The opening credits of this feature-length kickoff to two-season series bills it as ‘based on a novel by Terry Nation’ – which hints at a turbulent mess of behind-the-scenes negotiations, since the book was actually a novelisation of Nation’s scripts for the 1975 BBC-TV series. Rather weirdly, publicity materials try to pretend that this isn’t a remake, though it has the same premise, most of the same character names, many of the same scenes and tells an only lightly-updated version of the same story – in 1975, the heroine went looking for her son at his public school, but here he’s away from home at an ‘adventure centre’.
It should be noted that I live in Islington and hate everything the Daily Mail stands for, but even I think there’s something calculated about the balanced array of ethnicity and sexual roles in the 2008 bunch of survivors. The only major white English bloke character (Max Beesley) is a murdering criminal who gets out of a twenty-year jail stretch when the plague wipes out 90% of humanity and is obviously destined to make Dr Smith-like trouble for a rainbow alliance which comes together in a final scene motorway meeting, including middle-class mum Abby Grant (Julie Graham), black hero guy Greg Preston (Paterson Joseph), Anglo-Arab playboy Aalim (Philip Rhys), Muslim kid Najid (Chahek Patel) and Polish lesbian doctor Anya (Zoe Tapper). In addition, two other prominent roles are taken by black British women: the Minister of Health (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who might be another survivor, and Anya’s flatmate (Freema Ageyman), who is brought on in what seems to be a slightly muffed feint – she has the character name (Jenny) of one of the major roles in the old show, but seems to die and be replaced by Anya, who is a changed-sex version of a minor character in the original script (this would be more effective if the film confirmed that Jenny actually died).
Whether this range of faces is more of a reflection of the UK than the mostly-white crowd in the 1975 version is a matter for debate – but there’s no denying that the casting is as hung up on the BBC’s prejudices now as it ever was and, in some ways, is more narrow-minded now than then. Okay, we’ve got non-whites and gays – but the cast are uniformly young and sexy and mostly have track records in recent genre shows (though Graham would do best to forget Bone Kickers). In 1975, Tom Price was an old Welsh tramp played by Talfryn Thomas and didn’t become a rapist and killer until later in the series when it sunk in that the rule of law was gone; here, he’s a non-Welsh murdering bastard from the first, shanking a warder to get out of prison and needlessly telling the man how ironic it was that he was getting killed after surviving the disease, but Beesley is still a brooding, good-looking dangerous pin-up (Thomas was an effective, believable baddie partly because he was so pathetic). Nation’s disease spared at random, so the survivors included a lot of older, odder, non-metropolitan people (admittedly, mostly in secondary roles). Here, we have a glossy soap set-up with characters balanced as if they were taking part in some reality show put together to create conflict. Some of them come from Manchester rather than London (Najid is a City supporter, and football is his only character note), but the notion that the audience only want to look at pretty brittle urban people is more insulting than if they’d all been as white as Ian McCulloch and Lucy Fleming.
It’s glossier, slicker and film-look, but somehow less devastating – especially when parallels with the old show are exact. When Abby (Carolyn Seymour) woke up after recovering from the superflu to find her hitherto-healthy husband (Peter Bowles) dead on the sofa, it was an understated but powerful moment; here, a pale-faced Shaun Dingwall seems to have expired croaking ‘aargh’ and is revealed in a shock cut that prompts a histrionic scream from Graham – she later cremates his corpse but, unlike the 1975 character, doesn’t shockingly walk away from her suburban home as it goes up in flames. The mechanics of the disease are different, but so far not thought through as well – Abby, like all Nation’s survivors, gets sick but then gets better and is resistant to the bug, but the rest of the regular cast just don’t fall ill; though it’s supposed to be a flu epidemic, no one so much as sniffles onscreen, much less runs through a box of paper tissues or leaks bloody snot the way Stephen King’s Stand victims do (the survivor-in-jail business is lifted from King, though). As hospitals are swamped, trains run ridiculously late and the Minister of Health is the sole surviving establishment (‘the Prime Minister died five minutes ago’), society shuts down (much more than 90% of the population seemingly evaporate) and the utilities go off – all as a prologue (Nation did this in fifty minutes, but saved his second lead character for episode two) for the gathering of the main cast, who agree to stick together when Abby makes a speech.
There’s a coda about scientists in an underground facility who are sealed off, safe, and have sinister purpose – which suggests the series might take a conspiracy route later on. As it happens, the reason for all the rights-haggling is that Nation and original series producer Terence Dudley – and, eventually, the cast – couldn’t agree on how the premise should be developed (ie: should it be a post-apocalypse version of The Good Life or an action-oriented chunky-knit jumper and RangeRover take on Mad Max 2) or where characters would go (one of Nation’s one-off villains took over as visionary hero in later seasons). I trust this Abby’s quest for her lost son won’t be as ultimately tiresome as the 1975 version of this thread, but haven’t got much hope for any new directions Survivors 2008 will go for. Written by Adrian Hodges (Primeval); directed by John Alexander.