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Posts Tagged ‘Gone Away’

It’s probably an exaggeration to say that all classic British TV from the 1970s is essentially about the class system, but it certainly seems to have been on a lot of people’s minds – sitcoms, in particular, are virtually powered by class differences and relationships between people of different social strata. Drama, too – even if it’s only to the extent that stock characters seem to be partly defined by their class origins.

Survivors sets out to be explicitly about the nature of its post-viral society, so it’s not really surprising that it does touch upon some issues of how people from different social backgrounds respond differently to the post-catastrophe world. On the whole, though, the show is just a bit too much of a product of its time to really make a success of this.

If the first episode, The Fourth Horseman, is essentially about the fall of civilisation, then the next two, Genesis and Gone Away, deal with the immediate aftershock as the characters come to terms with the fact they have survived and try to work out what to do next. There’s a fairly strong procedural element to these episodes, as they partly function to set up the format for the rest of the first series, and in particular the central trio of Abby, Greg, and Jenny.

trio

Genesis opens with Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch), an engineer, arriving back in the UK via a helicopter he has appropriated, thus making clear he is a capable, resourceful, pragmatic individual. However, evidence that he is not your typical SF series hero comes as he returns to his home to find his wife has died of the plague. While Greg doesn’t quite start celebrating, he definitely isn’t overwhelmed by grief, either – this was clearly an unhappy marriage, and Greg so often comes across as harsh, sour, and abrasive that it’s entirely possible this was his fault. Why has he bothered to return? The crack in Greg’s armour is, I suppose, the fact that having taken on a responsibility, he can never quite bring himself to abandon it.

This ties into the Greg-plotline of this episode, in which he encounters a young woman named Anne (played by Myra Frances), who comes across as not being a million miles away from the public perception of the late Tara Palmer-Tompkinson – Anne has clearly grown up in circumstances of great privilege, and is very determined to hang on to as many of the good things in life as she can. Her partner in this scheme was a man named Vic (Terry Scully), but an accident which occurred while he was setting up their refuge has left him with two badly-broken legs.

Greg and Anne grimly contemplate the nature of their new world, and the shortage of medical care, even decent painkillers – ‘God help us if we even get tooth-ache,’ Greg mutters at one point. But he is at least a realist: Anne still has visions of remaining wealthy, in a way – she is depicted rather flatly as a spoilt rich girl. In the end Greg decides to move on, even though this will mean leaving Vic in the care of Anne, who is clearly deeply self-centred.

And, sure enough, shortly after Greg drives away, Anne walks out on Vic, ignoring his desperate cries for help as he crawls, in agony, after her. It’s a shockingly brutal moment, and the beat which follows is nearly as disturbing. Anne encounters Greg again, who has returned to drop off some painkillers, and when asked flatly claims that Vic is dead. Greg is clearly incredulous at this rather convenient (for Anne) development, but does he bother to spend a few minutes checking Vic really has died? He does not. He doesn’t want the burden of caring for an invalid any more than she does.

Running through this episode and the next one is another storyline, which is initially unconnected – while Greg is dealing with Anne and Vic (and Jenny is wandering round a series of film sequences), Abby encounters another group of survivors who are beginning to organise. They are led by Arthur Wormley (George Baker), a former trade union leader, and for all his talk of re-establishing social order, Abby is repelled by the brutal methods he and his followers employ – his Emergency Committee has taken to seizing the property of other survivors for the common good, and executing dissidents. (Abby also gets to make virtually the same speech about self-sufficiency as Bronson from episode one, for any viewers who have either forgotten or missed it.)

Wormley is really an example of a stock Survivors character, in the first series at least: the small man turned post-apocalyptic despot. I think it’s telling that he’s both a trade unionist and played by Baker with a regional accent, rather than the RP which Abby, Greg and Jenny all use. There’s all kinds of social and political coding going on here, with the spectre of a form of communism, spawned in the provinces, being raised. Needless to say Abby runs a mile from Wormley and his crew, and meets up with Greg and Jenny at its conclusion.

Some of the ideas in Gone Away are a bit more thoughtful, but there is still a lot about this episode which is problematic. For one thing, it opens with a long, almost wordless sequence of a farmhouse being looted by the tramp Tom Price (Talfryn Thomas), a minor character from the previous episodes. This looks very much like padding, inserted to fill out a thin script, and – given some of the stories about Terry Nation’s work ethic – I wonder if the title isn’t actually an ironic reference to the fact that the writer had in fact Gone Away on holiday leaving only two-thirds of an episode with the production team.

The main part of the episode deals with Abby, Greg, and Jenny making a trip to get supplies for their proposed community (Greg is hanging around for now, but still insists he’ll be leaving soon), only to find the supermarket they visit has been claimed by Wormley’s Emergency Committee. As chance would have it, a group of Wormley’s men turn up while they’re there, and a tense stand-off ensues, as Abby refuses to accept their authority (but their rivals are the ones with guns). Greg initially remains noncommittal, but eventually throws in his lot with Abby and Jenny, enabling the trio to escape.

goneaway

What’s initially interesting about this set-up is that the argument made by the leader of the Committee men, Long (Brian Peck), is actually quite reasonable: there should be some central authority in place to stop people from looting all the available food supplies for themselves, shouldn’t there? Acknowledging authority is one of the bases of society, after all. Later on, Abby admits to a moment of existential doubt, wondering if they are in fact in the wrong.

Fear not, Abby, for the episode makes it easy for you: whatever moral high ground the antagonists may have claim to, they are still depicted as a gang of brutal shotgun-toting thugs, with unsavoury designs on Abby and Jenny’s persons. It’s not just the toffs who are a rum lot in Survivors, you see: the lower classes are coming to get you, too. (That said, the plot does rather hinge on the fact that one of the group, nicely underplayed by Robert Gillespie, is not as enthusiastically vicious as the others.)

Now, I’ve seen it argued that the fact the main characters of Survivors are all so middle-class is a thematic choice, because these are people who have lost more, materially, in the catastrophe, and for whom things like manual labour and agricultural work would previously have been anathema. This may be so, but it doesn’t explain why so many people from other social backgrounds are depicted in such uncompromisingly negative terms. They are either petty villains, or, like Price, the comic relief – Price is foolish, cowardly, and lazy, and routinely exasperates the other characters.

Abby is initially adamant she won’t be driven out of the area by the Emergency Committee and its thugs, but – courtesy of a rather bleak subplot involving a possible sighting of her son, Peter (suffice to say the Secondary Kill seems to be well under way) – eventually decides that the establishment of a community will have to wait until after she’s made a proper search. With Price seemingly having joined up with the Committee, the trio head off to look for Peter, heralding the start of a slightly more episodic format and the chance for some other writers to do very different things with the series.

There is some good stuff in both of these episodes, particularly Genesis, and the thorough bleakness of the whole thing is engagingly different from most other TV shows (I note that one of the creative directives of the 2008 version of Survivors was to be ‘less depressing’). Gone Away in particular, though, suffers from a fairly thin story and too much one-dimensional characterisation – Nation has a good go at being a writer of ideas, touching on complex and perhaps troubling issues of politics and philosophy, but in the end his instinct to opt for comforting pulp fiction is just a bit too strong.

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