Photo copyright Lalo Pangue; Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Developing a show for television can be a rabbit hole experience. Leo Hartas and I spent a year working on a show called Carnival Park. Why was it called that? Because the producers liked the name. Well, of course they did; they picked it. Three production companies were involved – in Britain, Spain and Norway – and they were pleased as punch that Carnival Park sounds similar to Carnaval Parque sounds similar to Karneval Park. In meetings, somebody would say the name and that was often the only time that all the producers could prick up their ears and smile at each other in mutual recognition
So Leo and I had to fit a story and characters around a title. In television parlance, at least among writers, the technical term for that is arse about face. Yet it keeps on happening. Producers acquire a property – or, very often, simply imagine they have acquired a property. Writers, being a biddable tribe of fellows devoted to developing TV shows on a non-profit basis, then go along with the producers in the hope that the whole process will end in a commission.
That commission seldom happens. And the reason it seldom happens is because the producers have led the creative process. If you end up hired (that should be “hired” in inverted commas, by the way) as a writer on a TV show, tear up whatever they give you and create your own vision. It may not get made, but it’ll have a lot better chance. And, crucially, you might stay sane.
One example of a show concept I worked on briefly. Some producers felt that they had some claim to the King Kong IP. Now that one, let me tell you, is a real tangled web. Between Universal, RKO and the estate of producer Merian C Cooper, there was a bit of a ding-dong over King Kong that went on for years, nay decades. The final legal ruling? It’s simply too tedious to go into. I’d rather be shot off the top of the Empire State Building. If you are interested then (a) may the ape god help you and (b) here are the full wearying details on Wiki.
Where was I? Oh yes, notwithstanding all of those earlier court battles over the rights, these producers believed they had found a loophole or something that would allow them to create a "King Kong Junior" television show and/or videogame for kids. Maybe they intended to change the character’s name, though the treatment I knocked up indicates that at the time they briefed me they had no fear of a court battle with either NBC Universal (who would have had a case) or the Cooper estate (who wouldn’t).
What is even more astonishing is that this is only one of three "junior King Kong" projects (one a movie, one a game) that I've been roped into by different groups of producers over the years. It's one of those concepts - others are any famous literary character as a vampire or vampire hunter, or any famous historical character plus zombies - that keep churning around in entertainment industries whose corporate crushing of real inspiration and open access to bullshit artists have left them repeatedly scraping the same place in the bottom of the same barrel.
For curiosity’s sake, then – as this is a TV show that has literally no hope of ever getting made, other than by NBC themselves – here is that treatment. The show's title? Yeah… Not my idea. Don’t shoot me, I’m just the keyboard monkey.
Doesn’t matter where you live in the world. Or when. Don’t let anybody tell you that being a 15-year-old kid is easy.
Take TABU. He’s keen, clever and wants to know about everything. Most of all, he longs to know what lies beyond the massive stockade doors and high rock walls that separate the coast of his Pacific home from the island’s mysterious interior.
“No one knows. Don’t ask!” his teacher, the village shaman HORANGI tells him.
“It’s dangerous. Keep out!” warns his mom, MAHINA.
“Get lost, freak!” say the other kids.
Tabu is the odd one out among the island’s kids. He has the problem of being short-sighted in a time and a culture that has never discovered glasses. He can’t join in the ball game because he's barely able to see his hand in front of his face. He blurts out secrets without realizing who he’s talking to. Squinting up at the white peak in the centre of the island, he reckons “it looks like a skull” - but everyone else just thinks that’s just Tabu with his head in the clouds as usual.
Tabu’s dad, LANI, used to be the local sports hero – he could dive deeper, row faster and throw a spear further than any other man on the island. That’s until a busted leg put him on the sidelines of life. He’s more disappointed at himself than at his son, but he has no idea how to bridge the gap between them. Tabu's mom was once the local beauty, the aloha version of prom queen, but in twenty years she’s gone from drop-dead gorgeous to a danger to shipping. Even Horangi is careful not to get on the wrong side of Mahina.
As for Tabu’s kid sisters, HIKA and HOKA – he thinks of them like a pair of chattering monkeys whose sole aim is to drive him up a palm tree. He sometimes almost wishes they’d get sacrificed to the god Kong who lives on the other side of that wall. (Not that anybody gets sacrificed anymore. That was all in the bad old days. But it’s a threat Horangi still uses to keep folks in line.)
Tabu has one thing going for him. He’s like a dolphin in the water, slicing through the waves, diving down to pick up pearls from the sea bed. Nobody is a better swimmer. And on his fifteenth birthday, at the annual flower festival, he reckons he’ll get a chance to prove it.
Except… OROTO the school bully gets all the trophies. And he doesn’t want to be shown up by a kid who can’t tell a stone crab from a coconut at twenty paces. So Oroto talks Horangi into holding a qualifying round. The swimmers have to identify various threats like jellyfish, shark fins, and so on. As the pictures are held up, it’s all a blur to poor Tabu. He’s sent packing without even having dipped a toe in the sea.
He’s furious. He never got a chance to show what he could do. The injustice almost makes him choke. Ashamed of his tears, he hides out in his hut far from the feast. As night falls after the contest and Oroto gets all the prizes and garlands, Tabu listens to the merriment and has never felt so low. He thinks he’s alone there till he notices his dad, sitting out on the veranda staring at the moon.
Tabu’s dad knows about unfairness. He went from hero to zero overnight when he injured his leg. Reminiscing over long-faded glories, he tells Tabu about the night he climbed over the stockade wall. Like Tabu, in those days Lani had a thirst to find out for himself about whatever was forbidden.
“You went to the interior? What did you find?” Tabu asks him.
“I don’t know. Coming back I fell from the wall. That was how I broke my leg. Never played the ball game again. Never been much of a hunter since then, or much of anything except a drunk I guess. I was in a fever three days and they say I was raving about all kinds of crazy stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Only Horangi knows. He sat up with me in the medicine hut and he’s not telling. But your mother – she was there when they found me, and she took my pack home. And these are the things I brought out of the interior with me, son. They’re yours now.”
Lani takes three things out of an old box under the bed. There’s a scrap of stiff paper, glossy on one side. Tabu has never seen a photo. “It’s such a lifelike picture!” he says, peering at it. The image shows a baby with a streak of white in her black hair.
There’s also a little metal frame with two circular bits of glass in it. Tabu notices how it concentrates the firelight into pinpoints on the wall behind him. He lifts it to his eyes – and everything snaps into focus. He hooks the frame over his ears and gasps as he sees the stars for the first time. A million tiny jewels like fireflies across the universe. “I can see you, pop. I can see everything. It’s so sharp!”
And then there’s the third item. It’s hard and white and it’s as big as a mango pit. “What’s this?”
Lani dips his hand in a pot and brings out something small. He puts it into Tabu’s hand. A milk tooth. “Remember when you were a little kid and you’d wiggle those loose?”
Tabu compares it with the big white object. It’s a tooth as well – but what a tooth! Tabu holds it up beside his jaw. “Whatever animal this came from, I could get my whole head in its mouth.”
Lani sees Tabu look up towards the huge wooden gates that seal off the interior of the island. “Don’t go there, son,” he says, rubbing his aching leg. “You don’t want to end up like me.”
Well, that’s it right there. That's the choice in life, isn't it. Do you stay where it’s boring and safe, or do you go looking for everything that’s good and bad and in-between? Every generation, every one of us has to make that choice for themselves. To Tabu, it’s no dilemma at all. Life in the village holds nothing for him. And thanks to the spectacles, he can see clearly now.
That night, Tabu packs up a kit bag and climbs over the stockade wall. His adventure is about to begin.
On the far side of the island lives a teenage girl with a white streak through her jet black hair. Poppea (POPPY, to you) is like a fairytale princess living in a tall half-timbered cottage that stands on a rock a few hundred yards out from the shore. It’s the sort of home you’d expect to find in a quaint European village with cobbled streets rather than on a tropical Pacific island. How did it get there? In fact it was built from the wreckage of the Prospero, a ship that was wrecked here over a decade ago.
Poppy’s mother is ALTAIRA ADAMS, the Prospero’s captain, who came to the island years ago in search of a mysterious flower said to hold the secret of eternal youth. Yep, Altaira is a bit of a mad scientist if you want the truth. She’s been so obsessed with her quest that she’s hardly noticed her daughter growing up.
Left to run wild, Poppy soon took to going off for days at a time. And she has made a friend. A big, hulking, loyal friend called KONG, who at this tender age is still “only” about twelve feet tall.
But Poppy has never seen another human being of her own age. So you can just imagine the mixture of fascination, wariness, excitement and jealousy that arises when these three come together: Tabu, Poppy and Kong.
As the series progresses, our heroes discover more about the island and the fabulous wildlife that inhabits the interior. Studying the native myths, Poppy’s mother believes the island was originally a huge meteor that fell thousands of years ago, capping an erupting volcano. The heat of the lava reacted with the strange extraterrestrial rock. The remarkable soil of the island possesses strange properties that has caused life to thrive and mutate, leading to the incredible flora and fauna that lives there now. She scoffs at Tabu’s belief that the island spirit watches over them – yet she can’t deny that in her expeditions to the interior in search of the immortality flower, she has had some pretty uncanny experiences.
And now the scene is set for a series of fast-paced fantasy-pulp adventures. Many seek the source of eternal youth – can our heroes protect their island paradise? Horangi suspects Tabu of breaking the sacred rules – can he avoid being branded a heretic? In the dark heart of the island, prehistoric monsters reign supreme – can Kong look after his human friends as their thirst for exploration takes them into danger? And when armed hunters come from the outside world to trap Kong – what can Tabu and Poppy do to save him?