Without elements of humanity science fiction and fantasy worlds can be cold, bleak places that lack resonance with the humans that look in on them. Nicole Perlman and Toby Whithouse joined Jeff Norton for a lively session about finding our humanity through watching characters in fantastical worlds.
Shows of any kind go through periods of development before ever reaching the screens and it’s often during that period of growth from being pitched to made that a lot of humanity is added. Fringe for instance was a sci-fi show pitched as a ‘case of the week’ procedural but then the greater mythology of the worlds andpeople became the true heart of the drama. Toby says that shows like Doctor Who that dealt with all kinds of worlds and monsters in the early days really led the way for very popular relatable characters in sci-fi and we’re really still travelling on the coat tails of that today. He was lucky that he had the opportunity to write on other people’s shows for a long time and learning how to adapt his tone of writing to that of other writer’s work. A lot of fantasy sci-fi is adaptation.
Guardians of the Galaxy was initially developed by Nicole from the Marvel comic books way back when the Dark Knight was popular but before the current explosion of superhero film popularity. She was going against the gritty themed grain of the time when she chose to develop something fun but it turned out to be great. Rocky was a character they went back and forth on including because he was a racoon and they already had a tree and didn’t want it to be too cartoony but he’s a character with great pathos and self-mockery who doesn’t see himself as a racoon at all. The comics themselves had great tone to bring into the screenplay. Toby had Annie (the UK character’s name) in Being Human making tea all the time that she couldn’t drink because she’s a ghost. As a writer it’s not the monsters you worry about pushing too far, it’s the actions, you don’t want to do too much. It’s about being courageous and nuanced.
The writers point out that we trust the storyteller to take us on a journey. Within those worlds we get to make any rules we want as long as we stick to them. If you violate the logic of your world you lose audience belief. You set limitations to your story and characters to help provide story later on. Toby’s vampires had no reflection which was a pain in production but something he pushed for because he was fairly certain he was going to need to use that as a plot point later on.
The world of writing fantastical worlds and characters is changing rapidly. Comic book films and television have become widespread and the introduction of new technology like VR could change the landscape of how we interact with productions. Nicole thinks it will change things a lot, especially because of how emotional it is to be utterly surrounded. However sometimes it’s difficult to get new projects greenlit. Toby doesn’t think the UK TV industry is very courageous for instance and with limited budgets and only a certain number of new drama being commissioned each year it’s easy to see why. Pitching becomes a kind of Trojan Horse type of deal, he couldn’t have imagined a British corporation making Game of Thrones type drama before it became popular. A big budget, violent show that kills off it’s main characters on a regular basis? Now everyone wants a show that’s as popular as Game of Thrones though.
It seems finding the audience for a show is about how a show resonates with them, about how their humanity gets reflected and how invested they are in the worlds that they see. Pitching what producers want to make and developing ideas until the show is what you want to give an audience is part of the process. Adding human character in the fantastical worlds and characters that inhabit them is what builds loyalty to brands from an audience point of vew. For those of us loving the film and TV that is far from our normal world it was refreshing to hear such passion from writers who have a whole lot of that to bring to our future screens.