In The Flesh 1.01 "Episode One” TV REVIEW
Writer: Dominic Mitchell
Director: Jonny Campbell
THE ONE WHERE Recovering teenage zombie Kieren returns to his small Northern town to discover that prejudice against the undead remains rife.
VERDICT Only the BBC could look at the success of The Walking Dead , and think, “Hmmm, you know what that needs? More sofas.” On the other hand, only the BBC could pull it off.
In The Flesh is a quintessential slice of British telefantasy. In an era when most supernatural horror shows are deciding between to routes – grim and gritty? Or horror comedy? – In The Flesh goes into reverse gear and recalls instead the kind of slightly cosy, unashamedly homespun British sci-fi of Survivors, The Last Train, The Changes or even The Tripods . While many US TV producers try to argue with varying degrees of conviction that, “Our show isn’t really about vampires/aliens/supercomputers; it’s about the characters”, In The Flesh truly is character piece first, and a zombie show second. Some great supernatural upheaval may have changed society, but people are still people, and the price of beer or the what ’er down the road is doing behind those closed curtains remain crucial. This is both its great strength, but also the source of it problems as well.
The main conceit is as brilliant as it is simple. What if zombies could be cured? What would you do with the recovering former brain-eaters? And how would the recovering zombies – or PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) sufferers – cope with the guilt of knowing what they’d done? The show concentrates on teenaged Kieren – a guy who clearly had issues even before he rose from the grave – as he’s sent back to his parochial, small-minded Northern hometown where the locals aren’t exactly fond of “rotters” – as they call PDS sufferers.
There’s a lot to admire here. The exploration of this new world where zombies are expected to be integrated back into society – mainly, it seems, for financial reasons – is intelligently handled and well-thought through. It also sensibly concentrates on the human reaction from various viewpoints – religious, social, ethical and personal. Sure, scenes of gun-toting locals shooting a defenceless pensioner zombie in the head are hard-hitting, but perhaps even more affecting are Kieren’s parents urging him to pretend to eat his dinner (“I don’t eat now”) for their own comfort, rather than his.
The zombie detention centre is brilliantly conceived; the transition shot from a faux-compassionate Doctor treating Kieren (and clearly not listening to his doubts) to the massive queue of PDS sufferers outside his door is both blackly humorous and chilling. Elsewhere, the wet politician trying to convince the people of Roarton that Zombie care in the community is A GOOD THING is a superb example of exposition given a dramatic makeover – it’s not just a scene that delivers a lot of information, it’s also gripping to watch, especially when Ricky Tomlinson lets rip (a reaction that’s ironic given what happens later on).
There is humour, but a lot of it is either subtle or black and not overplayed (“I don’t bite,” says a nurse just about to administer a shot to zombie Kieren). And while the tone is mostly kitchen sink drama, the occasional moments of melodramatic punctuation – such as when rottweiler Human Volunteer Force leader Bill Macy forces zombie granny to take her "normalising" contact lenses out, or the dream sequences – are perfectly judged.
Meanwhile, subplots about "the Undead Prophet”, a zombie drug called Blue Oblivion and what it was that drove Kieren to kill himself make sure you want to carry on watching.
All of which would make this first episode a solid pilot, apart from one worrying fact: the series is only three episodes long . Okay, writer Dominic Mitchell is talking about this as “the first series", but we have to face facts – it could tank in the ratings are three episodes is all we’ll ever get. In which case, as much as Mitchell gives us an intriguing world that would be great to explore, you can’t help wishing the plot would get a move on. It all feels a bit leisurely, and lacking in momentum for something that may be all over in a couple of hours.
And while the show is refreshing original in some ways, it’s worryingly trad in others. Kenneth Cranham’s Vicar Oddie – blistering performance that it is – is a fire-and-brimstone fantasy trope that dates all the way back to War Of The Worlds . Similarly, the twist that the main anti-zombie antagonist – Bill Macy – has a PDS son is straight out of the Big Book of Dramatic Irony chapter one.
You can’t also help thinking that no government department – no matter how inept – would think that sending a PDS sufferer back to the town that was the centre of the HVF movement is a good idea. It’s almost certainly going to up as very bad publicity for the zombie rehabilitation scheme. The basic set-up, then, feels slightly contrived for dramatic effect.
But despite these few quibbles, In The Flesh is off to a strong, promising start. Perhaps the best thing we can say about it is that already, three episodes feels too short.
FANCY CONTACTING THE PROFIT? Sadly, for the moment at least, this URL only redirects you to the BBC Three In The Flesh page.
HOW APT The password to the Undead Prophet’s site is revelations_1.18, referring to the verse in the Bible that reads, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
MEDICINE TIME Although it’s not the same muzak as used in the shopping centre scenes in Dawn Of The Dead , this scene of the zombies trotting off to get their medicine accompanied by bland jingles over the Tannoy still feels too reminiscent of Romero’s classic to be a coincidence.
RELIGIOUS BROADCASTING Philip is watching a 2011 BBC documentary called Bible’s Buried Secrets .
SECRET CODE Did you know that the UK has its own version America’s fabled 555 telephone code, ie, a fictional code only ever used for film and TV? It’s 01632, and here it is in action. The website address harrisandneal.co.uk doesn’t take you anywhere, though.
BUT IS IT ART? Was it just us, or did anybody else find Kieren’s paintings just a little bit disturbing?
WHAT’S IN A GAME The board game Kieren is playing with this dad is Game Of Life (ho, ho, ho).
BEHIND THE CAMERA Jonny Campbell directed two Doctor Who stories, “The Vampires Of Venice” and “Vincent And The Doctor”.
Shirl: “Philip, what are you doing… with my laptop?”
Philip: “I’m watching pornography…”
Philip: “… On the world wide web. This is what I do to… um… relieve stress. I think I might be one of those sex addicts. Not sure yet. I’m going cold turkey right now.”
In The Flesh currently airs on BBC THREE at 10pm on Sunday nights