‘I’ve just been reading a BBC News article about a Victorian man who married his dead fiancee.’
Not my finest opener in an interview, but thankfully Dom Mitchell takes it all in his stride. Well, you’d expect him to. As creator and writer of BBC Three’s undead drama In The Flesh, he’s crafted a world where the rehabilitated deceased walk among the uneasy living. The idea of zombie love is his bread and brains and butter.
As series 2 of In The Flesh is about to poke its hand out of BBC Three (which, at the time of our interview hadn’t had its grave dug and digital reincarnation planned), I chatted with Mitchell about the world he’s created, leather-bound books, and the future of the show. He’s a writer who’s incredibly passionate about his work, intensely knowledgeable about the world he’s built, and full of praise for the cast and crew who’ve brought his vision to (after)life. It’s refreshing, contagious, and for fans of the show makes the upcoming series 2 an even more exciting prospect…
After such a successful first series did you feel more pressure coming to series 2, especially as you’ve got double the number of episodes (six in total) now?
Yeah, I suppose the pressure was more on, just because it was so fresh and new and things like that. And now we’ve been lucky enough to have success and critical success. So yeah, coming back into it was a bit daunting, but I did have an idea about what I wanted from series 2, and director Johnny Campbell has just set it up so well, the tone of it.
I have this ‘series bible’, which is massive and I can use as a resource for stories, so it was scary, but exciting as well I’d say. I wanted to delve into the characters, go into the village a bit more, the mythology of the Undead Prophet, all that stuff that we couldn’t get to in series 1. And that was important, with Kieren and Kieren’s family, but now we’ve got a broader canvas to paint with. It’s exciting.
What’s the time gap between series 1 and series 2? Is it long after we last left Kieren & co.?
It’s nine months later, and there’s a fragile peace in Roarton. Basically in that very Roarton-esque way they’ve put everything under the carpet. So no one talks about what happened to Bill or what happened to Ken or what happened to Rick, and people aren’t so suspicious anymore that PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) sufferers are out in the open and that they’re going to get shot.
Kieren even has a little job which he doesn’t like; he wants to escape Roarton, he wants to escape to the wider world. But in the wider world things aren’t going well between the living and the undead. There’s a lot of tension, a lot of suspicion, and there’s been a backlash. The government’s policy was to put PDS sufferers back into the community and there’s been a lot of events like what happened in series 1 with Bill. So there’s now there’s this one issue party called Victus and they’re this anti-PDS party – well, they don’t think they’re anti-PDS; they say they’re ‘pro-living’. There’s just been a General Election and they’ve gained a lot of seats and they’re coming in with a lot of strict policies for PDS sufferers.
And that has had a lot of knock-on effects for the Undead Prophet and his Undead Liberation movement. The Undead Liberation Movement are doing this extremist attacks in the outside world, and Kieren can feel that it’s creeping into Roarton. So Kieren’s like ‘I want to get out. I want to go to Europe where they’re more friendly to people like me, people with my condition’.
The first series was geographically very self-contained, and to great effect. With these politics in play, will we be seeing more of the wider world?
We’re focusing on Roarton Valley, so we’re focusing on the landscape of Lancashire. We’re going a little bit out of the village but we’re mostly keeping it in the village and having people from the outside world come to Roarton.
So with the Victus party, they’ve gained a lot of seats in the election and one of the seats is in Roarton Valley. The new MP, Maxine Martin, who is very very against PDS people, comes to Roarton and she’s actually from there. She lived there as a child and she’s come back to Roarton and she wants to get Roarton back in step with the rest of the country. She wants to take control of the place because it’s become a little bit loose and a little bit liberal now. She want to get it back to ‘the good old days’ as she calls it, and have all these policies in place. So we’re having the politics come to Roarton.
And on the other side of that we’ve got Amy, who went to the commune at the end of the last series and at that commune she’s met another person called Simon. Simon is the twelfth disciple of the Undead Prophet. The Undead Prophet has twelve disciples and they run these communes all over the country, and Simon is the one who runs the one Amy went to. And the Undead Prophet has said to Simon, ‘You must go to Roarton, because Roarton is special’. There’s this rumour going around that The Rising happened first in Roarton, and that the first people to rise in the whole country were the people in Roarton. So he’s gone ‘go to Roarton and gather the undead of Roarton because they’re special and they’re the key’.
The whole thing about the Undead Prophet is that he wants a second Rising. He wants to take over. He doesn’t want the undead to be the minority anymore. He wants the undead to be the majority. And he believes that Roarton’s key.
So we’re bringing the outside world into Roarton, and by bringing the outside world in it messes Roarton up. They’ve just got this fragile peace and then these two characters, Simon from the Undead Liberation Army, and Maxine from Victus, just come and mess it all up.
We’re keeping it in Roarton. We didn’t want to go into the cities too much because, well, we love the rural setting and the rural setting was a metaphor for what was happening in the whole country: it was a microcosm of Britain. I think if we just went out and set an episode in the city it would lose its sense of belief. But because its in this rural bleak and beautiful setting we can kind of get away with it.
Are we going to meet the undead prophet in the flesh (no pun intended)?
Well… I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but very eagle-eyed viewers will maybe meet him. You’ve just got to look out for him. Because Simon is one of the disciples of the Undead Prophet we’re getting closer and closer to the Undead Prophet. He’s still a mystery though. He’s still an enigma. Maybe we meet him, maybe we don’t. That’s such a terrible answer! But yeah, he’s a mystery.
You mentioned The Rising. Is that an event you want to keep as a mystery or is it something you’re going to explore at some point?
That’s an interesting one. I think because we focus on the question ‘Is there going to be a second Rising?’ in series 2, we deal more with people’s belief about why The Rising happened. The Undead Prophet believes it happened because it was God’s wish for it to happen and that the undead, or ‘the redeemed’ as they call themselves were prophesised in The Bible and they’re the new species: the human beings are an old prototype that isn’t working, we’re a desperate species and should be got rid of. That’s why The Rising happened, in Simon’s mind.
And then in other people’s minds its just a scientific freakout. So it’s all about belief. We don’t get to the actual ‘why it happened’. Not yet. Not just yet. It’s hinted at. I know, but I’m not going to say!
Are we going to find out what happens to those PSD sufferers who don’t take to the treatment administered to them? There’s that moment near the start of the first episode in series 1 where Kieren’s friend gets it and freak outs out…
…and they say ‘We take care of them’, yes. Yes we do. There’s more about Halpern-Weston, more about the treatment centre and what goes on in the treatment centre. There’s a fear actually, a lot, about being sent back to the treatment centre. And that’s a threat people use: ‘If you don’t comply, if you don’t do such-and-such a scheme, then we’re going to send you back to the treatment centre as a non-compliant, and you do not want to go back to the treatment centre’.
I don’t want to spoil too much but we do see inside the treatment centre again, in a different guise, and we start to find out about Halpern-Weston, who these scientists people are, what their agenda is. There’s a lot of creepy stuff about this pharmaceutical company who control everything.
It sounds creepy already!
So are we going to get moments as shocking as seeing Ken Burton’s wife being…’re-killed’, I guess? Because that still sticks with me man!
Oh, I’m so pleased to hear that! Yeah, we have moments. There are a lot of shocking moments in series 2, definitely. I don’t want to give away anything but there are moments. We wanted to play with that. It’s a zombie show, no one’s safe. No one’s safe from being destroyed or shot or anything like that, and I think that’s what makes it really exciting. It’s like life: who lives or who dies? There are no guarantees in series 2 and I think people will be shocked by some of the things that happen, and some of the people that survive, and some of the people that don’t.
Talking to the cast on set, they all independently mentioned your series bible of ideas, and it seems you’ve built so many nooks and crannies into this world – is In The Flesh one of these shows you could just keep writing for indefinitely?
You know what, I would say so. I always had it in mind when I was writing this really mad mad bible, that it would be pertainable and that was always my ambition. That’s not to say that in series 2 we don’t end stories. If we didn’t that would be cheating the audience and I don’t want to do that. But we leave a lot of windows open and I think it’s such a fascinating world, to me. And there was a lot in the bible that, even in series 2, we couldn’t get to because there were so many stories we wanted to do and were really excited to do with all our cast. And by opening that world up and exploring it more we can get there.
But there’s a lot in that bible that’s yet to be touched, so we could go on and on!
Is it leather-bound? I imagine it leather-bound…
It’s not, very boringly it’s on my laptop! For the new people who come on they print it out and the printer always runs out of ink. They should do. It should be like the Necronomicon; it should be kept in a safe, or in a chamber and you have to have a secret password to look at it. That would be awesome.
But I love it, it’s such a great resource. I always go back to it. When we heard about the recommission that was the first thing I read. There are characters in that bible that we just couldn’t get to in series 1, and I think it was right to not get to because we wanted to concentrate on Kieren and Kieren’s past. But now we’ve got six hours to play with and we can get those characters in and talk about the mythology and all that stuff. It’s great.
Since the first series of In The Flesh we’ve also had The Returned. Do you feel competition from the French?
I loved The Returned. I was a little worried when I first heard about it because it does sound like In The Flesh, but when I watched it I wasn’t worried anymore. We’re two different shows. We’re two zombie planets that orbit an undead sun, do you know what I mean? We’re really different. Ours is very much more grounded in the reality of things and medical gritty reality, and it’s much more genre in a weird way. The Returned has a great mystery, Lynchian, serial feel to it. So I think they’re kind of partners actually. You could watch an episode of In The Flesh and then an episode of The Returned and you wouldn’t feel like you were watching a repeat.
We touch on the same themes, definitely, about grief and how people deal with death, but we’re very different shows. And the more undead shows the better. The more supernatural shows the better.
How conscious are you of sticking to or steering away from the clichés of the zombie genre?
Very conscious actually. I’m a fan, I’m a huge fan of zombies. I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead and of George Romero and Shaun Of The Dead and zombie literature, and that gives a chance to play with it. When you know a genre and love a genre you can really delve into it and turn it on its head.
Like in series 1 about the bite thing, that was something we had great fun with. Me and Johnny Campbell, who did such an amazing job directing series 1, we had great debates like ‘If you’re bitten by a PDS sufferer do you become a PDS sufferer?’ There was hours of great conversation and then at the end we went ‘okay, let’s tunr it on its head and that’s a myth people believe’. It’s not true.
In series 2 we’ve got great genre movements. People come off their medication, there’s rabies in the woods, we’ve got some great genre set-pieces as well as all the domestic lovely relationship drama. That’s what’s great. When are you going to see an MP taking down a rabid zombie? Never! It’s great to play with that, and because I’m a fan it’s great to write it.
And In The Flesh doesn’t feel so much a zombie drama as a human drama with zombies in it…
Yeah definitely. And I think the best sci-fi shows do that. Like Being Human: you watch that for the characters. It’s great all the genre stuff and the werewolves and vampires, but you can take that away. And that was our watchword. For series 1 and series 2 our watchword was ‘If we took away the genre stuff, would it still work as a drama? Would this storyline still work and would we care?’. And that was always the watchword. All the great sci-fi shows like Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Being Human, The Fades, The Returned… if you took away the sci-fi or horror or supernatural, would it still work?
Are you hoping for a third series? Planning for a third series?
Well we’ll just have to wait and see. We’d like a third series. Like I say, I’ve got this massive bible so there’s definitely ideas about where it could go and I’m excited about where it could go, definitely. We don’t want to cheat the audience: we shut some doors, we end some stories, but we also leave some open, just in case. It’s exciting, but we’ll have to see if the viewers take to it, and I hope they do!
Dominic Mitchell, thank you very much!
In The Flesh series 2 starts on Sunday the 4th of May at 10pm on BBC Three.
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