How To Make a Spin-Off That Doesn’t Suck

This week, I had planned to write a blog about my favourite TV spin-offs; ‘5 Spin-Offs That Are Actually Worth Watching’, or something to that effect. I don’t know exactly what I would have called it. The whole idea was blown out the water when I realised I couldn’t think of many spin-off shows I actually liked; certainly nothing that I liked enough to devote several hundred words to raving about. A painstaking trawl through Wikipedia’s ever popular list of television spin-offs did nothing to inspire me. It only confirmed what I had already begun to suspect: most spin-offs suck.

‘Why is this so?!’ I hear you cry.

Good question. Difficult to answer in broad-sweeping general terms, but I think I’ve managed to identify a few pitfalls that a great many spin-offs fall into that makes them suck. Avoid these when writing your spin-off and you might stand a chance of coming up with something that doesn’t make me want to tear my eyeballs out or (worse yet) yawn loudly and start playing with my phone.

Pitfall #1: The Surprising Shift in Genre

In spite of what I said earlier, as a Trekkie I love both Star Trek: The Original Series and most of the subsequent spin-off shows and movies. One of the reasons for this is because you know where you are with a Star Trek show. Whether it’s the Original Series, The Next Generation or Voyager, you know you’re getting a reasonably family friendly sci-fi/drama. The main setting is nearly always a starship (except for Deep Space Nine where it was a space-station, but close enough). There’s always a captain, a first officer, an engineer, a doctor and so forth. There is continuity with the original show, and that appeals to the most important audience you should be targeting with your spin-off: fans of the original.

But believe it or not, there really have been other Star Trek spin-offs on the cards which were mercifully never produced; spin-offs which broke this rule. For example, Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek’s creator) did have short-lived plans for one Star Trek spin-off which was to be a sitcom about Lwaxanna Troi (the mother of one of the regular characters in The Next Generation). No seeking out new life, no starship, no boldly going… just extravagant dresses and canned laughter (in Star Trek, if you please).

Need I say more?

Pitfall #2: The Surprising Shift in Age Appropriateness 

I’m looking at you, Torchwood, Class, The Sarah Jane Adventures, K-9 and whatever other Doctor Who spin-offs there might ever be. If you’re going to do a spin-off of a successful show, the chances are your main audience is going to be people who already watch the original. Remember, knowing your target audience can make or break any kind of story, so if your original story is a dark psychological thriller about an axe-murderer, don’t make the spin-off a children’s show about the exciting adventures of the axe-murderer’s 12 year old nephew. Your new audience won’t be familiar with the backstory and the old audience is unlikely to be interested

And for the love of bacon, don’t do it the other way around either. You’ll only end up getting letters from angry parents.

Pitfall #3: The Protagonist is a Supporting Character from the Original Show

Now before I go any further, I want to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with supporting characters in one show becoming the protagonist of another. It can work very well. For instance, in spite of what I said earlier about the Doctor Who spin-offs, I do think Jack Harkness was just as good a protagonist in Torchwood as he was as a supporting character in Doctor Who. After all, characters are people. People make good protagonists. But if you want a supporting character to have the leading role in your spin-off, they need to evolve beyond that minor role and become full-blown protagonists in their own right.

If the original story has a well developed cast of characters, this might be quite easy to do. Torchwood worked because Jack Harkness was already such a rich character in his own right whether the Doctor is present or not, and so he made the transition to protagonist easily. But let’s pretend we were going to write a new Doctor Who spin-off… let’s call it… I don’t know… Roses Are (Presumed) Dead (see what I did there?); a spin-off about the Doctor’s companion Rose, after she got trapped in a parallel universe and was declared dead. In theory it could work quite well, but you would need to develop that character beyond what she is to begin with. Now living in the parallel universe without the Doctor, she needs to have motivations and goals of her own that the viewer can relate to and care about.

Pitfall #4: Writing a New but Inferior Protagonist to the Original

In some ways, writing a brand new character to be the protagonist is probably far easier to do well, since you’re just creating a brand new protagonist from scratch instead of trying to augment a supporting character

However, you must make sure that your new protagonist lives up to the vibrancy of the original one. Remember, your original audience are the main folk you should try to appeal to. Sorry to keep banging on about Doctor Who spin-offs (there’s just so many of them), but one of the many things I hated about Class was that the protagonist(s?) was so rubbish. Boring, often annoying and quite forgettable. Nothing compared to the Doctor, Jack Harkness or even K-9 in my opinion! The best thing about Class was when the Doctor appeared in the first episode (I don’t know if it was any good after that; I couldn’t bring myself to watch another episode), and for ten marvellous minutes, we had a protagonist worth watching.

The only trouble is, the Doctor isn’t supposed to be the protagonist of this show! Don’t just rely on your popular fictional universe to make your story good. Characters, especially the protagonist, are the beating heart of a good story every single time.

Pitfall #5 – The Protagonist is the Same Protagonist as in the Original Show

Once again, there’s nothing really wrong with this. It can work. Just ask yourself, if the protagonist’s story is finished, why are you still writing about him? It can be tempting to drag out a story beyond it’s natural lifespan, especially if it’s been popular, but if your protagonist has done all he needs to do, just let him live happily ever after. If, on the other hand, the protagonist’s story is not finished, why does it need a brand new spin-off? Why not do another series of the original?

A spin-off must require a brand new premise to truly stand on its own, especially if it has the same protagonist as the original. The British sitcom Porridge and its spin-off Going Straight both feature the same protagonist, but it works because the protagonist, who was originally a prisoner of HMP Slade in Porridge, has now been released in Going Straight and is trying to live a crime-free life. Same character; different premise. It’s a brand new story with the potential to be interesting in its own right. That’s what you’re going for with a spin-off, no matter what format it takes. Something that’s both new enough to be stand alone and familiar enough to draw in your original fans.

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Amazon Storywriter

If you’ve ever dreamed of writing scripts for TV and aren’t quite sure where that golden opportunity is going to come from, might I suggest you have a look at this tasty free app I discovered. The Amazon Storywriter (developed by the good people at Amazon Studios, naturally) is a very neat little app for script-writing which formats your script for you as you go and saves your work online for you to access from any computer in the world.

‘So what?’ I hear you cry, ‘There are dozens of online script-writing apps out there!’

True, but unlike most others, this script-writing app will send your completed script directly to Amazon Studios. If it is accepted, your script might well end up being the next TV show or movie to be produced by the same people who gave us Bosch, Mozart in the Jungle and The Man in the High Castle. Tell me, dear would-be screenwriter, that you’re not a little bit interested.

As far as I can tell from looking at their website, they are particularly interested in drama series, comedy series, children’s TV shows or movies, so you’re probably best restricting yourself to those genres (though don’t let me stand on your toes). I’ve not actually submitted anything yet (I’m getting there!) so I don’t have too much first hand knowledge about any issues that may or may not arise around creative royalties, contracts, copyright issues or anything else like that (therefore, I would strongly recommend doing your research before you submit anything – good advice any day of the week) but I can review it as a writing app.

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The interface is very simple. There are two tabs along the top: ‘Write’ and ‘Review’. The ‘Review’ tab is, unsurprisingly, where you go to review scripts that your friends have sent you. I’ll maybe talk about that another day, but right now I want to focus on Storywriter’s function as a script-writing app. So, let’s have a look under the ‘Write’ tab!

Here we have a sidebar consisting of two fairly self-explanatory options: ‘Create a script’ and ‘Import a script’. ‘Create a script’, as you might guess, creates a brand new project which is automatically saved to the cloud. ‘Import a script’ allows you to import either text-based PDFs, FDX files or Fountain files (5MB or less) into Amazon Storywriter from your computer. Either way, what you’ll end up with is a very intuitive little writing environment: a page, already set up and ready for you to write (or continue, if you imported) your script.

amazon7If, like me, your skills in proper script formatting are a little rusty, the sidebar on the right (or ‘element menu’, as it is called) will help you to format your script as you go along without having to spend a lot of time faffing around with line-spacing, margins, alignments and all that sort of thing (though I would still strongly recommend learning how to format your script properly and proof-reading it to be certain anyway). Your work will save automatically as you type and whenever you close your project, but there is, nevertheless, a big handy-dandy ‘SAVE’ button on the top right hand corner of the screen, if you crave that reassurance that only manually saving your work can bring. You will also find a small drop-down menu at the top-right of the screen. This is where you can make (fairly limited) changes to the layout of the editor: you can hide the element menu and you can toggle ‘typewriter mode’, which causes the editor to scroll as you type.

amazon3Along the top-left of the screen there is a simple menu, most of which you will recognise from every other word processor you’ve ever used: undo, redo, bold, italics, etc. Clicking the ‘Amazon Storywriter’ logo will take you back to your home screen. There is also a single drop-down menu (which for some reason is labelled with the name of your project) which most closely resembles the sort of things you might find in a ‘file’ menu on most normal word processors, but there are some important differences. I’m not going to waste time explaining every option in the menu since most of them are self-explanatory but there are a few that are worth highlighting.

First, this menu includes all your options for letting other people (specifically, your friends and Amazon Studios) see your work. Clicking on ‘share’ lets you send your script to whoever you like: friends, neighbours, dentists, anyone. All you need is their e-mail address and they will receive a notification asking them to review your script (they must accept this). If, however, you feel your script is as good as it’s ever going to be, clicking on ‘Submit to Amazon Studios’ will begin the step-by-step process of submitting your work to Amazon for consideration, so don’t use it until you’re certain your script is ready.

Another useful feature in this menu is ‘Save a draft’, though it might not be exactly what you imagine it to be at first. Once you save a draft, it is saved as a read-only file that can not be edited. It can only be viewed, renamed, shared, exported, deleted completely or submitted to Amazon Studios. You can create as many drafts as you like (or at least, if there is a limit, I’ve not hit it yet) and you can continue to edit your script as before; only the draft files are read-only, allowing for easy redrafting without losing any previous drafts you might want to revisit. Every draft file can be found attached to your project on the home screen.

If, however, you want multiple editable scripts for the same project, choosing ‘Create a copy’ from the same menu will create a brand new project identical to the one you’re working on at the time. The only thing it won’t copy over is your read-only draft files. As before, this copied project will also be available from your home screen and will not have any effect on the original project and its associated drafts.

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There is only one major thing this app does lack: any kind of planning environment where you can write up character biographies, storyboards and the like. This app doesn’t really come into its own until all your planning is already done and you’re ready to actually write a draft.

Still, it’s a swish little app for would-be screenwriters, especially if you’re a beginner looking for an easy way of having your work reviewed by your peers and considered for production by a company who can (maybe, possibly, if you’re lucky) bring it to life for you. The app’s functionality may be a little basic in some respects (though there’s something to be said for that when writing, I find) but it’s certainly much easier to use than some more expensive apps and does the job well.

Also did I mention that it’s completely free to use?

 

Your Character’s “Thing”

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who still has not seen up to series 8 of the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who (the series 8 from 1971 one, not 2014), is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I are Whovians. Recently we’ve been watching all of Doctor Who from the very beginning (the very, very beginning with William Hartnell) and we’re now on series 8. The Doctor (by now on his third incarnation, portrayed by Jon Pertwee) has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords. He still has his TARDIS – the space/time capsule by which he can travel anywhere, anywhen – but it has been sabotaged by the Time Lords, who have also put a block on the Doctor’s memory so he is unable to fix it. As such, he’s spent the majority of this series as a scientific adviser to the human organisation, UNIT. The TARDIS is barely seen or mentioned at all in the first couple of episodes.

As much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a show and think Pertwee is arguably one of my favourite Doctors, he seems odd without his TARDIS. The TARDIS is, after all, the Doctor’s ‘Thing’. It’s what makes him stand out as a truly unique character. Many characters in fiction have travelled through time and space; many are aliens; many speak in BBC English but no one else has a space/time capsule disguised as a British police box. If anyone did, we would all cry ‘Plagiarism! A space/time travelling police box is the Doctor’s Thing!’

Almost all of the most memorable characters in fiction have a Thing. It might be a physical object they carry, something they wear or perhaps even something they simply say. When one thinks of James Bond, we imagine a man who carries a Beretta 418 (though in reality, he did occasionally use other weapons) and drinks vodka martinis, shaken not stirred. Batman dresses like bat, drives a Batmobile and operates from a Batcave; no prizes for guessing what his thing is. Even characters from history are often assigned Things that make them recognisable when they are portrayed on stage or on film today. For example, one of the first plays I recall ever seeing included a portrayal of Henry VIII, who spent most of the play munching a turkey leg. Whether or not the real Henry VIII ever had an affinity for turkey is neither here nor there; today, it’s become that character’s Thing. A Thing might even be another character; a constant companion (or nemesis?) whom he is lost without. Sherlock Holmes for example is almost always portrayed with John Watson. On the rare occasions where Watson is not present, he is still almost always referred to by Holmes who is clearly suffering for a lack of ‘his Watson’; even if he is loathe to admit it.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy.

– Doyal, A.C. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

In a short, a Thing can be anything but it must be unique.

So, does your character need a Thing? Not necessarily. A well-written character can function just fine within an excellent story without a Thing. What a Thing will do for your character is make them seem more distinctive and memorable. Therefore, it is probably only necessary to give them to your protagonist and maybe your main antagonist; characters you want to make stand out. However, as we have said before, it is important that every element of your story – characters, objects, dialogue, the lot – serves a function in progressing the story. Pointless gimmicks are… well… pointless. I would, therefore, think very, very, very carefully before giving your character a Thing which does not also serve some practical function to move the story along, especially in written fiction where the narrative will be disrupted by your description of the Thing. (You can get away with a little bit more on stage or film. For example, Henry VIII’s turkey leg might serve no practical function, but the story is not interrupted since he simply has to be seen holding it; in written fiction, however, the reader’s attention must be drawn to it with superfluous narrative).

So, before you even think about Things, think about this: what does my character actually need?

In other words, what is required to make the story work? In the case of Doctor Who, a space/time capsule was obviously required, because the whole premise of Doctor Who revolves around an alien who has a variety of adventures travelling to different planets and different points in history. Clearly, he would need some means of transportation, especially if he is bringing human companions with him, as he always does. However, it doesn’t need to be disguised as a British police box. It could be disguised as anything – or not be disguised at all. At this stage, it’s not really distinctive enough to be a Thing, since plenty of sci-fi includes time machines. We’re only interested at this stage in giving our character what he needs to make the story work.

Only once the essentials are in place can we start adding the dressing needed to create a Thing for our character. Remember, that if your story was a five course meal and you were a chef, your characters’ Things would be garnish; not appropriate for every course, and even then, only to be used in tiny quantities as a kind of ‘finishing touch’.

Like all good garnishes, a Thing should discreetly compliment and enhance the character you have already created. The Doctor’s TARDIS, for example, is perpetually disguised as a British police box, regardless of what planet or time it travels to. The fact it travels through time and space is your meat and potatoes, because it is essential to make the story work. The fact it is humorously disguised as a police box is the garnish; passively turning the Doctor’s time machine into something unique, without hindering the pace of the story in any way. It’s unusual enough to make the Doctor (and indeed, the entire Doctor Who franchise) stand out as unique without taking any of the glory away from the story itself. It is everything a character’s Thing should be.

If You Don’t Like Mysteries, You’ll Love Mr. Holmes

SPOILER ALERT

Although every effort has been made to prevent spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Mr. Holmes (2015) or read the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Last year, I was standing waiting for a bus when one passed by (not the one I was waiting for) with a poster on the side, advertising a new film that was about to be released. The poster was plain white apart from a very well dressed and sour faced Ian McKellen. The title of the film was Mr. Holmes.

‘Oh, a new Sherlock Holmes film.’ I thought, my interest piqued. ‘I must remember to make time to go and see that.’

Suffice it to say I did not remember and, whether it was because of my own poor fortune or because the film was inadequately publicised, I did not see hide nor hair of that film again until this very year when I was perusing Amazon for something to watch and it recommended this little gem to me. The reviews on Amazon were generally good but there were also enough negative reviews to give me doubts. However, being a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and knowing that Ian McKellen’s acting is always a joy to watch (no matter how bad the rest of the film is) I decided to give it a chance.

In this film, Sherlock Holmes is now in his nineties and is struggling with his failing memory. He has long since retired to a farmhouse in Sussex where he lives in relative solitude apart from his housekeeper, her son and the bees he now keeps. Because of his failing memory, he cannot precisely remember how his last case as a private detective ended; however, he is certain that the now deceased Watson’s novelisation of it cannot be correct because it portrays Sherlock as having solved the case triumphantly, as he always does. Sherlock cannot accept that he would have retired except after a terrible failure, and so, with the encouragement of his housekeeper’s son and consumed with guilt over something he cannot fully recall, he tries to write the story of the case as it truly happened. Meanwhile, his housekeeper is growing increasingly restless with her role as Sherlock’s housekeeper-come-nurse and resolves to move to Portsmouth with her son, who has grown very attached to Sherlock. There is also a sub-plot concerning a Japanese man who lures Sherlock to Japan in order to confront him about the disappearance of his father, for which he blames Sherlock.

If you’re looking for a ‘who dunnit’ or another exciting instalment of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, you’ve come to the wrong place. Sherlock goes on no adventure in this story, nor is there a particularly mystery to be solved (unless you count his attempt to remember what he has forgotten). Unlike more traditional Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Holmes is gently paced and driven by its key themes: regret, ageing, death and senility. I know that probably makes it sound like quite a miserable film, but in reality I found this film to be surprisingly light-hearted and sweetened with a light dusting of humour and sentimentality.

This film is particularly concerned with giving us a glimpse at the real Sherlock Holmes, as opposed to the ‘character out of a pantomime’ he feels he has become through the novelisations and dramatisations of his various cases. Indeed, Sherlock himself appears keen to distance himself from that character. For example, there is a reference at one point to the fact he does not have his deerstalker or pipe. The reason for this, he claims, is that the deerstalker was a mere embellishment and that he prefers a cigar to a pipe; especially now that the pipe has become nothing more than a ‘prop’. It is also revealed to us that 221B Baker Street was, in fact, not his actual address but a deliberate attempt to mislead fans and tourists who were intent on visiting him.

As well as his obvious trademarks, his own personality is also very different from the character we are used to. The writers (and, I should add, McKellen himself) have done a fantastic job here of showing us the other side of Sherlock, without making him a different person altogether. His paternal feelings towards his housekeeper’s son, for example, seem to be a far cry from the cold hearted mystery solving machine that we are all so familiar with. In spite of this, he still retains his uncanny ability to tell everything a person has done simply by looking at them and his philosophy that the truth will always be uncovered by careful analysis of the facts. While he does retain a certain bluntness and an apparent cold heartedness, this seems to be little more than veneer (a thin one at that) which he uses to distance himself from difficult feelings. His warmth towards his housekeeper’s son, the empathy he shows towards his client’s wife and his regret over her death and the deaths of his friends make him seem altogether more human.

His attitudes towards death strikes me as particularly important. He approaches his own looming demise with an apparent nonchalance and claims never to have mourned the dead – bearing in mind that this is set after the death of John Watson, Mycroft Holmes and Mrs Hudson, all of whom were key figures in Sherlock’s life.

I can’t say that I’ve ever mourned the dead, bees or otherwise. I concentrate on circumstances. How did it die? Who was responsible? Death, grieving, mourning; they’re all commonplace. Logic is rare (Mr. Holmes 2015).

This air of indifference is typical of the traditional Sherlock; in Mr. Holmes, however, it sounds quite hollow. The fact that he was powerless to prevent his client’s wife from killing herself, despite recognising all the facts, has affected him deeply – to such an extent that it drove him to retirement. He also regrets that, after breaking off contact with Watson, he never had a chance to say goodbye to him before he died. When his housekeeper’s son is nearly killed by a swarm of wasps, he sees all the evidence of what has happened and, uncharacteristically, assumes it must have been his bees that were to blame (at least at first) rather than notice that the evidence clearly implicates a nearby nest of wasps. While most of us might consider this a normal reaction to finding a boy lying bruised and unconscious next to a hive of bees, it is rather atypical of Sherlock Holmes. The film also ends with him setting up memorial stones for everyone he has lost (or at least, everyone we have heard of anyway)

All in all, this is a enjoyable and easy to watch film but I would certainly caution any lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan that Mr. Holmes is best enjoyed if you approach it with absolutely no preconceptions about what a Sherlock Holmes film should be. It is a very good piece of cinema but it is not a typical Sherlock Holmes film by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it try to be. It’s not a mystery. It’s not an adventure. It’s a drama and a pretty decent one at that. Approach it as such and you will probably come away satisfied.