Posts Tagged ‘Martin Worth’

So here it is: the final episode of the original run of Survivors, Martin Worth’s Power. Whether or not you find this to be an appropriate and satisfying conclusion to the series is probably a matter of taste; personally, I think it rounds off the series better than any of the other obvious candidates, despite the fact it is only tangentially about any of the core characters of the programme.

Charles, Hubert, and Jenny are travelling up to Scotland by rail, trying to catch up with Alec and Sam. Alec is ensuring the power grid is shut down, preparatory to his attempts to restart the generation of electricity at a hydroelectric plant. What he doesn’t realise, of course, is that Sam is determined to stop the restoration of power, believing self-sufficiency to be a morally better way of life for the survivors.

Things get a little more complicated when Charles and Jenny discover, rather to their surprise, that Scotland is not the empty landscape they expected but home to a thriving population of about 150,000 people – outnumbering the entire population of England by about ten to one! The local laird, McAlister (Iain Cuthbertson), is rather cynical in his expectations of English attitudes towards the Scots, and hardly surprised when he learns that Charles has been planning to utilise Scottish-generated electricity exclusively for the benefit of English communities. Even assuming that Sam’s plan to destroy the mechanisms at the power stations can be stopped, can the English and Scottish survivors reach an agreement as to who will control the electricity?

Well, the first thing I have to say about Power is that is does require the dedicated viewer to accept that the nature of the show’s world has fundamentally changed since series one – McAlister’s explanation as to why the plague left Scotland relatively untouched doesn’t really make sense given what we’ve seen and were told in early episodes, especially Gone to the Angels. Isolation is only a protection against the virus as long as you stay isolated, as the angels discovered in series one – as soon as one survivor carrying the virus meets a community which hasn’t been exposed to it, the whole process of infection and death should start all over again. Power is essentially inconsistent with the early series one episodes (not to mention the general tenor of season two, where a running theme was the characters’ awareness of how close to extinction humanity was).

Once you get past this, it’s a decent enough story, I suppose – exactly what power the title refers to being usefully ambiguous, potentially either electrical or political power. The episode stresses that from this point on the two will go together, provoking yet another political squabble between Charles and McAlister. The fact that England and Scotland are basically now engaged in a diplomatic negotiation stresses the fact that nation-states are now back on the scene, and that while things are of course nowhere near their pre-plague state, the essentials of civilisation are no longer in doubt. As someone else has pointed out, the last scene of the episode could well be a call-back to a key moment in The Fourth Horsemen – both depict a couple eating by candlelight, but the important thing is that in Power they are doing so by choice.

Of course, one of the key influences on early Survivors, at least, was George R Stewart’s Earth Abides, which stresses how utterly unlikely the restoration of technological civilisation would be – certainly not within three years of the disaster, starting from such a low base population. The inclination and the resources surely wouldn’t be there, and the survivors of Stewart’s book have basically regressed to being hunter-gatherers by the time it concludes, six or seven decades after the plague. That said, it’s pleasing to find echoes of other classic SF fiction in Survivors, and one key element of Power – the way that, as soon as basic survival is guaranteed, politics once again rears its ugly head – seems to me to recall the conclusion of John Christopher’s Tripods books, where the alliance which has repelled an alien occupation of Earth messily disintegrates into petty nationalism and distrust. This is classic British SF, so naturally it’s going to be pretty miserable.

It seems to me that there is one further intersection between John Christopher’s brilliant catastrophe novels and Survivors, as well. Nearly twenty years later, Ian McCulloch (having finished being a star in Italian video nasties by this point, a gig he apparently got off the back of his Survivors stardom) approached the BBC with a view to reviving the series and seeing what kind of state post-apocalyptic Britain would be in, nearly two decades after the plague. (McCulloch was planning to return as Greg, but has always refused to reveal how this would be possible.) The big idea for the revived show would be that an unspecified African nation had made a much more rapid recovery from the plague than anywhere in Europe, and was now intent on a military occupation – colonisation, if you will – of the continent. The BBC declared that this was racist and declined to produce the new series, and when Survivors eventually returned it was as a remake rather than a continuation. McCulloch’s notion sounds to me to be very reminiscent of Christopher’s The World in Winter, in which the sun’s output declines, resulting in a new ice age and the populations of temperate regions being forced to flee to the equator. The final section of the book concerns a military expedition by an African nation to an ice-bound UK which has fallen into anarchy and cannibalism. The World in Winter is a problematic book in many ways for a reader nowadays – its themes of racial and cultural conflict remain awkwardly potent – but it does anticipate, at the very least, McCulloch’s vision for a new Survivors. Whatever: it was not to be.

Survivors itself may be an inconsistent series, troubled by conflicting ideas as to what it should really be focusing on, but its best episodes still stand up extremely well today, with a capacity for handling big ideas, and including complex, subtle characterisation, that few modern programmes can match. (Of course, most of the time the production values are lousy, but that’s BBC SF from the 20th century for you.) You can see why people have returned to it, in both the 21st century revival and the recent audio continuations of the original series. No end in sight to this vision of the end of the world; as you might expect, Survivors is a survivor.

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One of the odd things about the 1970s version of Survivors is the slightly arbitrary way that the series reformats itself on a fairly regular basis, and generally it doesn’t do it by halves – supporting characters go under the scythe by the handful, the setting and emphasis of the series change completely. This is by no means uncommon in other series, of course, but this sort of thing usually happens at the start of season – Survivors seems to do it almost at random.

Roger Parkes’ New Arrivals almost feels like it should be the first episode of a new season, for all that it continues some long-running plot threads from earlier in the second year. An outbreak of what seems to be flu has caused the collapse of another settlement, and a group of young people from it arrives at Whitecross, led by Mark Carter (Ian Hastings), an expert in farming techniques who is very happy to share his expertise with the community, but whose interpersonal skills are possibly even worse than Greg’s (needless to say Greg is virtually the only Whitecrosser who Carter is at all impressed by). The stage is set for a power struggle between Genial Charlie Vaughan and the newcomer – Whitecross needs Carter’s followers to stay functional, to say nothing of Carter’s agricultural knowledge, and Carter’s plans mesh well with Greg’s ongoing efforts to reintroduce methane power. But what kind of loyalty does the community owe Charles?

Meanwhile, the flu has reached Whitecross, and mainly seems to be a plot device to facilitate killing off various older and less attractive members of the ensemble cast: Mina and Peggy die off screen, poor old Arthur finally cops it, and Jack almost succumbs too, before hallucinating an old episode of Match of the Day snaps him out of it (this is the only episode of Survivors to feature a cameo by West Ham United FC). The make-up of the series skews significantly younger as a result, with Stephen Tate, Peter Duncan, June Page and Heather Wright much more prominent. There is a game attempt to tie the two plots together by suggesting that the flu is particularly dangerous to low and unfulfilled people, and that it was Carter’s divisive and uninspiring leadership which made the old settlement so vulnerable, but it still feels slightly contrived.

An episode which is effectively about a political power-struggle within Whitecross itself is an interesting idea, but the drama is relatively low-octane stuff despite the regulars doing their best with the material – the fact that Ian Hastings does not seem to be an especially skilled performer is probably not to the episode’s advantage, either. By no means a bad instalment, with some reasonably good character bits for those regulars who make it through to the end, but it works very hard to institute a change in the status quo which only lasts for another two episodes, and you have to wonder if it was worth the effort.

That said, the influx of young people is central to Martin Worth’s Over the Hills, one of the best episodes of the season. It bears comparison with the best of Jack Ronder’s writing on the series – a pertinent comparison, as this is very much a thematic sequel to Ronder’s Corn Dolly from near the beginning of season one. It’s certainly the closest Charles gets to the characterisation of his first episode, anyway.

Greg’s manure-into-methane plan is finally nearing fruition, and the return of some kind of mechanised power to the settlement. Charles is dubious about the value of this, as he thinks their emphasis should be on self-sufficiency, but some of the younger members of the settlement view it as the first step on the road back to easy travel and a bigger world. What Charles is unreservedly delighted about is the fact that one of the young women, Sally (June Page), has become pregnant by Alan.

The problem is that June doesn’t really want the child, certainly not if Alan won’t marry her (so to speak; no-one’s officially married at Whitecross, after all) – and Alan’s more interested in Melanie (Heather Wright). Charles is further dismayed to learn that most of the women at Whitecross share her lack of enthusiasm for motherhood – or at least the lack of reproductive choice inherent in their existence in the new world. It’s not just a case of contraceptives not being available, but Charles’ insistence that the survival of the community depends on everyone having as many children as they can.

The episode is basically about the clash of pre- and post-plague values, with the issue presented relatively impartially – you’d expect it to be firmly on the side of Charles and Greg (or at least Charles – Greg seems fairly indifferent to everything but his promifer), with their logical point that if the world’s to have any future at all, there needs to be another generation, but the reluctance of characters like Ruth and Melanie to basically become baby factories also seems quite reasonable.

It has the strong characterisation of Worth’s earlier script, and some interesting scenes for all the regulars (those who aren’t off collecting salt, again, anyway): Greg gets hammered on gin (which at least stops him playing the guitar) and Pet tries to seduce him, while Charles is forced to come clean about his activities in the first season. June Page gives a very affecting performance as Sally, and Heather Wright gets to show a bit more depth as Melanie (who comes across as very much a second-season version of Anne Tranter, albeit a slightly less objectionable one). Also hanging around the fringes of the plot is sometime Arborian, sometime Blue Peter daredevil, sometime Chief Scout Peter Duncan, not that he’s terribly important (he has a drum kit, and you can’t help wondering where they got it from). Not an episode with a huge amount of crash-bang-wallop, but one which handles some fairly deep issues without beating the viewer about the head with them – another superior piece of work, and you can see why Martin Worth became the series’ lead writer.

Worth sticks around for New World, which once again busts up the format of the show, and practically inaugurates a couple of Survivors traditions: the last appearance of a lead character (well, sort of), and the appearance of a new character who becomes a regular in the following season, once they’ve been recast. The episode opens quietly enough with everyone hard about their work at Whitecross, only to one-by-one become arrested by the sight of something in the sky overhead. What could it be? Have the aliens arrived? (Hmmm, aliens arrive intent on plundering the technological and natural resources of Earth only to find a planet which has been accidentally devastated by human stupidity, much to the consternation of everyone concerned – that’s not a bad idea for a story…)

Well, it’s not aliens, at least not in the usual SF sense: it transpires that the balloon belongs to a couple of enterprising Norwegians, who have been travelling the UK charting the production capacity of various regions with a view to setting up full-scale trade and specialisation. There are only about a hundred people left in Norway – apparently only 1 in 20,000 of the population have survived the combination of the plague and the secondary kill – and they are on the verge of starvation. Norway’s light industry capacity remains largely intact, and they are willing to trade manufactured goods for food. It sounds like exactly the sort of thing that Greg and Charles have been dreaming of all series, but Agnes the Norwegian has some uncomfortable truths to offer them – she suggests that Whitecross has no future, as it’s not specialised enough, and various community members should be packed off to other parts of the UK where their talents can be put to better use. Greg has been thinking along similar lines, and realises he can make a much better contribution to the reconstruction of the world by going to Norway himself…

Apparently the end of the second series of Survivors was largely shaped by two main issues: Terence Dudley’s decision to mitigate a personality clash between Ian McCulloch and Denis Lill by splitting up Greg and Charles, and the rather embarrassing fact that the descent of the film unit on the real-life Whitecross (a genuine attempt at a self-sufficient community) caused the dissolution of the community, making it unavailable as a third season filming location. The solution to this – packing Greg off in a hot-air balloon and effectively taking the show back on the road- is not especially subtle, but Worth milks it for all it’s worth in terms of the character drama between Greg and Jenny. Watching it, you’re suddenly aware of how much their relationship just seems to be something they’ve drifted in, and how, well, lukewarm Greg has seemed towards Jenny and his son throughout the season – affectionate, and aware of his responsibilities, but hardly loving or especially warm. The only time he’s really seemed happy is when he’s been working on his methane promifer. Good performances from both actors, obviously, but you wonder just how much of Greg’s spikiness and refusal to compromise or suffer fools gladly is a performance, and how much is Ian McCulloch’s own personality coming through – you have to wonder why Dudley decided to banish Greg rather than Charles from the majority of the third season.

This is essentially a procedural episode, but the way it opens up the scale of the series and anticipates season 3 makes it never less than interesting, and the strength of the performances does make you realise what a strong unit the original regulars were, and inevitably inspires a little regret. If Survivors does generally tend to get weaker as it goes on, it’s because the elements of the original format are gradually discarded one by one, with not much introduced to replace them. New World marks the end of more than just the season.

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Following a little jolt of excitement in the thriller A Friend in Need, life at Whitecross returns to a more quotidian vein in By Bread Alone, written by Martin Worth – arguably the series’ main writer from this point on. That said, this is an episode which manages to explore some profound ideas without resorting to especially outrageous plot developments; watching it with my critic’s hat on, I found it to be rather more substantial than I remembered.

Charles and Greg share the spotlight with the supporting case rather more than usual on this occasion, with the focus of the story being Lewis Fearns (Roy Herrick), a well-meaning but rather useless figure as the story opens. However, he soon comes to an important decision and starts wearing his shirt backwards, wanting to make it clear he is a Church of England vicar (actually, from the sound of things, a curate, but let’s not split hairs here).

Reactions  to this amongst the community are mixed: Greg and Charles can’t see the point, the settlement’s token Italian woman is delighted even though she’s Catholic, young geezer Alan (Stephen Tate) and old geezer Hubert are mildly amused, and Jenny is rather outraged that anyone can still claim they believe in a loving God after a catastrophe in which billions have died. Greg and Charles, once they finish cooing over Greg’s new gadget for turning manure into methane gas, quickly harden their opinion when it becomes clear that everyone is neglecting their assigned tasks in order to indulge Lewis (as they see it) by making him vestments or a lectern, or collecting hymnbooks for a community service.

My memory of this was that it was essentially a rather patronising episode in which Charles and Greg ultimately accept the necessity of letting the people have their opium, although they themselves are much too sophisticated to feel any need for a spiritual dimension in their lives. Well, there is perhaps a whiff of this, but the story has a little more depth to it than that.

Most of this comes from the B-plot, which concerns a carefree young couple who are considering joining the community, but who are ultimately repelled by what they see as the authoritarianism of Charles’s approach: they argue (quite rightly, if you ask me) that for all Charles’ espousal of sound socialist principles, the community still has a definite Boss-class calling the shots, and all that’s happening is that the worst aspects of the old society are being perpetuated. Greg, of course, initially doesn’t think Charles is authoritarian enough, and thinks he’s being irresponsible by not exercising much stronger leadership (although, to be fair, once Lewis seems to help Jenny with her post-natal depression, he softens his position a bit). One wonders just what life was like at the manor between seasons with Greg in sole charge, given what a micro-managing commandant he comes across as here.

In the end it’s pretty clear the episode is about the whole issue of quality of life – just what are the characters hoping to achieve by building a new world? – rather than just the place of religious faith in human experience. Lewis himself is a bit of a stereotype vicar, slightly fey and unworldly (and having met many C of E men I can assure you most of them are nothing of the sort), but his self-doubt and anger when he realises how much he’s disrupted the settlement so much are well-handled, and the supporting cast are much better characterised than has usually been the case up to now (even Hubert is more of a believable character). A solid debut from Martin Worth.

The series goes back onto film for the final time, if memory serves, for Roger Parkes’ The Chosen, an odd episode in a number of ways. This is the first episode not to feature any of the original trio at all, being essentially a vehicle for Charles and Pet, and in many ways it anticipates the third season, in that it looks beyond the confines of Whitecross and considers the wider world and the relationship between the different survivor communities.

Charles and Pet are returning from another salt-collecting expedition when they encounter a young couple on the road; they are clearly troubled, resembling pre-plague homeless people, perhaps the kind of survivor never likely to make it through the secondary kill phase. When the couple fall seriously ill, Charles and Pet do the decent thing and take them to the closest settlement.

However, they find a much more closely regimented, ideologically rigorous community than any they have encountered before, under the leadership of Max Kershaw (the great Philip Madoc). Kershaw’s people view the plague as divinely inspired and are seeking to create a brave new post-viral world, rather than falling back into what they see as the flaws of the old one – they practice euthanasia, have moved beyond the traditional family system to something more collective, and so on (Charles’ standard espousal of sound Marxist principles is met with scorn, not least because at least one of the chosen believes the virus was created by Communists – as it happens, he seems to be right, but one wonders how he learned this). Can Charles persuade the chosen to engage in trade with the other settlements – or is their dislike of outsiders so extreme that they may even struggle to escape with their lives?

As I say, very much a square peg of an episode, completely unlike the rest of the season (except, maybe, Lights of London). The idea of another community with a completely different ideology is an interesting one, but the story Parkes comes up with is not especially engaging and depends on a rather melodramatic climactic scene in which Charles has little agency. The ideology of the chosen doesn’t really feel worked out in complete detail, either – it’s not clear whether they’re meant to be a Fascist enclave, a kibbutz, a fundamentalist religious group, an odd mixture of any of these things, or something else entirely. Philip Madoc is his usual powerful self, but doesn’t quite get the material he deserves (in the same year he made the Doctor Who story The Brain of Morbius, which really does show what he’s capable of given the right script). A curious change of pace, but for all of the pleasures of seeing an episode shot on film, I must confess to missing Greg.

Roger Marshall’s Parasites is much more back in the general vein of series two, and benefits (of course) from a guest appearance by Patrick Troughton, as class an act as ever. He plays John Millen, whom Mina encounters as he takes a barge on a trading expedition between two other settlements. He and Mina hit it off, and Troughton works his usual magic in making Millen a self-evidently decent, gentle, kind man in only a few minutes of screen time.

Millen arranges to visit Whitecross the next day, but when the barge arrives he is nowhere to be seen: instead, the craft is being operated by Kane (Kevin McNally) and Grice (Brian Grellis), couple of brazenly dodgy characters. Suspicions quickly begin to form amongst those Whitecross community members who are present (many of the regulars are off on yet another salt-gathering expedition – the third this series – which leads one to wonder what they’re doing with the stuff, running a chippy?), but without proof, and with the settlement undermanned, what can they do? Then Mina discovers a body in the canal…

Roger Marshall seems to have twigged that Survivors works best with a bit of action and adventure and physical jeopardy stirred into the mix, and this episode certainly has all of that – guns blaze, the kids get kidnapped, and no fewer than four characters meet violent deaths in the course of the story, including poor old Lewis the vicar, whom Kane blows away simply to make a point. All good clean fun, sort of, and there’s an impressively big bang at the climax of the story.

If there’s a problem with Parasites, it’s that there’s not much going on here beyond the action-adventure thriller elements. If there’s an underlying message or big idea to the story, it’s that some people are just plain bad and shouldn’t be mourned. There’s interesting potential in the characters of Kane and Grice – Kane was a prisoner convicted of armed robbery, Grice a prison officer (Charles’ initial assertion that no two people who knew each other survived the plague is looking increasingly shaky), but Kane is now very much the dominant member of the partnership – but Kane is very much a cartoon thug, for all the talent of Kevin McNally.

For the dedicated viewer of the series, it is interesting to note that Greg is not in one of his Exterminating Angel moods this week, initially opting to run the two baddies out of the area rather than have them shot, even though it’s pretty clear they murdered John Millen. But on the whole, for all its efficiency as a violent melodrama, Parasites is really quite vacant upstairs, with no depth or subtlety to its ideas or morality. Very possibly worth watching just for Troughton, though, of course.

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