Survivors (2008) Review
Having followed the fortunes of the survivors of the nineteen-seventies some weeks back, itself re-released on DVD to coincide with the broadcasting of Adrian Hodges' re-imagining of Terry Nation's series, it's now the turn of Julie Graham's Abby and company to make it onto disc. And not very much has changed. The series opens, once again, with talk of a flu virus that is sweeping the country, of queues forming outside hospitals and clinics and of the collapse of public services. As one who has had a recent experience of a hospital failing to cope with this winter's outbreak of influenza, it really doesn't take very much for a hospital to close its doors to the public. However, in the world of Survivors, a brief respite from the influx of ambulances does not cure all ills. Instead, the bodies pile up in hospitals, homes and halls, shops, temples, mosques and churches. Everywhere, in fact, leaving a small group of survivors eking out a living in a world that has, to all intents and purposes, returned to a pre-industrial age.
For the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with Nation's Survivors, it concerned those who, for reasons unknown to them and to the audience, survived a pandemic. With billions dead and with the collapse of the infrastructure that supported modern living, those that lived through the illness found themselves struggling to live in a world that, with the exception of cars that continued to run on a dwindling supply of petrol, was little different the one that preceded the industrial revolution. Stealing from my own review of the Terry Nation series, these survivors formed, "...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. Sometimes, fortune brings a stroke of good luck their way but, even then, the lawlessness of the new England sometimes conspires against them...vigilantes, free marketeers and looters either defend their territory or attempt to steal what little our survivors have. Justice is mentioned [by] those who are well-armed enough to set themselves up as feudal barons in large country houses and outlying properties [with] a makeshift court set up to pass judgement. 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."
And not much has changed between the making of Nation's series and now. Survivors is often more about sociology as either the science of suspense, although with the presence of Max Beesley as prisoner Tom Price, there is more of the latter than was offered by Nation's willing band of neo-hippies. However, there are still echoes of the earlier series' talk of crop rotation and goat-milking when Callum Brown (Francis Magee) asks Abby, "When was the last time you did anything truly practical, Mrs Grant...like milked a cow or slaughtered a pig? Do you know which mushrooms are OK to eat and which ones will kill you?" However, perhaps in acknowledging how dull the second series of Survivors comes, this one remains short and relatively snappy, reprising many of the storylines from thirty years ago and keeping the structure of the series largely intact.
Indeed, anyone familiar with Nation's series will find themselves quite at home with Hodges's version, particularly so in the latter's choosing not to change very much as regards the main characters as how Nation first sketched them out. As with Carolyn Seymour's star of the first series, Julie Graham's Abby Grant recovers from the illness and leaves home in search of her son Peter. Greg Preston (Paterson Joseph) has much the same air of practicality about him as he did in Nation's series but is much less willing to be a part of Abby's post-apocalyptic team and needs to be persuaded before joining with her. Medical student Ruth is now Dr Anya Raczynski (Zoe Tapper) while Anne Tranter, who abandoned Vic in his portakabin in the quarry in Nation's series, has now become Sarah Boyer, who leaves an injured Bob in a warehouse full of food and drink. Another similarity is in the early death of one of the series' most famous names. Terry Nation surprised everyone by employing Peter Bowles and killing him not long after. Hodges does the same for Freema Agyeman as Jenny Collins.
These similarities follow through to the seven episodes. Samantha Willis (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who is the government minister responsible for stopping the spread of the virus in the opening episode, not only survives the pandemic but becomes the leader of a facility that is entirely self-sufficient, not only in food but also in electricity. However, like Arthur Wormley in Nation's series, she is equally swift in matters of justice. To Abby's horror, she executes a young girl accused of stealing. Later, she seeks to conscript skilled professionals into her organisation but does so at gunpoint. Jimmy Garland, who was the eponymous star of Garland's War, reappears in a storyline not dissimilar to Nation's, only now he's fighting a gang of school kids who have taken over his family mansion.
The pity about this devotion to Nation's series is that is very much better when it goes its own way. Its best characters are not Greg and Abby but Al Siddiq (Phillip Rhys) and Najid Hanif (Chahak Patel). These two are an ill-matched pair.Al is the spoilt son who finds himself unprepared for the way Britain is now when the petrol in his expensive Audi runs out. Najid attends prayers in his mosque and is the only survivor out of all those present. All those are around him are still bent over in worship as he stands up and leaves in search of his cousins, who may still be alive. Al and Naj meet in the streets of Manchester, dine out on crisps and sweets in a supermarket car park and play football on an empty motorway. Their relationship, much like a father and son, is best defined when Al warns Najid that he can't survive on snacks and junk food. That he needs fruit and vegetables. They even look out for one another, Al throwing a punch at a newsagent who threatens Naj when the boy nips in to take a packet of sweets from a shops he thinks empty. When Al is exiled from Samantha's group of survivors, it's Naj that he asks for and it's for Naj that he fights for when the boy runs off and meets with a Fagin-esque gang leader. There's a warmth in the friendship between them that's lacking in much of the rest of the series, which otherwise dallies with romance between Tom and Anya, Al and Anya, Tom and Sarah and Abby and Greg without actually resolving anything. Indeed, the writing of the relationship between Tom and Anya is probably the series' least interesting diversion. He's a violent prisoner who serves the group of survivors well but is not only jealous of Anya's friendship with Al but of a relationship that she had with a woman before the virus hit. It's not a believable relationship and no matter how often Hodges and company bring it to the fore, it never works.
Similarly, these are rather an optimistic and rather hopeless bunch of survivors. While I might have complained about Nation's survivors continuing to iron in the midst of a new dark ages, at least they sought out some weaponry soon after the virus hit. Fearing for their own security, they armed themselves and protected The Grange against all comers, not only from those who threatened violence but from those carrying illnesses. This lot do nothing of the sort. In spite of running into the violent Dexter (Anthony Flanagan) in the second episode, they keep themselves unarmed until very near the end of the series when, thanks to Tom, they chance upon a shotgun. A more obvious thing to do would have been to have rooted through what empty houses there were, and there are a lot, in search of shotguns, rifles and pistols, either illegally kept in some of those areas of Manchester (where the series was filmed) that hit the headlines with yet another instance of violent crime or legally kept by farmers. These survivors, led by Abby Grant, seem to think themselves above such things but are then open to attack, either by those who chance their luck or by those more determined, such as Dexter, who may only have one double-barreled shotgun but who has a clear advantage over Abby, Greg and company.
However, in the midst of that, Survivors does some interesting things. The third episode, in which Greg and Tom not only see a helicopter passing overhead but chance upon an uninfected family of three who have locked themselves away from other survivors, is probably the best in the series. It's the only one in which the survivors actually voice the importance of living, no matter who different that might be from a year or two before. But it's biggest leap away from Nation's series is in its showing a secret government lab that are trying to develop a vaccine for the virus. Nation did nothing of the sort. Again, where it is suggested that these scientists were involved in the manufacture of the virus, Nation's died of his own creation before the end of his titles. These scientists live and work in a secret lab in which they are happy to experiment on humans and, having learned that Abby not only contracted the disease but survived, send out their armed soldiers to extract her from the survivors. This provides the series with a cliffhanger from which, it would seem, the second series will bounce off from.
For now, though, this is good series and probably one of the better ones produced by the BBC over the last couple of years. When it's good, as it is in the first and third episodes, it's very good indeed but it is often tempted by silliness. In another show, Dexter would be dealt with very quickly indeed but Survivors, with its nice cast of English people, let him away with near murder before deciding to do something about it. There's also the matter that unlike Nation's series, the end of the world is not so convincing. Where Nation's cast were happy to muck in, even to having a second skin of dirt and grime in the third series, this lot tend to pop out to shops and cash and carries in their nice cars without ever, as Callum Brown tells them, having to work out what mushrooms are edible and which are not. Never mind a pandemic, this is more like the peace and quiet that descends on the suburbs in the summer holidays. The lack of electricity doesn't seem like an inconvenience, more like an excuse to have a cosy candlelit evening of wine and conversation. A nice sort of surviving that is but not one bears much semblance to how many of us would live in such an empty and potentially violent land.
Broadcast simultaneously on BBC HD, Survivors was filmed on 35mm and really looks the part on DVD. Light levels are sometimes very dim but the use of film ensures that the picture remains clear, even to there being a slight blurring around the candles that our survivors light in the night. During the daylight scenes, the picture is sharp and very handsome, not only in how well shot the series is but how graceful it can be. The style of Survivors often compares very favourably to 28 Days Later, although this looks better. I would imagine that a HD release of this would look very impressive indeed. The DD2.0 and DD5.1 audio tracks are probably not quite so good. The audio is clear but that this was made for television means that there are fewer opportunities for the DVD to show off its use of the rear channels than had this been made for cinemas. It's often a fairly restrained-sounding show, with this bit of an audience wanting it to really break out and show itself off, particularly in the shootout in the final episode or in Sean's (Neil Dudgeon) defence of his farm. However, it is at least clear, with the subtitles being up to the usual standard offered by 2 Entertain. There is also an audio descriptive track.
The Making of Survivors (26m35s): Without a mention of Terry Nation's show, we have Adrian Hodges and others, mostly the cast, talking about this new version of the show and its principle themes. None of these interviews, even that with Hodges, are that interesting and nor is the behind-the-scenes footage. There's also a lot of material in this that has been lifted directly from the series, as though it was thought a little threadbare and needed padding out. It may sound obvious but what it needs is some comparison to Nation's series, which might have informed an unwitting audience about how much Hodges' owed to Nation but would also have pointed out some of the very good things that he's done, particularly in his writing of Al and Najid.
Character Profiles (12m24s): With Adrian Hodges popping up in between interviews with the actors, we are presented with the cast and crew's thoughts on Abby Grant, Tom Price and Greg Preston, played by Julie Graham, Max Beesley and the very nice Paterson Joseph. Nice because when my wife was hit and driven off the M25 by an articulated lorry, one of the first people to stop and help was Paterson Joseph. He was in Casualty at the time and frankly I was rather concerned that he was confusing television and real life but he stopped nonetheless and what a great guy for doing that!
Survivors FX (5m48s): These things always feature a man at a computer workstation and this one is no different. Our man takes us through one scene from the series - that of Al and Najid's kickabout on an empty motorway - and reveals the special-effects secrets of it.