[The following contains spoilers.]
It is conceivable that we are ignorantly living through a period of history that will be one day labelled “the Age of Apocalypse.” Byron’s contemporaries did not refer to each other as “Romantics” – I doubt that anybody was aware that the Renaissance was happening until it was over – but once the din of our own historical period has faded, we might be able to at last perceive its standout feature. And this is that apocalypse has become weirdly omnipresent across our entire culture.
More accurately, this is an infatuation with post-apocalypse. Typically in these stories, we are placed in the shoes of a privileged person who is able to look back over the end of the world and survey its immensity from the other side. “The Phenomenon,” a three-season audiodrama that had concluded in December, allows us to put on this well-worn post-apocalyptic viewpoint again like a snug old coat. We traverse the apocalypse in the company of a tiny and diminishing band of survivors, a privileged elite who have made it this far through their exceptional resourcefulness. The story virtually throbs as a metaphor for free-market capitalism.
Or rather, the apocalypse turns out to be at times a more humane system than normal capitalism is, or almost like a refreshing change. It is not long before we are suspecting that the nicest characters in the story, such as the cuddly Captain Longmire (Michael Paladine) and the salt-of-the-earth Jesse (Erik Endsley) are never going to come to any serious harm. Indeed, this implicit assurance is given ultimately at the cost of the show’s horror and suspense, which are otherwise singularly sharp. The survival of bourgeois suburbia is thus guaranteed for us, along with that of its pleasant, well-behaved, domestically-attuned flame-bearers.
The characters survive by sharing things and looking after each other, although, somewhat improbably, resources never become depleted enough for anybody to be threatened with starvation. Who would have thought that those dreadful artificial preservatives that are so widely reviled in processed foods would eventually come to save the human project. The characters also get ahead by networking – and by “who you know” – so maybe their circumstances are still synonymous with capitalism after all.
More indicative of the free-market mentality, the characters will perish only as a result of making errors, which heaps all responsibility for their own personal survival onto themselves. “The Phenomenon” tries to distinguish itself from all other apocalypses by garlanding itself with certain unusual details. The show begins with a national alert system warning U.S. citizens, “Do not look outside. Do not look at the sky. Do not make noise.” Those who disobey the warning and cock an eye to the sky immediately become desiccated corpses, courtesy of airborne bloodsuckers called “the shards.” Later some “giants” or “tall ones” trundle on to the scene to complement the mayhem. As in the capitalist system, almost all of humanity loses out from this experience and only a random, microscopic elite flourishes.
I worry that I am prohibited from appreciating “The Phenomenon” by being based in the UK. In Edinburgh a belief in the Rapture looks as outlandish and as barbaric as female genital mutilation. When the BBC’s highbrow discussion programme “In Our Time” inspected the Rapture last year, the host, the educational behemoth Melvin Bragg, evidently hadn’t heard of the examples of it from popular fiction that his academic guests were citing. Neither had I, but they are nonetheless popular culture across the USA. Hal Lindsay’s post-apocalyptic novel and consequent multimedia franchise The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970), which hilariously predicts that the Antichrist will rule the European Union, had sold over 28 million copies by 1990. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind novels have apparently shifted 65 million units (in these, the Antichrist is the Secretary-General of the United Nations).
American listeners are far more likely to know their way around the subject of the Rapture than UK ones, and so perhaps they can detect hazy or subtle correspondences between the events in “The Phenomenon” and the Book of Revelation. There are few villains in “The Phenomenon,” and no diligent Christians, and if Christ and the Antichrist have landed on Earth the collapse of the mass media means that the story’s characters remain unconscious of these facts. Still, the Rapture is made conspicuous in “The Phenomenon” by the problem that nobody ever muses, even idly, on whether or not it might be happening. All of the characters come to sound troublingly brainwashed after a while, as if something in them is blocking a natural thought process. Surely, if any of us lived through the precise events of “The Phenomenon” we would deem it logical to view the Book of Revelation as a prophecy fulfilled.
It could be that the scriptures pertaining to the apocalypse have been interpreted so wildly over history that the rather mundane and ostensibly secular gloss that is placed on them during “The Phenomenon” cannot be reasonably excluded from Biblical exegesis. Yet the plot of “The Phenomenon” is equally flexible enough to incorporate the “king in the mountain” motif from non-Christian folklore, in which mythological figures that have been sleeping undisturbed for centuries awaken.
There have always been apocalypses but there have never been quite so many available for the consumer to choose from as there are today. It feels correct for them to be a delicacy or an oddity, not a cultural staple. It would be altogether healthier if they were confined to fiction. From the lurid disruption of a “no-deal Brexit,” to the war footing that the world has been lately placed upon by the Coronavirus, it appears that news providers now resort to apocalyptic imagery almost as a sort of stock photography.
“The Phenomenon” is a clever head that unfortunately ends up nodding and blinking within this general fatigue. Its brilliance is somewhat wistful, since we can probably imagine a time when it would have once seemed extraordinarily alert. Had John Wyndham devised this story in the 1950s and presided over its telling then it would undoubtedly rank as one of his masterpieces. “The Phenomenon” is so tightly structured that it always feels like an adaptation of a novel, rather than a freely developing story, but upon investigation the original novelist R.K. Katic is so minor as to not even possess a Wikipedia entry. The plot of her novel also feels dissatisfyingly familiar.
It had often, in fact, come first. It had preceded the filming of John Krasinski’s 2018 horror film, A Quiet Place, in which making a noise would attract the roving monsters of the post-apocalypse; it was also up and running before the post-apocalyptic horror movie Bird Box, of the same year, in which this time it was seeing that was fatal (Bird Box predated The Phenomenon as a novel though). 2018 was the year too of the post-apocalyptic Twitter horrorshow @TheSunVanished, whose regime lacks the compulsory blindness and deafness of its peers, though there is still some potential affinity in that the source of the apocalypse is an absurdist alteration to the Earth’s ecosystem. A year later the podcast “Blackout,” starring Rami Malek, was belatedly attempting to cash in on the work already done. It shares the same atmosphere as the others though its own distinguishing feature, an internet blackout, seems anaemic by the genre’s imaginative standards.
“The Phenomenon” is certainly better made than all of these rivals. Its story is taunt, suspenseful, and cinematically rich; the voice acting is always superb. But it feels like it is merely part of a wandering cultural glacier and I’m not sure that its wits will ever allow it to calve off as an independent artefact. Glaciers tend to melt away as a mass. Sadly, whenever the Age of Apocalypse is finally spent, people will be liable to dismiss “The Phenomenon” along with everything else of its ilk.
Mind you, I never thought that I would live to experience nostalgia for the nineties and so maybe a remarkable phenomenon of its own will develop in time. A nostalgia for apocalypse. People who live in a culture that no longer actively harps on apocalypse will only ever look back and enjoy narratives such as “The Phenomenon” as a rose-tinted reminder of yesteryear.