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Posts Tagged ‘Terry Nation’

The last episode of the first series of Survivors is A Beginning, another Terry Nation script which is, to a considerable extent, a character piece about Abby Grant. Anyone watching The Fourth Horseman and then missing the next eleven episodes might not find anything especially noteworthy in this, for that’s essentially how the series began – but for anyone who’s been following along, it is a bit of a change of pace, and one that indicates some of the behind-the-scenes tensions which had apparently been developing as the series was made.

It is, we are invited to infer, late June, and not all is well at the manor: the trade Greg has made following the previous episode – petrol for supplies – has gone bad on the community, with the seed they received proving worthless. Greg doesn’t see the point in going back and complaining, as they have no leverage, others disagree; once again the existence of the community hangs in the balance. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown – in this case, the head belongs to Abby, who is struggling with the burden of being a leader of the community. Everyone has some petty issue they bring to her: Arthur asks for guidance about where to graze the livestock, Emma wants the children to help more around the house, Paul complains about where they store the pigswill. It is clearly getting too much for her.

Then a group of travellers arrive – survivors from a community about fifty miles away, driven from their own farm by an organised militia attempting to set themselves up as a regional power. With them they have a very sick young woman, whom they want to leave at the manor as they travel on. With Abby in retreat and not attending the meeting, for once Greg’s brutal pragmatism carries the day unopposed – they can’t risk bringing disease into the community, and the girl will have to stay with the travellers.

As far as the threat of the militia is concerned, the group start working on a plan to create a mutual defence agreement with all the other local communities, which will at least give them a chance of standing off the militia should a confrontation develop, but they are interrupted when it turns out the travellers have departed, leaving the sick girl on the manor’s doorstep (not quite literally).

We get one last great scene between Abby and Greg, as he insists the situation hasn’t changed: they just can’t risk contagion, and the girl should be made comfortable and left in one of the outhouses for nature to take its course. Abby disagrees and overrules him, and their argument threatens to become violent: Greg warns her never to speak to him that way again, she calls him a sanctimonious pig, he physically stops her from leaving. Greg is never less sympathetic than in this scene, and to his credit Ian McCulloch seems quite prepared to play up the sharp edges of the character (Greg comes across as arrogant, even somewhat chauvinist and patronising).

The thing is, of course, that Greg is arguably absolutely correct, and taking the girl in is – while morally the right thing to do – a stupid risk for everyone else (even she agrees with this). But the episode is on Abby’s side, of course, and not only does the girl recover, she proves to be a medical student and thus a fantastic resource for the community – giving Greg medical treatment after he injures himself later in the episode, and doling out one last bit of information to give the series an upbeat climax: she was previously living on a barge with another group of survivors, including Bronson, from The Fourth Horseman, and a boy who may well be Abby’s son Peter (although it seems to me that Greg and Jenny are somewhat guilty of asking leading questions here).

Before we get to that, however, we get a section with Abby going walkabout and ending up being almost literally swept off her feet by Jimmy Garland, now established as a de facto feudal seigneur – he turns up on a white horse, just to drive the message home. (Another quirky geographical revelation, as it appears that Garland’s estate, Waterhouse, is within a day’s walk of the manor. And, once again, it is tempting to compare this with Nation’s novelisation of the series, where Abby’s only contact with Garland after their initial meeting is a visit to his grave: he dies an ugly, pointless death.) Good-ish character stuff, I suppose, but a bit vague around the edges – the rebirth of Abby’s determination to lead, together with the inauguration of the defence alliance, and the news about Peter, does seem a bit much all for one episode – the series does seem to be stretching a bit in order to provide an upbeat climax to the series.

More than just a climax to the series, of course: this is the last participation in the TV version of Survivors for both Terry Nation and Carolyn Seymour. In both cases the cause of this seems to have been conflict with the producer, Terence Dudley, and in retrospect it is notable that episodes in the second half of the season are much more oriented around other characters, particularly Greg and Jenny (of course). The only real exception is Law and Order, the script of which Carolyn Seymour apparently strongly objected to on moral grounds, leading to more ructions behind the camera. Seymour herself has stated in interviews that Dudley wanted someone capable of playing a strong woman, but who would just do what she was told the rest of the time, and this is why she was effectively sacked. (The fate of Abby Grant is left open as far as the TV show goes: given her strong connection to the others, the way she just vanishes into the wilderness and is never seen again – what little we hear in the second series just invites further questions – does not invite one to draw hopeful conclusions.)

As far as Terry Nation is concerned, it seems that Brian Clemens may have been doing his old colleague a disservice when he accused Nation of just wanting to make a tract about self-sufficiency and smallholding – it seems that Nation was very happy to go down the action-adventure shotgun-toting Wild West Country route, and it was Dudley who was interested in the rather less dynamic agri-soap stylings the series eventually adopts. Then again, as Nation had some, shall we say, quite ambitious plans for how the series should develop (at one point he suggested the characters should abandon the UK, on the grounds of its rotten climate, and head for ‘the Valley of the Indus’ – the beginning of this journey is what forms the climax of the novelisation), perhaps Dudley’s views were more realistic.

Whichever way you look at it, post-Seymour, post-Nation Survivors is a different beast from the original version of the series, with the elevation of Greg to main character not really serving the series especially well. Not that the other episodes are without their moments, of course – but the drama is never quite as consistently interesting as it is in this first series.

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I believe it was the veteran writer and script-editor Terrance Dicks who observed that Terry Nation was such a nice man that he was obliged to employ the most savage and terrifying agent in the country; certainly, the travails endured by other Doctor Who writers wishing to use the Daleks are well-known. Note, also, the prominence with which Nation’s name appears on merchandising associated with the series he created – Nation’s agent even managed to secure him joint copyright on the Doctor Who episode Planet of Decision, with an eye to the merchandising potential of the Mechonoids, which were introduced therein.

And it seems you’re never far from a rights wrangle when it comes to the various shows and other things created by Terry Nation: the 2008 revival of Survivors was billed as being based on Nation’s novelisation of the original series, rather than the series itself, as the rights to the two entities were held separately, while one of the barriers to a TV revival of Blake’s 7 has been, again, the rights issue.

One curious incident which has become relatively well-known is the fact that there was a court-case over Survivors itself, in the 1970s, when Brian Clemens – another veteran writer, producer, and director – took Nation to court, claiming the concept of Survivors had been originated by him, and that Nation had taken it to the BBC without crediting Clemens. The court case was eventually abandoned by both sides due to rising costs, but Clemens’ vision for the series is interesting – he later said his idea was basically to make it as a pseudo-western adventure programme (his ultimate plan was, after three or four series, to load the main characters into a plane, send them off to America, and sell the format to the US-based Quinn Martin Productions – Nation himself seems to have had an eye on US sales himself, as Ian McCulloch recalls that Greg was initially intended to be American). Needless to say he was not impressed with Nation’s take on the concept – ‘he turned it into a sort of tract on how to survive.’

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, and one of the episodes that suggests Nation recognised Survivors‘ potential as a sort of Wild West Country adventure show is The Future Hour (another one of those oblique episode titles). Greg and Paul encounter Huxley (Glyn Owen), who appears to see himself as a sort of merchant prince, travelling the country with his men, stripping the towns bare of anything useful, and destroying what he can’t physically carry away. His plan is to sell his supplies to the survivor communities in exchange for gold. I suppose you could call it robust free-market capitalism in action, but one wonders what Huxley expects to do with all the gold: this may be why Greg later announces he is a nutcase.

Greg decides it will be better if the group treat Huxley warily, but unfortunately Huxley’s woman Laura has run away, along with one of his men (Denis Lawson, who proves that Ewan McGregor’s not the only one in the family who can do baffling accents). Laura is heavily pregnant, but Huxley has no interest in raising another man’s child and plans to give it away as soon as it’s born. Laura requests sanctuary in the manor.

Needless to say this puts Greg and Abby on a collision course again – Abby refuses to contemplate sending Laura back to Huxley, while Greg is equally adamant that it doesn’t make sense to help one stranger if it means putting the whole community in danger. Good meaty stuff, here, and well-played by the regulars, but the episode sort of runs out of places to go after this, beyond a bit of back-and-forth between Huxley’s men and the regular characters. In the end there is concluding shoot-out most notable for killing off Tom Price, who hasn’t been especially prominent this week.

Any discussion of what it would be like if Survivors were re-made today has been somewhat complicated by the fact that Survivors actually was re-made eight or nine years ago, but anyway: it’s hard to imagine they would kill off Price quite as precipitously as they do here. Surely there would be the climactic revelation of his guilt in Wendy’s murder, thus exposing Greg and Abby as liars and threatening their leadership of the community; perhaps even the prospect of some kind of redemptive sacrifice. But no: presumably someone on the production was uncomfortable with keeping a murderer in the cast of characters, especially when his natural role would be as comic relief. Survivors – it’s just so 1975 sometimes.

A fairly deft switch back into drama mode for the next episode, which also concerns the hold people have other each other. This is Jack Ronder’s Revenge, a character piece which rewards attentive viewers, and also ones with very good hearing. Vic has been getting increasingly depressed and withdrawn, and sort-of attempts suicide – he is only injured, but it does transform him from Terry Scully into Hugh Walters (apparently this was occasioned by Scully having a nervous breakdown – Vic isn’t in the previous episode, but the transition is still a bit jarring).

Vic’s depression dates back to the accident which crippled him, and being left to die by his then-partner, Anne. Naturally, it is at this moment that Anne (still Myra Frances)  and her new boyfriend rock up at the manor, driving a half-full petrol tanker. There is once again the clash of idealism and pragmatism which is coming to be a hallmark of the series – Abby insists that Anne can’t stay, given her history with Vic, but Greg points out that they really do need the fuel. So what’s to be done?

Matters are resolved in an intense sequence where Vic and Anne discuss what happened. The performances are both superb – obviously, one kind of regrets that it’s not Terry Scully playing Vic, but then he never showed any signs of being able to deliver the kind of nuanced performance Hugh Walters does here – and it’s just a problem that the whole thing was shot on location, for a low budget, in echoing rooms by actors speaking in whispers. Thank God the DVD has a subtitles option, is all I can say – I remember trying to watch this on VHS back in 1998, with the TV volume practically at maximum, rewinding every line of dialogue in a desperate attempt to figure out what they’re actually saying to each other.

It’s all a bit talky, and there’s a lot of stuff about the value of education which smells rather of filler (also a moment where Greg seems to be openly contemptuous of Paul’s lack of useful knowledge, which rings resoundingly false on all sorts of levels). But overall, a rather good episode, I think: hard to understand why Myra Frances never became more of a TV presence.

(Also, it’s interesting to compare this episode to the novelisation of Survivors, in which Anne’s only reappearance is as part of a gang of raiders, some years after the plague. Having seen her, Greg returns to the quarry – for the first time, in this version of the story – and finds Vic’s bones bleaching in the sun. The TV show can be a bit bleak sometimes, but the novelisation is often positively grim.)

Incidentally, one has to wonder just what the laundry facilities are like in post-apocalyptic 1976 (or whatever the year is in the series) – people happily turn out in some eye-poppingly bright outfits, none of which seems especially well-suited to life in a farming commune. At least Greg tends to go for the old double-denim most of the time.

Greg, and of course Ian McCulloch, gets another good outing in Something of Value, yet another episode about the hold people and objects can exert, and a bit of a return to the Wild West Country. The community is visited by Lawson (Matthew Long), who presents himself as a simple traveller and fills them in on the wider world situation: settlements are appearing, but also groups of nomads, some of them raiders. What he doesn’t say is that he is the face man for a trio of raiders himself, and he’s delighted to discover the petrol tanker Anne and her new boyfriend arrived in (this series often does a great job of setting up plot elements from week to week).

However, Lawson’s visit coincides with a storm and flooding, which destroy the commune’s supplies, and Abby and Greg decide that if they’re going to survive as a community, they will have to trade the petrol for more food and seeds (they already have a trading relationship with another group we have not seen).

It boils down to a very tense and well-handled stand-off between Greg and Jenny and the raiders, with Ian McCulloch very much in uncompromising action man mode, something which suits him rather well. (Someone should probably tell Greg not to be quite so keen to fire off guns so close to large quantities of petrol, though.) There are no big ideas or themes in this episode, but the raiders are eminently hissable villains and it works quite well. Greg, naturally, refuses to let their eventual triumph cheer him up – ‘God help us all,’ he mutters, reflecting that people are now killing each other over a few gallons of petrol. I remember watching this one during the Great Fuel Crisis of the Year 2000; things didn’t get quite so bad on that occasion, but you never can tell.

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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 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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It would be misleading to suggest that the original producers of Doctor Who did not intend to make any Dalek stories other than the first one. The original producers of Doctor Who did not intend to make any Dalek stories at all, and only ended up using Terry Nation’s original scripts because there was literally nothing else available to fill that particular slot. This did not sit well with Doctor Who‘s godfather, Sydney Newman, one of whose founding principles was ‘No bug-eyed monsters’.

However, to be fair to Nation, on their first appearance the Daleks are hardly that: these are not really the familiar liquidate-all-opposition space conquerors, but an alien race specifically written to suit the particular story the writer had in mind. It’s still not particularly well-known that in the very first script outline for the story which will forever be known to us as The Daleks, The Dead Planet, The Mutants, Dr Who and the Daleks and/or Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks, the Daleks are not an immutable force for evil who are soundly defeated in the final episode.

The original scripts make the point that neither the Daleks or the Thals are entirely sure who started the war that devastated Skaro all those years ago, and in the final episode the mystery is solved: a third group of aliens appear and reveal it was all their fault – sorry! The Daleks and Thals resolve to live in peace and rebuild the planet.

Would Doctor Who have lasted half a century if the scripts for The Masters of Luxor not fallen through and The Dead Planet gone unmade? Would it still be here if Nation’s original outline had made it to the screen intact? (I seem to recall that it was only the paucity of the budget, which wouldn’t run to a third set of aliens, that forced Nation to rewrite his ideas.) Well, Doctor Who isn’t here now solely because of the popularity of the Daleks, but I strongly doubt it would have made it through its first six years without the rocket boost of Dalekmania and the associated media attention.

And things were never the same again.

And things were never the same again.

A final-act redemption of the Daleks (how long before a story called Redemption of the Daleks actually hits our screens? It couldn’t be any worse than Asylum of the Daleks) would be almost impossible to pull off in any other story, but in The Dead Planet you can just about imagine it working: if these Daleks are intent upon killing everyone else in the story, it’s because they are in a literally them-or-us situation. These Daleks are dependent on a heavily irradiated environment to survive, something which is toxic to the Thals and the other characters. For the first part of the story, at least, it’s surely easier to identify with the Daleks, who are doing their damnedest to stay alive, no matter what, than the Thals, who seem quite prepared to roll over and die rather than breach their own principles. Sure, a few Thals get exterminated along the way, but this should by no means rule out an eventual rapprochement – there are other equally implausible accounts of warring parties putting hostilities behind them with improbable speed elsewhere in Doctor Who.

In short, the Daleks of The Dead Planet are fundamentally different creatures from the ones we are familiar with today. There’s no real sign of the over-riding Dalek imperative to kill all other life on sight, and they are physically very different too: limited in their mobility by the need for an external power supply, and dependent on a radiation-saturated environment for their survival. Neither of these latter things is ever the case again, although there is a sort of hand-wave concerning the former in their next appearance. Simply from a continuity cop’s point of view, it is very difficult to explain exactly why these Daleks should be so unique – the Doctor later suggests that these are members of some sort of degenerate, relict population in the distant future, but Planet of the Daleks appears to indicate it is set considerably before the mid-26th century, as the events of the story have become Thal legend by this point. This is only compounded by the origin story given for the Daleks on their first appearance, which involves a war lasting a single day and a neutron bomb attack. The Daleks’ on-screen origin story, when it arrives 12 years later, actually features a thousand-year war and a distronic missile attack (whatever one of those is). For a long time it was customary to assume that everyone on Skaro is just very bad at history, and the two wars and attacks are the same – but given the conundrum of the physical distinctness of the Dead Planet Daleks, continuity-wise it really does look like two separate groups of Daleks originated on the same planet, sharing only the same basic appearance.

But what an appearance. It’s an odd fact that any Dalek story, no matter how plodding or repetitive or silly, is somehow lifted when the Daleks themselves are on screen and in action. Both the design and the voice are arresting and compelling, and it is very obvious why the makers of the series chose to bring them back in late 1964 for The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Having said that, it’s pretty much just the design and the voice that get brought back, because nearly everything else about the creatures has been tweaked, wholly rewritten, or invented from scratch to suit the story.

Rather than crippled survivors of an apocalyptic war on a devastated planet, the Daleks of this appearance are much more recognisably the ambitious would-be universal overlords with whom we have become so familiar: they are much more mobile (there’s a small-but-sufficient explanation given for this), appear to have no particular environmental requirements, and are clearly extremely capable technicians and engineers. Is this, then, our first sighting of the True Dalek characterisation?

Well – I would argue not. There’s a brief but illuminating bit of dialogue which is often overlooked, wherein the Doctor and his soon-to-be grandson-in-law discuss just why the Daleks have conquered Earth. According to the Doctor, the existence of humanity is a matter of supreme indifference to the Daleks – man is a work machine to be exploited, nothing more, and one they would ignore if it weren’t necessary to their plan. This does not sound very much like the Dalek characterisation we are familiar with today – modern Daleks don’t seem to be supremely indifferent to anything, except possibly the quality of the scripts they appear in, and the series makes a point of showing them going out of their way to terrorise and kill innocent life-forms. One is of course inclined to wonder just where the Doctor’s getting his insights into the Dalek mind from, but nothing on-screen in the story contradicts his analysis. No explanation is given as to why the Daleks want to spread their presence throughout the universe, either.

The Chase gets round the problem of explaining the motivation of the Daleks (another possible future story in the offing: ‘Now on BBC3, it’s Motivation of the Daleks, and terror ensues as the evil pepper-pots capture Constantin Stanislavski and force him to give them acting lessons’) by being a revenge-oriented plot, albeit one that does interesting (I am being very charitable) things with the concept of the Daleks as a diverse race – so we get such experiments as a stupid Dalek, and a speech-impedimented Dalek. The Daleks’ Master Plan puts them back in the position of space conquerors again, this time willingly teaming up with a bunch of other aliens to take on Earth and the rest of the Solar System. Once again, the story is in no way interested in why the Daleks are behaving as they do, or how their culture functions – it just trusts to the reliable magic of the Dalek design to hang together.

However, Dalek characterisation takes a quantum leap forward in The Power of the Daleks, which I recently wrote about at some length. This is a story in which characters interact with the Daleks on a number of levels, rather than simply running away or hiding from them, and it genuinely seems interested in the idea of what it means to be a Dalek and how they view the rest of the universe – it’s here, for the first time, and not in a Terry Nation script, that we get the first proper glimpse of the Dalek characterisation that has since become so dominant – while rabid xenophobia had been part of the Daleks’ psychological make-up from The Dead Planet onward, here it is coupled to the pathological homicidal mania that gets its most powerful expression in the ‘Law of the Daleks’ and ‘Daleks conquer and destroy’ sequences.

The standard stays high for Evil of the Daleks, even though this is a story I’m rather less impressed with – again, this is a story about the essential natures of things (specifically Humans and Daleks) and what it is that makes them different. Whitaker’s treatment of this idea is just a bit too allegorical-fantastical for me, and the story makes a few too many demands of the audience’s credulity, but it does introduce a concept which has echoed down through the series for much of the intervening period – that of the Daleks at war with themselves. For a race which (the standard characterisation tells us) is fundamentally driven by hatred, it always feels oddly appropriate to have that hate turn in upon itself and destroy them. I’m still not sure this story would live up to its legend if it were found, though.

Five years on and we find ourselves in the wilderness years of the Daleks – the magic and specialness of their sixties heyday over, they appear in a number of bland and repetitive stories with the third Doctor. Probably the most interesting of these is the first, Day of the Daleks, which at least does novel things with the notion of time travel and the ethics of terrorism. Unfortunately these are the two elements of the story which involve the Daleks least. The makers of the story have admitted the Daleks are just there as a big hook for the audience, and narratively it’s not especially about them – any old alien invader or authoritarian bloc could be swapped in for them and it would not make very much difference. The other two stories are both generic B-movie SF tales, but it appears that Terry Nation did perceive the need to come up with some kind of gimmick to make the Daleks fresh – invisible Daleks in Planet of the Daleks and disarmed Daleks in Death to the Daleks. However, on both occasions the gimmick is briefly toyed with but rapidly abandoned in favour of more of the same old stuff in sandpits and corridors – the Daleks as an unquestionably malign force whose motives, methods, and morality are so simplistic as to need no explanation. (Although, for our purposes here, it’s interesting that in Death to the Daleks the Daleks have infected the galaxy with a lethal plague, not to wipe out the other races as you might expect, but to give them some leverage over them and force them to comply with the Daleks’ demands – but we never find out what these are.)

Given the relative sophistication of the treatment of morality in the third Doctor’s era, it’s not surprising that the old-school villainy of the Daleks makes for some of the least interesting stories of this period, nor that the makers of the show were reluctant to keep using them. In 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks we finally get another properly intelligent and thoughtful look at them, and if the price of that is a story in which the Daleks themselves barely make an appearance, it’s surely worth paying in the long run. Here the elements of the classic Dalek characterisation finally get articulated as a cohesive whole, not to mention explained – the progeny of a madman, himself mutilated by a devastating race-war, the Daleks are depicted as being genetically programmed to have a fundamental belief in their own supremacy – the desire to wipe out all other forms of life seems a logical consequence of this. Genesis‘ morality is complex and ambiguous, however, extending beyond this – despite the Time Lords having predicted the ultimate triumph of the Daleks, the Doctor famously rejects the option of destroying them in their infancy on ethical grounds, while elsewhere the story makes no bones about how successful Davros is as a strategist – the Doctor and his friends can do nothing to impede his plans beyond destroying a single tape (and this is a subplot, anyway), it’s Davros’ own overreaching ambition that results in his ultimate downfall.

The series’ treatment of the Daleks after 1975 is interesting. There seems to have been no legal reason for the creatures to be unavailable to appear in stories, as was the case for several years following 1967, yet four years pass between Genesis of the Daleks and Destiny of the Daleks, and another four between Destiny and their next proper outing in Resurrection of the Daleks (we appear to have reached the point at which story titles have crossed the line from portentousness into actual absurdity) – although, inevitably, they were initially scheduled to appear in the closing story of season 20 a year earlier. Terry Nation was actively talked out of contributing a second Dalek story in 1975, eventually submitting The Android Invasion instead (and I’m tempted to say that, without the brilliance of other people’s Dalek designs to grab the attention, it’s The Keys of Marinus and The Android Invasion that give the fairest impression of the general standard of Terry Nation’s scripting for Doctor Who). It’s tempting to draw the conclusion that the makers of the series had concluded that there were no especially interesting stories left to tell using the Daleks, and they were only rolled out when a producer felt the need for a comforting hit of publicity. Even then, the stories are always about Davros rather than the Daleks.

It’s not really surprising that the series should return to Davros time after time in subsequent stories – he gives the Daleks a voice and a face, and allows the Doctor to engage with their philosophy on a deeper and more narratively interesting level. The ongoing story of the Dalek civil war instigated by Davros also serves as a useful hook to hang the various stories on, although Destiny of the Daleks has the interesting concept of the computer stalemate between the Daleks and the Movellans. (Here again Nation appears to either have forgotten the original nature of the Daleks or be attempting to casually revise it: there’s virtually nothing in the broadcast version of Destiny to indicate the Daleks aren’t a totally robotic race.) Ultimately, though, we’re left with a situation where the Daleks are routinely a support act for someone else, with accordingly limited screen-time, or more interested in killing each other rather than threatening anyone the audience might care about. The best of the post-1975 stories, to my mind, is Remembrance of the Daleks (possibly a candidate for most-misspelled story title in the original run), which at least explicitly addresses the standard conception of the Daleks as Nazi-analogues (through their alliance with a group of Fascist humans, for example).

As I’ve said before, the real change in emphasis between the original run of the series and the one starting in 2005 is that one is a plot-oriented undertaking and the other is character-oriented, and one would expect that the presentation of the Daleks might benefit from this. The 21st century series’ approach of assimilating the original series and producing a synthesis of the best of it seems to have been in effect, and the Daleks benefit from this – their characterisation is both deeper and more broadly consistent than in most of their earlier appearances. Bearing in mind my suggestion that the basic Dalek casing design is essentially the only real constant across their many stories, it’s interesting that the meeting of creative types to discuss the revamp of the creatures (apparently known as ‘Resemblance of the Daleks’, according to Rusty Davies) rapidly concluded that there really wasn’t very much to be done beyond reinventing the wheel.

Most of these 21st century stories do adhere to the ‘classic’ characterisation of the Daleks as pathologically homicidal where other races are concerned, and driven to kill members of their own species (even themselves) should they become contaminated with alien genetic material. The Parting of the Ways, though it ducks this issue a tiny bit, interestingly has a go at conflating the Daleks with religious fundamentalists, which actually works quite well as a concept – the Daleks were turning themselves into suicide bombers as far back as Destiny of the Daleks, so it’s not a completely new idea.

Another novelty: mix 'n' match Daleks.

Another novelty: mix ‘n’ match Daleks.

One of the characteristics of Moffat era Doctor Who is its willingness to tinker with the established format and structure of the show, and comment on things which previous regimes wouldn’t really have engaged with. In this vein, Victory of the Daleks isn’t the first time a new Dalek design has been introduced (leaving aside colour variants and one-off individuals, there have been at least five previous Dalek designs), but it’s the first time the revamp has been addressed in the actual story itself – in fact, the story is largely about the revamp. Quite why the new Daleks are so reviled by many fans is a bit of a moot point (for me it’s a combination of the garish colour scheme and the distortion of the traditional Dalek silhouette), but at least their personalities seem to have remained unchanged.

There’s another departure in Asylum of the Daleks when more than one model of Dalek casing appears on screen, with designs from across the history of the series appearing (if you squint at the background, anyway). Possibly this is intended to indicate the Daleks are a diverse culture where groups with different levels of technology work in concert – but this does go rather against the generally monolithic and conformist nature of the classic characterisation.

The true nature of Dalek society and culture is, perhaps sadly, something the TV show has never really concerned itself with – we don’t even really know where little Daleks come from. Are they a clone species like the Sontarans? Are the Daleks still in fact a gendered race? Do they occasionally slip out of those uncomfortable casings for a little intimate time together? (Asylum of the Daleks presents us with the somewhat-awkward revelation that the Daleks occasionally ‘convert’ humans if they have useful skills, something which is hard to reconcile with the standard xenophobic characterisation, but then if you made a list of all the things in Asylum that are hard to make sense of…)

Culturally, the Daleks of the original story still have sculptures in their city, but apart from this they are presented as a supremely utilitarian race. Just assuming they had won the Last Great Time War and gone on to eradicate all other life forms in the universe, what would they have done then? Freed from the pathological fear and hatred which (it seems a fair guess) has motivated most of their actions, what direction would their civilisation follow? Gareth Roberts, in his novel I Am A Dalek, actually has someone ask a Dalek this question, and the answer is that they would devote themselves to art and science and philosophy (which is apparently all they really want to do anyway). It’s a curious concept and one you could imagine them getting a story out of, somehow.

On the other hand, stories exploring the nature of Dalek culture and society could prove problematic – fundamentally, the Daleks aren’t an alien race to be examined, but monsters whose job is to be a threat and scare the audience. One of the brilliant things about the Daleks – perhaps the single most brilliant thing about them – is the fact that they are so visually and verbally iconic, unmistakable as anything else, and this iconic status means not only that we don’t actually need to know very much about their background as a species for them to work as an adversary, but that their goals and methodology and – occasionally – their very nature can radically shift from story to story without it impinging too much on the audience’s attention. It is the very weakness of the Daleks’ characterisation that makes them such a brilliant all-purpose recurring monster and the undisputed leaders of the Doctor Who adversary pack.

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