Sunday 24 March 2013

How to Tame a Zombie

New zombie show In the Flesh (BBC Three, Sundays, 10pm) is an interesting take on a well-trodden genre. Taking place in a contemporary setting, cadavers have crawled out their graves and, with a nod toward the spoof Return of the Living Dead, roam Britain to satisfy their hunger for brains. UKIP folk can chillax, then. But, in an interesting twist, science rides to the rescue. Zombies desire the contents of your cranium because they have lost the ability to reproduce a certain set of brain cells necessary to keep them animated. Scientists are able to synthesis these cells and apply them as a vaccine. Administering it pacifies zombies, allowing their original memories and personalities to resurface while their hunger for the old grey matter abates. And it stops them from decomposing too. Now re-dubbed sufferers of Partially Deceased Syndrome, zombies are then encouraged to return to their families and re-integrate back into society.

In the Flesh follows Kieran Walker (Luke Newberry - pictured), a melancholy teenaged ex-zombie haunted by flashbacks. Nevertheless, he has successfully responded to treatment and, rehabilitated, returns home to his family. Unfortunately for Kieran, the village of Roarton happens to be the epicentre of the Human Volunteer Force. The HVF is an officially-disbanded militia that fought and helped put down the zombie uprising outside of the major cities. It retains its weapons and is violently opposed to returning 'rotters' (very English) to their communities. Hence Kieran's parents have to hide him from public view. He has to also avoid being seduced by the Red Army Faction-style Undead Liberation Army, their addictive and psychotic episode-inducing drug, Blue, and the small matter his sister, Jem (Harriet Cains), is a luminary in the local HVF chapter.

Yes, I know. Tamed zombies are very far fetched (and the idea of the living dead isn't?), but the show is darker and more compelling than the premise suggests. Writer Dominic Mitchell originally conceived a series tracking Care in the Community patients as they struggle to reintegrate themselves into the community. As worthy such a project would be, zombies sell better.

Nevertheless, while integration of difference into our communities remains a topic of considerable import, it has some very interesting things to say about our political culture and, unwittingly, the London-centric metropolis and liberal elitism.

One of the key scenes from last week's episode was a public meeting hosted by the HVF leader and vicar, Oddie (Kenneth Cranham). Its speaker was the hapless minister sent out to tour the provinces to explain, unconvincingly, the zombie resettlement plan. He fumbles over his words, sticks to the script, refuses to respond to hostile, angry questioning; and scarpers as soon as the opportunity avails itself. For someone who's been thinking and writing about populism and anti-politics lately, this is a near perfect allegory of the sentiments feeding it. The government man is hopeless and uncaring. He is afraid of the mob but does not listen to, let alone address their concerns. Instead the government have slapped a politically correct label on a problem and without consultation or consent is imposing its desire on decent, salt-of-the-earth people. They are out-of-touch, because they did not (and do not) face the same struggle to survive and therefore cannot understand the true nature of the integration policy they're pursuing. Does any of this sound familiar?

The flip side of this populist reading is one the viewer is party to. Because we follow Kieran and his experiences, we know he's not a ticking time bomb. He takes his meds, sits down to dinner with his parents, and stares a lot into the distance. In effect our greater knowledge of the lead's biography and motives invites us into knowing that the HVF - the mob - are wrong. These simple northern people with their big guns, sense of entitlement and anti-government position aren't well-armed mavericks; they're bigots. And so while the populist position of the HVF is set up the narrative guides us into accepting the establishment's argument that they really do know best.

What In the Flesh manages to do is capture the emerging divisions in British political culture. One can map on to its exploration of these tensions those around town vs country, north vs south, London vs the rest, mainstream politics vs populism, abstract knowledge vs common sense, the establishment vs the people.

But none of this answers the really interesting question. How can injecting the drugs work when zombies have no circulatory system?

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