Over the weekend I got the chance to see a film that has haunted me for years. I first saw Death Watch, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1980 dystopian look at reality TV, during the Dublin Film Festival in the mid 90s. It’s stuck with me ever since. The story takes place in a world where death has been pushed to the sidelines as medicine cured most of humanity’s ills. This has not led to the utopia one would imagine. There are food shortages, wars, restrictions on travel. A journalist, played by Harvey Keitel has a camera implanted into his brain to bring a personal view of death to a viewing public numbed by modern life. Right down my street – and I hadn’t even started on the current line of work back then.
Seeing the film again after all these years I was struck by how well it fits with the fatalistic sense of an ending that has pervaded the world we live in. It’s not really surprising that Death Watch has been dusted off for a whole new audience. Apocalypses (especially of the zombie variety) are hot right now. The Hunger Games trilogy has spawned a series of films, even a nail polish line, not to mention a whole school of dystopian fiction for teens. The TV schedules are full of Walking Dead and Falling Skies. There’s even an Irish entry to the canon with Conor Horgan’s One Hundred Mornings. The list goes on. I suppose you could even look at the enduring charms of steam punk as tapping into the same obsession – albeit from a rather glamorous and circuitous route.
It’s hardly surprising though. Times of flux suit the dystopian genre. While writers might not need society to break down before they will happily imagine its destruction, dystopias have niche appeal unless things get pretty shitty. I was a child of the 70s. I’ve always got a draw full of candles because I remember getting stuck without them in the brownouts, the depressingly regular power cuts that used to punctuate winter nights. I remember tramping through pitch black streets to friends with a camp stove and surplus night lights. My mum always kept a supply of tins at the back of a cupboard, long after the labels had fallen off and they had become encrusted in mysterious black goo around the rim. She was a war baby and was always prepared.
It’s this boy scout instinct that pricks up it’s ears it hears a dystopian scenario. The bit of us that likes to know that if the worst came to the worst we’d be ok, we’d have that emergency stash, have the resources, the skills to survive. Dystopias answer that fear. They’re reassuring, comforting, and always character driven. We like to see that when the end comes and the dust has settled family will survive, society will rebuild, and we’ll all get to live in idyllic surroundings and grow our own veg.
While dystopias might allow a writer to strip back relationships, to explore their characters in extremis or to look at the logical, if pessimistic end to a current trend or policy, they can offer the reader something considerably more hopeful. At their heart there is always the best of humanity. A spark that refuses to be extinguished. While marauding gangs might terrorise the broken landscape, it will be resourcefulness, compassion and integrity that win out more often than not, a glimmer of hope in the darkest times.
Back when I was a kid, even though the pea green bleakness of the 70s had given way to the florescent brashness of the 80s, there was still terror at every turn. President Reagan was playing Star Wars, women were camping at Greenham Common and there were the nuked white outlines of a family and their dog spray painted on the pavement outside Wimbledon Town Hall. In 1984 a season of nuclear themed television on the BBC scarred a generation with Z for Zachariah and Threads but even here there was still a spark of hope (even if that hope might be in the viewer’s power to prevent the events from ever happening in reality)
I was at a rather impressionable age when I saw that season. When, two years later they showed Raymond Briggs bleakest of bleak love story When the Wind Blows, I was already sleeplessly waiting for death to come in the night. I don’t think I was the only one. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for dystopias, and why I’m sure today’s kids will have a similar fondness decades from now.
Tonight’s viewing will be The Quatermass Conclusion but for now I will leave you with the best “You Bastard You’ve Killed Us All” opening sequence of them all.