AMC says that the Walking Dead franchise has the potential to last as long as Star Trek has. I have an issue with that. In comparing the Walking Dead’s decade of success to the fifty years that Star Trek has been around, I don’t have much faith in the franchise’s longevity.
But there is a chance. The Walking Dead’s narrative exploration of human nature is not worlds apart from what made Star Trek a success, though the underlying structure of the walker world’s narrative limits how far the series can go. Can a dying world realistically compare itself to a galaxy brimming with life?
Zombies… The final frontier.
These are the stories of the outbreak survivors.
Their continuing mission:
To endure this strange new world.
To create new life; new civilizations.
To suffer like no one has suffered before.
During a Goldman Sachs conference, AMC Network President Josh Sapan said that The Walking Dead franchise has the potential to run for as long as Star Trek has. He proposes that, like Star Trek, The Walking Dead franchise can be retooled and explored from countless perspectives, reviving itself with no end in sight.
I have an issue with that. I wouldn’t say that I’m a die-hard fan of either Star Trek or The Walking Dead, but I do enjoy them both for what they are, and I can tell you that officer Rick Grimes ain’t got nothing on Captain James Tiberius Kirk.
Despite the explosion of Walking Dead content we’ve seen over the past decade from the rise of the comics to the immensely popular tv shows and web series, I don’t have much faith in the longevity of the franchise, that is if it doesn’t change its narrative strategy.
In this episode we will compare the Walking Dead’s decade of success to Star Trek’s longevity, figuring out if a planet full of mindless walkers can hold an audience for 50 years like Star Trek has. I am Arthur McMahon and this is Paracosms.
Think about the groups of people the main characters have come across. There hasn’t been a functional society yet.
I’m not trying to brush aside The Walking Dead’s success. The series has been hugely successful, pumping out more undead content than the enormous fanbase can gobble up. And it has a unique twist on an old genre. Most zombie stories usually hold tight to the underlying theme of survival. We rarely get to know the characters. Audiences are usually persuaded to root for the humans to survive long enough to find a cure for the virus, and by the end of the movie or video game or whatever a cure has been found or everyone dies and the story is over.
The Walking Dead feeds off of the struggle for survival as well, but what makes creator Robert Kirkman’s walker world stand out from the crowd is its open-ended nature. After dozens of comics and TV episodes we still don’t know what caused the zombie outbreak or how to cure it, and as long as Kirkman continues to hold the reigns of his creation then we will likely never know. He has said that the origin of the outbreak is not important to the series and that we will never see the whole picture.
That’s why we have hundreds of hours of Walking Dead content to gorge upon. In this zombie scenario we’ve been given enough time to learn about the characters of the world, to see who they were in their pre-apocalypse lives and who they have become in this world of chaos and pain. This isn’t common in zombie fantasy. Other than the survival of the characters, the focus is always on the horror, the gore. It’s about shock value.
Creators of zombie fiction are rewarded when they try something new. Long-running series can be born from something as simple as attaching an evil Umbrella corporation to the zombie outbreak, giving cause for the characters to seek out a personified entity to defeat. Resident Evil has thrived off the cold-hearted corporation trope for the last two decades. The Evil Dead films found success with comedy and fantasy. Chainsaw arms, Necrominicons, and Bruce Campbell’s sarcastic wit carrying the franchise through several movies.
The Walking Dead has gone beyond this, attempting to showcase human nature in dire straits. This is what gives Kirkman’s franchise a chance to live as long as Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. Exploring human nature is what the crew of the Starship Enterprise did so well. It’s what created an enduring fanbase of Trekkies that has spread across generations. Exploring the final frontier is an endless quest with infinite possibilities, an ideal setup for testing the bounds of humanity.
But the Walking Dead’s exploration of human nature has been restricted in a way that Star Trek’s was not. Rick Grimes and his friends are stuck in a world where only a scattering of people remain. Matt Lieberman of Sourcefed put together a YouTube video where he did the math and figured that only about 380,000 people are left living on Earth during the time period of the series. That’s 380,000 people spread across the entire planet.
Not only has The Walking Dead limited itself in how much humanity there is left out there to explore, but the variety it has displayed thus far has been lacking.
Think about the groups of people the main characters have come across. There hasn’t been a functional society yet. Woodbury was ruled by a ruthless homicidal maniac. Terminus had a peaceful facade, but it turned out to be a trap which lured in wayward wanderers to be butchered and eaten by the cannabalistic residents. Alexandria was full of weak-minded people who were naive to the world outside of their walls.
It’s as if Kirkman has no belief in humanity’s chances of survival. It’s blatantly obvious that the franchise title refers not to the walkers but to the human characters of the world. Rick, Glen, Carl— they’re The Walking Dead. Kirkman expects them to fail. He wants them to die. The audience is constantly shown humanity’s dark side and its failings. The situation for the main characters continually worsens as the story progresses.
One successful, surviving, growing society will create a wealth of stories and possibilities into how it will and should develop.
There is little variance in this narrative. We get to see positive feelings and thoughts in the main characters on occasion, but they are usually the ones who die off. We’ve been given character arcs which have turned the good guys kinda bad. Rick and Carl are not the same honorable, kind-hearted individuals they were at the beginning of the series. It makes sense for them to harden, to change in the way they have, but there is no balance to this narrative strategy. As the darkness grows darker, as society continues to crumble and our heroes become villains themselves, we will soon be left with nothing to hope for. Nothing to cheer on. The world is coming to an end.
But there is still time to change the path of the story. Not that it has to be done. Dark stories are good too. But if longevity is the goal of AMC and Robert Kirkman, their strategy is going to have to change.
As much as zombies are a plot device in the Walking Dead, so are the aliens in Star Trek. As plot devices they help to offer a twisted version of our own reality which uncovers the neglected truths of our human nature. The walkers are less effective in this role than the aliens because they cannot be communicated with. They cannot build interesting societies that mirror or contrast our own.
In comparison, Star Trek aliens have limitless potential in this regard. There are countless races and cultures to be explored. A fascinating article in Psychology Today discusses this in great detail. The piece is entitled Star Trek: The Mental Frontier by Doctor Travis Langley. In the article Langley said, “Even the ongoing struggle between logic and emotion usually manifests as a cultural issue…” This is most often seen between Vulcans and Humans, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Langley goes on to explain and reference many more key issues that reappear throughout Star Trek’s history, showcasing the show’s initiative to explore human nature by coming to understand and resolve conflicts between diverse societies.
There are Star Trek episodes which display a struggle between fantasy and reality where the characters have to make choices on whether to return to the stresses of real life or escape into a dreamworld. Their are episodes which study conflict versus pacifism and security versus freedom. The main characters have to deal with peoples from alien backgrounds, trying to understand foreign languages, altered states of consciousness, strange personalities, and everything else under all of the galactic suns. You’ll have to check out Langley’s article for yourself. It’s a fantastic read.
The possibilities for Star Trek are limitless in its exploration of humanity. After 700 TV episodes, over a dozen movies, and many novels and comics, Star Trek is still drawing interest from its huge audience.
Though the Walking Dead doesn’t have a galaxy of inspiration to draw upon, Kirkman can still make the creative decision to grow his world rather than shrink it. Again, this isn’t to necessarily make the story or world better in any sense, but to make true AMC President Josh Sapan’s claims of Walking Dead’s potential Star Trek like longevity. To give the Walking Dead a longer life, Kirkman is going to have to develop a legitimately functioning society in his world. The more of them better.
If The Walking Dead is to survive the decades ahead the audience requires a wider swath of human studies than we have been provided thus far. One successful, surviving, growing society will create a wealth of stories and possibilities into how it will and should develop. It doesn’t have to mimic the same capitalistic, democratic society that America once was. It can grow into its own. It can find a sustainable way to fend off bandits, hold back hordes of zombies, and extinguish tyranny.
It can become a study of how humanity copes with building a new world, a different world than we were originally given. As more successful societies pop up in this new world, how will they learn to live day to day knowing that each person will zombify upon death. Do they burn the bodies? Are the living dead shipped off to reservations in some far off land? Are the dead respected by any cultures? Worshipped? Hated? How does one society that respects the walking dead interact with others from a society which destroys them?
The Walking Dead will be the zombie movie that never ends.
These issues and countless others can be explored in a world reborn. In season 2 after a string of deaths and bad decisions, Dale Horvath said, “The world we know is gone. But keeping our humanity? That’s a choice.”
Though we are witness to our favorite characters becoming murderers and tyrants themselves, they still have choice. No matter how far they fall, they always a chance to redeem themselves, to make a good decision, even if it is their last one. The tale of Rick Grimes and his posse may be the one that leads us to a functioning society, or maybe not. Maybe it will be someone else. Maybe Rick isn’t the hero we want him to be.
When The Walking Dead comic debuted in 2003, Robert Kirkman wrote a lengthy introduction in the beginning pages of the first issue. He’s known for giving vague answers to questions about the franchise’s longevity and plot, but in his introduction, the first words that many of us had ever read of his, he gave us the answer before we were ever able to ask the question. Here’s what he said.
“For me the worst part of every zombie movie is the end. I always want to know what happens next. Even when all the characters die at the end… I just want it to keep going.
“More often than not zombie movies feel like a slice of a person’s life until whoever is in charge of the movie gets bored. So we get to know the character, they have an adventure and then, BOOM, as soon as things start getting good… those pesky credits start rolling.
“The idea behind the The Walking Dead is to stay with the character, in this case, Rick Grimes for as long as is humanly possible. I want The Walking Dead to be a chronicle of years of Rick’s life. We will NEVER wonder what happens to Rick next, we will see it. The Walking Dead will be the zombie movie that never ends.
“Well… not for a good long time at least.”
There you have it. In this case, at least, we will be hanging around with Rick until his final days. His story will be complete when he dies, and we will be right there with him when he goes. In his own words, Kirkman describes The Walking Dead as a character driven story. His goal is not to explore the world, its not to cure the disease or see how humankind saves itself and revitalizes its society.
His goal is to tell a story of a man. A singular character, and explore how he is changed over the course of the story. The world means nothing to Kirkman. To hell with it. Society is in shambles. The last remnants of humanity are being killed off. Darkness is settling in because the end is coming.
There will be no rebirth of humanity, because they are all the walking dead. Every character we’ve met, including Rick, is going to die. And then it will be over. It will all end.
This has been an episode of Paracosms. We’re three episodes in and it’s only going to get better from here on out. I’m excited to explore more worlds with you, examining their creative aspects from unique perspectives and investigating why they were built the way they were.
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I put many hours into this show every week and would like to continue producing episodes for you. It’s great fun, but I can’t continue to put in all of the hours of research, writing, audio work, and all the other little things that going into making this show without your support. It’s a full-time job keeping this podcast on schedule. Visit my Patreon page over at Patreon.com/Paracosms to see how easy it is to contribute to the show. You get rewards for helping out too. A dollar a month is all it takes to receive extra content. Check out Patreon.com/Paracosms to see what other rewards I have in store for you. To find out more information about Paracosms and myself, visit my website at arthurmcmahon.com.
Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this world and I look forward to seeing you at the next.
- Written in Ink by Kai Engel
- Extinguished by Kai Engel
- Rejecting the Sirens by Kai Engel
- Oneiri by Kai Engel
- Star Trek The Next Generation Main Title Theme by Dennis McCarthy