Wednesday, 4 April 2018

TV Review - Survivors S1E07: Starvation

Despite the triumphs of Charles Vaughan and Jimmy Garland it's clear the production team saw limited value in the leads as a wandering nomadic trio. While they're living out of cars many others were banding together and forming groups, with the series establishing that humans are sparse but not outright rare. "Starvation" sees the leads given a base at last, and acts as something of a mid-season reformatting - with Jack Ronder writing the script you again begin to see that already the show was moving away from Terry Nation's initial plans.

While Nation is the better writer of the two his seeming favouring of a quest narrative doesn't work as well for the show; not every episode will be blessed with Charles or Jimmy and "Gone to Angels" has already showed how fractured such stories could be, so it's the right decision. The Grange will only last as a setting for six episodes ultimately but it always feels like the "default" setting for Survivors to me, which surely says something for its' success.

In the meantime "Starvation" acts as a bridging episode linking up the two halves of the show and it's set a lot of lifting work as a result - three new characters are introduced and one existing one is brought back but it all feels surprisingly natural. As the title suggests it also has the broad theme that the accessible stockpiles of food left in houses and the like outside of cities is beginning to be depleted, partly through those without the knowledge for self-sufficiency using them up and partly through aggressive hoarding.

In the former come Emma Cohen and Wendy (whose surname we never learn), who simply seem to be the two randoms left alive in their immediate geographical area who've linked up because Emma can cook and Wendy is fit enough to walk and find stuff for her to cook. I actually like Emma quite a bit, a forthright old lady who finds herself very vulnerable in the post-death world, unable to help as much as she would want to and worried about her burden. 

Wendy meanwhile was reportedly written into the series late to take over a plot function which would have been fulfilled by Jenny before the latter proved popular with audiences, but her underwritten personality actually works. She has a sort of wispy, willowy quality that gels well with Julie Neubert's hippie chick looks and you can imagine her just drifting through life happy in herself up to the death and then simply carrying on that way. Her relationship with Emma is sweet in that you get the impression Wendy doesn't particularly need company and is prepared to live things day-to-day but isn't going to just abandon a kindly Polish grandmother - even without bumping into Tom Price she doesn't seem set to abandon Emma. The only incongruity is she seems to be written as a teenager when Neubert isn't visibly any younger than the two female leads.

Tom meanwhile does actually seem to have developed some sort of long-term view in that at least he's hoarded up a load of stuff and is actually out to barter it. Quite how this thick unsubtle man managed to get away from Arthur Wormleigh with a van full of guns and cans is perhaps a little difficult to perceive, especially as he seems to be on the run rather than reaping the results of Wormleigh's settlement floundering. Still, he's credited with a certain amount of cunning here, though it's likely he hasn't actually done much bartering. The sleazy side of the character is on full display here and it's a good foundation for what will be an interesting few episodes for the guy. 

Survivors is often criticised as being a show about middle class people, with Tom presented as a demonised working class character. But I'm not sure that's the case, but simply the BBC's choice to rarely use accents and preference for received pronunciation masks the real make-up - everyone in BBC shows of the period tended to seem a bit middle class apart from spivs and thieves. Jenny is I think intended to be working class - sharing a flat in London with no outward signs of any particular career. While Abby and Charles have both been shown to have more comfortable lives (or at least the freedom to chose such, in Charles' case) Greg really seems to be the successful working class man who's applied himself to engineering, got a good job out of it and been able to afford a sportscar and a trophy wife as a result. 

Tom meanwhile probably isn't meant to represent the working class as a whole but simply short-term greed - it's that which gets him into trouble. That he's grubby and seedy perhaps layers it on a bit but we see plenty of more clean-cut characters with similar ethics; Price is certainly not very positively portrayed in basically any way but I'm not sure he's meant to particularly represent any group wider than himself. It seems simply that "what not to do" is distilled into this one guy, to the extent that you have to respect Talfryn Thomas for even taking the part, let alone giving him even the occasional glimmer of not being the absolute shit of the world. His attempts to buy female company with both Wendy and then Abby are on the verge of pitiable, really - he has guns and is probably stronger than both but he still wants some level of consensual interaction rather than simply threatening and raping. On some level he wants to be liked and loved and at least be able to tell himself that he's a decent person.

The third new addition is Barney, part of the fixtures and fittings for the Grange having wandered into the big country house to avoid the packs of rabid dogs that function as antagonists for the episode. Like Wendy in retrospect he's clearly introduced to fulfil a plot function and the question of what would happen to the mentally disabled in the event of the death isn't particularly tackled either as Barney somehow surviving for several months without any signs of outside help (though this might be deliberately ambiguous, again given later events) is just taken at face value - though naturally the character isn't in a place to tell us much, something which again works to the advantage of the show. John Hallet's performance though is excellent, Barney having a genuine childlike innocence and charm to him rather than being a cloying simpleton, and his eagerness to befriend Tom is played well.

Ronder meanwhile has finally learnt to write Abby, perhaps helped by her sudden but welcome decision to abandon the search for Peter for the time being. Her quick thinking to save Emma from the dogs and her careful outwitting of Tom Price later on are the character at her best - brave, resourceful and humane; it's very well done the way Tom is thrown off simply by her being cross that he's crossed her path again and she assumes total control of the situation even though he has a gun on her. Even if Wendy hadn't picked the right moment to appear and lock Tom in his van you very much get the impression she had a card or two to play before having to prostitute herself to him after rightly realising that just putting the idea in Tom's head is likely to completely ruffle him.

Greg and Jenny spend a lot of time locked in the minibus for no really clear reason but actually have a couple of fun scenes and they work well as a more overt couple. You could argue that it's maybe a bit contrived that the group decide to find somewhere to settle and immediately run into the Grange but then there's a clear sense that, with the population down to such low levels and some groups of 10-20 people already banded together, these big houses really are just sitting around waiting to be taken over, and the discovery that it's inhabited by the injured and harmless Barney rather than a nutcase like Lincoln is well-played. Greg meanwhile is coming into his own episode by episode; his decision to light a fire to cleanse Barney's wounds even though it puts them at risk shows his growing sense of responsibility and he's subtly calling the shots for the group here - in a firm, calm way laying down his belief that the Grange is the right place to start a settlement. He's also secure enough to not even bother to hide his dislike and distrust of Tom under surface politeness this time; still, even he knows not to argue with Greg at this point.

The kids are a bit more variable - they are actually amusing winding Jenny up in the bus ("Don't call me mummy"/"Mummy-mummy-mummy-mummy-mummy-mummy") and the scene of them waking up alone in the Grange and immediately panicking that they've been abandoned is a good showing of both how messed up these kids would be and Greg & Jenny simply not thinking because they've only been parents a couple of weeks and then by accident. However, line delivery is variable; Tanya Ronder is narrowly the better actor of the pair but it's clear that in their scenes (especially those they share - though this is allowed to happen very rarely) that only a couple of takes could be done before the director had to go "fuck it, that will have to do". The other thing the kids occasionally bring is a weird non-sequiter and there's an odd one here where Lizzie randomly asks Jenny a rhetorical "he's not Daddy, is he?" about Greg, Jenny gives her an odd anguished look and then that's it. Seeing as Lizzie's old enough to know Greg isn't actually her dad while at the same time it's clear he and Jenny are a couple and have effectively adopted the pair it seems very strange and there's no follow-up unless it's one of the odd lines that foreshadow Jenny's pregnancy but even then there's no sign that the baby isn't Greg's. Very strange.

Really you have to tip your hat to Ronder and director Pennant Roberts for getting a coherent story out of these disparate elements and while the pace isn't rattling and a couple of threads outlive their welcome the strong characterisations and acting make it quite an enjoyable watch. The scenes of this oddball extended family sitting next to the fireplace after a good meal with Greg strumming on his guitar are positive and charming, something much needed. As the first episode of Season 1B it builds up a good base for a larger community with considerable aplomb, it just isn't especially rewarding if you're not watching other episodes around it.


  1. One wonders if the move away from the nomadic format was down to Brian Clemens threatened lawsuit? The interview I read with him when he talked about the idea he's mentioned to Nation when they were making The Avengers had it become a globe trotting show with them moving to sunnier climes, as does the end of Nation's book that is his "This is how it should have fucking been!" statement.

    Clemens was royally pissed that not only was his format nicked so he couldn't use it himself, but also that the final show was so home counties.

    He did decide it wasn't worth the hassle in the end though, and reconnected with Nation not long before his death.

    The novel is actually interesting in that it basically ignores everything after the second episode, except for Garland's War, which is transposed wholesale into the middle. So he must have agreed that was a strong one.

    Or needed something quick to meet the page count.

    1. I do wonder if Survivors was also the reason why Tel wrote all 13 episodes of B7 S1. I had the same thought about the novel and it seems almost immediately Survivors got away from him with Ronder & Dudley both seeming to want to do something quite different where Nation seems more committed to the Abby Quest narrative with Greg and Jenny as sidekicks. When you factor in that Carolyn Seymour seems to have also rapidly fallen out with basically everyone involved and that Nation probably wasn't very hands on you get the impression of a show pulling itself apart from very early on.

      The irony being that Nation then really throws himself into the Grange format only for Dudley & Ronder to tear that down to make the Season 1 characters support for Charles in Season 2...

    2. The book goes out of its way to show Vic died as well. Actually a solid read, some rough edges (Abby's first scene has her thinking how great she looks in the mirror at length. And there's totally unexpected masturbation later on), but the solid nature of the source material he does use and the chance to structure a proper book for the rest does make it a better read than the usual staple some episodes of the series together efforts.

      I know the BBC had very clear divides between jobs at the time, but having bought a format from Nation, you'd think they'd work to put a production team in place that were in sympathy with his plans to make sure they got what they actually paid for.

      It's telling that even when Nation doesn't agree with the choices Boucher made on B7 (such as the last episode), he was always far more positive and sympathetic to him than anyone he worked with on this show.

    3. Mmmm, I read it years back and it feels a little more like a novel that was then turned into a TV show than a straight adaptation. It's down for a re-read at some point when I've finished the episodes but then I thought that about Afterlife and then found out it cost more than a fiver.

    4. At least Survivors has that more recent reprint thanks to the strange legal situation of the remake being based on the book rather than the TV show. If you can hear Martha Jones on the front, you should grab one cheap. The Seymour read audiobook is very good as well.