I recently watched and greatly enjoyed the first season of AMC’s zombie drama, The Walking Dead. After it was all over, I started thinking more about the history of post apocalyptic genre television, from Planet of the Apes (1974) to Jericho (2006 – 2008) to The Walking Dead, and struck on the Terry Nation series Survivors (1975 – 1977).
For those of you who have never seen it, Survivors is an absolutely grim and thoroughly fascinating British program about an insidious pandemic which wipes out modern civilization and leaves the shattered survivors to re-learn all the old trades in order to build a new — and hopefully better – world.
In other words, Survivors is sort of The Walking Dead, only without the periodic threat of rampaging zombies.
Here, the true enemies are modern mankind’s ignorance of his own technology and history; and the threat of dangerous, power-hungry men and women who see only opportunity in global tragedy. The series is set in a new Dark Ages of sorts, with (some) humans afforded a second chance to get things right.
Survivors first aired on the BBC beginning in April of 1975, and was conceived and written by Terry Nation, the man behind Dr. Who’s pepper-pot Daleks as well as the classic cult-tv series, Blake’s 7 (1978-1981).
Produced by Terence Dudley, the first series of Survivors stars Carolyn Seymour (Space: 1999, Star Trek: Voyager, Otherworld) as Abby Grant, a not-terribly special or notable middle-class housewife living outside London.
But Abby’s life changes forever in “The Fourth Horseman,” the inaugural episode of Survivors. After the opening credits, we find ourselves in Abby’s comfortable country home as she deals with the inconvenience of a “couple dozen cases of the flu” in nearby London.
In short order, the inconveniences pile atop each other, and snowball The phone lines become jammed. The trains from London are not arriving on time, or have been canceled all together. The radio tells an even worse story in America. There’s no electricity in New York, and a State of Emergency has been declared. There are rumors that millions of people have already died in India and in secretive China.
Before long, the episode cuts to another main character, a single woman named Jenny (Lucy Fleming), whose roommate is suffering from the mysterious illness. While her roommate is succumbing to lumps under the arms, fever and chills, Jenny goes to the hospital to seek help, and it’s a scene of a modern health system in chaos, overrun and failing. This is one of the most chilling moments in the entire episode. A line of scared citizens are lined up in the halls, getting flu vaccines in their arms while an understaffed facility attempts to deal with the frightening and fatal unknown.
A doctor soon informs Jenny that the flu-like sickness has a six day incubation period and almost inevitably results in death, but that certain people appear to possess a “natural immunity” to the “mutant virus, not yet identified.” The doctor also implores Jenny — who appears to be immune — to escape while she still can, before the cities become “like open cesspits.”
Soon, he warns, garbage and corpses will line the untended streets…
The remainder of “The Fourth Horsemen” is every bit as bleak as this initial act.
Abby grows ill but after several days unconscious, awakens “cured.” She promptly finds her husband (Peter Bowles) dead on the sofa, and civilization, essentially, destroyed.
While Jenny wanders the London streets alone and deals with thugs and looters, Abby sets off in search of her son, Peter, at his boarding school.
Instead, she finds only an old man with a hearing aide, a teacher, who discusses the state of the world and a possible future. His perspective proves valuable.
“The aftermath will be worse than the disease,” he tells her. “What is important is learning again,” he establishes, pointing out that most 20th century people would not know how to make a candle from scratch, let alone create a machine to generate electricity.
As this man stresses, “you need to know every part of every process” and “all the old skills and crafts must be learned.”
This is difficult and frightening for Abby to accept at first, as part of the “generation that first put man on the moon,” but soon she starts to see the wisdom of her mentor’s words; and begins formulating, even in this pilot episode, a way forward.
I admire this aspect of Survivors very much, and it fits in well with Space:1999, which also premiered in 1975 and concerned a global apocalypse of sorts. Both series very much involve what Science Digest editor Arielle Emmett called (in regards to 1999) “the downfall of 20th century technological man.”
What remains most shocking, perhaps, about Survivors is that this pilot episode has not aged significantly in thirty-five years. Any fan of Dr. Who will immediately recognize the 1970s era visual aesthetic: film for exterior location work and videotape for interior studio work. But the important thing is that the ideas have not aged a day, and indeed, the teleplay and its presentation are rather artful in presentation
For instance, “The Fourth Horseman” opens with a shot of an automated tennis ball machine, one that “serves” tennis balls to a human player, in this case Abby. Thus the very image that the Survivors story commences on is one of, if not excess, let’s say “leisure technology.”
Abby spends her afternoon staying fit, playing tennis with a recreation machine. This idea fits in with the theme of the story: that the technological man of the 1970s, faced with a population-destroying pandemic, will no longer have access to such leisure pursuits, nor the wherewithal to construct such machines. Later, close-ups and insert shots of radios, televisions and other modern conveniences appear, making the idea of the soon-to-be-lost technology a leitmotif of “The Fourth Horsemen.’
Another great moment comes late in the show, when Abby cuts off most of her long hair and burns down her house, making a clean separation from the lost past. She’s living in a new world now, and her first act in this world is, appropriately, to re-shape her appearance to a more practical, less glamorous one. Her second act is to destroy the symbols of the old world’s leisure and convenience: the fully powered, air-conditioned modern home.
An absolutely riveting premiere, “The Fourth Horseman” has some nice visual touches beyond these, including a drastic pullback from Abby — right up into the sky — as she begs God not to let her be the only survivor. The episode also gains significant frisson and impact from its deliberate comparison of this 1975 pandemic to the 1918 Influenza, which killed 50-to-100 million people worldwide (some 3% of the population).
Over 500 million people were infected in what has been termed “the greatest medical holocaust in history.” Hard to believe I’m writing about something that occurred less than a hundred years ago, isn’t it?
Terry Nation’s implication with this comparison is obvious and important. Something like this deadly plague has happened before (in 1918) and it could easily happen again, on even more catastrophic scale.
Indeed, this bugaboo is very much with us today, in 2011. Remember last winter and the widespread fear of the H1N1 Swine Flu? Or all the talk the year previous that about avian flu?
The fear, of course, is that with modern air transport, a person could do precisely what a clumsy scientist does in the opening credits of Survivors: bring a fatal disease from country to country before anyone is even aware there is a problem.
Later episodes of Survivors, such as “Genesis,” find Abby preaching the cause of “re-learning” old skills to the other ragtag survivors of the plague. She also clashes with men and women who see opportunity in doomsday, including a governmental official who fancies himself a Feudal Baron, and an aristocratic woman who wants to hoard goods because cash has no value, and people will work for her in exchange for food. It is her goal to get a piece of the pie, and live in comfort…and goddamn the other unfortunates.
Survivors was remade by the BBC in 2008 — following up on the contemporary fears of SARS and other viruses — and was recently cancelled following a second season. I have not seen the new series, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the original 1970s series to fans of post-apocalyptic science fiction.
The original Survivors is unswervingly bleak, devoid of Hollywood bullshit, and intensely frightening. The writing is superb, and Terry Nation artfully utilizes the end of the world scenario to raise questions about human nature, and issues such as law enforcement, allocation of resources and other post-apocalyptic, existentialist obsessions.
The series is also available on Netflix, but make sure you queue the original series and not the remake.
Below is the ahead-of-its time, information-age opening montage for Survivors, which diagrams with beautiful efficiency the frightening spread of the pandemic: