Shilpa Ganatra hails Sky’s mould-breaking space adventure Intergalactic.
Going boldly where no woman has gone before, Sky’s new drama Intergalactic follows the exploits of a group of female prisoners who commandeer their penal transport to escape to the free world of Arcadia.
But their journey is made trickier as one of the convicts is Ash Harper (played by Savannah Steyn), the daughter of a high-ranking member of the Commonworld’s establishment. With Ash imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit, her own quest is the search for the truth. Imagine Orange Is the New Black, but set in space.
“That sums it up perfectly when you see it. For me, it’s a relationship drama in sci-fi clothes,” says Paul Gilbert, executive producer for Sky Studios.
“It felt like we hadn’t seen a bold, British sci-fi for a long time,” adds Serena Thompson, also an executive producer for Sky Studios. “The idea of doing something female-driven, adrenaline-driven, about emotion and character, and with a thrilling ride, is something we could see working for Sky One.”
Intergalactic’s genesis came from producer Matthew Read. Sky approached Cuffs and Prisoners’ Wives writer Julie Gearey to flesh it out into a compelling series. “They knew my big passion is writing female gang shows,” says Gearey. “And I’d already been talking about wanting to work in a science-fiction genre. I was a child at exactly the right age for Star Wars. I was the kid who used to put the dressing gown on and the ear muffs and pretend to be Princess Leia.”
Of its many novel aspects, it is particularly refreshing that Intergalactic has “an American scale of ambition while retaining a British identity at its heart”, Gilbert notes. Indeed, the unhackneyed accents, subtle humour and the down-to-earthness (pardon the pun) mark the show as born in contemporary Britain.
"It’s already successful in reinventing British sci-fi, bringing the genre up to date, and putting women at its centre"
That was what drew Sharon Duncan-Brewster to play the role of rebel gang leader Tula. “I love that it doesn’t try to be anything else but British, and you find that in the humour, pace and dialogue,” she says. “It shows we can do space, too. We can do futuristic, too.”
Duncan-Brewster made her mark in revered British productions such as Years and Years, Top Boy and Sex Education but is no stranger to big-budget sci-fi, having appeared in Rogue One and been cast in the latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, alongside Jason Momoa and Zendaya, due out later this year.
“I try to take on varied projects and, nowadays, I don’t take on roles that aren’t appealing to me,” she says. “And, while this is a piece that is set in the future and we are in space a lot, at its heart, it is about people and relationships. You meet these characters and can make so many assumptions about them. Then, slowly, as the episodes progress, we get further under the skin of each individual, and you see that they are complex human beings.”
For Gearey, the show’s invitation for empathy was a key factor when creating the dynamics of the prison gang and all whom they encounter.
“The underlying premise was taking characters with opposing viewpoints and putting them in a tense situation where they were forced to work together,” she says. “That is so resonant now, when everyone is in their ideological silos.
“But we don’t learn anything unless we come together. That’s how we grow and change and listen to each other. That issue has become more prevalent since we first started working on it four years ago.”
In order to tease out the interplay between the characters, a breadth of acting talent was called for, and that came down to casting director Kharmel Cochrane.
In addition to big-draw actors such as Duncan-Brewster and Thomas Turgoose (of This is England fame), newcomers have been added to the fold. All in all, there is a range of shapes, sizes and colours. “I can’t remember the last time I was on set with more than one other black female on a TV show,” says Duncan-Brewster. “Our characters are so different, age-wise, background-wise.
“It’s refreshing and it’s promising, and it’s about time.”
Is it a sign that television has moved away from tokenism? “I would say it does occur still in certain genres, in certain production companies in particular, but people are coming to terms with the fact that they have to address it,” she says. “It makes me happy that at least people are asking questions.
“People are actively seeking affirmation and I think that’s the promising start. Before, people were just making assumptions or not even realising.”
When it came to bringing the show to life, Sky understood that there was no doing sci-fi in half measures. “It was a top-level budget, as there’s an expectation from audiences who are used to seeing sci-fi films,” says Thompson. “It does require a certain level of budget – otherwise you end up with ‘wobbly set’ syndrome.”
The scale of the production meant that the operation had to be carefully thought through. Filming began in September 2019, partly in Valencia, Spain, but the main set was in the aptly named Space Studios in Manchester, where the spaceship was constructed.
“We had Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock as our space advisor,” says Gearey. “I’ve got an arts background and I got thrown out of my physics class, so I don’t understand any of it. She helped us understand, so the physics of the spaceship is based on real physics.”
With lead director Kieron Hawkes at the helm, Duncan-Brewster recalls that the set was “a barrel of laughs. There were no egos, just everyone getting on. My phone is pinging now and it’s them on the WhatsApp group”.
The curse of Covid struck before filming completed, but they had enough in the can to put eight of the 10 planned episodes into post-production after March 2020, which, happily, allowed for a natural ending.
“It’s the biggest show I’ve worked on, and it’s been the show where the most work was done in post-production,” says Gearey. “It will be quite odd to go back to doing something with people in a kitchen.”
Now that the space series in nearly ready to launch, who do the makers feel their audience will be? “The show places the female experience at the heart of the storytelling, but we hope to bring everyone along on the journey,” says Gearey. “Good, emotional storytelling doesn’t have to be defined by gender.”
Nor is it just for sci-fi fans or prison drama fans, adds Brewster-Duncan: “I’m interested to see what audiences make of it, but I suspect that we’re going to gather a following that is not [just] the stereotypical sci-fi audience.”
That is certainly the hope at Sky, which has purposefully entered new territory and accepted the risk that goes with it. “We haven’t seen anything like it before on TV, but that’s our remit,” says Gilbert. “We want to challenge orthodoxy wherever possible, and the results speak for themselves.”
Overseas sales and a possible second series (that may or may not include the lost two episodes) are still under discussion. However it fares, it’s already successful in reinventing British sci-fi, bringing the genre up to date, and putting women at its centre.