Survivors: The Complete Series 1-3 Review
There are many things that I might no longer do if I survived an cataclysmic event but high amongst them would be ironing. As it is, it's not a terrible thing to have to do but were I (and others) eking out a living on a remote farm in the north, I suspect that ironing would be one of the things that I would happily sacrifice in order to rear sheep and pigs, tend the pigs and, should I find someone willing to aid me in the matter, to procreate and to rebuild the human race. Not to mention dealing with the various miscreants who would come to take our food by force. Ironing would go the way of lace making, philately (stamp collecting) and croquet in favour of more practical matters. Oddly, though, the survivors demand such well-pressed clothing that they keep an iron heated at all times. No matter its post-apocalyptic word, Survivors keeps the gender politics of the time firmly in place. The men never stray far from their guns while the women remain close to their irons.
Survivors opens with talk of chaos just beyond its horizons. Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour) is a middle-class housewife who spends her days playing tennis and socialising while her husband David (Peter Bowles) works in London. There is some talk of a flu sweeping through the capital while millions of Chinese have died in an epidemic of the illness but both of these places seem far away from the village in which Abby lives. There, the coming sickness is only manifested with the GP making house calls and injecting those most at risk with a vaccine. The only suggestion that things are awry comes with Abby's calling at the train station to pick up her husband. The train is hours late while the station attendant tells Abby that little is coming out of London that day. David arrives much later in the day and together they leave for home. Abby tries calling the school at which her son Peter boards but there is no answer. Feeling unwell, she takes to her bed where she remains the rest of the night and into the next day. The world is very different when she awakes.
Unknown to Abby, most of the world's population has been decimated by a mysterious but virulent illness. Created in a laboratory, it has spread quickly through international travel. Billions die and when Abby wakes she finds David's body in her house and all of her friends dead. She washes, cuts her hair and leaves home in search of Peter. Elsewhere, Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming) calls at a hospital in the hope of getting vaccinated against the illness but learns from a doctor that it is no better than a placebo. It does not prevent the spread of the illness whilst those vaccinated against the disease are dying as surely as those who were not. In London, she leaves her car to a gang of looters and sets off for the countryside. Meanwhile, Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch) is another one who has survived the illness. Travelling through the countryside, he comes upon a young woman, Anne, who asks for his help in saving the life of a man trapped underneath a tractor. But Greg, and others, find, that not only has the world changed but so too have the people in it. They are now prepared to leave one another for dead to save themselves. Surviving the illness was straightforward compared to what lies ahead of them.
Abby, Jenny and Greg do eventually meet. Together, they become the focus of the first series. Others merely come and go. At first they set up base in an abandoned church but when they're driven out of there by vigilantes, they find an abandoned stately home, which they name The Grange. There, accompanied by a couple of children, John Millon (Stephen Dudley) and Lizzie Willoughby (Tanya Ronder), the untrustworthy Tom Price (Talfryn Thomas) and some others, they form an old-style commune and set to quietly making-do. What supermarkets and petrol stations there are are soon commandeered by armed gangs and so our survivors are forced to eke out a living from the land. Even then, a form of capitalism emerges with petrol, food, luxuries and more traditional contraband like cigarettes and alcohol (but not drugs, which one would have thought there might be a thriving trade in) being traded between those who have and those who have not. Sometimes, fortune brings a stroke of good luck their way, such as their getting a tanker more than half-full of petrol, which they can trade for food but, even then, the lawlessness of the new England sometimes conspires against them.
As such, Survivors becomes as much about sociology as suspense. Each episode has a well-defined story, be it Vic's disability and how this impacts his being involved in the post-plague world. Without a proper wheelchair, he can barely move around the house unaided never mind work in the fields outside. Abby and Jenny struggle with ploughing a field while everyone puts seeds, tubers and plants in the ground hoping they'll grow into fruit and vegetables with scant regard for the type of soil, the season or crop rotation. Even the things that aid everyday life, such as matches, candles and tools guarantee little. As a character asks Abby in one of the early episodes, "What happens when you have used the last candle or broken the last spade? When all the shop are empty what do you do?" Even water isn't safe as those drinking it soon becomes clear that certain rivers, streams and lakes are contaminated with dead bodies lying upstream, leaving Greg sitting by the shore of the sea boiling salt water to make it drinkable. The plague, while diminished, hasn't gone away. There are those who were not exposed to the illness during the initial outbreak while others are now falling victim to cholera. However, Survivors remembers that it ought to entertain its audience as well as cause them to consider their own dependence on the modern-day solution to supply-and-demand. The second episode, Genesis, is amongst the best in the series. In ten or fifteen minutes, it describes just how much as changed in society as a normally generous people drive past cars full of the sick and dying or walk away from their families, who come crawling out after them, and drive off without so much as a care. Revenge is touched on when Anne visits the Grange late in the series, leading to everyone fearing what Vic might do should he meet with her. Vigilantes, free marketeers and looters either defend their territory or attempt to steal what little our survivors have. Even an episode in which a young woman asks for shelter at the Grange is livened up when one such trader claims her as his property and demands that she is returned to him, which leads the episode into a siege story. Justice is mentioned several times, not only in those who are well-armed enough to set themselves up as feudal barons in large country houses and outlying properties but when Wendy is raped and murdered during a May Day party at the Grange, leading to Abby and Greg needing to set up a makeshift court and to pass judgement, either to banish or to execute. That they are ill-prepared for such a thing is obvious but there is no law they can turn to with such matters and so must make up their own rules. A perfect ethical dilemma comes to them in Corn Dolly in which Charles Vaughn and Abby use morphine to euthanise those who have eaten contaminated fish.
As good as this premise (and first series) is, Survivors falls apart so rapidly that no amount of television sticking plasters could hope to save it. Abby Grant grows tired of all the bickering at the Grange and so leaves the survivors to it so she can continue her search for her son. Indeed, she doesn't even feature in the second series at all. Paul, a rather foppish gent who looks as if he was once a pre-plague member of The Incredible String Band, lasts but a couple of episodes before deciding that he too ought to be on his way. Unfortunately, those brought in to replace them don't quite fill the Abby- and Paul-shaped holes that are left. Charles Vaughn, whom the survivors first met in Corn Dolly in the first series, returns as The Grange burns to the ground, which the producers welcomed as a means to rid the show of more than half of its characters. The survivors plead with Vaughn to be allowed to remain within his commune in White Cross. Back in the first series, Vaughn was a rather creepy man who wanted to reestablish the human race by sleeping with as many as he could but returns to Survivors with hard toil in the fields on his mind.
At first, very little seems to have changed in Survivors but with every passing episode, the show sinks further into the mire of agriculture, household chores and of disagreements over the cooking arrangements. New characters are brought in to replace old, such as Hubert Goss for Tom Price and Pet Simpson for Abby Grant but Pet isn't quite the match for Abby. Even the characters that remain are changed by the experience. Jenny, in particular, is no longer the headstrong young woman of the first series but a brittle wife (or partner) to Greg but who bears the look of one responsible for the initial spread of the virus. Indeed, by the time the series gets to Jenny and Ruth arguing about whose turn it is to cook soup, which actually feels like the highlight of that particular episode, you may well feel inclined to give up on it. However, the bigger problem with the show at this point is that any air of believability that Survivors had in its first series has now gone completely. Where the first series featured deserted roads, looted streets and empty buildings, series two is set almost exclusively on farm buildings. Just as few would believe a series in which children pretended their house was a spaceship and the land around them a strange, alien planet, so one must work hard to suspend a belief that these are just actors playing make-believe in a quiet part of England. There is little mention of the chaos that exists beyond their borders, leaving this lot fighting about the ownership of pigs and chickens, drainage and defence while only mentioning the lawlessness that exists in the rest of the country in passing. Instead of the post-apocalyptic themes of series one, this series of Survivors is merely a drama about a sixties-style commune, only that would have had better music than is offered by Ian McCulloch strumming away on his six-string. The one exception to this is Lights Of London, a two-part episode in which medical student Ruth leaves for the capital in search of Abby. However, even then, we are saved the sight of abandoned streets in search of BBC sets and an empty tube station. Eventually, Greg leaves as well, setting off for Norway in a hot air balloon in New World.
Series three is very much better, although one must be careful about describing it as a return to the form of series one. In it, Greg has come back from Norway but has not yet returned to White Cross. However, with Charles Vaughn hearing news of Greg on a radio transmission, he leaves the farm in search of his friend, accompanied by Jenny. In spite of their leaving the comforts of their home, their search merely leads them on the trail of a series of places where Greg is reputed to have spent time. They begin at Wallingham, are not far from Greg when he interrupts his travels to fight what an old woman calls 'red Indians' and find Brod (Brian Blessed) running a feudal camp by a railway track. Meanwhile, packs of wild dogs roam the countryside and there are millions more rats than people. Even diseases thought long gone have returned, with rabies and smallpox adding to the risks faced by the survivors.
The need to move the series on seems to have come about through realising that home cooking, candle-making and cow-milking are not the things that a successful series is based on. Carolyn Seymour would later say as much, "...you needed the action. It wasn't enough just to milk a few goats or learn how to harness a horse." As such, the third series of Survivors gets quickly on with taking Charles Vaughn out of the comfort of his farm and sending him off in search of Greg Preston. With Jenny and Hubert in tow, the Britain that Vaughn finds is very different from the one that the Survivors have seen up to now. How bleak a nation it now is becomes clear when episodes are framed against muddy riverbanks, in forests with trees seasonally stripped of their leaves and, in Mad Dog, a snowy mountainside. Dogs run wild throughout the countryside, gangs hold Vaughn and his people to ransom and hunters shoot on the innocent. Meanwhile, Vaughn looks muddy-faced and dressed for action while Jenny looks to be at the end of her tether throughout this series. Every time she gets close to where Greg is, it would seem that he had moved on mere days beforehand. Every mention of Greg leaves her distraught and the news regarding him seems to get more unpleasant with every passing week.
And yet, as the series progresses, there are moments of hope. Events take a change for the better in Bridgehead, with the episode beginning with the cows on the farm being diagnosed with brucellosis and ending with Vaughn establishing a market at Highley railway station while a steam train rolls down the tracks. Progress seems to be making a return after all the trouble of earlier years. This optimism is echoed in The Peacemaker, in which a peaceful community functions around a working mill, their searching for a former electrical engineer in Sparks and the coal mine of The Enemy. However, the best episode comes with the Ian McCulloch-scripted The Last Laugh, which resolves the story of Greg Preston in a return to the 'wild Britain' themes of the early part of the series. Preston's, "I feel tired!" may be the most heartfelt line in the entire series. He and Vaughn, while never seen together, look as though their efforts to rebuild Britain are exhausting them. As if to make up for this, Survivors ends on something of a high note with Love Live The King, in which there are plans for a new government, even to the issuing of promissory notes and the flying of a new flag, and Power, in which the survivors head north to Scotland and to a hydro-electric power station to switch on the power. As power returns to the electricity lines, the series ends. Normal life, if not restored completely, is in the process of returning.
As good a series as Survivors can be at times, there are many times when it skirts around some of the bigger issues. Indeed, what Survivors misses most is much discussion about matters on faith and religion. There are four angels in the first series, who are merely hermits who have hidden themselves away in the mountains, and suspicions of witchcraft in series two's The Witch but one would have thought that the matter of post-apocalyptic cults would have been as much of a problem as free-marketeers in the England that followed the plague. After all, what religious person could fail to make the connection between the death of billions of people and, by the end of the world, God calling his chosen people by ensuring their survival. Only The Chosen attempts to place religion in the world of the survivors by having Charles and Pet come upon a military-style camp who practice eugenics and euthanasia, all driven by a religious fervour. However, by its end, it has fallen into yet another makeshift trial and the choosing of secularism over fundamentalism. In the matter of the end of the world, one can't help but think the latter would make for better television.
That said, there are some very good episodes in Survivors. The first series is probably the most consistent in terms of its mix of matters of survival with the conflict brought about by visitors to The Grange. Series two might be just as consistent but can also very, very dull. Series three can be unpredictable and swings between the very grim early episodes and the later civilising of Britain but this makes for a better series. It might have taken a great many episodes to get there but the Britain of series three is very much how one would imagine a post-apocalyptic landscape to look, with thugs like Brod intent on making their personal fortunes while Greg Preston and Charles Vaughn sacrifice all that they have to forge a new society, albeit a place where guns are borne at markets and new plagues join the old. Indeed, so good is this third series that the new Survivors, showing on BBC1 at the moment, would do well to develop in a similar vein. For now, the first series of the Survivors of this year is not unlike the Survivors of 1975, in which those who lived through the plague are still finding their feet. But those episodes of 1977 shows there ways in which it can develop into a series that is memorable for all the right reasons, with there being as many small crises as there is a grand rebuilding of a country after the plague.
I suppose we're not somewhat spoiled by releases of archive television shows, what with the work of the Restoration Team on Doctor Who, Network's stunning work on The Prisoner and series 1 of Space: 1999 and the BFI's grand efforts with the BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas... offerings. So when Survivors comes along, which looks all right but not particularly special, one is inclined to mark it down due to the lack of care shown to some of the episodes. What we have is a series that is not unlike what one would expect of it. The picture isn't particularly sharp and nor is there very much detail in it. The colours are often very muted, moreso than they ought to be for a mid-to-late-seventies show, but this may be deliberate in the third series, where Carolyn Seymour's bright yellow slacks are moved out of the show in favour of brown coats and mud-stained trousers.
The bigger problem comes with the state of the source material. White spots appear on several episodes but the more distracting problem is one of a line (or a group of lines) that occasionally appears on the left side of the print. Sometimes barely noticeable and, at other times, standing out against the action, it doesn't cause a problem across the entire frame but it is distracting and affects several of the episodes in this set. It also only affects external shots but may only be seen once in each episode. For example, it can be seen in one scene in Law And Order in the first series, when the manhunt for Barney gets underway, but isn't seen at any other time. It's at its worst in Law of the Jungle in the third series. Screenshots are the best means of illustrating this problem and I have included some here:
Otherwise, the DD2.0 mono soundtrack is fine in presenting the dialogue and the action and is particularly good in the third series, in which Survivors moves out of its cosy farm houses and back into the wild of the countryside. The ambient sounds are also better in this series, with silence being more authentic for a post-apocalyptic drama than the summertime cheep of birds in the first two series. Finally, with this being a 2 Entertain release, there are English subtitles and they are very good, even to highlighting what is spoken on and off the screen.
One would have thought that this complete collection would have brought over the special editions from the individual series releases (commentaries and on-camera interviews) but instead we get very little outside of Photo Galleries (two on series one and one on series two). However, when that 'very little else' includes the BBC's The Cult Of...Survivors (29m32s), it starts looking that little bit better. This is a very decent look back at Survivors and features interviews with the main cast (Lucy Fleming, Carolyn Seymour and Ian McCulloch) as well as director Pennant Roberts. Unsurprisingly, it does tend to focus on the first series of the three but does so fairly, praising Survivors for what it does well but also rightly calling the show for what it does badly, such as the rather friendly-looking dogs who don't pass muster as a pack of feral, rabid hounds and the whole of the second series. Even McCulloch calls it boring. Finally, on the third series, there is a set of Publicity Stills.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:25:57