Survivors (TV, 2009)

A first impressions review of the remake of the 1970’s survival show, Survivors, from Death Ray 16.

Directors: Jamie Payne, John Alexander, Andrew Gunn

Writer: Adrian Hodges

Starring: Nikki Amuka-Bird, Max Beesley, Shaun Dingwall, Julie Graham, Paterson Joseph, Chahak Patel, Phillip Rhys, Freema Agyeman

The first of two big British SF remakes (Doctor Who doesn’t count, it’s a continuation, and though Quatermass was big in its day, the live action BBC4 version was an experiment more than anything else. What’s the other? Blake’s 7, of course[NB, at the time I post this, years later, the Blake’s 7 remake still hasn’t materialised]), Survivors moves Terry Nation’s classic tale of plague to the modern era, otherwise the heart of it still beats true: a diverse bunch of survivors, spared the apocalypse by some genetic quirk, are thrown together and must strive against the environment and other survivors to forge civilisation a new. The virus that ends civilisation is now a flu bug, and not something accidentally released from a lab (though, as we shall see, that doesn’t mean that it is entirely natural), the results are as per the classic text: 90% or more of humanity is wiped out, leaving a handful of panicked people to try and survive by picking over the carcass of the quiet Earth. The gang the series follows are left in an emptied Manchester, and take to the hills.

In some details, at least, the show looks to follow Nation’s story closely. Many of the characters bear the same names and motivations – Abby Grant (Julie Graham) is hunting for her lost son Peter once more, and Greg Preston (Paterson Joseph) is again set up as a man with knowhow. Yep, he could be off to a Norway in a balloon at some point, you never know.

In other details it differs quite significantly – Tom Price (an excellent Max Beesley) is now a morally conflicted convict, not a Welsh tramp, and there are two new Muslim characters whose interaction add some interesting questions about faith to the mix; their presence but a part of the overall multi-ethnic feel, in keeping with the changing face of Britain. Some of the original’s major characters, although appearing in the show, don’t make through to the end of episode one at all… but as the Beeb has done a good job of keeping who dies in Lemsip-soaked misery secret, we won’t spoil that for them, or you.

The largest alteration is the addition of a metaplot. Right at the end there is the revelation of  some sort of scheme, as we are taken to a secret laboratory where dark hints are dropped that this plague might have been deliberately released. This might edge the series into inappropriately glossy spy-fi territory, but it could be a good move, as it may provide the series with the sort of narrative mystery backbone that makes Lost so compelling. The lab in the original was incidental, a catalyst here it looks to be crucial to the ongoing story; could we see a hi-tech army of new world orderists imposing their twisted vision of utopia on the world?

As for the execution of the show, and the execution of civilisation as we know it for that matter, the series manfully struggles against the constraints of a TV budget. In creating the feel of a dead UK, it employs many of the same tricks that 28 Days Later utilised. Early morning shots of cleared streets and roads go some way to convincing us that this land is bereft of inhabitants, though 90% of the scenes have the ruddy early morning lighting that usually only milkmen and hardcore revellers enjoy. There’s the occasional delivery driver scuttling through the streets in some of the aerial shots, unaware that he is spoiling the Beeb’s depiction of Earth post-man. The location dressing is nowhere near as sophisticated as that of 28 Days Later. In-plague shots show panic on the streets, scuffles at the petrol pump, but the roads the Survivors find themselves on are empty and clean. No detritus from the rout of society is to be seen, no abandoned or crashed vehicles, no bodies, no dropped possessions. That is, unless they are scattered in a convenient carpark, or vital to the plot. Where plague victims are to be found, they rot picturesquely, the buzzing of flies the only indication that something is amiss with our artfully sprawled extras. The plague takes hold very quickly, its cull of the UK population enacted over a matter of days, which is dramatically unsatisfying, as well as somewhat unrealistic. Equally, though news footage (and flickering lights) describe power outages and other utility failures due to sick workers, the BBC seems to carry on to the bitter end, its staff either immune or multi-talented, because the fancy computer graphics on the fake news footage keep up right until the government owns up and says, yes, everyone is going to die.

Bearing these things in mind, it may have been better to have begun the series some time after the plague, but it looks like the writers felt they needed to get the set up into the series. Lacking the money to do it in a suitably magnificent fashion – it could have made a film in its own right – so instead opted for getting it over and done with as quickly as possible.

However, once the show sets up its characters and has plunged them into the new Dark Age, it begins to come into its own. Strong character work is what Survivors will thrive on, and both script and cast deliver. All of them have great motivation and back story, while the sub-pairings within the larger group work really well, especially that of Al (Phillip Reese) and Najid (Chahak Patel).

The original Survivors has often been ribbed as an extension of the Good Life movement, which is somewhat unfair, but at least a little true. Though the second episode of the remake (which we were treated to a short preview of) concerns the breakdown of law and the rise of scavenging gangs, already in the feature-length opener there is talk of rebuilding society, relearning old skills, of pigs being slaughtered and cows to be acquired. In addition, we have the aforementioned mystery of the secret lab, and a possible mirror to the struggle of the survivors. As flawed as the depiction of the collapse is, it does give the show the chance to set up an ongoing parallel storyline, where junior health minister Samantha Willis (Nikki Amuka-Bird, the lass from Torchwood who was an alien sleeper agent) is left as premier by dint of being the only minister left alive. As episode one’s 90-minutes run to an end, we are left unsure as to what has become of her, though we’re sure we’ll see her again. Perhaps as we watch Abby and co try to rebuild from the bottom, Willis may be trying to sort things out from the top, which would be very interesting.

Where the weight of the series concerns fall, then, is something we’ll find out later. Soapy character drama? A post-apocalyptic version of Castaway? Jericho-style political intrigue? If we are lucky, a bit of everything. Like the survivors, we are left looking up the road wondering what will happen next. Of one thing we can be sure – it’ll be a more fun journey for us than it will be for them.

 Did  you know?

If 90% of the population die in a plague, that would still leave approximately 6,100,000 people in the UK, a million less than the current population of Greater London. As this was probably the population roundabout 1300 in Great Britain, at the time an island of two kingdoms perfectly capable of supporting sophisticated societies, perhaps the situation for the Survivors is not so grim after all.

EXTRA! The green, green fields of plague

Terry Nation’s Survivors ran from 1975 to 1978 over three series. In his version, 7000 people are alive in Britain after the pandemic, a vanishingly small number. So small it is hard to believe they would ever meet up.

Nation himself left at the end of the first series, and thereafter the show began to incorporate elements that have since caused non-fans to chuckle at it. Technology and petrol (there would be millions of gallons just sat in people’s cars, never mind petrol stations) disappear rather quickly, and the revival of technological society reads like an early green manifesto, all rail travel and hydroelectricity. Fans refute accusation of a middle-class bias vehemently, though it is undeniably there; the majority of the survivors are professionals.

Survivors is the inheritor of a very English myth, that of the goodness of a life lived in nature. Examples of practical movements back to the land can be found from the 17th century onwards, but in the main this romantic notion sprang from the arcadian ideals of the 18th century, reforged in the fiery black heart of the 1900s.

The end of the world, with or without the triumphant return of back-breaking agricultural labour, is a peculiar speciality of British SF, having been explored by writers as diverse as H.G. Wells, John Wyndham, Samuel Youd, Stephen Baxter, and Simon Clarke (in nearly every case, several times). Other nations have produced a crop of visual apocalypses, but nothing to rival British literary tradition.

Survivors remake second review

And a second review of the remake TV show, this one from Death Ray 17.

Directors: Jamie Payne, John Alexander, Andrew Gunn

Writer: Adrian Hodges

Starring: Julie Graham, Max Beesley, Paterson Joseph, Chahak Patel, Phillip Rhys,  Zoe Tapper, Robyn Addison, Nikki Amuka-Bird

Remake of classic SF series where population is reduced to a handful of serious TV actors continues to deliver the goods.

Flashback to last Death Ray 16: We give the opening episode of the Survivors remake the big thumbs up, with some reservations. We’re going to say pretty much the same thing here, only the thumbs up is more enthusiastic, the reservations fewer.

That’s pretty much the comparison between old and new too. Survivors has surprised us by following the original series plot. Abby Grant (originally played by Carolyn Seymour, now Julie Graham) still contracts the virus yet survives it, finds her husband slain by the bug and sets out to search for her son Peter. As per Terry Nation’s original, she becomes the leader of a small group of survivors along the way, who increasingly find themselves meeting with other, similar groups who have all chosen their own way of living. There are fewer hippies and more selfish bastards as the mores of the times dictate, but the main conflict still comes from government representatives ( though at least Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Samantha Willis is actually from the government). We’re still a bit middle-class, Peter’s on an adventure holiday not at boarding school, no-one bemoans the lack of servants, and there are fewer vast kitchens, but everyone in our group is clean, well made-up and nicely dressed. Outside it, they are desperate urchins or shifty chancers. All are grubby. It’s new classism, professionals versus chavs.

Generally though, and we’ll get a roasting from Survivors‘ fans for this I suspect, the remake is better. And we’re not just talking advances in TV production, or the tighter writing you’ll find in modern scripts. The new version amalgamates elements of the 70s show, bends them, updates them. Survivors succeeds because it intensifies the themes of the first series of the original  – friendship, family, neighbourliness, just doing the right thing. It adds a strand of redemption with Tom Price (Max Beesley), an ex-convict in the new show, and one of faith through the interplay between brand new characters Naj (Chahak Patel) and lapsed Muslim Al (Phillip Rhys). It’s a bit religious on the sly (there’s even an episode about a modern prophet). At the very least, it is highly moral, and occasionally moralising, pointing out all those things the Daily Mail tells us modern society has lost.

The best thing in it is Price. His arc is handled expertly. Beesley is on top form, all glowering looks and violent potential, yet brimming with pragmatism and a certain honour Only Samantha Willis matches him, and that’s because she’s similarly conflicted. Tom Price starts from a dark place and is struggling toward the light, she’s trying to re-establish the rule of law, but heading towards ruthlessness. Great stuff.

Some of the other characters fade a bit round these two, especially supposed lead Abby and second-stringer Greg (Paterson Joseph). She’s too one note, prone to wandering off and having barely convincing solo adventures looking for her son. Greg’s the real disappointment. It was he, not Tom, who was the driving force in the original’s group, but here he’s not had chance to shine, and the finale of the series suggests that he may never.

It’s a chance he should have had, each episode is an hour long, the first 90 minutes, but though the time’s used well, it is not perfectly. An episode of Lost crams in much more (paradoxically, though the episodes are longer than your average US show, the lower episode number of Survivors leads to these under drawn characters. 22 parts gives each member of even a huge ensemble chance centrestage). A couple sag in the middle, especially the last. When the audience is on tenterhooks waiting for the black helicopter of the sinister medicos to come and snatch Abby away, the cast sit down for a nice plate of beans. (They’re looking for the runaway Naj before they flee from Willis’ dodgy new government, which is slightly dull itself). Manchester is nicely dressed and FX’d up to look months-abandoned, better than immediately post-plague – an apartment block smoulders, weeds begin to choke the roads, rubbish from looted stores clutters the half-flooded streets – but the last ten minutes aside, not the thrill ride we were hoping for.

Still, Abby’s been kidnapped, the group’s on the run, Peter’s definitely alive, Greg’s been shot… And we give a damn. Bring it back as soon as Auntie, because this is the best SF treat you’ve given us for years.

Did you know?

Other parts to watch out for from the original in the new series are the way we meet Robyn Addison’s character Sarah (the bloke she’s exploiting gets a crushed leg, Greg comes to the rescue). There’s a stand-off with thugs in  supermarket under a swinging corpse with “looter” pinned to its chest. Both from the second episode of the new series.


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