Revisiting Torchwood: James Moran interview

It's the penultimate entry in our Revisiting Torchwood series, and how better to mark it than a chat with writer James Moran...

This interview contains Torchwood spoilers.

James Moran was supposed to be busy writing, but then we interrupted him on Twitter and sent him some questions. He keeps a scriptwriting blog, writes for films, Doctor Who and Torchwood (Sleeper and Day Three of Children of Earth), and kindly agreed to chat to us about the process of writing his episodes, Torchwood‘s treatment of violence and dark themes, and the mooted thirteen-part third series…

How did you come to write for Torchwood series two? 

Severance came out in August 2006. Later that year I got a meeting with the script editor Brian Minchin and producer Richard Stokes after pestering my agent to get me in the room with them. They’d seen the film and read another, even gorier script of mine, and finally agreed. We chatted about series one, what I liked about it, what sort of things I might want to do. Then they invited me to send them ideas. The following week I emailed them three, they picked one, and I was in. 

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On the writing process for Sleeper

Were you given a concept or an arc to work on? 

No, I was always going to be episode two or three, so there wasn’t a lot of arc stuff to get in yet. The only thing they asked for was a hint of foreshadowing about Ianto dying (as he was going to instead of Owen), a slight developing of the flirting between Tosh and Owen to set up their tragic deaths, and to mention again that Gwen was getting married later. The Ianto stuff got removed at the last minute as it changed to Owen, and I think the flirting Tosh and Owen scene got deleted too. Apart from that, the concept and story were mine. There was a brief discussion of maybe bringing Cell 114 back for the big finale, but as I said later, if you set up an unstoppable alien force that we come across by chance, then if they come back all guns blazing, it’s a bit unrealistic that they can be defeated twice. 

With a show-runner and an Executive Producer both being script-writers how much collaboration and feedback was involved? 

Chris led most of the meetings, then I’d meet Russell (T. Davies) and Julie (Gardner) sometimes too. I had lots of meetings with everyone, they pretty much let you get on with the outlining and scripting, but you have a meeting after every draft of everything for their feedback and notes – then you go off and do the next draft. They’re always there if you need to ask anything or discuss things. But they trust you to do your own thing and get on with it. 

After working on a series with many writers involved, did you take anything from other writer’s regimes or processes? 

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I only met Chris and Russell while working, so I didn’t know what their processes were like – but I learned a huge amount from working with them, seeing how they solved their own plot challenges while making the show, from our discussions of the story, feedback, notes, and so on. It was like a masterclass in TV writing. I met Cath Tregenna as our episodes were in the same block, and she has a totally different process to mine, so that was really interesting. Your process evolves and adapts all the time, you find things that work and do those, or you figure out how to make them work better for you. 

How long did the process from initial discussion to final draft take? 

The first full discussion was in December 2006. I did several outlines and wrote the first draft in Feb 2007, then the fifth and final draft in May 2007. In early June I did some revisions after the readthrough and for location/budget purposes, then we filmed in mid June. That’s pretty fast, compared to film, or to TV shows that haven’t started production yet. It’s very exciting to make final changes in their office so they can print the updates for filming the next day! 

Did you write anything as a reaction to anything you saw in the first series? 

Not really, just taking the things I liked and exploring them a bit more. My favourite bit in series one was a small, simple moment, when Gwen sees her first alien (Janet the Weevil) in the Hub vaults – she’s really overwhelmed, and Jack quietly gives her a chair to sit on so she can just take it all in. I had a moment in Sleeper when Beth meets the Weevil for the first time, where you see Gwen remembering her first time seeing an alien – just a small moment, but I really wanted that. Other stuff was realising Gareth had an amazing deadpan delivery of jokes, and giving him a lot more to do, and just having fun with a big, messy, alien invasion. 

On violence: 

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What sort of feelings and thoughts go through your head when you write a scene where a baby gets killed? 

A sort of deranged glee, and a worry that I won’t be allowed to get away with it. But that wasn’t just for the sake of it – I wanted to show that these things were evil alien invaders, they don’t care about babies, or anything. They’re here to kill ALL of us! Men, women, children, babies, everyone! They literally don’t care about anything other than carrying out their mission, and that was mainly to demonstrate that visually. 

How bloodthirsty are you? How much of the repeated stabbing/guddling about in innards scene in Sleeper comes from your mind? 

It all comes from my mind. Part of it is exorcising my fears and demons, in a cathartic way. Part of it is my worry about everything that can go wrong. And part of it is just enjoying a good, dramatic, on-screen death. I do all these things on the page and on the screen, and it keeps me well adjusted in real life. 

Would you agree that there is a balance in writing violence, so that it is both satisfying yet distressing? 

Definitely. Although those scenes were meant to be distressing, you’re supposed to be scared and horrified and worried for the other characters – if you set up an alien invasion, with creatures that want to kill us all, you can’t not have anyone killed. I follow the story where it goes, no matter what. But there are some things I choose not to depict, just a matter of personal taste. And you do have to be careful that you’re not sending an unintentional message, I do feel a responsibility about that. But sometimes you have to unsettle the audience. They can never trust you, otherwise you’ll never surprise them. 

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Can you tell us about how the thirteen-part series three might have gone?

It went as far as “We’re getting all the writers together to brainstorm some arc stuff, keep these dates free”, but we never actually had those meetings. There was about a month where it went quiet, and I thought they’d changed their mind, then they told me the five part serial news. I’ve often wondered what that thirteen-part series would have been like, I’d like to see the show do that at some point – standalone episodes with a full arc, like Doctor Who does now. 

Was the grimmer tone of Children of Earth pre-determined or just how things turned out? 

Just how things turned out. Once the story started taking some dark turns, it was inevitable. If aliens start controlling children, and then they want to take some, it’s never going to be a cheery caper, you have to follow the story through some scary, grim places. Nobody said “Let’s make something dark, whatever that is”, it all came from the story. 

What stage was the concept at when you and John Fay were brought in? 

It was a setup, with some of the big moments planned, but without knowing why the aliens were here, why they wanted the children, how Torchwood were involved, how it would turn out. I don’t think any of the other characters were there yet, either. So it was a chance to take a fantastic story idea and brainstorm where it might go. 

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Did you have any ideas during scripting that necessitated rewrites for other episodes? 

Not in a huge way, because we’d outlined everything I couldn’t suddenly say “right, I’m going to kill off the aliens now, deal with it”. But naturally things would change and flow, which affected other episodes – so we had regular meetings, read each other’s drafts, and so on. Episodes two and three were written before the first episode, so I’d see things from them appear in the episode one, like character names. It was very tightly outlined and plotted before we went to script, to make sure things didn’t fall apart. Although inevitably continuity errors would creep in – in one episode, Ianto says he doesn’t like ice cream, then two episodes later he asks for an ice cream… But thankfully all that was caught early on. 

Can the urge to make stories darker can be to their detriment? 

Yes. It’s when people decide to make something dark for the sake of it, and then work out the story and force it, that never ends well. Children of Earth was just a story idea that gradually turned dark all by itself, so I think it worked. But I’ve certainly seen it hurt other shows and movies, where they decide to make it grim just to be edgy, without it flowing naturally from the story. And sometimes, blimey, you just want to have a laugh when you sit down for a bit of telly in the evening. 

On a slight tangent, would be possible to present a drama without a conflict, eg. a hypothetical utopian society? Having seen criticism of Game of Thrones for not presenting us with a more even society, is the idea of a show where everything’s just peachy something you think could ever happen? 

It just isn’t a drama without a conflict. Even in Star Trek‘s utopian society, there are villains, and disasters, and disagreements, and genocide – if they just went around exploring and nothing bad happened and everyone agreed and said how lovely it all was, Star Trek would not be the huge, long lasting success it is today. Sure, Game of Thrones could present a more even society, but people (including me) watch it because the villains are SO utterly dastardly, and you’re rooting for the good characters to triumph. But even the good ones are flawed, and the villains have some good qualities. Life is complex, people are flawed, bad shit happens. If you want fluffy and light, watch a landscape channel. Having said that, some shows go too overboard on the grimness (see above). You need some light occasionally to balance out the dark. 

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James Moran, thank you very much!

Read more of Andrew’s Revisiting Torchwood series, here.

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