Survivors Series 4
Tony’s still surviving
There’s a looser feel to the fourth series of Survivors, though pinpointing the reason why that feeling persists is more difficult than you might imagine. The formula is still strong – in the first episode, The Old Ways by Ken Bentley, we go right back to the point of the Death becoming unmanageable, but we see it from the vantage point of Westminster and Whitehall, the top brass shuttled into an underground bunker to wait out the inevitable. And in Bentley’s tight, taut, violin-string piece, we see how the society within society collapses when the Death takes no prisoners and no notice of rank or status.
The remaining three episodes deal with events at the Belief Foundation, a colony near to White Cross (the home of some of our main Survivors, including Greg, Jenny and Jackie). It’s here that Molly, the woman left deeply troubled after her time as the sex-slave of a rape gang, seems to have found some peace, under the charismatic care of Foundation ‘leader’ Theo. As the episodes progress though there are callbacks to the bunker, as some of its Survivors are rescued and brought to the Foundation.
It’s hard here to escape the sense of jumping ahead – Greg and Jenny’s baby from the third box set is now old enough to be left with other people, and features not at all in this set, beyond that explanation. And because the whole first episode is given over to the bunker storyline, by the time we get to Greg, Jenny, Jackie and Molly, there’s a sense that we’ve forgotten something, or missed something along the way.
That said, episode for episode, there’s some good strong Survivors fare here. Bentley as a director has long been one of Big Finish’s safest pairs of hands, but as a writer he’s taken time to come into his own. Here, with The Old Ways, it’s fair to say he’s done just that, pitching the tension perfectly, and never falling entirely one way or the other on the question of right and wrong in terms of how people in an enclosed environment survive – and the different realities they have to embrace to let them do so. Strongest among the characters in this first episode are a couple of women (Survivors continuing its strong and well-deserved reputation for delivering impressive female characters), Mildred Sanderson, the wife of the recently-deceased Prime Minister, played by Jane Maud, and Evelyn Piper, the departmental administrator who finds herself actually unable to do anything of any value in the new Survivors’ world. Nevertheless Evelyn, played by Zoe Tapper, finds herself a key player in the events at the Belief Foundation, having teamed up with a mysterious, guilty young man named Michael, played by Laurence Dobiesz. When Greg, Jenny and Jackie turn up at the Foundation to visit Molly, they find themselves getting involved in events there, investigating mysterious fires and odd disappearances in For The Good Of The Cause, written by Louise Jameson. Jameson’s written a few episodes of Survivors now, and acquitted herself strongly each time. Is For The Good Of The Cause as impressive as her Series 2 episode, Mother Courage? Prrrrrobably not, but there’s not much in it, Jameson bringing out real humanity in her characters, for both better and worse. In fact, all the writers this time round have applied strong Survivors principles all the way through when it comes to characterisation – there are few ‘easy’ answers here, few characters who are entirely good or bad, showing the shades of grey of a post-apocalyptic world.
In fact, that greyness is a strong thread throughout the box set – the things we do in the world gone mad that we’d never do when it seemed sane. From Jackie’s longstanding secret about her children, through Michael’s past and Molly’s, Theo the leader encourages them all to unburden themselves, find a new way forward with new names in the service of ‘Gaia,’ the Earth, to free themselves of their guilt and put it behind them in the new world.
That’s another big theme in this box set – set some years after the Death decimated the world’s population, the clash between the way things were done in the old word and the way people find to make their way in the new is paramount here, especially when the bunker full of essentially hermetically sealed civil servants are released and brought to the Foundation, to become farmers and labourers – tension between the advocates of the old and the new is unavoidable, and only skilful management at the top can stop dissent from spilling over into bloodshed – if it wants to.
That’s more or less the explicit theme of Episode 3, Collision, written by Christopher Hatherall (like Jameson, someone who’s graduated from simply acting to both acting in and writing Survivors). Can Theo keep control of a new world rapidly challenged, and even threatened, by an influx of the old – and, having worked to establish his new world community, does he really want any such cohabitation with what he sees as the sickness of the previous regime?
As the box set goes on, the nature of Theo’s character becomes more and more complex. He’s absolutely clear in his own mind that there’s no religious connotation to the Belief Foundation (perhaps a little bizarrely, given the name), and that he himself is not some Svengali dictator. Nevertheless, things to which he takes a dislike get mysteriously burned, people seemingly go missing or leave, and Greg, infected with the habit of uncovering the truth behind too many Survivor-world utopias, disobeys Theo’s advice, turning against a man he genuinely believed might have some solid practical ideas to help develop his own ultimate goal – a federation of communities.
While Greg provides another example of the things we’re forced to do in a crueller world than the one to which we’re accustomed, things at the Foundation take a dark turn in Matt Fitton’s episode 4, Forgive and Forget, as the events of the past come back to haunt three of our Survivors, threatening to plunge what looks increasingly like a cult into anarchy and lynch-mob violence. Fitton’s writing is perhaps the hardest hitting in the box set, though both Bentley and Jameson give him a solid run for his money. The final episode of Series 4 brings a kind of absolution for at least a couple of characters, if not the one perhaps most desperate for it. Certainly the world will be different for our regular Survivors after the events of Series 4, with alliances if not exactly shifting then going through a kind of catharsis, some emerging stronger than ever through a trial by metaphorical fire, others shedding layers of interference left over from the darkness of the past.
In terms of performances, across this box set one has to applaud Zoe Tapper as Evelyn Piper – it’s not easy to play someone with no discernible skills of use, and still make her sympathetic, especially in this world of harsh extremes. Louise Jameson’s on superb form, but then in her case, that’s equivalent to saying ‘Louise Jameson’s breathing in and out’ – while clearly taking her work seriously, she has the gift of making the more emotionally charged and difficult scenes feel effortless and real. Jane Maud as Mildred Sanderson and Paul Panting as Colonel Stephen Adams make the first episode spring sharply to life as opponents in a power struggle that frames an ethical conundrum from the very heart of Survivors, and Fiona Sheehan, when given the words, most especially by Matt Fitton in the final episode, steps up to the emotional plate and knocks the world-tearing trauma of Molly right out of the park. But through episodes 2, 3 and 4, one performance in particular is worth the box set on its own – that of Ramon Tikaram as Theo. His is a role that could so easily overbalance the tension of the set, but never does, maintaining the character’s patience, his work ethic, his belief in humanity and himself all the way to the end, only taking actions he feels can be legitimately justified. It’s an extraordinary anchoring performance that goes some way beyond Greg Preston’s black-and-white worldview, and never casts Theo entirely as the bad guy, never lets him entirely admit any wrongdoing. He’s the philosophical question-mark at the heart of the Survivors idea – how far from what we think of as ‘normal’ can you go before you become something entirely new, something entirely dependent on the conditions of a devastated world to work? Tikaram makes this particular storyline work, and helps prolong the tension of waiting for the other shoe to drop all the way through the fourth series box set.
Survivors still delivers great drama with ghastly philosophical questions at its heart, four box sets on. With at least three more sets already scheduled for release, the grimness of its world, and the hope of our survival, is showing no signs of softening just yet.