In 1902’s Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling famously explained how the leopard got his spots in what would today be deemed an…
I usually write about a sci fi book or film midsummer. That’s more necessary this summer than ever, when science reality – half a population refusing vaccination inviting natural selection to favor ever-deadlier (and perhaps vaccine-resistant) viral variants – is far more alarming than anything anyone could make up. So I was easily sucked into Katla, a terrific 8-part series on Netflix.
As the first episode opens, it’s a year after a massive eruption of Katla, a volcano that looms over the small seaside village of Vík in southern Iceland, about 115 miles from Reykjavik. Until the blast, a glacier capped Katla. In real life, the human population of the village boomed to 683 in 2018, thanks to increased tourism, but I suspect it may have ebbed again due to the pandemic.
In the show, strange things start to happen among the holdouts who don’t leave the ashy landscape for Reykjavik. Beings begin to stagger out of the hell in the distance, covered in a black goo: animals like birds, cows, and goats, but then people too. And that’s when things begin to get weird, because the people who come forth from the volcano were dead.
A Strange Cast of Characters
It’s a little hard at first to keep the characters straight – Icelandic names, many beginning with G.
A young woman with long flowing hair, Asa, emerges first. She’s covered in volcanic ash.
Then comes Mikael, a disturbed bully who died at age 9, 3 years ago, after setting his school on fire. The doe-eyed Mikael resembles Billy Mumy’s character Anthony Fremont in the old Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” who put terrified adults “in the cornfield,” and Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. Mikael’s parents split up soon after the boy perished in a car accident. “Somehow he’s come back,” observes his father Darri, a geologist. The returned Mikael is even more of a monster.
Gunhild is in her mid-40s, living in Sweden with a disabled son, Bjorn. She goes to Vik to visit Bjorn’s dad, when out of the simmering stuff in the distance strides a 20-something pregnant version of herself. When Gunhild was in her twenties, she worked at the now-decrepit hotel in town. The hostess at the hotel is a mysterious older woman who speaks hauntingly of the folklore about “changelings” and “hidden people.” It seems she has something on Darri and other scientists who are trying to figure things out.
Grima is a depressed young woman, married to a nice, hardworking young man. Her older sister is Asa, the first person out of the volcano. At the end of episode 5, Grima sees “another version of me. I think we are the same person.” Her double shares Grima’s earliest memories, and she’s a lot nicer. The flirty doppleganger goes on to steal Grima’s clueless husband – #1 actually catches #2 in bed with the dolt.
Grima and Asa’s dad is involved with the dual-aged Gunhild. Their mom killed herself when she found her husband with Gunhild, some 20 years ago.
Gisli is the town cop. His wife Magnea appears to be sixtyish and bedbound with a trach tube emerging from her throat. A younger version of Magnea, healthy and minus the tube, struts from the mysterious volcano-glacier. Older Magnea writes to warn her baffled husband that the new arrival is the devil.
Sometime in the narrative, Asa gets a DNA test. Yes, she’s really Asa. “What am I, then?” asks worried Asa #2.
Darri, being a scientist, wants answers. So he ventures out to the crime scene landscape and gingerly lowers himself into a volcanic crevasse. There he sees the black ick that covers the returnees. Faces peer out from it! Bodies are gestating!
Back at the lab, Darri fashions a rock slurry and pours a bit onto a microscope slide. The stuff shimmies and shakes, coalescing and then splitting, like liquid mercury or a cell dividing. It seemingly doubles. Is a rock duplicating human life?
Darri somehow concludes that the material came from a meteorite that was uncovered and exploded to smithereens as the volcano melted off the glacier, like hard chocolate melting off a dipped cone revealing chocolate chips in the ice cream below. It’s Panspermia! Seeding of life from beyond the earth!
So to summarize, we have:
• A boy back from the dead 3 years later.
• Two pairs of women existing simultaneously at two ages.
• One sister back from the dead after a year, and the other dealing with a contemporaneous double stealing her husband.
“I think it’s all connected to Katla,” says the always-serious Grima, who seems more on the ball than the others. “People are duplicating.”
Looking to Classic Sci-Fi For Explanations
As I watched Katla, my mind zipped through my favorite science fiction stories.
At first I thought about Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which body doubles gestate in giant seed pods. But I didn’t see any pods lurking. The time element suggested the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray. Seeing dead people? That’s The Sixth Sense. Asa’s DNA test suggested Jurassic Park’s cloned dinosaurs.
The black meteorite reminded me of a scene in the 1954 sci-fi classic Them!, which had something to do with “gigantic irradiated ants” in tune to the nuclear testing of the 1950s. It also brought to mind an episode of the original Star Trek, The Devil in the Dark, starring a silicon-based life form called a Horta that lived amidst black silicon nodules in a mining colony on planet Janus VI. The episode is famous for Doctor McCoy’s first utterance of “I’m a doctor, not a __________” (bricklayer).
I thought perhaps that the resolution of Katla would turn out to be a fictionalized take on prebiotic earth simulations in which organic polymers knit themselves into being on various clays, also first described in the 1950s. We seem to have more vivid imaginations when we knew less real science.
But sometimes science just doesn’t have an answer, and that turned out to be the case with Katla. No spoilers here, but by the end of the penultimate episode, I began to suspect what was going on, and which character knew what was up. It is a magnificent ending, tying up all the loose ends and confusing characters.
How I wish we would have had a neat, tidy ending to the pandemic, something that quickly reaching herd immunity may have, likely would have, made possible. But vaccine hesitancy enabling the natural selection and spread of a changeling novel pathogen is more terrifying than any science fiction plot.