Blood Drive might be the most extreme, bloody and downright original drama of the year. DQ chats to star Christina Ochoa about playing the femme fatale in Syfy’s Grindhouse thriller.
As another episode of Blood Drive gears up, the continuity announcer describes the series as “Grindhouse with heart.” That’s just one way to describe what is arguably television’s boldest and most daring drama of the year.
Ostensibly a series that follows a group of drivers taking part in a high-octane car race, Top Gear this isn’t. In reality, it’s a high-octane thrill ride set in a near-apocalyptic future, as LA’s last good cop is forced to join a twisted, cross-country death race in which cars are fuelled by blood.
As the 13-episode season progresses, Officer Arthur Bailey attempts to uncover the shady dealings of the mega-corporation behind the race, while his partner, dangerous femme fatale Grace D’Argento, has her own agenda – finding her missing sister.
Pushing production design to the extreme, the highly stylised series is billed as being among the first to bring the cinematic trend of Grindhouse movies to television, channeling the tone and visual style of 1970s movies that blended action and horror with gratuitous sex and violence – and enough blood to ensure every character is covered from head to toe in the red stuff by the end of each episode.
True to the genre, Blood Drive also doesn’t take itself too seriously. Commissioning network Syfy describes it as “over the top” in its own press material. There are also jokes littered through the script, while a mock advert for Smax, a drug-spiked candy brand at the heart of one particularly murderous episode, warns that eating it may cause migraines, night sweats, restless legs, schizophrenia, spontaneous human combustion, brain liquidation and homicidal tendencies – to name a few.
It’s a show that is markedly different to anything else on television right now – American Horror Story on steroids, with flesh-eating cars – and that’s why it appealed to star Christina Ochoa, who plays Grace, opposite Alan Richson’s Officer Bailey. The show also includes a star turn from Colin Cunningham as race ringmaster Julian Slink.
“I love being part of something truly different,” Ochoa says of the series, currently airing on Syfy UK and distributed by NBCUniversal Television Distribution. “It’s unlike anything else out there. [Creator] James Roland really took a risk and we were all excited to be a part of that.”
Is Ochoa a fan of the Grindhouse genre? “I am now,” she admits.
Determined and ruthless, Grace acts as the viewer’s guide through the warped world of Blood Drive as Arthur must quickly get up to speed with the dangers that await him and his race partner on the road ahead. When her blood-red Chevrolet Camaro runs out of fuel in episode one, she has no problem feeding another human to her hungry engine.
“She’s unapologetic and I love that,” Ochoa says. “She’s at peace with her darkness and that’s a concept that’s very appealing to explore as an actress. Along the way, we learn how love, be it family or romantic, gets her back in touch with her own humanity.”
Filmed on location in Cape Town, South Africa, the actor says the make-up team faced the daily task of covering up her “dozens” of bruises, as she insisted on doing as many of her own stunts as possible. “Physicality aside, the biggest challenge was probably making sure the relationships were very grounded,” she says, “since the characters themselves are known archetypes and pretty extreme, like the good cop and femme fatale.”
US television this year has been notable for the number of strong female characters leading drama series, from Feud, Scandal and The Good Fight to the ensemble casts of Game of Thrones, Top of the Lake: China Girl and Big Little Lies. Top of the Lake’s Elisabeth Moss also took centre stage as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, this week picking up the best actress Emmy for her performance in a series that was also named best drama series.
It’s a trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed by actors in those roles, with Blood Drive’s Grace among the most fearless female characters on television. Ochoa notes: “I’ve been very lucky to be cast in roles as strong, powerful, intelligent and confident women. Renn (in TNT’s Animal Kingdom), Grace and Nora (in The CW’s forthcoming Valor) are all women I admire in some way, despite their coping mechanisms or their faults. They own their mistakes and they are all fighters. I’m proud to be part of a community that is striving to represent women in such a strong light.”
Speaking of Valor, the series, which debuts in the US on October 9, is part of the latest television trend – military dramas. Others launching on broadcast networks this fall include NBC’s The Brave and CBS’s SEAL Team. Cable channel History’s own Navy SEAL drama Six has also been renewed for a second season.
In Valor, Ochoa plays warrant officer Nora Madani, one of the first female helicopter pilots within an elite US Army unit called the Shadow Raiders. When the team is sent on a top-secret mission to Somalia, only Nora and Captain Leland Gallo (Matt Barr) return, leading to questions about what really happened. But while an investigation delves deeper into the mystery, they must also prepare for a new mission to rescue a soldier being held by terrorists.
Ochoa says it was Valor’s script, written by creator Kyle Jarrow, that drew her to the part, describing it as “one of the strongest I’ve read in a very long time.” She continues: “Leave it up to a playwright to craft such a wonderfully fleshed-out character with a woven story and conflict that defies all tropes. I fell in love with her immediately.”
The actor – who is also a published science academic and podcaster – carried out a lot of research for the part. “I read as much as I could – biographies, books like Shoot Like a Girl, Ashley’s War and Black Hawk Down – but what was most instrumental was the conversion with female vets, two of whom are writers on the show, and our technical advisor Dan Laguna,” she says.
Blood Drive won’t be returning for a second season, but if Valor proves to be a hit and earns a full-season commission, the show is likely to keep Ochoa busy for the rest of the year – and potentially years to come. But beyond acting, Ochoa also has her eye on creating series.
“I have a production company and my producing partner and I are currently developing content with writers and other talent,” she adds. “Producing is definitely something I’d like to do in the long run.”
A small town serves as a sanctuary for a group of people with secrets to hide in supernatural mystery Midnight, Texas. DQ speaks to showrunner Monica Owusu-Breen about adapting Charlaine Harris’s novels and the show’s political parallels.
When the first novel in the Midnight, Texas series was published in May 2014, Donald Trump was still a year away from entering the race to succeed Barack Obama as US president.
Charlaine Harris’s Midnight Crossroad introduced the inhabitants of a derelict town with little to distinguish itself besides its quaint and quiet atmosphere. For someone looking for a place to hide, Midnight is the perfect location.
The paranormal saga sets Midnight up as a town where outsiders can find sanctuary from those who would otherwise seek to persecute them, and a sense of community among others with secrets of their own.
Three years on from that initial publication date, Harris has followed up her first book with sequels Day Shift and Night Shift, and Trump is now in the White House, making headlines for his anti-immigrant agenda and his attempts to withdraw funding from so-called sanctuary cities that limit their cooperation with national immigration laws, promoting themselves as safe havens for undocumented immigrants.
As such, the arrival of a television adaptation of Harris’s novels could not be more timely – and the show’s correlation with contemporary politics is not lost on series creator and showrunner Monica Owusu-Breen. At the heart of Midnight, Texas, she says, is “the idea of a town full of diverse people from all walks of life who find sanctuary in America and then fight the forces of evil together, respecting each other’s differences as strengths, not weaknesses. The whole thing has this metaphorical quality that was not intentional at the pilot stage but became super meaningful as the show progressed.”
US network NBC put Midnight, Texas into development in 2015 and ordered a pilot in January 2016. The show was picked up to series last May and the 10-part first season debuted last month. NBCUniversal International Distribution is selling the show worldwide, with Syfy in the UK among those to have picked up the supernatural drama.
Like the books, the series explores the eponymous remote town that is home to a vampire, a witch, an angel and an assassin – a haven for those who are different and have to hide from the outside world. However, the arrival of a powerful psychic and a murder from within threaten their tight-knit community.
Despite the long-running success of another series based on Harris’s novels – HBO’s True Blood – Midnight, Texas opened in the US to soft ratings of 3.6 million viewers. Perhaps that’s not surprising for a genre series far removed from the legal and medical procedurals that draw the biggest crowds to network television, particularly during the ratings-light summer season.
Owusu-Breen jokes that she checked with NBC executives to make sure they knew what they were getting when they ordered this “crazy” show. “When I read the books, I had a personal connection to it and there was also this crazy, madcap world of surprising beings,” she says. “Charlaine has this boundless imagination and there was a joy in that for me. There definitely were moments when I would look at look my NBC executive and say, ‘You guys want this? You’re sure, right?’ But it was so fun, weird and hopeful.”
In any other series, the characters that populate Midnight would most likely be the villains of the piece, but that’s part of the fun – particularly when recent arrival Manfred (played by François Arnaud), the aforementioned psychic, begins to discover who his new neighbours are.
“They all felt like they could have their own show,” Owusu-Breen says of Midnight’s inhabitants. “What you realise is these people come from really ugly pasts. Some of them have histories that are profoundly painful, so for them to come to Midnight and find sanctuary is really quite beautiful. While they start off as these fun, crazy characters, what got them to Midnight and those reveals really adds heart to them.”
As network television sticks to largely episodic fare amid the wave of serialised drama on cable and streaming platforms, Owusu-Breen remarks that with Midnight, Texas, she’s having her cake and eating it too. “I was on [Fox sci-fi drama] Fringe and our showrunner coined the phrase ‘Mythalone’ – a series of standalone episodes that add up to a whole story, like chapters in a book. Every episode is part of the greater myth of the story.
“In every episode, we’re following Manfred because he’s our hero. But we also explore one of the Midnighters in each episode, so by the end of the 10 instalments, you will understand who these people are and why they’re there. Then we have an overarching myth than will hopefully feel satisfying when you get to the end.”
Owusu-Breen was introduced to the world of Midnight, Texas when her agent sent her the books as a potential development project, and she says there were immediate parallels with her personal life. Her mother-in-law was a small-town psychic, while the showrunner would spend her summers as a child in a small Spanish town “in the middle of nowhere,” where everybody knew each other and their business.
“The novels have this oddly personal resonance for me, and as I continued to read the saga, I realised I loved these characters,” she admits. “The community of Midnight is so peculiar that I could see the story going on endlessly. So it felt so fertile for a TV writer to approach. What I loved, too, is that Charlaine has a very specific voice – she doesn’t shy away from being funny, she doesn’t shy away from being romantic, so those two things also made the show feel special for me. It’s very rare you find material that rich.
“TV is a character’s medium; you’re asking people to tune in every week to see the same people, so if they’re not interesting… she creates these wildly interesting characters. They’re strange and they surprise you at every turn, but they’re fun and funny and obviously human despite being supernatural.”
Season one blends the murder mystery of Harris’s first novel with the supernatural elements of book three, with Owusu-Breen describing the books as a roadmap for the series. A major element of the show was putting Manfred front and centre, serving ostensibly as the series lead before making way for the rest of the ensemble.
“In the book he was less of a driving force but we’re following him as the newcomer into the town,” the showrunner explains. “He’s the outsider and he’s the one who becomes an insider, so he has a different role than he plays in the books.”
Midnight, Texas is Owusu-Breen’s first solo showrunning job, having previously shared the role on ABC drama Brothers & Sisters. So when setting up her writers room, she was keen to bring with her a lesson she had learned on her previous job writing for ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – a “no assholes” policy.
“What that meant in practice is we had a delightful working environment where people were competitive and generous with ideas and could disagree without getting mean,” she reveals. “So I really took that to heart, because it didn’t hinder the creativity. It actually made it a more positive experience because you spend 10 hours in a room with the same people. So for me it was important to get writers who engage in the spirit of this material, which is funny and a little wacky, and also at its core it’s got sentiment and heart. You don’t want to get mired in cynicism, so it was a very fun writers room. The stories weren’t easy to break because they’re crazy, but I had a wonderful writing staff. We laid out Charlaine’s tentpoles [from the books], deciding what we wanted at the beginning, middle and end of the season, and then we just built stories around those.”
By the end of the first season, Midnight, Texas becomes a “repulsively large show” as a story that begins with a murder mystery ends with a ‘Hellmouth’ opening in the middle of the town.
“Thankfully we had directors, a line producer and creatives who just jumped at the challenge, so when we needed a lot of dead bodies, they’d come up with some ideas,” the showrunner says. “It was very funny how everyone rallied around everything. Some episodes are a little darker and emotional, while some are wildly fantastical and have a ton of CGI. think we kept everyone on their toes but, at the end of the day, everyone had a really good time reaching for the stars.
“We close up the story of the first season and then open up a possible world for the second season. I try not to get my hopes up [about winning a second season renewal] but book two is there and I’ve got ideas I’m playing with. I’m just going to enjoy season one and see how the rest of the world likes it.”
Should political events in the US continue on their current trajectory, Midnight, Texas could prove to be a suitably diverting sanctuary for viewers to take cover from current affairs.
The crew of the Raza face new battles as space opera Dark Matter returns for a third season. DQ hears from the cast about why the sci-fi show is resonating with fans.
Six people wake up on a derelict spaceship with no memory of who they are or where they came from. Referring to themselves by numbers one to six in the order they woke up, they secure the ship, the Raza, and begin to try to figure out what happened to them.
So goes the premise of Canadian space thriller Dark Matter, which since its launch in 2015 has been sold around the world after making its home on the Space channel and on Syfy in the US, becoming a cornerstone of the latter network’s renewed focus on the type of genre programming from which it takes its name.
It is based on the graphic novel by Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie (Stargate) and produced by Prodigy Pictures. The executive producers are Jay Firestone, Mallozzi and Mullie.
Now in its third season, which began on Space and Syfy on June 9, the show launches in the UK tonight on Syfy.
Anthony Lemke, who plays Three, has a theory as to why Dark Matter has proven to be a hit not just in North America but internationally: “Every TV show lives and dies by its characters and I think there’s a unique combination of cast meeting with script and creativity, and the openness to be creative and bring your own stuff to a character.
“That has created characters that are resonating with folks. But also, that first season dealt with a lot of issues that we can all identify with – the idea of second chances, of maybe starting again, being somebody that you couldn’t be before, who you didn’t want to be. We’ve all done that in our lives.”
The theme of escaping your past is one that runs through the series, but Roger Cross, who plays Six, says the creative team manage it without “nailing it on the head too much.”
He explains: “Stuff follows you and sometimes it’s karma and sometimes it’s whatever it is, and so it’s like, ‘Can we outrun it?’ It asks those sorts of questions, and then it’s in space! And it’s at some point in the future that we don’t know yet.”
The fact the show is set in space is another reason Lemke believes Dark Matter has become a success, particularly when it comes to the types of stories the show wants to tell.
“The space part is important,” he notes. “It allows for a more thorough explanation of what is a reasonably far-fetched concept, that seven people all wake up with memory loss. It does happen in life that you get into a car accident or whatever – all of a sudden you’ve lost your memory. That kind of thing happens. But for seven people to be going through it collectively can exist in the sci-fi world and almost nowhere else.
“But then that also gives a lot of opportunity for saying, ‘Alright, what would happen if we threw this into the mix for these seven people, and how would they deal with that?’ And that’s sci-fi’s big strength: the fact that you can do almost anything.”
When it comes to acting in a sci-fi series, however, Cross says that a character is a character, whatever genre they’re playing in.
“Staying true to a character is staying true to a character, whether that be drama, comedy or science fiction,” he explains. “With comedy, you’re allowed to be a little bit wilder. In drama, you are more serious. Sci-fi still follows those rules but in a more wide-open way.
“It’s not that it’s sci-fi as a whole but our show treads between the more serious side and being a bit camp. The neat thing about our show is that it walks that line but it gives you a broader range of things to play as an actor, and it also opens the door for episodes that you’re not going to see on Chicago Fire, or something like that, in terms of tone. They can just throw out the tone of the show and say, ‘Hey, now we’re doing something completely different!’ That’s not just in sci-fi, that happens on other shows too, but it tends to happen on shows that are a bit self-referential and have a tiny bit of camp to them.”
But in space, if no-one can hear you scream, that’s probably because there aren’t usually a lot of extras on the set of a spaceship, as Melissa O’Neil, who plays Two, points out.
“A big difference that we’ve experienced [between science-fiction and other types of drama], is usually that, on our set, we don’t have background performers and that’s a bit atypical of a lot of television that we do,” she says. “The fact that we’re in space, it restricts the amount of people that we’re with and the fact that it’s also about a bunch of people adrift on a ship. Sometimes we have a lot of extras, but most of the time we don’t, it’s just us – and half of the time we don’t see each other! So maybe that’s a big difference.”
With science fiction now becoming an increasingly mainstream part of television schedules, O’Neil reserves the final word for fans of the genre who, she argues, are the most passionate.
“Oh my gosh, our fans are amazing!” she says. “We stay in touch with them year-round; it doesn’t matter if we’re shooting or the show’s being aired, there are so many people that stay connected with us through social media platforms. And the [comic] cons; it’s been so incredible going out to all these different cities and meeting the fans from around the world. And sometimes fans travel from outside the country and we get to meet them.
“There are no fans like sci-fi fans! I think that’s universally understood.”
Science fiction has a long association with television, but it’s now more visible than ever. DQ explores how a shift in storytelling has pushed the genre into the mainstream.
When it finally launches later this year, Star Trek: Discovery will carry the hopes of the next generation of science-fiction fans. But the show is also a perfect example of the state of the genre on television.
The space-set franchise, which has been on air in some form since 1966, embodies the long-running popularity of sci-fi, which has roots as far back as the 1930s with the BBC’s fledgling broadcast service and a 35-minute play called RUR.
The fact that Star Trek is returning to television, albeit on US network CBS’s SVoD service All Access, is also proof of the current strength of the genre and the new opportunities it is finding on non-traditional platforms. But space-focused shows such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Expanse (pictured top) and Dark Matter represent just one part of a genre that continues to inspire and amaze – and shock and scare – viewers around the world.
Series like Orphan Black, Westworld, Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Sense8 and Legion represent the sheer breadth of stories that can sit under the sci-fi umbrella, offering unbridled creativity to those behind the camera. And though it was once the preserve of an elite group of fans, the genre has gone mainstream by focusing less on science-fiction and more on ‘science-possible,’ asking questions that resonate in the present day, whatever the setting.
Regardless of whether series fall into the space opera or speculative fiction camps, Martin Baynton, chief creative officer at Pukeko Pictures, believes that sci-fi dramas “at their best are fairy stories for adults – they allow us to ask difficult questions, they’re stories of consequences and are often moral fables.”
He continues: “People don’t watch The Walking Dead for the zombies. It’s actually how these human beings deal with the implications of having to stay alive and function as a group. Everyone watches it fascinated by the drift of the moral compass of the characters and what it means to be human. Good science fiction always asks that question.”
Australian drama Cleverman, on which Pukeko is a producing partner, is set in a near future when creatures known as ‘Hairypeople’ must live among humans and battle for survival in a world that wants to exploit and destroy them, touching on themes of immigration and racism. Season two launches later this month on ABC in Australiana and SundanceTV in the US.
“Science fiction allows you to explore really fundamental consequences safely because it puts issues at a distance,” Baynton continues. “If you put it in a contemporary setting, it can become almost too powerful. So by putting it in the near future, it becomes a cautionary tale where you think, ‘We’ve got time to change direction and not go down that path.’”
For many viewers, the words ‘science fiction’ still conjure images of “spaceships, aliens and the planet Zargon,” observes Sam Vincent, co-creator of British drama Humans, which is based on Swedish series Äkta Människor (Real Humans). “They don’t necessarily think of things that are a little bit more grounded, more speculative and use ideas about the future to explore things that are happening in the present. That’s what Humans is.”
The series, produced by Kudos for Channel 4 and AMC and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution, posits a “parallel present” in which robots known as ‘synths’ have become part of everyday life.
“Everything looks like it does now, except there are these humanoid androids,” adds Vincent’s writing partner Jonathan Brackley. “That was such a smart way of bringing this idea to be much more accessible for an audience, allowing us to enter this sci-fi world on a very grounded, domestic level, and having an everyday family at the heart of the show.”
Humans is also notable for dispensing with traditional sci-fi logic and, like HBO’s sci-fi western Westworld, wanting the audience to feel sympathy for the robots, rather than their human masters. “They’re really different shows, with different settings, tones and scales, but the most interesting thing for us about Westworld is that viewers are encouraged to root for and see through the eyes of these machines as consciousness dawns on them, much like in Humans,” Vincent says of the “companion” shows. “The humans are the bad guys now and that’s undeniably an interesting parallel.”
Artificial intelligence is also at the centre of Danish drama Unpunished, which follows a group of scientists as they attempt to create AI as a defence against a cyber virus that threatens to reveal the world’s best-kept secrets. Currently in development with producers Investigate North and distributor About Premium Content, it is slated to begin production in March next year.
But creator and producer Niels Wetterberg believes it’s a “fallacy” to say sci-fi is becoming more mainstream: “It’s always been very mainstream,” he argues, citing movies such as Alien, ET and Jurassic Park. “But the future is threatening us in a new way, and so the shows you see now are more science-possible. They’re moving from the realms of the fantastical to something more achievable, and that resonates better with a wider audience.”
Humans and Unpunished are just two of the sci-fi shows rooted in some kind of present-day reality that allows them to tap into themes and issues affecting contemporary society – none more so than the increasing role of technology, which is also at the heart of Charlie Brooker’s darkly satirical Black Mirror. The anthology series, first commissioned by the UK’s Channel 4, is now exclusive to Netflix, which launched the third season last October.
The global SVoD platform and its competitors have undoubtedly had a huge effect on the way sci-fi is created, commissioned and consumed, while also giving writers the opportunity to explore ideas over 10 hours, where perhaps previously they might have been limited to a 90-minute movie.
Netflix series such as 1980s-inspired Stranger Things and mystery thriller The OA have ensured television can still have its water-cooler moments in an on-demand world, and the streamer has also been investing in a host of other sci-fi shows.
One example is The Expanse, the Syfy drama set in a future when humanity has colonised the solar system. Netflix acquired the series, which has been renewed for a third season, for global distribution late last year. There’s also Canadian time-travel series Travelers, on which Netflix linked up with broadcaster Showcase. Starring Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and distributed by Sky Vision, the show centres on a group of time-travellers from the future who come to the present to save mankind.
“What’s interesting about this is sci-fi shows aren’t going anywhere,” notes Carrie Mudd, president of Travelers producer Peacock Alley Entertainment. “Travelers is not like the Terminator films, where you see glimpses of a dystopian future. Instead, that comes out through the characters and their experiences because they’ve never had a piece of fruit or heard a bird sing. It’s so much more character-driven and draws a much broader audience as a result of the drama and the characters.”
Sci-fi isn’t appreciated the world over, however. Vlad Ryashin, producer and president of Star Media Group (Mata Hari), explains: “Russian viewers prefer more emotional dramas, focused on human collisions between the protagonists. Since the early 1990s, soap operas and comedies have represented solid options for the channels, while historical films and series are also a big attraction for mass audiences. Sci-fi is a bit too tough for a viewer who is looking for relaxation without being involved so quickly in some alternate reality or parallel world.”
But Star Media isn’t giving up on the genre just yet, and its efforts in the region could be buoyed by The Contact, produced by Ukraine’s Film.UA. The sci-fi crime drama sees three people – a criminal, a writer and a photographer – realise they can enter each other’s minds.
Series director Mikhail Barkan believes the secret to successful sci-fi drama lies in looking at the world in a new way. “It’s not about chasing impressive visual effects or creating realistic monsters, it’s about looking at timeless issues from a different angle,” he says.
“Only three things are of greatest concern for humans: where are we coming from, what are we living for and where are we going after death? Unfortunately, there are no answers we can all agree on – but science-fiction offers the possibility to imagine ‘what if?’”
Sci-fi has always encouraged viewers to question what the future may hold but it’s telling that the shift in dynamic towards science-possible fiction has led the genre to become more visible than ever.
“It used to be second-tier drama,” Pukeko’s Baynton says. “Now it’s of such high sophistication that it’s a leading dramatic art form. Clearly new formats have changed the landscape, because you have the ability to tell complex stories in which characters can develop over 10 hours.”
Mudd adds: “There will always be a lot of room for sci-fi, in whatever sub-genre you choose to define a show. But everything’s cyclical. There hasn’t been a big space opera like Battlestar Galactica or Stargate SG-1 in a long time – maybe that comes back next.”
Not all sci-fi is rooted so firmly in reality, however. Currently in development at Toronto-based True Gravity Productions, Election Day is set on Earth but undoubtedly has some fantastical elements – pondering what might happen if historical leaders could be resurrected.
Taking place in 2055, the show, which is yet to be attached to a broadcaster, sees companies, not countries, ruling the global population. Tech advancements mean humans can be grown from DNA samples, leading to some of history’s best leaders being brought back to life and battling to be elected world president.
“There are no boundaries,” True Gravity Productions creative director David Merry says of working in sci-fi. “You don’t have to adhere to the regular norms of society or the planet, because we’re inventing stuff that could potentially be around 30 years from now. It’s fun to just step outside the realm of normalcy.”
Humans co-creator Sam Vincent on the significance of Star Trek
In terms of pure science fiction, Star Trek is both a space adventure and a sci-fi of ideas – both of the main strands of the genre – and for me it remains one of the more thoughtful and thrilling explorations of sci-fi on TV.
All the Star Trek shows are notable but the high point is The Next Generation [1987-1994]. That stands apart. Each of the six Star Trek shows [Discovery will be the seventh] reflected the values of the era really interestingly and commented on them in a fascinating way. You watch the original show and it’s very rooted in the era and yet, at the same time, had some of the great sci-fi writers of the 20th century like Harlan Ellison contributing ideas and scripts. It was also very much an expression of values.
At its core, Star Trek has always been about exploration, which is a hopeful and optimistic venture. So there is an optimism hardwired into Star Trek. When you look at The Next Generation, it was very much an expression of a high point of liberal ideals – that you should not interfere in other cultures, that you should be peaceful. It was a very diverse crew, there were all kinds of aliens, there were even people with disabilities. It was very ahead of its time but simultaneously it was the most optimistic, thoughtful and humane version of Star Trek. The shows that followed were very interesting takes on that.
Deep Space Nine [1993-1999] was set on a space station and was all about the aftermath of a horrendous war between two alien races. It had huge parallels with what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, focusing on people trying to come to an accommodation after this conflict. Interestingly, it was the one Star Trek that didn’t move, being set on a space station. That was very important for the DNA – it wasn’t about a ship going into other territories.
Then you had Voyager [1995-2001], which was about getting lost on the other side of the galaxy, arguably reflecting more uncertain times. The most recent series was Enterprise [2001-2005], which was a strange one. It became more conservative again, slightly more empire-building. It harked back to the early series quite a lot; it reflected the George Bush era and was a bit more traditional.
I cannot wait for the new Star Trek. The creative pedigree is really interesting and it will be intriguing to see how the show deals with the world in which we live now.
Over the years there have been scores of great science fiction-based series, ranging from Star Trek and The X-Files to Doctor Who and The Prisoner. But it’s interesting to note that very few of them have been based on sci-fi novels. It’s as though the soapy plots and larger-than-life characterisations of TV sci-fi have operated in a parallel universe to the best sci-fi literary works.
As with so many areas of TV, this distinction is now blurring because of the rise of the high-end SVoD/pay TV-style limited series. Books that could never have been adapted in the pre-Netflix era suddenly look ripe for reimagining.
This week, for example, cable channel Syfy revealed it was adapting Robert Heinlein’s classic 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land – widely regarded as one of the greatest of all sci-fi novels. The story of a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on Mars and raised by Martians, it will be produced by Paramount TV and Universal Cable Productions.
To celebrate the news of this ambitious project, we’re looking at classic sci-fi novels that have been adapted for television already or that are – like Heinlein’s novel – now in the works.
The Man in the High Castle: Amazon’s series is based on a 1962 alternative-history novel by the screen industry’s favourite sci-fi author, Philip K Dick. The first season launched in early 2015 and was an immediate hit for Amazon, generating an 8.0 rating on IMDb. The second run launches on December 16. Dick’s work also inspired the Minority Report movie and subsequent Fox TV series of the same name, though the show strayed a long way from the original concept and probably suffered as a result, quickly being axed. Also coming up is Electric Dreams: The World Of Philip K Dick, an anthology series that will be based on some of Dick’s works. Until recently, Dick’s work was mostly adapted for the movies.
The Day of the Triffids: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids sits slightly outside the classic sci-fi canon – rather like Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Time Machine (HG Wells), War of the Worlds (also HG Wells) and Frankenstein (Mary Shelley). The story of a blind humanity battling killer plants has proved popular with TV producers. A small-screen version was originally created in 1981 and another was made in 2009. The latter version, which aired on the BBC in the UK, had a strong cast including Dougray Scott. It attracted a strong 6.1 million audience for episode one.
11.22.63: This 2011 time-travel story from Stephen King was adapted into a TV series by Hulu in 2015. It tells the story of a schoolteacher who goes back in time to try to prevent the assassination of president John F Kennedy. With James Franco in the lead role, the series proved popular – generating an 8.3 rating on IMDb and playing on Fox internationally. King’s epic novel series The Dark Tower is also being adapted by Sony as a feature film for release in 2017. There are reports that this will then be followed up a TV series set in the same fantasy world.
The Martian Chronicles: Ray Bradbury’s famous short-story collection was published in 1950. It has been adapted for most media, including a 1979 miniseries commissioned by NBC in the US and the BBC in the UK. Bradbury himself wasn’t a fan of the TV adaptation, which starred Rock Hudson, calling it “just boring.”
Childhood’s End: This is a 1953 sci-fi novel by Arthur C Clarke about a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious ‘Overlords.’ Stanley Kubrick looked at doing a film adaptation as long ago as the 1960s but it wasn’t until 2015 that the novel was adapted for the screen. Instead of a movie, Syfy commissioned a four-hour TV miniseries, which you can still find sitting in pay TV platform box sets. The show didn’t get a particularly strong response – with its IMDb rating just 7.0. Part of its problem, according to critics, was that the adaptation came too late to really grab viewers. Although still quite fresh and original in its day, the novel’s alien invasion theme has now being played out in countless other TV projects.
The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood’s troubling view of a future US society, where women are property of the state, was first published in 1985. It is now on the verge of being launched as a TV series by Hulu. Starring Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, the show will debut on March 29 next year. Out of all the upcoming book adaptations doing the rounds, this has the feel of one that might work – because it is more about human interaction than sci-fi imagery like spaceships, aliens and extraterrestrial terrain (all of which can either distract from storytelling and characterisation or look like poor imitations of Star Wars).
The 100: The 100 is interesting because it’s an example of a TV sci-fi show based on a book series that is still in the process of being written (by Kass Morgan). The first book came in 2013 and the debut TV season appeared a year later on The CW. The fourth book comes out next month, while the fourth season of the show will air in 2017. The series is set three centuries after a nuclear apocalypse, with survivors living on a colony of spaceships in orbit around the Earth. One hundred teenagers are then sent down to investigate whether Earth is habitable. The last season of The 100 attracted a reasonable 1.3 million viewers.
The Expanse: Based on James SA Corey’s books series, The Expanse is a Syfy series that imagines a world in which Earth’s population has grown to 30 billion and humans have started to populate the solar system. The first season, which aired in 2015, started well (1.2 million) but faded (to 0.55 million). Nevertheless, Syfy commissioned a second run. Like The 100, this is a living book series. Corey’s first Expanse novel was published in 2011 and the sixth is due out next month.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi comedy book series was first adapted as a radio series. The success of that adaptation soon led to a six-part TV version, which aired on BBC2 in the UK in 1981. There was also a later film version. Although the key reason for the franchise’s popularity was its wit, the science in the books was also pretty interesting.
With the success of epic series like Game of Thrones, Westworld and The Walking Dead, it’s no surprise that even the most ambitious sci-fi novels are now regarded as fair game by writers and producers.
Among the sci-fi novel-based TV projects in the works are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (with Spike), Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (with Syfy) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The latter, which is rightly regarded as one of the best novels of the 20th century irrespective of genre, is being adapted for Syfy by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television. The 1931 novel has also been turned into a film twice, while there are reports that Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio are planning a new movie version.
In 2014 it was also reported that Jonathan Nolan was going to adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO – an epic project if ever there was one. This story has since gone quiet, presumably because Nolan is involved in HBO’s current epic Westworld.
Other sci-fi novels that really ought to be on a to-do list for producers include Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Iain Banks’ Culture and George Orwell’s 1984.
Note: This column has not attempted to cover fantasy classics like Game of Thrones, Outlander, American Gods, The Magicians and the Shannara series, all of which have been adapted for television.
A couple of months ago, we looked at the success Disney has had with its Marvel acquisition. So it seems only fair that we also shine a spotlight on DC Comics, a division of Warner Bros that has spawned dozens of films, scripted shows and animation series.
Characters from DC, formed in 1932, have formed the basis of hit TV series since the 1950s. After early outings for Superman and Batman, DC properties gave us iconic shows like Wonder Woman, Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville.
The latter ran for 10 seasons (2001-2011) and 218 episodes, first on The WB and then on its replacement network The CW (which is 50/50 owned by CBS and DC Comics owner Warner Bros).
While DC properties remain an important part of the feature-film landscape, it’s The CW that continues to provide the major platform for DC Comics’ success on the small screen.
A key landmark was the launch of Arrow in 2012. Adapted for the screen by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, the show is one of The CW’s top performers and is currently in its fifth season, attracting just under two million viewers per episode.
The importance of Arrow goes beyond its ratings, however. On the one hand, it has encouraged The CW to back a number of DC-based franchises, with Berlanti and co in charge of the creative. On the other, it has persuaded some of the larger US networks to tap into the company’s pool of comic book IP.
Looking first at The CW, 2014 saw the launch of The Flash, which is part of the same mythological universe as Arrow (known to aficionados as the ‘Arrowverse’). Now in season three, The Flash is currently The CW’s top-rated show with around 2.8 million viewers per episode. And earlier this year, the network launched another spin-off based on the ‘Arrowverse’ pool of characters. Called DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, it is currently attracting a steady 1.8 million and has been renewed for a 17-episode second season.
In addition to the above shows, The CW is also home to Supergirl, a DC-based series that was originally aired on CBS but then shifted to The CW for season two when its ratings started to decline. In the less exposed world of The CW, the show has thrived and is now its second most popular series, averaging 2.6 million viewers.
The relationship with DC has also allowed The CW to segue into the ‘Zombieverse’ with iZombie. Loosely based on a comic book series that came out of DC’s Vertigo imprint, the show has a third season on the way and averages around 1.2 million viewers.
The rise of DC’s stock has also encouraged some of the Big Four US networks to sample the company’s wares. The stand out example of this is Fox’s Gotham, which delves into the backstory of the young Batman, focusing its energy primarily on Commissioner James Gordon and the origin stories of some of Batman’s most famous enemies. Now in its third season, the show is currently attracting an OK-but-not-amazing 3.4 million (down from four million in season two and six million in season one).
Echoing its growing relationship with Disney’s Marvel, Fox has adapted a second DC property, Lucifer, based on a character that appeared in comic book series The Sandman (created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg).
The show debuted last year and did well enough to get a second season. Currently averaging around 3.5 million viewers, the second run was extended to 22 episodes last month – though the jury is still out on whether it is doing well enough to secure a third outing.
Without being overly critical, there is a pattern with DC properties – they perform strongly on The CW but modestly on the Big Four. Gotham and Lucifer have done OK but not fantastically well, while Supergirl’s strong start dissipated quickly, hence its move to The CW. To this list should be added Constantine, which aired for a single season on NBC before being axed.
The main reason for this is The CW is a narrowly focused youth channel while the Big Four are mainstream, so are probably trying to reach an audience that is more ambivalent about superheroes and fantasy adventure series. Nevertheless, there are more planned DC shows in the pipeline for the Big Four.
NBC, for example, is developing a sitcom rooted in the DC universe. Called Powerless, the shows is “a workplace comedy set at one of the worst insurance companies in the US – with the twist being that it also takes place in the universe of DC Comics. The show is about the reality of working life for a normal, powerless person in a world of superheroes and villains.”
Fox, meanwhile, is reported to be piloting a show based on Black Lightning, one of the first African American superheroes to appear in DC Comics. This is a welcome trend, echoing the recent Marvel/Netflix tie-in on the new Luke Cage series.
Of course, the fact that The CW does so well has not been lost on cable channels, which have a similar kind of niche profile. So we’re also starting to see more DC properties populate this part of the TV business. AMC, for example, is doing pretty well with Preacher, another idea from DC’s Vertigo imprint. The first season attracted around 1.68 million per episode and a recommission followed.
Other pilot orders include Scalped for WGN America and Krypton for Syfy (the latter set in the Superman universe). There are also reported to be several other titles in development including DMZ and Ronin for Syfy and Amped for USA Network. FX is also believed to be developing a series based on Y: The Last Man.
For those unfamiliar with the world of comic books, the DC/Vertigo dichotomy is interesting. While the former is home to mainstream franchises like Superman and Batman, the latter was specifically set up to publish more hard-hitting, adult-themed franchises. This is significant, because it opened up the range of opportunities for DC.
Supergirl, for example, might fit on CBS or The CW but would look tame on AMC. Preacher, by contrast, would not go down well with a more mainstream audience. That said, Constantine and Lucifer were both born into the Vertigo family, which shows that the Big Four networks have been exploring the potential to soften Vertigo shows for their demos.
It’s also worth noting that there have been other DC subsidiaries down the years that are still providing IP for film and TV. For example, DC acquired an imprint called WildStorm in 1999 and shut it down in 2010. During that time, WildStorm created Red, a franchise that was subsequently turned into two successful films. Recent reports suggest NBC is now planning a TV version.
One obvious final question, of course, is how DC-based shows fare internationally. Well, not too badly actually.
Gotham has been licensed to platforms including Globo Brazil, Pro7 Germany and Netflix in Poland, while Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow have both been acquired by Italia 1 among others.
Lucifer has also travelled well, to platforms such as Amazon UK and Viasat 3 in Hungary. On UK pay TV channel Sky1, latest ratings figures put The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl as the top three shows, underlining the global appeal of the dynamic DC business.
There are several reasons why the US scripted content business casts such a shadow over the international drama market.
The first is that the US produces so many great scripted shows. Barely a week goes by without an eye-catching new drama going into production or development. Even now, as dozens of new shows hit the US autumn schedules, it is noticeable that the next wave of scripted projects is already shooting down the pipeline.
Second, viewers around the world love US shows. While dramas from other territories tend to have fairly well-defined regional hot spots, US shows can be found on free TV, pay TV and SVoD almost anywhere. This widespread appeal is reinforced by the availability of so many titles on US-based thematic channels (Fox, AXN and so on).
The third reason is that so many producers around the world still see entry into the US market as the pinnacle of their creative ambition. This is particularly evident in the field of scripted formats, where IP owners’ relentless pursuit of localisation is matched by a voracious appetite for ideas among US channels.
And finally, there’s the fact that the US still dictates so many of the trends in the international scripted market. The rise of Netflix and Amazon, and all of the creative innovations this has brought about, is one example. But so is the shift towards day-and-date windowing – expertly introduced by major US rights owners.
Having said all this, Mipcom (which began yesterday in Cannes and runs until Thursday) is one point in the calendar where US shows have to fight for exposure alongside titles from around the world.
For example, one of the biggest stories of the week so far is that UFA Fiction and Amazon are joining forces to create a sequel to German-language series Deutschland 83 (D83). Called Deutschland 86, the new show will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018. In addition, all episodes of D83 are available for streaming for Prime members in Germany and Austria.
As with the first series, Sundance in the US is a coproduction partner and FremantleMedia International handles international sales. RTL, the German broadcaster that commissioned D83, has acquired free TV rights to D86.
Created by Anna Winger (head writer) and Jörg Winger, D86 returns three years after D83, in 1986, and picks up the story of East German Agent Martin Rauch. Martin has been banished to Africa until he is recruited to fight for the last gasp of Communism abroad.
Set against the backdrop of real events during the last Summer of Anxiety, when terrorism raged across Western Europe, Martin’s mission takes him to Johannesburg, Tripoli, Paris, West Berlin and finally back to East Berlin, where he is forced to face new realities at home – and to make an impossible decision
Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of UFA, said: “With this latest collaboration between Amazon, RTL Television, FremantleMedia International and UFA, a long-awaited wish comes true. This deal is a milestone in coproduction history. It will be resetting standards for the upcoming years.”
Dr Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Prime Video Germany, added: “After the Amazon Original You Are Wanted with Matthias Schweighöfer and Michael Bully Herbig’s Bullyparade – Der Film, Deutschland 86 is the latest German-made production that will be available exclusively on Prime Video. German series and movies are important for our Prime members and we are happy to build on our engagement with German production industry and bring new shows to our customers.”
In another interesting new development, Sweden-based distributor Eccho Rights has picked up three drama scripts from Indian broadcaster Star for the global market. The titles involved are Vera (Ek Veer Ki Ardaas… Veera), Tangled Sisters (Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behena) and Unexpected Love (Diya Aur Baati Hum).
The deal is significant because Eccho has made a name for itself selling Turkish scripted formats to the international market. If it has anything like the same success with Indian titles, it will represent a major breakthrough in the global drama business. The titles are also interesting because they have so many episodes – meaning there is a lot of content for buyers to work with.
Nixon Yau Lim, head of Asia Pacific at Eccho Rights, commented: “The globalisation of drama is developing at a very interesting speed and one focus of Eccho Rights is to expand our partnership with producers to manage their script assets in new markets.”
Also of interest this week is the news that Sony Pictures Television has licensed three drama formats to Russian broadcasters, two of which are from the UK. The first is a local version of UK drama Doc Martin called Doctor Martov, which will air on Channel 1. The show is being produced by Lean-M Productions, which will also produce local versions of Mad Dogs and The Good Wife for NTV.
Away from Mipcom, UK broadcaster ITV announced a slate of news dramas this week, the first commissions by its new head of drama Polly Hill. The titles are Trauma by Mike Bartlett, Girlfriends by Kay Mellor, White Dragon by Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood, and Next of Kin by Paul Rutman and Natasha Narayan.
Hill said: “All four are authored contemporary pieces, from wonderful writers who have a compelling story to tell. I think audiences are looking for drama with real authorship, and I am delighted that I start at ITV with a mix of great experience and new voices. This is just the start of what I hope will be an exciting journey for us and the audience.”
Trauma is a three-part story set in the trauma department of a central London hospital. It tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who dies under the care of trauma consultant Jon Stephens. Devastated and heartbroken, the boy’s father believes Jon is responsible for his death and as he strives for justice, he begins to unpick the fabric of Jon’s life.
“Trauma is a story about two fathers with very different lives, locked in conflict,” says Bartlett, creator of last year’s hit BBC drama Doctor Foster. “I hope the series will be moving, terrifying and timely. If we mistrust institutions and experts, what happens when we desperately need them?”
White Dragon, meanwhile, is a conspiracy thriller from screenwriting newcomers Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood. Filmed on location in Asia, it will tell the story of Professor Jonah Mulray, whose life is turned upside down when his wife, Megan, is killed in a car-crash in Hong Kong. Not long after arriving in Hong Kong, Jonah makes a shocking discovery about his wife.
Finally, a few stories from the US. First up, US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of Van Helsing, a female take on the classic vampire hunter story. The hour-long drama will go into production in January 2017, with an additional 13 episodes planned.
There are also reports this week that Amazon has teamed up with producer Chuck Lorre to make a TV series based on Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1980s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The book was turned into a movie in 1990 that failed to live up to the hype. However, its sprawling New York-based narrative is probably better-suited to a limited TV series treatment.
Finally, MTV has greenlit a shortened third run of its horror series Scream. Season one had 13 episodes and season two had 10. The new series will have six episodes and, given the show’s rapidly declining audience ratings, will probably also be its finale.
Television storytelling is set to enter new territory with Syfy’s Halcyon, a crime drama described as the first ever hybrid VR scripted series. DQ takes a closer look.
While Syfy is used to travelling across space and exploring new planets, its latest series really is out of this world.
Described as the first ever hybrid VR scripted series, Halcyon will blend traditional storytelling with virtual reality, with viewers getting the chance to step into this ground-breaking new show.
The 15-part police procedural, created and produced by multi-platform studio Secret Location, alternates between 10 linear episodes on Syfy and five VR episodes exclusively available via Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR.
Set in 2040, the storyline centres on Blake Creighton (Michael Therriault), who is CEO of Halcyon, the world’s leading VR company. Having cornered the VR market, Halcyon has discarded headsets and now allows users to access virtual space via neurological implants that manipulate the senses to create a virtual world.
However, when Creighton is found dead, presumed murdered, Detective Jules Dover (Lisa Marcos) and her partner Asha (Harveen Sandhu, pictured top) must investigate whether this is the world’s first virtual crime.
The series will launch on Syfy’s channels and websites outside the US on September 22. Those who are only watching linear episodes will be able to see short recaps of the VR episodes to ensure they can follow the complete storyline.
Here, series director Benjamin Arfmann, Secret Location creative director Stefan Grambart and actress Harveen Sandhu discuss Halcyon and the challenges of working in virtual reality.
How did you cast the show?
Benjamin Arfmann: It was not really that different from casting a regular television show. But it was interesting in that you would have to explain to them that this isn’t just a TV show, it’s also going to be part VR – and, for the vast majority of the actors we auditioned, that was a completely foreign concept. Maybe they had done some VR work for games before but they had never done an explicitly VR production because not very many people have done that. There was an intellectual leap just in explaining the idea, but you cast it the same way you cast anything else. You look for really good actors.
When they pitched the idea, did it seem strange? Was this something you’d heard of before?
Harveen Sandhu: It didn’t seem strange at all. I didn’t understand what VR was until I got to see the episodes for the first time. The whole time on set I was so curious to know how they would marry the VR with the traditional linear episodes. There were definitely some brilliant challenges on set substituting the VR part of it, because it was done in post-production. But seeing the episodes was a revelation and now I really understand how [VR and linear work together]. Coming in I really had no idea. It wasn’t a detriment at all in terms of performing. Acting is acting and it’s all so connected to the narrative and the story that it never took me out of it or confused me.
What does the user watching Halcyon experience in VR?
BA: There are live-action episodes that are like traditional TV shown in 2D. We shot with real cameras in real locations. Over the course of the narrative, our characters go into VR. It’s a crime procedural set in the near future and our characters are investigating a crime that took place in virtual reality, so to investigate the crime scene, the scene itself is virtual. Whenever the characters go into the crime scene, the audience gets pulled into a 3D space. They can walk around in it, interact with the objects, look for clues and then the audience starts to have agency in terms of pushing the investigation forward while our characters, through voiceover, discuss the plot and discuss the clues that are being found. It’s much more like a hybrid between a traditional TV series and a game in some ways, but a VR game.
How were the VR scenes filmed?
BA: We did motion capture and volumetric facial captures for our performers to get them in the space – though it’s a hybrid, going at it from a bunch of different directions. There’s traditional animation, we did some mo-cap performances, and Harveen recorded all of her work on a sound stage for the VR episodes. In terms of capture, it’s all over the place.
Stefan Grambart: The reason for that is obviously because we were working around the limitations of the technology where it stands today. We learned a lot from building this. We spent a good month-and-a-half on optimisation to get it working on both Oculus Rift and Gear VR because VR is so new. Optimisation for games has always happened but it’s very different now in VR. We’re hopefully going to be porting to more platforms.
Does the viewer get to move around in VR and take part, or are you in a singular camera position?
BA: You can move around in the space and it is interactive. That was the thing that the three of us through the course of making it wrestled with the most. We’ve got this traditional TV component that’s third-person impassive for the audience; you’re watching the story happen and you have no control over it. We made a choice in that, at different points throughout the story, the viewer goes into VR and they move around, they interact with objects and they hear the characters talking. Then we had to answer a lot of questions. Now the audience is no longer passive and third person, are they playing a character? Do they get to interact directly with the characters? Are they just like a ghost that’s interacting with the objects but not being acknowledged, and how does that work? A lot of that process was in addition to solving technical problems – it was solving narrative problems. How do you tell a story when your audience becomes a part of that story?
Harveen, what was the biggest challenge for you as an actress on the series?
HS: The biggest challenge for me was substituting the VR components while filming in real life. I remember this brilliant moment Ben and I were trying to figure out and it was really hard. Asha’s made of virtual intelligence – she’s not actually flesh and blood – and in one of the episodes, someone walks through her because they can’t see her. I had to create that illusion in some way as an actor. Asha can see them and feel them walking through her and it pisses her off. I had to try and recreate that and it was really tricky because it’s all in your imagination.
Will Halcyon lead to a new trend of VR projects?
SG: I want to experiment and try things that haven’t been done before. A lot of people are looking for answers, and there seem to be two types of answers: one that’s like it’s the Wild West – try everything, which I don’t feel is helpful for people that are trying to get into VR – but then there’s also the people who say you can’t do this or you can’t do that, and I think that’s too limiting. Ben and I are still discovering and we’re all trying to find our way. We’ve made some excellent headway into what VR storytelling is, but everyone still has a long way to go and I’m super excited about this medium.
What is the future of VR?
BA: This is the future. What we’re doing now with headsets strapped to our faces and avatars where we can hear each other but we can’t read non-verbal cues, this isn’t necessarily the future, but it points towards it. I have a full belief in the idea that interactive narratives are going to be the hot shit within the decade. Is this going to be the big Avatar moment that opens the gates, is this The Jazz Singer? No, probably not – but it’s a really important first exploratory step that’s exciting. It’s uncharted territory. The thing that I’m most excited about right now is not necessarily that audiences are going to start flooding into VR, it’s that young storytellers and creators are going to get inspired to take that first step on their own and make something totally new that we couldn’t have predicted. That’s what’s coming next.
HS: From an acting point of view, this is the next thing in terms of bridging the gap between performers and audiences and bringing the audience closer to the action, closer to the narrative, closer to the story, closer to the actors. It’s a really interesting medium for actors to work with. It stretches our definition of ‘performance’ and what that means, what you can do with that and how much further you can go into it. For young actors, it’s exciting and is something so worth exploring. Having watched some of it, it’s really cool.
Netflix has made Korea a priority in its quest for global SVoD domination – and now arch-rival Amazon Prime Video is following suit.
Last week, it was revealed that Amazon had boarded The Idolm@ster, a Korean TV series for 2017 that is based on a popular Japanese game franchise from Bandai Namco.
First mooted in spring 2016, the live-action series is about a group of aspiring female singers trying to establish their music careers. As such, it sits at the crossroads of two Asian obsessions – K-Pop and television drama. The TV drama is a no-brainer given the success of the franchise across various platforms. Since launching in 2005 as an arcade game, The Idolm@ster has inspired animation and manga versions, as well as live concerts and hit singles. It has also been adapted for digital platforms including smartphones.
The series will stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video from early 2017 and will be localised into several languages, including Japanese and English.
James Farrell, head of content at Amazon’s Asia Pacific Prime Video, called Idolm@aster “the perfect combination of Japanese idol culture and Korean drama power. The idols include K-Pop sirens, as well as Japanese and other international singers, and we’re confident fans and viewers alike all over the world will become addicted to watching their careers bloom.”
The news continues a growing trend for global companies to exploit the Korean drama phenomenon. Recently we reported on the fact that NBC Universal participated in the financing of Moon Lovers. And this week South Korean media group CJ E&M has formed a partnership with Warner Bros-owned streamer DramaFever to coproduce local dramas for the international market. Under the terms of the alliance, called Studio Dragon, the partners will produce two original series over next three years.
“Studio Dragon is determined to become Asia’s number-one drama studio. To achieve that goal, we plan to work with industry leaders to provide unrivalled content for audiences,” said Jinnie Choi, president of Studio Dragon.
Away from Korea, US channel Syfy has announced that sci-fi series Killjoys and Dark Matter will both be returning for third seasons. Killjoys, which follows a trio of interplanetary bounty hunters, is produced by Temple Street Productions, the Toronto-based firm behind Orphan Black. The show also airs on the Space channel in Canada. In line with the Syfy announcement, Space revealed that it too would be on board the third season of the show.
In terms of audience ratings on Syfy, Killjoys attracts around 650,000 viewers per episode, which makes it a mid-ranking performer on the network. It’s a similar story for Dark Matter, which comes in at around 690,000 per episode. Interestingly, this positioning and ratings differential is broadly reflected by IMDb rankings, which come in at 7.1 and 7.4 respectively for the two shows.
Syfy has struggled to secure a bona fide hit series in recent times and is shifting towards series with built-in brand recognition. This week, it debuted Van Helsing, a reimaging of vampire mythology in which the central character has been switched from male to female (similar to Wynnona Earp).
There was also news this week about Syfy’s planned Superman prequel. Called Krypton, it is set two generations before the destruction of Superman’s home planet. The show is based on a pilot by David S Goyer and will feature British actress Georgina Campbell.
Last week, we discussed the success of 1980s-set thriller Stranger Things on Netflix and suggested it would only be a matter of time before a second series was greenlit.
In fact, a second season was announced the next day. Created by Matt and Ross Duffer and starring Winona Ryder, season two will debut in 2017 and will consist of nine episodes, one more than season one’s eight episodes.
We’ve also looked at Marvel’s expansion recently. The latest news on this front is that Marvel and ABC Studios are plotting a new series called New Warriors. Although a cable/SVoD home is yet to be found for the show, the plan is for it to be a comedy about a superhero squad made up of teenagers. This will follow a recent trend in the superhero genre towards irreverent franchises including Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool and Suicide Squad.
In terms of shows that won’t see a greenlight, the big news of the week is that AMC won’t be bringing back its restaurant drama Feed the Beast. Despite having a cast headed by David Schwimmer and Jim Sturgess, the show attracted pretty modest ratings.
In a statement, AMC said: “We have great respect and admiration for the entire team associated with Feed the Beast and our studio partner, Lionsgate. Unfortunately, the show simply didn’t achieve the results needed to move forward with a second season.”
In number terms, season one of the show averaged around 447,000, making it the second lowest-rating scripted show on the network. Interestingly, the show it beat, Halt and Catch Fire, has been renewed through to season three.
However, AMC clearly decided it couldn’t carry two scripted series on such low ratings. This presents a slight conundrum for AMC, which is that it is heavily reliant on dystopian fantasy/horror series (The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead, Into the Badlands, Preacher) and could do with establishing a different editorial beachhead to appeal to a new audience subset.
Finally, DQ’s sister publication C21 is reporting that Spanish producer Boomerang TV has opened a new scripted production division in Chile. The arm will produce dramas for Chilean broadcasters and follows the arrival of Boomerang in the country in 2014. Veteran Latino producer and former Chilevisión drama chief Vicente David Sabatini becomes fiction director, while Cecilia Stoltze, formerly at TVN, has been named general producer.
The supernatural meets the American Wild West in US comic book adaptation Wynonna Earp. DQ catches up with showrunner Emily Andras as she begins work on season two.
Wyatt Earp will forever have a place in US history as the gunslinger who took part in one of the most famous shootouts in the American Wild West – the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Now Earp’s name and the classic western genre have been given a supernatural twist in Wynonna Earp, a 13-part drama described as mixture between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jessica Jones.
Based on the graphic novel by Beau Smith, it follows Earp’s descendant Wynonna as she battles demons and other beings that her famous relative killed years earlier and have now returned to seek revenge. A witty and wild modern-day shooter, Wynonna uses her unique abilities and the help of a dysfunctional posse of allies to bring paranormal foes to justice.
The series debuted on Syfy in the US and CHCH in Canada in April this year, drawing a band of cult followers who call themselves ‘Earpers’ and winning a second season, which was announced at San Diego Comic-Con earlier this month. It makes its UK premiere on Spike tonight.
“I was completely blown away by the response,” says showrunner Emily Andras. “It’s such a funny little concept of a show. I feel like it’s hard to buy into it because it’s so high-concept, weird and kinda wacky. So just the fact that people gave it a chance just blew my mind. I just hope we can do it all again in season two and make people happy.”
Andras has form in genre series, having previously written for and produced shows such as Killjoys and Lost Girl. And while she was a showrunner on the latter, Wynonna Earp is the first time she has created her own show.
Growing up in Alberta – “Canada’s Montana” – Andras has always been interested in reviving the western for television and says she got goosebumps when she first picked up the Wynonna Earp comic.
“If I could have cooked up something in the lab that spoke to everything I love to write about, Wynonna Earp would be it,” she admits. “It’s set in the west, it has a supernatural bent, is very witty and very funny, and most of all it has this really messed up, strong, insane female lead. She’s such a great character.
“It’s so crazy and I thought it would be fun to write something this unconventional. It just felt like a really good challenge. Now I feel like the comic and the series are working in tandem. I’m very close with Beau Smith and we feed off each other, which is great.”
Those familiar with the comic, however, will not see many of Smith’s original storylines adapted for the small screen. Andras says she enjoyed plenty of licence to bring fresh plotlines to the existing characters and setting, while also introducing some new faces.
“There’s such a huge different between those two mediums, between a 22-page comic where you can do anything and a 13-hour series,” she explains. “The stories are different but are certainly a nod to one another. That was fine. Beau and I know that’s how it works. They exist in the same world but they’re different stories. They’re complementary but they’re not exactly the same.”
The challenge of creating a show from scratch is “definitely the hardest thing I have ever done,” the writer admits. But she says that whether you’re running Game of Thrones or a lower-budget series such as Wynonna Earp, the secret to a successful genre series comes down to good storytelling and strong characters, rather than the special effects, monsters or creatures who provide the supernatural spark.
“The key is the audience has to fall in love with the people they’re spending time with,” she reveals. “Then that will help you if you have limited resources in other areas. It really comes down to good storytelling, like most things. And casting was super important. You have to find that special group of people that, when you put them together, it’s like lightning in a bottle. That’s really hard. I feel those are the two things I learned the most from previous gigs and I’m very happy with the results of Wynonna Earp.”
Heading the cast – and playing the eponymous heroine – is Canadian actress Melanie Scrofano, whose credits include The Listener and short-lived The Omen sequel Damien. Andras describes Scrofano as the perfect fit for the role, particularly in the way she balances the grittiness of the character with the witty dialogue that makes the show stand out from other genre fare.
“If you really like serious genre shows that take place on a very cold, blue-shaded spaceship with lots of serious stakes and no comedy, there’s lots of that out there. But lots of people work hard all day and come home and just want to have fun,” she says. “I’m really interested in shifts in tone. I love making you laugh and then I’m confident by the end of the episode I can have you in tears. I really like those challenges. I want you to feel like you’ve got your money’s worth by the end of the hour. It’s just a rocketing ride, we throw everything at you.”
Away from the writing process, other challenges on the show included the huge number of guns on set and dealing with the amount of gunfire a western typically demands, as well as some special-effects set pieces.
“We have a big supernatural creature at the end of the season and it’s always that delicious thing on set where the actors are just participating with green screen and are screaming and writhing and running from nothing,” Andras notes. “So you get into the edit suite and you think, ‘What is this actually going to look like?’ I was very impressed in particular with the special effects and what we were able to do on our budget, and creatively how we were able to solve problems. That was one of the things I’m most proud of.”
With Wynonna’s foundations in the pages of a comic book, style was also important when the show was first conceived. Director of photography Gavin Smith helped to recreate the visual tone of the graphic novel, making a deliberate attempt to make the series feel warmer than traditional westerns.
“We also really wanted to play with the idea of a modern western,” says Andras, adding: “This isn’t horses, this is motorbikes. But I had an absolutely incredible team of directors. I give some direction but, if you hire the best people, you need to let them do their best work. I really trust them and I’m not a director, so I’ve hired them to make me look good!”
Wynonna Earp is produced by IDW Entertainment and Seven24, and distributed internationally by Dynamic Television. Seven24’s Jordy Randall and Tom Cox, IDW’s Ted Adams and David Ozer, Banditos Yanquis’s Todd Berger, and Circle of Confusion’s Rick Jacobs all executive produce with Andras.
And as a showrunner, Andrs says the most important part of her role is mapping out the storylines for the season and bringing them together in a way that will keep viewers enthralled.
“For me, it’s all about what the characters’ journey is going to be this year [and how to depict that] in the most fun way possible,” she says. “How can we show them changing and growing in a way that also involves flamethrowers and exploding heads if possible? It’s a combination of emotion and awesomeness. I really try to balance those things out.
“The show is an odd combination of episodic and serialised storytelling, but I like that. There’s the opportunity to do a ‘monster of the week’ but at the same time the relationships and the characters are changing over the course of the whole season. I just want people to come on board and know they’re going to have an awesome 42 minutes of television each week and, at the end of it, they’re going to feel something. And they can find me on social media if they have opinions about it!”
The appetite among fans on social media has played an important role in Wynonna Earp’s success and, Andras believes, in winning a second season: “I have never seen fan engagement like this on any show I’ve been a part of. The enthusiasm and passion of this particular fanbase – they call themselves The Earpers – is a huge part of why the show is such a success and definitely part of the reason why we are going for a second season. They made themselves heard on social media and it became too difficult to ignore them.”
Andras will begin prepping season two within the next few weeks, with production on the next 10 episodes likely to start towards the end of autumn for a 2017 release.
“I still can’t believe we got this on the air – don’t tell them!” she jokes. “Somehow we’ve got this crazy, demon-hunting cowgirl show on the air and it’s become a hit. It’s the little show that could. That’s one of the benefits of the audience being so open-minded. It’s peak TV right now – there’s something for everybody and I feel like there’s a place for you to take chances and try something new. Wynonna Earp definitely fits that bill.”
As the dust settles on another action-packed San Diego Comic-Con, there is plenty to look forward to if the new footage previewed at the event is anything to go by.
From teasers for forthcoming new series to big reveals about new seasons of fan favourites, expectations were certainly heightened by what was showcased during four days of panels, screenings and guest appearances at the San Diego Convention Centre.
Here’s a rundown of the best videos unveiled at Comic-Con:
Starz unveiled the first trailer for American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and due to air in 2017
BBC America also dropped the first footage of comic book adaptation Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Fox previewed a new trailer for its take on classic horror movie The Exorcist
Another new series Syfy’s Incorporated, which is set in a world controlled by corporations. It is produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon
The trailer for The Walking Dead season seven introduces King Ezekiel and his tiger (pictured at the top of this page)
But not to be outdone, spin-off Fear The Walking Dead gave fans a teaser of a new storyline that feature a cult that sacrifices its own members in the second half of season two
If that wasn’t enough blood, Starz also previewed season two of Ash vs Evil Dead as star Bruce Campbell announced Lee Majors was joining the cast
Fans saw the first glimpse of season four of Sherlock
Here’s the first footage from Prison Break, which is returning to Fox in 2016/17
ABC used Comic-Con to reveal that Aladdin and Jafar would be making their debuts in the first scene of sixth season of Once Upon a Time
But excitement for the sixth season trailer of MTV’s Teen Wolf was tempered with the announcement that the new run would also be its last
Of course, Comic-Con royalty status is reserved for the big comic book publishers, and this year was no exception in terms of their television crossovers.
Among its film and television panels, DC Comics unveiled the third-season trailer for The CW’s The Flash, which introduces the comic’s Flashpoint storyline after Barry Allen goes back in time to prevent his mother’s murder
Fans inside the convention centre also saw footage from the fifth season of Arrow
The most recent entry into the DC Comics television landscape, Legends of Tomorrow, debuted its season-two trailer
Meanwhile, Batman prequel Gotham unveiled clues about its upcoming third season
It was Marvel, however, that stole the show and provided some of the biggest talking points from this year’s event.
The studio unveiled the first trailer for Legion, the new FX drama from Noah Hawley (Fargo) that is set in the X-Men universe
Marvel also debuted footage from its upcoming Netflix shows. First up is Luke Cage, which debuts online on September 30
Iron Fist follows, completing the line-up of superheroes to appear on the SVoD service in the wake of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage
The studio also confirmed there will be a third season of Daredevil with this teaser
But also in 2017, the quartet will come together in miniseries The Defenders, as previewed in this teaser that plays against the soundtrack of Nirvana’s Come As You Are
Not to be forgotten, however, is a little show called Star Trek, which returns to television next year on CBS and CBS All Access in the US and Netflix around the world. And in the week the latest feature film in the franchise, Star Trek Beyond, hit cinemas, Trekkies got to see this test footage from Star Trek: Discovery, which will follow the crew of the USS Discovery.
UK producers have carved out a strong reputation for sophisticated high-end dramas that travel well internationally – and a number of new scripted projects announced this week should further enhance the industry’s reputation.
Pick of the bunch is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a new John Le Carré adaptation from The Ink Factory, the company behind acclaimed BBC1/AMC coproduction The Night Manager – also a Le Carré adaptation.
The new production will be penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) but has yet to be placed with a broadcaster. Stephen Garrett’s new indie Character 7 will assist with financing and production, while Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution has already been lined up to handle distribution of the series outside of the UK.
Regarded as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold follows a British intelligence operative who seeks revenge on the East German intelligence service deputy director responsible for the death of one of his agents. It was written in 1963 and adapted into an acclaimed film in 1965.
Meanwhile, the BBC, The Weinstein Company and Lookout Point are moving forward with a new TV series based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which until now has been best known to most people as a musical/musical film. Andrew Davies, who worked with the BBC, TWC and Lookout Point on an epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, will write what is expected to be a six-part miniseries.
Commenting on the project, he said: “Les Misérables is a huge, iconic title. Most of us are familiar with the musical version, which only offers a fragmentary outline of its story. I am thrilled to have the opportunity of doing real justice to Victor Hugo by adapting his masterpiece in a six-hour version for the BBC, with the same team who made War and Peace.”
Also coming out of the UK this week is news of a planned adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ classic mystery story The Moonstone by the BBC. Described by TS Eliot as “the first and greatest of English Detective novels,” The Moonstone sees adventurer Franklin Blake attempting to solve the disappearance of the priceless Moonstone and win back Rachel Verinder, his true love.
The Moonstone will broadcast over five consecutive afternoons on BBC1, and is made in association with BBC Learning as part of the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign.
It is being adapted for the screen by Rachel Flowerday (Father Brown, EastEnders) and Sasha Hails (Versailles, Casualty) and made by King Bert Productions.
Dan McGolpin, controller of BBC daytime and early peak, said: “The Moonstone spawned a new genre: the detective novel. Its influence endures to the present day, in books and on television. With the help of BBC Learning, we are offering BBC1 viewers the chance to see this gripping story play out across five afternoons. Our viewers are in for a treat.”
Still in the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered a second crime drama from author Harlan Coben and Red Production Company.
The new show, The Four, will be an eight-part thriller that tells the story of an idyllic family community irrevocably shattered by secrets, lies, suspicions and misguided trust. It follows on from Coben’s first original story for TV, The Five, which debuted in April on Sky1. As with The Five, the idea for The Four will be provided by Coben but the script will be written by Danny Brocklehurst.
Red CEO and founder Nicola Shindler said: “When Harlan told me about the premise for his latest story, I knew it would be just as addictive viewing as The Five. As with all his work, it is utterly intriguing, totally immersive and completely character-driven.”
Coben added: “I never wanted to make a sequel to The Five – that story has now been told – but rather to start afresh and bring a whole new crime drama to the screen. Working with Nicola and Sky again was essential to ensure that, creatively, The Four is brought to life in the way that we have imagined.”
Meanwhile, in the US, NBC has commissioned a true crime scripted series that will form part of its hugely successful Law & Order franchise. Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders will follow the real-life case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996.
The show is the first in a planned anthology series that will follow real-life criminal cases in a similar style to FX’s American Crime Story. Rene Balcer, who has played a central role in the development of Law & Order, will write and show the new spin-off, which is expected to consist of eight parts.
As we noted in our last column, the entertainment industry has been busy with San Diego Comic-Con for the last few days. Increasingly the event is viewed by studios an important platform for news about the future for TV shows.
Pay TV channel Syfy, for example, announced that it is bringing back Wynonna Earp for a second season, while Netflix revealed there will be a third season of its Marvel series Daredevil. There were also reports at Comic-Con that Netflix will provide a home for a reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a 1980s/1990s comedy series that has been brought back to life thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Comic-Con also threw up rumours that Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood may return. The show’s star John Barrowman said: “I have a phone conversation on Monday to see how we can get it back on television. The fans know me well enough, I’m only going to say it if I mean it and believe it.”
Away from Comic-Con, USA Network is reported to be developing a drama series set centred on a bodybuilding gym with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The show, which has a working title of Muscle Beach, will be based in LA’s Venice Beach during the 1980s. CBS is also reported to be working on a Venice Beach-set bodybuilding drama called Pump with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Konyves.
Finally, in Asia, HBO has started production on a Chinese original series called The Psychic. The show, which has been developed by HBO Asia in partnership with Taiwanese broadcaster Public Television Service (PTS) and Singaporean production company InFocus Asia centres on a teenage girls who can see spirits.
Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia, said: “Asia’s rich diversity offers inspiration for countless of stories waiting to be told and local talents to be discovered. Through collaborating with PTS and remarkable talents in Taiwan to increase our production of local-language content, HBO Asia is perfectly placed to bring our creative spin to The Psychic for regional audiences.” The series will be shot in Taiwan and aired by HBO Asia in 23 territories.
Jessie Shih, director of international at PTS, added: “I am very happy to announce PTS’s first collaboration with HBO Asia on their first Chinese original series, also their first Taiwan series, working with a young and upcoming local team, bridging the gap between television and film with the talented mix of crew and actors. Cultivating local young talents and helping them to connect with the international industry is PTS’s top priority. I believe this HBO/PTS collaboration, in partnership with IFA, will lead the local Taiwanese industry to greater heights.”
SVoD giant Netflix has always been good at sharing its international subscriber data, but it has never bothered to provide much detail about the audiences that tune in to individual shows.
As an ad-free service, it doesn’t really need to; instead, it sees competitive value in keeping its rivals guessing.
This, of course, doesn’t stop third parties speculating – and this week research firm Nielsen is in the news for trying to unlock the secret of Orange is the New Black (OITNB)’s audience numbers.
The key finding, revealed at the Consumer 360 conference in Las Vegas, is that OITNB is the big hit that everyone always suspected it to be. According to audience data reported on by the Wall Street Journal, 6.7 million people watched the first episode of season four in the three days following its June 17 launch. The second episode then attracted 5.9 million viewers.
To put those numbers in context, they would make OITNB one of the most popular shows on US cable TV, if it lived within the traditional US cable system.
It’s not as big as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, but it would trump pretty much everything else. For the record, Nielsen also looked at streaming data for Seinfeld on Hulu, which drew 706,000 viewers within five days of launch.
Other shows in the news this week include AMC’s Preacher, which is halfway through its first 10-episode season. After starting strongly, with 2.38 million for episode one, the show slipped to 1.14 million by episode four.
However, there was an encouraging bounce back for episode five, which recorded 1.43 million (all figures are Nielsen overnights). Perhaps that’s why AMC chose this week to announce that the show, which stars Dominic Cooper, will have an enlarged second season of 13 episodes.
“Preacher is a special TV programme and we’re eager to share with fans the rest of this wild first season and, now, an expanded second season,” said AMC president Charlie Collier. “What (the team) has achieved in bringing Garth Ennis’s graphic novel to the screen is extraordinary. We look forward to more time with these unforgettable characters, be it in Heaven, Hell, Texas or beyond.”
Preacher is currently AMC’s fifth best-performing show behind The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Into the Badlands and Better Call Saul. The writer and showrunner is Sam Catlin.
A more surprising renewal is that for Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, a futuristic sci-fi time-travel drama set in the 2040s after a virus has wiped out much of Earth’s population. Based on the 1995 feature film of the same name, the show has been given a third season.
“In two short seasons, 12 Monkeys has become a cult favourite series,” said Chris McCumber, president of entertainment networks at Syfy parent NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “The team has brought to life a rich world not confined by boundaries of time, with multi-dimensional characters whose motivations for saving the world are deeply personal and intensely relatable. It’s exactly the type of smart, on-the-edge-of-your-seat entertainment we want.”
That eulogy comes despite the fact the show’s ratings have been pretty modest for season two. After averaging 795,000 for season one, the follow-up batch of 10 episodes evened out at 393,000. Although season two seems to have had a pretty stable audience across its run, that figure places 12 Monkeys at the low end of Syfy’s scripted dramas in terms of its audience.
While the impassioned nature of the show’s fanbase may be a reason for 12 Monkeys’ renewal, another explanation could be that Syfy is undergoing heavy schedule maintenance.
A lot of shows have ended or been cancelled recently, so it may be that the channel is looking for a few stopgaps while newer shows such as The Magicians, Killjoys and Dark Matter have a chance to build. No current Syfy show has got past season two.
Elsewhere, we have reported in the past on the ratings success of The Durrells in the UK, and now the show is proving to be popular with international broadcasters.
Distributor BBC Worldwide says it has sold the show to such channels as Iceland’s UTV, Australia’s Seven Network, New Zealand’s Sky, Estonia’s ETV, Finland’s YLE, Latvian Television, Denmark’s TV2 and BBC First in the Middle East and Benelux. This follows previous deals with SVT in Sweden and OTE in Greece.
Written by Simon Nye and produced by Sid Gentle Films, The Durrells is based on Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical books about his family’s life on the Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s.
Still in the world of distribution, Amazon Prime Video has picked up the rights to Steven Soderbergh drama The Girlfriend Experience for the UK, Germany, Austria and Japan. The 13-part series, which stars Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough, airs on Starz in the US and is based on Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name.
The show hasn’t scored especially well on IMDb, which is probably down to its level of sexual content, which polarises audiences (it’s about a female law student who becomes an escort – another polarising factor for audiences). But it has its fans, who tend to focus on the excellence of the acting and craft.
The bottom line on this show is that it has undoubtedly found the perfect home in the rarified world of SVoD streaming.
Finally, an update on how BBC2 in the UK is doing it terms of drama – according to BARB ratings. Peaky Blinders signed off in mid-June with an audience of 2.27 million, meaning that it was pretty stable throughout the back end of its third season.
The show overlapped slightly with the launch of acquired drama Versailles, which is still running. The Louis XIV period piece debuted with 2.73 million but had slipped to around the two million mark at the time of writing. This, however, is still stronger than The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, which finished its run in April on around 1.85 million.
Last year, Wolf Hall brought the channel 3.8-4 million viewers per episode, while Banished wrapped up with 2.8 million for its final episode. All of which suggests the channel’s upmarket audience has a penchant for offbeat period drama, rather than the kind of contemporary show represented by American Crime Story. Outlander would be a good fit were it not streaming on Amazon in the UK.
Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the television landscape and finds there are plenty of science-fiction and fantasy series in the works to keep genre fans happy.
At the same time as a tide of comic book and graphic novel TV adaptations have hit the screen, there has been a less trumpeted but increasingly visible trend in series based on ‘hard’ science fiction and ‘serious’ fantasy.
With the recent announcement of Bryan Cranston’s new Philip K Dick anthology series Electric Dreams (produced by Sony Pictures Television for Channel 4), there seems to be an unmistakable head of steam behind adaptations of ‘hard’ sci-fi – coming hot on the heels of Amazon’s critically lauded The Man in the High Castle (also based on a Philip K Dick novel) and Syfy’s miniseries version of Arthur C Clarke’s downbeat Childhood’s End.
This resurgence of more serious-minded sci-fi is demonstrated in the UK, with Channel 4 leading the way with the AMC coproduction Humans and the less viewed, but well-regarded, Utopia.
The alternate-history Axis victory premise of Amazon’s High Castle will be mirrored by BBC1’s upcoming SS-GB, which itself harks back to 1978’s BBC2 production An Englishman’s Castle, which starred Kenneth More as a TV soap writer in Nazi-occupied Britain.
Broadcasters and OTT providers have discovered a new vein to mine, as evidenced by a slew of shows being developed or in production, including HBO’s series version of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (pictured top), best known to older readers from the 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner, James Brolin and Richard Benjamin.
The successful movie was followed by the sequel Futureworld (1976) and short-lived 1980 series Beyond Westworld (CBS), both unfortunately following the law of diminishing returns.
Despite reported production problems, 2016’s Westworld’s stellar cast (including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Thandie Newton) and strong proposition should guarantee high initial sampling when it debuts this autumn.
Westworld creator Jonathan Nolan (co-writer with his brother Christopher of The Prestige, Interstellar, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) is also apparently developing a series version of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy (also for HBO), which is surely a prospect that will have sci-fi fans salivating.
Back in 2009, Sony reportedly tried to crack the novels with director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down) attached, but when the project stalled, HBO stepped in to acquire the rights.
Along with JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert’s Dune, Foundation was regarded as ‘unfilmable’ due to its epic scope but, following Game of Thrones’ success, epic is something HBO can confidently handle.
Other sci-fi classics reportedly in development include Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin’s take on dystopian Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, produced by aficionado Bradley Cooper.
Both have been ordered by Syfy, which is also teaming with Battlestar Galactica writer/exec producer David Eick for the series version of Frederik Pohl’s 1977 Hugo and Nebula award-winning Gateway.
On the SVoD front, Hulu has given a straight-to-series order for a 10-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist story set in a grim US of the future, ruled by a Ted Cruz-style totalitarian Christian theocracy, starring Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake).
A movie of the novel was released in 1990, boasting an all-star cast that included Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway and Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern, but the film suffered from script problems and was generally felt to be an interesting failure.
Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Noah) is said to be developing a TV series with HBO based on Atwood’s post-apocalyptic novel trilogy Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, set in a world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a pandemic and the survivors fight to find a reason to continue.
Back in 2011, there was talk of a remake of Ray Bradbury’s 1980 movie The Martian Chronicles (starring Rock Hudson), but this appears to have been abandoned. The revival of interest in the genre may see it resurrected, though.
US cable channel Spike has commissioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s hard sci-fi classic Red Mars for a 10-episode series debuting in January 2017. Dealing with the human colonisation of the Red Planet, the series features Vince Geradis (Game of Thrones) as exec producer.
And speaking of Mars, the daddy of all sci-fi stories – HG Wells’ War of the Worlds – is currently being developed by ITV-owned Mammoth Screen for an ostensibly authentic period version of the classic novel, scripted by Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, City of Vice, Doctor Who).
Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones, Dog Soldiers, The Descent) is on board to direct, while reports earlier this year of Poldark star Aidan Turner taking the lead role of the narrator have since been denied.
HG Wells features as the protagonist of ABC’s Time After Time (based on Nicholas Meyers’ 1979 movie), which involves the author travelling from Victorian England to the present day. Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries, The Following, Dawson’s Creek) is showrunner for the series.
Although Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was successfully transferred to the cinema screen by Paul Verhoeven in 1997, it remains doubtful whether a TV version of his most famous work, the controversial 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land (once promoted as “the most famous sci-fi novel ever written”) will ever see the light of day.
In terms of the serious fantasy genre, the BBC’s upcoming version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy should benefit from having writer Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers, Skins, The Fades) guiding the show, which will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of 2007’s movie adaptation The Golden Compass and maintain more of an adult tone.
Scheduling and advertising will be important for the series, as the excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell suffered from misleading promotion, which gave the impression of a Harry Potter-style fantasy – and aired on the wrong channel, BBC1, when BBC2 would have been far more appropriate.
Fantasy legend Neil Gaiman has certainly been a busy lad, with no less than four TV adaptations of his writings in the works, as well as his mooted big-screen version of Gormenghast, which was last seen as a BBC2 series in 2000.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) was due to direct a movie version of Gaiman’s Sandman, but that recently hit the buffers.
First up is American Gods for Starz in the US, which has an impressive cast including Ian McShane, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Tucker and Crispin Glover.
Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jamaica Inn, The Borgias) has since left the production to be replaced by Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black, The Wire) in the role of troubled Leprechaun Mad Sweeney, with Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies) as showrunner.
Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which occupies the same fictional universe as American Gods, was optioned by BBC1 in the UK back in 2014, while his anthology Likely Stories has been commissioned by Sky Arts in the UK, featuring a cast that numbers Johnny Vegas (Benidorm, Ideal) and industry veteran Kenneth Cranham (Rome, War & Peace, Layer Cake), with a score by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker.
Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard helmed and co-wrote the critically acclaimed 2,000 Days On Earth, a portrait of Aussie Renaissance Man Nick Cave.
Good Omens, Gaiman’s end-of-the-world collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, is also being considered by the BBC for a miniseries, while Lucifer, the Fox show based on Gaiman’s character from Sandman, has recently been renewed for a second season.
Other fantasy projects with adult themes on the horizon include NBC’s Midnight, Texas (due to be transmitted this autumn), based on the novels by Charlaine Harris (True Blood), and the BBC’s The City and The City – Tony Grisoni (Red Riding, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Southcliffe) developing China Mieville’s cult novel about the cities Beszel and Ul Quoma, which occupy the same point in space and time.
And last, but by no means least, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, said to be the highest-selling serious fantasy novels since The Lord of the Rings, are rumoured to be under consideration by Sony for either AMC, Netflix or Amazon.
By now, the TV industry is used to SVoD giant Netflix breaking the rules. But even by Netflix’s standards, the decision to order three additional seasons of Lionsgate’s Orange is the New Black (OITNB) in one go is a surprise. It must take some special kind of data algorithm to be able to judge a show that far into the future.
Season four of the Jenji Kohan-created comedy drama about an eclectic group of female prison inmates hasn’t even been released yet (it launches in June), but this week’s announcement means OITNB will now have a minimum of seven seasons.
Commenting on the decision, Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “Jenji and her team have produced a phenomenal and impactful series that is funny and dramatic, outrageous and heartfelt. Audiences around the world have come to love the ladies and men of OITNB, and we are eager to see where three more seasons will take them.”
Kohan, who has signed up to be OITNB’s showrunner for the new seasons, added: “Three more years! Not quite a political term, but still plenty of time to do some interesting things. In some cultures, ‘May you lead an interesting life,’ is a curse, but I don’t live in those cultures. Here’s to keeping it interesting. Thanks Netflix! Both thanks and you’re welcome Lionsgate! And kudos to the stellar cast and crew and writers and producers and editors and musicians and mixers and shleppers with whom I have the honour of crafting this show. Three more years! Three more years!”
And there was more eulogising from Lionsgate Television Group chairman Kevin Beggs – who was so excited he upgraded the current age of drama from gold to platinum. “We’re proud to continue our long-standing relationships with Netflix and the incredibly talented Jenji Kohan and delighted that one of the most acclaimed shows on television will continue on Netflix for three more seasons. Jenji’s brilliant creative vision and a truly amazing cast have catapulted OITNB to the forefront of the platinum age of television, and we’re pleased that fans around the world will be rewarded with another three seasons.”
It’s not unheard of for broadcasters to commission two seasons of a scripted show at once, but three is a remarkable show of support – and not without risks. For a start, Kohan could simply run out of steam over the course of the next four years. Or the security of so many episodes could reduce the urgency and hunger that comes with needing a renewal. Or the audience could start to lose interest – either because they’ve seen enough or because something even better comes along.
So the question is – why do it? Why not just stick with the more usual pattern of commission, transmission, ratings, renewal? Well, it can’t be to do with subscribers, because people don’t make decisions based around such long-term programme planning. So it must be the fear of losing either Kohan or the show to a rival.
If it’s the former, then perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that showrunners trusted by networks/platforms are in short supply. At conference after conference, producers tell stories of how they have to wait for years for A-list showrunners to become free. The obvious solution would be to improve access for new writers, but this reckons without the fear factor that still underpins so much network decision-making. It’s ironic that, at the very same time we talk about industry innovation and creativity, there is so much money being spent on film-to-TV adaptations and reboots.
If it’s the latter, then maybe Netflix is reacting to the news that Lionsgate may be about to merge with Starz. If that deal goes ahead as planned, it’s not inconceivable that Lionsgate would choose to sell future series of OITNB on Starz. So maybe this is a way of Netflix pre-empting that eventuality. Whatever the thinking, it will be interesting to see if other companies start to make similar commitments. If they do, then this will truly go down as the golden age for scripted TV writers – the gold bullion age.
There is another possible factor involved in Netflix’s decision – which is that networks increasingly want to signal to the audience that they should stick with a show, because it is going to be around for a long time. The beauty of Game of Thrones or Outlander, for example, is that you know it is worthwhile investing emotional capital in the stories. There’s nothing worse than watching a show that gets axed just as you are getting into it.
We’re seeing this more and more with networks that commission season two of a show when season one has only just begun. This week, for example, USA Network greenlit a second run its alien invasion drama Colony after just four episodes of its debut season. It made a similar move with Mr Robot (and, for the record, commissioned season six of hit series Suits very early).
On the face of it, this early commissioning trend runs counter to the risk-aversion referred to above. But the reality is that scripted TV will never be entirely without risk. So it’s better to back a project in a meaningful way than spend tens of millions of dollars on something that the audience doesn’t bother to turn up for.
Another interesting story doing the rounds is that YouTube is about to launch its first exclusive series, Scare PewDiePie, starring the phenomenonally popular YouTube gaming star. Produced in partnership with Disney’s Maker Studios, the series will be part of the video-sharing site’s new subscription-based service YouTube Red.
Scare PewDiePie is a reality show – which begs the question why we’re highlighting it in a column about scripted TV. Well, the significant point is that YouTube is getting into origination backed by subscriptions. So it won’t be long before we see YouTube stars appearing in scripted series and movies on the new YouTube Red service. In fact, YouTube already has a deal in place to stream films from Dreamworks Animations’ AwesomenessTV on its platform.
From here, it’s not a great imaginative leap to suppose that YouTube Red will start to enter the more mainstream scripted business alongside Netflix, Amazon and the big pay TV brands.
Other greenlights this week include a 13-part order from Syfy for Incorporated, created by David and Alex Pastor and executive produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
There’s also been a second-season order for NBC’s Shades of Blue, which stars Jennifer Lopez as a corrupt NYPD detective turned FBI informant. NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said: “We want to thank Jennifer, who is the hardest-working woman we know, for her incredible efforts as both the star and producer of this show, as well as our other amazing producers and cast for all their tireless work in creating one of the most compelling dramas on television today. We’re so excited to find out where this story will lead and have them raise the stakes even higher in (season two).”
Last week, we talked about how ABC in the US had backed two legal show pilots. Well, rival CBS has decided to focus more on medical shows. Two new pilots announced include Bunker Hill and Sensory, about a neurologist who has ‘mirror-touch synesthesia,’ a condition that causes someone to experience other people’s sensations. Already airing on CBS is medical drama Code Black, a moderately successful series set in an LA emergency room.
Elsewhere, Endemol Shine-owned production outfit Bandit Television is making a show about the notorious Rillington Place murders for BBC1. Based around the actions of 1940s serial killer John Christie, the story was previously the subject of an acclaimed 1971 film starring Richard Attenborough and John Hurt.
Sky1’s adaptation of The Last Dragonslayer suggests the scripted market is swinging back towards TV movies and miniseries, as Crackle announces a follow-up to The Art of More.
There are reports this week that UK pay TV channel Sky1 has greenlit a TV adaptation of Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novel The Last Dragonslayer.
Set in a world where the power of magic is being eroded by technology, it centres on a teenage girl who finds herself mixed up in a prophecy about the death of the last dragon.
The project is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it underlines the continued interest in fantasy projects – The Magicians, Shannara, Game of Thrones and American Gods being a few others – and secondly, because it is reported to be a two-hour single as opposed to an event or returning series.
A few executives in the drama business are starting to support the idea of shorter-run productions because of the sheer volume of scripted content now on the market. Although the received wisdom is that singles are harder to promote than series and offer fewer long-term return, there’s no real point spending tens of millions of dollars on a series that is going to fail because viewers can’t be bothered investing eight or 10 hours of their lives in it. It will be interesting to see if there is now a renaissance in the TV movie format.
Another of this week’s major scripted TV stories is that Sony-owned on-demand service Crackle has commissioned its second original drama series. Following up on The Art of More, starring Dennis Quaid, Crackle has now greenlit a project called Start Up.
Set in Miami and starring Martin Freeman (Fargo, Sherlock, The Hobbit), Start Up explores what happens when a brilliant but controversial tech idea gets incubated with dirty money. The message seems to be that Crackle is mainly interested in backing high-concept thrillers with proven theatrical talent attached.
There are a couple of stories with a Canadian flavour this week. In the first, Canadian broadcaster Global TV has ordered an original drama after partnering with producer/distributor Entertainment One. Called Mary Kills People, the six-parter has been created and written by Tara Armstrong and is set in the world of assisted suicide. It tells the story of a nurse who helps people with terminal illnesses.
The other project is a production partnership between Macmillan Publishers’ in-house film and TV unit and Toronto-based Wildhorse Studios. This one will see the two partners collaborate on a TV adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer novel Shadows on the Hudson. Written in 1957, the book tells the story of Jewish exiles in New York City just after the Second World War and just before the creation of the state of Israel. It was first published in serial form by a Yiddish newspaper called The Forward.
As previous DQ columns have demonstrated, the US TV market offers an almost constant pipeline of new scripted shows. However, this time of year is especially prolific because it is when the major networks greenlight shows from paper to pilot. Like baby turtles heading for the ocean, there will be lots of casualties before we finally see full series being commissioned. But pilot season is a useful indication of the way networks are thinking.
This week, for example, ABC ordered two new legal-themed drama pilot (no real surprise given that one of its biggest hits at present is legally themed show How To Get Away With Murder – congratulations, by the way, to Viola Davis for her latest SAG Awards success). The first of the two pilots is Notorious. Created by Josh Berman and Allie Hagan, the story follows the relationship between “a charismatic attorney and a powerhouse television producer as they attempt to control the media, the justice system, and ultimately, each other.”
The second is the aptly named Conviction, which comes from The Mark Gordon Co, the firm behind ABC political thriller Quantico. This one focuses on the prodigal daughter of a former president who is blackmailed into taking a job at LA’s ‘Conviction Integrity Unit.’ Here, her job is to investigate cases where there’s reasonable suspicion the wrong person may have been convicted of a crime.
The CW, which is the US market’s fifth broadcast network, has also announced a bunch of new pilots including comic-based project Riverdale, Transylvania and an untitled Mars project. These new projects join a previously announced paranormal drama called Frequency from Kevin Williamson, which is a reboot of the 2000 time travel movie of the same name but with a female lead.
Transylvania continues the trend towards fantasy Victoriana (with examples including Penny Dreadful, The Frankenstein Chronicles, Ripper Street, Dickensian and Jekyll & Hyde). Set in the 1880s, it tells the story of a young woman looking for her missing father who goes to Transylvania and she teams up with a wrongfully disgraced Detective. Once there, the duo encounter the usual suspects.
The Mars project is not actually new, having first been talked about in 2013 when it was called Colony. A reimagining of the 400-year-old Roanoke ‘Lost Colony’ mystery, it follows a team of explorers who arrive on Mars to join the first human colony, only to discover that it has vanished. The show is not the only Mars project in the market, with Syfy currently making Red Mars, based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning science fiction series.
In the UK, meanwhile, the Radio Times quotes director Peter Kosminsky saying there will be a second season of Wolf Hall – but it’s not possible yet to say when. According to Kosminsky, nothing can happen until author Hilary Mantel finishes the novel upon which the sequel will be based. Then it needs to be adapted for the screen and slotted into the busy schedules of actors Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis. “She [Mantel] has still got at least a year of writing on the novel,” says Kosminsky, “and we have to get it adapted, which will take quite a while because it’s probably going to be quite a thick book. It’s not going to be any time soon I’m afraid. Two years down the road I would think, probably.”
Usually when we talk about greenlights, it’s six to 12 months before a show actually appears. But US comedian Louis CK surprised us all this week by releasing a new series on his website without any advanced warning. Entitled Horace and Pete, it stars Louis CK, Steve Buscemi and Alan Alda in what is being described as a black comedy version of Cheers. The 67-minutes show revolves around an Irish bar and the people who work there and frequent it.
Given the quality of the talent involved it will be interesting to see how it is received and whether it encourages other creatives to drop surprise series via the internet. (Actually, there is something vaguely similar here to the recent story about JJ Abrams making a Cloverfield sequel without telling anyone.)
Finally, on the distribution front, Australian streaming service Stan has become the exclusive home of Showtime’s brand and programming, echoing a similar deal with Sky in Europe.
Fox’s reboot of The X-Files has, as expected, delivered superb ratings. The first episode of the show, which aired after an important NFL game last Sunday, attracted a massive 16.2 million viewers. Episode two, on Monday, fell to 9.2 million. But this is still a strong result that put CBS rival Supergirl in the shade.
In addition to its own high ratings, The X-Files also provided a great launchpad for Lucifer, a brand new Fox show that aired straight afterwards on Monday. Based on the somewhat bizarre notion that the Devil comes up from hell to help LA cops solve crimes, Lucifer attracted a healthy 7.15 million viewers and also achieved a pretty impressive 8.7 rating on IMDb.
With critics reporting that the next few episodes of The X-Files are strong, the show is likely to hold its ratings pretty well. However, the big issue with the show is that there are only six episodes.
Reports suggest that, having seen the early ratings, Fox would like to renew the show. Whether that happens will depend on the schedules of stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. However, it’s hard to believe they won’t squeeze in six more if Fox opens its chequebook wide enough.
Aside from its importance on home turf, the show is also a key asset for the Fox family internationally. It was aired day-and-date across 60 territories on Fox platforms and was also picked up by Channel 5 in the UK and Network Ten in Australia – all of which is another good reason for Fox to pull out all the stops to secure a second season.
Still in the US, episode two of Showtime’s Billions dropped about 30% compared with its debut episode, down from 1.44 million to 950,000 (overnights). That still compares pretty favourably with other Showtime titles and was enough to convince the network to renew the show. It’s part of a portfolio of scripted series that also includes Homeland, The Affair and Ray Donovan.
As we’ve mentioned in previous columns, lack of ratings data means it’s pretty hard to know whether a Netflix show is a hit or a miss until it’s cancelled or renewed. However, the fact that Kevin Spacey vehicle House of Cards has just been renewed for a fifth season, before the fourth has even begun, means it’s obviously working pretty well for the SVoD platform.
That said, it is moving into more challenging territory. There was a feeling among critics that season three suffered from story fatigue. With Spacey’s character Frank Underwood and his Lady Macbeth-like wife Claire (played by the excellent Robin Wright) having achieved their goals, this line of argument concluded that the concept had gone about as far as it could go.
This may explain why the renewal announcement was accompanied by the news that House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon will not return for season five.
There’s no questioning the superb job Willimon has done so far, but in terms of keeping up the show’s (and his own) creative energy, it’s probably a smart move. Willimon appeared to acknowledge this when he said: “After five years, it’s time for me to move on to new endeavours, but I’m supremely proud of what we’ve built together, wish the show much continued success and leave it in the hands of a very capable team.”
Of course, the question now is who will pick up the showrunner mantle – and whether they will be able to sustain the high standards Willimon has established during his tenure. Season four of House of Cards debuts on March 4.
There is so much noise around the closing stages of the NFL season at the start of the year in the US that it is easy to overlook some of the new show debuts on cable. But a bit of digging around shows that Syfy channel has had a pretty good start with its fantasy series The Magicians, based on the book by Lev Grossman.
The first episode aired just before Christmas and achieved a decent 920,000-strong audience. Then the second episode, aired this Monday, posted a healthy 21% rise to 1.11 million. The critical response has been muted, but those figures mean The Magicians is the channel’s highest-rating show, and – barring some kind of calamity – a pretty strong contender for renewal.
MTV’s fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles is hitting similar numbers. Although it had one under-performing episode in mid-January, it’s generally pulling in just over one million viewers per episode. This isn’t as good as long-running stalwart Teen Wolf but it is better than the recent revival of Scream, which has already been renewed. Again, this points towards renewal.
Finally, there’s a lot of talk in the market at the moment about the lack of drama procedurals. But one that has been doing great business for most of this decade is CBS police series Blue Bloods. For the first five seasons (2010-2014), the show regularly pulled in 12.5-13 million viewers.
It’s a bit down this year but it’s still doing a good job anchoring CBS’s schedule. It’s also a decent performer internationally. In January, it returned to Sky Atlantic in the UK, where it is rock solid at around the 375,000 mark. By contrast, Scandi-based drama 100 Code debuted on the same channel to 315,000 viewers, but dropped to 184,000 for episode two.
More worrying for CBS is slippage on its new show Limitless, based on the film of the same name. After the series started with around 9.8 million viewers, episode 13 hit a season low of 6.3 million, with the all-important 18-49 demo also in decline. There are nine more episodes in season one, so CBS will want to see a bit of a pickup in performance before it is tempted to renew the show.
Just as the traditional TV business was winding down for the holiday season, the industry’s SVoD giants unveiled plans for a slate of new scripted shows.
Netflix, for example, is planning a new series called Mindhunter with director David Fincher. Based on the 1996 book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, the series will be Fincher’s follow-up to House of Cards, the political series that put Netflix drama on the map.
House of Cards, meanwhile, will return for a fourth season on March 4.
Online rival Amazon also had big news concerning its origination plans. On the eve of the holiday season, it announced it was taking five primetime pilots to series – two one-hour dramas and three half-hour comedies.
The first of the new dramas is Good Girls Revolt, which follows a group of young female researchers working in a 1960s newsroom. A coproduction with TriStar Television, the show was inspired by Lynn Povich’s book The Good Girls Revolt and is written by Dana Calvo (Made in Jersey).
The second of Amazon’s greenlit dramas is political thriller Patriot, which follows the adventures of intelligence officer John Tavner. Assigned with preventing Iran from going nuclear, Tavner assumes a perilous ‘non-official cover’ – that of a mid-level employee at an industrial piping firm. Patriot is being written and directed by Steven Conrad (known for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).
In addition to its new commissions, Amazon also confirmed its renewal of a number of existing shows. These include the drama series Hand of God and The Man in the High Castle. According to Amazon, the latter (written by Frank Spotnitz) is the platform’s most-streamed original show yet.
All of this comes in addition to other Amazon projects such as a new series of crime drama Bosch and a previously announced David E Kelley drama called Trial, starring Billy Bob Thornton. In total, this means Amazon is doubling its slate of original primetime comedies and dramas from six to 12 as it begins 2016. On top of this, the streamer is also ratcheting up its commitment to children’s series.
Outside these SVoD announcements, the holiday season has been quiet in terms of greenlights. However, there have been a few announcements of interest.
Among these is the news that US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of space drama The Expanse. Based on a bestselling book series, the show is set 200 years in the future and follows the case of a missing young woman that brings a detective and a rogue ship’s captain together in a race across the solar system that will expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.
The show has been getting solid but not spectacular ratings, attracting 1.6 million viewers per episode in live+3 ratings. However, Syfy clearly sees something worth supporting because it will also increase the number of episodes from 10 in season one to 13 in season two.
“The Expanse is firing on all cylinders creatively, building a passionate fanbase among viewers and critics alike, and delivering on Syfy’s promise of smart, provocative science-fiction entertainment,” said Dave Howe, president of Syfy and Chiller.
Still in the US, cable channel TNT has renewed its fantasy adventure The Librarians (a spin-off from the TV movie franchise of the same name) and crime dramas Murder In The First and Major Crimes. These will go into the 2016 line-up alongside previously renewed shows Rizzoli & Isles and The Last Ship and new arrivals Good Behavior, Animal Kingdom and The Alienist. The slate is designed to help TNT rebrand itself as an edgier network.
In the UK, public broadcaster BBC1 has announced a second season of Ordinary Lies, a Red Production Company drama that centres on a group of characters harbouring secrets. According to the BBC, the new series will centre on a different scenario and set of characters – reinforcing the current trend towards anthology series.
While the first season was set in a car showroom, the second will be based in the “HQ of a large, national sports goods company with an array of new, compelling and clandestine characters.” Season one performed well, bringing in an audience of around six million.
In other BBC news, the corporation has given a second season to Carnival’s historical drama The Last Kingdom but has cancelled cop show Cuffs after one season. The eight-part production attracted an audience of just over three million, which is not really strong enough to justify a renewal.
A BBC spokesman said: “We are very proud of Cuffs and would like to thank all those involved, but in order to create space for new shows and to keep increasing the range of BBC1 drama, the show will not be returning for a second season.” Almost exactly the same words were used to justify the axing of Atlantis and Our Zoo.
One of the more unusual media stories of the last few weeks was the news that Sky Arts in the UK is to make a one-off drama about a weird and wonderful road trip that pop icon Michael Jackson took with actors Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in 2011. Entitled Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon, the show is being produced by Little Rock Pictures and will reportedly star Joseph Fiennes as Jackson, Stockard Channing as Taylor and Brian Cox as Brando.
The decision to cast a white actor (Fiennes) as a black icon (Jackson) is an unusual one – so it will be interesting to see what kind of reception his performance gets. It comes at a time when the British TV industry is receiving regular criticism for its failure to support ethnic minority talent in front of and behind the camera.
In Canada, commercial broadcaster CTV has announced that there will be a fifth season of its popular supernatural medical drama Saving Hope. The show also airs on US cable channel Ion Television and Australian entertainment channel SoHo.
Also on the distribution front, Japan’s Wowow has acquired exclusive broadcast rights to NBC series Blindspot from Warner Bros International Television Distribution. Other recent Wowow series acquisitions from the US include The Player and Zoo.
NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment content boss Jeff Wachtel tells DQ that his channels are delving into new genres and production approaches as they seek to stand out from the crowd.
As the competition for viewers continues to heat up among US cable networks, broadcasters are facing a choice. Do they go back to their roots with the niche genre programming they once stood for, or do they break new boundaries in search of the dramatic storytelling that will make a buzz around the water cooler and on social media?
As chief content officer of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, Jeff Wachtel (pictured above) helps to develop new series for networks that are heading down both roads.
NBCU’s cable portfolio includes Syfy, USA Network and Bravo, among others, with USA perhaps the best example of a channel going beyond what people thought it could offer with a show that became the talk of the summer.
Home to Royal Pains, Graceland and Covert Affairs, USA made viewers sit up and take notice with Mr Robot, a thriller created by Sam Esmail about a young programmer who works as a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. Season two will air in 2016.
“Mr Robot is a great example of a successful network looking to regenerate and find things outside its perceived brand, not wanting to live in the past and creating a new future.” says Wachtel. “Most people were surprised Mr Robot was a show on USA. We were really happy about it and it has helped USA attract people who might not previously have come to the network, as now they see a network that’s trying new things.
“We were lucky that it’s been very successful, but even if it wasn’t, it would have been a great effort because it was from a brilliant writer/director, it was phenomenal material and it was really something worth trying. It’s a happy accident of success when an audience and critics come.”
USA sits in contrast to Syfy, with the latter rediscovering its roots in the science-fiction genre via series including Defiance and feature-film adaptation 12 Monkeys.
“Syfy is making a major play towards classic material and shows that reflect the best of the genre,” says Wachtel. “We just adapted Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke’s seminal work. It was written in 1953, the first time a work of fiction envisioned an alien invasion where space ships would be stationed over major metropolitan areas around the globe to take over the world.
“We also have a great show called 12 Monkeys – a reimagining of Terry Gilliam’s cool and trippy movie – and two smart young writers (Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett) figured out how to recreate that as an ongoing series.
“So on one side you have USA, which is stretching past what anybody thought of that blue-sky network, and on the other you have Syfy looking to reclaim its primacy as the number-one venue for that genre.”
Then there’s Bravo, the network known for reality fare such as its Real Housewives franchise, which has now stepped out into scripted drama for the first time with Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. The series, based on the Girlfriends’ Guides books by Vicki Iovine and developed for television by Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, UnREAL), follows a self-help author who finds support in new friends and adventures as she goes through a divorce. Season two premiered on December 1.
“That’s a network that’s saying you know us for one thing, we are more expansive and we are going to reach out and do other stuff,” Wachtel says of Bravo. “That’s happening everywhere; networks are trying to establish themselves or show they can reach past the expected.”
Wachtel, who has a joint role as president of NBCU studio Universal Cable Productions, also identifies a trend that places the success of a long-running show ahead of its immediate impact on linear television. Instead of an instant advertising win, he says broadcasters are now looking at series that can sit in their library and continue to generate revenue long after they have left traditional television schedules.
“They’re also more flexible in the way they look at financing and we’re being a lot more creative in terms of windowing, coproductions and general financing,” he adds. “We’re also looking at whether it makes more sense creatively and financially to go straight to series on some projects because then we can offer it at a lower cost point. Even the word ‘network’ has changed. Twenty years ago it meant four places; now it means 40 or 50. As a supplier, one has a much wider field but each individual place has its own challenges.”
The straight-to-series model has become more common in recent years as networks breaking into original drama bypass the traditional pilot process still largely enforced by the major broadcast networks. Wachtel’s own preference is for pilots, with recent examples including Mr Robot and Syfy’s Magicians – “a grown-up Harry Potter” that will debut on January 25, 2016.
“I like doing pilots. I think you learn a lot and there’s not the commercial pressure of satisfying an external audience – you’re really just trying to get it right,” Wachtel says. That’s not to say he hasn’t ever gone straight-to-series, citing Syfy’s forthcoming series Hunters as an example. It’s also due in 2016.
“Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead) is the executive producer and Natalie Chaidez (12 Monkeys) is the writer. Syfy was looking at its resources and didn’t quite have the budget to order Hunters as a pilot and then as a series at their traditional licence fee. I sat with (Syfy president) Dave Howe and (executive VP of original content) Bill McGoldrick and said, ‘Do you love the show?’ They said, ‘Yes we love the show, we just don’t have the money in the budget to make it right now.’
“In the case of Hunters, it’s Homeland with aliens – it’s about a man whose wife goes missing; he doesn’t know if she’s dead, has abandoned him or is one of them. We asked ourselves, ‘If we do more of a psychological thriller with fewer big and expensive action sequences, is there a way to conceive this going straight to series with a lower price point?’”
It was a risk – but one Syfy was willing to take. “We’re figuring things out as we go along,” Wachtel adds. “We don’t have the grace period after a pilot where you concede some things, maybe cast some new people. We’re locked in and rolling, but it’s a great opportunity to do a series we would not have otherwise been able to do. It’s about being flexible.”
Another series in development under UCP’s new financing model is The Wilding, which will begin life as a two-hour backdoor-pilot for a potential season order on USA Network. Starring Jordana Spiro and executive produced by Tim Kring (Heroes), it follows a group of disparate people who realise they belong to a subset of people with supersensory abilities – Wildings.
Ultimately, networks are being forced to honour their existing audience while trying to attract new viewers. But being pushed out of your comfort zone is a good thing, Wachtel argues, because the alternative means becoming too formulaic.
“Mr Robot was a big risk,” he says. “It wasn’t the only pilot we were shooting and it wasn’t the only risk we’ve taken. The thing about the USA experience when I was head of programming and co-president is that we kept doing things we thought were pushing the boundaries for our network. I remember being criticised for doing Monk on the network that does Walker, Texas Ranger reruns.
“When we did Burn Notice, our central character was very edgy. It wasn’t like anything we’d done at that point. When we did Suits, I wondered whether we should enter this world of moral ambiguity. But it was fun and there was something winning about the characters and dialogue. We were surprised no one from outside thought it was risky; everyone said, ‘Here’s another hit show from USA.’ I wondered what we had to do to really shake things up. Mr Robot was absolutely a step outside the comfort zone and the network was very brave to take that step.”
The changing financial structure of US series means Wachtel is also keeping an eye on the international market. He says some of the first original series produced for US cable were made with the global market in mind – dramas including Psych, Royal Pains and Covert Affairs – and he now wants new partners to join him in the development process.
“The notion of coproduction has been complicated. There have been a few recent examples that worked very well, Hannibal being one, but more and more smart people are finding ways to do it,” he notes.
“It’s an openness to new ideas that you would never previously have considered. Who’d have done a show about the Salem witch trials or Vikings until recently? Right now, USA is shooting a big, wonderful pilot called Paradise Pictures, which is about 1940s Hollywood. We would never have thought to do that 10 years ago but the market is open enough right now that you can reach for those unexpected shows, and that also creates an opportunity to find new partners.”
Anyone in the TV drama business will know just how hard it is to keep up with all the new scripted titles coming onto the global market. In my case, it took me until season four to find Breaking Bad and season three to start watching Downton Abbey – and even then I fell asleep during the first episode and didn’t start watching again for a few months.
I was a year late discovering Happy Valley and have yet to get past episode one of True Detective. And I’m a person who only watches drama, movies and Arsenal FC.
At C21 Media’s International Drama Summit last week, I learnt there is another show I have been missing out on – HBO’s The Leftovers.
Browsing through DQ’s pre-event coverage of the summit, I was struck by just how many TV executives singled it out as one of their top scripted series of the year. This echoes Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan, who recently said: “The best surprise of 2015 might be how good, actually, how great, The Leftovers has become.”
For those in the same boat as me, The Leftovers is based on a bestselling novel by Tom Perrotta. The series takes place three years after a global event called the ‘Sudden Departure,’ during which 140 million people (2% of the world’s population) inexplicably disappear. As a result, a number of religious cults spring up, the most prominent of which is called the Guilty Remnant.
Perrotta is also co-creator of the series, though a lot of the writing is done by Damon Lindelof, who is credited as a co-writer on every episode of the first two seasons except one. Prior to The Leftovers, Lindelof’s major TV credit was ABC’s iconic series Lost, which he co-created. Subsequently, he devoted more of his time to movies, writing the screenplays to Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Tomorrowland.
Season two of The Leftovers ended this week, and there has not yet been any word from HBO on whether it will be renewed. This is because, despite all the critical acclaim and a cult following, it hasn’t been rating very well.
Lindelof would like to do another season, but is realistic enough to realise that the show’s viewing figures might not allow that. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said: “Anybody who says to you that they don’t want more viewers is a much more confident individual than I am. I do subscribe to the idea that the more people watching the show, the better the show is. The more critical acclaim, the better the show is. I’m just not the person who’s like, ‘Hey, if I like it then f– all of y’all.’ Television in particular is a medium that is designed to go out to the masses, and I would like a lot of people (to watch my show).”
Another sci-fi writer in the news this week is J Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 and co-creator of Sense8. Straczynski has been handed the exciting role of adapting Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy of novels for US cable network Spike.
Robinson’s award-winning books, which were written between 1993 and 1996, tell the story of humanity’s colonisation of the red planet, starting with the early settlers. Adapted into 21 languages, the books have been acclaimed for their strong scientific foundation, which keeps the story rooted in some kind of reality.
Spike made its ambitions in scripted TV clear earlier this year when it aired Ancient Egypt miniseries Tut. But this is the first time in a decade it has greenlit a full series. With Straczynski at the helm as writer, executive producer and showrunner, it is the kind of project that could develop into an ongoing franchise.
“The heart and soul of Red Mars is about humanity,” said Spike executive VP of original series Sharon Levy. “This group of strangers must find a way to live together and survive under the most daunting conditions mankind has ever faced to become the first living generation of Martians. They will be each other’s greatest source of strength – and, if they can’t coexist, the reason for failure.”
Also on board is Skydance Television, whose president Marcy Ross added: “We are thrilled to join forces with Spike to bring Kim Stanley Robinson’s dynamic world of the Mars trilogy to television audiences for the first time ever, particularly in the brilliant creative voice of science-fiction legend J Michael Straczynski.”
Author Robinson will be a consultant on the new series, which goes into production next summer for a January 2017 debut.
Humanity’s battle for survival is a big theme in TV drama at present, which is probably the result of various background factors such as the unstable geopolitical environment, the fear of pandemics, the rapid rise of AI, the growing refugee crisis and the failure of countries to get to grips with climate change.
As well as the shows named above, we’ve seen Neil Cross secure a commission for Hard Sun while Syfy is just about to air Matthew Graham’s adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End (December 14-16).
Writer Regina Moriarty is also in the process of adapting Jane Rogers novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb as a three-parter. Developed with Carnival Films, Rogers’ novel imagines a near-future world in which a virus is killing pregnant mothers. Scientists fight to save the unborn children by placing the mothers in a chemically induced coma, but a breakthrough in immunising frozen embryos could hold the key to the human race’s survival.
The keen-eyed among you will have noted that three of the above projects are based on novels. Another novel adaptation breaking to the surface this week is Now You See Her, a legal drama based on a book by James Patterson. Ordered by CBS, the TV version will be written by Siobhan Byrne O’Connor, whose writing credits include Blue Bloods, Law & Order, Third Watch and Monk. Blue Bloods, also on CBS, has been running for six seasons.
Patterson is a popular source among TV networks. CBS thriller series Zoo is also based on his work, while there has been talk of USA Network adapting his Women’s Murder Club novels. Like movie-to-TV adaptations and TV series reboots, novel adaptations act as a comfort blanket for broadcasters that are nervous about the high-cost and risk attached in wholly original production.
As a footnote to this, it’s interesting to note that Syfy’s decision to greenlight Red Mars follows the breakout success of feature film The Martian, starring Matt Damon. The two projects are unrelated but there’s clearly some security to be had in backing subject matter than has already won itself an audience.