Taking Paul Cornell’s Pulse
By Dave Richards
Thanks to BBC America, we in the United States have been able to experience television series like Doctor Who, Robin Hood and Primeval. The first show features the exploits of a time-traveling alien, the second stars a medieval folk hero, while the third centers on scientists who investigate temporal rifts that bring prehistoric and futuristic monsters to our time. At first glance, the three don’t appear to share much in common. However, a closer look at the credits reveals that Paul Cornell has written for each of them.
A novelist and screenwriter, he was brought to the attention of Marvel by Mark Millar, who introduced the editorial staff to his work on Doctor Who. Cornell’s first Marvel comics series, Wisdom, reintroduced the world to British spy and superhero Pete Wisdom, and laid the groundwork for his next major comic project, the critically acclaimed Captain Britain and MI:13.
This month Cornell begins his tenure as the writer of DC Comics’ flagship title Action Comics. But his success in the comics field doesn’t mean he’s finished with television. On June 3 BBC Three aired the Cornell-written pilot for Pulse, a horror drama set in a British teaching hospital. Spinoff Online spoke with Cornell about Pulse and his plans should the BBC decide to pick up the series.
Spinoff Online: Paul, you’re a writer with experience working in the mediums of comics, prose and television. What do you enjoy the most about working in television? What feelings does it provide you that the others don’t?
Paul Cornell: It’s the experience of working with a big group of co-creators, including actors and directors. I enjoy a bit of “let’s put on a show,” and you get so many good surprises from a great team.
How did Pulse come about for you? Was this a project you’ve been involved with since the beginning? Or did someone approach you?
I was asked to take over as lead writer, and I’ve been doing that through the last couple of years of development. It was originally devised by a very talented writer called Ben Teasdale. Proud to have knocked it into the net!
Pulse is clearly a horror show, and it’s something that you’re not really known for, especially here in America where we mainly know you from your Doctor Who and comic work. What is it about the horror genre that you find most compelling?
Well, over here we kind of see Doctor Who as a horror show for children, the only one of its kind. I like to get big reactions out of audiences, and scaring them is one way to do that. It’s like running a roller coaster!
What inspired Pulse? Since it’s a horror show set in a hospital, does it stem from people’s fears and anxieties about hospitals? Or is this more an attempt to do something fun and new with the medial procedural genre? Or is it both? And do you have any hospital-related phobias that you were able to bring to the script?
It’s both, really. None of us like the surrender of volition that occurs when you go into a hospital. We’re literally not in control anymore, sometimes even of our bodies. Doctors will almost certainly, at some point, for the best of reasons, lie to us. It’s a very basic fear that hasn’t been played on very much.
Myself, I don’t have anything that particularly gets to me. But I’d still like to stay clear of hospitals in general, thanks very much.
For those of us in the U.S. who haven’t seen the pilot yet, what can you tell us about the plot and characters of Pulse? It sounds like a series that involves mystery and suspense, straight-up horror, and some psychological elements as well because the protagonist is a character who is seeing things that may or may not be real. Is that correct?
It’s the story of Hannah, a young doctor in training, who returns to the profession having taken a year out after her mum died of cancer, and she had a breakdown. She starts to discover some terrible things hidden away at her teaching hospital. There’s a conspiracy thriller somewhere in there. She has to work out who she can trust. And she gets covered in blood along the way.
Pulse debuted in the U.K. on June 3. How has the response been over there? How were the ratings for the pilot? Has there been any word on whether the show has been picked up for a full series?
We’re really pleased at the response, in terms of good reviews, online response and viewing figures. We should learn soon whether or not we’ll be going to series.
In the U.K., TV series often work very differently than in the U.S. in that there are fewer episodes and shows are sometimes planned to run just for two or three series. So ideally what’s the plan for Pulse if it gets picked up? About how many episodes would the first series run? And is this a story that would be ideally told in just one series or several?
We know what the story we’re going to tell is, but we’ll tell it over however many episodes we’re given. All that’s up in the air right now.
If Pulse gets picked up how involved will you be with future episodes?
I’ve already finished a second episode, and will be the lead writer on the rest of the series, working with other writers on the plots, etc.
Any word on whether or not Pulse will be shown on BBC America? What can Americans who want to see the pilot do to let the BBC know that they’re interested?
Writing to BBC America would be a great way to get them interested in showing it.