REVIEW: SURVIVORS – SERIES ONE / AUTHOR: MATT FITTON, JONATHAN MORRIS, ANDREW SMITH, JOHN DORNEY / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / STARRING: LOUISE JAMESON, JOHN BANKS, CHASE MASTERSON, ADRIAN LUKIS, TERRY MOLLOY, CAROLINE LANGRISHE, SINEAD KEENAN, CAMILLA POWER, LUCY FLEMING, IAN McCULLOCH, CAROLYN SEYMOUR / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Back in 1975, Terry Nation’s original telling of the Survivors story caught the nation’s attention thanks not just to its harrowing premise and haunting plotlines, but also to its fundamental humanity and the vast amount of heart in its storytelling. Nation’s vision for the post-apocalyptic series was of a small core of survivors forever on the run from whatever fresh disaster lurked around the next corner, while producer Terence Dudley favoured anchoring the small band of thrown-together friends in a base from which their adventures could spring. Dudley won out in the end, and by doing so allowed Survivors to develop into a unique addition to the post-apocalyptic genre: Emmerdale Farm meets The Omega Man.
What really caused the country to take Survivors to its heart, and gave rise to some impressive and consistent viewing figures, were the three central characters. The search for Abby (Caroline Seymour)’s missing son Peter lent the series a strong backstory that people could engage with, while the emerging relationship between the tough but generally distant Greg (Ian McCulloch) and the inexperienced but sincere Jenny (Lucy Fleming) grounded the show by giving it a familiar narrative in an otherwise unfamiliar world. It was this juxtaposition of the everyday and the extraordinary, realised as a hybrid of soap opera and gritty drama, that made for some unforgettable television – and that has been the basis for a 2008 televised remake (that missed the semi-agricultural, relationship-driven point of the original series and was doomed to fail as a result) and latterly an audio-only revival care of Big Finish Productions.
Rather than attempt either to reimagine the original characters with new actors, or continue the stories of the core cast by slotting new episodes between the old, what Big Finish have cleverly conjured up is an alternative take on Nation’s original disaster, telling the same story from a fresh perspective in a manner that allows the new Big Finish characters’ stories to dovetail in and out of those of the originals. So with a new cast of likeable actors (the other major failing of the television remake) undergoing the same gruelling apocalypse as Abby, Greg and Jenny did before meeting up with the 1975 cast later on, this latest take on Survivors manages to achieve the best of both worlds.
Matt Fitton’s opening instalment, Revelation (the Biblical titles put the audio adventures firmly in the same universe as Terry Nation’s originals, and add to the overwhelming Judgement Day feel of the episodes) mirrors the TV series in a number of ways, not least of which being that it introduces us to several of the main players but by no means all of them. We shan’t dwell on the characters and their individual journeys, suffice it to say that in a manner similar to the original’s introduction of Peter Bowles in what becomes nothing more than a fleeting guest appearance, the people whose journeys you think you’re following don’t necessarily turn out to be the ones you do.
There’s a powerful cast for this first sixty minutes, but the strongest performance by a distance is that of Chase Masterson as Maddie Price. There’s another very heavy echo of Nation’s original here, as Price is an instantly dislikeable character who by the end of the hour, you haven’t just warmed to but find yourself rooting for – in spite of very little in the way of mellowing having taken place. It’s a testament not just to the situation invoked but also the direction and sound design that such a turnaround is so easily accomplished, and with the apocalypse as presented on audio feeling if anything even more real than its television counterpart, there’s a genuine sense of mounting pressure causing the listener to take whatever comfort he or she can find in the increasingly limited cast of characters.
Jonathan Morris’ second episode, Exodus, takes the surviving cast of Revelation and toys with the listener in much the same way as the 1975 version did, offering four individuals and promising that at the end of the sixty minutes they will finally meet and band together. We shan’t reveal how or even if this promise is kept, but just as in Fitton’s first chapter nothing resolves in quite the way you might hope – and that’s a brave but also a very wise direction to take, for Survivors is a drama that wallows in the chaos and despair that an apocalypse of the kind portrayed would create. Again the cast manage to be both engaging and sympathetic despite the author(s) being very sure not to paint them melodramatically, and while the inclusion of a cameo of one of the original trio in a short sequence feels clumsy and purposeless, Morris induces probably the strongest performances of the entire series with a backstory for Louise Jameson’s character Jackie Burchall that manages to feel both utterly real and completely unimaginable simultaneously. It’s a true horror story that will have your eyes pricking even as you empathise with Burchall’s choice – and it apparently caused a few tears in studio too.
These first two episodes of Survivors detail the apocalypse in a manner sympathetic to the original, but in a more sophisticated manner akin to other modern dramas. It’s sincerely upsetting storytelling that is both compelling and distressing, but ultimately touching in its character moments. John Banks is a light and steady presence throughout all four episodes, and as the pieces shift and change around him, it is ultimately his character who we root for the most.
Exodus also introduces us to the villain of the piece (a character whose journey we might have guessed at from his first appearance in Revelation, had we not been hoping for better from him), and while this also reflects a number of plots from the 1975 series, it’s an appropriate story to tell and it would have felt neglectful of the new writing team had it been absent.
The latter two episodes in this first series, Andrew Smith’s Judges and Esther by John Dorney, form essentially a two-part story that takes up the narrative several months on from the events of the first pair, and which include a bookending cameo that anchors the audio drama firmly in the canon of the television series. Smith has perhaps more fun with his instalment (if such a word can be used to describe what unfolds), while Dorney’s is the more straightforward chapter of the four, but is no less compelling and surprising because of it. The introduction here of Greg and Jenny lends the drama an authenticity it barely needs, with Judges and Esther developing themes that were present in the original in a manner that is both redolent of and an expansion upon what was so great about it. There’s a line uttered by Greg towards the end of the fourth episode that stopped the blood in my veins, and that’s a testament not just to how hard the two writers have worked to capture the essence of Survivors, but in how successfully they have managed it. There’s a sense in Judges of things coming together, and a feeling of relief in it doing so, and by the time the episode ends we get the feeling we know how the story will play out. That Esther (the reason for the title becomes apparent only at the end of the chapter, and also gives a reason to a narrative tic that at first appears unnecessary and intruding) arrives at its destination in as predictable but shocking a fashion as it does is a real coup de grace. Dorney feigns to make things seem too easy, and in the world of Survivors, anything that seems too easy generally isn’t that easy at all. And there’s nothing easy about the resolution to the story, a resolution to all four episodes in fact; this isn’t quite a serial, but it’s not four standalone stories either. It’s an immersive experience, and one that only makes complete sense at the end of the entire journey.
We were a little afraid before pressing “play” that if the audio version of Survivors didn’t quite live up to our memories of the original, then it might seem considerably less successful than it probably was. We shouldn’t have worried. While the television remake in 2008 entirely missed the point of what made the 1975 series so great, this audio version understands and reflects Terry Nation’s vision perfectly – even down to the incidental score, which is an ideal solution to the need for an audio version not to eschew the (accidental, as it turns out) conceit of leaving the original free of all incidental music. Nicholas Briggs’ score is neither intrusive nor redundant, and punctuates the format without taking you out of the drama.
It’s been nearly forty years since Abby, Greg and Jenny began their journey out of the aftermath of an apocalyptic viral catastrophe. It’s been lovely to catch up with them at last, and to make new acquaintances on the way. Survivors is a story that, at its best, illustrates something about humanity – about the beast within and the power that we all have to control that beast (and about those that might choose not to) – and with all the subtlety and power that audio drama can muster, this Big Finish series achieves all of that.
Compelling, arresting, devastating, invigorating, heartening and more than a little frightening, Survivors: Series One is probably about as good as the audio medium gets. More than recommended; required listening.