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Posts Tagged ‘Chimera’

Dwindling budgets and fragmenting audiences mean that terrestrial UK TV channels play it very safe when it comes to commissioning drama nowadays – prestige costume dramas aside (these are usually co-productions anyway) you’ll struggle to find anything which isn’t a thriller, a cop show, or some sort of relationship-based melodrama. (The BBC soldiers on with Dr Who, though one gets the impression this is more out of a reluctance to let a massive cash cow slip into dormancy than any definite sense of knowing what to do with it as a piece of fantasy drama.)

It was not ever thus, and in the outer reaches of the high-numbered TV channels you occasionally come across a reminder of this. Until it recently vanished from Freeview, Forces TV usually served up a diet of nearly-forgotten ITV and BBC sitcoms, together with marathon showings of CHiPs and Spenser: For Hire, but now and then something more interesting popped up – selected repeats from the original run of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 (honestly, who’s still watching that these days…?), and some genuinely off-the-wall ITV dramas from when the network wasn’t quite so risk averse: they showed the mystical yuppie psycho-fantasy The One Game, and (at least three times) Chimera (directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, perhaps best known for his work on the BBC’s long-running Ghost Story for Christmas strand).

This is a serial I took a particular interest in – possibly you’d call me an early adopter, not a phrase people usually send my way – after seeing the writer, Stephen Gallagher, at a local SF group meeting while the show was still in production (I also interviewed him for a fanzine shortly afterwards, but we’re absolutely not going to go into that in any detail). Due to this the whole family sat down to watch it when it was eventually broadcast in the summer of 1991, leading to a degree of trauma for those less desensitised to such things.

Gallagher is a writer whose career comfortably straddles numerous genres and media – he’s written both novels and TV scripts, ranging from police procedurals to horror and SF (he was involved in the development of what eventually became Farscape), with the occasional genre mash-up. This probably qualifies as one of the latter. It opens with a piece of moderately deft narrative sleight-of-hand, as we meet young nurse Tracy Pickford (Emer Gillespie), who trades in a hectic career in a London A&E department for what seems like a cushier number, working at the Jenner Clinic, a private facility in the Yorkshire Dales doing fertility treatments. This means leaving behind her sometime boyfriend Peter Carson (John Lynch), a fairly feckless individual who spends all his time writing about old movies (yes, I know).

The first episode has a leisurely pace, as we get to see Tracy packing up her life, moving up to Yorkshire, and getting to know her new colleagues. This turns out to be a slow burn, as slowly it becomes apparent that something’s going on at the clinic which Tracy is not privy to. One wing is full of chimps and other lab animals (an odd feature for a fertility clinic). There’s a crisis one night, which concludes with someone or something being dragged back to the clinic in the rear of a minibus and then hit with a cattle-prod; Jenner himself (David Calder, doing another of his smoothly ambiguous establishment figures) alludes to letting Tracy know what the real business of the place is.

And then what’s been a fairly mild mystery, with perhaps a touch of romantic melodrama to it, takes a sharp left turn: the clinic’s chimp keeper is ambushed by the former occupant of one of his cages, his throat slit on camera; the clinic is soon ablaze, Jenner, his staff, and a residential patient ruthlessly hacked down, and Tracy… well, Emer Gillespie discovers she’s not playing Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween but Janet Leigh in Psycho (something about Gillespie clearly made people want to cast her in this kind of role: she meets an equally tragic and arguably even nastier fate in an episode of Ultraviolet from 1998).

When ITV repeated Chimera a year or two later, they carved it down from four 60 minute episodes to a rather briefer duration (one source indicates this was a two-hour TV movie, I seem to remember it being slightly longer and being split across more than one episode). Either way, what’s notable about the repeat is that virtually all of the first episode was cut: it opens with the police and other authorities moving in to deal with the aftermath of the disaster at the clinic, and Carson’s attempts to discover what happened to Tracy and the others.

The slasher movie vibe that concluded episode one continues, modulated into more of a creature-feature feeling – it’s gradually made apparent that the killer is not entirely human, as a local farmer and his wife come across something nasty in their barn and pay a grisly price for the discovery. Mixed in with this is more of a police-procedural, as the cops try to make sense of what’s happened, and the beginnings of a conspiracy thriller: overseeing the authorities’ response is a shadowy figure named Hennessey (Kenneth Cranham), who is one of those sinister, all-powerful civil servants you often find in stories like this one. D-notices are in effect, the police have been taken off the case, and government special forces are monitoring the area, armed to the teeth. (I should say that Chimera isn’t quite the succession of genre-hops I’m probably making it sound like: tonally, everything melds together very agreeably.)

Carson, at least, has learned enough to commence his own investigation into whatever Jenner was up to, and – dodging the cops and more shadowy government operatives along the way – finds the trail leads to Liawski, a retired former scientist who was a victim of Jenner’s own ruthless ambition. Jenner was out to push back the boundaries of scientific knowledge, but not out of any reverence for knowledge – he just wanted to become vastly rich off the patents he could register. His objective was the creation of a transgenic hybrid primate, a mixture of human being and ape – the chimera of the title. (When the series was shown in the US, it was inelegantly retitled Monkey Boy.) A flashback shows Jenner casually referring to this as a product, suitable for mass-production; another character comments on how such a creature could be experimented on without there being ethical concerns – they could easily be put to work as an expendable work-force.

Watching the second half of the series again now, it very much feels like something in the shadow of Edge of Darkness – a paranoid conspiracy thriller, albeit with a much more explicit SF-horror edge to it. The investigation into Jenner and his work is very engaging, and it’s a shame this element wasn’t expanded a bit more – one thing about this series, which no doubt explains the decision to cut down the repeat showing, is that it does contain quite a bit of extraneous material.

In the best traditions of miserabilist British SF, everything resolves in a tragic, downbeat climax, followed by a suitably ominous epilogue (suffice to say that the mass-production of ape-men has quietly begun). It’s not so much a cautionary tale, really, as another riff on Frankenstein (complete with a partly-sympathetic ‘monster’), mixed up with some uncompromising criticism of the moral bankruptcy of governments and commercial scientific concerns (Gallagher returned to this theme in his novel Oktober, which he also adapted for TV in the 1990s).

The series has stood the test of time pretty well: perhaps it doesn’t look quite as lavish as it once did (the title sequence resembles someone shining a laser down a plughole, probably because this is what they filmed), but Gallagher’s knack for convincing, drolly humorous dialogue is still in evidence and even the make-up job on Chad the chimera still looks quite impressive (Dougie Mann gives quite an affecting performance as the man-beast). There’s a bit of an issue with one of the lead characters, Alison Wells (Christine Kavanagh) – a member of Jenner’s team, it’s unclear exactly how sympathetic or morally culpable she’s supposed to be – but on the whole the characters in this story are well-written and effectively played.

It also scores quite highly on the ‘hang on, is that…?’ front, for there are various familiar faces popping up in minor roles throughout the show. George Costigan, mainly remembered for sitcoms these days, plays a Yorkshire cop trying to make sense of what’s going on, David Neilson (a Corrie lifer for the last 27 years) plays a farmer who ends up as one of Chad’s victims, Sebastian Shaw (the original face of Anakin Skywalker) plays Liawski, Liza Tarbuck has a small role as a garrulous woman who helps Carson out, and – perhaps most startlingly – Paul O’Grady (credited as Paul Savage) appears as a sign-language interpreter called in to help interrogate the lab chimps.

It’s a well-told tale, about something, and it’s genuinely fascinating to be reminded of a time when mainstream TV drama was permitted to include elements of horror – even slasher movies and creature-features. Watching it again, I was honestly expecting to find myself a bit embarrassed by my original enthusiasm for it, but it still hangs together and looks pretty good doing it. Worth checking out if it crosses your path and mainstream horror is your thing.

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