INTERVIEW Stephen Gallagher Looks Back at Chimera
It may have been shown on ITV in 1991, but Chimera was always intended to be “a rubber monster B-movie” reckons its writer. And its bloody first episode certainly caused a stir…
There’s some kind of weird serendipity to the fact that Revelation Films is releasing a 20 year-old ITV drama Chimera on DVD at around the same time as Splice is about to hit the box office here in the UK. Because, as Chimera’s writer Stephen Gallagher jokes, “I’ve seen the trailers, and it looks as if it’s 50% the DNA of Chimera and 50% the DNA of Species.” Not that he’s onto his lawyers. “If it had come out a year later, I would have felt kinda miffed and wronged and ripped off, but 20 years later… its just part of the culture. We’re all in the debt of Frankenstein anyway.”
Chimera was a four-part ITV drama broadcast back in 1991 which can now proudly be called prophetic. Not just of films like Splice and Species, but also real world scientific developments in the area of DNA and creating synthetic life. Perhaps the renamed title of the butchered, 90-minute US video release in the ’90s provides more of a clue: Monkey Boy. Gallagher laughs at the memory: “The US rights were brought by an absolute rock bottom exploitation label. I wasn’t that distraught about it, but the director would like to have every copy of it wiped from the face of the Earth.”
The fact that Gallagher isn’t too fussed by the “exploitation” version of the TV show is perhaps because, he says, he always thought of it as, “a monster show. I was happily making a rubber monster B-movie, first and foremost. And if it didn’t press those buttons then it didn’t work. And the issues and everything else came afterwards.”
Chimera was Gallagher’s first major TV show as creator/writer (he’d previously written episode of Doctor Who, and has since created such shows as Oktober and The Eleventh Hour). Adapted from his own book, it had an arduous trip to screen, and was only finally commissioned when ITV urgently had a slot to fill when another production fell through. It’s about a joutrnalist (played by John Lynch) who investigates an explosion that kills his scientist girlfriend and her colleagues, and discovers that they were working on a very strange and dangerous project indeed (hint – think of the US title). All of which may sound wonderfully lurid, but there was some hard science going on as well.
“Well, the there are things in it that seemed a lot more science fictional then, and a lot less science fictional now,” says Gallagher. “I could almost have made a tick list of certain the things in Chimera that I could have ticked off as the years have gone by. One of the geneticists I talked to when I researched the book said, ‘Let’s suppose that some of these insurmountable problems can be surmounted,’ he said. ‘I’d give it 50 years before we work out the simplest of them.’ And I forget what the simplest of them was, but it was something to do with the sequencing of the genes or something like that, and literally within five years, that thing had been solved.”
Many of the themes of the series are just as relevant today, but if Gallagher was writing the show today, what would he change?
“If I was doing it today I would be more pro science than I was,” ponders Gallagher today. “One of the reasons I wrote The Eleventh Hour – which was very much about science keeping its house in order as opposed to some crusading arts graduate journalist exposing the horror that science is – was because I was getting sick of being told that all science is evil from people with Bupa plans. But when I wrote the book of Chimera, which was in the early ’80s, I was about 25, and had a very unformed view of the world, which you do have when you’re 25 years old. My take on it then was it was a Frankenstein story, and it was all about where science may take us. In my own defence, I would say that there were certain layers of it that gave me a more complex view of the thing, in that here was a creature with its own point of view and its own character; that gave the opportunity to be a little more than a simple black and white morality tale. But it was a little bit of a black and white morality tale, to be honest.”
He’s pleased to see the show finally come out on DVD, even though he’s now working in the US. Having gone there to oversee the US version of The Eleventh Hour, he then stuck around as one of the staff team of writers on The Forgotten, where he learned the US way of TV writing (“I was working in an office! It was like the first real job I’ve done in 25 years!”) Now he’s trying to get his own shows commissioned, and has already sold one pilot idea (no, he’s saying nothing). So he finds it slightly odd having this sudden reminder of the past.
“It’s a peculiar feeling. I mean, Revelation started pursuing the DVD rights about five years ago. And then it all went quiet. I assumed that they’d had no success but they were quietly plugging away, and then all of a sudden I got a call from them to say ‘We’ve finally done it.’ It made me feel like a grand old man, as opposed to the new kid trying to break in. When we were doing The Forgotten, I used to say I was the oldest guy in the building and also the least mature.
“There were no forums back when Chimera was shown. I didn’t have a website where people could send me their comments. As far as I was concerned what the critics said about it was its public identity. And some of them were unkind, and some of them were enthusiastic, and you remember the unkind ones and you don’t quite believe the enthusiastic ones, and you move on. And all these years later you meet people who go, ‘I was 11 years old when it came out and it impressed me incredibly. I’ve been waiting 20 years for this to come out again!’ I’m amazed it existed in other people’s minds for all this time and I feel quite humbled by that.”
Chimera is out on DVD now from Revelation Films, priced £19.99.