In the Flesh: Episode 2

This family’s fucked.” – Jem

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The second episode of new BBC3 zombie drama In the Flesh continued to expand on the intriguing mythology established last week, with yet more revelations about the nature of the ‘Partially Deceased’. Writer Dominic Mitchell is clearly taking the approach of eking out the exposition over the course of the three episodes; that said, as the mythology builds, I’m beginning to think this has enough substance to be given a rather longer running time.

Still, if Mitchell’s intended story only has the legs, in his opinion, for this short running time, who are we to argue? The BBC could always commission a second series, perhaps featuring entirely different characters but within the same established world. Just a thought…

This week, we saw some more interesting counterpoints to Kieren’s POV as an ‘ex-zombie’, with the introduction of two fellow Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers. This was good; Mitchell has already established that not all the ‘Rotters’ want to live in harmony with society as Kieren does.

The two new characters provided some necessary contrast to that viewpoint. The first was Rick, the previously-assumed-dead son of zombie-hating HVF supremo Bill Macy, and best friend to Kieren. Indeed, the passion of their heart to heart chat in the car later on made me wonder if they had actually been more than friends in their pre-death existence…

We established last week that Macy and the HVF weren’t prepared to give the rehabilitated dead the benefit of the doubt. Ricky Tomlinson’s Ken was this week only to be seen briefly, staring grief-stricken at the black stain on the road where his Partially Deceased wife was ‘executed’. Now Macy had to deal with the fact that his military hero son was coming back as one of the Rotters himself.

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As it turned out, both Bill and Rick seemed to deal with the problem basically the same way – by ignoring it. Bill (a convincingly dour Steve Evets) tersely announced to his HVF comrades that Rick was coming home, but not as one of the hated Rotters; though tongues were already wagging. When Rick did come home, steel sutures holding his face together, his approach was similar. He did some target shooting with his dad, then went off to have a few pints – regardless of the fact that any consumption of food or drink simply results in the ex-zombies vomiting up copious amounts of black ooze.

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Kieren, meanwhile, having got bored of being stuck in the house constantly, paid a visit to his own grave. This led to a flashback of the night of the Rising, as corpses dug their way out of the ground; though it led me to question the make up a bit. As a full-on zombie, Kieren had the standard pseudo-corpse approach that mimics decomposition; sunken eyes, overhanging brow, jutting teeth. As a rehabilitated Partially Deceased, his physiognomy is normal (apart from the bloodless skin and colourless eyes). Does the Neurotryptiline reverse decomposition rather than just arresting it? If so, that would surely make the Partially Deceased virtually immortal.

A possibility that reared its head when Kieren encountered another Partially Deceased for the first time since leaving the Rehabilitation Centre. Amy (the magnificently sparky Emily Bevan) recognises Kieren at the graveside. Fearing the prejudice of the living, Kieren tries warding her off with a metal post, and is horrified when she ‘accidentally’ impales herself on it – only to have a good laugh at his expense. She’s a Rotter too, and apparently their condition includes the usual zombie resistance to pretty severe injuries. Mind you, if they’re all full of black ooze, as previously established, surely Amy would at least have to get the wound stitched up to stop it leaking. Or are these zombies capable of actual healing?

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Whatever the case, Amy represents the other extreme from Rick – defiant about not hiding her state, and about carrying on as before regardless of the bigotry directed at her. So much so that she’s keen to wander around Roarton “au naturelle”, without her makeup or contact lenses – which she duly does when paying a surprise visit to Kieren (“I just knocked on every door till I found you”).

The ensuing scene, as Amy joined the Walkers for dinner, was blackly amusing. Kieren’s parents did their British best to avoid the subject of her condition and politely discuss other things, while little sister Jem, still unwilling to eat at the same table as one of the undead, gaped in disbelief.

The bravery of her defiance was obvious after she and Kieren had taken a fateful trip to a local funfair. Recognised as a Rotter by an acquaintance, Kieren had to take to his heels, pursued by the same sort of unthinking lynch mob that used to plague Frankenstein’s monster in the old Universal movies. Which made it all the more challenging when Amy suggested that they try to socialise, and start with the local HVF bar.

Rick may have been trying to ignore his own condition, but wasn’t so insensitive as to ignore that of his former best friend when he turned up with Amy and was banished to a back corridor by the frowning landlady. The increasingly obvious parallel to discriminated-against minority groups was less than subtle; the phrase “separate but equal” was even trotted out. Again, we’ve been here before, notably in True Blood. However well this was done, it had a weary, well-trodden air to it.

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Still, we did get some nice conflict as the HVF (increasingly portrayed as incompetent amateurs) discovered an actual Rabid Rotter in the woods. Keen to at least acknowledge his friend, Rick insisted that Kieren should be allowed along on the ensuing hunt, which led to disagreements when the creature was actually discovered. Contrary to standard zombie operational procedure, he was fairly calmly chowing down on a dead animal rather than a person; and significantly, he appeared to be taking care of a little girl zombie, gently feeding her.

That was another interesting, sympathetic take on the zombies of old, amplifying the first episode’s hint that these are more intelligent than your usual ghouls. Clearly, they’re capable of both learning and compassion, attributes the zombies in Romero’s movies were also moving towards (before he ‘rebooted’ the series, anyway).

So Kieren was not altogether happy that Bill Macy wanted to summarily shoot them, rather than hand them over to the authorities for rehabilitation. On top of that, he wanted his son to prove his loyalty and do the actual shooting. It was a classic clash of loyalties – would Rick heed his best friend and show compassion, or would he be true to his father, and in denial of his own condition, ‘murder’ those like him?

It was an interesting moral dilemma – though surely if zombies can be ‘healed’, shooting them summarily would have been made against the law? Again, though, this appears to be a society in flux, which still hasn’t fully adjusted to the post-Rising world. And thanks to the financial greed of the HVF’s very own ‘dumb and dumber’, Dean and Phil (emerging as the comic relief characters this week) the zombies were saved for rehabilitation. Along the way, we also learnt another interesting tidbit of information about these particular zombies; contrary to popular belief, being bitten doesn’t cause you to turn into one. The fact that most people do seem to believe this surely sets up conflicts to come.

Last week, I wondered whether the show’s genesis as a more conventional drama might leave its supernatural mythos fairly sketchy. Plainly this isn’t the case. It looks as though Dominic Mitchell has done a lot of thinking about the ramifications of the scenario he envisioned, and there’s till more to learn about it yet. As a drama, it’s undoubtedly effective, but as a genre piece it’s also more successful than I thought it might be. It still comes off as derivative – notably of Being Human, although the premise that society at large knows about and fears the humanised monsters is equally reminiscent of True Blood.

That said, if you can take the fact that we’ve been here before with other horror archetypes, In the Flesh is shaping up to be a genuinely intriguing bit of fantasy drama. As I said at the outset, I’m now wondering whether its limited run will allow it to fully realise the potential of its concepts. Still, let’s see what next week’s final instalment reveals…

In the Flesh: Episode 1

“I am a Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer, and what I did in my untreated state was not my fault.”

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Zombies! They’re everywhere these days, aren’t they? Since Danny Boyle managed to reinvigorate them with 2002’s 28 Days Later, it seems we can’t get enough of the flesh-eating shufflers, and they’re now in danger of rivalling vampires for most over-exposed horror monster.

Speaking of which, about three years ago I wrote a rant bemoaning the current ‘de-fanging’ of the vampire into a tortured plaything for mopey teenage girls. At the end of it, I sarcastically suggested they pick on another monster, and “try going on a date with a flesh eating zombie”.

I guess the joke was on me; little did I know that, even as I wrote that, author Isaac Marion was finishing off the novel Warm Bodies – basically Twilight with zombies. The movie adaptation has just come out, and dubious though I am about the premise, I will watch it at some point to see what I think. And also because I’m always happy just looking at Nicholas Hoult, even if he’s undead.

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Still, the trend of ‘humanising’ monsters, for me, tends to remove the power they have to scare. It’s notable that Star Trek’s Borg, as they became increasingly more human, became increasingly less interesting. The power of the zombie apocalypse archetype, as established in George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, derives from a clever combination of primal fears – the dead have returned, they’re brainless monsters that want to eat you, and it’s going to cause the end of civilisation. Three very profound terrors that, combined, make a premise that is enjoyably nihilistic. You don’t expect a happy ending in a zombie story.

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But even Romero liked to ‘humanise’ his monsters, in line with the vampire villains of his inspiration, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The fourth entry in Romero’s Dead series proper, Land of the Dead, basically puts the zombies in the role of heroes, as they try dimly to return to their half-remembered lives while the nasty old humans keep shooting them in the head.

All of which is a roundabout way of setting the scene to talk about BBC3’s new bandwagon-hopping zombie drama In the Flesh. Scheduled conveniently in the slot just vacated by the much-loved Being Human, it perhaps suffers from too much similarity to that show. Being Human, you’ll recall, already did a sympathetic zombie in series 3’s episode Type 4. Rotting Welsh party girl Sasha didn’t eat human flesh, but the US Being Human currently has that covered; former ghost Sally has returned from the grave with the inconvenient need to eat flesh in order to avoid decomposing. So far she’s only onto small animals, but at least one of her ex-ghost friends has already taken the plunge with humans.

In the Flesh covers similar territory, with perhaps a dash of True Blood also. The premise is simple; after a narrowly averted zombie apocalypse (the ‘Rising’), the authorities, in tandem with a shady pharmaceutical company, have discovered a way to chemically ‘rehabilitate’ the captured zombies, and re-integrate them back into society as ‘Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferers’. The trouble is, quite a lot of ‘society’ is understandably less than keen to have the creatures that used to try and eat their brains living alongside them in their communities.

With, plainly, a fairly limited budget, the show set about establishing this world with admirable economy, eking out the exposition over the episode rather than trying to dump it on us all at once. So, we learned that there are ‘Rehabilitation Centres’ for the undead, run by the army; there’s a fanatical force of zombie-hating vigilantes called the ‘Human Volunteer Force’; there’s a mysterious drug called ‘Blue Oblivion’ that turns reluctant rehabilitees back to their former ‘rabid’ state; and the date is fast approaching when the ‘Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferers’ are to be released back into the care of their formerly grieving relatives.

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The hook for all this is our viewpoint ‘hero’, recovering teenage zombie Kieren (Luke Newberry). Kieren’s about to be placed into the care of his parents, back in his hometown of Roarton, somewhere in the generic rural north. Trouble is, Roarton’s a centre for the anti-zombie HVF, and Kieren’s own sister Jem (Harriet Cains) is a member. Plainly, integrating back into society is not going to be smooth sailing.

The community of Roarton was well-drawn, with a welter of good character actors filling it out. Hence, there’s a fire-and-brimstone preacher played by Kenneth Cranham, fanning the anti-zombie movement, and a pillar of the community (Ricky Tomlinson) whose hatred of the zombies is not all it seems. The show subtly established a revival of that ol’ time religion in the aftermath of a near-apocalypse; Kieren’s room at the Rehabilitation Centre has a cross on the wall, the TV is showing documentaries about Jerusalem, and Cranham’s preacher is a far more powerful figure in the community than you’d currently expect.

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From Kieren, we got to learn about the kind of ‘zombies’ we’re dealing with here, though I at least still had plenty of questions. Apparently, like the zombies in Return of the Living Dead, they only like to eat brains; and again like those zombies, they retain a certain amount of intelligence even when ‘rabid’ – enough to coordinate hunting in pairs anyway. They have to be dosed daily with ‘Neurotriptyline’ to remain intelligent (through a gruesome looking hole at the base of their necks). They don’t eat, leading to some amusing scenes in which Kieren pretends to chew his family dinner rather than upset his parents. And they have to wear make-up and contact lenses to more closely resemble their formerly-living appearance.

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OK fine – but if they don’t eat ‘food’, how do they sustain themselves? Do they age? And what about decomposition – at one point, we establish that they used to eat brains to stave this off, so does the drug now do that for them?

It does seem ironic to be arguing about points of logic for a fictional creature that’s returned from the grave to eat brains, but if we’re tinkering with the myth, it’s a good idea to get in-universe ground rules in place. I like that the show is taking its time over the exposition, but with only three episodes, perhaps it should establish exactly what we’re dealing with early on. Unless writer Dominic Mitchell is intentionally leaving these things ambiguous, which I don’t think will do the show any favours.

However, the show’s basic USP – showing ‘outsiders’ and their struggle to be accepted into ‘normal society’ – is well enough done (if all too reminiscent of True Blood). Kieren is a likeable, sympathetic character, but the motivations of those who hate zombies are sympathetically drawn too. The Human Volunteer Force was formed to deal with the zombie Rising in the face of total inaction from the authorities (represented here by a mealy-mouthed minister who was all too believable, given the current Government). Many of their friends were killed; so it’s understandable that they’re not ready to welcome the former harbingers of the apocalypse back into their living rooms.

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There was a lot of imagination on display here, along with some genuinely dramatic character interaction. Kieren’s sister Jem was perhaps too easily swayed back into caring about her brother, given her convictions earlier, but it allowed for a nice conflict of loyalties to be set up as she uncomfortably accompanied her HVF comrades on a raid to find a ‘Rotter’ living among them.

That scene was cleverly set up to make us assume they’d found out about Kieren, leading to the amusing spectacle of his parents tooling themselves up with a nail-studded cricket bat and a chainsaw. Little details like that were a nice visual shorthand to the way society had changed in the aftermath of the Rising.

But it wasn’t Kieren they were after. It turned out to be genial old Ricky Tomlinson’s wife, neatly characterised as a loveable little old lady to make the HVF’s actions seem even more monstrous. They shot her in the head, of course – though here again, do we know that that’s the only way to kill a ‘Rotter’ in this universe?

As an opening episode, this had a lot to set up, and (mostly) did it well, avoiding the infodumps of clumsy exposition in similar shows. Despite some nice visuals in various establishing shots though, it played out rather stagily, with most scenes being tense character interactions in rooms. A sign, perhaps of writer Dominic Mitchell’s theatrical background – or perhaps that this actually started life as a stage play?

I’m not sure what metaphor – if any – Mitchell’s reaching for with the zombies. Vampires are often made blatantly analogous to homosexuals (True Blood) or drug addicts (Being Human). The HVF at least, bear more than a passing similarity to certain Northern Irish paramilitary groups, but if there’s a point being made there, I’m not sure what it is.

Like Being Human, this started life as a non-genre piece, in this case about a mentally ill young man trying to come to terms with the aftermath of a violent attack he’d carried out. I wonder if Mitchell is quite prepared for the level of attention his script will get now it’s under the merciless scrutiny of genre fans?

But dramatic though the show undoubtedly is, it still has room for some wry black humour. The concept of rebranding zombies as the ‘Partially Deceased’ smacks all too accurately of modern media spin, and I also liked the idea of zombies undergoing group therapy to come to terms with the guilt from their former carnivorous activities. It was also interesting to see that some of the Rotters, far from regretting their actions, felt resentful at being forced into passivity – nicely embodied with an all too brief turn from the ever-likeable Alex Arnold (Skins) as Kieren’s rebellious roommate.

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In the Flesh was interesting and imaginative – but in a field already occupied by the likes of True Blood and Being Human, it did feel a little redundant. Still, it’s well-written and entertaining enough, and with three episodes, it’s unlikely to outstay its welcome. I’ll be back for more next week.