Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Survivors (2008)

My notes on the pilot for the revived Survivors series (2008)

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.


3 thoughts on “Survivors (2008)

  1. Louis Savy
    I loved the first season of the original show, I agree that it played the horror and reality of the situation well – especially when Abby found her husband and torched the house. It was great seeing her find strength and purpose – all low-key. The couple in the quarry, Taffy – all seemed so real. I have not yet seen the new version – and will not rush to it after this review. Given the rotten job they did with Quatermass, I am not sure I can stomach a SURESTART version of Survivors.

    Robert Bailey
    The original series was one of my favourites, but I have to agree that it lost its way after the first season. Who are the Scientists in the Bunker? Are they the creators of the plague or working to find a (belated) cure? They are, notably, the only significant element not found in the original series.

    Liz Cahill
    I watched it like a rabbit stuck in headlights – it was truly dreadful. The script had signposts bigger than those you find on the M1. Whatever happened to ‘less is more’?? I will never get the time back I wasted on that – much better to watch the original series on video (not found a DVD yet…) and preserve what is left of of my science fiction dignity.

    Simon John Ball
    I remember the original series well and I agree it lost its way in its later seasons. Didn’t see last nights opener, not sure if I want to bother now.

    Chris Cooke
    it was soooooo over the top, signposted, expository, had dreadful dialogue, appalling moments of schmaltz… I shall tune in over and over now… terrible entertainment, but terribly entertaining. And not at all original… the BBC are recycling now in an attempt not to deliver anything as apalling as Bonekickers – what next? Blakes 7?

    Neil Gaiman
    So I should give it a miss, then?

    Louis Savy
    All this talk of ‘scientists in bunker’ and the diverse cast make me think of THE LAST TRAIN – which was a fine idea and lost its way also. I think I should now visit Iplayer – damn.

    Matt Adams
    The final sequence reminded me of the cheesy endings of some superhero-team formation comics, when everybody gets together and decides to fight for the common good. Hope tomorrow’s picks up the pace!

    Stephen Dowell
    The only things I found surprising about this was the curious crediting of Terry Nation (how can a series ‘based on a novel’ be then said to be created by somebody else?) and the cursory treatment given to Freema Ageyman’s character. It took reading an interview on digital spy to determine that she had been killed off.
    For an end of the world drama it seemed very placid and, to be honest, dull – with no real sense of scope given to this global apocalypse.
    Judging by the ‘next episode’ trail it looks like the series will be following the familiar path of other such drama’s with squabbling over supermarket produce and looters being hung etc……
    One hopes that the scene of the scientists will lead into some ‘Chosen Survivors’-type reveal – be a bit different at least.

    Louis Savy
    I am watching it now and just got to the bit in the mosque – what the f@@k –
    who wrote this scene? Some committee with guilt issues? Blimey this is bad.

    Tony Lovell
    Social comment/PC crushes drama, doesn’t it? I hated this.

    Chris Cooke
    I have no issues with the so called PC aspects of the script – it could indeed be generated by a perceived need for ‘balance’ or a writers sense of wanting to describe the survivors as having to overcome pre-exsisting tensions… what troubles me is that the lad spent an entire night kneeling at prayer while everyone else died around hiim, and he didn’t notice! I assume he ‘fell asleep’, which is a much more insulting writing decision… otherwise he would have made a better subject for the ‘survivor/recoverer’ of the actual infection/virus/superflu.

    Mike O’Brien
    You raise lots of interesting points.
    My wife and I watched all the original episodes of Survivors earlier this year on DVD, and really enjoyed them (I’m old enough to have seen them the first time round). They were sometimes uneven in quality but on the whole they were very watchable and explored some fascinating ideas.
    Re this new version, I’m probably being over generous in reserving judgment – at least for one more episode. Some fairly good bits, some mediocre, but I can see that it just might have some promise. At least that’s what I thought directly after watching it last night – but it has already diminished somewhat in the memory. And you are quite right about the composition of the characters, quite depressing how formulaic it all gets.
    As an aside, I wonder whether dramatically it might have worked better if we had started the narrative post epidemic not knowing what had happened, and then gradually revealing the backstory in a slightly more oblique way. Mind you, this kind of slow-burn start would never be allowed in a show where it’s all about trying to grab attention from the very start.
    Anyway, I kind of hope it gets better in episode 2 but am not holding my breath.
    13 y
    Tony Lovell
    the original felt like it was happening before your eyes, this just feels like TV.

    Kim Newman
    I certainly feel that the ‘created by Adrian Hodges’ credit is the kind of hubris that sticks in the craw. So far, we’ve had all of Nation’s characters and many of his scenes hashed over. Does Paul Haggis want a ‘created by’ credit on all post-Casino Royale Bond films?

    Paul Lewis
    Not a patch on Nation’s original first series, albeit with some okay moments. But how come so many people died in their cars in the city, but none on the deserted motorway – not an abandoned car in sight – where all the main characters “coincidentally” found each other? As for the scientist twist at the end, what’s that all about? It smacks of a Jericho-style conspiracy … and look what happened to Jericho. Merlin suffers from the same problem as Survivors – taking an existing story source but reimagining (their word, not mine, and what a horrible word it is) it to try to somehow appear modern and trendyl. And nobody has yet mentioned that other BBC travesty … Robin Hoodie.

    Graham Joyce
    Well I was completely gripped, Kim. Waiting to find out which script absurdity would follow which cliche had me on the edge of my seat, trying to anticipate them ahead of the event. The original series was criticised for having all its characters middle class so I was particularly comforted to see that issue addressed by having every working class person be a complete shit (I did spot a black working clas shit in there somewhere so let’s not make out that the BBC have completely lost their way). There were some nice cow-catcher director shots though. I stood up and applauded when they proved that a car could be driven through plate glass doors without sustaining a single scratch to the coachwork.
    This is a milestone for the BBC. I’d really forgotten how fascinating bad, bad writing can be.

    Chris Cooke
    I’m with Graham after the second episode! It’s compellingly bad stuff – Plus point is that there are some interesting actors, Beasley has always been resistable to me, but he’s great at playing a complete shit… I watched with a 14 year old who noted that every vehicle was fresh out of the showroom, like a commercial, and then pointed out that the end of the world would be a great opportunity for him to steal any new car he wanted… i think he has the point of things perfectly! The shots of the planet from space are nice as well… Again, it’s true that the first series was more Good Life and very middle class, and I agree that this hates the working classes – our intro to a manipulative, airheaded misfit last night was a great example of this… I shall watch it all! twice.

    Mitch Benn
    I think only having the dimmest memories of the original helps, but I’m quite enjoying it so far…

    Tony Lovell
    The latest episode was actually a lot better than the first, now the set up was done with. The bit with the chicken made me quite sad (I like that character best, btw – not the chicken – Ali.). It’s not perfect by any means but it is improving. Well, until that guy fired the second round from the rifle and nobody ran him over, anyway.

    Paul Lewis
    Second episode better than the first. Not without faults but with more action to make up for some of the cliched, clunky dialogue.

    Chris Cooke
    Space: 1999 could work… if the moon is spun out of it’s orbit sending the team on Moonbase Alpha hurtling back through time to the now distant age of 1999! They could warn everyone (over the radio?) about the consequences of a war in Iraq, but should they interfere?

    Kim Newman
    Last of the Summer Wine 2009 – one’s black, one’s a lesbian, and one’s Welsh, and they’re all under thirty.
    I’m just happy we’ve come so far in thirty years that a snaggle-toothed old git like Talfryn Thomas will never appear as a regular on a BBC show ever again.

    Chris Cooke
    – in case he curdles the milk and upsets the children!
    I agree, there’s something horribly client led-demographics-advertising agency constructed bullshit about casting these days, which means that the BBC have their target audience in mind…

    Chris Cooke
    I’ve got it! It’s Space: 1999, they travel back into the not too distant past once the moon is sent hurtling off orbit and find themselves in 1999, where, er… some stuff happens like in Ashes to Ashes but a bit later on and that… and, er… Commander Koenig wonders if it’s all a dream (phew!)

    Posted by kimnewman | February 21, 2022, 10:54 am
    • It’s bloody marvellous! Loved Survivors 2008 from beginning to end. Great characters, shocking and moving scripting in equal measure. Stand out performance by Max Beesley as an anti-hero worthy of Paul Darrow, but less flamboyant! Shut up you Guardian reading assholes and watch the whole series in one go with a big bottle of red or two as I just did – especially in the light of the last few years! I wish Julie Graham had been the first female Dr Who and Max Beesley was her Salford Boys psychotic companion. A male version of Leela for a female version of Tom Baker! Nothing has topped this in UK sci-fi in the last 15 years. It’s all dogshit.

      Posted by neil yates | March 8, 2023, 12:33 am
  2. The series looked as if it was working up to the shock ending of Nation’s novel – which I won’t reveal – rather than leaving it hanging as the TV series did – understandable since Carolyn Seymour was written out of the series. Pity it didn’t last that long.

    Posted by Chris Marton | February 21, 2022, 11:00 am

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