Looking Back At SURVIVORS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Looking Back At SURVIVORS

Tony tries to survive.
Terry Nation was a TV writer who, at least three times in his career, managed to perfectly encapsulate the visceral nature of fear.

When he created the warlike Nazi avatars, the Daleks for Doctor Who in 1963, he gave us a cogent and apparently immortal warning against the dangers of xenophobic ideologies with the power of life and death. Just as much though, in creating the counterpoint species, the Thals, he warned against the overly pacifistic acceptance of such xenophobia so long as it didn’t affect us personally.

By 1978, Nation’s warning became one against an overweening State, prepared to keep its people docile, to manipulate the media, and to quietly slaughter any number of its citizens to maintain the status quo. In Blake’s 7, he framed the warning as a ‘space western,’ but the message was achingly British through and through. When the State becomes an Orwellian monolith, Blake’s 7 told Britain’s children, you can submit, or you can resist. Either way, you’ll die – but it’s the quality of life and the clarity of your actions that counts.

Between these two great science-fiction encapsulations of the fear of totalitarianism sits Survivors.

Beginning in 1975, its great central question was not ‘What if the State espoused Xenophobia?’ or ‘What if the State was totalitarian, but you didn’t notice?’ It was simply ‘What if the State was no longer there at all, and our moral and ethical codes were thrown into conflict with the hard business of personal survival? What if the world was thrown back hundred of years in effective time – would you know enough to survive?’

There was some wrangling over whose idea the premise for Survivors was – Nation and fellow writer Brian Clemens both claimed it as their own – but at any rate, it was Nation who brought the idea to the screen. In hindsight, it sounds almost comically prophetic.
A deadly pandemic disease, created in a Chinese lab, is accidentally released and rapidly spreads around the world thanks to the rise in air travel (which was still significantly less accessible to most people back then than it is to us in the 21st century). Infectious and contagious, it kills on average 4,999 out of every 5,000 people on the planet within weeks of release. The rest – those individual 1’s in every 5,000 are left alive in a world that has been effectively destroyed. They are the Survivors. But their troubles are just beginning.

From our perspective, the deadly danger of pandemic plague has become a reality again in our time, but back in 1975, the last time anything like ‘The Death’ (as Nation’s plague is called) had affected previously healthy, wealthy western cultures was in 1918, when Spanish Flu raged worldwide. That was two or even three generations earlier – generations in which political tensions, wars, and nuclear weapons had taken centre stage as humanity’s greatest fears, so the idea of a plague wiping out most of humanity was novel enough to work as apocalyptic science-fiction.

Except of course, the point of Survivors was partly to explore a world in which science as we’d come to know it in our comfortable, insulated, seventies civilisation no longer existed. Where the rule of law and the law of nature were frequently in conflict. Where biological imperatives would rewrite the rules we thought were sacrosanct, and where decency as we thought we understood it became a highly negotiable currency.

We can talk about the genius of using a scientifically created plague as the way into this world all we like, the real genius of Survivors was that it took the ‘civilised’ world of mid-1970s Britain and threw it back hundreds of years, by collapsing all the chains of interconnected effort that kept such a world functioning.
While Survivors ran for three series on TV, Nation created the premise and the initial characters, but left the writing of the show after the first year. As he was to prove again with Blake’s 7, his most significant skill was in creating worlds into which other writers could also pour their talents to credibly take a story forward.

Whether it was planned out or not, there’s a definite arc across the three series of Survivors. Series 1 shows the collapse of society, with individual hero quests (in particular that of Carolyn Seymour’s Abby Grant, a mother who survives The Death, and goes in search of her son at his boarding school), utter culture shock, personified by Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming), a young woman from London who wanders dazed for a while, showing us the scope of the devastation, and proactivity in the form of Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch), who seems intent on beginning his life anew in the wake of The Death.

Series 2 explores the power dynamics of a world where everything is hard, and everyone is vulnerable unless they take steps to protect themselves, whether through built communities or individual power. And Series 3 showed the gradual upward climb, not to anything like as sophisticated as the world had been before The Death, but to some stab at a re-industrialisation to make the agrarian life easier, as well as a connection with the wider, outside world.

Along the way, the cast of characters ebbed and flowed. Abby’s quest for her son Peter took her off on tangents. Gregg left at the end of Series 2 to try and make it across to Norway by hot air balloon. As you do. And plenty of other characters came and went as the stories of each individual episode demanded, teaching lessons about welcome, fellowship, betrayal or violence as the characters themselves dictated.
That was one of the most immersive things about Survivors – you never knew what was going to happen when one or another Survivor came into the show, and it was their actions in the story that determined whether they survived longer term. Even characters you might have thought would be unlikely to get killed off, played as they were by significant actors of the age, were happily crossed off the register of those who survived. The struggle was played as real, rather than pre-determined by the appearance of recognisable actors. And while the show stopped short of later audio adventures in the same world, there was always a bristling sense of fear, of danger about the show as it followed the Survivors through the trials and tribulations of a world without running water, without switch-flicking electrical power, without mass transport or mass communication, where food, shelter, work and company were the orders of the day, along with biological imperatives like breeding and feeding more people and internecine conflicts with other groups and within their own.

It showed us a glimpse of a world where everything that used to matter – party politics, money in the bank, fashion, fame – was overturned in favour of real, practical survival skills, however they manifested themselves.

And it’s in that, really, that the ‘prophetic’ element of Survivors lives, rather than in the lab-made virus as the tool of our devastation. It was a glimpse into a possible world that made us ask how we would survive if everything that kept us comfortable and complacent were instantly stripped from us. What skills would we have to offer in a world where every eye might be suspicious of strangers, and every fist eager to teach lessons and transfer the anger of a life gone wrong.

It taught us empathy for refugees, for victims, for those whose worlds had been blown apart by forces not of their making. It made us focus on the kind of people we’d want to find in a world like that, which is the reality of too many people even here and now. And it made us think we should be the kind of people who were kind to Survivors, rather than the kind of people we booed in every episode.
Survivors was not by any means comforting viewing. In the very best tradition of dystopia, it showed us how fragile our existence and all its fripperies could be. But also in the very best tradition of dystopia, it helped to show the things that were really important to a Seventies Britain – not power, not politics, but family and friends, the human connections that made anything worthwhile achievable.

It also created a world in which Seventies viewers could immerse themselves and relate – a struggle for resources, for power, even as far as the seeming basics of society were concerned. An energy crisis had gripped Britain the year before Survivors first aired, and the country was forced to adapt to a three-day week, shared hot water, and other restrictions to take the strain off a power grid that was not getting the coal it needed to supply everyone. Strikes, civil strife, and stand-offs between the governments of the day and those who did the hard, physical work on which society was based, like farmers, miners, rubbish collectors and the like would all come while Survivors was running its TV course, or slightly afterward. Identifying with the characters of the Survivors helped some people locate the grit to, as the saying is, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’

Survivors was a stroke of genius, but it was very much of its time, and of its place. It kept most of its action located in Britain, and it dealt with a Britain and a world that was pre-internet, pre-smartphone and pre-GPS. What has since been proven though is that the more sophisticated and technologically dependent out society grows, the greater the fear becomes on which Survivors was based – a 21st century update might have run for only two series, but it proved that the sudden impact of a pandemic in a plug-and-play world might well only be greater than it was before.

And where the TV version of Survivors was hampered by Seventies BBC budgets, a 21st century series of audio stories from Big Finish went back into the original premise with many of the original cast, and was able to broaden out the impact of the pandemic to a startling degree.

There’s a sense in which during the era of Covid, Survivors might be too close to the bone for some people. But it remains an astonishing portrayal of a Britain and a world rocked to its knees, and how, given the chance, it has to decide how it will carry on.

How it will survive.

That’s never been more poignant in our generation than it is right now.

Watch Survivors today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony 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

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad