Monday, October 13, 2008

Time Travelling Writers

Last week, BAFTA Cymru staged at talk about writing time travel for television. What with Dr Who and Torchwood being filmed in Cardiff, where else could you talk about time travel and television, right? And what a line-up of writers, too, tempting me to come along but luckily, Hilary Wright (a Red Planet Prize finalist from last year) was there and she kindly agreed to write a report on the event. Take it away, Hilary.


On Monday night I joined a capacity crowd at the Cardiff Atrium to hear Steven Moffat, showrunner-elect of Doctor Who; Ashley Pharoah, co-creator of Life on Mars; and Maurice Gran, co-creator of Goodnight Sweetheart discuss how they approach manipulating the boundaries of time and space.

Goodnight Sweetheart began for Marks and Gran on location in the east end for Birds of a Feather. Marks remarked that some of the streets off Whitechapel High Street hadn’t changed since the 1940s. Gran immediately thought: “there’s a series in that.”

But how do you wring a series out of time travel? You can take your character to the 1940s once, but why on earth would he want to keep going back there from the prosperous 1990s? Love, of course. And why, having fallen in love, would he then want to leave WW2? To return to another relationship in the 1990s. Thus the setup of Goodnight Sweetheart gave the writers a safe(r) forum to explore the tricky theme of adultery; being torn between two time periods gave viewers more chance (excuse?) to empathise with the hero’s dilemma. And of course casting Nicholas Lyndhurst helps.

Gran also noted that time travel lent a framework for structuring the series by consistently setting the A story in the 1940s and the B story in the present. He and writing partner Marks, who moderated the evening’s discussion, also used time to provide an arc for the entire show, deciding to move on one year in each series: a six-year war thus gave them, BBC permitting, six series.

All three writers made it clear that time travel is not the same as sci-fi; you don’t have to show how the travel is done. In the first episode of Goodnight Sweetheart, Gary simply walks into a lane in the 1990s and out the other end into the 1940s. Sam Tyler wakes from the crash to those hideous lapels. Much easier not to have to figure out the how.

It all comes down to the rules you create for the world of your series. Freeing yourself from the constraints of social realism opens up a slew of possibilities, some of which have unexpected side benefits. Take the regeneration of the Doctor. It’s not just useful when replacing an actor who wants to leave. As Moffat noted, it gives the writer a certain power too: “He just falls to the floor and turns into a less argumentative actor.”

Not having to adhere to rules of social realism means you can really put your characters through the mangle, explained Gran, citing the episode where, in the 1990s, a man walks into Gary’s WW2 memorabilia shop to sell an old dress – the very dress Gary has just given his lover in the 1940s. Gary realises that the man in front of him, though 15 years older than he is, must be his son. You just can’t screw with your characters’ heads like that in social realism.

One questioner from the audience noted that Steven Moffat often used a sixth sense at the end of his episodes. That sounded intriguing but after establishing that the questioner was actually using The Sixth Sense to mean “a final twist”, Moffatt responded that no writer in their right mind would pass up a twist if they could think of one – the hard part was coming up with it. Moffat also discussed the importance of making sure the monsters were scary enough for the children in the audience, which he called “the mattress-wetting element”.

Much of Moffatt’s razor wit was sadly blunted by poor sound. It was impossible to hear some of his throwaway lines, and indeed much of what Ashley Pharaoh said as well. I look forward to Bafta posting footage of the event on their website to give me a chance to hear what I missed the first time.


Hilary Hadley Wright spent several years writing non-fiction before realizing that screenwriting was much harder and therefore much more interesting. She has just moved from Hawai’i, where nobody she knew blogged, to London, where everyone she knows blogs, so she’s accepting Jason Arnopp’s challenge and finally getting with the programme.


Thanks Hilary! Er, but where's the blog?


Lucy said...

That Hilary gets about the place, so she does ; )

Stellar report, v intriguing.

Lisa said...

Great report Hilary. Would loved to have been there. My dad and I used to wrap ourselves up in knots working out the paradoxes that Gary Sparrow would have caused - yes, the winter night's certainly were long in our house.


Chuck said...

Interesting. Scott Brown had an article in Wired Magazine, Sept 2008. The whole thrust of the article is how he fears for the future of time travel, not the real thing, bu the pop institution time travel. He complains that time travel is getting airier, and more subtle. In other words he like the hulking time machines of H.G. Wells and The Doctor.

I do too. But then I am a gadget freak and the time machine is the ultimate gadget.