The Strain is one of those shows that you can rely upon to be unreliable. When it’s slaying vampires, it’s buff. When it’s recounting the Holocaust, it’s bunkum. Episode 8 sees our survivors struggling to fight off a wave of undead attack. Confined almost entirely to a petrol station, it’s tense, it’s messy and it’s brilliant fun.
An hour of action in a single location? It’s precisely why The Strain works as a TV series rather than a film. A two-hour treatment of the text would freak you out with the creature designs, but the action sequences would be drowned out by the silliness elsewhere. On the page, a reader can pause the plot to savour a moment. The same can be true of the telly. And Episode 8 savours the hell out of its gory set piece.
It’s perhaps telling that this is is the best episode of the series so far – and also about as far from the original novel as the show has come. Freed from the Nazi flashbacks for a blissful 45 minutes, it rushes to tie up all of its loose plot strands in one big flourish. And so we have Fet bump into Nora and Eph, just as they all realise vamps hate sunlight – and rush to snatch up the nearest supply of UV lamps. Only minutes later, they’re stocking up on supplies (and gas), before things go horribly wrong.
It’s a character introduction as contrived as it is concise, the kind of simple storytelling that you wish The Strain would opt for more often. Imagine, for a second, if this episode took place four instalments earlier and half of the previous subplots were skipped. How much more exciting would it be?
The same accusation could be levelled at The Walking Dead, a series that also deals in undead hordes and ever-varied pacing. But this episode establishes the key difference between the two: while AMC’s zombie drama makes the most of its slow patches to develop the bonds between its characters, The Strain treads the shallow waters of its genre cliches. It’s a divide summed up perfectly by the reintroduction of hacker Dutch Velders – yes, that is her real name – from Episode 2. You know, when she broke the Internet so that this vampire plague could spread unnoticed (and the narrative could unfold without technology making it redundant).
Ruta Gedmintas, who has previously appeared in The Tudors, is a welcome presence in this male-driven world. In fact, she was created specifically for the TV show – and you suspect, for that very reason. But her impact here is minimal, other than to briefly remind us of old man Eldritch Palmer’s conspiracy, another strand that needs some of this petrol station’s adrenaline pumped into its veins.
Then again, that’s not what Episode 8 is about. Chuck Hogan’s script is admirably economical, finding that perfect zone between dumb and deliriously entertaining; in this environment, all the one-liners that would normally stick out sound, well, cool. And with Fet and Setrakian fighting back-to-back, the carnage is as bad-ass as anything The Walking Dead manages.
As with any survival horror, there’s the inevitable question of an insider being turned by the enemy – and it’s a situation that Hogan uses expertly to drum up sympathy but, more importantly, to show who in the group can be the most ruthless. [Minor spoiler alert.] Whereas in the book, Jim is turned by The Master relatively soon on, here we see him infected, then saved; an impromptu surgery session (again, dumb yet deliriously entertaining) that leaves Eph literally grasping at the straw-like worm in Jim’s face with tweezers.
Under the UV lights, where those fleshy strands wiggle their way under people’s skin, it’s a creepy showcase for The Strain’s unique blend of body horror and bonkers everything else. When this series moves quickly enough, it all works. With its confined space and focus on action over events, Creatures of the Night is, in many ways, a glimpse of what The Strain should be. What will come next week? Whatever it is, you can rely on its unreliable level of quality. For those who have already committed to this uneven ride, though, this outing is a thrilling lurch in the right direction.
The Strain Season 1 is available on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with the first month only £1 if you sign up before 27th September. You can also buy it on blinkbox, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Wuaki.tv and Google Play.
Where can I watch The Strain on pay-per-view VOD?