Wednesday, 29 June 2011

#22 Community, Epidemiology: TV Shows That Need More Zombies

One of the great things about being self-employed and working from home is that you very quickly become familiar with a number of sitcoms you weren’t familiar with before. I’m still a full four episodes off finishing the first season of the Wire, but in the space of a fortnight I’ve brought myself fully up to date with campus sitcom, Community.

For those who don’t know it, it’s a series about discredited lawyer Jeff Winger being forced to go to a community college after his BA is revealed be a fake. He falls in with a study group of loveable misfits and hilarity ensues. It’s a fun series, while it has a few episodes that rely overly on characters passing The Idiot Ball, and it’s rife with geeky references, or Chris Candy, as I call it. While it has plenty of episodes set around typical sitcom and high school plots, these are interspersed with episodes based around a Dungeons and Dragons game, or a rogue space simulator, or, a staple of the geeky sitcom genre- a paintball episode (Community actually has three).

However, for its Halloween special, the sixth episode of season two, Community went a step further with the geekiness. It actually just flat out had a zombie outbreak in the episode- it doesn’t explain it away or make it a dream sequence, for one episode, and one episode only, Community became a sci-fi horror. A sci-fi horror with an Abba soundtrack and one guy wearing a banana costume, but the point still stands. And it does it the same way Shaun of the Dead does- by playing the zombies straight and letting the characters tell the story.

This brings me back to a point I somehow never get bored of making- that in the zombie apocalypse genre the zombies exist just as a catalyst to see how the characters react. They’re good as that sort of catalyst, because we all know the zombie rules more or less, and so we’re able to keep the camera firmly on the survivors.

Community isn’t the first to do something like this- the Simpsons had an out-of-continuity zombie story for their Halloween special one year, and the Smurfs did a version of a 28 days later style plague with The Purple Smurfs decades ago (Based on a comic which actually predates Night of the Living Dead, but which is usually forgotten because the “Infected” smurfs aren’t purple, but black).

This got me thinking about which other TV series could use a zombie apocalypse episode to spice things up. And because I hate having to think of things, I recruited the Internet for some suggestions as well. Of course, the first few suggestions were all hilarious- Newsnight, the Antiques Roadshow, Waking the Dead (Although seeing Boyd and Dr. Foley fighting zombies would actually be pretty badass). But then, we got to the televisual genius...


This one should be a no-brainer really, and not just because we’ve seen what a badass zombie killer Greg House M.D. makes in this dream sequence. It’s because we know exactly how House would respond to zombies- he’d want to know what’s causing it. Since zombie movies are usually pretty shut-mouthed about the cause of the outbreak, this could get interesting, especially as the outbreak gets worse. Imagine all the microscope peering scenes in I Am Legend, only instead of The Last Man on Earth, it’s House and his team bickering the whole time.

On top of that, one theme zombie stories frequently return to is how far our ethics will bend in the face of human extinction. Given how bendy House’s ethics are anyway, we can expect stuff that’ll make the lab in Day of the Dead look like a petting zoo.


Okay, let’s make it clear from the start, when we’re talking about a zombie episode of Glee, we are definitely not talking about their rendition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which is an entirely different interpretation of how things can return from the dead a mangled, revolting version of what they once were. We’re talking about an episode where real zombies rise and invade the school with lots of songs on the run leading to a climax when they discover Kurt's falsetto can explode zombie heads. This idea came from Anil Godigamuwe.

CSI/CSI: New York/CSI: Miami

Yes, I’m imagining a massive three way crossover for this story, all over the world the dead are rising from the grave, but the CSIs still have a job to do, even if their corpses keep wandering away from the crime scene. Of course, each series would have their own approach to the zombie menace.

In vanilla CSI Grissom (They’d bring Grissom back for this, I’m sure of it) would notice interesting parallels between the zombie epidemic and the effects of a certain mind controlling fungus on ants

In CSI: New York we would see how the zombie apocalypse has caused all sorts of zombie-related subcultures, including at least one fetish group and an underground urban zombie killing sport. Mac, Danny and Lindsay would of course do some serious zombie killing.  Jo Danville would die in the most painful and gory way possible, probably while dispensing some sort of folksy wisdom.

By the opening of CSI: Miami Horatio Caine would already be the only survivor, climbing a hillside made up of the corpses of his team mates. From atop his mountain of corpses, he would spot a figure running up the street. In one swift movement Caine would shoot the figure dead without checking to see if it was a zombie, while simultaneously swiping up his sunglasses with his other hand and placing them on his nose before saying “Looks like I got you, dead to rights.” (Click this now. DO IT.)

Mad Men
Even as zombies they will look better than you
This was another suggestion, this time from Tom Hunter. Now, like I said, working from home has got me completely caught up on Community, while still four episodes away from finishing the first season of The Wire- so as you can probably guess I’ve not seen Mad Men yet. All I know about it is that everyone wears amazing outfits, it makes smoking and misogyny look cool and that it has the sexy con-artist lady from Firefly in it. Having listed all these things I can’t really tell you why I haven’t seen Mad Men yet, the only possible reason I can come up with is that it doesn’t feature a zombie apocalypse. Well dressed misogynist zombies! Who doesn’t want to see that?

Gilmore Girls
I work it out as, starting top left, lives, lives, dies, dies, dies, lives, dies, dies, dies, lives, lives, lives... ummm... dies.
Okay, so Gilmore Girls has finished- but hope still abounds for the movie version!
The trouble is, making the jump from TV to Cinema is a difficult one. You need a story that feels bigger than just an extra long TV episode- you need to raise the stakes and make everything feel just a bit more epic than before. Many TV series have done this really really badly by simply assuming it’s enough to put their character in a different location- usually Ibiza. This always results in a terrible, terrible movie. However, you know what would work?

Yeah I’m going to skip the rest of my preamble and say it’s a zombie apocalypse. This would be great for Gilmore Girls, because as the series has developed we’ve come to care not just about the eponymous girls, but the entire community of Stars Hollow. You know what that means? Lots of characters who the audience cares about, but who are expendable enough to be killed off!
Can’t you just see it as the community is, bit by bit, forced to retreat to the Inn? I can see Lorelai generating a real Ripley vibe when it comes to the crunch, and Luke, being a generally aimless slacker, will of course end up saving the day (because if zombie movies teach us nothing else, it’s that generally aimless slackers are the best at fighting zombies). Kirk, I’m sorry to say, is probably a dead man, and Lorelai’s parents will likely meet a dignified, but inevitably grizzly end. However, I imagine Lane and Michel will discover previously unsuspected levels of combat badassery.

Come on! You know it makes sense! One of the writers, Jane Espenson, even has extensive experience writing about the undead for the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

Now, returning to the episode of Community that triggered off this fountain of television genius, it’s time to play the drinking game.

Do the characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building? Yes, the building being Greendale Community College- particularly their study room.
Are the people coming to rescue you incompetent or more dangerous than the zombies? It’s hinted the army is planning kill everyone off, and it takes them six hours to get there, by which point the crisis has been resolved. So take two shots.
Is mankind the real monster? There is plenty of infighting, and Jeff does point out he likes one character better as a zombie. So let’s take a shot.
Are the zombies walking dead (No, just infected) who move slowly (One shot) and can only be killed by destroying the brain? (Someone does mention the importance of destroying the brain, so take one shot)
Do the dead rise regardless of whether they were “infected”? Nope.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

#21 Falling Skies: Don't Mention The War

We’ve not really done any alien invasions in this blog so far. There’s a reason for that. While this blog was never intended to be exclusively about zombie apocalypses, I did want to stick to Earth-bound apocalypses. Not that I don’t enjoy alien invasions as much as the next nerd, but they seem to pose a different set of questions to the ones we’ve been looking at here. Zombie apocalypses, as well as other post-apocalyptic fiction such as The Road, The Time of the Wolf, or The Stand, are about the end of civilisation. The protagonists are looking at a time where there will be no new art, no new technology, no future generations writing the history of the time they live in.

Alien invasions are rarely truly apocalyptic- even War of the Worlds seems to jump back to a comfortable status quo remarkably quickly after the Martians all get wiped out by bacteria- but even when they are apocalyptic, the story isn’t about the end of civilisation, it’s about our civilisation being crushed by a bigger and more powerful one.

However, watching Stephen Spielberg’s Falling Skies I found it demonstrated some good points about what not to do when creating a post apocalyptic storyline. As I’ve said before, the Internet has more than enough people being snarky and slagging things off, and so as a rule I only write about works that I happen to really like- apart from when I don’t.

Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I have a longstanding grudge against Stephen Spielberg. In my last year of university I wrote a dissertation on War of the Worlds and how over the last century various people have adapted it to suit the politics of the time. Spielberg brought out his adaptation- full of juicy Iraq War imagery and post-9/11 imagery, about a month after my dissertation was due in. That Spielberg hasn’t put that much effort into making this series all that different from his War of the Worlds means I’ve got plenty of opportunity to use up all those left over dissertation theories.

Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds: The TV Series
So, let’s start off by saying Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over this. On the surface this is a very gritty and dark looking portrayal of humanity’s last stand against alien invaders, but it’s spliced all the way through with the sort of saccharine moments you’d expect from the man who can’t bear the idea of secret service agents pointing guns at Alien-napping children.
This picture has brought more hits to this site than any actual blog entry
You’ll see plenty of tropes and ideas reused from his War of the Worlds film. The main character of the series is a history professor- we know he’s a history professor because he keeps comparing events to things from history, and if that’s not a big enough hint, every five minutes a character has to roll their eyes at him and say “Ever the history professor!” Because he’s a history professor. He professes history, is what I’m saying.
"I'm a history professor!"
Spielberg uses his history professor character that is a history professor to repeatedly make a point he also made in War of the Worlds, that no occupying force can ever be successful- here citing the American Revolution against the British as an example. Here, as in War of the Worlds, this comparison raises some interesting comparisons considering Spielberg’s vocal opinions on other occupying forces. Here however, a character,  who I think is supposed to be a loveable anti-hero despite being both a racist and possible rapist, finally poses the shockingly obvious counter example to that argument that really, any American ought to be completely ashamed of not thinking of- That the aliens aren’t the British trying invade the United States, they’re the first settlers invading the home of the Native Americans.
"I already knew that, because I'm a history professor!"
It’s About What You Don’t Say
One thing that struck me about these opening episodes of Falling Skies however, and the reason that I thought it deserved a blog, is that the world building, the way the series tried to introduce us to the circumstances of the characters and the rules of the world they lived in, was clumsy in such a way that it actually highlighted how to do it well.

It’s been said before that readers of science fiction are also pretty good at reading historical fiction.
"I read historical fiction, because I'm a history professor!"
Both modes of fiction require you to be plunged head first into a world with unfamiliar technology, etiquette, language, and even history. This is a skill useful for reading anything that isn’t set in the same period and culture that you happen to be living in- it’s as true of space opera and sword and sorcery fantasy as it is of Victorian family saga or wartime romance. Not many of these works will start off by giving you a potted history of the culture you’ll be reading about or seeing, you have to pick up the cues as you go along. In historical fiction, you either have to figure out the bits you don't understand by their context, or read the whole book with wikipedia open to one side- and using a wiki isn't an option with a new piece of science fiction (Oh wait!)
One of the ways to do this is to look to what people aren’t saying- because those are the things everyone takes as given.

Looking at it another way, if on a typical day in Britain you hear someone say “Wow! This country’s really rainy isn’t it?” you will automatically think one of a small number of things, either “This person’s new to Britain” or “This person has been away from Britain for a while”. We love complaining about the weather in this country, but saying “Britain gets a lot of rain” is something nobody feels the need to say- it’s a given.

Likewise, if you watch the news or listen to people talking about 9/11, you’ll find people can talk about it for a very long time without ever saying what 9/11 actually is. 9/11 was such a huge event, seen by everyone, with repercussions felt worldwide for the whole of the last decade. We don’t need to tell one another what it was.

So, here’s the problem with Falling Skies- they’re six or seven months into the planet’s occupation by an advanced alien army. There are conversations I’m willing to give a pass on- the moment when two characters look at a huge alien structure and swap theories on how they would destroy it feels like a conversation they’ve had many times before (and then history professor walks up and says how he’d destroy it with a Trojan Horse, which is a thing he learned from history, being a history professor).
"Yeah, I'm a history professor."
I’m also okay with the opening scene, where children use drawings to tell the story of the alien invasion- this seems like the sort of exercise a teacher would set to try and get their kids to deal with a massively traumatic event. Plus, kids would tell you at length and in detail about that one time they saw a red car.

However, other scenes grate. There is a scene where characters are waiting to get their weak oatmeal and talking about how they would really like a steak, or pie, or some other delicious thing. You could see this happening a few weeks after the invasion, when food starts to run low. When you’re six months into a period of prolonged famine and rationing however, the guy who goes on at length about how he really wants a burger is the guy who everyone hates.

"You know where they had better food? That's right! History!"
Saying “I wish there was more food” when you’re looting an empty convenience store is... well, duh? Even the kid (who you will remember, I was lenient with about the opening) saying “I wish everything was back the way it was” just felt like it wasn’t something you would say if this was a reality you’d been living with for over half a year.

Having people who live in the middle of an alien occupation explicitly saying “Gee, I wish we didn’t live in the middle of an alien occupation” feels as genuine as us saying on a near constant basis “I’m going to use this glowing rectangle to talk to other people who have glowing rectangles!”

A great contrast for this is Game of Thrones (which, having not read the books yet, I strongly suspect is heading in a zombie apocalypse like direction). Throughout the opening episodes of Game of Thrones the viewer is made constantly aware that this story is set in the aftermath of a larger, more dramatic story. Cryptic mentions of The Mad King, The Winter and The Dragons hint at huge events, but nobody every directly narrates these events to the viewer, they are just a background to the character’s more present concerns.

Perhaps an even better example is Spielberg’s own E.T.

E.T. is a powerful story about divorce- the character of E.T. is based off of Spielberg’s own imaginary friend “who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn't feel I had anymore." The divorce is present in every single scene of that movie, in the way the kids deal with each other and in the way the mother acts, but at no point do we ever get anyone really talking at length about the divorce. Everybody in that family knows there’s been a divorce, but now they have day to day stuff to deal with.

I feel like much the same attitude should be had towards a global apocalypse.

Okay, drinking game time.

Do the characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building? Sadly no, they're on the run for most of the two hours.

Are the people coming to rescue you incompetent or more dangerous than the zombies? Well, the history professor seemed to thinking he was making a really insightful point by saying that you know, looking after the civilians is important, he knows that, because he's a history professor. So let's say one shot.

Is mankind the real monster? After the special effects are used up in the first hour of the pilot, they're forced to throw in some evil humans that can be mostly defined by words spelled R-A-*-I-S-T, so take a shot.

Are the zombies walking dead who move slowly and can only be killed by destroying the brain? No zombies, but everyone seems to agree headshots are the only way to kill the aliens, so one shot.

Kiddy zombies? Well, I say no zombies- there are slaves that are controlled by weird spikey worm things on their backs, and a lot of them are kids. Yeah, take two shots.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

#20 Being A Zombie: Seeing How The Other Half Lives

Last time I was here I was telling you about prophecies of a global apocalypse due on May 21st. Once I had published this information, I disappeared for a while. I was off-the-grid, if you will. In the mean time, the world didn’t end. Are the two events connected? Was I, Chris Farnell, neglecting this blog because I was off on an incredibly daring and sexy mission to save the world?

I’m afraid I can’t possibly comment. All I’ll say is that ninja blood is a bitch to wash out.
Still, aside from events that may or may not have happened involving the infiltration of a subterranean blood temple, the discovery that various works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood combined under ultra-violet lighting actually reveal the blueprints for an ancient super weapon, and an eventual sword-fight in the bowels of an erupting volcano, I have also been taking a walk on the wild side. And by walk, I mean lurch. And by wild, I mean really actually quite sticky.

Yes, over the last two weeks I have found myself on two separate occasions walking amongst the walking dead. And today I shall share with you my insights from my Jane Goodall like adventure.

Zombification Number One: The Undead Uprising: Lurch For Zombie Rights
As regular readers will know, on the day of the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, I asked my good friends Hannah Eiseman-Renyard and Amy Cutling to provide me with coverage of a Royal Zombie Flash mob- a protest/alternative celebration of the wedding. This rather backfired when the pair of them, and three other zombies, ended up being held in police cells for four hours.

This was many things, including A: Scary and B: Really, really stupid. The zombie arrestees are engaged in various actions to the illegal arrests.

Of course one of the responses to seeing people arrested just for wandering around London in fancy dress, perhaps the most sane and rational response to seeing someone arrested for wandering around London in fancy dress, is to get a bunch of people together to wander around London in fancy dress.
Pictured: A rational response. Also I want make a joke about zombies and iPhone users here.
We did this. And I’ve got to admit, as I got off the tube at Leicester Square, I was pretty intimidated, seeing that huge mob of people with their wordless groaning and vacant eyes, ever on the cusp of some terrible violent act- because we had, perhaps foolishly, arranged our zombie protest lurch on the same day as the Champions League Final.

Perhaps because of this, and also the really quite appalling weather on the day, we ended up with a horde that was less close to the 92 people who’d signed up to the facebook event, and closer to, well actually, exactly 15 people. It should be pointed out that, according to our best estimates, this was almost double the people who were present at the actually zombie flash mob that the police felt the need to arrest people over.

Things I learned:
One: The first lesson I learned, in a pub toilet just before the event, is probably the same lesson that many small girls and first-time transvestites have already learned the hard way. When it comes to applying makeup, less is more. Wanting to be thoroughly unambiguous about undead nature, the white facepaint and fake blood were laid on pretty thick, so that my final appearance was a little more Heath Ledger’s joker than I originally intended.

Also- fake blood tastes minty.

Two: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, we’re pretty much screwed. London doubly so. This is something I pretty much knew already- it’s what the films have told us. As we all just heard, my home city of Leicester has admitted it is completely unprepared for a zombie apocalypse, while the USA’s Centre for Disease Control has made a valiant effort to prepare its population by advising families to meet together at the mailbox outside their house.
You should do this if you don't really like your family
In London, however, the problem was far worse. On seeing an approaching crowd of bloodied, groaning figures, the response of onlookers, both locals and tourists, was to point, laugh, and get their camera phones out.
Pictured: A relatively un-breached peace.
If we had been anything like the flesh eating zombies of the movies, we’d have had them. Faced with such a combination of indifference, or good-humoured amusement, I find myself seriously doubting the original zombie flash mob’s real potential to breach the peace.

Zombification Number Two: The Shoot For Short Zombie Movie Sola Gratia
I got back from my adventures in London, and was ready to relax, satisfied that I had single-handedly put an end to police malpractice. That was until I got an email from Alexander Gordon Smith . Now Gordon is a writer of young adult fiction (Here the phrase “Young adult fiction” apparently means stuff too pants wettingly terrifying to be read by anyone over 21) and I’m sure that before long we’ll be telling you about The Fury- his young adult zombie novel that isn’t a zombie novel (It’s definitely a zombie novel).

However, when he’s not been trying to do permanent, irreparable damage to young minds, Gordon has been writing a short zombie movie (On set the director told me that it wasn’t really a zombie movie, which I think proves it is.)

Recognising me as someone with that magical combination of expertise and contacts, Gordon asked me to bring some zombies along to his film shoot. Cue an Ocean’s 11 style montage of me jet-setting around the world (Well, Norwich) using a combination of blackmail, called in favours and sheer charisma to assemble a crack horde of four people. Including me. Fortunately Gordon had brought a few other of the undead along with him.

Among the zombies I’d brought along were Matt and Alina, from my zombie LARP adventure, and our blog’s regular butt monkey, Tom Harvey.
What they lack in numbers they make up for with vacant expressions. Note how Alina's smile is far more terrifying than if she was actually trying to be a zombie.
Were we required the play dual roles of “zombie” and “crowd member”. We really got into the role, while me and Tom were playing the part of “two people queuing for a cash machine” we were so convincing that two other people actually started queuing behind us. I think it’s because we were so method.

Things I Learned
One: Being a zombie is really, really sticky. We were pretty well covered in fake blood and it was a sunny day, and I swear by the end you hear a crackling sound if I tried separating my fingers.
From the outside he may look dead, but inside he's dying to scratch!
Also, bizarrely, the fake blood smelled of mint again. By the end of the day, peeling the thin layers of congealed gore off my hands was getting so addictive I was starting to worry there wouldn’t be any gore left on me for the final shoot- and that’s before I discovered you could peel really long strips off the blood on Tom’s neck, at which point things got sort of horribly homo-erotic.
Go on! Look at his neck and tell me you don't want a piece of that?
Two: Being a zombie involves a lot of standing around. In the movies, if there are ever zombies on screen, they’re usually groaning and lurching towards the still-living protagonists. Even the slow moving zombies always seem very into it. Now I know why- when the humans aren’t around, what do the zombies have to do? During the filming of this short there was a lot of waiting around between takes, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea now. There is a lot of standing around- mixed in with the occasional bit of weirdly homo-erotic skin peeling.
They're filming a pivotal scene here. I wasn't in it.
Three: Police brutality isn’t all bad. Like I said, there was a lot of waiting around between takes. Having been to the zombie protest lurch the previous week, I was sure a lot of my readers would be looking forward to hearing my account of that, possibly with some reports of more arrests or maybe even a bit of police brutality. Sadly, I didn’t witness any. So when I ran into two of the actors for this film playing police officers, I asked them to do a little favour for me.

It was great.
Now, it’s been a while, so I’m sure you’re all waiting for a long awaited round of the Chris Writes About The End Of The World Drinking Game. Here goes:

Do the characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building? Nah, we wandered around a lot.

Are the people coming to rescue you incompetent or more dangerous than the zombies?
Yes, but only when I asked them nicely. Two shots.
My new desktop wallpaper.
Is mankind the real monster? Nah. Mankind likes pointing and laughing and taking photos with its phone. Nothing particularly monstrous about that.

Are the zombies walking dead who move slowly and can only be killed by destroying the brain? A zombie protest sprint would have been way too much effort, and both incidents of zombying up ended in the pub, where brains were promptly destroyed. Three shots.
Instead of taking our order, the bartender poured spirits all over the bar and set it on fire.
Kiddy zombies?
And they were adorable!
Ironically, her grandmother's last words were "You're so cute I could just eat you up!"
We will back with our more regular blog next week. Until then, never stop kicking Tom.
Never stop!