Survivors [BBC and Big Finish Productions]

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I set out intending to write a review of a new collection of audio dramas from Big Finish Productions, a company best known for its extensive range of Doctor Who audio spin-offs but who’ve also produced ‘new episodes’ of cult dramas ranging from The Tomorrow People to Sapphire and Steel and who have also just started an interesting new line of audio recreations of the mostly lost 1961 first series of The Avengers. Big Finish’s newest line is Survivors, which is based on a BBC TV series from the mid-1970s; but for obvious reasons I soon found that it’s impossible to talk about the new production without first undertaking a historical discussion of its television roots to set it in context, so please pardon the diversion…

The original Survivors was created by Terry Nation, the writer best remembered for penning the second Doctor Who story in 1963 and for introducing the Doctor’s nemeses, the Daleks. Nation went on to write episodes of The Avengers and a swathe of ITC productions including The Baron, The Saint, The Champions, Department S, The Persuaders! and The Protectors and also going on to create another cult favourite, Blake’s 7 before moving to the US and working on MacGyver in the 1980s.

Survivors could best be described as the dark reflection of 1970s sitcom favourite The Good Life. While Tom and Barbara Good got to play for laughs throwing themselves into then-trendy self-sufficiency in the backyard of their Surbiton home, in Survivors such endeavours become a matter of life and death in a post-plague world in which 99% of the population has been killed by a virulent flu-like epidemic leaving only isolated pockets of survivors trying to work out how to live without power, technology or law and order.

The original show was notorious for its behind the scenes production problems. Nation wanted a gritty drama and fell out badly with producer Terence Dudley who wanted a more optimistic and upbeat show demonstrating the community that a group of nice respectable people working together could build even in these grim circumstances. You can almost see the exact point where Dudley’s vision finally supersedes Nation’s: between episodes six and seven the series dumps what until then has been the main plot driver – the search by Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour) for her missing son Peter – and instead has everyone settle down in an abandoned country house where an influx of new characters also arrive and settle in.

While it’s true that Nation’s version of the series risked becoming repetitious – Abby and her friends Jenny (Lucy Fleming) and Greg (Ian McCulloch) travelled around, encountered a new group, found that it had a nasty underbelly of some sort and quickly moved on – it’s also the case that Dudley’s incarnation of the show is significantly weaker. The new characters that arrive are generally indistinct and underdeveloped, while others join the community one week and are never seen again and at best mentioned only once or twice in dialogue. Small wonder that at the start of the second season a fire sweeps through the community’s home, killing off-screen many of those deemed superfluous by the producer. Carolyn Seymour followed Terry Nation in walking away from the show, depriving it of its most iconic and interesting character; Ian McCulloch grew increasingly disenchanted and also subsequently decided to leave, while other characters were simply recast without explanation – although in fairness to the show, the most jaw-dropping substitution which happens between episodes 10 and 11 of season 1 when Hugh Walters takes over from Terry Scully as wheelchair-bound Vic Thatcher was out of the show’s control as a result of the actor’s medical problems.

Technically the show also had a bumpy ride, starting off as a traditional BBC production using on-location 16mm filming mixed with obvious studio scenes recorded on video. Halfway through it was decided to shoot the whole thing on location instead using some of the Corporation’s new outside broadcast VT equipment, but this opened up a whole new slew of problems. Episodes show frequent sub-standard camera moves and actor blocking that takes you back to the earliest days of British television production. Unfortunately the show’s writers included quite a few ‘action’ sequences which consequently end up being painfully leaden and unrealistic; and of course, overall the show now seems extremely slow as most programmes from the period do to modern eyes

But Survivors wouldn’t have survived to three seasons, let alone be remembered as a cult TV legend, if it didn’t have its strong points as well. Centring it around a strong assertive female character was particularly noteworthy, which is why Seymour’s sidelining and departure at the end of the first season was so costly. The first few episodes set immediately after ‘the Death’ are very powerful, gripping and atmospheric, and some of the later first season episodes such as “Law and Order” and “Revenge” hit their marks dramatically even if story logic is muddled and unconvincing. And overall – despite my somewhat disparaging comments about Dudley’s alternate plans for the show – there is a definite appeal to watching this community of likeable characters actually build something; that is until it’s all summarily wiped out at the start of season two.

Nation disliked what happened to his creation so much that the novel adaptation that he wrote stuck firmly to his script contributions and then went off in a totally different direction to the show, which must have confused readers wanting a straightforward TV tie-in. That novel became the basis for a 2008 remake by the BBC penned by Adrian Hodges (Primeval, The Musketeers) which benefited from a bigger budget and modern production techniques enabling them to do all sorts of things that hadn’t been possible to show in the original show, such as deserted urban landscapes (the original stayed firmly in the countryside), motorways devoid of traffic, and a lot of dead bodies at least in the early days. The reboot also had a better idea of the core cast it needed to successfully drive the narrative, and a more diverse one that contrasted against the painfully white, middle-class and mainly middle-aged ensemble in 1975. Overall the reboot’s first season was something of a success (especially with the likes of bird flu and SARS in the headlines at the time) although the casting of the new Abby Grant (Julie Graham) rather missed the whole point of the character and left something of a void in the show. A decision to steer the second series away from Nation’s storylines toward being more of a Lost-style conspiracy about the origins of the plague went down badly with the dwindling audience and there was no third season, which is rather a shame.

All of which finally brings us up to date and the latest reinvention of Survivors by Big Finish. The first thing to make clear is that it wipes out any trace of the 2008 version and instead firmly sets itself within the world of the original 1975 series, even to the point of having cameo appearances from Fleming and McCulloch as Jenny and Greg. There is no need for the listener to have an in-depth knowledge of the TV show, but if you do then it’s fascinating to piece together these characters’ appearances in the audio drama with where they fit in with the TV show.

Instead, Big Finish take the very astute decision to rewind the clock and tell the tale of the early days of the onset of the plague in 1975, but from new points of view. The fact that this is an audio drama means that situations that would have been logistically impossible to film can be accomplished with unnerving effectiveness, from the thousands of people dying in passenger terminals at Heathrow to another survivor being shot at by snipers as he crosses a body-strewn Trafalgar Square in the middle of London. The sound design is a crucial part of all this and is utterly terrific, both very naturalistic and believable but also backed with truly haunting and disturbing incidental music and foreboding tones which makes the whole thing completely and terrifyingly immersive as you slip into the nightmare scenario far more completely than either of the TV versions were able to achieve.

Against this backdrop, the writers of the four episodes (Matt Fitton, Jonathan Morris, Andrew Smith and John Dorney) introduce a new cast of survivors which include American attorney Maddie (Chase Masterson), journalist Daniel (John Banks), civil servant John (Terry Molloy), housewife and mother Jackie (Louise Jameson) and university lecturer James Gillison (Adrian Lukis) who starts up his own survivalist community in Feltham, West London to which the others eventually gravitate including Jenny and Greg. The four episodes are stand-alone to a degree but also part of a single overall narrative, building to a big climax in episode four as Gillison’s initial good intentions darken and put everyone at risk.

What’s most impressive here is how the stories manage to accurately capture the atmosphere of the 1970s series while at the same time making it a completely modern listening experience. Each instalment crams in at least five times as much as the original show did in the same 50 minute running time, but at the same time never feels frantic, rushed or overcooked which I sometimes feel with Big Finish’s Doctor Who range which occasionally leaves me frazzled and exhausted when I try and listen – mind you, that’s true to the spirit of the modern television version of Who as well! By contrast Survivors is probably the slowest-paced, most straightforward and certainly most adult drama that the company produces – and it’s all the better for it.

I picked up the first season boxset of Big Finish’s Survivors not because I was huge a fan of the original series (although it was a big favourite of my mother’s so I definitely saw it at the time) but because of all the gushing reviews about it that I saw on social media. I fully expected the actual production to fall somewhat short of the exaggerated hype, but if anything I’d say that all the praise actually still didn’t do it enough justice. Easily one of the best audio dramas I’ve heard, this is the type of production that makes you think pictures are vastly overrated and that it would be no bad thing if everything wasn’t audio-only from now on. It’s certainly a match for anything on television at the moment and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in good, intelligent storytelling and gripping drama.

Survivors Series One Boxset is available for £30 from the Big Finish website and also from Season Two is due out in June 2015, and Season Three in November 2015. DVD boxsets of the 1975 and 2008 series are also available.

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