Danny Writes Plays: U-boat of the Soul

This is a big week. An awesome week. On Sunday, July 13th, we rolled cameras for the first time on Writer’s Circle: the Webseries, the ongoing adventures of playwright Phil Payton, novelist Becky Porter, screenwriter Jeff Winnick, and blogger Zoe Jordan, as they share a sort of support group for writers hosted by their agent Tina Gellar.

And appropriately enough, we have reached the point in the Danny Writes Plays saga where I first thought “I should write another play with that Phil guy.” So let’s take a look at U-Boat of the Soul.

What’s it about?

Playwright Phil Payton was last seen in Two Guys, a Couch, and the Fate of the World, co-writing a spy play about Dirk Rhombus and his assistant Trina (based quite clearly on his girlfriend Tina). We rejoin Phil years later: he is now writer-in-residence for a theatre company, reporting to his now quite firmly ex-girlfriend Tina. They broke up for good and all six months ago, and three months after that the company commissioned a new script from him. It’s due tomorrow, and he’s barely started. Years after the unnamed Dirk Rhombus comedy of Two Guys, he’s decided to return to that well in a desperate attempt to crank out something, anything, that will fill this contract.

Turns out, one of the company’s other producers, Jacob Garrison (previously seen in Pride and Prima Donnas) has found a rising talent in Becky Porter, and is pushing for her to potentially replace Phil. Director David Locke (also from Pride and Prima Donnas) wants to keep Phil around (if only to prevent another Dance Into the Fire: the Duran Duran Rock Opera incident), but thinks Becky’s not only a strong talent, but a potential way for Phil to get over Tina. Frustrated that Tina’s willing to fire him and that David’s trying to hook him up with his possible replacement, Phil retires to his office in an attempt to write an entire Dirk Rhombus adventure in one night.

Only problem… Dirk hates this plan. Having popped up here and there to explain to the audience such crutches as exposition, supporting cast, pop culture references, and scene changes, Dirk starts berating Phil, claiming that he can do better than this, and takes Phil on a journey to show what Dirk’s adventures can teach audiences about the world, and Phil about himself.

Fine. That… was not unearned.

Trina returns, but refuses to be Phil’s punching bag for his feelings about Tina. Jacob becomes Dirk’s boss, reluctantly pulling him out of retirement, despite thinking the espionage world no longer has a place for him. David becomes Jacques, the informant who warns that Dirk’s mission is not all it seems. And Becky becomes Katya, another lead who echoes Jacques’ warnings while also attacking society’s demonization of female sexuality (and through that, Phil’s fear of dating Becky) by deconstructing the “femme fatale” archetype. Phil’s gonna learn some things, and if you pay attention, you just might as well.

So why did that happen?

Sick of hearing about my divorce yet? Don’t worry, we’re almost through.

When my now ex-wife and I split up, I was concerned that, as someone who wrote primarily comedies and romances, this might impact my ability to do what do, a concern Phil shares in this script. A few months later, needing an idea for a writing contest, I pitched this concept to a friend, having already held workshops for Salvage and The Spy Who Left Me. He stared at me quizzically for a moment, then said “Seriously? You’ve tripled your output!”

A year and change later, I needed a new idea, so I came back to U-boat. Despite having made great strides in getting over the divorce, I thought the concept had legs, so as long as I was being indulgently autobiographical anyway, I filled it with characters from past scripts, references to other past scripts, and got to work.

Also, and let’s get this out of the way right up front… I was curious to see if I could write a nude scene and get away with it. Other writers might have no problem writing nude scenes, but having been directly involved in every production of one of my scripts up to that point, I knew that I’d never manage it unless I could look the actor and/or actress in the eye (as much as I’m ever able to, anyway) and say that yes, this is important. This is necessary. And since I was having Katya hold court against North American society’s idolization of sex/crippling fear of nudity (unlike enlightened, topless Europe), something that I’d been fuming about ever since Janet Jackson exposing her breast (not even the whole breast! There was a pasty!) at the Superbowl was viewed as a worse scandal than George W. Bush inventing a connection between Iraq and 9/11 to justify a war. I decided to call out society’s fear of women’s bodies, using Katya’s to drive the point home. (And also Jacob’s, because fair is fair.)

How’d it turn out?

All in all? Pretty decently. The humour’s solid, the only pop culture references are there to be made fun of for being pop culture references, it’s not a bad show. I mean, the whole thing’s pretty rushed. Didn’t even have an intermission, if I recall correctly, and I think that I do. Not that there’s a problem with the spy stuff being sped through, as the Dirk plot only matters as far as it provides the chance to deconstruct the Dirk plot.

Actually, about that.

The whole naked Katya-“why are women’s bodies terrifying” scene? It works. I believe that. It’s a good scene, it makes important points, it even works in the larger play’s context. Sure, Katya’s topless way longer than she needs to be. I can’t deny that. This was pointed out to me about a week before the original production opened, but by then it was too late to fix the problem on a script level. If this script were to re-surface, I’d find better places for Katya to ditch the bra and find her robe.

And the thing is, the scene works because it’s the best deconstruction of spy stories and the best attack on society. The rest of the scenes have their laughs, and advance Phil’s arc the way they need to, but by and large they’re over too fast and don’t say enough. Every scene should have the punch and insight that Katya’s scene does. Every character, inside Phil’s head or not, should be as interesting as I think Katya is. Especially Katya’s “real world” counterpart, Becky.

One time, Brian Michael Bendis wrote an essay claiming that the Green Goblin was not only the greatest Spider-man villain ever, but the greatest overall comic book villain, yet you’d never guess that from his ridiculous first appearance. So it is with Becky. She might be my favourite of all the female leads I’ve written, and you’d never guess that from this, her first appearance. It’s impossible to look at this script and not see it through the filter of Writers’ Circle, both the play and the impending webseries, and Becky the awestruck fangirl just does not measure up to the character we’re going to be filming over the next six weeks. It’s okay if she’s a fan of Phil. I’ll even grant that it’s okay if said fandom makes her want to date Phil, although come on man, are we inserting our own fantasy women again already? But she can and should be more than that.

Would you stage it again?

Not as it is. It can be deeper, stronger. It can say more, do more, and have well-written characters other than Phil and Dirk. Each time I get better at writing Phil, Becky, and Tina, I want to go back and make their earlier appearances work on the same level, and that would take some doing. And, yeah, like I said, if every scene isn’t as deep or cutting as Katya’s… well, why aren’t they? They just should be.

So, this one would need a polish. Not a full overhaul, and not a “burn it to the ground and start over on a white piece of paper,” but definitely a polish.

Repeated Theme Alert

  • Man and woman cannot be friends: Becky likes Phil! David likes Tina! Everyone wants to date everyone! There are only six people in this cast and one of them’s fictional!
  • The quiet, average guy the ladies unaccountably love: Well, one of the ladies stopped loving him, and at least Becky has an excuse. There actually is something interesting about Phil.
  • So how is this one about your divorce? Don’t, don’t, don’t even start with me right now. You know. I know. We all know.
  • Writing about writers: It wasn’t long after this script that a friend said “Maybe give the meta-narrative stuff a rest for a while.” Wasn’t terrible advice.

Better for TV: American Gods and other favourites

I love Neil Gaiman. That much is clear. His stories are rich, his characters fascinating, I could (and do) read his books over and over again. And of everything of his that I’ve read, I would have to say that my favourite is American Gods. Well, my favourite that he wrote by himself. There’s also Good Omens, which he co-wrote with one of my other all-time favourite authors, Terry Pratchett, but for pure Neil I’m all about American Gods.

Sure, Neverwhere is a faster read, and Stardust has a lot to recommend, but if I want to lose myself in a slow-cooked epic? Gotta be American Gods.

It’s the story of Shadow, an ex-con who ends up taking a job as bodyguard to the aging con-artist Mr. Wednesday, joining him on a rambling quest across America. An America that, as we and Shadow both learn, is filled with gods. Every time people came to the continent and worshiped their gods, the gods would manifest. But as the years went by, they became old and tired, starved for worship. And now a new pantheon is rising, gods of media and technology and celebrity idols. And a war between the old gods and the new is brewing, with Shadow right in the middle.

It takes its time, as Shadow slowly makes his way through small-town America, encountering gods and myths, trying to unravel the mysteries behind everything. It has one of the best casts of fascinating people you could ask for. And I never, ever wanted to see it as a movie.

Because there’s too much. There’s just too much. The story is too deep, the world too rich, the plot too complicated to possibly fit into two or even three hours. No, I thought that it could be adapted, but it would have to be a miniseries. Eight hours, minimum. I even came up with a rough breakdown a long time back. Wow. Thirteen years ago. Damn.

But now it looks like I may actually be getting my wish. Starz, the US cable network out to be an edgier AMC or lower-rent HBO, is breaking ground on bringing American Gods to television. And the guy behind it? Bryan Fuller, creator of Pushing Daisies, showrunner of Hannibal, person behind the legitimately good season of Heroes. Basically, one of my favourite people working in television right now.

Now, when Seth Rogen was announced as writing the pilot for a series based on the classic comic Preacher, I was conflicted, because as much as I loved Preacher and enjoy Seth Rogen, the pairing seemed too unexpected to wrap my head around. But this? This goes beyond good news. Beyond My New Favourite Thing. This comes closer to proof of a loving God. Or at the very least, a karmic “mea culpa” for some of the shittier developments in my life the last while.

A television series would give the story time to meander and explore the world, and as the larger world and relaxed pace of the journey are key components of the story, this is absolutely vital. Plus, as a bonus, it’s long been said that if an American Gods TV show was successful, Gaiman would write a second book to give them more material. And I am all good with that.

Or perhaps they’d just tweak one or two things in the finale to give themselves somewhere to go in season two. Like how in From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez went from an expanded but primarily faithful adaption of the movie in the first five episodes to telling a completely new story in the back half, partly to set up season two, and partly because “And then vampires attack, woogy boogy boogy” was barely enough story to fill an hour of movie and would never have covered five hours of television.

Which I mention in order to set up my next point. If Bryan Fuller’s doing American Gods (and if you still need proof as to how amazing he can make a novel adaptation, start watching Hannibal already) and Robert Rodriguez can turn From Dusk Till Dawn into a surprisingly good TV series, what else would I like to see come to TV, and from who?

V For Vendetta

Why this? I love the crap out of V For Vendetta. Used to read it once a year. Alan Moore’s vision of a post-WWIII England that succumbed to fascism (written at a time when the UK was in actual danger of succumbing to fascism under Thatcher), and the one psychopath out to bring it all crumbling down, is a masterpiece of comic book storytelling. The mysterious and brutal V; his odd relationship with Evey, an orphaned factory worker-turned-almost-prostitute that he takes under his wing and helps grow into a better person than he himself ever was; national head detective Eric Finch, on a quest to bring down V no matter the cost to his career or sanity; and the Game of Thrones level intrigue brewing amongst the senior staff of the government as the Leader’s credibility begins to erode.

V is the last survivor of a medical experiment in a concentration camp that horribly killed most subjects but left him strong, brilliant, and insane, carefully constructing a plan for revenge that would take years to carry out, but that would collapse the system that imprisoned him… and honour a wish from a woman he never met, but loved all the same.

Look, the financial woes of the last few years are making the world a dark place. Fascist parties are making a resurgence in Europe, Christian fundamentalists are running amok in the US, Canada’s going disturbingly right-wing… maybe this is a good time for a story about how any government that operates through oppression is a bad thing, and we the people do not have to accept it.

And yes, I am aware they made a movie out of this already, and people say it’s pretty good. However, they had to streamline a lot. A lot. V’s initial series of revenge murders, against key government personnel who worked at the concentration camp while he was there, are swiftly sped through, when they could fill two or three hours on their own. The poetry of V’s vengeance is gone. And the intricacy of his plot beyond their deaths is also stripped away: in the movie, V wants to kill the Leader (for himself) and blow up parliament (as an inspiration to the people). In the graphic novel, he settles for nothing less than the collapse of the Leader’s entire society, rendering it to rubble so that anarchy can grow to take its place. And least forgivable, in the movie V is in love with Evey, while in the graphic novel he’s grooming her to be his replacement, to build the better world that will have no place for him. It’s an epic tragedy, with a ray of sunshine for the future at the end, but to do it right you need more time.

Sadly I can’t see anyone adapting it for television when it, by necessity, would last two seasons tops. Well… maybe the BBC…

Who should do it? Stephen Moffat. First of all, he writes for the BBC, one of the few networks who might say “Sure, we’re fine spending money on a miniseries with no franchise potential.” I mean, they let him do Jekyll, which was an excellent mini-series that had little if any potential for follow-ups. So if anyone’s going to walk into a board room and say “I want to film V For Vendetta, I’m thinking one series of ten episodes and that’s it, that’s all we’ll ever do” and actually get a green light, it’s him.

Plus, look at his best known works right now. First, Doctor Who, a story about an enigmatic protagonist who seems friendly and good but harbours a dangerous dark side, and his companion, who looks up to him but isn’t always certain she can trust him (especially in series eight, if the teaser’s any indication). Second, Sherlock, a series all about elaborate and labyrinthine mysteries whose true natures are but hinted at throughout, leading to a climactic reveal.

V For Vendetta features an enigmatic protagonist involving a younger female companion in a labyrinthine plot whose true nature is only hinted at in the early stages. Throw in a penchant for monologuing and this is the dark reflection of everything Moffat’s been doing lately. Plus making Evey every bit as complex, well-rounded, and ultimately strong a character as Alan Moore did (she finds her true strength by embracing the lessons V has been presenting her, but rejecting his path) might help counter some of the accusations he’s been getting about how he writes women the last year or so.

So yes, that’s what I want the next time you’re waiting for Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to have matching time off… Stephen Moffat’s V For Vendetta. I mean, I doubt this will ever, ever happen, but it’s nice to imagine.




Why this? Warren Ellis’ 27-issue series Planetary was brilliant. The only flaws it had were that it took 11 years for those 27 issues to come out, and that the initial premise was discarded too quickly. The Planetary organization are “archaeologists of the impossible.” Cold-powered Elijah Snow, super-strong Jakita Wagner, and The Drummer, able to read and manipulate electronic information without the use of a computer, investigate the secret history of their world. This includes twists on Godzilla, the Justice League, John Woo-style justice ghosts, and their ultimate nemeses, a dark twist on the Fantastic Four.

There’s a secret society formed to build a better world founded by Ellis’ homages to, among others, Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Fu Manchu. There’s an ongoing mystery about Planetary’s past, and their funder, the Fourth Man. There’s a funeral for a friend that was, in effect, a funeral for the founding comics of DC’s Vertigo line, including Sandman, Swamp Thing, and Hellblazer, all of which were launched by British writers in the 80s, and all of which (Ellis claims) were marked by the darkness that Thatcherism brought to England in the 80s. In the end, the John Constantine character reveals he faked his death because the time had come to embrace a new paradigm… and the fact that he ditched his Constantine trenchcoat and took on the signature look of Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem means this is pretty clearly Warren Ellis addressing the reader directly.

The things Ellis did with pop culture and sci-fi concepts were nothing short of mind-blowing. And while he did cut the “secret history” aspect after the first six issues to begin shifting focus to the battle between Planetary and The Four, Planetary remained a great enough read that it stayed a cult favourite even when it was taking months or even years to crank out an issue.

Planetary would be awesome on a streaming service or cable network. With only 10 to 13 episodes to fill, they wouldn’t have to worry about stretching out plots or the excessive filler episodes that come with a network 22 episode season. Ellis left all sorts of room to play with in the Planetary world, so they could easily stretch out beyond the story of the books. And pop culture and sci-fi are always coming up with new concepts and ideas to twist and play with. Get Clive Owen as Elijah Snow, Aisha Tyler as Jakita Wagner, and Seth Green or Cabin in the Woods’ Fran Kanz as Drummer, and we’ve got a show.

Who should do it? I want to say Joss Whedon (when don’t I?) because I’m sure I once read an article where he said he was a Planetary fan (and once got in a hilarious shouting match with Warren Ellis in the comment section of Ellis’ blog), and so I’d like to think that if anything could lure him back to television, it’s Planetary.

No no no. Don’t bother mentioning Agents of SHIELD. I’ve yet to see any evidence he was involved in that past the pilot.

But he’s pretty busy writing billion dollar movies, and has expressed a weariness with telling other people’s stories. So you know who’d be a good replacement? His Cabin in the Woods co-writer and Buffy disciple Drew Goddard. Cabin in the Woods shows he has the chops for pop culture dissection, and he’s clearly moving into more comic-based projects as of late.

Plus, now that he’s left the impending Daredevil series for the Sinister Six movie, he’s gonna need something to do when that franchise falls apart.

Assassin’s Creed


Why this? Assassin’s Creed, at its best, has a deep story of the struggle between the Templars and the Assassins, which really boils down to the classic Order vs. Chaos battle, with the Assassins fighting against the oppressive Templars to build a more free world. Of course, the games never look into what that world would look like, but that’s all the more reason to give them an expanded playing space. Through advanced technology, a man named Desmond is able to relive the memories of his Assassin ancestors, the most popular of which is Renaissance Italian Ezio Auditore.

They’re working a movie right now, with heavy involvement from the studio, but there’s two problems. First, the story is too complex. There’s rival factions trying to steer all of history, Templar plots behind countless historical figures, Ezio’s story alone covers decades, and that’s not even touching the plotline where aliens posing as gods basically created human society, leaving behind artifacts of extreme power that could determine our future, and revealed this to Desmond by explaining it to Ezio, knowing that Desmond would relive this moment centuries in the future. Show me a two-hour script that can do even a little of that justice. No, the movie will, at best, be two hours of parkour-driven revenge-murder with conspiratorial undertones, and at worst will be as bad as most other video game movies.

Who should do it? You know who loves historical conspiracies and badasses with daddy issues (most of your AC protagonists learn about their heritage after their father dies, explaining nothing to them first)? J.J. Abrams. Whether it’s the contemporary characters dealing with modern day Templar plots, or the historical characters doing Renaissance-style adventuring, this is right in J.J.’s TV wheelhouse. The man does spies, Italian inventors way, way ahead of their time, and compelling larger mysteries. If the guy behind Fringe and Alias can’t make an AC series worth watching, I don’t know who could.

I don’t know why I keep writing posts about TV series that I’ll never see. Maybe because I can’t stop thinking about them and this helps get them out of my system. Who knows.

Until next time, then.