Saturday afternoon’s panel Writing Fantastical TV featured a collection of brilliant genre writers who all have enviable genre careers. The panel was moderated by Tom Hunter, director of the Arthur C. Clark award. The writers were Adrian Hodges, creator of Primeval, Dr. Who novelist and writer of Stormhouse Jason Arnopp, sci-fi novelist Philip Palmer, and the only man nominated for a Hugo award in three categories Paul Cornell.
The opening question was, What exactly is this “fantastical tv” we’re talking about? Science fiction, fantasy and horror are the standard macro-genres, but the topic really covers any story depicting events which could never happen in real life. This is separate from surrealist stories in that the fantastic does assume that there is a real world that adheres to real laws. It introduces an unreal element into this world to see what might happen.
Most of the discussion was around the current state of the fantastic in British tv. Is it in good health. Everyone agreed that Dr. Who and Merlin, phenomenally successful, have helped advance fantastic genre series. But it does seem we are at a “tipping point”. Dr. Who did prove that genre works and works well, but producers are still scared. Sci-fi and fantasy especially are usually expensive and that’s still a bar to their being made. One thing that has changed, and works in the favour of genre shows is that the newer breed of executives have all grown up on sci-fi and horror – and, unlike execs of past generations, understand it. There isn’t the hurdle of past decades where a sci-fi pitch might be met with scorn or bafflement. Still, when one just one genre show is a flop, producers fear that none of them will work anymore. It’s almost more reassuring, the panelists agreed, that Merlin is doing well rather than Dr. Who. Dr. Who has a built in audience, but Merlin has had to fly on its own merits. In an age of tighter budgets and brutal cuts, caution prevails. Paul related hearing that BBC1 will no longer look at sci-fi shows from indy production companies. If any shows were going to make it to air, they would be developed in-house.
Despite the great success of many sci-fi and fantasy franchises, they are still mostly cult hits and do not often venture outside their niche audience. A sci-fi series, no matter how successful, is never, ever, ever going to have the same viewership as Coronation Street. Broadcasters understand this very well. Writers need to understand it too.
Writers can do themselves a big favor by thinking first of the broadcasters and their needs. For example, think really hard before you put something on another planet. Budgetary considerations make this an almost impossible ask. Even Dr. Who has shunned extraplanetary adventure, simply because it takes so much effort and money to do it convincingly. In fact, don’t use the words “science fiction” when you are pitching or selling a story to execs. Immediately their tendency is to assume it’s something alienating, that will be difficult for them to get. At best they’ll think “Oh, spaceships.” There still is prejudice – fear probably – against fantastic genre storytelling, despite its success and rabidly loyal fan base. The average costume drama is comparable to a big sci-fi piece in budget, but is somehow seen as more value for money. Paul Cornell noted however that often costume dramas are based on established brands or proven concepts, and this is something sci-fi writers should note and perhaps emulate. The success of Merlin and Dr. Who would seem to support this.
It is a male dominated genre – in part because television writing itself is already male dominated. There has been only one female writer on the renewed Dr. Who, Bev Doyle, who is also a writer on Hodges’ Primeval. One attendee pointed out the horrible irony in this by reminding us that Mary Shelley was one of the inventors of the genre as we know it today.
For those clinging too tightly to their own otherworldy visions, ignoring the realities of the business and the requirements of producers, Paul Cornell offered food for thought applicable not just to genre writing, but to any facet of our industry: “You’re signing up for a team game. Everyone gets to have a go at the ball. If you think that’s your ball, you need to find another industry to work in.”