Oh the irony. Survivors, the BBC's prime time post-apocalyptic drama, has not itself survived beyond a second season. Despite a noteworthy cast, low audience figures have evidently done what the virus could not, and the BBC has been forced to eradicate the show.
It's a real shame, since I came to rather like the "Family," the group of seven disparate individuals at the centre of the narrative, brought together by happenstance in the first series. There's Abby Grant, de facto leader of the group, portrayed by Julie Graham as a considerably more likeable version of the character from Terry Nation's 1976 novel, whose search for her lost son Peter is central to both seasons; Paterson Joseph's ever-engaging Greg, whose back-story becomes increasingly significant in the second series; pampered womaniser Al (Phillip Rhys); medical doctor Anya (Zoe Tapper); Max Beesley's bellicose former armed robber Tom, who is infatuated with Anya; youngster Najid (Chahak Patel); and Sarah (Robyn Addison), whose relationship with Al provides an emotional pivot as the season gathers pace.
Conceptually, though, a long-running post-apocalyptic drama is a bit of a contradiction in terms. Offering gripping, different scenarios week after week is a tricky proposition if your central premise is that most of humanity has been wiped out. Despite a portentous opening episode reminiscent of Threads, the BBC's seminal nuclear apocalypse drama from 1984, the first series quickly adopts a mixture of gritty realism and action-based high-jinks.
Unfortunately, while the action can be quite a lot of fun, that tension makes for a programme that is tonally pretty odd. Witness how immaculately well turned out the central ensemble has remained while civilisation has collapsed around them: no stubble and nary a hair out of place, as though the only businesses to survive the virus were hairdressers and beauty salons.
For a while it felt like the first season of the new version had fast-forwarded to the rustic approach that came to typify the BBC's original version of Survivors (1975—1977), which became increasingly obsessed by the intricacies of arable farming—hardly the most fertile territory for captivating drama. This despite the fact that the makers of the new Survivors were at pains to stress that they were drawing on Nation's novel, rather than the series. In fact, the novel typifies the "cosy catastrophe" approach identified by Brian Aldiss in which terribly middle class characters exhibit terribly middle class behaviour in the shadow of disaster. The new series contains its share of middle class characters, certainly, but it's also more diverse in its representation of class, as well as race and sexuality.
The first episode of the second series picks up directly from the melodramatic end of the first series: Abby has been kidnapped by the mysterious operatives fleetingly but consistently alluded to throughout season one. Greg, meanwhile, has been inadvertently gunned down by Anthony Flanagan's Dexter, henchman to politician-turned dictator Samantha Willis, out to revenge himself on Tom.
The resulting narrative revolves around the causal relations between each of these mini disasters: in order to rescue Abby the group must first attend to Greg, and to do this they need medical supplies; the hospital collapses, trapping Al and Anya, and results in Sarah, whom the Family barely tolerates, making contact with the local hoodlum possessing the heavy lifting equipment necessary to rescuing her trapped friends; she succeeds but is raped by the gangster. This first episode of the new season—written by Adrian Hodges, one of the central drivers in the show's resurrection—is tremendously effective at generating tension. For a long time it really does seem as though Al, one of the more likable members of the Family, has died as a result of the hospital collapse.
Rescuing is one of the chief ingredients of the formula of the new Survivors. In each episode our cadre of heroes and heroines typically encounter other groups of survivors. Invariably some of our protagonists are imprisoned by these other survivors, while other members of the Family must fight to save them. Intriguingly the writers on the second series seemed to have rumbled the potential problems with constantly re-using the same premise and come up with a variety of ways of playing with this formula. For instance, in the second episode—written by Gaby Chiappe—the approach is turned on its head. The Family fight to break into the complex where they believe Abby is held, while Abby fights to break out. However, in a deft piece of Silence of the Lambs-style misdirection, it transpires that the two parties are in different locations, and we the audience have been expertly duped.
From a structural viewpoint this particular flourish gets the makers around the central coincidence that leads Tom to "realise" where Abby is being held, a plot turn which seems initially hugely implausible but which thankfully transpires to be another piece of misdirection. In the end Abby is still reunited with the Family, but through the actions of Najid, who has been plastering makeshift notices across the city telling Abby where to find them. An approach that's initially presented as charming but silly eventually saves the day.
Episode three, penned by Simon Tyrell, sees the return of Samantha Willis, one-time member of the Government and now fully-fledged despot with an alcohol problem (a suitably complex performance from Nikki Amuka-Bird). Samantha puts Greg on trial for the murder of one of her henchmen from the preceding season, and by the episode's conclusion has given over Tom and Greg to a local slave owner Henry Smithson (Christopher Fulford), who puts the pair to work in his coal mine. The following episode, written by Jimmy Gardner, transforms the show's rescue formula into farce. Greg tricks former classics professor Smithson into thinking he's an expert in geology, who wines and dines Greg in return for his 'expert' knowledge of mining.
When Abby and Anya turn up Greg must pretend not to know them and vice versa; meanwhile Sarah attempts to steal a set of keys as a means of releasing Tom, with whom she is infatuated for most of the series. Fortunately in this instance the farce is well-handled, and the radical change in tone as the slave-workers escape and exact revenge on their former masters—including those workers colluding in the manner of concentration camp kapos—comes across as disturbing.
As a treatise on the nature of fascism the fourth episode strikes out into powerful new territory for the show. The impetus is maintained in the following episode in which one of the key characters—Sarah—inadvertently contracts a mutated version of the virus to which she has no resistance. Throughout the episode it seems as though she will somehow recover, mirroring the way in which Al's "death" in the opening episode of this season seemed similarly inevitable. The humanisation of Sarah in this penultimate episode carries so much weight because the character has previously been established as wholly self-serving; Phillip Rhys, meanwhile, is allowed to deepen his portrayal of Al.
The concluding episode answers several of the show's central conundrums but leaves us with several new questions to ponder. The role of the shadowy corporation in engineering the spread of the virus is revealed in the form of Patrick Malahide's evil Landry. The series' ongoing more minor villain, Dr James Whittaker (Nicholas Gleaves), the deluded scientist who experimented on Abby, is vanquished; and Abby is at last reunited with her lost son Peter. The last of these has been a central mystery throughout series one and two, and it's a worrying sign that it is immediately supplanted by a similar-seeming mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Greg's wife and children, who may have been transported to an undisclosed location free of the virus, along with a select bunch of other people.
In fact, such coincidences go to the core of the problem with the series, and account for its difficulties in reusing the same formula over and over. The post-apocalyptic world is surprisingly densely populated, and the Family encounter new characters virtually every week. Conversely, characters from earlier episodes are forever cropping up again. These re-convergences are clearly in the interests of bringing plots to an interesting resolution, both in terms of individual episodes and with regard to wider story arcs, but despite the best efforts of some talented writers they often feel contrived. With good reason theorists of writing constantly warn about the dangers of employing coincidence: it may happen in the real world, but in fiction it looks downright lazy.
The second series' cliff-hanger rests with an injured Tom stowing away aboard the villain's escaping aircraft, en route to the virus-free sanctuary: again Survivors' gritty realism gives way to action-adventure, in a final scene that could have come straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster. This time, however, it seems we'll never know the outcome, and while this is not wholly unexpected—Survivors was genetically predisposed not to survive—it doesn't stop us mourning its passing.
C.B. Harvey is a London-based writer and academic. He was the winner, in 2006, of the first SFX Pulp Idol award and his published fiction includes material for Big Finish's Doctor Who and Highlander spin-off ranges. He is a Principal Lecturer at London South Bank University.