The unstoppable rise of The Walking Dead franchise is one of the more remarkable stories in contemporary horror-themed sci-fi. Inspired by the celebrated graphic novel series from writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore, The Walking Dead television series premiered on the AMC network back in 2010. Quickly becoming must-see TV, the show attracted industry plaudits and a rapidly expanding audience, impressed by a take on the idea of a modern-day zombie apocalypse that was bloody – and bloody brilliant.
The world of The Walking Dead soon expanded into computer games, shelves of merchandise and collectibles, a canonical series of novels written by Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga, crowd-pulling theme park rides and much more besides.
The first tie-in TV series, the well-connected after-show Talking Dead, was followed by the first spin-off. Launching in 2015, Fear the Walking Dead proved to be a creditable companion show, first running in prequel mode before (from series four onwards) synchronising with the timeline of The Walking Dead and supporting the crossover of character Morgan Jones (Lennie James). The resilience of The Walking Dead saw the series repeatedly recommissioned, with the showrunners finally confirming that the story would end with its eleventh series in 2021.
As the show evolved over the course of a decade, the near-universal acclaim The Walking Dead had enjoyed began to be diluted by more critical voices. There were plot missteps, excess character purges and mishandled plot arcs; with long-term fans agonised at the departure, during series nine, of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), the show’s action hero and emotional heart since the first episode.
But despite a high-turnover of creative talent behind-the-scenes, the show pulled things back on track. The writers found new ways to raise the dramatic stakes and pivot the story towards new forms of human malevolence that could threaten the survival (and the moral integrity) of the putative network of thriving communities (Negan and his fiefdom, then The Whisperers). Fear the Walking Dead developed into a convincing and dynamic show with its own distinctive identity; finding different and often unexpected ways to explore the dilemmas of survival in a zombie-infested world. Just like the original show, Fear has kept up a genuine sense of jeopardy through its writers’ enthusiasm for killing off long-standing and much loved characters, including most of the show’s original family of survivors.
With no endpoint yet announced for Fear the Walking Dead (the sixth series is currently airing), and a trilogy of Rick Grimes spin-off movies in the works, confidence in the strength of The Walking Dead franchise is reflected in new online series The Walking Dead: World Beyond.
Designed as a fixed-length two series show, World Beyond began screening on the AMC+ premium cable service in the US in October, and on Amazon Prime in the UK and elsewhere. Just over half of the first set of ten episodes have now been released; but so far the series has secured a less than stellar critical reception.
World Beyond is a conscious attempt to construct a ‘young adult’ incarnation of The Walking Dead. That ambition is reflected right across the build of the show: from the more restrained approach to the depiction of violence and gore, through the relative simplicity of the plotting, to the plucky ensemble of young pioneers who are the focus of the show.
Set ten years on from the original zombie apocalypse, World Beyond focuses on a new, young generation of survivors who live within the relative stability of the Campus Colony in Omaha, Nebraska. After the arrival of a delegation from the Civic Republic Military (CRM) from Portland, a group of youngsters decide to head off to the CRM HQ on foot. Sisters Iris (Aliyah Royale) and Hope (Alexa Mansour) worry that their father is being held there against his will. The pair are joined in the quest by Silas (Hal Cumpston) and Elton (Nicolas Cantu), who have their own reasons for wanting to leave the colony behind. Their party is soon joined by security officers Felix (Nico Tortorella) and Huck (Annet Mahendru), dispatched to bring the kids home.
The travellers have no knowledge of the huge events that impact the community they’ve left behind soon after their departure. It’s implied that CRM lieutenant colonel Elizabeth Kublek (Julia Ormond) will play a decisive role in the series’ storyline, but her character disappears from view as the next batch of episodes tracks the youngsters’ unlikely rescue mission.
World Beyond is infused with the timbre and texture of a ‘teen drama’, complete with reflective character-narrated montages, lengthy one-on-one heart-to-hearts, and a recurring focus on growing pains and family ties. These kids are struggling with the usual challenges of adolescence, whilst finding themselves ‘orphaned’ in the aftermath of an apocalypse. Each of the young protagonists is wrestling with personal demons of one sort or another – threats to their mental well-being and their sense of self. These are revealed in a series of flashbacks integrated into each episode’s main storyline.
It’s a major challenge for the scriptwriters to integrate this exploration of ‘teenage angst in extremis’ with the continuing threat posed by the countless (and increasingly desiccated) undead still menacing the country. It’s a tension that World Beyond struggles to resolve satisfactorily. As a consequence, the tone and pace of each episode meanders frustratingly off-point as the writers try to accommodate both the introspective anguish and the high-stakes action.
Take back the empties
As series one passes the half-way point, there are things to recommend about World Beyond. The melodrama of hidden connections between the history of the travellers is competently done; some of the show’s set-pieces (such as the burning landscape in The Blaze of Gory; or the river crossing in Madman Across the Water) deliver decent spectacle; and strong female characterisation is already a welcome signature element of the show. Yet the ‘empties’ that still dominate the land, a decade on from the original outbreak, have so far remained pretty peripheral to a story of adolescent self-discovery.
For now at least, despite being set in a land of animated cadavers, World Beyond is a drama in which there’s more teen gabbing than zombie stabbing. Whether there’s sufficient audience out there to sustain a Dawson’s Creek of the Dead remains to be seen. But there’s little chance of all of the offspring of The Walking Dead shuffling off this mortal coil any time soon.
Series one of The Walking Dead: World Beyond is available on Amazon Prime, with new episodes released weekly on Fridays. Series six of Fear the Walking Dead is currently screening on AMC UK. An additional six episodes that will complete the extended tenth season of The Walking Dead will air in the UK on Fox next year.