Episode reviews – episode three (series one)
Episode 3 – BBC One – 21:00-22:00 – 2 December 2008
Travelling alone, Abby is attacked and injured when she encounters a large self-sufficient community. She discovers that this impressively resourced settlement is being run and managed by ex-government minister Samantha Willis. Meanwhile, Greg and Tom – in search of petrol supplies – are themselves nearly killed when they accidently stumble across a father who has sealed himself and his two children off in an isolated farm house, and who would rather kill them than risk infection by plague carriers. While Abby learns how far Samantha will go to protect her fledgling settlement; Greg and Tom discover how dangerous an unexpected encounter with the hermit’s daughter could be for his whole family…
The third episode of Survivors is the strongest of the series so far. With the post-apocalyptic premise now set and the core characters of the series fleshed-out, the programme hits a new, energetic stride – confidently exploring three very different dimensions of the terrain of the post-plague world.
Mixing ideas and plot themes from Terry Nation’s second Survivors script Genesis with a generous helping of inspiration from Gone to the Angels (written by Jack Ronder) and Law and Order (Clive Exton), into an intriguing original storyline, this first script by Gaby Chiappe packs in an impressive amount into its 58 minutes. There are occasional mismatches of mood, and one important moment where Chiappe pulls a critical punch, but this is arguably the most emotionally connected episode to date.
What helps make this episode work so well is the strength of the peformances from the guest actors. Neil Dudgeon as the paranoid house-bound Sean, locked up with his stir-crazy daughter and son at their isolated farm, is first-rate. Ever-reliable genre stalwart Andrew Tiernan is great too as the seething and conflicted Gavin, who resents the timidity of Willis’s rule, yet defers to her leadership just the same. But it is Sacha Parkinson, as the dutifully imprisoned young Kate who steals every scene that she’s in. Whether anxiously trying to reassure her increasingly unhinged father; pleading with Greg and Tom for help; or facing down an agonising rejection from her Dad, Parkinson is superb.
Although the prominence of guest stars means that some of the core ensemble cast get squeezed for screen time, Abby, Greg and Tom are served up some great material. At their new make-shift base, Abby – who has been the ceaseless, untiring catalyst for the group – acknowledges to herself the need for a few moments of escape. Her hope of unwinding from the pressures of leadership are soon cut short when she is injured whilst venturing too close to the trigger-happy Gavin. Although immediately impressed by Samantha’s large and growing community, it’s clear that the ex-minister, who quite literally feels the weight-of-the-world on her shoulders, considers herself under massively more responsibility than even Abby. When ‘looters’ raid the settlement and are captured, Willis fears that her community may collapse in recrimination and chaos unless the perpetrators are dealt with by ‘due process’. When a trial is called, Abby only belatedly realises the lengths to which Samantha will go to keep her community together. With one raider shot dead, Abby intervenes to protect the other (and to protect Samantha from committing further acts of bloodshed). In the original series, Abby had been equally appalled by the ‘summary execution’ of a captured intruder by the amoral Wormley. Yet within a few months, Abby herself was willing (however reluctantly) to vote for the death penalty for one of her own community convicted (albeit wrongly) of murder. Abby’s evolution (or moral reorienation) this time round could be just as challenging.
Tom and Greg’s explosive standoff at the farm house also provides time for the two characters to finally come to blows and to confront some emotionally wrenching dilemmas. In the original series, Abby had unwittingly brought the plague to the sanctuary of three religious disciplines locked away in the Derbyshire peaks. In Gone to the Angels, the three devotees were guileless about the risks they faced from delayed contact with The Death, but here on-the-edge father Sean is determined to fend off any contact from plague carriers without mercy. When Kate sneaks out to find the pair holed up in a barn, the terrible reality of her plight (and of Greg and Tom’s different reaction to it) is brought into sharp focus.
It soon becomes clear that Sean’s paranoia has a distressing logic; but that the cost to his family of indefinite isolation (at least until all food and water is exhausted) is appalling high. There are a host of excellent ‘moments’ as the storyline unfolds (a helicopter flying overhead as Sean bathes outside in disinfectant; Sean shutting the door on his daughter, disowning her to protect himself and her brother). It could be argued though that the final resolution is too joyous, as the reunited family play together outside. It feels like the moment should be horribly undercut as the daughter starts to feel the first effects of the infection – confirming that her father was right after all about the need to seal themselves off. But this apparently hopefully resolution is in fact deliberately ambiguous, rather than twee. There’s every possibility that this might be the family’s last poignant moment together before the plague inevitably takes hold, and they have to take their chances in the genetic lottery of survival.
All of the main plot strands of episode three revolve around the theme of connection and separation. Until convinced otherwise, Sean is determined that his family must remain hermetically-sealed from the world; Samantha is certain that her community must connect with others and forge the basis of a new civilisation; while the men-in-the-laboratory (who get some real screentime of their own this time) are desperate to find a way (through the development of viral antibodies) to end their enforced isolation from the world. In their different ways, all of them – Abby’s community included – are prisoners of the terrible circumstances of the post-plague world.
The trail for episode four strongly suggests that Abby’s search for her son Peter will shortly be resolved as the scriptwriters revisit and reinvent the plotlines from Garland’s War. In the episodes that remain, the critical question will then become how far Hodges and Chiappe are able to rachet up the tension necessary for a recommission-winning finale; whilst still telling stories that convince in their own right.
The third episode of Survivors is wrenching stuff, with a strong quota of action mixed in with some agonising emotional dilemmas. The vista is inevitably small; but the ideas are appropriately big.
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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