Survivors – BBC TV

The BBC's revival of the classic 1970s post-apocalyptic drama by Terry Nation

Episode reviews – episode five (series one)

Episode 5 – BBC One – 21:00-22:00 – 16 December 2008

Synopsis

A lone scavenger in a shopping precinct is detained by armed men in protective bio-suits. At their laboratory headquarters, the scientists discuss the possible immunity and carrier status of their newly quarantined subjects. Back at the community, Najid stumbles across a group of travellers led by the charismatic spiritual leader John. Their arrival at Abby’s community is immediately divisive, but a majority of the settlement agree that they can stay – at least until the heavily-pregnant Linda gives birth. For Al, Anya, Sarah and Tom the presence of their new housemates soon has dramatic and unexpected consequences for each of them. As John appears increasingly unhinged and his followers exhibit ever more alarming behaviours, the pressure on Abby and her friends ratchets up. As John enters a manic agitated state, he kidnaps Anya at knifepoint and his group flee the settlement. Before Abby can launch a search and rescue mission, one of John’s group returns to reveal their new hideout. As Abby, Greg and the others race to the scene, an explosive confrontation is inevitable. At the laboratory, the scientist scanning for satellite transmissions recovers Abby’s recording, made at Samatha Willis’ settlement, in which she unwittingly reveals herself as a recovered virus carrier: exactly the medical specimen that the scientists are seeking…

Commentary

The return of Adrian Hodges to scriptwriting duties signals another incredibly strong character piece, replete with any number of reference points from the original series.

In just fifty minutes, Hodges serves up: a religious zealot who claims to have access to the word of god (akin to the isolated disciples of Gone to the Angels); a group of survivors with a strong repopulationalist drive (see Corn Dolly); a pregnant woman who needs the help of Abby’s community to safely deliver her baby (see The Future Hour); a new mother who falls ills immediately after delivery, who is saved by expert medical intervention from Abby’s group (see Greater Love); a doctor who is abducted soon after her skills are made known (Lights of London); travellers who seek shelter in a church (Gone Away); a former mental patient who is forced to face up to an unmedicated life in the post-plague world (Face of the Tiger) and more besides…

But despite making liberal use of the established Survivors canon (inside and outside of Nation’s novel) this is anything but a simple exercise in copy-and-paste. The highly effective and original unifying theme in Hodges script is that of revelation. Nearly all of the main ensemble of characters undergo the unsettling experience of having layers peeled away from the façade that they have been keen to present to the world.

For Anya, the experience is a cathartic one. The trauma of Linda’s delivery compels her to face up to the suppressed feelings of rage and inpotence that have paralysed her and convinced her to deny her medical capabilities since the plague robbed her of everything she held dear. It it Tom who urges her to look to her moral sense of duty and to help Linda, and the surprised Abby who reassures her when she initially falters and flees.

Al undergoes the unnerving experience of being ‘used’ by a sexually manipulative partner. He finds the shift in power-balance that this represents both unexpected and unpleasant, and he realises as a consequence that it is not just in his relationship with Najid that he has matured as a grown-up.

Elsewhere there is the shock of Tom’s spiteful response to the revelation of Anya’s lesbian past. Beesley’s performance as Tom as been one of the consistent highlights of the new Survivors, but the scene in which he coldly spits out the accusation to Anya “I think I’d know if I was a queer”, is one of the character’s most chilling moments to date.

The controlled explosion of violence with which Tom rescues Anya and subdues John shocks not only Abby and Greg but all of their compatriots who come to see Tom a different and more unsettling light. Anya, who has lifted the emotional barriers with which she has kept others at a distance, moves past her revulsion at Tom’s prejudice to find a renewed connection with him.

Beyond this, there are a wealth of smaller characters moments too: including Abby trying to tease Greg into admitting that he can no longer contemplate a solitary life; Sarah realising her powerlessness either to maintain the loyalty of Tom; or to warn Anya to back off from ‘her’ man. There’s little point in Greg trying to pretend that he remains a self-reliant loner; while Sarah feels lost when not able to occupy the role of the controlling temptress.

Of course, the biggest act of self-deception to collapse in this episode is that practiced by John the false-prophet himself. It does seem horribly plausible that bereft and wandering survivors might very easily grasp the reassurance of someone claiming to offer the salvation of collective certainty. John’s descent into his paranoid sense of persecution is well presented, as is his followers’ reluctance to give up on their shared predicament and scatter.

Together this makes for an effective and emotionally-rooted episode in which the presence of numerous guest actors does not rob the core ensemble cast of time for some important character development. Overall this is much more satisfying than the previous week’s storyline, and is the first episode to share much in the way of atmosphere and structure with original first series stories such as Spoil of War, The Future Hour or Something of Value, where Abby’s putative community pays hosts to visitors (both friendly and hostile).

What this penultimate episode confirms is that – after the opening instalment – the new Survivors has taken on a very similar sense of intimate scale that its predecessor had. These are not epic tales which range across vast post-apocalyptic landscapes, but tightly focused stories that pinpoint the experiences of a small group of British survivors. The welcome repeat of The Cult of… Survivors on BBC4 straight after the episode will also have provided many viewers with their first (re-)connection of the original series – hopefully stimulating their interest in Nation’s 1970s classic.

The energetic closing trailer for the series one finale reveals that, for the first time since episode one, the show is heading back into the centre of Manchester in search of a renewal-clinching urban send-off. With evidence of a decent CGI budget to support it, it could prove to be an arresting finale, although much may depend of how any showdown between Abby and her allies and the men in the laboratory is handled, and whether Hodges chooses to sign-off with a sense of closure or to end matters on a cliffhanger…

Verdict

A fresh take on a well-used plot device from the original series – as Abby and Greg’s community is visited by what turn out to be unwelcome guests. Hodges again puts his characters through the emotional wringer, with dramatic but credible repercussions.

For a thoroughly detailed review and commentary on this and all other episodes in both series, see: Rich Cross. 2010. World’s Apart: the unofficial and unauthorised guide to the BBC’s remake of Survivors. Cambridge: Classic TV Press. [ available to order direct from the publisher ]

20 Responses to “Episode reviews – episode five (series one)”

  1. Chris Allen said

    In response to Nick Hubble’s point about the original survivors being well groomed, there was a definite sea-change between series 2 and series 3 (someone at the time had obviously thought along similar lines) and things started to look noticeably grimier and the cast looked, for he most part, like people deprived of modern comforts like automatic washing machines. Greg’s appearance in “The Last Laugh” is a good example of this.

  2. Gus said

    Calm down guys, if you don`t like it get a life and find something to do you do like. I never expected this one to impact me like the first one but i do think its getting better. I agree with one comment that series 2 needs to find its own way
    and forget the references back to the 70s version. The one criticism that is valid is that unlike series one where the future was outlined by the school master in episode one it took
    5 episodes for Greg to say ” we should be planning for 20 years from now” Just as well Charles Vaughn wasn`t arround. Still it has great promise with no end to the possibilities of how it develops or where the ” New World ” will take us. The premise
    is great and deserves to go on. Time they got some guns though !!!

  3. Richard Peters said

    Ratings can fluctuate during a series, but what people need to understand here is that on Tuesday nights it went up against I’m A Celebrity twice and Champions League football and yet held onto a fair few viewers. This is the opposite to Bonekickers which dropped every week against a repeat of Doc Martin. Also the appreciation index which asks viewers that watch a show how much they like it has consistently been in the 80’s. People do genuinely like this show and I’m one of them.

  4. Andrew Steffan said

    Ian, if you think Danny Boyle’s zombie apocalypse flick 28 Days Later is the blueprint for a successful end-of-the-world TV drama, then – sure – I can see why you wouldn’t like the new Survivors. But by the same token I’d hate to be presented with six episodes of gratuitous gore, frenzied flesh munching and relentless chase sequences, with a ‘Survivors’ label slapped on top. So we’ll have to agree to differ. I’m sure you’ll be disappointed by the news that the new Survivors has been recommissioned – because enough people watched it to earn it a renewal – but at least there’s absolutely no obligation whatsoever on you to watch a single further frame of Survivors, and for you to then come back and tell us that you (again) didn’t like it (again). It’s just no fun being a party-pooper. Time to move on, methinks.

  5. Huxley said

    Ian – sorry, matey but this is not a forum, it’s a blog – and the idea of comments on a blog are… wait for it… to comment on what’s been posted (in this case a review) by the blogger, not to go off on one of your own rants…

  6. Ian Middleton said

    Sorry to multi post, but just a quick note to all those above who seem to think this forum is just a fan page to say ‘well done BBC on making another fabbo series’.

    As far as I’m aware these pages are for reviews of the series, positive and negative. There’s no remit saying this site is just a fan site. Indeed I came to it via a link from the fansite dedicated to the original series. In that context I think its a valid comment to compare it to the original and express an opinion on that basis. If there’s to be a genuine discussion about something, you surely need to have views from both sides. I don’t know of another discussion forum, although I have also commented on the limited thread dedicated to it on the BBC POV notice boards.

    If I’m misunderstanding the purpose of this forum I’d be grateful if someone could point me to the statement of intent that says its just to make positive comments about the series. If that’s the intention I’m more than happy to leave you all in peace to polish auntie BEEB’s halo to your hearts content.

  7. Ian Middleton said

    I’m watching it to the end as a big fan of the original series feeling the need to express my disgust for the way that the BBC drama-by-numbers treatment has been given to something that was, in its time, a truly original and thought provoking piece of work. Arguably flawed as it was of its time, but ripe for a sensitive and creative revival. Instead we get this tissue thin parody, that isn’t even as good as the last attempt at the Armageddon scenario, ‘The Last Train’.

    I watched the new Survivors originally because in my heart of hearts I hoped that the BBC might actually have grasped the opportunity to rework the story, bring it up to date and use modern production values to make something watchable, whilst still retaining the gritty bleakness of the original. Going by the BBC’s recent form I wasn’t expecting much to be honest, but I was open minded enough to be proven wrong if it turned out better than expected.

    In the end though it was what I expected it to be. The story hasn’t been developed any more than the characters have. Its almost as if the producers are assuming we’ve all seen the original, so they don’t have to bother with tiresome issues like back stories, character definition or plotline establishment. Within 2 episodes the main characters have put the downfall of civilisation on the back burner and are ensconced in a nice comfy house with what appear to be all mod cons. Driving about in shiny new cars with seemingly limitless fuel, not for them are the concerns of the original cast about disease, food supplies, fuel, water, re-building civilisation. Nope, they just have parties, guzzle champagne and have pointless tangential dialogues about personal sexual preferences.

    In less time than we all though possible its degenerated into a BBC soap, complete with cardboard cut-out characters, who’s only connection with the original story are their names. The storylines are dull, repetitive and completely lacking in focus and the main theme of SURVIVAL seems to have left the building entirely. 5 episodes in, they are still living on food form god knows where and concerning themselves more with who sleeps with whom, rather than what they are going to do when someone loses the tin opener.

    The there’s that music! Seemingly fostered in the same stable as the new Dr Who and Torchwood series. The plan seems to be to replace any real tension in the writing with loud, intrusive, faux dramatic drum banging and pompous orchestral posturing, just in case you didn’t realise a scary bit was coming. Note to the BBC, having an in-house orchestra on hand doesn’t mean you have to shoehorn them into every series. Music should be a barely noticeable adjunct to dramatic flow, not something you need to keep the remote handy for every time it lumbers back into centre stage.

    All in all just another example of how the BBC, with all its new bells and whistles, its hugely inflated budget and more media studies graduates than you can shake a stock at, simply can’t deliver the goods. Maybe if they get some real talent into the organisation and throw away the blueprint they seem to apply to every new series we might finally see something original and watchable. Maybe they should check out Danny Boyle’s 28 days later for a good example of how you can do this genre convincingly, even in a modern setting. * Hint they didn’t have any kettle drums in the soundtrack *

    I’m still going to watch the final episode, just out of sheer hubris. But if they are planning a second series, I don’t think I’ll bother buying a new set of earplugs. I’m just heading for the hills to try to find this new utopia they suggest is out there. In the current circumstances they seem to be having a much better time after the end of the world than some of us are having now!

  8. Nick Hubble said

    comment is free! if people choose to make exclusively negative comments then so be it!

    I just think many of the same criticisms could be made of the original series. They were always weel groomed (apart from Tom) and, as the documentary highlighted, always had clean clothes for continuity purposes. It just looked bleaker because they shot it in winter. I think there is a problem with the group’s existence in the house in this series – what is their purpose? In the original, there is always a purpose after the first 3 episodes conveying the original premise – it’s (a) look for Peter, then (b) settle down and become self-sufficient. But then, I guess this is a shorter time span – Abby said to Greg ‘in all the weeks we’ve been here’ – but, as the comment above, I assume this is 5-6 weeks rather than 12+. Basically, they’re sitting around differing and self-deluding themselves because it’s still summer and they can still live off easy pickings. One could argue that it is a deft piece of commentary on contemporary attitudes to life: a second series would present a real challenge because it would have to show something else.

    As several above said, this episode felt as though it could fit the original series – but the series hasn’t quite done the work to get in the situation which would properly legitimate the story. It doesn’t stand independently but as a set of intertextual references to the original series. Or maybe I just need to see it again – rather as it was necessary to watch the Lord of the Rings films twice because the first time round the experience is distracted by continual comparison with the books.

    So I think it has got flaws but is still very enjoyable to watch.

  9. Christopher said

    Best yet I thought. Does anybody know if there will be another series?

  10. Nick Supermollusc said

    In answer to Paul’s comment, without wanting to get too anoraky, the whole tragedy of Gone to the Angels was that Abby et al didn’t realise that they were carriers. I’m not sure that people would think that they were, and with chickenpox btw the infectious period is beforehand. Once you’ve got the scabs etc you’re no longer infectious. In fact, I’m not sure that with viral diseases you can carry the virus once your own immune system has overcome it. People do carry HIV but the virus has not been destroyed by the body’s immune system, and is still latently there. And it cannot be passed on by casual social contact. Diseases which you can be a carrier for, and can pass on relatively easily, like typhoid, are bacterial diseases, and the death in Survivors is a virus.

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