MZPtv interviews Tony Black on FRONTIER (plus exclusive preview!)

Q) Many will be familiar with FRONTIER from the previous version in script format, but for those out of the loop, what is FRONTIER and who is it about?

A) An excellent starting question, if I may say so! FRONTIER is at its heart, a character drama wrapped around a mystery adventure. It all started from the acorn of my fascination with missing people, with those who just vanish either from their homes or on plane journeys etc… that have carved all these legends such as the Bermuda Triangle and such. What happens to these people? Did they just die in freak accidents we haven’t understood? Or are they still out there? And if so, what happened to them? Where did they go? You see so many stories based on the fallout from people who disappear, I wanted a story about what happened *to* those people who vanished, as well as on the flipside exploring that fallout.

The story ostensibly though is about the crew of the Icarus, a pioneering Mars lander in our near future, who vanish before taking a bold new step for mankind – and they are our way into a quite broad mystery and mythology that builds up around… well, wherever they end up! All are recognisably very human people, geniuses in their field but flawed & carrying around their own demons & secrets. There are a myriad other characters who will gain focus but the core of the FRONTIER saga is very much Kendrick, Emie, Lucas & Renee, and from the outset it’s certainly their story.

Q) What was the original catalyst for wanting to adapt this story into a series of novels?

The primary reason was my abandonment of script based fiction as a form. There were seasons of FRONTIER the series planned, in quite some detail infact, but my disillusionment with that kind of storytelling in online form put paid to the story carrying on… until as I began to move into prose, a move I’ve been mulling for several years and now I’ve made the full break into, the whole narrative just started gnawing at me. Chris Haigh will attest, the plans for FRONTIER were just about some of the best storytelling I think I’ve ever constructed and I just couldn’t conceive not writing these characters & this world again. It almost felt a crime!

Equally I feel the scope of the story and characterisation here perhaps warrants this approach. There are going to be a lot of players, a large world explored, and some really big conceptual ideas that wouldn’t all necessarily carry script wise unless you had the visuals to prop them up. With prose you can really let loose & flesh out all these corners, explore the world building I’ve always loved doing.

Q) How has development of the novel gone so far, and are you finding it more or less challenging than the previous scripted series?

It’s much harder, because it’s a relatively new muscle. I was writing prose way back when I was in my teens (I vividly remember writing a DS9 ‘novel’ called Liason about Worf in longhand, in a pad, in about 1995, which only my mother ever read, bless her!) but despite dabbling a shade in the last couple of years, it’s an untested skill. I’m pretty confident I can write prose well, it’s just a slow process now as I find the groove. To be fair, it took ages to plan and write FRONTIER the series in script form, so the book will doubtless be George RR Martin pace!

It’s certainly more challenging though in all the right ways. As I write I have the script directly above the prose, thanks to the wonders of Scrivener, so it is a straight adaptation but naturally you need to approach each scene in such a deeper level of depth than just action and dialogue. Consequently that creative process is longer & more tiring, especially when you do a *very* full days work & try fitting in girlfriend, friends, family & Football Manager!

Q) Has the different format made you approach the story in different ways? Or would you consider it a pretty straight adaptation of the scripts?

It’s largely a straight adaptation of the scripts at this point, just fleshing out those scenes in terms of character perspectives. Crucially this is taking a Song of Ice & Fire approach to the narrative – each scene will have a different perspective of our main characters, while forwarding the story, so the trick is framing which character to have as the POV for which scene. That’s not always easy, as you have to judge which development of the plot best serves Kendrick here or Emie there, and it’s a little different from the ‘centric’ approach to scripted episodes because you need to juggle those viewpoints without losing the narrative thrust. That’s the biggest adjustment.

The story though unfolded in a nicely linear way in the scripts and there seems no reason to change that here, bar moving a few elements around structurally. For instance the prologue of the book is now a scene from what was the penultimate episode of the season, as it only really fits at the beginning. So shuffling those bits & pieces about has been fun.

Q) One of the major differences between prose and script is your ability to get into the character’s heads — have you explored that aspect more, and if so, who do you consider your lead character now? As the scripted series was very much an ensemble affair…

It’s still ensemble! The FRONTIER saga is just too broad in scope to pull a Katniss Everdeen & have one specific protagonist it’s being framed through, but were I to choose it would no doubt be Kendrick, as leader of the Icarus crew, but it’s disingenuous to suggest he’s the lead as the main character in many ways is *where* they are, much like the Island in LOST.

In terms of exploring the characters heads, this is perhaps the biggest challenge of all that comes with prose, which you don’t have to worry about with script. It’s indeed perhaps part of the allure in scripts in that you don’t have to do that leg work, indeed you’re actively discouraged from it – here there’s no escape, you need to understand what makes these people tick while propelling the narrative forward. Maybe it’s a cheat really in employing an ensemble still as that allows you to flit around & never get bored, or maybe it’s a greater challenge I don’t know! Time I guess will tell. It’s exciting to work in this new way though, I feel it’s deepening my abilities as a writer.

Q) What sort of timeframe does the first novel comprise? Would you say it’s equal to what you had planned for the first season of your scripted VS, or is it compressed/elongated in any way?

The first novel, ‘A Wilderness of Horrors’ (which incidentally was to be the title of the season finale), will span the first season. The narrative thrust of the season does translate well in terms of book plotting, as there’s a recognisable arc and break point between the beginning & end of the season – indeed the way I structured my seasons in script form almost felt like novels, so it’s a good fit. The biggest component that currently I’m back & forth on is the placement of the side stories of those left behind – if you read the scripts, you’ll know those stories take place in multiple time periods on Earth & features almost double the amount of characters where the Icarus crew are, so I’m to & fro over whether it could be character & story overkill, the only problem is those plots are central to the grand scheme of things. It’s a tricky one and certainly will mean these books are no thin read.

But yes the novel’s timeframe covers intended events in the first season, which in real time spans roughly anywhere between two weeks and ninety years!

Q) The previously unfinished script series received very positive reviews — has that given you confidence going forward with this project, and have any of the reader comments informed any of the storytelling choices as you adapt it into a novel?

It was heartening to see when FRONTIER was announced as returning several people come out & comment how glad they were having read the scripts – that certainly imbues one with confidence to know some people are going to be looking forward to the chapters as they’re released on MZP (in advance of the book coming out in collected ebook form, as is the plan). None of the comments have informed any creative choices though, no – I firmly believe if you have a vision for a story like this you need to stick to it, come what may, and indeed certain elements people liked & disliked about the scripts may end up flipping when it comes to prose. All bets are off. It really will be like starting the whole thing again from scratch, even if in general terms you know where it’s heading… until the end of course because the finale was never finished, so at least the final chapters are right now known to very few people beyond myself.

Q) Finally, sell your project to the masses in one glorious sentence:

Lost meets The 4400 meets Interstellar.

You can read an exclusive passage from ‘A Wilderness of Horrors’, Book One of the FRONTIER SAGA, by clicking here.