The time is February 2020. The place? Manchester’s Space Studios, on the extraordinary set of Intergalactic, Sky’s new sci-fi drama series. From an immersive set, cramped within the bowels of a prison ship, to concept art of stunning sci-fi landscapes, there’s nothing to remind us of a mundane present that will, only a month later, come to seem like something of a lost utopia.
Well, almost nothing. The screensaver on one of the ship’s computers bears the logo of Her Majesty’s Government. Is time travel involved, then? Nope. It’s a relic from previous work on Cobra, the Sky political drama about the collapse of British society in the aftermath of a disaster. Oddly fitting, really…
Mercifully, we come back to the future. First things first, though: this isn’t the galaxy as we know it. “We are set 150 years in the future,” explains producer Iona Vrolyk. “A meteorite has come from outer space that’s landed on Earth, bringing with it an element called New Aurum, which makes something that’s currently impossible possible: intergalactic travel. There has been an ecological collapse on Earth, and with the arrival of this new element and being able to go out into the galaxies, all of the nations on Earth came together to form one global authority called the Commonworld, which was set up to revive planet Earth. So humanity’s gone off to the other planets and galaxies and has colonised, but the overriding message of and reason behind that is to bring things back and to be able to rehabilitate Earth. But, in 150 years, there’s been some corruption within that global authority.”
As any fan of the genre will agree, science fiction stands or falls on the quality of its ideas. Lucky, then, that they’ve got showrunner Julie Gearey at the helm. The creator of Prisoners’ Wives is, as Vrolyk notes, the ideal choice for a series that follows a motley crew of female prisoners on a hijacked transport ship, fleeing from an authoritarian society as they forge new bonds and strive for freedom.“She’s a brilliant character writer, and she always innately puts women and women’s stories at the front of her shows.”
That psychological depth and intensity is at the heart of Intergalactic. As Vrolyk puts it, new worlds are found through the characters as they make their way through stories built around “a very mythic structure” of escape and adventure. Producer Simon Maloney’s keen to highlight this hard-edged realism.“One of the things that Julie and Iona have put in that I really love is that if somebody gets shot in episode one, that scar stays with them the whole way through the show! The ship, the Hemlock, has degraded through the shoot itself, as it’s got gradual nicks and marks from camera people and being shot at, and that only adds to the patina of the show. Although it’s shot in this incredible world that’s been created, it’s got a real kind of humility and grittiness.”
There’s more than a hint of the Nostromo in the transport ship’s grungy corridors, and the comparison to the 1979 classic, Alien, doesn’t faze Vrolyk. “It’s an old reference, but why not? I mean, Ridley Scott’s a genius…The original design of the Hemlock was a prison transporter ship. This is like a sweatbox for an intergalactic age. The thought behind it was, what’s going to be the most practical design for it? We didn’t want to design anything just because it would look cool. Humans will still be humans in 150 years. They’re still going to need tables, they’re not going to reinvent things they don’t need to reinvent. Also, in an age where there’s been ecological collapse on Earth, we made a decision with the design that humans were putting all of their efforts into going out into the galaxy and bringing things back. It was about being really practical. We were constantly asking questions like, “What’s its purpose? Why is it there?”
“I think a lot of science fiction can be quite shiny, quite metallic, with long corridors, and we consciously, from the beginning, said that we wanted this to feel more organic: to use shape, texture and colour an awful lot.”
Even the prisoners’ uniforms were visually significant, with Vrolyk and the art team asking themselves why inmates in US jails wear that distinctive orange. “It’s because of the visibility, so we went for a very striking turquoise and bright yellow prison uniform to try and make sure that we were bringing colour to the piece.”
Maloney highlights the contrast between the functional interiors and the incredible galaxy beyond, which evokes the sweeping vistas created by Ralph McQuarrie for the original Star Wars trilogy. “The landscape has gone big, shot in Valencia. The science park there looks completely unworldly, which has translated to give [the show’s] New London that feel. Then in episode three, there’s a sequence in some underground relief motorways that run underneath Madrid, an incredible structure. The different planets we visit in the course of the series feel like they have huge scale and colour and attention to detail, which is a really nice counterbalance to the functionality of the Hemlock.”
“We’ve got an incredible production designer, a guy called Mark Geraghty, who’s been building worlds. Quite often, we go out and find a location, but you have to adapt it so much that in the end, it’s just better if Mark builds it! There’s an action sequence at the end of episode five – we looked and looked and looked for a location for a snowy planet.” They “snowed up” a house but ended up building a set for the action sequence itself. “It’s a constant battle between letting Mark go,” Maloney says with a laugh, “and things that we can find on location.”
As for the nuts and bolts of this brave new world, they haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel, as Vrolyk emphasises. “Guns still have bullets! Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who’s a BBC presenter and an eminent astrophysicist, has helped us with the research on the show. One of the things when Julie and I first sat down to do this was that yeah, we love watching sci-fi, but we’ve never actually worked on it.”
Their scientific adviser has been a treasure and was thanked with a well-deserved cameo in some “archive” footage that features in the show. “She’s been amazing and phenomenally helpful in terms of coming up with science fiction at the heart of our show that, whilst it’s obviously fiction, [ensures] that, if this element existed, it’d be consistent with the rules of science. The way we travel intergalactically in our show is through something called the Alcubierre drive. That’s named after [theoretical physicist] Miguel Alcubierre who’s come up with the theory that, if one could generate negative mass, it could be possible without defying the laws of relativity to travel intergalactically.”
Ultimately, though, it’s all about the characters, and their journey’s become more relatable than ever. As they run for freedom in the face of overwhelming odds, we’ll be cheering them on. In our world or in theirs, it’s time for a fresh start.
Intergalactic airs on Sky One and all eight episodes will be available to stream on NOW from Friday the 30th of April.