Pulse: an interview with Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell is one of UK fandom’s most ubiquitous (not to mention relentlessly cheerful and charmingly modest) figures, and I’ve spent plenty of enjoyable beer-fueled hours chatting with him on a whole variety of subjects.

Not being much of a television watcher, however, I’ve largely missed out on much of his professional output as a writer… but here’s my opportunity to get in on the ground floor of his new project. Paul is lead writer for pilot-stage BBC techno-horror drama series Pulse; you can see the pilot here at the BBC’s website, or on actual real telly tomorrow night (9pm, BBC3).

And what better an excuse to drop the man a line and ask him some questions about writing in general and Pulse in particular, eh? None better. None better at all.

PGR: Imagine (for a disturbing and hallucinatory moment) that I’m a cigar-chomping Hollywood director – gimme your elevator pitch for Pulse. Stat!

PC: It’s a medical horror show, about conspiracy and dark experiments within the NHS.

PGR: OK, now the additional layer of challenge: how would you convince someone who doesn’t go much on supernatural or horror themes, or who doesn’t watch much genre TV (or maybe both) that they should pay attention to this series? What’s the USP?

PC: ‘Supernatural’ is the wrong word: our horror is technological in nature.  And if you like the gothic, if you like dramas about intense, disturbed relationships, I think you’ll find a lot to interest you in this.  The thing about horror that people forget is that it’s deeply about people and how they relate to each other.  I think that gets lost when a lot of modern horror movies are ironic thrill rides. We want you to love our characters, and to not want to see bad things happen to them.  And then bad things happen to them, and you’ll have to hope they get through it.  It’s about our female lead being challenged, and finding out how resourceful and hardy she is.

PGR: I believe this is your first series as lead writer, yes? What was the hardest thing to adjust to in that position? And by contrast, what’s the best bit?

PC: I’m not sure. It doesn’t feel like it’s all down to me, it’s still a team effort.  I really enjoy being part of this team, they feel like old school producers but with a modern sensibility.  I like the idea that I’m at the heart of putting together the plots for the rest of our season, and tying it all together at the end.  Working with other writers is going to be interesting too.

PGR: You’re a multi-format writer – television, comics, short stories, novels. Do you have a favourite mode, and if so, what is it that draws you back to it? What are the most enjoyable aspects of each, from your perspective as a creator?

PC: Prose is my favourite thing. A part of my brain actually finds writing it to be relaxing. It’s still work, but it sorts something out inside me. Comics and TV are both fun because of the different opportunities offered, in terms of telling stories in other people’s worlds, and because of the contributions of other people. Being a novelist must be lonely, but I hope to find that out by ending up just doing that in a few years.

PGR: There’s been a lot of discussion recently about TV series endings – more specifically, their tendency toward frustrating endings. How do you balance the creative constraints of the format with your preferences as a consumer of the same sort of material you produce? Do you find yourself thinking about what the audience will say about the shape of a plot while you’re writing it, or does that concern creep in at a later stage (if at all)?

PC: I’ve been frustrated with the reaction of a part of the audience towards the ending of Lost, which I loved. I think some people want a lecture with diagrams rather than drama. I’d like to hear how on earth they think some of the ‘answers’ they were after could ever be dramatised, let alone during a dramatic conclusion. ‘Jack, I love you, but… what were those polar bears doing here?’ (Especially when the answer to that one, and to a lot of these, is in the previous seasons.) You have to have an internal audience, but you can’t let them limit you. Indeed, you have to be willing to hurt them, because that’s the job of drama, to make them feel anxious, tense and, yes, often hurt.

PGR: With Pulse, one presumes you started with something of a blank slate, character-wise… but with your comics work and your writing for the Doctor Who franchise, you’ve had to take well-established characters and bring them to life, balancing a respect for the canonical (as policed by vocal and passionate fandoms) with the need to make them relevant to as wide an audience as possible. Can you tell us a little bit about how you developed Pulse in the early stages? For example, did you start from some character ideas, or did the characters emerge from the concept? Is it harder work, or is it a kind of liberation?

PC: I’m the third lead writer on Pulse, so you’d have to ask the very talented Ben Teasdale about a lot of that. I started from a script, and moved some way away from it. That process included a lot of character work, a lot of discussion about what sort of people we needed in the mix to give us potential conflicts and interests later in the series. Doing your own thing is always liberating, and I really feel like they’re mine now, but that’s a required feeling no matter what you’re writing. I feel Lex Luthor is mine right now, but I’m simply wrong about that!

PGR: That’s a point worth raising – the sense of ownership and, in some cases, entitlement that fans feel for characters. It’s probably as old a phenomenon as fandom itself, but the internet has made it easier for fans to state their minds in public. How do you feel that’s changing the attitudes and approaches of writers in various media? Do you think things were substantially different back in the “good old days”?

PC: I don’t think they were. Dickens and Conan Doyle found themselves under the same sort of pressure. Ownership is something an author strives to create between an audience and the characters. I just wish said audience were more conscious of the process sometimes, and didn’t feel so much that the characters had chosen to befriend them of their own volition.

PGR: As a fan yourself, do you ever find the writer part of you wrestling with the fan? I’m thinking particularly of Doctor Who here, which has a fandom that – from the outside looking in, at least – defends its darlings with the savagery of a mother wolf. If there was one writerly rule or necessity that you could explain to fandom, what would it be?

PC: That there’s real sexism, racism and homophobia in the media, and that hurting your favourite character and making you cry isn’t an example of it, but us doing our job properly. That’s the ‘not being conscious of the process’ bit I’m talking about above. There are people out there now actively campaigning for ‘drama’ that doesn’t hurt.

PGR: On the flipside of that, have there been any occasions where you felt the fans of a franchise you’ve worked on called you out with justification? Or, alternatively, any massive screw-ups made by other writers with a character or property that you’re a fan of yourself?

PC: Oh, loads. Back when I wrote Who novels I paid a lot of attention to reviews and adjusted what I was doing: it was pop music, those were the only audience. Nowadays, it’s much more complicated, you’re part of a whole group of lovely and talented people, whatever show or comic you’re working on, and you never want to say “we didn’t do as well as we could have” in public, because what gave me the right to speak for everyone else? (And no, I don’t have any particular thing in mind.)

I generally think that any fandom will, once we’ve got beyond the fact that the characters have got their brains in a vice, speak, when you listen to their collective average voice, and not the millions of individual voices all saying different things, only the truth. And that’s usually exactly the same truth the mainstream consumer will speak, only done with more awareness and concern about the text, and a bit more excited madness because of it.

PGR: Is that part of the appeal of writing novels and short stories, then – that chance for a sort of creative autonomy, to be king of your own sandbox and beholden to no one? Do you find yourself saving up ideas for your own prose work because you know you’ll be able to do it your way?

PC: I think that’s one of the appeals, although complete autonomy isn’t what you’re after, you always need someone to give you another perspective. It’s impossible to save up ideas like that; if an idea fits, you use it.

PGR: If you could work with any writer or writing team, dead or alive (or even imaginary), who would it be? What sort of project would you do?

PC: I’d like to have been at the Marvel Bullpen in the 1970s, when there was a huge mainstream audience and a lot of cutting edge work was being done. Not that there isn’t now, but there’s a flavour to the Bronze Age stuff that you don’t get anywhere else.

PGR: What do you see happening in the screenwriting world in a few decades time – for a start, will the internet kill off the traditional broadcast channels? Where will the money for good drama come from? Have you looked at any alternative funding models for your work before, or will you in the future?

PC: I think broadcast is indeed close to being over for the younger audience, though give them what they want and they still come flocking. But the TV audience is, on average, much older, so we’ll still have watercooler shows for a while yet. I think the iPad and its successors are about to change everything, and we’re about to see a lot of approaches as yet undreamed of arise from chaos.

PGR: Lastly, what do you hope will be your writerly legacy to the world – the thing you’re best remembered for?

PC: A novel, I hope.

Well, we’ll have to wait for Paul’s novels (though based on the short stories I’ve seen, they’ll be worth waiting for). But you don’t have to wait long for Pulse, as it’s going live at 9pm UK time on BBC3 tomorrow (or Thursday 3rd June 2010, for those of you who’ve come here from the future of the internet).

Visitors from the future may find that the trailer isn’t online at this link any more, but those of visiting in the present have no such excuse. So clickity-click, go watch it, like it on Facebook, all that stuff… and as Paul says, “please leave a comment, because it all helps towards us getting a series.”

Well, you heard the man. If you want quality television to get made, go support it.

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