“Viruses are survivors too,” observes an insightful doctor at one point. “Like us, they fight, they adapt.” In the riveting fifth series of Big Finish’s Survivors audio adventures, the contagion that decimated the planet just two years earlier demonstrates exactly that sort of resilience; as a mutated strain returns to threaten the fragile new England, only now emerging from the ruins of the first pandemic.
In the original Survivors TV series, the threat of new waves of infection and plague repeatedly loom large. Across three series, characters and communities are struck down by typhoid, rabies and new mutations of smallpox. Those who have endured The Death come to the shocking realization that they remain carriers, infecting anyone not yet exposed. What the survivors also learn, in the face of each new viral threat, is that fear, suspicion and mistrust can have devastating consequences all of their own.
In these latest audio dramas, the threat hinted at on screen here becomes a raging reality, as settlements across the south-east of England face a renewed onslaught which, for all but the lucky few, will deliver decimation and death. This is a fantastic, gripping premise that drives the drama of each of these four stories through some shocking, bewildering and distressing scenes. As the drama unfolds, Big Finish hold true to their assertion that (canonical characters aside) no-one’s survival is assured and everyone should be considered in jeopardy.
All three original series’ leads are well served by scripts that, in the Whitecross era of the show, interweave their storylines through some enticing ‘near-miss’ reunions that, rather than irritate, impress in their inventiveness. Carolyn Seymour effortlessly reinhabits Abby Grant’s driven, passionate nature; Lucy Fleming revels in storylines that place Jenny not on the stay-at-home fringes but in the heart of the action; and Ian McCulloch finds new textures and surprises in the gruff heroism of Greg. There are also moments of genuine tenderness and intimacy in the relationship between Greg and Jenny (more than feature in the TV universe) which provide some welcome moments of respite amidst the drama’s darkness.
All three scriptwriters have worked on previous series of Big Finish’s Survivors tales, and that combined experience and confidence shows. Scriptwriter Andrew Smith makes the most of being assigned the opening and closing episodes to shape and set the tone of the series’ drama. He delivers two tightly plotted and action-packed scripts, that demonstrate some keen emotional intelligence amidst the remorseless death count. “The Second Coming” explores the horribly plausible scenario of a dormant virus evolving to infect fresh victims, and focuses on the perils that Abby faces in her desperate attempts to contain its impact. In “New Blood” Christopher Hatherall turns the attention to Greg and Jenny, who find the finger of suspicion pointed at them, when a community falls victim to the new viral wave and seeks to appease the forces of nature through blood sacrifice. Hatherall’s is a convincing exploration of the resurgence of paganism and superstition in a world where the certainties of science have been lost forever. Simon Clark’s “Angel of Death” sees the series’ twin storylines intersect, as he makes great play of contrasting the hope of renewed civilisation (in which the flickering return of electric light becomes a poignant metaphor) against the death and destruction of the plague. Clark too compares the decency and morality of some survivors against the nihilism and short-sightedness of others. Smith then returns to bring events to an unflinching and heart-in-the-mouth conclusion in the tense endgame of “Come the Horsemen”.
In previous series, villains have tended to have clear motivations and ambitions; be they possessed of a messiah complex, the basest instincts of a cannibal, or a repellent set of ideas about racial purity. Here the ‘angel of death’, the carrier of the new infection, is a more troubled, frightened and tortured figure; pushed into appalling unconscionable acts out of a twisted desire for self-preservation at any cost.
Neve McIntosh is simply superb as the toxic Carol; finding layers of moral complexity amidst the tumble of selfishness and self-doubt that carries her character forward. Fintan McKeown is equally strong as the gruff tracker and woodsman Patrick, a father who exhibits a complex mix of tenderness and toughness; something which leads him to blows with Greg, and later sets him on a path towards merciless retribution. Fiona Sheehan, as the damaged but recovering Hannah, excels through a surprising new twist in her character’s storyline; while Zoë Tapper’s level-headed Evelyn feels so completely immersed in the world of the original series’ cast that it is easy to forget that she was only introduced in the previous boxset. Tapper’s performance is first rate, as Evelyn plays the pivotal role in connecting the parallel stories. The character ensemble of this series is far wider than this short list suggests; which is just as well, given the life expectancy of so many of those introduced here. The richly populated drama gives a real sense of scale, something reinforced by the broad geographical reach of this series’ stories: which seems to bring into focus a whole swathe of post-Death England.
Ken Bentley’s direction is dependably assured; pacing is excellent and, despite the bleakest of contexts, different tones and beats punctuate and colour each of the four stories. Sound design is exceptionally strong too, not only in the impressive musical score but also in the willingness to let some scenes run on into soundscapes as dialogue concludes: something that is becoming a signature motif on the series, and a technique that immediately strengthens the already immersive atmosphere.
As it explores the highest stakes possible, this develops into the most thrilling and compelling set of stories in Big Finish’s Survivors series to date: which, considering the exceptional quality of the drama in the preceding four instalments, is quite some achievement. This is extraordinary, exemplary human drama; by any standard. As The Death again looms large, Survivors crackles with life.
SURVIVORS: SERIES FIVE / DIRECTOR: KEN BENTLEY / WRITER: ANDREW SMITH, CHRISTOPHER HATHERALL, SIMON CLARK / PRODUCER: DAVID RICHARDSON / STARRING: CAROLYN SEYMOUR, IAN MCCULLOCH, LUCY FLEMING, ZOË TAPPER, FIONA SHEEHAN, NEVE MCINTOSH / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW