One of the first things you notice about Lights of London, the only official two-part story in the original run of Survivors, is that the series seems to have had a cash injection – while the first two episodes of this series were made on location using video-taped exteriors, this story sees the series go back onto film and into proper TV studios (though not really at the same time). The improvement in both production values and the whole impression left by the series is vast, and you are left regretting that all the episodes weren’t made this way. You can see why they took the decision to invest heavily in this story, though – it’s a definite change of pace, and gives the series a scope which most of these mid-period episodes really lack.
Strangers arrive at Whitecross, claiming to have come from a settlement about a day’s ride away. They say Abby Grant is there, and suffering from sickness which has struck that community, and that she has asked Ruth to come and help. Greg and Charles are initially suspicious, but agree to let Ruth go. Inevitably, it turns out to be a ruse: the visitors are actually from a much larger community in central London, where the services of a doctor are urgently required. Needless to say, Abby is nowhere to be seen.
(Nevertheless, it does seem to genuinely be the case that the London group have met Abby and that she stayed there until comparatively recently. Many questions inevitably arise, such as what she was up to between leaving the manor and arriving in the city, why she never got in touch with her friends, and what’s happened to her since. I can only imagine this is fertile ground for the audio continuation of the series to explore.)
The Londoners are coping relatively well, scavenging the resources of the city, ploughing up the Oval cricket ground to use as farmland, and contending with savage packs of diseased rats. However, a mysterious disease is sweeping through the community, making it a priority that they relocate from the city to the Isle of Wight (an echo, whether conscious or not, of Day of the Triffids, where the survivors eventually make their home on the same island). The settlement’s doctor (Patrick Holt) reveals that he has calculated that only a community of 500 or more people will prove viable long-term, and thus that London, as far as anyone knows, represents the only hope for the survival of the human race.
It doesn’t take Greg long to discover that Ruth has been kidnapped and taken to London, and he and Charles set off to the city intent on rescuing her. They have reckoned without the wider issue of the survival of humanity, however, not to mention the leader of the community, Manny (Sydney Tafler), who does not respond well to threats to his authority.
It’s not just the better production values that make Lights of London distinctive within Survivors’ second series – it’s the whole nature of the piece. I would argue that the series falls into three broad phases – the early episodes deal with individuals and their initial responses to the catastrophe, then there is a long second phase concerned with how people come together and learn to create a functioning community, while the final episodes of the series are more about the different communities developing into something resembling a nation. Lights of London is an odd second-phase story, in that it’s much more of an out-and-out adventure story than anything else, albeit one that takes a little while to get going.
There are plenty of elements here that are part of Survivors’ standard repertoire – community leaders turned ruthless megalomaniacs, the threat of secondary infection, gun battles carried out at a rather stately pace – but I can’t help thinking that Jack Ronder is not quite the man for the job. It’s hard not to wonder what Terry Nation could have done with this premise – it would surely have ended up with more oomph than the version which was actually made.
As it is, this is a story with a brilliant premise – the survivors go back into London and discover a community living in the devastated city – which is actually realised pretty well, given the nature of the series. Obviously, the characters don’t go out and about aboveground very much, but there are just enough scenes set on silent wasteland and in half-blocked streets to convince (and Ronder has a good sense of atmosphere – many of the Londoners have become chain smokers as it helps to block out the ever-present stench of corruption throughout the city). It seems a pretty safe bet that director was recalling the shoot for this story when he was putting together The Sun Makers for Doctor Who a short while later, for some of the same locations appear.
The story itself really lacks the focus it needs to do justice to its potential. There is so much going on here that isn’t properly explored or developed – the London sickness is a plot device more than anything else, and the whole survival-of-the-human-race idea isn’t really explored either. In the end the story is resolved in terms of dealing with Manny’s obsession with retaining control of the London settlement, rather than anything else. By taking Ruth away from London, which by the story’s conclusion has lost most of its competent leaders and administrators, Charles and Greg are arguably endangering the survival of hundreds of people, perhaps even the whole future of humanity, and yet the story doesn’t really address this, even in terms of them consciously choosing to put Whitecross first and the rest of the world second. There’s a bit too much plot and not enough reflection.
And you can kind of make out the perennial problem of second-season Survivors, too, which is that the two main characters of the series are just a bit too similar. There are a few grace notes of difference – Charles is slightly more idealistic and agreeable, and wears a sheepskin coat, Greg is more pragmatic and reserved, and wears a parka – but they generally agree on just about everything and react in very similar ways. You do miss Abby more than ever, although what her contribution would have been in this particular story is impossible to say.
Lights of London doesn’t quite count as a completely missed opportunity, because it has a scale and a polish completely missing from most of the rest of this series’ episodes. Nothing else from the second series is up to the same standard, certainly, though this may say more about the overall quality of the programme at this point, than how good these particular episodes are.