“Round here, folk like to pretend everything’s all right. But it’s not. Something’s got to be done about those… those THINGS.”
I was very impressed by the first, short series of BBC3’s In the Flesh, an interesting take on the zombie genre mixed with dour, subtle North of England drama. After that initial three episode run, it did seem very much as though the story was told, at least from the perspectives of the characters who were dealt with so intimately in the plot. But I thought the world created by writer Dominic Mitchell was so intriguing that there was definitely potential for a second run, with another set of characters in the same new world.
So, I’m glad to see it back – but actually quite surprised that Mitchell has decided to set it in the same Yorkshire village, using most of the same characters as the last time. That’s a challenge, from the angle of character drama, as while the post-Rising scenario was clearly ripe for more exploration, it didn’t seem as though those particular characters were.
Main character Kieren (Luke Newberry) was the central figure in a slightly claustrophobic drama dealing with the traumatic events that caused his suicide, and his attempt to reintegrate into the village community after his return as a ‘Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferer’. In the course of the series, we were led to realise that he’d committed suicide because of an implied but never explicitly stated love for his best friend, with whom he was reunited after the Rising, to traumatic effect.
The story also dealt with Kieren’s family trying to come to terms with the return of their son, particularly his sister, who’d been involved in the ‘Human Volunteer Force’ dedicated to putting down the dangerous undead. And around them was a convincing village community, many of whom were on their own character arcs throughout the course of the series.
Initially conceived as a self-contained story, the first series did seem to have given all these characters closure for their development, so coming up with new plots for them may not be easy. But Dominic Mitchell showed himself to be a talented writer, and real life seldom comes to a convenient close at the end of a story. So his decision to carry on with the same people, based on the first of this new, six episode run, seems to be working. It also helps that these are characters with which the viewers are already familiar, so there’s no need to establish who they are and the script can get straight on with the story.
Like Being Human, In the Flesh started out as a non-fantasy drama, and despite the fantastical trappings, that was easy to spot in the first series. With the fantasy element now present from the outset, Mitchell’s script was this time more explicit in exploring the world he’s created. One of the strengths of the first run was the way it rarely spelled out such details, with subtle hints strewn throughout the dialogue and the direction.
Here, there are still some of those; but right from the attention-grabbing opening sequence, we were given more overt detail, with a poster for political party Victus spelling out their anti-PDS integration policy shown defaced by graffiti from the ULA – the Undead Liberation Army. It’s a direct, but concise way to set the scene for what to expect this time round. Where the first series used the village of Roarton as a microcosm for how society would react to the ‘integration’ of ex-zombies, this time we’re being shown more of the impact everywhere. A clever touch was Kieren investigating places to stay in a Paris guidebook in the “PDS-Friendly” section – if you’ve ever needed to make sure the place you intend to holiday in is “gay friendly”, you’ll instantly get the point of that one.
Like True Blood with its ‘integrated’ vampires, the first series of In the Flesh used the community’s uneasy truce with the reformed undead to comment on bigotry and prejudice against a minority. In fact, the ultimate (if unspoken) revelation of Kieren’s love for his best friend pointed very much at homophobia as a target, though it’s equally true to say that it feels like it deals just as much with prejudice against the disabled and the mentally ill. Indeed, the Neurotryptiline drug the PDS sufferers require to keep from going ‘rabid’ seems like an explicit reference to the anti-psychotics used to control mental illness.
The conflict stemming from the integration of the undead was previously mainly centred on the inhabitants of Roarton, with hints of militant undead movements indicated by the Undead Liberation Army website, and the mysterious Blue Oblivion drug used to turn ‘rabid’ again in episode one. This time, we were thrown straight into this struggle with a ULA attack on a city tram, in which Blue Oblivion was used to turn the participants rabid for long enough to tear apart half the passengers – including Ken Burton (Ricky Tomlinson) from the first series.
It’s surprising that they brought back an actor as big as Ricky Tomlinson only to off him in the first five minutes. But it also deliberately makes a point – Ken was one of the most sympathetic characters last time, and his admonition to his nephew here to be accepting of the undead made him even more sympathetic. What better way, then, to set out that the undead, driven to ‘terrorism’ by the situation, might not be as benign as he’d like to think?
From then on, the story was back to centring on Roarton, but with hints that events there might, this time, have a much wider impact. There’s a new element introduced that having Risen in Roarton makes you a big deal in the undead community, as the village’s dead were the first to rise. Despite that Kieren rubbished the idea, there’s obviously more significance to the village this time around; hence the mystery of one volume of the parish records being hidden from visiting MP Maxine Martin.
Maxine’s an interesting character, far savvier than the clueless government representative seen last time. As a Victus member elected by the constituents of Roarton Valley, she’s very anti-PDS, but oh-so-British about it. Thinking Kieren a sympathetic constituent, she touched his hand only to find it cold, and embarrassedly said, “oh, you’re a…” letting any potential insult remain unsaid. But her online speeches, as viewed by Kieren later, showed her to be a zealous bigot, asserting that “the PDS sufferer in your home, in your shop, in your pub, is one missed dose away from tearing your head apart!” In a time when politics is so centred on the demonisation of others, particularly immigrants and the poor, Maxine’s rhetoric sounded uncomfortably familiar.
Interestingly, and presumably intentionally, Maxine is black, a solitary non-Caucasian presence in the sea of pasty faces that is Roarton. If the USP of the show is indeed to allegorically examine prejudice, it’s notable that the villagers slightly frosty reaction to her might stem from this. It’s also interesting that it thawed as soon as they realised how anti-undead she was, implying that there’s a scale of bigotry on display here.
Of course, it helped that she is quite the badass, dispatching a rogue ‘rabid’ with a drill through the head in a satisfyingly gory sequence that nonetheless made you think. Since the undead can be cured, you could see that as ‘murder’. As one of the village council put it, “that rabid was somebody’s son”. But the others didn’t seem convinced.
Indeed, the divisions in the village – and even within families – between those who accept the undead and those who merely tolerate them because they must, were even more pronounced this time. Even within Kieren’s family, his dad keeps voicing his worries about the undead, merely “stating my feelings.. letting it all hang out”. And when even Kieren’s apparently accepting boss held a gun on him during a confrontation at the pub where he was working, it was enough to make him walk out in disgust and apparent despair.
The other side of the argument was evident with the return of the militant Amy and her charismatic new boyfriend Simon. While Kieren is so desperate to fit in and deny his ‘condition’ by wearing his makeup and contact lenses 24/7, they deliberately strode into the pub ‘aux naturelle’ as the undead, instigating the confrontation with the drunken Gaz. You could see their point; but you could also see Kieren’s, that they were being deliberately provocative.
It remains to be seen how deeply involved they are with the ULA; but Amy’s cultish rhetoric of “we are the Undead. We are the Redeemed.” was more than a little worrying. Especially in light of the ULA – and local vicar Mr Hardy – assigning the situation so explicitly to the Book of Revelation.
Along the way, we learned a few more interesting facts about the undead. The first season was very sparing with the details of their nature, cleverly eking out the exposition throughout the story. It wasn’t until close to the end that we learned these zombies don’t infect others by biting them, avoiding the usual unstoppable pandemic; only those who returned in the Rising are undead. This time, we learned that the undead won’t age, as a PDS schoolboy contemplated his crush on Kieren’s sister Jem – “when she’s 60, you’ll still be 16”.
Jem (Harriet Cains), who spent the first series overcoming her ‘prejudice’ to accept her undead brother, was meanwhile shown dealing with a very obvious consequence of the Rising – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A visit to the supermarket where she was unable to shoot the rabid Kieren triggered a panic attack, particularly when she encountered an apologetic undead shelf stacker. And she’s having terrible nightmares. For all the prejudice against the undead, that’s understandable – and there’s some hint that it may be at the root of Maxine’s bigotry too, when she was shown looking mournfully at a child’s toy.
This was a good start to the series, which is plainly going to be a different beast to last time. Previously, the pace was sombre, almost glacial, revelling in the gloomy atmosphere of the premise. This time, even with twice as many episodes, it seemed faster moving, and had more detail to pack in. And with all the characters’ secrets that drove the plot last time seemingly uncovered, there are new secrets – and new characters to have them. The stakes are that much higher – the village of Roarton seems a nexus of events rather than an isolated microcosm. Bigger, more ambitious, more complex – all of this is very promising, and I’m looking forward to the rest of this run.