Whenever I’ve stumbled into an online list proclaiming the best science fiction TV shows ever, I very rarely see the 1975 post-apocalyptic British drama Survivors listed, and that’s not only a shame, but a sad indication of how we’ve come to think about science fiction. Special effects are the currency of the genre, unfortunately, and that downgrades older productions when looked at by modern eyes, often not being able to rectify limited or clunky visual effects against every other aspect of the show. Survivors undercuts this by relying on no special effects whatsoever, but in a landscape where science fiction has also become synonymous with action, its low-key presentation doesn’t quite jibe with what modern audiences are used to.
There was an effort in 2008 and it was a reasonably good one, particularly for its portrayal of a middle aged woman and a black man as the leaders of the post-apocalyptic gang. After watching the original series, though, I see now that it didn’t come close to capturing the singular tone of its source, which is a bit like All Creatures Great And Small, with a dash of Little House on the Prairie if it were a darker work, smashed together with The Omega Man, just without zombies or vampires or whatever. Through its own individuality it paved the way for shows like Lost and The Walking Dead, among many others. Survivors was a television drama that was way ahead of its time — and even more so when you compare it to the juvenile nonsense that passed for serious science fiction on American television in the mid 1970s. Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica indeed.
The creation of Terry Nation, who also gave the world Daleks and Blake’s 7, the plot of the show revolves around a deadly pandemic that wipes out most of humanity, leaving only those who get the disease, develop immunities, and then recover. It focuses on a specific group of people with a line-up that often revolves, though around a small core. Taking place mostly in rural England, the show documents efforts to survive not only involving fighting and violence, but more often focusing on the hard daily work — farming, engineering, and creating a civil society that tries to balance laws and moral directives with individual lives, all centering around the central question of whether the goal is to recreate civilization, improve it, or just make an entirely new one.
As such, it’s a compelling drama, which usually builds episodes around philosophical conundrums as much as interpersonal drama or post-apocalyptic danger. The conclusions that are arrived upon are often thoughtful and complicated, without any one character always being correct. It’s this mixed bag of building consensus and the devotion to equality even for the wrong-headed or currently mistaken that makes Survivors so powerful.
Some of the main characters over the course of the series are Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch), a self important engineer who sees himself as some sort of post-apocalyptic founding father figure; Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour), an upper-middle class house wife with a level of determination that she’s accepted as more of a leader than Greg and functions as his political counterpoint; Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming), a meek secretary who, over the course of the series, grows into a self-determining and brave pragmatist roaming the dangerous countryside; and Charles Vaughan (Dennis Lill), who sees the apocalypse as an adventure to fulfill his dreams of a anarchic society, whether he’s fully capable of making that happen or not.
There are a host of supporting characters darting through the show over the three years. Some of the best are Tom (Talfryn Thomas), the sleazy, selfish criminal; Pet (Lorna Lewis), Charles’ partner in apocalypse who makes sure the necessities are taken care of in order to justify Charles’ loftier goals; Arthur (Michael Gover) the rich businessman who initially separates himself from the rabble, but soon finds a role in the new world; and Hubert (John Abineri), the often drunk, always coarse shepherd who is sometimes a liability, but mandatory to perform the dirty work that needs to be done.
The stories vary in concern. The earlier ones feature the characters trying to find a safe haven in the new unpredictable world, butting up against authoritarian thugs and low-life criminals, as well as just scuttling over things as simple as domestic duties. The stories are often bleak, dealing with such things as the repercussions of a rape and murder, child abandonment, and further brushes with disease, as well as the Abby’s quest for her missing son and the constant dread of finding him dead.
As the series continues, the world gets ever more unpredictable, people get shiftier, and dreams become bigger. Some episodes concern themselves with the simple running of the wherever they happen to live. Others have the survivors encounter other survivors in the form of other communities who have their own ideas of how civilization should continue on. Still other encounters feature new residents who sometimes have difficulty assimilating due to the demons they carry or their political differences.
The second season of the show is very concerned with turning their farm into a working cooperative and the internal struggles there. One episode sees them dealing with a child killer for whom the plague has allowed him to reinvent himself. Another finds a clash of generations between a group of young people who are less inclined to do the work required to survive. There is also a two part foray into London, filled with diseased rats and under the rule of a petty totalitarian governing body.
The third season finds characters traipsing the country side, with the theme of rebuilding the the power structure — electric, coal, etc. — and the implications that has with other kinds of power, especially in a class-conscious society like England. One standout episode features a brush with rabies that finds Charles the object of a frantic manhunt. Others cover anti-technology sentiment among some survivors, the devastation of smallpox on a small community, and what children must do to survive on their own. It’s a bleak season that caps off a bleak series.
A lot of the show is devoted to big questions, to the pounding collision of various philosophies attempting to define what the future of humankind will be. To its credit, a good amount of time is spent questioning the male ego’s role in the recovery of civilization and whether that is leading to visions that are too staked in individual vanity and too similar to what the world was before. Maleness versus femaleness is one of the subtle centers of the show, addressing not only concerns over masculinity but also issues around a woman’s control of her own body in a post-patriarchy and how that control may not conform with the male ego’s decree of what should happen.
Also often tackled are issues of control — that is, who should have it. How much freedom should be given up in the name of survival? Who wants to be controlled? And who wants to control, for that matter? As presented in Survivors, the human race is filled with petty little people who are more than ready to leap in that position with no previous authority on the subject of leadership, but a lot of ideas about what the right kind of civilization is.
There is also the question posed by some whether anyone should be rebuilding society? Maybe this is a chance for no structure, no goals.
And then there are the moral questions of crime, of who has the right to take a life and why, of what people owe each other morally in such a landscape.
Survivors is one of those rare shows from this era that exhibits a range of unpredictability. You have no idea where it is going because it is constantly changing. Some criticize the later seasons, particularly the third, for having a sprawling approach to characters — people come and go, new characters will seize the center for a couple episodes with as much importance as the older ones, and some older ones are isolated from others to give a better sense of the world than just the bubble portrayed in a television show.
But I think this is one of the series’ biggest strengths, playing out the idea that survival is not the story of certain people, but all people. All survivors are equally important in their role in the future of humanity. It is framed through some central complex characters who are not presented as “good” or “bad,” dispensing with the classic pure hero conceit of so much science fiction and understanding that humanity is a mixed bag where even the darkest people might have their worth. And by the final episode, it has fashioned a dynamic that creates a terribly murky conclusion for what the future might hold for humans — more conflict, more fights to control their own destiny.
Survivors is charming, gripping, surprising, progressive, sometimes weird, mostly fascinating, occasionally clunky, always earnest, as well as intellectually and philosophically exciting in a way television shows just weren’t in the 1970s. Upon watching it, it instantly became one of my favorite TV shows of all time, and forever changed the way I look at the history of genre television, as well as the possibilities not currently being lived up to.