24 November, 2008

What the Papers Say: "Survivors"

Andrew Billen, The Times

Einstein and Eddington was good television that could have been even better with more ambition. Survivors last night was trashy television that wouldn't have needed to work hard to be much worse.

As I recall, the plot of the original Terry Nation Survivors in the mid-1970s, was simple: virus conks out most of the world (England); group of middle-class survivors try and make a go of it. Thirty years of telly has changed only the composition of the survivors, so now we get a couple of Muslims, a black man (the always good Paterson Joseph, possibly our next Doctor Who) and a prole prisoner (Max Beesley). The leader, natch, is now female: Julie Graham, whose career turns out not to have been buried by Bonekickers.

I spent most of the 90 minutes wondering how they found the empty roads and car parks in which to film and I bet you did, too. I admit, however, to being surprised twice by the writer Adrian Hodges's screenplay: once when Beesley killed his prison guard (I was sure they'd be a double act, each claiming the other was the con) and at the twist at the end when it seemed the virus had been deliberately created in a shiny lab. More good news: the original series ran for 38 episodes: this runs for six.


Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian

" haven't got the strength. I don't mean for living in a world where everyone else has perished and I must milk goats, skin rabbits and fist-fight zombies for the last unspeakable can of Red Bull.

I mean for experiencing more post-apocalyptic horror. Let's review. I've seen Will Smith battle mutants in I Am Legend. I've watched Cillian Murphy flee London as it falls prey to my all-time favourite virus (rage) in 28 Days Later. I've witnessed Robert Carlyle's worry lines tauten as he takes out the zombie trash in 28 Weeks Later and tauten anew as London disappears below CGI waves in Flood. I've read John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. I've been on night buses in Coventry.

Some have suggested that the six-part drama Survivors (BBC1) is too bleak for credit-crunch Britons. Only Ant and Dec serving Brucie's stringy remains instead of kangaroo goolies to Robert Kilroy-Silk can cheer us up now. But this view is wrong: Survivors is too upbeat, even though, admittedly, its leading premise is that a virus slays 90% of humanity. Its other premise, after all, is that the survivors think life is worth living, and learn sustainable skills in a world without sanitation or cable. They should read Cormac McCarthy's The Road to disabuse themselves. McCarthy saw that future and, brother, it is murder.

Unforgivably, Survivors had no zombies. There wasn't even - as there was in The Others - a zombie Eric Sykes walking verrry slooowly towards Nicole Kidman. Even thinking about that now gives me chills. Incidentally, did you ever see Sykes' sitcom with Hattie Jacques? Now that was genuinely terrifying. Instead, in Survivors the undead played the dead for 90 minutes. Those actors who played characters with such names as Dead Bloke No 87 should really consider changing their agents.

Survivors' emblematic moment arrived when a character opened a car door and a corpse fell out. "What the?" exclaimed the survivor. The plague was worse than we thought: the good writers didn't make it through.

There was no laughter track so I supplied my own.

Come on, you might reply. Don't you realise that Survivors is a re-imagining of Terry Nation's 70s classic, topically updated for an era in which we are more in thrall to technology than ever? Allow me to retort. In disinterring Nation's far-from-classic series, BBC drama chiefs show themselves as creatively barren as those Americans who retool and neuter Japanese horror movies or British sitcoms.

And strike me down for saying something so blasphemous, but even Russell T Davies's zombified version of Terry Nation's Doctor Who, for all its awards and ratings, is bombastic, ponderous, potboiling drama that ruthlessly obliterates the original's unwitting and low-budget charm. Survivors is in thrall to the new Who's production values - its farrago of cinematographic gimmicks, its overblown musical score, its breathless mugging.

My spirit soared once. A man pulled up in a well-appointed Land Rover. No, it couldn't be - could it? - Johnson from Peep Show. The guy who kicked the sales team up the bum so hard they had to speak with leather tongues? The guy who seduced Big Suze from Jez while sporting only a too-short satin gown and a smug grin? Yay! - Johnson survived. (Incidentally, Paterson Joseph, who plays Johnson in Peep Show and Greg Preston in Survivors, is being touted to take over from David Tennant in Doctor Who. He could be the first black Doctor - which would put Barack Obama's achievement into perspective.)

But what's this? In Survivors' glum world Johnson has mutated into Ray Mears. He aims to grow vegetables and live, possibly communally, in harmony with nature. Just kill me now."


David Chater, The Times

"Here’s an appropriate drama series to mark the start of a recession. Based on the 1970s novel created by Terry Nation – the man who dreamt up the Daleks – it describes how a group of people fend for themselves after 95 per cent of the world’s population has been wiped out by a deadly flu virus.

This is a world with no electricity, no phones, no Caffè Nero, no nothing. “The future is wide open,” says one survivor (Max Beesley). “We can make it what we want.” It is a potent idea, but the treatment is pure trash telly. Instead of the authenticity of other Doomsday programmes (eg, Smallpox 2002 or The Day Britain Stopped) this is contrived and sluggish. Instead of being frightened by the end of civilisation, you risk being mildly bored. That can’t be right."


Tom Sutcliffe,
The Independent

"Pounding headache? Sore throat? Swollen glands? Take one episode of Survivors and you'll soon be feeling dreadful. Neatly timed for the return of the flu season, BBC1's remake of the apocalyptic drama is nicely calculated to turn a minor twinge or an achy feeling into a harbinger of imminent doom and civilisational collapse.

After all, the victims here were sure that all they needed was a hot bath and a Lemsip, but before you could say "Black Death", the hospital mortuaries were overflowing and the gears of society were beginning to grind to a halt. And although the government was at first reassuring about its capacity to cope with the mystery virus, it wasn't long before a civil servant was admitting to the minister that mortality rates were going to reach 90 per cent.

Typical bureaucratic hedging. Judging from what you saw on screen, it was much, much worse than that. There were only about 10 people left alive in all of Manchester, for example, though fortunately for the drama they showed a quite extraordinary ability to bump into one another, so that they could slowly aggregate into an unwilling tribe. A local playboy, disturbed to find his one-night stand dead in the bed beside him, teamed up with an 11-year old Muslim boy he found wandering the streets. A mother, searching for her missing son, paired up with a capable-looking type who had already loaded a Land Rover with survival gear and was heading for the hills. And Anya, a doctor, literally stumbled over Tom, a sociopathic lifer who worked out his own parole terms by killing the last guard standing. And then, near the end, everyone met everyone on a deserted stretch of motorway.

What was interesting was how rapidly the plotline itself removed any need for extensive updating. Everyone has mobile phones these days, but the networks were among the first fripperies to go. And the internet isn't going to be a lot of use either, so today's refugees are in pretty much the same position as those in the Seventies original, other than the fact that they haven't recently had a Three-Day Week to hone their black-out skills (Terry Nation's original, it's worth remembering, was a response to an era when the conveniences of civilisation really couldn't be taken for granted). There were some signs of modernity. "You're not a paedophile, are you?" asked the young boy warily when the playboy offered him a lift, a line you can't imagine being in Nation's original script, but that aside, there's not much to differentiate our apocalypse from the first one. A final coda, revealing white-coated scientists who appeared to know much more about the origins of the pestilence than was respectable, suggested that the real fun will start next week."


Damian Thompson, Daily Telegraph

"Survivors (BBC1) is a “vivid reimagining” of Terry Nation’s Seventies doomsday thriller, in which almost the entire population of Britain dies from a lethal flu that “turns the body’s immune system in on itself”, whatever that means: it’s a staple diagnosis of medical dramas.

Last night’s feature-length first episode whittled down an enormous cast to a handful of leading characters who represented a curiously wide cross-section of society: a young white female doctor, a black former City entrepreneur, a middle-class housewife, an Asian playboy and a Muslim schoolboy. Whoops, someone forgot the white working class. Throw in Max Beesley as an escaped convict who stabbed a prison officer and probably votes BNP.

It’s not a bad piece of work, but I don’t enormously care what happens to these folk as they stumble through the post-apocalyptic landscape because (a) we’ve all seen umpteen versions of this scenario and (b) the fun bit is already over. No, I take that back – I mean the alarming, distressing bit, where a spot of man flu turns into the bubonic plague and you watch your neighbours dropping like flies in the launderette.

Survivors didn’t stint on the mass death front: we saw call girls stiff with rigor mortis in their clients’ beds, Muslims with their heads permanently bent towards Mecca after expiring during prayers, and Margo and Jerry Leadbetter types strewn like rag dolls across the stockbroker belt. That’ll teach them not to pay their licence fee."


Overnights: 6.5 million (26% share)


coco said...

'Shaun of the Dead' is given the BBC 'seriousness' treatment. I'm not surprised this is a remake: in a way, all BBC dramas are re-hashings of 3 or 4 basic story lines.

Anonymous said...

The BBC should stop making drama. Right now. Please.

Robin Kelly said...

I think that all art to a lesser or greater degree is about rehashing the art that has gone before.

I don't think that's the issue but rather the way that it is done. Someone with a bit of imagination who's prepared to so some work can take those basic storylines and make them quality and must-see.