The evolution of the TV virus thriller

As Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain comes to the UK, we look back at how TV’s virus thrillers have mutated over the decades…

It was much so simpler when they’d just kill you. Once upon a time, viruses in TV dramas were straightforward slaughterers. The flu of 1975’s Survivors, for instance, cut a swathe through the UK, leaving well-spoken corpses wherever it went. Once infected, you’d cough, start sweating, and then drop dead – unless you numbered amongst the lucky immune, in which case it was time to brush up on your scouting badge survival skills and attempt to make your way in a post-plague world.

Nowadays, TV’s infected aren’t given anything like such an easy time of it. After the coughing, sweating, lurching – and often, dying – stage, more often than not, the virus transforms you. You mutate into something monstrous, one of the bad guys against whom the heroes – those aforementioned immune – have to fight. The modern TV virus doesn’t just turn you from alive to dead, but from human to monster.

Such is the case in Guillermo del Toro’s horror thriller The Strain, adapted from his series of novels co-written with Chuck Hogan. Episode one starts with all the signifiers of a traditional virus story – a vector of infection, the CDC, biohazard suits, quarantine – before del Toro works his horror magic by blending science with the occult.

“Something new”

Del Toro and Hogan obviously weren’t the first to concoct such a fusion, nor will they be they last. Earlier this year, Syfy’s Helix aired another amalgam horror that positioned all the hallmarks of the outbreak thriller within a broader fantasy mythology. Two decades ago, the 1994 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1978 The Stand quickly moved from a viral outbreak story into more mystical territory. Going back to the beginnings, almost two centuries ago Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wove ‘natural philosophy’ – the science of its day – around a supernatural tale, paving the way for the sci-fi horror genre.

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(Incidentally, The Strain acknowledges its debt to the literary roots of the vampire mythos in its opening scenes, which are a modern re-telling of Count Dracula’s arrival on the shores of Whitby in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Both The Strain’s monstrous vector and Dracula journey from foreign countries inside boxes of soil, stowed on their respective vehicles without the knowledge of the doomed crew.)

The Strain’s blend of outbreak thriller and occult horror is considered a natural step in the evolution of any fiction genre. Once generic conventions have been established, new elements are added that evolve the original concept into hybrid forms – the cast of Westerns start singing and dancing for instance, or cowboys jump aboard the Millennium Falcon to head into space. Genres mutate to stay fresh, and the modern virus thriller has mutated into something monstrous.

So why isn’t the threat of a lethal pandemic enough to keep audiences thrilled these days? The world falling to pieces as viruses sliced through the population used to provide sufficient drama without the need for monsters to follow in the outbreak’s wake. What’s changed?

“A virus exists only to find a carrier and reproduce”

One explanation lies in globalisation. TV and film is no longer made for local markets – to be considered a real success, it now has to play all over the world. Would a Chinese audience warm to a series that, like Terry Nation’s original Survivors, lays the blame for an accidental virus outbreak at the feet of a Chinese lab worker? Perhaps not. If the battle lines are drawn between human and monster instead of between humans of different nationalities and allegiances, then no market is excluded and everybody can play.

Making virus victims inhuman not only kicks over political fences, but also erases the moral quandaries a real-life outbreak brings. If civilisations can be judged by how we treat our most vulnerable citizens, then it’s hard to be a hero if your survival depends on you blowing those citizens’ brains out. Turn the infected into monsters as The Walking Dead has, and it’s goodbye ethical dilemma, hello shooting range.

As The Strain’s Dr Ephraim Goodweather tells a cop in the series’ first episode, a virus is the ultimate apolitical enemy: “You don’t like negotiating with terrorists, try a virus. It has no political views, it has no religious beliefs, it has no cultural hang-ups, and it has no respect for a badge.” That speech might go some way to explaining our modern passion for virus thrillers – in addition to The Strain and Helix, TV versions of Twelve Monkeys and Outbreak are reported to be on their way. A virus, like an alien, is a universal foe against which humans can unite. (Making The Andromeda Strain’s space-origin disease the ultimate neutral baddy).

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The trend is so hot that even non-virus properties are getting in on the act. This year’s TNT adaptation of William Brinkley’s The Last Ship swapped nuclear war between superpowers for a global pandemic as its instigating incident. Instead of Russia and the US slogging it out with warheads, a stateless virus is sweeping through the planet. Whatever drove The Last Ship’s change, it won’t hurt global DVD sales if half the world isn’t being depicted as the enemy.

While the real-world simmers with global tensions and pockets of war, on our TV screens human beings are uniting to fight a common enemy. We call these shows dystopias, but doesn’t that sound the slightest bit utopian?

“The heads must be severed, the bodies burnt, destroyed”

On the subject of utopia, that’s what most children might call the prospect of a world with no controlling adults, at least initially. Exactly that scenario was played out by late nineties Australian series The Tribe and the short-lived early 2000s US series Jeremiah, both of which featured a virus that exclusively affected adults.

Similarly, few would call The Walking Dead’s brutal world an idyll, but there’s something attractive to the cushy, well-fed audiences of the West in imagining life simplified to the matter of survival. With no interfering laws, jobs, mortgages, taxes and government, the world of The Walking Dead is in some ways a libertarian paradise, an escape from the constraints of modern life. At the very least, it’s an exhilarating way to rehearse our anxieties about the threat of real-life epidemics, which, from Avian Flu to Cholera and Ebola, rarely fail to make the headlines.

That’s part of the attraction of the virus premise, it gives us the ability to reshape our society into any number of ‘what if?’ scenarios, and does it quickly. Ninety percent of the world’s population can be wiped out in the time most other shows are still trudging through exposition. There are few better catalysts for dramatic change, or ways to rehearse different societies, than an epidemic. That explains the popularity of the (usually non-fatal to the regular cast) virus outbreak in monster-of-the-week TV series. Doctor Who, Star Trek, DS9 and recently, Under The Dome are just a few of the series to dip into the ready-made drama of the virus thriller for an episode or two.

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Virus shows are also huge fun, from the comfort of your living room at least. Thanks to biohazard suits, UV-lighting, and dry-ice, virus thrillers like The Strain make the familiar look excitingly alien, temporarily transforming the normal world into outer space.

“It feeds on us and we feed on it”

If the final stage of a genre’s life cycle is accepted to be parody (something that the virus thriller has experienced its fair share of between The Simpsons’ Treehouse Of Horror, Community’s Epidemiology, and more) then perhaps we can characterise the current era of outbreak drama as the genre in its reanimated state.

While The Strain’s vampires makes for an apt genre-mate with the traditional virus thriller (what with real-life epidemics inspiring the modern conception of a creature that spreads its disease from victim to victim through bodily fluid exchange) reanimation is a perhaps a more pertinent image thanks to another virally-created monster that has long dominated cinema, video games, and now television: the zombie.

Much of TV’s current thirst for zombies can be ascribed to The Walking Dead’s enormous success. Winners breed imitators, and over four seasons, The Walking Dead has consistently proved itself a ratings winner for AMC. Zombies are so widespread on the big and small screen that they’ve even gone through their own genre life cycle, all the way from their primitive cinematic appearances to the parodic Shaun Of The Dead (an infection vector that spawned a host of B-movie parodies itself). Currently, zombies are going through a revisionist period on television, thanks to haunting French series The Returned, US drama Resurrection and the BBC’s sensitive In The Flesh.

Zombies though, would be nowhere without the virus thriller; thanks to amalgam horror like The Walking Dead and The Strain, they’re a tightly wound pair, having evolved together over the decades. Time will tell what the next mutation will bring.

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