SURVIVORS: The Audiobook of the Original 1976 Novel, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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SURVIVORS: The Audiobook of the Original 1976 Novel, Review

Tony tries to survive the Seventies. Again.
Any Big Finish fans who have followed the Survivors full cast audio series through its ten box sets (including New Dawn 1) will know that it has described an arc that was begun by the original TV cast back in 1975, and has taken some of those original survivors – along with new friends and enemies – on a seriously hardcore, often horrifying journey through a world stricken by ‘the Death,’ and its aftermath.

As Big Finish begins a new era of post-Death Survivor stories in New Dawn, moving events forward by 15 years from where we left the survivors at the end of box set 9, it seems appropriate to go very nearly back to the beginning.

While the 1975 show was hamstrung by budgets in terms of what it could show of the post-Death world, in 1976, series creator Terry Nation released a novel that essentially took readers through the events of roughly half of the first series, and then spun off in a radically different direction.

Many of the initial elements are the same. Our main survivor heroes are Abby Grant (played on screen by Carolyn Seymour, who also narrates the audiobook of the novel), Jenny Richard (Lucy Fleming), and Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch), and at least the ways they survive the Death are maintained too.

Abby falls sick with the Death, only to wake after days of fever to find her husband has died. She sets off in search of her son, Peter – who is away at boarding school when the disease hits.

Jenny cares for her flatmate as she succumbs to the Death, and then, on the advice of a doctor friend, gets the hell out of London before it becomes a plague pit.

And Greg, working as an engineer abroad, comes home by helicopter to find his wife dead, and feels the Death as a kind of new beginning, a chance to redefine himself for a new time.

The novel, naturally, takes longer to get the survivors together than the show did, and gives a lot more insight into their individual psychologies. From Greg running into an heiress with a huge stash of contraband and no way to protect it, to Abby’s run in with a former union leader who’s setting up a group that offers summary execution for breaking its self-developed rules, there’s plenty of adventure to go around before the three of them, along with a cast of subsidiary characters, create themselves a kind of commune.

The progress they make is also delivered in much more painstaking detail – and over a much greater length. The backbreaking labour of going back to the land when you have no real idea of how farming works is written in such a way that you feel every ache, every agonising setback. Perhaps ironically for a novel set in what is essentially 1970s Britain, our survivors face food shortages and energy crises, along with the more naturally post-apocalyptic dangers of group warfare and attempts to impose martial law.

There are several ripples of similarity here to John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, with Abby’s group merging with one other commune for the betterment of them all, and then getting a visit from some bully boys who propose to unite the region – and eventually the country – under their own new form of brutalist government.

And the similarity of situation provokes a similarity of response in the novel, making you at least briefly wonder how much of the Triffid story was dusted off by Nation when he had a group of people in a radically similar situation.

Before the Survivors decide to up sticks and try to head to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean – where they figure at least planting and growing more food will be easier than it is in the chillier latitudes of the UK, there’s time enough for Abby to head off on a ‘side-quest,’ though. Never entirely giving up on the idea of finding her son, Peter, she heads off single-handedly to a local manor house where there are troops of young boys being trained in survival and military discipline.

There, while not finding her son, she discovers a survivalist in the surrounding woods, with guns, ammo, and a radical plan to take the house and turn it into a kind of new-old fiefdom, running on a basis of ‘benevolent monarchy.’

It would spoil some of the book to tell you how that adventure works out, but suffice it to say that while the majority of the novel is focused on the hard choices and hard work of going back to an agrarian lifestyle, this side-quest of Abby’s will give you a taste of some of the post-Death brutalism to which you might be accustomed if you’re used to the Big Finish full cast series.

That’s a distinct difference between the later full cast audios and this 1970s novel. There are horrors MENTIONED here, such as some people reverting to cannibalism, and a loosening of some of the societal ‘moral’ structures around sex and sexuality, but we’re shielded from a lot of the harshness that comes with the wider canvas of the full cast stories – there’s no baby-farming here, no sexual slavery, no child-murder as an act of mercy, and none of the outright grimness that has sometimes (realistically) characterised the Big Finish continuation of the story. By focusing most of the story on the humans pulling together against the odds on a communal farm, Terry Nation in the 1970s seems to have taken a more gently positive attitude towards the human spirit than, some 50 years on, seems entirely realistic.

But Abby’s side-quest – and the things she sees and experiences while she’s on it – help to prove that Nation felt the teeth of the idea he’d had, and was determined to show what could happen – both for the good and the bad – if and when we abandon the social structures (and strictures) of the status quo as it then existed.

The bad includes the devaluing of promises, as some people build a miniature world in which promises to sworn enemies have no validity and only winning matters. Meanwhile, at Abby’s commune, there are positive elements to the breakdown of old structures. While Greg and Jenny go through a kind of joining ceremony, akin to a marriage, other young women happily enter into sexual relationships with two men, and without the censure of an authority, the arrangement suits everybody well. Post-Death polyamory for the win!

In his novel, Nation takes the story in a different direction to that in which the TV show would eventually go. On screen, Greg Preston disappears before the show ends, taking a balloon flight over to the continent.

Here, he’s with us right to the end of the book, which is a pleasing development, as it gives his character more time and space to develop. In both versions, he’s initially very much a follower, determined to remake himself in the post-Death world as someone who’s not responsible for the big decisions in his life. Here, the way the novel ends suggests that he will have to re-think his policy and get to grips with a stronger leadership role in the future.

The novel, then, gives us differences of direction to the TV version and the later audios, and also focuses more on the survivors coming together and making something work than, for instance, the later audios, which have frequently riffed on the idea of seemingly good situations turning almost inevitably to chaos, authoritarianism, and death.

Here, our survivors – Abby, Greg, Jenny, and the group they gather around themselves – survive long enough to get a warning raid from the would-be authoritarian group in the region, and make their plans to escape to the Mediterranean.

But in the post-Death world, with its infrastructure shattered and its limited skills-base, even that decision is fraught with danger and difficulty. How to get a whole community, with everything it needs to survive the journey, from its home location down to Dover, when the roads are ruined after a decade of limited use, and fuel is at a premium, is just the first problem. Finding a boat anywhere that doesn’t belong to anyone, but is still seaworthy, is another problem. Cobbling together enough sailing expertise to cross the Channel at least three times to transport people and goods is yet another. And not running foul of gangs of armed thugs, who might steal or destroy everything you own, or worse, might decide to enjoy themselves in an orgy of rape and violence, is always a concern when you’re away from your home base and its protections.

As with the agricultural difficulties, Nation never makes these things easy – he forces you to think each time about how you would overcome the next difficulty, and the next, and the next. In a way, that makes this mid-Seventies novel a precursor to works like Andy Weir’s The Martian, where the only way to earn your title as a survivor is to solve each problem in turn until there are no more problems in front of you.

The ending of the novel is something it would be criminal to spoil for you, but suffice it to say it will punch the heart right out the back of your body. Again, this fits in with the overall ethos of Terry Nation’s Survivors – there’s NEVER an end to the list of problems in front of you in the post-Death world. Or rather, there is, but you never want that particular end to come. So you’re only a survivor for AS LONG as you survive. That’s certainly something the Big Finish full cast audios took up and ran with, with some characters seeming destined to survive for far longer than in fact they do.

Here, Nation takes you all the way to the end – and then punches you, hard and fast enough to stop your heart.

There’s still enough positivity to let you hope for the future of the group at the end of the book, but it definitely comes at a price – and it’s a price you may not be ready to pay when it comes.

Carolyn Seymour of course was the original Abby Grant, and we’re lucky in the audiobook that she reads it. Her natural vocal tone, while by no means bass, is warmly mid-range, so when she needs to give us the gruff tones of Ian McCulloch’s Greg, she can get there believably. And her range of accents throughout the book is strong enough to give life and vitality to a whole room full of people, so she’s worth more in the audiobook than ‘just’ the fact that she’s the voice of Abby. If you want an audiobook reader to sing for their supper, have no fear with this one. Carolyn Seymour is intensely good value for your audiobook money.

Survivors has existed now as an original TV show, an updated, remade TV show, ten series of full cast audio dramas, and a couple of novels, of which only this one was written by the series creator, Terry Nation.

It’s easy to forget – certainly with the Big Finish full cast adventures having come on so far beyond the end of the original TV show – the roots of the idea, and going back to the Nation novel is a stark reminder of how fundamentally believable the terror of a pandemic disease was back in the mid-Seventies.

Arguably, we no longer need any convincing at all, just 50 years later. But perhaps the most terrifying thing about the novel of Survivors is the wording of some of the phrases in the very early stages of the Death. Some of the reactions are now scarily familiar.

“But it’s just like FLU, isn’t it? People don’t DIE from it!”

“It’s not the flu. That’s the one thing we do know about it. That and it seems to take six days.”

“But the papers, the news, they all say it’s the flu. The China Virus!”

“As of now, we’re stopping hospital admissions. The staff are going down with it as fast as the patients. Everywhere’s short-staffed…”

It’s true that 2022 may not, perhaps, be the IDEAL time to take a trip back to the mid-Seventies and listen to the Terry Nation novel of Survivors.

On the other hand, it’s equally possible that there’s never been a better time.

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

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