“Welcome to the new world.”
The post-apocalypse genre, or subgenre or sub-subgenre or whatever, is one of the most difficult to pull off. There’s no question that the end of the world scenario has opportunities for intriguing ideas and visuals, but you’re still typically dealing with death and suffering on a wide scale, and that’s a lot to ask of audiences. Usually, post-apoc tales have a certain distance from the audience, such as the supernatural elements of The Stand, the cool hardware of The Road Warrior, the conspiratorial mysteries of Jericho, or the cheeseball goofiness of Hell Comes to Frogtown. The new BBC series Survivors (Not to be confused with the overhyped American reality show) strips away those elements and takes post-apocalypse back to its core element—what happens if everyone is dead except for a small few?
In a matter of days, the flu pandemic spreads across the globe. In England, the government tries to keep control, but with people dying by the millions, the infrastructure collapses, and the 1 percent who survived must now find their way through a world different from the one they knew.
Although alone at first, the survivors encounter each other one by one, until a group is formed:
• Abby (Julie Graham, William and Mary), whose son was away on a school trip at the time of the plague. She’s determined to learn what happened to him, but at the same time she ends up the leader of this new group.
• Greg Preston (Paterson Joseph, Neverwhere), a sharp thinker, who knows that the best decision is often the one that’s not easy to make. He stays with the group, despite claims that he has “a plan.”
• Anya (Zoe Tapper, Stage Beauty), a young doctor driven out of her mind by seeing so many die during the plague. She hopes to keep her medical knowledge a secret from the others.
• Al (Phillip Rhys, The Space Between) a former rich boy who lived the high life of parties, cool cars, and lovely ladies. Now that all that is gone, he has to find a new place for himself.
• Najid (Chahak Patel) an adolescent Muslim boy, who hasn’t lost his faith despite all that’s happened.
• Sarah (Robyn Addison), who fears she has nothing to offer other than her pretty looks. Despite her best intentions, she has a tendency to make the wrong decision, putting others in danger.
• Tom (Max Beesley, Hotel Babylon) was in jail at the time of the plague, and sees this as a new opportunity to put his violent past behind him. But can he truly change his ways?
Although this series and a ’70s series before it of the same name are both based on a novel by cult favorite writer Terry Nation, I have to admit that I’m one of the ones who couldn’t help but notice numerous similarities between this and Stephen King’s The Stand. For one, the population is wiped out by the flu and not by nukes, so all the buildings are still standing, but there’s no electricity and bodies are everywhere. Then, the remaining few eventually encounter each other and form a community of sorts, only to conflict with other new communities. Naturally, King didn’t invent this formula for the post-apocalypse thing, but he sure made it work. Survivors, as noted above, is a scaled-down version of the same formula. There’s no final showdown between good and evil, but there is that “lost and alone” feeling of being all alone in the world, with everyone you knew dead and gone in an instant.
Any post-apocalypse movie or TV show is a hard sell, because they’re usually so downbeat. This is especially true of Survivors. The tone is best described as “total depress-fest.” The characters not only have to deal with the loss of all their loved ones, but also their new circumstances, in which anyone they meet could be out to rob or kill them. They only have each other to rely on, but with folks like Tom around, even that foundation barely stands. These people are at the ends of their ropes. They’ve got nothing, and they’re barely able to keep moving forward. Abby is driven to find her son, so she has a clear motivation, and Abby and Tom see an opportunity to reinvent themselves, so that’s a more subtle motivation. Overall, though, the characters are mostly invested in, well, surviving. They spend their time just hoping not to get killed each day. Everyone on the show has an unseen cloud of despair looming over them at all times, and that makes for some bleak watching.
All this sadness and misery will drill right into your soul and cause you to question whether you’ll ever feel joy again, but does that mean the show is bad? Hardly. It’s high quality, in both acting and production. The creators do a good a job of making the city streets look empty and deserted. During close-ups of the actors, notice how their faces are framed way over to one side of the screen, farther than most widescreen close-ups. Behind the actors, and therefore filling most of the screen, we see wide expanses in the background, illustrating the emptiness the characters have found themselves in. Sounds of birds consistently fill the background, as if the birds are somehow aware that they have the humans outnumbered, and are letting the humans know. Little touches like these give the series an off-kilter, otherworldly feel.
As the character who brings the others together, Julie Graham carries the series as Abby. She’s “the mom,” so it’s natural the others would rally around her. Her character’s increases more as the series progresses, as she could contain the key to a vaccine. When she is separated from her newfound friends, her fear is powerful, even though she’s in a place that’s more “safe” than where she was. It shows that, despite her drive to find her missing son, she’s made a strong connection to the others she’s met.
Anya is one of the most fascinating characters, because of all the secrets she keeps. Her decision not to reveal that she’s a doctor is an interesting one. At first, I assumed it was because she feared that she’d be overwhelmed with requests for help, as all the other doctors are dead. As episodes progress, though, it’s revealed that she’s haunted by failing to save so many, including her loved ones, during the plague, and she doesn’t want any other of her “patients” to die. Zoe Tapper does great work illustrating Anya’s inner conflict. There’s never any question as to what she’s feeling, with a just a look at her face. Tom is another one keeping secrets from the others. At first it’s revealed that he was in prison, and then everyone learns why. The characters are torn about Tom. They’re afraid who is and what he’s capable of, and yet he’s “the muscle” of the group, whose megaviolence has saved their lives. Max Beesley plays the character low key, never exploding into full-blown rage. As much as all his fury simmers below the surface, there are still hints that he does care for his new “family.”
Greg is a mystery for most of the first season. We don’t meet him until after the plague, and we only get the barest hint of who he was before. It’s clear that he’s keenly intelligent, and he’s the one who instructs the others on how survival might include actions they would otherwise find distasteful. It’s not until the second season begins that we learn Greg’s history. This sets up a mystery about the unexplained appearance of a postcard that comes into play during the finale. Rumor has it fans and critics disliked the second season when compared to the first, and I’m guessing a part of this was a reaction to Greg’s backstory suddenly being a major part of the plot. It comes out of nowhere, true, but it also gives the character more to do. It gives him some real emotion, beyond his role as “the brains” of the group.
Young Najid is the “moral compass” of the group. While Greg and Tom argue doing whatever it take to survive, Najid, with his spirituality, argues against sacrificing their ethics of their former lives. Although he’s a kid, his argument carries weight considering the often-animalistic other survivors our heroes run into. Al, short for “Aalim,” unintentionally becomes a big brother/protector for Najid, always tasked with watching out for the kid. Their reluctant friendship helps Al come out of his shell, and transform into someone with more depth beyond his initial “wealthy frat boy” persona.
The series has a lot of talk about how “things aren’t the way they were” and “it’s a new world now.” Half of this has to do with the characters learning to live off the land, and no longer having to rely on electricity. This is talked about a lot, but rarely seen. The other “new world” aspect of the show gets played up more, and that’s the fact that laws and governments are no more. At first, rival survivors the characters meet are little more than gangs, fighting over supplies or territory. The word “gangs,” however, is not used. Later, the group meets Samantha (Nikki Amuka-Bird, The Omen (2006)), a former politician determined to restore order. Her new regime, however, relies on violence and sham trials in order to maintain what appears to be order. Our heroes are divided on their feelings on this, as some try to make a new home there, while others don’t want anything to do with Samantha. She appears several times throughout the season, each time raising new ethical questions about how to start a new society. Other forms of survivors our heroes encounter include some kids doing the Lord of the Flies thing, a bunch of religious zealots, a modern-day slaver, a rural hidden farming community, and more.
This show is grim, relentlessly grim. There’s no humor at all, and anything close to a lighter moment is punctuated by something dark or dour. After two episodes in a row, the bleakness and darkness of Survivors was so powerful, I had to eject the disc and watch some Simpsons and Monty Python to get myself centered again.
Each season of the show was a mere six episodes. The first six are on the three discs in this set, and the other six are on the fourth and fifth discs. The picture quality is quite good, making the most of both the many bright outdoor locations and the dark, shadowy interiors. The sound is not as booming as it could be, but it is clean and clear. A handful of short featurettes make up an overview of the series, with specific looks at the visual effects and profiles of three of the characters.
Survivors is a dreary downer, but it’s a well-written, well-acted, and well-produced dreary downer. If you’re in the mood for gloom, give it a shot.