Going Viral: ‘Survivors’ 10 Years On

❉ We revisit the ‘reimaging’ of Terry Nation’s post-apocalypse drama, which first aired 10 years today.

Apparently, Survivors was created by Adrian Hodges. Bet you never knew that eh? Well, created by Adrian Hodges at least according to the opening titles of the 2008 BBC remake of the programme. It seemed at the time rather brazen for the makers of the new show to be allowed to get away with such a credit, given that a) Hodges didn’t create Survivors, and b) the estate of Terry Nation has traditionally held onto the rights to his material with a fiercely tight grip. Hodges may have been the driving creative force behind the new series, but it is rather something to have rather a misleading credit attached to the front end of it.

The original show had been a great success for the BBC in the mid-to-late ’70s, and the central conceit was such a good idea that the programme was ripe for a remake. A similar path on the theme of post-apocalyptic communities making their way in the world had been trod by Granada in 1999 with The Last Train, but it had been a somewhat pedestrian series and only lasted for one run. A new version of Survivors would be the real deal. Or so we thought…

Taking its lead from Nation’s novelisation of the first series rather than the television version due to complicated rights issues, Hodges took the opportunity to tinker with settings, characterisations and plot-lines. The dreadful term ‘reimaging’ was prominent in the promotional bumph and the show really only uses the basic kernel of Nation’s idea, rather quickly going off tangentially in its own direction. Nothing wrong with this of course, but by the time that this version concluded it might as well have been a wholly different programme altogether. Hodges could quite easily have come up with his own interpretation on the topic and not called such a show Survivors, but perhaps it was felt that the name would be something of a draw for people in this endeavour (Bizarrely, the original 1970s novel was reissued at the same time as new series debuted but contained on its cover a photograph of the new cast – including Jenny who is present throughout the book, but who is sharply dispensed with on television).

From the original, most of the main characters are present: our hero Greg Preston, our heroine Tom Price and their friend Jenny Collins. Hang on, isn’t Jenny’s surname Richards? Not here it isn’t! Quite why such an arbitrary change was made is unknown, but it hardly matters as one of the most important people from the original is swiftly jettisoned in the first episode in favour of Hodges’ original characters. Bizarre. The casting of a popular contemporary actress in the form of Freema Agyeman, who at the time was in vogue following her time on Doctor Who, gave credence to the idea that Jenny was going to be a main player, but as had happened with Spooks a few years earlier, one particular character is present in all of the promotional material, photo shoots and publicity only for the script to pull off the supposedly shock trick of dumping them shortly after the programme begins.

The new version takes the opportunity to present a wider range of types of people from society, which is fair enough as the original had long been criticised for making the heroes white middle-class English people, and the villains more working-class. For a twenty-first century audience, it was perhaps a wise decision to alter this element. Tom Price, for example, has been altered beyond belief: No longer a scruffy Welsh tramp, he is now a young, remorseless murderer who we find in prison at the outset of events. Tom is presented as the danger within: the viewer isn’t supposed to know what he is going to do, what his intentions are or which way he is going to turn. Very different to the character shown to us by Terry Nation and portrayed by the brilliant, and underrated, Talfryn Thomas.

The main divergence in Hodges’ version though is that we see more of the background to the outbreak, particularly during the second run. We gain further detail about the virus that caused the untold death, and the scientists behind it. Not that we needed too – Nation’s Survivors wasn’t really anything to do with the virus, other than show the after effects of it and how the people who were left coped as a result. A group of government officials and mysterious scientists are introduced in a conspiratorial strand of storytelling completely new to the Survivors tale. Did we really need to know the backstory here? That’s not really was Nation’s original vision was about, and there were surely enough ideas about how people coped after the outbreak without introducing new strands.

Entirely new characters are grafted onto the story in the form of Zoe Tapper’s Anna Raczynski, Phillip Rhys as Al Sadiq, Chahak Patel as Najid and Robyn Addison as Sarah Boyer. Sarah is a new version of the original series’ Anne Tranter and is one of the more successful additions. As well as the usual itinerant adversaries, regular villains are introduced in the form of an MP called Samantha Willis, the scientist behind the virus James Whitaker and also Patrick Malahide’s mysterious Mr Landry. The casting of the guest characters is fairly impressive, with notable turns from the likes of Christopher Fulford, Neil Dudgeon and particularly Roger Lloyd-Pack, who took a turn in the original series two-parter Lights of London. Anthony Flanagan deserves a note of praise too for his portrayal of the unhinged thug Dexter, a character partly based on Arthur Wormley’s thugs from the original series episode Gone Away. The main protagonists were portrayed by Paterson Joseph (Greg), Julie ‘Bonekickers’ Graham (Abby) and Max Beesley (Tom), who do their best but the characters are comparable to their predecessors in name only really.

What the series probably did get right was the look. There are some very effective scenes of near-deserted cities and the decay that they have experienced in the wake of nobody being around to maintain them. Filming of the first run took place partly in Manchester, with early morning shoots being undertaken in order to achieve the desired empty look. Events from the real world were also in the minds of the public at around this time too, following the outbreak of the global swine flu pandemic. This occurred after series one, and the second run didn’t make it to our screens until 2010, rumoured to have been delayed as a consequence.

Hodges would later go on to greater mainstream success with the likes of Primeval and The Musketeers, but unfortunately, we must count this version of Survivors as something of a misfire. It doesn’t quite feel as if it has the same drive behind it that Nation and his co-writers brought to their work and the characters just aren’t as likeable. It may have been much better had it not been curtailed by the powers-that-be as there would undoubtedly have been many avenues to explore and roads to travel, but we will sadly never know as it was axed unceremoniously due to falling ratings; the BBC citing the well-worn mantra that in order to make new programmes they have to get rid of older ones (despite Survivors having only been on air for a couple of years). We were left with an unresolved cliff-hanger in which Tom Price is seen secreted on the aeroplane of the fleeing villainous Landry, who had earlier revealed that it was his company that was responsible for the accidental creation of the virus that ravaged humanity in the first place.

There was a general consensus that this was one reboot that didn’t really work, which is rather a shame as the basic premise is such a strong one and post-apocalyptic drama has been very much on-trend over the past few years with series such as The Walking Dead. This version deviated even more wildly from Nation’s concept than Terence Dudley’s alternative view of the show did back in the old days, with the novel acting as a springboard to launch new ideas that you can’t image Terry Nation having come up with.

Fortunately for fans of Survivors, they are still able to enjoy the ideas and themes from the original series in the form of the excellent audio range of stories from those clever people at Big Finish Productions who currently produce boxed sets of adventures featuring members of the cast of the original series. They are well worth seeking out, and are much more in sympathy with the fundamental aims of the programme.

❉ ‘Survivors’ Series 1 & 2 was released as a 5-disc DVD box set in 2010 and is still available from Amazon and other retailers.

❉ You can also buy Series 1 and Series 2 on Amazon Prime Video.

❉ Read our Cult Q & A with ‘Survivors’ star Julie Graham HERE!

❉ Chris Orton is a regular contributor to We Are Cult, and has co-authored books on Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who for Miwk Publishing. He can be found on Twitter at @chrisorton2011

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