Survivors Series Seven – Starring Carolyn Seymour, Ian McCulloch, Lucy Fleming, Louise Jameson, Helen Goldwyn & Zoë Tapper. Written By: Roland Moore, Simon Clark, Matt Fitton & Christopher Hatherall. Directed By: Ken Bentley – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Survivors tells the story of a 1970s world decimated by a plague that wipes out over 90% of humans on the planet (known as ‘The Death’). It’s always been a story told with a very Seventies British outlook – very domestic, very grim. There’s no glitz to the apocalypse of Survivors, no characters that are ‘bound to make it.’ Part of its outlook has always been that anyone can be killed off, and once they’re dead, they stay dead. It’s always been designed as a microscope to show us the very worst of humanity under pressure, and the sometimes-successful struggle to hold on to the decencies that are easy in a privileged society, when those privileges are stripped away and everything is hard.
In Series 7, there’s less by way of gruesome shock than in previous box sets, and more in terms of character development, as several of the characters we’ve come to know and like face pivotal moments of crisis.
In Journey’s End by Roland Moore for instance, Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour), whose life after the Death has been more or less entirely focused on finding her son Peter runs into a band of people who had dealings with Peter just six months earlier – the closest she’s come to finding him. But can she trust these people, their memories or even the hard evidence they give her of what’s happened to her son? And if she can, what will she have left to live for? Carolyn Seymour’s performance in this story is a snotty, raw, visceral punch in the face; the eventual uncorking of the maternal emotion which has powered her character all the way through, something you can only admire, and weep for, and get out of the way of, as it threatens to consume the world. But Abby, unable to settle once she knows the truth, still manages to find a way to bring positivity to the post-plague world. There are a couple of guessable twists in Moore’s script: one character’s frailty comes increasingly to the fore, and it happens for exactly the reasons you suspect it does, but the power of Seymour’s performance more than pulls you through Journey’s End and yanks you out the other side with your understanding of the Survivors world changed forever.
Legacy, by Simon Clark, similarly reveals what has happened to another original survivor – this time engineer Greg Preston. Greg has had a dream since Survivors began, to create a kind of federation of communities, and to get the basics of a 1970s society back on its feet – railways, telecommunications and so on – as a way to rebuild the idea of consistent law and order in a post-apocalyptic world. Legacy tells the tale of one of his last ‘off-screen’ adventures, leaving his wife and son at home to become a railwayman, and tangling with a food-rich society in which things are fairly obviously not as utopian as they might appear. In fact, there’s a difference here with some previous dystopias we’ve visited in Survivors inasmuch as it’s almost-blatant, showing an evolutionary shift in the thinking of post-apocalyptic people some years after the initial disaster. Food is gold now, and everyone has to decide whether survival or freedom is most important to them. There’s a solid creative conceit in Legacy, with Greg and his wife Jenny encountering the same community at different points in its development, allowing Greg a voice in events despite not being in the ‘present day’ when Jenny rides the train he used to run, and visits the community governed on the basis of indentured servitude, each of them leaving their mark on its nature in turn.
Matt Fitton’s Old Friends is probably the most affecting story in the set, even given the revelations and performances in the first two episodes. Jackie Burchall, played by Louise Jameson, has always been an odd survivor, and the oddness of it is a thing she herself appreciates. Never terribly clever, her emotional strength has always seemed to come in spite of herself, her almost desperate need to mother younger survivors rooted in both her fundamental nature and in a need to do penance for an act that skirts the boundaries of crime and kindness. In Old Friends, Jameson’s back as Burchall, and the world in which she lives is one of ghosts of happier times as she wills herself to waste away in secrecy and solitude, unwilling to carry on living in the ‘real’ world, and yet, discovering a sliver of faith, unable to simply take her own life. When fellow survivors Ruth and Evelyn come to find her, move her out of the way of a new generation of post-plague anarchists, Jackie has to decide whether to hold on to her happier ghosts or face the world as it is. It takes dark, bright confessions, tough love, and the urging of a very particular ghost in her ear to push Jackie to a final decision. There’s not a dud note across the hour’s length of Old Friends, with Jameson as Burchall, Helen Goldwyn as Ruth, Zoe Tapper as Evelyn and John Banks as Jackie’s friend Daniel all turning in vibrating, pitch-perfect performances that keep you glued all the way through and mean you’re never entirely sure which way Jackie will jump. Old Friends brings the drama down to a single cold question: when everyone you care for dies, would you want to survive?
The box set rounds out with Reconnection from Christopher Hatherall, a hopeful and more plot-driven story that takes the Survivors world forward. The legacy of Greg Preston looms large, as Jenny (Lucy Fleming) goes to a hydro-electrical power plant with the intention of bringing electrical power back to a host of communities. Along the way, she bumps into a sorrow-drowning Abby, and faces opposition from the forces of greed, nationalism and unreconstructed machismo. Without spoiling the end, it’s a story that balances the progress of plot with some blistering characterisation and dialogue for Jenny and Abby, and shows how far our particular clutch of survivors have come since the immediate impact of the Death.
The original TV version of Survivors ran for three series. The Big Finish audio version has now clocked up seven box sets and is beginning to move beyond the timeframe of that original version. What’s more, after the immediate shocking struggles of the post-Death years, the dilemmas it’s starting to present are broader, less shockingly gruesome ones, as the society of Survivors evolves from fearful tight communities to a more recognisable model, and the struggles are framed more in terms of order versus chaos than of the pure mechanics of survival and the fall of society as it used to be.
If you think that means Survivors packs less of a punch than it used to now it’s seven series old though, think again – each episode here more than pulls its emotional weight, and raises the spectre of people being horrible to one another. But more than usual, there’s a sense in this seventh box set that even in horrifying, dark times, good people will still exist, and sometimes, they’ll even triumph. In that, Survivors 7 is a box set that speaks to the mood of 2017 and 2018, like catharsis in audio. Pick it up today and remind yourself that while nothing’s guaranteed, goodness – at least every now and again – can prevail. Tony Fyler