New Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker plays a medical imposter in Trust Me, a thriller penned by real-life doctor Dan Sefton. DQ hears from the duo about making the show.
Doctorates appear to be arriving like buses for actress Jodie Whittaker, who will become a doctor not once but twice over the next few months.
The actor was recently announced as the 13th incarnation of the BBC’s famous Time Lord in Doctor Who – the first woman to take the prestigious primetime title in the show’s 54-year history. The star, best known for her role in Broadchurch, will replace the outgoing Peter Capaldi when he regenerates during the upcoming Christmas special.
Before then, however, she’ll be seen on BBC1 as another medic as she takes the lead role in gripping drama Trust Me. She plays Cath Hardacre, who, after being suspended from her job as a nurse for whistleblowing, steals the identity of a doctor friend who has emigrated to New Zealand.
She moves from Sheffield to Edinburgh to work as an A&E doctor, but it’s not easy to shake off her past. Not only is she unqualified but her bitter ex Karl (played by Blake Harrison) and a hungry investigative journalist Sam Kelly (Nathan Walsh) are both on her case.
Written by Dan Sefton, best known for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital and Sky1’s Delicious, Trust Me plunges viewers into a world the writer knows well, as he also works part time as an A&E doctor. StudioCanal is distributing the series internationally.
“As a doctor, I’ve encountered imposters in real life. There was actually one in the department where I worked,” he says. “Often they are well liked and competent; I’ve also met qualified doctors who are frankly dangerous. For me there’s a delicious irony in the idea that the imposter doctor is better than the real thing, both clinically and with patients.”
It took him seven years from first reading a book about imposters to getting his drama made. “My first thought was making it about a pair of identical twins. The story changed in various ways until I came up with the idea of a nurse impersonating a doctor,” he recalls. “The problem was a lot of people didn’t believe it was credible, even though I, as a doctor, was telling them it was credible – there have been so many stories of people doing it.
“It was really frustrating because I knew it was a good idea and I was worried that someone else would get there first. It wasn’t until Red Production Company came on board that they really listened to the story and immediately saw the potential in it.”
Whittaker says she was hooked from the moment she read the first script. “It really fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to go,” she says of the series, which launches on BBC1 on August 8. “At the beginning, when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job, it could have gone in so many ways. The fact she takes on a new identity isn’t the way I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious; they certainly aren’t black and white.”
Sefton says he looked at US shows where the lead is often an anti-hero. No one walking into an NHS hospital would like to think they are being treated by an unqualified doctor, yet at the same time Cath is good at her job. The story is told from her point of view and the viewer is on her side – at least at first.
“I enjoyed the push-and-pull feel of playing with the audience’s sympathies,” the writer explains. “She is a good person but she shouldn’t be doing this. She’s an honest woman who has done one dishonest thing; there will be consequences. I read a lot about the different types of imposters; there are far more men than women. Men always do it for egotistical reasons; they want to be something impressive. But the women generally do it for a way of getting on in life.
“In this show Cath is giving herself the opportunities she’d never had. But once she’s made that choice, that changes who she is. She begins to like her new life and that’s where it becomes complicated.”
Whittaker agrees: “It’s really interesting to play flawed characters. I would be terrified by the choice this protagonist has made – I’m a crap secret-keeper. Often we are surrounded by people who do things that we don’t agree with. For the audience not to agree with her but still be emotionally behind her is an interesting thing to play.”
Sefton worked as a medical consultant on the Glasgow and Edinburgh set (the show was co-executive produced by Gaynor Holmes for BBC Scotland), helping the cast find their way around a busy emergency department. He also allowed the actors to experiment on him with minor procedures – up to a point where the producers had to step in because they were worried he could sue them for health and safety breaches.
“I kept volunteering to be a guinea pig,” he admits. “But the producers were worried I would get hurt and sue them. I still encouraged the actors to stick needles in me. The only way you understand the tension of doing something like that – of crossing a line – is when you do something like that to another human.”
Although Sefton has scripted medical dramas including Doctors, Casualty and Holby City, he says he deliberately made the medical stories in Trust Me different. “There is a horror show element to it,” he says. “A lot of things Cath has to tackle are the things that still scare doctors. She sees some very nasty cases; they all do.
“In episode two, you see Sharon Small’s character, Dr Brigitte McAdams, talk about the patients she has killed and how much that has affected her. People know about medical mistakes but don’t see how it can also hurt the doctors.
“Because this drama isn’t about the medical stuff, there is a nihilism which you don’t normally get as you don’t need to resolve the medical stories. In real life there is often no easy answer, there is no meaning to the problems people come in with. They aren’t resolved. I want this to be a tough watch because even though she is doing a bad thing, she is still turning up there every day to help people.”
Social media is having an increasing impact on the success or failure of television drama, as Stephen Arnell discovers.
For many broadcasters, the advent of social media has been a decidedly mixed blessing, especially in the world of TV drama.
A flurry of positive tweets can increase a new show’s profile – and viewership – but heavily negative reactions can have the effect of strangling it at birth.
Back in 2013, comedy writer Ben Elton’s comeback vehicle The Wright Way was effectively cancelled before the end of the first episode, such was the overwhelmingly poor social media response from critics and viewers alike.
BBC Comedy chief Shane Allen complained that instant social media criticism put paid to any chance of the show bedding in and improving, but those, as they say, are the breaks.
An apparently ‘bruised’ Elton (Blackadder, The Young Ones) returned to the fray with his Shakespeare comedy Upstart Crow (BBC2), so all’s well that ends well.
But with the exception of longer-running US dramas and soaps that are in production as the show is transmitted, there is little broadcasters can do after the event to combat social media flak until the next season.
The BBC in particular has come in for heavy criticism over recent years for what viewers perceive as ‘mumbling’ from actors and generally poor sound levels.
Back in 2014, BBC1’s two-part adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn made the front pages and caused a Twitter blowout due to ‘Mumblegate’ – viewers complaining in their droves about some of the actors’ unintelligible dialogue, particularly that of lead Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), and inferior sound quality.
Viewer numbers fell from 6.1 million for the first episode to 4.5 million for the second and the BBC swung into action with a Mumblegate inquiry, finding that “technical issues,” combined with overloud incidental music and Harris’s performance, rendered that drama a less than ideal experience for many viewers.
Du Maurier’s son Christian ‘Kits’ Browning commented: “Thank God Sean Harris’ character gets killed. I blame the director and the sound man – and an actor who just mumbled. If anyone else feels the same way I just suggest you go and read the book. In the end I had to resort to subtitles.”
After this debacle, one would have thought the BBC would be alert to these kind of issues, but recent weeks have seen more Twitter meltdowns and tabloid headlines over mumbling – the culprits this time being serial murmurer Tom Hardy (Taboo, BBC1) and Sam Riley (SS-GB, BBC1).
Twitter reaction to the shows from viewers included: “I wish Tom Hardy would speak up a bit sometimes #Taboo,” “SS-GB – The subtitle department should have kept it up for all the dialogue. Head melted trying to understand this,” and “Why is Sam Riley playing Archer of the Yard with a voice like Patty and Selma?” – the latter referring the famously gravelly voiced Simpsons characters.
Taboo’s viewing figures decreased steadily over much of the show’s run, but it may be overstating the case to solely blame negative social media reaction for this.
SS-GB (pictured top) has also seen a decline in viewing levels, with episode two falling by two million to record an audience of 3.9 million as complaints about Riley’s intonation continue.
After other complaints about dialogue clarity in the dramas Happy Valley, Rillington Place and Poldark last year, BBC director general Tony Hall told his chiefs to sort out “audibility issues.”
And good luck to the BBC executive assigned to tell Tom Hardy to speak up.
That said, there are more positive ways for social media reaction to actually benefit shows – for instance in the groundswell of support that caused Amazon to pick up the BBC’s Ripper Street and Netflix to revive cult comedy hit Arrested Development.
Studies show that positive Twitter buzz can boost viewership, which is said to have aided shows including Empire (Fox) and Modern Family (ABC).
Live twitter conversations during dramas such as Game of Thrones, Lucifer, The Walking Dead and Vikings are known to increase engagement with dramas.
On the other hand, negative social media feedback was felt to be a contributory factor in the cancellation of ABC’s The Muppets revival last year. High opening ratings declined precipitously as viewers thought early episodes unfunny or mean-spirited. Despite a talked-up midseason revamp, audiences continued to fall.
The deaths of popular characters Glen (Steven Yen) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the beginning of season seven of The Walking Dead, meanwhile, saw adverse Twitter reaction, followed by a viewing decline for the following episodes. But now, after its mid-season break, the drama is taking on a much more redemptive tone, which looks to be reflected in a ratings bump.
Episode 10’s reunion of fan favourites Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) saw an outpouring of emotion in social media.
In hit legal drama The Good Wife (CBS), adverse reaction to character Kalinda’s storyline in the season four premiere saw showrunners Robert and Michelle King prematurely discontinue the arc.
Talking to TV Guide, Robert King said of the decision: “I do think the audience teaches the storyteller and this is a case of the audience teaching the storyteller.”
Viewers have also successfully changed show content in other instances, including Lena Dunham accepting criticism of her drama Girls’ all-white cast and adding a minority character to the HBO series in response.
Some writers are playful with social media, with Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat actively responsive to fan reaction.
Doctor Who episode The Time of the Doctor included a plot device that gave the Time Lord another dozen ‘regenerations,’ resolving the problem, much discussed on fan sites, that the Doctor was permitted only 12 incarnations according to the original canons of the show.
Sherlock co-writer Mark Gatiss also included a continuing gag in the script for The Empty Hearse, teasing online speculation about how Holmes may have been able to fake his death at the end of the second season.
Social media is a double-edged sword for broadcasters, where the benefits of instant feedback in boosting some dramas are balanced by the premature deaths of others, which means there’s no real hiding place for either mediocre or just plain bad shows.
With Peter Capaldi revealing he plans to leave the Tardis at the same time as showrunner Steven Moffatt also departs Doctor Who, Stephen Arnell considers the future for the long-running sci-fi drama.
The old adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ may strike Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi (above) as particularly pertinent in the light of his decision to leave the show later this year.
Especially so since Capaldi was a devotee of the series in his youth, even going to the extent of writing a fan letter to the Radio Times way back in 1974 when he was just 15.
When he landed the role in 2013, it must have been something of a dream come true for the actor, hitherto best known in the UK playing the foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the BBC comedy The Thick of It (2005-2012).
Since Capaldi became the 12th incarnation of the Doctor after the exit of Matt Smith (The Crown), the show has suffered a noticeable decline in ratings and sniping from both critics and fans concerning the quality of scripting – and occasionally the acting.
Back in November 2015, Capaldi blamed declining viewing figures on what he felt was erratic scheduling by the BBC, for what is still essentially a family show. The series was moved from its previous family-friendly teatime slot and frequently finished after the 21.00 watershed. “I feel it’s slightly used as a pawn in a Saturday night warfare,” he said. “I feel as if it should go out at 19.30 or around that time.”
“And once you get past 20.15, you’re getting yourself into adult territory and although a lot of adults really like it, at its heart, it’s designed to do a lot of entertaining of children as well.”
Also departing with Capaldi following the 2017 Christmas special is showrunner Steven Moffat, who suffered flak for what was seen by some as overcomplicated plotting, subpar effects, pointless gimmicks, shouted dialogue and weak attempts at humour – criticisms that also dogged him across the Matt Smith era.
Even Doctor Who’s music came under fire, with the score at times tipping into parody with its recurrent intrusive bombast.
Stunt casting of guest stars also drew criticism, harking back to the dying days of the original series when comedians such as Ken Dodd, pop stars like Leee John from Imagination and light-entertainment hosts including Nicholas Parsons all made appearances in the show.
The revived Doctor Who has also seen some distracting guest stars, including soap actress Barbara Windsor (in character as EastEnders’ Peggy Mitchell), James Corden and comedian Frank Skinner.
It’s possible that in acting as showrunner to both Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat had taken on too much – to the detriment of both shows.
Older fans dubbed Capaldi the Colin Baker (the sixth doctor) of the rebooted Doctor Who – a capable actor felt to have been let down by the creative team.
But as long as the series is a relative cash cow for distributor BBC Worldwide, the corporation will continue with the show, hoping that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall can breathe new life into the ailing franchise.
Chibnall has a resumé that mainly comprises sci-fi and fantasy, although it does include the hit crime drama Broadchurch (and its failed US counterpart Gracepoint), plus a UK version of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order, Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, and episodes of Doctor Who itself.
Back in 2011, alongside Vikings’ Michael Hirst, he co-created the shortlived Starz series Camelot, which chimed with his earlier unsuccessful attempt to get his 2005 take on Merlin commissioned by the BBC.
The BBC will no doubt ramp up expectations around the casting of The 13th (unlucky for some?) Doctor.
The betting seems to be going in the direction of either a female or non-white (or both) actor for the role, representing a clean break from the white male casting of the role to date, although conversely Ben Wishaw (Spectre, London Spy) is currently the favourite in terms of odds.
It’s difficult to see Wishaw giving up his varied and successful career in film and TV for the part, but stranger things have happened.
Both David Tennant (Broadchurch, Jessica Jones) and Matt Smith (The Crown) have by and large managed to escape being pigeon-holed by the role of The Doctor, which tended to be the case for previous leads in original 1963 to 1989 run of the show.
So far, other names in the frame include Olivia Colman (The Night Manager, Broadchurch), Hayley Atwell (Conviction, Agent Carter), Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl), Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful), Miranda Hart (Spy, Miranda) and Sophie Okonedo (Undercover).
Going by previous casting for the role, it’s probably unlikely to be an actor who is too familiar to viewers. The only real exception to this was Christopher Eccleston, who launched the rebooted show for one season back in 2005, when the BBC presumably felt a ‘name’ was necessary to give Doctor Who a fighting chance against the competition.
Which indeed it did, as an average audience of eight million viewers tuned into the series, with strong audience appreciation figures of 80-plus throughout the 13-episode season.
Eccleston left soon after the conclusion of his sole season, with a number of conflicting rumours continuing to this day as to exactly why – depending on which member of the production team one talks to.
So how will Chibnall approach the task of kickstarting the franchise? Will he re-invent the character and bring the Doctor down to earth, as happened literally in the original series, when the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was exiled to Earth and denied use of the Tardis by his fellow Time Lords for his first 25-episode season in the role?
There may be further tie-ins with the BBC3 spin-off Class, or possibly the return of Torchwood in some form.
Resurrecting old villains is also a way of igniting the fan base, so perhaps we can expect some of the lesser-known baddies to return – the Quatermass-influenced Daemons (season eight of the original series, with the third Doctor) being a particular favourite among Who aficionados.
Whatever happens, there will always be the challenge of pleasing a family audience – keeping it exciting and scary for the kids but maintaining enough character, humour and knowingness for the adults.
Whatever happens, expect some radical changes – going by the usual trends in TV drama, Doctor Who’s waning ratings will herald steeper falls in the not-too-distant future if unchecked.
As the first director to take charge of BBC period drama Poldark, Ed Bazalgette tells DQ about his approach to directing, the importance of casting and how he works with writers and actors. He also discusses his work on Doctor Who spin-off Class and his latest trip in the Tardis for the Doctor Who Christmas 2016 special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio.
Writers and producers often spend years crafting their passion projects before they come to air – but the risk is always whether the audience cares as much as they do, writes Michael Pickard.
When US cable network FX commissioned bloody medieval drama The Bastard Executioner (pictured above), it was billed as the eagerly anticipated next act from writer Kurt Sutter.
Sutter had built his career at FX, first working on ground-breaking cop drama The Shield and then creating hit biker series Sons of Anarchy, which ran for seven seasons until 2014.
The Bastard Executioner, which made its UK debut this week on History, would represent an entirely different direction from his previous work. It was an ambitious Middle Ages drama that told the story of a warrior knight in King Edward II’s charge who is broken by the ravages of war and vows to lay down his sword. But when that violence finds him again he is forced to pick up the bloodiest sword of all.
Sutter developed the series from an idea from Brian Grazer, who executive produced the 10-episode show with Sutter and Francie Calfo.
And it was immediately clear how Sutter he had invested in the show, exclaiming at the time of its commission in May 2015: “I love history. I love theology. I love blood. It’s been very satisfying weaving fact and fiction to create a new mythology that combines all these elements. And with this extraordinary cast – Stephen Moyer, Katey Sagal and newcomer Lee Jones – this world explodes on screen.”
But as Sutter would discover, no amount of excitement can turn the tide of public opinion if the audience doesn’t share the same interest in your passion project as you do.
Writers and producers can spend years developing a series, often focusing on obscure or niche stories or time periods. But in most cases, they must build their reputations working on other shows before being given the chance – and freedom from a network – to bring their passion projects to life. And even if the story does connect, there is still a possibility the project could be undone by its execution.
Among the successes is Poldark, BBC1’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels, starring Aidan Turner and written by Debbie Horsfield.
When it first aired in 2015, no one could have predicted how quickly the show would develop a devoted following in both the UK and the US, where it airs on PBS. The series has since been renewed for a third season to air in 2017 – ahead of its season two launch this September.
“Poldark is a passion project for all of us, and it’s with real excitement that we prepare for both the launch of season two and our return to Cornwall to shoot season three,” said Damien Timmer, MD of Poldark prodco Mammoth Screen. “Winston Graham and Debbie Horsfield’s extraordinary flair for storytelling means the saga of [lead character] Ross, his friends and enemies will go to even more thrilling places!”
Writer/actor Mark Gatiss is a long-time fan of sci-fi series Doctor Who and has written eight episodes of the show since it was revived in 2005. But it was the opportunity to write a special film to mark the franchise’s 50th anniversary that proved a real labour of love. Gatiss, who also co-created Sherlock, penned An Adventure in Time and Space, which followed the creation of the series with David Bradley portraying the first Doctor, William Hartnell.
“The strange thing is, because I’m a Jon Pertwee child, this was before my time,” Gatiss said at the film’s 2013 premiere, referencing the third actor to play the Doctor. “But I grew up with the story – almost like a bedtime story – of how the show came together. These very unlikely people coming together… nobody liking the Daleks… all these little stories that were like holy writ.
“I always thought it would just be a fantastic story to tell and it’s just come together at the right time.”
Steven Knight may consider himself a film writer, having penned movies such as Locke, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, but it’s in television that he found a home thanks to Peaky Blinders, a series that began life as a novel until Knight transformed it for the small screen with Nurse Jackie creator Caryn Mandabach.
When the series was given a two-season renewal by BBC2 following its successful third run earlier this year, Knight admitted: “I am thrilled at the response to the third season. The prospect of writing season four and five is truly exciting. This is a real passion project for me and I look forward to telling more stories of the Shelby family.”
More recently, Emmy-nominated spy drama The Night Manager was discovered to be a long-held passion project for star Hugh Laurie – so much so that the actor once tried to option the rights to the John Le Carré novel on which the show was based, only to find they had already been snapped up by Sydney Poitier.
The stylish BBC1/AMC series, which aired earlier this year, saw Laurie play arms dealer Richard Roper opposite Tom Hiddleston’s hero Jonathan Pine, with the adaptation penned by David Farr.
“I can’t claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground,” former House star Laurie said. “I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything I could do to make it go – I just wanted to be involved with it.”
Meanwhile, HBO’s The Night Of, an adaptation of BBC drama Criminal Justice, was a passion project for the late actor James Gandolfini, who championed the series that was brought to air last month by Steven Zaillian.
Less successful, however, was Vinyl, HBO’s big-budget music industry drama set in 1970s New York City. Said to have been a passion project of former network programming chief Michael Lombardo, the series looked a surefire hit with a creative team comprising celebrated director Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
However, after disappointing reviews and lacklustre ratings, plus the departure of Winter and a change in management at the premium cable network, the show was cancelled in May after one season – reversing an earlier decision in February to order a second season after just one episode had aired.
“After careful consideration, we have decided not to proceed with a second season of Vinyl,” HBO said. “Obviously, this was not an easy decision. We have enormous respect for the creative team and cast for their hard work and passion on this project.”
Hoping to have better luck is forthcoming Amazon drama The Collection, which has been a long-time ambition for its creators, Oliver Goldstick and Kate Croft.
The series is set in an illustrious Parisian fashion house, emerging from the end of the Occupation into a golden age of design. The story focuses on two brothers while exposing the grit behind the glamour of the couture business.
“The Collection has been a passion project of mine for years; an entrepreneurial fable set in a pivotal moment in history, when fashion served as the ultimate vehicle for transformation and reinvention,” admitted showrunner Goldstick, best known for his work on US drama Ugly Betty. “It’s the story of a war-scarred family – upstairs and downstairs – tethered together by its success and its secrets.”
Croft, who executive produces the series and worked with Goldstick to develop the show, continued: “Out of our shared passion for the world and the period, Oliver has created his extraordinary vision of Paris and the golden age of couture. It’s full of his signature flourishes, and his unique take means we get to peek behind the elegant façade and realise it is not just about the dresses, but more about what they are covering up.”
Elsewhere, Laeta Kalogridis held the rights to Richard Morgan’s novel Altered Carbon for four years before Netflix commissioned a 10-part series in January.
The story is set in the 25th century when the human mind has been digitised and the soul is transferrable from one body to the next. Takeshi Kovacs, a former elite interstellar warrior, has been imprisoned for 500 years and is downloaded into a future he had tried to stop. If he can solve a single murder in a world where technology has made death nearly obsolete, he’ll get a chance at a new life on Earth.
“Altered Carbon is one of the most seminal pieces of post-cyberpunk hard science fiction out there – a dark, complex noir story that challenges our ideas of what it means to be human when all information becomes encodable, including the human mind,” Kalogridis says.
As for Sutter and The Bastard Executioner, the writer took the unusual decision to cancel his own show when it failed to connect with viewers – an announcement he made by placing an advert in several Hollywood television industry magazines.
“Good reviews are wonderful and so are awards, but for me, I’m very aware of ratings because my job as a storyteller is to engage and hook an audience,” Sutter said. “Ratings let me know that I’m doing my job. This show premiered low, and we never really established a baseline where we could say, ‘OK, that’s our audience.’”
He added: “When a show gets cancelled, there’s often this perception that, oh, it’s a failure, or the network didn’t support it and pulled the plug. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
A common saying among writers is only write what you love – why waste your time on anything else? But with passion projects, there will always be a risk that the audience might not care as deeply as those who created it.
As Sutter concluded in his advert: “The audience has spoken and unfortunately the word is ‘meh.’ So with due respect, we bring our mythology to an epic and fiery close.”
BBC America’s Sarah Barnett is looking for returnable hits that appeal to a generation of social media-driven viewers and keep them coming back to the cable channel.
Tatiana Maslany received her first Emmy nomination for Best Actress after three seasons playing multiple roles in the science fiction series Orphan Black (pictured above).
And although she ultimately lost out to Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder) at the 2015 awards, her nomination proved a winner for US cable channel BBC America (BBCA), which airs the Canada-produced series.
It transpired that Orphan Black was the second most Tweeted-about show during the ceremony – behind only Game of Thrones, which dominated the list of award winners – and BBCA president and general manager Sarah Barnett says this is exactly the type of engagement she is looking for when deciding what new shows to bring to the network.
“There is this crazy social engagement our audience has with our shows,” she says. “Doctor Who is the sixth most social show in America, but it’s not the sixth most watched show at all. It’s becoming really hard to gauge success with overnights, and even with live+3s and +7s. It’s difficult to aggregate viewing because it happens in so many different ways but social engagement and passion is crucial. For programmers, it’s uniquely satisfying to see that kind of love and identification. Those stories are very emotional journeys and they’re about outsiders, and the millennial crowd engages with that.”
Barnett is a year into her role at BBCA, having previously run its AMC Networks-owned sister channel SundanceTV, where the business model didn’t require huge audience numbers and executives focused on finding “remarkable” television. Things are slightly different at BBCA, where viewing figures are more important, but Barnett says discovering the level of engagement fans have with the channel’s shows has been a welcome surprise.
“One of the amazing things we have is a level of passion and engagement from this millennial crowd that comes to the Doctor Whos and Orphan Blacks, and it’s actually kind of extraordinary,” she says. “When I first arrived, it blew me away.”
Although it carries a lot of content from its UK namesake, BBCA is not limited to acquiring series from the public broadcaster. It also buys in other British shows such as Broadchurch and Prey, which both aired on ITV in the UK, while also pushing into original series of its own. Three have aired so far – Copper, Orphan Black and Intruders – with the promise of more to come.
“It’s never been just a home for BBC content in the US,” Barnett says of the channel. “I don’t want it to be something that’s respected and well thought of but slightly away from anything super relevant. I want it to feel very confident about its Britishness and to feel very energetic, vital and relevant to an American pop-culture audience.
“Since I’ve been doing this job, there seems to have been an increase in the conversation about returning series and shows that have some of the complexity of storytelling in terms of plotting and depth of the best US cable in terms of character and grounding.”
Barnett outlines the differences between the US and the UK markets by comparing the audiences for different channels. In particular, she says US viewers will largely exclusively watch either broadcast (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) content or shows airing on cable, which are generally niche, often edgier stories.
“Most of the storytelling in cable, certainly since AMC pioneered premium storytelling (Mad Men, Breaking Bad), is much edgier, much more bold and has pushed the boundaries in terms of subject matter,” she explains, citing other examples including Amazon’s Transparent, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Homeland on Showtime. “But when you look at BBC1 and BBC2 and even Channel 4, the same audiences watch everything – broad shows and edgier shows (From Darkness, London Spy).
“In the US it’s somewhat different – essentially you either watch the broadcast shows that are less deep in their storytelling or you identify with cable. It’s all much more mixed up in the UK.”
In the past year, Barnett says she has simplified the BBCA’s schedule, stripping non-scripted shows such as Man vs Wild and Top Gear and playing drama in primetime.
And when it comes to original commissions, Barnett says her priority is returning dramas that have more than eight or more episodes per season.
An example of this is Dirk Gently, which BBCA greenlit in January. An adaptation of Douglas Adams’ comic novels Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the eight-hour series is written by Max Landis (Chronicle) and coproduced by AMC Studios, Ideate Media, IDW Entertainment and Circle of Confusion.
The show follows the bizarre adventures of eccentric detective Gently and his reluctant assistant as they become embroiled in a season-long mystery.
“Because of the intensely competitive, cacophonous moment of content in the US, we will have fewer big, buzzy originals and will look primarily for shows that have eight or more episodes per season and that are returning,” Barnett says. “That doesn’t mean we’re not in the business for some fresh, dynamic, closed-ended things. We are, and we’re coproducing a number of things with the BBC right now (including political thriller Undercover and mystery series Thirteen).
“But a lot of our focus is on stuff that is returning and has more episodes. A network like AMC might have 70-100 hours of original content a year. At Sundance we probably had 40-50 hours of originals a year. Next year we have 150-200 hours. We’re primarily scripted – we’re not doing a ton of unscripted.”
Because of its ties with the BBC, most of BBCA’s first-run series hail from across the pond, particularly through coproduction, though Barnett argues that the network’s Britishness is what helps it stand out in the crowded US marketplace.
It is that international outlook that has also inspired a show currently in development at BBCA and set in contemporary Berlin.
“The main story follows an American family that left during the middle of last century. They’re a Jewish family moving back to Berlin, so it’s very much about young contemporary Berlin,” Barnett says of the unnamed project, adding that there may or may not be British characters involved. “From my point of view, I’m not a big fan of inserting them just for the sake of it. I don’t think people watch like that. Our audience sees us as a passport to the world.”
Barnett has also found the much longed-for companion piece to Doctor Who in Class, a BBC coproduction that is written by Patrick Ness and set in London’s Coal Hill School – which viewers will know as the school where Doctor Who’s former companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was a teacher.
“With original commissions, I’m looking to find shows that are going to be up there with Doctor Who and Orphan Black,” Barnett says. “That’s one BBC show and one original. We’re agnostic as to where it comes from. We’d love it to come from the UK but I want those shows that are really going to define the brand, speak to that audience and create a reason for people to continue to come to what is a medium-sized cable network. They’re not going to come unless there’s a real fresh pipeline.”
With more than 400 shows airing in the US alone in 2015, on more platforms than ever, Barnett is candid about the performance of new shows – and returning hits that don’t quite reach the same heights second time around. But BBCA is positioning itself as a trailblazer for new ways to reach audiences, whether through liner broadcasts or making content available on-demand.
“It’s an interesting time in the US with these new platforms stealing share,” she says. “Of all of the returning shows last season, only 15 shows grew when they came back. Everything else declined and there’s 400 scripted shows out there. Broadchurch grew on air, Doctor Who’s season premiere came back with the largest 18-49 audience it has ever had. We’re doing something right and it’s the shows and the way we launch them.
“We launched The Last Kingdom a little ahead of the BBC. With the second episode, we put it online right after the first episode aired. The thinking was to get people hooked. We eroded the second week numbers but then it built to a bigger number in week three. We’re constantly trying to think of ways to cut through.
“Many would argue there’s an irrationality to this moment of ‘peak TV’ in the US but I think there is space for really good shows to still connect with an audience – Transparent, Mr Robot, Orange is the New Black, Doctor Who, Orphan Black. There’s this weird paradox that there’s so much yet there’s not enough that you really want to actually watch.”
As the for biggest challenge she faces, Barnett is clear that growing shows and keeping an audience is causing the greatest anxiety among US cable and broadcast network presidents.
“A show like Fargo on FX, season one was amazing,” she admits. “Fantastic reviews, good viewing numbers. Then season two came along, heralded with the most extraordinary critical response, and yet the numbers dipped quite significantly. That’s a show that should have grown but didn’t.
“That’s the challenge – how to stay relevant. For us it’s about telling stories that connect with this audience that is so obsessively passionate about the shows they fall in love with that they will come back. That’s the thing that keeps me awake – how to find the shows that fuel the passion of that audience.”
As its name suggests, feature films are the major focus of the Berlin Film Festival, better known as the Berlinale. But, echoing trends across the global media market, high-end TV drama is also playing an increasingly important role at the event.
There is, for example, a screening showcase called the Berlinale Special Series, during which TV titles from Denmark, the UK, Israel, Australia and the US will be shown. There is also an event called The CoPro Series, during which seven international TV projects searching for coproduction and financing partners will launch.
For this week’s column, we’re taking a closer look at each of the selected projects, focusing on the writing talent involved.
Berlinale Special Series
The Night Manager is an adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy thriller, starring Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman. Set to be broadcast by the BBC in the UK and AMC in the USA, it has been adapted for screen by David Farr, who recently attended the C21 Drama Summit to discuss his approach to the project. Farr has established a strong reputation as a theatre director but has also proved very adept as a screenwriter. His credits include TV series Spooks and the movie Hanna, co-written with Joe Wright.
Love, Nina is a comedy miniseries for the BBC starring Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Watkins, Joshua McGuire and Faye Marsay. The story is based on the memoirs of Nina Stibbe, a nanny who worked for and encountered some of London’s leading literary figures in the 1980s. It has been adapted by British novelist Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Fever Pitch) and is his first ever TV drama. He says of the project: “Love, Nina has already attained the status of a modern classic, and I am so happy that I’ve been given the opportunity to adapt it. We want to make a series that is as charming, funny and delightful as Nina Stibbe’s glorious book.”
Better Call Saul is a spin-off from the iconic AMC series Breaking Bad. Now moving into season two, it’s the brainchild of Vince Gilligan, who also created Breaking Bad. For season two, he shares the showrunning duties with Peter Gould. Although Gould is not as high profile as Gilligan, he is equally steeped in the series’ mythology, having worked on all five seasons of the parent show and the first season of the spin-off. For his work on Breaking Bad, he was nominated for four Writers Guild of America Awards.
Cleverman is an Australia/New Zealand coproduction based in a dystopian futuristic fantasy world. Due to be broadcast by ABC Australia and SundanceTV in the US, it stars Iain Glen and Frances O’Connor. The original concept for the story is from Ryan Griffen, a relative newcomer to the industry who also co-wrote four out of the series’ six episodes. Other credited writers were Jon Bell, Jonathan Gavin and Michael Miller (six episodes) and Jane Allen (two episodes). Overal,l that’s a pretty potent line-up of Aussie writing talent, with career credits that include Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, Neighbours, The Gods of Wheat Street and Offspring.
Splitting Up Together is the latest drama to come out of Denmark. The TV2 show is described as a serialised character-driven comedy about family, love, sex and happy divorce. The show, which first saw the light of day at last year’s Mipcom, is produced by Happy End and distributed by DR Sales. It is created and written by Mette Heeno, whose previous credits include TV2 comedy series Lærkevej and Lillemand. Prior to that, she spent much of the last decade writing movie scripts (such as Triple Dare).
The Writer is an Israeli series coming out of the prolific Keshet stable. Written by Sayed Kashua, who created award-winning comedy Arab Labor, the 10-part series “observes the reality of a hybrid Israeli-Palestinian existence and the personal and political toll it can take on the individual.” This is a similar theme to Arab Labor, which has so far had four seasons (since debuting in 2007). Kashua earned an international reputation for his previous series, with the New York Times saying: “Kashua has managed to barge through cultural barriers and bring an Arab point of view… into the mainstream of Israeli entertainment.”
Avrupa is a project from Circe Film in the Netherlands centring on a flamboyant Turkish family that immigrates to the Netherlands in the 1980s. It is written by Sacha Polak and Stienette Bosklopper. To date, Polak’s main credits have been movies (Hemel, Zurich and Vita & Virginia). Bosklopper, meanwhile, is best known as a producer – only turning to screenwriting in the past couple of years. Speaking to Screen Daily, she said: “I had been working with a lot of writers and directors. Somehow, there was an urge to contribute on a different level. To my own amazement, it is going very well. It comes quite naturally and I get the feeling I will continue to do this.”
Brotherhood is a Norwegian crime series for TV2 Norway from Friland Film, a production company best known for feature films. The series, apparently inspired by true events, centres on a police investigator in Oslo who becomes heavily involved in organised crime. His secret links to the underworld are suddenly challenged and the protection he has built around his family starts to fall apart. The eight-part project is being written by Nikolaj Frobenius, whose main writing credits to date are as an author and movie writer. Film credits over the course of the last decade include Pioneer, Sons of Norway and Insomnia, while his books have been translated into 18 languages.
DNA is a Danish crime show produced by Eyeworks Scandi Fiction and written by author and creator Torleif Hoppe. Hoppe’s main claim to fame is his involvement in The Killing, of which he wrote 20 episodes. Aside from DNA, he is also working with Buccaneer Media, BBC America and AMC on Moths, a thriller set in Japan.
Lucky Per is a Nordisk Film Production for TV2 Denmark, based on a famous book written at the start of the 20th century. The four-part miniseries will be adapted for the screen by Bille August and his son Anders. It is scheduled to go into production this summer, with delivery at the end of 2017. DR Sales is handling distribution. Anders August established himself as a film and TV writer at the start of the current decade and has gone on to bigger and bigger projects. Recent credits include The Legacy and Follow the Money for DR. There have also been reports that BBC America and AMC are developing a show created by the younger August. Deadline called the BBC/AMC project “an untitled comic-noir thriller set in a 1950s resort (that) follows the social climbing of a disarming young woman who turns out to be a dangerous sociopath.”
The Disappearance is a new project from highly rated writer/director Hans-Christian Schmid. Primarily a movie maker, his credits include Home for the Weekend, which competed at the 2012 Berlinale.
The Illegal is a new project from Clement Virgo, the director of The Book of Negroes. It’s based on a book by Lawrence Hill, who also wrote The Book of Negroes. Virgo’s new project, which is being produced through his company Conquering Lion Pictures, is a dystopian story set in the near future. It follows the journey of Keita Ali, a young marathon runner who flees his repressive native home and finds himself in a community of undocumented refugees living in a wealthy country. Virgo and Hill co-wrote the TV version of The Book of Negroes so it’s likely they will adopt a similar approach this time.
Wars Inc, produced by Drama Team, is described as an Israeli newsroom-based drama. Unfortunately there isn’t any additional information on the project right now, so you’ll have to wait until the Berlinale pitch to find out more about this one.
The CoPro Series will give producers and financiers the chance to get to know the series’ creators at a networking get-together following their pitch, and arrange one-on-one meetings to discuss potential partnerships. The full programme was designed in conjunction with Peter Nadermann (Nadcon, Germany) and Jan de Clercq (Lumière Publishing, Belgium).
In other writer news, Steven Moffat has announced that season 10 of Doctor Who will be his last as showrunner. His final season will air on BBC1 in 2017 before he is replaced by Chris Chibnall, whose credits include Broadchurch, The Great Train Robbery and Life on Mars.
Moffat said: “While Chris is doing his last run of Broadchurch, I’ll be finishing up on the best job in the universe and keeping the Tardis warm for him. It took a lot of gin and tonic to talk him into this, but I am delighted that one of the true stars of British TV drama will be taking the Time Lord even further into the future.”
Chibnall called Doctor Who “the ultimate BBC programme: bold, unique, vastly entertaining and adored all around the world. So it’s a privilege and a joy to be the next curator of this funny, scary and emotional family drama. Steven’s achieved the impossible by continually expanding Doctor Who’s creative ambition while growing its global popularity. He’s been a dazzling and daring showrunner, and hearing his plans and stories for 2017, it’s clear he’ll be going out with a bang. Just to make my life difficult.”
Hollywood producer Joel Silver has been given the go-ahead to develop scripted pilots for both CBS and Fox in the US. These will be developed via a division called Silver Pictures Television, within the framework of Silver’s new first-look deal with Lionsgate TV.
The Lionsgate deal is described as a multi-year partnership, which means it will continue beyond the first two announced projects.
For CBS, Silver is developing Bathory. Set in 17th century Budapest, the show is a new take on vampire mythology following Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian aristocrat who was also one of history’s most notorious female serial killers. Meanwhile, the Fox project, Soar, centres on a former NBA prodigy turned criminal who becomes the basketball coach at an upmarket high school after his release from prison.
Silver is one of the best-known names in the Hollywood film business, responsible for franchises such as Lethal Weapon, The Matrix and Die Hard. But he also has a track record in TV, with credits including Veronica Mars, Moonlight and Tales From the Crypt.
Commenting on the partnership with Lionsgate TV, he said: “Lionsgate has established a reputation for creating some of the most ground-breaking and memorable television brands in the world, and I look forward to contributing a roster of big, audience-pleasing event properties to their incredible pipeline.”
Explaining the appeal of the partnership from Lionsgate TV’s perspective, chairman Kevin Beggs said: “Joel has created some of the biggest franchises of all time and established an incredible network of relationships with top writers and creative talent.”
The Silver deal isn’t the only big news coming out of Lionsgate at the moment. The TV division has also announced that it is developing a one-hour drama series called The Rook with Twilight author Stephenie Meyer.
According to Lionsgate, the series, which is being produced out of the UK, will centre on a female protagonist with extraordinary powers who is employed by a mysterious British government agency responsible for defending Britain from supernatural threats.
The series is being developed by Lionsgate for a major British broadcaster and Hulu in the US. It’s the latest in a line of shows that US content creators are producing in Europe, presumably to access tax breaks.
In addition, Liberty Global and Discovery Communications each intend to pay US$195m to acquire 3.4% stakes in Lionsgate. As a result, Discovery CEO David Zaslav and Liberty Global president and CEO Michael Fries will join the Lionsgate board. A key consequence of this is likely to be greater collaboration between the partners in content development and production.
Zaslav said: “As with all our creative partners, we look forward to telling world-class stories with the team at Lionsgate, and strengthening Discovery’s content pipeline across our platforms around the world.”
A big scripted TV distribution story this week saw BBC Worldwide strike a deal with NBC Universal International Networks that means sci-fi series Doctor Who will appear on the Syfy channel across Latin America next year.
Until now, the show has aired on the BBC-owned networks in the region. But from 2016, Syfy will show a re-run of season eight, followed by the exclusive regional premiere of season nine. Seasons five to seven have also been confirmed to be part of the offer of the network later in the year.
“More than 50 years and eight seasons on BBC’s own networks in Latin America helped Doctor Who develop a loyal following within the region, where the series has an exceptional number of fervent fans,” said Anna Gordon, executive VP and MD of BBC Worldwide Latin America/US Hispanic. “Our partnership with Syfy reintroduces one of our company’s most acclaimed shows to Latin America and brings it closer to dedicated science-fiction and fantasy fans.”
Klaudia Bermudez-Key, senior VP and general manager of NBCU Networks International for Latin America, added: “Syfy is known for pushing the limits of imagination, and it is undoubtedly the perfect home for the iconic Doctor Who. The series is a perfect addition to the content found on Syfy, which appeals to audiences across the region. Our viewers continuously expect a high-quality standard for all programming content, and we are delivering accordingly.”
Still in the world of distribution, European pay TV broadcaster Sky has extended its content deal with US premium cable channel HBO to cover all five of its European territories (UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy). Under the terms of the deal, which runs until 2020, Sky will have exclusive first-run rights to HBO shows such as Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s music industry drama Vinyl and JJ Abrams’ reboot of sci-fi classic Westworld.
Significantly, given the growing competition from subscription VoD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, the deal will also extend Sky’s VoD rights. More box sets of hit HBO shows such as Boardwalk Empire will be available on Sky’s digital platforms for longer periods, while episodes of current series will be available on catch-up as they air on linear TV.
Commenting on the deal, HBO president of programming sales Charles Schreger said Sky has “shined a spotlight on our original programming and treated the shows as preciously as if they were their own. This ongoing relationship has been rewarding and successful to both of us and this expansion is representative of the trust and admiration we have for them as well as a belief that we can elevate each other even further.”
Seen in totality, the above stories all demonstrate how the world’s leading pay TV providers (Liberty Global, Discovery, NBCU and Sky) are seeking tighter control over premium content.
In the UK, meanwhile, commercial broadcaster ITV (which also, incidentally, is 9.9% owned by Liberty Global) has ordered a second season of critically acclaimed crime drama Unforgotten.
Produced by Mainstreet Pictures, the six-parter focuses on a cold-case murder enquiry after the bones of a man are discovered beneath a demolished house. Recently finished, the show attracted a respectable audience of around four to five million.
The series was created and written by Chris Lang, who said: “I am immensely excited to be writing a second season of Unforgotten and relish the challenge of introducing a brand new story, where long-buried secrets will once again be slowly brought to light.”
ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea commissioned the new series. The executive producers are Sally Haynes, Chris Lang and Laura Mackie.
Finally, Deadline is reporting another score for Scandinavian drama. According to a report last week, Anonymous Content and Paramount are developing an English-language version of TV4 Sweden’s hit series Torpederna, to be adapted by Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting).
Now that we are deep into September, new dramas, and new seasons of established series, are being launched on a pretty regular basis. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to identify winners and losers on the basis of their opening ratings.
As we’ve noted previously in this column, so many people are now time-shifting dramas, or watching them on non-traditional platforms, that it can take three or four weeks for the dust to settle and consistent viewing patterns to establish themselves.
The fragmentation of viewing audiences partially explains why so many dramas in the past week or two have opened with comparatively low ratings. In the UK, new series of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who both underperformed on opening night, while in the US the majority of new and returning shows delivered unspectacular ratings.
Gotham, NCIS: LA, Castle, Minority Report and Scream Queens were all at the low-to-moderate end of expectations (although host network Fox is pretty confident that Gotham will recover once time-shifted viewing is factored in).
There are exceptions, of course. Some shows are so hot that people just aren’t willing to delay their viewing enjoyment. The stand-out example of this is Fox’s Empire, which attracted 16.2 million viewers and a 6.7 rating among adults 18-49 for its season two premiere. That figure is the show’s second-best rating ever and confirms Empire’s status as the network show to beat. To put it in context, the only entertainment series on US TV to have drawn a higher 18-49 rating for an episode this year is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which returns to the airwaves on October 11.
Empire is such a strong performer that it was used by Fox as the lead in for a new pathology-based drama called Rosewood, starring Morris Chestnut. Rosewood did pretty well as a result but the early critical reviews of the show suggest that it will take more than a scheduling favour from Empire to sustain it. Remember, this is the age of ultimate choice where nothing will make an audience watch a show if they aren’t convinced.
From Fox’s perspective, the beauty of Empire is the way its audience grew so strongly in the first season. Having started with just under 10 million viewers for episode one, it rose to 13-14 million by the middle of the first season. By the end, it had leapt to 17.62 million.
The lesson is that you don’t have to hit extraordinary heights with the first episode. But you do need two things: firstly, a big enough launch platform to generate momentum and, secondly, a strong enough story to gather new fans as you progress.
So which of this year’s new shows stand a chance of replicating Empire’s success? NBC’s Blindspot has had an encouraging start. After a good early buzz over summer, it launched with 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Given everything we’ve previously said about alternative viewing patterns, that’s a pretty good performance. If there is a challenge for Blindspot it will be to sustain the strength of its opening premise: a naked woman is found in a bag in Times Square, her memory gone but her body tattooed with clues to future crimes. This is exactly the kind of show that will either deliver on its promise or lose steam after three or four episodes if viewers tire of the central premise.
CBS’s Limitless also rated quite well (9.8 million viewers at 10pm, a 1.8 rating). Based on the movie of the same name, it was helped by the fact that it featured Bradley Cooper, the star of the film. An IMDb rating of 8.5 suggests that the show’s early adopters quite like the show, so it will be interesting to see how it fares once Cooper is no longer involved in the story. For those not familiar with Limitless, it centres on a drug that enables users to unlock 100% of their brain functionality. In the CBS TV series, this is employed as the basis of an FBI procedural storytelling format.
The dynamics around new dramas are usually volatile, because it’s not always clear what factors will motivate viewers to tune in. But things are generally more predictable for established franchises such as Downton Abbey, which returned to ITV in the UK on Sunday September 20 at 21.00.
After the loyalty demonstrated by the audience over the past five years, the show would probably have expected to see pretty strong ratings as Downton-starved fans rushed to enjoy what will be the last season ever. Instead, season six of Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever: 7.6 million. This is well down on last year’s opening episode, which brought in 8.4 million. The last time Downton dropped this low was for its first ever episode in 2010 (7.7 million).
Low, of course, is a slightly unfair word to use. Downton still beat all its rivals and also massively out-performed ITV’s slot average (35.5% share against 21.3%). Still, it does raise the question where did the Downton fans go? There are a few possibilities.
Firstly, there is the time-shifting point. This opening episode was an extended 90-minute special, so audiences may have decided to bank the show rather than stay up late on Sunday night. Secondly, the promotional build-up to the series may have missed its mark – there was a lot of early PR buzz but my household still managed to miss it, despite being fans. So maybe ITV failed to get its new-series signposting right. Thirdly, the audience may have been put off by the fact that this has already been set up as the final season. While that may seem like a way of generating excitement, it can also have an enervating effect as audiences wonder whether it’s worth tuning in. And finally, writer Julian Fellowes may have judged the show’s sell-by date just right. Perhaps the audience is getting a little weary of Downton’s cosseted worldview and its lack of zombies.
As outlined at the start of this piece, September is when most shows start. But a few are also coming to a close after a summer run. One show that emerged from this period in good shape is OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots. The show, which follows the dynamic between the rich and powerful Cryer family and the hired help who work in their Savannah mansion, is created, written, directed and executive produced by Tyler Perry. The season three finale attracted 3.7 million viewers, making it the most watched telecast in the network’s history. It was then followed by another Tyler Perry show, If Loving You is Wrong, which picked up a healthy 2.9 million viewers. Both shows were also among the top cable performers among women.
Elsewhere, US cable network TNT has announced that it is cancelling Proof, in which a female surgeon is challenged to explore whether there could be an afterlife. Over the course of the show, she transforms from being a sceptic to a reluctant believer.
The first season of the show rated reasonably well but its audience skewed towards older demographics. This was probably the killer blow, given that TNT/TBS’s recently appointed president Kevin Reilly has talked about “sharpening the point of view and being even more adventurous in our programming choices.” Speaking at the channel’s Upfronts in May, he said: “As we expand our portfolio, viewers should expect some very daring shows, some of which will not appeal to all of our current viewers but will be a lightning rod to attract new viewers.”
Finally, Doctor Who’s ratings make for interesting reading. In the UK, the show’s new season opened with just 4.6 million viewers on BBC1, down from 6.8 million for episode one last year. But in the US, the same episode did extremely well for BBC America, delivering double-digit growth from season eight across all key demos in live-plus-same-day ratings. The premiere episode ranks as Doctor Who’s biggest season premiere ever in the adult 18-49 demo, which nearly doubled the season eight average. The debut also saw increased social engagement and reigned as the most social drama of the week leading up to the premiere.
The US airing delivered two million total viewers, 1.1 million of which were adults 18-49. “Doctor Who is unlike anything else on television, a storied franchise that is as fresh and contemporary as ever, with brilliant writing and superb performances,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “New and returning Doctor Who fans tuned into the live premiere in record numbers.”
DQ looks at the latest dramas to incorporate time travel into their storylines, and asks those behind the programmes exactly how they tackle a plot device that so often lends itself to confusion and complications.
Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist whose life was the subject of recent award-winning movie The Theory of Everything, hasn’t ruled out time travel completely. But he’s pretty sceptical about our ability to travel back in time and change or participate in events that have already happened.
His doubts were summarised succinctly in his 1998 book A Brief History of Time, in which he asked, quite reasonably, “If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?”
Hawking’s concerns haven’t, however, stopped the TV business from dabbling in time travel. In recent years, a wide array of shows, ranging from hardcore science fiction to historical romance, have used time travel as a central narrative device.
A case in point is Hindsight – recently cancelled despite initially being handed a second season – the VH1 scripted series about a woman (Becca) who finds herself propelled back in time while wrestling with doubts on the eve of her second wedding.
But there are no wormholes, extra dimensions or warp drives in Hindsight, says show creator Emily Fox, who explains that Becca’s journey back to 1995 occurs when she passes out in an elevator shaft.
“We’re not trying to crack the code of time here, we’re telling a fairytale,” she explains. “Becca’s experience is something most people think about at some point – what if I had taken a different path or made a different decision at a certain moment in time?”
Of course, Becca’s attempts to change the past don’t work out as planned. “The dirty little secret of time travel is that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge,” says Fox. “Becca’s attempts to alter her future for the better inevitably go wrong.”
Fox says the writing team on the show deliberately didn’t get into a broad theoretical debate about time travel “because Hindsight isn’t that kind of show, and we sensed that our simple ‘what if?’ premise would become unwieldy.”
But there were the inevitable fan questions, “such as why doesn’t Becca make herself rich by investing in Apple shares? Again, the answer to that was that we were trying to tell a more intimate story about a character whose priority was not to get rich quick but to find an emotional resolution,” Fox adds.
Historically, there haven’t been many female time travellers in fiction. But it’s interesting to note that there are currently two on TV, the other being Claire Beauchamp Randall, the heroine of Starz drama Outlander, which is based on the book series by Diana Gabaldon.
Claire is a Second World War combat nurse on a trip to Scotland with her husband. While there, she touches a mystical stone and wakes up in 1743 – in the middle of a military skirmish between the British and the highlanders. She sides with the Scots and falls in love with one of them (Jamie).
Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says time travel is not used in a heavy-handed way during the first season (though it will be more prominent in season two), but adds that it does inform the relationship between Claire and Jamie. “It gives the relationship a different dynamic than if this was a traditional historical romance,” he says. “Claire has more independence than Jamie would expect from a woman of his own era.”
The fact that Claire is from the 1940s, not the present day, meant the production had to contend with two historical time periods, not one.
But like with Hindsight, a key theme of Outlander is whether the future can be altered or taken advantage of. Zlotnik adds: “At the end of season one, Claire and Jamie set off to try to stop the battle of Culloden, which she knows will end badly for the Scots. But she doesn’t know if there is a way for her to stop the Scots being decimated or if history is on some kind of autopilot.”
Interest in time-travel stories isn’t limited to the Anglo-American market. In the 2001 Mexican telenovela Aventuras En El Tiempo, central character Violeta discovers a time machine built by her grandfather that allows her to witness her own birth and her mother’s death.
In Korea, meanwhile, one of the top shows in the last couple of years has been Nine: Nine Times Time Travel, which aired on cable channel tvN in 2013. And like Hindsight and Outlander, the show explores concepts like the path not travelled, the unattainableness of perfect knowledge and the way in which actions have unintended consequences.
“Nine is a fantasy drama where Lee Jin-Wook, playing a TV anchor, gets his hands on nine doses of a mysterious potion that allows him to travel 20 years back in time nine times,” says Jangho Seo, head of international sales and acquisitions at distributor CJ E&M Corporation. “Each time he goes back, there are severe consequences for the present-day timeline.”
Although there are now a number of time-travel series on the Korean market, Nine was one of the first shows to see the potential of time travel in redefining the romance genre. Seo says: “The time-travel aspect was planned from the pre-production phase with a very clear purpose. The majority of Korean dramas focus on love stories and melodrama. As such, the main characters face dilemmas involving tangled relationships and disruptions from sub-characters. With Nine, we wanted the level of dilemma to reach its maximum.”
This approach is one reason the show has travelled so well, says Seo. To date, it has sold to 55 countries and has been picked up by a US prodco for development as a scripted pilot.
While all the above shows use time travel as device to tell relationship-based stories, it also continues to have a role to play in science-based action-adventure.
In ITV’s hit series Primeval (pictured top), for example, the idea of earthquakes in time, called ‘anomalies’ in the show, was developed so dangerous creatures from the past or future could accidentally travel through time, thus causing havoc wherever they went.
Tim Haines, creative director at ITV Studios and former creative director at Impossible Pictures, where he co-created and executive produced Primeval, says: “Time travel was a device to conflate creatures from different era. The anomalies were conceptually as simple as possible, so we did not need the audience to be excited about the process; it was more about the consequences of thrusting the fauna from a different time into the present and following the chaos.”
While time travel wasn’t intended as the core of Primeval’s concept, it did inevitably play its part in storytelling. In episode one, the central character Nick Cutter and his wife Helen stumble across the remains of an expedition that has been attacked by a monster, and then realise that the destroyed expedition is the one they are now on.
“The strongest time-travel storyline in Primeval was Cutter’s wife coming back to haunt him (after being presumed dead for eight years),” says Haines. “As for individual stories, the bigger the incursion, the trickier it was to make believable, because (the central characters) were trying to keep it secret. So being surrounded by terror birds in a wood shack worked well, but a T. rex in the city was less satisfying.”
Like his peers, Haines avoided dwelling too much on paradoxes caused by time travel. “We talked about this a lot at the beginning and end of the series. But as the series went on, time travel and paradoxes became less relevant, if occasionally necessary,” he says. “Our science was more biological, using anomalies to explain evolutionary and crypto-zoological mysteries. There was consistency and the fans did not mind, even though I am sure if you looked closely you would have found holes.”
One dynamic that sets Primeval apart from other time-travel shows is that it has characters coming back to the present from an imagined future. The future’s impact on the present is also the central theme in Refugadios (Refugees), a BBC Worldwide/Atresmedia coproduction that aired in Spain in May but has yet to arrive in the UK.
Made by Bambu Producciones, the central premise of Refugees is that three billion people from the future have travelled to the present to escape an imminent global disaster.
The scale of the refugee problem is framed through a few key establishing shots, but the story itself focuses on a small town. Explaining the show at Mipcom 2014, executive producer Ben Donald said: “We haven’t gone global with a story investigating the future, that’s just a premise that helps bring out secrets and hidden stories among the protagonists.”
This is a key point. Like most the other series in the genre, Refugees uses time travel as a device to tell a certain kind of human interest story – similar to series like Les Revenants (The Returned) and Äkta Människor (Real Humans).
Donald added: “Without being didactic, Refugees is about the global immigration debate, which makes the series feel incredibly relevant. Science fiction at its best can hold up a mirror to the world and act as a fantastic metaphor.”
This assessment is echoed by writer Howard Overman, who has used time travel in Dirk Gently, Atlantis and, most prominently, his acclaimed drama Misfits.
“Sci-fi works best when it speaks to the human emotions in us. It’s a very human thing to think about the mistakes we’ve made and wonder what it would be like to rectify them,” he says. “In Misfits, time travel allowed one of our central characters to compare who he is now to what he would become in the future. Showing characters who have something at stake is more interesting than if we’d just used time travel visit the Victorian era.”
Overman says he tried hard to keep temporal consistency in Misfits’ time-travel storylines. “I was really careful about avoiding paradoxes,” he admits. “It is easy to overlook the ripple effects that are created when you use time travel. But then if you are worried about logic you probably shouldn’t be doing time travel at all.”
BBC primetime drama Atlantis also used time travel, with central character Jason Donnelly travelling back from the present to the ancient city of Atlantis via a deep-sea temporal disturbance. In that case “we started out with the idea that our hero might have some kind of basic knowledge of Greek mythology, but gradually dropped that idea,” says Overman. “In hindsight, it may have worked just as well if he had been a Greek guy washed up on the beach of Atlantis rather than someone travelling in time. But that’s the benefit of hindsight.”
For the most part, then, TV time travel is used as an allegorical device. But are there any shows for sci-fi geeks, comparable to movie extravaganzas like Terminator or Interstellar? Well, yes – but it seems the TV industry has a tendency to look back in time for its inspiration (similar to the way robotics stories give Isaac Asimov a respectful nod).
US cable channel The CW, for example, recently aired a remake of 1970s show The Tomorrow People, in which a core power of one of the main characters is the ability to manipulate time.
Luther writer Neil Cross is also adapting classic UK sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel, about inter-dimensional beings who guard the order of time.
Then, of course, there is the BBC’s sci-fi series Doctor Who, rooted in a mythology first invented in the 1960s. Speaking to BBC America, Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat summed up his own feelings about the appeal of time travel as a storytelling device: “The moment you say time travel is an incidental factor of your world, it changes everything.
“You could be dealing with the consequences of an action you have not yet performed. From the point of view of a writer, especially a writer like me who likes a puzzle-box structure, it’s fascinating. The future could be your past. Come on, that’s brilliant.”
As the dust settles on another Comic-Con, Michael Pickard rounds up all the news and casts his eye over the hottest trailers that were unveiled to thousands of fans in San Diego.
And so Comic-Con ends for another year. As more than 130,000 people make their way home from the San Diego Convention Centre, the latest round of this annual four-day event has only served to establish it further as the new must-go place for television series, and their producers, directors, writers and cast members, to build up the noise surrounding their launch or return to our screens.
Alongside announcements about series renewals and surprise star appearances, it’s always intriguing to see where television drama – and genre fare in particular – is heading over the coming year.
Panels were hosted by shows including Limitless, Orphan Black, iZombie, Scorpion and Sherlock. Game of Thrones, The 100 and Marvel’s broadcast series – Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – also drew fans to hear gossip from the set and more about what fate might lie in store for their favourite characters.
Elsewhere, MTV announced Teen Wolf had been renewed for a sixth season, while cable network WGN America ordered a third run of its spellbinding period drama Salem.
Comic book drama Arrow released an image of the Green Arrow’s costume ahead of season four launching on The CW this fall, while the casts of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and The Flash, both also on The CW, joined in the fun.
Universal Cable Productions announced it is teaming with Warren Ellis and Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead) to adapt 1970s Mexican network Televisa’s format El Pantera, as well as adapting UK film The Machine with writer Caradog James for Syfy. It has also optioned IDW Publishing comic Kill Shakespeare.
The producer of NBC reboot Heroes Reborn, Imperative Entertainment, said it had optioned rights to adapt Hugh Howey novel Sand, which tells of a family of sand divers who use wetsuit-type technology to dive beneath the desert that covers a lawless dystopian world to retrieve valuable relics that help them survive.
Minority Report producer Darryl Frank also revealed that Steven Spielberg had been working with executives on the Fox reboot of the celebrated director’s 2002 feature film.
At Syfy, the network revealed new details about its six-hour adaptation of Arthur C Clark’s novel Childhood’s End, and former Lost star Josh Holloway was reunited with the show’s executive producer Carlton Cuse as they discussed their latest collaboration: USA Network’s forthcoming Colony.
Showrunner Bryan Fuller also gave hope to fans of Hannibal that the now-cancelled NBC drama could be resurrected as a feature film, though there were celebrations at the Grimm panel, where the show’s stars and executive producers discussed plans for the NBC series’ landmark 100th episode.
But for all the talk at Comic-Con, its the exclusive clips and trailers that got fans off their seats and on their feet inside the convention centre.
Here DQ showcases trailers for some of the most anticipated shows heading to television over the next year: