Tuesday, 27 March 2018

TV Review - Survivors S1E01: The Fourth Horseman

Terry Nation spent most of the seventies trying to hawk the Daleks to American TV networks and make himself even more money (and when that happened he definitely would have passed on the money to Dalek designer Raymond Cusick, definitely), only occasionally popping back to Blighty in order to turn in effortless occasional Doctor Who scripts (one effortlessly brilliant, three simply effortless) and create a couple of excellent series. A few years before the infamous Blake's 7 pitch he had considerable success with Survivors, which hinged on a single simple premise - if then-present day Earth is struck by a deadly virus which wipes out 99% of the population, how would people cope?

The series would have a cast of some dozen regulars by the end of the first season and then fluctuate considerably but (even moreso than B7) they're gently dripped in, a decision which allows most to build a fair character right from the start. Thus the first episode largely focuses on Abby Grant, played by Carolyn Seymour, with a smaller role for Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming) and a cameo for Tom Price (Talfryn Thomas). Part of the cleverness is that unless you know the series (and sadly if you haven't seen it media releases spoil it a bit even on the covers) this would probably be difficult to guess, notably with a sizable role for Abby's husband David (played by Peter Bowles, a not-impossible star).

Possibly Survivors' greatest strength, especially in the early days, was its' realism and relatability - the "shit, I can believe that" aspect. And this is on show heavily in the first episode; the plague that would (by calculations made in the show) reduce the human race to 1/2000th of its' previous level is already sweeping the country when the episode starts but no-one is initially taking it all that seriously. Official information is being played down and of limited value, with much play being on the inconvenience of it all. Abby's lines about millions dying in China and it being meaningless, and that it couldn't happen now with "modern medicine" are maybe a little on the nose but make the point well. For a show featuring a very 1975 fashion sense it's surprising how little the core attitudes have dated, and indeed in 2018 there's the curious nature of social media actually giving people less empathy and solid information to factor in.

Much has been made of Survivors' middle class focus but I think this is perhaps harsh, mainly related to the BBC's desire for received pronunciation. While Abby is intentionally set up as very well to do with her country house, her maid, her tennis machine, her son in boarding school and so on this is clearly to increase the sense of shock when her perfect life falls apart and she's forced to become independent. We're given early signs that she's intelligent (her thoughts on the city as a baby) and generous even if her life is privileged. David meanwhile is more than a little domineering (dismissing aforementioned thoughts) but doesn't seem a bad sort really. The brief protagonist switch when Abby falls ill is well-handled though, with a fine scene with the local GP (played superbly in a brief scene by Callum Mill) brings home the full scale of the crisis to David. 

Even if you know it's coming the sudden revelation that he's died while Abby sleeps battling the fever over the course of a few days is shocking and well done, as is the underplayed reaction as Abby slips into stupor. The scenes of her hopelessly exploring a village full of corpses are among the most famous from the whole show and rightly so, atmospherically filmed by Pennant Roberts and played with a brilliant hollow-eyed numbness by Seymour. Even her burnt-out call to the sky could have been melodramatic and cheesy but it's played to perfection, the plaintive wish of a woman in total shock. Remembering her son is a good way of snapping her out of it too, giving the second part of the episode a bit of a kick.

At Peter's school she meets science teacher Dr. Bronson (Peter Copley), and their conversation is the blueprint for the season as he talks of the need to relearn old skills after putting across the scale of the plague is superbly played. She will basically rob all of his ideas for the rest of the year but again it's a plausible catalyst for her views; her growing self-confidence is necessary to stop the episode being a misery-fest and even though Bronson does most of the talking it again establishes her as sharper and more altruistic than her initial scenes would perhaps suggest. It is perhaps a little expedient but you wonder what sort of a woman Abby was before she married David, and the clear show of her maternal drive in her hunt for Peter is another good way of giving her motivation.

Bronson himself throws up one of the recurring problems of the first series, however. Abby hasn't met anyone alive since waking up and just before she drives to the school she's literally crying out for anyone to talk to. She finds Bronson and spends what seems to be a fair amount of time talking to him and then, well, fucks off. He's not doing anything, he has no plans and neither really does she (beyond finding Peter, which someone on the staff might have been helpful with - recognising other boys, knowing Mr Fielding), she just wanders off and leaves him to switch his hearing aid off now his plot function has been served. Generally there will be some excuse for leaving people like that behind but there we go. It's a bit odd to think of Abby showering and giving herself a trim with David just there decomposing on the sofa afterwards but at least burning down the house afterwards is a respectable cathartic gesture.

Jenny's role in the episode is much smaller, basically serving to show the situation in the city, notably the overwhelmed hospitals - a decent performance from Christopher Reich as the brutally realistic junior doctor banging her housemate helps bring home the gravity of the disease well; Terry Nation has a gift for drawing this sort of thing for a character vividly and you get a great feel from two scenes. His imploring towards Jenny (with a great touch when he knocks the lamp over) is heartfet and yet unlike Bronson there's no question of him going as well, the implication being that he feels it's his duty to return to his post at the hospital - which is noble for an adulterer on seventies TV. She's then basically travelling on foot and alone for the most part, briefly crossing paths with Tom Price and then an unnamed sick man who dies overnight. She's shown to be a little brighter than most by not just going for short-termism (the doomed lad's bag of fivers is again not especially subtle). The brief scene where she and Abby miss each other at this stage is at least there to establish they're in the same rough geographical area; even allowing for the days Abby spends sleeping off the fever girl's done some walking.

Lucy Fleming isn't a particularly gifted actress but she's not overexposed yet. We never do really find out what Jenny did before the death but she seems to be what passes for working class in 1975 BBC drama land and here she serves as a sort of everywoman, without the privilege and then personal loss suffered by Abby but also without the direction beyond the broad instinct to survive. Her scenes in the city with the queues at the hospital and the looting yobs are about the only thing we see of the crisis as it actually unfolds and it works well in a less is more way. One of the better tricks of the earlier episodes is leaving obvious conclusions to the viewer to work out; we never see the yobs or Mrs Transon or Andrew die but it's pretty clear that staying in the city seals their fates.

It all adds up to a fine opening episode. I do feel it would be stronger as a standalone without Jenny and done entirely from the uninformed, initially cosy life of Abby, but then that would have left a lot of heavy lifting for the second episode (either bumping Greg back to the third or giving Abby the second off, which would have done nothing for the viewers) as flashbacks still weren't something TV did. Still, it's an appropriately doom-laden and grim episode with smart dialogue, interesting characters and strong performances.


  1. You drew the line at The Sevenfold Crown then? ;)

    Best ever El Tel script? Hard to falter any of it really. Amazingly strong start.

  2. I still think The Way Back nudges it and genuinely wish he'd been non-linear enough to cut Jenny until the second episode but yeah, there's very little wrong.

    I was B7 mad when Sevenfold was broadcast and I lasted 10 minutes, so yeah, easy decision to make there.