❉ The latest instalment of Big Finish’s audio revival of Terry Nation’s post-apocalyptic drama.
It begins with just a few people falling ill. Another flu virus that spreads around the globe. And then the reports begin that people are dying…
When most of the world’s population is wiped out, a handful of survivors are left to pick up the pieces.
Cities become graveyards. Technology becomes largely obsolete. Mankind must start again. But viruses are survivors too…
This is the fifth boxset based on the BBC′s ‵Survivors′ series which ran from 1975 until 1977. These four stories, written by Andrew Smith, Christopher Hatherall and Simon Clark, and script-edited by Matt Fitton are four stories linked by one major narrative thread which makes reviewing episodically difficult to do without spoiling your enjoyment of the various twists and turns presented by the writers and director Ken Bentley.
The box set takes place within the framework of the second television series, with the happy couple Greg and Jenny now settled into a community called Whitecross. Unfortunately most of the Whitecross characters were created by writers other than series originator Terry Nation, who had since withdrawn from the series. Abby Grant, who never returned after the first series, is now present, but never interacts with Greg nor Jenny. They recreate their characters flawlessly. You could almost see the extraordinarily tight jeans which somehow Ian McCulloch, Carolyn Seymour and Lucy Fleming were poured into back in the seventies.
The second series has been criticised for steering away from exciting adventure/hard survival stories, favoured by Nation, into more reflective and pastoral stories, where vicars, agricultural specialists, and teenagers who will never see the lights of London, try to seek out and find some purpose or joy in life other than just bare-bones survival and the politics of what is basically village life. The variety of sparkling (and not so sparkling) characters who populated Whitecross are not echoed within these four stories. The series had an endearing habit of introducing new characters only to kill them off in a few weeks′ time thanks to either illness or accidents, on or off screen, and all before the watershed. Original second series regulars Charles, Pet and Hubert are name-checked, and there is a nice and emotional reference to Paul, someone who didn′t even see out the second episode and who gave his name to Greg and Jenny′s child.
Needless to say, the boxset has to feature adventures away from Whitecross and does so by exploring the impact upon other communities when the Death returns in a new and deadlier strain. The communities we meet here feature a pretty grim and damaged bunch. The moment you discover the open secret behind the community in New Blood, you can pretty much predict how it will end up, being less than the benign coping mechanism it is initially presented. There are a few notable exceptions to the grimness, such as Andy Secombe′s jovial Ben Turner. Adding to the grimness is Sean Biggerstaff who plays the ambiguous Healy while Fintan McKeown impresses in his role as a traveller resenting his settlement: interesting characters who do not emerge from their respective episodes. Another memorable performance is given by Neve McIntosh, playing a former army medic who unfortunately has some problems of her own. Least of all is what Andrew Smith does to her dog.
The four stories could almost be played out as a historical as no doubt the effects of the Black Death and other epidemics were met with similar responses; flawed investigation (via Andrew Smith′s The Second Coming), superstition (via Christopher Hatherall) and the blame game directed towards refugees (this time Simon Clark, in perhaps the most interesting of the four episodes). Smith rounds off the set with revenge in a very vivid production which takes very little effort to visualise some of the rather exciting sequences. Abby (still looking for her son), and Greg and Jenny (still wilfully abandoning theirs at every opportunity), get caught up in these events, trying to warn communities of the new outbreak and how to stop it spreading, and inadvertently helping to spread it.
The horrors of the plague are realised in fits of rampant and enthusiastic coughing from the cast. It is quite a depressing listen at times as the plague spreads, and the moment someone washes the face of a child with a spot of spit, well, you can guess the rest. There are moments of levity and humour, and Greg and Jenny show more affection towards each other than the puritan Head of Series, Ronnie Marsh, ever allowed a pre-watershed series to show in the mid-seventies.
Terry Nation, living in his mansion in Kent, liked to think any such apocalypse would require civilisation starting from scratch, literally reinventing the wheel (or in his example, a candle). Terence Dudley, a producer who never allowed his writers to hold him hostage, thought the survivors would try to use what technology was left, and get the lights working rather than let it go to waste, an attitude Nation misunderstood. Greg spent too much of the second series trying to get a motor running again using manure for fuel. We see glimpses of this in the boxset, especially in the third episode where he comes across an engaging and eccentric recluse attempting to harness the methane produced from a plague pit in order to power an engine. Rather clever bit of recycling there, envisaged by Clark.
The direction is very solid and a good deal of atmosphere is conjured up by Ken Bentley. Such an excellent soundscape of natural sounds that so evokes the bleak countryside the original series showcased does not require music, and the linking moods are quite distracting. I wouldn′t have been surprised had they heralded the entry of a Dalek or a monster. They felt particularly intrusive in the last episode. A minor criticism of an otherwise solid set of episodes in terms of script and performance.
By the end of the second series, it is made clear to Whitecross that they need to broaden their horizons and look further away from their community and link up with other survivors and look to the future of mankind. I hope future boxsets might expand upon the scope of the series. Providing Big Finish are not planning to replicate the character development at the end of Terry Nation′s original book, it would be nice if they did take the survivors out of England and into the continent and away from the original series. They could travel by hot air balloon…
❉ ‘Survivors: Series Five’ was released on 29 November 2016. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until 31 December 2016, and on general sale after this date.
❉ Michael Seely is the author of ‘Prophets of Doom: The Unauthorised History of Doomwatch’ (Miwk Publishing).