In The Flesh is a BBC3 show that follows the rehabilitation of ‘zombies’ (called Partially Deceased Syndrome or PDS sufferers in the programme) back into normal society after they have been cured.
One of the the many things that struck me about In The Flesh was the use of visual imagery to further convey the underlying themes of the show. The biblical imagery is obvious (though no less effective for being so), such as when Bill Macy’s hands are cut: he has killed his son and literally has blood on his hands for it. Similarly, the twelve disciples of the undead profit are shown at a table that mimics Jesus’ last supper.
This attention to visual metaphor lends the show a literary depth rarely seen in television. I find this to be exemplified by the imagery used to reflect two of the shows central,if less explicit, themes: otherness and isolation. So lets start with otherness. How does imagery – as opposed to narrative- convey ideas of otherness. Most obvious is the over-application of cover up.
Kieren (and many others) apply thick layers of foundation in attempt to feel more ‘human’ or normal, as a way of avoiding confronting what they have become and bury their self-disgust. Whilst this holds in terms of narrative, the effect this has on the viewer is also significant. The cover-up looks unnatural and matte, the way their skin seems to blend with their lips making them look like dolls or automaton- the emblem of the Uncanny. Freud’s theory of the Uncanny describes that which is both familiar and alien at the same time (such as dolls or doubles) and arouses in us uncomfortable feeling or fear. The Uncanny reminds us of our Id or our unconscious and in doing so, allows us to project our own repressed impulses onto the uncanny object. For the characters, the Uncanny is seen when they look into a mirror and see themselves. They are familiar – they bear the same resemblance to their living selves. Yet they are also irreversibly different and, to everyone’s definition, no longer human. To us, the audience, the blank, monotone faces qualify as uncanny- they resemble ‘human’ faces yet there is something off. The beauty of this show is that, rather than using this to make PDS sufferers the ‘monster’, it instead invites us to sympathise with the characters. Thus the sense of the uncanny blends with our sympathy for PDS sufferers and so our discomfort, no longer tethered to the characters themselves, leave us with the unsettled, uneasy uncanny feeling reflective of the otherness experienced by Kieren and his fellow PDS sufferers. The camera angles used also play their part. Many PDS sufferers are filmed from behind, thereby making the actors faceless. As well as itself being rather uncanny, this is also analogous of loss of identity. Faces, being unique to the individual, are markers of self hood. In denying the characters a face, they are denied an identity. Otherness being that which is ‘alien from ‘the norm’, identity and the self’ is therefore visually realised in filming the characters from behind.
Otherness and Isolation are both intrinsically tied up in In The Flesh. Isolation is both a cause and a symptom of otherness. . Another camera motif in the show is to film a character on their own and facing the camera, in the centre of the shot. In doing so, the character is left exposed to the blank space either side of them. This emphasises their solitude. Furthermore, there are repeated scenes of characters staring into mirrors. This serves a dual purpose. As has been discussed, this contributes to a sense of the uncanny- mirrors create doubles. These doubles then create an idea of the other. The characters are viewing themselves as external – they are looking at a reflection, a double of themselves that is separate from their ‘self’. However, mirrors also act as containment- the image is trapped in the glass and the mirrors are often ‘framed’, creating a physical boundary around the image. Thus mirrors become a direct visual metaphor for isolation – the images are cut off from everything else by their bounds.
Setting also acts as an echo of the themes of isolation and can be seen as a macrocosm of the experiences of Kieren and the others. The vast majority of the action takes place in Roarton, a small and isolated village. This village literally has a fence built around it. Roarton becomes an emblem of the segregation and isolation of the PDS sufferers. There are only five brief times we are given a setting outside of Roarton. These are: the funfair, the tram, the hotel Simon goes to in 2×05, the treatment centre and Simon’s fathers house. With the exception of the last, all of these are examples of what Marc Auge calls ‘non-places’. This is a space which can not be defined as ‘relational, historical and concerned with identity’. They are typically transitory places in which relationships and experiences have no lasting impact. When contrasted with Roarton, they serve to portray Roarton as a ‘base’, the centre of the universe. The tension between ‘small town’ and ‘centre of the universe’ adds to the sense of isolation- the town is small and ought to be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, yet it exerts this confining power over its inhabitants. Taken individually, however, these non-places also portray the theme of isolation, especially the tram carriage and the hotel Simon visits. The tram is obvious- the carriage is a confined space and it is in this confined space that the PDS sufferers are reverted back to their untreated states- the states for which they are victims of isolation and otherness in the first place. It is also on a predestined track which further emphasises the idea of a lack of escape. This is mimicked in the hotel by the repeated shots of the corridor- it is a confined path- it isolates and directs.
These examples barely scratch the surface of the abundance of visual imagery present in In The Flesh- from biblical to isolatory to generally thematic, the show is rich with intelligent and nuanced directing decisions.