The Catacombs Catacombs Reference Library
Johnny Byrne

The FAB Interview - Johnny Byrne (Part 1)

FAB 29
by Tim Mallett and Glenn Pearce
This article appears here courtesy of
Johnny Byrne and Chris Bentley of Fanderson.

Dublin-born poet and novelist Johnny Byrne came to Space: 1999 from a background in pure science-fiction with published work in Michael Moorcock's New Worlds and Kyril Bonfiglioni's SF Impulse. In 1970 he was hired by the BBC to write an episode of Play For Today [actually The Wednesday Play], Season Of The Witch, which greatly impressed Space: 1999's story consultant Christopher Penfold and led directly to Byrne acquiring a permanent position on the staff of Space: 1999 as script editor.

After 1999, Byrne is best-known to SF fans for his three scripts for Doctor Who: The Keeper Of Traken, Arc Of Infinity and Warriors Of The Deep. However, he has also worked extensively in film and television writing episodes of One By One and All Creatures Great And Small among many others. Most recently, he has developed the period Yorkshire police series Heartbeat for television, contributed to the BBC drama Love Hurts and created the ITV vet series Noah's Ark. He also wrote the screenplay for the AIDS dramedy To Die For and has written a Screen One film for the BBC, The Legend Of Ruslan.

Tim Mallett and Glenn Pearce spoke to Johnny Byrne last year for Fanderson's The Space: 1999 Documentary, but it was only possible to include a very small portion of the interview in the completed programme. What follows is the first half of the full interview as presented in issue 29 of the Fanderson club magazine "FAB", and reproduced with the permission of Johnny Byrne and Fanderson. The second half of the interview appears in issue 30 of "FAB".

How did you first become involved with Space: 1999?

I got a call to go up to Pinewood in 1972. Chris Penfold was on the unit and there was talk of extending UFO into a second series based entirely on the Moon, as far as I understand it. But the word hadn't been given for a start and so that's where it was left- as an interesting thing that we would talk about later. I think it was about nine months later that I was called out again and by now the UFO notions had completely vanished. What we had now was something that almost blew me out the window. Now, the Moon would be blown out of orbit and, week by week, it would fetch up at planet after planet, and the characters who are marooned on the Moon would be grappling with science-fiction problems, encountering aliens and so on. As someone who had read "Relativity For The Layman" and been a very heavy fan of science-fiction since I could walk, I just couldn't come to terms with it as a science-fiction notion, until one dropped entirely the notion of how they actually got to be out there and simply dealt with the notion of the fact that they were out there. Then the opportunities in terms of the creative input started opening up and I became quite excited.

I was taken on to essentially provide a second script. There were a number of scripts which had been written before the series had started, so by definition they were completely unfocused and probably unusable at that stage. I rewrote one of these as Matter Of Life And Death and it was written at great speed because they were shooting the first episode when I joined the unit and in ten days time they were going to be shooting another one and this was it- so talk about being pitched in at the deep end! I was pitched in, I started swimming and I was swimming, I think, for five years and never took breath.

What was your relationship with story consultant Christopher Penfold?

I think we had spoken to each other, but we didn't really have a relationship. We liked each other when we met for the first time and I think Chris felt that I was someone that he could work with. Certainly, we had a quickness and a sympathy and a sense that, while stories were the most important element in popular drama, they had to have a much deeper level of engagement for any series to work, whether it be science fiction or anything else. While my notions were driven by the kind of person I am and the background I've shared, which was Irish and Catholic and a rather peripatetic life, Chris had come from a sort of English equivalent of that. The similarities between us were more philosophical than political, and we found that both our ideas about science-fiction were merging quite strongly.

I had been seriously involved in science fiction. In the early Sixties, I had written a number of short stories, some of which had been published by Judith Merril. I also used to publish them myself in small literary magazines which I edited, so that among the poetry and jazz there would be science-fiction. I believe very much in the great tradition of science-fiction writing artists like Alfred Bester, James Blish, Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury and all of the earlier masters who had come up through pulp magazine tradition who, to me, were writing the most interesting form of fiction.

How involved were you in developing the series' format?

Not at all. The series format had already been carved in stone by the time I'd been invited out the second time. There was a list of characters and what they did, who they were, all the usual guff that people put in when they haven't the first idea, basically, of who people are, but you have to make something up to give actors, financiers and so on: some kind of take on what it is and what they might see on the screen.

I certainly was thrilled by the idea that Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were going to be in it. I had known Martin's work from my earliest years with some of the earliest Hollywood films he'd appeared in. Barbara and he I'd seen, of course, in Mission: Impossible and liked very, very much. The involvement of the directors was also extremely exciting, people like Charles Crichton particularly.

I was an enormous, obsessive film fan. I had only started writing screenplays on spec in the Sixties to earn a few quid and nothing of mine had appeared on screen until the beginning of the Seventies. But I had written a book which had made a bit of a stir at the end of the Sixties and because of that I'd been asked to write a Play For Today by the BBC. On the basis of that, I was asked to write a film for United Artists based on Spike Milligan's life story, Adolf Hitler, My Part In His Downfall. So I had film-making experience but at certain remove- I'd been to studios and so on. The prospect that excited me about Space: 1999 was that I would be right there going right through the whole process of creation, production, shooting, completion and post-editing, and that kind of experience, for someone who wanted to write films, was simply invaluable and only very rarely to be had.

Did you all feel at the time that you were about to make the English equivalent of Star Trek?

We definitely felt that we did not want to make the English equivalent of Star Trek. Star Trek was OK so far as it went, but there's always this dichotomy, this division, in the minds of people who come up through the written form of science-fiction and those who make science-fiction for television or film, especially in those days but less so now, and in essence I would put it like this: screen writers knew sod-all about science-fiction and science-fiction writers knew sod-all about screen writing. In those days, science-fiction writers would have considered a lot of the stories that appeared in science-fiction on screen extremely naff, because the science-fiction genre had exhausted many of these very basic themes that seem to strike people on a first time basis as interesting, whereas to those who understood and knew science-fiction, they had been mined completely dry.

I felt that much of what was involved in Star Trek- not all, but a great deal- followed the screen tradition of science-fiction rather than the classical writing tradition of science-fiction and, therefore, many of the ideas were naff- they lacked a lot of the philosophical feel. They concentrated on the uniqueness of aliens and totally forgot that even aliens are people and that to understand them is more important than to admire them, simply for what they look like, and to be thrilled, excited or fearful of them.

So in Space: 1999, Chris and I wanted to create a series that would take the circumstances of the show (people like us had been kicked out into space) and every aspect of what followed as a result of that- our knowledge, our understanding, our tolerance, our responses, our thinking- all of these would slowly change as we moved further out into space. We wouldn't have instant answers. We wouldn't know why certain things happened because not all mysteries are immediately answerable or accessible. We would feel that we were putting people like ourselves through an accelerated form of spiritual and philosophical evolution and that was the crux of the thing.

It was completely different to Star Trek which took mankind in a possible future and dealt with the circumstances of everybody being capable of dealing with all of those things in that future. In that context, they were not, or only rarely, moving outside their depths as people. They were in control. Our lot were Earthmen, cast out into space, and if one was to define the difference between Series One and Series Two of Space: 1999, that difference is this: in Series One, we were Earthmen searching for a way to understand what was happening to us and trying to simply survive it; in Series Two they were spacemen dealing with everything that space could throw at them. And that is a fundamental difference, in terms of the subtext that you bring to the stories. That's why in Series One there is a much greater sense of wonder of what was happening, while in Series Two it was a question of simply, "Whose arse do we kick today or who's going to kick us and what do we do about it?"

You could see that, by the end of the first 24 episodes, we were learning to deal with things in a slightly more efficient way. We were getting slightly less surprised, but with that was coming a greater understanding, and in that sense it was a series about hope. We concentrated this kind of extraordinary process, which will take a much longer period of time, obviously, in real life, and we were projecting ideas about what would happen if this occurred and how would we respond? So, yes, there were stories that simply dealt with the nuts and bolts of science-fiction, that looked back, but many of them dealt with situations that looked forward- to encounters and the confronting of certain kinds of problems. I would like to have seen more of it in the context of action/adventure but whenever it happened I thought it worked well.

At what point was the position of script editor offered to you?

Well, I was brought on as a six week story editor who would write scripts. It was a short-term contract and at some stage- I think on the second script, Another Time, Another Place, which was the first original script that I wrote for the series- I was pulled aside and asked, "Would I like to stay on, on a permanent basis?" and I said, "Yes, thank you." Shortly after, another story editor appeared, Edward Di Lorenzo, who I liked very much. He also had a very delicate touch with words and ideas, but he didn't stay around for very long.

He, Chris and myself occupied a block away from the main production unit called the Punishment Block, where we used to drive secretaries mad in those days without word processors because of the endless changes that we would force them to retype- I think at one stage typewriters were being hurled through windows! But that was part of the kind of pressured life that we all enjoyed.

While there were some script editing jobs which I did on other people's work, they were, essentially, not very profound- they were mainly, perhaps, to bring in scripts that had been written fairly closely to a brief. I might discuss stories from other writers with Chris but, in essence, all of the briefing and so on was carried out by Chris. I was simply there, available as a script editor on other people's work, writing off-line dialogue. Every time instructions were heard over the tannoys in the series, I probably wrote them. And every name used in the scripts was the name of one of my friends, just as pretty much everyone I killed off had the names of friends- they all got extremely annoyed if I didn't kill them off or summoned them to repair the heat levels or something! So that was fun- I enjoyed doing all of that.

How much of Matter Of Life And Death that ended up on the screen was yours?

When I came on to the series there were two scripts in the file, as it were. There was a requirement for one of these fairly quickly because, as I say, they were already shooting Breakaway. These scripts had been written before the series had become focused. In other words, they had been written when it was still just an idea and didn't involve the characters as they had developed, so they were completely unusable. One was called A Breath of Life and was written by Art Wallace. There were various meetings to decide upon the quickest way to turn this into a useable script, and one of them was to deal with it on the basis of someone who was trapped in a kind of matter anti-matter existence.

The script that was shot bore no resemblance whatsoever to Art Wallace's script. It was a hybrid and I still think it looks that way- that there were two things pulling away from each other. This is what always happens when you start off with what is basically an unworkable idea and you try to remain faithful to it. You develop it, but no matter how far down the line you go, there's always a hang-over that's pulling it back to what it should be and it's usually discovered at the end that it would have been much better to start with something completely new than to take something that's old but seems to be workable. At the end of the day, it's a quicker job to start with something new and I wish that I had done that, but they wanted, I think, to get some value from these scripts that had already been written.

Richard Johnson was the guest star and it was directed by Charles Crichton. It was the first time that I'd worked with Charles and, of course, it was wonderful. So I put up with whatever aggravations that I had at re-writing someone else's script out of existence- which was the only way to make it work in the Space: 1999 context- and I shared the credit with Art Wallace, because the basic idea, no matter how far we had departed from it, was his. I could have taken the full credit but I was happy to take a shared credit.

As you mentioned, the first original script that you wrote for the series was Another Time, Another Place.

Yes. There are a number of approaches that you take to writing certain kinds of stories and in this one, I built it vertically. I just thought of the worst possible situation that these people could be in, accomplished it in the first twenty seconds in the hook, and then each act ending was built around either an extrication from a difficult situation or a further development of that initial situation. So everything flowed from the first thing and I loved the idea of the Moon separating into two and them not being sure that maybe they were on another Moon. Then the next thing that happened is that, suddenly, they appeared to be going back to where they came from and, just as they think everything is alright, around the corner comes this other Moon. So they send over two people, the Commander and his side-kick, to have a look and they find a crashed Eagle on the surface and inside is themselves.

Beyond that point, I hadn't developed the story- it was just everything flowing out of each other as a fun and interesting thing to work with and you always hope, of course, that at the end of the day things will come out right in the end. Along the way, it dealt with notions of identity, reality and fantasy, and one or two other interesting things about the relationships as well on Moonbase.

It's a long time ago now but, thinking back about it, I remember it very vividly. It had Judy Geeson in it, who I felt was very good and I was very sad to see that she didn't develop her career. I have a very fond feeling for it, simply because it was the first one that I wrote entirely myself, and it was also directed by David Tomblin whose work I admired enormously and with whom I had a very strong working relationship throughout the series. He could give things such a tremendous punch and such a visual impact, you know, that you instantly saw the difference between writing screenplays and making films. David could instantly translate those kind of things in a very exciting way. So, having him there and being able to work with him was fantastic.

Did you go on to the studio floor much?

The pattern of the day was that we would arrive at Pinewood and all go into our different bits of the studio. We would sort of drink coffee or sharpen pencils or whatever it is that writers do to avoid work, and then at around about 11am we would go over and watch the rushes from the previous day. Then we would come back, we'd probably talk about the rushes that we had seen and then start doing whatever it is that we should be doing. We would meet in the studio restaurant for lunch and then, in the afternoon, go over and spend some time on the soundstage seeing various things or possibly having meetings with Gerry. We would often be over at L&M Stage, the complex where Space: 1999 was shot, either having meetings or coming in and out of the soundstages during the shooting of particular episodes. If you particularly wanted to see special scenes, you would look at what you'd done on paper, or what someone else had done, and say, "I want to see how so-and-so is going to handle that," and you could go over and watch it.

Watching film-making is not the most elevating activity and it can be fairly boring unless you have a deep interest in what's happening. I had an extraordinary interest in it and it was always wonderful for me to watch people like Charles Crichton, Ray Austin, David or indeed any of those directors we had at work. Each one was different, each one had their different take and to see how actors were interpreting their roles within scenes, all of these things were fascinating and very much part of what we were doing. Any extra understanding was, of course, beneficial in terms of the scripts that I would write.

The next script that you wrote was Force Of Life which questioned the traditional notions of good and evil.

Yes, I think Force of Life embodied that notion that, here were people in an environment that could be hostile, indeed that was invariably hostile, encountering things about which they had not the faintest idea. Here, they encountered an emblem of the life that they had left behind: chrysalids that turn into caterpillars and caterpillars that turn into butterflies- these are part of the natural rhythms of our lives. Well, it seemed to me to be perfectly reasonable to suppose that this process was universal and that it could happen in the most extraordinary, interesting and completely mind boggling way without understanding what made it work. And that's what Force of Life was about.

It took a being, a force of some kind, that was going through an evolutionary phase of its existence, and in the context of Moonbase Alpha it simply needed a human host to effect it. It did not necessarily need someone from Earth- it could have been someone from anywhere. God knows how long it had been travelling around looking for it, but a source of heat attracted it. It was absorbed by this character, played by Ian McShane, and it manifested itself in ways in which, in terms of drama, would be striking and visible. In essence, he became a heat junkie- whenever the need for a fix came, touch simply drew all the heat out. Sometimes what he touched was coffee but sometimes it was people, and it destroyed them.

All the time, he was driving towards the main source of the heat and our people didn't at all understand what was happening. All they could understand were certain things about this thing that had invaded Moonbase Alpha: they knew that it had moments of quietness and moments of activity and in the moments of activity it needed heat- they worked that much out. Its need for heat was also killing people, so they were driven to find some way a) to understand it and b) to somehow encounter it. What they didn't understand, until rather late in the story, was, of course, that it was going for the ultimate source of the heat which was one of the nuclear cores.

This character played by Ian McShane was just a host for this being and when he finally got to the nuclear chamber, he was too weak to go inside. They'd cut off all the power and there was no source of energy that this thing could feed on, so suddenly it was now beginning to perish. But it turns on them, attacks them and they laser it and, of course, that was the entire purpose of its attack: so that it would get a source of energy. So we see this man, which was Ian McShane, totally destroyed but he has got this thing inside him and his eyes are burning with the energy from the lasers. By the way, I remember being told that this sequence was apparently very terrifying to viewers in Denmark! I mean, they don't mind the weirdest kind of sexual pornography, yet they get terribly worried if anyone says boo to a sheep! I suppose it's under-compensating or over-compensating.

Anyhow, this enables Ian McShane to get inside the nuclear chamber, absorb as much of the heat that's available- causing all kinds of terrible problems for Moonbase Alpha- and then simply transform and sail away onto the next stage of its odyssey of evolution. Now at the end of the day, our people ask what the hell has happened. They can work out a pattern to the thing and can make a guess at what it might be, but they don't really know. Someone, I think, forced me to put in the notion that it was a star in the making. I think that this was a foolish notion, because it was better to say that we simply didn't know what it was. If you want to draw a comparison, it's the caterpillar and the butterfly, but in some impossibly difficult and imponderable circumstances. It was one of those situations where not knowing the answer was where the drama lay. Knowing would have killed the drama.

I felt that the performances and the direction were superb. David Tomblin got a tremendous sense of pace with Ian McShane striding through those corridors, which are usually the most boring of shots but somehow David could invest them with tremendous energy and drama. David could communicate that sense of urgency- you would actually get off from watching somebody walking down the corridor.

Given the nature of the relentless need for story in these things, it was often very difficult to develop aspects of character. There are a huge number of balancing acts and trade-offs that one had to incorporate into these stories: anything that walks in from outer space or outside Moonbase Alpha has to be explained whereas, in contemporary drama, anything that walks in off the street doesn't need any explanation; the need to keep the story moving very fast because people are assumed to have the attention span of a gnat and can't really comprehend anything in the way of difficulty in terms of drama and ideas; and also the distribution of roles between the leading actors and those brought in for the episode. These things didn't always work, but I think that this one perhaps worked better than most in terms of the directorial flare that David brought to it. I was very pleased with Force of Life.

Your next script, Voyager's Return, seems to be a sort of anti-pollution story.

Voyager's Return was an interesting experiment in the sense that I always looked for a hook into either what had gone on in the recent past or what was currently happening in thinking or technology or whatever. In this instance, they had been sending those rockets out into space with messages from mankind, saying, "We're here. We're wonderful. Where are you? We're waiting." Of course, by 1974, they were littering space with all kind of things, so up there is a positive junk-yard. We could see the danger of this kind of thing even then- certainly I could. So, the take I had on this story was that these were things we'd sent out and at a certain point they would go past stars, they would go past planetary systems and at some stage in the future, you know, if it ever landed where intelligent beings could find it, they would see the symbols that we'd put in it. I thought that was a very inspiring activity on man's behalf, but I took the downside of it which is, in order to send that out, the very act of its arrival could be contaminating and that is exactly what had happened.

The guy who had sent these things out had devised a drive which was known to be dangerous in the kind of emissions it gave out. They spot this thing on Moonbase Alpha and they know that, whenever it approaches planetary bodies, it switches on this drive which is lethal to humans. Indeed, we discover that it is being trailed back to its planet of origin by people whose lives and planets have been decimated by it, and they are waiting to find out where it comes from so that they can exact their punishment. We also have on board the man who was responsible for this, who is like one of those crypto-Nazis who worked for Hitler during the war devising rockets- they're not war criminals but they keep a low profile because they're hung over with guilt. This guy is there, he feels guilty about his role in it all and through him, who achieved some kind of redemption, Koenig and the others managed to somehow avoid this ghastly threat to the Earth they've left behind, and indeed to their own Moonbase, and that, to me, was a sort of message for us all. We don't know what the hell we're throwing out there, we don't know what its effects will be, and we should always think twice before we launch out into the unknown in that way.

I enjoyed it. In terms of it being a science-fiction story, it measured up to what I would call solid nuts and bolts science-fiction and I think the scientist was well played by Jeremy Kemp. I liked the story because it was simple, it was immediately comprehensible, it was relevant to people's lives because it was directly linked to what was actually happening in terms of our rather misty-eyed notions about mankind sending universal messages of love, hope and peace.

Well, we know where that kind of thing ends up don't we? It usually ends up with someone getting their arse kicked. It's self-deluding to actually believe that by sending things out into space you are actually helping to extend mankind's mission to civilise. We know what happened in Earthly terms when this kind of thing was tried: you had missionaries arriving in countries like Africa, and when they arrived they had the Book and the Africans had the land- by the time they left, the missionaries had the land and the Africans had the Book and this is, I should imagine, the fate that will befall those aliens unfortunate enough to encounter us, if they are of a lower level of competence and technology. Their fate won't be a very nice one.

So it's about the assumptions that we bring to our understanding of what constitutes life and the arrogance that we have about our own form of existence and our own way of living. We see it played out on the small scale of the planet Earth- played out on a vast scale up in the stars, it's just too horrendous to contemplate. I think that all of those aliens who ever said, "Stay where you are and leave us alone," have got it right and probably will have for at least the next five million years!

What did you feel about End Of Eternity, where you have an exiled psychopath?

Well, the basic question is, how do you kill an unkillable psychopath? It's one of those interesting things that you play around with and it's almost tied up in the title of the piece, End of Eternity. The character was played by Peter Bowles and I thought that the story had possibilities, but it didn't entirely work for me very well. It seemed too pat- it was too unmotivated in terms of his motives for being like that. For instance, it's not enough to tell people, you know, "He's a psychopath- now watch him lift up the axe and start going for it." There has to be some connection between cause and effect. We have to get a sense of what it is that's driving this person for us to be other than simply shocked or taken aback by his activities. It was interesting the way that we found this character, the way that we realised this character, the way that we built up a sense that something was not right about this character. I think at that point the story started to go wrong because, quite out of the blue and for no reason, other than the fact that he was a psychopath, he started laying about him.

I can't remember the circumstances, but there was a problem that perhaps the story was too large to contain within the framework of a fifty minute episode. Stories have their natural breathing space and this concept was, possibly, too contained: it was missing a middle act in order for us to really get into the heart and mind of this character or to give a different take on it that, I think, would have given us a greater degree of involvement. In the end, of course, Koenig found a way to deal with him, and it was one that was very similar in its context to Alien which came along a few years later: in essence, it was somehow contriving to get this guy within range of an airlock to get him out of Alpha- the vacuum of space being the only thing that would kill him.

Many of these solutions would flow from a sense of cause and effect- not just in this story but in others too- and that's why one tried to find the natural progression of how our people would deal with these kind of things. They had lasers that could stun and could kill (I never quite believed that, but they were there and were just another form of hand gun) but they was completely useless in this situation. I would like to have seen, as I say, much more interplay and much more cat and mouse in this whole situation. It lost a suspenseful middle element and that, for me, somewhat spoiled it.

Part 2

Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment
Thanks to Robert Ruiz