Russell T Davies Talks Wizards Vs Aliens
Magic goes mano a mano with cold, hard science in new CBBC show Wizards Vs Aliens. In an exclusive interview, co-creator Russell T Davies tells SFX about the pressure of following The Sarah Jane Adventures, the rules of enchantment, the ongoing battle for quality kids TV – and reveals who he would have cast as the Rani in Doctor Who…
Was Wizards And Aliens always intended as a direct replacement for Sarah Jane Adventures?
It was. Initially we all thought Sarah Jane would come back one day. We knew Lis was ill, but we thought she’d get better – how sad was that. And so we literally cooked this up because we had a gap in production, and we thought “Well, we’re supposed to be making six episodes of Sarah Jane this year and we can’t – that’s got to be delayed until next year, so let’s make six episodes anyway. Let’s make a new show, and then if that’s successful we can make both series at once.” So we were nicely ambitious. It was really weird – me and Phil Ford said “Let’s go to dinner and cook up a new show.” Now that never works. I literally went off to this dinner thinking “Well, you can’t do it like this – you don’t just go to dinner and invent a new show and get it made.” I’ve got this romantic notion about creativity – you’re meant to be hit by a thunderbolt, you should be in the bath and going “Eureka!” You don’t sit there over the starters going “Let’s invent something new.” But for the one and only time in my life, we did! We both came to the table with kind of rubbish ideas. He was there going “There’s a robot, who’s on the run,” and I said “There’s a witch, who’s keeping a secret…” – really rubbish. We were sitting there going “What a load of nonsense!” So we chucked them away and I thought “We’ll just have dinner, that’s a good night for me.”
And as fanboys, as science fiction fans and fantasy fans, we sat there having a really interesting conversation about which [genre] we wanted to do – Sarah Jane was science fiction, so maybe now we should do supernatural. Maybe we should do witches or werewolves or spells or demons. Phil likes that sort of stuff but I was sat there going “Do you know, I actually love spaceships and rockets and laserbeams and things like that…” We genuinely had a proper conversation about it. “Isn’t it funny you can only write one or the other?” All those years of Doctor Who and you can never have a spell being cast, and all those years on Buffy and no one ever walks in with a laserbeam… actually they probably would in Buffy, they wouldn’t blink. With something like Harry Potter you don’t get a robot arriving. I wish we had it on record as to who said what first, but I seem to remember saying “Well, actually that’s a good idea for a show!” And then, I must admit, Phil opened his mouth and got to it before I did, and said “Aliens Vs Wizards!” And I went “Oh my god – that’s it!” And it then became Wizards Vs Aliens, we swapped it around. And in that moment, I’m not kidding you, you could see the entire show.
And you can sort of see that’s never been done. I know there’s obviously a trend now for cowboys vs aliens and dinosaurs vs aliens and things like that, but actually they are just culture clashes, because cowboys and aliens can, quite feasibly, exist in the same world, whereas wizards and aliens don’t exist in the same world. It’s bigger than a culture clash – it’s a genre clash, and the mileage we get out of that will give us fuel for ten years. This thing could run for ten years. It’s lovely. The arguments they have on screen about it – we’ve got Tom who’s a wizard and Benny who’s the scientist, and in mid-adventure they pause to argue whether an apparating spell is the same as a matter transporter – what’s the difference between them? They’re the same thing, but why can you work out the rules to one and not work out the rules to the other? I just love that. I can remember looking at Phil and going “Oh my god, that’s it, we’ve so got it.” And here we are. I was skipping home, because I honestly thought that night we’d fail.
Was there huge pressure to follow a success like Sarah Jane?
At that stage we didn’t know Sarah Jane was going to fall through completely. I’m having a laugh when I’m describing that night but actually it’s a lot of work for a lot of people. There’s a big gap in the BBC Wales schedule, a big gap in BBC Wales funding if shows like this fell through. If there had suddenly been a gap and it had disappeared script editors, designers, producers, carpenters, electricians would all have been out of work. So there was a genuine pressure on us to say “We need to come up with the goods now, and we need to deliver,” and then we needed to look for something that’s going to run. The good thing that happened then, which kind of pissed us off at the time, but actually was brilliant, was when it became clear that we needed a completely new show, and this was sitting there, CBBC didn’t just turn around to us and say “Yes, thank you, we’ll have that.” They were actually quite marvelously snotty. They sort of said “Just because you made Sarah Jane doesn’t mean you get to make the replacement.” And actually that’s quite right, that’s kind of within the BBC charter – no one has a right to make a show. The money has to go to whoever’s got the best idea, and whoever the commissioner wants to commission.
So they loved Sarah Jane, they backed it with all their heart, but they did not say “This is a guaranteed commission.” They kind of made us pitch, and we went through months of development – and that was the godsend. It didn’t really piss me off because I knew how good an idea it was, to be honest. Half of me was thinking “If it doesn’t get made here, I’ll take it somewhere else, thanks…” But we genuinely worked on it. What you see in episode one is like the fifteenth draft. I always do a lot of drafts on scripts but 15 is quite unusual. We really worked it. There were different versions – Tom had a sister at one point. We looked at future stories to see whether the sister was going to work, whether she was worth paying for. And we axed the sister in the end. We worked on the spells and the rules of the magic and how the Nekross work, in real detail, because it’s not just a one-off adventure where Tom meets the Nekross in one story, it’s got to sustain itself for years. The rules of engagement and stuff like the fact the wizards have only got three spells a day, that came in only halfway through the development. Before that they were quite free and easy with their spells, and you could see the budget going up! It’s part of the problem with spells – why don’t they just go “Disappear!” click their fingers and the aliens have disappeared.
And it took us a long time to realise that we were free of the Doctor Who universe as well. We’d all been working in that for years, almost a decade. I remember the meeting where we came up with the three spells rule. I remember we said “Well, let’s say that spells are born at sunrise. You get three spells a day, and this is magical, there’s no science behind this at all. With sunrise you get three spells.” And that then becomes a marvelous part of the plot. There are various stages where you see them at dawn, filling up with spells, and that’s a really good moment. I think kids love rules like that, they really get into that kind of thing. So we had this surprisingly fierce development process over a good six months, and then we went to CBBC and pitched properly – we had to go in, with our documents, with our scripts. It was like The Apprentice!
Did you see the Chuckle Brothers waiting outside, preparing to pitch?
Certainly! They said “While you’re here, could you write us a few more scripts, please?” We sat there practicing… I haven’t done that for years! We had speeches, we had figures, we had co-funding and all that sort of stuff. It was a really, really tough process, and actually it’s given us quite a cast-iron show. I came out the end of that going “That is exactly how you should commission a show.” I really respect that process.
More on the next page, including who RTD would have cast as the Rani…