I've been a huge fan of Derren Brown's work since he exploded onto Channel 4 about 10 years ago, bringing his psychological illusions and mind trickery to the Great British Public. His impact on magic can't be underestimated and, for my money, eclipses what David Blaine did for street magic in the late-'90s. The only problem Derren faces is the growing feeling that every TV series/special he comes up with is just a twist on something he did years before, or at the very least an embellishment of an old trick. I guess there are only so many ways of hoodwinking people, or using hypnotism/suggestion to manipulate people into doing extraordinary things. It hasn't been a huge problem yet, mainly because the new wrinkles Derren's creative team dream up are always entertaining—even if the underlying principles and mechanics feel recycled.
Apocalypse is one of Derren Brown's most ambitious projects, and it's essentially a hybrid of a Trick of the Mind stunt (where a man playing a zombie arcade game was put into a trance and awoken inside a warehouse full of people dressed as zombies from the game), and the Hero At 30,000 Feet special (where a loner was secretly conditioned to make him take courageous action when there was an in-flight emergency aboard a passenger jet). In Apocalypse, lazy 21-year-old Steven, who lives at home with his family and has an apathetic approach to life, became the unwitting star of a Beadle's About-style hidden camera prank—to firstly make him believe the world's at risk of destruction from a meteor shower, and finally that he's one of a handful of survivors in a zombie apocalypse.
While there was nothing very new about what Derren was going here, it was nevertheless an incredibly entertaining hour. The quieter moments watching Steven go about his days—unaware that bogus info was being fed to him about a freak meteor shower (via a hacked phone and faked news reports)—was pretty entertaining in itself, but then it kicked into Candid Camera-does-The Walking Dead. Steven's coach trip to a Killer's gig was hit by various meteors, until he was put into a trance by incognito passenger Derren, only to awaken inside an abandoned RAF base in a green medical gown. From there, Steven was shown a looped TV report advising survivors to leave the impact zone of England and head for Wales or Scotland, before meeting a teenage survivor who's the first of three Wizard of Oz-esque people to guide Steven down a path of self-discovery. The second was Scottish paramedic Ian, who helped them both escape a facility full of zombies in his ambulance.
The reasoning behind Apocalypse felt woolly (there must be easier ways to get someone out of a dead-end rut), so it was rather more obvious this special was for the pleasure of the audience. It was definitely a spectacle with a clichéd but enjoyable narrative, and great fun watching Steven's reactions to the unthinkable events. Maybe that's the key to all this: people like watching things that are dramatic but also authentic, so to witness a young man who truly thinks he's in the midst of a real-life 28 Days Later scenario was a vicarious thrill. That's despite the fact Steven's reactions were sometimes so plausible they felt oddly unlikely at times—perhaps because we've been conditioned by fiction to think people act differently when facing the end of the world. Steven barely spoke more than a few sentences throughout the whole hour, and you got the feeling some of Derren's manipulations weren't having the desired effect half the time... because Steven needed so much prompting from the actors to go down particular paths.
That said, this was only the first half of a two-part special, and Steven obviously had a lot to take in with this dense opening. I hope the concluding half shows more development and a tangible change in his personality, as he becomes more confident and compassionate in these crazy circumstances.
If nothing else, Derren Brown's antics always get you talking, even if they're not always wholly original or especially convincing. They make fantastic pub talk with your friends, and this was definitely a TV special you can imagine discussing with work colleagues after the weekend. Derren's tricks may be getting repetitive, and there's been an undoubted shift towards elaborate hidden camera stunts in recent years, but he still has the ability to glue the nation to their TVs and become a hot topic. Apocalypse probably won't catch the national consciousness like his notorious live Russian Roulette show, or his prediction of the live Lottery numbers, but it's another expertly realised treat for his many fans.