Hauling Like A Brooligan

Stephen Gallagher


On her Twitter account, independent script editor and Script Angel blogger Hayley McKenzie wrote, “When I think ‘sci-fi’ I think action-adventure, but the trailers for Outcasts made it look earnest and ponderous.” I hadn’t seen Outcasts or even the trailer at that point, so I couldn’t comment on her impression (here’s Good Dog‘s take on the show, and Den of Geek‘s more sanguine view).

But with the undoubtedly spurious feeling that I somehow had a stake in the territory, I was moved to point out that early TVSF was suspenseful/cerebral and always built around the core of a surprising idea pushed to its logical conclusion. Out Of The Unknown, Quatermass, Triffids, Chocky

With a bit more thought and more than 140 characters I might have brought the list more up to date with Sci-Fi Channel’s The Lost Room or mentioned Life on Mars. Life on Mars is as solid an inner-space SF concept as you’d find in the pages of New Worlds or anywhere in the New Wave – though to this day the BBC seem convinced that what they had there was just a 70s nostalgia show.

Developing a startling idea with ruthless what-if logic sets science fiction apart as a form, and characterises its unique thrill. But the notion that SF automatically means action-adventure seems to have taken over, much like Sunny D pushing orange juice off the shelves. SyFy, as the Sci-Fi Channel now calls itself, isn’t commissioning any more Lost Rooms. I’m not going to blame Star Wars for the crimes of its imitators, but there’s a whole raft of crap to be found on SyFy and Movies4Men where clones and cyborgs run around Mad Max landscapes in fibreglass armour, zapping each other. With no central driving idea worth the name, these schedule-fillers recycle the tropes of science fiction in standard adventure plots.

Even at the high end, TVSF has come to mean an ordinary drama in an extraordinary setting. The BBC/ABC co-production Defying Gravity was pitched as ‘Grey’s Anatomy in space’ and then-controller Jane Tranter wrote in the press release, “Although primarily a human drama, the landscape and context and genre of Defying Gravity give it a very different flavour from other dramas on the BBC.” Which frankly is completely arse about face – SF isn’t a flavour, it’s a form.


7 responses to “TV, SF”

  1. As I’ve mentioned in reply to your comment, my findamental issue with Outcasts comes from the look and feel of the show. I found out that Ben Richards has admitted recently that he’s not “sci-fi literate” and that certainly comes across, tainting everything with an overriding feeling that without any firm basis in a created reality, everyone involved has simply gone to the dressing up box to play “let’s pretend”. And that seriously undermines the story that he’s trying to tell, which is a real shame.

  2. I didn't comment specifically on the show because at the time of writing I'd only caught the last 10 minutes of Outcasts on the HD channel.

    (so little of my viewing is live-broadcast these days that I never see trails or look at listings magazines, and there's a lot of stuff that sneaks up on me. By sheer fluke I was channel-hopping and caught the opening credits of The Killing's first episode – still there 2 hours later with the remote in my hand and my jaw on the floor.)

    But I can't help noting a broad similarity between Outcasts and The Deep in that they're both projects with a writer of pedigree at one end, a BBC-supervised development process in the middle, a drama of unconvincing people in an unconvincing world at the other.

    The BBC just don't get SF, is all I can conclude. When the relaunched Doctor Who proved a popular success, there was hardly an exec or a manager who didn't spring out of the woodwork saying how they'd been fighting for years to make it happen.

  3. I tried giving the second episode of Outcasts another go on iPlayer but fell long before the end credits. If SF is a “flavour”, what the BBC does with it leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Having seen some wonderful old science fiction dramas over the years at the BFI’s Missing, Believed Wiped events – whether they were Nigel Kneale–scripted dramas or episodes of Out Of The Unknown – it’s obvious that someone, somewhere, in the drama development department has lost the plot. If the characters in both The Deep and Outcasts were doctors or police officers, transplanted into a medical or crime drama, their actions and attitudes would be laughable, so why do they think it’s acceptable for science fiction?

    I’m really looking forward to The Killing. Having missed the first couple episodes when they were broadcast (and getting the repeat date wrong), I’m planning to catch up on iPlayer and, since every episode will be available throughout the run, watch it in blocks. I wonder if the third series of Spiral will follow it?

  4. The new Spiral must be long overdue – I remember reading about the shooting of it ages ago. But I seem to recall that there was little or no advance word from BBC4 about season 2, either.

    I'm five hours into The Killing and it's awesome. Clean, simple, sober, devastatingly truthful storytelling that still manages to press all the thrill and suspense buttons you want a genre piece to press. It leaves me wondering what Danish TV has going for it that BBC drama can't match – could it be that they simply know what they're doing? Where those behind Luther don't?

    When execs demand that we don't hold them to the standards of 'the good old days' I can't help feeling that they're just dodging justice. Last night I happened to dig out the Gangsters Play for Today – pacy, noisy, full of contemporary issues, high-octane thuggery and joy.

    So much for the 'festishising' of the single play. It was in the single play that television broke new ground and new writing got a platform. If you wrote a decent piece of theatre and put it on in a pub, some producer with a degree of autonomy would seek you out and commission something original. Now, as Robert Cooper pointed out, they still seek out those fresh new voices but now send them on a course where they learn how to write Holby.

  5. The first series of Spiral was shown here in 2007, the second in 2009, so the third must be along soon. It’s already out on DVD in France but judging from the page on Amazon.fr, doesn’t come with English subtitles, and my French is pretty much limited to “the monkey is in the tree.”

    I did see that The Killing is coming out over here on DVD, released just around the time it finishes on BBC4, and the day after the American remake starts on AMC in the US. I just happened to see a piece on the Deadline website and apparently the location has been switched to Seattle for their version. I know which one I want to see of the two.

    Every now and again, usually because it fits into a themed season on BBC4, the odd single drama of old gets dusted off and reshown. Seriously, they need to do that more. Philip Martin’s Gangsters got the highest ratings of any of Play for Today’s previous plays. Where is David Rose when we need him? In fact, need him more than ever. Instead of ideas everything now gets turned into issues and absurdly assigned to some tedious soap opera character for a few months.

    If Network can release ITV’s Armchair Theatre, Armchair Cinema, Armchair Thriller, sorting out whatever rights and royalties entanglements there may be, surely 2entertain could put out a selection of surviving editions of The Wednesday Play and Play for Today, rather than dole out a few here and there when they put together a boxed set of work by Alan Bennett or Potter or Poliakoff. I’m sure even a few of the viewers blinding grazing from the Holby slop trough would be interested.

    As for Luther… I’m sure I saw the first episode because I remember something about a woman with a knife, but it might have been the instance when I looked up from the crossword to discover that the programme had actually finished ten or fifteen minutes ago and I hadn’t noticed. I suppose that says it all.

  6. 'festishising' – I knew something was wrong with that when I wrote it, but it's taken me until now to spot what.

    'Fetishising' was the word used by Jane Tranter to dismiss anyone who argues that the single play has a value in the bigger picture unconnected to viewing figures or franchise elements.

    It may be true that television drama's USP lies in narrative that unfolds in a specific direction over multiple parts. But to get that you first need somewhere for a writer to get up and sing. The only place left was in radio drama but now they're cutting the slots for that, too.

  7. Stephen, tracked back from a comment you made on GoIntoTheStory.com. I've added your blog to my Blogroll. Nice to 'meet' you and continued success in your writing career.