Survivors – Big Finish Season 1
Tony Fyler just hopes to make it out alive.
Terry Nation was that most remarkable of things in all the writing world – a writer who repeatedly came up with an endlessly recyclable idea.
Some of the most popular writers in the world come up with one endlessly recyclable idea, and recycle it, endlessly, for the rest of their careers – Agatha Christie, Douglas Adams, most crime or thriller writers, Terry Pratchett. They find one idea, one world in which their imagination can properly play – and they enrich the world with variations on a theme.
Nation will go down in history as being the man who had the idea that was the Daleks. When challenged to show where they came from, he wrote a contender for the Top Who Villain slot, in Davros. Then, seemingly because the curiosity took him, he created Survivors from the premise of a plague infection, wiping out a significant portion of the human race. And while the Dalek will forever be Nation’s way into the mass popular consciousness, it’s with Survivors that he staked his claim on a solid chunk of creepy sci-fi real estate that puts him up there with John Wyndham or Stephen King, and even arguably up with Bradbury and HG Wells. And then of course, he had another endlessly recyclable idea in Blake’s 7, delivering a distinctly British take on dystopian space opera. Perversely, most of the time, Nation was something of a jobbing writer. Much of his work for commercial TV on shows like The Avengers, The Baron and The Champions passed muster, but would never go down in TV history.
But Daleks. Survivors. Blake.
Three endlessly recyclable ideas. The Daleks continue to appear in new and philosophically challenging ways both on screen and on Big Finish audio. Blake’s 7 has been rebooted once with a whole new cast, and is now adding substantially to its canon with its original players, also in audio stories. Survivors has been rebooted and updated on screen, and now there’s an audio version of that too.
Now – imagine the true scale of Survivors. A worldwide plague wipes out all of humankind, bar, for some reason, a relative handful.
Then imagine a 1970s BBC budget.
The idea of Survivors was always going to far outstrip its on screen potential to tell the story of a world suddenly doomed, where the living scrabble to live another day against historical diseases, violent tribalism and a growing competition for resources, once the engines that make those resources available to us all on a daily basis shuts down.
But now the series has come to Big Finish audio – does that mean the budgetary shackles have come off? Are we going to hear of the survival of gangs in New York, growing oligarchies of food in Mumbai, the oil sheikhs of Saudi Arabia slaughtered as the crowd becomes hysterical?
Because if there’s one thing the budget limitations of the original Survivors proved, it’s that the true connection with an audience’s understanding of such an apocalyptic event is to be found in the ordinary, the everyday, the people’s stories.
Survivors Season 1 on audio is a shocking production in the best sense of the word. Episode 1, Revelation (all the chapter titles are handily nicked from the bible this first time out), shows the stories of a handful of ordinary people in the UK, but the scale is certainly bigger. Incidentally, let’s establish this right now – this is the original Survivors paradigm we’re dealing with, the 70s version, before satnavs and cellphones, and carrying with it as it goes along a more than healthy chunk of the sexism of the age in the attitudes of some characters. The idea is that we begin with new people in that same apocalypse, and ultimately, we meet characters from that version, and together they drive the plot forward to a conclusion that leaves the way open for further Survivors series in the traditional mold. But yes, the scale is initially bigger – we hear people trapped in Heathrow Airport, secured for quarantine and with nowhere left to go (a horrifying plot strand that confronts the real, appalling pragmatism of cataclysm). We hear London newspaper writers Helen and Daniel struggling to keep information flowing as the channels of communication shut down all around them. And we hear the scenario as it plays out in a suburban polytechnic, through the character of James Gillison, a lecturer who teaches social science, spouting examples from history as his class develops persistent coughs that end in smaller, quieter, more traumatised classes. It’s a balanced affair that delivers both the sudden shift of the world on its axis, as governments find themselves overwhelmed and underprepared, and the slower unwinding of the thread of daily life in more suburban and eventually rural areas.
One thing it is not is sentimental – people you expect to survive because you’ve spent so long learning about their lives are suddenly picked off, those you barely know survive, and it’s a clever use of the medium that that actually forces you to think in a post-apocalyptic way: don’t get attached, you don’t know what tomorrow, or the next episode, brings.
The next episode, as it happens, brings Louise Jameson to a party that’s already included some BF stalwarts – Terry ‘Davros’ Molloy as government man John Redgrave, Chase Masterson as ass-kicking American lawyer and Bridezilla-in-waiting Maddie Price etc – and when you meet her, you know her story almost instantly, but it still manages to rip your heart right in two. Jameson does some of her best ever audio work in that second episode, Exodus, as Jackie Burchall, who loses her whole family as a result of the plague and its fall-out. Yes, that’s a big claim. Yet, it’s more or less justified.
Such is the structure of Season 1 that the first two episodes work as a kind of extended telling of the story of the disaster, and episodes 3 and 4 are set after some time has passed, and society is beginning to reform itself.
Episode 3, Judges, consolidates the threads of the first two episodes with life being re-established in new, more barbaric patterns on the campus of the polytechnic, with Gillison, the lecturer, now in increasingly paranoid control of his community of the healthy. Greg Preston and Jenny Richards, original Survivors played by original actors Ian McCulloch and Lucy Fleming, connect into the plot here, and cause no end of trouble as Gillison’s world becomes more and more unstable and people start to die more and more frequently and openly, with less and less actual cause. The second ‘act’ of the season builds to a logical, inescapable but still chill-worthy climax, with surprises and character-shocks along the way. The sense of growing tension, of tripwires and trapdoors being made of wrong words to wrong people builds in a way that will remove fingernails from most listeners – and it’s also a perverse reflection on the effect of the apocalypse. While at first, you wonder if there’s some harsh but realistic rationale behind Gillison’s behavior, as episodes 3 and 4 build in intensity, the environment on the campus becomes like being trapped in an office all day and all night – the petty intrigues, the gossip, the alliances over tea or coffee – only played out in a world where the wrong word will get you shot as a traitor. It’s a creepy examination of the foibles of human beings, magnified by the intense pressure for resources that something like a pandemic would bring.
Perhaps one of the creepiest realisations this season of audio Survivors brings though isn’t even in the drama at all, but in the extras. Terry Molloy, asked how he approached his portrayal of Redgrave, acknowledges that Survivors makes us think about how we would react in such a world, and reminds us that we haven’t had to think about it for decades – but that we see worlds like that of Survivors on our TV screen every night. War, famine, pestilence and death are rampant in many places in the world, some of them directly or indirectly the responsibility of our own western governments. The faces of those we see desperately trying to escape, to survive, to find asylum in countries where the apocalypse has yet to happen – all it would take would be for the agents of destruction to be manifested here, instead of far away on our TV screens, and those faces could belong to Greg Preston, to Jenny Richards, to John Redgrave and Maddie Preston, to James Gillison and Abby Grant.
To you. To me.
Should you buy Survivors Season 1? Yes, unreservedly. Yes it’s expensive, as the Big Finish box sets frequently are. But for such a tightly-plotted, expertly-realised version of one of Terry Nation’s endlessly recyclable ideas, bringing the old and the new together in a punchy, wrenching way that keeps you guessing almost till the end, you won’t feel one penny overcharged.