Russell T Davies Talks Wizards Vs Aliens
How does it feel not having that readybuilt framework of the Doctor Who universe to fall back on? Scary? Or liberating?
Oh, it’s liberating, actually. We didn’t realise that until we started. You kind of think of Doctor Who as limitless, and it is. You can have stories set anywhere, doing anything, but actually there are certain ways it behaves, and we realised we’d been under that yoke for quite a long time. We’re not reinventing the wheel – it’s still an adventure, there are monsters, there are aliens, there’s good and bad, and an even simpler good and bad than you have in Doctor Who, because you can have six year olds watching this, it’s a young kids’ show. But within that is the great liberation of saying “We can decide the sun has powers.” It’s like suddenly being in Superman’s universe. I was sitting there going “They don’t have a problem with Superman – they say he gets his power off the sun.” In the Doctor Who world you’d say “This creature specifically has powers from a sun,” but you’d have to explain it, whereas in a new show you can kind of accept it as natural. I tell you what’s interesting – we’re planning series two now, there are 14 episodes of series two, and we worked very, very hard doing a time travel story, simply because we wanted to go back to the 16th Century and have witchfinders. You’ve got wizards, how brilliant to have a Witchfinder General story. We worked very, very hard on this and we abandoned it. We had great treatments, great ideas, and in the end we looked at it and just went “This is Doctor Who, or Sarah Jane.” If they’re travelling back in time suddenly we all found ourselves conforming to not changing established history. No matter how it’s done, the travel between two different times, everything was just reverting back to a Sarah Jane Adventure. And so we ditched it. Gareth Roberts did about two months’ work on that and it’s gone. I just had to take a deep breath in the end and say “This will be a good story, but I can’t honestly say it’s a Wizards Vs Aliens story.” So it was junked. That’s how tough you have to be sometimes. On the second series we’re still discovering this.
Did any ideas for a future series of Sarah Jane find their way into this show?
In series two there’s one story that was abandoned for Sarah Jane. Phil had written a full script called “The Thirteenth Floor” that’s literally the best thing he’s ever written, and we’d be mad to let that die, so we’re going to try and make that into a series two story. It’ll be completely rewritten, completely different characters, completely different aspects, but it’s so brilliant we’ve got to give it a go.
The clash between science and sorcery is obviously at the heart of the show. Does that inform every creative decision?
Yeah, that’s really interesting. What we had to do was really quite unexpected in that you had to be very strict about the line between the two, in terms of colour, in terms of style and stuff like that. Initially, we didn’t realise that. In the development of scripts, things were a little more blurred. There’s a character called Randall Moon, who’s a hobgoblin, and in the very first drafts when this hobgoblin appeared he was kind of like a Buffy hobgoblin in that he was slightly modern. I remember he had a fridge – he’d take sandwiches out of the fridge, and his dialogue had that modern twang to it, postmodern even, that slight awareness of being in a genre piece that’s a very sort of Buffy/Angel tradition. But it wasn’t working. Because then you cut to a spaceship with aliens who sometimes talk in a similar sort of voice. They can be kind of arch and kind of reflective, so actually we have to put wide blue sea between both genres. So the magic has to be very, very magical. The hobgoblin has to speak like a real old fashioned hobgoblin, so he talks in thees and thous… it’s very funny speech, but it’s much more elaborate speech, and the aliens then are much crisper. What I did with the aliens was take out a lot of the humour. They had a lot of gags and stuff like that, and again that’s very relaxed, that’s a little bit Doctor Who. We can laugh at the Slitheen and stuff like that. We relax as we go along but in the first few episodes at least the Nekross are much tougher and there are very few gags. They can’t be flip – that kind of flip, modern, easy dialogue that infects everything. It’s all of television, actually. It’s a very aware voice, very aware of being in a drama. So we had to eradicate that because we had to separate the genres. And literally in terms of colours the Nekross are very blue and very yellow, and magic’s got earthier colours. Magic’s much more red and green, much more colourful full stop, much richer and more charming to look at. There’s a coldness to the Nekross. So yes, it’s very important to cut to a scene and to know if you’re in a magical chamber or if you’re in a science fiction spaceship. It’s keeping that genre clash throughout the whole thing, all the time.
Is that ongoing clash a hard thing to pull off?
It’s not, actually. Once you just take that deep breath and say you can’t explain magic, then you’re kind of free. It is the reason we had to impose the three spells a day limit. The biggest problem, actually, was how powerful magic is. The Nekross can develop a laser, they can destroy a city, but you kind of keep it believable. I believe those things. Whereas with the wizards you say “Can’t they just click their fingers and then everything’s fine again?” So we had that development time to hammer down the rules, to make sure the stories work. We’re already talking about series three and four. We had a story meeting for series two – you kind of think right, this’ll be a nightmare, it’ll be really hard work, but we came out after three hours with every single story in place – apart from that time travel story we’ve now got rid of, but we had spares up our sleeve, because it’s so rich. Do you want a science fiction story? Do you want a magic story? Do you want one that’s both? And the clash is just like an engine, right at the heart of the show. Three hours and we had all our stories in place. Long way to go, turning all of those into scripts, but it was brilliant. That was very exciting. We just thought “This is definitely going to work.”
There’s no Sarah Jane figure, so casting the two young leads must have been crucial…
It was hard, yes.
What qualities were you looking for?
Simply good actors and nice men as well. I must stop calling them boys because they’re of an adult age. It’s hard – I’ve done young shows before, I cut my teeth on stuff like Children’s Ward, and to be a young lead actor is a really tough thing, because you’re kind of like the leader of the company as well, and frankly you just want to go out drinking! So you’ve got to get people who are really responsible and really hardworking. And we got them. It was a miracle. We auditioned endlessly – everyone always says that but you do. If you can put all of us making young dramas into a room we would all hug each other and weep at the casting process, because we’re all after the same people. If you are one of those people you will never be out of work. You end up chasing the same names. Scott kind of came out of the blue – we’d almost gone with someone else and then he appeared. We auditioned him about five times in the end, but after one audition we just went “Oh my god that’s him, that’s brilliant.” Thank god for Roath Lock studios because he’d just done Upstairs Downstairs – he had about 20 lines in an episode of Upstairs Downstairs as a young boxer, really nice. And everyone said “Oh, he’s a nice lad as well.” You get that report back saying he’s not going to go mad and not turn up and be late and stuff like that.
And then Percy as Benny we’d actually auditioned way back, when we did some preliminary auditions as part of our development – sometimes you do preliminary auditions to show the commissioners tapes of what it’ll look like, what it’ll sound like. And he cropped up then, way before anybody else, and we didn’t exactly cast him then but we pencilled him then and said “We’ll never get a better Benny than that, let’s keep our eye on him.” You can’t book somebody too far in advance but you literally pencil them and say “If they’re going to be offered a job in EastEndersor whatever, let us know, because we like him and we probably want to work with him.” And then we put them together and they were brilliant together, and that was magic. Just lucky. And they’re diligent, hard working… I’d get texts off Annette Badland, who adores them, saying “You’ve chosen a couple of leaders there, they’re so good on set.” So hooray – luck of the draw! Next time I hope to be reporting from a drug den, where I am pulling the cast out of the gutter. That’s much more fun for me, frankly, but it didn’t happen this time!
You’ve cast Annette in this, who you used as Margaret Slitheen in Doctor Who. Would you be looking to cast anyone else you’ve used on Doctor Who? Or does that begin to blur things?
It does. A lot of times names would crop up and I would say “At least for series one let’s just keep a distance.” Ruthie Henshall crops up as a villain and she is so brilliant. And actually it’s funny, she’d always been on my list of Doctor Who villains. If I’d brought back the Rani it would have been Ruthie Henshall, because she is just glorious – she’s showbiz and she’s got that West End flair to her but she’s a properly good actor. She knows genre. She’s someone who comes in and just delivers a villain that’s absolutely the right pitch immediately. She’s done so many different genres herself. She pitches it perfectly. I’d always wanted to work with her. She’s not a Doctor Who actor, but in my mind she was always there – we could just never get dates to fit for her on Doctor Who. But in she came and she’s glorious, so funny as an evil billionaire who discovers that magic exists… and then she discovers that aliens exist! And she’s going to rule the world with that. Fantastic villain.
Do you feel like you’re fighting a rearguard action for quality British children’s telly?
It’s hard, that one. It’s a very easy thing to say. As far as I’m concerned, people have been worried about the death of children’s television and fighting for standards in children’s television ever since I started working in children’s television, and that was in 1987! That’s a hell of a long time ago. It always needs safeguarding, it always needs fighting for. There is a genuine battle to be fought. But there are genuinely people fighting that battle. There are always good and creative people who step forward, ready to fight that fight. I have been through two generations. There is less children’s television than there was, but the standard is still very high. And I’m including American stuff in that. I don’t like slagging off American stuff like it’s rubbish – the scripts of some of those animations are brilliant. You and I are never going to love those Sweet Life or It’s So Raven half-hour sitcoms, but they deliver perfectly good scripts, with perfect little morals or happy endings, telling kids to do the right thing with a few good gags. They deliver very well on what they do. It’s very easy to say those shows are rubbish but they’re not, actually. I also think that you can do better than those shows. There’s always someone ringing a bell saying it’s the end of the world, and it hasn’t quite happened yet. But it’s always worth keeping an eye on.
Wizards Vs Aliens launches on CBBC 29 October