Tony Fyler survives again – not everyone’s so lucky.
Survivors is an audio series that’s evolving. Series 1 was one of the two best Big Finish releases of its year (Domain of the Voord, since you ask), because it showed scenarios that the original TV Survivors couldn’t afford to show – how victims of the pandemic plague now being simply called the Death suffered in urban environments like airports and suburban environments like a college. The TV Survivors from the 1970s became largely rural pretty quickly, mostly because it was cheaper and more realistic to shoot scenes in a rural environment but also because, to be fair, most people with any sense would flee urban environments in a plague scenario – when basic amenities break down in cities, they become a magnifying glass not only for additional piggy-back diseases, but also for the competition for scarce resources and the worst in human nature. That being said, the first audio series of Survivors didn’t take it as read that this was necessarily a bad environment to set its drama in, and it was genuinely shocking even to a 21st century listener.
Series 2 saw our band of survivors shift to the countryside and experimented with storytelling, confident enough in itself and its cast to not have to have all of them in every story – it pretty much broke its cast up into a male group and a female group, and allowed an episode to really focus on each, giving an almost sing-song rhythm, despite tackling some hardcore subjects, including a psychotic rural reversion to cannibalism and tribal ‘us and them’ mentalities.
Series 3 evolves that confidence even further, leaving some of the characters behind entirely, focusing on stories involving Abby and her continuing search for her son Peter, Molly, the young woman who had suffered at the hands of a rape gang in Series 2 (did I mention the storylines were hardcore?), Daniel the reporter who found himself changed and guilt-ridden at the end of Series 2 by his actions, and – as a joyful surprise – Maddie Price, kickass American attorney and would-be Bridezilla, last seen as pretty much one of the last people alive in Heathrow, back in Series 1. Maddie’s played by switched-on queen of the geeks Chase Masterson, and added exactly the right kind of international accent to turn Survivors Series 1 into a depiction of a worldwide epidemic. She does much the same here in Series 3, and episodes 2, 3 and 4 involve her right in the thick of the action. But before any of that, we go a little back in time with Molly, to set up the Big Bad of Series 3, John ‘Vinnie’ Vincent.
If there’s a worse place to be when a global epidemic breaks out than a city, it’s a ship. Episode 1 of Series 3, Cabin Fever by Jonathan Morris, shows exactly why. In between fever dreams, Molly relates the story of how she survived when the Death hit the cross-Channel ferry, she and her friend Janet (played by long-time Big Finisher and new Sixth Doctor companion Miranda Raison) having nipped across for a cheeky weekend in France.
What becomes clear quickly as port after port refuse to allow the ship to dock is that the rules of society break down in a closed environment, and they who have the muscle make the law. A group of football louts, led by Vinnie, become the new ‘police’ of the ship, enforcing a kind of brutish martial law, rationing food and resources, and ultimately throwing people overboard if they believe they have the Death – or even if they’re just inconvenient. In a story that allows Paul Thornley as Vinnie to bring the very worst of the seventies growling to the fore, including sexism, racism, and casual threat (basically everything kept alive in the 21st century by Britain First and Donald Trump), the atmosphere is claustrophobic and returns us to that Series 1 sense of shock that things like our civilised society can fall apart so quickly. Listen out for Lisa Bowerman too, in a role unlike those you’ll expect from her, as the storyline delivers one of the greatest, most ghastly moments in the history of MASH, repurposed here to show the utter depth of Vinnie’s depravity.
Why this focus on Vinnie? Because in the remaining three stories, he has established himself as the leader of ‘The British Government’ – essentially a growing gang of his ferry thugs, armed to the teeth and promoting ‘British purity,’ meaning not only an isolationist standpoint as regards contact with the outside world, but also a twisted attempt to justify their own racist and homophobic viewpoints.
In episode 2, Contact by Simon Clark, we’re reintroduced to Maddie Price, now a kind of almost solitary queen on top of the Post Office Tower (in the 1970s, one of, if not the highest point in London). Above all the carnage, Maddie and her geeky, slightly creepy friend Jonathan (a new acquisition for this series, played by the fabulously-named James Joyce with a good degree of balance between the positive and negative elements of his character) operate a radio, as ‘London Calling’ – a beacon to try and communicate with anyone abroad, to help discover whether there still is anyone abroad. With both Abby and her friends – Daniel, Molly, Jimmy Garland (making his first appearance in the audios proper) and Dalton Roberts – and Vinnie and his gang en route to find her, it’s a powerful episode that tears down the niceties of what ‘can’t be done’ in civilised society.
It’s also a setting that’s continued in episode 3, Rescue by Andrew Smith – famous for many things, but not least for penning some of the most philosophically interesting Suvivors episodes to date. He doesn’t disappoint here either – while the plot is essentially a kind of British, 70s, Die Hard at the Post Office Tower, Smith gives us plenty of gruesome confrontation between attitudes, as Vinnie and Dalton (who is black) stand off, and Daniel (who is gay) has a particularly spectacular episode. It’s by no means all jolly hockey sticks, triumph of the just stuff though – there are plenty of bodies by the end of this episode, underlining the stupidity of the human race, which will kill its own kind for arbitrary differences even when there is no scarcity of resource pressing on it.
Episode 4, Leaving by Matt Fitton, brings this long storyline to a conclusion, with plans for a ship to sail across the Atlantic, and some of the Survivors desperate to get on board and make a new life away from the likes of Vinnie and his thugs. Vinnie’s not having any of that though, and Thornley, whose portrayal bristles throughout this series with enough intelligence to make Vinnie’s thuggery more shocking than it would be were it just reactive, continues his superb work, playing Mr Nice Guy to buy himself time to scupper the plan. It’s particularly creepy when Vinnie, whose attitudes are so utterly repugnant, is pleasant and plausible – it reminds us that human vileness often comes with a smile and a suit, and it makes us trust our leaders slightly less.
All in all, the truth is that any series of Survivors from Big Finish is money beautifully well spent. But in returning to the urban environment and dealing with the dangers and the personalities that would arise there, Series 3 feels like a return to the unique selling point of Series 1 on audio – it can take us into places that the TV version never could, and here it succeeds utterly in delivering four shocking episodes. Best episode this time out is tricky to choose, but if pushed, I’d say Cabin Fever is something truly special, showing how ordinary, day-to-day run-of-the-mill loutishness can turn into something far more brutal and terrifying if simply given the scenario that allows it to do so.
Series 4 has just been announced for June 2016, and is said to focus on the characters left behind this time – Greg, Jenny, Jackie and others, returning to the more rural setting. Survivors continues to set its bar ridiculously high: here’s hoping Series 4 can match the intensity and humanity of this series. It will be no easy task.