It’s five years since Guillermo del Toro, acclaimed producer and director of such films as El espinazo del diablo and El laberinto del fauno as well as more commercial projects such as Blade II and Hellboy teamed up with author Chuck Hogan to create a trilogy of modern vampire novels, The Strain, The Fall and The Night Eternal. Now adapted into a television show with a thirteen episode commitment from FX, home of American Horror Story, del Toro is serving as executive producer, a role he shares with Lost’s Carlton Cuse and Hogan, and has directed the opening episode Night Zero from a script written in collaboration with Hogan.
“Hunger is the first lesson we learn,” the voiceover states as a passenger jet approaches New York’s John F Kennedy airport on the wintry evening of February 8th; the stewardess coaxes her fractious first class patrons to order as they prepare for landing but is summoned to the rear cabin by a nervous colleague who tells her that he believes there is something moving in the cargo hold, something trying to get out.
Center for Disease Control officer Doctor Ephraim Goodweather (House of Cards’ Corey Stoll) is late for his marriage counselling session; stopping to greet his demographically obliged too-cute-to-ever-be-real son on the way in, the meeting does not go well, his wife Kelly confirming she is seeing someone and Eph’s phone ringing constantly, confirming her accusation that he is more devoted to his job than he is to his family. Unsurprisingly, when he finally answers, he is summoned to the emergency at the airport.
As Eph leaves to assess the situation with the landed but ominously silent and unresponsive jet which has sparked fears of a terrorist hijack, across the city a petty thief looking to turn a stolen watch into quick cash, but Crispin (Veronica Mars’ Francis Capra) is no match for the wily and indomitable spirit of the pawn shop owner, holocaust survivor Professor Abraham Setrakian (An Adventure in Space and Time’s David Bradley).
Sending the young man fleeing from the premises, Setrakian catches sight of the news coming in about the quarantined flight, the announcement that the originating city was Berlin triggering a ghastly realisation in him. Retreating into the secret basement where he keeps a grisly exhibit, he mourns that he does not know whether he has the strength to fight this again; “This time, I cannot fail.”
At the airport, Eph explains how swiftly and easily infection can be passed to establish his claim of jurisdiction over the unresponsive aeroplane before he and his colleague Doctor Nora Martinez (Breaking Dawn’s Mia Maestro) don hazmat suits and board the aircraft where they find that despite no obvious distress or violence, no struggles or bruising, over two hundred and fifty people are dead, discovering indications that a biological presence has passed through the plane, originating in the hold.
With shades of the “patient zero” AIDS myth as an aeroplane becomes the modern vector by which plague can jump continents in hours, The Strain plays on both of the key fears of the 21st century, disease and terrorism, the airport scenes echoing the final moments of Rise of the Planet of the Apes or Twelve Monkeys, superceding the railway station of The Cassandra Crossing as assisted by modern technology a disease spreads across the globe faster than its incubation period.
That a billboard is sighted in the airport advising that there will be an eclipse on February 12th is significant; in Justin Cronin’s The Twelve the virals used an eclipse to ambush a group of survivors who believed themselves to be safe in daylight. Assuming one day per episode, this would mean that the fourth episode is when the vampires will reveal themselves, hopefully bringing a greater sense of urgency to a show so far lacking the requisite tension.
With production value apparent and a large ensemble cast of tangentially linked characters ready to be knocked down in the style of a disaster movie, there is potential evident but are also significant hurdles to overcome. The scenes within the darkened aeroplane are atmospheric yet fail to match the impact created seventeen years ago when The X Files laid out the wreckage of a crashed passenger jet in a warehouse, but more importantly the characters are so far ill defined and the performances are noticeably variable.
As Alfred Hitchcock demonstrated in Psycho and Wes Craven exploited in Scream, to make an impact the first killing has to be a shock, either how or when it occurs or to whom; instead, a variety of unlikeable characters and one-note actors almost count down to their doom before the brief credits roll. While ostensible leads Stoll and Maestro are tolerable, neither is a particularly warm character nor are they sufficiently quirky or tortured to be interesting, while many of the other actors, Sean Astin’s CDC administrator Jim Kent included, seem to be underplaying to the point of indifference, the unnatural delivery killing the supposedly snappy dialogue which should carry the show.
Fortunately Capra and Bradley can be relied upon to be convincing and fully present in any part, though Bradley is hampered in his role as Professor Abraham Setrakian, the wise old warrior replete with personal knowledge of the ancient menace, not so much a reassuring nod to the legacy of Bram Stoker when he is revealed to be the namesake of Abraham Van Helsing as a whiplash which fractures the fourth wall, the same artistic hubris which derailed Penny Dreadful, though fortunately even on the basis of one episode The Strain has more to recommend than the similarly viral apocalypse themed Helix.
Despite the window dressing of the metropolitan bustle of high rise steel and neon and the modernity of the underlying global conspiracy it falls too quickly into a distressingly traditional template, the secret cabal of vampires who have adapted to prey on humanity via big business having been seen in both Blade and Daybreakers, and having previously reinvented vampires so well in Blade II, del Toro needs to craft something truly exceptional here yet everything has been done before, by del Toro or others.
The unseen world of the supernatural coexisting beside human society was a theme of Hellboy, the feuding vampire houses were explored in Blade, perhaps inevitably the morgue scenes recall the many thankless nights Special Agent Dana Scully spent in similar facilities, particularly the episode Bad Blood, one moment of which is recreated here with all the threat of a Michael Jackson video, and the passage of the sarcophagus may start as Dracula on board the Demeter, bound for Whitby, but ends up as Kurt Barlow posing as an antique sideboard in the back of a delivery van; an inferior recreation of the most famous moment of ‘Salem’s Lot, devoid of any tension or fear, also closes the premiere.