With the current crop of comic based shows on winter hiatus, I’m taking the opportunity to catch up on Guillermo del Toro’s vampires-meet-contagion series The Strain. Del Toro brings plenty of NerdTV cred to the table, having worked closely with Mike Mignola on two filmed Hellboy adaptions, helming the second (and indeed best) of Marvel’s Blade series, and writing and directing the Mech-and-Monster free-for-all Pacific Rim (though, not in itself an adaption, it features plenty of concept work from regular Del Toro collaborator and erstwhile BPRD artist Guy Davis).
The Strain itself started life as a TV show treatment, but lacking adequate funding, only saw the light of day in 2009 as a series of novels (in collaboration with writer Chuck Hogan). A comic-book version by David Lapham (Stray Bullets) was released in 2011, and it’s now come full circle, the first season of the TV adaption airing earlier this year. I checked out the first episode at the time, and while I didn’t hate it, I was sufficiently uninspired to keep up with the series on a weekly basis. I’m returning to it with a box-set mentality, with the hope that the one-sitting momentum will go some way to maintaining my interest.
Indeed, the series actually starts well and plays even better if, like me, you have no prior knowledge of the premise. Del Toro himself wrote and directed this first episode, and it clearly has a fair budget allocated to help hook in speculative watchers. This is largely visible on screen, and there’s some atmospheric visuals and filmic moments that play well, with some of Del Toro’s characteristic Lovecraftian creepiness scattered throughout. The limitations of TV budgeting do show through in a few places however, starting with the casting itself, which varies (with a couple of notable exceptions) from poor to downright bizarre. We’re introduced to the Centre for Disease Control’s rapid-reaction team, lead by the unforgivably-named ‘Ephraim Goodweather’ played gamely by Corey Wig. Sorry, Corey Stoll. And his wig. (It’s like Ollie’s-Island-Hair all over again, but much, much worse). He’s turning in a forgettable performance here, and really doesn’t exude anything approaching leading man charisma. It’s possibly intentional – there’s a secondary (though largely irrelevant) plot thread, taking great pains to portray Goodweather’s inner conflict – torn as he is between his job at the CDC, and his relationship with his son and ex-wife… so they might be aiming for ‘conflicted everyman’ rather than ‘matinee idol’. Either way, he’s bland, uninspiring, and not the best casting for an audience point-of-view character.
Co-worker and love-interest Nora Martinez is portrayed, again forgettably, by Argentinian singer/actress Mía Maestro. It’s a token role, and she’s not given much to do (although based on what she actually does have, this may be a blessing). Sean Astin must not be getting many calls from Hollywood these days, as he puts in a surprise performance in a small role as a CDC administrator. Not that he’s brimming with star-power per se, but his casting ends up giving the artificial impression that the character is more important than he actually is. The only real star power in the cast (and I use the phrase lightly) is the excellent David Bradley (Harry Potter, Game of Thrones), as Van-Helsing-esque Vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian. It’s a hackneyed old horror film cliche of a role, but he brings gravitas, and legitimises many of the rougher bit of expository scripting.
It’s a large cast, and not a strong one – there’s something about the ensemble on the whole that feels very TV-movie. The only other performance that jumped out from the crowd was Kevin Durand, putting in a gleefully camp turn as Ukrainian rat-catcher Vasiliy Fet. It’s a fun, if obvious connection between exterminator and vampire hunter, but it works. Given the role was written for Del Toro regular Ron Perlman, I assume there was a certain amount of over-the-top written in to the script for the character.
The pilot is well plotted, and initially plays out more like a mystery – when a commercial airliner goes silent upon landing, showing no signs of life and with all but one of its windows shuttered, the CDC are called in to investigate. Goodweather and his team board the plane, finding the passengers seemingly dead, and evidence of a parasitic worm-like infection. This is a pretty strong start, at least from a plotting perspective. Del Toro’s direction has some nice moments, evidencing his horror film resume, but as with most genre mystery yarns, the questions you can conjure in your own head are far more interesting than the answers given on screen, and in this case, we quickly fall into some very standard Vampire beats; a handful of the passengers from the plane return as vampires, some old guy is after undead immortality, there’s an ancient Nazi vampire with a connection to the Van-Helsing stand-in… like a Dracula/Underworld/Blade II/Vampire the Masquerade mash-up, with a sprinkling of Contagion, Walking Dead and World War Z, all topped off with a dollop of recent SyFy series Helix. Indeed, it’s this element of approaching the Vampires more along the lines of a zombie-esque plague that’s most effective, and (just about) elevates the show above being a modern-day-vampires-by-numbers.
The lack of anything approaching a strong central mystery is disappointing however, especially given the man left as show-runner in Del Toro’s stead is Lost alumni Carlton Cuse. A controversial figure in genre television, as along with Damon Lindelof (himself recently infuriating an even wider audience as writer of Prometheus), he became the poster-boy for ‘setting up mysteries you don’t have answers to and filling in the gaps later’. I’m a Lost apologist though, and watched it happily start to finish – it might have been stupid, obtuse, even annoying in places, but it was grand in scope, brave, well acted, and overall a lot of fun (something many of the current crop of sci-fi TV could do with an injection of). But nothing out of the ordinary is teased in these first 13 episodes – maybe there’s a bigger reveal coming in a later season (they managed to fill three books with this stuff after all), but I if they’ve got anything else up their sleeves, I’d have expected at least a hint or two dropped in this initial arc.
Much of the rest of the season plods along as you’d expect, and bar some nice CGI and prosthetic work on (it’s an admittedly interesting vampire creature design, though owing a lot to the evolved vampires in Del Toro’s own Blade II), it’s pretty prosaic stuff. Things seem to meander, and I’m left unsure of whether we’re doing a ‘gathering the team’ arc, or just treading water to cover a general lack of plot. Then we hit episode 8, and things, well, ‘improve’ may not be the word, but they certainly ramp up for the better.
By this point, a large chunk of what looks like ‘main cast’ have found themselves in the same gas station, which very quickly falls under siege by vampiric hordes as the infection begins to grip New York. This turns out to be a good excuse to up the action stakes, and the whole thing morphs into some sort of John Carpenter-esque self contained B-movie. It’s not particularly big or clever, but dammit if it isn’t a whole heap of fun; nail guns with silver bullets, anti-vampire UV lights with their batteries running out at inconvenient moments, petrol pumps blowing up… what’s not to like?
The rest of the season largely manages to maintain this level of energy, and while it all ends on a muted ‘we wanted a full season but only got 13 episodes so we’re just stopping mid story’ note, the increase in action does leave me with some warm feeling towards the show on the whole. There’s still the niggling feeling that the budget would have been better spent on a 90 minute balls-to-the-wall horror-movie version instead, but I’ll probably check out season 2 to see if there’s anything else they can pull out of the books to expand the story, and help it break out of its B-movie confines.
Next week will be another retrospective catch-up while we wait for regular programming to resume. I’ll be aiming to catch up on some combination of The 100, Extant, Penny Dreadful and The Leftovers as soon as the opportunity arises, and I’m long overdue a rewatching of the 2012 six-episodes-and-done horror series The River. Drop me a message in the comments if there’s anything else you think I should be watching.
Jim Stafford might be the newest THN Love Slave but, honestly, who can keep track?!