‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ TV series should tread carefully around Bowie’s legacy

Fresh attempts to reimagine Starman's work have been met with outrage

As we all know, David Bowie didn’t really die in January 2016, he just decided that it was time to go back to his own planet. It could be argued then that 1976 sci-fi The Man Who Fell to Earth – in which he played a stranded alien – was more of a documentary really. It follows Bowie as he arrives on Earth looking for a water source for his home planet, which is suffering from a severe drought after several nuclear wars. His efforts get tangled up in human corruption and frailty, and he sinks into despair and alcoholism, which is generally what happens when you try to take natural resources away from big corporations (am I right, comrades?)

Last week, it was announced that The Man Who Fell to Earth was to be reimagined as a TV series. Initially mooted back in 2019, the show is set to star 12 Years a Slave actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as the homesick extra-terrestrial, and will be a continuation rather than a remake. “Some strings will connect to both the novel and the film, but if you haven’t seen the film or haven’t read the novel, it’s fine, you’ll get to have an experience that’s entirely singular” says co-creator Alex Kurtzman. “If you have [seen the film or read the book], you’ll have the benefit of understanding the history of the world that both of those things set up.”

Chiwetel Ejiofor David Bowie The Man Who Fell to Earth
Chiwetel Ejiofor/David Bowie, ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. CREDIT: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo/Getty

There has been an attempted TV series translation before, in 1987, which was sold as a standalone TV film at the time, but was in fact a pilot of what ended up being an uncommissioned series. There are other universes that have made the more uncommon transition from big to small screen, and in recent years this has become increasingly tangible now that television has become more cinematic, bigger budget, and bigger box office than, ironically, cinema. We can, however, look back to the likes of the Star Wars Holiday Special – although I advise you not to – and then to the even more hopeless efforts of Harry and the Hendersons as examples of how not to do it. More recently we do have titles such as Fargo for a more positive frame of reference, but the list is threadbare to say the least.

Translating a much-loved and lauded cult film into a successful TV series is not the only fine line that the showrunners for the new interpretation need to tread, however – though, if it could fall into the Fargo rather than the Four Weddings and a Funeral camp, that would be tremendous, thanks.

It is a nifty idea to sidestep simply recasting the character Bowie played, and deciding to focus instead on another character entirely. This will instantly remove some of the need for direct comparison by lazy critics. Bowie’s legacy is still at such a delicate stage, and is likely to remain as lauded as The Beatles’ or Elvis’ legacy for years to come. Witness the reaction to recent Bowie-biopic-with-no-Bowie-songs Stardust – “a strained, frustrating concoction that doesn’t do its subject justice”, according to The Guardian. Witness a Facebook (remember Facebook?) reaction to our Beatles biopics piece last week that had the audacity to include The Rutles and Yesterday in the list: “Idiotic waste of their time, whoever wrote this nonsense.”

Remaking something that is much loved is a minefield, particularly with a cluster of hardcore fans at the centre, rebuking anything that dare come within a ten-mile radius of their hero’s work. What I’m saying, I guess, is… good luck, lads. Now, must dash, I’m working on an hour-long interpretive dance piece based on One Direction’s back catalogue.

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