Survivors: The Complete Collection (1975-77)
By: Paul Ryan on January 14, 2010  | 
Madman (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 4:3. English DD 1.0. English Subtitles. 1915 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Creator: Terry Nation
Starring: Ian McCulloch, Carolyn Seymour, Lucy Fleming, Denis Lill
Country: UK
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For those of you who think the media's fascination with doomsday scenarios (Bird Flu, SARS, Swine Flu, etc) is a recent thing, then I point you, gentle reader, to the mid-seventies and the British TV series Survivors. Devised by Dalek (and subsequently, Blake's 7) creator Terry Nation, and produced by Terence Dudley (producer of the similarly hot-button Doomwatch), this series explored how humanity might rebuild following a devastating cataclysm. Survivors ran for three seasons, totaling 38 episodes, all of which are compiled in Madman's new eleven-disc box set release.

Series one hits the ground running in the stunning premiere The Fourth Horseman, an episode of unforgettable bleakness and atmosphere. The opening title sequence shows us how a lab accident in Asia triggers the release of a bio-engineered virus, which is unwittingly spread by a scientist travelling overseas. Hitting the United Kingdom with tremendous force, the vast majority of Britain's population is wiped out in a week. Spared by the virus (subsequently known as "The Death") is upper-class wife Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour), whose young son is away at boarding school. Determined to find him, Abby begins a long search, ultimately joined by pragmatic engineer Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch) and the gentle Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming). Along the way, the trio encounter looters, self-appointed "leaders" (such as George Baker's fascistic "governor" Wormley in Gone Away), and the sometimes-unpleasant choices that the tiny remainder of civilization now face. The tone is grim, but not humourless, with moments of levity subtly woven into the dark scenario. Halfway through the first series, the trio set up camp at an abandoned estate, aided by other survivors. However, the problems of re-establishing society are a constant, with ever-dwindling supplies and fuel, personality clashes and dangers within the group. This is exemplified in the episode Law and Order, when one of the settlers is murdered and the rest have to indentify the killer and mete out appropriate justice themselves. It's a superbly tense episode, dramatically brave and ultimately quite shocking, and stands as a highlight of the series as a whole. Nation's guiding hand in the writing displays his ongoing concerns with ideas of authority (especially fascism) and pre-figures Blake's 7 in its grimness and ruthlessness in killing off characters. Nonetheless, there are gradual glimmers of hope which emerge by the end of this first series.

Behind the scenes, things weren't happy between Nation and Dudley, each of whom had differing ideas on how to explore the show's premise. Nation favoured an exploration of the extremes of human nature, whilst Dudley wanted to pursue a more hopeful, more nuts-and-bolts look at survival and self sufficiency. Ultimately, the latter won out (as happened previously with Dudley's Doomwatch creators Kit Pedlar and Gerry Davis, who acrimoniously exited following that show's second season) and Nation quit at the end of series one. Also exiting (or more accurately, fired by Dudley) was Carolyn Seymour, resulting in Abby's arc being off-handedly resolved via dialogue in the next series.

Series two shifts focus to more of a look at communal living and self-sufficiency (both popular issues at the time), as a fire forces Greg, Jenny and the remainder of their settlement to move to the neighboring community of Whitecross. Run by the charismatic Charles Vaughn (Denis Lill, whose character appeared in a more sinister context in the first series episode Corn Dolly) and his partner Pet (Lorna Lewis), Vaughn adheres to the Marxist philosophy of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs", which frequently brings him into conflict with the other settlers, but enables Greg to develop means of restoring machinery, and hopefully, industry. While series two has been criticized for its slower pace and emphasis on communal farming mechanics, there's still plenty to enjoy. Highlights include the moody two-parter Lights of London (despite some very unthreatening rats), The Witch (a tale of superstition which recalls Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom), and Parasites, which features a very nice cameo by former Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton.

Unhappy with Denis Lill's shared leading-man status (and feeling the writing had declined), Ian McCulloch chose to leave the series at the end of year two. In order to give Greg some closure, Terence Dudley persuaded McCulloch to write and appear in two episodes of the third series. As a result, a large portion of series three sees Charles and Jenny (the latter of whom has borne Greg's child) on the road attempting to find him. This makes a welcome return to the questing nature of the first half of series one, but also serves to marginalise a number of characters from the previous series, while others simply disappear with no explanation. On the upside, there are some interesting new characters in the form of the elderly, monastic Frank Garner (Edward Underdown), and ex-junkie Sam Mead (Robert Gillespie). Taken individually, there are some excellent episodes, such as Mad Dog (which sees Charles hunted by townsfolk who believe he carries rabies), Sparks (a potent exploration of grief which introduces William Dysart's Alec "Sparks" Campbell), Law of the Jungle (featuring the brilliant Brian Blessed), and McCulloch's swan-song The Last Laugh (which also features veteran Aussie actor George Mallaby in a villainous turn). As a whole though, the arc of season three is all over the place, with characters constantly passing each other by, a confusing sense of place, and a couple of glaringly out-of-character moments, most notably in the penultimate episode Long Live the King. Still, the final episode – Power – does give a small sense of closure, though there are a number of unresolved threads remaining.

Even at its weakest, Survivors remains a compelling series. While the first season is easily the best, this is a show that consistently explores its premise with intelligence and depth. Fashions aside, the series has barely dated at all, and is an essential piece of British genre television.
Generally, the picture quality on this DVD holds up quite well, though anyone expecting the same level of care that is routinely put into the BBC's superb Doctor Who discs will disappointed. Made mostly on analogue videotape (with a small number of episodes shot on 16mm for the location scenes), the picture tends to look a bit faded at times, with some colour bleed in shots featuring bright light. Periodically there are pronounced vertical scratches (mostly near the left of frame) visible for long stretches of time. While these are not too distracting (though the tension of a chase scene in Law and Order is a bit undermined), they are a constant throughout all three series.
Likewise, no work seems to have been done on the audio, which is in the original mono, but it's perfectly serviceable, and dialogue is rarely hard to discern, even with the mix of regional accents on display. Aside from the opening and closing credits, there is no music, which adds to the sense of desolation.
Extra Features
Photo Galleries: Series one comes with a pair of photo galleries, one being a set of BBC publicity stills, the other coming from Lucy Fleming's personal collection. Series two's gallery is labeled as BBC publicity stills, though a fan site claims these were mislabeled and again come from Lucy Fleming's on-set photos. Series three's gallery consists mainly of stills from early in the season, and plays as a silent video montage.

The Cult of Survivors: Made in 2006 as part of BBC4's "The Cult of…" series (which also looked at Blake's 7, Doomwatch and Adam Adamant Lives), this is an informative (if at times very cursory) half-hour look back at the series. Seymour, McCulloch and Fleming are all interviewed, along with director Pennant Roberts, writer Martin Worth and SFX magazine news editor Steve O'Brien. All are pleasingly candid about the ups and downs of the series, with Seymour open about the circumstances of her departure from the show, while McCulloch bluntly discusses his dislike of the second season. The bulk of the piece concentrates on the first series and while a lot of issues are glossed over (such as Terry Nation's conflicts with Terence Dudley) or ignored (Denis Lill is neither seen nor mentioned), there are still some good stories and insight to be had. Robert Llewellyn's flippant narration grates at times, though the comparison between the show and the similarly self-sufficiency based The Good Life is amusing. And yes, McCulloch does talk about Zombie Flesh Eaters

Unfortunately that's all you get, which is a shame as an earlier individual season release in Region 2 by the now defunct DD Entertainment label came with commentary tracks, interviews, and featurettes. On the upside, Madman's version (produced by BBC partners 2Entertain) gives you the entire series in one set, so that's something at least.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Survivors has aged remarkably well in the now-35 years since its debut. Sober, intelligent and thought-provoking, there is a lot to enjoy in this complete series set. While video and audio haven't been given a (much-needed) restoration, the transfers are still reasonably okay.

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