Tag Archives: The Expanse

Bingeworthy box sets

As people around the world self-isolate and heed orders to stay at home amid the devastating coronavirus pandemic, DQ offers a selection of series from around the world to enjoy.

Babylon Berlin
From: Germany
Original broadcaster: Sky
Starring: Volker Bruch, Liv Lisa Fries, Peter Kurth, Matthias Brandt, Leonie Benesch, Severija Janušauskaitė, Ivan Shvedoff
Seasons: Three
This German noir has become a breakout hit for the country, immersing viewers in a visually intoxicating 1920s Berlin. Based on the crime novels by Volker Kitscher, it follows police inspector Gereon Rath, who is on a secret mission to expose an extortion ring, and Charlotte Ritter, a police clerk who aspires to be an inspector but at night is a flapper and occasional prostitute at the Mika Efti cabaret. The series is also lifted by the dramatic soundtrack, which features standout song Zu Asche, Zu Staub (To Ashes, To Dust), performed on the nightclub stage.

Badehotellet (Seaside Hotel)
From: Denmark
Original broadcaster: TV2
Starring: Amalie Dollerup, Lars Ranthe, Anne Louise Hassing, Merete Mærkedahl, Ulla Vejby, Jens Jacob Tychsen, Anette Støvelbæk, Birthe Neumann
Seasons: Seven
Downton Abbey by the seaside, this long-running Danish drama is one of the country’s most popular series, drawing audiences every year since 2013 to the trials and tribulations of the staff working a lavish hotel and the guests who visit them each summer from Copenhagen. Combining beautiful scenery with comedy drama and the clash of class and cultures that comes naturally from the upstairs/downstairs setting, it’s the perfect example of blue-sky Nordic drama.

Das Boot
From: Germany
Original broadcaster: Sky
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Tom Wlaschiha, August Wittgenstein, Lizzy Caplan, Rick Okon, Vincent Kartheiser
Seasons: Season two launches in Germany on April 24
Following a classic novel and iconic film is no easy feat, and critics were rightly sceptical that the ambition of this series could match what had come before. But from the first glimpse of a U-boat rising out of the Atlantic Ocean, this wartime drama serves up a compelling and technically stunning show. Set nine months after the Wolfgang Petersen film, the action opens in 1942, simultaneously following the crew of the claustrophobic U-612 and the Resistance in La Rochelle, France.

Delhi Crime
From: India
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: Shefali Shah, Rasika Dugal, Aakash Dahiya, Adil Hussain, Rajesh Tailang
Seasons: One
While true crime dramas continue to dominate the broadcast and streaming schedules, buoyed by a similar wave of documentary series in the genre, this is one of the best. Based on the tragic true story of a 2012 gang rape in Delhi, the series follows the aftermath and the police investigation to find those responsible. Shah plays Vartika Chaturvedi, the deputy commissioner of police who drives the series forward and guides viewers through the sights and sounds of the city.

Fauda
From: Israel
Original broadcaster: Yes
Starring: Lior Raz, Itzik Cohen, Neta Garay, Rona-Lee Shim’on, Boaz Konforty, Doron Ben-David
Seasons: Three
Israel has become known as the home of some of the most original drama series in the world, leading to US remakes such as Homeland, Hostages, In Treatment and the upcoming Your Honor. Fauda might be the best of the bunch, drawing on the military experiences of creators Lior Raz (who also stars) and Avi Issacharoff. Set against the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it follows the leader of an elite unit as they pursue a Hamas terrorist. Season three switches the action-packed story to the Gaza Strip.

Freud
From: Austria
Original broadcasters: ORF, Netflix
Starring: Robert Finster, Ella Rumpf, Georg Friedrich, Christoph F Krutzler
Seasons: One
Having recently launched in Austria, this dark, gothic period drama from director Marvin Kren (4 Blocks) is set in 1890s Vienna, famous for its decadence and the dark underbelly of high society. Mysterious murders and political intrigue clash as young psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (Finster), who finds strong opposition against his theories, becomes embroiled in a murderous conspiracy alongside a policeman and a notorious medium.

Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm)
From: Denmark
Original broadcaster: DR
Starring: Lars Mikkelsen, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Simon Sears, Morten Hee Andersen
Seasons: Two
From the creator of hit Danish political drama Borgen comes this drama about a family of priests and the characters within it, as each follows their own path to a meaningful life. On the face of it, they are the epitome of respectability, but events that leave the family in crisis soon unfold.

La Casa de Papel (Money Heist)
From: Spain
Original broadcasters: Antenna 3, Netflix
Starring: Alvaro Morte, Itziar Ituño, Alba Flores, Esther Acebo, Pedro Alonso
Seasons: Three, with a fourth released on Netflix on April 3
If any series characterises Spain’s assent to global drama powerhouse, it is this thrilling and action-packed story of a mysterious man known only as El Profesor (The Professor), who brings together a band of criminals to carry out the biggest heist ever imagined: taking over the The Royal Mint of Spain and taking home 2.4 billion euros. In season three, they are forced to reunite to execute a more ambitious plan, this time targeting the Bank of Spain.

Line of Duty
From: UK
Original broadcaster: BBC
Starring: Martin Compston, Vicky McClure, Adrian Dunbar
Seasons: Five
With filming on season six interrupted as productions around the world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, now is the chance to catch up creator Jed Mercurio’s nail-bitingly tense police thriller (also pictured top), which introduces the members of Anti-Corruption Unit 12, tasked with uncovering police wrongdoing. Each season features a host of guest stars, while a long-running conspiracy plays across the series. By the end, you’ll be asking, ‘Who is H?’

Mr Robot
From: US
Original broadcaster: USA Network
Starring: Rami Malek, Carl Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, Martin Wallström, Christian Slater
Seasons: Four
Turn off social media and be sure to pay attention to Mr Robot, a critically acclaimed psychological thriller that follows Elliot Anderson (Malek), a young man living in New York who works for cyber-security company Allsafe and whose struggles with social anxiety and depression mean he struggles with paranoia and delusion. Elliot’s hacking skills lead him to anarchist Mr Robot, who is planning to attack one of the biggest corporations in the world – and Allsafe’s biggest client.

Professor T
From: Belgium
Original broadcaster: Één
Starring: Koen De Bouw, Tanja Oostvogels, Goeie Derick, Carry Goossens, Herwig Ilegems
Seasons: Three
Belgium is certainly among the most ambitiously creative countries in the world when it comes to television drama, thanks in part to a financial system that demands fresh and original ideas. Set in Antwerp, this crime drama introduces the eponymous eccentric professor, who works alongside the police to solve crimes. What makes it stand out is the mixture of genres the series covers, from musical and comedy to tragedy and melodrama. The show has already been remade in France and Germany, and a UK version starring Ben Miller is now in the works for ITV.

Queen Sono
From: South Africa
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: Pearl Thusi, Vuyo Dabula, Lois Maginga
Seasons: One
Recently launched on Netflix, this series marks the streamer’s first foray into original African scripted programming. Mixing thills, actions and character drama, it follows the titular character, a member of the Special Operations Group and daughter of an anti-apartheid leader, who tackles criminal operations while dealing with crises in her personal life.

Sex Education
From: UK
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Ncuti Gatwa, Emma Mackey, Connor Swindells, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Aimee Lou Wood, Tanya Reynolds, Patricia Allison
Seasons: Two
Ostensibly the story of a teenager who follows in his sex therapist mother’s footsteps by providing advice to his hormone-driven classmates, Sex Education matches an eclectic cast of characters with a visually vibrant take on the traditionally dour British school drama by blending the look of a US high school with a distinctly 80s vibe, all while mixing laugh-out-loud humour with discussions of serious subjects such as sexual assault, sexuality and sexually transmitted infections.

The Expanse
From: US
Original broadcaster: Syfy (now Amazon Prime Video)
Starring: Steven Strait, Cas Anvar, Dominique Tipper, Wes Chatham, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Frankie Adams
Seasons: Four, with a fifth already ordered
For a sci-fi drama that’s out of this world, look no further than The Expanse. Based on the books by James SA Corey, the show’s future was in doubt when it was cancelled by Syfy after three seasons, before Amazon stepped in to save the series and order two further seasons. It opens hundreds of years in the future in a colonised Solar System, when the case of a missing girl brings together a hardened police detective, an Earth-based politician and a rogue ship captain, leading them to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

The Mandalorian
From: US
Original broadcaster: Disney+
Starring: Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Carl Weathers, Werner Herzog, Nick Nolte, Emily Swallow, Taika Waititi, Giancarlo Esposito, Omid Abtahi
Seasons: One
Those lucky enough to be in the US, Canada or the Netherlands may have already check out this Star Wars series, the flagship original drama on the new Disney+ streaming platform. But as the service reaches most of Europe tomorrow, millions of subscribers will no doubt be eagerly awaiting the opportunity to see this acclaimed show, which is set after the fall of the Empire and before the emergence of the First Order, as seen in the most recent trilogy of Star Wars films. It’s here we meet a lone gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy, far from the authority of the New Republic.

The Marvellous Mrs Maisel
From: US
Original broadcaster: Amazon Prime Video
Starring: Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, Michael Zegen, Marin Hinkle, Tony Shalhoub
Seasons: Three, with a fourth on the way
A comedy-drama that has plenty of both, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel sees Rachel Brosnahah turn in an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning performance as the titular character, a housewife in 1950s New York who discovers a knack for stand-up after an impromptu set at a comedy club.

This Is Us
From: US
Original broadcaster: NBC
Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley
Seasons: Four
For heartwarming comedy and emotional family drama, this smash hit US drama ticks all the boxes. It follows the members of the Pearson family – mum Rebecca, dad Jack and siblings Kevin, Kate and Randall – mostly in the present day but flashing back to the past and into the future, focusing on their individual relationships and how their lives and experiences have been experienced by their childhood. Last year, following its third season, the show received the rare honour of being renewed for an additional three seasons.

Top Boy
From: UK
Original broadcasters: Channel 4, Netflix
Starring: Ashley Walters, Kane Robinson, Shane Romulus, Malcolm Kamulete, Sharon Duncan Brewster
Seasons: Three
British crime drama Top Boy first aired in 2011, with a second season running in 2013 on Channel 4. But thanks to the support of rapper Drake, Netflix revived the series this year. Set in East London, it introduces a group of friends and gang members fighting for survival on fictional crime-riddled estate Summerhouse. The series has been praised for its tough characters and its realistic portray of the world the story is set in.

Watchmen
From: US
Original broadcaster: HBO
Starring: Regina King, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tim Mison, Sara Vickers, Jeremy Irons, Andrew Howard, Louis Gossett Jr
Seasons: One
This might be described as a superhero drama, but it can’t be compared to anything produced by Marvel (The Avengers) or DC (Batman) in recent years. From Lost creator Damon Lindelof and described as a “remix” of the iconic graphic novel created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, this alternate-history series takes place 34 years after the original story and follows a detective (Regina King) as she investigates a murder, in a world where police officers are forced to conceal their identities in an ongoing battle against a white-supremacist group. King’s standout performance and stunning filmmaking ally with topical themes and a powerful soundtrack created by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails.

Westworld
From: US
Original broadcaster: HBO
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson, Aaron Paul, Vincent Cassel, Lena Waithe
Seasons: Season three is now airing
As visually striking and imaginative as ever, this science-fiction series continues to be one of the most ambitious and complex stories on television. Based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film, it introduces the eponymous Wild West-themed resort where guests can entertain their wildest – and often most villainous – fantasies alongside the android ‘hosts’ that populate the park. Naturally, things don’t go as expected when some hosts begin to gain sentience and search for a way to leave the park and join the real world.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Expanding horizons

Once cancelled, The Expanse is the latest US series to have been be revived by a streamer. Star Shohreh Aghdashloo tells DQ why the space drama is out of this world.

For a few weeks in 2019, The Expanse was cancelled. Arguably the most popular space drama of recent years, thanks in part to its international syndication on Netflix, the show was inexplicably dumped by US cablenet Syfy after three seasons in May. Its fans were stunned.

But in the modern TV age, what is dead can be resurrected. No sooner had #SaveTheExpanse begun trending on social media than Amazon Prime Video stepped in to pick up the show for a fourth season, while also plundering the first three seasons for its subscribers.

For the cast of the show, rumours of the show’s return had swirled around aimlessly like a balloon in a storm, and with nothing to ground them, they remained only fragments of online gossip. “I remember, when I was told that it was cancelled, my first reaction was ‘C’est la vie,’” recalls Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays UN executive Chrisjen Avasarala in the series. “And for me, life is a journey from chapter to chapter. When one chapter ends, another opens. There is no need for me to get worried. I just go with the flow.

“But my colleagues, they were not happy. They were like, ‘Surely there must be something we can do.’ I kept saying, ‘It is what it is.’ Then, a couple of days later, I saw a picture of a blimp carrying a message, ‘Save The Expanse.’ The fans had put their pennies and dollars together to send a plane with a banner to go around the Amazon building, where [Amazon owner and The Expanse fan] Jeff Bezos was in his office. And when he saw the balloon, he said, ‘What, this show’s going to be cancelled? I want to see the rest of the show,’ and picked up the phone.”

In The Expanse, Shohreh Aghdashloo plays UN executive Chrisjen Avasarala

Fans have a lot to answer for these days, with their online devotion and creative stunts previously saving numerous other shows from the scrapheap, not least Lucifer, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Designated Survivor. That they would go so far to save The Expanse was not surprising to Aghdashloo.

“From the very beginning, we knew it was very much a fan-based show,” she says. “They did lots of fan art that I’m collecting, they send gifts to us. One year, we started having hardcore fans visit the set and one of them made a bracelet for me with stars, the moon and the sun. Another one bought me a nice brooch. We were bombarded with gifts, and that has never happened to me before. You cannot believe a show can have such an impact on people.”

A star of film and television, with appearances in series such as 24 and Grey’s Anatomy and films The Lake House and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2, Aghdashloo had plenty to keep her busy while a deal for The Expanse’s return was put in place. She had just filmed two movies, Run Sweetheart Run and The Cuban, while also producing 2018 feature Simple Wedding.

“It’s a very different kind of role,” she says of producing in comparison to acting. “Now I understand why Robert De Niro says he’d rather act than direct or produce, because you get involved with other stuff that you usually don’t if you’re just acting. I still prefer acting but, when it comes to making the projects I am in love with and would like to do, I have to produce or they won’t get made.”

Returning to The Expanse, Aghdashloo says the show’s move from Syfy to Amazon had little impact on the cast. “It was just like we were picking up from where we left off,” she says. “There was no difference at all. I’m so happy for my colleagues, these young people who spend six months of a year in the cold in Canada to bring the story to light. We were in the dark before Amazon, now we’re in the light. So it makes such a difference.”

The show was revived by Amazon after its cancellation

Part of the appeal of science fiction is the chance to talk about contemporary issues in a heightened setting, with modern-day themes played out in stories featuring groups of aliens or humans living in different worlds. It’s that approach to storytelling in The Expanse that most impresses Aghdashloo, who says that while the show may be deemed sci fi, “it’s not fiction to me. It’s just a symbolic way of talking about today’s world.”

Describing The Expanse as “relevant” and “timely,” she continues: “This is how the writers envision the future, in which women can work shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues and they can hold key positions and roles in society. For my part, it’s geopolitical science fiction with a dash of Shakespearean drama. All the ingredients of Shakespeare are there – jealously, rivalry, confusion.”

A series regular from the beginning, Aghdashloo plays Avasarala, an Earth-bound politician working to prevent war from breaking out between Earth and Mars. “I adore her. I love her. I am in awe of her, for her perseverance and the fact she calls herself a public servant,” says the Iran-born actor, who joyfully recalls some of her favourite lines from previous seasons, such as her season two diatribe when Avasarala discovers Secretary Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) is betraying her by working with Jules-Pierre Mao (François Chau) and his family.

In the episode, titled Paradigm Shift, Avasarala tells Errinwright: “I will freeze their assets, cancel their contracts, cripple their business. And I have the power to do it, because I am the fucking hero who helped save Mother Earth from the cataclysm that Jules-Pierre Mao unleashed. Tell his children the government is more powerful than any corporation, and the only reason they think it feels the other way is because we poor public servants are always looking for some fat private sector’s payoff down the road. And I’m not looking. And by the time they can pull the strings to force me out, it will be too late. Their family will be ruined. Their mother, their children, their children! All of them: pariahs! Outlaws! Hunted and on the run for the rest of their days, until we find them, and nail each and every last one to the wall. Make sure you tell them that.”

Aghdashloo alongside Sandra Bullock in movie The Lake House

Aghdashloo explains: “When I read the line, I couldn’t wait to run it [on set] because, in real life, I agree with her so much. Whatever we’re suffering from comes from rotten, corrupt politicians. It’s because of their deeds, their acts, that millions of people have been misplaced and displaced, and it keeps happening. So when I read the line, I can’t even tell you how happy it made me.

“That night, I was learning it until I went to sleep. I told the writers I wished it was a daily show so we could watch it that evening, because it’s so timely and relevant. But then I had to wait another year for it to come out.”

With The Expanse now in season four, the story is naturally far removed from its initial premise. Based on the books by James SA Corey, it opened hundreds of years in the future in a colonised Solar System when the case of a missing girl brings together Avasarala, hardened police detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) and rogue ship captain James Holden (Steven Strait), first of the Canterbury and later the Rocinante, to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

In the latest run, with the ‘Ring Gates’ having opened up access to thousands of new planets, a blood-soaked gold rush begins, igniting new conflicts between Earth, Mars and those from within the asteroid belt. Meanwhile, the crew of the Rocinante are caught up in a violent clash between an Earth mining corporation and desperate ‘Belter’ settlers.

Aghdashloo says appearing in the series is “beyond my wildest imagination,” adding: “This little girl from the Middle East is portraying a powerful female role in a US TV series, and now global TV series. It’s amazing. Sometimes it’s overwhelming – I have to pinch myself and think, ‘Am I really doing this?’ I love it because of the fact that when girls like myself in the Middle East or elsewhere see me, they think, ‘So there is a hope. If she did it, I can do it too.’

“I keep telling them all they need is courage, perseverance and love. Put it into a pot and you will be successful.”

In the future, Aghdashloo would love to play Indian stateswoman Indira Ghandi or Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto. But for now, whether it’s film or television, she’s just happy to be in front of the camera. “When I was seven years old, my family would get together and, after lunch, they would say, ‘Bring Shohreh in so she can entertain us.’ And then I would start mocking every member of the family, singing and dancing.

“So that tells me that I was born an actor. I don’t act for the medium, be it TV, or cinema or theatre. At the end of the day, I think I’m a stage actress. Because even when I am on a set working for the camera, I get my energy from people on the set and thinking, ‘They’re watching.’

With Amazon Prime Video airing The Expanse around the world, there won’t be a shortage of people tuning in to find out what happens in season four, while the streamer has already ordered a fifth season of the space saga.

“Thank God for the game-changers – Amazon, Netflix, Hulu,” Aghdashloo adds. “We’re not only going global but our hands are free to go further and further [with the story]. There are always restrictions, but not as much. We get to tell the story the way it is. People keep asking me, ‘Now you’re on Amazon, can you swear more?’ Of course I can swear more, we’re global now!’”

tagged in: , ,

Space odyssey

Since beginning his television career on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Naren Shankar has worked across the spectrum of science-fiction drama. Now helming Syfy’s The Expanse, he discusses adapting the source novels and the increasing demands of being a showrunner.

For most aspiring writers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, landing a job on Star Trek: The Next Generation must have seemed light years away. Yet that’s exactly where Naren Shankar got his big break in Hollywood at the start of a career that – eight years on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation apart – has been dominated by science fiction.

Shankar has also written episodes of other Star Trek series, including Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and has worked on SeaQuest 2032 and The Outer Limits. Stints on Farscape and Almost Human came later, while he has also worked on fantasy series Grimm.

Shankar is now showrunner of Syfy space opera The Expanse, which has returned both the showrunner and the network to their respective space travel roots. Season one opens two hundred years in the future, when the case of a missing young woman brings a hardened detective (played by Thomas Jane) and a rogue ship’s captain (Steven Strait) together in a race across the solar system to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

Naren Shankar

The series, produced and distributed by Alcon Television Group, is based on a collection of books with the same name, written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (under the pen name James SA Corey).

The books were acquired by Alcon and executive producer Sharon Hall, who developed The Expanse for a straight-to-series pickup with the Sean Daniel Company. Writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (who both worked Children of Men and Iron Man) were brought in to write the pilot, which was then picked up by Syfy for a 10-episode first season debuting in 2015. That’s when Shankar comes in.

“Alcon had never done a television show before, neither had Mark or Hawk and neither had Sean Daniel Company,” he explains. “Sharon and I had worked together through the years so she reached out to me, and that’s how I got involved in the project. I met with the team and just hit it off.

“This was everybody’s first experience of television except for me, and going from the feature world to television is not necessarily an easy transition. That’s how it all started and it’s been a great experience.”

Joining Shankar in the writers room from the start have been the original novel writers Franck and Abraham – and though that could have been a difficult partnership, the showrunner says the pair have been very open to adapting their books for television.

“Ty had worked with George RR Martin when Game of Thrones was getting set up so he had a front-row seat to the process, and with Mark and Hawk from the feature side, me from television, Ty and Daniel from novels, I think we’ve actually been able to get a little of each world into the show,” Shankar explains. “It’s just been a really enjoyable experience and here we are in season three.”

The Expanse is adapted from books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck

Much has changed in sci-fi, both on and off screen, since Shankar first started work on The Next Generation. He recalls the genre was “a little bit of a ghetto” with very niche storytelling that many people didn’t think translated into broad, mainstream entertainment.

Now, however, elements of sci-fi are littered across the TV landscape, from The X-Files and Black Mirror to Stranger Things, Orphan Black and, of course, Star Trek: Discovery.

After spending the first 10 years of his career working in the genre, culminating in Farscape, Shankar transitioned to cop shows, admitting he no longer found much to interest him in the genre.

“I hadn’t really liked what Syfy was putting on the air and, for a long time, they kind of lost their way in terms of programming,” he says. “They weren’t quite sure what it was and I think the network in some ways missed the boat. There’s no reason The Walking Dead couldn’t have been on Syfy. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen and then there was a big regime change there. Bill McGoldrick from USA Network was brought in and The Expanse was the first major project he brought to the network with the express purpose to restore science fiction to Syfy. He said to us, ‘Well, you’re either going to get me fired or get me promoted.’ He got promoted!”

Picking up The Expanse novels, Shankar found there was a lot of story condensed into each novel and that events moved quickly. So one of the first things he changed from the pilot when he joined the production was to shift the focus to character and give the show room to breathe. As a result, some elements cut from the original pilot eventually made their way to screen in episode four.

Shankar’s first major writing job was on Star Trek: The Next Generation

Novellas and short stories that Franck and Abraham had written to accompany the main books also serve to flesh out the show’s main characters. “It opened up this whole extra world of material and the show has become kind of a hybrid of the novels and novellas with additional material that we’ve created, so it’s very much its own thing,” Shankar says. “But what I’m finding from people who know the novels and watch the show is it’s very true to the spirit of the books, and that’s the key.”

Where The Expanse differs from other space-set dramas is in its dedication to physics, preferring to indulge the science part of science fiction that some titles in the genre have ignored.

“Star Trek had very little to do with science,” Shankar observes. “For the most part, and this is a broad generalisation, Star Trek was essentially a social allegorical kind of a show. There were problems of the day transposed to aliens and different races and how we deal with them. It was very much about ideas. The ‘technology’ was about the same as magic – faster-than-light travel, tractor beams, phaser beams and all this kind of stuff that just isn’t real. And spaceships moved like airplanes.”

The Expanse, however, is firmly rooted in science reality, with the writing team tasked with considering issues such as the state of gravity. “If a ship’s not under thrust then the people inside have to be weightless, because that’s just how space works,” the showrunner says, offering one example.

Dominique Tipper is among the show’s leading cast members

“Most television shows just ignore it [science], even Battlestar Galactica,” Shankar says, highlighting the space opera that ran on Syfy in the early 2000s. “It’s a war movie. The original series was about Pearl Harbor. Ron Moore turned it into a 9/11 allegory but in terms of the fighter battles, it is the Second World War in the Pacific. That isn’t how we do things on The Expanse. Battles are different but they’re much more about how, if you had these things happen in space, this is how they would be. Rockets only go in one direction, there are no brakes. The only way to turn around in space is to flip around and push the rocket the other way. The joke in our series pilot was the big action scene was a gigantic truck changing direction. That’s all it is. It feels very dramatic because of the aesthetic approach was to say living in space is hard, it’s difficult to do, it’s risky.

“When The Expanse was brought to me, I thought it was an opportunity to make space a character in the show in a way I had not seen done before on television, and we’ve really persisted in that. That’s very much baked into how we work.”

As a showrunner, Shankar says his method comes from his early Star Trek days, where the staff for the last two seasons included the aforementioned Ronald D Moore plus Brannon Braga and René Echevarria, with consultant producer Joe Menosky, showrunner Jeri Taylor and former showrunner Michael Piller.

“The room was very egalitarian,” Shankar recalls. “It was the old adage of the best idea wins. There was very little hierarchy, everybody could argue, nobody was afraid of fighting with the boss or saying what was on their mind in a really healthy way. That’s how we broke stories and that’s how I like rooms.

The third season of The Expanse will air next year

“The rooms I’ve found most problematic and least interesting to be around are ones where everyone’s worried about if the boss is going to like it or what does he think he wants or what does she think she wants. When you take that out of it, you get what’s in somebody’s head and if you really listen to them, it’s the best way to go about making shows.”

Having been a showrunner on CSI and now three seasons into The Expanse in the same position, Shankar describes showrunning as an “evolving” role, and considers television to be tipping into an auteur-based model often associated with cinema. “But I don’t know how great that is, necessarily,” he admits. “When I was starting out as a baby writer on Star Trek, the showrunner responsibilities were very much confined to the show. As the business has grown and as connections with the fans have grown, the portfolio for a showrunner has gotten much broader,” he explains, noting his responsibility in areas such as marketing and brand awareness, helping the show to break through the noise of more than 500 other scripted series in the US alone.

Shankar also sees a place in television for shows that are essentially “very long movies” such as Big Little Lies, which HBO has now confirmed will return for a second season. “They’re beautifully done, beautifully realised, beautifully acted… it was like a seven-episode movie,” he says of the Nicole Kidman- and Reese Witherspoon-starring show. “That’s one way of doing television, but I don’t know how that’s going to work if you’re going season after season after season. That felt to me like one story that you’re telling.”

That’s not the case with The Expanse, however, with the sixth novel in the series published earlier this month, season three of the show due in 2018 and the promise of more to come. “One of the great joys of television is when you put the right bunch of people together and let them take some creative ownership of material as a group,” Shankar concludes. “You can really do some amazing things. I think The Expanse is a show that could go to seven seasons, easily.”

tagged in: , , , ,

Sci-fi high

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.

The BBC’s Doctor Who currently stars Peter Capaldi

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.”

Channel 4 and AMC coproduction Humans centres on humanoid androids called ‘synths’

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.”

Travelers sees a group of time-travellers from the future attempting to save mankind in the present

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.”

Concept art for in-development Danish drama Unpunished

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.”


Clockwise from top: The first image from the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery pictured alongside The Next Generation and Voyager

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.

Sam Vincent

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.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lindelof joins Drama Summit West line-up

Damon Lindelof, the prolific showrunner, producer and film screenwriter behind cult series The Leftovers and Lost, is the latest high-profile speaker to join the line-up at Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on May 19.

You can see the full line-up and register online by CLICKING HERE.

Damon Lindelof

Lindelof will front a showrunner keynote Q&A at the event, discussing the third and final season of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers, his current work and his approach to the craft. The session will be chaired by The LA Times television and entertainment writer Libby Hill.

As well as TV work on Lost with JJ Abrams, Lindelof has also served as as a writer and producer on a number of science fiction films, including Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, World War Z, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland.

Elsewhere at Drama Summit West, a high-profile showrunner panel forms part of the creative line-up featuring Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects, Unreal), Ilene Chaiken (Empire, The Handmaid’s Tale), Courtney Kemp (Power), Naren Shankar (The Expanse) and John Wirth (Hap & Leonard, Hell on Wheels). This panel sees the writer-producers discuss their evolving role and how they are creating, writing, developing and producing stories in new ways to meet audience and channel demands.

Delegates will also learn about the programming priorities for the top programming chiefs at AMC, Showtime, Starz and TNT at the event and how they are working with the international market, in a cable superpanel. The programming chiefs will also discuss challenges in the market and provide a sneak peak into some of 2017’s hottest new dramas, which they have commissioned, including Twin Peaks, American Gods, The Alienist and The Son.

Streaming giant Netflix also hosts a session at the event on its global coproduction and international originals strategy. This will be fronted by Elizabeth Bradley, VP of content, and Erik Barmack, VP of international originals, respectively. They will discuss how they are using Netflix multimillion-pound content budget to boost its library with original home-grown content in the 130-plus territories it now serves, as well as work with international partners on global coproductions.

British TV executive and former BBC drama chief Ben Stephenson will take part in a Next-Generation Producers panel, discussing his latest role as head of television at JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot. He is joined by The Night Manager producer The Ink Factory’s co-CEO Stephen Cornwell, American Crime Story producer Color Force’s senior VP television Nellie Reed and Anonymous Content’s Rosalie Swedlin, who’s latest projects include Caleb Carr adaptation The Alienist and The Wife, starring Glenn Close and Christian Slater.

The panel will discuss how some of the US’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama, defining new models akin to the feature film world, finding new stories in a saturated market and working with creatives and writers.

A special focus on the Latin American market also forms part of the event. Execs from HBO Latin America, Globo, Fox Networks Latin America and Keshet Latin America will discuss the growing ambition for drama in the region, as well as the opportunities in this dynamic market.

Business sessions on coproduction and finance and the big questions in scripted TV also form part of the day with execs from BBC Worldwide, Lionsgate, Eone Entertainment, CAA, WME, Studiocanal TV, All3Media North America and Sonar Entertainment taking part.

The day will close with a networking cocktail party between 6pm and 9pm, organised in association with CAA.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Classic sci-fi novels – TV’s new frontier

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
The Man in the High Castle’s second season launches on Amazon next month

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
11.22.63 is based on a story by Stephen King

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
Childhood’s End aired on Syfy last year

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
The Expanse centres on Earth’s response to overpopulation

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.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lethal Weapon, Westworld start strongly

Lethal Weapon's first season will now comprise
Lethal Weapon’s first season will now comprise 18 episodes

Fox will go to Mipcom in Cannes next week with a spring in its step thanks to Lethal Weapon, its TV reboot of the classic movie franchise.

Now three episodes into its first season, Lethal Weapon is one of the US fall season’s top-performing shows. It’s currently  pulling in 7.3 million same-day viewers, a figure that rises to 11.5 million after a week’s catch-up viewing is added in.

The network has responded to the show’s strong start by giving it an additional five episodes, taking the total for season one to 18. This is less than the traditional 22-episode US network model, but Fox is still describing it as a full-season order – something that may reflect a wider trend towards shorter-run scripted series.

Commenting on the award of the extra episodes, announced this week, Fox Entertainment president David Madden said: “Lethal Weapon delivers an explosive and wildly entertaining core relationship between two cops, with dynamic performances by Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford, surrounded by cinematic action, endearing humour and true heart. It has proven to be a self-starter and solid companion to Empire.” (Lethal Weapon directly follows Fox hit series Empire in the schedule.)

Westworld
Westworld has opened strongly on both HBO and Sky Atlantic

Another movie reboot that has got off to a strong start is HBO’s Westworld. Blessed with a talented cast, a strong creative team and cult name recognition, the first episode attracted 3.3 million for the first showing via cable and streaming. The second episode dipped to 2.7 million, but some of this decline has been put down to competition from the second US presidential debate.

Strong ratings in the US were mirrored in the UK, where Sky Atlantic reported a record-breaking performance for the show’s first episode.

A statement from Sky said: “After being watched by an overnight audience of 458,000 on Tuesday October 4, more than 1.38 million viewers have taken advantage of catching up on the show flexibly over the following seven days [i.e. 1.84 million total].”

HBO will be encouraged by the fact the show has attracted a strong 9.2 rating on IMDb. However, it is early days for a series that is thought to have cost US$100m to produce. HBO would like Westworld to build the same kind of momentum as Game of Thrones, but it is built on a much sparser mythological foundation. For this reason, it is difficult to prejudge how much traction the show will gain with the audience. The true potential of the franchise should become clearer around episode six or seven.

Another US series that merits a mention is FX’s long-running American Horror Story anthology franchise, which this year is sub-titled My Roanoke Nightmare. Four episodes in, the show is averaging 3.58 million viewers. The figures are on a slight downward curve but they are similar to last year’s series Hotel, suggesting the show has a pretty robust core audience.

American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare
American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare

This year’s series takes the Roanoke Colony in North Carolina as its storytelling starting point. During the 1590s, the colonists vanished. Moving to the present, a couple’s new home near the settlement is full of paranormal activity. The cast includes Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr, with a special guest appearance from Lady Gaga (who also appeared in Hotel).

Away from the US, Zodiak Rights is reporting strong sales for Public Enemy, the Belgian drama that won the inaugural MipDrama Screenings Buyers’ Coup de Coeur Award in April.

Produced by Belgium’s Entre Chien et Loup and Playtime Films for RTBF Belgium, the 10-part drama centres on the story of Guy Béranger, a dangerous child murderer at the end of his prison sentence. His release on parole to the custody of the monks at Vielsart Abbey leads to an outcry from the nearby small village and to the rest of the country. Then when a young girl disappears on the outskirts of the Abbey, the entire village is in uproar.

The French-language show was a ratings hit for RTBF Belgium, securing an audience share of more than 25%. Now Zodiak has sold it to Sky Atlantic in the UK and Germany; free-to-air broadcaster TF1 in France; Movistar Series Xtra and Movistar VOD in Spain; and Ale Kino Channel (Canal+ Group) in Poland. It will also air on Scandinavian broadcaster C More’s linear and premium SVoD services in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.

Public Enemy
Zodiak Rights is shopping Belgian drama Public Enemy

Producer François Touwaide of Entre Chien et Loup said: “Public Enemy is the result of a great initiative launched by Wallonia Brussels Federation and RTBF in 2013 to develop Belgian talent across TV series. After a significant success in Belgium, we are happy with the international response to the show and the great job done by the Zodiak Rights team. Zodiak Rights believed in the show from the beginning and has been a great support.”

Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, added: “The demand for innovative, globally relevant drama that works across platforms continues to be very strong and we expect these deals to be the first of many for this compelling series.” The sales also underline the promotional value of the new MipDrama award.

Still on the subject of distribution, SVoD platform Netflix has acquired global rights to Syfy space drama The Expanse. Season one will be available to Netflix members outside North America and New Zealand from November 3, with a second run due in 2017.

The Expanse is set 200 years in the future, after humanity has colonised the solar system. It follows a tough detective and a rogue ship’s captain who stumble across a huge conspiracy while looking for a missing woman.

The Expanse has been picked up by Netflix
The Expanse has been picked up by Netflix

The first series aired on Syfy in 2015 and didn’t rate especially well, starting at 1.19 million and dropping to 0.55 million. The show is a good indication, however, of the new economic model that exists in the Netflix era, where modest ratings on a US host channel don’t necessarily result in automatic cancellation because of the opportunity to secure a secondary revenue stream from an SVoD partner.

More generally, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings warned this week that the chance of the SVoD service entering China “doesn’t look good.” The company has been plotting an entry into China for a couple of years but seems to be suffering the same barriers to entry as other US brands. “Disney, which is very good in China, had their movie service shut down. Apple, which is very good in China, had their movie service closed down. It doesn’t look good,” he said at the New Yorker TechFest conference last week.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Netflix and Amazon blast into 2016

mindhunter
Mind Hunter is being adapted for TV

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).

Good Girls Revolt
Amazon’s Good Girls Revolt, written by Made in Jersey’s Dana Calvo

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.

The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon
Frank Spotnitz’s The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon

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.

Syfy has greenlit a second season of The Expanse
Syfy has greenlit a second season of The Expanse

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.

BBC is treading the anthology path with the second run of Ordinary Lies
BBC is treading the anthology path with the second run of Ordinary Lies

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.

Ralph Fiennes is set to portray pop legend Michael Jackson
Ralph Fiennes is set to portray pop legend Michael Jackson in Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon

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.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,