Friday, 1 July 2016

Survivors: First Impressions

It is my day orff, I have done the little jobs I have to do and it is looking like rain, so instead of me sitting in the park reading Philip Heselton's new biography of Doreen Valiente (weird is my life), you lucky people get a blog post about Survivors. Survivors is a series which I have rather avoided so far, despite having looked at it in shops and on line multiple times, I have always metaphorically put it back and in fact am writing this post on my first viewing of the first series. It is having an interesting effect on me, in that it is making me question why I like the television that I do. In fact considering from watching The War Machines (see my last post) I got a warm comforting feeling that IT failings would almost certainly prevent the takeover of the world by computer-based machines, Survivors gives me the warm, fluffy feeling that the holocaust imminently-expected in the 1970s didn't actually happen.
You see if War Machines taps into a major fear of the modern era (namely, what if the computers actually take over?), then Survivors taps into another one, namely, What would it be like after the disaster we're expecting? I suspect that that is what has actually put me off the show for so long, because I was expecting it to be very much out of the Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm stable. We know full well how badly humans can behave in a crisis, and particularly how the said crisis magnifies some of people's more irritating traits, such as a tendency to order or dictatorship, or just being not bothered, but I personally don't find that trope of human behaviour after the disaster very entertaining. Naturally there is an element of observing the human behaviour in Survivors, but that isn't all there is to it at all.
Survivors manages to put a very subtle twist on the plot device of how humans would behave after a disaster, and also manages to avoid the 1970s fantasy of a return to the dark ages, by theorising a world in which the majority of the population is wiped out by illness, but the resources and technology of the modern world are left intact to provide a large but limited resource for the survivors. I like this very much, because while it also taps into another major trope of the 1970s - the fear of what would happen if the oil runs out - it avoids the sudden ending of the modern world while requiring the characters to be resourceful in adapting to the world they are left with.
I have a feeling that at the time this would have been one of the things which made Survivors so popular. While I find myself commenting here repeatedly on the naked fear which characterised much of the dialectic of the 1970s, Survivors is actually relatively comforting. The fact that a virus is chosen as the way to wipe out most of the population provides a less-frightening scenario than the much-mooted one of the nuclear winter. Strange that a show in which the majority of the world's population could be wiped out is nonetheless more reassuring than a major environmental concern of the time.
Yet this less-threatening scenario is haunted by the spectre of human behaviour. It is self-evident that in the scenario we have described, some humans will behave indescribably badly, some from mixed motives, and some will attempt to create a new community where the precious remaining resources are stewarded. Even though I have tried to paint Survivors as a less-threatening alternative to the major contemporary fear of nuclear holocaust, it is haunted by this simple uncontrollable fact, which gives it a whole layer of fearfulness. And of course Survivors is spot on to use human behaviour rather than the actual disaster as the source of fear, since disasters are frequently caused by human behaviour. Well after this show of course, the Chernobyl disaster showed this fear to be well-grounded: I mean sitting in the control room of a nuclear reactor and deciding to have a go at something which the instruction manual specifically says not to do, is never a good idea, is it?
Survivors counters this fear of disaster and the unpredictability of human behaviour with an undercurrent of pagan ideas, again plugging into a prevalent idea of the time. 'How far back in time can we go?' is the question asked repeatedly in this series, and a return to paganism is one of the ways in which this question is answered. And it is here that I find a personal criticism, which I also feel may be me being somewhat unreasonable. Overall the show does an absolutely superb job of showing a Britain where the majority of the population is dead. Particularly in the 1970s, without CGI, it must have required endless labour to remove people for external shooting, and I actually only have praise for that. But this is also a criticism, because what is shown is a 1970s landscape frozen in aspic. In reality there wouldn't have been enough people to maintain the landscape in its agricultural-era state, and of course greenery only takes a season to start growing back with a vengeance. I feel that that is a failing on the part of the show: while it draws on pagan ideas, it fails to draw on the reality that when you are competely dependant on the land for sustenance you gain an extra sense of vulnerability to the land's own power over you and this major fear is completely absent. Of course you may feel that the show concentrates more on human response to the disaster, but I feel that there is a real sense in which the survivors are too sheltered from the arbitrary nature of living on the land.
Otherwise the show is in my opinion a masterpiece of writing and production. It is one of the few shows which gets into my personal category of Stonking Good Television. The more-leisurely pace of 1970s TV exactly suits the unfolding disaster at the beginning, and gives a ruminative feel to the dilemmas faced by the survivors as time goes on.
It may be somewhat superficial of me, but major stars in this show are the cars. The Land Rover which appears at one point is exactly like one my uncle in Kenya had. There is a magnificent mark 3 Ford Cortina estate, and I particularly like a vintage Volvo. As the series goes on these icons of 1970s motoring accede to more utilitarian vehicles, but they are still wonderfully evocative of the 1970s for me. Naturally the scenes in cars would nowadays be seen as disasters waiting to happen - people blithely smoke in cars, even with children there, and of course there isn't a single seat belt in use. Anyone would think they weren't frightened of dying!
Another criticism I do have is the usual completely personal one that there are too many familiar faces among the actors. Even if they are not always big names like Peter Bowles, familiar actors always detract for me from the show I am watching. I want to be watching the show not the actors. For some reason, familiar models among the cars don't strike me as such a distraction!
My conclusion on Survivors (even before I have watched all the way through the first series) is that it is a thought-provoking show which ruminates over some of the predominant fears of my era of television. My quibbles are probably completely personal ones, since I would wish that just a few things could have been done differently, but nonetheless for 21st century viewers, it will provoke discussion while also providing a reassuring sense that things haven't turned out half as badly as the milieu of the 1970s believed they would be.

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