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The age of ‘sigh’-fi?

Big names including Bradley Cooper and Todd Phillips are on board the adaptation of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion
Big names including Bradley Cooper and Todd Phillips are on board the TV adaptation of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion

Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Spaced) recently lamented the number of sci-fi and superhero sagas that are appearing on television and in the movies. Speaking to The Radio Times, he said: “Obviously I’m a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.”

He has a point – particularly when you look at the factory-farm exploitation of the DC and Marvel mythologies by Warner Bros and Disney. But there is a flip side to sci-fi and fantasy – which is that it provides creatives with new ways to address important themes about the way humanity conducts itself. The best projects, many of which start in book form, are superb treatises on power, war, gender, immigration, the environment, medical ethics and the advance of AI. So many of the challenges and opportunities we are living through now were first identified and debated by the farsighted sci-fi writers of the last century.

US sci-fi channel Syfy has broadcast its fair share of tripe down the years, but more recently it has really been getting to grips with what the genre can offer at its best. This week, for example, it announced that it is teaming up with Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Graham King (The Departed, Argo) and Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School) to develop Dan Simmons’ Hugo Award-winning best-selling novel Hyperion as an event series. As if that isn’t enough top talent to be getting on with, the screenplay will be written by Itamar Moses, best known for Boardwalk Empire.

Power creator Courtney Kemp Agboh
Power creator Courtney Kemp Agboh

Set on the eve of Armageddon with the galaxy at war, Hyperion is the story of seven pilgrims who set forth on a voyage to seek the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. A complex and intelligent work that employs a similar narrative structure to The Canterbury Tales, it’s a million miles from the kind of projects Pegg is concerned about. Commenting on the project, Syfy and Chiller president Dave Howe said: “Epitomising the gold standard of science-fiction story-telling, Hyperion tackles smart, provocative themes that help define Syfy’s development vision.”

Syfy isn’t completely free of the shackles of comic book tyranny (it recently greenlit David Goyer’s Superman prequel Krypton, for example), but there’s no questioning the channel’s ambition. Aside from Hyperion, recently announced projects include The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s best-selling books; a futuristic detective series called The Expanse; Childhood’s End, based on an Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 classic about a peaceful alien invasion; and Brave New World, a series from Amblin Television based on Aldous Huxley’s superb novel. For Howe, the latter is another example of the way the channel is heading: “Brave New World is precisely the groundbreaking programming that is becoming the hallmark of Syfy. It is one of the most influential genre classics of all time. Its provocative vision of a future gone awry remains as powerful and as timeless as ever.”

The inclusion of Bradley Cooper in its roster of talent is, of course, a coup for Syfy. But it’s not the only example of Syfy’s ability to attract A-listers. In April, it greenlit Incorporated, a futuristic espionage thriller from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Pearl Street Productions, CBS TV Studios and Universal Cable Productions.

Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson (right) exec produces and has a role in Power
Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson (right) exec produces and has a role in Power

Set in a future where companies have unlimited power, Incorporated tells the story of executive Ben Larson, forced to change his identity in order to infiltrate a cut-throat corporate world and save the woman he loves. In the process, he will take on the entire system – with deadly consequences. Syfy says the dystopian future of the show – created by David and Alex Pastor (Selfless, The Last Days) – reflects contemporary trends: the growing influence of corporations and private interests in Washington, the slow but steady dismantling of the public sector, and the accumulation of an amazing amount of wealth by an ever-shrinking minority. “It is an electrifying example of what science fiction does best,” says Howe, “holding a mirror to present realities and projecting forward to a recognisable future in which we face the impact and consequences of our actions.” And there won’t be a cape in sight.

Back in the here and now, Starz has just greenlit a third series of Power, the New York-based drama from Courtney Kemp Agboh that came with Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer. Power is a crime drama set in two different worlds: the glamorous New York club scene and its brutal drug trade. With its predominantly black cast, it has been a revelation for Starz. The first episode of the second series, which aired on June 6, logged 1.43 million Live+SD viewers, the most ever for a Starz Original series season premiere. More than 3.62 million Live+SD viewers watched the episode over the initial weekend.

Episodes will return for a fifth run
Episodes will return for a fifth run

Kemp Agboh, who created the show, has much to celebrate this week. In addition to record ratings and a third season pick-up for Power, Starz has just signed her to an overall deal. Commenting, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “Courtney is a highly regarded showrunner whose creative vision brings viewers into the two worlds of Power. We are extremely pleased to continue our relationship with Courtney in the coming years.”

There was also good news for Matt LeBlanc this week, following Showtime’s decision to order a fifth season of Episodes, a scripted comedy starring the former Friends actor as a fictionalised version of himself. After a relatively low-key launch in 2011, the Hat Trick Productions show has emerged as one of best comedies of the last few years. Now up to 43 episodes in total, it has also sold well internationally for distributor Hat Trick International.

Finally, it seems Nordic, French and Israeli drama producers might have a new competitor. At the New Europe Market in Dubrovnik, FremantleMedia and Jadran Film Zagreb announced a strategic partnership to bring the literary works of one of Croatia’s most popular writers, Marija Jurić Zagorka, to global audiences.

Croatian author Marija Jurić Zagorka
Croatian author Marija Jurić Zagorka

Zagorka, who died in 1957, is one of the most read writers in Central and Eastern Europe, although her novels have never been translated into English. The partnership kicks off with a joint production of one of Zagorka’s most famous works: The Witch of Grich (Grička vještica), which has sold more than 10 million copies in Eastern Europe.

Set in the second half of the 18th century, it tells the story of a young countess called Nera, whose popularity among men causes envy among her female peers. When Nera tries to save a group of poor women from a witch-hunt, her rivals see this as an opportunity to accuse her of witchcraft. FremantleMedia and Jadran Film are also looking at developing titles such as Kneginja iz Petrinjske ulice, Gordana and Jadranka.

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