Posts Tagged ‘A Friend in Need’

After the ructions at the start of the series and the big-budget trip to London, the second year of Survivors becomes rather more bucolic and laid-back with a run of episodes which are more representative of the new format, the first of which is Don Shaw’s The Face of the Tiger.

The community is approached by a man calling himself Alistair McFadden (John Line), who was directed to them by – the survivors assume, based on slightly threadbare evidence – Jimmy Garland. (All these call-backs to first season characters and the building up of the mystery of what Abby’s been doing would make sense if they actually led anywhere, but as they don’t they’re at best baffling, at worst annoying.) Everyone is delighted to learn that Alistair is an expert on herbal medicine, making him a valuable addition to the settlement. Not only this, but he is clearly intelligent, sensitive, and educated.

Also part of the community, of course, is Hubert, who is a very obvious replacement for Tom Price (working class, poor personal hygiene, barely tolerated by everyone else) – producer Terence Dudley killed Price off, feeling it was inappropriate to have an unpunished murderer among the regular characters (especially as the comic relief), and presumably introduced Hubert to take his place. Hubert is a discontent, a trouble-maker, and a pain in the neck to everyone else. Hubert takes poorly to what he sees as the preferential treatment given to the newly-arrived Alistair, which results in trouble when he rummages through Alistair’s possessions and discovers a newspaper clipping. It reveals that before the plague, Alistair was sent to prison for the murder of a child, and now they have a killer living in their midst. When confronted, he claims to have been ‘cured’ – but then John goes missing.

The Face of the Tiger seems like an oddly underpowered episode on first viewing, but a little reflection suggests that it is intended to repeat the success of Law and Order, from the first season, only with some of the more provocative elements of the story removed (the wrongful execution of a man with learning difficulties, that sort of thing) – there’s even a call-back to the earlier episode when Greg darkly says that he’s not going to go through with another murder trial. However, it falls victim to the Baby/Bathwater effect. The new story touches on issues of guilt and punishment in a post-apocalyptic world, but there isn’t an actual crime, and never any real sense of the characters being forced into making a serious or difficult moral choice. John Line does a good job of portraying Alistair as a man who, for all his intelligence and learning, perhaps isn’t quite all there and isn’t really able to function in society, but the contrast between the gentle and thoughtful Alistair, who refuses to stay, and the coarse and objectionable Hubert, who refuses to leave, is not subtly drawn.

On to The Witch, which marks the mid-point of the series’ episode run, sort of (episode 19 of 38), the termination of Jack Ronder’s association with the programme, and also its nadir. Now, some people have attempted to defend this one on the grounds that it was the first episode of the series to go in front of the cameras (Jenny does not appear, as Lucy Fleming was on maternity leave at the time) and the actors were still coming to grips with their characters, but that doesn’t excuse the scripting going on here.

Not a great deal is going on at Whitecross, with several of the characters off on a salt collecting expedition. Charles-and-Greg are trying to get the old watermill running again (we may as well refer to them as Charles-and-Greg as they have virtually no independent existence this week), while Hubert is showing how fully he has grown into the Tom Price niche by becoming a full-blown sex pest, bothering Mina (Delia Paton), the settlement’s slightly eccentric single mother. Not surprisingly, as he is generally disagreeable and smells bad, she is not interested.

Hubert, of course, is not prepared to let it lie, and tries to cover up his stalking of Mina by telling the children she is a witch. A series of odd coincidences actually give credence to this notion, always assuming you are clinically brain dead, and it seems that several members of the community are just that. Well, it’s nice to see that Charles’ plans to restore civilisation are going so well: blindly ignorant prejudice is making a big comeback. And so, it seems, are patronising liberal elites, for Charles-and-Greg and Ruth are smugly dismissive of the concerns of the less-well-educated members of the community, who are naturally mostly working class. That said, nobody comes out of this episode looking particularly good – at one point Mina runs away into the night, and the search party sent to search for a woman upset that everyone thinks she’s a witch is basically a mob waving flaming torches. Hmmm.

You can see that Jack Ronder is once again touching on some of the same themes of Earth Abides: in this case, the retreat of rationalism and the return of superstition. The problem is that the book operates on a timescale of decades, and it’s the first generation born after the plague who really display this: this episode is set less than eighteen months after the disaster. I know we’re all supposed to be only three meals away from anarchy, but eighteen months away from a medieval mindset? Hmmm. The main problem isn’t that the episode is unconvincing, it’s that it’s actually just dull and even somewhat embarrassingly primitive. Given all the good work Jack Ronder earlier did on the series, this is a sorry way for him to make his departure.

There’s a radical improvement in the next episode, A Friend in Need, which was written by Ian McCulloch himself – apparently the actor also felt the second series suffers from losing the action-adventure elements running through the first year, for this is an efficient little thriller with some eye-opening moments.

As it starts, Charles and Greg (they are much better differentiated here) are hosting a conference of local settlement representatives; this is apparently not the mutual defence alliance which seemed on the verge of forming at the end of the first series. Greg is his usual charming self and manages to piss off most of the visiting delegates, making progress limited, but news arrives that a woman at one of the other settlements has been murdered – and by an outsider, using a rifle at long range.

Greg and Charles get all CSI: Post-Apocalypse and discover the killer has something wrong with their legs; further investigation reveals the sniper has been travelling cross-country for months, killing women at regular intervals. Whitecross is next in line for a visit, but Jenny has a disquieting thought – could the crippled, woman-hating killer be their old associate Vic Thatcher, having survived the fire at the manor and finally gone completely insane?

Well, the procedural elements of the story are well-handled, for the most part – the way in which the climax (Greg sets off to confront the killer, not suspecting that his shotgun has been rendered non-functional) is brought about is perhaps a tiny bit clunky, but this may be more down to the child acting involved than anything else.

What makes the story a little more memorable are some interesting character moments – the Greg from Face of the Tiger who didn’t want to see another murder trial is still here, inasmuch as he’s gone into full Pale Rider mode and bluntly advocates a shoot-to-kill policy as far as the sniper is concerned. When the others suggest that trying to work out why the killer appears to have a particular issue with women, he is openly scornful of them and accuses them of caring more about the sniper than his victims. The loss of some ‘civilised values’ is for the best, announces Greg, the implication being that we can all stop worrying about prisoners’ rights and the value of rehabilitation and just put a bullet in the guilty party. One wonders to what extent McCulloch is using Greg as a mouthpiece for his own views – you can’t imagine the BBC broadcasting something like this nowadays, certainly.

Greg does seem permanently angry in this episode, anyway: he gets angry with the visiting leaders, he gets angry with his own people several times, he’s obviously angry with the killer throughout… though he does get one great line, too, when Arthur is rather long-windedly relating an anecdote from his own childhood which may be of relevance, and Greg asks if he wants the children bringing in for storytime. This is very much Greg as the Judge Dredd of post-apocalyptic Britain, a sardonic, self-assured figure surrounded by people who somehow don’t have the guts to do what’s necessary.

Which in this case is to half-garrotte a crippled woman, another scene which has some curious undertones to it. The revelation that the sniper is indeed female is a curve ball which doesn’t quite work, not least because the character is obviously played by a male actor, but also because… well, it just feels inserted for shock value, there’s been nothing to suggest it and it adds very little to the story (we don’t even get to see the killer ourselves). Nevertheless, a superior episode as far as this series goes.


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