Big Finish’s Survivors, Series Nine: the legacy of an apocalyptic TV classic

Please note: this piece was originally written in 2019, but it was never published (mainly because it was too bloomin’ long). Our chat about Survivors in the most recent episode of the podcast inspired Dan to put it on the blog

Most important points first: Survivors is the best series of audio dramas that Big Finish Productions have ever made, and this is the final box set.  2019 is rife with conclusions to long-running epics, from Marvel’s cinematic universe to TV’s Game of Thrones to the Skywalker saga, but Survivors dwarfs all of them, this release completing a story arc that original writer Terry Nation began on TV in 1975.  But is it a worthy conclusion, and was the protracted journey worth it in the end?  Survivors Series Nine is written by Jane Slavin, Christopher Hatherall, Roland Moore and Andrew Smith, and directed by Ken Bentley.  It is available for purchase as a CD or download directly from the Big Finish website (where the first episode of the series can be downloaded for free) or on CD from other retailers.

Synopsis

9.1 The Farm by Jane Slavin

After a short, sharp coup, power has shifted and a new order asserts control over the country. Meg Pritchard believes she is the leader who can draw together the threads of civilisation.

With the men sent to war, Jenny must help the women of ‘The Farm’ see the truth behind their new society.

9.2 Hearts and Mines by Christopher Hatherall

The Protectorate now holds resources once shared by the Federation. Its enemies are branded terrorists, as they skirmish up and down the country.

Craig wants to strike a decisive blow, while Abby still hopes for reconciliation. Ruth is caught between her friends: can she stop them both from making terrible mistakes?

9.3 Fade Out by Roland Moore

Robert Malcolm is closing in on the ringleaders still struggling against the Protectorate. One of his soldiers has reasons to make this fight personal.

But the fugitives, hiding in an abandoned cinema, find that people are tired of war. When the soldiers come to town, for some, this will be their last stand.

9.4 Conflict by Andrew Smith

The Protectorate tightens its grip on the fragile infrastructure of a country in recovery. All stirrings of rebellion must be crushed.

But Jenny has a plan to unseat its leaders once and for all. And now she and Abby are heading inexorably towards a final confrontation.

The series

This article contains no spoilers for this box-set but does reveal some character developments from earlier in the series.

Oh, to hell with it.  In case you’re a fan of the Survivors TV series and audios, who’s been following the saga but hasn’t yet heard the finale, let me answer my last two questions with a simple “Yes”.  All four episodes in this box-set are high-quality, unfailingly gripping drama, and the finale – from the pen of one of Big Finish’s finest writers – is thoroughly convincing and satisfying.  TV Survivors ended inconclusively in 1977, but thanks to this audio series, the arcs of almost all of its major characters finally come to a meaningful end.  Stop reading this review, and go and listen to it now.

However, if perhaps you aren’t so familiar with the history of either the TV or audio series, allow me to wax lyrical.

The premise of Survivors is joyously simple and immediately fascinating: 99.9% of the world’s population are suddenly wiped out by a flu-like plague, and the naturally-immune 0.01% left behind must find a way to begin again.  I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction and a few years I go I found myself, in a binge that was deep even by my standards, imbibing multiple end-of-the-world narratives at once.  I watched The Walking Dead, read F Paul Wilson’s Adversary Cycle, even worked in a Scream Park (where, as a miscellaneous ghoul, I got to wander through a zombie-infested wasteland looking for tourists who wanted their picture taken with me).

But, gripping though many of these frolics often were, the one which by most affected me was, by far, Survivors.  It turned out that of the vast array of fiends that seem to come to prominence following every fictional apocalypse – the zombies, vampires, giant insects, murderous flora and the rest – nothing was as chilling as Survivors’ ultimate demon: simply a terrible, terrible quiet.

In the first TV episode, The Fourth Horseman – still one of the most intentionally shattering viewing hours ever presented as entertainment – Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour) wanders through her Kent village searching for anyone else who may have proved immune.  In one of a number of bone-chilling moments presented with matter-of-fact starkness, she finds a church full of corpses and, looking up to the skies, intones in a simple, plaintive voiceover: “Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one.”

Abby only appeared in the first of Survivors’ three TV seasons, Seymour leaving the show reportedly due to disagreements with producer Terence Dudley, who may have been unhappy paying the high salary she commanded (the highest of any actress at the BBC at the time).  One of the many joys of the Big Finish continuation is that it brought Seymour back to the role after 39 years and has given her ample opportunity to prove that she was (and still is) worth every penny that Dudley allegedly begrudged.

Abby had disappeared from the TV show apparently in search of Peter, her unseen son – known to have been on a boarding school field trip when the plague struck, and thus possibly still alive – leaving a key storyline unresolved until Big Finish picked it up and took it in a surprising direction.  Over the course of nine box-sets, Abby’s search has brought her to many a dead-end – I’m thinking particularly of Roland Moore’s heart-wrenching Journey’s End from Series Seven – and Seymour has always portrayed Abby’s indefatigable drive and near-self-destructive obsessiveness with such realism it’s occasionally hard to listen.

And yet, as this finale shows, Abby remains an inspirationally brave and heroic character, someone who you’d hope would be there at the dawn of a new world, who holds on to her compassion despite repeated encounters with the worst of humanity.  Ever since she burned her house down and cut her hair short at the end of The Fourth Horseman­ – saying goodbye to her old life to give herself the best chance of finding a new one – she’s never lost her steely resolve, or her ability to do the unexpected, in the face of an agonising decision.

The Big Finish Survivors began in 2014 (ignoring the continuity of a TV remake transmitted in 2008-9) and initially had the same relationship to the original TV show as Fear the Walking Dead has to The Walking Dead: starting the story from the same point and depicting events from the perspective of different characters in a different location.  While Abby’s apocalypse was largely rural and middle-class, the end portended by an epidemic of late-running trains and the breakdown of the phone link to her son’s boarding school, Matt Fitton’s award-winning Revelation kicked off the audio series with the claustrophobic terror of London in collapse and Heathrow in quarantine.

Over the course of several episodes, the audio series established its own group of survivors including Daniel Connor (John Banks), Maddie Price (Chase Masterson), and Jackie Burchall (Louise Jameson) before gradually bringing them into contact with characters and actors from the TV original, including Abby, Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming), Greg Preston (Zombie Flesh Eaters star Ian McCulloch), Jimmy Garland (Richard Heffer) and Ruth Anderson (the embattled young medic exemplified on TV by the late Celia Gregory but in the audios perfectly recast with Helen Goldwyn).

Greg (Ian McCulloch), Jenny (Lucy Fleming) and Abby (Carolyn Seymour)

In fact, the only major TV character missing from the audio series is Charles Vaughn, the commune leader played charismatically by Dennis Lill (Only Fools and Horses, Rumpole of the Bailey, Sherlock Holmes – to name just a few of many significant credits).  The non-appearance of Charles has apparently been due to rights issues, as he wasn’t actually created by Terry Nation, but he finally gets a graceful name-check in Andrew Smith’s finale script – he was just off-stage all the time.

The horror that all the characters in Survivors must face is that of a world in which not only their loved ones, but every single person they’ve ever known, is gone, and the from-scratch rebuilding of civilisation must be down to them. Given the premise of the series, by these final episodes, many of the initial survivors are no longer, well, surviving.

It’s several years since the plague that became known as ‘the Death’, Greg’s attempt to set up a federation between burgeoning communities has fallen down, and in its place has risen the Protectorate, a kind of military dictatorship headed by Meg Pritchard (Richendra Carey).

A persistent motif across both the TV series and audios has been how the power vacuum left by the Death has provided an easy step towards fascism, as the terrified survivors, desperate for leadership and stability, become prone to follow clever bullies who are able to make their heartlessness look like strength.  Pritchard is the apotheosis of this tendency, played by Carey with just enough charm to be a credible leader to her immediate followers (who include, for complex but believable reasons, Abby) but viewed with enough scepticism by the remote communities that rebellion is brewing.

One of the resistance leaders is Jenny Richards, and the episodes set the stage for a powerful confrontation between the two former friends.  It feels significant and satisfying that the audio series should include this in its conclusion, given that Fleming and Seymour share a history going back to the first TV episode, and also that Lucy Fleming is able to match Carolyn Seymour beat-for-beat in emotional intensity. 

Hubert (John Abineri) with a competently-armed Jenny

(Fleming is a rarely-employed actor perhaps more famous for being the inheritor of the estate of her uncle Ian – creator of James Bond – than for her acting, but she’s terrific here.  One of the joys of the TV show is watching her quick development from an earnest but slightly wooden presence in the early episodes – at one point the director pans away from her face to a symbolic shot of rain puddles to suggest Jenny’s anguish, perhaps because the young actress wasn’t able to produce tears on camera – to a performer capable of a really visceral realism by the second season.)

A criticism of the TV series was that, as it went on – especially in the second and third series, which were not overseen by Terry Nation – it moved away from the brutal, stark horror of the post-Death world and towards a more pastoral kind of survival, as the characters settled into communes and were challenged more often by the practicalities of farming than by the dark depths of human nature revealed by the new world.  It could still be powerful stuff on occasion (the episodes written by Greg actor McCulloch are especially strong) but something of the original flavour was lost.

The audio series has largely remedied this by bringing on a strong procession of villains to keep the survivors under maximum stress.  The TV series did this too, but more sporadically, and with characters who tended to pop up for one memorable episode and then disappear.  The audio series has often used its format to improve on this: with exceptions (Series Six and Seven), each box-set tells a serialised and contained story which affords time to explore antagonists’ motivations, rationale and humanity, lending typically villainous character types a depth and believability which increases their menace.

Apart from Meg Pritchard, the main ‘villain’ of Series Nine is Robert Malcolm (Hywel Morgan), the principled but frighteningly ruthless commander of Pritchard’s military.  An army officer before the Death, Malcolm benefits from the long-form storytelling even more then preceding antagonists: he was introduced in Series Eight and even given a flashback episode allowing listeners to re-experience the collapse of civilisation from his viewpoint and to feel the impact of everything he lost.  He also benefits from the hugely menacing performance of Morgan, whose Welsh accent lends his speeches a hint of persuasive charm that leaves listeners in no doubt that he does not trade in empty threats.

Unlike lesser mid-tier villains, Morgan genuinely cares about the soldiers under his command, and is clear-eyed about the faults of his superior; in a different world, he could’ve been a good man.  But his strategic competence, his sincere belief in the necessary use of force and his ability to exploit his hold over Abby mean that he evokes a constant sense of danger.

Every episode in this box-set has a foreboding electronic music score by Nicholas Briggs, Big Finish’s multi-talented executive producer (forever doomed to be remembered for perhaps his least-favourite but most culturally significant gig: he’s voiced the Daleks and Cybermen on TV Doctor Who since 2005).  The use of music is striking in both the TV and audio versions of Survivors.  Incidental music is entirely absent in the TV series, subtly emphasising the lonely desolation inherent in the premise and lending a matter-of-fact quality to the stark societal horrors presented.  (It was a point lost in the 2008 remake, wherein the scene described above, with Abby despairingly appealing to God as she fears she is alone in the new world, was undermined by a cacophonous accompaniment that suggested a 180-piece orchestra was just around the corner.)

Big Finish realised that a complete lack of musical score might be a mistake in audio drama – where the music often fills in for a lack of visuals – and so Briggs, and later composers, compromised by opting for sparing use of unmelodic stings and washes which aurally suggest the harsh emptiness of the post-Death world.  Over the course of the nine box-sets, however, more melody has crept into the scores, and it seems appropriate that the final box set features the most musically-nuanced backing of the series.

The 1975 novelisation of the first TV series

The TV episodes always began and ended with different arrangements of Anthony Isaac’s theme tune: doom-laden, dramatic and largely electronic for the opening titles, and then epically orchestral (and tentatively hopeful) for the end credits.  To me, this seemed to reflect the journey that the survivors must take if humanity is to prevail: to recover from the shock of the Death itself and build the foundations for a future society that might be better than the one they knew.  While the focus of the final episodes are, rightly, on the plight of the characters we have followed since the beginning, Smith’s script (and Briggs’ score) is peppered with details which suggest that a new day might be about to dawn for this world.

How ironic that this, at least for the moment, is to be the last of Big Finish’s Survivors.  The company has taken inspiration from Terry Nation’s original and created a genuinely believable, fascinating and powerfully affecting world.  If they were ever to revisit it, there would be endless angles for fruitful exploration: the series is effectively alternative history, in which civilisation collapsed in 1975 – so, one can’t help but wonder, what’s the Survivors version of 2019 like?  Perhaps, if sales pick up, we might one day get to answer that question.  But with regard to this box-set, Abby, Jenny and the others have the finale they have always deserved.

Extras

As with many Big Finish box-set releases, each disc features a suite of behind-the-scenes interviews.  The commitment of everyone involved, and their well-justified pride in their work, is clear, if tinged with a little sadness that this is the end of the run.  Producer David Richardson doesn’t rule out a hypothetical return to the Survivors world one day, but is coy about what form it may take.  Like the series’ own characters, we live in hope.

TD Velasquez

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