Lost Gems: Ultraviolet

The best vampire show ever?

The cast of Ultraviolet

Let’s face it, vampires are silly. Yes, they are. They so are. Unless you’re stuck in some perpetual Twilight of gothdom/Emodom, the whole “vampiredom is cool/mysterious/sexy/dark/a great way to live” should have been replaced in your psyche by vampiredom is “sad/ridiculous/obvious metaphor for oral sex and venereal diseases” years ago.

To be fair, in part, that’s because of the daftness of general TV depictions of vampires, which should have put you off them altogether. The vampires on Buffy very quickly became laughable and Angel very rapidly became self-parody. The Marc Warren Dracula adaptation was awful, and no matter how good the 1970s BBC adaptation with Louis Jourdan was, his flapping his way up a wall like an overladen man on a spacehopper was enough to cause hysterics – and not the frightened kind – in any viewer.

But it needn’t be so. As Being Human in the UK and to a lesser extent True Blood in the US recently showed, you can do vampires convincingly in this day and age if you do them right.

Ten years ago, Channel 4 did the first – and possibly the best – of the modern vampire stories. Starring Jack Davenport, Susannah Harker and Idris Elba of The Wire, Ultraviolet managed to bring science, intelligence, moral ambiguity, decent characters and all the hallmarks of modern storytelling to the vampire story – all without saying the word ‘vampire’ once.

Although it’s been repeated and issued on DVD, it’s hard to get now (although you can watch every episode on YouTube) as it’s been deleted, so it’s officially a Lost Gem. Here’s a shiny fan-produced trailer for you, albeit one with a very bad choice in soundtrack:

The show revolves around Jack Davenport’s character, Mike, a police detective who finds his best friend – who’s marrying the woman he’s still in love with – accused of corruption on the day of his wedding. Two police officers (Idris Elba and Susannah Harker) turn up to investigate him, but they don’t behave in the right way and ask odd questions. In fact, on investigation, it turns out they don’t even work for the police, although they seem to have all the credentials to prove it.

It’s not long before evidence piles up that’s exceedingly odd: photos with no one in them, SWAT teams that use odd grenades and guns with TV cameras on them. Eventually, Mike discovers that his friend has become a vampire.

And that’s episode one.

The differentiator
What differentiates Ultraviolet from rubbish vampire fare is that it tries to answer seriously the question “What if vampires really did exist?” without every mentioning vampires – calling them ‘leeches’ or Code Fives (V in Roman numerals) instead.

The government’s secret investigative unit uses science to fight the vampires. No stakes through the heart, only carbon-ammunition and it’s shoot first, ask questions later or else the super-fast, super-strong vampires will get you before you can blink. No garlic, but grenades containing allicin, the active component in garlic.

But it’s not just the humans who have access to science. Vampires may not take well to a stake to a heart, but bullet-proof vests can come in handy there. They may not be able to reproduce since they’re dead, but could they use IVF treatments to overcome that? And since only humans – not mirrors, television cameras or even telephones – can see and hear vampires, communication might be a problem, but only if you didn’t have access to a computer, for example.

Equally, the show also poses more philosophical problems. Should we just accept that vampires are evil and kill them, or are they just another persecuted minority, the latest in a long line of government and church victims following women, the disabled and gay men and women? Since they don’t need to kill to get blood and they recruit very selectively, is peaceful co-existence a real possibility and is Mike joining the equivalent of a Nazi death squad, rather than a heroic band trying to protect us from the terrors of the night?

Over the course of the show’s six episodes, it walks this tightrope, never coming down on one side or other, always leaving you with the possibility that our heroes really aren’t heroes after all. It’s not until the final episode when all is revealed and the team with right on its side is revealed. I’m not saying who that is.

Character, as well, is everything, with the relationships among the main cast and their significant others – or would-like-to-be significant others in most cases – and the usually vengeance-driven rationales for the unit’s behaviour and beliefs explored subtly and at great length. And there are some good lines in dialogue, particularly for Idris Elba’s ex-army SWAT team leader Vaughn Rice (“The public would vote the Archbishop of Canterbury PM if they knew. I don’t want to live in Iran. Do you?”).

There’s some great acting from the core cast, with guest star Corin Redgrave providing a tour de force performance as the voice of vampire reason. Direction and writing from Joe Ahearne (This Life, Apparitions and some of Chris Eccleston episodes of Doctor Who) are first rate. It’s perhaps a little slower than some people might like, with the fourth episode being perhaps the best paced of the lot, but it’s intelligent drama for intelligent viewers so the excitement is usually intellectual and to do with the characters rather than the action.

Second series, the US version and clips
Unfortunately, there was never a second series, principally because Joe Ahearne was so busy writing and directing the first series, he never had time to come up with any new ideas for the next series. Which is a shame, really, but it did free up Jack Davenport for Coupling.

Here are a couple of taster clips, as well as the first ten minutes of the first episode, and if you liked them, there’s a playlist with all six episodes up at YouTube so you can watch it when you have the time. But it’s really worth owning on  DVD honest.

Incidentally, trivia lovers, Stephen Moyer, who plays Mike’s best friend and vampire, is now the vampire star of True Blood; there was also a pilot for a US version of Ultraviolet produced by Howard Gordon and Chip Johannessen that starred Idris Elba and Mädchen Amick – but it was a bit soapy and rubbish and was never picked up for series.

  • Marie

    This looks amazing… Straight onto my Lovefilm list.

  • Ooh ooh Rob, you’ve convinced me. Thanks. Will try and do the six episode thing, but not this week as am seriously seriously behind workwise. Cannot believe I missed this when it was on, but it was bang in the middle of my baby producing days, so I suspect I was otherwise occupied… DVD set now also on my birthday wish list…

  • Ooh ooh Rob, you’ve convinced me. Thanks. Will try and do the six episode thing, but not this week as am seriously seriously behind workwise. Cannot believe I missed this when it was on, but it was bang in the middle of my baby producing days, so I suspect I was otherwise occupied… DVD set now also on my birthday wish list…

  • I don’t even remember WHY I didn’t watch this at the time, since I have regularly come back to thinking ‘this must have been awesome!’. On my rental list asap…

  • I love True Blood and I love Stephen Moyer who plays Vampire Bill. I can’t wait for Season 2. In the meantime, I’m keeping up to date with the latest True Blood news at http://truebloodnet.com

  • …no matter how good the 1970s BBC adaptation with Louis Jourdan was, his flapping his way up a wall like an overladen man on a spacehopper was enough to cause hysterics – and not the frightened kind – in any viewer.
    Not this viewer, Sunshine. Dracula struggling up the wall was one of the most terrifying aspects of the Louis Jordan version for me. So unnatural. So unhuman. Shudder…

  • MediumRob

    “Not this viewer, Sunshine. Dracula struggling up the wall was one of the most terrifying aspects of the Louis Jordan version for me. So unnatural. So unhuman. Shudder…”
    Try it now – great performances, but still a bit laughable once the effects come out. The memory has a tendency to cheat and impressionable youngsters often find things far less scary as adults….

  • The memory has a tendency to cheat and impressionable youngsters often find things far less scary as adults….
    Nope, still terrifying. What impresses me, seeing it (what, 30 years later?) is the articulateness and simplicity of the script and performances. Sorry, I see nothing wrong with the special effects in your clip. Maybe that’s because I’ve never been bothered with what are essentially stage effects on television and in fact, I miss televised plays dreadfully. This clip makes me want to see the whole production again.

  • MediumRob

    “Nope, still terrifying. What impresses me, seeing it (what, 30 years later?) is the articulateness and simplicity of the script and performances. Sorry, I see nothing wrong with the special effects in your clip. ”
    I think you might have to accept that you’re in a slight minority on that one. Great script, great performances but really awful 70s, middle of the technicians’ strikes effects. It’s on DVD though, so you should be able to get it from Amazon.

  • stu-n

    You already know I’m a fellow fan. Ultraviolet goes on my very short list of Vampire Things that are Actually Good, Not Just Camp Fun (along with Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, Being Human and a really good Swedish film I saw recently, Let the Right One In).
    One thing that Ultraviolet looks at which other vampire stuff doesn’t is the question of identity. Is the vampire the same person as he or she was before they were recruited? All the vampire hunters have a reason to think otherwise, but are they kidding themselves?
    I’ve just lent my DVDs to a vampire-loving friend. Interesting to see what she thinks — I have a feeling she won’t like it, because the vampires themselves aren’t in it that much.
    I also have fond memories of the 1970s Dracula film with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier, but I have a nasty feeling it was crap.

  • I also have fond memories of the 1970s Dracula film with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier, but I have a nasty feeling it was crap. It was a bit. Frank Langella had a great success with it on Broadway, but this didn’t translate to the screen (despite the special effects). I gather the play was far funnier and had sets designed by the black-humoured Edward Gorey.

  • MediumRob

    Me too on the Frank Langella film, although really only because of Frank Langella. Sylvester McCoy’s in it and he’s rubbish.

  • SK

    I loved it at the time, I still think it is the best vampire story ever made in a visual medium (and I can’t, offhand, think of any prose depiction that’s better). Especially because it realises that what’s interesting about a vampire story — what really illumiates the human condition — is not the vampires (who are, as you point out, always going to be silly monsters without much to say about real life) but those who hunt them. Especially Philip Quast talking to Corin Redgrave in that last episode, when it really is unclear what he’s going to do.
    In fact there’s only one bit of your article I’d take issue with: the idea that there not being a second series is ‘sad’.
    Seriously, after the last episode, where could it possibly have gone? Both in terms of the background story – it couldn’t have got any bigger, at least, not and kept the right side of silly — and in terms of the individual facets of the premise that each episode examines.
    It’s a perfect example of why six episodes is the natural length of a TV idea, and the Americans idea of making thirteen at the least is so dead wrong. Each of the six episodes examines the theme from a different angle, and if more had been made they would just have repeated those six ad infinitum. Soapiness would have been inevitable, with relationships forming and dissolving among the crew, the vampires would have had to become less mysterious — you could already see this happening in the US pilot, as I understand it, as they geared up for the repetitive, inconclusive storytelling demanded by their longer series and hopes of being recommissioned.
    Ultraviolet was, is, perfect as it was: it begins, it examines its premise from all the different angles, and it ends. To add to it would only, could only, diminish it.
    More TV series should end after six or so episodes. It would have been the perfect length for Heroes, for example. Each episode examining one aspect of what it would be like to be a superhero in the real world, focusing Skins-like on a different character with a superpower, and a confrontation at the end, and then stop.

  • SK

    Sorry, you described there not being a second series as ‘unfortunate’, not ‘sad.’

  • Stu: Is Let the Right One In now out on film in the UK then?! I’ve been on the look out for it anywhere for ages — I had the book passed to me when it was published in the UK and absolutely adored it. Totally impressed and if the film captures even part of its tone am convinced it would be brilliant. If only I could find a cinema screening it… or has it gone straight to video?

  • SK

    I was booked to see it at a film festival — but at the last minute it was pulled (problems with the distributor were blamed). I also would very much like to see it.

  • MediumRob

    While I do think a lot of shows are eeked out far too long, I think six episodes as a universal upper limit is probably too short in some cases, if not most. Doctor Who? Surely not.
    Heroes I’d also say would never have fit into six episodes, no matter how hard they tried, since even with a different plot, ultimately it was all about slow discovery and acceptance of powers rather than an examination of the issues – that would be another show altogether. And you can’t do slow discovery and acceptance with an ensemble cast in just six episodes.
    What would Ultraviolet have done? Tricky. I’m not sure it could have gone on for too much longer, but you could see it could have gone in a number of directions, maybe to diminishing effect, but I’d like to credit Joe Ahearne with more skill as a writer than that. Look what he’s managed to come up with in Apparitions, for example.

  • Anonymous

    “Stu: Is Let the Right One In now out on film in the UK then?!”
    It’s getting an official cinema release next month (it’s on the Barbican’s film programme, so I’d imagine it’ll at least be on at arthouses), starting from 10th April. I saw an unofficial screening.
    It’s very atmospheric, creepy and disturbing as hell. Inevitably, there’s already an American remake in the works; I wouldn’t bother with that.

  • SK

    Doctor Who is a rather special case, because it’s essentially a load of short serials connected by a common thread. Note how six episodes is generally the upper limit of what a Doctor Who story can sustain as well.
    What he’s done with Apparitions is brilliant, but doesn’t it prove my point? He took Ultraviolet to the edge of where it could go, mined it out in six episodes, and now he’s done the same with Apparitions and, hopefully, he’ll go on to do the same again with a less than eleven-year gap this time.
    But isn’t it better that he explored one idea fully and then shifted focus to another (though of course related) idea to explore another area of faith and humanity, rather than keeping the first idea going with diminishing returns?
    As for Heroes, my comparison to Skins was deliberate: Skins shows how it’s possible to do slow discovery and acceptance in even a single episode. Most of the first series of Heroes was either throwaway filler or simple repetition (how many times did Clare get injured?), and didn’t contribute to the discovery/acceptance story at all. If you boiled it down to the things which contribute to the actual story of discovery and acceptance rather than sending the characters on pointless runarounds (the whole ‘Jessica works for Linderman/now she doesn’t/now she does’ thread, for example, is just a series of Pertwee capture/escape loops, the story function of which could be shown in about ten minutes of screen time, if you weren’t more concerned with producing padding for advertisements than good television) I’m sure you could do it in six episodes, at most eight.

  • “Doctor Who is a rather special case, because it’s essentially a load of short serials connected by a common thread. Note how six episodes is generally the upper limit of what a Doctor Who story can sustain as well.”
    But that’s an individual story. Essentially, you’re saying there should never be a story two, story three, etc, even if there’s an overarching narrative to bind them all together. Now it’s very easy to argue (correctly) that there’s an awful lot of filler in Who, but even if you took it all out, you still couldn’t pack all the good stuff into six episodes. The audience wouldn’t have time to get to know the characters. Regeneration would have no impact and wouldn’t even be necessary.
    “What he’s done with Apparitions is brilliant, but doesn’t it prove my point? He took Ultraviolet to the edge of where it could go, mined it out in six episodes, and now he’s done the same with Apparitions and, hopefully, he’ll go on to do the same again with a less than eleven-year gap this time.”
    No, because we don’t know whether there’s a second series yet. If there is and he has more ideas, doesn’t that prove that six episodes isn’t an upper limit? Absence of second series doesn’t prove that no second series was either impossible or unnecessary.
    “But isn’t it better that he explored one idea fully and then shifted focus to another (though of course related) idea to explore another area of faith and humanity, rather than keeping the first idea going with diminishing returns?”
    Maybe, but that assumes he couldn’t have done something equally as good with the second series, which we don’t know he couldn’t. Plus as you say, he had 11 years, so it would have been possible for him to do plenty of series of Ultraviolet and still do Apparitions. We only have to worry about authors only being able to do two different series or two series of one series if the authors are mayflies.
    “Most of the first series of Heroes was either throwaway filler or simple repetition (how many times did Clare get injured?)… I’m sure you could do it in six episodes, at most eight.”
    No arguing that there’s an awful lot of filler in the first season of Heroes, but even so, there’s still at least eight episodes in there as you say. Would Company Man have been so good if there weren’t 17 or so episodes before it to establish the emotional context for everything? Or if it were compressed down to 15 minutes to fit in other issues and strands?
    I think a lot of television is holistic. You can look at its parts and say, essentially, that some shows can be boiled down to a few threads and compress it down to that, but I think that robs the show of something and doesn’t let the audience get to know characters as well or even get to identify with them. Would the long trek to find a new home for the characters of BSG have any impact if it were all done by the sixth episode? Or if everyone got off the island by the end of episode four of Lost (although that’s not a claim that Lost hasn’t had a huge wadge of unnecessary padding)?
    Not to quote Doctor Who too much, “For some people, small beautiful events is what life is all about” and trying to take out all those small events in the name of efficiency and brevity robs drama of some of its impact.
    Even in television terms, that are certain practicalities that need to be accepted: casts often need time to get to know their characters and each other; actors bring things to roles that aren’t often in the scripts and these get brought into the characters to make them more real; the producers often cock up on filming, editing, etc, when they first start making a show and it’s only once they’re into the swing of things that they manage to perfect what they’re doing?
    I think ultimately there needs to be a differentiation between whether something is inherently ‘serial material’ or ‘series material’. Some ideas won’t stretch, some ideas will or simply beget other ideas that might even be better.

  • Fascinating discussion. I’m not sure six episodes is sufficient for every idea, so I’d be inclined to agree with Rob. When I’m loving a series like Being Human I think six isn’t enough. I think it is up to clever writers to see how much mileage there is in an idea. Too often they milk it to death, so for eg, I think it was right for Life on Mars to finish after series 2 (which didn’t stop me mourning its demise) as what you’re left with is something still fantastic rather then feeling its lost its way. Now I know Rob will disagree with me on this, but I think by taking the same idea and transforming it to the 80s they did something new and different and kept the essential idea going (and could conceivably do so for quite some time to come, but whether it could ever work without Gene Hunt is probably a moot point.)
    Rob, now I know that Joe Ahearne wrote Ultraviolet, I know I am going to love it. Apparitions had me on the edge of my seat. I have a totally pathetic catholic low threshold to anything involving devil worship which totally freaks me out, and that last episode nearly reduced me to a gibbering wreck… Hope he doesn’t just leave it there, so I can get to gibber some more (preferably with my husband this time, as he was inconveniently out of the room in my hour of need…)

  • SK

    But that’s an individual story. Essentially, you’re saying there should never be a story two, story three, etc, even if there’s an overarching narrative to bind them all together. Now it’s very easy to argue (correctly) that there’s an awful lot of filler in Who, but even if you took it all out, you still couldn’t pack all the good stuff into six episodes. The audience wouldn’t have time to get to know the characters. Regeneration would have no impact and wouldn’t even be necessary.
    That’s not quite what I’m saying, in regards Doctor Who; it’s more the case that I’m suggesting that ‘story two’, ‘story three’ and so on are best treated, for these purposes, as separate serials rather than as part of the same series. That’s why the great strength of Doctor Who is that each serial takes place in a new location, with a new cast, a new story, new themes, and so on. That’s why it works and is so long-lived.
    No, because we don’t know whether there’s a second series [of Apparitions] yet. If there is and he has more ideas, doesn’t that prove that six episodes isn’t an upper limit? Absence of second series doesn’t prove that no second series was either impossible or unnecessary.
    I hope there isn’t a second series of Apparitions; I can’t think of anywhere for it to go. Can you? Maybe Aherne can, and if he does it then I’ll eat my words, but really, having defeated the plan to birth the Messiah of Hell and bring about Armageddon, what is there left for Judge Deed to do?
    I’m rather worried about the second series of Being Human, too: I can’t see where it can go. The first rather took the characters to the ends of their respective journeys, and I worry that the second (and subsequent, if it comes to that) will be them in their new, static forms trying to avoid government labs or whatever while dealing with their neighbours in plots that may last for an episode or may last longer but ultimately won’t, can’t, go anywhere to explore anything that hasn’t already been done in the first series.
    Plus as you say, he had 11 years, so it would have been possible for him to do plenty of series of Ultraviolet and still do Apparitions. We only have to worry about authors only being able to do two different series or two series of one series if the authors are mayflies.
    Each one of those series, though, would have diminished Ultraviolet: instead of six perfectly formed, perfectly complementary episodes, we’d have a treadmill of stories that went over the same ground again and again until finally it gets cancelled two years after everyone’s sick to the back teeth of it.
    Would Company Man have been so good if there weren’t 17 or so episodes before it to establish the emotional context for everything?
    Yes, because hardly any of those 17 episodes actually do any establishing. Is Vaughan’s telephone conversation with Angie empty of emotional context because there’s only been five episodes to establish it? No, because five episodes is quite enough to establish an emotional context. Heck, one episode is, if you’re only talking about one emotional context: Heroes would only take more because it has so many characters and contexts to establish.
    Would the long trek to find a new home for the characters of BSG have any impact if it were all done by the sixth episode?
    I watched the first series and it was rather robbed of its impact when it turned out that the fabled lost home of humanity was, what, forty-two days’ travel (or one spacejump in a fighter) away from the capital of the system?
    Mere screen time is irrelevant to the emotional depth and impact that characters and a story can have. There are films that feel like epic journeys, and they’re done in two to three hours; Battlestar Galactica feels trivial over thirteen episodes.
    Not to quote Doctor Who too much, “For some people, small beautiful events is what life is all about” and trying to take out all those small events in the name of efficiency and brevity robs drama of some of its impact.
    I think you misunderstand me. What I want is not to lose the small, beautiful moments: it’s to lose everything else, the padding and repetition that dilutes the small, beautiful moments. That telephone conversation in Terra Incognita (unless I’m misremembering and it was in Persona Non Grata?)
    is just the kind of small, beautiful moment that should be what a TV programme is composed off. You shouldn’t be able to point to certain episodes, like Company Man and say ‘these are the really good episodes that go to the heart of what the show’s about’ because they should all be the really good episodes, the ones that go to the heart of the premise.
    And you don’t need the other episodes to ‘establish emotional context’: the very fact that films can do it in ninety minutes, and series like Ultraviolet in five episodes, prove that.
    What the endless repetition and padding of American series does is get you used to the characters, make them familiar. That’s a cheap, lazy substitute for emotional context, but it’s one the American series are forced to fall back on because if they did do the intensity of emotional context that Ultraviolet does they would have nowhere to go after six episodes and when what would they show between their adverts?
    (Note that non-advertising-driven channels like HBO seem to have realised this and started seeing thirteen episodes as a more natural length for a series, though of course they still want to milk the audience’s investment in the characters to keep them subscribing so they keep making new series of the same shows instead of making new shows).
    Even in television terms, that are certain practicalities that need to be accepted: casts often need time to get to know their characters and each other; actors bring things to roles that aren’t often in the scripts and these get brought into the characters to make them more real; the producers often cock up on filming, editing, etc, when they first start making a show and it’s only once they’re into the swing of things that they manage to perfect what they’re doing?
    But again, don’t things like Ultraviolet, Apparitions, State of Play, Conviction, and so on, and so forth, show that that’s unnecessary if you’re prepared to do the groundwork properly (including, for example, writing the scripts before you start filming, which I understand would be a revolutionary concept on the other side of the pond)?

  • Marie

    I think the best example of taking something that works as a serial and making it also work as a recurring series is The Wire. (Bearing in mind I have only seen the first two seasons, so please don’t spoiler me in any replies!) Over the course of 12 (13? – I can’t google it, too scared of the dreaded spoil) episodes, you get a perfect one-off story arc. But then over the course of the different seasons, you also get another, longer arc. And both are completely engrossing.

  • MediumRob

    “That’s not quite what I’m saying, in regards Doctor Who; it’s more the case that I’m suggesting that ‘story two’, ‘story three’ and so on are best treated, for these purposes, as separate serials rather than as part of the same series. That’s why the great strength of Doctor Who is that each serial takes place in a new location, with a new cast, a new story, new themes, and so on. That’s why it works and is so long-lived.”
    Isn’t that a bit of a cheat? That’s saying “All series should be six episodes or fewer, except when they’re more than six episodes I’m going to break them down into groups of supposedly completely different shows of six episodes or fewer?”. Basically that means you can take any successful series and apply that theory to prove it always right.
    Even if you can break them down into separate serials, all you’ve shown is that there’s at least one successful writing technique that enables a TV series to run indefinitely.
    But how about The Wire as a disprover of theory? All seasons longer than six episodes, all seasons with more or less the same casts, each season having its own theme. You could probably chop out a few episodes, but ultimately, each season alone would need to be at least six episodes, and it ran for five seasons.
    And by your argument, Stargate SG-1 should be a classic of modern television since it does everything Doctor Who does but with a gate instead of a box. Or at least it might have been with better writers.
    “I hope there isn’t a second series of Apparitions; I can’t think of anywhere for it to go. Can you? Maybe Aherne can, and if he does it then I’ll eat my words, but really, having defeated the plan to birth the Messiah of Hell and bring about Armageddon, what is there left for Judge Deed to do?I’m rather worried about the second series of Being Human, too: I can’t see where it can go.”
    Isn’t that one of the delights of television? Not actually knowing how everything is going to turn out before it appears on screen? Simply because I can’t say (and frankly, I’m not well versed enough in Roman Catholicism to even attempt to suggest what Ahearne could come up with) and you can’t say where writers can take things, it doesn’t mean they have our failure of imagination. That is, after all, their job – to come up with new ideas. Predicating future behaviour of someone based on the previous behaviour of someone else – surely that has a few flaws in it somewhere?
    “Each one of those series, though, would have diminished Ultraviolet: instead of six perfectly formed, perfectly complementary episodes, we’d have a treadmill of stories that went over the same ground again and again until finally it gets cancelled two years after everyone’s sick to the back teeth of it.”
    Prove it. Show me the evidence that says that’s exactly what would have happened. It might well be that that’s what would have happened, but neither you nor I can say for sure that it would have.
    “Heroes would only take more because it has so many characters and contexts to establish.”
    So are we establishing not just a maximum number of episodes for a series before it becomes either rubbish or broken down into “linked serials” but a maximum number of characters as well?
    “Would the long trek to find a new home for the characters of BSG have any impact if it were all done by the sixth episode?I watched the first series and it was rather robbed of its impact when it turned out that the fabled lost home of humanity was, what, forty-two days’ travel (or one spacejump in a fighter) away from the capital of the system?”
    Actually, no, they arrived at Earth at the end of episode 14 or something of season four. They got their arses kicked around on New Caprica at the end of season two/start of season three. They find a pointer in the right general direction at the end of the first season, but it takes them very much longer to get there. The point being that without the failures and the travel in between, the lost hope and the moments of triumph, the eventual arrival – which ends up as a kick in the teeth anyway – would never have been so important.
    “Mere screen time is irrelevant to the emotional depth and impact that characters and a story can have. There are films that feel like epic journeys, and they’re done in two to three hours; Battlestar Galactica feels trivial over thirteen episodes.”
    There are films that feel like epic journeys. There are some that feel quite short at four hours, and some that feel quite long at one and a half. Arguing that all films should be, say, one hour because that’s all any film should need, isn’t something I’d do, myself, because that’s all any film should need isn’t something I’d do but it’s essentially what you’re doing for TV.
    Nor would I have argued against the existence of The Godfather 2, Superman 2, The Empire Strikes Back, any of the Harry Potter sequels, The Dark Knight or any other well written sequel.
    Nor would I argue for a fixed length of novel, or even that Proust should have considered looking for fewer times lost since he really didn’t need to go looking for so many.
    “What I want is not to lose the small, beautiful moments: it’s to lose everything else, the padding and repetition that dilutes the small, beautiful moments. That telephone conversation in Terra Incognita (unless I’m misremembering and it was in Persona Non Grata?) is just the kind of small, beautiful moment that should be what a TV programme is composed off. You shouldn’t be able to point to certain episodes, like Company Man and say ‘these are the really good episodes that go to the heart of what the show’s about’ because they should all be the really good episodes, the ones that go to the heart of the premise.”
    Well, how does one get from small beautiful moment to small beautiful moment? Can every moment be beautiful and small or should there be no padding whatsoever? And what if it turns out the padding itself is small and beautiful and actually what makes those moments small and beautiful?
    Without Mike in the helicopter coming to get Vaughn Rice, would his dilemma be as hard to understand or as tense? Yes, ultimately, Mike in the helicopter isn’t a small, beautiful moment or even great television – it’s a plot explanation scene. That whole six minutes could be cut down to just Vaughn in the warehouse. But you need that scene all the same and the fact it’s there is important.
    Company Man needed a good number of episodes before it to have an impact. Stick it as episode two and it’s pointless. Stick it in at five, and you’re still not there yet, unless you’ve chopped out 50-75% of the other characters and you have an entirely different show that doesn’t look at as many themes. Even then, I suspect that as an episode it would be meaningless, because you haven’t even gotten to know the family yet. You haven’t introduced a credible threat, the company, HRG’s activities. You don’t get to understand Matt’s motivations or Ted’s. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You simply don’t get the emotional resonance even at five episodes in.
    It might just be that we have different definitions of padding and importance. But I can’t help but feel that at least some of your less padded episodes – but certainly not all, since I think we can both agree there’s an awful lot of padding and filler out there – would be less emotionally involving than mine.
    Yes, we should try to get rid of repetition and dullness. But I don’t believe though that there’s a single producer of a TV programme anywhere who intentionally goes out to make a repetitive and dull programme though.
    But at the moment you appear to be arguing that in television, any writer or group of writers who come up with an idea for a television show can only ever produce six episodes’ worth of insight into that idea, its themes, its sub-themes, its characters, their relationships (except when they can produce more, in which case we’ll class them as different TV shows). Isn’t that quite insulting to writers?
    “And you don’t need the other episodes to ‘establish emotional context’: the very fact that films can do it in ninety minutes, and series like Ultraviolet in five episodes, prove that.”
    See earlier.
    “What the endless repetition and padding of American series does is get you used to the characters, make them familiar. That’s a cheap, lazy substitute for emotional context, but it’s one the American series are forced to fall back on because if they did do the intensity of emotional context that Ultraviolet does they would have nowhere to go after six episodes and when what would they show between their adverts?”
    Are you essentially arguing against character development? Emotional context is quite a static concept. Yes, it can be established very quickly – with just a phone call – but while one can develop characters a little in specific areas over a short space of time (typically with time jumps in films, which was also a technique BSG used with New Caprica – cf ‘one year later’ which was surprisingly revolutionary for a TV show), to take characters on significant journeys while simultaneously exploring themes, ideas and concepts is a tall order with just six episodes. It can be done in some cases, but as a universal rule, I don’t think it’s true.
    “But again, don’t things like Ultraviolet, Apparitions, State of Play, Conviction, and so on, and so forth, show that that’s unnecessary if you’re prepared to do the groundwork properly (including, for example, writing the scripts before you start filming, which I understand would be a revolutionary concept on the other side of the pond)?”
    I think even Ultraviolet disproves that theory (cf interview with Joe Ahearne part one and part two). State of Play was written in one fell swoop without any planning, which is why it has that big glaring flaw in logic to do with the results of the autopsy being changed. The Prisoner’s crowning episode/catastrophic finale was written 24 hours before it was due to shoot and contains more themes than most of the series put together. And so on.
    Development time is a good thing, but quite often both British and American TV series don’t get it, no matter their length, because of the way the commissioning and production processes works. Have a look at Russell T Davies’s The Writer’s Tale to see just how chaotic production is, how frequently scripts and ideas fall through at the last minute, etc, even on a flagship show. In an ideal world, they would, but we’re not talking about an ideal world.
    And no matter how much planning time there is, it’s not until a cast actually gets together that you can tell what’s going to come out. Have a look at ST:TNG to see a cast take three years to really get the hang of each other.

  • Anonymous

    Regarding Doctor Who:
    Isn’t that a bit of a cheat? That’s saying “All series should be six episodes or fewer, except when they’re more than six episodes I’m going to break them down into groups of supposedly completely different shows of six episodes or fewer?”. Basically that means you can take any successful series and apply that theory to prove it always right.
    Not really, unless you can find another series that is composed of completely separate serials with different locations, casts and writers, and basically nothign to do with each other, in the was Doctor Who is. Doctor Who is in many ways — and this is one of them — sui generis.
    But how about The Wire as a disprover of theory? All seasons longer than six episodes, all seasons with more or less the same casts, each season having its own theme. You could probably chop out a few episodes, but ultimately, each season alone would need to be at least six episodes, and it ran for five seasons.
    I can’t comment on The Wire, as I’ve only, as of the date of writing, seen the first half of the first series.
    And by your argument, Stargate SG-1 should be a classic of modern television since it does everything Doctor Who does but with a gate instead of a box. Or at least it might have been with better writers.
    Now you’re falling into the backwards syllogism fallacy.
    However, also note that Stargate SG-1 isn’t a set of completely separate serials: it’s your standard American TV series where the same episode is repeated ad nauseum (see also CSI: X, Without a Trace, so on, so forth). Doctor who, when good, is composed of serials that are entirely unlike each other (though I won’t pretend that it doesn’t sometimes descend to the same repetitive, dull level as the American series, notably in series five).
    Simply because I can’t say (and frankly, I’m not well versed enough in Roman Catholicism to even attempt to suggest what Ahearne could come up with) and you can’t say where writers can take things, it doesn’t mean they have our failure of imagination. That is, after all, their job – to come up with new ideas. Predicating future behaviour of someone based on the previous behaviour of someone else – surely that has a few flaws in it somewhere?
    On the other hand, predicting future behaviour based on a common, indeed almost infallible pattern, seems fairly reasonable and that’s what I’m doing.
    Prove it. Show me the evidence that says that’s exactly what would have happened. It might well be that that’s what would have happened, but neither you nor I can say for sure that it would have.
    Well, based on my reading of the interview you pointed to, Joe Aherne agrees with me: ‘I’d really fought quite hard in Ultraviolet to have the end six episodes as something which had a definite conclusion. You know, at the end of six episodes you find out categorically what the vampires are up to and that’s it. So at the end you find out that they want to wipe out humanity and create a nuclear winter. And once you’ve decided that, I don’t think, personally, you can go on for another 3 or 4 seasons exploring that. You know, you’ve been told.’
    So are we establishing not just a maximum number of episodes for a series before it becomes either rubbish or broken down into “linked serials” but a maximum number of characters as well?
    Yes, I think so. too many characters and the focus inevitably becomes diluted. Imagine reading a novel with a hundred characters in it: you’d quickly lose track of who was who and it would be difficult to invest in any of them. I think there’s a point — and you get to it quite quickly — where throwing new stuff in just makes things worse. If you’ve that many ideas, you’d be better off making two separate programmes, not trying to cram them all into one.
    After all, how many novels are there out there that collapse into big messy messes because the author threw in all the ideas they had, so that out of the material for two great, separate novels, one really bad one is produced?
    Actually, no, they arrived at Earth at the end of episode 14 or something of season four. They got their arses kicked around on New Caprica at the end of season two/start of season three. They find a pointer in the right general direction at the end of the first season, but it takes them very much longer to get there.
    Then I misinterpreted; I thought that at the end of the first season it was declared that they had reached the planet were human life started, before they spread to the colonies.
    There are films that feel like epic journeys. There are some that feel quite short at four hours, and some that feel quite long at one and a half.
    Again, you’re making my point for me. Screen time is only tangentially relevant to emotional depth. So you can’t claim that there’s some minimum screen time required for something to have emotional depth; there simply isn’t.
    Arguing that all films should be, say, one hour because that’s all any film should need, isn’t something I’d do, myself, because that’s all any film should need isn’t something I’d do but it’s essentially what you’re doing for TV.
    I don’t think I’m being quite so Procrustean, as I’ve allowed leeway (okay, I was quite dogmatic about six episodes in my first, but that was quite rhetorical). Say, up to eight episodes. And down to two or three.
    Nor would I argue for a fixed length of novel, or even that Proust should have considered looking for fewer times lost since he really didn’t need to go looking for so many.
    I haven’t read Proust, but I do wonder if Dickens might not have been improved had he not been being paid by the word.
    Well, how does one get from small beautiful moment to small beautiful moment?
    With brevity.
    Can every moment be beautiful and small or should there be no padding whatsoever?
    Ideally.
    And what if it turns out the padding itself is small and beautiful and actually what makes those moments small and beautiful? Without Mike in the helicopter coming to get Vaughn Rice, would his dilemma be as hard to understand or as tense? Yes, ultimately, Mike in the helicopter isn’t a small, beautiful moment or even great television – it’s a plot explanation scene.
    I think it’s a bit much to say it’s just ‘a plot explanation scene’. That whole sequence is about Vaughn and Mike both realising that he’s simply not going to be there in time. For once, the cavalry will arrive after the last minute.
    That whole six minutes could be cut down to just Vaughn in the warehouse. But you need that scene all the same and the fact it’s there is important.
    But if this was Heroes, it wouldn’t be a six-minute sequence: it would be an entire episode with Vaughn trapped in the warehouse. In fact it would probably be three episodes, with Vaughn escaping from the warehouse in the middle only for him to be brought back so that the cliffhanger can be him being in exactly the same situation he was in an episode and a half earlier.
    Company Man needed a good number of episodes before it to have an impact. Stick it as episode two and it’s pointless. Stick it in at five, and you’re still not there yet, unless you’ve chopped out 50-75% of the other characters and you have an entirely different show that doesn’t look at as many themes. Even then, I suspect that as an episode it would be meaningless, because you haven’t even gotten to know the family yet. You haven’t introduced a credible threat, the company, HRG’s activities. You don’t get to understand Matt’s motivations or Ted’s. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You simply don’t get the emotional resonance even at five episodes in.
    I don’t see why you couldn’t, in five episodes, establish a credible threat, the company, Bennet’s activites, and the motivations of the other characters (in the series as was, Ted’s motivations take about forty seconds to establish, they’re that deep). The first two of those, the threat and Bennet’s activites, would take up a tiny amount of the first episode, and the establishing of Bennet’s activites could be combined with establishing Matt’s motivations for finding him, no problem.
    But I don’t believe though that there’s a single producer of a TV programme anywhere who intentionally goes out to make a repetitive and dull programme though.
    From what I’ve read — a column by Jane Espenson here, a book by Alex Epstein there — that’s exactly what they are trying to do in the American ‘writing room’ system: produce a sequence of episodes that are repetitive so that the audience knows what they are going to get, with only just enough difference to stop them getting bored. Episodes that really delve deeply into the premise are by necessity limited because there are only a limited number of things you can say about any premise, and you don’t want to use them all up in the first quarter of the first series.
    But at the moment you appear to be arguing that in television, any writer or group of writers who come up with an idea for a television show can only ever produce six episodes’ worth of insight into that idea, its themes, its sub-themes, its characters, their relationships (except when they can produce more, in which case we’ll class them as different TV shows). Isn’t that quite insulting to writers?
    I don’t think so; I think it’s just recognising that if you keep returning to the same well, all the water will end up tasting the same.
    What makes a good writer is that they can then, instead of trying desperately to convince us that they have a new take on the same idea, sink a new well — come up with a new idea, make a new programme.
    If they have so many ideas as you say — and I don’t doubt some of them do — wouldn’t it be better if they were to make a complete fresh new series to explore those new ideas?
    I know I’d prefer it if there were a whole new raft of TV programmes every year instead of the same ones returning year after year trying to convince us that they have something new to say.
    Are you essentially arguing against character development? Emotional context is quite a static concept. Yes, it can be established very quickly – with just a phone call – but while one can develop characters a little in specific areas over a short space of time (typically with time jumps in films, which was also a technique BSG used with New Caprica – cf ‘one year later’ which was surprisingly revolutionary for a TV show), to take characters on significant journeys while simultaneously exploring themes, ideas and concepts is a tall order with just six episodes.
    See, I would say that I was arguing for character development. I’m arguing for a model where a character can go through a journey that begins and ends, and against the model where they have to be kept in stasis for years and years and years because that’s the set-up of the series and it can’t be changed.
    You see it over and over again: the first series takes the characters on a journey, and then from that poont on, freeze. It’s my fear for Being Human, as I mentioned.

  • MediumRob

    “Basically that means you can take any successful series and apply that theory to prove it always right.Not really, unless you can find another series that is composed of completely separate serials with different locations, casts and writers, and basically nothign to do with each other, in the was Doctor Who is.”
    Stargate again, by that definition. 24 to a lesser extent. The X-Files. But even Doctor Who doesn’t really fit that definition, since the writers were pretty constant for most of the Troughton and Pertwee years, for example. DW stayed in pretty much the same place for the Pertwee years.
    And DW is no longer really a serial either, but is episodic, and wasn’t during season 22 – the Colin Baker years. The Dalek Masterplan was a masterly 12 episodes; Trial of a Time Lord, although broken in sub-serials, was essentially the same story. To describe the countless Daleks stories, cyberman stories, etc, as completely separate serials would be wrong, I think. So essentially even DW’s a fudge to make it fit that definition.
    “However, also note that Stargate SG-1 isn’t a set of completely separate serials: it’s your standard American TV series where the same episode is repeated ad nauseum (see also CSI: X, Without a Trace, so on, so forth).”
    Well, again, that’s fudging things since Stargate was (and it did change in later episodes to repeat itself more than a bit) episodic Who for the first two seasons at least, but with more of a binding narrative than Who. But essentially it was “alien culture of the week” for two seasons.
    “On the other hand, predicting future behaviour based on a common, indeed almost infallible pattern, seems fairly reasonable and that’s what I’m doing.”
    But you’re not. You’re just saying it is, without actually justifying it or providing evidence to support it. Indeed, we’ve already come up with a few counterexamples of shows. And to base future behaviour of one writer based on other writers is surely a fallacy – do we extrapolate from Martin Amis to predict Tom Clancy? No.
    “Well, based on my reading of the interview you pointed to, Joe Aherne agrees with me: ‘once you’ve decided that, I don’t think, personally, you can go on for another 3 or 4 seasons exploring that. You know, you’ve been told.’
    I thought we were talking about a second series, not a fifth? I’m not denying that some ideas have an upper limit, but you’re saying that Joe Ahearne couldn’t possibly have come up with a second series; he’s saying he couldn’t come up with a fourth or a fifth. And watch the spoilers – we’re supposed to be trying to persuade people to watch Ultraviolet, not tell them everything that happens!
    “Yes, I think so. too many characters and the focus inevitably becomes diluted. Imagine reading a novel with a hundred characters in it: you’d quickly lose track of who was who and it would be difficult to invest in any of them.”
    Do you have such a number in mind? Is it, surprisingly enough, always going to be the exact number that says six or eight episodes are all that’s necessary, just to make your theory self-proving?
    I would also point to War and Peace at this point for character fun. And Heroes has about 10 regular characters, just to compare. The Wire has more.
    “Then I misinterpreted; I thought that at the end of the first season it was declared that they had reached the planet were human life started, before they spread to the colonies.”
    The Galactica and co were always looking to find Earth and the 13th colony, not the starting point of the colonies – that was a happy happenstance.
    “I don’t see why you couldn’t, in five episodes, establish a credible threat, the company, Bennet’s activites, and the motivations of the other characters (in the series as was, Ted’s motivations take about forty seconds to establish, they’re that deep). The first two of those, the threat and Bennet’s activites, would take up a tiny amount of the first episode, and the establishing of Bennet’s activites could be combined with establishing Matt’s motivations for finding him, no problem.”
    Again, not without chopping out a load of characters and themes. I don’t doubt you could get an entire season of Heroes or anything else down to about five episodes, but not without chopping a lot of meat as well as fat. And then what would the episodes after Company Man be, BTW?
    “From what I’ve read — a column by Jane Espenson here, a book by Alex Epstein there — that’s exactly what they are trying to do in the American ‘writing room’ system: produce a sequence of episodes that are repetitive so that the audience knows what they are going to get, with only just enough difference to stop them getting bored.”
    a) always ignore Jane Espenson
    b) so what if some are? That doesn’t mean the whole system is or that it’s impossible to produce a series that lasts longer than six episodes and needs to last longer than six episodes. That’s not how the Lost writers’ room is run, or the BSG writers’ room, either.
    “Episodes that really delve deeply into the premise are by necessity limited because there are only a limited number of things you can say about any premise, and you don’t want to use them all up in the first quarter of the first series. ”
    So the deeper you delve, the shorter something has to be? Presumably then Doctor Who is nearly infinitely shallow.
    Again, watch The Wire as the perfect counter-example. Or even just the Aaron Sorkin West Wing episodes. He gets a bit repetitious, but I dare you to say which are the only six episodes that need to be watched and that say anything of any merit. You will be disproved.
    “If they have so many ideas as you say — and I don’t doubt some of them do — wouldn’t it be better if they were to make a complete fresh new series to explore those new ideas?”
    Well, there are many reasons, of convenience, imagination and production:
    a) if the ideas are all related to the same concept, that would be tricky
    b) if the format is flexible, why not use it?
    c) it took six years for Life on Mars to get given a green light – you don’t want to have to go through the commissioning process any more than you have to
    d) there are costs in any show. Building sets costs money and you need space for them and time to make them. Generally, you want as few sets, costumes, etc, as possible or else you’ll go over budget and get cancelled. If you don’t make money or you cost too much, you get cancelled unless you’re on HBO.
    e) Marketing to get ratings costs money. Look how many US shows get cancelled every year because of low ratings. Touching Evil was fabulous but got killed because it was on the wrong network and poorly marketed. Known brands get good word of mouth but that takes time to build, particularly in a multi-platform age
    f) Look how many shows never make it past pilot – or even to pilot or get a cast-contingent pilot order but can’t get the right cast.
    If you’re a writer with ideas, you probably want them to be seen by others, not have them sit in a vault somewhere. An existing format that allows you to put those ideas out there as much as possible is far preferable to coming up with countless formats that get crushed or which no one watches. The Wire got under a million viewers in the US, and got about 35,000 in the UK. If it were being made by a standard network, it would have ended before season one.
    “I know I’d prefer it if there were a whole new raft of TV programmes every year instead of the same ones returning year after year trying to convince us that they have something new to say. ”
    There are. Just off the top of my head, we’ve had Life on Mars, Being Erica, Kath and Kim, Eleventh Hour, Worst Week, The Ex List, United States of Tara, The Beast, Trust Me, Lie To Me, Knight Rider, Crusoe, Leverage, Raising the Bar, My Own Worst Enemy, Sanctuary, Valentine, The Mentalist, Privileged, 90210, Fringe, Dollhouse, and True Blood in the last nine months out of Canada and the US. Some of them are remakes, but that’s still a lot of new stuff – and even the remakes have twisted the old ideas to some extent.
    They just get cancelled or never picked up because people don’t watch them or they can’t get into them. And the shows return, in a lot of cases, because they do have something to say or they serve a function. CSI: Miami serves a different function from The Wire which serves a different function from Kath and Kim.
    And, of course, there’s something we haven’t touched on yet – whether a show really has to say anything to be enjoyable or to be entitled to life. But I’m not going there. Yet. Or even does in fact, need to be like a single book, rather than a series of books?
    “See, I would say that I was arguing for character development. I’m arguing for a model where a character can go through a journey that begins and ends, and against the model where they have to be kept in stasis for years and years and years because that’s the set-up of the series and it can’t be changed. You see it over and over again: the first series takes the characters on a journey, and then from that poont on, freeze. It’s my fear for Being Human, as I mentioned. ”
    That’s fair enough. But Heroes, daft as a brush as it is, rarely leaves the characters in stasis in terms of development. Friday Night Lights doesn’t. BSG doesn’t. Even on CSI, there’s character development, with characters coming and going, having relationship arcs and more. ER has a constant cycling of characters in and out.
    And a lot of the time, that’s the way the audience likes it. Many won’t get into a new serial if they’ve missed an episode. Many would rather just watch a show they can dip into, that doesn’t require them to know what happened in the previous two or three eps to understand it.
    Though again, that’s a different subject- should networks be in the business of making the best television it can or the most enjoyable television it can? Not going there.
    And truth be told, how many people in life actually go on fixed journeys anyway? And your model seems to suggest that people only have one thing to learn in life. How’s your character developing right now? Have you learnt the lesson you were supposed to learn five episodes ago? Do you need to learn anything more or is that it for the rest of your life? Do you feel like the ideas in you have been sufficiently mined to a deep enough level?
    To nick a thought from the Buddhists, we’re always changing, we’re never the same person. Our journey’s never complete.

  • MediumRob

    “Basically that means you can take any successful series and apply that theory to prove it always right.Not really, unless you can find another series that is composed of completely separate serials with different locations, casts and writers, and basically nothign to do with each other, in the was Doctor Who is.”
    Stargate again, by that definition. 24 to a lesser extent. The X-Files. But even Doctor Who doesn’t really fit that definition, since the writers were pretty constant for most of the Troughton and Pertwee years, for example. DW stayed in pretty much the same place for the Pertwee years.
    And DW is no longer really a serial either, but is episodic, and wasn’t during season 22 – the Colin Baker years. The Dalek Masterplan was a masterly 12 episodes; Trial of a Time Lord, although broken in sub-serials, was essentially the same story. To describe the countless Daleks stories, cyberman stories, etc, as completely separate serials would be wrong, I think. So essentially even DW’s a fudge to make it fit that definition.
    “However, also note that Stargate SG-1 isn’t a set of completely separate serials: it’s your standard American TV series where the same episode is repeated ad nauseum (see also CSI: X, Without a Trace, so on, so forth).”
    Well, again, that’s fudging things since Stargate was (and it did change in later episodes to repeat itself more than a bit) episodic Who for the first two seasons at least, but with more of a binding narrative than Who. But essentially it was “alien culture of the week” for two seasons.
    “On the other hand, predicting future behaviour based on a common, indeed almost infallible pattern, seems fairly reasonable and that’s what I’m doing.”
    But you’re not. You’re just saying it is, without actually justifying it or providing evidence to support it. Indeed, we’ve already come up with a few counterexamples of shows. And to base future behaviour of one writer based on other writers is surely a fallacy – do we extrapolate from Martin Amis to predict Tom Clancy? No.
    “Well, based on my reading of the interview you pointed to, Joe Aherne agrees with me: ‘once you’ve decided that, I don’t think, personally, you can go on for another 3 or 4 seasons exploring that. You know, you’ve been told.’
    I thought we were talking about a second series, not a fifth? I’m not denying that some ideas have an upper limit, but you’re saying that Joe Ahearne couldn’t possibly have come up with a second series; he’s saying he couldn’t come up with a fourth or a fifth. And watch the spoilers – we’re supposed to be trying to persuade people to watch Ultraviolet, not tell them everything that happens!
    “Yes, I think so. too many characters and the focus inevitably becomes diluted. Imagine reading a novel with a hundred characters in it: you’d quickly lose track of who was who and it would be difficult to invest in any of them.”
    Do you have such a number in mind? Is it, surprisingly enough, always going to be the exact number that says six or eight episodes are all that’s necessary, just to make your theory self-proving?
    I would also point to War and Peace at this point for character fun. And Heroes has about 10 regular characters, just to compare. The Wire has more.
    “Then I misinterpreted; I thought that at the end of the first season it was declared that they had reached the planet were human life started, before they spread to the colonies.”
    The Galactica and co were always looking to find Earth and the 13th colony, not the starting point of the colonies – that was a happy happenstance.
    “I don’t see why you couldn’t, in five episodes, establish a credible threat, the company, Bennet’s activites, and the motivations of the other characters (in the series as was, Ted’s motivations take about forty seconds to establish, they’re that deep). The first two of those, the threat and Bennet’s activites, would take up a tiny amount of the first episode, and the establishing of Bennet’s activites could be combined with establishing Matt’s motivations for finding him, no problem.”
    Again, not without chopping out a load of characters and themes. I don’t doubt you could get an entire season of Heroes or anything else down to about five episodes, but not without chopping a lot of meat as well as fat. And then what would the episodes after Company Man be, BTW?
    “From what I’ve read — a column by Jane Espenson here, a book by Alex Epstein there — that’s exactly what they are trying to do in the American ‘writing room’ system: produce a sequence of episodes that are repetitive so that the audience knows what they are going to get, with only just enough difference to stop them getting bored.”
    a) always ignore Jane Espenson
    b) so what if some are? That doesn’t mean the whole system is or that it’s impossible to produce a series that lasts longer than six episodes and needs to last longer than six episodes. That’s not how the Lost writers’ room is run, or the BSG writers’ room, either.
    “Episodes that really delve deeply into the premise are by necessity limited because there are only a limited number of things you can say about any premise, and you don’t want to use them all up in the first quarter of the first series. ”
    So the deeper you delve, the shorter something has to be? Presumably then Doctor Who is nearly infinitely shallow.
    Again, watch The Wire as the perfect counter-example. Or even just the Aaron Sorkin West Wing episodes. He gets a bit repetitious, but I dare you to say which are the only six episodes that need to be watched and that say anything of any merit. You will be disproved.
    “If they have so many ideas as you say — and I don’t doubt some of them do — wouldn’t it be better if they were to make a complete fresh new series to explore those new ideas?”
    Well, there are many reasons, of convenience, imagination and production:
    a) if the ideas are all related to the same concept, that would be tricky
    b) if the format is flexible, why not use it?
    c) it took six years for Life on Mars to get given a green light – you don’t want to have to go through the commissioning process any more than you have to
    d) there are costs in any show. Building sets costs money and you need space for them and time to make them. Generally, you want as few sets, costumes, etc, as possible or else you’ll go over budget and get cancelled. If you don’t make money or you cost too much, you get cancelled unless you’re on HBO.
    e) Marketing to get ratings costs money. Look how many US shows get cancelled every year because of low ratings. Touching Evil was fabulous but got killed because it was on the wrong network and poorly marketed. Known brands get good word of mouth but that takes time to build, particularly in a multi-platform age
    f) Look how many shows never make it past pilot – or even to pilot or get a cast-contingent pilot order but can’t get the right cast.
    If you’re a writer with ideas, you probably want them to be seen by others, not have them sit in a vault somewhere. An existing format that allows you to put those ideas out there as much as possible is far preferable to coming up with countless formats that get crushed or which no one watches. The Wire got under a million viewers in the US, and got about 35,000 in the UK. If it were being made by a standard network, it would have ended before season one.
    “I know I’d prefer it if there were a whole new raft of TV programmes every year instead of the same ones returning year after year trying to convince us that they have something new to say. ”
    There are. Just off the top of my head, we’ve had Life on Mars, Being Erica, Kath and Kim, Eleventh Hour, Worst Week, The Ex List, United States of Tara, The Beast, Trust Me, Lie To Me, Knight Rider, Crusoe, Leverage, Raising the Bar, My Own Worst Enemy, Sanctuary, Valentine, The Mentalist, Privileged, 90210, Fringe, Dollhouse, and True Blood in the last nine months out of Canada and the US. Some of them are remakes, but that’s still a lot of new stuff – and even the remakes have twisted the old ideas to some extent.
    They just get cancelled or never picked up because people don’t watch them or they can’t get into them. And the shows return, in a lot of cases, because they do have something to say or they serve a function. CSI: Miami serves a different function from The Wire which serves a different function from Kath and Kim.
    And, of course, there’s something we haven’t touched on yet – whether a show really has to say anything to be enjoyable or to be entitled to life. But I’m not going there. Yet. Or even does in fact, need to be like a single book, rather than a series of books?
    “See, I would say that I was arguing for character development. I’m arguing for a model where a character can go through a journey that begins and ends, and against the model where they have to be kept in stasis for years and years and years because that’s the set-up of the series and it can’t be changed. You see it over and over again: the first series takes the characters on a journey, and then from that poont on, freeze. It’s my fear for Being Human, as I mentioned. ”
    That’s fair enough. But Heroes, daft as a brush as it is, rarely leaves the characters in stasis in terms of development. Friday Night Lights doesn’t. BSG doesn’t. Even on CSI, there’s character development, with characters coming and going, having relationship arcs and more. ER has a constant cycling of characters in and out.
    And a lot of the time, that’s the way the audience likes it. Many won’t get into a new serial if they’ve missed an episode. Many would rather just watch a show they can dip into, that doesn’t require them to know what happened in the previous two or three eps to understand it.
    Though again, that’s a different subject- should networks be in the business of making the best television it can or the most enjoyable television it can? Not going there.
    And truth be told, how many people in life actually go on fixed journeys anyway? And your model seems to suggest that people only have one thing to learn in life. How’s your character developing right now? Have you learnt the lesson you were supposed to learn five episodes ago? Do you need to learn anything more or is that it for the rest of your life? Do you feel like the ideas in you have been sufficiently mined to a deep enough level?
    To nick a thought from the Buddhists, we’re always changing, we’re never the same person. Our journey’s never complete.

  • Our journey’s never complete
    Utterly fascinating discussion folks. I’m pretty in favour in programmes not going on for ever, and recognising that some stories work best as short bursts of brilliance rather than stretched across multiple series for decreasing returns.
    But having said that, I doubt I would be strict in fixing the optimum length and saying that anything beyond that length is like/destined/determined to be in repetitious decline [I know I am simplifying the argument drastically, so apologies: you’re more eloquent than I]
    Some material is conceived as having possible or hoped for extensions – the second series etc; others have an inkling of a follow-up idea but maybe dare not hope for their second series to come along; still others find themselves almost stunned by the possibility of doing more and are caught in a scramble to slot in further filming and crucially WRITING etc [larger cast and/or special effects heavy material can flounder a little in these circumstances].
    What is so impressive about The Wire is how it manages to grant characterful attention to even bit part characters (who may/may not survive or reappear in a subsequent episode/series) and sustained that across the full series [I’m approaching the end of S5 – spoiler me not folks!]

  • Our journey’s never complete
    Utterly fascinating discussion folks. I’m pretty in favour in programmes not going on for ever, and recognising that some stories work best as short bursts of brilliance rather than stretched across multiple series for decreasing returns.
    But having said that, I doubt I would be strict in fixing the optimum length and saying that anything beyond that length is like/destined/determined to be in repetitious decline [I know I am simplifying the argument drastically, so apologies: you’re more eloquent than I]
    Some material is conceived as having possible or hoped for extensions – the second series etc; others have an inkling of a follow-up idea but maybe dare not hope for their second series to come along; still others find themselves almost stunned by the possibility of doing more and are caught in a scramble to slot in further filming and crucially WRITING etc [larger cast and/or special effects heavy material can flounder a little in these circumstances].
    What is so impressive about The Wire is how it manages to grant characterful attention to even bit part characters (who may/may not survive or reappear in a subsequent episode/series) and sustained that across the full series [I’m approaching the end of S5 – spoiler me not folks!]

  • George

    I’m happy BSG will end in 5 episodes. It has truly rocked until now.
    Sometimes I wish for more episodes (see The Shield) and sometimes 12 is just right (see The Wire). I sometimes like long series (see 23 series 1,2,3,4 and 5).
    What this proves? People are fickle, changeable and there is no such thing as a perfect length.
    *insert joke here*
    😉

  • George

    I’m happy BSG will end in 5 episodes. It has truly rocked until now.
    Sometimes I wish for more episodes (see The Shield) and sometimes 12 is just right (see The Wire). I sometimes like long series (see 23 series 1,2,3,4 and 5).
    What this proves? People are fickle, changeable and there is no such thing as a perfect length.
    *insert joke here*
    😉

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