A few weeks ago, Lost in Translation looked at Alien Nation and the difference between film and TV. The Alien Nation TV series got into more world building and character development than the original film could, thanks to the time a TV series can provide over a film’s 120 minutes run length. Movie’s main strength is delivering a spectacle bigger than life, but blockbuster leaves little time for introspection. TV has time to spare.
Another science fiction movie and subsequent TV series also shows the difference. The 1990 film, Tremors, spun off into a franchise with four sequels, a prequel, and a TV series. Tremors is a monster movie, inspired by older B-movies, with writing that shows the writers are well aware of what normally happens in such movies. Starring Kevin Bacon as Val McKee, Fred Ward as Earl Bassett, Finn Carter as Rhonda LeBeck, Reba McIntyre as Heather Gummer, and Michael Gross as Burt Gummer, Tremors tells the story about a monster attack on the town of Perfection, Nevada.
As the movie unfolds, Val and Earl discover the existance of a subterranean monster. They rescue geology student Rhonda and return to Perfection to spread the word of the danger. The townsfolk dub the monsters “Graboids” for lack of a better word, but do ask Rhonda about them. She guesses that they are prehistoric, having never appeared in the fossil record. The townsfolk learn quickly about how graboids hunt – they sense their prey using soundwaves carried through the ground. Graboids can burrow quickly under soft soil, but hard rock stops them. One is killed by forcing it to run into a hard rock outcropping. Another breaks in the wrong goddamn rec room. Yet another is killed by luring it with thrown stones before tossing a pipe bomb for it to eat. The problem is, graboids are smart and can learn. What works with one won’t work with the next.
The movie had a strong cast, with Michael Gross playing against his previous role of Steven Keaton on Family Ties, the complete opposite of Burt Gummer. Ariana Richard played Mindy and would later play Kathy in Spaced Invaders and Lex in Jurassic Park. Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, and Finn Carter had amazing on-screen chemistry together. Boosting the strong cast was a well written script that had the light touch of humour along with the action and scares a monster movie needs. Finally, the graboids weren’t front and centre. The tension in the film came from not knowing when a graboid would appear, leaving a lot to the imagination to the audience, similar to how /Jaws/ worked around the problems of the mechanical shark.
A cult classic in the 90s naturally spawns direct-to-video sequels. Tremors 2: Aftershocks was released in 1996 and brought back Fred Ward and Michael Gross to deal with graboids at a Mexican oil refinery. Earl went after the $50 000 reward and, when he realized how severe the problem was, called in Burt. However, the graboids themselves had a twist. While Earl and Burt were ready to deal with graboids, the monsters went through a change. Part of the graboid life cycle sees a different form, shriekers, tear out of the monster as part of reproduction. Shriekers hunt on the ground, seeking out prey using its heat sense, and tend to multiply with the more they eat. Burt and Earl are over-gunned for the situation, leading to creative use of heat and explosives to deal with the shrieker incursion.
Tremors 3: Return to Perfection was a 2001 direct-to-video that saw the survivors of the original film return, including Ariana Richardson as Mindy, Charlotte Stewart as Nacy, Mindy’s mom, Robert Jayne as Melvin, Tony Genaro as Miguel, and introduced new characters Jodi Chang (Susan Chung), niece of Walter and the new owner of Walter’s store and Jack Sawyer (Shawn Christian), who has started a graboid tour for tourists. Of course, Burt Gummer is still around. This time around, it’s the shriekers who have a new twist. As part of graboid reproduction, shriekers begin a moulting process to turn into a new form, one capable of launching itself and gliding for distances. This new form is dubbed “Ass-blasters” by Jodi. Ass-blasters complete the reproduction cycle by carrying a graboid egg, and their ability to glide allows them to take the egg far from the original hunting grounds.
When Burt returns to Perfection, he finds out that there are a few problems happening. Three graboids are in the area as are a number of shrikers and, soon, a number of ass-blasters. Each form as their ideal means of eradication, and each form learns. Burt and the townsfolk fight off the shriekers and ass-blasters and two of the graboids, The US Department of the Interior steps in, though, as graboids are an endangered species. The final graboid,an albino one dubbed “El Blanco” is placed under protection. An uneasy truce exists between Perfection, now federally protected land, and El Blanco. However, an ass-blaster does survive the film, having been captured and sold by Nancy to fund Mindy’s college tuition.
Over the course of the first three movies, there is a lot of worldbuilding. Once graboids became known to the general public, tourism started. Walter Chang’s ideas of creating graboid merchandise isn’t far fetched. There is worldbuilding and a cult following. The SciFi channel needed a new series, and with the producers working on a Tremors series, the inevitable happened. Tremors: The Series began airing on SciFi in 2003. While the order of episodes got jumbled, it didn’t affect the series as much as Fox’s maltreatment of Firefly.
Characters from Tremors 3 returned, though with new actors. Lela Lee took over as Jodi Chang and Marcia Strassman picked up the role of Nancy. Mindy was off at college, as set up by Tremors 3. Robert Jayne, though, returns as Melvin Plug, a role he had in the original Tremors. New characters came in as well, with Victor Browne’s Tyler Reed buying Desert Jack’s Graboid Adventure tour business and Gladise Jimenez as Rosalita Sanchez who bought a ranch in the area to get away from her Vegas life. Dean Norris portrayed WD Twitchell, the Department of the Interior agent assigned to keep an eye on El Blanco. However, only one man could be Burt Gummer.
The first three filmed episodes, “Feeding Frenzy”, “Shriek and Destroy”, and “Blast from the Past” act as reminders of what the graboids, shriekers, and ass-blasters can do. It doesn’t take long for El Blanco to claim a victim in the first episode, and Tyler almost became the second if not for the timely intervention of Burt. Twitchell from time to time has Burt and Tyler investigate possible graboid sightings elsewhere, seeing that Gummer is the foremost expert on hunting graboids.
Tremors: The Series explores the idea of living in an area where there is a man-eating monster lurking around and how the townsfolk adapt to the threat. The series also looks at how the rest of the world reacts to the idea of graboids. For the most part, the graboids are an oddity. People in the know treat them as a threat, but graboids are an endangered species. There are extreme fans of both El Blanco and Burt Gummer. There are animal rights activists trying to free the graboid. Everything is within the realm of possibility if giant man-eating worms lurked under the ground.
There is also a mini-arc of episodes dealing with Mixmaster, a method of conjoining DNA from various animals. While the graboids aren’t results of the secret experiments, being older than fossils, other creatures that appear in and near Perfection are, creating a threat to not just the town but the world. Key behind Mixmaster is Cletus Poffenberger (Christopher Lloyd), who has been monitoring the situation for several decades. Even Burt was unaware of a secret corporate facility in the valley.
The TV series allows the cast and crew to explore the relationships between the townsfolk of Perfection, where they get along and where they don’t. Burt and Nancy represent the history of the town. Jodi is very much her uncle’s niece, to the point where Nancy gave her a back-handed compliment about being better suited as a CEO for a multi-national corporation. Rosalita and Tyler are the newcomers trying to adjust to life in a town where death is always underfoot and each of them reacts differently.
The casting is strong, in all of main, guest, and supporting cast. The characters are treating the situation as serious, even if the audience is being allowed to laugh at situations. It wouldn’t be a Tremors TV series without Burt, the breakout character from the original movie, thanks to Michael Gross’ portrayal of him. The writing maintains the mix of action, humour, and tension that the movies introduced, still nodding to the B-movie monster movies while remembering modern sensibilities.
/Tremors: The Series/ follows the previous movies seamlessly. What helps is having the same creative team continuing to tell the story of Perfection. They are familiar with the characters, the setting, and the premise, and can build upon all of that while still remaining true to the original. The series gives space to expand the Tremors-verse and make the world a little more weird. Like Alien Nation: The Series, Tremors: The Series takes advantage of the TV format to expand the world and dig deeper into the setting and the characters, something the films didn’t have time to do.