Nostalgia Corner: The Burning Zone (1996)

The Burning Zone

As I’ve remarked once or twice, I’m a sucker for a ‘killer virus’ movie or TV series. There’s a few of them around right now – fewer now that Helix has been cancelled – but these things tend to go in cycles. In the early 70s, there were killer viruses all over the place, thanks in part to Michael Crichton’s career-making book The Andromeda Strain. After taking a break in the 80s – the arrival of AIDS made it all seem a bit close to home – the 90s saw a resurgence in interest in viruses, thanks to Richard Preston’s Ebola-centric The Hot Zone, which quickly led to the Dustin Hoffman movie Outbreak in 1995

But my suckerhood for killer viruses means that I also remember the far less influential – and quite obvious cash-in – The Burning Zone. Airing on the UPN network in 1996-97, it saw a team of US investigators travelling the world to fight outbreaks of disease wherever they found them.

At least that was the idea. Trouble was no one was quite sure the best way of making viruses sexy so in a singularly interesting way, The Burning Zone was actually the very model of science itself that practically every week, there was a great big experiment in formats, as the producers – who themselves changed frequently – tried their best to work out what the audience wanted, whether that meant changing the show from science fiction to science fact, firing the stars, changing the settings, or turning villains into heroes.

Created by Coleman Luck (The Equalizer, MANTIS), the show’s initial set-up was relatively simple. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (in quite an early lead role for him) is a virologist who survived a childhood case of Ebola but survived to tell the tale – even if his parents didn’t. He’s hired by Michael Harris on behalf of the White House to run a small, top secret, federal biological task force to stomp out diseases. Helping him is WHO doctor Tamlyn Tomita (Babylon 5) and, because it was the 90s, there’s a black guy (James Black), too, but he’s in charge of security rather than thinky old doctoring.

But being the age of The X-Files, it wasn’t enough that there was a disease to cure every week, whether that was haemorrhagic fever, hypothyroidism, a flesh-eating virus or the disease that wiped out the Mayans. No, there had to be something else, too.

What that something else was varied throughout the series. In the first episode, it was an intelligent virus that planned to dominate humanity. Despite being flagged up as the show’s ‘Big Bad’, that lasted all of an episode. After that, we got diseases that caused fear, rage and insanity. We also got psychic surgery and most surprisingly of all, we got an occult Nazi weapon called ‘The Eyes of Odin’ (hints of Captain America there?).

Science, of course, isn’t sexy and patient administration of medicines is even less sexy. So as well as every disease miraculously being cured by the end of every episode, the show also insisted on there being spiritual and religious components to the cures that this crack team turned up. That meant we could have everything from someone surviving because he ‘had a reason to live’, through praying to avoid spontaneous combustion all the way through to a cure made from the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. We even got trips to the after life…

About halfway through the series, it was time for more experiments, this time behind the scenes, with a new set of producers. As well as ditching the mystical in favour of more Earth-bound tales, they changed the titles, the theme tune and even the lead of the show, getting rid of Morgan and Tomita and replacing them with the motorcyle-riding Bradford Tatum (who was eventually united with Morgan over on Magic City). However, Tatum didn’t get to be the new lead – instead, Harris, who had been the somewhat untrustyworth, ruthless boss up until now (the kind of man who thought that an entire aircraft full of people almost dying was fine, so long as the rest of America was safe) got to be the hero of the piece, instead.

It was an interesting attempt to revive the flagging show, but unfortunately it didn’t work. In part, that’s because the new style of plot included straight out remakes of The Bodyguard, with Tatum saving rock stars, rather than anything too taxing of the old brain cells.

By the end, The Burning Zone had gone “through so many transformations in its brief 19-episode run that no viewer who saw the first show would recognise the last,” according to The Sci-Fi Channel Encyclopedia of TV Science-Fiction. As a result, it got cancelled. Oh well.

There’s not much by way of clips I can offer you, but here’s what I can give you to get a slight sampling of its full capabilities. The first features Jeffrey Dean Morgan suffering from Michael Harris’ evil boss routine at a bar:

The second and third offer us lots of Mark Lindsay Chapman from the episode Blood Covenant.

And just for a bit of bewilderment, the fourth gives us some stock footage of Airwolf being used as a police helicopter in a Korean dub of an episode.