SyFy Channel is trying way too hard to cash in on the zombie apocalypse craze with two new series “Van Helsing” and “Aftermath“. Given the massive success of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and its spinoff series “Fear the Walking Dead” we can understand why people want to try to replicate that success.
FX network has succeeded with “The Strain” currently in its third season. It describes its creatures as “strigoi” rather than zombies and they drink blood sort of like a vampire rather than eat your brains like a zombie. But let’s face it they are still zombielike creatures who convert you into one of them with a bite and they are bent on overtaking the world. It has an excellent mix of compelling stories, interesting characters, lots of gore, and state-of-the-art special effects.
SyFy Channel has already had some success with “Z Nation” currently in the third season. It has more traditional brain-eating zombies but plays everything as a comedy. Also CW network takes the comedy approach with “iZombie” which will start its third season in the midseason sometime in 2017. In this show the zombies are fully functional people living “normal” lives except for the fact that they have to eat brains to live. Their main character works in city morgue where she has a good supply of brains for food so she doesn’t have to kill. The innovation in this one is that when she eats someone’s brains, she begins to take on the personality of the dead person and has flashes of their memories. She uses that capability to solve the murders of the people whose brains she consumes.
But really we’re here to talk about the two new series on SyFy Channel. First “Van Helsing” which starts deep into a vampire apocalypse. The main character is Vanessa Van Helsing who is a descendent of the famous vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. She is played by Kelly Overton whom you may recognize from True Blood or Legends. She wakes up in the hospital to discover the world has been taken over by zombielike vampires. It’s a wonder that Robert Kirkman creator of The Walking Dead doesn’t sue because it’s exactly how his story opens with the protagonist waking up in a hospital to discover a zombie apocalypse.
Technically the creatures in the show are described as vampires but as I alluded to earlier these are bloodsucking zombies as opposed to brain eating zombies. They are not your sexy vampires like True Blood or Twilight. Most of them are mindless creatures spreading a plague that has destroyed civilization. However there are some of the vampires in this series who are sentient beings that retain control of themselves.
The back story is that the vampires have been living among us in secret for centuries but there is a major volcanic eruption in the Western United States that rains down ash everywhere. With the sky permanently darkened by the volcanic clouds, the vampires see an opportunity to come out of hiding and take over the world. When they bite you, you almost instantly turn into a mindless vampire. The other gimmick in this version is that Van Helsing has the ability to heal herself magically along the lines of Wolverine from X-Men. She is not only immune to the disease of the vampires who bite her, her blood can also turn them back into normal human beings. Of course there are limits to her healing ability. Otherwise she could just go out and walk the streets to let the vampires bite all they want and she would convert them back into humans.
As I mentioned before, the show starts with her in a coma in a hospital. She has been there for three years while the apocalypse has ensued. When she awakens in the hospital she is being guarded by a couple of Marines who had been told to guard her as she lies there in a coma. They have only been told that she is special and needs to be guarded at all costs. Her only desire is to go out into the world and find her daughter despite the fact that they have tried to tell her that the daughter is likely dead along with most of the rest of civilization.
There are numerous flashbacks to the pre-apocalypse. In fact the entire second episode is almost entirely flashback to the events that put her where she is when the show opened. You won’t find the gore like shows like The Walking Dead. There’s lots of machine-gun fire to kill zombies. Most of it takes place in extremely dark settings which of course saves on special effects and detailed makeups because much of the time you can’t really see what’s going on anyway. The story is not especially compelling or dramatic.
Although I have watched three episodes I’m not sure that it’s going to stay on my menu of shows to watch. In a crowded genre there isn’t much to stand out in this particular show.
The other offering from SyFy Channel that is new this season is Aftermath. Similar to Feel the Walking Dead, it follows the adventures of one particular family in the early days of the apocalypse so it is unoriginal in that respect. The biggest problem is it cannot decide what kind of a show it is. Early in the opening episode you think it’s going to be a more scientific end-of-the-world type of show. There are unusual numbers of earthquakes and mega storms scouring the earth. There are meteor showers and solar flares which are hinted to be the possible cause of all the strange occurrences. The show is set in the Pacific Northwest and begins with a mega storm. The storm brings about strange occurrences such as tons of fish, snakes, and other bizarre debris falling from the sky resembling a biblical plague. It is explained as being debris picked up by the storm.
If the show it continued in that vein, it might’ve been pretty interesting. But for some reason they decided to mix this traditional hard science apocalypse by also introducing some sort of contagious plague that causes people to act in bizarre and violent ways. Again if they had only added this one additional element to the story it might’ve been a good show. But they had to take it one step further.
The show also introduces a supernatural element. Some sort of ghostlike creatures are possessing people and causing them to do supernatural things. For example the daughter of the family gets dragged out of the house by a person who then flies up into the air and drags her off into the sky. The family goes chasing after her expecting to find her alive beyond all reason. In the next scene she is lying unconscious on the ground along with the man who flew off with her. The spirit which had possessed him and given him the supernatural ability had left his body and he was as clueless as she was asked to what actually had occurred. There is speculation that these supernatural creatures are manifestations of an ancient Native American legend called Skin-Walkers who rise from the underworld to possess the living.
In spite of all of these flaws and mixed messages, the show looks like it has potential. It would definitely be a much better show if it could make up its mind what kind of show it was. Is it a physical science end-of-the-world scenario with solar flares, meteors, earthquakes and storms? Is it a plague driven semi zombie apocalypse? Is it a show about supernatural possession? It tries to be all three and it is a distraction to the rest of the story telling. I’m hopeful that as the show progresses, the schizophrenic genre approach becomes less of a distraction and we can begin to appreciate the basic storytelling and characters. I have more hope that this will eventually be a watchable program than is Van Helsing.
Ultimately though we have to wonder that in a crowded field of zombies, vampires, and other apocalyptic stories if there is any room at all for either of the shows. For now I’m reading both of these as “could be watchable” with Van Helsing at the lower end of that scale and Aftermath at the upper end.