Forty years after Survivors was originally broadcast, it’s still a disturbing and thought-provoking series. The notion that the whole of civilisation was hanging by a single, delicate thread had long been a favorite topic of SF and speculative fiction and Terry Nation certainly seemed to have sampled the best of the available literature when creating the series.
In many ways, Survivors is essentially The Day of the Triffids but without the Triffids. The broad narrative sweep (the majority of the population is killed off, the survivors relocate to the countryside, conflict between different groups, etc) is pretty much identical. Terry Nation could never be said to have been a particularly original writer, but he had a knack for taking familiar concepts and giving them a twist. Indeed, it’s fair to say that some of his best work can be found during the first series of Survivors (it’s certainly several steps up from his very generic Jon Pertwee Doctor Who scripts a few years earlier)
When DD Video released series one in 2003, the SARS virus was very much in the headlines. Working my way through the DVDs at that time, whilst SARS was such a regular topic of conversation in the media, was a strange and rather chilling experience – it certainly helped to give the series an extra edge of reality.
One of the key concepts of Survivors is how people are able to survive when the luxury of technology is removed. It was a valid point in 1975 and forty years later it’s even more relevant (the cushioned, cocooned world of the 21st century has seen an ever increasing reliance on gadgets). How many people would know how to do even the most basic of jobs, such as making soap?
The actual day-to-day problems of existence would be examined in detail in the second series, which wasn’t to the liking of Ian McCulloch (who played Greg). He considered the more settled concept of series two was inferior to the first series (which had a more wide-ranging and action feel). Partly the change in tone was due to the departure of Terry Nation after series one. He hadn’t seen eye-to-eye with producer Terence Dudley and Nation left – allowing Dudley to reshape the series in his own image. Dudley had previous form for this – he’d also forced the creators of Doomwatch (Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis) to leave that series.
The changes across all three series of Survivors is one of the shows strengths, as is the ever-rotating cast of characters. It’s clear that Dudley had a ruthless streak as actors seem to be dropped with very little ceremony. The most obvious example is Carolyn Seymour (who played Abby Grant). Abby was the central figure in series one and her quest (to find her son Peter) was the MacGuffin which drove the narrative. But following disagreements with Dudley, she was unceremoniously dropped from the show. The fire at the Manor, at the start of series two, was another blatant way of removing unwanted characters – as all of the, literal, deadwood could be said to have died in the blaze.
Although McCulloch was unhappy with the direction series two took, it did allow him to move centre-stage (and despite what some people say, there were still solid and pacy stories, such as Lights of London and Parasites). It’s ironic that he decided not to appear in series three (apart from a few key episodes) as the format changed again and Survivors went back on the road.
If the second series had seemed, at times, a little “safe” – with the survivors living a fairly comfortable life in the community headed by Charles Vaughan (Denis Lill) – series three would see some of them (the ones that Terence Dudley had decided not to write out) venture out into the wider world again – and they would discover just how dangerous a place it was.
The first series had been based around the quest by Abby to find her son and series three had a similar theme – Charles, together with Greg’s wife Jenny (Lucy Fleming) spent their time scouring the country looking for Greg. Greg does reappear, but his final episode The Last Laugh (one of several scripted by McCulloch) is a bleak coda to his story (perfectly consistent with the pessimistic feel of the whole series) .
One of the reasons for digging this one out again is thanks to Big Finish’s excellent series of audio plays based on the series. Big Finish’s series one was released last year and series two is out now. The plays slot between the existing stories and they manage to capture the spirit and feel of the original series very well. They were able to secure key members of the original cast (Ian McCulloch, Lucy Fleming, Carolyn Seymour) alongside new characters created especially for audio. At present, episode one of series one is available to download for free here. It’s certainly well worth your time.
If you’ve not seen the television series, then I’d recommend watching it before reading any of the forthcoming posts (since there’s no way to examine the series in any detail without revealing numerous spoilers). The complete boxset is ridiculously cheap at the moment – around £20.00 at Amazon say – so there’s no reason not to snap up a classic slice of 1970’s BBC drama.