The recent decision by the BBC to revive Terry Nation’s 1970s dystopian series Survivors probably wasn’t that much of a surprise. In the wake of the hugely successful Doctor Who (and copious spin-offs), we’ve seen the return of Quatermass, Captain Scarlet and Day Of The Triffids. There’s even endless rumours (or threats) of a rebooted Blake’s 7.
The 2008 version of Survivors started off as a lesser-populated EastEnders before descending into sub-Lost territory, and was finally put out of its misery at the end of the second season (which ended – optimistically – with a cliff hanger). The best word to describe the show was “workmanlike”, combining all the usual elements of 21st Century genre telly in all the usual ways.
That’s not how you’d describe the original. Debuting in 1975, it remains the bleakest programme ever to be a prime-time hit. A man-made virus sweeps the earth, killing the majority of the population. Faced with disease, wild animals, starvation and loneliness, the few who are left struggle to survive. It’s hard to imagine showing that one against Masterchef today. Survivors, however, was a hit in the UK and across Europe, and watching it on DVD now it’s hard to imagine anyone having the guts to make such unrelenting fare now.
Part of the success is due to Terry Nation cleverly playing against type – two of the three leads are female, and Abby Grant’s search for her son forms a rock-solid premise that other story lines can weave around. Carolyn Seymour as Abby is superb, playing the part with a stoic determination you wouldn’t see on telly today. Lucy Fleming plays plucky Jenny Richards (the only totally likeable character) and Ian McCollough plays granite-faced tough guy Greg Preston. The first series raises difficult questions about the life ahead and society they will need to build, and the episode “Law And Order” still packs a punch, an unrelenting tragedy combining rape, murder and the failure of justice.
Sadly the show goes off the rails after the first season, getting bogged down (literally) with the minutiae of subsistence farming, muddled storylines and continued (and seemingly random) changes of cast. Most shamefully, Jenny Richards gets relegated to background “wife-and-mother” character and Abby Grant vanishes altogether (Seymour claims she was fired for being argumentative and drinking too much, so she moved to the US and played villains for the next 20 years. She’s particularly good as Dean Stockwell’s evil counterpart in two episodes of Quantum Leap).
All three seasons of Survivors are now available as a 39-episode box set and are worth a look, if only to see a time when television was made without focus groups or the bourgeois concept of audience appeal. The lack of incidental music, the grimy look, the strong female characters and the powerhouse credit sequence all form a convincing world that make for a fascinating visit. You do have to allow for the cheap video look and cod-Shakespearean delivery that was de rigueur for the times, but even these add a certain quality to this barren world.
A final word on the recent remake – in a bizarre piece of legal jiggery-pokery the 2008 series claimed to be “based on the novel by Terry Nation”. That “novel” was actually a novelisation of the 1975 series published a year after it went to air. Yet Adrian Hodges still had the gall to claim a “created by” credit. Shame, Adrian, shame.