Back in time

I spilt my tea over this but I reckon you’re made of harder stuff. And also that if you were liable to spill tea over it, you heard it a week ago and have already mopped up. But about a day after I wrote to you that the US television drama Timeless has been cancelled, it was un-cancelled.

Now, I could go off on how this is good news – I enjoy the show very much – or I could tug on my TV historian credentials and talk to you about just exactly how unusual this is. A network cancelling a series and then reversing that decision three days later, all in public, is borderline unique. The only thing stopping me saying that it’s actually unique is that there’s an argument that a similar thing happened with the original Star Trek.

Picture me with my hand out flat and gently rocking it.

But you know that and you gathered I like Timeless so let’s refill our tea and take a look around. I’m in the local library I used to use as a boy. I’m sitting about two metres to the left of where I once sat on the carpet, reading some book I can still cherish but have long forgotten the title or author of.

It’s just that there, right there, is the first time that I so enjoyed reading a book that when I got to the last page, I instantly, unthinkingly, completely naturally turned it back to the first page and began again.

That spot is now one of – hang on, let me look – something like a dozen PCs. I can’t be sure because some are hidden by shelving, but it’s approaching a dozen. It’s funny how easily they fit into this space. Old wood, doubtlessly the same that was here – oh, right over there where it now says Western Fiction and Books about Railways, that’s where as a teenager I picked up James Blish’s novel A Life for the Stars. I believe I got my utter certainty that it is better to be crew than passenger from that book.

I was saying. Old wood, doubtlessly the same wood as when I was here. Ancient windows that I think have been restored but if so, now restored so long ago that they need it again. One table with that raised middle creating slopes on either side that are just right for reading newspapers on.

And across one end of the room, a set of three display cabinets each with one model railway carriage in. They look beautifully precise and well built, but I had no idea why they were here when I was a boy and I’ve no clue now that I’m a man. I suppose I could ask and I supposed I could’ve asked, but I won’t and I didn’t. Keep it a mystery.

This is all sounding like I’m just trying to tie something in to the word Timeless but actually it’s the newsman in me. Having told you that Timeless was cancelled, I couldn’t allow myself to not tell you now that it had been uncancelled. Doesn’t matter if you already knew, doesn’t matter if you have no interest, I can’t let it go because that would be wrong. Incomplete.

I just don’t know if the boy I was two metres to my left and some decades to the right would’ve cared about that. I think he would.

I tend to look back with an ache of loss. Definitely to the time when I was a boy, the other day to the time when an episode of The Sweeney was on TV and I had to accept that I had been alive during those prehistoric days. Certainly also when I look back to yesterday, to ten minutes ago. I don’t what it is about time, I don’t know why the past is a constant ache.

But right here, this moment with you in this room, that sense of time is making me feel peaceful. This room helped form me and it has waited for me to come back.

Plus, earlier this week I re-read Alan Plater’s novel Misterioso for easily the twentieth time. And yes, when I reached the last page, I did turn it back to the first one. The boy would be happy.

I never said I was quick to apologise

Listen, I have yet again lost the remote to my Apple TV and found it only when I gave up, sat down on the couch and Netflix started playing. I sat up and Netflix stopped. Sat down, started. This went on for longer than you’d imagine before I found the remote under the cushions.

But it’s what I’m watching on Netflix that I want to talk to you about. Also, I think I’ve been a right man: I have owed an apology and it has taken me 23 years, 9 months and 26 days to admit it.

That’s how long ago wolframalpha.com says April 15, 1993 was. And counting.

It was the date that I had a feature in The Independent newspaper about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Specifically it was about the then-new show and how it was being pirated months before its UK debut. It was tape piracy: VHS tape copying piracy. We were so young.

Partly for the article, mostly for myself, I watched the pilot to Deep Space Nine at the house of a guy who was doing a lot of this tape copying piracy. He’s never spoken to me since. And I remember writing the piece avoiding his name but the Independent editor required one at the last moment so I made up something.

I can’t tell you what it was or what the guy’s real name is but if ever I have had a failure of imagination, it was 23 years, 9 months and maybe 30 days ago. The leap from the fake name to his real name was so small that if you blinked while reading it, you would’ve accidentally read the truth.

So I do definitely owe him an apology. I don’t know how you’ll ever come across this, but if you do, please know that I am sorry about it.

What’s prompted this today, though, is that I think I also owe an apology to the show. I think so. I’m not sure.

Remember that I was writing about the fans and the piracy more than I was reviewing the series, but I did write this:

It’s set on an abandoned space station, the Deep Space Nine of the title. No one boldly goes anywhere as they did in Captain Kirk’s command, and while some of the characters are recognisable from Paramount’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, DS9 has a new cast and crew. Stardates, uniforms, bad guys and bad lines, however, will be recognised by Trek fans young and old.

The reverential silence is rudely broken. Colm Meany (formerly the transporter chief of The Next Generation, here promoted to the show’s chief attraction) is required to move DS9 towards a wormhole. ‘We have six thrusters, it’s a two million kilometre journey, it’ll take six months at least,’ he announces. ‘We must be there tomorrow,’ comes the po-faced reply, to hoots of derision from the audience. However, it takes more than naff dialogue to lose a Trekkie… even through the obligatory mystical experience in the middle…

Desperadoes on the Starboard Side: Star Trek fans break the law to beam up Deep Space Nine by William Gallagher, The Independent (April 15, 1993)

I’ve corrected a typo and I am reasonably sure that I didn’t make the factual error about Colm Meany: I would’ve written that he was promoted to the new show’s “chief operations officer”.

But I definitely wrote that about “bad lines”.

I think I was wrong.

I think.

I watched the pilot that day and didn’t tune in to any further episodes for a long time. In fact it would’ve been somewhere after the show had finished in the States that I got all the scripts. This is Star Trek, not a pixel goes by that isn’t published and eventually the barrel is scraped far enough down that they release scripts. All of the Next Generation ones were put on CD-ROM, all of Deep Space Nine’s were too.

I’m minded of how I was at a very specific age when Star Wars came out. When I saw the first film, I was old enough to think Luke and Leia should get together. By the time the sequel was in cinemas, I knew Luke was wet and that Han Solo was more interesting.

Similarly, I enjoyed the Next Generation when it aired but when I then read the scripts I was profoundly bored. I did specifically want to see how scripts developed over a long series but, come on, there are something like 178 of them and I read the lot.

Tell me why I then read roughly the same number of Deep Space Nine scripts. If I’d had such a bad time with The Next Generation.

Except to me TNG scripts are more puzzles than stories and once you know the outcome, there just isn’t enough to keep me interested. Whereas DS9 scripts feel like they are each part of one long novel.

I deeply enjoyed those scripts and I tuned in to the UK broadcasts of the final season. In 1999, I would take a break from a shift at BBC News Online and watch them on a newsroom monitor on BBC2 at 18:00 on whichever night it was. I want to say Wednesdays.

The look and feel of that last season was subtly different to the pilot. It felt richer, it felt confident. And instead of just seeming like parts of a novel, the run ends with something approaching ten episodes that genuinely are one story. Star Trek doesn’t do that. Star Trek Deep Space Nine did.

About a year later, I was writing a DVD column for BBC Ceefax – do you even remember shiny discs now? – and I made Deep Space Nine the release of the year. It wasn’t half an expensive DVD release: I bought each separate season box set and I think it added up to around £300.

I watched the lot, I got my £300 out of it at least, but just now when I was sitting on the TV remote, it was that pilot episode that kept starting and stopping on Netflix. The whole series is there and last year I watched a couple of the more famous episodes. Today I remembered my Independent piece and I started watching the pilot.

This is the pilot that I said had bad lines and got hoots of derision.

It’s got bad lines and I don’t tend to hoot, I’m not the hooting type, but there are wincing moments. Actors making odd choices, placing odd emphasis on lines, and I still think the setup to that bit about moving the station is standard-issue Star Trek technobabble.

It also makes sense, though. The science is fantastical yet it makes sense.

I just also got a lot more into it this time. Maybe it’s because I know what a strong show it became that I can now see the start of all that.

Maybe I’m going to watch the lot again.

But if so, then it isn’t that I sat on my TV remote and it switched to Netflix, scrolled a list, chose DS9 and selected the pilot. I did all that and I did it because this morning there’s been an announcement of a Deep Space Nine documentary.

It’s raising funds on Indiegogo with the aim of producing a documentary about this show for release next year. It’s the first such thing I’ve backed since Veronica Mars in 2013 but I backed it.

So I’m apologising and I’m putting my own money into it. I am such a man.

Check your references

I don’t know what in the world it is with us writers, but we have a weakness for references. There’s a character called Veronica in one of my Doctor Who stories and I did name her after Veronica Mars. I don’t think there’s any possible way you could know that, so there couldn’t be any possible way that you’d be taken out of the story for a moment as you recognised it.

But then I have another where I needed a name for a spaceship that collected junk from Earth orbit. Names are hard: I’ve spent about 20 hours this week working solely on finding a name for a particular project. Names are bastards. But anyway, in this Doctor Who, I wanted to suggest that there had been a series of these spaceships: in one early draft I really needed another ship to come save the day so I had to set up that there were several. That third ship vanished for good somewhere in a later draft and I mean for good in every sense. But I was still left with the main ship being called Salvage 2. And I did have the Doctor or someone ask what happened to Salvage 1.

Real answer? Salvage 1 was the name of a 1970s TV show that had a pretty good pilot film about building a rocket, going to the moon, salvaging all the junk that’s up there, bringing it back and selling it.

There is no possible chance that you know that show. Nobody knows that show. Except at least one person did. I read about it in a very nice review of that story and actually I liked that this reviewer and I shared such an obscure and yet fond memory.

I can’t remember the reviewer’s name, sorry. But the fact remains that even if he or she were entirely engrossed in my story, at that one moment he or she was propelled right out of it. Recognising, remembering, gone, out of it, vanished, over.

It is so very, very hard to get anyone into your story that choosing to throw them out again is insane. Yet I did it. I’m proud of that Doctor Who story but I’m not proud of having done that.

And this all comes up because on Monday I went to see Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters back to back. Don’t ask me why. Also don’t ask me how: I do not know how I fitted that in. You could ask me when, I could answer that. It was Star Trek late Monday afternoon, Ghostbusters late Monday evening.

Both of them have references. What I want to figure out is why I was entertained by the Ghostbusters ones and a tiny bit irritated by those in Star Trek. I do also want to tell you that I enjoyed both films and that they’re much better than their predecessors. Star Trek Beyond has flaws you see even as you’re watching it where Star Trek Into Darkness had so many of them that you didn’t have time to catch them all until you were walking out of the cinema wondering about refunds. And while people do seem divided over the Ghostbusters remake, it made me laugh aloud. I feel it’s a touch long for what it is but I shook with laughter and the original didn’t manage that for me.

All of Ghostbusters’ references are to that original film and actually, grief, there are so many. It’s only now, talking to you, that I realise it was a right torrent of references. For instance, I was tickled by the group trying to write adverts to post up around the city and beginning to suggest “If there’s something strange in the neighbourhood…” before getting interrupted. Similarly, there is a “Who’re you gonna call –” that also gets interrupted by something very similar to what you’re expecting the next word to be.

Then there are also lots of cameos from the original cast, some with dialogue from that first film. Plus the original film has that unexpectedly famous exchange about real wrath of God type stuff, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… The new one has an exchange about the phrase letting the cat out of the bag. It shouldn’t be that close but it comes at the same point in the story, it comes at a length, it works.

I think it works, though, because it’s done well. And by that I mean if you don’t know the original, you also don’t stop to notice that there is anything. It works on its own. Maybe my Salvage 2 stuff did too; I’d like to think so. The Ghostbusters cameos stretch that: a taxi driver gets far more screen time in a little scene than he would if he weren’t Dan Ackroyd from the first film, for instance. You’d feel there was something off with that even if you didn’t recognise him.

Maybe there is also an element that this is the first Ghostbusters remake. If they do the same in a second – and there will surely be a second, this is a very good movie and it’s performed well at the box office – then that’ll be harder to like.

It was certainly beyond hard to like in the second Star Trek film, Into Darkness. That film’s key emotional moments were entire remakes of previous Star Trek things and for God’s sake they weren’t that brilliant the first time. When you sit there in the cinema, all out of Malteasers, and you’re pointing at the screen saying “Cue Spock” and mouthing his dialogue ahead of him, it’s a little bit fair to say you’re well out of that story.

Star Trek Beyond has none of that. But it does have many references and jokes that rankled. Early on, for example, Captain Kirk is voicing over his log and conveying that the Enterprise’s five-year mission has been a bit dull so far, really, and he says something like “this is starting to feel a bit episodic”. It is a reference to how there have been more than 700 episodes of Star Trek on television and that would be fine except no human being has ever or will ever describe anything in their lives as episodic. Maybe epileptic sufferers. Maybe.

It is a gag that is only a gag. It is a gag that even if you don’t get it, it is still saying hello, I’m a gag.

I called this Self Distract “Check your references” and I meant it in the sense that the writer will have thought about getting the reference right, I meant it in the sense that as an audience we can see and look into these. But really I mean that writers, including me, should check this habit in the sense of stopping it.

Setting things right

Listen, I don’t know where I’m going with this but I want to noodle about something you. It does slightly concern a TV show that remains a favourite of mine despite tailing off. It also concerns a film that will always be a favourite, no tailing off possible.

beforesunrisecommunity

So, here’s the thing. In the very closing moments of the film Before Sunrise, we get a series of daytime shots of various locations around Vienna. They’re the same ones that we have just spent the film seeing but during most of the film we saw them at night and always, always with Celine and Jesse in them.

Usually talking.

It’s a quiet yet startling ending that I think speaks to how much we create within spaces: the locations are the same but without the characters they are different. Because they’re now in daytime it’s like the lights being switched on, the reality of the stage revealed. It’s reminded me of parties where really no matter what you do setting one up, success or failure is really down to who comes and what they’re like when they do. The party is an excuse for people, locations are a canvas for characters.

I think about this more than honestly seems feasible but I was minded of it particularly this week by the last episode of Community. It’s been a weak season and I don’t know if it is the last-ever episode but it probably is and there was something of that Before Sunrise feel to it.

Specifically the episode did show us some of the regular sets now empty of people and it had that same canvassy feel for me.

It seemed to be saying both that we’re done here – and look at what we did.

Six years ago this was a study room in a library and these were the characters we didn’t yet know. Now the same room is the site of epic paintball battles, the table is a replacement replica because they destroyed the first one with an axe. It’s like those stories are still in the room, even though really they’re still in our heads if we’ve seen them. I want to think that you sense them whether you know the show or not.

I’ve often thought of it the other way around, of looking ahead to what potential a set has.

I love that television series have specific recurring sets for basically economic reasons yet they become dramatic ones. It’s cheaper to film on the same set each week and even if you have the budget to be on location all the time, you need somewhere indoors to shoot when the weather is bad. But you also get what used to be called the familiar locale, a place for viewers to want to go to. These days it’s called the show’s precinct, presumably after all the cop shows that were set in actual precincts, but the principle of it being somewhere familiar persists.

The famous example is in Star Trek where in theory we all aspired to be on the Enterprise. Certainly the Coronation Street tours exist on the fact that people want to visit Weatherfield. When I first heard of the Harry Potter studio tours I couldn’t get it: it’s just a set, why do you want to visit a set?

But then I was thrilled being shown around the sets of new Crossroads Hotel back when I got to write for that series. I liked seeing the replica TARDIS sets in the Doctor Who Experience.

Place matters. I think it matters most in television.

Films can go anywhere and despite all the sequels we get now, it’s still generally following recurring characters more than recurring locations. Radio can go anywhere though Ambridge feels real to listeners now. Theatre will often establish a specific place but it doesn’t feel like something we return to, it’s a frame for this specific play this specific evening.

In television I think places become characters. The Enterprise was often called that by the writers. I just rewatched Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and while it’s irritatingly flawed, one thing that is exceptional is the massive set. It’s a completely constructed theatre studio that creates a complete world yet allows for every possible combination of big and intimate scenes, large groups and pairs of people. Also huge movement: the set constrained characters and it let them loose too.

The set has the last word in Studio 60 too. The final shot is of someone switching off a lone lightbulb. It’s never been there before, it exists only to be switched off, it is visual reference to the end of a play, it is in all ways contrived. But it works: I forget the character problems, the creepy romance, the unfunny comedy sketches and instead I’m left wishing we could stay in that set, in that world for longer.

Dammit. The hardest thing in drama is creating a character. Then you have to create another one for them to talk with. Now we have to create somewhere for them to go too?

He’s not dead, Jim

Without spoiling anything in case you haven’t seen it, the latest series of Endeavour ends with our hero in a bit of a pickle. Without spoiling any show ever, they always end with a pickle. But no matter the size or shape of the pickle, we know everything will be fine. We know.

I think I’m okay with that. Part of me feels that this is an extraordinarily bad thing, that we have somehow become accustomed to having thrills but always a happy ending. To always have tunnels of love but with the reassuring information that “this is not a dark ride”. Our entire society is so hungry for happy endings that we don’t accept anything else.

But then another part of me thinks bollocks.

We have seen thousands upon thousands of hours of television drama in our lives and we are TV literate. We know the hero will survive not because we long for it in our hearts, not because we couldn’t face being upset, but because we know without the hero, there’s no show next week. And we know there’s a show next week. Even if Endeavour got cancelled, we’d know that the guy must always be okay because the show is a prequel to Inspector Morse and we’d have noticed if there were no Inspector Morse character in that.

So maybe we make a little pact that we will suspend our disbelief, that we will pretend we don’t know. Maybe. Probably.

I don’t know that’s a wonderful thing, though, because I think it’s somehow taken us in directions that are a bit tedious. There is death in drama and it can be done very well. I’m struggling to think of an example and I am subsequently struggling to think of an example where it wouldn’t wreck things to tell you. Please provide your own example for me, okay?

Films can do it too. I’m going to spoil Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because you should’ve seen it by now and I’m going to spoil Titanic because you almost certainly have. They are unusual.

There’s a novel – no, bugger, I cannot spoil this. Okay. There’s this novel, right, and just about exactly in the middle of it, the lead character is killed. It is the most enormous, eye-popping, turn back a page and read that again, surprise. I’ve been slapped by planks that didn’t jolt me so much. It is truly a brilliant moment – but unfortunately everything after it is ditchwater dull.

I think it’s the Ballykissangel Syndrome. Ballykissangel was a series about a priest and a barmaid, whether they would get together, and how they were surrounded by all these great supporting characters. The priest and the barmaid leave after a couple of series – spoilers! – and the show continued by moving those supporting characters to the foreground. It didn’t work an inch. Supporting characters are supporting. The show was cancelled and I’m not even sure how long that took because I was gone.

That great novel did a great thing but then had nowhere to go. But at least that death really mattered. Usually now, it doesn’t. Death doesn’t matter at all.

This week I’ve been reading These Are the Voyages, a book about the original Star Trek. (Quick summary: the author loves Star Trek a lot more than I do but the under-the-cosh, health-endangering pressures and the clashes of people under stress are terribly interesting.) You can perhaps tell I’ve been reading this because that’s where today’s title comes from: Bones McCoy was forever saying “He’s dead, Jim”. But only over characters we didn’t care about or most often barely knew.

One of my beefs with Trek is that actually nobody dies. You kill off Spock in one film, he’s right back in the next. Give me a break.

Science fiction brings back its characters because it thinks it can, it thinks that it can have some technobabble explanation that means it can give us the ultimate in drama by killing a character – but then saving him or her so the show can continue. They do kill characters, they do bring them back, the show does continue, but it’s a bump. I remember consciously thinking in Battlestar Galactica – in all other ways an astonishingly strong drama – that, okay, let Roslin survive just this once. But it was a conscious thought, I was out of the story and had to push myself back in.

Soaps also see death as the ultimate drama and they will kill characters off but it’s usually because the actor is leaving and we know that, we’ve seen that on supermarket shelves. Or they’re killing off a character who’s run their course, who has nothing left to give and we know that, we’ve been watching them.

Much more often, soaps go for the life or death peril and always choose life. Death isn’t the big thing because it doesn’t get that far, it doesn’t happen. Or death isn’t the big thing in Star Trek because if you wear a red shirt, make sure to write a will. Or it isn’t the big thing in any science fiction because you’ll be back next week regardless.

Death is trivialised by this and actually I think it’s trivialised by most TV drama, especially detective series. There is a particularly fine moment in Veronica Mars when a killer is brought to justice. I’m going to change the name of the victim to Bert, just to protect you. With that one change, this is the line of film noir-style voiceover narration we get from Veronica:

The one big downside of justice: it feels good, but it doesn’t change anything. A killer’s in jail, but BERT is still dead, which remains fundamentally unfair.

You really feel it, too. Such satisfaction that she’s solved the case, but such an awareness that a character we liked is still gone.

Death can work – I’ve suddenly remembered an Alan Plater episode of Lewis where the inevitable murder was deeply unsettling because the character was so great, was so alive. Actually, I read that script before filming and I remember telling him I fancied that character, even right there on the page.

So it is possible to make death hurt, so to speak, and it is possible to use it as a most effective piece of drama. But I offer that it should only be one, that it can only be one, that there is so much more to drama than whether one lives or dies or is resurrected.

If the only thing you have in a drama is a death and the story is only a whodunnit, then I don’t think you have drama and I know you don’t have a story. You have a puzzle. Quick litmus test: can you watch an episode of Columbo a second time and still enjoy it? Definitely. Can you rewatch a CSI? Nope. And I don’t think you need to rewatch CSI, it’ll be back next week with the same puzzle.

Columbo is about two great characters pitched against each other. The murderer has all the obvious stakes to lose – freedom, perhaps even life – and Columbo has nothing but job satisfaction and his perfect record at stake. But it is riveting drama because the characters are real and they are being put through a wringer and they are revealing more of themselves. More than they should. (There is one Columbo where he breaks that polite “oh, one more thing” persona and is visibly mad at a suspect. We only see it the once and it is extremely powerful because of that, but it’s always there under the surface, whether he’s playing someone, what he’s really feeling.)

You can rivet without the threat of death.

Endeavour has the extra problem that prequels bring in that we have to recognise that this is the same Morse we’ve known but it also has to give him room to become that Morse we’ve known. He isn’t going to die, I have no doubt he’ll get out of this particular pickle. But it’s what that pickling does to him.

There you go. Drama is pickling. I should’ve just said that.