“Proof of concept, not merely philosophical speculation.”
Many years ago, somewhere between kicking off Dalekmania and reinventing the dynamics of cult sci-fi with Blakes 7, Terry Nation delivered a grim oddity known as Survivors.
Premiering in 1975, it debuted right at what was historically the lowest point of morale ever seen here in the States pre-9/11. Having just uncovered the Watergate scandal, sat through acting President Ford’s pardon of Nixon and finally given up the lengthy, unpopular and restrictive Vietnam War for a loss, national, and indeed global outlook (for Vietnam proved polarizing not only in the US and Europe, but quite literally around the globe) was pessimistic, to say the least.
Terrorism was at an all time high, major cities were dangerous undeclared war zones (those of age at the time can doubtless compare personally experienced and Fourth Estate-documented stories of unchecked crime, sleaze and menace on any given night or urban locale), there were oil and financial crises, citywide bankruptcies, blackouts, gas lines and endless recessions marked by unemployment, high prices and “stagflation”.
People were searching for some new spiritual center, with cult membership a serious national crisis point and both substance abuse and sexual experimentation ran rampant. It was a wild time, but not exactly a joyous one – more desperate than empowered, a drunkenness in the face of impending doom over any sort of celebration of a hope whose absence was the elephant in the room we collectively chose to ignore.
And Survivors was an emblematic expression of its time.
Like the similarly minded (and equally unrelentingly grim) Noah’s Castle, Survivors centered on a complete societal collapse and its aftermath. Like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies on a global scale, these two series above all others tapped into the sort of anarchic dystopia soon to arise as something of a cultural marker of the 1980s with the post-nuclear holocaust “postapocalyptic” film genre.
But unlike the gleefully comic book, punk subculture-derived sword and sorcery done futuristic campiness of Mad Max and its dozens of Italian and US independent-helmed successors, both Survivors and Noah’s Castle were hidebound by a stark realism, giving each an immediacy and honesty that in point of fact made each somewhat of a grueling endurance test to sit through.
“In short, the human animal, left to its own devices, is anti-social.”
Despite some excellent scripts and performances by future Italo-exploitation standby Ian McCulloch (also of British horror fame, having starred previously in both Tigon’s The Ghoul and Amicus’ I, Monster) and costarlets Carolyn Seymour and Lucy Fleming, the series played so close to the bone that its very sensibility of stark validity, indeed the sheer possibility of this happening in our lifetimes, left it nigh-unbearable. Despite finding it often quite gripping, I personally was unable to finish the first season.
“Without these norms to constrain our behavior, humans develop insatiable appetites, limitless desires and general feelings of irritation and dissatisfaction.”
What makes Survivors so difficult to take is intrinsic to its core accuracy. Even putting aside the increasing possibility of a global plague, a “super bug” (whose potential science warns us only increases with the unchecked progression of manmade global warming which we’re currently experiencing and dealing with in escalating degree), Nation’s basis for the tale being told is a frighteningly real one, and one which we see coming to the fore more each day.
For if you lay aside any science fiction-based, “zombie apocalypse” style conceit, Survivors still holds the power to deeply unnerve its audience, in whatever format it’s presented. The mere fact that the behaviors of all involved ring true to human nature and the fragility of what societal checks and balances we’ve historically put in place to hold at bay human atavism, selfish unconcern for others or the consequences of our personal action or inaction…if you will, the innate evil of man, is always present beneath the surface, even in the most ostensibly benevolent of times and societies. In those falling into socioeconomic disarray? These tendencies become both blatant and widespread.
And in fact, societally speaking, we’re well along this very road as we speak.
“Without the constraints of society, human instinct leads us to be self-centered, greedy, insatiable and competitive. Durkheim called this ‘anomie’.
The term can be understood to mean without law, but Emile uses it in the sense of the lack of a secure framework, one within which people feel a sense of moral regulation and social integration.
Not so much rules of state, but rather a social consensus which creates an organic solidarity.”
With a Rand-derived, Social Darwinist LaVeyan satanic mindset underpinning a rising tide of politicians and their self absorbed supporters and an unchecked global capitalism marked more by its utter lack of concern for the welfare of fellow citizens and coworkers and enrichment of a privileged percentage of extremely high earning “global leaders” at the top of the financial food chain (whose sinister self interest is promoted and protected by SuperPAC lobbyists and direct funding of candidates through such misnomered bet hedges as “Citizens United”) than any more morally ambiguous free market competition, we’re faced on the flipside with an increasingly disenfranchised underclass (a strong portion of whom formerly resided comfortably in what was once referred to as “the middle class”) barred from healthy, non-GMO adulterated foodstuffs and decent healthcare by exponentially skyrocketing prices and what amounts to a spiralling cycle of practictioner-insurance company-employer hate triangles.
In effect, we are heading with straightness of course and increasing rapidity towards a global socioeconomic collapse.
While the rich and powerful are doubtless hoping for a new serfdom with themselves as dukes and lords and the rest of the world as effective slaves, the reality of the situation will be a dangerously anarchic, tribal wasteland marked by hoarding, militia style bands of wolfpack collectives and a overriding dog-eat-dog mentality.
In sum, the worst of all possible outcomes, for all of us.
And so we return to Survivors…which in fact, we never left for one second in the discussion thus far. Now do you see just how dark this series is?
“The more of us there are, the better. Then we can start sorting things out.”
“What do you mean, sorting things out?”
“Assess the situation. Restore a system of government. Reestablish lines of communication with the rest of the world.”
“(sarcastically) Oh, sounds positively utopian.”
“Well, what’s the alternative? We revert to barbarism, savagery or…the wrong people end up in charge.”
Like its progenitor, Big Finish’s Survivors is hard to recommend, and not because of poor production, faltering scripting or less than stellar acting, but quite the obverse.
Featuring both McCulloch and Fleming, as well as a guest spot by Seymour, there are strong nods to the original teleseries, but simultaneously, this is quite a different animal…at least in terms of specific plot points and scripting.
With recent Big Finish acquisitions Caroline Langrishe (Lovejoy’s Charlotte Cavendish, Blakes 7’s Cold Fury) and Chase Masterson (Vienna, Deep Space 9) joining Louise Jameson (Doctor Who’s Leela, The Omega Factor, Bill Baggs’ P.R.O.B.E. and the fascinating Mike Raven occult oddity Disciple of Death), Terry Molloy (Who’s Davros and Quadrigger Stoyn) and Big Finish regular John Banks (Butcher of Brisbane, The Wrong Doctors and Spaceport Fear) among others) joining the aforementioned original series leads, Big Finish has top loaded Survivors with talent.
While Masterson is the most instantly noticeable (with her shrill American attorney Maddie Price making an understandable if quite annoying spectacle of herself in Revelations’ airport sequences), it is Molloy in particular who stands out throughout the course of both Revelations and Exodus with his thoughtful government official John Redgrave.
Similarly, his rather more morally ambiguous parallel cum flipside Adrian Lukis (Justice of Jalxar) takes a literal center stage as Professor Gillison, who establishes a questionable if well run miniature society of his own. Unfortunately, all is not as it may at first appear, and the rhetoric disguises a far darker reality which all too quickly devolves from an apparent egalitarianism into paranoia, breeding camps and resurgent fascism…
As the series plays out, the focus shifts somewhat, with more of an emphasis on players like McCulloch, Jameson and Langrishe, as early apparent leads Masterson and Molloy pass on or fade into the background, and the complications of life under Gillison come to the fore. It’s a tad disconcerting, but true to Nation’s original text to some extent. That said, it took the series a bit longer to start shifting leads and focus than it does here, and this may leave listeners feeling like first time audiences of Hitchcock’s Psycho – as in, wait a minute, what? Marion’s dead?
As the more perceptive reader may have noticed, Survivors utilizes Biblical texts for its titling convention: Revelations, Exodus, Judges and Ruth appear as this season’s offerings. While it may seem odd at first glance, given the absence of any sense of higher intervention in the bleak world the characters inhabit, it all ties together when you recognize that the original title for John’s Revelation was in fact the Apocalypse…
With scripts by such authors as Matt Fitton (Charlotte Pollard, The Wrong Doctors, The Dark Planet, Luna Romana), Jonathan Morris (Last of the Colophon, Ghost in the Machine, Jago & Litefoot, 1963: The Space Race), John Dorney (Justice of Jalxar, King of Sontar, The Crooked Man, 1963: The Assassination Games) and Andrew Smith (Brood of Erys and Tom Baker-era televised Who Full Circle), there’s no question Nick Briggs and company mean business here. And if you aren’t upset by such powerful, no happy endings possible realism, you certainly can’t go wrong in checking this one out.
“You seem to have got it all worked out.”
“No, not really. I’m making it up as I go along…”
But me? Just as with Nation’s original teleseries and the likeminded Noah’s Castle, this is a bit too much for my sensibilities. Perhaps with a more naive, utopian listener, this may awaken a new sense of reality and the necessity of us all as a people to rise up and take action now, while we still can.
But to a dyed in the wool realist, whose finger is well blistered from a lifetime of being licked and held to the winds of change, to forecast what always inexorably arrives?
It’s just a bit too much to settle in with, comfortably.