SURVIVING MY FIRST ANTHOLOGY SERIES
Or The Art Of Writing The Longest Anthology Series (thanks to VR MAN) in Singapore
Although every television genre, for example, the police procedural, medical series, and family dramas, allow for the development of a writer’s craft and imagination, none works the imagination of a writer more so than the writing of an anthology series.
In 1997, I created the longest anthology series in Singapore. It was called Shiver, and it ran for 30 episodes. (Trailer for the series is above) It was never my intention for the series to go to 30. In fact, Shiver was originally slated to run for 13 episodes. I was asked if I could help out by extending to 22 and subsequently to 30. All because another iconic local television series was in trouble and could not make the telecast date because of reshoots, and so I was asked if I could write more episodes to fill up the gap. I gladly obliged.
More about that later.
Back in the day, it was easier to pitch ideas for shows. The landscape was like a Wild West frontier. Plenty of fertile land for enthusiastic producers and writers to stake their ideas and develop a show. You just need to convince your bosses that your idea was attention-worthy. There was an American producer, Linda Hamner, a tall and funny lady who had a sensitive gut that did not take kindly to the local spicy food. She had been hired as a script consultant. She had the ear of the boss, so I made sure I pitched carefully to her. I told Linda that Shiver was a local version of Twilight Zone, knowing that Linda would have heard of the iconic American series.
She told my boss that it was a viable idea, yeah twilight zone, it could work.
My other pitch was that anthology shows were great for developing writing talent, as it depended entirely upon the power of a story idea to drive each episode. Every writer had a chance to delve deep into his or her subconscious, put on paper his fears, nightmares, and dreams, and share them with the world. Every writer also had a chance to practice the craft as he had to plot it out in four acts and devise the characters and situations that would bring his story premise to its natural conclusion.
If you have not heard of Twilight Zone, it is a black and white half-hour series created by Rod Serling. The series used fantasy and horror to discuss themes like racism, paranoia, and just plain human sins. Each episode had only a handful of characters, a few sets, one dramatic situation, and a final ironic twist at the end. Twilight zone was a series that revolved around what happened when you put an ordinary human in an extraordinary situation. Like a housewife who suddenly found herself invaded by tiny soldiers. Or a librarian who wakes up to find himself the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Finally, he has all the time in the world to read all the books he could ever want. Then he drops his spectacles and steps on them. I was and still am a fan of the Zone. I had bought all the blu ray collections. I read through the collection of scripts written by Rod Serling and Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont. These guys had extraordinary imaginations. An ordinary character caught up in one extraordinary situation and who works through the conflict in 23 minutes only to encounter an ironic twist in the end. That was the classic zone episode.
Which I wanted very much to do.
An Asian version of it.
When I got the green light to go ahead and work on the series, I was delighted. Then I was told to make each episode an hour long. If I could turn back time and go back to the office of my boss again, I would plead my case one more time. Not to make hourly episodes but to stick to half-hours.
Why? Because Twilight Zones worked best as half-hours. There was one season where they tried to do one-hour episodes but they all felt drawn out. As if the writer had to pack the extra duration with unnecessary scenes. The half-hour format suited the anthology series because it was the cinematic equivalent of a short story. In fact, many of the stories in Twilight Zone were adapted from actual short stories. Like the classic Third From the Sun by Richard Matheson.
At that time, the internet was just coming into its own as a thing. People could post questions to celebrities on forum boards. I posted a question to Michael Stracyznskwi. Michael is a writer I admire deeply. He created the sci-fi classic series Babylon 5, wrote a movie for Clint Eastwood to direct, reimagined the whole Superman storyline for DC, and was the head writer for Murder She Wrote, and for a short period of time, he was the head writer for Twilight Zone. He also wrote a HOW-TO book on scriptwriting which I read cover to cover. He proposed a method of outlining an hour episode which I tried and found to be effective. You take a piece of A4 paper. Divide into four quarters. Each quarter represents an Act. You fill in each quarter with one-line scene summaries. If you can’t fill up all 4 quarter spaces, you will not have enough story to fill an hour. If your summaries exceed the space, you will have too much story. So a nice episodic one-hour story will have an A4 paper with all four quarters properly filled up with scene summaries.
I posted a question to Michael about whether the Zone was better off as a half or one hour. To my surprise, he wrote back. I printed out the email reply. And went to my boss and showed him. See? Even Michael agreed. We are better off writing half hours for an anthology series like Zone.
I was still vetoed. Sadly, my boss did now know who Michael Straczynski was. And Linda, in this case, did not back me.
Well, you can’t win all battles.
I sought comfort in the fact that I got a chance to let loose my imagination on the page. With about eight writers on my team, we began to hash out ideas, then outlines, then scripts. Weird premises were pitched. What if the Chinese Zodiac family was real? What if a camera can take pictures of the future? What if a city was alive? What if a man meets a boy whom he recognizes as the spirit of his childhood? What if your nagging mother died and came back to life as….your left hand? We were popping these episodes out in a frenzy of creation. Nothing triggers a writer’s imagination better than asking yourself “What if”.
Finally, we had a couple of episodes ready to be screened. We had to do some publicity. And here I ran into another issue.
The marketing people had gotten it into the attics of their minds, that the show was like the X files. This, despite the fact that during my discussions with them, I had emphatically told them that Shiver had never, and will never, have any allusions, flavor, or echo of anything remotely resembling the X-files. Don’t get me wrong. I love the X files. I love Chris Carter’s classic show about aliens and government conspiracies. But Shiver was never about conspiracies. Shiver was always a fantasy anthology show, with far-out premises that hopefully spurred thought-provoking discussions on human nature and the paranoia of our times. And Shiver had a varied cast. We did not have a Scully and Mulder. Like Twilight Zone, we hoped to bring our viewers through a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind, but a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.
That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, SHIVER!
We were an anthology show.
Our stars were the ideas.
Our heroes were the writers.
Writing for Shiver felt like a fever dream. I had a license to dream, and then pen those dreams on paper. For the first time, our scripts were ahead of the production schedule. My writing team was happily ensconced in our writing bubble. But we were not only the only writing team churning out a fantasy series.
Another team close to us was also at work on another fantasy series. I was not on that team, thank God, but because we worked in the same office, I had kind of a fly-on-the-wall view of the turmoil and struggle that the other writing team was going through.
They were working on something called THE VR MAN. (VR, at that time, stood for VIRTUAL REALITY. So this was in effect, Singapore’s first superhero series — of a man capable of altering reality)
The team working on VR MAN could not meet their production schedule as they had to completely rewrite the first seven episodes. Somewhere deep in the vault of the local broadcast station, are tapes containing the unseen episodes of the VR MAN, shot in primary colors. It was an epic meltdown disaster never seen again on Singapore television. And resulted in me being asked if I could help by filling in the gap with extra episodes of SHIVER.
Of course, I said yes!
And thus, the fever dream continued, and the writing went on, and we popped out one episode after another until we hit 30, after which I said to myself, this is it.
We have just made history.
The longest anthology series in Singapore.
Your job as a head writer and executive producer does not end with the writing. You have to set the context for the public. Lest they think your show is one thing but turns out to be some other thing. I wish network executives would bring back the anthology series in Singapore. I truly believe it is a great way to discover new writers and also allow them to hone their craft with imaginative writing, and it prepares them for writing the more serious grounded drama shows like family dramas and medical dramas. When you write for an anthology series, the only limits are those of the boundaries of your imagination. You are constantly seeking to find a way to talk about an issue, without actually talking about the issue, but instead. telling it through the lens of a genre. Shiver came at a time when whether or not your show was able to get sponsors was still not the deal-breaker. I truly appreciate the experience then. It was the most fun I ever had writing for television. I learned a great deal about writing as well as writing fantasy and horror for local television.
When the only criteria for a show to be approved is whether or not it touches on this dimension, known as the Imagination.