Back in the pre-Star Wars 1970s, sci-fi was all about dystopian futures and post-apocalyptic landscapes – even George Lucas himself mixed the two genres in his debut feature THX 1138. The BBC got in on the act with Dalek-creator Terry Nation’s 1975 series Survivors, a bleak account of a world all but emptied of its population in the wake of a man-made disease that had originated in the Orient, and that thanks to an accident had broken free of its laboratory and been allowed to spread unchecked – Nation’s subsequent series Blake’s 7 was hardly any less grim (if a little more colourfully characterised), and here Nation was analogising the potential consequences of a Cold War that at the time seemed all too ready to heat up.
Survivors was a huge success, partly thanks to the prevailing obsessions of a nation that still remembered rationing first-hand while fearing the imminence of the four-minute warning, but largely due to the casting of its three principal characters; as Greg, Jenny, and Abby, Ian McCulloch, Lucy Fleming, and Carolyn Seymour were middle class stoicism incarnate; between them combining all the attributes – toughness and warmth, determination and an unwillingness to suffer fools gladly – that the watching public would have hoped to possess in their stead. It helped that the subtly played relationship between Greg and Jenny was one that people could appreciate and identify with.
The 1970s’ other obsession, again running in parallel with the too-real possibility of global Armageddon, was the kind of back-to-basics living that gave rise to the sitcom The Good Life, in which a suburban couple decide to shun modern technology and become totally self-sufficient, living off the produce of their garden. By the midway point of Survivors’ first series, its producer Terence Dudley was already at loggerheads with Terry Nation over the direction the programme should take, Dudley favouring the establishment of an agricultural settlement in which the characters could form a similar such base, and Nation preferring for them a more itinerant, action-adventure existence. The uneasy consensus between the two approaches allowed for a diversity of themes and a strength of narrative that is almost unparalleled in primetime television; the episode Law and Order is legendary, and rightly so, and Survivors is one of those rare, once-seen-never-forgotten programmes that ranks alongside the likes of Cathy Come Home and Edge of Darkness in British television history.
Small wonder that it was ripe for a 21st century makeover, then, once Strictly Come Dancing and Doctor Who had proven that the successes of the past needn’t stay in the past, but the 2008 BBC revival had neither the contemporary zeitgeist of the original, nor the strength of its casting in its favour, and didn’t last long. And that’s where Big Finish comes in.
Big Finish had three major advantages over the producers of the 2008 Survivors, the most obvious being that as an audio drama series they weren’t seeking to appeal to the modern generation of television viewers and match whatever their current concerns were – and the second being that as an audio series, the fact that almost forty years had passed wouldn’t stop them from using the same actors as the 1975 original and in the same roles, contemporaneously. But their biggest advantage was an understanding of the material. The thing that made Survivors work so well in 1975 was that no matter how unrelenting the plots, people cared what happened to the characters and desperately wanted them to succeed against whatever the episodes threw at them – and some of it was pretty dark. The Big Finish revival takes that as its central premise and works to it quite brilliantly.
The audio Survivors, then, now up to its third biannual series each comprising four sixty-minute episodes, goes back to the beginning and retells the story of the apocalypse through the eyes of a handful of brand new characters. The genius of this approach is two-fold; firstly, it allows the company to tell its own stories without needing to be beholden to the plotlines of the original series, despite taking place overtly within that same universe (rather than recreating it as the TV remake attempted to do), and secondly, it means that although we know the returning regulars from the 1975 series can’t be killed off without wreaking havoc with the original continuity, the newly established characters aren’t anything like as safe. And the writers have been quite prepared to use that.
One of the additional benefits of audio is the sheer amount of dialogue, which enables the production to create initially unsympathetic characters who the listener can easily warm to by having a more detailed experience of their motivations; one such character in the first series is Maddie Price, as played by Chase Masterson. The Big Finish story kicks off with Price attempting to return home to the States, and getting caught up in a confused and eventually besieged airport as the virus ultimately strikes home. By virtue of the drama being all in sound, it’s easy to imagine situations such as this which the TV series could never have afforded to create. Louise Jameson joins the cast in episode two, and immediately the writers signal quite how far they’re prepared to drive the original premise; Jackie Burchall’s backstory is incredibly sad and moving, and yet at the same time shocking and reprehensible. In the land that develops after the end of the world, the writers seem to be positing a new set of rules will dictate the differences between Right and Wrong.
The rest of the first series toys with bringing the new characters together – both with one another and with the returning cast of the original – but does so by relating a set of circumstances that essentially means all four hours have added up to a single story; in a way slightly more tangible than if there had simply been continuing themes threaded throughout. The second and third series have continued this practice, by comprising four individual episodes each that combine to make a more coherent whole.
By creating an aural backdrop to the stories that avoids traditional melodies (the original TV series didn’t include incidental music of any kind, adding to the feeling of the world as we knew it having ended), and by relying on an enormously strong cast all playing extremely well-drawn characters in stories that are every bit as engaging and thought-provoking as the 1975 series, Big Finish have with Survivors developed an immersive universe and an incredibly engaging set of dramas, possibly the finest work they’ve ever produced. If you’re remotely interested in the genre, and even if you’re not generally inclined towards audio drama, this is compelling stuff and easily deserving of your time.
SURVIVORS Series Three is out now from bigfinish.com.