It begins with just a few people falling ill. Another flu virus that spreads around the globe. And then the reports begin that people are dying…
When most of the world’s population is wiped out, a handful of survivors are left to pick up the pieces.
Cities become graveyards. Technology becomes largely obsolete. Mankind must start again…
Lucy Fleming (Jenny Richards)
Ian McCulloch (Greg Preston)
John Banks (Daniel Connor)
Louise Jameson (Jackie Burchall)
Sinead Keenan (Susie Edwards)
Caroline Langrishe (Helen Wiseman)
Adrian Lukis (James Gillison)
Chase Masterson (Maddie Price)
Terry Molloy (John Redgrave)
Camilla Power (Fiona Bell)
Phil Mulryne (Phil Bailey)
San Shella (Sayed)
Special appearance by Carolyn Seymour (Abby Grant)
Written By: Matt Fitton, Jonathan Morris, Andrew Smith, John Dorney
Directed By: Ken Bentley
X X X X X
Everything old is new again.
Post-apocalyptic settings were a strong staple of 20th century fiction, and the trend continues today. Movies such as Snowpiercer and 28 Days Later mix with novels such as Oryx and Crake while video games such as the Fallout series gain legions of devoted fans. TV shows such as Jericho and The Last Ship attempt to grip their viewing audience with stories set after the end of the world. In modern times, the granddaddy of them all is of course The Walking Dead, a popular comic book made into an incredibly successful, in terms of viewers and word of mouth, television series. If one steps back into the 1980’s, they would experience a virtual wealth of stories about life after World War III, both as books and as movies like Mad Max and The Day After.
To most of today’s…slighter older…population, the best-known post-apocalypse story might be Stephen King’s doorstopper of a novel The Stand, a winding tale about a virulent strain of flu that kills 99.4% of the world’s population and sets about the (as always) “final” showdown between good and evil. To others, though, especially those who found themselves on the British Isles on or about 1975, another story about a violent disease that wipes out humanity is much more prevalent.
Survivors sprung from the pen of Terry Nation, famed creator of the iconic Doctor Who villains the Daleks as well as the cult sci-fi series Blake’s 7. People across the entire planet find themselves becoming violently ill over the course of a few hours with a new strain of untreatable influenza. It doesn’t take very long for society to crumble. The power goes out. Food deliveries grind to a halt. The trains sit idle on their platforms. The streets become graveyards and hospitals vast tombs. For the few survivors who find themselves immune to the sickness, everything they’ve ever known about life has vanished, and it’s up to them to either pick up the pieces and begin again, or follow the rest of humanity as they fight over the dwindling resources of a vanished world.
Survivors ran for three seasons on the BBC. Terry Nation wanted to focus on a group of survivors running from the new disputes and warlords that would have arisen in a post-Death (the nickname of the disease) England, while producer Terence Dudley preferred to settle the main characters in one place in order to save on the budget. Dudley won out, and Nation left after the first season, leading to a noticeable drop in the quality of the scripts and the story. Technical problems abounded as well, as the shoddy cameras used to shoot the series resulted in missed takes, scenes ruined due to film damage, and reflections popping up in weird places thanks to problems with the lenses. However, the show developed a following due to its willingness to not pull punches. Characters can, and did, die at any time. The series showed how a variety of groups dealt with survival, and not all of the ways were pleasant. And even moments of hopes were mixed with the grim reality of the survivor’s situation. Despite going off the air in 1977, the show had carved out enough of a niche within the pop culture psyche of a generation that a “re-imagining” aired for two seasons beginning in 2008.
Big Finish is a British company best known for its long-running range of Doctor Who audios that star Doctors and companions from the “classic run” between 1963 and the 1996 television movie. Along with Who, Big Finish has also released audios for shows such as Dark Shadows, Blake’s 7, the Avengers, and Sapphire and Steel. Survivors was announced in 2013 as Big Finish’s latest range. The first “series” of four audio episodes was released in 2014, with two more four episode series to follow in 2015 and 2016. Big Finish has received high praise for its Doctor Who audios, which successfully rehabilitated Colin Baker’s Doctor who had a lackluster run in the mid 80’s as well as giving Paul McGann, whose only appearance as the Doctor was in the 1996 movie, a chance to portray the Doctor for over ten years now. Survivors didn’t need “rehabilitation,” but the question was asked; could Big Finish take the harrowing nature of the 1970’s show and successfully replicate it in an audio-only format. The answer is a resounding “yes.” The first series of Big Finish’s Survivors mixes both new characters and familiar ones and utilizes the “limitless” effect budget audio can provide to create a desolate setting, from the death cries of the old world through the painful birth of a new, more hostile one.
Much like 1975’s The Four Horsemen, Survivors opens with a normal, everyday scene right out of British life. A father gets his family gets ready for church while their mother, a newspaper editor, prepares to head to the office, as they’ve been shorthanded over the past few days due to employees taking sick leave. A young, brash American lawyer finds herself stranded at the airport as international flights out of London are delayed. In the country, a young woman finds that her rural community has become quiet, with no one walking around the village or milking the cows. A local college professor finds that attendance of his lectures is dropping as students lie ill or race home to their families. As the opening episode, Revelation does a great job of showing just how quickly everything can fall apart. Writer Matt Fitton builds up the tension slowly instead of sending the listener crashing into the end of the world. Each scene is peppered with audio clues that the end of the world is here and no one knows it yet. By setting the new episodes of Survivors firmly in 1975, there is no Internet, no cell phones, no international 24 hour news networks. The man on the street isn’t putting together all the various clues, but instead focusing on their daily lives unaware of the bigger picture until it’s far too late. People are coughing during Professor Gillison’s lecture, there’s talk of the Wiseman’s neighbors keeping their children home from school so they don’t get sick, sirens are blaring in the background as Maddie Price demands service from the airline counter staff, and finally silence falls across London as the power goes out and the survivors realize that everything is different now. Maddie Price, played by Chase Masterson of Deep Space Nine fame, is loud, brash, and very in-your-face as the American lawyer stranded in London, unaware that even as she complains about her lack of luggage, New York is on fire and no planes will be crossing the Atlantic in the near future. It’s very easy to dislike Price at the beginning as she’s introduced after closing the proverbial “big deal,” but put against Terry Malloy’s government functionary John Redgrave in Heathrow’s VIP lounge, the listener soon begins to side with Price as the scope of the situation dawns on her, and she’s the one who finally takes action to see what lies beyond the airport. Malloy is well known for playing Davros, the scheming and screaming creator of the Daleks, and it’s a delight to hear him in this story playing it very low-key and very stiff-upper-lip, trying to carry out Her Majesty’s Government’s last known wishes even as he knows it’s all for naught.
The second episode, Exodus, sees the survivors struggling to survive and slowly coming to grips with a post-Death England. Some, like Professor Gillison, have already taken charge, sending out scavengers and setting up a radio broadcast to draw in anyone looking for safety. Others, like reporter Daniel Connor, wander London, standing in the halls of Parliament, seeing the missing pictures in the National Gallery, and being shot at while traversing Trafalgar Square. Jonathan Morris begins with four separate groups, and by the end of the story the listener is expecting them to band together and perhaps begin to bring order to chaos. But not all is as it seems, and expectations get tossed on their ear by story’s end. The total silence as Connor walks the streets on London is eerie to the point that the rattle of plates and silverware in Gillison’s canteen is a welcome relief, even if his bustling commune is a little…off-putting. Exodus is the first episode to reveal some of the tough choices and decisions that must be made in this new world, and even the “wrong” answers have some merit even if they are horrifying in nature. The second episode belongs to Louise Jameson, best known for her role as Leela alongside the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, on both television and in The Fourth Doctor Adventures, a Big Finish range reuniting the pair after over 30 years. There’s no hint of Leela in Jameson’s performance as she plays immune housewife Jackie Burchill. Her introduction to the listener and the climax of her introduction to Daniel Connor is rather easily predictable, but Jameson (and John Banks, who plays Connor) sells it for all its worth, teetering just for a moment on the edge of melodrama before snapping back into a heart wrenching scenario, the kind that would haunt mothers for eternity.
Andrew Smith pens Judges, the third episode, set a few months after the outbreak. By this point, listeners are well aware that James Gillison is not what he appears to be…or, perhaps even worse, is EXACTLY what he appears to be. Adrian Lukis, a long time character actor in several BBC shows, absolutely crushes it as Gillison, balancing between appearing to have everything under his cool and calm control while allowing himself moments of loss of control and angry outbursts. Long-term survival is now a possibility, so the question becomes how does a group survive? What steps should they take? Are the old laws even viable in a new world? There’s an old wrestling adage that applies to nearly all fiction; the best villains are those who believe they are complete and utterly in the right. Gillison’s actions and choices are what he feels to be those best for the long-term survival of humanity, but his paranoia and iron grip on the community make those choices intolerable. All are welcome, and those who wish to leave may do so, but in order to maintain the illusion that the surrounding cityscape is hell on Earth, those who do leave won’t even make it to the Thames. There’s no wishy-washy nature to Lukis’ performance, making Gillison a true master class in villainy. Judges also introduces three familiar characters to the revival; Greg Preston and Jenny Richards, characters from the 1975 series, are seen from their communal farm in the countryside by Abby Grant, who made a cameo appearance in the previous audio episode. Lucy Fleming and Ian McCulloch play the cautious survivors, reprising their television roles. Even though the listener knows they “survive” the proceedings by virtue of their appearance in the television series, Smith keeps the tension and mystery throughout the episode, not only within Gillison’s community, but through contact with other groups of survivors. Several original characters deserve notice as well, specifically Phil Bailey, the former member of the London Metropolitan Police played by Phil Mulryne and Camilla Power’s portrayal of Gillison’s right hand woman Fiona Bell. Both give hints of what happened to them in the months since the Death without falling into the trap of “here’s some clumsy exposition.” Instead, they both, along with Smith’s script, manage to “show don’t tell” the story of their characters through their actions and dialogue.
Esther brings it all together through the script by John Dorney. Greg and Jenny plan their escape from Gillison’s community, but who will come with them? When Fiona overhears their plans, will that person held them, hinder them, or betray them? Gillison’s hold on power is slipping, but does the professor have a final trick up his sleeve? Dorney’s script ties everything from the third episode together into a wonderful bow on top of a very bleak present. As I listened to the final episode, I slowly realized what Gillison’s plan was and it chilled me to the point of minor shivers and a quiet “oh, crap.” As I said earlier, we know Greg and Jenny survive, but no one else is safe. The ending brings Greg and Jenny (and maybe others) back to Abby Grant, along with the knowledge that, no matter where they go and who they meet, the concepts and morality of the old world has faded away.
Ken Bentley has been a long-time director for Big Finish Productions and in the theatre as well. He talks the helm here and manages to keep all four audios moving at a very brisk pace without things being rushed. Each episode is an hour, give or take a few minutes, and that includes both the story itself and some “behind-the-scenes” interviews and snippets from the recording sessions with the actors and writers. The story very rarely drags, with a few scenes running just a bit too long to be noticeable before cutting to the next segment. Neil Gardner, another Big Finish mainstay, handles the sound design, all the background noises that populate the world, from the sounds of humanity dying to the gentle calls of birds in the countryside. Perhaps his best work is when he chooses NOT to use sound, letting silence to all the talking. Nicolas Briggs, the “showrunner” as it were for the Doctor Who range of audios, is in charge of the music. The incidental music is low-key, but the music Briggs uses for “act breaks” as it were tends to be a little loud and had me turning the volume on my iPhone down a few times. However, he uses the original theme to open and close each episode, a brooding number instantly recognizable to viewers of the television series.
Big Finish manages to catch the essence of Survivors in a way that the 2008 series didn’t. The audios are much more about the relationships between the survivors and how a new world must arise, but doesn’t pull any punches in asking what kind of world it must be. While we know Greg and Jenny have to survive, the question of which of the original characters will make it is held over the listeners’ heads throughout. The characters we thought we would be following throughout the series…well, fate (and the writers) have different plans, but their deaths aren’t forced or shocking. There are moments of hope, such as when the community manages to get a helicopter in the air, but those hopes are soon dashed by reality. The choices that are made can be boiled down to “humanity vs. pragmatism,” and Survivors gives answers that aren’t easy to accept. It’s a very bleak series, but it’s also very gripping and entertaining as well. The four writers and the cast work very well to paint a new world, weaving it in with the original series in a respectful-and-powerful manner. Season Two will be out in 2015, and the critical and commercial success of Season One has led to the commissioning of a third series. There’s plenty of storytelling opportunities out there for Survivors and Big Finish has done a grand and respectful job of introducing new listeners to the world and bringing new stories to the ears of former viewers.
+ Incredible atmosphere
+ Unique, relatable villain
+ Great performances all around
Synopsis – Respectfully done, well-written and well-acted, Survivors presents four audio episodes that tell a gripping story about a world in its death throes and how those who remain deal with the ethical and moral choices they have to make, with both familiar voices and new characters.