Episode reviews – episode two (series one)
Episode 2 – BBC One – 21:00-22:00 – 25 November 2008
Abby and her fellow survivors have set up a temporary base in a house in the country. They begin to scavenge for food and other provisions in local shops, wholesalers and in plague victims’ houses. At one abandoned supermarket, Abby, Greg and the others are confronted by a gang, led by the gun-toting Dexter, who have claimed ownership of all supplies in the local area. Amongst Dexter’s cohorts, Abby spots someone who could be one of the Outward Bound centre leader who took her son Peter to hospital. Al and Najid become entangled in a fatal encounter with a shop owner. Later Greg is flagged down by Sarah, who urges him to help her injured partner Bob. As Dexter again threatens the group, Sarah sides with Abby’s community, abandoning the warehouse of goodies she has laid claim to, and the badly injured Bob, who she tells them has died…
It’s hard to think of a tougher act to follow than the end of the world. But the second episode of Adrian Hodges’ reworking of Terry Nation’s Survivors follows the pattern of the original in quickly shifting its focus away from the aftermath of the global pandemic onto the travails of a small and ill-matched group of survivors who have – in many cases, reluctantly – thrown in their lot together.
The second episode may still begin with a striking image of (a now almost unpopulated) Earth as seen from space; but the point-of-view quickly shifts to a small corner of the UK where the first efforts of Abby and her group to find a new life for themselves is thrown into sharp relief. This makes good sense where the interest of the dramatist is on exploring the plight of characters in conditions of terrible adversity – characters that an audience can identify with – rather than on stringing out the vicarious thrills of the catastrophe itself. Like Nation before him, Hodges makes clear that his Survivors is above all a character drama not a downsized, low-budget disaster mini-series.
And there’s loads to enjoy in episode two – and not just in terms of individual character development; but also in exploring the emergence of simmering tensions within Abby’s putative community. That’s all mixed in with some strong set pieces, striking post-plague imagery and moments of genuine pathos and understated horror.
The pandemic means the perspective of the survivors has shrunk to medieval proportions. They are now aware only of events in close proximity to their settlement, and are concerned only with the fate of those they are in direct contact with. In the immediate aftermath of a global plague it could scarcely be any other way. The story reflects that sense of isolation and of horizons closing in. The script also does not shy away from depicting the grim bleakness of this new world, and although Hodges is keen to stress his belief in resilience of humanity, there are some pretty harsh views of the human condition explored here – typified not only by the villainous Dexter and his gang of bandits; but also in the callousness of the self-serving Sarah and her scarcely more moral ‘companion’, the doomed-Bob; and the duplicitous scheming of Tom – who (in a rare moment of honesty) warns Abby of the dire consequences of a misplaced and naïve belief in the essential goodness of people.
In Nation’s original, a reluctant Abby had to be convinced that she was a credible candidate for leadership. Hodges’ Abby suffers no such crisis-of-confidence, and assumes the role of the group’s de facto head without hesitation: issuing directives; leading foraging parties; tricking Tom into a dangerous reunion with the trigger-happy Dexter (in the hope tracking down a lead on Peter’s whereabouts); and urging others to accept what to her are the self-evident truths of survival.
There are other significant character differences between the remake and the original. Both Greg and Sarah (Anne in Nation’s original telescript) are both more actively aggressive than their predecessors. Greg shows little hesitation in getting stuck in to disarm or stare-down Dexter’s gang; while Sarah seems just as likely to resort to violence as to sexual bribery in pursuit of her aims. The crippled Bob is not portrayed here as a (largely) innocent victim (as his counterpart Vic in the original was) but as something of an unsavoury character in his own right. It is left to the relentlessly determined Abby and the increasingly upbeat Najid to inject what they hope will be some infectious optimism into the group.
Hodges re-enacts or re-stages numerous sequences from Genesis, Gone Away (and even Jack Ronder’s Corn Dolly – if you count chasing down and grappling with would-be livestock) – most memorably the deeply disturbing image of the hanging looter (inevitably more graphically presented in 2008 than it was in 1975). Yet he chooses to cut other sequences completely, while he invent and others – including the distressing and tragic conflict in the newsagents, which ends in the accidental death of the traumatised shop-keeper.
Although, for the most part, this is suitably engrossing stuff, there are some aspects of the reworking that are not so successful. Although the trail for episode three suggests that ex-government minister Willis will adopt an equally questionable role as a community leader, the absence of a Wormley-type character (a self-aggrandising and amoral ex-union leader in Genesis) means that Dexter comes across as something of a small-time loner, and not a bandit within in a larger militia. He feels less menacing as a result. It is also noticeable that the programme’s location scouts opted for the convenience of an edge-of-town retail park to stage the battle for resources rather than a more visually striking (and obviously more expensive) detritus-strewn high street.
The unwelcome return of the mysterious men in the laboratory also takes on even more X-Files resonances than in episode one, as biohazard-suited security teams emerge from their sanctuary wielding syringes to subdue unwanted prowlers. Although it is still not clear how significant a role these secret agents will play, it is far from clear that the on-screen drama needs this ‘extra dimension’, however it plays out.
In the opening episode, it is the calamity of the plague that – rightly – takes centre stage; and Survivors’ characters are only initially revealed by their reaction to it. Having established the premise in the pilot, Hodges here takes the time to explore what makes the characters tick, and set up tensions and personal conflicts within the group that are certain to pay-off later.
The second episode of any end-of-the-world drama will always struggle to match the audience-grabbing high-concept hook of its opening instalment, but the confidence of the character drama on show here augers well for the future.
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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