Derren Brown has established himself as what has been called a ‘psychological illusionist’, but he is also one of the few performers left who has a sense of danger about him. His television specials have a genuine ‘how did he pull that off?’ factor. In recent years, his shows have begun to explore of getting people to re-examine themselves, such as the special ‘Hero at 30,000 Feet’ which got an ordinary man to be placed in a situation, where he thought he would be helping land a plane.
This time, Brown is opting to make a member of the public think that a familiar end of the world scenario has come about. The programme opens with a quote from the Greek philosopher Epictetus, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he have not, but rejoices for those which he has”. Derren goes on to say that he will take a me a member of the public, who seems like a layabout with a self-centred life and make him a better person. By making him think that he has lost everything, he will learn to appreciate his life more at the end. I’m sure that this idea was discussed in the production office with a lot of comments that it would be great yes, but how do we actually do it?
The participant for this, is chosen as 21 year-old Steve, from Buckinghamshire. He lives with his parents, older brother and sister. His parent feels unappreciated and he spends most of his evenings getting drunk in the pub. It is also said that he is in a dead-end job, personally, I feel that is a plus, given how difficult that jobs have become to get.
First they have to make Steven believe that the apocalypse is imminent, through a catastrophic meteor heading to earth. So his phones and computer are hacked to manipulate the news he gets. Through having the news of the shower appear on legitimate sites, such as NASA, the story will gain credibility. Although, this does appear to rely on him never picking up a newspaper and discussing the news with anybody outside his immediate circle.
Derren has also remembered what Chris Morris proved. If famous people say something enough, it has to be true. So he gets Danny Wallace and Matt Dyson on XM FM to discuss the idea. Astronomer Mark Thompson is cut into shows, beamed especially to Steven’s TV, to talk about the idea that a naturally occurring meteor shower could lead to another unexpected one. A Tweet is hoaxed as being from Brian Cox, talking about the shower as well.
Steven is taken out for a fake trip to see The Killers at a private gig. On a coach filled with actors, he gets to hear a government radio warning about the imminent meteorite strike from an actress doing a Margret Thatcher impression. After driving past explosive charges, Derren puts Steven into a trance and takes him a location to get into hospital pyjamas and then put into bed.
Steven wakes up in hospital and wanders into a room with an emergency broadcast playing on TV. The meteorites hit the earth and brought a plague that turns people into zombies with them. There are still safe havens in Wales and Scotland. This felt to me as the moment in the programme, where it risked all falling apart. However, Steven does not start making references to 28 Days Later or Day of the Triffids. He just looks shell-shocked. The former film appears to be a direct influence on this programme, with an avoidance of the z-word and the use of digital cameras.
After this, he is approached by an actress playing a girl called Leona, looking for her mother. In the control room Derren explains that Steven will meet characters created to bring out senses of responsibility, leadership, compassion and bravery. Feeling an attack by the infected, with speed set to shamble, they meets Ian, a paramedic in an ambulance who drives them into a former rigged nuclear weapons test site set up as a compound. Steven and Leona go sent to message board wall and find a note from Steven’s parents. This leaves Steven in an emotional state and he is given time alone by the actors. This is the end of part one.
It’s interesting to note how the zombie apocalypse has become the default one. Although the production team has to work with the fact that the threat of nuclear war has gone, where you could have lost it all within five minutes and afterwards just had a slow death. This also has the advantage that the level of destruction for the aftermath is still possible to mock-up if they needed to. Also it is reminiscent of an earlier stunt that Derren pulled, where he made somebody believe that he had been transported into a zombie shooter game. But this time, it is supposed to make the subject have an epiphany about his own existence.
Despite the familiarity of the scenario, this is still affecting to watch. It does tap into the question created by all these kinds of stories, which is how would you cope? I will definitely be watching part 2 which will have the moment of reveal to see how it affects Steven and the aftermath.
Derren Brown Apocalypse Part 1 was broadcast on Channel 4 on 26 November and is currently available on the 4od website
This article was first posted on October 29, 2012