Building on the global trend for true crime dramas is En el Corredor de la Muerte (On Death Row), a Spanish drama based on the true story of a man falsely accused for murder and facing the death penalty in the US.
Miguel Ángel Silvestre (Sense8, Narcos) plays Pablo Ibar, who must fight to get a fair trial from the day a triple murder was committed to the day of final sentencing in 2019 when he could either be released or sent back to death row to be executed.
In this DQTV interview, Silvestre recalls hearing about the real-life case in Spain and why it was important the four-part miniseries dramatised the events objectively, leaving viewers to their own opinions about the death penalty.
He also talks about his approach to playing Ibar and how the production was committed to keeping the drama grounded and rooted in reality.
Based on the book by Nacho Carretero (Fariña, aka Cocaïne Coast), On Death Row is produced by Bambu Producciones for Movistar+ and distributed by StudioCanal.
Without much noise or fanfare, Spain has been steadily building a reputation as one of the hottest producers of scripted drama, with homegrown series finding fans around the world. DQ takes an in-depth look at the wave of new series coming out of the country.
Spanish drama may not attract as much attention as Nordic noir or the ‘Korean wave,’ but there’s no question the country’s scripted series are now enjoying decent levels of profile around the world. And with significant increases in content investment from free-to-air (FTA) channels, pay TV and SVoD platforms, Spain’s storytellers are poised to deliver a new wave of diverse and ambitious shows to the international market.
One of the first firms to identify the potential of Spanish drama was German distributor Beta Film, which was responsible for the international roll-outs of Gran Hotel and Velvet, two exquisite period pieces produced by Bambú Producciones for FTA network Antena 3.
According to Beta Film executive VP for acquisitions and sales Christian Gockel, the success of the Bambú/Antena 3 partnership convinced his company to board two new productions from the same stable: Morocco – Love in Times of War and Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic. “They have raised the bar yet again by taking the unique blend of romance and drama we know so well from Velvet,” he says.
Morocco, says Gockel, is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops. Farinia, meanwhile, “centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.”
Farinia is a good indicator of how Antena 3 – the dominant force in FTA drama – has diversified its slate in recent times. The channel also launched Vis a Vis (pictured above), a female-prison drama produced by Mediapro drama label Globomedia. Distributed by Mediapro sales arm Imagina under the title Locked Up, that show broke into the English-speaking market, airing on Channel 4 in the UK and on foreign-language SVoD service Walter Presents.
Walter Presents also picked up fellow Antena 3/Globomedia drama Pulsaciones (Lifeline). The psychological thriller is about a surgeon who unravels a medical scandal after suffering a heart attack and having strange nightmares when he receives a donor heart. “Last year, Locked Up exploded onto the international scene, heralding a renaissance in Spanish scripted excellence,” says Walter Presents curator Walter Iuzzolino. “This year they’ve done it again. Lifeline is a thriller with shock narrative twists and epic cliffhanger endings.”
The growing appeal of Antena 3-commissioned drama to the global market is further underlined by a deal that will see Netflix air miniseries The Cathedral of the Sea around the world. Based on Ildefonso Falcones’ bestselling novel and produced by leading Spanish prodco Diagonal, the story takes place in 14th century Barcelona during the Inquisition.
Explaining his remit, Antena 3 senior VP for drama Nacho Manubens says: “Although we produce sporadically for our other channels [laSexta, Neox], we mainly focus on Antena 3. We commission more than 600 hours of TV per year, with 120 primetime hours and 500 daytime hours. We have a range of genres, since our audiences demand variety and innovation. In thrillers we have had hits with Bajo Sospecha, Mar De Plastico and Vis a Vis. In period dramas we have had El Tiempo Entre Costuras and Velvet. These are both lines we will continue exploring.”
Antena 3 has developed a reputation for edgy shows – something Manubens wants to maintain. “We cannot take risks in every show we produce, but we try to keep making shows that push the envelope like we did with Casa De Papel [aka The Money Heist, the latest show from Via a Vis creator Alex Pina].”
Public broadcaster RTVE and Mediaset Espana, owner of commercial networks TeleCinco and Cuatro, have also upped their scripted game. For RTVE, key titles have been El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time) and Isabel, produced by Onza Partners/Cliffhanger and Diagonal respectively. Isabel, one of several royal-themed shows on the market, ran for three seasons and travelled well internationally. Buoyed by its success, RTVE also made a foray into English-language drama with Reinas (Queens), about the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I.
Mediaset España, meanwhile, had a hit with Sé Quién Eres (I Know Who You Are), a Filmax production about a charismatic university lecturer’s possible involvement in his niece’s murder. The show was bought by several networks, including the influential BBC4 – its first Spanish acquisition – with head of BBC programme acquisitions Sue Deeks calling it “the dramatic equivalent of a page-turning thriller.” Mediaset España’s increased investment in event series has also seen it back Forgive Me God, an eight-part miniseries about a nun battling delinquency and the drug trade.
Alongside the increased ambition among FTA channels, there are also new opportunities in the pay TV and SVoD arenas, according to Pilar Blasco, MD of Endemol Shine Iberia, a division that includes Diagonal. “Spain has always been a strong market for local original scripted programming and this has enabled us to build an industry of creative writers, showrunners and directors,” she says. “The big game-changer, however, has been increased commissioning of Spanish productions from the likes of Movistar+, Netflix, HBO and Amazon. As a result, the Spanish drama industry is flourishing with higher budgets that tell more daring stories from a broader range of genres.”
The most high-profile example of Blasco’s point is Telefónica’s decision to invest €70m (US$84m) a year in scripted series for its pay TV platform Movistar+. According to Domingo Corral, head of original programming at Movistar+, the plan is to launch 11 original series a year, initially for SVoD customers. The emphasis will be on “Spanish-language series dealing with Spanish stories created by Spanish talent,” he says.
Titles include La Zona, a story set in northern Spain four years after a nuclear accident. Also coming soon is La Peste, set in 16th century Sevilla against the backdrop of a plague. Movistar+ has also done a deal with Bambú for a spin-off from Madrid fashion-store series Velvet, which ended on Antena 3 after four seasons. The new series, Velvet Collection, will take the story forward to the 1960s and relocate to Barcelona.
At first sight, Corral’s insistence on super-charged Spanish series seems like it will limit their international appeal. But he takes the view that “great storytelling and characters have universal appeal.” Besides, he adds, Movistar+ series will have 50-minute episodes, rather than the 70 minutes typical to Spain. This will make them a better fit for the global market. Also, Movistar+ has spared no expense on talent, pulling in writers and directors from the country’s admired cinema scene.
Beta Film is continuing its relationship with the Velvet franchise and is also distributing La Zona, says Gockel. “We believe La Zona is one of the most exciting shows coming from Spain this year. It’s an innovative eco-crime thriller with a high budget that will catch viewers around the globe.”
About Premium Content has picked up rights to eight-part mob thriller Gigantes, while Sky Vision has secured global rights to La Peste, which is budgeted at €10m for six episodes. Sky Vision MD Jane Millichip gives an upbeat assessment of Movistar+’s shows: “With La Peste, they have assembled an incredible team with a proven track record. The partnership of Alberto Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos has delivered a deeply engaging story that delivers a thriller of scale, a pungent sense of the past and a modernity that will satisfy audiences.”
Movistar+’s investment in drama is especially timely given the growing competition. In April, Netflix launched Las Chicas del Cable, another sumptuous period piece from the Bambú stable that tells the story of four young women working for Spain’s national telephone company in the 1920s.
Also muscling in on the Spanish market is Fox Networks Group (FNG), which has just done a deal with Mediapro’s Globomedia that will see future series of Via a Vis air on its pay TV networks, rather than on broadcaster Antena 3. This is Fox’s first foray into original scripted series, with Vera Pereira, exec VP of FNG Iberia, saying it “will give us greater visibility and relevance in the market.”
Success in scripted formats is also contributing to Spain’s creative revival, with Star-Crossed (The CW), Red Band Society (Fox) and The Mysteries of Laura (NBC) all reimagined for the US market. Televisa USA is also teaming with Lantica Media to produce an English-language Gran Hotel, while Lionsgate has been linked to a US adaptation of Bambú’s Velvet.
The final dimension to the Spanish market’s new dynamism relates to the ambition of the producers. Bambú is part of StudioCanal and has coproduced time-travel drama Refugiados (Refugees) with BBC Worldwide. Diagonal, meanwhile, sees projects like The Cathedral of the Sea as a new phase. “It is a huge leap for the company as it moves into international coproductions,” observes Blasco. “It’s an ambitious project that would never have been commissioned without the support of Netflix.”
Another leading Spanish producer, DLO, recently became part of the Banijay network and has also picked up a commission from Movistar+ — a series based on Julia Navarro’s best-selling historical novel Dime Quien Soy. In a similar vein, Lagardère Active-owned producer Boomerang is well-known for El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time in Between), a 2013 hit for Antena 3 that went on to sell into 75 territories. Now the company has identified Latin America as a key expansion opportunity and is working on a brace of series for broadcasters in Chile. Bambú is also building its profile in Latin America, via a development deal with Televisa in Mexico.
Mediapro is also involved in an eclectic mix of domestic and international series. It coproduced English-language drama The Young Pope and is working on Paradise, a Finnish-Spanish copro that takes place in a Spanish village on the Costa del Sol with a large Finnish community. Other projects include The Head, a copro with Sweden’s Dramacorp in which 10 scientists, trapped in a laboratory at the South Pole, realise one is a killer. “We are also working with DirecTV Latin America on El Fútbol no es Así, a crime series set in the world of Spanish football,” says Mediapro head of content Javier Mendez.
While Mendez welcomes the influx of pay TV drama funding, he says a key opportunity for Mediapro is the international market – especially in light of the fact it has a distribution arm, Imagina. “Series like Narcos show it is possible to find great stories that have the ability to travel all over the world,” he explains. “Increasingly, our strategy is to back good stories regardless of where they come from, because there is a huge appetite for drama around the world.”
The creative team behind the period drama dubbed the ‘Spanish Downton Abbey’ turn their attention to politics and corruption in The Embassy. Michael Pickard speaks to producers Ramón Campos Sáez and Teresa Fernández-Valdés.
Since Bambú Producciones launched in 2007, the Madrid-based production company has made its name with a string of hits in Spain and around the world.
The firm has played in a variety of genres, from detective series Guate Blanco (Cat Burglar), thriller Gran Reserva (Vintage) and Roman era-set historical adventure Hispania to melodrama Velvet and high-society series Seis Hermanas (Six Sisters).
But it was period drama Gran Hotel, dubbed the “Spanish Downton Abbey,” that became a worldwide success and put Bambú, led by Ramón Campos Sáez and Teresa Fernández-Valdés, on the creative map.
In their latest series, La Embajada (The Embassy), they explore politics and corruption, following the new Spanish ambassador to Thailand as he navigates the chaos and deceit of life at the embassy and the subsequent implosion of his family life while fighting to hold on to his integrity and morals.
The series, which airs on Spain’s Antena 3, has a cast headed by Belen Rueda, Abel Folk, Ursula Corbero, Tristán Ulloa, Megan Montaner and Carlos Bardem.
“We wanted to talk about corruption in Spain so we started speaking with (Antena 3 owner) Atresmedia about how to mix romance and corruption,” Campos says. “They wanted a contemporary series and we thought that if we wanted a very glamorous series with pretty costumes, we needed a special place. So we took the show to Thailand – diplomatic people can be corrupt but are also very elegant. Adding in some romance, we started to create the series.”
Fernàndez-Valdés continues: “With this series, we have the chance to speak about politics and corruption. It’s a political thriller because something happened with the last ambassador so the new ambassador starts investigating and crosses the line to find the dark world within the embassy in Thailand. In our embassy, the corruption is from the Spanish people who live in Thailand and the ambassador.”
The series opens with a convoy of Spanish police cars approaching the embassy, where officers proceed to arrest ambassador Luis Salinas (Folk) on charges including bribery and money laundering just a year after he took up his post in Bangkok.
As the court case opens against Salinas, viewers are taken back to the day his wife (Rueda) joined him in Thailand as the story plays out using a series of flashbacks to reveal the events leading to the ambassador’s arrest.
“The story starts when the judge asks how everything happened. Then we go back one year to see how it happened,” Fernàndez-Valdés says. “But sometimes in the middle of an episode, we jump back to the trial and hear from the witnesses. The ambassador was the person who was supposed to clean up the embassy, but you can see in the first episode that things didn’t go to plan. So you must discover what happened. If he came to clean things up, how did he end up in jail?”
Flashbacks aren’t a common storytelling mechanism in Spanish television but Campos, who co-created the story with Bambú development manager Gema Rodríguez Neira, says he is keen to take new risks with storytelling.
“Flashbacks aren’t very popular,” he says. “They are new to audiences but we write very simply. We know our audience; we know that if the story is too complicated, the audience will go.”
Fernàndez-Valdés adds: “It’s a little risk and in Spain we have to change fiction step by step otherwise you lose your audience. In this case, the flashbacks give the series something original. We don’t have any shows talking about corruption and politics but we are trying to do something that everyone can understand and follow, so it’s also about a family.”
Bambú used news archives as part of its research for The Embassy, though attempts to visit a real Spanish embassy were shut down. “We had a date with the London embassy but at the last minute they cancelled because the Spanish government told them nobody should collaborate with our show,” Fernàndez-Valdés reveals.
The crew and cast then spent three weeks travelling around Thailand to film exterior shots of cities and beaches, while most of the production was completed in Spain, using green-screen technology to blend sets with Thai backdrops.
“We have experience with green-screen production but this is the most we have used it,” Fernàndez-Valdés notes. “For the actors, it’s difficult to imagine they are somewhere else but we are trying new things. The tone of the series is also new – Spanish programmes always have a strong love story but here the political story is more important.”
Campos adds: “It’s a mix of The Firm and The Affair. It’s a political thriller with very provocative and complicated relationships.”
The Embassy airs at a time when the Spanish television industry, much like the country as a whole, is recovering after its recent economic woes, while broadcasters are also facing new challenges posed by Netflix, which launched in the country in October 2015.
“We feel like the industry is getting better now,” Fernàndez-Valdés says. “The broadcasters are concerned that they must produce new series because of Netflix’s arrival, but budgets came down when we had the financial crisis in Spain and now they think we (producers) can make shows with less money, so it’s very difficult to get back to bigger budgets.”
Bambú, however, has embraced the arrival of Netflix and won the opportunity to produce the streaming site’s first original Spanish series. The as-yet-untitled drama follows four women who are hired as switchboard operators at the only telephone company in 1920s Spain. The series description says they have “come from all over Spain to work at the forefront of a communication revolution in the middle of Madrid – a place that represents progress and modernity, where jealousy, envy and betrayal get mixed up with a hunger for success, with friendship and love but, above all, with dreams.”
The 16-episode first season will begin production in Madrid this year and will debut on Netflix around the world in 2017.
Gran Hotel and Velvet were already available on Netflix and had been successful enough for Eric Barmack, the streamer’s VP of international originals, to contact Bambú last Christmas in the search for ideas for original series.
“We presented them with some ideas and we thought that if they liked Velvet and Grand Hotel, maybe they wanted similar series,” Fernàndez-Valdés explains. “We also presented one in development about these four girls in 1929 who work for the first telephone exchange in Spain. It’s a series about the relationship between the girls. (Barmack) very quickly said, ‘I love it.’”
After several meetings, the Bambú team thought their pitches had come to nothing – before Barmack contacted them to ask when they could deliver the first episode.
“It came very fast,” admits Fernàndez-Valdés. “In Spain it takes months to sign the contract. It’s the fastest deal we’ve ever done. We’re going to start shooting this summer.
“Netflix is going to push the commercial channels to make more effort. We are also only working for two channels in Spain because (public broadcaster) TVE doesn’t have a strong budget, so its developments are smaller. After that we have Atresmedia and Mediaset, but only Atresmedia is pushing fiction in Spain. Now we have Netflix.
“The message from Netflix is very clear. They want to conquer Spain but we need to give to them something new, something different. We are very proud to be producing the first Spanish series, but there’s a lot of responsibility!”
A large proportion of the international TV industry is attending the MipTV market in Cannes this week, buying and selling shows or doing scripted format deals. So it seems appropriate that the week’s top story should concern Fox US drama House, which has proved popular with broadcasters around the world over the years.
Usually sold in its completed form, this week has seen Fox license the Sherlock-esque medical drama to Non-Stop Production, which is remaking it for in Russia.
Anton Zlatopolskiy, first deputy director of the channel’s parent, Russia TV and Radio, said: “We considered the pros and cons before obtaining the format of such a famous series. It is quite a challenge to create our own version. Neither well-known producers or actors nor a big budget can guarantee success when it comes to a local version. But there are a couple of secret ingredients that make a series outstanding and we know how to make them work.”
Sticking with scripted formats, the drama department of Italian public broadcaster Rai, Rai Fiction, has ordered a second season of its remake of NBCUniversal International’s Parenthood. The 26×60’ second run, produced by Cattleya, will air on Rai Uno later in 2016. The US original ran for six seasons on NBC between 2010 to 2015, so there is scope for Rai’s version to run and run.
Another high-profile scripted format deal this week involves Dutch public broadcaster KRO-NCRV, which has greenlit an adaptation of acclaimed Turkish drama The End. The Dutch version of the show is being produced by Netherlands-based Column Film. Column producer Chantal van der Horst said: “The End has a solid base for adaptation. The cleverness of the scripts and the universal appeal of the storyline makes the series suitable for audiences across the world, including in Western Europe.”
The show was sold into the Netherlands by Scandinavia-based distributor Eccho Rights, which has previously licensed the format to several markets including the US, Russia and France. Commenting on the deal, Nicola Söderlund, managing partner at Eccho Rights, said: “Turkish drama continues to break boundaries and it’s great that a West European version will be hitting screens later on this year. (The show’s producer) Ay Yapim has created a gripping plot that translates well across cultures, which is reflected in the number and range of licences on The End.”
Other interesting greenlights this week include news that Amazon has ordered a third season of Red Arrow’s crime series Bosch. Based on the novels by Michael Connelly, Bosch stars Titus Welliver as streetwise LAPD detective Harry Bosch. Commenting on the renewal, Morgan Wandell, head of drama series at Amazon Studios, said: “Our customers can’t get enough of Harry Bosch. The entire cast and crew have done a fantastic job with season two and we can’t wait to see what they have in store for next season.”
Another big story out of the US is HBO’s decision to order a TV adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling debut novel Sharp Objects. The eight-episode series will star Amy Adams as a newspaper journalist trying to sort out her life following years of self-harm that landed her in a psychiatric hospital. However, her plan for a new life is derailed when she returns to her hometown and gets caught up in investigating the mysterious murder of two young girls.
The pilot for the TV adaptation is being written by Marti Noxon, who will also be showrunner. Noxon, the co-creator of Lifetime’s critically acclaimed drama UnREAL, will then share writing responsibilities on the series with Flynn, who previously adapted her own novel Gone Girl as a feature film. Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild) will direct.
Meanwhile, the SVoD giants are continuing their aggressive expansion around the world, part of which involves commissioning original local-language series. This week, it’s Netflix’s turn to grab the headlines – with its first original series from Spain.
Set in the 1920s, the show will look at the lives of four women who work as switchboard operators for the state-owned phone company’s central headquarters in Madrid. The series comes from the same stable that created international Spanish-language hits Velvet and Gran Hotel. This includes Roman Campos and Teresa Fernandez-Valdes from Bambú Producciones, director Carlos Sedes and writer Gema Neira, who often works with Campos.
Commenting on the commission, Erik Barmack, VP of international original series at Netflix, said: “We’re delighted to be working with Bambú Producciones, director Carlos Sedes and co-creator Gema Neira on our first original series filmed in Spain. We’re huge fans of their work on Gran Hotel and Velvet – epic romances that have been embraced by our members around the world. We’re certain our members will love this unique and engaging drama from some of the best storytellers in Spain.”
We’ve talked a lot in previous columns about the trend towards movie adaptations, book adaptations and reboots in US drama – all of which are about providing in-built awareness in new projects. But there’s another trend that is creeping into the business – namely the spin-off. We’ve seen examples in cable with Better Call Saul (from Breaking Bad) and Fear The Walking Dead (from The Walking Dead). And Disney-ABC has created numerous movies and TV series rooted in its Marvel universe. NBC is the latest to get in on the act. First came Chicago Justice, a spin-off from Chicago PD, and now NBC has announced plans for a spin-off from The Blacklist. There aren’t many details as yet but it’s an interesting new development that promises to further narrow the number of slots available to original ideas.
Finally, Turkey was country of honour at Mipcom 2015, an event that focused heavily the country’s prolific drama output, and the country doesn’t seem to have lost any momentum coming into MipTV 2016.
Aside from The End deal referred to above, The Fox Turkey drama That Is My Life has also been selling well – with ANTV (Hong Kong), Kanal 5 (Bulgaria), Telemundo (Hispanic US), Moby Group (Middle East), Puls TV (Poland), Kanal D (Romania) and MTG (Russia) all acquiring the Pastel Film-produced show.
Another Fox show, The Intersection, also has a high profile at the market as part of the Endemol Shine International catalogue. Coinciding with ESI’s marketing activity in Cannes, Fox also announced a second season for the series.
DQ looks at the latest dramas to incorporate time travel into their storylines, and asks those behind the programmes exactly how they tackle a plot device that so often lends itself to confusion and complications.
Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist whose life was the subject of recent award-winning movie The Theory of Everything, hasn’t ruled out time travel completely. But he’s pretty sceptical about our ability to travel back in time and change or participate in events that have already happened.
His doubts were summarised succinctly in his 1998 book A Brief History of Time, in which he asked, quite reasonably, “If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?”
Hawking’s concerns haven’t, however, stopped the TV business from dabbling in time travel. In recent years, a wide array of shows, ranging from hardcore science fiction to historical romance, have used time travel as a central narrative device.
A case in point is Hindsight – recently cancelled despite initially being handed a second season – the VH1 scripted series about a woman (Becca) who finds herself propelled back in time while wrestling with doubts on the eve of her second wedding.
But there are no wormholes, extra dimensions or warp drives in Hindsight, says show creator Emily Fox, who explains that Becca’s journey back to 1995 occurs when she passes out in an elevator shaft.
“We’re not trying to crack the code of time here, we’re telling a fairytale,” she explains. “Becca’s experience is something most people think about at some point – what if I had taken a different path or made a different decision at a certain moment in time?”
Of course, Becca’s attempts to change the past don’t work out as planned. “The dirty little secret of time travel is that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge,” says Fox. “Becca’s attempts to alter her future for the better inevitably go wrong.”
Fox says the writing team on the show deliberately didn’t get into a broad theoretical debate about time travel “because Hindsight isn’t that kind of show, and we sensed that our simple ‘what if?’ premise would become unwieldy.”
But there were the inevitable fan questions, “such as why doesn’t Becca make herself rich by investing in Apple shares? Again, the answer to that was that we were trying to tell a more intimate story about a character whose priority was not to get rich quick but to find an emotional resolution,” Fox adds.
Historically, there haven’t been many female time travellers in fiction. But it’s interesting to note that there are currently two on TV, the other being Claire Beauchamp Randall, the heroine of Starz drama Outlander, which is based on the book series by Diana Gabaldon.
Claire is a Second World War combat nurse on a trip to Scotland with her husband. While there, she touches a mystical stone and wakes up in 1743 – in the middle of a military skirmish between the British and the highlanders. She sides with the Scots and falls in love with one of them (Jamie).
Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says time travel is not used in a heavy-handed way during the first season (though it will be more prominent in season two), but adds that it does inform the relationship between Claire and Jamie. “It gives the relationship a different dynamic than if this was a traditional historical romance,” he says. “Claire has more independence than Jamie would expect from a woman of his own era.”
The fact that Claire is from the 1940s, not the present day, meant the production had to contend with two historical time periods, not one.
But like with Hindsight, a key theme of Outlander is whether the future can be altered or taken advantage of. Zlotnik adds: “At the end of season one, Claire and Jamie set off to try to stop the battle of Culloden, which she knows will end badly for the Scots. But she doesn’t know if there is a way for her to stop the Scots being decimated or if history is on some kind of autopilot.”
Interest in time-travel stories isn’t limited to the Anglo-American market. In the 2001 Mexican telenovela Aventuras En El Tiempo, central character Violeta discovers a time machine built by her grandfather that allows her to witness her own birth and her mother’s death.
In Korea, meanwhile, one of the top shows in the last couple of years has been Nine: Nine Times Time Travel, which aired on cable channel tvN in 2013. And like Hindsight and Outlander, the show explores concepts like the path not travelled, the unattainableness of perfect knowledge and the way in which actions have unintended consequences.
“Nine is a fantasy drama where Lee Jin-Wook, playing a TV anchor, gets his hands on nine doses of a mysterious potion that allows him to travel 20 years back in time nine times,” says Jangho Seo, head of international sales and acquisitions at distributor CJ E&M Corporation. “Each time he goes back, there are severe consequences for the present-day timeline.”
Although there are now a number of time-travel series on the Korean market, Nine was one of the first shows to see the potential of time travel in redefining the romance genre. Seo says: “The time-travel aspect was planned from the pre-production phase with a very clear purpose. The majority of Korean dramas focus on love stories and melodrama. As such, the main characters face dilemmas involving tangled relationships and disruptions from sub-characters. With Nine, we wanted the level of dilemma to reach its maximum.”
This approach is one reason the show has travelled so well, says Seo. To date, it has sold to 55 countries and has been picked up by a US prodco for development as a scripted pilot.
While all the above shows use time travel as device to tell relationship-based stories, it also continues to have a role to play in science-based action-adventure.
In ITV’s hit series Primeval (pictured top), for example, the idea of earthquakes in time, called ‘anomalies’ in the show, was developed so dangerous creatures from the past or future could accidentally travel through time, thus causing havoc wherever they went.
Tim Haines, creative director at ITV Studios and former creative director at Impossible Pictures, where he co-created and executive produced Primeval, says: “Time travel was a device to conflate creatures from different era. The anomalies were conceptually as simple as possible, so we did not need the audience to be excited about the process; it was more about the consequences of thrusting the fauna from a different time into the present and following the chaos.”
While time travel wasn’t intended as the core of Primeval’s concept, it did inevitably play its part in storytelling. In episode one, the central character Nick Cutter and his wife Helen stumble across the remains of an expedition that has been attacked by a monster, and then realise that the destroyed expedition is the one they are now on.
“The strongest time-travel storyline in Primeval was Cutter’s wife coming back to haunt him (after being presumed dead for eight years),” says Haines. “As for individual stories, the bigger the incursion, the trickier it was to make believable, because (the central characters) were trying to keep it secret. So being surrounded by terror birds in a wood shack worked well, but a T. rex in the city was less satisfying.”
Like his peers, Haines avoided dwelling too much on paradoxes caused by time travel. “We talked about this a lot at the beginning and end of the series. But as the series went on, time travel and paradoxes became less relevant, if occasionally necessary,” he says. “Our science was more biological, using anomalies to explain evolutionary and crypto-zoological mysteries. There was consistency and the fans did not mind, even though I am sure if you looked closely you would have found holes.”
One dynamic that sets Primeval apart from other time-travel shows is that it has characters coming back to the present from an imagined future. The future’s impact on the present is also the central theme in Refugadios (Refugees), a BBC Worldwide/Atresmedia coproduction that aired in Spain in May but has yet to arrive in the UK.
Made by Bambu Producciones, the central premise of Refugees is that three billion people from the future have travelled to the present to escape an imminent global disaster.
The scale of the refugee problem is framed through a few key establishing shots, but the story itself focuses on a small town. Explaining the show at Mipcom 2014, executive producer Ben Donald said: “We haven’t gone global with a story investigating the future, that’s just a premise that helps bring out secrets and hidden stories among the protagonists.”
This is a key point. Like most the other series in the genre, Refugees uses time travel as a device to tell a certain kind of human interest story – similar to series like Les Revenants (The Returned) and Äkta Människor (Real Humans).
Donald added: “Without being didactic, Refugees is about the global immigration debate, which makes the series feel incredibly relevant. Science fiction at its best can hold up a mirror to the world and act as a fantastic metaphor.”
This assessment is echoed by writer Howard Overman, who has used time travel in Dirk Gently, Atlantis and, most prominently, his acclaimed drama Misfits.
“Sci-fi works best when it speaks to the human emotions in us. It’s a very human thing to think about the mistakes we’ve made and wonder what it would be like to rectify them,” he says. “In Misfits, time travel allowed one of our central characters to compare who he is now to what he would become in the future. Showing characters who have something at stake is more interesting than if we’d just used time travel visit the Victorian era.”
Overman says he tried hard to keep temporal consistency in Misfits’ time-travel storylines. “I was really careful about avoiding paradoxes,” he admits. “It is easy to overlook the ripple effects that are created when you use time travel. But then if you are worried about logic you probably shouldn’t be doing time travel at all.”
BBC primetime drama Atlantis also used time travel, with central character Jason Donnelly travelling back from the present to the ancient city of Atlantis via a deep-sea temporal disturbance. In that case “we started out with the idea that our hero might have some kind of basic knowledge of Greek mythology, but gradually dropped that idea,” says Overman. “In hindsight, it may have worked just as well if he had been a Greek guy washed up on the beach of Atlantis rather than someone travelling in time. But that’s the benefit of hindsight.”
For the most part, then, TV time travel is used as an allegorical device. But are there any shows for sci-fi geeks, comparable to movie extravaganzas like Terminator or Interstellar? Well, yes – but it seems the TV industry has a tendency to look back in time for its inspiration (similar to the way robotics stories give Isaac Asimov a respectful nod).
US cable channel The CW, for example, recently aired a remake of 1970s show The Tomorrow People, in which a core power of one of the main characters is the ability to manipulate time.
Luther writer Neil Cross is also adapting classic UK sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel, about inter-dimensional beings who guard the order of time.
Then, of course, there is the BBC’s sci-fi series Doctor Who, rooted in a mythology first invented in the 1960s. Speaking to BBC America, Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat summed up his own feelings about the appeal of time travel as a storytelling device: “The moment you say time travel is an incidental factor of your world, it changes everything.
“You could be dealing with the consequences of an action you have not yet performed. From the point of view of a writer, especially a writer like me who likes a puzzle-box structure, it’s fascinating. The future could be your past. Come on, that’s brilliant.”