Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Survivors’

Anyone who waded through my initial thoughts on New Survivors will be familiar with my suggestion that it reflects a key change in British culture – the shift from traditional, external sources of authority, to the primacy of personal emotion and feeling. Making my way through the rest of the first series, I think I may have identified another curious social change which has snuck up on us without anyone noticing.

‘Our great advantage at the moment is that everyone loves everyone else,’ declares Charles in the original show, speaking a few months after the primary kill – and indeed, everyone back in 1975 tends, initially at least, to be civil to each other, and roving gangs of hostile thugs are notably thin on the ground. When antagonists do appear, they are more often than not motivated by their own personal agendas or political schemes rather than simply being generally malevolent.

Episode Four of New Survivors is partly concerned with retelling yet another bit of the original series (and the novel) – in this case, Garland’s War. The essentials remain the same – while searching for her son, Abby arrives at Waterhouse, a country estate whose rightful owner is engaged in a battle for control with another group who have taken it over, but as ever it is the little changes that have been made which are most indicative.

Gone is the somewhat oblique class warfare angle to the story, with minor aristocrat Garland attempting to assert his claim to leadership over a group of belligerent plebs – said claim being based on the fairly reasonable grounds that he’s a trained soldier, explorer and survival expert. In this version Garland is just a hunky bloke who used to work in London (just why he is so handy and practical is not really touched upon), and the group occupying Waterhouse are basically a load of ASBO kids who trash the place on a whim. The intellectual core of the previous version – at what point does fitness to rule override democratic concerns? – has been replaced by more of a scare story intended to push the audience’s buttons – how would you feel if a gang of yobs took over your lovely home? Where the first version’s conflict was left unresolved in the episode itself, this one finds Garland becoming a kind of surrogate father to the group, after they are united in their concern for a wounded child. (The unresolved romantic tension between Abby and Garland from 1975 is replaced by a scene where they go swimming naked together and have a bit of kissy time, because of the 21st century subtlety drought.)

My point is that while the original show did feature the occasional gang of raiders, it didn’t presuppose a widespread disintegration of moral values in the aftermath of the plague, whereas this one does seem to assume that there are going to be gangs of killer chavs and ASBO kids running wild everywhere. Perhaps the social contract has weakened that much in the UK in the last thirty or forty years, or perhaps it’s just pessimism based on a routine diet of scare stories in the mass media. Or perhaps it’s just the best way to generate stories in this kind of setting, given this series is built around emotional problems rather than intellectual and philosophical questions? (In which case the directive to make the 21st century Survivors ‘less depressing’ begins to sound slightly ironic.)

Something similar happens in Episode Four’s C-story, where a couple of raiders turn up with rather unpleasant intentions vis-à-vis Anya, but luckily she and Greg are able to somewhat unconvincingly fend them off. That’s pretty much all that happens; the C-stories tend to be rudimentary on this show.

But what of the B-story, I hear you wonder. Well – something else is going on here, as Tom, Al and the others head off to check out the ecopolis, or whatever we’re going to call the place Willis is in charge of. Willis decides to boot Al out virtually at once, on the grounds he’s a bit too rich and lazy, but Najid is effectively taken into care despite his wishes to stay with Al. It seems to me to be a story playing on fears of an intrusive nanny state – a very odd choice for an ostensibly post-apocalyptic series, but another contemporary concern tweaked and exaggerated to provide a story. Ripped from the headlines either way you cut it, this show.

As usual the most interesting stuff concerns Tom Price, who tries very hard to get in with Willis’ group, only failing when his prison tattoos are noticed and his attempts to lie about his past fall flat. He hides all this from the other regulars, of course. There’s still a sense of ambiguity about exactly what his aims are, of course, and if nothing else it keeps the series ticking along and being more than just the kind of SF show that the average Daily Mail reader might find themselves empathising with.

Episode Five is a different kettle of fish, inasmuch as it doesn’t directly remake any particular episode of the original show, but still somehow has more the feel of it than most of the new series. This may be because this the season’s cheapo offering, featuring no major new locations and mostly occurring in and around the group’s house.

A bunch of other survivors turn up, looking for shelter. They are led by John, a former architect who claims to be in direct contact with God. One of their number is heavily pregnant and they want to stick around until the child is born. A proper old-fashioned kitchen table council meeting ensues, and of course the new group are allowed to stay. What follows is largely a character piece with the programme-makers cashing in the plot coupon of Anya hiding her medical background from the rest of the group (also her sexual orientation, but, you know, first things first). There’s a crisis during the delivery! Can Anya overcome her self-doubt and help with the birth?

Then, as this isn’t quite substantial enough to hang a whole episode on, it turns out that John’s messages from God are a symptom of his being a paranoid schizophrenic, and there’s some stuff with a kitchen knife and his trying to kidnap Anya, while his hopeless followers stand around blinking in confusion.  In the end, the new mother declines to put John back on medication to control his condition, and a newborn infant goes off in the care of a woman with a serious heart condition and a man with a serious psychological disorder, because, apparently, you never know what the power of love can achieve. This supposedly qualifies as a happy ending.

It’s particularly vexing because the episode takes a rather patronising and superior attitude throughout towards the characters who have faith (except for Najid, because you don’t want to tick off any Muslim viewers). Believing in God is a quaint old superstition, apparently, but having faith in the power of love to overcome paranoid schizophrenia is the path to the future. If nothing else this episode did make me realise just how tolerant the original series is towards its characters of faith – even when it was clear that the programme-makers didn’t agree with them, they were generally treated even-handedly and respectfully. Another demonstration of how external social values (those of religious faith) have been displaced by those of liberal humanism (the primacy of personal feeling and experience)? It rather looks that way to me.

I suppose I should also mention the scene where Tom confronts Anya over her past choice of sexual partners. Tom is unusually brutal in this episode, and fairly unpleasant here, although this feels entirely appropriate. The problem with the scene is that it simply feels like the writers came up with a list of points they felt obliged to cover and then navigated between them in a notably inelegant and melodramatic way (concluding with Anya’s declaration that ‘I don’t fall in love with men or women, I fall in love with people’, which if you ask me lacks a little on the clarity front).

The series starts to show a distinct identity of its own with Episode Six, which is, of course, the ‘series finale’ in modern parlance. All the way through we have been treated to slightly wearisome hints as to the existence of a mysterious enclave of ruthless scientists working on a vaccine for the plague (they are clearly attached to the Department for Post-departure Equine Housing Access Point Closure), and these start to pay off, as the group decide what they really need is not someone totally immune to the virus (like most survivors in this version of the story) but one who got really ill but then recovered – like Abby…

This takes a while to manifest in the episode itself. First we have a lot more cashing in of plot coupons and emotive slightly soap-operatic goings on. It turns out that Willis has joined forces with Dexter, leader of the killer chavs from Episode Two, and the two of them are expanding their area of operations, apparently in the name of securing food supplies. This strikes me as fair enough, as – despite the climbing instructor in the opening episode rehashing Bronson’s speech about how all the old skills need to be relearnt, and people need to learn to fend for themselves again – all anyone seems to do in this series is scavenge for food and petrol. The only step in the direction of providing their own food anyone has made is keeping those bloody chickens Najid keeps banging on about, and this is more of a character bit than anything else. The series may be called Survivors, but the mechanics of how they actually survive are clearly a low priority.

Anyway, Abby gets righteously cross with Willis, Dexter has fun settling a few old scores, they (literally) wheel Bob on for a confrontation with Sarah, and so on (the actress who plays Sarah has the thankless task of trying to portray someone who’s supposedly highly manipulative but also rather dim). In the end the chavs drive off with Anya (Sarah sells her out, motivated partly by jealousy of Anya and Tom’s relationship – see, soap suds all the way), but the others rescue her before taking to the road again. Tom cold-bloodedly kills one of Willis’ people just to emphasise that it’s not worth pursuing them, and I for one get a disturbing sense that the makers of the show seem to think that his psychopathic tendencies are more than offset by the softer feelings he has for Anya. Sorry, not buying that.

Meanwhile, Najid has run off (it has something to do with the chickens, probably) into the dank and fetid hellhole that is the centre of your typical big northern city (the apocalypse hasn’t done it any favours, either; kaboom tish), which means the others have to go in and fetch him, pursued by Dexter. There’s an odd subplot about a group of ruthlessly exploited children living in the city, who have to scavenge all day long in order to get the treats and computer games offered by their so-called guardians – I get the sense this may be trying to make some kind of allegorical point, but I’ve no idea what it is. In the end (spoiler alert) Greg gets shot and wounded by Dexter, who then has an exciting gun battle with Tom. In the closing moments minions of the sinister boffins turn up and kidnap Abby.

Which to me very much suggests that the series was designed to end on a cliffhanger from the start, which I suppose if nothing else shows confidence on the part of the producers. This felt like one of the better episodes of the series, to be honest, although that may just be because I wasn’t constantly comparing it to a 1975 episode and finding it rather wanting. It’s pacy and varied, and the tomb city is well-realised, but at the same time it doesn’t have much to offer beyond soapy character bits and frantic action-adventure. I don’t object to a little action-adventure in my Survivors – quite the opposite, in fact – but without a bit of intellectual heft to back it up the results are slightly vacuous. I imagine the second series is largely in the same vein as this last episode, getting further and further away from Terry Nation’s vision for the programme. In which case the absence of a third and subsequent series doesn’t really surprise me.

 

Read Full Post »

All right, folks, I have good news and bad news for you. Well, possibly more like two sets of different news. You may recall that I said that I wasn’t going to be endlessly making comparisons between Survivors and New Survivors, mainly for sanity’s sake. I’m not quite sure how to break this to you, but that may prove a tricky resolution to stick to. You may also recall that I was pretty consistently vicious about the new show while only having seen about twenty minutes of one episode. Having watched a few properly now… well, I certainly haven’t changed my mind and decided it’s the current century’s equivalent of I, Claudius, but there’s some fairly interesting stuff going on here.

What’s most interesting to me about Episodes Two and Three of the new show (no idea why they decided not to put individual episode titles on this sucker, but they would have made it easier to keep track of things) is the way that they’re obviously based on incidents and ideas from the original show. As ever, it’s the manner in which they’ve been updated for a modern audience which is most revealing.

Episode Two opens with the group having settled into a lovely old house they have managed to acquire between episodes (there’s that trimmed-to-the-bone storytelling style again). The first order of business is to get some food, so off they trot to a local supermarket – however, they find the body of an alleged looter has been strung up inside and an armed gang claiming possession of the stores within the shop.

To seasoned Survivors watchers this is clearly a retread of parts of Gone Away, in which essentially identical events play out. Tellingly, however, the shotgun-toting yokels of 1975, who were all men of a certain age, have been replaced by a gang of lager-swilling killer chavs (although their leader still has a double-barrelled shotgun). There’s still an element of class awareness built into how the story is framed, but the conflict here is not between Abby’s libertarian views on the reconstruction and the autocratic approach of the Emergency Committee, but on a more basic level – the gang are just scum, intent on grabbing as much as possible.

Slightly disconcertingly, we then roll on into a plotline based on the stuff with Anne and Vic in the quarry, from Genesis. As New Survivors is a bit more suburban than its forebear, the quarry has become a warehouse, Anne has become Sarah (presumably because you can’t have two characters called Anya and Anne in the same show), and Vic has become Bob (I can only assume there’s some kind of half-baked Reeves and Mortimer in-joke going on here). As we are in the 21st century and there is no such thing as subtlety any more, Sarah and Bob’s relationship is much more openly manipulative, not to mention sleazy, than was the case first time around. The story plays out in much the same way: Bob breaks his leg, Greg turns up, declines to take responsibility for much, fends off Sarah’s advances (again, brick through a window subtlety is the order of the day), and poor old Bob is left to a grisly fate. The two plotlines about the warehouse and the killer chavs come together at the end, where I got a bit of an inkling of a problem with the new format – you’ve got Greg and Tom Price essentially competing to be the show’s leading man.

This continues into Episode Three, in which Greg and Tom go off looking for petrol and find themselves in a set-up sort-of-kind-of-screw-up-your-eyes-and-put-your-head-on-one-side based on the central idea of Gone to the Angels, as they encounter a family which has managed to avoid exposure to the virus and are living in desperate isolation. Basically, there’s a widowed father who’s gone a bit nuts and is doing everything he can to keep his children safe (he’s nuts, but in a sympathetic way, of course, because, hey, he loves his kids so much), even if this means keeping them as virtual prisoners.

Well, the daughter sneaks out and gets to know Tom and Greg, who are hiding in the barn to avoid the mad dad, and it’s all supposed to be quite poignant and moving, I suppose. The daughter is well-played but I found it all a bit wearing, to be honest, especially with the sadness music constantly blasting out on the soundtrack. Greg and Tom realise that, having been exposed to them (and thus the virus) she can’t go back to her mad dad and little brother. This is terribly traumatic for everyone until Tom makes a big speech persuading the mad dad that it’s better for them to take a chance and live a short but happier life out in the open rather than starve to death in misery avoiding exposure to the plague. Things conclude with the family playing happily in the sun and our heroes driving off with the petrol they needed. The logical conclusion to this story (a few days later the happy family all drop dead of the virus) does not materialise, as one of the directives for this new show was apparently to be ‘less depressing’. Is it wrong of me to prefer thought-through bleakness to sentimental cobblers?

And a few days later all their troubles were over… (Note ‘mad dad’ stare employed by Neil Dudgeon (on the left).)

Meanwhile, over in the other major plotline, Abby finds herself still bogged down in elements from Genesis, with perhaps a dash of Law and Order sprinkled on the top. She stumbles upon a supposedly self-sufficient, eco-friendly centre under the none too confident control of the last surviving member of the government, Samantha Willis (who popped up from time to time in Episode One), played by Nikki Amuka-Bird. It seems like a dream come true until the settlement is raided by a couple of desperate hopeless types, and the question rises of what to do with the offenders.

Now, the thing about Abby’s encounter with the Emergency Committee in Genesis is that it’s all about her horror and disgust at what she sees as the rise of incipient fascism and brutality, and the thing about Law and Order is that it’s about the uncomfortable truths the leaders of a community have to confront. They’re about authority, but in different ways, and you can’t do both at the same time in the way Episode Three attempts here. Abby is appalled when one of the prisoners is summarily executed, and leaves, but because Willis is not an out-and-out villain (it seems we’re not really allowed to have these in modern TV drama), there is an attempt to make her somewhat sympathetic too. This takes the form of her shooting the prisoner in the head in front of the rest of the community moments after announcing the guilty verdict, but in a clearly anxious and conflicted way. There is more than a touch of melodrama about this and clearly the groundwork for future conflict between the two groups is being laid.

And what of all the other members of the fairly sizable ensemble while all this is going on? They are worrying about building a chicken coop. Hmmm. Don’t recall that happening in Nation, but at least it makes the rest of the episode look somewhat thought-through and intellectually demanding in comparison.

Read Full Post »

Well, readers, I think we’ve had more than enough cooling off time, and we should direct our attention to the remake of Survivors broadcast by the BBC in 2008 and 2010. I’m a huge fan of the original show, obviously; you don’t want to read endless complaining about how the new show isn’t as good; and so I’m going to try and avoid comparing the two in terms of quality. That said, making comparisons does seem to me to lead us into some interesting places.

You know, I can’t decide between the captions ‘Two of these people are not like the others’ and ‘This picture isn’t at all awkwardly posed and obviously photoshopped, dearie me no’. Decisions decisions…

Let us begin with episode one. There are obviously quite a few similarities between the beginnings of the original show and that of New Survivors (as I fear I’ll be referring to it; sorry) – a couple of the characters are reasonably close in conception, some key storytelling beats are repeated, and one line of dialogue survives unchanged. Needless to say, of course, there are also lots of changes. Some of these you could have predicted – the new show is more diverse, of course, and the production values are rather better. (One aspect of the diversification of the show is the way in which Abby has gone from having a very post-Roedean RP accent to being from… to being from… well, I must confess that while it’s obvious that Julie Graham has a regional accent, I can’t actually work out what it is, which is particularly awkward as I suspect she’s using her natural voice.)

However, the one change that really jumped out at me is the fact that New Survivors has a proper symphonic score to it, where the original series barely used incidental music at all. There is crisis music when serious events are happening, and sadness music when characters are having a tough emotional time. The audience is basically being cued as to what to feel. You could say this was evidence of the same lack of subtlety which informs most mainstream drama nowadays, but on the other hand you could argue it reflects a more fundamental shift in approach.

British society in general has become more emotionally articulate over the last few decades – people talk about 1997, and particularly the outpouring of public emotion after the death of the Princess of Wales, as some kind of watershed, but it seems clear that this is just one sign of a wider shift. Where once we looked to more objective external sources to validate our lives and experiences – religion, traditional, social authorities – it seems to me that its our own emotional responses which have taken on this role. You can see this in a general shift towards popularism and sentimentality in most mass media, and also the tenor of our politics – the British people really do seem to have had enough of experts (figures of objective social authority), choosing instead to make major decisions based on half-articulated feelings.

I’m probably sounding very critical and traditionally British and uptight about this, and I suppose that to some extent it’s a change I don’t necessarily feel is a positive one (note how I myself frame my answer in terms of feelings rather than by appealing to an objective source of authority). In the end I suppose it’s one of those unsolvable questions – which set of standards is better? How you decide is based on whichever standards you yourself have adopted.

What is clear is the influence this has on New Survivors. Not only is everyone is much more emotionally articulate and open about their feelings, they are largely defined in terms of whatever emotional arc has been plotted out for them – the key character traits of New Greg and New Abby are made very clear soon after we meet them, often through dialogue where they basically state their personal agendas. (Plus, where original Abby was essentially an idealist, new Abby is positioned much more as a matriarchal figure – you couldn’t really envisage Carolyn Seymour playing Big Momma to the group in the way that Graham does.)  What’s particularly telling is the sequence in which Abby has her eyes opened to the reality of the post-virus world and the need to become self-sufficient if society is to be reconstructed. Frankly, I was a bit surprised this bit of original Survivors survived at all, as it’s steeped in 1970s concerns and openly philosophical in a way modern TV shows usually avoid like the plague. In 1975 this bit of speechifying is delivered by a wise old schoolteacher in fairly abstract terms. In 2008, the same speech comes from an outdoor activity instructor, speaking in terms of the personal nature of human experience. The implication is that this man is a source of wisdom not because he knows a lot, but because he is in touch with the important elements of existence. Ideas are of less significance than the emotional context they are couched in.

As I mentioned, the first episode of New Survivors sticks reasonably close to its 70s counterpart, although the coming together which took half the first season in 1975 occurs here by the end of a feature-length first episode. In addition to New Abby and New Greg, we have a couple of brand-new characters, Al and Najid, neither of whom seems especially interesting at first glance, and… well…

Well, I have to say that one of the things which reflexively put me off the series when news of it first reached me (I was living in a central Asian republic at the time) was the way it handled some of the classic characters. Playing New Jenny is Freema Agyeman – who at the time was reasonably fresh off her stint in Doctor Who, and had a bit of a profile. But, of course, this is stunt casting, for in this version of the show Jenny is not immune to the plague and dies in the first episode. This is, essentially, playing games with audience expectations, or so it seems to me: the revelation that Jenny is dying of the plague is written and directed as an unexpected plot twist, that only makes sense as such if you’re familiar with the old show. As I say, a cheap stunt.

Taking Jenny’s place is a character named Anya (played by Zoe Tapper), who is effectively a new character but seems to me to be based on the Christopher Reich character from the 1975 version of the story (Andrew becomes Anya). Presumably as the story continues she will take on some of the plot functions of Ruth (a character not in Terry Nation’s novelisation of the series, and therefore not covered by the BBC licence).

Also still around is Tom Price, although he is effectively brand new – no longer the useless vagrant of his previous incarnation, as played by Max Beesley he is a psychopathic ex-convict (some of his sex pest tendencies seem to have survived, though). Beesley does a good job of portraying new Price as a genuine enigma – does he genuinely mean what he says after knifing a prison officer to death in order to escape, when he makes a vague show of regretting what looks to me like an unnecessary murder? Or is he simply justifying it to himself? Is he the ruthless predator he sometimes appears to be or genuinely looking for a fresh start? This piece of reimagining at least is interesting.

As I say, this is the 21st century and so subtlety is thin on the ground, but you can’t fault the production values (even if these do extend to a bloomin’ big explosion which serves no real plot function). Generally, the further Adrian Hodges’ script departs from the spirit of Terry Nation, the less engaging it gets – good grief, I’m actually saying nice things about Terry Nation’s writing. Certainly Nation never let the desire to include a big moment or sequence override plot logic in the way Hodges’ sometimes does – the most jarring example being Al waking up in bed with a corpse, which only makes sense if you accept that a) a person with the virus would go out clubbing and b) nightclubs would still be open at the height of a major pandemic. But hey ho.

To be perfectly honest, the first episode of Survivors is not quite as gruelling as I feared, although my expectations were ankle-level low. Enough of Terry Nation’s original ideas have survived, in this episode at least, to make this an interesting alt-reality version of the story. I’m curious to see if this continues to be the case.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

The block of three Parkes-scripted episodes towards the end of Survivors series 3 is so focused on one particular plotline – Charles’ increasingly fanatical quest to restore the electric power – that it’s a real wrench when the programme fundamentally shifts gears and tackles a wholly different story – namely, just what has Greg been doing all this time? It’s not just that – The Last Laugh functions on a wholly different level to the rest of series 3, if not the series as a whole. More than anything else it makes you incredibly regretful that Ian McCulloch wasn’t much more central to the creation of the final series, because it certainly seems like he had a much better idea of the potential of this programme than the people who were actually in charge of it.

It transpires Greg is looking for Dr Adams, a leading member of a community near the one Pet and the kids have settled at. On his journey he encounters a group of wanderers, led by Mason (George Mallaby), a former playboy-sheep-shearer turned full-time itinerant sheep-shearer (I kid you not). Greg is initially extremely suspicious of the group, suspecting them to be just another group of raiders, but when they express an interest in his scheme to federate the settlements, he lowers his defences. A bit too soon, as it turns out: he is knifed in the back and left for dead.

Unfortunately, Greg’s notes on the disposition of valuable resources scattered around the countryside are all in Norwegian, and so Mason and his men set off to find Anna, who is at the settlement with Pet, Jack, and the kids. One of them lingers, however, but lives to regret it (briefly) – Greg is not as dead as they assumed, and after a brutal fight the raider gets his head staved in with a rock.

Greg is still in a bad state, though, and makes his way to Dr Adams’ settlement – but there’s no sign of the forty people who are supposed to live there, and the two men who are resident are acting very suspiciously. Someone seems to be being held prisoner, and Greg discovers signs that human bodies have been burned there. Showing all his usual resourcefulness and determination, he outwits his presumed-captors, and breaks in to find Dr Adams (Clifton James)…

…who is in self-imposed isolation, disfigured and suffering from a mutant strain of smallpox that has already wiped out almost the entire settlement. The disease is usually lethal within two weeks and highly infectious. Greg initially thinks he’s cheated death yet again, not initially feeling any signs of infection, but his hopes are cruelly dashed the next morning. He has the virus. Dr Adams suggests the only thing to do is to make his peace and await the inevitable.

What follows, of course, is a tremendously powerful performance from McCulloch in a long two-handed scene between him and James. Lucy Fleming has spoken of the anger which is always at the core of McCulloch’s performances as Greg, and it is of course present. Greg speaks about his feelings for Jenny, and his regrets about the path his life has taken. And then, of course, being Greg, he sets out intent on revenge, determined to find the men who attacked him and share the virus with them as well. Adams is appalled, quite rightly suggesting that this may just lead to the virus spreading across the whole countryside, but Greg doesn’t give a damn. Has the shock of learning he is dying unhinged him? Or has he been less than entirely selfless all along?

Seeing an episode which mixes these kinds of big questions with decently-mounted action and a reasonably tight plot, not to mention one of the series’ most plausibly despicable villains in George Mallaby’s Ed Mason, really reminds you of what a great show this can be when handled properly. You can pick holes in the plot if you really want to – Pet’s settlement does seem rather sparsely populated, given all we’ve heard, and while I’m sure Greg is a bright guy, why on Earth has he learned to say ‘I have smallpox’ in Norwegian? – but this towers above the rest of series 3 on every level, with a thoughtful, allusive script – there are allusions to Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins – and great dialogue, too. After a raft of episodes which are ultimately hopeful, focusing on the threads of society slowly coming back together, The Last Laugh is shockingly dark and bleak, too. One of the handful of essential Survivors episodes, I would say.

Any episode following The Last Laugh would effectively have been slipped the hospital pass, but the thing about Martin Worth’s Long Live the King is… well, it’s not that it’s a bad episode, as such, it’s such an infuriating one, not just on its own merits, but in the way it epitomises all that makes the third series of Survivors such a frustratingly inconsistent one.

At least the makers of the programme appear to have realised that the death of arguably its central character could not go uncommented-upon by the other characters, and this episode is to a large extent about Greg’s legacy. The journey of Charles and the others up to Scotland is put on hold when he receives an urgent message asking him to meet Greg at an army camp on the east coast of England – Jenny’s response is ‘oh, no, not again’, quite possibly speaking for the viewer by this point. Charles resolves to go there; Jenny and the others press on.

Charles arrives at the camp to find ‘GP’ signs in evidence everywhere, and the place under the control of Agnes, who seems to have turned into a paramilitary version of Rosa Luxemburg. Greg’s most trusted associates from across the country have been summoned to form the new ruling council of Britain – the rebirth of the nation, even. The problem is that the coalition Greg has been putting together since his return from Norway is heavily reliant on his personal authority and charisma, and with Greg now, well, dead, the whole thing is showing signs of collapsing before it is even properly established.

And it turns out there is another problem – the Captain (Roy Marsden), the real leader of the band of raiders from The Last Laugh, has escaped from the farm which was destroyed by smallpox and is heading for the camp, too…

Watching Long Live the King made me realise there’s an element of classic theatre about the last series of Survivors, but only because it’s either very reminiscent of Waiting for Godot (to be more accurate, it’s Looking for Greg) or just Hamlet without the Prince. You get a very strong sense that there have really been two stories happening all season – that of Greg travelling the country preparing to restore the basis of civilisation, and that of the others rather haplessly wandering around in his wake, never quite catching up with him. On the basis of what we see on the screen, the story of Greg is considerably more interesting and involving than the story of the others: I feel cheated!

The plot gymnastics required to tie Long Live the King to the end of The Last Laugh are bizarre, and to be honest not that successful – some weeks have passed since the end of the previous episode, and exactly what has happened in the meantime is never completely clear. Given Agnes is lying her head off for most of the episode, can we really believe what she says about nursing Greg in his last days? What are we supposed to make of her claim that, having had brucellosis, she is now apparently immune to the mutant smallpox which was so terribly contagious and lethal last episode? Something very odd seems to be going on here, anyway – the Captain has had the smallpox but seems to be okay now, and not contagious, but what was he doing at the farm anyway? Did Martin Worth even see the finished script for The Last Laugh before writing this one? As I say, it’s infuriating and frustrating, not least because the Captain is an absurd, cartoon villain – he’s wearing a flat cap, welly boots, and a tie, for crying out loud – and arguably all he contributes to the story is to provide a sign of how much the backdrop is changing: despite having murdered two women in the course of the story, he is not executed out of hand but held as a prisoner at the end. The rule of law has been restored.

The episode is largely about what it takes to run a functioning, large-scale society, and it is impressively cynical about it (this angle is interesting enough that it makes the more peculiar elements of the plot even more annoying, as they’re spoiling a superior episode). The new society Agnes is proposing to inaugurate is essentially a massive scam, based on various deceptions. (It’s quite ironic that it’s Charles who takes her to task over this, given how ruthless many of his own recent activities have been – he does come across as a bit of a hypocrite in this episode.) But the episode makes it very clear that every society is, to some extent, based on exactly the same kind of shared fictions, especially when it comes to things like money. I’ve been reading Yuval Harari’s Sapiens recently, which discusses very frankly how cultures function, and Harari stresses that money, while being essential to a large-scale society, only has any utility as long as people believe in its value. But how do you create money for a society which hasn’t used it at all in years? How do you foster that kind of shared belief in the intrinsic value of bits of paper? It’s a fascinating area, one I’ve never seen dealt with anywhere else, and it’s just a shame so much of the episode is preoccupied with other business.

As I say, a real mixed bag of an episode, and rather infuriating as a result. At least the final irony of the story of Survivors is clear at the conclusion, and it’s one that says a great deal about the differences in how drama is written and produced now, as opposed to 40 years ago. Characterisation in genre series tends to be better these days, I suppose, but characters tend to be defined in very strict ways – they tend not to have space to develop or unexpectedly reveal surprising facets to themselves. Most of the time they just have one or two defining characteristics which they display over and over again. But in programmes like Survivors you do get a sense of the actors and writers learning about the characters as they go along, and often making surprising discoveries along the way. Real people aren’t as flatly and immutably archetypal as they’re usually presented on TV. One of the things that makes Survivors so special, for me, is the authentically human unknowability of the principal characters – their capacity to develop in genuinely surprising ways in the course of the story, while remaining recognisably the same individuals: Charles, the passionate visionary, shows signs of becoming a ruthless political operator as the series nears its end; Hubert, the comedy relief yokel, murders someone in cold blood for the good of the group.

And Greg Preston, the survivor who initially didn’t want to get tied down or take on any particular responsibilities at all, ends up as the man almost solely responsible for recreating his nation, with his initials on the flag. Long live the King, indeed.

 

Read Full Post »

The final chapter of the original run of Survivors, comprising the last six episodes, gets underway with three episodes in a row from Roger Parkes: the only time other than at the very start of the series that one person does so. At least this gives you hope of a little more tonal consistency than is often the case with this series.

The first of the three is The Peacemaker (The Pacemaker might also be an appropriate title, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). To begin with, would you believe it, Jenny, Charles, and Hubert are still searching for Greg (it’s starting to seem like Jenny’s suspicions that he doesn’t actually care about her or his son may have some truth to them), but almost at once they get distracted when they discover a working windmill under the control of a religious group. These guys initially look like Christian monks of some kind, but it soon transpires they’re not quite as ascetic as they appear (Hubert gets a roll in the hay before the end of the episode – we don’t see this on camera, thank God), and many of their beliefs in fact seem to be vaguely Hindu – an Indian woman, Rutna, has converted them all to vegetarianism, for instance. Hubert is appalled when he discovers curry is on the menu, grumpily complaining (in one of those only-in-1977 moments) about – oh dear – ‘wog food’.

The ostensible leader of the mill settlement, Henry, is in fact very much reliant on his mentor, Frank (Edward Underdown), as indeed is everyone else. Frank was apparently a professional head-hunter (as in, recruitment consultant) before the plague, and has become a kind of counsellor and, for want of a better expression, life coach. Everyone is very protective of him, and the visitors soon sense a little chilliness towards them – but then their horses are poisoned, stopping them from making the prompt departure they were intent on…

This is an interesting episode, for all that Hubert’s mutterings about ‘darkies’ make it a slightly awkward watch 40 years on.  There’s some slightly contrived shotgun-toting action half-way through (it has to be said that neither Denis Lill nor John Abineri is as adroit at this sort of thing as Ian McCulloch usually was) but mostly this is character-based stuff, exploring what it takes to be the kind of mentor Frank has become, and also (once again) the question of what kind of world it is that the survivors are trying to build. The mill setting is somewhat distinctive, as is the religious angle, and there are some interesting moments along the way – Charles criticises Henry for his decision to withdraw from the outside world, viewing it as a desertion of his responsibility, while Jenny gets an excoriating speech, tearing into Charles, Frank, and Greg (in absentia) for being all too ready to set out across the countryside on their various crusades and pilgrimages rather than staying in one place and meeting their more quotidian responsibilities there. And you can’t really blame her, especially when the search for Greg is finally parked, and the trio, joined by Frank, set off in search of an electrical engineer who may be able to help Charles get the electricity switched back on. This is probably not the greatest episode ever, but it’s a big improvement on the last couple, for sure.

Next from Parkes is Sparks, which primarily functions to introduce Alec Campbell (William Dysart), the last major character of the original run of Survivors. I have no idea whether there were ever plans for a fourth series of the show in 1978 (received wisdom seems to be it was canned in favour of Blake’s 7), but if there were, could it be that Alec was intended to become a new male lead? Given the problems that arose when Ian McCulloch and Denis Lill were sharing the male lead role, it would have been a slightly odd choice, given that Alec is, like Charles, a passionate, bearded Celt. Unless the plan was to ditch Charles completely.

Anyway, as the episode gets started, Charles, Jenny, Hubert, and Frank are searching for Alec, as they need his expertise as an electrical engineer to restart the hydroelectricity plants of Norway (the point is stressed that Greg, a civil engineer, is from the wrong specialisation). Alec is living in a settlement based out of an old and rather decrepit church, which reflects his rejection of the technological world and everything it represents. He is a bitter, sombre figure, much given to brooding over his dead wife’s picture (Vincent Price was presumably unavailable for the part).

Well, the main thrust of the episode is about Charles and Frank’s increasingly startling attempts to snap Alec out of it so he can help them get the electricity turned back on. The possibility that Alec has the right to hold whatever views he wants is at least touched upon, but not explored in any detail – one of the things you take away from this episode is how quietly fanatical Charles and Frank seem to have become about federation and the reconstruction, and you’re more inclined to agree with Jenny, who finds it all deeply suspect (and inevitably gets patronised when she raises a dissenting voice).

When Charles’ impassioned reasoning fails to get Alec to shift his position, kindly old Frank’s solution is to get hold of a bottle of pethidine and slip Alec a slug of it without telling him. This appears to trigger some kind of psychotic breakdown, not to mention hallucinations and suicidal impulses, but apparently this is all for the best (according to Frank) as it is breaking through the shell of his alienation and allowing a catharsis of the… you get the idea. Frank and Charles even get Jenny to pretend to be Alec’s dead wife to assist in the ‘cure’. Quite apart from the fact that this is handled in a rather stagey and melodramatic fashion, you have to wonder about exactly what kind of new society these guys are planning on setting up, because (based on their treatment of Alec) it isn’t one that seems to value the rights of its individual citizens very highly.

Oh well. By the episode’s end, Alec has made an absurdly rapid and full recovery from his long-term psychiatric malaise, and is as keen as mustard to switch the power back on – but why go all the way to Norway? There are power stations up in Scotland, after all. (Does this mean all the Norwegians will be left to starve after all? After everything else this episode, I wouldn’t completely rule it out.) So, the quest to meet up with Greg and help establish a trading connection with Norway, has, somehow, mutated into the mission to switch on a hydroelectric plant in Scotland. By this point I suspect most viewers are inclined to just shrug and let them get on with it. Lucy Fleming is making the most of an increasing number of good scenes where she takes the others to task for being ruthless, self-centred, and unreliable, and there’s a decent scene where Charles and Frank consider how they coped with the death of their own loved ones during the plague, but this is a very odd episode and a rather unsettling one. (It also ends on a freeze-frame, which is another oddity for this show.)

Things initially don’t show much sign of improvement in The Enemy, which opens with Charles, Jenny, Hubert, Frank, and Alec (Uncle Tom Cobley and all are presumably travelling just off camera) heading north as fast as they can. This is bad news for Frank, whose pacemaker battery is showing signs of conking out. To allow him to rest up, the party stop at a settlement near an old coal mine – just the kind of resource Charles and Frank want to preserve. Frank doesn’t want to let on to Alec how ill he is, so they have to find a pretext to stay – and, luckily, the settlement has a generator they can’t seem to get working.

There’s quite a long sequence with Charles, Hubert, and Alec getting epically wrecked with the locals. Charles and Frank, coming across even more like a chillingly Machiavellian post-apocalyptic Arthur and Merlin, have figured out that Alec will be easier to keep under control if they use Jenny and her feminine wiles to manipulate him (I repeat: this is Charles, ostensible hero of the series, doing this). Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Sam (Robert Gillespie), a technician and ex-junkie who believes his life was saved by the collapse of the old world in the plague. Sam is concerned that Charles’ quest to restore the electricity will symbolise the resurgence of the bad old ways and the destruction of the new, purer world the survivors have managed to create.

We get another electric scene between Charles and Jenny, where he at one point suggests it’s her moral duty to sleep with Alec, and also reminds her that her dedication to Greg seems to have declined a bit in recent weeks, regardless of how indifferent he seems to her (Greg does seem to have visited every other settlement in the country before finally heading back to his friends; this episode marks one of the few times Charles arrives somewhere Greg hasn’t visited first).  The episode’s big revelation comes later – just what is the enemy alluded to in the title? Is it laziness or boredom, as the settlement leader suggests? Apparently not: the enemy is a true believer with an agenda.

The generator won’t work because it has been deliberately sabotaged. Sam is so terrified of the old world and all its evils – the social workers who he feels enabled his addiction, ‘softness’, corruption – that he is prepared to destroy the surviving technology himself. He tries to persuade Frank of the justness of his cause, believing Charles won’t listen to him, but Frank dies before he can warn Charles and Alec of what Sam believes. Alec fixes the generator anyway, and Charles has visions of a techno dream team to get everything running again – Alec, Greg, and Sam! It’s a properly ominous set-up for the climax of the series, and works quite well because of the strength of Robert Gillespie’s performance – he was equally good in a small part in one of the very early episodes. He’s a convincing softly-spoken zealot, and just sympathetic enough to be very interesting, especially when placed in opposition to characters like Charles and Frank, who seem equally fanatical and ruthless in their own way, and equally unwilling to examine their own motives. Is Charles indeed right to try and bring about his own vision of progress without really having consulted anyone around him? His motives are more obscure now than when we first met him. All in all, an episode with more strong elements than weak ones, I would say.

Read Full Post »

You can’t help but get a sense of the third season of Survivors either losing the plot or pulling a slight fast one: at the beginning of the year, everything is straight-forward enough – Charles, Jenny, and Hubert are in one place, Greg is in another, and they set off to meet each other. Of course, they never do. It may just be a realistic depiction of post-apocalyptic life that they all keep missing each other, sometimes by only a matter of a few metres, but my money is on the producer desperately trying to spin things along for as long as possible, not to mention keeping Ian McCulloch and Denis Lill from being on set at the same time.

Greg’s only in two episodes all season, of course, but it seems like there were initially plans for him to do more – apparently Don Shaw wrote the fourth episode, Mad Dog, specifically for McCulloch, and he was quite annoyed when it ended up going to Lill instead, giving Charles his only solo adventure of the entire series. The bleakness of the third season is most obvious here, not least in the settings – it’s actually snowing in some scenes, and one suspects the actors didn’t need to try too hard to look as uncomfortable as they frequently do.

Charles has gone searching for the eldest son of the woman they rescued from Brod in the previous episode, as they can hardly abandon her until he comes home, but runs into another pack of feral dogs and is bitten by one of them. Things look grim for him, but a stranger named Fenton (Morris Perry) turns up and rescues him – Fenton carries a sophisticated semi-automatic rifle, which helps. Charles is initially grateful, but soon becomes repelled by Fenton’s detached cynicism about humanity’s chances of survival. Fenton was a philosophy lecturer before the plague and takes everything very philosophically indeed, trading from his cache of stolen army weapons for food and keeping notes on all the people he encounters. Charles becomes interested in a hurry when he hears about this, especially when he learns of a tall man who claimed to have been to Norway and back…

Before they reach Perry’s home, however, it becomes apparent that Perry has contracted rabies from one of the dog packs in the area and is about to lose it, big time. Charles fetches help from another local, Sanders (Bernard Kay), but Sanders’ only response is to shoot Fenton dead as a potential menace. Seeing the bite on Charles’ arm, Sanders concludes that it’s only a matter of time before Charles turns rabid too, and promises to make it quick and painless if Charles will just stand still and let them shoot him, too…

No big ideas in this one, obvious, unless you count the discussion between Charles and Fenton near the start: it’s not quite the one-damn-thing-after-another non-stop ordeal that some have suggested, but this is still a fast-paced action adventure for much of its length, and you can see why McCulloch was peeved not to be in it. Denis Lill gets some good scenes with Charles at his passionate best (very Welsh he gets, too) and some proper running, jumping, riding, and shooting, too. I strongly suspect the episode doesn’t get its medicine quite right (can you really keep a rabid person at bay by threatening to splash water on them?), but the main problem with Mad Dog is that all the most exciting and dramatic bits happen at the beginning – it doesn’t really have a climax or conclusion, as such, just Charles escaping on a train which he unexpectedly finds in operation.

One of the dramatic high-points of Bridgehead.

I suppose this does mark a bit of a turning point in the series – in only the previous episode, railway carriages were only good as places to sleep, but here there’s an operating railway line. Ever since the first episode of the whole series, the default assumption has been that people have been living in small, isolated settlements, with any wider form of society being limited only to occasional trading or mutual defence agreements. For the first time, the potential of a genuinely national or regional form of civilisation again seems possible, and it’s something that will shape the rest of the series.

As I think I’ve made clear in the course of these pieces, for me, Survivors works best when it’s a mixture of big ideas and good old-fashioned action adventure, which may be why I find most of series three to be fairly disappointing – sometimes it has one, sometimes it has the other, very occasionally it has both, and depressingly often it has neither. We’re in ‘neither’ territory for the next couple of episodes.

Bridgehead is a promising-sounding title from the normally reliable Martin Worth, but I suspect it’s only called that because someone at the BBC realised that Market Day or Brucellosis would be terrible episode titles. The episode is almost completely procedural, concerned with tying up loose ends from the previous couple of episodes – the fate of the farm raided by Brod, and the truth about the railway that Charles escaped on at the end of the previous one. Stirred into the mix to try and pep things up a bit are a storyline about cows going down with brucellosis and the discovery of an expert in homeopathy: neither of them really prime pepping up material, I think you’ll agree. It climaxes – if that’s the right word – with a group of people standing around on a railway platform arguing about trading cheese with each other. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as The Witch, but it’s getting there – it manages to be almost completely unmemorable, too.

Don Shaw’s Reunion is at least about something, but that thing is the stuff of sentimental soap opera. Our heroes still haven’t moved on, when a friend of Hubert’s falls off his horse and breaks his leg. There isn’t a doctor within easy travelling distance, but there is a vet, and so off they go to see her. Janet Millon the vet and her man live in relative luxury, trading their skills for what they need to survive. All fair enough, but then it turns out that Janet had a son, John, whom she hasn’t seen since before the plague. ‘Was your son called… John Millon?’ asks Jenny, thus showing why she’s the brains of the team. Not, by the way, John Millen, as that was Patrick Troughton’s character in series two and that would just be weird. No, John Millon is the full name of  young lad John who Jenny has been looking after ever since early in series one. Now that’s what I call a co-inky-dink. (And why did no-one say something to the effect of ‘What, another John Millon?’ when they heard about Troughton’s character back in Parasites?)

(I’ve mentioned before the abrupt change in the ground rules of the programme in its third series, with multiple members of the same family coming through the plague alive, and I suppose this could be just about plausible if it wasn’t too common – but this is surely pushing plausibility right up to its breaking point. Even more radical amendments to the status quo are still to come.)

What follows is all about child psychology and John reconnecting with his mum, and it may be just me, but I found it thoroughly non-gripping. Much more interesting is a simmering subplot about Jenny, whose feelings for Greg seem to be going through a bit of a change – not unreasonably, given he seems to always be just around the next corner, but is apparently more interested in open-cast mining and methane-powered cars than in actually getting back in touch with his friends (this aspect of the series has become more than a bit ridiculous). Jenny is on the point of concluding that he doesn’t care for her or his son at all, and prepared to give up on the search for him. Charles remains the optimistic idealist, of course. Maybe the production team thought the audience would feel cheated if Greg just vanished or was never mentioned at all, but I’m not sure this is any sort of solution to the problem of Ian McCulloch’s absence. In any case, looking for Greg is about to be replaced as the focus of the show, as it enters its final phase.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »