To call Blood Drive a bad show would miss the point. It is bad, but it wants to be. Specifically, it wants to be so bad that it’s good: like a low-rent ’70s thriller you happen upon while flicking through the channels one afternoon and later remember as a kind of fever dream, or a horror movie filmed in a backyard or an abandoned mall, so delighted with its own schlockiness that it can’t really be scary. Blood Drive wants to be bad, good-bad, like that, and figuring out how it fell so wide of the mark—how it ended up just feeling tired and bland—means finding out what good dystopian entertainment does for us, where it comes from, and why it is so hard to produce.
Blood Drive, a new horror series on SyFy, is set in a distant future in which a series of earthquakes caused by fracking has set off an environmental catastrophe. The police have been privatized, water is being rationed, the people are desperately poor, and gas is obscenely expensive—$2,000 per gallon. One way to make money, if you can stand it, is to sign up for the Blood Drive, and ambiguously legal car race through vast expanses of the empty West, where the cars run on blood and the losers of each leg can be killed off for fuel. The premise touches on multiple issues that plague our own world: police brutality, economic inequality, climate change. But the show mostly ignores them. For the most part, the producers are interested in these injustices only insofar as they give them excuses to indulge in campy visuals of cars, half-dressed women, and gory death scenes crammed with butcher shop viscera and syrupy blood.
Ours is a potent time for dystopia. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale has started to feel as ripped from the headlines as Law & Order ever was, and, two weeks after the presidential election, Amazon pulled ads for their series The Man in the High Castle from the New York City subway after Mayor De Blasio called them “irresponsible and offensive.” The series imagines an alternate reality in which Nazi Germany colonized the United States; in his statement, De Blasio cited his concern for “World War II and Holocaust survivors,” but the ads, coming so soon after Trump’s victory—and the strains of American racism, white supremacy, and actual Nazism that victory empowered—seemed to speak not just to the past, but to the future.
Can we no longer idly imagine dystopia? Do we now have a moral responsibility to see which machinations of the present are enacting our worst fears? And, maybe more to the point—at least for the people who make a living by conjuring our nightmare visions on TV—can dystopia still be fun?
Blood Drive is not fun, or at least it
wasn’t fun for me. I wanted it to be. I like movies about murderous road races
through futuristic wastelands (the Mad
Max series, Death Race 2000), and
movies about people forced to compete in life-or-death games motivated by
corporate greed (The Running Man,
Rollerball), and movies about outcasts struggling to survive in cities that
the rest of the world has done its best to forget (Blade Runner, Escape from New York). Yet Blood Drive is not a response to the dystopian fears of 2017, but a
pastiche of old dystopias. It’s a sizzle reel of old anxieties, and, for all
its joyful goriness—the nudity! The knocked out teeth! The blood!—it’s more
froth than heft, a confection that can harm no one.
of Blood Drive’s most
thought-provoking missteps comes from its determination to recreate the
hallmarks of dystopian worlds, but without the context that summoned them forth
to begin with. The show’s main plot kicks off when Arthur (Alan Ritchson), a
by-the-book cop, stumbles across the celebrations marking the start of the
annual Blood Drive, a race undertaken by drivers whose cars run on human flesh.
He’s discovered, and forced to become a racing partner to Grace (Christina
Ochoa), an outlaw driver whose sexuality the writers have chosen to express by
making sure she’s licking a lollipop at all times. (In a futuristic wasteland
where gas costs $2,000 a gallon, how much is hard candy?) The Blood Drive
itself is presided over by a master of ceremonies named Julian Slink (Colin
Cunningham), who’s a little like Mad Max’s
Toecutter, a little like The
Running Man’s Damon Killian,
and a lot like the emcee in Cabaret, which depicted its own form of dystopia—the rise of the
Third Reich. “To the queer and the strange, in the crowd and on the stage”
Slink announces at Blood Drive’s kickoff, “to the violent, the malevolent, and
those seeking a grave: welcome home.”
Blood Drive feels most alive—and least like a collage of older stories—in scenes of the giddy crowds that watch the race. Dwelling on the spectator’s perverse joy, Blood Drive hints at that unique longing that animates the most haunting dystopian narratives: The longing we feel to see society disintegrate around us, and to see what would happen to us in the aftermath. Dystopian narratives, after all, rarely depict the destruction of civilization itself. Instead, the story begins after the fact, and often lets us imagine what fun we will have playing in the wreckage of the world. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York gives us a future in which Manhattan Island has become an enormous and entirely unsupervised penal colony, but also takes visible pleasure in imagining an abandoned city, creating villains who patrol the ruined streets in chandelier-bedecked art cars, put on all-inmate can-can shows, and, in the case of Harry Dean Stanton’s character, move into the New York Public Library. Blade Runner tells a whole shadow narrative through billboards and neon: We know Los Angeles has somehow become a place where an entire skyscraper is used to broadcast a Japanese-language commercial featuring a Geisha swallowing a birth control pill, but we can only imagine how.
Dystopia allows us to see not just beautiful ruins, but the strange cross-cultural bonding that can occur when society as we know it no longer exists. Dystopia is queer time, in Jack Halberstam’s formulation of the term: an experience of life in which there is no established order of events, particularly with regard to relationships, and therefore perhaps more room for intimacy. A dystopia’s potential for unexpected trauma can be matched by its potential for fostering intimacies that would, in another society—in any society—be impossible. Dystopian stories afford us this comfort, and perhaps it is for this reason that we continually seek them out, even when they are capable of cutting us so close to the bone.
Like its plot, the visuals of Blood Drive are a collage. Grace’s world of desert blacktops, muscle cars, and blistering sun is an Easy Rider-style post-apocalypse, while Arthur’s L.A. is the drizzly, crime-riddled metropolis of Blade Runner, and the contradictory aesthetics both characters wander through means that it’s feasible for there to be a global water shortage, as the series claims in some shots, and conspicuous rain in others. The show has no internal consistency; it looks the way it wants to when it wants to, based on the influences it’s working to conjure. Even the Blood Drive itself draws heavily on stereotypes of apocalyptic possibility. The festivities surrounding the race look a lot like Burning Man; there are amps and gas flames and the word MAYHEM scrawled large. The possibilities of dystopian narrative are distilled to a visual vocabulary, severed from any real meaning.
In the days following the presidential election, the dystopian narrative I reached for first was 2006’s Children of Men, a movie that has come to seem, in the last decade, more alarmingly prescient than ever. It imagines a world where women have lost the ability to bear children, and allows the viewer to imagine that the scenes of societal destruction they witness—of terrorist splinter groups and totalitarian governments, sudden violence and state-sanctioned torture—are mankind’s response to imminent extinction. “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in,” one character, a former midwife, recalls. “Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”
But Children of Men also suggests that the dystopian scenes it depicts may be just as much the cause of mass infertility as its result. Children of Men shows us nothing new. Its images of torture echo news from places like Iraq and Serbia; these are things we have seen before, but never in Britain, and therein lies their power. Children of Men is about trauma coming home, and about a world in which the apparent end of the human race is not the cause of our manifest inhumanity to each other, but just punishment for it.
This is a question that perhaps every dystopian narrative hazards, at its core: Does a dystopian world make us treat each other cruelly, or does our cruelty create a dystopian world? Blood Drive doesn’t take on these these questions: It’s happy to plunder the aesthetics of other dystopian dramas without taking on their curiosity. It also renders itself, for all its gory charm, extremely boring. Not all dystopias have to be grim, or even political, but the genre may require its creators to take at least their own questions seriously in order to create a world that a viewer can fully experience—in pleasure, hope, or fear.