A couple of weeks ago I did an interview with Geoff and Carl at the wargaming podcast The Independent Characters. It was heaps of fun, and went up on the net earlier this week. I talk mostly about Baneblade, but within that cover my work process, what it’s like writing for The Black Library, where my ideas come from and other writing-craft related topics. Be aware, there are spoilers.
Posts Tagged ‘Interview’
Tags: Baneblade, Black Library, Interview, The Independent Characters, writing
Tags: Interview, Interzone, local paper, Somerset Guardian
Local journalism… I dunno. I really shouldn’t throw stones, and it would be wrong to adopt the glossy, international magazine attitude to our colleagues in the local press (it’s not a nice one), and I have screwed up myself more than once in print, but… They got my name wrong, said I have three books out this year in one part of the article and then four elsewhere, (truth: three already, four in 2013), the story implies this is my first published short story, when it’s actually my first for Interzone, and states my mother read me The Hobbit, when I actually read it myself. All actual facts I told the nice lady. I think I got them right. I think I did. Yeah.
Still, it’s good to have the publicity, and I have some sympathy for journalists being under pressure and all… But come on! Spell the name correctly, at least, eh? Sheesh. There’s no “y” in the middle, no “y” I tell you [cue noises of Hulk-style roaring and things breaking in the background].
It’s not as bad as the time I was in the paper as a kid, and they called me Amy Haley. I cried about that (I WAS EIGHT, in case anyone thinks I should grow a pair. I had some, they just hadn’t dropped), as I knew everyone would rip the piss for weeks at school. They did. Great. Now I’m having flashbacks.
Tags: Death Ray, Elphaba, Gregory Maguire, Interview, Journalism, Oz, The Wizard of Oz, Wicked
This is an interview with the author Gregory Maguire who wrote the novel Wicked, which was turned into a wildly successful musical of the same name. From Death Ray 05, published in 2007.
Gregory Maguire is an American writer with a passionate interest in children’s literature, being co-founder of a charity dedicated to furthering reading among the young.
He is primarily known for penning revisionist fantasies, often based upon well-known fairy tales. However, his most famous works take their inspiration from a more recent source. Maguire has taken L Frank Baum’s famed series of novels, borrowed his world and put his own stamp firmly upon it, often adding his own characters into crucial points of the stories, or looking at Baum’s own characters from alternative points of view. The first book, Wicked, centres on Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and portrays her as a passionate rebel rather than as a hook-nosed harridan with a nasty allergy to water. It has been adapted into a musical that has enjoyed great success both Stateside and in London town.
Guy Haley: You are very passionate about literature for children. Why do you think that is important that children read?
Gregory Maguire: I heard a report this week that said at the age of 10, only 43% of American kids read for pleasure. At the age of 15, that has dropped to 19%. When I hear statistics like these, I fear for the loss of certain skills that imaginative reading enhances; apprehension of subtlety, ambiguity, tolerance for differences, willingness to suspend judgment until the last page (or even beyond). I think reading for children, even more than reading for adults, is central to the survival of a literate citizenry. That is why I still write for children, even though my income is much richer and stronger when I publish for adults.
GM: Tell us a bit about your organisation, the CLNE.
GH:I helped found an educational charity called “Children’s Literature New England” 21 years ago. For two decades we met (four times in the UK) and considered topics of literary interest as they are dealt with in books for children: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; “Swords and ploughshares”; and “The Fairytale belongs to the poor.” Writers and artists such as Philip Pullman, Quentin Blake, Maurice Sendak, Ursula K Le Guin, Philippa Pearce, Jill Paton Walsh, Penelope Lively, Peter Dickinson, Susan Cooper, Russell Hoban, John Rowe Townsend, Alan Garner, and many others collaborated with us to consider these literary themes as expressed in books for the young. This is built on the notion that children’s literature is no less an art form than novels for older readers.
GH: Why do you choose to use the “toolbox of the fantastical” to tell your tales? Do you think that fantasy is more effective at bringing messages to children (and adults) than stories with a contemporary setting?
GM: I am afraid that as a Luddite, someone who doesn’t have an iPod, a cellphone, a play station, or a digital camera, I cannot convincingly portray our increasingly technological contemporary world with any verisimilitude. So writing stories that take place in the past or in a fantastical setting makes me much more comfortable.
That said, I also think that the kind of relaxation that once must go through in order to tolerate a “magic” story might just make one more tolerant of larger themes, too, and I care deeply about the themes of my stories – more than about the plots, characters, settings, or the mechanics of magic.
GH: Some of your greatest successes have been with stories set in Oz. Why have you chosen to use L Frank Baum’s world?
GM: Oz – unlike Middle-earth or Wonderland – is an imperfectly realized magic land. I admire much of what L Frank Baum did, but it is what he failed to do, or did less well, that allows me license to parachute into his magic kingdom and see if I can make any more sense of its history or politics than he did. Basically, I took a land of fabulous incongruity and I tried to superimpose an orderly civilisation upon it, with its own history, religions, cultural conflicts, etc – to be an anthropologist of Oz.
GH: Do you ever feel awkward, playing in the sandbox of such a renowned man?
GM: He is conveniently dead, so I am seldom embarrassed at dinner parties.
GH: You also use fairytale a lot, especially in revisionist fantasies for adults. This seems quite popular in film and literature at the moment. Why do you think that is?
GM: As we become something of a post-literate society – or perhaps I should say that as our shared literacy becomes more audiovisual and less textual – the fairy tales, like the parables, remain conveniently portable and functional vessels of story that, because we get them young – and frequently – may in fact be the final shared narrative that most people in the west can agree that they share in common.
GH: How do you feel about the success of the musical Wicked? Are musicals as valid an art form as literature in your mind?
GM: I love the musical Wicked and am buying tickets today to see it for the 26th time. It is a different art form than the novel and as such made some changes to the plot, which do not bother me. The basic theme of the story is the same as in the novel I wrote – which is that we should beware demonising our enemies, or seeing the world in absolute moral tones of black and white.
GH: You say that you enjoy English novels. Why is that?
GM: I believe the English write more delicious prose, by and large. I also grew up in a time when English writers for children were very easy to find in the libraries in the US I loved CS Lewis at the age of 10, also the books about Mary Poppins, Paddington Bear, and Tom’s Midnight Garden.
There are exceptions. Among my favorite US writers living and working today are Jess Walters, Ron Hansen, and Daniel Handler.
GH:Who are your major influences?
GM: As to the Wicked cycle, I would say TH White’s The Once and Future King, Grahame Greene as to a spooky tone and sinister atmosphere, and perhaps Ursula Le Guin as to someone who took and takes fantasy writing with utmost seriousness.
Did you know?
Gregory Maguire is married to painter Andy Newman.
Tags: arthur rackham, Brian Froud, Death Ray, Fairies, Fantasy, Fantasy art, Hensons, illustration, Interview, Jim Henson, Labyrinth, Muppets, Science fiction, The Dark Crystal, The Power of the Dark Crystal, The Storyteller
This interview with Brian Froud comes from 2007, when it was published in Death Ray 06.
This particular piece appeared in our “New Gods” profile slot. Unfortunately, the 2009 release date he gives at the end of the article for The Power of the Dark Crystal has come and gone, but I live in hope we’ll see it some day. You can read my review of the original The Dark Crystal here.
I interviewed a number of artists for Death Ray, and will be posting the articles here in due course. Hopefully, should I get permission from the artists, accompanied by some of their glorious illustrations.
Froud was a really nice chap to talk to (my rule of thumb is that artists and writers are great to speak with, actors less so), and yes, he really does see fairies…
The Goblin King
A quarter of a century ago, Muppet Master Jim Henson tracked down Brian Froud to provide art direction on The Dark Crystal. We talk to the master of faerie painting about this film, his artworks and his encounters with the other…
Brian Froud paints fairies. His pictures, influenced by the pre-Raphaelite movement, Arthur Rackham and Swedish artist John Bauer, are a mass of detail, of otherworldly faces peeking into the human world.
“I left college as a jobbing illustrator,” he says, “and did all sorts of things for about five years – magazines, book covers, and I got fed up with it. I used to have battles with art directors, until I discovered that any project that I art directed myself I would win awards for. As soon as I created my own things it just worked.”
Froud had always yearned to live in the countryside, so he upped sticks and headed to Devon. The folkloric book Faeries, produced in conjunction with artist Alan Lee (who lives in the same village) came out in 1977. He’s not looked back since.
“When I moved to the country, my response to nature was to paint fantastical creatures, fairies and trolls. It just haunts me, I’m fascinated. I can’t help it. I’ve a book coming out in America called Brian Froud’s World of Faerie. It’s thirty years of my work. It’s a journey through time – my earliest stuff up to the very latest. But it’s also a journey deeper into fairyland, as my art has become more about the spiritual aspects of fairies.”
This journey has taken to Froud to the edge of Faerie itself… The artist says he now sees the little folk. His good-natured tone becomes a little more self-conscious.
“It was just after finishing Good Fairies, Bad Fairies, I was on tour signing and I spontaneously started to see fairies.”
And these positive experiences generally?
“Erm, yes,” he says tentatively. A chuckle breaks his reticence. “Until the white van arrives!” He explains, “As an artist there are various techniques you use to get across an idea, but it has to contain an element of truth. And it’s fascinating to me that when I’m doodling in sketchbooks, I’m looking at these faces, getting them so I can say. ‘Yep, there’s something true there,’ rather than something I’ve made up.”
Ah, so he communicates with the fairies through his art…
“No, no. I am seeing them. Everyone says they want to see a fairy, and they want to see it with their eyes, you know, but you see it with an inner eye. They are psychic experiences. It doesn’t happen all the time, and I can’t make it happen, and it’s always a bit surprising… It’s hard – I paint fairies that feel right, but to paint fairies that look right is difficult. The experience involves so many other things.”
Wherever his art springs from, his appreciation of nature, his own imagination or through a communion with the world of Faerie, Froud’s pictures do have a glamour about them, and carry a lot of emotion for his fans.
“This could be self-delusion,” he says “but my sense of the ‘rightness’ of the pictures comes across from the response I get from people. It’s often about family, their mothers have given their books to them, and they’re going to give their books to their children, or that the books have helped them through terrible experiences, even abuse. The books have given them a safe world to flee into. I’m very humbled and proud that they’ve had such an effect on people.”
Froud’s also known as a conceptual designer on Hensons’ fantasy classics The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and The Storyteller, and for him these experiences remain a high point of his career. Jim Henson saw a picture of Froud’s on a book cover, and thought the artist would be perfect to help him bring to life an idea for a world he’d had. Froud jumped at the chance, and not only because he is a huge fan of the Muppets.
“I’d always wondered what it would be like if my art moved. I figured that traditional animation would not work, because my art doesn’t have depth to it, and so I’d actually thought, well maybe puppets is the way to add that depth.”
Ironically, after hiding himself away in the country, he was to spend much of the next five years in New York and London. But it had many benefits, not least that he met his wife Wendy, a puppeteer, at Hensons.
“Being in the Muppet workshop was like being in heaven. Colours, glue and fur and stuff! Jim and Frank [Oz] would come in and talk about the world, about the sort of creatures that might populate it.”
Froud oversaw every aspect of the design, drawing and sculpting on The Dark Crystal. Initially beginning with a small team, as the crew grew to 360 people, the lone artist had to learn to collaborate, the most satisfying part of the experience.
“It took five years of my life in the end. And I think that’s what makes The Dark Crystal unusual, we did literally build the whole world from the ground upwards. A whole world that had history, it had a religion, it had different animals. Jim was financing it himself until really quite late in the day. That gives it its freedom of expression. Nowadays everything is driven by accountants, I don’t think you’d ever get that freedom again. We made this film for ourselves, it caused confusion when people saw it – they wanted to know who it was for. But we though we didn’t really know, I think it affects everybody.”
This lack of a clear target audience and the release of ET meant that The Dark Crystal was a modest financial success. Froud and Henson’s next foray into fantasy, Labyrinth (1986), bombed. But both have gathered a large cult following, and Froud expresses amazement at the diversity of different editions he signs at events. Over the years a sequel to The Dark Crystal has been mooted, but it’s only recently that Froud was approached to design creatures for a second film in the series. He was initially less than taken with the idea.
“My first thought was ‘Why’? I’m always up for going on forwards, not going backwards. If we’re going to go back to this world, there’s got to be a reason. Talking to David Odell, who scripted the first, we came up with a reason. When we left this world it was paradise. Now we’re returning, something’s gone wrong; why? For me that’s the intriguing nub of the story. At the moment that’s in the script, but who knows what will happen! Anyway, I’ve done some designs for various creatures, Gelflings and things like that.”
Currently the film is going under the name of The Power of the Dark Crystal. Hensons literature reveals that a much older Jen and Kira, the heroes of the original, are rulers of the Castle of the Crystal. A fiery girl named Thurma from the centre of the planet (early development of The Dark Crystal featured underground civilisations, according to Froud) requests a shard of the crystal to revitalise the inner sun. The Gelflings refuse, so Thurma steals one, leading to the re-emergence of both Mystics and Skeksis.
“They’re still getting the final funding in place,” says Froud. “I spoke to Cheryl Henson at Comic-Con the other week. And she’s confident we’re talking about a 2009 release.”
Tags: Fat, Interview, Journalism, Red Dwarf, Rob Grant, SFX
A profile on another top creative guy I’ve interviewed a few times now. Meeting Rob was a very rare fanboy squee moment for me, as I try hard to maintain a shell of supercilious indifference towards celebrity, but I grew up on Red Dwarf, and was very excited. I’m glad to say we hit it off, and it’s always a pleasure to see him.
This interview was conducted on the publication of his novel, Fat, in 2006, for SFX 151. Read my review of it here.
Rob Grant Profile
Red Dwarf co-creator Rob Grant is feeling bullish, and there’s little that will get in the way of his iconoclastic ire. Right now his target is scientific orthodoxy, in his path the vast China shop of obesity and diet. His latest book, Fat, is a hilarious attack on the fatuous nature of statistics and how most of us swallow them whole. According to the near-future Fat, the only diet that works is the poor-quality brain food we scoff down every day, and the only thing it slims is the intellect.
Despite the tightly written nature of this eye-opening novel, its conception has the entertaining smack of low-grade charlatanry. Mr Grant made up this one on the spur of the moment, he confided in us.
It was while enjoying the fruits of his last book, the hit Incompetence, that he was called up by his agent. Grant takes up the story. “‘Let’s have a discussion about your next book. You have a two book deal and your publishers are chomping at the bit,’ my agent said, which I forget immediately, as you do. I remembered a couple of days before we met, so I went out for a drink, and thought, ‘Fat’. And literally, that’s all I had, three letters. When I went to see him and said, ‘The book – it’s fat,’ his eyes lit up. Of course I had no idea what it was going to be about, so I was doing some bullshitting and serious back-peddling, saying ‘Well, it’s very early days yet, very early days.’ Besides this, I also said, ‘Please don’t tell anyone’. I mean, I needed time! So the next day I got a phone call from my editor, ‘Hey, we love ‘Fat’, we’ve got the cover people working, and marketing are going crazy’. And I’m thinking about my agent ‘You bastard, you’re fired for a start’. The next day it was on Amazon. I was stuck with it, so I got all these books out and started researching the subject.”
Grant found himself astonished. Not only was there a book in the idea (he was relieved) but that, “Almost everything we know about diet, obesity and body image and its relationship to disease and the heart is crapulous!”
Fat seeks to set the record straight, demolishing received wisdom and lampooning the way Cartesian method has been put off the straight and narrow track.
“Take salt. There is a lack of evidence in salt’s case that it’s harmful for you in any way,” he cites. “Any substance is poisonous if taken to absolute excess,” he counters, “even water will kill you. But that six grams a day stuff is nonsense. It annoys me when the same old opinions are trotted out and aren’t backed up by any kind of scientific evidence whatsoever. For the book, I had to learn how to read statistics, which was a lot of fun, let me tell you. Now when I see some kind of nonsensical health story on the BBC website like ‘Tea causes cancer’, I am sceptical. You never get the figures, you never get the important, salient details, and you rarely get pointed to the source report. I blame journalists. I think in journalism you can either thoroughly research every story and check it out or you can write down what somebody tells you. The pay’s the same.” [Note from 2012: I am afraid he is bang on the money there. And the pay's awful].
None taken, Mr G. We can also just make it up, by the way.
“And there are whole government policies based on some ineptly conducted survey. And I mean, some of the more controversial stuff I didn’t dare put in, but I’m sure I’m going to get a backlash anyway.”
If all this is making Grant sound angry, he is not. He is as considered as ever, though he is incredulous as to how some of the rubbish he has uncovered as rubbish gets accepted as fact. He is, however, developing an intolerance for morons as he ages, of which he seems to encounter more than his share. Still, they provide fuel for his books, which seem to be leaning towards his Spitting Image days; more satire than SF.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Satire is a dirty word. In show business they say ‘Satire is what closes on Saturdays’, but I suppose there’s an element of satire in all my stuff. I am getting more real worldy, the thing is I don’t try and write to order, I write what occurs to me and hope that some bugger buys it.”
Is that his ‘You’re not pigeonholing me, I’m an artist’ statement?
“Ha, no! The whole nanny state thing drives me to distraction, We’re all grown up, let us decide if we want to have 13 year olds in carseats for ourselves. It doesn’t look like there’s any end in sight, the opposition’s embracing it too. That’s what I’m looking at in ‘Fat’.”
And now the cycle has begun again. Fat is long written, this is Grant’s first interview, and his agent hangs on the bell again, waiting for the next precious three-letter pitch. So, what sacred cows are in the firing line?
“I’ve got a queue.” He almost growls, which turns to a chuckle. “But I’ll say that climatologists better watch out…”
Tags: Doctor Who, Interview, Joe Ahearne, Journalism, SFX, Ultraviolet, Vampires
Here’s an interview with Joe Ahearne about his great UK vampire TV series, Ultraviolet, which was about the only decent home-grown genre thing Britain produced in the 90s. When I did this interview in 2005, it was already old news and Ahearne had move on to Doctor Who, so this was, and still is, a retrospective. I’d actually interviewed him about it twice or so beforehand, and visited the set way back when I was a young cub-nerd reporter with even worse hair than I have now. But at least I had some, I suppose.
Originally published in SFX Special Edition 22.
The drought had lasted for a long, long time. We’d been holding our heads up for a promising cloud drifted over, only for it to deliver a feeble spattering of drops. The TV landscape was as dry of good genre programming as the Sahara is of Pimms.
Cast your mind back to 1998. We were nearing the end of the decade, a decade that had furnished us with the unambitious Goodnight Sweetheart, the cheap and cheerful BUGS, and the diabolical Crime Traveller. Doctor Who was long dead, the BBC refusing to bring it back. Producers who dared poke their heads above the parapets to tout SF fare shirked from calling it such, it was the genre that dared not speak its name. “We don’t do big-budget fantastical television very well, best leave it to the Americans,” many programme makers said. The BBC’s hugely expensive Invasion Earth had just aired. At £1 million an episode, and with less than stellar ratings, it seemed they were right. The flop of the Doctor Who pilot two years earlier hadn’t helped. It was the time of the cosy, clichéd Sunday night drama with vets, cops, nurses and farmers falling over each other in 1950s Yorkshire. That time looked set to last forever.
But then came a show that proved you could do decent telefantasy on a British budget and not have it look like it was made of milk bottle tops. It took a perennial horror theme, that of vampires, and put a new spin on it, a spin that would soon be echoed by the likes of Buffy and Blade. That show was Ultraviolet.
“I wrote it because I am very interested in television with a strong visual element,” says writer-director Joe Ahearne, arguably one of the hottest properties on the now revived UK genre scene. “I was always more interested in being a director than a writer, but I wrote it simply because there was nothing like that out there at the time. It was the kind of thing I wanted to direct.”
Ahearne, a softly spoken chap who often breaks into a gentle laugh as he speaks, had been working on a short film with actors Siobhan Redmond and Neil Pearson, then stars of cop drama Between the Lines. They put him in touch with John Heyman and Tony Garnette of World Productions, producers of the series. He submitted a draft of a vampire show of about four pages, and they were interested. Rather than make his show right off, they offered him a gig working on the second series of This Life. The lad who’d wanted to be a director had so impressed them with his writing that he found himself penning two episodes, and he got his wish, flexing his directorial muscles, being behind the camera on three. Once he’d proven himself on that though, the greenlight was ignited, and Ultraviolet moved into production for Channel 4.
“That was my big break rather, than Ultraviolet. Even though I wrote and directed the whole of Ultraviolet. This life was bigger, it was more in the public conscience,” he says.
This Life star Jack Davenport, who played the slightly priggish Miles, was paired with Susannah Harker as part of a secret government department tasked with hunting down the undead (interestingly, in real life Harker is descended from the man who inspired Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula). In the show Davenport’s character, Detective Sergeant Michael Colefield, is pitched from normal life of blissful ignorance into a terrifying world where vampires are real when his best friend, Jack Beresford, disappears on the night before his wedding. These bloodsuckers weren’t the languid fops we were used to, quaffing blood like absinthe, but predators in snappy suits who had coexisted with humanity for centuries, only, as the show slowly, terrifyingly revealed, we were making so much of a balls-up of the planet that they’d decided to and boot Homo Sapiens from the driving seat.
The series’ great innovation came in taking it all terribly, terribly seriously. The guys hunting the vampires were grim-faced pros who had severed all ties with their previous lives to hunt down the creatures who had, naturally, done them some wrong. The vampires themselves were dangerous businessmen pursuing a hostile corporate takeover of Planet Earth Inc. The board was set, but it wasn’t the vampires that Ahearne focussed on, but their pawns.
“We found that once you’ve worked out how these people hunt vampires, there isn’t much mileage figuring out who is a vampire and who isn’t, they can find out with their gadgets. As we developed the stories from episode one we decided it was much more interesting to look at the contested characters; the humans helping the vampires.”
These ranged from folk who didn’t want to age – like the man whose mother had Alzheimer’s – to members of the team itself. In a great twist, it transpired Michael’s new boss, Father Pearse Harman (Philip Quast) was dying, and he is offered the vampire’s kiss. In this way Ahearne tackled several fairly weighty issues – from global warming to paedophilia – without ever over-relying on the vampires themselves. In fact, the word “vampire” is never once uttered throughout the show, the creatures of the night simply being referred to as “Code 5’s”. V for vampire, V for five in Roman numerals. The show is littered with similar clevernesses.
Ultraviolet’s use of intermediary human characters foreshadowed the later Blade film series, as it also did in its use of hi-tech vampire bashing gadgets. The members of Ultraviolet used carbon dum-dum bullets (wood, with little crosses on the tips) and alicin spray (derived from garlic). Even better, Ahearne took the idea that vampires couldn’t be seen in mirrors and extended it to modern technology – the vampire hunters carried video detectors on their guns which enabled them to determine who was a vampire and who was not. The vampires also could not be heard over electronic devices. It was so original, and the show had a substantial impact on the way vampires were represented on film and television.
“I don’t know if it really was that big an influence,” says Ahearne. “It came out here before Buffy and Blade, so it was before people had seen that kind of thing, seen vampires treated in that kind of way, though David Goyer did cite the show as an influence, which was very gratifying to hear!”
The show parts company with these American imports there. Whereas Blade and Buffy both rely on special effects, Ultraviolet deliberately avoided the use of them, having just a few in each episode.
“The trouble is, they cost so much,” says Ahearne. “Even something as seemingly straightforward as car chase takes time and money to do. When you’re shooting six hours of TV on a short timescale, you just can’t do it, even though Ultraviolet was an expensive series. I think that’s one of the big advantages of writing my own stuff, though I sometimes prefer to film someone else’s, it lets you know exactly what you can achieve from the outset. You’re not going to sit there and write ‘insert action sequence’ if you know from directing that it won’t be possible under the constraints of a TV schedule. And I think it’s the same with CG. Obviously now you can do a lot more than you could even seven years ago, but that takes time. If you give people weeks and loads of cash then they’ll come up with something really amazing, but often they don’t have that luxury so you end up with something that, well, still looks like a rubber monster!”
It may have been done for purely pragmatic reasons, but Ahearne’s reluctance to go the route of the big bang means that Ultraviolet has not become dated, something Ahearne points out happen to many older shows (he once said Blake’s 7, respected at the time, now looks like “A joke”, for example). In fact Ultraviolet still looks fresh, primarily due to Ahearne’s directorial style and his clever use of dusk and dawn light. However, this was something that made it all a little bit difficult.
“Shooting TV is not like making a film. You can’t go back and do it again if the light’s not right, and that’s another thing we had to take into account when writing the episodes. Originally the show was going to be about a vampire detective, but then I realised that it would all have to be night shoots, and that is hard. Even Ultraviolet, which we shot large parts of during the day, was logistically complicated. It was very hard work, especially directing all six episodes. That’s not something you usually do on a series like that, so it was very tiring.”
Nevertheless, as the series’ placing here demonstrates, it was all worth it. Sadly, despite its success, Channel 4 did not commission a sequel to the story. “I don’t know why,” says Ahearne, “it was one of the most successful dramas in its timeslot. Maybe they just weren’t interested. But I’m just very happy it came in the top ten here. I wasn’t aware that it had much of a life after it was shown. I mean, it’s not like Doctor Who, so I’m glad it’s still got a following.”
Its success was noted on the other side of the Atlantic. Following a route that was to become all-too familiar in following years, Ultraviolet was snapped up by the Americans to be turned into a slick, fast-paced vampire show.
“I think there was only a pilot,” he says. “I wasn’t involved in it at all. What happened was the company, World Productions, who made it sold the rights. They took Idris Elba [who played Vaughn Rice, one of Michael’s colleagues] from the British version, so there was a presence there, and I think they used quite a lot of my material for the first couple of scripts. But the problem is that I wrote Ultraviolet as a series – actually, I prefer miniseries, because if it were a series, with only six episodes, it wouldn’t have been regarded as very successful!” he laughs. “But I’d done what I wanted to do with it. If you make a series in America, it has to be able to run for five or six years, you’ve got to come up with something that can really run and run and run, because it is only when it gets into syndication that it makes its money. The thing I did wasn’t designed to do that, so I think the American version was designed as a sexy vampire soap. No criticism there,” he says, honestly meaning it, “because you have to make something that will run, and there wasn’t enough story material in mine for that. I don’t know why it didn’t work, but it didn’t.”
With no sequel forthcoming, Ahearne later went on to direct another genre treat, the sophisticated and quite scary Strange. Starring the curly headed (and surprisingly non-Welsh, after his turn in BBC2’s Coupling) Richard Coyle as a sort of ex-priestly demon-hunting Doctor Who, Strange, written by Andrew Marshall, ripped up the carpets of reality to show us all the paranormal nasties lurking beneath. Ahearne, with his dual-stranded career as writer/ director now ell-established, brought a lot to the six episodes as director.
“Because I write, when I’m directing someone else’s work, I don’t mess around with it. Although many TV companies like to put writer/directors to work on scripts that they haven’t written, I always try and respect what someone else has written, I think if they wrote something then that’s what they meant, they don’t want you to go and change it.” The show marked a bit of a departure for him, as he had been primarily a comedy writer, working on a string of BBC hits, from bizarre 1980’s laugh-fest The Kenny Everett Television Show to the wryly amusing 2point4 Children. “He is a really funny guy,” says Ahearne. Somehow, it’s hard to imagine the creator of the George Cole vehicle Dad penning a show about demons, but pen it he did and it worked well. There was to be no second season for this series either.
“Strange was different to Ultraviolet,” says Ahearne. “Again it was a very expensive show, but I don’t think it was quite as successful. It was a bit more exposed than Ultraviolet, the BBC put it out at 9.00 – prime time, so it had more to prove. Ultraviolet was always going to be a bit culty going out when it did. But it’s very difficult to decide where to pitch your show, what slot it fits into.” Indeed, perhaps this lack of an easy pigeonhole may explain why there was a lengthy gap between the initial pilot and the series.
Right now Ahearne is prepping for his next big project - Double Life, a film starring Christopher Eccleston, late of Doctor Who fame. Produced by Sophie Belhetchet, who got Ultraviolet on screen, it is a story of obsessive love with an SF twist.
“It’s difficult to describe what it is without giving too much of the plot away,” says Ahearne. “And I don’t want to do that. We’re at too early a stage. But it does have SF elements to it. It’s more about love and relationships really, but I think I will probably look at it and describe it as a genre piece,” he says, explaining his caginess, but Ahearne is not being trying to divert us, nor is he trying to cast wide the net of appeal. It’s not a case of “It’s post-apocalyptic fiction, not science-fiction”, as the producer of The Last Train said to SFX. This is not a man who is afraid of genre labels. “It’s just that it’s one of those dramas where the SF doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the story so you don’t really want to describe it as such. We will, be able to talk about it in more detail in a few weeks, but not right now.”
The film starts shooting in Budapest later this year, set for a theatrical release in 2006. We’ll just have to see how SF the flick will be, but if one thing is certain, Joe Ahearne – the man who helped end the genre drought on British television – will not disappoint us.
Ahearne on Doctor Who
“I was really happy to get the job on Doctor Who,” Ahearne says. Something everyone who worked on it felt, no doubt, as rumour has it people were very keen to be involved. “I don’t know what to say about it without saying the same old thing, there’s only so much you can say about working on a TV show where everyone’s happy to be there and working hard. It was a bit of a reunion for me, actually, as the production designer on Ultraviolet, John Bellington, worked on Doctor Who. I had a similar problem with him too! He made such a good job of the incarceration chamber on Ultraviolet that I was always disappointed I’d not set more scenes in there, but by the time I saw it it was too late to change the script. It was the same with the TARDIS, the set was amazing, and huge, and I thought it a shame there weren’t more bits in my episodes in it. But you can’t dictate to the characters where they’re going to go, they go where the story needs them to be,” he says. He is full of praise for the cast and crew. “Russell T Davies got a great team together, and Christopher Eccleston is such a great actor, that I don’t think they could have done it any better than they did.”
But it wasn’t all roses, at first, Ahearne was only booked for a couple of episodes, but in the end did six – “Bad Wolf”, “Boom Town”, “Dalek”, “Father’s Day”, and “The Parting of the Ways”. All the really cool ones, you might think, but Ahearne points out a problem with it. “When you do that many episodes, it takes a lot of time. They did all of it in Cardiff, pre-production, post-production, everything. It took nine months, which meant I had to move there, basically, so it was hard being away from home so long. But,” he says, and you can hear the smile in his voice, “I don’t think for a man like me, who’s interested in visual spectacle, you could have better job than directing episodes of Doctor Who where he’s fighting the Daleks.”
Tags: Death Ray, Famous people, H-Bomb Girl. Arthur C Clarke, Interview, Journalism, Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter wrote a very nice review for SFX magazine of my latest book, Champion of Mars, so I thought I’d put up this interview I did with him for Death Ray 07 in late 2007. The interview was conducted to publicise his book, H-Bomb Girl, and was published before the death Arthur C Clarke, who Baxter talks about below.
Q&A Stephen Baxter
The Scouse author’s latest book takes him tumbling back in time to 1960′s Liverpool and the palm-sweating height of the Cuban missile crisis. Only it’s just that little bit different. Yep, the bone fide scientist (he has three degrees) and scribe of fantastical far futures is exploring his other favourite subject, alternate histories, once more.
Guy Haley: Unlike a lot of authors, who tend to write in one world or on one theme, you often change subject matter between hard SF and alternative history. Why is this?
Stephen Baxter: I think that’s true, and it doesn’t always do me the best of favours. Changing your strategy isn’t very good for your publishers. It goes back to right at the beginning of my career, my first couple of novels were hard SF, and I think that that’s my basic brand, but my third novel was Anti-Ice, which was an alternate history, of the kind that H-Bomb Girl is. I think it’s better to have a wider range of inetrests and I like to keep myself fresh by finding new ways of telling stories, and new avenues to explore.
GH: Do you get bored then, with one creation?
SB: I wouldn’t say bored, each book is the best book I’ve got in me at the time if, but I have to rip myself out of one particular thing after a while, when I’ve mined the seam, and move onto something entirely different. In fact I’ve been prolific the last few years, a couple of books a year, and that’s partly by alternating – I have a hard SF series on the go and then young adult like H-Bomb Girl or the Mammoth books.
GH: You’re working very hard. The third Time’s Tapestry book has just come out, and now this. That’s a lot of writing.
SB: I’ve always had a work ethic. I didn’t give up my day job until after The Timeships was published. I was working full-time up to that point, I was commuting to London as well, so I was working in the evenings and the weekends. I’ve always tried to keep to the habit of using time well.
GH: What attracts you to alternate history?
SB: I’ve always been interested in history for as long as I have been interested in science, and then alternate history is the different possibilities and the contingency of everything. I mean, you look back in your own life and see how things could have been different if you’d made a different choice – like meeting your wife for the first time, if you’d stayed at home that day things would have been entirely different. The present is as contingent as the future.
And the notion of the past as well is very interesting. I mean, trying to write my way into Liverpool of 1962, it’s like an alien planet, everything’s different. I think the mobile phone especially is a huge disjunction between the present and the past, I expect 1985 was a lot more like 1962 than now, just because the phones and other communication technologies have changed everything about the way we live.
One of my impulses behind H-Bomb Girl is that in each age we have an apocalypse, the moment it’s the green apocalypse isn’t it, where we’ll be fighting over the last scraps of water in 100 years’ time, but when I was growing up it was the Cold War. We weren’t going to grow old because the computers were going to unleash a nuclear holocaust that was going to just end everything. Absolutely terrifying. And I think looking back to the previous generation, for them it was the Second World War. The pre-war generation were terrified of the coming war. Well, it was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. Each generation has a horror show ahead. So I thought it might be interesting to write for a modern generation of teenagers about the fears of a previous generation of teenagers. I wouldn’t want to diminish the challenges of climate change, but I suspect we’re going to muddle through somehow.
GH: Will you be working with Arthur C Clarke again?
SB: Yes, in fact we’ve been working on another new book, the Time Odyssey Series. It’s called First Born and it’s going to be out next year from Gollancz.
GH: How do these collaborations work?
SB: They generally start with a four or five-page outline from Clarke, but they’re really open-ended, you’ll have what becomes the kind of first chapter and plot threads, but generally without a resolution, so then we bounce that backwards and forwards by email until we’ve got an outline that we agree with and then off we go.
He was ninety this year. I’ll be happy if I’m as mentally active as he is when I’m that age.
GH: You are from Liverpool. What was it like going back in time?
SB: Well, I wasn’t even five when the Cuban Missile Crisis kicked off, so in a way it was looking back to a time just before I can remember really. So it was interesting. It’s not autobiographical but it’s like that. It’s looking at a place I know well bu through different eyes and describing it from an outsider’s point of view.
The great thing that I turned up in research from my point of view was that the Beatles played in my old school! In 1961, in one of their many sort of cavern era mini-gigs. It was a Christian brothers school and they got thrown out apparently. All the teddy boys rioted. I didn’t see my school in the same way after that, I’d stood on the same stage where the Beatles played. That era’s become a bit mummified in a way, sentimentalised, but it was like a punk explosion really, all radical, very unpopular with the grown-ups.
GH: Everyone always blames the kids! Teddy boys, Mods, Punks, now hoodies…
SB: I think it’s just jealousy, everyone wants to be young again. Youth is wasted on the young, they say. But again we muddle through. It’s as if we think we’re the last sane generation and they’re all mad and dissolute behind us. But they’re not, people mature and grow up.
Tags: Dublin, Famous people, Good Friends, Interview, Journalism, literature, Robert Rankin
I wrote this piece for SFX 134, (I think). By 2005, I had known Robert for several years. I first met him at Euroctocon in Dublin in October, 1997. He and I got on very well and have remained good friends ever since. Rankin is one of life’s singular gentlemen. I have never met anyone quite like him. He is, if anything, even more bizarre than his characters., while the stories he tells in person are all the more astounding for being (mostly) true. I treasure the rare occasions we get to sit down, drink beer and, as he puts it in his Londony way, “talk toot”.
Rankin is a teller of tall tales who comes from a long line of tall tale tellers. Few could be taller than his latest book, The Brightonomicon. It takes a cue from New Age movements who saw a zodiac engraved into the earth about Glastonbury and applies the idea to a streetmap of Brighton. Not just any old Zodiac has the author discovered, but one of truly Rankin-esque proportions. Armed with a felt tip Rankin set to, tracing out his new cosmology on B-roads; no Gemini or Taurus here, but the Nazca-like lines of the Hound of the Hangletons and the Woodingdeane Chameleon. There are twelve in all, and each has a story, a case, attached to it which must be solved by old favourite Hugo Rune and his new teenage sidekick, Rizla.
“I wanted a reason for each of them to be there, you also wonder where these names come from – why is Hangletons called Hangletons? We have these dangerous areas, like Whitehawk and Moulsecoomb. So, in the book, Moulsecoomb is inhabited by a pirate captain called Moulsecoomb, who stills comes out and attack the pier from time to time.”
Of course, these dangers of the genteel town, jewel of the south coast and home of the exotic pavilion are imagined…
“Er, no,” interrupts Rankin, “You don’t want to go to those areas with anything less than a tank.”
And that is his power. Rankin so effortlessly mocks our world that it’s difficult to see which parts are pure fiction and which are not. Indeed, sometimes you suspect he makes none of it up, and is privy to a portal to some alternate reality where backchat is the highest of arts. You get the feeling of reverse dramatic irony – here it is not we the audience who know more, but that his character Hugo Rune knows everything.
Rankin is fascinated by magic, so it is no surprise that Rune owes much to that infamous wizard, Aleister Crowley, whose self-portrait hangs in Rankin’s hall. But, when you look closer, there’s a lot of Rankin in there too. Rune is the master of the scam, a man who pronounces, “I offer the world my genius, all I expect is that it cover my expenses.” Rankin himself is as much raconteur as writer. We could discuss some of his escapades here, would it not bring certain agencies of the crown upon his head. His true, if no less astounding, tales include that of the Blue Peter badge, or the strange case of the cash machines, a story he regaled many an audience with until a kindly policeman took him to one side and asked, gently, that he desist.
“Rune’s not based on me,” counters Rankin. “He is a mix of my father and Crowley. He knew Crowley, actually,” he says. “He met him in the war. My father didn’t fight – using the famed Rankin common sense he thought to himself: ‘I’ll get myself a nice reserved occupation – fireman should do it.’ Which meant standing in the middle of the blitz holding a hosepipe!” he laughs. “Anyway, he met Crowley in a pub in 1943 or ’44. My father didn’t believe in the magic, but he did think Crowley was the greatest poet of the 20th century. So he cultivated him by buying him lots of drinks. I remember my dad pointing out Crowley on the Sergeant Pepper’s album cover and saying ‘I know him.’ Then he told me he had a couple of first editions signed by the man himself. I was amazed. Of course, my mum, the fundamentalist Christian, had burnt them as Crowley was, after all, the Great Beast. I was gutted.”
Maybe there is more of Rankin Jnr in Rune than he suspects. Or perhaps there have been a long line of Rankins behaving like Runes. He is the fourth Robert Fleming Rankin – a connection to Alexander Fleming now lost to history and, like his father, his life has been full of cameos of unusual people (he went to art college with Freddie Mercury, for example). He’s done many bizarre things, such as convincing the inhabitants of Brentford a Griffin lived there, but he seems as oblivious to how unusual this track is as he is of the genuine reverence with which his fans hold him, fans whose numbers are growing. Rankin was ecstatic to see his previous book, The Witches of Chiswick, advertised in a railway station and, and has begun to force open the American market. Full of tall tales he may be, but you could never accuse him of boastfulness, however, you don’t get posters in Paddington if you’re small fry, old chap.
In true generous style, Rankin has one last thing to say. “That’s the best picture of me that I have ever had taken” he says of his portrait to the left [not included here, sorry folks]. “And I’d like to say thank you to the man who let us use his carousel. Beautiful it was, built in 1888. He even stopped it for us, whereas the pier wanted to charge us £150 to take our shot there. So thank you, and sod the pier.”
Tags: dave arneson, Dungeons & Dragons, Famous people, gaming, Gary Gygax, Interview, Journalism, Opinion
I wrote this piece in 2006. It appeared in SFX 146‘s Time Machine. Like most people of my rapidly aging generation, I began my gaming career playing D&D.
I interviewed Gygax once. Like a lot of Americans involved in fantasy, Gygax was bearded, large and voluble, but possessed a level of interest in others that made his bluffness charming rather than irksome. A very nice man.
Time Machine – Dungeons & Dragons
You enter a rough stone corridor. It looks unsafe, and the wall runs with moisture. Ahead of you is poorly made, if stout, wooden door. Approaching warily, you hear a series of muffled scraping noises and a low growl. What do you do?
If you’re one those who has played Dungeons & Dragons then this kind of statement will be familiar to you. If it isn’t then that’s exactly the kind of dilemma those odd spods with the funny shaped dice used to face, usually weekly, while you were off partying.
Actually, the perception of RPG’s as the domain of the uber-nerd is just one of several misconceptions about the game – in reality D&D is no special interest, saddo passtime, but the vanguard of a great gaming revolution that ushered in an age of mass-market wargames, collectible card games and computer gaming – all of which are now multi-million pound industries. Not so nerdy now, eh?
But despite this legacy, D&D the game has had a rocky history. At the height of its popularity, every school had a D&D group (as did many other institutions. “At one time every nuclear submarine had a D&D group,” co-creator David Arneson said in one interview), but then it virtually disappeared off the cultural map. Lawsuits and debt litter its history, and it came to find itself almost destroyed by the industry it created. The story of D&D is almost as hair-raising as an encounter with a Level 19 Gold Dragon in a bad mood.
Dungeons & Dragons was the brainchild of gaming buddies Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Gygax had long been associated with various groups and magazines, including Guidon, a wargames mail-order company. Gygax published various games through Guidon, including 1969’s Chainmail. Written in concert with Jeff Perren, Chainmail allowed players to stage small-scale battles in the Dark Ages. It was not an RPG, but a traditional wargame. However, when Gygax started to add magic and monsters, and Arneson ran a Chainmail game involving a castle sewer (underground adventures are a D&D signature) Dungeons & Dragons slowly began to come to life…
In 1971, Arneson and Gygax completed the first true incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons. But they had difficulty finding a distributor – their earlier publishers thought that the game’s referee or “Dungeon Master” would be so busy running the game he would never have any fun, so it wouldn’t work. Gygax, however, had more faith in their creation, and he and set up Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), with childhood gaming chum Don Kaye. In 1974, with funding from Brian Blume, another old-gaming buddy, they launched D&D’s first edition. The 1000 hand-assembled copies sold out in under a year.
The game was a curious grab bag of ideas. Chainmail and its child were heavily influenced by the models that were available to Gygax and his friends. Back then, there were no large firms making fantasy models, so Gygax and co relied on plastic historical figures. Fine for one’s warriors, but for the monsters the gamers turned to cheap Chinese toys – poly-bagged selections of badly executed dinosaurs and weird flights of fancy. This magpie nature had serious repercussions, as the eager proto-roleplayers also included rules for monsters and creatures from the likes of Michael Moorcock, HP Lovecraft and JRR Tolkien’s works. Lawsuits and quiet words inevitably followed, with the result that various beasties, deities and demons were struck from later editions of the game.
Kaye passed away in 1975, leading to the dissolution of TSR. Gygax then set up TSR Hobbies, Inc, to continue the publication of the game. This was initially on his own, but by the mid-seventies Brian Blume and his son Kevin had a two-thirds controlling interest, something that was to eventually lead to Gygax losing control over his creation…
But for the next few years, D&D was to go from strength to strengh. A more complicated version of the game, named Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, was released in 1978. This was a huge hit, and became the model for the many copycat games that were to follow. But it was not without its problems. It was beast of a gaming system, requiring multiple books and a maths degree to play. It also unwisely split D&D into two streams, upping production costs and dividing its audience, a problem that was not to be rectified until years later. Finally, AD&D also precipitated a falling out between Gygax and Arneson in 1979. The two went to court over who owned what of their joint creation. Though the dispute was settled by 1981, it was but the first of many business disputes to hit TSR.
And if arguments over Mammon weren’t bad enough, God soon got in on the act. A series of suicides, murders and a missing persons case were all erroneously blamed on the game, and the powerful Christian far tight roundly condemned it as, well, here’s what Christian Life Ministries had to say about Dungeons & Dragons: “Instead of a game [it] is a teaching on demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, Satan worship, gambling, Jungian psychology, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and many more teachings, brought to you in living colour direct from the pit of hell!!!” Hallelujah.
Gygax appeared on 60 Minutes to discuss the charges, only to have his answers edited and rearranged, or so he maintains. His complaints to the show after his interview was aired went unanswered.
“There here wasn’t a shred of evidence or veracity in any of those claims,” Gygax said recently. “One of the mothers of the children who had committed suicide said the only reason that her son didn’t kill himself sooner was because he enjoyed playing Dungeons & Dragons and that this was all just a cock-and-bull story.”
D&D was demonised. At the height of the hysteria, the TV movie Mazes and Monsters (1982) came out. This told the story of one youth (played by a very young Tom Hanks) driven mad by gaming. The game in the film may have been called Mazes and Monsters, but everyone knew what they were really talking about. The controversy rumbled on for years, leading TSR to excise references to many of the more dread powers of hell from the second edition of the game, published in 1989.
Despite all this, nothing seemed to dent TSR’s armour, and it began to explore other opportunities for D&D, with Gygax heading off to Hollywood to tout the property. It was a hard slog. Mineral-water quaffing entertainment execs were not easily won over by the mid-western hobbyist. But he persevered, and in 1983 the cartoon Dungeons & Dragons was broadcast on CBS. The Dragonlance novels followed in 1984. These too, were a massive success and transformed TSR into a major player in the booming fantasy publishing market.
However, back at base trouble was brewing. TSR had accrued debts in excess of $15 million, and Gygax discovered his partners had tried to put the firm up for sale. He forced one partner, Kevin Blume, from office, but the problems didn’t stop there. Another court battle ensued as Gygax struggled to retain control, but the law found against him, and he sold his controlling interest in 1985.
After Gygax’s departure, a number of proprietory worlds were developed, and licenses acquired – Marvel Superheroes, Conan and Indiana Jones amongst them; and new gaming avenues, such as card-based play, explored.
But the company’s fortunes could not last. As the decade began to wind down, dozens of games jostled for custom in a crowded market. Worse, RPGs were getting more and more complicated, fewer kids were getting involved, and the average age of gamers increased. With no new blood coming in, revenues dropped, and many companies went under or sold off their RPG properties.
TSR survived, albeit with a smaller, increasingly niche audience, soldiering on through the 90s, until, stuck deep in debt, it was bought out by Magic: The Gathering creators Wizards of the Coast in 1997. WoC was in turn purchased by Hasbro, who consolidated it with other gaming properties to create a gaming division operating under the Wizards tradename.
This marked something of a new start for D&D. A new edition – version 3 – of the rules was created in 2000. This scrapped the division between AD&D and D&D, creating one game. It dispensed with many the different dice the game used, settling upon the 20-sided variety. Gygax, who has undergone a change in thinking over the years, maintains the system is too complicated and damages group co-operation by focussing too much on power-play. Nevertheless, it has proven to be popular, and Wizards have wisely decided to make the system free for all games publishers to use, breaking down walls in the RPG community and generating fat loads of advertising for D&D.
Now, though the game will never be as big as it once was, Wizards estimate that around three million people a month play the game in the US alone. It appears the adventure of D&D will run for some time to come…
A D12 of D&D
Roll your twelve-sided dice to generate a random Wandering D&D Fact!
- The game was penned under the uninspiring title of “The Fantasy Game”.
- Gary’s surname (his parents were German) is pronounced “Guy-gax”, not “Guy-jax”, as many a poorly informed wannabe wizard would have it.
- The name “Dungeons & Dragons” was, according to popular legend, suggested by Gygax’s wife.
- Gary Gygax also created GenCon, now the world’s largest gaming convention, and launched Dragon magazine.
- Fantasy movie Krull (1983) went under the name Dungeons & Dragons for part of its developmental cycle, despite having nothing to do with the game.
- Though Gygax originally started to put fantasy elements into Chainmail, it was D&D co-creator David Arneson who first restricted players to one model each in his games, establishing the link between player and character.
- The game has a magic system where the wizard must memorise spells. Once he has spoken them and set them off, he forgets them. This was directly inspired by the Dying Earth novels of Jack Vance.
- Although the term “Hobbit” was removed from the game to stop infringing on JRR Tolkien’s rights, the term “Halfling” remains.
- D&D had no setting when originally launched, instead it provided gamers with hundreds of monsters, demons and beasts with which one could create one’s own world. Many of these were drawn from mythology. Tiamat, the multi-headed dragon in the cartoon and game, for example, is a Babylonian deity which represented the salt ocean, symbolic of chaos.
- D&D has sold more than 20 million copies, and generated more than $1 billion in revenue.
- Many potential RPGers now play online Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying games. The biggest, World of Warcraft, has six million gamers. A D&D MMPORG was launched last year.
- Gygax is not a big fan of Tolkien, finding his books dull. The works of Jack Vance, Robert E Howard and Fritz Leiber have had far more influence on the game.
D&D on the screen
Not so well done, cavalier
D&D has had many brushes with the silver and small screens. Not all of them positive. There of course was the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon show, which ran for three years and 27 episodes, but we had to wait until 2000 for a real Dungeons & Dragons movie, and then wished we hadn’t. A diabolical mess that featured a bored looking Jeremy Irons (paying for renovations of his Irish castle), that forgettable dude who played Jimmy Olsen in Lois and Clark, Thora Birch, Richard O’Brien and hod-loads of crap CGI, it was closer to the game but further from quality than the cartoon. This is a crying shame, as it was director Courtney Solomon’s life-long ambition to make a D&D movie. He acquired the rights to make the film in 1990 aged just 19 and spent 10 years putting together the money. All for nothing, because it really is awful.
There was a sequel in 2005. Don’t ever see it if you have even one iota of self-respect.
Tags: Buck Rogers, Famous people, Interview, Science fiction, SFX
This post represents the continuation of my never-ending quest to get as much of my old journalism online as I can. Unfortunately, that means nothing before 2004, as I was denied permission for that, but there is still so much to come yet! This feature was originally published in SFX 140, in that magazine’s regular “Time Machine” slot, in 2005.
Time Machine: Buck Rogers
Buck Rogers – all white teeth, innuendo-laden badinage, fey robots and tight jumpsuits. That’s what the name means to most of us, remembering as we do the low-brow, high-camp 1980s series from the vast stables of Glen A Larson, whence many a wonky nag and almost thoroughbred SF TV show came trotting onto our screens. The show followed Larson’s “fire and forget” approach to producing, appearing with much fanfare and running for a mere one and a half seasons before sinking into a quagmire of high mediocrity, becoming a something that today seems laughably bad. But Buck Rogers was once much more than this, entrancing several generations of Americans in magazines, comic books, radio and screen, and the sad whimper that his last hurrah endured does a great disservice to his legend.
Anthony Rogers first appeared in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. Penned by Philip Francis Nowlan, the tale was entitled “Armageddon – 2149″. It was a clever piece of science fiction that had the forces of the future waging war on one another with a variety of military inventions that have since become commonplace – infrared ray guns for night fighting, jet planes, bazookas, paralysis rays and more, though Buck’s flight-endowing jumping belt is still sadly unavailable. The famed Hugo Gernsback, at the time editor of Amazing Stories, firmly stated of the tale: “We have rarely printed a story in this magazine that for scientific interest as well as suspense could hold its own with this particular story. We prophesy that this story will become more valuable as the years go by. It certainly holds a number of interesting prophecies, many of which, no doubt, will come true.”
His prophesy was a good one. Soon after the story’s publication, newspaper mogul John Flint Dille commissioned Nowlan to create a comic strip featuring the adventures of the hero. Entitled Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the strip began its run on January 7th 1929. It was to be a phenomenal success, running in over 400 newspapers simultaneously at the height of its success.
Many of the Buck staples are present in the original stories. Buck Rogers, an ex-WWI American fighter pilot, is a surveyor in Pennsylvania who gets trapped in a cave-in and is put into suspended animation by a strange radioactive gas. When he awakes 500 years in the future, the heroic Buck becomes a pilot once more, a secret agent and head of the Rocket Rangers. He lives in a futuristic city of “metalloglass” full of marvellous devices. His enemy is Killer Kane, an evil Mongol who is trying to dominate the world, and his ally Ardala. Buck’s cohorts are the genius Dr Huer, Wilma and her younger brother, Buddy.
By 1932, when the spin-off radio serial was launched, Buck memorabilia crammed the bedrooms of American boys. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in to listen to the adventures of the space hero four times a week, whose gadgets and gizmos were simulated on the airwaves by the clever use of power tools (his psychic disintegration ray was an electric razor, for example). Buck Rogers was, in all ways, a household name.
In 1939 Buster Crabbe, who had played Buck’s imitator Flash Gordon, donned the robe of the time-displaced adventurer for a cinema serial. This Buck’s origin stepped up the science fiction wow-factor – he is flying a dirigible with his colleague Buddy (changed from his earlier role as Wilma’s brother) when they go down over the Artic. The ship is carrying an experimental gas, Nirvano (a shameless piece of McGuffin pinched by ITV’s poor 1999 drama The Last Train). The pair are instructed to inhale the gas in order to preserve their lives. Of course, when they wake up, they’re not in early 20th century Kansas any more, so to speak. This serial – of the kind that ran before the main feature in the days before televison – had Buck and Buddy revived in 2440. Killer Kane is again the villain, this time at the head of a band of super-gangsters which rule the Earth. Buck joins the freedom fighters, and, in a complicated plot, seeks aid from the planet Saturn. The 12-parter was recycled endlessly, being cut together for a 1953 film release, Planet Outlaws and edited again for television in 1953 in the shape of Destination Saturn. It even ran in the ’70s and ’80s on British TV. Though virtually indistinguishable from the Flash Gordon serial, it was far more polished than other SF offerings of the time, and had a kind of muscular vitality the ’80s version lacked. The wiry Buster Crabbe, an athelete, was a world away from the toothy avuncularity of Gerard.
The TV show that followed in 1950 was, by all accounts, a disappointment, though it is difficult to gauge as there are reputedly no copies of this long-forgotten piece of TV history. It was only the second ever TV SF show after all (the first being Captain Video and His Video Rangers), and the signature elements of Buck Roger’s universe, the constant action and clever gadgets, were severely hampered by the static, live nature of television.
The TV show finished in 1951, and Buck went into a slow decline. Nowlan had long left the comic strip behind, and it lost much of its power. Though it ran until 1967, it was confined to but a few newspapers. “Buck Rogers”, once a commonplace synonym for all that was futuristic in the speech of Americans, became a derogatory phrase applied with the same level of disdain as someone might have said “Doctor Who monster” ten years ago.
There was no Buck for 12 years, until maverick producer Glen A Larson got his hands on the property, launching a new
Buck onto an unsuspecting public in 1979. Many of the main elements of the story remained wholly intact, but the concept was retooled for the age of disco. “The original space man! The ultimate trip! Buck Rogers swings back to earth and lays it on the 25th Century!” screamed the jive-talking tagline. But disco was not the only innovation since Buck had last entertained the masses – feminism had come along in the meantime and grabbed the world by the proverbials. In response to this, Deering was promoted to Colonel, (though the character was always in need of rescuing and actress Erin Grey had to a) Dye her hair blonde and b) prance about in a shiny catsuit – feminism was yet to be fully integrated into the popular consciousness) and had an arch relationship with Buck with more than a hint of “mother knows best” to it. Ardala too was given preminence over Killler Kane, who was reduced from emperor of the world to henchman. She was now a sexually bored yet ultimately dangerous Princess, daughter of King Draco, evil overlord of one of Earth’s antagonistic ex-colonies. Again, empowered as actress Pamela Hensly was, Ardala was required to prance around in a whole range of adolescent-bothering outfits. Not that this upset Gerard, who had the pair of these lovely, self-determining chicks fighting over him in the show.
“All those beautiful women were one of the reasons I had such a good time doing it! It was in my contract ‘scantily women only’. We were kind of kinky, a little ahead of our time,” He told SFX in a 1999 interview.
Originally intended as a pilot for a TV show, Buck Rogers went on general theatrical release in the US where it tapped into the public’s fondness for the character, grossing vast amounts of cash.
“The figures are burned into my mind,” Gerard told us, figures tripping off his tongue as he recounted his glory hour. “It took 35 million in one month, before being removed from screens because it had been pre-sold to cable. It was one of Top 5 grossing pictures in 1979. In the opening weekend alone it took 12 million dollars, and this was three dollars a ticket at the time.”
(These big figures, predictably, prompted the third re-release of the old Universal Buster Crabbe serial).
Unsubtle flirting aside, this Buck was a different man. Though he was known to floor the odd Tigerman with a well-aimed punch, he was also a caring, sharing gentleman. The series writer’s bible said of him “As a character Buck Rogers outwardly presents a flip, sardonic, devil-may-care guy, and an adventurous spirit. Beneath this facade is a serious and caring man who is alone. For all of the marvels of the 25th century, Buck Rogers is cut off from everyone he loved or cared about.”
And what marvels! Actually, no. The keyword with Buck Rogers’ 80s incarnation is ‘fun’, and that in the lightest sense. Behind the recycled, unused Battlestar Galactica concepts (another Larson show) and Ralph McQuarrie spaceships, the stories suffered from the curse of syndication – the need for the series to be shown in any order at all cut out any character development or story progression, with many narrative inconsistencies between episodes. The future looked like a bad nightclub furnished by early Ikea, so soulless and plastic that when Buck paints faces on his furniture many viewers must have empathised. But the show illustrated one important social shift – the idea of relentless social progress through science had taken a beating, and it was often Buck’s knowledge of the old ways that got him out of scrapes. This aside, the show relied heavily on comedy, particularly from Twiki, Buck’s mentally deficient midget robot sidekick, and this did not make for the gut-wrenching tale of one man lost across the centuries. Even when the film tried to capture this aspect of Buck’s character, when he sneaks out of New Chicago to his ex-girlfriend’s grave, it slips into pathos.
Worse was to come. Glen A Larson had become little more than a name in the credits once the film had aired, and, as much of a magpie as he was when it came to other’s ideas (Gerard affectionately called him a “bandit”) the TV series lacked his screwball creative energy, and Gerard allegedly argued with the chief writers on the project. Then came the second series…
Where the first series was goofy but fun, the second was risible. Buck joins the crew of the Searcher, a spaceship commissioned to search out “the lost tribes of man”. The first series’ bible made much of Earth’s relationships with her former colonies, though these were never satisfactorily explored, but this level of plagiarism from Battlestar Galactica, was too much. The second season retrod old western and Star Trek plots. Mel Blanc, the cartoon genius who had voiced Twiki in the first series, was replaced by Bob Elyea for much of the second series, to fans’ mystification and outrage, and the little bot’s limelight was stolen by Krichton, an awful robot who owed much of its ancestry to a standard lamp. Buck wasn’t the only anachronistic throwback on board either, a bemused Wilfred Hyde White was wheeled onto the show to stammer and dither his way through awful lines, in a cardigan! Not very sci-fi. Gerard rages against this new direction.
“Our new producer John Mantley had no idea, one of his ideas was to replace Mel. A complete rip off of Star Trek was another. We ditched all those classic characters – Ardala, Killer Kane, the Tigermen. I was saying ‘Look, I’d really like Buck to stay on Earth. Why would he want to leave? He’s been gone for 500 years. The man needs to look around for a while, not go flying off again. John Mantley did not know what he was doing. He did the last part of Gunsmoke. To hear him tell it he reigned during the headier days of Gunsmoke, but he simply presided over the demise of that and the demise of Buck Rogers. He actually bragged about the fact he ripped off one of his Gunsmoke scripts for the Hawk episode. He actually bragged about it, he thought it was really funny that he cast Barbara Luna in both roles – she was the Indian princess and she was Hawk’s wife. The thing is, to actually laugh about it, to have so little respect for the audience, as to say, fuck ‘em”
The audience got the message, and deserted the show in droves. It was canned. Buck disappeared from the popular awareness, only an RPG, published in the late eighties, keeping his memory alive.
But his tale is perennial one, that of a man out of place, in a new world that presents many opportunities as much as it makes him yearn for that which he has lost. With TV SF reaching new levels of sophistication, perhaps it is time for some enterprising producer to take up the torch of Buck Rogers, and carry it once more to light the darkness of the future for us all.
- Buck has been played by Matt Crowley, Curtis Arnall, Carl Frank and John Larkin (radio series); Buster Crabbe (cinema serial); Kem Dibbs and Robert Pasteme (’50s TV show) and Gil Gerard (’80s TV show)
- Buck is a nickname, the character’s real is Anthony Rogers
- Buck has been put into suspended animation by radioactive gas in a cave, experimental gas in an airship, and by being frozen in deep space when his probe is lost
- In the ’80s version, Buck’s Deep Space Probe, Ranger 3, was modelled on the space shuttle. The series introductory narrative explains it was launched in 1987. In reality, there were no shuttle launches in that year because of the prior year’s Challenger disaster
- Gil Gerard worked with Glen A Larson once before. Larson’s band, “The Four Preps”, played at Gerard’s college. Gerard’s band supported them
- Gerard was originally going to be a teacher before deciding to take up acting
- Buster Crabbe appeared in the 80s episode “Planet of the Slave Girls”.
- The first Buck story, Armageddon-2143, appeared in the same issue of Amazing Stories as the first part of EE Doc’ Smith’s “The Skylark of Space”.
- Though they are often seen as contemporaries, Buck Rogers came before, and inspired, Flash Gordon
- At his peak, Buck commanded the loyalty of thousands of fans. The Radio serial had several giveaways with it. The first of which, a map of the planets, had 125,000 requests. A later offering of a space helmet could only be gained by sending in seals from Cocomalt cans, the show’s sponsor, even so 140,000 of these pieces of tin were sent in, and this was during the Great Depression.
Find out everything there is to know about Buck Rogers at the excellent www.buck-rogers.com