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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Worth’

Trying to identify serious issues ahead of the curve is a high-stakes business – get it right, and you look very clever and astute indeed, but get it wrong and you just appear more than a bit ridiculous. After a run of episodes which hold up well more than 45 years after they were made, Doomwatch comes a spectacular cropper with Martin Worth’s Flight into Yesterday.

The title suggests an episode of a much more explicitly SF-themed episode than is actually the case. Are the Doomwatchers actually going to start investigating temporal anomalies? Has big business opened up a time warp? Is an anachronistic cross-over with Torchwood on the cards?

Um, well, no, to all of the above. What happens is that Quist is in Los Angeles, preparing to give a speech to an important conference, which may result in the creation of an American Doomwatch organisation. However, concerns as to the tenor of his presentation results in his being recalled back to London to speak to the Prime Minister. When he arrives at the Ministry, however, he seems confused and distracted, not really himself, lacking in co-ordination and focus. The Minister jumps to the conclusion that Quist has spent the flight home getting sluiced and sends him home in disgrace.

However, Barbara the secretary was on the same flight and the Doomwatchers notice she is also not quite her normal self. They quickly conclude that both Quist and Barbara the secretary are suffering from extreme jet lag due to all that flying back and forth. Naturally, the Minister scents a chance to rid himself of the turbulent Quist, and pooh-poohs this idea, arguing that someone properly capable would not prove so susceptible to the condition. He has Quist sent off on sick leave and proposes that Ridge, who he views as a more manageable individual, go to the conference instead.

Ridge isn’t having any of this and contrives matters so the Minister flies out with him and Chantry to make the speech in person. The Minister is quite confident that he will not be at all debilitated by the dreaded lag, and that Quist will be exposed as a bit of a lightweight. But are there more sinister forces at work?

What, I hear you gasp, forces even more sinister than the menace of extreme jet lag? Is such a thing even possible? Apparently so. Now, all right, perhaps they do have a point – a few years ago I flew back overnight from Las Vegas (ooh, get me) to Gatwick (hmm, maybe not), and it did make me physically ill the day after and leave me somewhat debilitated for the better part of a week, so it’s not as if it can’t cause problems. But doing a 50 minute episode of a serious drama predicated solely on problems caused by jet lag seems, from a modern perspective, at best quaint and at worst rather absurd.

To be fair, Martin Worth himself seems to have realised that jet lag itself is not quite enough to hang a whole episode on, and so introduces a further element into the story – that of devious and ruthless marketing people, who are well aware that jet lag leaves people in a less-than-optimal condition, and exploit this for their own ends. So the Minister, who insists on eating and drinking heavily throughout his London-to-LA flight against Chantry’s advice, falls prey to someone in the pocket of American big business, who has his own reasons for hoping that a US version of Doomwatch never comes to pass.

It’s still not high octane stuff, as you can perhaps imagine, and the primitiveness of the realisation leaves something to be desired, too – the budget wouldn’t stretch to actually flying over to California, so this is represented by studio sets and a stock-footage montage of cars on a freeway. (The Los Angeles hotel lobby set looks rather like the main set for Are You Being Served?, and I did check to see if the two shows were economising by sharing it – it would appear not.) Adding some interest, I suppose, is a relatively rare non-Bond appearance by Desmond Llewellyn as a ministerial aide, but on the whole this is an episode that seems nowadays to be working very hard to make a mountain out of a molehill, with results that verge on the unintentionally comic.

Something of a recovery comes along in the next episode, from series co-creator Gerry Davis, which is entitled – oh dear – The Web of Fear. I say ‘oh dear’ because The Web of Fear is, much more famously, a notably phantasmagorical and surreal episode of Doctor Who from 1968, not all that long after Davis’ own stint on the show. The two stories have virtually nothing in common beyond, well, webs and fear, but it still feels odd for such a distinctive title to turn up in two broadly-similar series in the space of only a few years.

Anyway, things kick off, somewhat startlingly, with the sight of John Savident in a sauna (Savident played Fred Elliott in Coronation Street for a number of years, and does his usual trick of appearing to be a good ten or fifteen years older than his actual age). Here Savident is playing the Minister for Health, who has retreated to a health farm on an island off the English coast to work on some figures Quist has requested. But not all goes as planned when someone else in the same sauna falls gravely ill, apparently with yellow fever…

The island is quarantined and Quist, Chantry, and (eventually) Ridge are allowed in, along with the tropical disease experts. But there are ominous signs that this may not be yellow fever but a new virus, one which is not transmitted by mosquitoes at all. Meanwhile, Griffiths (Glyn Owen), a maverick geneticist, and his wife have also sneaked onto the island to complete a mysterious experiment. Some stagey scenes between the two of them reveal the strain on their marriage from his dedication to his work, and his resentment of Quist (who was involved in discrediting a theory Griffiths spent fifteen years developing, with disastrous effects on his professional reputation).

Well, the very title of the episode, an eye-rollingly unsubtle moment where someone says ‘Ooh, there’s a spider on you’, and various close-ups of sinister rubber arachnids kind of telegraph the big idea this week: Griffiths has been experimenting with pest control by way of viruses, but the unintended consequence of this is that viral mutation has produced a breed of spider whose webs are impregnated with a lethal new virus resembling yellow fever. Cripes, what are the chances?

Of course, you need a bit more direct jeopardy than that, and so Griffiths, who has crawled into a cobwebby old (and dangerous) mineshaft in search of specimens to prove his viruses work, comes down with the new lurgy and has to be rescued. Luckily Ridge is on hand, having been issued with a feather duster, a thermos of tea, and some half-decent one-liners which Simon Oates puts across rather well.

On the whole the episode is solidly assembled and well played, even if the central concept is a little bit out there (I suppose you could argue that it’s ahead of its time in suggesting that if you connect with the web there’s a good chance of picking up a virus, but that’s a pretty weak pun even by my very low standards). Then again, it’s not a very big leap from the idea of GM crops to that of GM spiders, and the chance of this kind of genetic cross-contamination is one of the main arguments against this kind of experimentation in agriculture. Apart from the stageyness of the early scenes with the Griffiths, where backstory and character are thuddingly introduced, this is another pretty strong instalment of the show. Gerry Davis should still have thought up a different name for it, though.

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The first episode of the second series of Doomwatch is an early example of what I would call a ‘consequences’ episode – a character-based piece in which the focus is specifically on how the protagonists come to terms with something particularly momentous which has just happened to them. Another notable instance would be the episode of TNG in which, having spent most of the previous story being assimilated by the Borg, Jean-Luc Picard retreats to his family vineyard, argues with his elder brother a bit, and ends up weeping amongst the grapes. Doomwatch 2.1 is arguably the same sort of thing.

Of course, we are in a slightly odd situation here in that, due to the unique way the BBC used to manage its programme archive, the climactic episode of season 1, Survival Code, has been wiped, although the title of 2.1 tells you everything you need to know: it’s called You Killed Toby Wren. Yes, due to Robert Powell’s refusal to sign on for a second series, the first one ended with him being blown up while trying to defuse a nuclear bomb which somehow got lodged under a pier. Luckily the climax of Survival Code survives as the pre-credits sequence of You Killed Toby Wren.

Naturally the death of Wren and two others causes ructions at the Ministry, which is back under the control of the chap from The Plastic Eaters (John Barron), despite at least two other people having had the job elsewhere in season 1. The Minister sees this as a golden opportunity to bring Doomwatch under tighter control and, perhaps more importantly, get shot of Quist.

Meanwhile, back at Doomwatch HQ, Pat the secretary has been overcome by grief at Toby’s death and quit the series, to be replaced by Barbara the secretary, who quickly grasps the essentials of the job (answering the phone and making coffee for everyone else). It’s not a great time to be starting a new job as Quist’s guilt over Wren’s death is making him even grumpier than usual, and this is exacerbated by Ridge’s deliberate attempts to wind him up over the matter. (Ridge himself seems to have been left somewhat unbalanced by the affair, as he has come in to work wearing a canary-yellow shirt with a dog-collar accessory round his neck – not a clerical collar, the actual thing you’d expect to find on a labrador. It’s almost like a rather awkward attempt at  Simon Oates trying to cosplay as Luke Cage; my understanding is that the dog collar at least was included to win a behind-the-scenes bet.)

What follows basically has a three-pronged structure. We have Quist, articulating his feelings and motivations to a comely psychiatrist (we also learn he sculpts in his free time) – this is quite well-played stuff, though inevitably a bit theatrical. Then there are the various pseudo-political shenanigans surrounding the enquiry into the deaths of Toby Wren and the others. The Minister sounds Ridge out about potentially taking over from Quist, should he be sacked, and Ridge seems not at all uninterested to begin with – the dislike between the two is at its most palpable, with Quist actually sacking Ridge (temporarily) partway through the episode. Given that this story is another example of the auteurship of Terence Dudley (written, produced, and directed by) it’s not entirely surprising to find a Survivors pre-union of sorts in progress at the enquiry itself, with Edward Underdown and Robert Gillespie both on the tribunal (these actors both recurred in a number of third season Survivors episodes, which Dudley also oversaw).

However, the most memorable part of the story concerns an investigation Ridge undertakes on a freelance basis, after being tipped off by Hardcastle, a young scientist involved in genetic research in Norwich (insert your own joke at this point). The researchers are working on genetically-engineered hybrids, and have got to the point where they’ve produced live specimens. Quist seems oddly unconcerned by this, but Ridge manages to gain access to the laboratory (mainly, it must be said, by knocking off one of the female scientists) and is appalled by what he finds: dogs and chickens with multiple human heads. Somehow, the very primitiveness of the special effects used to realise this (real chickens in rubber masks) only adds to how repellent it all feels. Faced with this, Ridge goes sort of berserk and ends up breaking the jaw of one of the lab technicians trying to throw him out; the sequence concludes with the female scientist proudly revealing that she herself is pregnant with a human-animal hybrid. It’s grotesque, nightmarish stuff, but the oddest thing is that this whole strand of the episode just seems to be there to push Ridge over the edge and allow him to empathise with some of the questionable decisions that Quist made prior to Wren’s death. There’s no indication that the issue of this project and the bizarre chimeras it is producing will ever be touched on again; one has to conclude it’s partly there to give an episode mainly composed of middle-aged men talking in offices a bit more water-cooler value.

In the end, Quist’s natural astuteness and quick wits allow him to survive the enquiry with his authority undiminished (the scene where John Paul is questioned by Robert Gillespie is, as you’d expect, a good one), and both he and Ridge have come to know themselves and each other a little better – the hostility between them seems to have drained away, for the time being at least, and the team has recovered from the loss of Wren and found a new determination to carry on doomwatching for the rest of the second series.

Which they do, starting with Invasion, a lavish big-scale episode with loads of location filming. Ridge and new recruit Hardcastle are in Yorkshire, checking nitrate levels in the local water table. To assist with this they’ve engaged the services of a couple of local lads who are into potholing and cave-diving, but there’s a bit of a panic when the duo disappear while exploring a local cave system. Having checked out the geology of the area, Ridge concludes they may have emerged near the Grange, a big local house that has been abandoned for years.

Of course, it turns out the Grange is not as deserted as it appears, for it is subject to a high-security military presence who insist there is no chance of the missing lads having been there. Ridge’s curiosity is piqued by the nature of the military presence, and attempts to do his world’s-worst-spy act in order to sneak in; he is caught, which upsets everyone.

Quist (who hasn’t bothered coming to Yorkshire until this point) discovers that the Grange was used for decades as a testing facility for bacteriological warfare, and the potential for infection is still worryingly high. This is why all wildlife going near the house is shot by the guards (hmmm, that doesn’t sound particularly reliable to me) and no-one is allowed in. Quist is disturbed by the existence of this kind of place, scorning the notion of germ warfare as a defensive weapon, but accepts there’s nothing to be done about it.

In any case, the missing lads turn up quite well, and deny ever having been in the Grange. Case closed, surely? But a slow accumulation of evidence leads Quist and Ridge to conclude that someone isn’t being completely straight with them, with dire consequences for the local community…

Invasion is a solid, straightforward episode written by Martin Worth, later head writer on the latter part of Survivors. The rural setting and comparative lack of political wrangling marks it out as a bit different – there’s not much needle between Quist and Ridge compared to usual, either. The story develops satisfyingly, and concludes with another of those memorably downbeat Doomwatch endings: faced with the fact that the contamination has escaped from the Grange, Quist is forced to call in the army and have the villagers relocated, their old homes placed in quarantine just as the Grange was. Their community is broken up, their livestock and pets all shot. The images of the deserted village patrolled by armed soldiers in hazmat suits is one of the series’ most striking. There’s not much moral ambiguity here, not much personal drama (something of a shame, as the great Geoffrey Palmer appears, but doesn’t get much to do), not really very much SF content – an atypical episode, compared to what we’ve usually seen up to this point, but a good one.

The next episode, Louis Marks’ The Islanders, is so much a companion piece to Invasion that it initially almost feels like a continuation of the same story. It opens in what looks like some kind of internment camp, where Ridge is attempting to fingerprint the inhabitants – who seem to be a collection of everyday country folk. They take violent issue with this.

Well, it’s not much of a pre-credits sequence, but it turns out we’re effectively six months into the story already. The people in the camp are the former inhabitants of a remote Pacific island, forced from their homes by an earthquake, and relocated to the UK. Due to their near-total isolation from modern civilisation, they are effectively a control group allowing scientists to measure the effects of industrial progress on human beings – hence the interest of Quist and the other Doomwatchers.

It soon becomes very clear which way this story is heading – the island elders bewail the way their close-knit community bonds are dissolving in this new world, as their young people become distracted by the pleasures and pitfalls of 1971 society. Ridge comes down with a mild case of the flu, which he inadvertently passes on to the islanders, who have no resistance: there is at least one death as a result.

Naturally, Quist starts to question the wisdom of bringing the islanders to the UK at all, but there’s a problem with sending them back – their old home is in a politically-sensitive region and is being considered for use as a military base. And then it transpires that the whole area has become contaminated with mercury leaking from a sunken ship, condemning anyone who does go back to a premature death…

Another story of Displaced Persons and a community under threat, then, though the tone is less ominous and more one of regret and resignation. There’s something slightly simplistic in the telling of it – it’s hard to shake the impression that the islanders are being depicted rather patronisingly. At one point the young islander who’s the key guest character says he finds working on a factory assembly line much more interesting than being a farmer, and – although he doesn’t notice it – Quist and the others are clearly viewing him with a mixture of condescension and pity. Then again, as this suggests, the story is also big on the idea that living close to nature is somehow better than modern technological life, and it’s just a shame that the former is being crowded out by the latter.

It’s fairly effectively done, the key problem for me being that nothing about the islanders themselves screams South Pacific to me – I could easily buy that they’re from the Scilly Isles or the Hebrides, or the next island over from Christopher Lee’s mob in The Wicker Man, but the South Pacific? I suppose they’re meant to be analogous to the Pitcairn islanders, but I still don’t think the episode quite convinces on this front. It doesn’t help that Quist’s visit to the island near the end of the episode has clearly been filmed somewhere rather closer to home, BBC budgets not extending to location shoots in the south Pacific in 1971. Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor point, and the episode sustains its theme and its tone rather well: no-one really lives on an island any more, these days, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise.

 

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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 cast 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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