Thursday, December 11, 2008

Surviving Survivors

The Christmas of 1993 conspired to scare the hell out of me. As was custom, I got two VHS tapes for Christmas care of the ABC shop - The Twin Dilemma and Blake's 7: Gold/Orbit. Despite having been forewarned by Saward's superlative novelization (which goes into some unnecessary detail on the subject, IMO), seeing the Doctor go ape and trying to kill Peri terrified me - though arguably it was the Silence of the Lambs "Piri" discussion, as the actual strangling bit is rubbish and you can clearly see his hands are on her shoulders than around her neck. But nothing warned me about the events of the B7 eps where first we are told gruesomely about the mummified corpses of Avon and Soolin, not to mention poor Kieller's off-screen death and Pinder and Egrorian going all Dorien Gray. But then Avon tries to kill Vila - and no unconvincing strangling there, just the Silence of the Lambs stuff cranked up to 11 because we know he will do it. (Another odd link - when the Doctor is looking for his new outfit, he considers a silver jacket with ZVP on the back... worn by everyone at the base in Gold). But the one thing that broke me was some enterprising young so-and-so decided that instead of a blurry add for a Doctor Who video or the usual copyright notice, we should see a special trailer for Survivors before the Scorpio escapades.

Between this and the grim content of the Blake's 7 episodes, it makes that tape one of the least viewed presents of my childhood.

With that crashing, thunderous music clearly composed with the words "almighty wrath" in the tone meeting, that anonymous Japanese scientist causing the death of mankind (presumably accidentally), shots of depressed extras getting flu shots, and then a church full of silent, unmoving people as a woman leaves the church and whimpers, "Please God, don't let me be the only one left!" (Oddly, it works given how stupid it looks written down). And then, the ridiculously-deep voiceover guy shouts over the final crescendo...


So, when, several years later I got my hands on a Survivors VHS I was slightly apprehensive. I put it on and to say I was disappointed was an understatement. It was rubbish! All shot on video (unlike the trailer), no one I recognized (from the trailer), no incidental music (unlike the trailer), and while I enjoy levity the end of human civilization is treated with less gravitas than the stock market. That terrifying score really doesn't work in context (you don't play Wagner over shots of people playing fetch with dogs, do you?) and it's all so bleeding dull and silent. OK, the silent might be a subtextual statement about the death of society, but it sounds like you've got an inferior dub. With everything shot on location it feels bloody cheap too.

The two eps I had were Starvation and, er, something else. With the Evil Half Nelson from Warriors of the Deep leading his might-as-well-be biological family to find someone called Peter (except... they give up in the first scene) it turns out that the handful of human survivors aren't just all within spitting distance of each other, they all seem to know each other. They all move into a country house with the traditional grandma and sheltered granddaughter, sleazy Welsh stereotype from the Pertwee era, the village idiot and then Chancellery Guard Commander Andred turns up with an Aussie accent and a cowboy hat and reminds everyone that the world is ended and their blind optimism things will sort out is stupid. They then get an eccentric millionaire staying while some poor crippled Fewsham pads out the episode by trying to kill everyone with guns before admitting his heart's not really in it. This stark, depressing and realistic drama ends with the family dog (last seen joining a wild pack of rabid feral wolves) bounces back and plays with the kiddies.

Yeah, I lived without seeing the rest of the series.

But now the BBC has brought it back as part of the subcultural zietgiest and lots of other complicated words that no one really understands. Having not really cared about the original Survivors, I wasn't really fussed - who cares if they change everything? But Freema Agyeman's in it, and maybe Doctor 11 is in it, and I need SOMETHING to keep the folks happy now Sarah Jane is over... Of course, the moment I mentioned it, my dad instantly turned down the suggestion, even though I have no idea if he knows what Survivors is. Mind you, checking out a series about global devastation isn't much of a turn on, especially now I know it not only refuses to work on DVD, but the picture quality is rubbish and it lacks the faintest spark of self-aware humor I look for in... well... anything.

Having checked out Terry Nation's material on more than one occasion, I can safely say this new series keeps his blunt, minimalistic, some would unkindly say hackwork, style. You get the bare bones and no matter the fact they form a great looking skeleton, without Chris Boucher/Dennis Spooner/Rob Holmes/Douglas Adams to add the meat, you can't hold the attention. Of course, Nation seemed to have a real love for the idea of a post-apocalyptic society struggling to survive. Not only does he use it in all of his Dalek stories, but the original pitch for Blake's 7 was worryingly similar - the London gang end up marooned on an alien planet and have to fight to survive as aliens wipe out life on Earth. But then you get the problem: a bunch of people complaining about farms and food rations is dull. But if you go too far with Futurekind savages and the like, it gets too damn depressing. Having watched the original Survivors, there was the painful feeling that the main cast were somehow being supernaturally prevented from any kind of realism which surely would involve them wiping themselves out over the last packet of biscuits.

So, anyway, after Jared kindly shows me the script for the first episode, I decide to see what the finished article is like.

Ooooh boy. Well, we're not talking Ben Aaronovitch, but there's a similar "missing the freaking point". It starts off with the title sequence showing the sun rise, fast-forward of life in London, huge crowds, traffic, interspersed with molecules subdividing and other 'plague' shorthand, finally ended with this animated cell division consuming all the images (the last of course, being a cute baby), then the sun setting, then the sun rising. Wow. I wonder what that little montage could represent. Even Torchwood knew it was best to avoid the title sequence on the first episode if it explained the whole point of the series.

So, after having been visually told of all life dying in one day... we cut to a busy airport. Oooh, let's see it again, but in slow motion. We get to see our face of humanity - Pete Tyler in an unconvincing Peter Davison wig and Megan Hartnell from At Home With the Braithwaites, except she's left herself go and is trying to be sympathetic (hereafter referred to as Robo Slut). Turns out that Pete and Robo Slut's son has only just recovered from a bout of lukemia and they have wisely sent him to a rough and tumble boy scouts camp for whitewater rafting. Pete is particularly pissed off at the fact Robo Slut has spent the last two weeks worried about her son's health, especially with "European Flu" on the loose. Is Pete a total bastard? Is Robo Slut suffering from Munchousen's by Proxy? Does anyone care?

We then follow some painfully unsophisticated exposition as newsreader tell everyone that London is grinding to a standstill with all the flu going about, while Pete's neighbours come round specifically to chat about how suddenly this flue epidemic popped up... before changing the subject. Now, having lived through the Bird Flu scare of the earlier part of this century, I am amazed at how casual everyone is. OK, they don't expect the human race to be annihilated, but you think they'd be a bit more worried. But RTD isn't invovled, so there are no vox pops, theories, people with definable personalities. Zilch. There is, however, Martha Jones who has undergone a spontaneously biological metacrisis and turned into three people - one looks like Freema Agyeman, one is a medical student, and one has a personality. They take turns in wandering around as more and more people look sweaty and ill and complain of being sick, like Shaun of the Dead without the irony. God damn you, the Pestilence is upon the Earth! PAY ATTENTION!

Proof positive we are screwed occurs when the government declare their spokesman is Nikki Anna-Bird (I think), also known as the Abbess of Kirkleys in Robin Hood and the titular Torchwood Sleeper. Now, this actress has a unique gift of being unable to say a single word and sound convincing. That is a true skill. Not many people can say, "Of course I'm not an alien suicidal bomber with a split personality!" and sound UNCERTAIN. With her monotone voice, nervous eye action and the body language screaming stage fright, the Abbess (as I now refer to her) pretty much sells the imminent end of everything as she takes a press conference and insists that everything is fine, just fine, and the worst they have to face is a couple of delayed trains and traffic jams. It's no wonder that within an hour of her 'don't panic' speech the entire Muslim community (apparently) decides it's time to cut their losses and pray for a miracle, even though there's no obvious reasons for them to assume armageddon is knocking at the door.

At this point, the Martha Jones triumvirate meet up at an overcrowded hospital turning away patients. Medical Student says that Personality is doomed while FA finds that at least a dozen people have died from the disease since they've been talking. Medical Student explains to FA that the virus causes the immune system to go crazy and destroy the victims from the inside out, that there is no time to catch and cure and that, all in all, it'd be better for them all to drop dead than suffer the premise of this entire series. By the time she's finished speaking, Personality is dead and FA says she has a headache and the lumpy armpits of bubonic death.

The Abbess visits her increasingly-depleted emergency room as, with similar subtletly we see TV screens showing a red blob spreading across the USA with the caption "FLU CRISIS NOW GLOBAL" (but sadly no Mal Loup/Trinity Wells karking it on air). It says a lot that the quite admission that the Prime Minister (mere moments after the Abbess declared him in perfect health) has died in the plague and mobiles are unlikely to stay working than the "we're looking at 90 percent of the Earth's population is dead." With one last moment of raging incencerity ("What's that, love? You're ill? So is the entire family? Granny's in a coma? Of course it's nothing, just a bug going round. See you tonight."), the Abbess tells the population of Great Britain to suck it up and not act like it's the end of the world as suddenly all the power cuts out across the globe, symbollically noting the death of 5.9 billion people. [The Abbess seems to survive to become a regular character, for what it is worth, but she might as well perish here as far as this episode is concerned.]

And, oh god, who cares?

I don't. Everyone except the main cast dies. Pat Joseph might have been decent as the Doctor. Boo hoo. Turns out Danny from The Satan Pit released the virus in the first place. The end.

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