Horror is an oft-neglected genre in the realm of television. While shows such as Doctor Who and Torchwood have shown that the BBC is eminently capable of producing crowd-pleasing shows in the field of sci-fi, there are surprisingly few productions that deal with the darker realms of storytelling.
Against this backdrop comes Pulse, a pilot for a planned BBC3 series that takes the hospital setting of shows like Casualty and uses it as a springboard for a visceral, blood-soaked and sometimes blackly comic horror-drama.
Writer Paul Cornell has proved to be a mighty safe pair of hands for past television projects including Primeval and Doctor Who, and his geek credentials get a real showing in Pulse, with the premise and ickier moments clearly influenced by the work of David Cronenberg. For genre fans, there are references to horror classics as varied as The Fly, 28 Days Later, Coma, and even a passing nod to a gorily iconic moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
In fact, Pulse is quite possibly the most gory television show in BBC history. Director James Hawes seldom pulls his punches, with every throbbing vein, pulsating internal organ and gout of arterial spray depicted in hideous detail.
Pulse is a show with a single-minded determination to unsettle and disturb, with a graphic surgery scene setting the tone for an hour of visceral and often wince-inducing moments of medical horror.
Claire Foy (Being Human, Going Postal) provides the show’s dramatic core as Hannah, the traumatised medical student who slowly comes to realise that there’s something truly rotten at the heart of the hospital in which she works. Her initial suspicions about an elderly patient – whose stomach writhes queasily in homage to Cronenberg’s debut movie, Shivers – lead her ever deeper into an unsettling medical conspiracy.
Surgeon ex-boyfriend Nick (played by Stephen Campbell Moore), an accident-prone surgeon whose murky role in the drama is only partly elaborated, provides an assured counterpoint to Hannah’s wide-eyed innocence, but the real villain of the piece is the hospital itself, a bleak, echoing, chipboard cavern of a place whose bleached anonymity will immediately be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time in a UK medical ward.
As a pilot, Pulse is written, directed and acted with genuine surety, and concludes on a note that will leave you begging the BBC to commission a full series. After a string of one-note and often ill-advised comedy pilots on BBC3, it’s refreshing to see the Auntie putting its faith in a comparatively fresh new premise.
However the wider audience reacts to Pulse – and rest assured, its bloody imagery is as likely to upset almost as many viewers as it entertains – they’ll surely agree on one thing: there’s never been anything quite like this on the BBC before.
Pulse will be screening on June 3rd on BBC3. Find more information on the show’s Facebook page here.