Sunday, 1 April 2018

TV Review - Survivors S1E04: Corn Dolly

The initial three episodes of Survivors effectively bring the leading trio of Abby, Jenny and Greg together, more or less establishing them as a unit with the same goals and moral values. It's not quite time for them to become static yet though so "Corn Dolly" is the first of three episodes with the three on the road, ostensibly looking for Abby's son Peter. Of course even to first-time viewers it must have been clear that they were never going to just stumble across him somewhere as that would basically end her personal arc. Instead, they're an excuse to meet three different responses to the death. The first of these is Charles Vaughan.

Charles would of course come back as a regular for the second and third series and it's not a surprise; what is a surprise is that the episode (written by Jack Ronder, the first script not by Nation - Ronder would effectively take over Nation's role as producer Terence Dudley's ideas man from the second series onwards) treats him like a massive character straight off the bat. Survivors, especially in its' first year, has some very strong one-off characters and on first viewing it can be unclear which are going to be recurring and which are only going to be in one scene. But Charles is something else, effectively taking over the show for the episode. Survivors didn't quite go in for big name guest stars as much as other productions of its' type did (probably due to the large recurring cast) but Denis Lill is given a big role here.

One of the series' most interesting aspects is that while Abby is presented as some sort of iconoclast she actually isn't. She might be able to tell a thing or two to a muppet like Wormleigh but as the series goes on a lot of people have made the same realisations she has (well, she nicked them off Bronson but still) - our heroes run into groups who've taken over half-abandoned country houses all around the area, enough that by the end of the year they're trading with some. Take Charles here, who's got a base, followers, livestock and other resources all sorted out, well enough that he can do roving surveying of the area.

Thanks to Lill in part Charles is enthusiastic and charming for the most part and his bouncing friendliness and overall encouragement is a big change from the grumpy selfish people with shotguns we've seen up to this point. He represents a subset of characters - that will later include Greg and Jimmy Garland - who almost come into their own because of the death; he mentions practising and believing in self-sufficiency and what could be better than an actual chance to put his ideas into actual real-life action? Look at him chirpily cataloging Mr & Mrs Smith's estate, he is fucking loving this shit. And at the same time he clearly has a lot of heart; in the world we've seen so far it takes a lot of balls and faith in humanity to call out to strangers in such a welcoming pattern - he's also just about the first post-death male character not rely on either a gun or mooks with guns. Like Abby he has a clear picture of the future and he also gives us some serious figures, the first to really convey the scale of the death - his estimates are entirely plausible, and while later episodes will disprove his "no-one who knows each other or knows each other" statement his estimates are based on a small sample.

Of course, the other thing Charles is notable for is his desire to create a next generation. And in one of the hallmarks of the best Survivors episodes while his methods and the way he talks about them are up for debate the show largely avoids condemning or commending them. He's basically right in that if there's no next generation any work to rebuild the world is basically pointless, and that the only way for there to be a next generation - especially without much in the way of maternity support - is for as many women as possible to become pregnant. 

This is very interesting dropped into the context of a post-women's lib seventies BBC drama with two female leads; women were just starting to win rights beyond being simply part of the nuclear family unit in British society at the time but the upshot of the death is that they basically need to become incubators again to ensure the survival of the species - it's not even about sexism but basic biology.  Abby and Jenny's reaction is interesting, neither seeming particularly keen on the idea - and given that we've only met one other surviving woman at this point (Ann Tranter; Wormleigh's outfit is either implied or outright stated to be all-male, I forget) and when we do only two are left alive by the events of the episode it's interesting to see them put on the spot and confronted with what's almost a duty at this stage to procreate, at least in terms of having definite plans to do so at some point in the future.

Charles' message is blurred a little by the events of the episode, notably that he personally has got four of his members pregnant. He doesn't actually seem to do this out of sexual pleasure itself or even patriarchal dominance but simply because he's a realist and he's not going to buck what he sees as his duty as a potent male to do his part in repopulating the planet. Put like that it sounds like some sort of twee sci-fi campness but thanks to the nuance of script and performance you'd have to be reaching to dip into innuendo in response. But then there's Lorraine, who seems to think she's in a relationship with Charles and is unaware that he's made Tessa and Isla (and one other, who I think remains unnamed) pregnant. However, Lorraine is portrayed as - if not entirely simple - certainly a bit slow on the uptake, something illustrated by her abrupt declarations after Charles' unsuccessful attempt to pitch to Abby. The ambiguity comes from whether Charles uses this against her or is just so driven he's oblivious to Lorraine not seeing it as a simple reproductive transaction to bring another life into the world. I lean towards the latter as Charles - like Abby - seems to have a blindspot with people who don't think the same way as him.

Of course his settlement fails due to a coincidental poisoning of most of his followers due to contaminated fish when he arrives back - it's possible this makes him a little clumsier in his explanations and social niceties but at the same time he's something of a realist and seems more to see the whole business as a setback rather than a strike against his methods and goals. His relationship with Greg is interesting at this stage too; the latter tends to take an immediate dislike to basically any other male on first meeting and here he's clearly non-plussed at Charles' low-tech solution to pumping but after that they rather get along and it's only his attachment to Jenny that sees him stick with the girls over helping Charles rebuild. He has other moments as well, notably kissing Jenny for the first time after laying down some pretty heavy-handed stuff about fertility symbols while earlier his more misanthropic side gets an airing when he blows up when Abby and Jenny have the temerity to argue with him about brewing a cup of tea. But his building of the pump and his clear value to Charles show his growing practical abilities nicely.

Abby is a bit of a passenger in this episode; she's gradually becoming the odd one out of the three despite Jenny's declaration of loyalty; it's almost as if someone doing broadly what she wants to do but successfully steals her thunder a bit. Jenny and Greg are distinctly becoming a unit with their chatting in the tent even before the kiss and Charles' realisation that Greg will follow Jenny - in many ways considering how forthright and unsociable Greg is this is really another black mark for Jenny as a character as she's clearly got the right balance of looks and having basically no strong opinions about anything much that he looks for in a woman. Compare and contrast with running a mile from Ann, the layers contained in that one remark to his wife's corpse and the way he's still not especially nice to Abby. Jenny meanwhile continues to be a largely vapid character, a mirror of whoever she's speaking to - though she does have the line about missing her birthday, which despite Charles' gallant rescue attempt once again makes it sound like she's not being paying any attention to the grown-ups talking about proper stuff.

Guest performances are good again. Mick's the first kid we've seen and he's not badly acted really, handling the moment where it all gets a bit much nicely, while Isla and Lorraine are well-drawn. Keep an eye out for second-tier Bond girl June (later credited as Emily) Bolton, her dazzling Anglo-Carribean looks and model figure being well-suited to being a very sweaty head in a bed. Isla's actually a super character as the spinster who suddenly loses her virginity due to the death suddenly making her a desirable commodity as a fertile woman, something she bears with quiet dignity and honesty. Really it's a shame we don't find out what happened to her, Lorraine and Mick when we next see Charles. Lord knows why everyone finds Greg's comb-over bouncing around while he's threshing quite so funny, though - I suppose there has just been a catastrophic plague.

It's another strong outing with the change in writer almost unnoticed, with probably the series' first debate fodder; while up to now there's been a distinct line drawn between those doing things right (Abby, Greg, Jenny) and those doing things wrong (Ann, Wormleigh, Tom Price) here there's some serious grey areas. Charles meanwhile is a serious livewire for not only his views but his character and Lill's vibrant performance; it really is no surprise that he would be asked back.

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