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Donna Lettow

Donna LettowAs Valentine Pelka’s session was ending, he was asked a question about the rumoured Highlander 2000. He said he didn’t know anything, but Donna Lettow probably would. Asked the same question, Donna said that the rumours on the Web that The Raven was cancelled were more than a little premature. Rysher may not have been trying to sell the show at NATPE, but Gaumont were. Rysher had dropped out of the picture, which meant that Gaumont were trying to raise the money to make a second season out of advance sales - if they didn't get the cash together, there wouldn’t be time to get episodes made in time for the Fall, so The Raven would then have a hiatus for a year, whilst Gaumont sorted out the funding and what show they were going to make, but it would probably still star Elizabeth. Donna then started talking about episodes as people raised them, so here we go....

Till Death had started as a very dark story. David Abramowitz had gone to Paris to meet French writers who didn’t write in English, to see if they could come up with story ideas that could then be developed by the English-speaking writers. This was one of them, but in the original story, the husband was killed and the wife came to Duncan to ask for his help in getting revenge, with the idea that Duncan would kill the bad guy and that she could have her husband back by seducing Duncan when he got the Quickening. This didn’t quite work, (although the husband-by-proxy idea ended up as the basis for Haunted), but David Abramowitz liked the idea of the Immortal couple. The wedding scene had been intended to be a big reunion of Immortals who had previously been on the show, but Nigel Terry (Gabriel Piton), Julia Stemberger (Grace Chandel), and Nadia Cameron (Rebecca Horne), were all unavailable that week. The character of Caroline, who had a weekend fling with Hugh Fitzcairn, was originally written as being Grace Chandel.

Asked about female Immortals, Donna said that the writers hadn’t started out with the idea that there weren’t any and so made a conscious decision to change Widen’s original vision, but had gone along the line that there probably weren’t as many, as they wouldn’t have tended to last as long as the boys in the past, but that wouldn’t be the case today. The influx of girls in Season 6 was attributed to the foreign buyers, who wanted a female butt-kicking character to lead the spin off. Donna felt that they had tried it, but it didn't work. The first couple of girls were more in the Highlander vein, but what the buyers really wanted was Deadly Exposure, God help us. The compromise was Two Of Hearts, which became the basis of The Raven.

Donna pointed out that it takes $22M to film a season and there was no point campaigning to Davis Panzer for another season, as they aren’t the money men. In syndicated TV, you need to get the guys with the money, i.e. the buyers such as, (in the UK), Sky. These guys talk in terms of millions of viewers, so a few hits on a web site are but a blip on the ratings radar. Donna said you need to have 4 million people watching in the US to guarantee success. She said you could trace the problem with Highlander - as the number of committed viewers rose season after season, the overall ratings declined. The highest rated episode was Legacy, which attracted 5½ million viewers. She said that, as the show grew more complex and you needed to know more, it turned off casual viewers. She said that this wasn’t a problem with Highlander - the last season of Babylon 5 had ratings less than 1 million. A top network show such as ER has ratings of 25 million, Friends averages 15-20 million and the top syndicated shows such as Xena average 4 million, although Xena’s ratings weren’t what they had been. She said Highlander had different profiles in different cities, as some showed it in the prime time slot, others showed it very late.

Asked about the absence of Methos in Season 6, she said that she personally found it odd that Methos had not been in the rest of the Ahriman arc, but the uncertainty and delay in confirming Season 6 had led to Peter taking Noah’s Ark. Originally, they had intended to stretch the Ahriman arc over the whole of Season 6, but when it became obvious that they only had half a season, they cut it down. Methos would have been sceptical about MacLeod’s claims until he had his own personal temptation in the return of the Four Horsemen. Asked about Methos’ rumoured death in the first version of Finalé, Donna said that you took it a step at a time with a new character. They had wanted to replace Darius with Marcus Constantine, but the actor playing Marcus didn't “pop” off the screen. If Peter hadn’t been a hit, then Methos would only have appeared in one episode or might have come back at the end of Season 3 to be killed by Kalas, but when they saw the footage of Peter in the episode, they said “this guy’s coming back”. Gillian Horvath really wanted to kill Methos, as she had a storyline for Finalé where Kalas killed Methos, but was overwhelmed by Methos’ Quickening and becomes a better character for a while, leaving MacLeod with the dilemma of whether he kills his enemy or lets him survive as the new improved Kalas. When they thought that they might want to bring Methos back in Season 4, Gillian forced the issue - if he didn’t die, he was definitely coming back! Donna said that they bought a certain amount of Peter’s time for Season 4, so that they could inject Methos to spice up a flagging storyline, which was the case with Through A Glass, Darkly.

She said the comedies were more difficult for the writers to agree on than the dramas, as it come down to personal taste. Money No Object was the episode shown at the Vancouver wrap party on Season 5, as it was the crew’s favourite. Donna called it “the Roadrunner” episode and said it was too slapstick for her - her favourite was Till Death. She said the writers were more in tune with each other on the episodes where the story had drama and passion. David Abramowitz and Bill Panzer both loved Stone of Scone.

She said the show could only credit writers from Canada and the European Union, but there had been problems particularly with the French writers working in English, so she and Gillian had been employed to polish the stories and to keep the story arcs straight. She had particularly enjoyed writing for Joe, as she felt he was the character closest to the writers and the viewers.

She said Methos’ attitude when we first see him in Forgive Us Our Trespasses was intended to reflect the distance between him and MacLeod after Revelation 6:8 and in Modern Prometheus, Joe was acting as the catalyst to bring them back together. She said Methos’ primary relationship is with Joe. There never could be a scene in which Duncan and Methos work it out, as Duncan won’t talk about his emotions and Methos won’t talk about himself, so it had to be resolved in the background.

About the inclusion of Roger Daltrey and Roland Gift, Donna said that the series had originally been sold on the concept of being edgy like a music video and having rock stars appearing in episodes. After Season 1, they dropped this idea as not all singers can act, with the result that Japan dropped out - only Season 1 has ever aired there. Only those who could act got invited back, such as Roger and Roland, both of whom had the same reaction on being asked back - hang on, I died! Donna felt that Fitz was a man out of time in the present. He had made a memorable impact and become part of “the family”, but it had only been written as a cameo part, as in the original version of The Hunters, Fitz dies at the end of Act One. When Werner Stocker became too ill to appear, David Abramowitz rewrote the episode in 36 hours so that it was Darius who died. As Darius was always intended to die at the end, they decided not to kill Fitz lest his death distract from the mourning for Darius. When they came to Star-Crossed, David wrote a personal letter to Roger, asking him to appear. No one had spoken to Roger since The Hunters, but he was more than happy to reprise Fitz, but the script had been written so that Kalas killed another old friend of Duncan’s if Roger wasn’t available. Donna spoke of the relationship between Methos and Amanda and pointed to her outburst in Methuselah’s Gift as proof that Amanda knew Methos of old - “it’s wily, it’s devious, it’s just like him”. Donna’s personal theory, (which she stressed is NOT canon!), is that Methos and Rebecca had a relationship and Amanda got burned by it. Fanfic writers, to your marks, get set....

She was asked about the future of Sci-Fi drama on TV. She said that ratings were falling all round and it was getting harder and harder to make new drama. It costs $1.2 to $1.5 million to make an episode of a network show, but the series she’s pitching to do has a budget of $500,000 per show. It’s a scary time and she said there are fewer and fewer opportunities for work. She has been watching a lot of BBC America and really likes the British format of the 6 episode season, (such as Noah’s Ark or Ultraviolet), but feels that it won’t work on the networks, as the suits can’t spin it out for a whole season and you can’t have a closing episode. She said when Magnum P.I. thought they were cancelled, they killed Magnum, but then they got renewed and had to bring him back to life. She said that the series Jim Byrnes was in, Wiseguy, had a nice compromise, with stories spread over 5 or 6 episodes, but within a normal 20+ episode season.

Next... Richard Ridings