Tuesday, 29 September 2015

UNIT 1.2: Snake Head by Jonathan Clements (February 2005)

A shorter, more atmospheric affair than its predecessor, Snake Head is an improvement all round. From the opening stream of terrified Kosovan pouring down the phone cut off by an unknown “vrykolak”, Jonathan Clements captivates the listener more than the rather more sprawling beginning to Time Heals did. His first advantage is the setting. Snake Head is clearly partly written in deliberate evocation of The Sea Devils and other UNIT v. beach stories (Clements has a thing for this era, doesn’t he? He throws in his other trope, too – China), and it’s to the story’s benefit that it removes the main characters from their London-centric routine (“Not everything happens inside the M25!”) and takes them to Southend, nicely brought to life with the roar of waves and the lazy mewing of gulls; the local ambiance is reasonably developed (I wouldn’t have known “trickers” referred to cockle-pickers, for instance).

A good writer knows that setting should be utterly integrated with character, voice and tone, though (and not in the sense of Brummie accents in a story set in Birmingham; I mean that landscape and emotional resonance should be intermingled in the story’s tapestry); Clements makes a good go at this, with talk of Saxon burial grounds and Beowulf-style legend woven alongside UNIT’s more up-to-date focus on illegal immigrants and snake head gangs. Some might find that an odd fit, but I’ll take anything as long as it’s interesting (more on this later).

Also to this story’s benefit is the acting. Siri O’Neal sounds more relaxed and settled in the part of Emily Chaudhry, with a generally more believable relationship with Richard Deal’s Colonel Dalton; as I predicted it would, the sceptic-believer dichotomy works its way out in the form of these two. Her insistence on myth (amusingly, it’s basically “the UNIT manual”) is roundly rebuffed by his firmly rationalist mind; they are essentially Mulder and Scully, but reversed (on which note, I could do without the “he’s not my boyfriend” stuff, mind, it gets a bit tiresome), and their blazing row toward the end of the story is well-handled. The way BF handle a UNIT team with a woman as the main character neatly predates the new series’ Kate Stewart (though not Downtime, yes, yes, I know). Of the guest cast, Ian Brooker puts in a good turn as Dr Barney Hendrick, a patronising, slightly grubby-minded archaeologist who’d fit right into the early 70s and reminds me very much of the tone of The Spectre of Lanyon Moor. He plays the material in which he’s clearly enamoured with Chaudhry yet almost utterly oblivious to Dalton very well (in fact, nearly everyone seems enamoured with Chaudhry, it seems to be one of her default character ‘things’ :rolleyes:). His retort to Dalton about the latter’s Saxon heritage on the basis of his surname is great too.

At its heart, Snake Head at least does something you’d want from a mature UNIT series: it’s about slavery, oppression and xenophobia. In true evoke-a-myth-with-some-choice-dialogue fashion, the Albanian vampire has been built up nicely throughout the story before it finally appears in gory glory at the end (the mid-story exposition spliced between Chaudhry/Hendrick and Goran/Dalton is particularly effective in this regard), and the way Clements ties it to the Yugoslavian atrocities of the late 90s is original, one which does not flinch from both the supernatural and real-world horrors he is invoking. Note that this audio appeared at the height of the Blair years’ open door immigration policy, with record numbers entering the UK in 2004: as in Sympathy for the Devil, the scriptwriter is mixing current concerns with his science-fiction, and that’s always appreciated. From the real-world examples of the Kosovan and Albanian immigrants slaving away all day on the Southend beaches and the racist email that pops up in the radio programme to the more subtly ancient evocations of the theme (the Saxon King’s sacrificial slaves would have been from a different ethnic group, too; the most common term for a slave was “wealh”, meaning “foreigner”, from which we utterly irrelevantly get the word “Welsh”) – in all these instances, Clements concentrates on the suffering of the outsider. Of course it’s a terrified, lonely Kosovan who is picked off by the vrykolak in the opening sequence; monsters prefer to eat asylum seekers and illegal immigrants as opposed to lechy middle-aged archeologists. Preying on the most unfortunate is what monsters do; you only need to watch the news to know that.

And although this is easily what is most interesting about Snake Head, it is also what is most troubling. Chaudhry’s theorising that something to the effect of a grendel from Beowulf is rampaging around Southend chomping up immigrants meets a firm invocation of Occam’s Razor from her literal-minded colleague, and yet she is proved right. Let’s try and piece together the different elements here – the rationalists (Dalton, Hendrick) deny the existence of a culturally Albanian monster, the vrykolak, a horror that the Albanians have brought with them. The supernaturalists (Chaudhry, Kevin, Goran) insist that there is something out there, something dark, horrific and unknowable. Ultimately the supernaturalists seem to be right, and the sceptic Hendrick is even mauled by the vrykolak to ram the point home. What’s problematic is the rationalists would appear to have adopted the liberal position, one that eschews the narrative of hateful assumptions about immigrants, whereas the reactionary supernaturalist fears that Albania is the home of an existential threat to a quiet British seaside town are ultimately vindicated. This is particularly bungled and misguided, because the rest of Clements’ story is so sensitive and rightfully angry. Exploitation is vampiric, and really does prey on immigrants, and the folk who perpetuate it (see: Kevin) really are aware of its existence and eager to look away from that nasty corner of their vision. Clearly, there is no case at all that Clements is writing a polemical anti-immigration story when the rest of the audio handles these elements well. But Snake Head, whether by accident or design, almost becomes the subject of its own critique. The story doesn’t move from Kosovan angst outwards, but from UNIT’s day job inwards – necessarily, perhaps, given it’s a UNIT story, but the immigrants themselves are still mostly denied a voice in the favour of our regular cast and even a one-off archaeologist. Goran flees in terror at the end and UNIT decide, quite unfairly, to let him be the prime suspect. One isn’t exactly cheering them on at this point. The Albanians are elided, mostly left as invisible as the vrykolak. There’s a lacuna where the Kosovans’ side of the story ought to be, and one can feel its tangible presence amid the many other successes of Snake Head.

It’s not especially elegantly or beautifully written, but at least it hits more of the themes I appreciate than Time Heals did. Snake Head is creepy, and it’s angry, and it’s cynical. Certainly, it’s flawed by being part of the very thing it’s trying to damn, but if the UNIT range carries on with this rate of improvement I’ll be a hooked listener.

Other things:
There’s a good cut early on, from Hendrick discovering that UNIT are not who he thinks they are to the three characters walking on the beach, without the attendant exposition and explanation we luckily get to skip over.
I have an urge to refer to the main characters as Deal’n’O’Neal all the time.
Love the local radio stuff, it feels exactly like my own little town. “The Place to Be” indeed.
“If we’ve got a Saxon king in town, we don’t want him leaving!”
“There are no leopards in Essex; they’ve all been turned into car seat covers!”
“Have you ever read Beowulf?”/“Bay-what?”
“…an old lady from Birmingham has seen the face of Jesus in a potato… I said you’d call her back.”
Chaudhry’s comment “if you can’t tell a Time Lord from a timewaster maybe you should give Temps-R-Us your CV” implies an acquaintance or at the very least a familiarity with the Doctor, doesn’t it?
“Flattery will get you everywhere.”
I was unsure about the vampire hunter bit (seemed melodramatic and convenient), but Toby Longworth is good. An actual Kosovan would have been even better, but he’s still good.
“You don’t want to mess with ICIS. They’re a Gestapo charm school run by the Keystone Cops.”/“Sounds like one of your English comedies.” Funny and very, very barbed at the same time – if that’s what our comedies sound like, what does that say about us?
“A vrykolak is an Albanian vampire.”/ As distinct from your common-or-garden Transylvanian type?”
On the myth: “You’re only safe if you have an Orthodox priest or a Muslim family in your family.”/“That’s nicely even-handed.”
Kevin showing Chaudhry round his apartment, complete with honeymoon pictures, smelling the sheets and old love letters, is very funny.
I think Kevin’s language would be fruitier than “Goran, you muppet!”
“Nobody gives a toss about a few Yugoslavians if they go missing!”
“Did you try going to the police?”/“Oh, yeah, mate, I went down to the cop shop and told them an invisible Yugoslavian vampire wandering the seafront!”/“I can see how that might not work.”
You’d think hot food and a heater on a cold archaeological dig at night would be an advert to a vampire…oh wait, it is…
“Vampires, werewolves and zombies and all that sci-fi crap…it’s all there to make life easier! Wouldn’t it be great if there really were conspiracies and evil creatures and aliens and all that; so much easier to blame someone else for the problems we make for ourselves!” Hendrick actually stakes out an interesting position here (no pun intended).
“We don’t have any footprints…in that case we don’t have a vrykolak!”

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