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Kettering Incident, The

Entry updated 10 November 2023. Tagged: TV.

Australian tv series (2016). Porchlight Films/Sweet Potato Films. Created by Victoria Madden and Vincent Sheehan. Written by Victoria Madden, with Louise Fox, Andrew Knight and Cate Shortland. Directed by Tony Krawitz and Rowan Woods. Continuing cast (usually all 8 episodes) includes Miranda Bennett, Elizabeth Debicki, Suzi Dougherty, Damon Garneau, Damien Garvey, Sacha Horler, Adam Kanneglesser, Matthew Le Nevez, Kevin MacIsaac, Henry Nixon, Anthony Phelan, Sianoa Smit-McPhee. 8 60-minute episodes. Colour.

The Kettering Incident, which is set in Tasmania, cannot be understood without a sense of the landscape that orders and deranges the tale.

Tasmania, a 26,000-square-mile Island in the Tasman Sea south of the main mass of Australia, has the shape of a massive blunt arrowhead aimed at the bottom of the planet. It was initially a convict colony whose graduates (as was long thought) exterminated the island's Aboriginal first inhabitants, the last surviving member of that civilization apparently dying in a camp just north of Kettering in 1876. This small coastal town, site of an historical 1978 UFO "sighting", is the ostensible locale for The Kettering Incident, a narrative whose seemingly deliberate dislocatedness (see below) can only have been intensified for the knowledgeable by the fact that no Aborigine, ghost or living, figures in the story (see Imperialism; Race in SF); and that the original Kettering Incident, though given a sotto voce shout-out (and an easily missed sideways glimpse of a row of tourist snowglobes), is irrelevant to the 2016 story.

Despite a climate that (until recent decades) had been moderate for centuries, Tasmania is a landscape at the end of things. Though it is forested, clement, amply watered, and seemingly trackable, very much like New Zealand, Tasmania in particular gives an impression of an underlying jagged remoteness, of a dislocation in the balance between the land itself and the meagre, clumped settlements of Homo sapiens (hardly more than 600,000 occupiers overall) which cluster, mostly, along its eastern coast: the place is too empty for its beauty; there is a pressure of the uncanny here, of something not human nor yet told. Even cloaked in its deceptive abundance, Tasmania is a proper twin to several photogenic stripped-to-the-bone terminal demesnes at the other end of the world, regions like Iceland or the Scandinavian northlands which seem to tell us, in Nordic noir stories like Fortitude (2015), or at the climax of Sense8 (2015), that the planet will continue, but perhaps (see End of the World) not us. The drama of our tenure on this planet – for two centuries a central concern of Fantastika as a whole – gains unavoidable focus in these too-empty lands at the ends of things, where we stand out like icons of usurpation in a world that does not welcome us, where tales haunted by our past and prophetic of the future can be stripped to the bone and told. Here in the lands at the end of the earth, the past and the future fittingly become visible.

Except for the absence of Aboriginals to inspire any immediate usurper guilt in the cast, The Kettering Incident stands as a comprehensive example of what has become known as Tasmanian Gothic (see Gothic SF), where various aspects of the landscape itself stand in for the gothicized elements of an oppressive past – the castles and cathedrals, the caverns deep Underground, the Labyrinths, the Prisons, the elixirs, the books (see Basilisks; Memes) – that must be escaped; or not. This secret-dense landscape circumambiates enclaves like Kettering which, consistent with Gothic Cliché, are almost impossible to leave (see Crime and Punishment); those who make a temporary escape must to return to face their past. But to confront the past – which in this case is Tasmania itself – risks the exposure of secrets unsupportive of the retention of selfhood. This is consistent with a central noir presumption that self-discovery is unlikely to heal the explorer, any more than Discovery of the nature of the world is going to open one's eyes to Conceptual Breakthrough.

The Kettering Incident begins in London, where 29-year-old Dr Anna Macy (Debicki), exiled from Kettering fifteen years earlier, is increasingly haunted by memories dating back to the days before her banishment, when her "best friend" Gillian (Bennett) (later revealed to be her half-sister) had disappeared while the two children were bicycling in the Taboo primal forest seemingly just outside of town. UFO-like lights accompany this event, and when Anna reappears hours later, alone, she is covered in blood. She is immediately sent to London, where she precociously becomes a doctor specializing in haematology; this interest seems no coincidence. Memories of Gillian's disappearance have haunted her for years; but she is now suffering as well from glitchy fits of Amnesia, and other symptoms of physiological/psychological dysfunction, all of which cause (we initially think) her almost surreal affectlessness, conveyed partly through actor Debicki's ectomorphic height: at moments, when the camera catches the wraithlike drift of her eyes as she floats across the field of vision, the expression on her face has the uncanny blankness of a praying mantis about to feed. This surreal disjunctedness from normal human expressivity persists until the last moment of the last scene of the entire narrative. Her distress is made in London, but then suddenly (the flight is off-screen) Anna returns to Kettering.

She is not made visibly welcome there. Even her father Roy Macy (Phelan) seems uneasy, though he allows her to use her fatally ill mother's Jaguar, an incongruous vehicle to drive in what seems to be the backwoods, though we soon realize that the fictional Kettering we see on screen is itself as surreal as Anna. The real Kettering is a small coastal town, a shopping centre for local farmers, and a suburban adjunct of Hobart twenty miles north. Shots taken on location in this amiable Kettering are occasionally visible; but in order to recast Kettering as a company town dependent on a logging industry in terminal crisis, while simultaneously suffering from an inexplicable psychic tsunami whose source lies deep within Tasmania, the makers of The Kettering Incident have significantly stretched any understanding of what "location shooting" normally means. Sequences set in and abutting the primal forest where Gillian had disappeared were shot at Mount Field National Park, nearly 100 miles north-west of the real Kettering; the astonishingly beautiful rock formation thrusting swordlike from the primal sea can be found in the Tasman Peninsula, a long ways to the south; scenes involving logging were shot in and around the Norsk Skoge paper mill, near New Norfolk, a long ways to the northwest; hospital scenes were shot in Hobart. No cinematic cutting legerdemain is applied to smooth over these locational disjuncts: but this is clearly deliberate. The makers of The Kettering Incident had more than the exigencies of location shots in mind. The Kettering we catch discontinuous glimpses of is an exquisite corpse of the real Kettering. It is as much a real town as Anna Macy is a real person.

Most of the people she encounters – the narrative requires a large cast – are conspicuously ill-at-ease in her presence, an affect intensified by the film-makers' refusal to reveal the storyline to the actors in advance, so that although most of them know they are playing liars, they don't necessarily know at any single point whether they're lying or not. None are as dislocated as Anna, however, whose Mysterious Stranger role is undermined from the first by a sense that she herself may be at greater risk than those she is now distressing by her intrusion. The storyline, which is complicated, unfolds into several discordant unravellings. The history of Anna's family, and the infidelities and other betrayals that stain her relations with them, are unpacked, more or less mundanely. The slow exposure of the criminal activities of one police officer, Brian Dutch (Le Nevez), and the slow toughening of his colleague, Fergus McFadden (Nixon), are counterpointed with the murder of another of Anna's friends, Chloe Holloway (Smit-McPhee), and the solution to the crime, which is again mundane. The disastrous collapse of the local mill, caused in part by "Greenie" opposition to the logging of an old-growth forest, plays out against revelations of mill-owner Max Holloway (Garvey)'s criminal activities, once again mundane. But all this mundanity is a scrim draped over the abyss.

Only one major figure in The Kettering Incident seems at least initially free of the entanglements of storyline that occupy the foreground (or scrim) of the eight episodes. Jens Jorgensson (Gameau), a vaguely defined scientist with a watching brief over events in the forest, seems something of a floater, and is indeed indistinctly characterized until almost too late. But it slowly becomes clear that he is somehow aware of or implicated in various seemingly unnatural phenomena: a growing plague of giant moths; hospital patients whose blood types change impossibly; vines whose growth is savagely rapid. A certain amount of colour-coding, reminiscent of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (1999), seems to be creating a secret map of transformation sites, patterns seemingly replicated in totemic scar patterns on the flesh of members of the cast, including Anna. Though it seems at points about to fall into the trap that scuppered Lost (2004-2010) – that is, a quicksand of proliferating plotlines whose only connecting tissue was unearned ontological Paranoia – the last episodes of The Kettering Incident seem to focus on a central pattern. The unageing Jorgensson, who was involved in other "incidents" decades earlier, seems either to be an Alien or the avant-courier of an Invasion (Tasmanian Gothic stories generally revolve around intrusions or larger-scale attempts to violate the inner mysteries of the island; stories set at the ends of the earth are likely to be stories about visitants). Whatever his actual nature, his role seems in part to monitor the planetary Disaster represented in small by Kettering, where the fragility of Homo sapiens's grasp on reality is dramatically evident. "The human's time is over ... there's nothing you can do for them." More specifically, he has been busying himself in something like Genetic Engineering, in the creation of Mutations (hence the moths), and in the manufacturing of something like Clones. Kettering is a town psychically dislocated, it may be, by experiments in creating a successor species. The future may not belong to us (a second series may amplify or contradict this intuition).

In the final shots of The Kettering Incident, Anna confronts her mirror image, another Anna, except that the other Anna is clearly human. At this moment, all the disjointednesses of the tale sea-change into a dark harmony: for if the other Anna is clearly human, "our" Anna is not. [JC]


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