Episode reviews – episode one (series one)
Episode one – BBC One – 21:00-22:30 – 23 November 2008
The world is in the grip of a ‘flu pandemic, which proves to be far deadlier than anyone dared fear. When more than 95% of the planet’s population are wiped out, the few remaining, isolated survivors inherit a planet in which civilisation lies in ruins and which they must now battle to secure themselves a future in which everything that they took for granted has been lost forever. Abby Grant is desperate to locate her missing son Peter; prisoner Tom Price is determined to escape death in jail; loner Greg Preston has set his sights on the solitary survivor’s life; Anya wants to leave her life as a doctor behind in the old world; playboy Al is adrift in this new world, until his chance meeting with young Najid jolts him into the present. When their paths collide, Abby urges them to forge a common aim – survival.
The opening episode of Adrian Hodges’ reworking of Survivors is a startlingly good piece of work. Surprisingly, unexpectedly good – even. Yes, it is not without its flaws, but overall this is a hugely impressive debut which successfully navigates the remake minefield to produce a drama that is both acutely contemporary and true to the spirit and ethos of Terry Nation’s original vision.
The first thing to deal with is the question of difference. The Survivors of 2008 is profoundly different to the Survivors of 1975. It could only be so. Insisting that a twenty-first century TV drama replicate the look and feel of one made thirty years earlier is just pointless. The new version can only be faster, slicker and in every sense more modern that its predecessor. The question – surely – is not ‘how far have the producers of the new Survivors been able to make a show that pretends it was made thirty years ago?; but rather ‘have the makers of this revival been able to create a show that will resonate with modern TV audiences, without losing the essential things which made the original such compelling drama?’.
Characterisation in Hodges’ opening script is both strong and plausible, and – aside from a few clunky moments of exposition in the first few minutes – the dialogue convinces. Julie Graham (Abby Grant) and Paterson Joseph (Greg Preston) are both excellent, but it is the other ensemble parts which together give proceedings their strength. Max Beesley attacks the role of the reinvented Tom Price with relish; and Zoe Tapper brings an appropriately understated sense of bewildered self-doubt to the role of Dr Anya Raczynski. Nikki Amuka–Bird, as over-stretched government minister Samantha Willis, communicates an effective sense of out-of-depth denial. The interplay between new characters playboy Al Sadiq (played by Phillip Rhys) and devout young Muslim Najid (played by Chahak Patel) for the most part treads the tightrope of pathos and humour without falling off.
Taking the decision to kill off not just Abby’s husband David, but Jenny as well (who survived all 38 episodes in the original) is an audacious move which will cause some fans of the original series a great deal of angst. Hodges’ move is clearly intended to emulate the shock of despatching David Grant back in The Fourth Horseman in 1975, and for those mourning Jenny’s loss there’s some comfort in the fact that much of her personality has been reinvested in Anya.
The realisation, design and direction of this first ninety-minute episode is also extremely assured. The new title sequence and theme provide an energetic and distinctive signature, and the way that the episode is filmed gives a sense of scale to proceedings that the original programme’s directors could only have dreamt of.
The plotting of this first episode is fairly relentless, but there’s little in the way of padding at any point in the hour-and-a-half running time. Although he continually ‘reimagines’ Nation’s text, time-and-again Hodges name-checks scenes, moments and even verbatim lines of dialogue from the first episodes of the original as he drives his characters through their individual traumas and personal plague nightmares. Ultimately he brings his ensemble cast together at the episode’s end (without stretching dramatic co-incidence too far) – reaching an updated synchronisation with the closing scene of the original series’ Genesis, where Abby, Greg and Jenny (or in this case Anya – and company) are finally brought together in common cause.
So what about the bits that don’t quite come off? For me, although the exchanges between the ill-suited surrogate father Al and his super-serious young charge Najid are very well judged, the heavily signposted ‘surge of optimism’ signalled by the football kickabout on the motorway (and accompanying sound-track) feels misjudged – way too jolly; way too soon. However, an approriately in-keeping atmosphere is soon restored by Graham’s brilliant delivery of Abby’s ‘new life’ speech, in which she convinces her new compatriots to band together in a mutual fight for survival.
More significantly, the introduction of the mysterious men in lab coats in the secret bunker at the episode’s end is potentially worrying. It all depends where Hodges takes this. An interesting revelation about the root cause of the pandemic would be one thing; the unveiling of a tedious government or military ‘conspiracy’ (or salvation in the form of an secret ‘arc’ of technology and civilisation) would be another – and extremely unwelcome.
Overall though, this first installment is impressive, affecting, convincing stuff; which makes you look forward to episode two with a huge amount of anticipation – and expectation.
An extremely strong opening episode, that updates the programme without losing sight of what made it so good to begin with. A surprise, a relief – and an opportunity clearly grabbed with both hands.
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 ]
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