Kieren Walker, from the tragically short lived BBC3 show In the Flesh, is quite possibly the TV character who made me feel the most seen. Keiren represented parts of me in a way that was almost uncomfortable to acknowledge — this is where I have to interject and reassure you that I’m not a zombie, I’ve never hungered for the taste of human brains, and I’m not, even partially, deceased. What I am is a queer, mentally ill young person who returned to live in the town I had grown up in, to discover that nothing had really changed despite the fact that I was almost entirely different.
“In the Flesh is television storytelling at its very best, especially when it comes to the representation of queer people.”
In November 2009 Kieren completed suicide, and in December 2009 he and 140,000 other recently deceased people rose from their graves and hunted humans. Now that the rising is a thing of the past, the Human Volunteer Force has largely disbanded and a way to manage the otherwise rabid condition of the undead, a drug called Neurotriptyline, has been discovered. We first meet Kieren in a rehabilitation centre for people with Partially Deceased Syndrome. His parents are coming to collect him and his reintegration into human society is imminent — unfortunately the pocket of society that he is going to enter, Roarton, the town he grew up in, is still a stronghold for the vigilantes of the Human Volunteer Force and anti-rotter sentiments.
Since 2015 when BBC3 announced that In The Flesh wouldn’t be renewed for a third series, fans all over the internet have sung the shows praises in the hopes they could #SaveInTheFlesh. Despite their dogged determination and show creator Dominic Mitchell’s assertions that he and the dead of Roarton have unfinished business, we are still left with only nine hours of television… but these are nine of the most perfect hours of television I have ever seen. In the Flesh is television storytelling at its very best, especially when it comes to the representation of queer people. I’m certainly not alone in thinking this; Rowan Ellis made two videos discussing the inherently queer themes of the tv show, and Alex Gabriel says that In the Flesh could be used as a barometer for good queer representation.
“Kieren isn’t just a zombie. He is bisexual, and many of the villagers of Roarton find his sexuality more repugnant than him being a reanimated corpse.”
In fantasy and science fiction narratives it’s common to have aliens, or mutants, or vampires or any other fantasy race act as a stand-in or a metaphor for a real group of people that face marginalisation. The zombies of In the Flesh are certainly discriminated against, and the way that they are demonised, have slurs hurled at them and push back against assimilation mirrors the struggles of real life marginalised groups. The Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers are a symbol for the other, as Rowan Ellis explains: “In In the Flesh, the PDS sufferers are a symbol of the other and of all iterations of the other rather than just one. So rather than just representing racism, the PDS sufferers also represent the relationships with homophobia, and with ableism, and all these other aspects of discrimination and othering.”
However, unlike other fictional worlds that are full of fantasy representations of marginalisation and gloss over the equivalent real life struggles, Kieren isn’t just a zombie. He is bisexual, and many of the villagers of Roarton find his sexuality more repugnant than him being a reanimated corpse. Dominic Mitchell admits that in writing Kieren he drew from his own experiences. In an interview with The Independent he said: “That was the thing I wanted; this poor lad – he’s killed himself, he’s come back, he’s done all this horrible stuff in his untreated state, and now he has to go back to this village with people who didn’t even like him when he was living. I always saw Kieren as me.”
“Kieren’s struggles of being queer, mentally ill and living in a small town are immensely relatable, even if I’m not yet amongst the undead.”
The themes of In the Flesh are both rooted in the familiar tropes of zombie fiction, and the realities of life as a queer person. Dominic Mitchell divulged how both of these themes converge through Kieren’s search for identity: “In the Flesh is really story of identity. How do you fit in when you’re completely different and people are labelling you? The Government has labelled him a PDS sufferer; the HVF have labelled him as rotter, and his family don’t know what he is. He goes through hell.”
To me, Kieren’s struggles of being queer, mentally ill and living in a small town are immensely relatable, even if I’m not yet amongst the undead. So I implore you, if you find yourself with an hour (or nine) to spare, to watch In the Flesh and then join me in mourning its unfortunate and untimely demise. I hope that like Kieren Walker and the other PDS sufferers, it too will rise again.
Image via BBC Three