Russell T Davies
By Mansha Daswani
Russell T Davies, a co-creator of the upcoming CBBC show Wizards Vs Aliens—which is represented globally by FremantleMedia Enterprises—talks to TV Kids about combining magic and sci-fi, and the joys of writing for children.
TV KIDS: What was the inspiration for Wizards Vs Aliens?
DAVIES: It literally came out of a conversation I was having with Phil Ford about what to do next. I wanted to do a science-fiction show, because I love them. And he wanted to do a more fantasy-, magic- or even horror-based show for kids. We were saying, isn’t it funny that you never put science fiction and magic together? You can’t. In a science-fiction world, you can’t have such a thing as magic. And in a magic world you can’t have laser beams and robots. I wish someone had had a camera on us, because then we could win a bet as to who had the idea first. It was like both of us just went, Well that’s it! And dammit it all, he said it first! He literally went, Aliens Vs Wizards, as it was then. I said, Damn! I was seconds away from saying it. [Laughs] We were at dinner and right then I could see this, now: it having been made, me publicizing it, the launch, the merchandise—I knew it would work. That doesn’t happen often. Normally you come out of meetings with a half-baked idea about some girl who’s got some superpower and a wicked uncle and you think, We’ll make that work somehow, and three years later you realize it doesn’t work. [Laughs]
TV KIDS: And you knew you wanted to do it for CBBC?
DAVIES: We had previously worked on The Sarah Jane Adventures and that, sadly, had come to an end when Lis Sladen passed away. Although we’d made a program that was very successful for CBBC before, they didn’t just turn around and say yes to us. They made us go through the whole pitching process, refining and developing the script and having meetings with them. It wasn’t an automatic commission. That was one of the best things they could have done. We really tested and challenged every element: the magical side, the family side, the alien side, the divine side, the spaceships, the wands, how you cast a spell. We went through versions where they had amulets, versions where they said rhymes, and we kept on testing everything. It was a very fruitful year of development that now—it was driving me mad at the time—with hindsight was the best year we could have possibly spent. The show is watertight. It has real integrity and all its logic stands up.
TV KIDS: Casting teen actors must be challenging. How did the process go to find your leads?
DAVIES: It is hard. You’ll never know quite how much stamina and how much integrity they’ll have. We auditioned hundreds of people. I’d love to tell you that there were great big arguments and people storming out of rooms or hitting each other with big books. But actually it was very obvious—it was one of those remarkable situations where we just agreed straight away that it would be Scott [Haran] and Percy [Ascott]. They’ve got to be team leaders, they’ve got to have stamina to carry this, and they’ve got to be good actors. The trap that you can fall into here is just casting a handsome face. There are a lot of handsome boys out there who are quite good at acting. You can’t be quite good if you’re the lead actor. Otherwise all the effort you’ve put in, all the writing that’s been done at 2 o’clock in the morning, all the design that’s been hammered out, all the late-night shoots, just die on screen. The fact that these two are very handsome boys as well is just lucky beyond!
TV KIDS: How have you mapped out the season? Can viewers still tune in even if they’ve missed an episode?
DAVIES: I am very averse to shows that are so complicated that you can’t follow them. These [shows] are repeated, they’re repeated out of sequence—they should have a stand-alone quality that you can just leap in and understand it from the word go. At the same time, once you get an audience hooked, you should reward loyal viewers. And hopefully there will be a lot of children who will see connections in the script, lines that pay off ten episodes later. There’s a slight arc to it. The Nekross [the aliens that invade Earth in the show] do have a master plan up their sleeves, and by the time you get to episode 11 the master plan is unveiled. It’s such an evil plan. I just love it! [Laughs]
TV KIDS: How do you incorporate kids’ real-life issues into the story lines?
DAVIES: That’s the only way I operate through science fiction. When I brought back Doctor Who in 2005, I grounded it in real-life emotions, within family and friendships. Frankly, that’s what made it a success.
Yes, it’s wizards and aliens, but we’re really telling the story about a friendship. Kids feel things more keenly than anyone else. If you’re 6 and you lose your felt pen, it’s a disaster! If you’re 6 and you lose your best friend, it’s your entire world in turmoil. You can’t have soulless robots fighting soulless spaceships. These characters have homes and loves and passions and families. That’s the only way I’ve ever told these stories.
TV KIDS: Do you think writers of prime-time programming sometimes look down on children’s television?
DAVIES: They can do. To be honest, most writers and creators of 9 o’clock shows don’t give it any thought whatsoever! But actually, there’s quite a tradition in this country of very experienced writers writing for children. Look at the stalwarts of British drama: Paul Abbott started out in children’s television; Tony Marchant did a CBBC drama last year called Postcode. There’s actually a very fine tradition of writers loving that sort of material. The opening ceremony for the Olympics put children’s fiction right at the heart of the most important things in Great Britain. It said the Child Catcher and Mary Poppins and Voldemort are central to our culture and central to our identity to such an extent that we’re going to spend millions of pounds on them and broadcast them to a billion people watching worldwide. That’s how much pride Danny Boyle had in children’s literature.
TV KIDS: How central is the BBC in supporting the British children’s content industry?
DAVIES: The BBC’s role is massive. There’s no sign of that being taken away. The BBC itself could always fight to make children’s more important within its own structures. They do support programs enormously and put money into them. Children’s programming is about to disappear off BBC One and go only onto CBBC. As someone who is 48 years old, I would object to that—I can’t help thinking that these things should be on BBC One, where they can be seen by more people. However, I know from my own experience that we saw higher viewing figures on The Sarah Jane Adventures when we premiered episodes on CBBC rather than on BBC One. With my own programs I’ve seen the change happen, for the better. So I can’t argue against it. I’m being old fashioned when I think that Blue Peter should still be on BBC One. I do think that there’s an issue of visibility. If you were inventing a brand-new show now called The ABC Show, it’s hard if you’re only on a digital niche channel—getting to a bigger audience, carving it into the cultural landscape, is harder work.