In the Flesh and the Rise of Fascism

Note: This is another one I wrote for another publication that ultimately went unused. It was written in June 2014 when Farage fever was at its height in the British media. Sadly, little has changed since then, so it’s still depressingly relevant with the Tories joining UKIP in a war on the fringes of society. Enjoy!

Also, the series has now been cancelled, so we’ll never find out what the Undead Prophet’s deal was. Sad not to be seeing these characters again, but it really was excellent and I highly recommend you seek it out.

In the Flesh’s Kieren (Luke Newberry)

When I first saw the trailers for season one of In the Flesh, it caught my attention. I was expecting something along similar lines to BBC3’s other supernatural drama, Being Human; a contemporary take on old legends, traditional monsters recast as the heroes, presented with a heady mix of drama and comedy. In the Flesh S1 certainly contained all those elements, but it was so much more than the sum of its parts. Heartfelt, delicate, intelligent; it’s incredible that a series about zombies manages to be all these things. In the Flesh encourages us to think about zombies in a whole new way, a way rarely seen in modern television or literature. The only contemporaries that come close are French drama The Returned and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Handling the Undead. Both are fine examples of the form, yet In the Flesh surpasses both, being less ponderous than the former and more accessible than the latter.

Programme Name: In The Flesh - TX: 17/03/2013 - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Embargoed for publication until: n/a - Picture Shows:  Steve (STEVE COOPER), Kieren (LUKE NEWBERRY), Sue (MARIE CRITCHLEY) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Des Willie

Awkward family dinners for Kieren, who can’t eat, what with being dead and all.

Season one focuses on Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry), a PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) sufferer patched up and rehabilitated at the government’s Norfolk-based facility and returned to his parents. Like Being Human before it, In the Flesh leverages its Britishness, perfectly capturing the sense of hopelessness often found in remote rural communities lacking in economic infrastructure. But Roarton’s hopelessness goes beyond the usual difficulties of unemployment and unaffordable housing. Roarton was home to the first cases of the Rising – an unexplained event in which the dead rose from their graves to feast on the living. Roarton’s HVF (Human Volunteer Force) takes the lead in quelling the undead hordes until eventually a treatment is developed, and the dead are medicated into a more tractable state, close to their former living selves, only with the telltale signs of pallid complexions and pale eyes.

When Kieren returns home, the prejudices and divisions that Roarton is party to rear up again, and it becomes clear that his original death was due in no small part to the bigotry and homophobia he faced as a gay teenager. Now Kier is doubly outcast; as a gay man and a PDS sufferer, or ‘rotter’ in local hate speak. Season one was a three part special, and so perfect in its execution, I actually despaired when I heard it had been picked up for a longer series. Being Human lost its way as it meandered on over multiple series, increasingly determined to explain its own mythologies. We still don’t know every aspect of our own world, so attempting to unpick a fantasy world in the same way can only lead to trouble.

Fortunately, although season two of In the Flesh has a far broader scope than the three-parter, and plenty of depth, it doesn’t go deep where its own mysteries are concerned, answering the important questions, but leaving much unknown. While in season one, the hatred shown towards PDS sufferers was largely an analogy for homophobia, season two’s larger cast allows for wider comparisons, demonstrating the dangers of xenophobia and how fascism can grow in diverse communities with only a little encouragement from outside sources.

In The Flesh

Key players (L-R) Amy, Kieren and Simon.

All those who survived the previous season return – Kieren’s family, including sister Jem (Harriet Cains) a former HVF soldier with a chip on her shoulder; his best friend Amy (Emily Bevan) a fellow PDS sufferer, who refuses to wear her government-approved face-cream and contact lenses to make the living more comfortable with her appearance; Phil (Stephen Thompson) a young local councillor with big ambitions and Gary (Kevin Sutton) another former HVF soldier, constantly on the verge of violence and driven by hatred of the undead. There are some new faces too, most significantly Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku) and Simon Monroe (Emmett Scanlan).

Maxine is an MP for Victus, a far right fringe party gaining popularity through their single policy of ‘reclaiming’ the rights of the living from the undead, a group they see as a burden on society, taking jobs, homes and medical facilities that would otherwise go to the living. (Which no doubt sounds oddly familiar to those living in the UK right now…) Being the ground zero for both the Rising and the HVF, Roarton is seen as an important political pawn for Victus, and Maxine is sent to win the locals to her cause, although it gradually becomes clear she has an ulterior motive for returning to her home town. Nothing is ever simple in In the Flesh, and Simon also has his secrets. Another PDS sufferer who is as nonconformist as Amy, Simon is initially presented as her new beau, but his barely concealed attraction to Kieren indicates that this may just be Amy’s imagination running away with her again.

The concept of ‘The First Risen’, the first to rise from the grave at midnight that fateful night five years ago takes on a quasi-religious significance for both the living and the dead, with both Simon and Maxine eager to find this special being because of their reported link to the Second Rising – a predicted further round of resurrections with fewer of the bitey, grey-skinned side-effects.

It would have been easy for writer Dominic Mitchell to focus on this side of events, with the Undead Prophet of season one left so tantalisingly lightly sketched. But In the Flesh never takes the easy route, preferring to catalogue Roarton’s inexorable sleepwalk towards fascism as Maxine brings in a program of measures to ‘control’ the town’s undead population. Care of the PDS sufferers is outsourced to keep costs down, sufferers miss their doses reverting to their rabid state, the town is plunged into a state of fear and paranoia and those with PDS are carefully labelled and monitored, forced into free labour, banned from travelling and required to announce their syndrome whenever interacting with the public.

As Roarton’s powder keg of hatred and mistrust radicalises those on the extremities of both the living and the dead, only then does the Undead Prophet show his face, and still this is handled with care. Acts of heroism and villainy come from unexpected sources, because in In the Flesh, there are no heroes or villains, just people trying to do the best they can with what they have. Mitchell plays his cards close to his chest, giving away only that which is absolutely essential before revealing his hand with devastating effect. An incredible, heart-stopping wonder of a show, my only hope is that it knows when to quit. But it would seem that that is not yet. Bring on season three.

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