Monday, October 20, 2014

The Strain, Episode 1: The surprisingly plausible science of vampire worms

We're all vampires here. FX

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by one of Vox's many experts in subjects other than television to discuss the new vampire series The Strain. These articles are for those who have already seen that week's episode. If you are looking for a more general overview, here is our pre-air review. This week, Todd is joined by Vox's science writer, Susannah Locke. Susannah is actually a TV critic in her own right, having reviewed a fair amount of Star Trek: The Next Generation via the venerable form of the haiku.

Todd: So, Susannah, I have already shared my thoughts on the first few episodes of FX's new Guillermo del Toro-powered vampire drama The Strain in my early review. One of the things I'm fascinated by (and the reason I've asked you here today) is the way that the series is interested in deliberately pitching itself in that weird nether-region that sometimes exists between science fiction and horror. Yes, this is a vampire show. Yes, it will have reanimated corpses. But it really, really wants there to be a scientific reason for all of this. Admittedly, the pilot glosses over some of this, but we do have those weird, blood-craving worms, which are pretty clearly the show's attempt to say, "Vampires! They're just like parasites! Kind of!" As someone who's unfamiliar with this particular subject matter, let me just ask you, then: how do these vampire worms compare to the vampire worms we have in reality?

Susannah: This episode specifically mentioned the horsehair worm, which definitely seems to be the visual reference for the skinny little worms in the show. Horsehair worms are a group of hundreds of species that mostly target insects, and they are some of the most disgusting things on earth. After somehow managing to get eaten, the worm can grow up to several feet long inside the host's body, and then they burst out.

Horsehair worms also seem to have some zombie action. They need to get to water to mate, and they're able to get crickets to go for a swim and most likely drown themselves. And that's when the fun bursting out of body stuff generally happens.

Here's what appears to be a horsehair worm crawling out of a spider. You have been warned:



And here's one crawling out of a cricket:

If you still haven't had enough, Matt Simon has a great piece going over the entire horsehair lifecycle over at Wired. Here's the amazing GIF they put together:
Hhw_movie

Several horsehair worms emerging at once from a cricket. Nurie Mohamed/WIRED. Video: Ben Hanelt

Todd: Good lord.

This is always one of the perils of the horror genre. For as creepy as you can make some monster, there are almost certainly 10 or 11 things out there in nature that are even creepier. The vampire worms we see in The Strain long to drink human blood, and that's kind of unnerving, but it's nothing like crawling inside of a host, growing to several feet long, and then forcing your way out.

Really, for my money, worms are among the worst animal groups out there. People are scared of snakes, and, yeah, they can poison or suffocate you. But it's worms, who more often than not, just want to hitch a ride in your intestine or something, that really seem to have the market cornered on being creepy and crawly. It's a strong point in The Strain's favor that it instinctively understands this, and by drawing a line from "this worm wants to drink blood" to "the humans it infects will want to drink blood, too," it creates some nice parallels.

Of course, whatever we see going on with the giant cloaked figure or the resurrected corpses in the morgue goes quite a bit beyond wanting to drink blood, but this show would be pretty boring if a bunch of humans with a rare worm infestation were responsible citizens and got themselves to the blood bank until they could obtain a cure.

What I'm less certain about is how the show is going to dig into other bits of vampire mythology while simultaneously keeping one foot in the realm of pseudoscience. We get brief mention of the coffin needing to not have "crossed the river" when Setrakian is trying to warn Eph, and I presume this is a nod toward the idea of vampires not being able to cross running water. But it's hard to say why a parasite would really care about this, you know?

But I suspect you will know more than I about the weird things parasitic worms will make their hosts do. And I'm sure you can tell me all about blood-sucking worms, too. (And then I promise I will have some boring thoughts about story structure to bring us home.)

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Susannah: There are plenty of worms that like blood, for example leeches, which suck blood from without. And then there are things like hookworm (officially a nematode), which sucks blood from within. If you walk on one barefoot, it can burrow into your skin, and then migrate to the small intestine, where it can suck so much blood that people sometimes get anemia. Hookworm currently infects roughly 600 million people across the world.

The best story I've heard of zombie worms is probably the tapeworm that turns sea monkeys into dumb sea monkeys that are trying to get themselves killed. I learned about this one from a great TED talk science writer Ed Yong gave on zombie parasites. The tapeworm in question needs to get into a flamingo in order to complete its lifecycle. So it somehow makes sea monkeys turn bright red and cluster together, so that the flamingos and spot them and eat them. That's pretty crazy.

We don't know of anything quite like that in people. But the horsehair worm that was in all those disgusting videos above sort of reminds me of the Guinea Worm, which is luckily on the verge of eradication. People get infected from unclean drinking water, and then the worm can grow up to a few feet long inside them. It creates a painful, burning blister, usually on the legs or ankles. So many people want to walk into the nearest body of water to soothe themselves. And its then that the worm busts out into the water, where it needs to be in order to mate. Now, these people aren't zombies. But that's definitely a parasite that has evolved to encourage behavior that's to its benefit.

And not all parasites are worms. Some microbes cause some really impressive zombie action. For example, the zombie fungus Ophiocordyceps drives carpenter ants to wander off from their home to a location more suitable for the fungus, which then sprouts out of the ant's dead body. If such a tiny organisms can accomplish such feats, it makes it seem possible that a worm could do an awful lot, too.

Todd: All I'm taking from this is that we should fear the imminent takeover of the vampire worm. And I do, Susannah. I do.

What I'm not sure about is The Strain's story structure. FX, which has been so good over the years at building its serialized stories out of individual episodes, seems to have abandoned that idea in favor of a different structure for this show. To explain this, I'm going to have to back up a bit.

See, most of the serialized shows we enjoy nowadays are just really good at hiding the mechanics of their episodic storytelling. For much of TV's history, the dominant storytelling ideal was a show like The Rockford Files or Kojak, where each and every episode told its own, standalone story. There's nothing wrong with this approach when it's done well, but in the late '70s and early '80s, TV writers started experimenting with having stories that didn't resolve at the end of an episode. That approach gained momentum, and it really crystallized in the "TV as novel" approach that HBO codified in the late '90s and early '00s, with Oz and The Sopranos.

Anyway, these shows purport to tell one big story, but often, they're really telling a bunch of smaller stories that add up to one bigger one. Think of a show like, say, Breaking Bad. Every episode of that series is one smaller story about how Walter White's plan to produce meth consumes more and more of his soul, and they add up to the larger story of the series. The show's a model of TV construction on the episodic level, and that makes it a model on the larger level, too. (You can also apply this to The Wire, which might be the most serialized show in history.)

Now, in recent years, particularly on HBO, television has been moving more to a structure that directly borrows from the novel. Instead of a bunch of smaller stories, we now have a bunch of chapters that add up to a "book." This approach has been most successful on Game of Thrones, in particular, but it's also popped up on True Blood and Boardwalk Empire. When it works best, it usually unites the various events in the episode thematically, so that we feel like we're watching one smaller story in a larger one, even if we're not.

How does all of this apply to The Strain? Well, like Game of Thrones (another novel adaptation), the series seems to be approaching its construction as a slow burn, with big moments that pop. And I'll admit that the big moments mostly work. The scares in this episode, particularly the sequence in the morgue, were effective, and Guillermo del Toro's direction gave the sequences on board the doomed airliner some nice eeriness. But if there's a main reason I find the pilot somewhat unsatisfying, it's because of that feeling that this is not a complete story. Instead, it's the first sentence of one.

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And that's okay. I'll just have to adjust to it. But it also means the episode keeps feinting toward being a total story while knowing it can never really commit. This is most evident in the way that the show ends by balancing Eph's discovery of the worm with Emma's return to home, made almost fully a vampire. It's meant to suggest two separate ideas: here are the heroes closing in on the information they need! Here are the villains still one step ahead! But none of it really means anything, because they're just events that happen in a vacuum of child custody arguments and dire warnings from old men and Sean Astin's sudden but inevitable betrayal.

Also hurting the show, I think, is that the series isn't very good at nodding toward how the characters aren't genre-savvy, while the audience is, but I will delve into that more next week. All worms aside, Susannah, did this pilot pass the most important test for you? Will you be watching again?

Susannah: I don't think I'll be watching again. The horror stuff was fun, but the scenes characterizing Eph were rough. For example, I really suffered through the counseling scene between Eph and his wife, which I found excruciatingly long and flat footed. If that part of the story is going to be that cliched, they could just nod at it and let me fill in the rest. But it felt like the creators didn't trust that I was intelligent enough to do that.

Todd: Very true. Here's hoping everything becomes a little better, and a little more urgent, in the weeks to come. I'll be back, but mostly because I have to be.

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