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Before producing 24, Howard Gordon proved that it's a Strange World after all

By Kathie Huddleston

H oward Gordon, the co-executive producer of the Fox spy series 24, is happy he's finally working on a series that doesn't have a vampire or alien in sight. However, he's also thrilled that the SCI FI Channel will finally be airing all 13 episodes of Strange World, an ABC X-Files-style series he executive produced that was canceled in 1999 after only three episodes aired. Strange World will premiere Friday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on SCI FI.

For someone who didn't set out to be a sci-fi guy, Gordon has written and produced some of the most important genre shows of our time, including Beauty and the Beast, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

Gordon chatted with Science Fiction Weekly about 24, strange science and being a sci-fi guy.

Tell us about your new series.

Gordon: I'm working on 24. I wish more people would watch. It's just not doing as big numbers as we had hoped.

But it's on several times a week. That seems good, since your Tuesday night timeslot is crowded with good shows.

Gordon: I think that's part of the problem. It should be on Friday, forget Tuesday, and then maybe run it once a week on FX to catch up. It's a little overkill now. Hopefully it will stay on. We're having a good time. Fox has been incredibly supportive of it, promotionally and on every level. I think the problem is that they had just expected, because of the critical response, an out-of-the-box ER-like hit, and it's just not that.

Dark Angel is a great companion show for 24 on Friday.

Gordon: Absolutely a great companion. I've personally had good luck with Friday nights between X-Files and Beauty and the Beast. It would have been better if it was a secret that people discover. But, alas, everyone is desperate for the home run.

The show is really special in what it's doing, telling a story one hour at a time.

Gordon: 24 is getting increasingly exciting. I think any time I have an opportunity to do something that I think is breaking new ground, which I think 24 is, it's just a privilege. It's good for TV to try new things. If it doesn't always work or succeed; the attempt is what's important. I think Strange World or 24, it's important to take those interesting shots.

Strange World only ran for three episodes on ABC in 1999. Tell us about the series.

Gordon: ABC came to me. I wanted to do a family drama and they wanted to do something that was a little more X-Files-like. In their brainstorming sessions, they came up with weird science as a general area they wanted to develop. I'm a science-fiction fan. It piqued my interest, so I developed the show. I think ABC liked the pilot a lot, but I also think they couldn't figure out what to do with it. I don't think it fit in terms of the way they saw themselves. So we all got the feeling, or maybe I kept it to myself, that we were kind of dressing a corpse [laughs]. I think the show was frankly nothing they ever really wanted to make. They didn't promote us and we never really got a fair shake, so I was really happy to hear SCI FI was going to pick it up.

And now they're going to run all the episodes, including those that never aired.

Gordon: They're going to run all 13, and I'm just really thrilled. Obviously, I put my heart and my soul in it, and a lot of people did. It's good to know that somebody's going to see it, that it won't be relegated to the dustbins of history.

When I saw it during its original run, I thought ABC was trying to do their version of The X-Files. But if The X-Files had been on ABC, it would have probably lasted three episodes, too.

Gordon: Yep. Absolutely. Instead of on Friday night on a network that was marginal at the time at best. It clearly was a thing that didn't belong there, but in some ways it obviously owes a great debt to X-Files. You know, I spent four years on X-Files, so that was what was fresh on my brain at the time in terms of storytelling. I think in some ways it had a greater challenge than X-Files, because it kind of was the opposite of The X-Files. The X-Files allowed for monsters and for aliens. The challenge here was how to make a virus interesting or how to make science conceptionally interesting. It's a little more challenging when you have to dramatize those dangers.

I think it suffered from a certain earnestness. The conspiracy aspect of it. It's weird, because it comes off as a sort of morality tale about a danger zone and about men acting like gods. It's the age-old tale. You know, Tim Guinee is just a wonderful actor. Tim is like New York theater actor. He takes his craft very seriously. He's really passionate about the environment, and he gets sort of messianic about the whole thing. So he took the job, and he took the idea behind the series very seriously.

In Strange World, you have a mysterious Asian woman who kept Tim Guinee's character, Capt. Paul Turner, alive by giving him this temporary cure from his terminal illness. What are we going to see in the next 10 that we haven't seen in the first three?

Gordon: Fortunately, because I think we smelled the end [laughs], I think our most successful episode frankly was the very last one we did, which really does tell a close-ended story. In a sense it works as a limited-run series. Obviously, we left our door open in case we were to come back, but we also closed up what we needed to do so a lot of the questions are answered in the last episode. In the end, we discovered the secret of this thing was really telling it from the point of view of someone who himself was a science experiment. Who was at once the beneficiary and the victim of a science that was beyond what we have. He has this incurable disease, but here he was being cured on a provisional basis and used by this woman for purposes which it seems were to uncover abuses of science. Clearly whoever she was, and however nefarious she seemed, however obtuse, the mission seemed to be the reason he was kept alive, to uncover these corporate and individual excesses of science.

But it could have been someone evil directing his mission, too.

Gordon: You know, I wasn't sure either [laughs]. But in the end a lot of the questions were resolved. I think the thing was more thoughtful. What was fun was when Dolly was being hatched. There were really big headline things. One was bio-terrorism, which turns out to be a whole new thing now 10 years later. The Gulf War Syndrome wasn't actively being investigated at the time I started writing that thing. And cloning, I mean, Dolly had just happened.

You were certainly doing timely stuff.

Gordon: I think so. And the stuff is just fascinating. I think part of the challenge of the show is there are certain moral and legal issues that we're all going to face, and this was an exploded version of that. The research was certainly interesting. I think the way Turner uncovered it was interesting.

What was going on behind the scenes for you?

Gordon: It's interesting, because I'm sure you have to operate with some level of denial and some level of hopefulness at the same time. You know that the wind's not at your back, but you hope that maybe an audience will find the show, even though they're not promoting it, and even though the odds are against you. You've got to hold to whatever hope you have that something's going to save you. And in the end you just have to look at the shows themselves and realize you've done as good a job as you can do and keep your focus on that, rather than on the fact that you've been handed a ship with a hole in its side. Maybe that sounds overly dramatic, but we recognized really early on in the production that we were underdogs who didn't have a lot of network support. At the same time I've got to say that I'm grateful that the network footed the bill and they allowed us to do the work which in the end is going to find an audience on the SCI FI Channel. My gratitude is to cable and the expanded universe of broadcast because it allows for some of the network seconds to have a second life.

Did that surprise you when you got the call?

Gordon: No. I'd always hoped that they would pick it up. In fact, I don't remember whether it came about because of me or this guy at Fox, but I knew somebody at SCI FI and I said wouldn't it be great if Strange World ran because I knew they had run Prey and Brimstone and one or two other shows. Which makes a lot of sense. No, I was thrilled. I was just absolutely thrilled. I still obviously nurse some fantasy that maybe it will develop enough of an audience for them to want to order more episodes, that would be great. But even if not, it's great that people are going to see it. The truth is that there are probably three or four episodes that I'm really, really proud of. I like the pilot a lot. I like "Lullaby," which is the second one. And I liked the last one a great deal. I like one called "Spirit Falls," which never got aired. So there are a bunch of them I'm extremely proud of. I think they're thought-provoking. I think some of them are really beautiful. So those are the ones I'm particularly proud are going to get out there.

You've worked on many different science fiction and fantasy shows.

Gordon: I was on Buffy before Strange World. I left to shoot the pilot. And then when they canceled Strange World they launched Angel. Sort of by default I seem to be a sci-fi guy [laughs].

But 24 is not sci-fi.

Gordon: No, but it's sort of a dark spy genre show. You know what, I can tell you I'm so happy not to be writing about vampires or aliens. I actually did a pilot two years ago called Ultraviolet. Did you see the British one?


Gordon: Didn't you think it was great? I loved it. I loved it. I did it with Chip Johannessen, and frankly we screwed it up and it just didn't come out that well. I've had a few of those [that didn't work out]. I still have hopes for Ultraviolet. Resurrection is always possible. I did Ball and Chain last year. Do you remember that at all?

I did hear about it. I think it was originally picked up by Fox. You were the executive producer, weren't you?

Gordon: Yeah. It was one of those high-profile pilots. As far as I knew we were on the schedule, and then suddenly we weren't. I think part of it was it was just a very expensive show to do, and budget was kind of the buzzword at the beginning of this ordering season.

But now you're working on 24.

Gordon: Hopefully it will last, and then hopefully they'll order a Strange World movie [laughs]. I'm actually supervising a pilot at Fox. It's called Mystery Girl. The shorthand and not good version is Sex in the City meets Murder She Wrote. Take Angela Lansbury out and put Sarah Jessica Parker in and that sort of gives you the tone.

That sounds like fun.

Gordon: It is fun. It's meant to take a break from vampires and aliens and superheroes.

What's your take on the sci-fi genre television field?

Gordon: It's so interesting. I'm so grateful for Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and stuff. It's always amazing to have opportunities to tell stories that use your imagination that aren't in the real world, because in some ways you need something that is more of a metaphor for reality than reality itself. Something about reality is that it's a little too real. By definition it almost has to skirt the truth. Whereas with science fiction, it's somehow more honest. Buffy to me is somehow truer than Dawson's Creek, for instance. It took people awhile to understand this is not just a frivolous show, but actually something that's really quite deep. Buffy had to overcome that. That's what I love about science fiction. I think it really describes our present in ways that are more poetic and elegant, and sometimes even deeper, than the so-called real shows. I think the genre is healthy. It's a strange thing. It has this sort of cyclical relationship with the major networks. You know, X-Files was a great breath of fresh air. Buffy has been. Look at Smallville, too.

Of all the shows you've done, what's been the most fun to work on?

Gordon: Probably the most fun was Beauty and the Beast. And part of that must have been because I was in my 20s and I really had a connection to the show and got a chance to write and produce. Although 24 is actually rivaling it. X-Files was certainly the best learning experience. I think it was the most challenging show. I learned the most. Buffy and Angel were, I think, a little outside my wheelhouse. In other words, I was consulting on the show and producing it occasionally, but I never got invested in them the same way. Partly because I was either coming or going because of my deal with Fox. I loved them. I'm a huge fan. But I never felt like I got both shoulders behind the wheel and pushed. Where with these other ones, Beauty and the Beast, The X-Files and certainly 24, I'm really one of the founding fathers of those shows.

Is it hard for you to get enthusiastic about a show if you feel it's not going to get the support from the network?

Gordon: Oh, yeah. That goes back to Strange World. Ultimately that was really hard. But even on X-Files, when it first started no one had any expectations it was going to last past its first order. So it was a nice surprise.

So are you ever going to get to do your family drama?

Gordon: One day, I hope. I really do hope.

Until then you seem to be pretty busy with genre and action shows, and you've done some of the biggest shows out there.

Gordon: I feel like I've been around the block in the genre. I feel lucky. I've just learned a lot. It's been a great experience. It's just been a great education. It's good to work in a medium that can be lambasted pretty roundly by a lot of people and to do shows that you're proud of. I think that's the best you can hope for.

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