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How 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' became an exploration of grief and catharsis for its creators
The showrunners behind the new series tell SYFY WIRE why it's not a traditional alien story.
If you have seen any of the Star Trek series currently streaming on Paramount+, then you have seen the work of Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet. The writing and producing team have collaborated on everything from Star Trek: Discovery to the upcoming Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. "I apparently like science fiction, and it's all because Alex Kurtzman became my friend," Lumet jokes during a recent press junket for their newest collaboration for Showtime, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
The series serves as a sequel to the 1976 cult classic film by Nicolas Roeg (starring David Bowie) and the original Walter Tevis novel. Academy Award-Winning actor Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as "K. Faraday," an alien who comes to Earth searching for a cure for his planet's dwindling resources. The ten-episode had a lengthy development process before premiering on Showtime on April 24. Originally a Hulu production back in 2019, The Man Who Fell to Earth didn't make the cut after Disney took over 20th Century Fox's assets. CBS took over the show with the intent of putting it on Paramount+.
Back in familiar territory, as CBS makes all the Star Trek shows, Kurtzman and Lumet were surprised when Showtime Studio Chief David Nevins (now also CEO of Paramount+) reached out right before principal photography to explain the series was moving again. This time it was switching studios with the new Halo series. "[The switch] was great for us though because The Man Who Fell to Earth is very entertaining and very edgy, and I think Showtime was probably a better place for it," Kurtzman says.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is not your average alien invasion story. Instead, it is a thoughtful and emotional narrative about love, loss, and rebirth. Faraday hails from the dying planet Anthea and receives an urgent message from his mentor Thomas Joseph Newton (Bill Nighy), to journey to Earth — a trip that Newton took himself over 40 years ago (David Bowie's role in Roeg's film), never to return.
Newton instructs Faraday to seek out former nuclear fusion scientist Justin Falls (Naomie Harris) as his partner. The mission is to track down stolen tech that could potentially save Anthea and Earth.
Haunted by her past as she struggles to care for her young daughter and her dying father, Falls is a shell of her former self. "We always knew that Justin was essentially going to be an alien in her world, too," Kurtzman explained, "because of [a mistake she made in her past], she is absolutely terrified of who she is now. So when we meet her, she's suppressed every part of herself that could literally change the world, and she's terrified."
Faraday and Falls' journey is raw, emotional, and purposely different from the arc Bowie's version of Newton took in the '70s flick. This decision, plus incredible casting, led Kurtzman and Lumet to make the Showtime series a sequel rather than a reboot. "Walter Tevis, Nicholas Rhodes' and David Bowie are huge [on their own]. They do not need to be imitated or reinterpreted." Lumet explained.
"But we wanted to pick up threads of the story from forty-five years ago, both from the film and the novel," Kurtzman agrees. "One of the things that I love most about the film is how deeply it captures isolation and loneliness. So I had that in mind when working with Tommy Maddox-Upshaw, my DP, who did fantastic work on the show," Kurtzman says.
At its core, The Man Who Fell to Earth series is a story about grief, the turmoil of change, and navigating the flood of emotions that come with reliving a past that you cannot return to. Faraday grieves the loss of the Antheans while defending a mentor he feels abandoned them. At the same time, Justin mourns the loss of her career and the man taken from her due to an experiment gone wrong on her watch.
Lumet struggled with similar emotions during the real-life uncertainty of 2020 while writing the project. "[During development] I had lost four people close to me in rapid succession, and the planet felt absolutely new to me," Lumet remembers, "I'm only putting it together now, but something told me to write my way through it." A particularly poignant moment for Lumet (daughter of legendary director/producer Sydney Lumet and granddaughter of Lena Horne) came through Justin Falls' acceptance of her father Josiah's (Clark Peters) terminal illness.
"I was thinking about Justin's father, and I realized that I've never written about the last year of my dad's life," she laments. "I guess that's how it works, right? You're never fully sure what something compels you until you get to the other end of the rainbow." Kurtzman adds.
In contrast, Faraday's early interactions seem devoid of emotion altogether, not simply because he's an alien befuddled by human social cues. Anthea's social structure dictates bifurcated emotions among the population. For instance, when Faraday witnesses Newton overcome with grief after learning of his people's rapid death rate, Faraday appears confused.
"On Anthea from a very young age, you're either designated a "Drone" or an "Adept," Kurtzman explains. "If you're a drone, you execute orders, and if you're an adept, you give them. So from a very young age, Faraday was essentially told that all he could do was follow orders. He never stopped to question those orders," he continues. However, Faraday's path is not just a physical one on the show. "The journey for him is really about becoming somebody who not only questions orders, but then begins to institute his own orders and develops a sense of self, autonomy, and choice," Kurtzman says.
The Man Who Fell to Earth series is not simply a story about an alien becoming human. That's a trope we've seen before to varying degrees. However, this layered story is also a lesson about people moving past fear and grief to save each other.
The Man Who Fell to Earth airs Sundays on Showtime at 10 p.m. Eastern.