Looking Back At SURVIVORS (2008) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At SURVIVORS (2008)

Tony’s survived the virus. So far.
Never mind the Marvel multiverse, the story of Survivors now exists in its own multi-dimensional reality.

Originally a TV show in the mid-Seventies, created by Terry “King of the Daleks” Nation, it grew a novelisation by the same author halfway through its TV run. The novel and the TV show went off in very distinct directions.

More recently, follow-up books and audiobooks by different authors have popped up to extend the original Seventies-style story. And as audio dramas, Big Finish Productions has produced eleven whole box sets at roughly four hours per set, continuing the story as it played out on the Seventies show, with as many of the original actors as possible.

The essential story of Survivors in all its versions is the same. A pandemic plague hits the world, removing 90% of the world’s populations in the relative blink of an eye. Society collapses and has to rebuild itself, through a horrible, painful process of looting, community establishment, war, a re-writing of ethics that suit a post-virus world, and more. It’s never what you’d call light entertainment, whether you stick to the low-budget 1970s TV version, try the Terry Nation novel, or expand the world in the audio environment.

And then there’s the 2008 re-do.

There are a couple of things it’s worth knowing about the 2008 re-do. Technically, it’s not so much a revisiting of the original 1970s TV show as it is a re-interpretation of Terry Nation’s novel – which, incidentally, is appallingly harrowing in and of itself, and owes a fair amount to John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids… admittedly, minus the world having gone blind and the giant intelligent killer plants.

As far as a cast is concerned, you couldn’t have hand-picked better in 2008. Julie Graham replaces Carolyn Seymour as the 21st century Abby Grant, a woman on a mission to find her son, Peter, who’s both away at boarding school, and in this iteration, has already had cancer – a neat storytelling twist that adds fuel to the fire of Abby’s determination to find him and ideally make sure he’s safe.

Shaun Dingwall, who had recently played Pete Tyler in Doctor Who, takes Peter Bowles’ part as David Grant – and shares his episode 1 fate. Controversially, Freema Agyeman (another recent Doctor Who star) takes on the role of Jenny Richards (originally played by Lucy Fleming), but whereas in the Seventies Survivors, Jenny becomes a longstanding member of the community, in the 2008 version, that destiny slides across to her friend (and usefully, a doctor), Anna Raczynski (played by Zoe Tapper).

Paterson Joseph replaces Ian McCulloch as Greg Preston, legendary loner forced into community more by his usefulness and Abby’s force of will than through his own intentions.

But – and this might be important - Greg’s status as Alpha Male of the original Survivors is somewhat watered down in the 2008 version, because not only does it include Philip Rhys as Al Sadiq, a high-rolling city boy who both takes the role of Chief Whinger and develops a forced paternal role towards 11-year-old Najid Hanif (Chahak Patel), but there’s also the overwhelming personality of Tom Price to deal with.

Tom Price is serving life in Wandsworth prison when the virus hits, and essentially murders his way to freedom. Add to that the fact that he’s played by charismatic Northern hardman actor Max Beesley, and Paterson Joseph’s Greg begins to feel like just one of the gang, rather than the pre-eminent man in the post-virus world of our Survivors.

There are interesting additions to the 2008 world of Survivors, to be sure. The presence of Al and Najid, both of whom are Muslims of varying degrees of adherence, is one. The presence of a doctor – and a lesbian – is another, when arguments about the usefulness of people in a rebuilding world are raised. (It’s vaguely depressing, watching the news from the US in recent weeks, that the calculus of female survival still too often comes down to their capacity to make and carry babies, irrespective of their bodily autonomy – but that’s frequently the nature of male-written dystopia. Dystopia, of course, are mostly supposed to be FICTIONAL).

But there are ways in which the 2008 Survivors departs from both its Seventies TV archetype and the novel that followed it.

Nikki Amuka-Bird takes an important role in the 2008 version, unparalleled in either Seventies version. As Samantha Willis, the Junior Minister For Health, she’s in charge of the government’s messaging at the start of the pandemic (think Matt Hancock, but competent), and then, when the Prime Minister dies and the government more or less dissolves, she becomes a relatively powerful, ruthless figure during the move to rebuild society in a whole new image.

That’s a plotline that has since been adapted into the audio Survivors range as society begins to recover itself and a new, harsher, discipline is asserted. But in 2008, it was brand new, and while it added to the scope and scale of the drama in a way the Seventies version never had the budget to do, it also occasionally pulled focus from an already expanded group of all-star Survivors.

That was true, too, of Nicholas Gleaves as Dr James Whitaker. Again, his sub-plot, which takes up much of the second series in terms of an embodied Big Bad, is vital, and interesting – he leads a group of scientists looking for a vaccine for the virus.

As we heard early in 2020 (and sometimes continue to hear in tedious antivax memes), it takes years to develop an effective vaccine, and in the case of Survivors, the difference between its killer virus and, say, the frequently-name-dropped Spanish Flu of 1918, is the frenetic infection speed and the rapid development from health to death.

As his work develops, his good intentions bend to frustration and desperation, and his ethics go astray. And as with the Samantha Willis storyline, it does two things at once.

On the one hand, it significantly expands the world of Survivors from its initial premise, which focused mostly on a single group of Survivors and how, for instance, they survived the mercenary intentions of other local groups, the difficulties of making enough food to live, despite only a bare minimum of knowledge and expertise. It shows the wider world, the world in which national governments are struggling to rebuild from the ground up, and scientific experts are aiming to solve the fundamental problem of viral extinction.

But on the other hand, by spreading that focus, it creates a series with several distinct groups of characters, and that could be tricky for anyone not watching the show avidly week after week, as several plotlines would move on at once.

Add to that sub-plots like Henry Smithson’s (Christopher Fulford’s) coalmine of slavery, and Billy Stringer’s (Roger Lloyd-Pack’s) kidnap racket, and what Survivors (2008) does is pack a realistic, modernistic world full of Survivor threads into a format that had previously only focused on a single core group of Survivors and their problems.

While a lot of these sub-threads have since gone on to be extremely well used and served in the Big Finish audio version of original Seventies Survivors, for which 2008 screenwriter Adrian Hodges deserves as much inspiration-credit as original Survivors creator Terry Nation, in a TV series that depended on catching and keeping the ongoing attention of an audience, having quite so many groups and storylines may well have proved tricky to follow.

While Survivors (2008) ends on a cliff-hanger – and one that’s very close to the ending of Nation’s original novel – the scale, the scope, and the high-quality cast should probably have earned it a third series (at which point it would have matched the Seventies version). It was denied that opportunity, reportedly, because of “poor viewing figures.”

In essence then, Survivors (2008) is a show about a decade ahead of its time, in that it was almost custom-built to be watched on a streaming binge. That it’s now available in its entirety on Britbox feels like the show has finally come home to a place and a viewing method that serves its storytelling to its best advantage.

The fact that it’s also around 12 years ahead of its time in real, geopolitical terms is just one of those things that change forever how you view a show. You notice uncanny things watching Survivors (2008) from the viewpoint of the 2020s.

You realise the truth that what makes Survivors… Survivors is the speed and the infectivity of the virus. In the 2020s, the whole thing hits home just that little bit harder than it did in 2008. People died during the Coronavirus pandemic as we’ve so far experienced it. Lots of people. But in one crucial area, the world got lucky.

It wasn’t fast enough in its transmission to get us all. It wasn’t vicious enough in its symptom-profile to kill us all.

If you’re still here to watch Survivors (2008), it will remind you, with a cold, clammy shiver down the spine, that those factors are all that stand between us and the Survivors of 2008.

Watch Survivors (2008) today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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