**No Real Spoilers, though there is mention of Steven Moffatt’s Dr. Who episodes**
I don’t get many of these through my script reading; it would seem that spec scribes out there want to invest in features, shorts or TV drama series before they consider mini series or serials. I do read some though every year – probably between 5 and 7 typically – and like the spec TV drama series, they often set up too much and leave their structure “dangling”.
But first off, what is a mini series or serial? Well, as far as mini series go, you may have watched Our Friends of The North, Elizabeth, Second Coming, Best Man, Jesus of Nazareth or Edge of Darkness (you can see IMDB’s list of “best” mini series here).
Oh, but wait: lots of those same names appear in this article from The British Film Institute too when they talk about the best TV Drama serials, along with the likes of Boys From The Black Stuff, Queer As Folk and Clocking Off.
So is there not much difference between these two, or even TV drama series?? Perhaps this is why scribes are reticent to give them a go – because they’re not sure exactly WHAT they are? A quick surf on the internet revealed lacklustre results in terms of really naiing it down officially, once and for all. So I thought I would have a go. Here goes… >GULP<. I actually believe there is not as big a gap between a mini series, serial and TV drama series as one might think initially: I don’t think it’s a question so much of structure as perception. In lots of ways, they even overlap. I’ll explain. As I outlined in this post, the TV drama series has its “story of the week” and its serial element, combined in one of three ways: old school, US style (UK) or actual US series. The mini series or serial then is exactly the same then – but different.
It seems to me that the main story of the mini series – the whole point of why we watch – runs throughout both, much like the serial element of the TV drama series’ plot construction. However, unlike the serial element of the TV drama series, that main story is not wholly subordinate: instead everything in the story returns to it, again and again. So rather than have a Plot A that is a story of the week, we end up with something like this:
PLOT A – “Focus” – each episode might have a focus that LEADS INTO
PLOT B – the whole point of why we are watching
but crucially “Focus 1” is resolved (at least in part) for it will in turn lead into the next episode as
PLOT A – “Focus 2” – a new focus, (as a result of “Focus 1”)
PLOT B – Same as before, though more information will be added to make the bigger picture according to how many episodes there are, for that “bigger picture” will ultimately be the resolution of the last episode…
UPDATE: The lovely Anya makes the very good analogy in the comments section of this post that, in a sense, a serial or mini series is like “Hansel & Gretel” in that a each episode of a serial is like one of the breadcrumbs… We “focus” on the “breadcrumb” every week which leads us to the “gingerbread house” -that all-important FINAL EPISODE.
If we consider The State Within, a BBC serial last year about an English Diplomat in the USA, this *could* have been a TV series. There’s loads of potential there, the running of the UK office in the US, the politics, back biting and sabotage, could have hours and hours in it, surely?
Yet it wasn’t a TV series, it was a serial. Why? Because our English Diplomat had a specific mission that ran throughout the series; each episode’s “focus” took him one step nearer to the mystery. One week there was a terrorist bombing; another week his girlfriend was kidnapped; another one of the people who could help him solve it was executed. Yet week on week, step by step, the serial focused on elements that brought him closer and closer to his goal.
A TV drama series in comparison then would have had a “story of the week” which may have had nothing much to do with the matter in hand, returning to the serial element LATER: if considering Ashes to Ashes, Alex never stopped looking for her parents’ murderer, but she did other stuff in-between. Same goes for the likes of Sam Tyler or Mickey Briggs in Hustle, etc. Our English Diplomat then (what was his name?? Argh) only did stuff that was RELATED to the whole point of why we were watching in the first place – but crucially in two strands, not just the one since that would become dull.
Similarly to a serial then, a mini series will have these “focus points” – a kind of scaled down “story of the week” that comes hand-in-hand with the serial element. A mini series is effectively a condensed serial. A mini series is typically a two parter, though sometimes as many as four – less usually more. A serial then is typically six episodes, though sometimes they are as many as eight. Both rarely return for a second outing. It would seem that longevity is not the concern of the mini series or serial, which is probably why we see so few of them – and when we do, they’re usually written by celebrated and/or award winning writers rather than “newcomers”.
Sometimes TV drama series will have two parters within their run – we’ve just watched Steven Moffatt’s two parter of Dr. Who, “Silence In The Library/Forest of The Dead”. Waking The Dead typically has two parters every single week, so is a kind of hybrid of both the mini series and the TV drama series. If considering the last of WtD’s run, “Pieta”, the first episode focused on the discovery of the heroin in episode one, with the second focusing on how the child was saved (and why) in episode 2. In Steven Moffatt’s Dr. Who episodes this can be seen too, since episode 1focused on what the Vashta Nerada was, with the second focusing on what CAL was.
Crucially however, I think what separates the TV drama series two parter from the stand alone mini series and serials is that notion of longevity: a TV drama knows it has to lay seeds down for future instalments and it will do that – in WtD we’ve had all kinds of serial elements set up for the future and Dr. Who is famous for it. A mini series or serial in comparison then is much more self contained, as if it knows there are no second chances; the dramatic satisfaction effectively comes in the fact that all its loose ends are tied, whereas with the TV drama we are champing at the bit to see what comes next. I think a mini series or serial is the ultimate in plot construction for everything pays off – which is perhaps is why it’s so daunting for a scribe to think about writing one.
What do you think?