The second season of Survivors, first broadcast in 1976, was made after the departure of both head writer and creator Terry Nation, and lead actor Carolyn Seymour. This leaves the sensibility of producer Terence Dudley as the main influence on the series – along with that of Jack Ronder, who is effectively the new head writer, on the first half of the second series at least.
The first episode, Birth of a Hope, moves the show onto a new footing with more speed than elegance. Seven or eight months have passed since the end of the first series; Jenny is now heavily pregnant with Greg’s child, and Greg himself is now the unchallenged leader of the community at the manor, Abby having long since departed following the news of her son at the end of series 1. The manor’s resident doctor, Ruth (recast as Celia Gregory), is travelling between the different communities putting her medical expertise to best use.
The episode opens with Greg visiting another community to do a little trading and look for Ruth, as Jenny’s delivery is imminent. The new community is Whitecross, overseen by Charles Vaughan, whom we last saw as a post-apocalyptic cult leader and would-be patriarch in Ronder’s Corn Dolly. Charles has calmed down a bit in the intervening twelve months but still has plenty of ideas about reconstructing society and building up the community; his new girlfriend Pet (Lorna Lewis) even asks him why he doesn’t do more to make Greg combine the manor commune with Whitecross.
Well, the scriptwriter clearly had a similar idea, plus the advantage of omnipotence (well, within the limits of a BBC budget, anyway), and while Greg is away a fire breaks out at the manor and it burns to the ground: the only surviving survivors (if you see what I mean) are Jenny, Paul, Arthur, and the children. Rather against his will, Greg is forced to lead them all back to Whitecross and take up residency there as part of Charles’ group.
There is a bit of tension concerning the search for Ruth, and the question of whether she’ll be back by the time that Jenny’s baby begins to make an appearance, but that’s pretty much it in terms of the major beats of the action in this episode. With Nation’s penchant for shotgun-toting action-adventure excised, and the potential for character conflict in the Abby-Greg dynamic banished along with Carolyn Seymour, all that’s left is rather low-concept character drama. Birth of a Hope is not a particularly great episode title; Birth of a Soap is arguably even worse, but more accurate even so.
Paul laments the fact he doesn’t have a girlfriend, Arthur laments all the terrible things he has witnessed in his time, new character Pet has a fairly uninvolving row with new character Hubert (John Abineri) about who is responsible for the community pigs. Pet is a slightly odd character, by turns Earth Mother and happy chick who suggests to Greg that they could have ‘a lovely time’ together in the post-apocalyptic community. Hubert, on the other hand, just seems to be a nuisance yokel very much in the mould of Tom Price – John Abineri was one of those great character actors who never really got the recognition he deserved, but this is hardly a great vehicle for his talents.
The main event, however, is the relationship between Greg and Charles, which is a pretty even mixture of alpha-male sparring and peculiar bromance. I suppose there is a difference in their leadership styles – Charles is always making passionate speeches about the way ahead, while Greg mainly seems to function by being very patronising to everyone else around him. This is not the most sympathetic depiction of one of our main characters: he doesn’t seem particularly bothered that his friend Abby disappeared over six months earlier, just saying ‘it’s easier with only one boss’. The scene where he sits the children down and carefully explains to them how Emma, Charmian, and all the other first season characters died of smoke inhalation is also a bit of an eye-opener; one imagines that child psychiatry will be a bit of a boom industry at Whitecross over the next few years. The chief plot driver is the fact that Charles and Greg are both used to being the boss and unwilling to share their authority, even if this means Greg considering dragging his family across country in search of a new place to live, rather than staying at Whitecross. You know from the start that this isn’t really an option; as a result the episode comes across as almost wholly procedural, not even bothering to have a recognisable climax.
It hardly qualifies as a two-parter, either, as the stay-or-go issue is resolved five minutes into Don Shaw’s Greater Love (basically, Jenny says ‘I want to stay’ and Greg says ‘Oh, all right then’). This is a better episode, though it definitely feels like the work of someone unfamiliar with the series. Jenny has had her baby, but post-natal complications are setting in. Meanwhile, it is established that Ruth and Paul have become all loved-up, and there is a scene about shooting a horse with a broken leg, which is possibly one of the least subtle pieces of foreshadowing in screen history.
Well, then we are on to the meat of the story, for Jenny falls properly ill and Ruth decides she needs certain medical supplies in order to treat her; supplies that can only be found in a major city. Paul volunteers to ride off to the necropolis of Birmingham and get the necessaries, partly because Greg should stay with Jenny, partly – it’s implied – to impress Ruth, but mainly because the plot requires it. While he’s away we have the introduction of a new character, Jack the carpenter (Gordon Salkilld), which is an entertaining scene, and children’s story time with Arthur, which isn’t, really.
(I suppose we should consider just exactly where Whitecross is supposed to be: a day’s ride from Birmingham, apparently, and about fifty miles from where the manor used to be. Unfortunately all we ever heard about the manor’s location was that it was apparently ‘close to Apcaster’, which is not entirely useful as Apcaster is a) apparently prone to spontaneously move around the map, or at least radically change its size, if Spoil of War is to be believed and b) entirely fictional. I suspect the main reason for sending Paul off on an ill-fated mission to Birmingham, rather than London, is that most of the main characters visit the capital in the next couple of episodes and manage to return in one piece.)
Eventually Paul reappears, but the problem is that along with medical supplies, he has brought something else back from the ruins: mutated drug-resistant bubonic plague, which is quite capable of wiping out the community. He is put into quarantine while everyone convenes around Charles’ kitchen table to decide what to do next. Here is where things ring a bit false in the episode: everyone present agrees that they should put the survival of the community ahead of their concerns for Paul, even if that means putting him out of his misery. The one exception is Greg, who for once is not the brutal pragmatist we have come to know and feel mildly affectionate towards – he insists they have a moral duty to try and help him. Was this part of a conscious attempt to soften Greg up a bit and make him more sympathetic? Or had Don Shaw just not read the writer’s bible very thoroughly? It’s hard to be sure.
Well, you can probably guess the end, especially given that Chris Tranchell, who plays Paul, realised that the series couldn’t sustain too many male leads and opted to go out in a blaze of glory. More just a blaze, actually: the problem with the climactic scenes of the episode is that the relationship at their centre was established in about two scenes less than an hour earlier. Had the Paul-Ruth relationship been allowed to develop over a longer period, the climax might have actually carried some emotional weight. As it is, we get another crashingly unsubtle scene where a child’s birthday party is disrupted by the incineration of Paul’s recently-euthanised corpse; I suppose it’s some kind of miracle that the fact that Paul gets mercy-killed by the love of his life on his own actual birthday isn’t dwelt upon at greater length. Set against all that, the dialogue in this episode is rather more naturalistic than is usual for the series.
The first two episodes of the second series of Survivors are not the subtlest in TV history – you can almost hear the gears crunching as the series changes tack, and format. The death toll amongst established secondary characters is astonishingly high, surpassing even a typical Blake’s 7 season finale. For a series predicated on the notion that there is a definite shortage of people in the UK, the writers of Survivors kill their characters off with a certain nonchalance much of the time: you can almost imagine a Galactica-esque flipchart in Terence Dudley’s office, slowly counting down the total UK population as all those shotgun battles and secondary infections gradually take their toll. Still, the series works best with a distinct flavour of action-adventure, so I suppose we shouldn’t grumble about this too much.