Friday, 12 December 2008

AT LAST - SURVIVORS episodes one to four reviewed!

We’re four weeks into the all-new, all-modern BBC reimagining of Terry Nation’s seminal 1970s post-apocalypse drama Survivors and, after several false starts (and a pesky bit of genuine man-flu for distracting good measure), I’m finally able to get down my considered opinion about this new series – a new series which was as important to me, in its own way, as the new Dr Who was back in 2005. Obviously the white heat of public scrutiny wasn’t quite as intensely felt by Survivors as the show, whilst well-remembered and well-regarded by those who were there at the time, is hardly as iconic and culturally-significant as the continuing adventures of the good Doctor and his various chums. But, as a die-hard fan both of the series and of its peculiar sub-genre, the success of Survivors, both creatively and in terms of it finding a decent-sized audience, just seemed important, somehow, especially at a time when British TV drama, thanks to the Doctor, is thinking in broader terms than the detective and Police procedurals which traditionally fill out the schedules. Four weeks in and the show seems to have settled at around 5.5 million viewers per week (considerably more than many other high profile new drama launches this year so the omens for the planned second season must be good) so the interest in the show is there and the word-of-mouth feedback I’ve been getting has been extremely positive. And creatively? Well, to a fan of the old series like me, this was always going to be the biggest hurdle. Fortunately it’s a hurdle the show has been able to catapult over with some ease and in Survivors 21st century-style we have a show which, whilst it uses the original (and more specifically, Nation’s novel of the series) as its launch pad and its inspiration and added a few contemporary elements and plot devices entirely of its own creation to create a series which is part old-school and part something completely new. Survivors is a triumph; it’s great entertainment, great adventure, ripping yarns. But I’m not going to compare it with the old series because that’s not fair on either. The 38 episodes of the 1970s version told their story a different way and to a different audience and, although the name’s the same and some of the characters are similar, the two shows are really so different it’s almost pointless to compare the two series. The old series moves at a slower, more relaxed pace (the first series alone has 13 episodes to play with) and has different narrative priorities thanks to Nation’s own obsessions at the time; the new series, with just six hours of your time, has to move at a faster lick to get its point across and make you care about the characters. Thus it employs plenty of narrative short-hand and many events which formed the spine of whole episodes of the original series, revisited here, are contracted into one-of-many scenarios within episodes or else are manipulated into slightly different situations altogether. I’m not offended by this because I’d expect nothing else from a slick, fast-paced modern television series. I didn’t want the new series to slavishly follow the storylines of the old series; what’d be the point of that, those stories are already told in that fashion and, at the end of the day the old Survivors is out there and available on DVD for those who loved it then and those who may be intrigued by it thanks to the reboot; but playing “which is better?” is pointless and does neither show any real favours.

However, part of the problem I had in trying to write about these episodes over the last few weeks was that, no matter how hard I tried, I found my text peppered with “in the original series…” and “in the 1970s version…” which really isn’t the way I wanted to go in reviewing the new Survivors. But just now, just this once, there’s no getting away from it. The only aspects of the new Survivors which have been a disappointment and which have let it down as a piece of modern drama and not just as a reinterpretation of an old TV favourite, have been its title sequence and its theme music. In the 1970s version (groan, sorry!) Anthony Isaac’s chilling, atmospheric title music, set to immaculate graphics depicting, subtly and succinctly, the cause and scale of the plague virus, combined to creature probably the most iconic and memorable TV title sequence of its time, a sequence which is right up there with the very best title sequences of all time. The title sequence of the new series tries something similar – a forebidding shot of Earth-from-space, people going about their everyday lives, seething bacilli, blending into cast names and a fairly unremarkable logo. It’s all right, it does what it needs to but it’s underpinned by the most mediocre, eminently forgettable piece of theme muzak you could ever imagine hearing. It’s humdrum dramatic, it’s there just because the series needs a theme tine. It’s disappointing. Equally disappointing is the inevitable creative decision to feature incidental music throughout the episodes themselves. A remarkable feature of the original series (stop it!!) was the fact that there was absolutely no incidental music at all throughout any of the episodes. The pictures told the story. The silence of the world spoke for itself. The subtle absence of background noise – whether music, the chatter of life itself – just added to the sense of doom, the very real suggestion that civilisation had just been turned off. Unfortunately today’s audiences clearly aren’t considered to be sophisticated enough to be able to appreciate a dramatic situation without some crashing sting of music in the background or some frantic guitar riff in a time of jeopardy. Yes, thanks, I can see that the nasty man is pointing a gun at Abby’s head, that’s quite dramatic in itself. I really don’t need some frenzied musical clatter in the background ramming the moment home for me. Imagine how much more unnerving dramatic scenes in the new Survivors could be without the distracting background musical accompaniment? The world has ended, it’s supposed to be a bit on the quiet side with humanity all but wiped out. I’d go as far as to say that the incidental music in Survivors does the whole series a bit of a disservice and doesn’t help in any way to make an inherently unbelievable situation any more believable to the audience. I know that Survivors fandom (there is such a thing, it’s quite pleasant) was a bit edgy about the issue of incidental music in the new series; realistically there was no way it wasn’t going to be there but its presence just doesn’t help the show’s cause and risks turning the series into ‘just another noisy BBC drama.’ This is a shame because it’s so much more than that.

These are really the only notable criticisms I have of the new series. I come to any TV drama – especially a genre one – hoping to be thrilled, entertained, excited. Survivors has ticked all those boxes since week one. In creating a new series from the ‘bones’ of the old one, Adrian Hodges (creator, eh, Adrian?) has sensitively taken what worked in the 1970s and updated it for the 21st century. Thus we have the gripping ninety-minute pilot which tells the same story as ‘The Fourth Horseman’ in 1975 but does it with a bigger budget, across a wider canvas, and with a host of new characters. We still get the iconic Abby Grant (played here by Julie Graham who, thankfully, has left her dreadful performances in the risible Bonekickers in a box at home), here the nervy wife of David (Shaun Dingwall) and mother of 11 year-old Peter, recovering from leukaemia and off on an adventure holiday as the series begins; we get Greg Preston, once a wiry, balding, tough-talking hard man, reimagined for 2008 as a tough, black, dour man of mystery who says he wants to be alone but, after four episodes, seems oddly dependant upon his fellow-survivors. Paterson Joseph (hotly tipped to be the new Doctor in Dr Who but I just don’t see it myself) does his best in a role which is a bit under-written so far but there’s a brooding strength there which suggests there may be more to Greg than we’ve been allowed to see so far. The most extraordinary character revision has been in Tom Price, portrayed by Welsh actor Talfryn Thomas back…oh, you know when…as a weaselly , morally-dubious ne’er do well who got what was coming to in towards the end of the first series. Such distasteful stereotypes are off-limits now, of course; the new Tom is a big, strapping convict, the only prisoner to survive the virus and whose bad boy credentials are spelt out quite clearly when he stabs the only surviving warder to death before setting out to explore the strange new world. Tom, played by Max Beesley, is the new series’ real ace card; he occupies the ‘alpha male’ role originally taken by Greg and Price here is so well-drawn and well-performed that he only helps to make Greg a bit redundant. There have been suggestions of conflict between Greg and Tom, two blokes circling around one another trying to work out who’s the strongest, but there’s not been much time to explore these themes due to the demands of the episodes to cram as much incident into each sixty-minutes as possible. Curse you, BBC, for only commissioning six episodes! (Conversely, thanks for commissioning it at all, I don’t wish to appear ungrateful!) The most startling rewriting of established Survivors lore (look, it’s my blog, I can be as pompous as I like about this stuff!) has been in the character of Jenny. Originally portrayed by Lucy Fleming as a somewhat needy secretary in a big hideously-1970s fluffy blue coat, she’s now become a caring teacher. She’s now called Jenny Collins, she’s played by Dr Who’s Martha, Freema Agyeman, and she’s dead halfway into the first episode. Bit of a shock for those viewers who bought into the show’s pre-publicity which featured the actress pretty prominently. Jenny’s role seems to have moved across to the character of Anya (Zoe Tapper), a doctor who has escaped the disease and, like the rest, is trying to carve out a new life in a hostile world. Rather selfishly in a world where medical care must be a bit on the scarce side, Anya doesn’t want anyone to know she used to be a doctor; quite why she doesn’t want anyone to know is a bit of a mystery at the moment. Maybe after a career where everyone was depending on her all the time she doesn’t want that sort of constant responsibility any more.

The new series has also created a handful of new characters who, in truth, are working a bit better than the old crowd. Philip Rhys portrays playboy layabout Al, whose life of fast cars and fast women ends overnight and he finds himself cruising the deserted new world in his flash motor, free as a bird. Until, that is, he comes across Najid Hanif, a young Muslim orphan boy playing football in an empty street. Al really doesn’t want the responsibility but he can’t leave the boy on his own and the two form a rapid bond which pays real dividends in episode four when Al risks his life to reclaim Najid. Young Chahak Patel is a real find; a great little actor full of wide-eyed innocence and a cheeky charm. There’s a heartbreaking moment in the fist episode where, finding everyone dead, Najid goes home and just hides under the blankets as if he can make the nightmare go away by going to sleep.

The episodes screened so far have taken Nation’s original storylines as their inspiration, often combining several old series episodes into one new, snappy narrative. The first episode, of course, extends and expands upon the disease itself and its consequences – broadening the canvas by introducing an authority figure – Government minister Samantha Willis (Nikki Amuka-Bird, she of the very-singular-pronunciation) who has to obfuscate and procrastinate and reassure the public everything’s going to be all right even as, in another striking first episode moment, the lights go out all over London. Episode two combines elements of ‘Genesis’ and ‘Gone Away’ as Abby and her group – who conveniently all met up on a deserted motorway in the last five minutes of the pilot episode – encounter trouble when they attempt to liberate stock from a supermarket and Greg meets Sarah (Robyn Addison), reluctantly living under the protective custody of sleazy supermarket manager Ben (Daniel Ryan) in a sealed-off distribution centre. In episode three Abby, still questing to find her missing son, stumbles across a fledgling community being run under harsh almost para-military terms by Sam Willis who has, herself, survived and apparently taken to trying to re-establish the position of power she held before the virus. Meanwhile, in a much more interesting story strand, Greg and Tom meet up with a father who has been isolating his children in their farmhouse to avoid any risk of contaminating them. This is a poignant and achingly-sad revisiting of themes from ‘Gone to the Angels’ whilst Abby’s experiences in the new community echo moments from both ‘Genesis’ and the memorable ‘Law and Order’ where Sam exercises a very brutal form of punishment against those who cross her. The most recent episode evokes ‘Garland’s War’ and, oddly, an episode from season three entitled ‘A Little Learning’ where Greg encounters a community run by 1970s brats. To episode four’s considerable credit, whilst the Garland thread isn’t as powerful as it was first time around (despite a spirited performance by Joseph Millsom (Maria’s Dad from The Sarah Jane Adventures!) as the disenfranchised landowner Jimmy Garland, it puts Abby right through the wringer when she seems to come within an ace of finding her missing son. Also interesting are the secondary and tertiary plotlines where half of Abby’s group decamp the Sam’s place and Greg and Anya are left alone in the house they’ve already established as their new home. They quickly realise they need to think very seriously about defending themselves in a world of new human predators…

This new series of Survivors has moved at a fair old pace; at just six episodes (Damn you, BBC…but thank you too!) there’s been little or no time for dawdling or introspection. It’d be nice to have a few scenes where the characters actually sit down for a bit and discuss the enormity of what’s happened to the world, how they deal with the trauma of the end of civilisation (because it would surely do your head in just a little bit), their own individual hopes and fears beyond simple survival and finding the next meal. The show’s a bit hazy as far as time and place are concerned too; after four episodes I’ve no idea how long has passed since the virus wiped everyone out. Is it days? Weeks? Months? Sam’s community seems to have established itself and become finely-tuned pretty quickly so we must be talking some time between episodes? And the house Abby and her gang are in? At the beginning of episode two they’re just there, quite content and comfortable. But I’ve no idea where it is, how they found it, what it’s lay out it. There’s no shortage of clean clothes either by the look of it; in the original series (dammit!) the characters seemed to wear the same clothes for three years (ewwww!); now there’s a new T-shirt, jeans and top available for every scene. Nice.

But these are quibbles rather than criticisms. Survivors has been great television, a real triumph and a very sensible and sensitive reworking of themes and ideas which were startlingly original at the time and are still pertinent and compelling for today’s TV generation. And no, I haven’t forgotten the secret underground laboratory with that bloke from Playing The Field conducting secret experiments with someone who seems to have been responsible for the virus in the first place. I’ll reserve judgement on this turn of events until I know what it’s really all about; at the moment it seems to be a bit of a Lost-like conspiracy arc hinting that the disease wasn’t quite the accident we might have been led to believe. Two episodes to go (boo!) and I have to say, as a card-carrying devotee of Survivors from the old days, I’m entranced and captivated by this new series which tells the same basic story with much of the same power and drama as the original and is as good a piece of TV today as the original was in 1975. Job done, I’d say. Ah, but what a shame about all that music..!

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