John Richards was the co-creator/writer of the 2012 ABC1 sitcom Outland, about a gay science-fiction fan club (“Sensational writing, a great ensemble, and universal themes of love, loss, and friendship… a hit…” – The Weekend Australian. “Quite frankly, one of the best Australian series I’ve ever seen.” – Trespass Magazine). He also co-wrote the Eurovision-themed play Songs For Europe, was part of the Boxcutters and Splendid Chaps podcasts, and is a regular contributor to publications including DNA, Cult and Encore. His latest project is Night Terrace, an original sci-fi comedy audio series about two people lost in time and space, starring Jackie Woodburne (Neighbours).

SF Comedies on Radio and TV

by John Richards

There’s something about the fannish mind that lends itself to research. We like to collect the set, to see every episode, to discover all the hidden extras. We’ll read every book in the series, even if they’re increasingly terrible. I like to call this “The Piers Anthony Effect”.

So when the Splendid Chaps team decided to create a new audio science-fiction comedy series, we took to the vaults. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to accidentally plagiarise it leading to awkwardness at parties, so it’s always good to see what came before. We’d spent a year discussing Doctor Who on our podcast Splendid Chaps: A Year Of Doctor Who and we knew that (a) we wanted to keep working together, (b) we loved our audience and wanted to keep our connection to them, and (c) our comedy background might actually turn out to be useful when it came to (a) and (b). And not the curse it continues to be in every other avenue of life.

We knew we wanted our show to have a female lead. We knew we wanted something that quietly celebrated science. We wanted plots that held together, and we wanted jokes. But most of all we didn’t want to duplicate anything else already out there, and there’s a lot of it.

The history of science fiction comedy is surprisingly extensive. There’s been triumphs in every media, from radio to novels to television to cinema, and even video games. And that’s just Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (although some might consider the cinema version to be not exactly a triumph. Let’s face it, they can’t all be winners).

We all know about Hitchhikers, but many forget it originated as a radio series and that the novel is effectively a novelisation. Lesser known is that Red Dwarf also germinated on radio, as a series of sketches entitled “Dave Hollins: Space Cadet” on the BBC Radio 4 show Son of Cliché. Radio 4 also introduced us to On the Town With The League of Gentlemen, with the town in question not yet named “Royston Vasey” but the much shorter “Spent”.

Another great radio comedy worth searching out is Graham Duff’s Nebulous, starring Sherlock showrunner Mark Gatiss. Like our own series, Nebulous borrows from Doctor Who, but in their case it’s the early 1970s Jon Pertwee era. Gatiss plays Professor Nebulous who heads a team tasked with endlessly saving the Earth from aliens and mad scientists while also providing laundry services to make up for funding shortfalls. It’s a winning mix of radio silliness and a deep love of science fiction (one episode is basically a remake of the Doctor Who story “The Claws Of Axos”, for example). There’s also a great guest cast, including David Warner, Peter Davison, Steve Coogan, Kate O’Mara and David Tennant.

Over on television we’ve had the aforementioned Red Dwarf and also successes like 3rd Rock From the Sun (six seasons from 1996 to 2001) and Futurama (seven seasons and two cancellations thus far). The 1960s was a golden period for genre-themed comedies, with the creation of everything from My Favourite Martian to Bewitched, the Addams Family to I Dream Of Genie. Even the single season “failures” of that time have their supporters, such as It’s About Time, basically a time-travel version of Gilligan’s Island featuring astronauts and cavemen (the Gilligan crew would later go into space themselves in the 1982 cartoon series Gilligan’s Planet, but that’s another story).

Alas, not every show can be so loved. Lesser examples of sci-fi sit-coms include 1990’s Not With A Bang, which showed that the end of the human race probably wasn’t as funny as you’d think. Or the bewildering 1977 production Come Back Mrs Noah, which finally answered the question “What would Are You Being Served be like if it took place on a spaceship?”. In 2012 SFX magazine placed Come Back Mrs Noah 18th on their list of “The 25 Worst Sci-Fi And Fantasy TV Shows Ever” (one spot above Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda). Watching it now you realise just how popular science fiction was in the late 1970s if a show like that could get made. These days it would need to have vampires in it, at the very least.

And so through synthesis, antithesis and bloody-mindedness we came up with the concept for Night Terrace. Anastasia Black is a retired government employee, who used to work for a secret organisation that saved the world a lot. She now just wants a quiet life in the suburbs and is understandably miffed when her house starts travelling through space and time. She’s Scully with a pension, or the William Hartnell version of Doctor Who, if you replaced William Hartnell with Susan from Neighbours (or Jackie Woodburne, to use her real name. We’ve also thrown some geek infamy into the mix with a guest appearance by Jane Badler, who spent most of the mid-1980s eating rodents on V).

We get to nod toward Doctor Who, but also to all the other great travelling narratives, from The Wizard Of Oz to Quantum Leap. The universe is our oyster and – being audio – we can even afford to show it. After all, the special effects are always better on the radio.

We’re currently crowd-funding the first season of 8 episodes, and you can find out more and watch our pitch video below. We’re hoping Night Terrace will be a continuation of a great tradition of science fiction comedy, but we’re aware that humour – like so many things – is entirely subjective.

As Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” And I think there’s something in that for all of us.

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