Outland – an interview with creator John Richards

This interview will also be appearing in the next issue of Ethel the Aardvark, but I thought I would post it here as well in case you don’t read that before the air date of next Wednesday 9.30pm on ABC1


Outland is premiering on the ABC on February 8th.  Tell us a bit about the premise of the show.

It’s about a gay and lesbian science fiction fan club. They’ve just split from a larger club and are forced to hold meetings in their homes, revealing secrets the members would rather keep hidden. Each episode is set during one meeting in one location, and it’s more an English-style comedy, similar perhaps to Spaced or The Book Group. The five members of the group all come from different worlds so the science fiction is the only thing they really have in common. Oh, and it’s funny. And it looks great.

The characters in Outland are quite unique for Australian TV.  Are they based on real life people?

They’ve definitely got elements of real people in them! I always approached Max as being me – he’s nervous, he worries about other people, he over thinks everything… and Andy was the person I’d like to be. He may be a sex-crazed leather man, but he’s also the most balanced member of the group and he has a good job. Andy’s the one you’d go to in a crisis. Or Rae. I short-hand Rae as “Monash academic” and she’s like a lot of women I know, and I’d never seen a lesbian character like her shown on telly before. Fab is obviously a version of Adam’s “performance persona” so he came in fully formed – Adam said the other day that Fab is just him when he’s drunk. Toby’s probably the least like someone I know, although some of his dialogue I took verbatim from real life.

Adam and I worked on the characters together, and then they were further developed with Princess Pictures, but Max came first. Actually, even his name is a weird geeky joke – he’s the average guy, the “everygay” so he’s named Max after Max Normal, a character from Judge Dredd.

There are several geek/nerd references in the first two episodes that resonated particularly with me, did you automatically know these or did you have to research geek culture to come up with them?

Everything came off the top of my head except the Stargate references – we decided Toby was a fan of Stargate and I took all the names off Wikipedia. This meant when it came to filming no-one knew how to pronounce them correctly and we’d have to call Narrelle M Harris. She was our “Stargate pronunciation consultant”. But all the Doctor Who stuff was from me and Adam, it was all just there. And the crew joined in as well. In episode 2 you can freeze-frame the open suitcase to see a copy of Narrelle’s book “The Opposite Of Life” and a copy of “Horn” by Peter M Ball, and in episode 1 the cinematographer made sure the real street sign for nearby “Lytton St” was properly lit so there was another subtle Dalek reference. Everyone wanted to make sure the fan elements were constant throughout the series.

How much of the story lines in Outland are based on your own experiences?  Have you personally felt embarrassed about being a science fiction fan?

Absolutely. In the first episode Max is one a date with a not-we and he’s “de-geeked” his house (this moment is also a parody of a gay film cliché in which a gay character removes all his gay paraphernalia because his Nan or similar is coming over – honestly, this series is a teetering tower of references). His date makes a joke about Daleks going up stairs and Max is momentarily frozen by an internal argument about whether he should correct this – Daleks have been going up stairs since Remembrance Of The Daleks – or to let it go. That moment came from real life, I was at a party and that exact thing happened. And the fannish and non-fannish parts of my brain had a fight about whether we wanted to be right or whether to let it go. As fans I think we like to be right.

And I think the gay world was quite dismissive of science fiction for a while, but then the gay world can be quite dismissive of all sorts of things. It seems to have changed now. Weirdly, the gays got on board the same time Doctor Who went heterosexual. It’s a mixed-up world.

Do you have a favourite character in the series?

I love them all, and the actors are all so brilliant. It’s a real ensemble piece so I wouldn’t want to play favourites. Although I’m extremely proud we found Ben Gerrard – he’s an exceptional performer and I like the fact that we’ll be able to say “we found him!” long after we can’t afford to use him anymore.

Outland is based on your original short film.  What inspired you to make the film in the first place?

The short film was made as a pilot, really. The ABC had turned Outland down in script form, but I thought if we made a film and put it into festivals we could come back to them saying “look! People like this!” I was following in the footsteps of SBS’s Wilfred, which was also a short film originally. So I directed it and shot in my lounge room for $500, with a really impressive cast. I think that’s what you need to do now if you want to get a show up.

On a more basic level, with Outland I wanted to put gay characters on screen that weren’t just one-note clichés and I wanted to put fans on screen without them being figures of ridicule. Gays and geeks have always been the butt of the joke; I wanted to make them the heroes.

Will there be a second series?

 I hope so. I’ve got ideas for one, I think we’ll have to see how it rates and how it’s reviewed, I guess. So watch it! And watch it again on iView! And send letters to the Green Guide, and leave comments on the ABC website, and tweet and facebook and shout about it randomly in the street! Actually, don’t do that last bit, that sounds mad.

You co-wrote the series with Adam Richard, who also stars in the show.  Were you tempted to put yourself in the show as well?  How was the collaboration?

In the show? Good lord, no. There was a two-line taxi-driver part I had my eye on but that went – more logically – to an Indian actor (and a very handsome gent, too).

The writing collaboration with Adam changed several times over the series – at first we worked on the pilot script together, emailing it back and forth. Then when we started at Princess we had more people involved so it ended up bouncing around a lot more. Then as the show got nearer – and time was shorter – I took over completely. So episodes 4 through 6 are written solely by me, but Adam would read them and make notes. Then when shooting started it was more important that Adam was learning lines than writing them, so I took over the rewrites as we went along. It was all very organic. And in the read-throughs – and on the set – Adam and the cast would sometimes change lines or come up with alternatives.

It has been a long time between the series being finished and finally being aired on the ABC.  How frustrating has the wait been?

The whole process has been somewhat… um… leisurely. Although I was reading yesterday that Life On Mars took one year longer than we did to go from concept to screen and that was brilliant, so that’s reassuring. The only truly frustrating bit was that the show was finally edited mid-2011 and there just wasn’t room on the ABC schedule to show it! The ABC has really pumped up it’s output of comedy and drama in the last few years, which is brilliant, but it meant there wasn’t any room at the inn for Outland. The truth is only a tiny number of shows get made in Australia ever, so the fact that our show got made at all is a reason to rejoice. It’s also very good, in my humble opinion, so that’s nice too.

Do you have any other projects in the works we can get excited about?

Yes, I have projects in the works you would get excited about but no, I can’t tell you what they are. There’s no point getting you all worked up over something that might never happen, but hopefully one of them might get some development soon. There are two SF-tinged dramas that would be amazing to make, so fingers crossed. Keep watching the skies! Or your television. WATCH OUTLAND!

In the meantime you can always catch me on the television-discussion podcast Boxcutters – http://boxcutters.net/ – or speaking at events like Live In The Studio at ACMI – http://www.acmi.net.au/lis_sex_lies_television_screens.aspx

Note from me – I have seen a sneak preview of the first two episodes and they are absolutely hilarious.  Can’t wait for them to be on tv 🙂


The Almighty Johnsons – why can’t Australia produce TV like this?

Earlier this year at a panel at Continuum, there was a discussion about why Australia doesn’t produce much, if any, SF or fantasy television that isn’t for children.  The consensus was that we have very shortsighted tv execs as both the children’s shows and others have done very well overseas.

So we who love all things speculative must turn to other countries for the type of television we like to watch.  It is usually the United States we turn to, but I recently watched a series produced by our next door neighbours, NZ, called ‘The Almighty Johnsons’.

The premise of the show is the Johnson family, four brothers Mike, Anders, Ty and Axl, are descended from the Norse Gods, who emigrated to NZ a couple of hundred years ago to escape persecution.  Their powers, which appear to them on their 21st birthday, are diluted and only the return of Odin will herald the return of their Glory.

The series begins with Axl’s 21st, where he discovers his god identity as Odin and his quest to find Frig, his goddess, and that when they ‘join together’ all the god’s powers will return and they will ascend to rule again in Asgard.

It sounds really heavy but this is actually a light hearted comedy with very typical Antipodean humour.  I noticed it is currently screening on Australian free to air so I urge everybody to check it out.

There are a couple of really great scenes and the scene where Mike convinces Axl of his godhood by playing paper rock scissors is a classic

The titles are a no nonsense listing of the boy’s names and who plays each character but it is kind of cool.  There is also a bittersweet love story there as well.  Everything a nerdy girl could want, cool Norse god powers, cute guys (did they hire every cute actor in NZ?) and a love story, as well as Nemesis goddesses.  I absolutely loved it and cannot wait for season 2.

Being Human Season 3

I just finished watching the third season of the UK series Being Human.  Note that now I have to differentiate between the UK series and the US series, because of course, the Americans, seeing something they like, have to remake it, thinking that Americans can’t possibly watch something that is from another country without needing subtitles, even if it is in English.

While I am all for remakes of foreign movies, because let’s face it, how many people actually watch a subtitled movie, I can’t wrap my head around the idea of remaking something that has already been done in English.  I can’t wrap my head around remaking classic movies into modern movies, even if they title them differently.

The US version of Being Human is actually ok, if you haven’t already watched the UK version.  The UK version is something that only comes along every now and again, something very special, where the classic tropes of vampire versus werewolf have been turned on their heads and spun around until you have no idea where things are leading.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the US version knows where the UK version is going and is trying to sneak there first with their Dutch vampires that are so old they only have to wake up every 50 years or so.  The UK version ( the real version in my opinion) has just introduced the old ones into the story line, at the very end of season 3.  I am not going to give things away but I have no idea what they are going to do in season 4, or if there is going to even be a season 4 with how season 3 ended.  I was gobsmacked, I was crying, I was yelling at the screen, all in the hope that the intrepid trio would prevail against horrible odds.  I was wrong.

The thing I like about series produced by British stations is that there is rarely a happy ending.  Things are never predictable.  You can never rely on the fact that your favourite character is even going to be there the next episode.  While I hate the fact that your favourite might die, it is also far more dramatic when you don’t believe that you favourite is safe and the suspense of knowing they might die is much more dramatic.

That is why I like Joss Whedon.  He wasn’t afraid to get rid of main characters.  That is why Buffy was so popular.  People could never predict what would happen, so you just rolled with it.  I would have to say that Whedon’s series were the most British American series that I have ever watched.  Does that even make any sense?  I am typing this quite late at night and having just finished watching season 3 of Being Human am feeling quite emotional.

This is a television series I have come to quite late.  I knew it existed and several people recommended it to me, but the whole vampire werewolf dicotomy didn’t really appeal at the beginning.  I was reluctant to add yet another vampire show to my watch list as I was already really into True Blood and Vampire Diaries and I thought that yet another show with Vampires was really taking it a little too far.

How wrong was I?  Very wrong.  This show is far more about different people living together and what makes someone human than about the vampire thing.  Also, the vampires in Being Human are certainly not heroic or nice, even the main character, although he certainly tries, he doesn’t succeed.

The US version has tried to be a faithful remake without slavishly devoting itself to the storylines of the UK series, but I just can’t get as involved in the characters.  They are a little more shallow than the UK series, a little more safer, a little more PG.  Somehow, I don’t think Aidan, the vampire in the US series, will slaughter a train full of victims like the UK Mitchell does.  Somehow, I don’t think the US werewolf, whose character is so bland that I can’t remember his name, will do what his UK character George does in the last episode of season 3.  (Trying so hard here not to do spoilers that it is not making much sense)

In any frame of reference the UK series is far superior to the US series, but I can’t put down the US series, as it is actually quite good as far as supernatural US series go.  If only it wasn’t a ripoff of a superior series, it would stand along as quite good television.  I only hope that what it does is bring a whole new audience to discover the UK series.  I hope these people who only watch home grown tv, get curious as to what influenced this show and check out the original series, which is actually being shown in the US on the same channel as the US series, and discover what really good tv is about.

Bravo to those people at the BBC who have created Being Human.  You make me laugh you make me cry and I can’t wait to see how the hell you are going to get yourself out of the hole you have written yourself into.