Wednesday, 10 February 2010

TV review: Survivors - series two...

Four episodes into the second series of BBC1's 'reimagining' of Terry Nation's post-plague drama 'Survivors' and several things have become crystal clear. Firstly, this show now bears little or no resemblance to the show which spawned it; all it has in common now are the title of the series and a handful of character names. Secondly...well, following the screening of episode four, it's suddenly evident that what we have here is not only the best drama series on British TV at the moment but also the best 'genre' or science-fiction show to have hit our screens since the rush of shows commissioned in the wake of the success of Dr Who in 2005. The show's been quietly building this year. Series one was a bold and successful reworking of familiar themes and story beats from the original series but it was only in the pulsating final episode that the series seemed to find its own way, suggesting some dynamic developments for series two. We're seeing this paid off now in a run of superb quality episodes culminating in episode four - possibly the bleakest, most pessimistic and downright savage piece of TV of any sort I've seen in years. This is 'Survivors' with the kid gloves off, this is British TV doing something it rarely gets the chance to do. And ironically, to bring me back towards my first point, the series is moving back into the adventure series format Terry Nation championed way back in 1975, a format abandoned by producer Terence Dudley in favour of a more rural approach, a format change which caused Nation to wash his hands of the series after the first batch of episodes. I think Terry Nation would whole-heartedly approve of 21st Century 'Survivors'.

I'll come back to episode four shortly - I'm still reeling (as they say in all the best tabloids),frankly. Disappointingly - but perhaps not surprisingly - 'Survivors' is tanking in the ratings this year. The first series (way back in November 2008 - a lifetime for casual followers of a six-part drama) kicked off with around 7 million viewers and settled into a solid 5 million plus (although the last episode, crucially, was sunk by being scheduled a couple of days before Christmas when most of its audience was either out partying or shopping). Without much fanfare series two debutted in January 2010 - without the crucial repeat of the last episode it really should have had as a lead-in - and its audience has fallen away. The show's hovering around the 4 million mark nowadays and that's as frustrating as it is, with hindsight, inevitable. The BBC have done the show no favours by delaying its planned November 2009 broadcast and the bizarre decision to start the second series and then rest it for a week for some football match is one of the most insane scheduling decisions imaginable and rather symptomatic of a Corporation which, while it's making some interesting dramas these days, hasn't really got much of a clue about how to schedule them. But maybe that's a discussion point for another day. 'Survivors' has other problems too. Unusually for a British show it's highly serialised; each episode rolls on into the next one and to get the full impact of the series you really need to have been there from the first episode and to have stuck with it ever since. This is a model which works well on American shows and it's a model producer/creator (with apologies to Mr Nation) Adrian Hodges and his team have been keen to emulate here. Whilst it's a huge success creatively, giving the show a real energy, pace and depth, it's not something UK audiences are familiar with. The public are used to their dramas being more or less self-contained and if they're not, constructed in such a way that it's easy to dip and out or skip an episode without missing too much. 'Survivors' wends it way around any number of storylines - the plight of Abby and her fractured Family, the secret underground laboratory Where Strange Experiments are taking place, the fragile community set up by former MP Sam Willis. Thread into all this an embryonic relationship between Al and Sarah, the smouldering relationship between Anya and Tom Price, the pent-up rage of Greg and Abby's quest for her missing son Peter and there's a lot for an audience to take on board if they're only vaguely familiar with the show from its first series over a year ago. This all makes for stunning, multi-layered, finely-textured and compelling drama - but it ain't 'alf off-putting for a weeknight audience more used to the more simple-minded goings-on in 'Holby City'.

Series two of 'Survivors' picked up at the exact moment the first series ended all those long months ago. Venturing back into a decaying, hauntingly-deserted city to find the errant Naj, the group have come under attack by Sam Willis's head psycho Dexter. A helicopter has arrived and a screaming Abby (Julie Graham) ahs been whisked away just as a random potshot by Dexter fells Greg (Patterson Joseph). In episode one the conspiracy arc hinted at throughout the first season moves into high gear as Abby finds herself in an underground research bunker where a group of scientists are desperate to find an immunity gene which will provide a vaccine against the virulent virus which has done for the human race. Back outside it's a race against time to find the medical supplies needed to save an injured Greg from death. Anya (Zoe Tapper) and Al (Phillip Rhys) are trapped in a nearby hospital when it collapses around them and only grim-faced anti-hero Tom Price (Max Beesley) can save the day. But does he want to? Plunged into a fever-dream by his injuries, Greg revisits his own past and we finally learn a little bit more backstory about the group's quiet man - and it ain't too pleasant. Episode one bleeds in to episode two as Abby discovers the unpleasant truth about the Bunker and her own place in their scheme of things and Greg, Tom and the others fight off a group of desperate city-dwellers as they try to figure out a way to rescue Abby. After a spectacular piece of narrative misdirection which turned a potentially howling cliche into a wonderful plot twist (Tom and co appear to break effortlessly into the Bunker compound only to find they're in completely the wrong place), Abby fashions her own escape and is reunited with her friends. But they don't have a moment's peace as, in episode three, Tom is captured by goons from Sam Willis's community and put on trial for his past crimes. Episode three is where the show really becomes a bit darker; the series tackles head-on its own new morality with Willis as judge, jury and would-be executioner, a woman desperate to do the right thing by doing the wrong thing over and over again and the final confrontation between Tom Price and Dexter is savage, unrelenting and ultimately shockingly brutal. Along the way the group (referred to as the Family) have encountered Billy (Roger Lloyd Pack who, interestingly, also starred in two 1976 episodes of the original series) a friendly trader travelling the countryside in his pantechnicon. But he too has secrets, picking up young, fit survivors and supplying them to a local hard man who press-gangs them into working in a coal mine in inhuman and inhumane conditions.

Which brings us to the just-screened episode four. There's nowt better than watching a TV drama which is so utterly engrossing that, just for a moment or two, you're in its world, utterly taken in and absorbed by the drama to the exclusion of everything else. That's what episode four of 'Survivors' did for this reviewer and, by the end of an exhaustingly-powerful sixty minutes which touched so many emotional and dramatic bases, I was pretty much in bits. Here Greg and Tom are captured by a self-appointed former academic-cum-Lord-of-the-Manor named Smithson who has installed himself in a big house, surrounded himself by subservent goons, and forced a gang of other bewildered survivors into grotesque servitude down his tacky mine. Greg and particularly Tom aren't too happy about this and when Abby and the others finally arrive on the scene the series suddenly - and quite welcomingly - resembles its parent show more than it ever has before. Smithson is a figure torn straight from a Nation script, evoking memories of union leader/self-appointed saviour Arthur Wormely (George Baker), a stand-out character from the early days of the original show. Like Wormely, Smithson sees himself as a saviour, surrounding himself with gun-toting yes men who'll do his bidding because he's more intelligent and forward-thinking than they are. But his morality - slavery for the many for the benefit of the few - repulses Abby and co and the way is opaved for a number of well-written and performed sequences where Abby and her group confront Smithson about his vision for the future, scenes which could have been torn right out of the scripts of any 1975 episode as the new ways meet the old ways head on. The episode becomes increasingly tense and stomach-churning as, eventually, Greg and Tom free the rest of the slaves who don't, as we might have expected, run for the hills and their freedom; they turn back and ritually slaughter Smithson and his men, clubbing them to death, hanging them and just generally tearing them apart. The series presents a very grim and thoroughly pessimistic view of human nature; in the post-plague world it's every man for himself. Gone is the old series' back-to-the-land philosophy; now it's kill first or be killed. That's very 21st century. That's very dark. And just when the episode has delivered one killer dramatic punch after another there's yet more as Tom Price puts an injured escape miner out of the misery he's sufefring as a result of an accident in the mine; Tom's actions are both beautifully, poignantly merciful and terrifyingly cold. The entire cast of the series are on top form this year but Beesley's performance is absolutely outstanding, creating the most magnetic and raw character seen on British TV in years. There's the very real sense that there's nothing this wild, unstable man won't and can't do. But even now there's more to come. Earlier on in the episode we've seen Tom releasing a gang of kids captured by Billy and destined for the mine. Tom's left Billy tied up to a tree. The freed chidlren w wander back and release him...and one of them announces himself as Peter Grant, Aby's missing son.

You may have gathered I'm rather taken by 'Survivors' this year. Comparisons to the old series are too tiresome to bother with now, this show has forged its own path. Unfortunately it's a path far too remorselesly grim for a mainstream audience but I applaud the BBC for letting the new show find its own way and take a very dark road indeed. I'd be surprised if the BBC commission a third run on the basis of the numbers so far - they're not 'Paradox' bad but they're weak - and the fact that this wonderful and daring piece of modern television might be consigned to the dumper because of viewer apathy caused by BBC mismanagement is pretty damned depressing by any reasonable standards. So let's enjoy the last two episodes of this sereis because they may be the last we get. The original series of 'Survivors' has always been one of the classic cornerstones of my abiding love of the genre and the post-apocalypse sub-genre in particular; I'm so pleased to say that the new 'Survivors' now stands proudly right alongside it, as good as I'd hoped it would be and now far better than I ever dreamed it could be. It's brilliant, brilliant stuff.

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