Tony Fyler wanders about in the 70s.
Survivors, Series 1 was one of the big hits of last year from Big Finish. By reinventing only the scope and the terror of the original 1970s version of Terry Nation’s post-apocalyptic dystopia, the company brought the fear of a cataclysmic plague with an effectiveness that sometimes bordered on the genuinely uncomfortable – and sometimes went right ahead and crossed the border. It was a superb four hours of work, and we reviewed it here.
So – no pressure for Series 2 then.
To be fair to Series 2, let’s do some expectation-management: the further and further you go away from the original action of the plague killing the vast majority of people on Earth, the less inherently dynamic is your threat across the arc of your series. To stand any chance of reaching or surpassing those initial horrors, you’re going to need to focus on the worst in humanity, as well as the worst in the way of post-apocalyptic natural accidents.
Survivors Series 2 knows this, and delivers, though if you’re wondering whether it’s of the same overall coherent-horror quality as Series 1, you’re probably going to come away just a little nonplussed, for those reasons of distance from the original cataclysm of the premise.
Breaking the second series down into four threats is a seemingly straightforward exercise, especially when episodes 2 and 3 cover the same time period, but in all honesty the quality is a little more variable in Series 2 than Series 1. The threat of the first episode, largely befalling Jackie (Louise Jameson) and Daniel (John Banks) amounts to a combination of rural oafishness and meteorological misfortune, and amounts to something of a damper squib than you might be hoping, especially from long-experienced Big Finish director, but new writer Ken Bentley. There’s a sense of futility, a ‘so-what?’ vibe that would render any death in this episode a little pointless, though there are certainly lessons for Greg and Abby here about how far each of them is prepared to go in their new, relatively lawless world to get the results they want. But most particularly, if you’re going to introduce a surprisingly unrecognisable Bernard Holley (Axon Man, for the Who fans) as a recurring character, his actions here feel surprisingly slight and lightweight, especially when seen in the light of what happens when his character, Ridley, is reintroduced later in the series.
Episode 2, Mother’s Courage by Louise Jameson, stretching her Who-writing repertoire into new territory, is by far the best, strongest and most allegorical of the episodes of this series. While the title and maybe a line or two feels a little hippyish, there’s some serious meat in this story, dealing with rape, sex slavery, the threat of violence, the destabilising influence of men on any peaceful community and a shocking inversion of the usual media take on a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, particularly in the case of pregnancy. The interesting thing is that the horror revealed here about ‘the State’ and its decisions about what can happen and what can’t when a woman has a child is a blank inversion of a situation already happening, though often in reverse, in our real, pre-apocalyptic world today. From politicians, priests and imams demanding women dress a certain way that offends them because otherwise they’re ‘asking’ to be raped, to nations where babies of one sex are inherently less valued and encouraged than those of another. The conclusions Mother’s Courage comes to are interesting and deep, even if they’re not perhaps as biting as they could be. In our world, just as in Jackie Burchall’s, biting leads to nothing that’s good, so perhaps the way of Mother’s Courage, and its author, who is growing into a distinctive voice in Big Finish, is best.
Still, the episode packs the biggest punch of the four, by virtue of being absolutely about something, which is more than can really be said of episodes 1 or 3.
Episode 3, to be absolutely fair, is about something – just something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The premise is that there’s an escaped wild animal occasionally slaughtering survivors, and there’s also a survivalist – in the strictly Bear Grylls, Ray Mears style, rather than the stockpiling weapons and canned food waiting for the government to come and take their guns style. Our band of men go off in search of the survivalist and attempt to hunt the animal, while the women are encountering the camp in which they spend Episode 2. Episode 3 involves a lot of tramping around the forest on this two-pronged quest, which is fine if you’re into that kind of thing, but engaging audio drama it sadly doesn’t make.
It does lead naturally into Episode 4 though, and a vibe not far removed from some classic shlock horror movies. At the risk of spoilering listeners, we’re in cannibal country, but what stops this being just a case of ‘Let’s throw some cannibalism into the mix, that’ll shock ’em’ territory is that there is a fundamental Survivors question at the heart of Matt Fitton’s episode – how far is too far to go in a world gone made and mostly dead. Would you eat human meat if you had to? If it meant your survival?
What about if you didn’t have to, but had discovered you quite liked it? Would you let the morals of a society that no longer existed shackle you? Where on the scale of your birth, life and education do your moral chips fall? Is there such a thing as absolute good and evil, right and wrong? It’s strong stuff, and it bring back Bernard Holley for a gritty showdown with Ian McCulloch, playing Greg.
What Survivors Series 2 delivers is four episodes exploring what life would probably be like in the aftermath of a grand cataclysm. Episode 2 by Louise Jameson is the best and most intriguing as an hour of drama, with Fitton’s Episode 4 coming second, and Ken Bentley’s episodes, 1 and 3 sadly lacking a narrative focus – sadly because Bentley’s a great Big Finish director, and you wish him well every minute of both episodes, even though they don’t deliver the same punch as Jameson and Fitton’s. At the end of it though, what Survivors Series 2 doesn’t feel like it delivers is much in the way of progress – our core gang have tackled rapists, a society of women, an escaped wild animal and a cannibal cult, but in terms of Abby’s search for Peter, they’re no further on, and of the two potential new joiners they encounter, one doesn’t pan, though it does give some rich characterisation along the way, Tim Treloar impressing as Russell, and the other, a seriously damaged young woman, Molly, is highly traumatised. Daniel too is a heavily changed young man by the end of Episode 4, so overall, Series 2 feels like our band of survivors have taken two steps forward, and three or four back.
That said, there’s something inherently irresistible about Terry Nation’s concept, and the Big Finish series builds faithfully on the original, so the answers to the two questions you want to know are simple – yes, you should buy this one, and yes, of course you’ll be back when Series 3 comes out in November. Oh, and just a heads-up on that – Chase Masterson is in the cast list, we assume reprising her kickass role as Maddie Price from Series 1.
Take a listen to Survivors, Series 2 today, and keep up to date with what’s what in the post-plague world.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk