Phil Ford on Wizards Vs Aliens and The Sarah-Jane Adventures

Interview James Peaty 3 Dec 2013 - 06:52

We interview Phil Ford about Wizards vs Aliens, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Russell T Davies, Doctor Who and more...

This time last year, we had a chat to Wizards vs Aliens writer Phil Ford about the new show's first season. Now, one year on, we're back to talk about season 2 - in particular, what Phil learned from the show's first season, how it felt to incorporate scripts originally written for The Sarah Jane Adventures into the show, and what's next...

This article contains very mild hints of spoilers for the Wizards vs. Aliens episode, The Thirteenth Floor

The second series of Wizards vs Aliens is drawing to a close on CBBC. How happy are you with this year's batch of episodes?

I couldn’t be happier. It’s the old thing… you do the first series and it works and then you think: ‘How on earth are we going to top that?’ (laughs) But I kind of think we have done.

How so?

Well, I think the stories have become more ambitious. Not just in terms of the scale of the stories we tell, but also in the way we examine the characters. And I’m not just talking about Tom [Scott Haran] and Benny [Percelle Ascot], but also Lexi [Gwendoline Christie] and Varg [Jefferson Hall] and the rest of the cast.

Series two was commissioned alongside series one. How much of this second run was planned during the series first year?

Apart from the possibility of adapting The Thirteenth Floor – which [executive producer] Russell T Davies and I had discussed right from the beginning of the show - we didn’t plan anything. Much like when we worked on The Sarah Jane Adventures, we always want to make the next series bigger and better than what we’d done before, but there were no firm plans.

How did you feel about taking an un-filmed Sarah Jane script and adapting it for Wizards vs Aliens?

Initially quite reluctant. When we originally came up with the story on the Sarah Jane Adventures, it was designed around the characters of Clyde [Daniel Anthony] and Rani [Anjli Mohindra] and was designed to pave the way for their eventual exit from the show.

Partly because of that, the story had a pretty bleak ending, but that ending seemed appropriate for two characters that we’d seen change and grow over four years. Now, on Wizards vs Aliens we’re only two years into Tom’s story and that made me a little hesitant as to whether this was the right story to tell, but Russell – being Russell! - was keen that we do the story and he persuaded me that he was right! (laughs)

I think he’s got that magical power.

He does. And he was right! There’s sometimes a danger on a new show that you’re overly protective of your characters early on. Russell – very wisely – says that the best way to develop your characters is to push them as hard as you can as early as you can. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from working with him that’s it: don’t hold back. In life none of us knows what’s around the corner or what our lives will be like tomorrow and it should be the same for our characters.

Do you think – because of the expositional burden on your first series – that maybe you did play it a bit safe during the show’s first year?

In the first series of any show you’re still finding your feet. When I wrote the opening episodes of series one I only had the vaguest idea of where we were going and what the show would become. As a result, series one - in some ways – was a bit of a work in progress.

But that said I really don’t really think we played it safe. There’s a wonderful tapestry of stories in that first run of episodes, which ranges from just plain bonkers fun to the extremely dark. Gareth Roberts’ Fall of the Nekross is about genocide, while the season one finale, The Last Day, is a hugely emotional ball of fire. Playing it safe would have been doing a different slant on Grazlax Attacks every week!

But was establishing the show’s tone made more difficult by the use of other writers?

It’s not easy, but that’s why you choose writers that you trust and think will get what you’re going for. Gareth, Joe [Lidster] and Clayton [Hickman] had all worked on the Sarah Jane Adventures, so they were all comfortable with writing this type of story. Also, writing sci-fi and fantasy is really difficult and few people can do it well. But to write that for kids is even more difficult as you have to write in a way that’s both sophisticated and accessible. There’s all kinds of things you have to be balancing all the time.

And in this show there are also two sets of rules – the rules of a sci-fi universe and the rules of a magical universe – that have to be made 

Exactly.

As a viewer I think I found the constant reiteration of those rules, and the separation of the magical and sci-fi worlds, a bit of a stumbling block in series one. I certainly felt the most successful episodes were the ones where those lines were blurred a bit more or where the world of magic was more prominent.

That’s interesting. I certainly think the magical world is a world we haven’t so much of on television. The tropes of science fiction are – not well worn – but certainly very familiar. Because of shows like Doctor Who we’re used to aliens and teleports and stuff like that. One of the main attractions for both Russell and I when we came up with Wizards vs Aliens was that we could take those familiar tropes and mix them up with something less familiar and see how they both blended and clashed.

Do you think you underplayed the magical side of the show last year?

I wouldn’t say that, but we did make a conscious decision during series one to maybe focus on the alien side of the show as our way into the world and then allow the magical side to develop incrementally. Certainly going forward we’ve seen more and more of the magical world and that will continue.

I’d say the greater focus on the magical side has given the show a more distinctive identity.

Yeah, I’d agree with that. I mean… the Sarah Jane Adventures took place in a universe where magic fundamentally doesn’t exist, so that creates limits. One of the attractions of coming up with this show was that we could approach stories without that limitation.

Of course the downside to that is what we alluded to earlier: that it’s maybe harder to establish a consistent tone. The Sarah Jane Adventures had its rules pre-determined for it by Doctor Who, so to a large extent it could find its feet as a drama much earlier.

Absolutely. When we came to this show we had to establish the rules of the universe for the Nekross, but then also the same for the world of Tom, the wider Wizardkind and all the creatures that may exist in the Neverside.

The comparison between the shows is interesting, which probably makes it sensible to talk about The Thirteenth Floor in some detail. You famously said that you felt The Sarah Jane Adventures version of this story was the best thing you’d written.

Yes.

Do you feel the same about the Wizards vs Aliens incarnation?

Even more so.

Obviously the version that now exists is very different to its initial incarnation. How did it change and what did you learn in the process?

I think it goes back to what I said earlier about pushing your characters. Basically, back on Sarah Jane Adventures, I came up with the initial story idea and then Russell came up with the notion of ‘what if Clyde and Rani had a baby?’ We all thought it was a great idea, but we never really talked about the consequences of that idea.

That’s pretty strong stuff, especially for a young audience.

Exactly. So as I was about to start writing it I rang Russell up and said: ‘The ending of this has to be so bleak.’ And he said to me: ‘Make it as bleak as you can!’

I’ve read the script so I know that you did!

Oh yes. (laughs) I suppose ultimately what swung me around in deciding to re-tell the story for Wizards vs Aliens is that in this version Tom is trapped on the Neverside with Lexi, who’s not only an alien – albeit one changed into human form – but also his enemy, whereas Clyde and Rani were best friends.

This version feels like less of an ‘innocence lost’ type of story.

Yeah, it is. But ultimately both versions are really about growing up, which is something that really goes to the heart of what Wizards vs Aliens is about. In the first series we focused heavily on the story of Tom and how he was the kid who used magic to help him score a goal when he’s playing football, to sort of cheat his way around doing his homework and stuff like that. But when the aliens show up that teaches him about responsibility and how magic isn’t a plaything anymore.

I’d say the story fits this show better. Not only because the whole Neverside idea seems to fit within the plot really well, but also because you have other characters – like Varg - who are also affected by the story.

Oh, absolutely. I remembering us watching the dub for this episode and everyone was in tears at different points, but I never expected to be upset over Varg! (laughs)

Well, he’s not the most sympathetic character! But that’s what we were talking about earlier. By taking a character like that and putting them into uncomfortable and dangerous situations you expose them in different ways and you learn more about them. It enriches both the character and the show as a whole. This story also allowed you to put Lexi front and centre and gave Gwendoline Christie a chance to shine in a different way than the show usually allows.

She’s fantastic. Unlike the Sarah Jane Adventures, which had guest monsters every week, the Nekross are the main recurring villains in Wizards vs Aliens. Because of that both the writers and the actors have put a lot of work put into building up their characters. Doing a story like this allows us to pay off some of that hard work, while also giving the brilliant actors who play these parts so well the chance to do something new and challenging.

At the recent BFI screening you said that this story is the beginning of the final act of the second series.

Yes, that’s right.

How does that develop over the course of the final two stories?

Well, I think it’s fair to say that we very much pay off the ending of The Thirteenth Floor. Certainly the friendship that’s forming between Lexi and Tom is followed up in the subsequent stories and becomes hugely important. Basically, we don’t just sweep the events of The Thirteenth Floor, but rather aspects of that story become very important to the penultimate adventure, Endless Night, which then serves as a catalyst for Russell’s finale, All Out War.

When was it decided that Russell would take on those scripts?

I think it was always the plan from the moment we properly started work on series two. As has been well documented, Russell hadn’t written a script for quite some time because of his personal circumstances, but he was very keen to write again and – naturally – we were very keen to have him write for the show.

It’s a bit of a coup.

Yes. And Russell’s story is only something Russell could have written. It’s wonderful, hilariously bonkers and… well, it’s extreme! But in the middle of all the madness and excitement there are pure nuggets of Russell T Davies emotional drama.

It’s good to have him back!

It certainly is.

What’s the future for the show beyond series two? Clearly Russell is going to have his hands full with his two new shows over on Channel 4 and E4.

Well, we certainly hope there’ll be a third series. For my part, I’m already working on the first two scripts for a potential series three, but until the cameras are rolling…nothing’s ever definite!

Phil Ford, thank you very much.

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