(courtesy IMP Awards)
Humanity has long shown an evolutionarily advantageous ability to turn the very worst of times into, if not the very best of times because not even we are that good, then better times than they might otherwise be.
We have employed our inventiveness, our thoughtfulness, our humour and our gifted ability to see hope where none might be readily apparent to blunt the destructive edge of natural disasters, or at the very least, recover quickly from their ravages, to self sacrificially help others get back on their feet and to prepare for terrible futures that might yet consume us whole.
We don’t always get it right, and when we don’t it’s spectacularly bad – witness our halfhearted attempts to thwart the civilisation-ending effects of climate change or our rampant inability to stop violently fighting each other as just two lamentable examples – but when we do, it can be brilliantly inspiring, elevating and possibly the only thing standing between us and oblivion.
Case in point is the towering, 125-level underground concrete paean to our species longevity that stands at the eponymous heart of Silo, a new series based on Hugh Howey’s saga of the same name, a structure built some two centuries earlier for reasons unknown to the 10,000 or so souls who currently occupy it and which has ensured humanity’s survival in a world turned to red radioactive dust and glass.
The thing is, and this is part of what makes Silo the series so damn watchable (and the books so incredibly, page-turningly readable) is that it begins to emerge, episode-by-perfectly-paced-episode, where clues and suggestions are drip fed to devastatingly explosive effect – though, as with the series overall, the full import of these revelations is allowed to erupt up slowly and with nuance in ways that suggest a silent epiphany of the most life transformative kind – that some people DO know why the Silo is there and that they have actively conspired to keep the truth from everyone else.
In ways that suggests a fascistic heart is beating at the centre of this hard scrabble but kumbayah world where “Forgiveness Days” and fun runs to the top of the silo are used to both amuse and divert the population from just how hard many of them have it – social stratification is alive and well, sadly, in this underground utopia with the wealthy and powerful in big apartments further up and the poor, blue collar workers firmly down in the bowels with the machinery that ensures things keep ticking over – Silo is one big slow reveal of how to keep a docile population complaint and how this is, little by little, corroding the very survivability of the human species that the structure was meant to support.
Central to the story in the TV series as she is in the books, along with some others who play pivotal roles in the narrative, is Juliette Nichols (Rebecca Ferguson), an engineer whose sole role, and it’s a biggie, is to keep the generator that makes life possible under the heavy weight of a poisoned earth ticking life-supportingly along.
If it stops then it’s well and truly game over and she, along with the others “Down Deep” – they are scorned by those “Up Top” as bottom dwellers of the lowest order and barely worthy of thought, a piece of meat social commentary that shows not even an apocalypse can stop humanity’s propensity for idiotic social ignorance – know that and devote themselves to ensuring the Silo goes on and on … and on.
But the opening episodes show outright that all is not well in the world of Silo, with people like Sheriff Holston Becker (David Oyelowo) and his wife Allison (Rashida Jones), and computer repairman – as you might imagine, recycling and repair sit at the heart of the Silo which is both futuristically retro and medievally backward all at once – George Wilkins (Ferdinand Kingsley) questioning the reigning orthodoxy and ——— SPOILER ALERT !!!!! ———- dying for their efforts by means brutally coded in law and manifestly not.
This is a world on the brink, a haven turned prison of sorts where, in the most trope-heavy of fascist traditions, people are kept from knowing the truth by means such as no internal communication devices or lifts, slowing the spread of dissent and by the abrupt disappearance of all pre-Silo knowledge in a rebellion some 140 years previously.
Someone muses at some point whether the rebellion was even real – and as you meet the thuggish might of Judicial, a part of the Silo that is more Stasi than Lady Justice, represented by its head of security Robert Sims (Common), you begin to think much the same thing – and whether it was a cover to rid people too much inconvenient knowledge.
While the first six episodes haven’t exposed just how far the conspiracy to keep power in the hands of an all-controlling few goes – rather admirably the show is happy to devote the time it needs to world build rather magnificently without slowing down the story at all – when you have people who don’t know what a star is or who Shakespeare is, you have clear evidence of a mostly successful to dumb people down to the point where they are easily swayed and manipulated.
This is, of course, where we find ourselves as Silo opens and progresses, with steady measure and regime crumbling intent, in a world where information-starved orthodoxy reigns, and where people can see the devastation outside via large “windows” strategically dotted up and down the silo and fed by outside sensors which have to be cleaned, quite literally, by dissenters who are tossed out into the arid wastes which quickly kill anyone who ventures out there.
Or do they?
Ah, but that is just one of the deliciously enticing mysteries at the heart of Silo which uses brilliantly realised characters and a methodical but far from boring script to tease out what happens to a people and a place when sheer survival has been achieved and its full import has disappeared in the rearview window of history and it’s been replaced by a system that exists solely to maintain itself.
It’s a corrosively fascist case of tail wagging dog, and much of the power of the narrative is watching what happens when Juliette primarily but others such as her newly-installed deputy Paul Billings (Chinaza Uche) began to question why it is there and not simply accept that it is there at all like all good citizens are supposed to do.
If you’ve read Howey’s books you will know full well why the Silo was put there, but even so, the series, thus far, is so tightly told and atmospherically brought to stultified life that you will be swept up in the great detective that Juliette and the Deckers and others embark on, and be utterly beguiled by a series that knows how good people can be when push comes to shove but how that innate inventiveness and ability to avert calamity can decay and corrode and turn into something ugly and possibly species-destructive in the end.
But is this the end and where will it all lead?
We will no doubt find out in part in the remaining four episodes which run through to 30 June, and no doubt in successive seasons (no official word yet but surely it must be on its way) but for now, we have mystery and hubris and raw humanity all on invigoratingly watchable and narratively nuanced display and its doubtful we’ll be looking away any time soon.