Cult-TV Flashback: The Burning Zone (1996 – 1997)

The Clinton Era (1992 – 2000) represents the golden age of conspiracy and horror genre television.  This development was due in large part to the unexpected and transcendent success of Chris Carter’s The X-Files, which became a ratings hit in the early 1990s and ran for an incredible nine seasons.


In The X-Files’ wake came Nowhere Man (1995 – 1996), Strange Luck (1995 – 1996), American Gothic (1995 – 1996), Dark Skies (1996 – 1997), Millennium (1996 – 1999), Sleepwalkers(1997), Prey (1998), Strange World (1999), and other efforts, including UPN’s The Burning Zone (1996 – 1997).

Created by Coleman Luck, The Burning Zone boasted important antecedents outside The X-Files as well.  The mid-1990s also happened to be the great era of “virus”-centric pop-culture entertainment, from the book The Hot Zone a true-life account of an Ebola outbreak in Virginia — to Outbreak (1995), a horror film which pitted scientists Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Kevin Spacey against hemorrhagic fever in California. 

The Burning Zonebrought a similar premise to TV on a weekly basis: “Today’s battle to save humanity is fought in sterile labs with petri dishes and test tubes for weapons.  Virologists and geneticists are the new warriors,” described Coleman Luck in SFX  #18, November 1996 (page 10).

Accordingly, The Burning Zone, which ran for nineteen hour-long episodes, followed the dangerous missions of a small bio-crisis team dedicated to eradicating new and deadly diseases in what the series described as “The Plague Wars.” 

The team leader was Daniel Cassian (Michael Harris), a no-nonsense doctor with “Level 92” clearance and a firm grip over his emotions.  He was assisted by Dr. Edward Marcase (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a virologist who survived a childhood case of Ebola but lost both parents to the disease.  Edward’s controversial approach to medicine considered the curing of disease a “mystical” experience, a supernatural quest.

Other team members were Kimberly Shiroma (Tamlyn Tomita), a molecular-geneticist-pathologist recruited from the World Health Organization, and Michael Hailey (James Black), the man responsible for the team’s overall security.

After eleven episodes, The Burning Zone endured a dramatic format shift and cast change.  Shiroma and Marcase left the team, replaced by Dr. Brian Taft (Bradford Tatum), a motorcycle-riding, rebellious James Dean-like physician.  The re-boot of the series largely abandoned the (much-criticized) supernatural angle and featured more action-oriented stories.  Only Harris and Black appeared throughout both formats.  Cassian became the primary hero, after playing a kind of Dr. Smith-like thorn in the side for the first run of shows.

As you might well expect, critics were not particularly kind evaluating this genre series.  Writing for The Skeptical Inquirer in May-June of 1998, Peter Huston observed that the series made him “want to throw shoes at the television” and noted that it featured “Snarly fashion-model scientists chasing intelligent hive-mind vampire zombie viruses with flame throwers.” 

And yes, that may be the best line ever written in a TV review.

Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Caryn James opined that the UPN series mostly served to remind viewers just how good The X-Files really was, and noted that The Burning Zone offered “the loopy delights of a cut-rate, over-the-top horror movie.” 

Only Roger Fulton’s and John Betancourt’s The Sci-Fi Channel Encyclopedia of TV Science-Fiction (Warner Books; 1997, page 106) reserved such harsh judgment, calling The Burning Zone a series that “went thought so many transformations in its brief 19-episode run that no viewer who saw the first show would recognize the last.”

I watched The Burning Zone when it aired, and although I wholeheartedly concur with the largely-negative sentiments, I wouldn’t mind seeing the program (along with Sleepwalkers and Prey…) released on DVD. Ever since I first saw it, I’ve always considered The Burning Zone a kind of “disease-of-the-week” show.  But what made it so memorable were indeed the goofy plot-lines and various diseases that had to be cured. 

Among these were ones that caused fear (“The Silent Tower”), rage (“St. Michael’s Nightmare”) spontaneous combustion (“Arms of Fire,”) insanity (“Critical Mass”), skeletal collapse (“Death Song”), hypothyroidism (“The Last Five Pounds are the Hardest”), and hemorrhagic fever (“Night Fever”). 


Other stories dealt with a dimension of death (“Lethal Injection”), the disease that destroyed the Mayan civilization (“Touch of the Dead”), psychic surgery (“Hall of the Serpent”), an occult Nazi weapon called “The Eyes of Odin” (“Midnight of the Carrier”) and a flesh-eating virus (“Elegy for a Dream.”)

The quality that distinguished and perhaps harmed The Burning Zone the most was its insistence on blending hard science with spiritual or religious sub-plots. Most of the protagonists in the series are highly-trained physicians who had gone through years if not decades of training.  Yet in story after story, these men and women of science found themselves exploring the “spirit” in ways they certainly couldn’t have anticipated back at med school. 

Now, if this idea had been applied consistently, intelligently and believably, it could have proved an interesting subtext for the program: medicine vs. spiritualism.   But The Burning Zone never seemed to understand that science had to come first for these doctors working the front lines of the plague war.  One episode involved a cure that was made from the “venomous fruit” of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  It was just…wacky.

“Touch of the Dead” followed a similarly bizarre trajectory.  In this tale, Cassian was infected by a terrible disease with no scientific cure.  He survived because he found a “reason to live:” a healthy soul! 

Next time I’m sick, remind me to save my fifteen dollar co-pay and see if this technique works.

Meanwhile, “Arms of Fire” pushed the same anti-science notion when a boy in danger of spontaneously combusting (!) survived the horrible ordeal by expressing his willingness to pray.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with faith or belief. Only that for a science-oriented series to continually fall back on religion as a basis for its cures is ridiculous.  If this were the direction the show wanted to go in, it should have featured clergy, not scientists, as main characters.

Perhaps the most memorable expression of The Burning Zone’s spiritual philosophy occurred in the installment called “Lethal Injection.”  There, Marcase visited a hellish “after life” dimension after taking an experimental drug.  In the after-life, he encountered whispering, black-shrouded ghosts who could remove a man’s spirit by touch.  But he was protected from the loss of his soul by beings he termed “angels.”  At the end of the episode, Marcase – again, a well-educated scientist, remember– theorized that this alternate dimension was actually an entrance to Hell for angels who had fallen from grace. 

Quite a significant discovery for someone working on a bio-crisis team, huh? I wonder why he never shared his confirmation of a spiritual plane with the rest of the world, however.  Seems like an important thing for the human race to be aware of…

If science and religion didn’t fit together well in the stories, then the science component by itself was a frequent stumbling block on The Burning Zone.  The series relied on the straight-faced belief that a disease could be isolated, diagnosed, cured, and its effect totally reversed in every single episode.  


Though this is drama we’re talking about and some rule bending is necessary and expected, this series simply asked viewers to suspend disbelief too much.  The Burning Zone wanted the audience to believe that this elite medical team could stop outbreaks faster than a speeding bullet.  

On the series, there was never once a disease the doctors couldn’t overcome, and most of the horrible plagues and viruses didn’t even leave behind scars or pock-marks on their victims.  Had some of these horrible diseases left at least a residual indication of their presence, The Burning Zone might have felt a little more real.  Or, maybe it could have taken a three-or-four episode arc to cure a particular disease, showing the process over a period of several weeks or months.  That kind of approach would have been much more true to life as we know it..

As far as the format changes go, The Burning Zone only went from bad to worse.   Visually, the show developed a new visual sheen in its last dozen or so programs, with sudden and largely purposeless zooms, distorted angles, fast-motion photography, hand-held camerawork and so forth.  These stylistic bells and whistles, however, could not hide the basic banality of the new stories.

One episode (“Death Song”) actually re-hashed The Bodyguard (1991) with Hailey protecting and romancing a beautiful rock star.  Another episode was a variation on Duchovny’s Playing God (1997), with Taft forced to administer medical care to a sick gangster. 

At least the original approach — the juxtaposition of the medical with the miraculous – offered something to think about, even if you dismissed it as ridiculous.  The later approach was The Burning Zone…lobotomized.

And believe me, that is really saying something.
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2 responses to “Cult-TV Flashback: The Burning Zone (1996 – 1997)

  1. I remember print ads for this show but for some reason never watched it. Your write-up in your horror TV book of just how scattershot, convoluted, inconsistent, and throw-it-at-the-wall this show was really made me hope that it would appear either on disc or online, and this post only confirms it. Who doesn't love a little train wreck TV from time to time?

  2. Hi Randal,I love that formulation: "train wreck TV." My gosh, that's like the best description ever of The Burning Zone. I wish I had come up with it.Oddly, the show is entertaining entirely on the basis you describe there — scattershot, convoluted, inconsistent and throw-it-at-the-wall. You just kind of gasp in awe at the disastrous quality of the thing.It really is a bizarre program, and MUST be released on DVD.best,John

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