Wizards vs Aliens: Interview: Phil Ford and Derek Ritchie

The Secret of Room 12, part 1Wizards vs Aliens, the CBBC series created by Russell T Davies and Phil Ford, is back on our screens, with old and new menaces facing Tom Clarke, his family and friends. A few days before the show premiered, showrunner Ford and incoming producer (and former script editor) Derek Ritchie chatted with Paul Simpson about all things Nekross and otherwise…

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The opening episode of this third season (reviewed here) has good pacing, a good sense of comedy and drama, and a good introduction to the new elements. We finally have new aliens…

Phil Ford: It is the first time in the show, although we did have the Grazlaa in season 1, the nasty little snappy things which were aliens, but they came along with the Nekross. So yes, the Prospector: it is called Wizards vs Aliens, and although the Nekross are our main villains if you like, our main aliens, we’ve always been keen to point out about this show that it has two universes in which we can play: the accepted universe, which is all space, and then we have the magical universe, which is along the Neverside. We just wanted to shake it up a little bit this time, and introduce that new alien race, and kind of play the game that maybe the Nekross won’t be around this time, maybe there’ll be a different nemesis for our wizards. Do you like him?

Wizard prospectorI’m not sure I’d want them there in every episode – particularly if they’re nicking their plans from The Dalek Invasion of Earth!

Derek Ritchie: They weren’t going to pilot the Earth across the galaxy, thank goodness!

We wanted to do something quite bold with him as well in terms of the tone; we wanted to do an alien who, in terms of the colour pallet, in terms of his spaceship and all that stuff, was markedly different from the Nekross. That was why we went for such a hefty technological feel, why we went with greens and coppers and dirty oranges to represent him. We wanted to show the breadth of the show and the potential of the show by tonally making him really different from the Nekross.

Phil: The first episode of any series is always going to be a big romp. You want to show everything you plan to do throughout the show. So we had big elements: there was lots of running about, but it also had those quiet and more emotional moments, and the Prospector was just perfect for that.

Wizard Prospector 2He’s just a great, fun character. The fact that he should speak with a broad Northern accent was actually in the script so that was always going to be a fun character as far as I was concerned. This show is, and always has been as far as I am concerned, about fun, although at the same time we deal with some really deep emotional stuff as well.

I was half expecting an “every planet has a North” gag in there! Are we going to see a number of other aliens, or given the end of the episode showed new Nekross villains with their plans, are we veering back more toward them?

Phil: I think the Nekross will always be at the centre of our show; that’s what our show is about – these aliens who come to Earth with a hunger for magic. But as I said earlier, the great thing about this show is that it has two universes to play with… and I’ll leave it at that.

Derek: You’ll find things in this series that are markedly different to the past two series. One intention that we had this year was to really push the format; I think every show benefits from that, particularly when it reaches a third series, and what we have done is delved more into the magical realm. Where series 1 and 2 were very much tilted at science fiction, and we have two really strong sci-fi stories to kick off the series, then we really complicate it by learning much more about the Neverside and what comes from the Neverside.

I was hoping that there’d be further exploration of that this year – it seems like quite an untapped resource.

Phil: It’s something that we’ve always been aware of and something that we wanted to go into.

The Secret of Room 12The other thing that’s different about this series is that there’s a very strong serial arc to the whole series. There are things which you see in that first story which are carried throughout the whole series; there are some things which are kicked off by events within the episode which you are not aware of yet, which carry us through. There are consequences to what happened in that first story which will give us the story drive, the engine, for the rest of the series.

Has that caused production problems or challenges because you are committed to certain stories appearing in certain slots? Casting or effects that have to be done at a certain time?

Derek: I have to be honest: it didn’t really cause us any problems, any more than any show would. It was just a matter of being organised.

The great thing was, we were in a great position with the scripts thanks to Phil, and that made a huge difference to us in production terms. It means we could plan our ten week shoot very, very carefully, and in doing so, make the absolute most of our budget across the board. We were able to build very tight schedules which really helped with casting as well. We could get great performances: we have some wonderful guest stars this year and we were able to get them, although they’re very busy people, because our script and our schedule were in such a very good place that we could plan to get them in the show when we needed to get them in the show.

It comes down to the fact that we were on top of our scripts, and from that everything else is made slightly easier. You can properly plan, and if something does go wrong and you’re not able to get something the way you want to, you have the ability to regroup, rework it and find a solution without going over schedule or over budget.

The Secret of Room 12Anything is possible if you have that level of organisation and preparation, and editorially you are in a position to make those decisions early on.

Were you still filming in blocks?

Derek: Yes: the first was eps 1 to 4, the second was eps 5 to 8, and the third was 9 and 10 at the end. We ring-fenced our finale into a block of its own.

Phil: It also helps having a nice producer on board who works his own kind of magic, let me tell you!

How did it feel coming on as producer for the third year?

Derek: I script edited the first two series, so I couldn’t have had a better job for my first producing gig: I knew the show inside out.

I’d been already working on the scripts for series 3; we were planning those in summer last year, and we were progressing those nicely. When I stepped up full time to producer in January, we brought on a new script editor [Nick Lambon] to cover it into production.

It was a real privilege to be in there right at the start of developing the series and then seeing it right through to production as a producer, and then through to post-production as well, then marketing it and getting ready for the launch. It’s been an amazing experience for me as a first time producer, and it has been the most perfect job I could start on, because it’s something I know really well, but it’s also something I have a real passion for. You can’t ask for more than that from the universe.

Click here for part 2 in which Phil divulges a secret about the third series…>>>

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