EXCLUSIVE: BBC2 and PBS have commissioned a War of the Worlds-style hybrid drama/documentary that spotlights a near future in which extra-terrestrial life has been detected.
First Contact will combine real documentary interviews with some of the world’s most foremost scientists alongside a fictionalized narrative written and directed by World According to Jeff Goldblum director Nic Stacey. BBC Studios Science Unit, which was behind Netflix’s BAFTA-winning The Surgeon’s Cut (pictured) and BBC2/PBS’ The Planets, is once again collaborating with the two networks on the feature.
Leading scientists now believe there is a genuine possibility we will shortly detect extra-terrestrial life and the show will profile the latest in cutting edge technology while featuring contributions from the likes of Dr Jill Tartar, a pioneer who was the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in Contact, along with showcasing the James Webb space telescope.
Exec producer Andrew Cohen, who produced a BBC Horizon doc almost 20 years ago about a future pandemic that he said was “heavily criticized at the time for scaremongering”, revealed his team has been planning to make a show on extra-terrestrial life for some time and the pandemic made it feel more timely.
“This is being made in the shadow of a pandemic that has thrown up themes around what it’s like for a planet to feel a deep existential uncertainty,” he added. “The audience is now more primed to explore these issues than it was two years ago.”
Cohen said there is an “almost aggressive confidence” in global factual at the moment that has made his team comfortable producing the show in a hybrid drama/doc style.
While crediting the streamers in part for this development, he said First Contact “builds on the chutzpah” of his team’s recent BAFTA-nominated 8 Days: To The Moon and Back, which used innovative lip-sync techniques to recreate the 1969 moon landings and also aired on long-time collaborators BBC2 and PBS.
“In the past, factual TV could be quite nervous and backfooted but now if there is a story we want to tell then we will find a way to tell it,” he said. “This is about story and how audiences want to be immersed in amazing storytelling.”
The 90-minute film was commissioned by Patrick Holland, BBC Director, Factual, Arts and Classical Music Television and Jack Bootle, Head of Commissioning, Science and Natural History.
Elsewhere, the pandemic has also increased viewer appetite for science, added Cohen, whose department has made recent fast-turnaround BBC docs on Covid-19.
“Trying to compete with the news cycle in documentaries is almost impossible but we can add depth and insight,” he added.
Cohen’s unit is also working more in the ad-funded programming space, having produced Cook Clever, Waste Less With Prue & Rupy for Channel 4 in May, which was part-funded by Hellmann’s mayonnaise, along with a Hyundai-sponsored series of short films for BBC Global News.