So, I’m currently working on my entry for this year’s Red Planet Writing Competition.
As my series pilot has an element of the supernatural about it (to my own surprise, to be honest), I’ve had to do some research, but I also get to invent things. One element of the story is that of people talking to ghosts in the style of Doris Stokes or Derek Acorah, but having done a bit of reading about apparent communication between the dead and the living, I found that there seems to be a lot of variation as to how the dead speak, and in itself this is a good thing for me, and within the context of the series pilot that leaves me a lot of latitude to decide how communication with spirits actually happens. Which I like, because it means I get to make it up.
Underlying most TV shows is what is often called the ‘mythology’ of the show, and those which have some kind of paranormal, fantasy or science-fiction basis often have to make it more explicit than those which are based in what we call reality – I guess this is because the greater suspension of belief, or lack of frame of reference, has to be compensated for by a greater explanation of the environment. To give an obvious example, the viewer needs to be told that The Doctor is (at least ostensibly) the last of a race of people who travel through space and time, which is why he does so; but we don’t need to be told that Stacey from EastEnders is a member of the Walford Market Trader’s Association, which is why she has a permit to run a stall in Albert Square (I made up that Association name, as those of you who know more Albert Square mythology than I will have immediately spotted). I rather suspect the reason for this is because we’ve all seen market stalls (even if they’re only on cutting-edge documentaries like EastEnders and Albion Market ), and thus they need less explanation.
In a way, it seems like an extension of the principle of Occam’s razor, that the more complicated and otherworldly a situation is presented as being, the greater the explanation required of the mechanics of that situation; there are differing degrees of explanation, though, and the creators’ intent plays a big part in it – I’ve never made it past Chapter 5 of the first book of Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings because of the frequent diversions off into world-building (genealogies and songs in particularly), and the folks behind the Star Trek franchise seem pretty happy to detail almost every stage between the present day and the universe of Kirk, Picard, et al, whereas things such as the scientific backdrop to the Star Wars films are (as far as I know) pretty thin on the ground – and indeed, when Lucas started to provide pseudo-explanations for the mystical elements, most folks I know were unimpressed. Midichlorians, indeed.
Whilst I’m thinking about the underlying ideas of my series proposal in detail ahead of time, it’s not always the case that TV series have everything worked out in advance; Doctor Who didn’t come fully-formed with aspects such as the regeneration built in, many elements of (my favourite TV show ever) Twin Peaks were pretty much made up as the writers went along, and I think it’s fair to say that The X-Files put many of us off in its latter years by being pretty obviously weighed down by an increasingly complicated and contradictory mythology – one which it’s very hard to imagine was the result of careful planning.
At the moment, however, I’m rather enjoying my little bit of world-building, though the time will soon come to stop messing about with the backdrop and to concentrate on the drama which has to unfold in front of it; that’s fine, and I’m well aware that research and preparation can just end up being procrastination, but I’m trying to balance the competition’s requirement for a series outline with the need to work out what happens in the first hour of the projected series, and – for want of a better word – playing at being a demiurge is proving a lot of fun.
There’s a fine line between obsessing over the details of how your main character is Borin the seventh son of Colin, and establishing the way that your world works, I guess, but – at least for now – I hope I’m staying on the right side of the line.