Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon

Tuesday, February 5, 2002 by

In the months leading up to Christmas, I’d noticed some changes in the office. My colleagues in charge of opening the post were no longer there. As I ventured out during the morning coffee run, I would see them creeping furtively along the corridor wearing pairs of sinister rubber gloves. “What are those for?” I enquired. “Oh, Anthrax.”

As I doled out the Nescafé into designated mugs, I morbidly pondered over the plausibility of my workplace being a viable target for eco-terrorism. What next; the resurgence of Protect and Survive? It wouldn’t take much to wipe out the world, let alone an office. A white-coated scientist drops a test tube of liquid. People board planes, trains and automobiles. The pandemic begins. Millions are killed. Carolyn Seymour, Ian McCulloch and Lucy Fleming struggle to rebuild a civilisation devolved back to the feudal age. If Survivors was the product of Terry Nation’s preoccupation with social Darwinism and dystopian futureshock, then it was also television drama at its most unnervingly prescient. However, as the mock documentarySmallpox 2002 demonstrates, such an apocalyptic scenario is no longer a science fiction hack’s flight of fancy, it is science fact.

From the provocative Ghostwatch to the somewhat laboured agit prop leanings of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil, I’d become accustomed to programme-makers’ utilisation of the faux-verite documentary style and manipulation of the assumptions made towards this mode of address in order to make a point, frivolous, socio-political or otherwise. What ultimately demarcated Smallpox 2002 from such prosaic debates about the realism of documentary and dramatic reconstruction was its avoidance of naïve polemicising.

A simple but effective composite of narrative techniques was employed by the producers to tell a chillingly plausible tale of a deliberately engineered worldwide outbreak of a communicable disease. Despite its broad scope, the documentary wisely focused on the emergency responses to such a crisis, and gained much of its impetus and power by highlighting the discrepancies between public health policies and individual perspectives. Central to this aim was the inclusion of a video diary of an ill-fated teenage boy and the effects of the epidemic on his mother and sister as they isolated themselves within the four walls of their estate flat. I had initially considered this to be a vaguely satirical touch, a tip of the cap to the documentary in all its forms. Yet this somewhat hackneyed element coupled with scenes of rioting, strikes and shootings in the street ably portrayed a typical human response to the encroaching disaster, which sure enough was in stark contrast to the “required” response desired by the authorities.

Despite the presence of cosmetic boils on the anonymous victims’ faces, Smallpox 2002largely eschewed shock horror tactics, though its possible potential on corruptible minds in need of a cause remained terrifyingly implicit throughout the restrained proceedings. As the programme moved on to address the means by which the authorities would work to eradicate the epidemic, contemplating the dilution of vaccine stocks to increase availability, Smallpox 2002 was at its height. Using the concept of a “silent weapon” as a departure point, this was a showcase of seriousness and intelligence; and an utterly credible and compelling contextualisation of that old chestnut of human idealism versus realpolitik pragmatism – the perpetual clash between ethical dilemma and economic forces.

With no discernible reassurance from a Nick Ross-style coda and a subsequent Newsnightfeature speculating on the preparedness or otherwise of the authorities, I couldn’t help but feel decidedly furtive back in the office the morning after the night before. My mind was filled withInvaders-style paranoia. On 11 September 2001, the inconceivable became a raw and horrifying reality. That reality can transmute into new forms with biochemical weaponry. But please don’t have nightmares. Do sleep well.

There’s nothing we can do anyway.


Comments are closed.