Review: Survivors (episode 1)

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 tunescheap 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.

terry-nation-novel

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.

drop

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?

Survivors screens on BBC1.You can buy the original series here – Survivors – Series 1-3 – Complete [DVD] [1975]; the new series here – Survivors (2008) [DVD]; and the novel by Terry Nation here: Survivors. When you buy through these links you help The Outland Institute, AND an angel gets its wings. FACT!
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17 Responses to Review: Survivors (episode 1)

  1. Louise says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this review. Especially the description of how TV shows are like people, and the unfortunate bloody consequences of this. Please, tell me more about the things you hate.

  2. Dan Cardone says:

    I agree with Louise – there’s nothing like a good hate rant, and this was a very very good rant. Please hate more things and then write about them.

  3. Sam says:

    Say its not true, not a remake of the brilliant Day of the Triffids? Will they make the triffids move quickly do you think, like the zombies in 28 Days Later (the opening scenes of which felt like the Day of the Triffids)? Its also funny about the aerial photography, I was wondering about that when I first watched Torchwood… did BBC Wales get a helicopter for Christmas? Is there some Welsh tradition about standing on the tops of buildings and looking moodily into the distance?

  4. Narrelle says:

    I loved this rant! It makes me want to sit down with a bottle of cheap plonk to watch the new Survivors, get drunk, hoot derisively at the appalling everything, interrupting the howls of contempt occasionally to say “That Paterson Joseph, he’s so cool. He should be the next Doctor. With the guys from Peep Show as his companions!”

  5. Anne-Marie says:

    Narelle, I think expensive plonk is in order.

    Wine/tv serial matching is as much of an art as wine/food matching. In this case, I would suggest a full bodied and slightly sweet sparkling, as you need something that is refreshing, easy to drink (as your bad tv cliche drinking game will have the glass always at your lips), and able to get you drunk quickly.

    If you go a bad cleanskin red, you’re not going to enjoy the drinking part of the night and resent each extra mouthful you are forcing down your in order to dull the pain of the bad telly.

    Its all about balance. Bad TV needs good booze.

    Then there’s the matter of accompanying snacks.

    Rule 1: No Finnish or Norwegian candy

  6. Sam says:

    When the survivors finally group together, assuming they do group together, does Jeff Probst suddenly appear and say “Abby, bring me your torch… the tribe has spoken, its time for you to go”.

  7. Dave AA says:

    I didn’t hate Survivors nearly as much as you did (just call me Mr Mild-Opinioned)

    I agree completely about the change in US & UK television though. There’s a definite style to UK television shows now, which is to turn everything into a dumbed-down, flashy soap. Everything’s kind of smug and smart-arsey, yet stupid at the same time. There are a few series that I enjoy, but that’s despite having this style, not because of it.

    I was watching an episode of UFO (from the golden age of UK sci-fi) and at one point a fisticuffs broke out for no real reason at all – the episode had just reached the three-quarter mark so it was time for a fight scene: all of these shows did that back then. Modern UK shows are the same with crying scenes. By the time they get to thirty minutes one of the main characters has to have a cry about something. It doesn’t matter what.

    Probably the most ridiculous example was in that Dr Who episode where Catherine Tate returns home – after having been away for a WHOLE TWO EPISODES – and starts crying as she walks down the street. Cue swelling music, Catherine weeping as she watches a small boy playing football and a slow-motion flashback montage of the TWO episodes that she’s been away from Earth. They call this “real emotion.”

    I thought Paterson Joseph wasn’t very good in Jekyll (although maybe that was just his American accent) but based on his brief appearance in this episode of Survivors he might make a good Dr Who.

  8. Anne-Marie says:

    At this point I need to confess that Survivor is my favourite reality show ever. (Yes I’m saying this in public.) I mean they starve them, torture them, there’s always the eat gross food challenge, and you get to watch people, who think they are really nice, expose their ruthless, mean and really horrible side – whilst being condescending to the indigenous people of whereever they are. It looks like an appearance of Jeff P would really help Survivors

  9. Sam says:

    Anne-Marie: you are not alone, though i haven’t seen it for a while, always been a fan

  10. outlandinstitute says:

    During the Fringe Festival I did a bit of reviewing for Anne-Marie (and AussieTheatre.com) and I made an interesting discovery – by carefully selecting shows that had a high probability of being good, I didn’t actually have much to say. It’s much harder to describe something you’ve enjoyed than something you haven’t. Incidentally, we haven’t talked about the new season of 30 Rock on Boxcutters for much the same reason – apart from the 3 of us saying “it’s pretty good” we don’t have a lot more to say (I should point out that holds for things that are good – if something is absolutely trascendently fantastic it gets easy again).

    So I thought I would have some fun venting my spleen. You’re getting the edited version too, I cut out all the stuff about the foley work, I didn’t mention the inclusion of storylines involving a Health minister or a Secret Lab (both of which seemed hackneyed and pointless) and I cut a bit about Doctor Who which David has more-or-less stated above. Which is that in new Who it’s notable that the companions always want to come home – as a child, part of the appeal of Doctor Who was that he was going to take you away from your tedious suburban life forever, whereas in the new series people are always wanting to go back. A societal change, perhaps?

    Episode two of Survivors is less annoying than the first, they’ve cut down on much of the fidgety camera trickery, but it’s still a show with no distinct visual or narrative style, it’s like a whole bunch of contemporary film-school buzzwords rolled out one after the other. Strangely, the “previously on” sections make it look really interesting, even when you’ve already watched it and know it isn’t. Mostly it looks like an ad for 4-wheel-drives.

    So what did you think of Survivors, David?

  11. Robin says:

    Max Beesley? Jesus. The sooner PJ leaves this sorry show behind him the better

  12. Narrelle says:

    David: Watch Paterson Joseph as the Marquis de Carabas in Neverwhere to see exactly how I think he should play the Doctor!

    UK shows have got a bit tame, mainly. We watched an episode of Hustle last night, which is a kind of Mission Impossible Meets Spooks and a dash of Robin Hood. We mainly did so to see Adrian Lester in action, after his scene-stealing turn in the musical version of Love’s Labours Lost. I maintain there is nothing wrong with Hustle that can’t be improved by Adrian Lester singing and dancing a whole lot more.

  13. Tim says:

    I dunno OO, I sometimes find it easier to describe what I liked than I didn’t like. Some shows are so comprehensively bad, it’s hard to know where to start – whereas at least the guy playing 3rd Guard From The Left stood out as quite good, and you can say so. But I take your point – when things are effortlessly good, it’s harder to itemise just how they worked that well.

  14. outlandinstitute says:

    Tim, I was more thinking when something is passably – but not amazingly – good. So, everyone did a good job but not so astonishingly well that it makes you want to rave about it. Seven-out-of-ten good, perhaps. Then you find yourself – or at least, I do – scraping a bit. Whereas if it’s brilliant you can bang on about how it “transcends the form” and “delightfully rides roughshod over the concerns that feed the popular media” and so on. I think there’s a computer program that can generate those automatically now.

  15. Dave AA says:

    My favourite “dumb thing in a recent UK TV show” is in the first episode of Ashes to Ashes. The lead character (who’s a psychologist) is reading at a file about Sam Tyler. The camera cuts briefly to a shot of the file – there’s a photo of Tyler with a great big stamp across his forehead saying “SUICIDE.”

    Like psychologist all have these big rubber SUICIDE stamps sitting on their desks, along with the one that says ACCOUNT PAID and the one that says NOT RENEWED FOR THIRD SERIES. I guess SUICIDE is more succinct than SLIGHTLY AMBIGUOUS ENDING TO SERIES TWO CLEARED UP FOR THE STUPID PEOPLE IN THE AUDIENCE, NOW LET’S BRING ON GENE HUNT QUICKLY.

  16. Margaret says:

    I have been a huge fan of SURVIVORS ever since it was screened on a commercial TV channel in rural New South Wales in the 1970s. — For some reason the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) never took it up. As soon as it was available, I bought the whole series on DVD. I eagerly awaited a remake and bought the boxed set of this (Series 1) from Amazon.co.uk as soon as it came out. Clearly, I have a multi-regional DVD player! I completely agree with the comments in the review. I found the characterisation shallow, the ‘clever’ shots annoying and the story changes unacceptable. It was, also, a joy to read such an intelligent piece of writing!

    In my own private comments (to all who will listen!), I’d chosen to compare the ‘Please, God, don’t let me be the only one’ scenes in both series–so I felt vindicated that someone of influence saw things the same way. Predictably enough, the 2008 version sees Abby screaming and running around frantically. The way in which Carolyn Seymour was directed is more psychologically true, in my opinion. In my 67.5 years, I have noticed (and experienced personally) that when people are faced with horror and bereavement, they are more likely to be shocked almost to aphasia. The situation in which Abby finds herself is unique. The fear chills to the bone. Screaming is not appropriate.

    Having seen interviews with the original cast in the ‘extras’ included in the DVD sets of the 1970s series, therefore being aware of the personality clashes that saw Carolyn Seymour leave after Series 1, I conjecture that Terry Nation’s decision to ‘kill off’ Abby in the book he wrote later could well have its origin in his apparent dislike of Carolyn. The novel, which has appeared in Australian book-stores, enabling me to skim-read it, is a flimsy affair by contrast with the original series. Interestingly, Greg and Jenny are still together on the last page.

    As far as the back-story on the virus and the ‘evil scientists’ that have appeared in the remake–I have to say that this, too, I find unacceptable. There is no need for any back-story on this–apart from that provided in the original montage. The issue is how people would survive in such a scenario, not how the disaster happened. If such a thing ever transpired–and it quite definitely COULD!–the bewilderment and horror felt by the few people left would be intensified by NOT knowing. The responders/audience don’t need to know, either. The mystery thus provided is a strength.

    One of the good things about the original was the way in which scripts dealt with moral problems, as in the episode ‘Law and Order’. This was done without the overwrought over-acting and overdone special effects of the new version.

    I’d be interested in further discussion on this programme.

    As for THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, let us hope that the remake of that will not be such a disaster. John Simm would be good in the role of Bill, previously inhabited by John Duttine.

  17. Daily P.O.P. says:

    I am overjoyed to read the words of someone with a deeper pit of bile than myself. I was looking fir some kind of barometer on how the 2008 version and original related and you seem to have nailed it.

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