SURVIVORS, REVISITED (2014): A television series from past about the now-future

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SURVIVORS, REVISITED (2014): A television series from past about the now-future
One of the more smug, not to say stupid, comments on television recently came from an expert speaking about the likelihood of the Ebola virus in West Africa making it to New Zealand. The essence of what he said was that the country’s geographical isolation would protect us.

This opinion followed the statistic which said that this easily communicable and often deadly virus – it kills around 60 percent of those who contract it – had an incubation period of between two and 21 days.

Given that broad window and the speed of international air travel – I can get to the other side of the planet to see my children in less than that lower end of the time frame – I think our expert might have been just a little too cocky.

By the same argument, Aids wouldn’t have made it to New Zealand either, let alone various kinds of flu.

Okay, this might sound unnecessarily alarmist. And subsequent to that news item 10 days ago some screening measures, very modest however, have been put in place at New Zealand’s international airports.

But sometimes the real world and that of fiction can overlap and the latter send warnings to us.

In the opening sequences of the recent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes feature we see “simian flu” spreading across the planet through a graphic showing airline routes.

The Apes montage is similar to that of passport stamps at the start of the superb British television series from the Seventies, Survivors.

survivors_horsesCreated by Terry Nation (the man behind early Doctor Who and Blake 7), Survivors was a bleakly realistic look at a post-plague Britain in which a few remaining individuals struggle to survive in a world without electricity, where cities are blighted and uninhabitable, and some have organised themselves into small but isolated communities.

Unlike the more recent remake – which scrupulously observed a gender and racial balance among its good-looking lead characters – the original series showed a broad spectrum of humanity from waif-like children and the mentally feeble to the resolute and ruthless.

As a few thousand people in Britain struggle to survive in a landscape that is predominantly rural (towns uninhabitable because of the bodies and roaming packs of scavenger animals) the world is inverted: a ne’er-do-well Welsh tramp now drives a Rolls Royce (at least until the petrol runs out) and those with the most basic skills in farming have it over the former captains of industry.

Ironically the selfish and self-interested often do better than the altruistic.

As people find each other over this three season, 24-episode series, systems emerge which range from practical and agrarian socialism to nascent bully-boy fascism. And of course, the loner survivalists.

A lot of people are armed, either for protection or because as thuggish, militaristic gangs they will raid the resources of those who have them.

Survival depends on simple things like running water. Crops lovingly tended for a year can fail. Starvation is ever-present. Childbirth is dangerous, a toothache can lead to worse through infection, and you don't want to get bitten by a dog.

But birth, pain and bites happen.

Yes, sometimes the characters look like they have access to warm water and shampoo, and occasionally the acting is hammy, melodramatic or clumsy (Ian McCulloch as bullishly jut-jawed Greg a prime offender) . . . but mostly people are dirty, distressed, scared and realise just how few useful skills they have in this time which exists between the Neolithic and the Modern Age -- with all of the problems of the first and none of the technology of the latter. The series is in colour but feels washed out and grey.

survivors.lrgjpgAs with Colditz of the same period, the series is understated and mostly undramatic. The tension is in the context not in the confrontations, and you need to look past the acting flaws and sometimes dogged plotting to the bigger picture.

Survivors makes for compelling viewing and very few of these actors became such regular faces on the small screen as you'd say, “Oh, that's . . . .”

You can get very drawn into this post-plague world where food is scare and stockpiling can be as dangerous and it is necessary, because the gun-toting gang might arrive to steal what you have.

All three series of Survivors are now available on DVD and Blu-ray (through Madman) and – those reservations about some aspects aside – it still makes for facinating viewing. Even when it is talking heads.

And maybe, just maybe, a glimpse of the now-future if that remote Ebola outbreak – which the World Health Organisation recently declared an international health emergency – becomes a pandemic.

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Graham - Aug 19, 2014

Sounds great viewing. As is often the case the pricing is way out of line though - JB Hifi want NZ$110 whilst Amazon UK will deliver for NZ$39. Go figure...

Bruce - Aug 21, 2014

Hey Graham, FYI, the Auckland Public Library has the complete 3 series for rent in it's DVD collection, good value @ $5.20 for 28 day rental...............the library service is one great but isolated example of your super city conglomerate working for you!! ;-) The washed out and grey colour wasn't intentional apparently. They shot on early hand held video cameras and had heaps of technical problems with the video transfers apparently Fantastic show that's for sure, though Terry Nation left after creative control issues with the BBC Producer at the end of the first series and the law of diminishing returns set in somewhat. Bruce. GRAHAM REPLIES: Good tip, thanks. Yes I agree re diminishing returns, by the third series it isn't as strongly scripted but I forgive some of that because it is the ideas that drive it which make it compelling (despite the hammy acting which I mentioned!)

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