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Posts Tagged ‘The Fourth Horseman’

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. ┬áIt 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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