and Friday on their island. For Crusoe’s life and loves in England, rather than add to his life with pure invention I looked to Daniel Defoe himself.

As a child, Defoe lived through the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. As a young man he dabbled in dissenter politics, lost fortunes in business, and got swept up in rebellion that had him hiding in fear of his life. It reads like something out of a Rafael Sabatini novel, and it’s in a blend of the creator and his creation that I found the engine for our show.

The other part of the brief was to provide action adventure for a modern audience, and I looked backwards for that one, as well. Back to Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks and all those great seafaring swashbucklers from the Warner Brothers Studios. My DVD bill went through the roof.

What we’ve ended up with is a modern show that I’d like to think Defoe would recognise. It draws on his life and his obsessions as well as his most famous work.

One of the most interesting challenges has been the development of the relationship between Crusoe and Friday. Looking at Defoe’s own sources and other contemporary writings, it quickly became clear that there's more to be explored here than a master-servant relationship. When it comes to survival, Crusoe has nothing to teach Friday and so much to learn. Every skill that Crusoe has struggled to acquire comes naturally to Friday. Crusoe can't pronounce Friday’s true name, while Friday acquires English in a matter of months and speaks it with the eloquence of a natural linguist. Theirs is a partnership of equals in an environment where their very survival depends on it. But what Crusoe knows, and Friday can only suspect, is that if they should ever leave the island together, a very different reality awaits them.

Defoe appears to instruct, but he wrote to entertain and in doing so, he almost single-handedly and at a stroke created the novel of adventure. That’s what we’ve got in our sights with this show. We’ve got ships and shipwrecks, swashbuckling and swordplay. We’ve got amazing tropical locations that don't look anything like your usual desert island, and a wonderfully detailed and atmospheric recreation of Defoe's England. We’ve got great young leads and the starriest cast you’ll find on TV anywhere. And, from a personal point of view, I’ve had more concentrated fun working on this show than just about any other.
The most bizarre moment of these last couple of weeks came when I stopped to fuel the Jeep at a Shell station in Santa Barbara.

Above the pump was a TV screen that came to life and ran ads as the unleaded started to flow. First thing I heard was, "Alone on an island..." then I looked up and there was Philip Winchester with his spyglass, through the gas fumes.

Back to normal now.

I think.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

KoB in the NYT

The Kingdom of Bones gets the following nod in the New York Times Book Review:

Gallagher conjures a perfect demon to symbolise the industrial era of the turn of the 20th Century in England and America in a book that "shows the occult mystery in its best light", Marilyn Stasio said in the Book Review.

I'm interested to see how differently readers can interpret the book... some look at it and see an openly occult novel, others see it as a more mainstream novel about people of their time who accept the occult's existence. Their convictions play out in the dawning light of a more rational age.

It's a fine line to walk, and one that fascinates me. I'd visited it before in the novella In Gethsemene, which is why it seemed appropriate to offer the story for download as a kind of taster.

In Gethsemene first appeared in Peter Crowther's angel-themed collection, Heaven Sent (Daw Books). Grab it now if you want to look at it, either by clicking here or on the link in the colum to your right; I'll be taking it offline sometime around the end of the month.

John Brunner

I met British SF great John Brunner in his later years - liked him, but could understand his reputation for a certain spikiness and hauteur. He'd come up to Preston to address our local SF group and when the pub closed we all went back to Bryan Talbot's house, where John was staying.

I was going through an album yesterday and came across a small printed card that he gave me that night. I'm guessing that he carried them and handed them out as a kind of credo. It was signed at the bottom, with a small CND symbol appended. I kept it with the signed pictures of TV stars I collected as a kid.

It's titled What We Have Here. The graffito is quoting, I believe, from Cool Hand Luke, released the previous year.

"What we have here is a failure to communicate" - Graffito in hallway of slum apartment building, Lower East Side, New York, 1968

When those creatures who had men for ancestors
Set off in the ember glow of the dying galaxy
In search of fellow-mourners for its funeral
They came very shortly to Arcturus
And there found bones in heaps around machines
Which had been listening to the sky a million years

And likewise found at Regulus and Rigel
And Deneb and Polaris and Denebola
And Canopus and Capella and Achernar
And sixty systems in the Magellanic Clouds
Bones
- piled-up bones -
and electronic ears
Listening and listening
while no one spoke

Autograph News

Issue 25 of Graham Groom's Autograph News UK is now out, and here's another snippet from my interview therein:

I’ve got one last thing to say about autographs, and it’s a general point. Only ask if it means something. There are people out there who compulsively harvest signatures from people they neither know nor care about, and it shows in the request.

I’ve a friend who used to draw for Count Duckula. He had a request from a child for an original sketch for her school project, which he’d have been happy to oblige with were it not for the fact that he got the same request from every other kid in the class. The teacher had set the assignment and given them all his address.

Need I say this is not the way it’s done?

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Strange Days Indeed

Well this has been one of the weirdest weeks ever. But I mean that in a good way.

If you've been following the blog you'll be aware that I have my name on a couple of shows airing on US network TV right now. I think I may have let it slip out once or twice.

The beginning of last week found me in Los Angeles for not unrelated reasons... a couple of days of intensive meetings and a day at the studio, meeting the Eleventh Hour creative team and generally bonding with a whole new bunch of people. I'll write more about where that's leading when the time is right.

Eleventh Hour made its debut on CBS a couple of nights before I flew in, so I didn't get to see it go out. But I arrived in the midst of intensive publicity campaigns for both shows; so I drove out from the airport past giant Eleventh Hour roadside billboards, switched on the TV to find a Crusoe trailer every twenty minutes or so, radio spots for the CBC and NBC evening lineups...

I caught the second episode of Eleventh Hour in a motel room in San Luis Obispo, held up on the road and missing all but the last few minutes; caught the whole of Crusoe in another motel, this one in San Juan Bautista (a charming little town, first visited on a research trip in 2003; its Mission was used as a major location in Hitchcock's Vertigo, though the bell tower from which Kim Novak fell was added in a matte painting).

And I've just been told that Eleventh Hour's ratings increased in its second week, and Crusoe "topped NBC's season-to-date average in the Friday 8-10 p.m. slot by 23% in 18-49 (1.6 vs. 1.3) and 50% in total viewers (7.3 million vs. 4.8 million)."

Whatever that means.

But hey, maybe now I can get a meeting at the BBC...

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Eleventh Hour USA

The show debuts tonight on CBS in the slot right after CSI, and I'm holding my breath, crossing my fingers, and wishing 'em luck.

I talked about the show concept, and influences, and the whole issue of adapted formats, in an interview with Tom Green for the Writers' Guild newsletter a few weeks ago.

Tom asked,

Did producers/commissioners consider Eleventh Hour to be sci-fi? Is it a genre they worry might put people off?

And I said,

When I sold Eleventh Hour I pushed it as the Prime Suspect of science – a pro-science procedural with today's Bad Science in its sights, grounded entirely in the current state of technology. So no, it was never meant to be science fiction. Although I’d have been happy to see sf writers involved, because they tend to know where the line between actual science and speculation lies. Most arts-background people are far more ignorant of science than professional scientists are of culture. What I wanted for Eleventh Hour was the same kind of probity that you’d apply without question in a legal drama or a medical show. The last thing I wanted was a pasting from the Government’s chief scientific advisor.

If you want to see the full interview, you can find it here.

Next Friday on NBC: Crusoe.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Wickered

I came across my old autograph album when I was straightening the study a couple of weeks ago. Back when I was a child I used to study the end credits of my favourite shows and write to the stars at the addresses of the TV studios.

It's not a huge collection. Getting autographs was a very hit and miss affair in those days. Now it’s an entire industry with a lot of fakery involved. But back then you sent your letter and then maybe you’d hear back six months later or maybe you wouldn’t.

My first was Roger Moore, a lovely colour postcard with a genuine signature. It’s got the spit smear where I tested it because I couldn’t quite believe it was real.

Others followed. Flicking through the album now, it's like a mosaic of my dream life at the time. Richard Bradford, Patrick Troughton, Marshall Thompson, Steve Forrest, Lawrence Payne and Roger Foss from Sexton Blake. Christopher Lee. A lovely picture and a typed postcard from Peter Cushing, and a super 8 x 10 and a personal letter from Callan star Edward Woodward.

Callan was possibly the finest popular TV drama of its era, and one of the least well-remembered because it was made on tape, not film. What survives of the show is really just archive material, below what's generally considered to be commercial quality. I know there was a movie, but that isn't the same. Callan nailed the intimacy of the TV medium.

Years later a friend of mine was producing a film in which Woodward was appearing, and I asked if he would do me a favour and pass along a signed copy of Down River with a little note, along the lines of “you won’t remember this, but years ago...” And I think I even included a photocopy of his original letter to me.

My basic message was, “You showed me how a public figure ought to behave, and I’ve tried to follow your example” And I signed the book “To Edward Woodward, still my hero”.

Got another note back from him, saying how delighted he was.

And, you know? I was eleven years old all over again.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

I Want it All, and I Want it Now

In today's Independent on Sunday Andrew Johnson writes:

"The Large Hadron Collider, which took 20 years to build and cost £3.6bn, will not be able to unravel the mysteries of the universe for at least another two months, scientists announced yesterday."

His tongue was in his cheek when he wrote it.

I sincerely hope.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

A Word from the Showrunners

I hope he'll forgive me for such a shameless piece of recycling, but I wanted to give more prominence to this addition by Eleventh Hour showrunner Ethan Reiff to the comments section of the previous post.

There's a reference here to an earlier entry titled The Brimstone Boys in which I wrote:

The latest coverage suggests that the creator/producers of the short-lived but influential series Brimstone are being brought in to serve as (Eleventh Hour) series showrunners.

Brimstone starred Peter Horton as a dead cop earning his ticket out of Hell by hunting down each of 113 escaped souls. It had texture and energy and was probably too dark for US mainstream TV. Reaper pretty much steals the premise and, being more lightweight fare, has survived better. But Brimstone was the superior show.


And so it came to be! Anyway, move on a few months and here we are.

In that same post I moaned a bit about how press coverage in these cases always manages to name everyone who had a hand in making the deal while overlooking the originator of the material. As time's gone by, my outlook's changed. The buzz for the new show probably isn't helped by dutiful references to what went before. And I'd much prefer to see the show succeed than stress about a namecheck in Variety.

Hi Stephen,

My name's Ethan Reiff and my partner Cyrus Voris and I are the guys running the American version of your show, here in Los Angeles. We do our best to mention your name as the original creator whenever we talk to the press -- though unfortunately they don't always deem that bit of info worthy of inclusion in whatever they write.

It's great to learn you are a fan of BRIMSTONE and thanks for your kind words about the show. It was our first project in television and we remain very proud of it. If you get a chance, check out "SLEEPER CELL" - the terrorism drama we did for SHOWTIME, which aired on cable and then also on broadcast TV in the UK.

"Eleventh Hour" is proving to be a herculean bitch of a show - but well worth all the effort. We are in the midst of shooting our 6th episode and I'm happy to say that so far EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF SCIENCE COMES FROM THE REAL WORLD.

Whether or not the audience will find this as compelling as we do has yet to be seen - but we're hoping for the best!

One last thing: I think you'll be happy to know there are a lot of British subjects employed in the cast and crew of ELEVENTH HOUR - from English producer-director and line producer to Scots-Irish writer-producer to Scottish editor to English stunt coordinator -- and of course, our Welsh star. Around our offices it sometimes feels like Washington surrendered to Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Still, there's always room to entertain another Limey - so please look us up the next time you're in LA!


I couldn't find a picture of Ethan so here's another one of Marley Shelton.

Well, it's an excuse.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Eleventh Hour USA

Don Kaplan writes in The New York Post:

JUST when TV networks are shopping for new shows at the budget store, CBS has made a $30-million bet on a new series that sounds like "The X-Files" but looks like "CSI."

"Eleventh Hour," which will debut in October, is being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer - the producer of all three "CSI" series, "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace," making him arguably TV's most successful producer of dramas of the last decade.

Based on a hit British series, it follows a pair of investigators, a hunky scientist and an attractive female FBI agent assigned to keep him out of trouble, as they attempt to save the world from cutting-edge experiments gone wrong.


Shooting's been under way for some weeks now and for me it's been weird, like having a kid brought up by someone else. You don't want to interfere, but you want to know they're okay...

If Marley Shelton looks familiar in the photo, here's how you may have seen her last:

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The BBC - The New ITV?

In Broadcast, Katherine Rushton reports:

The BBC is to hand network commissioning power to the nations for the first time in what is being hailed as a "radical reshaping" of its structure. Chief operating officer Caroline Thomson is planning to recruit at least five new commissioning executives across BBC Scotland, BBC Wales and BBC Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, over in The Guardian, we read that the BBC is considering dividing up Jane Tranter's drama commissioning responsibilities after she leaves for the US.

Reading the Broadcast report, it looks as if only BBC Scotland's Anne Mensah, with whom I worked on Life Line, is a drama person. Most of the proposed commissioning power appears to lie in the area of factual, daytime, and 'entertainment'.

But am I the only one who sees this as an ideal opportunity to devolve the over-centralised, personality-focused BBC drama commissioning procedure into something more resembling the old, successful, 'federal' system of ITV, before asset-stripping and consolidation turned it from a showbusiness giant into today's dull monoculture?

Jane Tranter's done a fine job but a 'one gatekeeper' system is flawed at heart, whoever the gatekeeper may be.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Behind the Scenes

I was aware that NBC had a crew on the set when we were filming our UK sequences in and around York, and then I heard from Jonathan Lee that they were covering the South Africa shoot as well.

Here's some of what they saw:



Jonathan - seen there in the clip - is the show's production designer and a tireless, inventive and much-travelled professional.

Crusoe really got started when Power TV's Justin Bodle asked him to produce concept sketches, and the series was pretty much financed on the back of them. For several months, Jonathan and his portfolio were the show.


NBC have posted more of the material in the photos section of the show site.

Life in Transit

Chapter 9 of David Mace's unfolding online story is now up and available.

“So,” said Dr Catenary, “there we are.”
There, indeed, they were.
He swivelled from whiteboard to class. “Now we get down to the nitty gritty, the nuts and bolts, the perspiration and even a hint of inspiration. Or rather…” His head turned and his mirror shades moved from face to face as he scanned his students.
Vicky didn’t like being scanned by Dr Catenary. You were never quite sure exactly what lay behind those sunglasses. How icy cold – or altered – were his eyes?


Modesty forbids me from telling you who gets a namecheck along with this episode.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Playing in Starsky's World

According to Variety, Fox Searchlight has arrested production on Brit cop thriller "The Sweeney" following concerns about its international prospects.

Well into pre-production and only weeks away from shooting, the project's been put on hold and the team stood down. Wow. I've been there, I know exactly what that feels like. Mostly in features but a couple of times in TV as well. In a business where managing disappointment is an essential survival skill, there's no greater test of nerve, no torture more exquisite.

DNA reps said Fox execs are believed to have had doubts the $16 million pic, while looking a sure-fire hit in Blighty because it's based on a cult 1970s TV series, would sell elsewhere without a major star.

I wish them well but I wonder whether there isn't a better way to go; the French make their theatrical-quality policiers with no American component at all. And eight million quid is a low budget.

The TV show was deeply British in a way that could only be achieved with no eye for the US market, and it succeeded here for exactly that reason. My mother was working as a switchboard operator for the Manchester police around the time it was going out; she said that all the coppers loved The Sweeney and most of them never missed an episode. It didn't show them as they were, but as they liked to think they were.

The Sweeney's fantasised take on '70s London crime and rule-bending hard-man policing was an obvious springboard for Life on Mars. Gene Hunt presents us with an appalling/attractive picture of what a real-world Jack Regan might be like. The continuous tension between life and art was one of the show's great joys.

I suspect that the reason for the struggle to perfect a US version of the show may lie in an attempt to reference the actual 1970s, rather than a shared cultural memory of them. I've seen the first pilot, the one that got leaked onto the internet, and I thought it wasn't half bad. Well-crafted, well-shot. And the clothes and cars reminded me of the '70s, well enough. But it fell short of the original in that it didn't recreate any of the feel of '70s TV.

I wasn't really looking for history. I was hoping to see our guy in Starsky's world.

Friday, 22 August 2008

NBC Crusoe Promotion

If you've been watching NBC's Olympics coverage, you'll probably have seen this already; it's the Crusoe promo they've been playing throughout.



Or you can go to NBC's own site for a bigger image, but there you have to sit through an ad first.

But hey, this is showbusiness.

Simon just added this to the Comments section of Crusoe Cast:

Just stumbled upon your blog and may I say it's a real pleasure working on the set of Crusoe. (I am playing an extra in a few of the shots) The team is working very hard and all is progressing well. Without giving too much of the plot away I must say this series is going to be a smash hit.

So far I have been privileged to work alongside Philip Winchester, Tongayi Chirisa, Joaquim de Almeida, the lovely Mia Maestro and a few other well known South African actors.

I really can't wait to see the final product, lets hope it doesn't take too long to be screened in South Africa.


A message from the front line, no less!

The internet is cool.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Free Story Download - IN GETHSEMANE

As promised, I'm offering my story In Gethsemane as a free PDF download to tie in with the paperback launch of The Kingdom of Bones in September.

Set in the aftermath of the Great War, it follows the pairing of stage magician Will Goulston and spiritualist Frederick Kelly as they tour the lecture halls of provincial Britain.

In the afterword to Out of His Mind (winner of the British Fantasy Award for best short story collection, with an introduction by Brian Clemens, thangyouverymuch), I wrote this:

It was at Peter Crowther's suggestion or inducement that I wrote In Gethsemane for an angel-themed collection titled Heaven Sent, and although it's hardly right for me to say so it's something of a favourite of mine...

As far as the device at its heart is concerned, that came about when I heard of how, in the late '70s, ideological opponents G Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary partnered up to tour on the debate circuit. I thought of them berating each other's beliefs at every engagement and then checking unto the same hotel afterwards. I'd been looking for a form in which I could do something about the conflict of science and superstition that would allow for the kind of complexity that I felt it needed, and here it was on a plate. It was human, it was absurd, and yet it still made perfect sense.


Help yourself. No charge. One of the best things I ever wrote. Just click here and if you like it, go buy the book and get more of the same.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Curse You, Candy-Coloured Clown

I had the weirdest dream last night. Dreamt I couldn't sleep.

Woke up knackered.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

More Plots, More Misadventures

I've now been told that this second volume of my stories has made the 'best collection' shortlist for both the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award.

That's in addition to being one of the finalists in the International Horror Guild's awards.

I reckon that when I put the three nominations together, that's just as cheering as a win.

I won't be able to get to Calgary's World Fantasy Convention for the ceremony - I've got a lot happening at the end of October, which I'm sure I'll blab about in due course - but I'm lining up a mate to stand ready to accept on my behalf, should the occasion arise.

I'll have to supply him or her with a little speech. One of those strange little paragraphs that you know will look so pathetic in the aftermath of a non-win, but hey-ho.

Maybe all the losers at these events should get together in the bar afterwards and read each other's speeches for a laugh, while beating their fists on the tables and crying bitter tears into the Bombay Mix and peanuts.

My special thanks to Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press, who both suggested the collection and came up with its title.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Crusoe - the trailer

This trailer's just been posted as part of the new Crusoe page at NBC.com:

Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Kingdom of Bones

Here's an advance look at the paperback cover.


Launch date is September 9th, 2008, and it's available for preorder now, should you be so inclined.

More info about it on the Random House website here.

To tie in with publication I'll be putting online a free novella, In Gethsemane, for a limited period.

In Gethsemane was originally published in Peter Crowther's Heaven Sent anthology, and was included in my first collection of short fiction. It's the story of a Spiritualist and a stage magician, opponents who travel together and debate their positions nightly on the small-town lecture circuit in the years after the Great War.

I'll add it to www.thekingdomofbones.com and post details when it's up.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Life in Transit

The first people to find Transit found it by mistake. They got lost in the fog and, literally, stumbled inside. For centuries the only way in and out – the only known way – was on foot. As time went by the feet doing the finding included mule train hoofs, camel hoofs and, allegedly, elephants. Once the existence of the place became more widely known, of course – it had been a dark and mysterious secret of the there-be-dragons variety – entrepreneurs drove through a road. Nowadays the main route in and out is by train. You can't fly. No one's sure why not.

Life in Transit is a new online project from David Mace, author of Shadow Hunters, Frankenstein's Children and The Highest Ground. It's an unfolding story in weekly parts published exclusively on his website. When last I looked - which was about five minutes ago - he was up to part four. They're bite-sized chunks of narrative, full of wit and invention, in a form that well suits the medium.

David and I collaborated on an ambitious online project of a different kind, a few years ago. Life on Mars - no, not that one, this was in 2001 - was a 28-day 'real time' narrative about a Red planet landing that... well, obviously everything goes horribly wrong. It was made by Mark Gorton's Multi Media Arts for E4, and was structured around a daily video feed from the lander backed up by a mass of explorable online content in the form of mission data and company communications that revealed all kinds of stuff that the crew weren't being told.

Mark had the idea, I roughed out the main story developments and the character arcs, and then cunningly left the scene while David did all the actual work. The spacecraft stuff was shot inside a WWII submarine. Hey, Galactica, eat my shorts.

It was, frankly, too much ahead of its time. It relied on a version of the Flash player that almost no one had and called for a reasonably fast connection, which no one had either. The planned five-minute videos were cut down to one minute each, and it went online in May-June of that year without fuss, fanfare or promotion.

I've never even seen it. But I don't feel too left out because nor has anyone else, as far as I can tell. I suppose the material must be stored somewhere, encoded in some form... I wonder if it could ever be revived and rerun? Or, even better, remade at its originally intended length.

Give Life in Transit a try, though. An altogether more accessible piece of online storytelling!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Crusoe Cast

I said I wouldn't be leaking any Crusoe insider info on this blog and I've pretty much limited myself to passing on what's already out there; this stuff also appears on NBC's own website so I reckon I'm safe.

Photo shows Anna Walton and Philip Winchester. Friday is played by the brilliant Tongayi Chirisa, whose picture I'll add when I can get hold of one of him in character.

The off-island and passing-through cast includes Sean Bean, Sam Neill, Joss Ackland, Mia Maestro, and Joaquim de Almeida as a character whom Defoe names only as "the Spaniard".

Filming's well under way now, with the 2-hour series premiere set to air at 8.00pm on Friday, October 17th. That's a week after the debut of Eleventh Hour, which will start its run in CBS' post-CSI slot on Thursday, October 9th.

I was on set for some of the UK shooting and I've been seeing dailies of the island footage and, biased though I obviously am, I have to say it's looking awesome.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Eleventh Hour USA

I was encouraged to hear that Eleventh Hour Executive Producer Cyrus Voris told the Television Critics Association last week that "We're trying very hard to ground our show in the real world. There was a CBS press release that described the show as 'five minutes in the future.' I don't even know if it's even five minutes in the future. I think it is sort of happening now."

Executive Producer Ethan Reiff added, "Our lives have been directly touched in one form or another over the last decade by these endless cutting-edge breakthroughs in genetics, in biochemistry and [in] miniaturization and nanotechnology. Speaking for myself, I'm an insulin-dependent diabetic, and the insulin that keeps me alive now is manufactured by genetically engineered bacteria. So that's where this show lives and breathes... the science that's really here. And we think that's really cool."

That's good news for me; I always argued that straight scientific probity was the show's USP. Not science fiction, but thrillers about headline science.

You can read the rest of the piece on SciFiWire.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

That's One Bad Horse

If you haven't caught up with it yet, today's the day to catch all three parts of Joss Whedon's online musical Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, with Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day.

It gets off to a slow start but it's witty, glorious, and sweet. After tomorrow it'll be taken down and you'll have to pay to see it in one form or another - iTunes or DVD. I've seen it online and the thought running through my mind was that I'll probably buy the disc and watch it again, 'properly'.

Maybe it's just me, but I find that watching online content is like eating a sandwich grabbed on the run. And with anything that runs more than a minute, I start to feel like I'm being held up from all my other stuff.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The Thirty-Nine Steps

I recently went back to John Buchan's novel The Thirty Nine Steps, the template for all modern on-the-run thrillers from The Fugitive to 24 to the entire Jason Bourne trilogy.

The re-reading confirmed my remembered impressions. The book has terrific narrative velocity. It also falls apart to an utterly unmemorable end, and the story doesn’t hold up under anything but the most uncritical scrutiny.

But somehow, it's still has greatness in it.

Though the execution can be shambolic, the overall shape is a classic one. The glue that holds it together is Buchan’s portrayal of his hero, Richard Hannay - an impressive achievement in the light of the fact that the author shows no discernible ability to characterise anyone else. The other players are all the stock types of Clubman’s fiction. They're mostly defined by rank and class, to the extent that some of them don’t even get names.

Buchan has obviously sensed from a distance the arc that he wants to achieve. It starts in the bustle of the city and loops out across the far wide country, where Hannay discovers with a rug-from-under-the-feet feeling that, far from making his way to safety, he’s made his way to the heart of the conspiracy that he's been running from. In the final act our hero, with his good character restored, leads the forces of right in the final showdown.

I suppose my contention here is that The Thirty-Nine Steps, in its combination of personal conflict and open landscape, offers the closest thing we have to the Great British Western.

That Buchan falsifies process and reality at every turn in order to achieve this is actually something of a key to how the book works. It operates on a level of almost pre-adolescent magical thinking. How else to explain the way in which authority figures hand control of their operation over to the man they've been chasing, on the basis that "He's been doing a pretty good job of it so far"? That’s the kind of thinking that has the Chief of Police calling on eleven-year-old Johnny Atom in order to beg him to take a look at the case that has his best men baffled.

People are recognised as good sorts and bad sorts without any need for qualification or demonstration. It’s a story completely without women. Oh, there's Julia the Czech girl, who gets a promising mention at the beginning. Her name provides the key to a cipher, but she herself makes no appearance.

My antenna says that Buchan had a vague idea that she would, but then went ahead and found no place for her in the execution. I’m convinced that he didn’t pre-plan his story to any great degree. I think that’s the reason for the looseness and breeziness of the writing, but also the dissatisfaction that you’re left with at the end. It’s a bit like realising that you’ve been entrusting your education to a teacher who’s only two chapters ahead of you in the textbook.

Charles Bennett's screenplay for the Hitchcock feature essentially took the framework of the novel and laid an almost unrelated romantic comedy over it. Comparing book to film is a bit like watching Noises Off on stage, where the old warhorse of a story is playing on one side of the flats and the enjoyable stuff with the lighter touch is playing only inches away on the other. The surprising thing is that the combination of thriller and romcom works so well, a fusion of genres that was to become a genre in its own right.

I’ve only a dim recollection of Ralph Smart's 1950s version. Memory suggests that it was a remake of the Bennett screenplay that rested almost entirely on the cheery personality of Kenneth More, one of those actors that I always feel pleased to see. For the rest of it, what I remember is a lot of two-dimensional staging and unconvincing back-projection at precisely those points where tension and thrills are required.

As for the '80s Robert Powell version, I’ve no memory of that at all apart from the image of Hannay dangling from the hands of Big Ben at the end. Though that's not to knock it. Production values appear to have been high and I wouldn't mind seeing it again.

The pic shows Charles Edwards, who appeared as Richard Hannay in both the West End and Broadway productions of Patrick Barlow's spoof/homage to Buchan's novel and the Hitchcock film. Edwards also played the young Conan Doyle in my Murder Rooms story for the BBC Films series. And everyone else's, for that matter.

Monday, 14 July 2008

What the Filk

Got to share this...

Every now and again I used to walk 200 yards up the lane to my village local where I'd meet with a bunch of fannish mates who, once a month and in a more central venue, constituted the core of the Preston SF Group. PSFG meetings were open to all; the ones in my local were just an off-duty hanging-out of old friends.

We always got on well with the management. But the landlady had a fondness for chick-flick background music that could sap a person's will to live.

Now, I don't know if you're aware of what filk music is. Filkers are a subculture within SF fandom dedicated to the writing and performing of science fiction-themed music. I'm not going to knock 'em; my old friend Lawrence Dean is one of the leading exponents of the art. Those who love it, love it lots. But I've seen one eager filker with a guitar empty a convention bar faster than a riot squad.

After the umpteenth runaround of the Bridget Jones soundtrack, we concocted a plan. Someone got hold of a filk CD. I nicked some images off the internet, and made and printed an ersatz Robbie Williams CD label. Stuck it on the filk CD and, when I saw an opportunity, nipped behind the bar and slipped it in amongst the others.

Then we waited for the tracks to show up, followed by the inevitable WTF? response and subsequent outraged accusation.

But it never happened. Time moved on and so did we.

Some months after that, the pub changed hands. I walked in one night. And as I stood at the bar watching my pint being pulled, I heard from the speakers an unholy wail of, "He's the Lorrrd... of the Rinnnnngs" with guitar accompaniment.

All the regular solitary drinkers were standing there looking as if they'd been struck by a profound sense of misery and couldn't work out why. The mostly teenaged bar staff were standing around looking as if someone had just whispered the date of their deaths in their ears.

I reckon the manager had loaded up the six-disc CD changer and gone off to clean-down the kitchens, sticking what he thought was Robbie Williams into the mix. The staff didn't interfere because they thought they were hearing his choice.

The entire CD played out to its end. Then something different came on and the whole place gradually brightened up a bit.

I'd been assuming that the original gag had passed unnoticed. But I now reckon that this was our landlady's revenge...

Every so often, it shows up again. I reckon they've tried to weed it out but no one can identify the disc.

In case they ever do, I've made another one with a Dido label and slipped that into the stack as well.