Monday, May 11, 2009

Television outlines: 'INCARNATE' part one

Around May last year, various television broadcasting companies started to realise HEROES was doing rather well. They realised this mainly because commissioning editors had started saying things like 'That Heroes thing is doing rather well. Why can't you come to us with something like that?' And I realised this because that's what a couple of different production companies had told me.

This chinese whispers way of commissioning rarely leads to anything good. Readers may remember the rash of sketch shows about thirtysomethings in relationships that suddenly appeared a couple of years ago, via much the same process. Of course, the commissioning editor, in this case the BBC, can only take one of them on, but the companies reckon that if sketchshows about thirtysomethings in relationships are the in thing, they just have to produce a pilot, and someone will commission it. So what you end up with is a whole raft of half-hearted series that have come about, not because anyone creative thought it was a good idea, but because of what Production Exec A overheard Broadcasting Exec B say they were looking for in Members Bar C.

So, May last year, it was 'ensemble dramas about superheroes, with a contemporary twist'. The assumption being that the superhero genre is inherently a bit embarrassing, and that something clever would have to be done to get ordinary people to like them, because ordinary people don't do things like read comics, or watch superhero movies. That would be ridiculous.

The first two production companies that suggested this to me, I decided to sort-of ignore, as neither of them had a good track record with handling genre television well. But then I had a meeting with Carnival, who didn't ask me to come up with anything in particular, but did convince me they they had a proper geekish enthusiasm for genre stuff, and had stong links to the Sci-Fi Channel, which was interesting. And because they'd read my HERO TRIP script, and liked it, they were up for me sending them in some quick ideas.

So, amongst a number of sketchy, half-page outlines I did for them, I chucked in a superhero ensemble drama, with a contemporary twist, because in between the first two meetings, and the one with Carnival, I'd finally thought of a way of doing proper British superheroes, that didn't just feel like pastiches of American characters.

Thusly, here is the very rough, one-paragraph and a quick list of possible characters mini-outline:


When Britain is in times of trouble, an ancient hero will appear once again. When it’s in real trouble, they all will.

A young man discovers that either he’s going mad, or he’s become a modern-day manifestation of an ancient british hero. Chased by monsters from legend, and stalked by mysterious figures with bizarre powers of their own, he soon realises he has become part of a strange twilight world, where updated versions of classic british heroes (and anti-heroes) fight to protect their land from the monsters created by the collective unconscious of its own inhabitants…


JACK: the Giant Killer? (previous versions: Beowulf, Saint George)

ROBIN: Matrix-esque-leather-clad chick with a longbow.

SPRINGHEEL JACK: Bouncing, flame-breathing Victorian weirdo.

BOUDICEA: Charismatic, tattooed, knife-wielding trouble-maker and general stirrer.

WHITTINGTON: The Night Mayor. Political fixer, pulls strings, calls in favours.

THE FINCHLEY ROAD GOLEM Hulking creature born from Kabbalah mysticism. Won’t fight on the Sabbath.

WAYLAND: Wheelchair bound smith

SECRET BASE: invisible flying steampunk cathedral, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, after a brief, and ill-advised experiment with absinthe.

MERLIN in a coma (I know, I know, it’s serious)
Map with at least twelve different Jack the Rippers.


EDIT: in the comments section, Boz asked the question "Are you not a-fearing that people will steal your ideas when you blog about them..?" I thought I may as well fold the answer in to the actual post, LIKE THIS:

Well, someone could try and nick it, I suppose, but they'd look a bit silly trying to copy exactly the same idea title and characters and all, and if they changed it... it would be a different idea anyway. A lot of what outlines do is just to suggest an interesting new way of combining Already Existing Idea A with Already Existing Idea B - what I'm hoping someone will do is pay me to go and develop those ideas in a way no-one else could. So, unless they're nicking actual chunks of an-existing script of mine, for which I would of course SUE THEIR ARSE OFF, there's not actually much for them to nick. Ultimately, there's no copyright on ideas.

Re the graphic novel - I could do this, but the time and effort an artist would need to put into this is considerable, and if I was going to write a comic, I'd rather come up with something original that could only ever work as a comic, rather than re-using something that failed in another medium.

I suppose what I'm trying to get across by following the outline across various stages this week, is that you have to come up with a LOT of ideas, on a more-or-less constant basis. Which means you can't get too precious about them, but also you have to invest enough of yourself in them that you actually want them to get to the next level. You could certainly assemble an outline made up of a load of checklists of 'things commissioners want', but would it be something you actually wanted to end up spending months of your life writing? It's a balance I'm only just starting to work out myself, to be honest.

Of course, the real trick is to come up with something you TOTALLY want to write, then work the outline so it ticks all the current buzzwords, thus tricking commissioners into paying you for something you would have done for free lol suckers.


Dan said...

Ooh, that sounds really good, in a League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen-type way (the book, not the movie -- of course.) If the likes of Demons can get made, why not something like this? But is the ensemble superhero thing played out now? At least in the Heroes-mould? That show has lost its sheen and lost a lot of viewers. Maybe Star Trek's going to reignite space-based adventure sci-fi for 2010. Can you transplant those characters to outer space? ;-)

James Henry said...

Mmm, definitely a bit of LoEG in there. And Heroes has certainly lost its sheen, but bear in mind this was May last year, when it hadn't turned shit, or, more importantly from the exec's POV, lost a lot of viewing figures.

Boz said...

Longbows! Steampunk Churches! Springheel Jack!


Have you thought about flogging this as a graphic novel idea? is that a do-able thing? Can that happen?

Serious point: Are you not a-fearing that people will steal your ideas when you blog about them..?

Newf said...

Springheel Jack! SPRINGHEEL JACK! I saw one of those behind my house, you know...

Jayne said...

Oooh, Springheel Jack. I'm getting a Christopher Fowler/Bryant and May vibe and it's making me feel all happy (even though I'm now back at work instead of sitting under a palm tree with a pile of books).

James Henry said...

Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood (excellent book) would be another influence here, as the lovely Laura B has just reminded me, via email.

Jayne said...

Lord, it's been years since I read that - I'm going to have to dig it out again.

In the meantime I came across a mention of The Mad Gasser of Mattoon today, who I think would make an excellent bad guy...

PK said...

Took me years, years I tell you, to come to terms with attempting to balance what "they" want, with what I want to write. And hey, I'm still not all the way there. Case in point, I had a meeting with a producer and a director once.
PRODUCER: The script is great. We love the script.
DIRECTOR: We love it.
PRODUCER: Oh absolutely.
DIRECTOR: Absolutely love it.
PRODUCER: The thing is, the main character's mourning for his dead friend, right.
ME: Yes, that's right. It's the engine that drives-
PRODUCER: And we thought, wouldn't it be great...
PRODUCER: ..wouldn't it be great if his dead mate came back, and started giving him advice.
DIRECTOR: And doing wacky stuff.
ME: Wacky..? What?
PRODUCER: Yeah, like giving him advice on relationships, and always turning up at innoportune moments.
DIRECTOR: (WINKING) Like when he's, you know?
(At this point I should have thrown back my head and cackled like a mad man, and said "Oh right! Like that's never been done!" and then stormed out all flouncy and Byronic like. Instead what I did was)
ME: (HOLDING BACK TEARS) That sounds brilliant.

It's like my grandfather used to say "Sometimes you have to eat your own shoes to get where you're going." Or something.

Loving Incarnate by the way. Getting the vibe straight away. Post a script now. I demand it.

kelly said...

It reminds me of Neverwhere a bit. A bit. I'd watch it.