As his latest show, CBBC’s Wizards VS Aliens, aired its series one finale last week, we caught up with UK TV writer Phil Ford to chat about how the show came about, his take on the first run, and plans for series two.
In this second part of our interview (read the first part, here), Ford recalls his initial disappointment with the 2005 Doctor Who revival, explains how his Hugo Award-winning Who episode, The Waters of Mars, began life as a Christmas Special, and tells us about his experience writing Torchwood‘s divisive Something Borrowed…
Were you a Doctor Who fan as a kid?
Did you remain a devotee or did your interest wane as beer and girls arrived on the scene?
(laughs) That’s exactly what happened. As well as K-9. (laughs). As much as I loved Tom Baker’s Doctor when that metal dog appeared I really started to worry! It’s terrible to admit, but I never did get my head around him.
And yet you ended up writing him.
I did and I discovered that actually he was great fun to write for, despite the definite… practical problems of using him in a story!
Would it be fair to say that your attachment to Doctor Who was more through childhood nostalgia than being part of any sort of fandom?
That sounds about right.
So how did you feel about the show when it came back?
Well, I watched it as it was broadcast in 2005 and – I’ve said this to Russell, so it’s fine – I wasn’t one hundred percent there with it. For me it was eighty percent soap to twenty percent science-fiction and that wasn’t what I wanted. Now the thing is: Russell knew exactly what he was doing, which is the genius of the guy. For years and years we’d gotten used to not having any homegrown sci-fi shows, but what we had gotten used to were soaps and urban dramas and Russell used that to reel people in.
That first series fits very comfortably within the landscape of TV in 2005.
I’ve always felt there’s a big Shameless/Paul Abbott influence in those first few episodes.
It’s very domestically focused and as a dyed-in-the-wool sci-fi fan I reacted against that to begin with. It wasn’t until we got to Dalek that I started to think, ‘Wow, this IS science fiction’. And then by the end of the season it was full on! Which is a roundabout way of saying: Russell knew exactly what he was doing. He was slowly dealing in the cards he wanted, so that by the time people realized they were watching a sci-fi show they were hooked.
You came aboard just as the empire they were building down at BBC Wales was seriously expanding. Obviously, in addition to Sarah Jane there was also Torchwood, which you wrote for during its second series.
That’s right, although originally I was going to write a totally different episode. The one I was originally going to write effectively ended up becoming a Torchwood audio drama called The Dead Line, but initially that idea was going to be episode four of season two, However, when I was asked to write the finale of the first series of Sarah Jane that story went into suspended animation. By the time I came back to Torchwood the story arc of the season had changed so much that they asked me to write the Gwen and Rhys wedding story instead.
I love that episode. An alien-possessed Nerys Hughes getting shot with a laser by John Barrowman is a marvelous TV moment.
Thank you! I find that episode divides people down the middle. There are people who love it and people who HATE every moment of it! (laughs)
I’d say that episode was indicative of a much more consistent and entertaining second season.
I agree. The second season was much stronger, but that’s simply down to that elusive thing of a show finding its feet. When Torchwood started it was commissioned very quickly and no one seemed to really know what it was.
Unlike The Sarah Jane Adventures, which seemed to know what it was right out the gate.
A large part of that was that we had Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen), so everyone knew who the character was and what she should be.
I’m interested to know what you think about how The Sarah Jane Adventures developed as time went on. For me, it’s the third series where the show really starts to fly. There’s more confidence and maturity in those episodes.
Well, we were growing up with our audience and there was a conscious desire to do that and mark the growth of these kids into young adults. I’d like to think trend continued up until the very last episode.
That third series also coincided with the end of David Tennant and Russell T Davies’ tenures on Doctor Who and it was a period during which you finally ended up writing for the main show in the shape of the Hugo Award winning The Waters of Mars. How did that commission come about?
Again, it was another call from Julie Gardner!
I see a common theme forming here!
Yes, I do miss those phone calls. (laughs) That followed the commissioning of Torchwood: Children of Earth and I have to say I was feeling a little bit put out that I hadn’t been asked to write for that. But lo and behold I got the phone call from Julie asking if I’d co-write the special with Russell and I remember thinking: ‘I don’t give a monkeys about Torchwood now!’ (laughs)
Is it right that The Waters of Mars was originally going to be a Christmas special?
That was always the plan. Initially we worked on a different idea, but Russell wasn’t too keen on how that was developing, so he eventually turned around and said: ‘I fancy doing a story on Mars set in the not too distant future.’
So a bit Ray Bradbury again then?
Absolutely. The great thing was we had this first meeting about the episode in Starbucks in Cardiff Bay and it was the day that NASA announced that they thought they’d discovered water on Mars!
That was handy.
It was! As a result the story was pretty much set early on and fundamentally it never really changed. In fact, during the four drafts I wrote it was still a Christmas episode. It was only when Russell took it over that it changed.
It’s hard to imagine it as a Christmas episode.
Well, I did say during the writing that it was a very dark story for Christmas.
It’s a very dark story, full stop. And also one of the very best since the series came back in 2005. Personally, I think it’s probably David Tennant’s finest hour as the Doctor.
I would tend to agree, but then David had so many ‘finest hours’.
But the last ten minutes of the episode in particular…
Well, that was all Russell. I remember telling people before it came out that it’d be a really scary episode, and it IS a pretty scary episode in other ways, but the scariest thing is the Doctor at the end.
Well, he’s the monster of the episode.
Even though by the time The Waters of Mars aired Russell was now living in America, he remained as executive producer on SJA and together with him you oversaw another full season of twelve episodes, as well as filming six more episodes for the planned fifth season. At what point in all this was Wizards vs Aliens first mooted?
It came about when Lis Sladen fell ill.
It didn’t exist before then?
No, it didn’t. What happened was that we’d been commissioned to make two more series of The Sarah Jane Adventures and we’d filmed half of series five as we had the money available. We then found ourselves in the position where Lis fell ill, but we honestly never considered the possibility that she wouldn’t come back to work. We all thought that she’d take a year off, she’d come back and we’d just carry on making more shows. Call it naïve, but that’s genuinely how we thought it would play out.
So was it this potential short-term gap that actually got you and Russell decided to meet up and work on new ideas?
That’s right. There are people on the crew in Cardiff who wouldn’t have had a job during that year off and Russell, being the man that he is, felt honour-bound to try and find something for them to do. So we met up in L.A while I was over for the Gallifrey convention, went for dinner and started talking about potential new shows. We both talked about various different ideas, but eventually Russell said he knew that what CBBC would really like was a show based around magic. And the idea of Wizards vs Aliens literally grew from that. It really was one of those lightning in the bottle moments.
Was this planned as a long-term show at this point?
No, it was going to be a short-term proposition to fill the gap in the schedule with the possibility of it coming back to be made alongside Sarah Jane. I then went back to England and started developing it, but as you know – not long after – we got the terrible news that Lis had died. And that was just a bolt out of the blue.
Obviously that changed the nature of the development process.
Oh, without a doubt. Russell then came over to the UK and we pitched it to CBBC and they loved the idea there and then, but as Russell kept saying we had to hone the idea because – unlike Sarah Jane – this was a show that had no background. Everyone knew who Sarah Jane was and it had that inheritance from Doctor Who, but WvA was completely new and the whole blending of magic and sci-fi really hadn’t been done before.
How long did you spend honing the concept?
We spent a long time working on those first two scripts. I think both parts went to seventeen drafts. Nothing else I’ve written has gone to seventeen drafts! But it was well worth it in the end.
At what point was the show commissioned for two series? That sort of up-front order seems unusual.
It is unusual, but a lot of it came from Fremantle coming onboard as our distributor. They were keen for us to make more episodes as that makes it easier to sell the show internationally, but fundamentally the main reason was that there was a lot of confidence in the idea. And let’s be honest, Russell’s name was attached to it and that carries a lot of weight.
This is the first show you’ve created/co-created. Do you feel a greater sense of ownership of the show and how does it feel now that it’s out there?
To be honest, I’m just incredibly proud to have co-created it with Russell. As far as I’m aware he’s never co-created anything with anyone else before, so the fact that he wanted to collaborate with me on something like this is tremendously cool. But to go back and answer the first question: oh God, yes!
How do you feel the first series has gone? What did you get right, what did you get wrong and what are you looking to do in series two?
I’m massively proud of what we’ve achieved. I’m astonished by the ambition of the show and how we’ve realized that ambition on screen. There are things in that first story that I did – in particular the car crashing out of the ship and into space – that I never thought we’d be able to pull off. I literally wrote that not knowing how to get them off the ship and thinking: ‘Oh, we’ll find another of doing this as this’ll never happen’, but we did it and it’s typical of the people down at Roath Lock that they’ll find a way.
That crew always seems to go the extra mile.
(nods) There’s a real family feeling on the show, just as there was on Sarah Jane, and that’s why Russell was so keen to find another series for all those people to work on. In terms of what’s worked… I think pretty much most things have worked. In going into the second series it’s not a question of fixing anything, but more a question of tightening up some of the bolts and refining it. On a first season you’re always trying to find out who and what you are and I think we very much did that with this series.
I think WvA is definitely a lot more ‘boy’ oriented as a show than many people were expecting.
I’d agree with that. At its heart, whereas Sarah Jane was a show about family, this is primarily a ‘buddy show. It’s very much about the friendship between Tom and Benny, while at the same time it’s also a show about the collision between science and magic. The challenge going forward is to continue to find new ways of reinforcing both of those things.
The tension between science and magic is certainly fertile ground for future stories. Do you have a roadmap for where it’s all going?
I think we do. Russell is always very clear about where he’s taking a show, while I prefer to pick my way along as we go. Let’s put it this way: there are things I want us to do on the show that we haven’t even touched on yet. This first season has been very much about setting up the central concept of there being both wizards and aliens. The second season continues that, but takes it off down different avenues. I mean… the main conceptual difference we have with Sarah Jane is that we have the same aliens pretty much every week.
That’s a big difference.
It is, but what that gives you is the scope to explore the aliens more and there’s lots of new stuff to learn about the Nekross in series two. That said, on the other side of the story, we also have the whole magical world, which is literally another universe that we’ve barely begun to explore. Yes, the show’s called Wizards vs Aliens, and that will always be the focus of it, but the opportunity to bring in other magical creatures as well as different aliens means we literally have the best of both worlds.
Clearly the show has done wonders for you profile and career standing. What else are you currently working on alongside WvA?
Probably nothing I can talk about! (laughs) I’ve got a show in America, which hopefully will come to fruition soon. I’ve been working on that for a while and there are things happening with that at the moment, which would be very nice if they all came off. I’ve also got another couple of projects in various stages of development.
What are your dream projects?
Oh, there’s a couple. I’d love to bring back UFO and I talked to ITV about it some time ago and it’s something I’d love to talk to them about again. While Captain Scarlet was my favourite of the Gerry Anderson puppet shows, UFO was always my favourite of the live-action shows. I just think there’s a lot of scope there for doing something quite current and quite adult. What people forget now is that UFO was never a kid’s show even though it was broadcast pre-watershed.
I’m sensing this is something you really want to do!
Oh, I have treatments and a five-year arc for it! (laughs) Apart from that, the other passion project is Dracula. I don’t think Dracula has ever been done the way I want to do it and I’d love the opportunity to be able to do it…possibly! (laughs)
Phil Ford, thank you very much!
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