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Posts Tagged ‘Survivors’

As we hit mid-season of the first series of Survivors, something significant happens – namely, the show switches from peripatetic mode to something more sedentary (by which I mean it stops being about a group of people travelling around a post-apocalyptic world, and becomes the story of some people running a post-apocalyptic farming collective). By and large I think the programme is generally immeasurably better when it’s in travelling mode, but the switch does make a kind of sense from a budgetary and narrative point of view.

Before that, however, Terry Nation returns for Garland’s War, which is basically another thriller with some political chewy bits sprinkled on the top. The stalwart character actor Dennis Chinnery turns up, pretty much solely to deliver the information that some boys about the age of Peter Grant are living at Waterhouse, a large estate which has been taken over by a group of survivors. As soon as she hears about this, Abby rushes off to investigate (this is basically a solo adventure for Carolyn Seymour, with the other leads left looking after the kids).

She finds herself dragged into the struggle between the rightful owner of the Waterhouse estate (indeed, the Earl of Waterhouse), Jimmy Garland (Richard Heffer), and the men who he sees as having usurped it from him, led by Knox (Peter Jeffrey – this episode is a treasure-house of a certain kind of rock-solid character acting). Garland is a very experienced soldier and survival expert – sort of like Bear Grylls but with a plummy voice – and sees himself as the only rational choice of leader for the group, regardless of whatever moral claim he has on the property. Knox, on the other hand, claims that Garland refuses to consider any compromise with the other survivors and aspires to become a kind of feudal overlord.

There is potential here for an interesting both-sides-are-kind-of-in-the-right conflict, but – as the seasoned viewer might expect – Nation comes down firmly on the side of Garland’s muscular libertarianism. Not only is he a bit of a hunk who gets Abby all a-fluttering, but his adversaries quickly reveal themselves to be dishonourable shotgun-toting prole thugs, with Knox another small-man-turned-despot. This is a watchable episode, but doesn’t have much in the way of depth, or move the series on much.

Jack Ronder takes over again for Starvation, which I would suggest is the first real dud of the series. This is partly because it functions almost entirely on a procedural level – its sole purpose is to get all the characters settled down in their new home and set up the new format for the rest of the series – but also because there’s a very strong sense that the series’ budget has been slashed. Primarily this is because the programme switches from the mixture of film-and-VT which was standard for the industry in the mid 1970s, to being all VT, which means it looks like an episode of EastEnders.

Following an off-screen discussion (really, Jack?), our heroes have decided to settle down, but before they do so they encounter a pair of women (Hana Maria Pravda and Julie Neubert), who have run out of food and are being preyed upon by what is almost certainly the least convincing pack of savage feral dogs in screen history, and also Tom Price, who (when written by Ronder) is less of a comedy relief Welshman and more of a repulsive sex pest.

Well, needless to say Abby manages to get the upper hand with Price, the dogs wander off, and Jenny and Greg discover a stately deserted manor just ripe to be occupied. (The children are consistently irritating throughout – even to the other characters, which is a nice touch.) Hiding out in the manor they find Barney (John Hallett), a young man with learning difficulties, and he joins the suddenly rather bigger community too.

By the end of the episode there’s a big change in the status quo, so it’s just a shame it’s all so tepidly written – though Hana Maria Pravda gets some good dialogue and delivers it well. Watching it again, though, I can’t help noticing how much this episode is foreshadowing one which is still a few weeks off, the peerless Law and Order: there’s Price’s rather disturbing fixation with Wendy, Julie Neubert’s character, and at the end of the episode Barney declares he ‘couldn’t kill anything’ when sent off with Price to set some rabbit snares. All of this only applies with the benefit of hindsight, naturally. It’s still a bit of a dud.

The recurring cast continues to balloon in Spoil of War, a so-so title for a so-so episode, scripted (under a pseudonym) by veteran screenwriter Clive Exton, perhaps best known for his adaptations of PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. First on the scene is self-styled long-haired git Paul (Chris Tranchell, a former flatmate of Tom Baker and apparently the real-life inspiration for Baker’s boho look in Doctor Who), a survivor of a hippie commune near Winchester. As an experienced farmer, he is just what the group need, as Abby and Jenny are taking to the agricultural life like rhinos to water. Much talk about seed potatoes and drainage follows, along with the problem of a tractor that Greg can’t get started.

Then Greg remembers the fully-operational tractor which crushed Vic back in Genesis, and the huge hoard of stuff he and Anne had amassed in their quarry hideout. Price and Barney are packed off to see if the supplies are still intact, but do not return. Instead, two more people turn up, and for the first time Charles Vaughan’s conclusion that no two people who knew each other survived the virus is disproven: they are businessman Arthur (the somewhat unfortunately named, these days, Michael Gover) and his secretary Charmian (Eileen Helsby), and given the fact that at least three months have passed since the plague her continued deference to him, and his general sang-froid, stretch credibility rather. They make no significant contribution to the episode other than turning up.

Well, anyway, Greg and Paul eventually go in search of Price and Barney, and the prospect of doing something seems to cheer Greg up a bit (Ian McCulloch’s performance has been particularly surly all episode so far). Some low-octane action and jeopardy ensues and it eventually transpires that, again somewhat incredibly, Vic did not die after Genesis, despite being severely injured and left to his own devices. Instead he is still holed up in the quarry, from which the others rescue him – he also joins the community.

Well, it’s better than Starvation I suppose, but despite some well-mounted stuff in the quarry it all still feels a bit procedural. Of the new characters, Paul makes the best impression, not least because he actually has a sense of humour (Abby, Greg and Jenny can all come across as a bit dour sometimes), and also because he is a rare example of a non-middle-class Survivors character who is a rounded human being, rather than a thug, a sex pest, or comic relief. There are some nice touches in the writing – Greg can’t actually remember Vic or Anne’s names when he first finds Vic alive – but on the whole you really get a sense of a series still trying to work out just what it’s supposed to be.

(And there is one curious geographical mystery: Greg tells Abby that Vic’s cache of stuff is ‘in a quarry near Apcaster’, and apparently this is well outside their usual foraging range. Fair enough, made-up towns are a staple of TV drama, but then at the end he tells Vic that they have a commune which is ‘near Apcaster’. Either Apcaster is extremely big for a made-up town, or Greg’s grasp of geography is uncharacteristically vague, or someone cocked up. I know which my money is on.)

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It’s always an interesting moment when the creator of a TV series steps back and lets someone else script an episode, but it’s seldom as interesting as when Terry Nation hands over to Jack Ronder for episodes four and five of Survivors. To say the change is pronounced is a major understatement: as I’ve said before, Nation is essentially an action-adventure writer, dealing in nice, solid, straightforward scenarios. Ronder, on the other hand, appears to have much more of an oblique, theatrical sensibility – his episodes have a stronger focus on theme and character.

Some time seems to have passed between the end of Gone Away and the beginning of Ronder’s first contribution, Corn Dolly – it is now February, for whatever that’s worth. ‘Weeks’ have passed, and I suppose the question we must ponder is exactly when the peak of the viral outbreak actually occurred. In the next episode, Abby finds a newspaper dated September and feels the need to clarify that this was prior to the plague outbreak, but if the pandemic occurred in late September or October this means that four months have passed since the start of the series, which seems rather unlikely. On the other hand, we never see any sign of Christmas decorations, which surely rules out December as the date of peak virus. Based on the on-screen evidence it does seem like the plague struck very early in January, which just leaves us with the oddity of Abby choosing to play tennis outside on a January day in the first episode of the series. But there are weirder continuity problems for a TV series to have.

Anyway, as Corn Dolly starts, Abby, Greg and Jenny are heading back to Brimpstead in the hope that Peter will have returned to the parental home. The car breaks down and Abby sets off to get petrol – and all at once the episode seems to go off on a different track. The spring flowers are budding, the birds are singing in the trees, nature itself seems resurgent.

We are also introduced to another group of survivors, one who seem to have got their act together rather more than our heroes. They are led by Charles Vaughan (played by Denis Lill), a former architect who is now the leader of a small community. Charles is already in the process of surveying the area around his base, collecting anything useful and leaving posters to guide other survivors to him. (Charles estimates that the total population of the UK following the virus may be as little as 10,000, although at least one later episode is sharply at odds with this.) He is presented as a dynamic, charismatic figure, full of ideas to commence the reconstruction.

corn-dolly

Chief amongst these is his determination to ensure the continuation of the human race, which he is attempting to achieve by – to put it delicately – impregnating every woman in sight. A corn dolly is a fertility totem, you see, and suddenly all the business with nature resurgent from the start of the episode makes sense. There is never the faintest suggestion that Charles is violent or coercive, but by modern standards he comes across very much as a cult leader with a harem of devoted followers.

As we are still in 1975, there remains the possibility of understatement and subtlety in the characterisation of a popular drama, and quite why it is that Charles has responded in this unsettling way is largely left implied: the only clue we get is a casual mention that he lost three children of his own to the plague. Everything else is left unsaid.

The question for our heroes – or at least Greg and Jenny – is whether to stick with Charles’ group regardless of their unease with his morality. The episode rather cops out on this point, as most of Charles’ work is undone when his followers unwittingly eat either poisoned or contaminated fish, and die (that Secondary Kill just won’t quit). Still, it’s a striking performance from Denis Lill, and you can see why they brought him back as a regular later on (even if Charles’ character is rather different from the second series onwards).

The next episode, Gone to the Angels, is even less plot driven, and doesn’t have quite the same thematic unity, either. Our heroes go back to Peter’s boarding school, to find it deserted – the only people in the area are two small children, John and Lizzy (played by producer’s son Stephen Dudley, and Ronder’s daughter Tanya – now a successful playwright herself). They have met one of the boys from the school, who said he was going to visit the Angels – a religious group who withdrew from society some time before the outbreak of plague.

Well, there’s a bit about Greg and Jenny’s relationship, which is gradually getting closer and closer, coupled to their having to share a house with a mentally unstable man (played by Peter Miles, whose performance is as sinister and pathetic as only a Peter Miles performance can be). Again, the relationship angle is handled with a subtlety which is quite refreshing.

miles

The heart of the episode, however, concerns Abby’s visit to the Angels, and what place religious faith has in the post-apocalyptic world of the series. Abby says that she isn’t a believer, and can’t be, given all that she’s experienced recently. The leader of the Angels, on the other hand, remains strong in his faith, pointing out that God has kept him safe from harm, presumably in order that His will shall be done at some future hour. This isn’t the most nuanced presentation of religious belief, if we’re honest, nor the most subtle characterisation, for all three of the Angels are depicted as the most decent, holy men imaginable, exactly the sort of people the troubled world now needs (it seems that another paramilitary group, this one calling itself the British Government, is attempting to impose its will on the various survivor communities).

But all this is really just setting up the nasty twist at the episode’s conclusion. After Abby has stayed with the Angels for a few days, the men start to feel feverish and develop buboes, and she and the others reach an appalling conclusion – the Angels don’t have the natural immunity to the plague that the other survivors possess, they simply haven’t been exposed to it before. Abby, at least, is still carrying the lethal plague virus, and will spread it to any other pockets of untouched civilisation they encounter. (Again, later episodes give the impression of a different status quo being in operation.) Needless to say, the Angels all sicken and die as a result of Abby’s visit.

The episode is beautifully written and performed, in its oblique, reflective way, but it does rather reinforce the impression that Survivors is at its best when it’s most depressing. At its conclusion the characters depart to continue their search, taking the two children with them (there is the implication that John at least has been left rather traumatised, if not downright messed up, by his experiences, but this is never really developed in other episodes). Perhaps the whole story is intended as a comment on the foolishness of faith, with Abby’s belief that she can find her son counterpointed by the misguided faith of the Angels, that God has kept them safe from the plague for a reason. Whatever the writer’s intentions, these two episodes do function on a level higher than that of simple action-adventures with a little political debate, and they do show the real potential of the series’ format off to great effect. The series at close to its best, I would say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

goneaway

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

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

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

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

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

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My first proper grown-up SF was, I suppose, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, first on the BBC in 1981, and then as a book the following year. Ever since then I have had a fascination for catastrophe stories, both British and American: by the time I left school I had read virtually all of Wyndham’s major works, plus plenty by John Christopher – The Death of Grass is another classic of the form, while Empty World, theoretically a YA novel, is as bleak as any adult book in this genre – along with The Stand and many others.

So it was not really surprising that I bought the first two episodes of Terry Nation’s Survivors when I came across them on second-hand VHS in the summer of 1998, despite the fact that I am generally a try-before-I-buy sort of person, and also that I had been left sufficiently unmoved by my copy of the novelisation as to actually give it away (not something that ever normally happens). This was long before the grisly (in all the wrong ways) post-RTD Doctor Who revival of the series, when it was still arguably the definitive TV treatment of this theme. I would say it still has a claim to the title, in this country at least, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The first episode of Survivors, The Fourth Horseman, was written by Terry Nation and directed by Pennant Roberts. If you talk to Doctor Who fans, Terry Nation’s reputation derives almost solely from the fact he created the Daleks, for most of his actual stories are derivative (often from each other) and reliant on cheap plot devices, while Pennant Roberts’ reputation has suffered greatly, primarily because his association with the show concluded with two almost totally crapulous scripts, Warriors of the Deep and Timelash. But here they come up with something very special: The Fourth Horseman is not subtle or profound, contains no dazzlingly witty dialogue or clever directorial tricks, and many of the performances are workmanlike at best, yet I think it is, on its own terms, a virtually perfect piece of TV.

This is even more impressive when you consider that the episode’s function is to move the viewer from the recognisable world of 1975 Britain into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in the space of 50 minutes and on a fairly low budget. This is a riches-to-rags story of people who, through no particular personal merit, find themselves still alive after civilisation falls and have to somehow carry on.

The opening titles alone are something of a masterpiece of understatement and implication: the series itself never establishes the exact origins or nature of the virus which devastates the world, but the title sequence suggests a laboratory accident somewhere in China is responsible, thus explaining the sheer lethality of the plague. Modern air travel rapidly disseminates the bug, and the credits conclude with the London passport stamp obliterated by a sea of crimson.

From here the theme is masterfully set up: affluent housewife Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour) is playing tennis by herself, using an automatic ball-launching machine – the kind of self-indulgent luxury item that epitomises her easy life. From here the premise is quickly established: the country is in the midst of some kind of disease epidemic, which is starting to affect public services and utilities – the train timetable is in chaos, the telephone network breaking down. Still, Abby and her husband David (Peter Bowles) remain rather complacent, assured it will all blow over sooner or later, and that they are safe in their lovely Gloucestershire home.

It is left to the episode’s other thread, dealing with Londoner Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming), to reveal just how bad things really are. Most of this comes courtesy of exposition, delivered (rather well) by Christopher Reich, who plays a doctor struggling to cope with the sheer scale of the unfolding catastrophe. Reich is talking about a very real modern nightmare, after all: something incredibly deadly and incredibly contagious, to which the world today is more vulnerable than at any point in its past, and he absolutely sells it. This done, Jenny’s role in the rest of the episode is to provide a series of vignettes depicting her escape from London into the countryside and her encounters with others as social order breaks down.

This is mainly the story of the beginning of Abby Grant’s new life, however. She comes down with the virus but lives through it (Jenny appears to be totally immune), only to rise from her bed after days of illness and find everyone else in the village dead, including David. The camera pulls back as Abby raises her face to heaven, reducing her to a tiny dot on the ground: ‘Oh, God. Please don’t let me be the only one.’

The plot driver of the first few episodes is Abby’s quest to find her son, Peter, who was taken into the countryside by one of the teachers at his boarding school when the plague was at its height (later episodes suggest Peter’s survival is incredibly unlikely, but one of the messages of Survivors is, I guess, that you gotta have hope). A visit to the school provides the opportunity for Nation to lay out more of his vision for the series, courtesy of a wise old teacher named Bronson (Peter Copley) who has also survived. Again, this is on-the-nose stuff, as Bronson suggests that surviving the virus has only been a matter of chance – the really significant challenge will be surviving the aftermath and preventing society from degrading too much.

The temptation for me here is just to start glibly talking about the Secondary Kill (the wave of deaths that occur due to inability to cope in a post-apocalyptic world), without acknowledging that the term comes from George R Stewart’s Earth Abides. I’ve never seen Earth Abides explicitly credited as an inspiration for or influence on Survivors, but this is unquestionably the case, as it probably is for all post-virus fiction – Stewart may not have written this story first, but for me he wrote it best, and some of Survivors‘ most powerful moments seem to me to be drawn from the book. Ish, the protagonist of Earth Abides, becomes painfully aware that his fellow survivors are content just to live off the leftovers of the fallen civilisation; one of themes of the book is his attempt to get them to prepare for the day when they or their descendants must become truly self-sufficient.

Stewart handles this with a degree of subtlety of which Terry Nation was, I suspect, just not capable, and instead he guns his engine and heads down the exposition highway courtesy of a speech from Bronson- but, again, it’s a compelling speech well-delivered by Peter Copley.  It does its job, which is to set up what Nation saw as the subtext of the series. (His collaborators disagreed, but we shall perhaps return to this.)

The episode lacks a traditional climax, but this is understandable given the nature of the piece, and it would be difficult to top the impact of the events which occur earlier on (even if most of them happen off-screen, during the three or four days Abby is sick with the virus). Instead it sets up much of what is to follow, even if a crucial element of the series, in the form of arguably its main protagonist, is completely absent. You could argue that much of the promise here ultimately goes unfulfilled, but for me this is still a rare example of the first episode of a fairly long-running series also being one of the very best.

 

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Isherwood Williams, a graduate student, is bitten by a rattlesnake while on a camping trip in a remote Californian wilderness. After a lengthy convalescence, he emerges from seclusion to discover that in the meantime a virus has all but exterminated the human race. Only a handful of people are still alive in the entirety of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the survival and future destiny of the human race will depend on their efforts. So begins George R Stewart’s Earth Abides, first published in 1949, and you might be forgiven for thinking that you could write the rest of it for yourself.

Earth_Abides_1949_small

Perhaps so, but at the heart of the novel is something odd and almost paradoxical. There have been many, many stories written around this theme since the end of the Second World War – indeed, the post-apocalyptic narrative has become something of a mainstay of science fiction and horror. Earth Abides is by no means the first such story, but it is surely a colossus of the genre. Never mind Ish Williams’ role as the progenitor of a new human race, from him also spring Bill Masen, John Custance, Robert Neville, Abby Grant, Greg Preston, and the protagonists of so many stories partly or largely inspired by this one. He contains multitudes.

But then again, this is also a very different kind of story to all of those others. At its most excitable, post-apocalyptic fiction can devolve to little more than formerly mild-mannered citizens discovering their inner barbarian and learning how to skirmish in the ruins of the old civilisation, while even the more thoughtful examples of the form take a fairly optimistic view of the prospects of some form of civilisation making a fairly speedy comeback.

Earth Abides is a quieter story with a different perspective. Ish is not instantly infused with a sudden desire to resurrect society and get things back to how they were: he quickly realises that this will be impossible, given the scale of the devastation. Given that the psychological trauma seems to have driven most of the survivors insane, one way or another, he decides that humanity has little chance of survival and contemplates suicide: but in the end opts to continue to live, simply out of curiosity about how the world will progress in the sudden absence of man.

And throughout the book Stewart inserts little asides, describing just that: the slow encroachment of forest and field into the cities, the lot of the domesticated animals now left unattended, the fate of the crops and flowers once cultivated by man. Writing in the late 1940s, he has no doubt as to the resilience of nature or just how little impact, really, the human race has had on the natural world. Set against the vastness of deep time, the sovereignty of man is just a brief and curious interlude. There is a profound and rather wonderful calmness in Stewart’s presentation of this – he finds not much cause for sorrow or anger in man’s demise.

But set against this is Ish’s abandonment of his detachment and re-engagement with the human race. He meets a woman, Em, and together with a small group of others they do set about ensuring the survival of the human race, founding a settlement and raising many children. Ish’s private ambition is to ensure the return of technological civilisation as soon as possible, and he protects books as the greatest treasure left to the survivors by the old civilisation. But is he capable of inspiring the other survivors to share his vision?

This is where Earth Abides diverges sharply from most other stories in this genre. I’m going to compare it to the BBC series Survivors (1975-7), partly because it’s one I’m very familiar with, but also because Survivors is very clearly inspired by this novel (the episode Law and Order contains one scene taken virtually whole cloth from Stewart’s novel, for instance).

The most major difference, of course, is that Survivors occurs over a handful of years following the plague, while Earth Abides covers decades – it’s somewhat discombobulating to think that, if the book’s opening is set around the time it was written, its final, ‘distant future’ segment could well have been meant to occur around now, early in the 21st century. But you can’t do a TV show with that kind of scope – at least no-one’s attempted it yet – so you can kind of forgive the BBC for telescoping events somewhat.

But Survivors is tonally different also. Terry Nation’s characters energetically embrace their do-it-yourself, back to the land philosophy, within a handful of episodes – presumably because Nation himself was apparently a great advocate of people being more practically-minded. Stewart’s survivors, quite believably, see no reason to abandon the comforts of civilisation and the rich pickings left behind, and the piecemeal collapse of the old systems of power, lighting, and water (over what seem to me like an improbably long period) are major events in their lives. Only Ish sees the need to build anew rather than simply scavenge, and he lacks the charisma he needs to persuade the others of this.

The final series of Survivors concludes, symbolically, with the electric lights coming back on only three or so years after the annihilation of well over 99% of the UK’s population. Earth Abides accepts that this is wildly optimistic – as the book concludes, Ish’s tribe of descendants are well on the way to being little more than hunter-gatherers, deeply superstitious, their highest technological achievement being the pounding of coins into arrowheads, with no grasp of the calendar, no literacy, and losing what Ish is able to recognise as English.

Yet this does not seem in any way a dismal or overly bleak conclusion – it is surely the lot of every very old person to not recognise the world that the younger generations have made. I have read and watched many stories of this kind, and I do find them to be amongst the saddest and most poignant in all of fiction – perhaps because, when we contemplate the death of civilisation, we must inevitably contemplate our own, and in the crumbling of the ruins of our world lies the implicit truth of how insignificant it really is. All of this is here, elaborated quite simply and elegantly by Stewart’s beautiful prose. But, as mentioned, there is also a wonderful serenity and sense of acceptance, a deep humanism, but also a profound love of nature.

There are no zombies, no killer plants, no gun-toting packs of petrol-hungry raiders in Earth Abides – there is, in truth, very little in the way of action in it at all. And yet this very quiet book is, in a strange way, the ur-text of the modern post-apocalyptic story, the one that encompasses all the others, and perhaps surpasses them too. This is a great, great book, full of intelligence and wisdom and sadness and compassion. It will surely be with us as long as civilisation endures, although I’m sure its author would have been the first to suggest that this is, in the wider view of things, perhaps less impressive than it first sounds. But then the wider view is the whole point of Earth Abides.

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Boy, they sure do like to do things big-style over in the States. Last week I spent some time banging on about discussing the wouldn’t-it-be-horrible-if… drama-documentary The Taking of Prince Harry, wherein said royal has a nasty time with the Taliban but eventually escapes. The British press were not impressed. This week, however, complete silence seems to have greeted Life After Armageddon, a vastly more lavish and actually slightly frightening wouldn’t-it-be-horrible-if… about the aftermath of a flu pandemic which offs an unspecified but significant percentage of the global population.

I suspect this is because a) this was an American show b) it was broadcast on Channel 5, which is still really the lightweight of the main UK networks and c) most people perceive this kind of thing as being the stuff of science fiction and thus Not Worth Worrying About. Certainly I myself sometimes feel like I’ve been vicariously enjoying the collapse of civilisation pretty much non-stop since I was seven, starting with John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, then proceeding fairly briskly through the work of John Christopher, Threads, The Stand, Dawn of the Dead, Survivors (70s version, of course) on tape and DVD, 28 Days Later, World War Z and…well, you get the idea. (During the 2000 fuel crisis, when the fabric of society seemed to shudder in a way it very seldom does, many people’s response was to dig out their bicycles and do a spot of panic-buying. Mine was to sit down and watch the Survivors episode Something of Value, which seemed thematically appropriate. I wonder who feels more foolish now.)

Well, this was a solidly put-together show, with a range of talking-head boffins popping up to give their opinion of exactly how we’re all going to die (possibly). I particularly enjoyed Dr Joseph Tainter and his sonorous delivery. Possibly because this was made for a credulous/American/Channel 5 audience, of course, it was felt necessary to illustrate whatever they were saying with the insertion of dramatised scenes from the life of Mr and Mrs Average of Los Angeles and their desperate attempts to flee the dead city and make a new life for themselves. Either the drama or the documentary would have worked fine on their own, to be honest – both together (particularly with the amount of recapping around the ad breaks) just made me feel rather patronised.

It served Mr and Mrs Average right for living in LA, if you ask me. To be honest, they and Average Junior were just a bit too naive and bland to really engage my sympathy, particularly when they started doing very silly things like heading into the Mojave Desert with no real destination in mind. The drama-plotline had to engage in some rather unconvincing jinks and swerves just to keep them from getting themselves killed some time before the conclusion of the show.

The thing about this programme, which seems to me to be the case with a lot of bad post-apocalyptic narratives, was that the main characters seemed to be miraculously untouched by the general collapse of society and moral standards, looking on in aghast horror as the new realities of existence came into hard focus. The gangs of raiders and ad hoc militias they fell foul of were treated as one-dimensional, bogeyman figures. These people would have had lives before the disaster too, but despite the fact that they, also, were simply doing their best to survive (and generally rather more successfully than the Averages!) they were basically dismissed by the tellers of the story.

We’re going off on a bit of a tangent here, but I was reminded of one of my favourite pieces of apocalyptic fiction, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass. In this story a virus causes a global famine, eventually leading to national governments ordering the use of nuclear weapons on their own major cities in order to cut down demand on food stocks. But what makes this story really special is the way in which the main character – very much akin to Mr Average at the story’s opening – forces himself to embrace the passing of the old order and its morality. By the end of the book he’s repeatedly committed murder, simply because it’s the only way he can be sure of keeping his family and friends alive, and he remains largely sympathetic throughout. This is a world away from the well-mannered catastrophes we’re normally presented with, especially on screen. A touch of that would have made Life After Armageddon a considerably more engaging and challenging viewing experience.

Then again, it was American TV, part-financed by Channel 5. I suspect challenging the audience did not appear on the list of programme goals. In the end this was a nicely-made riff on material that’s becoming slightly well worn – sometimes I think the only thing that’ll stop the flow of documentaries about armageddon is the onset of their subject matter. In which case, by all means keep ’em coming.

 

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