Friday, April 04, 2008

Johnny Byrne (1935 - 2008)

"The key to writing anything is to convert weakness to strength. If you look at the heart of Space:1999, that unlikely sounding premise (the moon being blasted out of orbit...) is the core of it. The very thing that is so often mentioned as the weakness of the series -- the premise -- is in fact the stepping stone into some wondrous territory..."

-author and poet Johnny Byrne, discussing his approach to writing.


It is with a feeling of tremendous sadness and overwhelming loss that I report today the passing of Irish poet, science-fiction author, and film and television screenwriter Johnny Byrne.

Johnny Byrne penned several episodes of Space:1999 (1975-1977) including my all-time favorite episode, "Force of Life." His other contributions include such amazing and atmospheric stories as "Another Time, Another Place," "Voyager's Return," "The Troubled Spirit," "End of Eternity," "Mission of the Darians" and "Testament of Arkadia."

Byrne's teleplay, "The Metamorph" (originally "The Biological Soul") kicked off Year Two and introduced the character of Maya (Catherine Schell) to the sci-fi series. Byrne also penned the final episode of Space:1999, "The Dorcons." It was that episode - airing in 1977 - that introduced the phrase "Resistance is Futile" to science fiction television.

Johnny Byrne was also the story editor on several Year One episodes of the seventies cult classic, but Johnny always talked down that particular contribution. Which is indicative of his generosity and tenderness of spirit, I believe: he wanted the writers of those other episodes to receive all the accolades, and so refused to talk about his rewrites or additions. In this sense (and in every sense), Byrne was truly a writer's writer.

Doctor Who fans will remember Johnny Byrne for his serials from the early 1980s including "The Keeper of Traken," "Warriors of the Deep" and "Arc of Infinity." He is generally credited for having created the character of Nyssa (a companion of the Peter Davison era). I know from my many conversations with Johnny on the subject that he enjoyed working with John Nathan-Turner, but was never entirely happy with how his particular Who stories turned out (mainly "Warriors of the Deep"), Yet he always laughed about them and joked that Space:1999 had spoiled him in terms of production values and special effects. I will always remember Johnny Byrne describing in glorious detail and good humor his utter horror and disappointment at the moment in "Warriors of the Deep" when a monster called the Myrka was introduced on-screen. It was a lesson for him (and a lesson for me, a fledgling writer...) that the TV show in your head is not always the TV show that ends up being broadcast.

Yet to merely term Johnny a sci-fi writer is likely to do his memory a great disservice, because Byrne was also a remarkable poet, a dedicated dramatist and a stead-fast voice of the counterculture of the 1960s. His varied (and impressive) writing credits include episodes of the horror show, Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected (1980-1982), and he was also story consultant and writer for nearly thirty episodes of the beloved and classic British program, All Creatures Great and Small (1978-1990). Johnny was also the creator (and author of two-dozen episodes) of the British hit series Heartbeat (1992-2008), a medical drama.

Some folks will also remember Johnny for co-writing (with Jenny Fabian) the best-selling cause-celebre of the British rock-n-roll set in the early 1960s, entitled Groupie. It's easy to forget it today, but it was that book -- that chronicle of life during the ascent of David Bowie and his ilk -- that actually popularized the term "groupie" in the States and the U.K. I also know that Johnny had worked on a sequel to that watershed book, entitled "Down on Me." I have hopes it will eventually be published. I read an early draft several years ago and it was brilliant and immersive.

Over the years, I conducted a variety of interviews with Johnny Byrne, and he described his history and background this way:

"Bear in mind," he told me, "that I came from the avante-garde creative background. I had been in spearhead activities in the counter-culture in the 1960s, and had been involved in the underground press, in experimental poetry, and I wrote science fiction in small magazines. We were breaking molds..."

That Johnny Byrne achieved so much during his career is a testament to his dedication, grit and talent. Born into poverty in Dublin in 1935, Johnny quit his formal education at age thirteen and started a series of difficult jobs. He quit this life at age 21 because he felt he had "made too much money" and then turned his attention entirely to writing. At 22, his new career as an artist began. He proved an immediate success in this field, and by 1972 (when Groupie was a bonafide international hit) was being sought for his remarkable skills as a TV scenarist.


Although we have lost many great artists already this year, including Space:1999's Barry Morse and versatile actor Roy Scheider, this loss hits me particularly hard because I knew Johnny well. We weren't just acquaintances...but friends.

Specifically, Byrne's writing has been an inspiration to me for decades, and the two of us became fast friends in the year 1999 ironically. We kept up a correspondence and dialogue for the last nine years, sometimes hot and heavy, sometimes not so much. So I count Johnny as a mentor and teacher, and his work has inspired me in ways I can hardly enumerate. Some of his influence I am no doubt unconscious of...I just absorbed it through repeated viewing of his episodes. Much of my writing on The House Between is inspired by Johnny's style, Johnny's world vision, Johnny's sense of imagination and his deep understanding of the genre; and what the genre can be.

I respect Johnny and his work so enormously because his teleplays in the genre boasted a strong mystical streak in a hard-tech setting at a time when that was an extremely unpopular (even derided...) move in science fiction circles. Space:1999 aired in the mid-1970s when people were seeking Star Trek's optimism about the future and a sense of "cosmic brotherhood" where future science could solve all of the worlds' prroblems.

What insightful viewers found in the work of Johnny Byrne (and also the great Christopher Penfold) was instead a darker, perhaps more realistic view of contemporary humanity. If Star Trek was Camelot in space, then Space:1999 as Johnny Byrne saw it (and in his words...) was "the 1970s wake-up from the hippie dream" of the 1960s.

This world was one of limited resources, not endless surplus. This world was one where outer space was a realm of awe, mystery and terror, not merely a caucus of United Nations separated by subspace radio and the ocean of the starry void. Technological man's emotional and moral failings were at the heart of Space:1999 and the series - criticized far and wide by people who have never watched it as cheesy or campy or anti-science - was a meditation about our very nature, but one without the romanticism of a Star Trek, or the political correctness of The Next Generation. Dick Adler, the TV critic for The Los Agneles Times suggested Johnny be nominated for an Emmy Award for his writing on Space:1999 and noted that whereas Star Trek was "recklessly liberal" Space:1999 was "more realistic" because it confronted the idea of "limited options for survival."
What is difficult for people to understand is that Space:1999 is also a deeply spiritual, deeply mystical series, only not in the "up with people" manner of Star Trek. Johnny understood that, and dealt well with the criticism that was lobbed at him, and at Space:1999.

"Critics don't understand the paradigm," Johnny confided in me once. "They never did. It [Space:1999] isn't Star Trek. It is a modern day or near future origin story of a people. The Celts, the Aztecs and the Hebrews all have origin stories. But Space:1999 took place in a real time, not in pre-history. It was a futuristic rendering of that old story: of people cast out from their home with no plan, no direction and no control. There are elements of faith, magic and religion in the show, and nobody seems to understand or accept that. In Space:1999, we are witnessing the foundation of a culture."


"It didn't fall into the classic mold of science fiction, no question about it. I'm the first to know that. The very premise was dodgy, but you had to suspend disbelief in order to see the possibilities of it. All the professional science fiction writers - unfortunately - did not judge it for what it was. They judged it for what it wasn't. This was a cardinal error and for that reason, I didn't take the criticisms to heart. They were not judging what I had done; they were judging what they had hoped to see...and it wasn't there."


Johnny's proud Irish heritage was also critical to his interface with the drama of Space:1999, he always asserted:

"Growing up in Ireland, I didn't have radio and television, so everything was imagination and history and super(natural)-history, if you will. It wasn't that we weren't smart or educated - I knew by heart everything Shakespeare had ever written by the age of 11. But to all of us, there was the real world and the other world."

"I believe that the further we move out into space, the lesser will be our skepticism about such things," Johnny said. "We will experience things beyond our comprehension."

I knew Johnny Byrne both as a writer and as a friend, and since I've already discussed here his talent as a writer, I'd also like to comment a bit on him as the latter; as a friend. He was infinitely generous. We first met by correspondence, when he requested a copy of my first book, Exploring Space:1999 in late 1997. You can imagine how intimidated I was, at age twenty-something having my thoughts on the TV series examined by one of the very writers who had contributed so much to the program. And in my typical "where angels fear to tread" manner, I hadn't pulled my punches when it came to some of Johnny's shows (particularly "A Matter of Life and Death.") But when I met Johnny at the Breakaway Convention in Los Angeles in 1999, he was gracious, and actually requested that I sign his copy of my book. I couldn't believe it. I wanted to drop down and say "I'm not worthy." And I wasn't. And I am not.

The book (and my conclusions about the series) fostered a number of debates between Johnny Byrne and me (and these were actually videotaped, I think...) and I realized that Johnny was one of those (rare...) writers who could countenance disagreement and criticism politely and civilly. Even when I had slagged the series (and one of his contributions), he steadfastly and without hurt or negativism explained what the genesis of the episode was, and what point he had sought to get across. These debates are ones that I will never forget, in many ways a high-point of my career as a TV critic.

On the night of September 13, 1999 -- the night the moon was to go out of orbit by series lore -- I remember standing out on the convention hotel balcony with a group of new friends and fans. We all smoked cigars (even Kathryn) to mark the occasion, and we were joined by Johnny Byrne and his adult son, Jasper. It was an amazing experience: to gaze up at the moon in the night sky on that portentous night with one of the voices who had crafted the series' mythology. Johnny was charismatic too. He could tell a story like nobody else; and he held you with rapt attention as he wove his tapestry. His unmistakable voice, with that Irish accent, was a pleasure to listen to...it was almost like falling into a trance.

Johnny and I kept up our new found friendship with transatlantic phone calls and then we met in person again in 2000 to further our friendship and running dialogue. This time, Johnny introduced me to the amazing writer Christopher Penfold, and also George Bellak, the writer who had first crafted "Breakaway." To be in the presence of these three authors was something akin to Nirvana for me. Again, I think these debate/interview sessions are recorded either on video or audio tape. Somewhere.

Unfortunately, I fell ill at the 2000 convention and had to retire early one night, but Johnny and my friend Mateo Latosa (whom Johnny had introduced to me...) took out Kathryn for a night on the town. They drank and smoked and caroused and discussed the meaning of life into the wee hours, and it was an experience I know that Kathryn will never forget. She loved (and loves) Johnny every bit as much as I do. Like I said...he was charming and disarming, and to share his presence was a gift.

Johnny was also a career sounding board for me. He sat down and watched Annie Hell, one of my no budget productions and - trying, I'm sure, to find something positive to say - complimented me on my dialogue "flights of fancy." On the strength (meager as it was...) of that production, Johnny gifted to me one of his stories that had never been produced as a film, entitled "Grimoire." He told me to write it into a screenplay and we would share the credit if it was ever made. Again - what generosity! On the basis of a no-budget production of questionable value, Johnny sought to inspire and teach me. I still have the script we collaborated on, though - alas - it has never sold. Maybe someday I'll do it independently, but to this day I still can't believe that Johnny was so giving an individual that he would just turn over one of his stories to me and tell me "have at it." He was an artist who supported other artists.

One of Johnny's greatest Space:1999 episodes was "End of Eternity," a meditation about immortality. I can think of no better way to comment on Johnny's legacy than his own words, to me, on that subject, also re-told during an interview:

"If you think about it, human beings are immortal in many ways. In the continuing of family...we're immortal. We're immortal in the sense of our work living beyond us. We're even immortal in terms of memory...when we die, those who came after remember us..."

So today, I ask you to join me in remembering a tremendously gifted artist and writer of the television age. We mourn for Johnny's family and their loss, but today, let us also contribute to Johnny Byrne's endurance and legacy -- his immortality -- in the sense he described above. If you have Space:1999 DVDs at home, pop in "Force of Life" or "Mission of the Darians," "The Troubled Spirit," "Testament of Arkadia" or "Another Time, Another Place." I promise, you'll be swept away by the vision and poetry of Mr. Johnny Byrne.

If you feel so inclined, please write in to the comments below and let others know how much Byrne's work on Space:1999, Doctor Who and elsewhere made you feel, or made you think. Johnny would want nothing more than to see that his ideas, his vision of humanity, carried a currency into the next generation.

Monday, March 31, 2008

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Just Toys "Bend 'Em" Rocketeer




"Blast off for adventure" with this 1991 collectible figure from the Disney superhero flick, The Rocketeer. Made by Just Toys under license for Disney, this "Bend-Em" figure includes a removable rocket pack.

I remember seeing this film in 1991 with Kathryn (hard-to-believe it was seventeen years ago) and loving everything about it, from the performances (William Campbell, Paul Sorvino, Jennifer Connolly, Timothy Dalton) to the great art-deco production design. The film was a box-office flop, but I'll never figure out why. It was grand, exciting superhero entertainment, but it also fits into my rule about retro-superheroes always bombing at the box office (witness The Shadow [1994], The Phantom [1996] and even Sky Captain).
Somewhere, I have a Rocketeer poster - absolutely gorgeous - that I need to frame.