Generally we try to avoid reviewing new material at The Outland Institute. We feel there are plenty of places to read about new films and books, and our efforts are best directed toward looking at 20 year-old annuals and exploring the importance of the moustache in 1970s television. After all, who else is going to review vampire-themed Sweet Valley High Books or take a new look at Storm Boy? This stuff doesn’t happen by itself, people.
But the new version of Survivors covers so many of the Institute’s obsessions – illnesses on screen, retro television, great theme tunes, cheap science fiction, Paterson Joseph – that it would be churlish not to talk about it. Beware, minor spoilers lie in wait.
For those who came in late, Survivors was a British television series that ran for three seasons from 1975. It’s premise? A man-made virus wipes out the majority of the world’s population, the few left behind trying to start anew in an unfamiliar world (so it’s a bit like Ugly Betty). It was created by Terry Nation, who also created the Daleks and Blake’s 7. Not a bad resume. Certainly better than working at Lidl.
The BBC has remade Survivors and I’ve been watching the new version for Boxcutters, which is quite literally the best television-themed podcast recorded at RRR (you can visit our website here, or download it from the usual suspects). Watching Survivors I was struck by the thought that television shows are like people. Some you really like, and want to spend as much time with as possible. Some you admire and respect, but perhaps see only occasionally. And rarely – very rarely – you’ll meet one that makes you want to hit it repeatedly in the face with a fire extinguisher until not a single identifiable feature is left. And as the police drag you away from the cold, lifeless body – now lying in a congealing scarlet lake of it’s own blood – you’ll know you did the right thing.
Survivors is one of those shows.
Survivors is bad. Spectacularly, appallingly, car-crashingly bad. Never have I seen such a twitchy, fidgety, fussy program. Every shot has a filter, a tint, or a strange focus. There are jump cuts, there are cutesy-dissolves. There’s even an attempt to do establishing shots using tilt-shift photography, for some bizarre reason. There’s slow-motion. There’s fast-motion. Undoubtedly we’ll get a 3D sequence and some claymation before the series is out. If only some of this effort could have been put toward a decent script and some engaging characters.
It starts with mild annoyance at the credits – instead of copying the genuinely impressive theme and opening sequence of the original we get a dull and visually-confused montage of ordinary people while golden microbes dance in the corners of the screen. It looks like a Yakult ad. Then this very odd phrase appears: “Created and written by Adrian Hodges“. Um.. created by? Sorry, Adrian Hodges, but in what way have you created the series that Terry Nation created in 1975? “From a novel by Terry Nation” then comes up. Well, yes, Terry Nation did write a novelisation of the TV series a year after it screened – so you wrote a TV series based on a novelisation of a TV series and are now claiming you’ve “created” it? I read one of the Twilight Zone comics once, if I write a script based on that can I create the Twilight Zone? If I make a series based on the DVD box for The West Wing can I create that? Oh, the possibilities are endless, aren’t they?
Even the official BBC website for Survivors pushes this patent untruth: “…a re-imagining of the classic 1970s BBC drama series which was based on the novel by Terry Nation“. Except it wasn’t. Finally, I found an explanation in SFX Magazine from January 2008, in an interview with BBC Head of Series and Serials Kate Harwood:
“We’ve brought the rights to the novel – so, of course, we’re adapting the novel… It’s quite complex, and probably I shouldn’t go into too much detail, but Terry Nation wrote a very fine novel based on the first series, and that’s what we have the rights to. There are some scripts that he wasn’t involved in later in the series. But I think the novel is very much the key to the series, really”.
So it’s a legal thing, and maybe it doesn’t really matter, but it just seems wrong for a writer to claim to have “created” something he patently didn’t.
Anyway, back to the show. We are introduced to a a generic bunch of sub-EastEnders characters who go about their dull lives. Then most of them die. Then the rest go driving. It’s like On The Beach meets Top Gear. Most of them take the end of the world as a mild annoyance, but at least you can still go shopping.
Every time I thought I couldn’t hate this show anymore, it would surprise me. Hey, there’s suddenly a very loud pop song for no reason while they play soccer on the road! Oh, there’s a leaden attempt at humour! Now they’re trying to be Lost! More sped-up footage and jump-cuts, anyone? Survivors is like a woman at a party who thinks she’s outrageous and fascinating when really she’s just annoying and loud.
Speaking of loud… Many elements of the new Doctor Who are on display in Survivors. Attention-deficit camera work? Check. Attempt to make us cry about thinly defined characters? Yep. Sped-up motion of London and aeriel shots of city streets? Lazy use of BBC News broadcasts to tell the story? Extraneous shots of Earth from space? Freema Agyeman? All here. But only Survivors manages to make Murray Gold’s Doctor Who music seem subtle and unobtrusive. Survivors is like listening to the “highly commended” runners-up of a Holst Soundalike Contest. No matter what emotion is on-screen, the music will verge into a self-parody trying to replicate it – perhaps Survivors is the first TV show intended entirely for the blind.
Between the music and the sound design this show is terrified that if it stops talking you’ll take the chance to grab your coat and leave. The original used silence to great effect, and apart from the theme, music was used extremely sparingly. It’s interesting to compare a key scene from the two versions. Here’s the scene where Abby Grant first realises that everyone is dead, and she is possibly the only survivor, first from the 1975 original with Carolyn Seymour in the role:
And now the same scene from the 2008 remake, with Julia Graham as Abby:
An odd thing has happened to television in the last 30 years. In the US television drama has grown more sophisticated and complex while in the UK the reverse seems to have happened – so while America went from The Dukes Of Hazard to Six Feet Under, the UK has gone from I Claudius to Secret Diary of a Call Girl. When once they were ground-breaking they now appear to be formulaic and dull – I suspect that UK television has become so soapie driven, so obsessed with the everyday and mundane, that they just can’t do this sort of “big picture” telly anymore.
The biggest complaint against the 1970s Survivors was that it was resolutely upper-middle class. Re-watching it now that’s mostly due to the “received pronunciation” accent (common to all BBC shows of the time) and the fact that Abby Grant has both a maid and a tennis machine. But the new series is just as middle class – for all its inclusion of an ethnically and socio-economically diverse ensemble it still seems primarily interested in cups of tea and chunky knitwear. We don’t feel any closer to these people than in the original, they don’t seem more believable – if anything, they feel less so, since the 2008 characters have a tendency to do things that only people on TV would do. When one of them throws a photograph of her loved ones into a river all I can picture is Nicholas Cage‘s character in Adaptation talking about the metaphor of broken mirrors.
You never believe these people have lost anything. It’s all so clean, so beautifully lit, that it feels more like a long weekend than the end of the world. Survivors has gained nothing in this update, even with Adrian Hodges‘ alarming comment that he has “explored the back-story of the virus”. Yes Adrian, why won’t people think of the virus?
The only real appeal to the new series? Paterson Joseph. But 90 minutes is a long time to say “look it’s Paterson Joseph!”. Even if it’s Paterson Joseph.
That Peep Show is great, isn’t it?
So, that’s Survivors. The BBC have just announced they’ll be doing a new version of The Day Of The Triffids – no doubt it’ll follow the same template. I had hoped the success of Doctor Who would lead to new, interesting British science fiction but it looks like we’ll just get more Hollyoaks-In-Space – look forward to a Blake’s 7 redux where they all work in a hairdressers, and The Flipside Of Dominic Hyde with no time travel but plenty of sped-up jump-cut aeriel photography of an out-of-focus Freema Agyeman scored by off-cuts of Elgar remixed by Apollo 440.
You’ll be able to hear me rant about Survivors in episode 161 of Boxcutters – It’ll probably be like a talking book version of what you’ve just read. Join us then, won’t you?