A Monstrous Birth:
words by Melissa Cox
In the summer of 1991, I spent a number of teatime hours being thoroughly terrified by a TV thriller involving sinister experiments, dodgy politicians and a killer stalking the Yorkshire countryside.
Perhaps because I was far too young to be watching it, Stephen Gallagher’s mini-series Chimera made quite an impression on me, but it seems now to have become a largely forgotten footnote in British horror. While TV shows of the 60s and 70s such as The Owl Service and The Stone Tape have remained widely known and are regarded as classics, Chimera has largely escaped critical or popular attention.
The show initially follows Tracy Pickford, a nurse taking up a new post at the Jenner Clinic, a rural fertility centre. Tracy begins to suspect that the owners of the clinic are hiding a darker agenda, but before she can discover more, an unseen assailant attacks and kills the clinic’s staff, and the facility is set on fire. Peter Carson, Tracy’s on/off boyfriend, receives a voicemail from her voicing some of her suspicions. He sets out to investigate, coming up against a government cover-up and working with Dr Alison Wells, the only surviving staff member from the clinic. He discovers that the fertility clinic was a front, and it in fact housed a project to create a human/ape hybrid to be used for scientific research. The experiment had been a success, but the creature created had become too much for the staff to handle, and it had escaped from its confinement, with tragic consequences.
Part creature-feature, part conspiracy thriller, Chimera defies easy classification into any particular genre and combines a variety of stylistic influences and archetypes. The first episode functions as a Gothic mystery, as Tracy – like Jane Eyre and the governess in The Turn of the Screw – finds herself in a new place of work where she begins to believe sinister things are happening. Like a true Gothic heroine, she sets out to uncover the mystery, hiding in shadows and catching glimpses through windows of strange nocturnal goings-on. With its winding stairs and isolated location, the sprawling mansion that houses the Jenner Clinic also has a distinctly Gothic feel – and in the off-limits laboratory, its own Bluebeard’s room. There are also stylistic nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho in the series opener. As with Marion Crane in that film, Tracy is positioned as the main character before being killed in a shock twist, sparking an unofficial investigation into her fate. In later episodes, Peter takes on the role of unofficial investigator, as Sam Loomis does in Hitchcock’s film.
With its themes of hubristic over-ambition and the dangers of playing god, Chimera is clearly influenced by classic horror in the ‘mad scientist’ sub-genre. Dr Jenner is a Dr Moreau-like character, ruthless and ambitious, with scant regard for ethics and an overriding belief in his own abilities. Like Frankenstein, he creates new life through a form of “monstrous birth” – although in this case stitching together DNA rather than stolen body parts.
There is, however, an interesting difference between Jenner and the other scientists in this sub-genre. They are generally depicted as lone agents, ostracised from society due to their unorthodox beliefs and methods. Jenner, by contrast, is at the heart of the establishment – he has links to the government and has surrounded himself with a team of subordinates also dedicated to his pet project. Jenner’s underlying motivations also mark him out as different from other mad scientists – they are driven by a thirst for knowledge for its own sake – an ultimately noble ambition (even if their methods tend towards the morally dubious).
In Chimera, the scientists are explicitly interested mainly in the financial rewards from their research – Jenner describes the hybrid creature as a “project for mass manufacture“, and there is much discussion of the immense value of the potential patents. These characters are positioned firmly as the villains of the story – abusing both the creature they have created and the women at the fertility clinic (used as “host mothers” for the project). While characters such as Dr Jekyll and The Fly‘s Seth Brundle become tragic figures, bitterly regretting their meddling with the natural order, those in Chimera show no such remorse. This is exemplified in the character of Dr Diane Rohmer, a former colleague of Jenner’s that Peter tracks down for information. Despite being aware of the tragic consequences, she shows unbridled enthusiasm for creating more chimeras, marvelling at the prospect of being able to “experiment on them like people without any of the ethical problems“. Chimera‘s bleak message is that this kind of systemic corruption cannot be stopped – despite Peter’s attempts at whistleblowing, the final scene of the series shows Rohmer’s ambitions fulfilled, as she oversees a lab filled with dozens of new hybrids.
It is around the character of Chad, the human/chimpanzee hybrid, that the series has its most horror-like features. His identity is revealed gradually – for the first episode his existence is only hinted at, as Tracy sees her colleagues struggling with him as they bring him back after an escape attempt. Glimpses of Chad are seen during the attack on the clinic staff, and he’s positioned here as a killer in the slasher mould – as in a close-up shot of the knife he holds as he kills Tracy which is reminiscent of the shower scene from Psycho. In later episodes, we follow Chad as he hides out in the farmhouses of the nearby village, where he seems to have befriended a couple of local children, who refer to him as “Mr Scarecrow“. There are echoes in these scenes of the famous moment in Frankenstein, with the little girl speaking to the misunderstood monster by the lake. This association, the children’s lack of fear towards Chad and the later revelations about the cruelty he suffered at the clinic would seem to present him as a sympathetic figure.
However, this characterisation is complicated by stylistic allusions to slasher films that suggest similarities between Chad and the villains of those works. While Chad doesn’t harm the children, he seems to feel threatened by their parents, and brutally attacks and kills each of them in their barn. These scenes are filmed with point-of-view shots from Chad’s perspective, much like sequences from the killers’ POV in slashers Halloween and Black Christmas. The costuming choice to have Chad wearing a red and green striped jumper is also a clear reference to Freddy Krueger’s iconic look, and aligning Chad with such a purely evil character would seem to further undermine any feelings of sympathy the viewer feels towards him.
Chimera is an interesting reflection of fears and concerns of the early 1990s. Genetic and reproductive technology was advancing rapidly at the time – the first IVF baby had been born in 1978, and only a few years after the show aired the cloned sheep Dolly would be produced. Horror fiction has a history of examining anxieties around scientific advancement, for instance in the atomic-era creature features of the 1950s, and Victorian science fiction novels centred on fears around the rapid progress of the industrial revolution.
The late 80s and early 90s appear to have been a time when animal experimentation, particularly on primates, was of great concern in the genre. There was a small cycle of primates-gone-bad horrors around the time, such as Monkey Shines (1988), Shakma (1990) and another British mini-series about a human/chimp hybrid, First Born (1988). Chimera combines the exploration of this wariness towards genetic experimentation with a sense of cynicism towards the political class particular to the time.
The early 90s saw public trust in politicians at a low ebb – the economy was in recession, and John Major’s government was dealing with personal scandals of several high-profile figures. There were two notable controversies around animal products – a scare involving salmonella in eggs, and concerns around BSE in beef. The latter, especially, did much to erode public trust in the government’s handling of safety matters. These feelings are reflected in Chimera – the character of Hennessey, the politician, is shown to be particularly corrupt – he pushes the project forward, declaring that after the patents are sold “it isn’t our problem anymore“, and orchestrates the cover-up after Chad’s escape. In exploring this subject matter, Chimera has much in common with the mini-series House of Cards, which aired only a year before in 1990 and also dealt with corruption at the heart of the British establishment.
So how does Chimera hold up to modern viewing? The early 90s TV production values certainly make it feel quite dated (with the exception of excellent work on the practical effects for the character of Chad by Image Animation, who also worked on Hellraiser). After a gripping and suspenseful first episode, the pacing begins to lag somewhat as the story moves into thriller territory, with maybe too much time devoted to the mechanics of bribing information from minor government officials. There is also some inconsistent characterisation, especially in the case of Alison Wells, who is presented in later episodes as something of a moral hero, despite her actions in releasing Chad being the direct cause of at least ten people’s deaths.
Chimera is probably not destined to be reassessed as a horror classic, or even a cult favourite.
However, Chimera still has plenty going for it and would be an enjoyable watch for fans of a horror/conspiracy crossover (especially those that might feel some nostalgia for a bit of early 90s TV ropiness). Many of the scares that I found so effective on my first time watching still have the power to shock and chill and the twists and turns of the plot keep the audience guessing. I’ll always have a place in my heart for Chimera, and I hope others will find one too – whether coming to it for the first time, or in the rediscovery of something half-forgotten.
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