Everyone dies. Almost. No, that’s not a spoiler for once – but the premise for the latest new/old big budget genre drama on BBC1.
One of the many cult TV shows that I’ve heard a lot about and always been vaguely interested in is Terry Nation’s Survivors, although never quite interested enough to get it off my ‘to do’ list and into my DVD collection. This is partly because as much as I enjoy his contributions (Doctor Who and Blake’s 7), I’ve acquired the impression that after some initial terrifying drama, it settled down into a rather dull version of The Good Life or Emmerdale.
This may be doing the original a disservice, although probably no less a disservice than the ‘created by Adrian Hodges’ tag on the new re-imagining, which, like ‘Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who‘ (which often appears as a press trope, but not on the programme titles) gives a rather misleading impression. ‘Based on the novel by Terry Nation’ hardly helps, having arrived later than the original TV show, too – a novelisation in fact.
I should, at this point, apologise for the amount of Doctor Who references, but like the previous incarnation of Survivors, which boasted many crossovers in front of and behind the cameras, it feels somewhat unavoidable. This is a reboot, remake and re-imagining rather than a continuation – Battlestar Galactica, rather than Who – and familiarity with the previous series is probably a disadvantage.
With that in mind, as remakes go, this is curiously timely. We’re in an age where doom has never been more fashionable, with a raft of apocalyptic ‘last man/last few alive’ tales. The revival of the zombie-esque movie genre (28 Days & 28 Weeks Later, Shaun of the Dead, more Romero, Zombie Strippers) and even on TV (Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, and numerous Zombie/end of the world riffs in new Doctor Who such as The Unquiet Dead, New Earth, The Idiot’s Lantern, 42 and the Zombie-like possessed Ood) plus new cold wars, terrorist threats involving biological engineering, SARS and so on all feed in to this cold, bleak, depressing bit of television. I’ve just learnt that Day of the Triffids is in development, continuing the theme.
Slowly paced and keeping tension high (a refreshing change after the attention-deficit plotting of other genre shows lately) this is a well-directed piece from the off, and though the writing has a few clunky bits of exposition at first (“This flu business”) the script is generally fine. Rich, but autumnal colours gradually give way to a predominantly grey-blue colour palette; the music is subtle and eerie.
Characters appear gradually and are generally well-acted, with the possible exception of Nikki Amuka-Bird as the MP – you can see she’s going for high-rank, high-stress, but it doesn’t quite feel believable. As it becomes clear who the regulars will be, everyone gets a decent crack of the whip by the end in what is far more of an ensemble piece.
There are a few nice twists to the casting; Who stalwarts Shaun Dingwall and Freema Agyeman are recognisable names and faces you expect to be a given for lasting the course, but both are written out subtlety early on, which makes it all the more surprising. Of the eventual ensemble, Julie Graham – Dingwall’s wife, Abby Grant, ‘dies’ and then recovers – she has the largest part for this episode, searching for her son (and eventually, leader’s role). Paterson Joseph as Greg, the most likely successor to David Tennant’s Doctor Who and thus the one that deserves special attention, by contrast appears very late in the narrative but gives a well-judged, believable performance devoid of the ham he displayed in Neverwhere, Jekyll and as Roderick in Who‘s Bad Wolf. I still don’t personally think he’s got what it takes to be the next Doctor, but there’s no denying he’s good in this.
The playboy Al (Philip Rhys) is charming and rich-kid; all he has in his fridge is caviar and champagne on the first day of the end of the world. He forms a great relationship with Naj, an eleven year old devout Muslim boy who he finds kicking a ball in the road, the only survivor of a full mosque. Child actors are always a lottery, but young Chahak Patel is superb.
Finally, there’s the cold, ruthless and duplicitous Tom Price (an excellent performance from Max Beesley), a character with the same name but a completely different outlook and modus operandi to the original, and Zoe Tapper’s Anya, who loses it spectacularly after a suicide attempt and then goes capable warrior-medic.
Terry Nation liked his archetypes when writing, and not having seen the original, I found myself comparing the characters to Blake’s 7 for a reference point – there’s more than a little of Avon in Tom, Vila in Al, Jenna in Anya and Blake in Abby (or perhaps that’s just the hair?) I look forward to quests, mention of radiation and liberal use of the word ‘vital’, although I think the Davros Radio Times cover seen in the second episode’s newsagent scene might be enough to render any more references redundant!
Survivors is hard-nosed character drama, and the portrayal of death – pervading, lingering shots of bodies of all ages, children, old women – is one of the grimmest I’ve seen. It walks a fine line, just one step away from fetishising corpses. Light on swearing (there’s some, but I think I only really noticed a ‘fuck’ in the lyrics of a background song in Naj’s house) and with minimal sex and violence (though there’s some of that to come) for the atmosphere alone, Survivors is very firmly adults-only.
Personally, the jury’s out on whether it’s actually enjoyable, but even if almost an hour and a half of panic, fear and bleakness isn’t my cup of tea, the coda questioning whether the outbreak was as unexpected as it appeared, or was even manufactured, will make me at least check in again to see where it is heading.
I don’t know yet if I like Survivors, but I’m certainly interested.