Review of The Strain (2014)

Moving picture, 9 hours

Seen in 2017.

Review refers to the first season only.

An old vampire moves to New York, having paved its own way using a network of servants biologically transformed by a parasitic strain of worms.

Trimodal apocalyptic horror: Vampires, zombies and a disease all rolled into one. The first three episodes are excellent. The high-powered government response to a jet landing successfully in radio silence is a welcome change from largely episodic shows like the The X-Files (1993) where only some tiny fringe agency takes an interest in the inciting incident. Indeed, despite a curiously effective disinformation campaign, the consequences begin to play out like good science fiction, or at least better than Lifeforce (1985). The pathology neatly combines body horror and zombies with the same basic willingness of the writers to think in terms of consequences. As per Romero, the zombies are not entirely dehumanized: They still want to be with their families. All of that is great, but it doesn’t last.

I have no objection to the vampire⟷zombie connection as such. I like the disgusting microbiological component to the vector and the end result is not the dumbest possible kind of garlic-fearing folklore vampires, but the particulars are self-contradictory. The initial number of zombies is over 200. They seem to need blood and their condition spreads every time they drink or get in a serious fist fight. Given the slightest chance, a zombie will attack and feed on multiple healthy people. Being somewhat drained of blood upon conversion, each new zombie would be thirsty. New York has a densely populated night life and a lot of phones with video cameras. From this I would expect at least 100% growth in zombies each night and a corresponding growth in public awareness, yet by the end of the first season most New Yorkers—including police and hospital workers—are still unaware of the threat or don’t care. As part of the Master’s great plan, the stock market crashes, the Internet is hamstrung and eventually all TV channels are shut down, but this doesn’t explain public ignorance. It would naturally get people out on the street and talking to one another, whether to re-occupy Wall Street or just because of cabin fever. Instead, people are looting in brief glimpses, apparently not doing or learning anything about zombies. That is both dull and nonsensical.

Meanwhile, the script goes full Nosferatu (1922) with rat symbolism (face reveal, episode 9), thick supernatural additions to the basic premise—mind control, telepathy, sensitivity to daylight, running water and silver—and an enormous moral charge that has nothing to do with science fiction. The books, which I have not read, apparently give it Biblical origins. The Master hangs out at the WTC because he’s ontologically evil, he’s aided by the “Stoneheart Group” of a similarly evil capitalist, another servant is a studiously cruel SS officer, and so on. In the subgenre of morally dichotomous apocalypse fiction, it’s on a level with Vampires (1998) and better than The Stand (1994), but the objective evil really takes the edge off the horror, especially because it occludes the collapse of society.

The limited spread of the disease could be explainable as a consequence of the Master being able to control only a limited amount of servants, but there is no evidence of this. The Ancients obviously favour a more typical vampire existence. Why the Master opposes them is not clear from the first season, but the books apparently describe a stupid plan involving nuclear winter—a quadromodal apocalypse!—naïvely envisioned as being like a permanent night, and likely ignoring high-UV nuclear summer. At a more basic level it would seem necessary for the strain to keep a certain number of prey animals around to avoid a Lotka-Volterra population crash, but there is no sign of that either; it would seem to require an infection rate below 100% and it would incentivize the villains to focus on every city at once, not just New York, the only sign of which here is a cargo container full of zombies. More likely, the rate of infection and society’s reaction to it go undescribed because some producer figured the audience wouldn’t care about society, or thought crowd scenes would be too expensive. There is just the bare minimum to suggest that ordinary people are being affected in some nebulous way, which is deeply disappointing. I was hoping for something like the brilliant early scenes of Dawn of the Dead (1978), or even just the spreading panic of Miracle Mile (1988). Alas, The Strain becomes a pedestrian drama.

I gather that the books are better, which only makes the decision to exclude the clever and important stuff for TV all the more baffling. For example, the supposedly intelligent disinformation campaign is eventually replaced by having the evil capitalist personally visit the head of the HHS, conveniently without an aide in sight, and idiotically throwing her off a balcony as his first murder. The only witness is allowed to live because he’s an instant crony, despite being the head of the CDC. The plot seems to require such wilful incompetence at every level of society, yet in episode 7, the main characters explain their choice of a vigilante killing spree as the only thing the enemy won’t have prepared for. The writers thus fail to deliver on the promise of a credible conspiratorial vampire cult, but I like Jack Noon the comically badass celebrity murder cleaner’s only scene, and the fact that Bolivar gets to keep his wig.

Episode 4 introduces Dutch Velders, the hacker who brings down the Internet with some unnamed, unseen buddies as the sole concession to real-world developments since the books were written. She uses KDE and is shown in episode 12 with a script called “”, which is both an allusion to William Gibson’s black ICE and a piece of set design with something like verisimilitude. However, the same hacker is evidently dumb enough to keep all of her important stuff on a single easily stolen laptop computer (episode 9) and she says things like “Normal people don’t even know what that is!” about the deep web because the writers have no idea what the deep web is. Compounding this silliness, the character becomes an action hero, develops romantic tension with another one of the main characters, is supposedly the only person in the world who could have done the hack, and is beautiful, hard-partying, personable and female, rather than being statistically representative of top-level hackers in any of those respects.

Dutch’s evolution represents the usual creeping character myopia of American TV drama. Gus, certainly a fine character, runs into the other leads far too many times for no reason, in screen time that could have been spent adding depth to society. Jim is the obligatory traitor, though thankfully his betrayal of the main hero is not a complete ass pull. It causes the standard emotional confrontation but at least it’s set up early, he does try to be open about it, and it’s over by episode 4. Not so with Eph, the foremost hero, whose boring personal life and unrealistic, poorly acted son are almost as strong a focus of the series as the apocalypse he’s trying to prevent.

Thankfully, the presence of the supernatural does not invalidate all diegetic logic. Eph himself does a pretty decent job representing science and skepticism. In episode 5 he goes to his boss at the CDC explicitly to offer “empirical proof” of the disease. Though the consequences are sadly unreasonable, Eph does not give up. He is still arguing for the importance of evidence in episode 7, when he and partner Nora talk about sulfur bonds in bacteria as a possible explanation for why silver should seem to burn the zombies. He remains skeptical of the literally supernatural elements as far as episode 8, and even after being convinced, he wisely chooses to stick with scientific methods in episode 11. In truly bad TV drama, Eph’s insistence upon scientific thinking would be his hamartia, painting him as narrow-minded. Here it is at least possible to read him as smart.

Despite the fact that the whole concept was initially conceived for TV, the writers chose the wrong formulae over a faithful adaptation or a good job. They wanted a small and stable cast in an isolated band of outlaw action heroes like Eph without the military getting involved, but they achieve that desire through bad decisions about the plot. As one such detail, Setrakian wrongly assumes that evidence is unimportant to Eph. The old man’s early hints are foolishly cryptic; he should have just brought video of the heart feeding and offered more detailed predictions. I dislike Setrakian suddenly becoming a master woodcarver and making the beautiful coffin à la Anakin Skywalker: more character myopia.

Other pet dislikes include the use of English for other languages in foreign countries, the waste of the ugly day-for-night eclipse in episode 6, and how boring and uncomplicated all the fight scenes quickly become. In episode 13, Nora cutting off her senile mother’s head blindly with a juicy sound effect marks the final transition into cartoonish action, leaving horror and science fiction behind. The softness of silver blades is never a concern, as if human bone were softer. On the whole, it’s a pleasant casual viewing experience, but it’s clearly going down hill into niche gore territory that won’t try to scare anybody.

moving picture zombie fiction series