‘It’s Death Part 2: Return of the Lurgi.’Survivors #5 is based on two simple, terrifying, realistic premises.
First, that a virus which killed around 99% of all human beings, leaving survivors who were immune, would itself evolve, adapt, survive, the other competitor in a race for non-extinction, and would return to kill those its earlier iteration left alive.
And second, that among the human survivors, there would be asymptomatic carriers – hosts for the death, who walked among the healthy, themselves unaffected by the disease, but leaving it like perfume in their wake.
Thank you, Andrew Smith. No no, that’s fine – sleep is soooo overrated.
After the shock of the initial outbreak, and the savagery of humans as they competed for ownership of resources and struggled not to fall into the abyss of social and moral decay, the post-Death world was starting to get back on its feet – communities coming together to work out their way through the world, rediscovering their agrarian instincts, breeding, growing stronger, even dabbling with the idea of chemical-powered electricity.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere comes the Sickness – faster, stronger, just as implacably merciless as the Death. And the fragile trust between people and communities evaporates, as that dreadful question raises its head again: ‘Are you...well?’
As people start to die within safe communities, even that question grows rarer, as hard stares and distrust of strangers set themselves across faces and minds again, because clearly, some people are lying, some people are spreading the Sickness. Some people are selfish enough to kill – the so-called ‘Angels of Death.’
And just like that, humanity must prove itself again to not be savage, but kind. Not beaten, but capable. With just those two premises, Survivors #5 puts humanity back through the wringer, because the notion of people who’d knowingly infect communities and walk away throws the whole idea of survivor-communion into jeopardy. The notion that people might be so self-centred they’d burn the world to the ground is shocking and terrifying, even after its ballot-box expression in 2016.
This is Survivors doing some of the things it does best – showing us what human beings will do when they’re scared. Scared of others, of incomers, of liars, of consequences, of themselves. Series #5 takes Survivors right back to its initial premise, but it’s both more horrifying and more hopeful than the original Death.
The reason we peg Andrew Smith for the sleepless nights this set causes is because he’s the writer of Episodes 1 and 4, so he sets us the scene, the tone, the one who pushes over the first domino of fear, and the one who shows us the ultimate consequences of the chain.
Episode 1, The Second Coming is one of the best constructed, most shocking episodes in audio Survivors so far. We’re used to Doctor Who companions popping up in Survivors, but we welcome Neve McIntosh wholeheartedly, because, as insane as this sounds, it’s great to hear her acting without her greenface on. As Carol Baker, she’s a revelation here, not because the quality of her performance surprises us, but because when called on to anchor an episode, she does it in a way that sounds absolutely intuitive and right, with the full range of nuance that humans in very trying situations display. Carol’s been tending to Abby Grant, who fell off her horse when it threw a shoe, and she keys us into the community of Maythorne, which is axiomatic of the new beginnings the post-Death world is starting to make, the progress from bare survival back to thriving, viable communities it’s made. The cruelty here is that Smith sets up this beacon of hope for us, makes us care for its people (clearly, they’re kind to strangers like Abby, and they take care of their own), and then shows us the impact of a new strain of the Death on even communities like this, and more viscerally, the impact of fear on good people. Good people plus fear leads to bad results – if 2016 had a motto, that would be it, and The Second Coming rounds off the year by bringing that idea home with the fall of goodness and principle to the ‘Dark Side’ of fear, and an ending you won’t see coming.
Episode 2, New Blood, brings in what could be a clichéd response to a post-apocalyptic world, the resurgence of religious belief. Writer Christopher Hatherall though avoids the pitfalls of making religion seem inherently stupid, pitching the episode strongly into the Seventies setting of Survivors. In response to the Death, Springton, the neighbouring settlement to Greg and Jenny’s Whitecross, has established itself on a hippy, vaguely Wiccan foundation, thanking the gods and goddesses for their survival and all the bounty they have. And they have bounty – an aggressive breeding policy, dressed up in the idea that sex is good means there are children at Springton, a healthy new generation ready to establish itself as a leading local player in whatever the future holds.
The trouble with religions that believe their benefits are gifts from gods though is that when touched by an Angel of Death, when benefits turn to burials, and the new generation withers on the vine, people have a tendency to believe their gods need appeasing. Which is when strangers start to die. Hatherall makes this Wicker Man stuff genuinely frightening by making the decay a gradual thing which eventually explodes into its full flowering of mad, fear-fuelled zealotry. Fintan McKeown as relative newcomer to the community Patrick Regan, and Alex Clatworthy as the self-assured, sexy Summer Broome are especially intense and spellbinding in this episode, and as is the case throughout the series, the Sickness brings the worst instincts out in people in Springton.
Episode 3 ups the pace, Angel of Death bringing us to a community with its own eccentric, Pearl Ironsmith played by Donna Berlin. Pearl is trying to get a methane-powered generator working, so as to provide her world with electrical power again. Greg can’t resist a tinker and between them, they achieve what seemed impossible – but like a moth to the flame, their work leads to some punch-in-the-face consequences. Meanwhile, Abby, realising the village has been visited by an Angel, rides around, warning people they may have been infected – an especially harsh consequence as there’s a wedding party travelling from the village, possibly taking the Sickness with them. If any episode of this series is ‘the positive one,’ this is it – we’ve seen how fear can make people suspicious, or violent, or cunning, or deadly. But in response to the Sickness, Pearl determines to finish her great work, Abby decides to strain every sinew she has to educate people, and Dylan, a young lad who rides with Abby simply because he likes her, turns the fear into jokes, into laughter, because he can. Yes, they’re inappropriate jokes, but Dylan’s rationale, when we hear it, makes him one of the good guys, one from whom, like Abby, the Death and the Sickness can take much, but not their character.
Of all the episodes here, Episode 4, Come The Horsemen, is the least focused. The Sickness’ chickens come home to roost, and one Angel of Death whose progress we’ve been following through the series finally gets their comeuppance – but not before we understand the truth that they’re not evil. They’re a good person scared beyond the capacity to be good. But we also see the panic they’ve instilled in others, and the suffering that panic can create. Meanwhile, in what feels like a prologue for Series 6, we learn of what’s been done by people who survived the end of the world, and just went straight from being good people to deploying the final sanction the second time around. People too exhausted by life to find any compassion, who go straight to the dark rationality that exists in us all. It’s strongly hinted that either Abby or Evelyn will encounter these people down the line, and when they do there will be a reckoning.
It’s perverse but logical, what saves the world the second time around. In fact, there’s more than a touch of War of the Worlds about it, and it seems the catastrophe of the Sickness was relatively well contained. In a world where the speed of travel has been dramatically slowed down, and the speed at which the virus kills has been correspondingly sped up, a world where suspicion and drastic action are just beneath the surface as a protector from the disease, humanity wins its second round.
Listeners win from the cataclysm in this series too. Survivors #5 has serious bite, taking us back to the initial days of the outbreak, but moving the survivors forward into the world they’re forced to inhabit as a result. Survivors #5 is a masterclass in the effect of fear on otherwise good people.
It’s a lesson we’ll all have cause to learn in 2017.
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 day, he 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