The aliens are here! Again!: The five golden rules of sci-fi remakes

Two-and-a-half decades after the rodent-scoffing invaders of 'V' first landed on our TV screens, they're back. But will they conquer the schedules?

Gerard Gilbert
Sunday 11 April 2010 00:00

It was on the last day of July 1984, shortly after the opening of the Soviet-boycotted Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and midway through the presidency of Ronald Reagan, that British viewers first clapped eyes on "the Visitors". They parked their spaceships above New York City and other major world conurbations, humanity being slow to learn what a small band of resistance fighters already knew – that beneath their placid, humanoid exteriors, the Visitors were carnivorous reptiles given to treating live rats as party food. Rather than coming in peace, the Visitors planned to steal the Earth's water and harvest its population for fresh meat.

V, as this American mini-series was called, breathed new life into a sub-genre that had become increasingly moribund since the 1950s Cold War heyday of UFO-invading sci-fi. Little surprise, then, that ABC, purveyors of Lost and FlashForward, should have remade the show deploying the full arsenal of CGI special effects developed over the intervening quarter of a century. But, while the new V has been a hit in the States, other reboots, such as 2002's version of the 1960s fantasy Time Tunnel, disappeared without a trace, and TV networks are becoming wary of science-fiction drama (it's costly, and its demographic is narrow). So what are the golden rules of remaking a sci-fi classic?

1. Live by the brand, die by the brand

At the London press launch for the new V, journalists were handed a plastic, life-sized rat to take home with them – a playful nod to the most shocking water-cooler moment of the 1980s original, when journalist Michael Donovan (played by Marc Singer) witnesses an alien biting the head off a rodent. That's ' almost subliminal advertising, and the "V" logo is pretty strong too. "Brand awareness is everything," Adrian Hodges, the writer of the BBC's re-imagined Survivors, told me last year. "It's the commercial reality. Audiences are getting harder to please – and brands such as Doctor Who, Blake's 7 and Survivors are very attractive to commissioners."

Well, that tells you how to get commissioned – though it's also a high-risk strategy. Anticipation starts building in cyberspace ages before anything has been screened. Chat forums buzz and a masochistic enthusiasm settles over hardcore fans of the old show. We're really looking forward to this, goes the thinking... but we think it's going to be crap.

2. It's not enough to just remake the original

Fan loyalty only gets you as far as the first episode. But as any James Bond enthusiast will tell you, you have to take it to the next level, and you can't do that with CGI effects alone, if at all. One of the main reasons sci-fi doesn't age well is that special effects date badly: Ray Harryhausen's hallowed stop-motion now looks as prehistoric as a Keystone Cops single-reeler, while the wobbly sets on the original Doctor Who were legendary. But what was more frightening: Dougray Scott and Joely Richardson being pursued by carefully researched, highly authentic (or, at least as authentic as a Triffid can be) CGI vegetation in BBC One's filmic 2009 The Day of the Triffids; or the laughable mutant celery sticks emerging from the hedgerow in the Beeb's more home-made 1981 adaptation? Despite the essential absurdity of the earlier Triffids, it is they that live on in viewers' imaginations. And despite the fancy CGI work in the new Doctor Who series, older viewers could argue that something has been lost in the upgrade. Most of all, there is an in-built contradiction in the whole CGI revolution – that when anything becomes possible, nothing is amazing.

Rather than snazzy graphics, what people really want is evidence of a bold imagination. It helps if you are a kindred spirit – witness the success of über-fan Russell T Davies' 2005 reboot of Doctor Who, a renaissance that continues now under the auspices of the equally devoted Steven Moffat. Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor, reckons the current scripts are far better than they were in his day. "I think it's because the writers are people who were brought up on the show," he says, "so it's more about the ideas." By the same token...

3. It can help if the original was a bit cheesy

Low expectations can be an advantage – you have brand awareness without the fond memories to trample on. Lorne Greene from Bonanza and 2007 Celebrity Big Brother housemate Dirk Benedict led the cheerily naff 1980s Star Wars rip-off Battlestar Galactica, which was cancelled after one very expensive season. Who could have guessed that its 21st-century namesake – similar only in plot outline – would be likened to The Wire? On the other hand, Bionic Woman was an amusing idea in 1976, but in 2007, when ex-EastEnder Michelle Ryan worked on her biceps for the remake, it seemed as outmoded as Concorde. The holographic avatars in Sky One's Caprica may be just as technologically fanciful, but they do seem more topical. On which note...

4. Throw in a topical allegory

People like to believe their entertainments contain hidden depths, and sci-fi has a rich tradition of religious and political allegory – never more so than during the Cold War, when aliens and Commies were almost interchangeable. Post-9/11, the revamped Battlestar Galactica bore the largest load of allegorical interpretation, with Time magazine describing it as "a gripping sci-fi allegory of the war on terror, complete with religious fundamentalists, sleeper cells, civil-liberties crackdowns and even a prisoner-torture scandal".

The new V has been met with a blizzard of contradictory allegorical claims. Because the aliens promise peace and universal healthcare while secretly plotting the opposite, some have divined an anti-Obama slant. Ridiculous, say others, since the pilot was filmed before Obama, and the same themes were present in the original Reagan-era series. And anyway, aren't the Visitors neocons – a supposedly friendly invasion (think Iraq) turning out to be anything but? In the 1980s version, scientists were the first to be rounded up by the aliens, and, as liberal columnist Jonathan Chait has written in The New Republic, "The original V alien campaign to tar scientists as a fifth column sits uncomfortably close to the current right-wing view that the world's leading scientific organisations are conspiring to suppress evidence that global warming is a hoax."

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5. Don't forget the space babes

Are all sci-fi fans male? Negative Captain, although the genre has a sizeable geeky male component. As if to underline the point, the recent BBC co-production Defying Gravity (from the same executive producer as Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty) was sold as "sci-fi for women", with its emphasis on soapy sub-plots, and (coincidentally or not) was a big, fat flop. Hit the internet forums and you soon catch a whiff of the testosterone-driven response to shows such as the new V. While some posts discuss the quality of the script, or its allegorical meaning, just as many discuss the physical attributes of the gamine, Brazilian-born Morena Baccarin, who plays the cute-but-creepy alien-in-chief Anna ("That woman rocks my socks... Morena used to play a high-end hooker on Firefly, can we get some sexy Anna action on this show?") or Laura Vandervoort, Supergirl Kara Kent in Smallville, who plays alien teen-bait Lisa in V ("The plot advanced in episode three... Laura Vandervoort even took her kit off"). n

'V' starts on 13 April at 10pm on Sci-Fi channel

See you again?

Space 1999 (1975-1978)

Obviously they'd have to change the date if they wanted to remake this. Gerry Anderson's second stab at live-action sci-fi (after UFO) was intended as a British Star Trek – but the acting was more wooden than Anderson's Thunderbirds puppets. Visually inspired by Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is probably too of its era to warrant a remake; a planned movie franchise in the 1990s came to nought.

Remake potential: 1/10

Blake's 7 (1978-1981)

A spokesman for Sky One told me last week that, having announced a remake back in 2008, the reboot of Terry Nation's 1970s cult classic was "still in script development". Hmm... About a group of freedom fighters resisting an evil federation that ruled the galaxy, it was imbued with Daleks inventor and Survivors creator Nation's dark and intensely personal vision, and the series went against the accepted wisdom by killing off various lead characters.

Remake potential: 7/10

The Tomorrow People (1973-1979)

ITV's answer to Doctor Who involved a group of highly evolved teenagers known as Homo Superior, who operated out of an abandoned London Underground station. Featuring belt-buckle teleportation devices and a talking computer, TIM, the show was remade (minus the glam outfits and belt buckles) in 1992, but its potential as an ironic, post-Buffy teen fantasy seems enormous.

Remake potential 9/10

Star Cops (1987)

Chris Boucher, a former script editor on Blake's 7, devised this relatively realistic genre hybrid set in 2007, about a reluctant career policeman assigned to maintain order in the space stations springing up in the Earth's galaxy. Behind-the-scenes in-fighting and poor scheduling led to the show's cancellation after one series, but it has a number of retrospective admirers.

Remake potential: 5/10

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