“You know, I never thought what happens to a city … well … if it breaks down, all at the same time. There’s no power. There’s no lighting, or cooking. And food, even if you can get it into the city, you can’t distribute it. Then there’s water and sewage, things like that. You know, it just never occurred to me when I lived in London. The city’s like a great big pampered baby, with thousands of people feeding it and cleaning it, making sure it’s all right.”
It was 1975. These were the glory days of science fiction on the BBC. These were the days of Tom Baker as Doctor Who. And Doctor Who fans all know who Terry Nation was. He not only wrote quite a bit for the series, he created one of The Doctor’s most infamous and popular villains, The Daleks. Roving monster machines weren’t the only science fiction on Nation’s plate in the mid 70’s. He also created the series Survivors.
The concept is at once quite simple and extremely complicated. A man-made virus escapes in China. From there the disease quickly spreads around the globe. Before just a short time has passed, the virus has killed all but 1 out of every 5,000 people on the planet. Government services haven’t broken down. That suggests a temporary problem with an eventual solution. There is no longer a government at all. There simply aren’t enough people left on the planet for such modern-day contrivances. The few survivors are completely on their own. They must scavenge for what they might need to survive. For three seasons (or series, as the Brits call them), Survivors followed the plight of some of those few remaining vestiges of the human race.
It all starts with the premiere episode, The Fourth Horseman, a reference to the depiction of Armageddon in the Bible’s Revelations. The flu-like disease works quickly. The show doesn’t really spend a lot of time on the disease itself. We really only get hints of its origin and its effects. The show goes quickly into the point where most of the population is dead. We are immediately introduced to what will be the first season’s core characters. Rather than deal with the global aspects of the plague, we are treated to the impact on the survivors. The core group consists of: Abby Grant (Seymour) who is looking for her young son Peter. He was away at school when the plague hit, so she doesn’t know if he survived or not. She meets up with Greg Preston (McCulloch). He was a civil engineer and a natural born leader. They both feel strongly that the only way they are going to make it long term is to band people together into communities who can share the work of survival and defend against the marauding element which has taken over many of those who remain. It’s every man, or woman, for themselves now. Some will prey on the weak and take what they need by force. Next we have Jenny Richards (Fleming). I don’t know why, but she reminds me a lot of Sarah from the Baker Who days. They end up taking in two children. John (Dudley) and Lizzie (Ronder) are found wondering about. Others will come and go throughout the show’s three year run. This season we also get Arthur (Gover), a former executive and his secretary Charmian (Helsby). When we first meet Arthur, he’s spoiled rotten. Charmian waited on his every command. Paul (Tranchell) is a free spirit with a wealth of knowledge. Barney (Hallet) is somewhat retarded but is a great bowman, killing rabbits for the group’s supper table. Finally, there is Tom Price (Thomas) who is a bit of a Fabian-style scoundrel. At first he just pops up from time to time as comic relief, but eventually he becomes a part of the core group.
They settle in a rather large mansion with plentiful grounds to raise crops and animals. Most of the stories would involve their various methods to obtain what they need, or their encounters with other survivors, both good and bad. One of the most potent episodes is called Law And Order. The group must deal with a murder in their midst. A misunderstanding leads to a trial of the wrong person and a possible sentence of death.
By the second half of the first season, other writers began to fill in for Terry Nation, who would stop completely writing for the show after its first year.
Abby goes off to find her son, and we will not see her again. Carolyn Seymour was fired from the show. Jenny is about to have Greg’s baby when they are burned out of their mansion by a fire of unknown origin. That also kills off half of the cast for the new season. Just Jenny, Greg, Arthur, Paul, and the kids survive. They reunite with Charles Vaughn (Lill) whom they met once in the first year. Charles is running his own community called White Cross. Greg is reluctant to join up because he believes he and Charles will clash over leadership and objectives. In truth, they end up working fine together. It might have been better to put more conflict between these two characters, because before long, this season becomes a very mundane “down on the farm” show. There are few episodes that don’t merely depict the daily struggles of working the farm.
New characters are now part of the core. In addition to Charles, there is Hubert (Abineri) who replaces Tom as the complaining dirty little man. We have Pet (Lewis) who is a spouse, of sorts to Charles. There is Ruth (Gregory) who was nearly a doctor in her previous life, so she is of great importance to the community. Finally, there is Jack (Salkilld) who is a handyman and general repair guy.
One of the highlights of a generally disappointing season is the show’s only two-part episode, The Lights Of London. A group from London kidnaps Ruth to help them with some grand migration of the 500 left alive in London. Greg and Charles have to rescue her from a bad situation. In the season finale a hot-air balloon arrives at White Cross. The pilot is killed, but his daughter survives. Greg ends up repairing the balloon in the hopes of going back to Norway, where the pilot originated and forming a relationship with people there who have power stations but not enough manpower to run them. He hopes to offer his engineering skills.
It has been 6 months since Greg left in the balloon, and the community is getting worried. When Jack, who went with Greg, shows up injured, a tale is spun. Greg made it to Norway and was on his way back. Along the way, he was meeting up with other communities to build a co-op, of sorts. There are now telephones between the communities. Much of the season is now spent away from White Cross. Jenny and Charles are on a mission to find Greg. Each week finds them in a different community or situation, usually in trouble. Greg himself only appears in two episodes. It seems he gets the best one from the year in A Little Lesson. He finds a community of children who have become a Lord Of The Flies civilization. They have contracted another kind of disease, and Greg can help them.
By the third year, Survivors had something in common with its characters. Both were running out of gas, or petrol, as the Brits say. Ian McCulloch saw the writing on the wall and asked to leave the show. That’s why most of the season is The Search For Greg. His price for opting out was to write his own departure. It was the third episode he wrote, which included the previous episode he was in. In A Friend In Deed, he contracts smallpox and uses his inevitable demise to save the community from some really bad dudes. His two episodes are really the only saving grace of a show on life support by now. Finally, in Power, the world now has electricity, and civilization is finally on its way.
This was a series that had an incredibly strong start. Terry Nation obviously had a powerful vision for the series, but didn’t remain long enough to shepherd his creation to the fullest of its potential. The first season was built so much around the Abby character that it quickly lost its way when Seymour was fired, or sacked as the Brits like to say. She admits that her heavy drinking during the time likely contributed to her removal. In the special feature, she agrees with their decision to give her the sack. It was fortunate that McCulloch turned out to be so strong an actor and writer. I believe we could have seen far better things if he had been allowed to write more of the episodes. He was getting increasingly bored with the material, and it showed. By the third season, it was all falling apart. Another interesting bit of cast trivia involves Lucy Fleming who played Jenny. Her uncle was none other than Mr. Bond, James Bond himself, Ian Fleming.
Each episode of Survivors is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. You are really not going to like this image presentation. It’s such a surprise when I consider how good many of the Who DVD releases have been. Colors run, and about the only thing sharp here is the wit, at times. The obvious videotape sources are in horrid shape. There are often odd lines on the left side of the image. At times there are yellow or purple color bands of distortion on the image. It just doesn’t look good on any level at all. If you’re a fan, this is probably as good as it gets. That’s a real shame.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is a good deal better than the image. It’s really mostly a dialog show, so that isn’t really has impressive as it might sound. Everything is quite clean and clear. Every now and again there will be an impressive mix that brings your room to life. It is only stereo, so there’s not a lot to brag about either.
Of the 6 discs, 5 of them are those terrible double-sided discs. These discs are also in overlap style in the fold-out case.
Cult Of Survivors: (29:14) The cast and crew talk 25 years later about the series. McCulloch looks so different as an older guy, I really only recognized him by the voice. The feature appears on a second season disc but contains spoilers for season three. I guess the idea must be that only folks who’ve seen the show will have the DVDs, and they already know how it comes out.
This was a tough task, but one I often enjoyed. With the release of both this three-year series and a more recent 12-episode revival (more on that tomorrow), I was watching a lot of Survivors in a short time. We’re talking about 60 hours of this show in about 15 days. But that’s my job here. Warner Brothers delivered the discs and gave me my marching orders. “I was told to watch and listen and report to my people.”