Survivors: Series Eight

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Survivors: Series Eight – Starring Carolyn Seymour, Lucy Fleming, Helen Goldwyn, George Watkins, Wendy Craig, Joel James Davison, Hywel Morgan, Gyuri Sarossy, Richard Popple, Homer Todiwala, Susie Emmett, Jane Slavin, Vikash Bhai, Isla Carter, Eddie Eyre, Katherine Rose Morley & Susan Hingley. Written by Christopher Hatherall, Jane Slavin, Lisa McMullin & Roland Moore & Directed by Ken Bentley4xCD / Download (Big Finish)

Never meet your heroes, they say.

As Survivors moves into its eighth audio series, and extends beyond the end of the TV version into the realms of pure creativity, it’s just possible they should add ‘never meet the son you’ve been searching for across eight box sets either’ to the perennial warning.

For those just joining us…where the hell have you been till now? There was a Seventies TV show, a 21st century updated remake, a novel by Terry ‘dystopian genius’ Nation and now, eight box sets back in the Seventies from Big Finish, so you’ve got some ground to make up. The short version is that a woman named Abby Grant survived a plague that decimated the world, and has been searching for her son, Peter, ever since. Peter was away at boarding school when ‘the Death’ struck, and has been on adventures of his own since, never actually appearing in the audio show, but heard of, tantalisingly, as a rumour, as a member of this group or that, as a corpse, and most recently as a boy soldier under the command of a man named Robert Malcolm.

Abby, in the company of her long-time friend Jenny, starts this series on a train – the ambition and prize of fellow survivor, and Jenny’s husband, Greg Preston, who has sadly snuffed it while adventuring to make the world a better place.

The train is a key asset for the beginnings of a new federation of settlements, the beginnings of a real interconnected society again, rebuilt from the ashes of the post-Death world of isolation, will to power and desperation. That…makes it valuable.

Christopher Hatherill kicks us off in Series Eight with Bandit Train, a story which is divided roughly into two halves – all action in real time for the first half, mostly thought and talking for the second half. With Abby, Jenny and their relatively new young friend Craig on the train, Bandit Train delivers what it promises – the first half is almost textbook Western, with one additional Land Rover, and it introduces us to a new power dynamic – Abby and her friends have the train and the Federation. The so-called bandits are Teenagers with Attitude, out for a bit of not-so-great train robbery. The owner of the Land Rover – a glittering impossibility in an England that’s mostly returned to a pre-industrial technological level – is Captain Robert Malcolm and his boy soldiers, which raises Abby’s hopes at the same rate as her heartbeat. Has she finally found Peter? Is she about to have the long dreamed-of reunion with her little boy?

Don’t be silly, this is Survivors, moments of unalloyed joy are few and far between.

Christopher Hatherill has a distinct knack of taking single incidents and stretching them out, believably and more engagingly than you’d imagine was possible, while dealing realistically with the practical problems the incident raises and wringing every drop of sweat and tension out of them. In one of his previous episodes, for instance, we spent most of the run-time in a big hole in the ground, exploring the annoyances, the terrors and the pains of being stuck in a big hole in the ground. There’s a touch of that sweaty realism about Bandit Train too – the first half of the story has that Western vibe of raiders on horseback and riders on a train shooting actual bullets at each other as though their very lives depend on possession of the transport – which in some cases they do. Again, this is Survivors – with a gloriously sick interpretation of the title, people die here, for the sake of train ownership.

The second half of the story is equally sweaty but far more delicate, as we learn the reality of the power balances in the region. Is Robert Malcolm all he seems to be? Or is he just another in the seemingly endless line of tin-pot local dictators against whom our heroes are destined to come up?

It would be telling to answer that question, but there’s something about Robert that takes us back to the early, sharp-end days of the Survivors series. He may be trying to do the right thing by his boys, but does that necessarily make him a good man?

Here’s the thing about Survivors – or indeed about any post-apocalyptic drama. The further away you get from the initial point that changes the world, the easier it is and the more likely you are to fall into ‘villain-of-the-week’ territory, mistrusting every friendly leader who reaches out to your group of heroes because of course they’re going to be horrible, evil gits who want nothing but harm and control underneath their happy, smiley exteriors, because that’s where the maximum drama is. Series Eight is pretty far from the collapse of the world’s infrastructure – it’s unlikely that anyone new is going to infect you with the Death, and the perils of the immediate aftermath, like rape-gangs, cannibalism, extra-apocalyptic religious grimness and so on has all been done, documented, and at least by some, survived. So Series Eight runs close by the danger of formulaic villain-of-the-week territory.

Annnnd then along comes Jane Slavin, with an episode called simply Robert. In fact, along comes Big Finish with an idea to take us behind the scenes, behind the pre-Death life of Robert Malcolm and make us face the realities of grey areas. Malcolm is a central pivot around which the action of Series Eight moves, and Jane Slavin shows us what we all instinctively know, but rarely want to face when we’re invested in a drama – that good and evil are mostly positional judgments, and the more we know about each other, the more we can understand where any action is coming from.

Slavin paints us a military man with a wife entrusted to a 1970s asylum, a girlfriend more accepting than many would be, and a life, like many in the Armed Forces, complicated by the tangle of emotion, and eased by action, by plans, by discipline and direction. When the Death catches up with Robert Malcolm, his wife is gazing adoringly at fellow patient Jesus, his girlfriend’s none too keen about a road trip with the ex-who-isn’t and a trip to the country goes healingly, happily right – and then…well, at least less right. There’s undoubtedly more to learn about Robert Malcolm, and it would probably pay dividends to get Slavin to write a second part of his backstory between this episode and when we encounter him in the main thrust of the Series Eight story-arc, but here, Hywel Morgan as Robert Malcolm takes Jane Slavin’s seemingly simple script and gives its protagonist life and layers that alter how we understand him for the rest of the set.

Oh, and – there’s no way this can go unsaid – Wendy Craig’s in this one. Wendy ‘ruler of late-Seventies-early-Eighties TV’ Craig. In fact, Big Finish gets maximum Wendy Craig magic for its money in this set, as she takes on three separate roles, and makes them each so individual, you’d never know they were the same actress, and, in all fairness, never particularly slap your forehead and go ‘It’s Wendy Craig Doing Things!’ you’re so absorbed in the reality of her performances. More Wendy Craig on audio, please, she’s a downright national treasure who’s clearly still got the knack of adding emotional reality and value to any story in which she’s cast.

Episode Three, The Lost Boys by Lisa McMullin and Episode Four, Village of Dust by Roland Moore, bring us screeching back to the ‘present’ of the Series Eight narrative, and do in fact present us with an answer to one of the series’ longest running questions – is Peter Grant, Abby’s son and the Holy Grail the search for which has kept her alive and surviving all this time…actually still alive?

Yes. Yes, he is. You can call that a spoiler if you like, but it’s in the episode-synopses and the packaging, so we can’t feel too bad about it.

But of course, Peter, like his mother, has had to survive the world of the Death. He’s by no means the seemingly innocent young boy he used to be. In fact, in Lisa McMullin’s The Lost Boys, he’s rather neatly nicknamed Pan – leader of the lost boys under Robert Malcolm’s command. And where Malcolm has had the benefit of Jane Slavin’s backstory episode to muddy the waters of his motivations for us, with Peter, there’s a sharpness, an almost evangelistic nihilism in the ways he’s found to survive – but is there any way for this Peter, the real one, rather than the dream of the young boy that Abby has carried around with her, to reconcile with the mother he feels abandoned him to the world of the Death? Is he in fact a boy too lost to find his way home?

These are questions that stretch across both the latter episodes of the set, and in Village of Dust by Roland Moore, the question is put significantly to the test as Abby, determined that her blood connection to Peter will prove stronger than the bonds he’s made since they were separated, tries to reach out to him from a childhood he barely acknowledges. The way in which the question is put involves the siege of a village we’ve visited before in the Survivors audio adventures, and foreshadows the rise of a new potential threat – Abby and Jenny have been working to build their Federation, but in Village of Dust particularly, it becomes clear that there’s another idea fighting to win the future, backed by intensely organised, well-resourced and comparatively ruthless individuals who are yet to be revealed.

It would have been easy to create Survivors Series Eight to a plotting formula – drama, death, tension, betrayal, and a clash of ideologies. There’s a degree to which all those things are present and correct in Series Eight, certainly, but the care that’s taken to avoid the formulaic, to give unusual angles on what could otherwise have been stock figures and standard situations, raises it far above such easily constructed and button-pressing drama. That’s the Big Finish difference.

Here, there’s a genuine idea that maybe there are other ways to survive and build a future than anything our Survivors have imagined. There’s the argument of which is more important in shaping character, nature or nurture. There’s a love song to the complexity of humanity and how very little is as straightforward as it seems when you first meet it. And, of course, there’s a train robbery, a siege, betrayal, treachery and the rise of a new Big Potentially Very Bad, all of which is no mean feat for a series in its eighth box set. Get Survivors Series Eight because if you’ve come this far with it, you have to hear the reunion of Abby and Peter Grant. If you’re new to the series, go back and catch up, but Survivors Series Eight, when you get to it, will make perfect emotional and intellectual sense, while giving you at least a moment of closure, and opening up new vistas of potential plot towards the end. Tony Fyler

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