Often, a reviewer will try to avoid using words like ‘I’ or ‘me’. The idea is to avoid talking about oneself and to give a feel of objectivity. But there is no chance of that here. Survivors, whether in the form of the Big Finish audio series or the BBC TV drama it is based on, has always been personal to me, and the experience of it is something that has only grown more intimate and immersive with time. This is a show that depicts the sudden end of civilisation as we know and the desperate struggles of a tiny number of survivors to cope in the aftermath.
When I saw the TV show’s mercilessly dark first episode – in which 99.9% of the world’s population perish due to a nightmarishly swift viral outbreak – I was in bed with flu and felt like I was dying. When the audio series began, I would listen to it on my phone while wandering through the wastelands of my town, the better to feel like I was drifting through the post-apocalyptic visions conjured by my earbuds. And now as I write this review, I have the Omicron strain of COVID.
I may be biased, but Survivors, which Big Finish has been producing as an audio series since 2014, is the best thing the company has done since their supremely confident reinvention of Doctor Who for audio back in the ’90s. The original 1975-77 TV series was created by Who’s Dalek maestro, Terry Nation, and was the zenith of the apocalyptic strain in his work going back to the second Dalek serial, 1964’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It was brilliant – arguably the best thing Nation ever did, as well – but ended inconclusively, with several lead characters drifting away from the show rather than having their stories find a satisfying conclusion. It also, across three seasons, moved somewhat away from the stark horror of its initial concept to tell occasionally less-than-gripping stories of the simple farming society that grows up following ‘the Death’ (as the outbreak becomes known).
Big Finish picked up almost all the hanging threads, and their series demonstrates no similar stagnation in its sense of peril, perhaps because it almost always sticks to the rule of thumb that any scenario presented in an episode should turn out to be worse than it initially appears. Big Finish‘s Survivors really lives up to its title because survival is always under threat, and it’s emotionally powerful because the characters are drawn with complexity and with a relatable level of pain. If you’ve never heard the series, its brilliance is well-evidenced by its first episode, the award-winning Revelation, which can be downloaded for free from the Big Finish website. Listen now. Seriously.
The audio series seemed to come to an end in 2019. Big Finish put together a satisfying conclusion to all of the ongoing storylines that stood up well in a finale-heavy pop culture year that also wrapped up Game of Thrones, Marvel’s Infinity Saga and the story of the Skywalkers. A decade after the Death, society finally regained a sense of hope with the establishment of a new federal government, although not before Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming) was forced by political expediency to inflict a heartbreaking banishment on her old friend Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour).
It’s been speculated that Big Finish brought Survivors to a definitive close due to low sales. Now that the series is back, one wonders if those sales have been boosted because the COVID-19 experience has made the concept behind the series relatable for a whole new audience. Whatever the truth, New Dawn picks up the story a further 15 years on; if the Death occurred in a fictional version of 1975 then now we’re in the post-apocalyptic late-nineties.
“Look at that, another sign of the changing times…”
Abby Grant has been living with family in Scotland since the events of the previous Survivors box-set. Writer Andrew Smith catches up with her as she makes a heavy-hearted return to England following a recent loss, and falls in with a helpful traveller, John Bedwell (Clive Heyward). Meanwhile, not too far away, Abby’s one-time friends Jenny Richards, now Law Minister, and Jackie Burchall (Louise Jameson) are working for England’s new provisional government under Prime Minister Celia Tate (2.4 Children’s Belinda Lang) as the country prepares for its first general election since the Death.
The listener is brought up to speed with England’s new status quo via a few deft exchanges between Abby and John: Parliament is now based in Cambridge (London being overrun with disease since the Death) and the country is developing diplomatic ties with various European settlements. Unfortunately, Tate does not approve that Jackie, recently returned from a diplomatic trip to Europe, has been in contact with refugees who have fled England’s new regime…
Survivors began as chilling horror. Smith’s episode suggests that the series is now shifting into political thriller, albeit one in which the politics carry an ever-present air of desperation and threat. A generation on from the Death, Tate is very much aware that her seat of government is all too fragile in a country still functioning on a tiny population with extremely limited technology (converted cars and planes run on bio-fuel; Jenny observes that petrol is “like gold dust”), and so focused on maintaining power that she is frighteningly mistrustful of even those closest to her. The icy Lang – her bubbly sitcom persona long forgotten – is a forbidding presence as Tate, even though her voice and delivery are so similar to Carolyn Seymour’s that I initially suspected that budgetary constraints had forced the Abby actress to take on a dual role.
Speaking of Seymour, Abby finds herself in a parallel plot taking on particularly unpleasant modern slavers. One of the series’ strongest writers, Smith tends to extrapolate his stories from the mundane horrors present in modern life. A police officer for much of his adult life, Smith is undoubtedly aware that more human beings are enslaved now than at any point in history. Therefore, it’s depressingly plausible that in Survivors’ post-apocalypse – a harsh, technology-light world in which survival depends more than ever on labour – some humans would be prepared to exploit other humans as little more than workhorses to help them maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
Confronted with this, Abby’s moral outrage and determination to defeat the slavers, compounding the emotional blow she has suffered at the outset of the story, is conveyed in typically visceral style by Seymour. Once allegedly the BBC’s highest-paid actress, these days Seymour seems only to work for Big Finish, and they deserve our thanks for rediscovering this neglected talent: she’s one of their brightest stars, and Abby continues to be a uniquely effective heroine, hardened by her experiences but fallibly human.
Without wanting to reveal any plot spoilers, Tethered is a strong episode that shows Survivors has returned with its brilliant characterisations intact and has lost none of its ability to shock.
“Britain isn’t a safe place for everyone.” “Was it ever?”
My Generation brings in a writer new to Survivors, Katharine Armitage, and appropriately the story expresses a new perspective, while continuing the political themes of the previous episode. Enough time has passed since the Death that those born in its aftermath are now adults. However, despite the looming of a new general election, those younger than 26 aren’t allowed to stand for office. The younger generation see this as an injustice designed to ensure the re-emergence of the old world’s power structures, and an insurgent group, ‘The Veil’, are disrupting radio broadcasts to ensure that youthful voices are heard. Encountering The Veil, Abby hopes to use their communication network to spread the word about the institutional slavery she has discovered, but doesn’t realise the extent to which this will make life difficult for her old friend, now Law Minister, Jenny Richards…
The political and the personal are interwoven very well here. Jenny is being directly petitioned by Robin (Barney Fishwick) to bring the views of the under-26s to Parliament, and wants to appease him, but is wary of giving the Prime Minister further reasons to distrust her. Meanwhile, The Veil sees Abby’s story as a great opportunity to rock what they regard as a corrupt political establishment. In the very sparsely populated post-Death world, political aims can upset a relationship such as Robin’s with his lover Arthur (James MacCallum), just as the ramifications of an old friendship like Abby and Jenny’s can impact across society.
In the middle of all this is Jackie Burchall – the person who tries to help refugees and protestors while maintaining her status as a Parliamentary Representative. A character created purely for the audio series, Jackie has a truly tragic backstory (she mercy-killed her own children so that they would not have to suffer the agony of dying from the virus, but didn’t realise there was a chance they could have recovered from it, as she herself did). Actress Louise Jameson, who has also written for the series, has expertly tracked her slow and painful recovery from this grief into a proactive and compassionate advocate. She’s on top form here, and is given great material as Jackie appeals for cool heads to prevail on all sides.
The script shows acute insight into the motivations behind everyone’s actions and the suspense builds effectively throughout the episode, as Abby seesaws in her decision to broadcast her story for The Veil – an act which would blow the whistle on the slaving activities, but which could also inflame the generational tensions already rising. As a confrontation between the Prime Minister’s security forces and The Veil seems inevitable, the climax is edge-of-the-seat exciting and carries a sting in the tail. It’s also a showcase for the subtlety of Seymour’s acting – able to invest a simple line like “The three of us. Back together. It’s so nice” with real depth of feeling.
“He was only five when the Death happened. Never knew the times before. I’ve tried to give him a history of – well, you know, what he’s missed.”
Roland Moore is another of the series’ strongest writers, and has in the past provided particularly meaty material for Abby. Behind You continues this, as she, separated from her friends and injured following an accident, is taken in and tended to by Leonard Cross (Jonathan Rigby). Flashbacks tell us that Abby and Cross met before the Death – in those days a struggling actor, he was once employed as a rather bad children’s entertainer for her son’s birthday party (his unfunny catchphrase was “Behind you!”). The script teases us as to how much recognition the two characters have for each other after all these years. But more importantly, Cross may not be as benevolent as he first appears…
As well as being an actor, Jonathan Rigby is an expert on British horror cinema and author of key film history books such as English Gothic. However, for several years he has also played 1950s radio comedian Kenneth Horne in numerous acclaimed theatre and radio productions. As such, it’s hard to imagine any actor being better positioned to realise a one-time vaudevillian surviving amid the mundane horrors of a post-pandemic world. Moore’s script has endless fun at Cross’s expense, as he mistily reminisces about hamming his way through bit-parts in early ‘70s soaps and remains bitter about the insensitivity of his directors and co-stars. An especially plausible, somewhat chilling note is struck when it becomes clear that Cross prefers the world after the Death to what came before. He now has a sense of purpose – rather than an insignificant theatrical mediocrity, he now has the responsibility of passing on the history of his beloved art form to the next generation, and delights in teaching this to his son Tobias (Cameron Percival).
As Cross, Rigby is funny (though not in the way Cross would hope) and also rather pitiable, and the bond between Leonard and Tobias is quite touching. However, Leonard never seems like he might be a genuine threat to the extremely capable Abby, which means there’s less tension in this episode than there might be. While not a fault of the episode itself, it’s also a touch disappointing that this is a largely self-contained story and doesn’t much build on the tensions and intrigues established in the two previous episodes. Presumably those will be picked up in the next box set.
There is, however, a sub-plot that follows on from the evidence in Tethered that certain regional governors may be corrupt. Here, local forces should easily be able to locate Abby, but the local governor (Glen McReady) has failed to employ rangers, instead hoarding the equipment intended for issue to them. A storyline in which an indolent politician has failed to prepare for a scenario which they blithely assumed would never happen seems especially pointed following two years of headlines concerning ‘pandemic preparedness’.
Some Final Thoughts
Fans of Survivors can relax – the series has returned with all its essential qualities intact, and New Dawn 1 is a sound basis for a continuation, effectively introducing a new world, and some new characters, while catching up with key players from earlier series. New listeners, if not wishing to sample the series’ back catalogue, can safely join here too – the fact that Abby is as new to this changed England as the audience means that everyone is on the same page. It is slightly disappointing that this box set only contains three episodes (previous sets all had four), but if this is a sign of a reduced budget, it’s the only one (and with New Dawn 2 out in February, we won’t have to wait long for further stories). Standards of writing, performance and sound design are as high as ever.
One hopes that there will be more new box sets beyond New Dawn 2. While Belinda Lang’s Celia Tate is an effective new character and potential antagonist, she’s somewhat one-dimensional at this point; further stories should lend her more depth. The same goes for the world that New Dawn 1 introduces. A hobbled society slowly clawing its way back towards democracy is a fascinating theme, and one that deserves to be explored further, as do the viewpoints and experiences of those young characters who have no memory of the old world. Given our current situation, it occurs to me that there’s room for some detail about steps the society might be taking to prevent further viral outbreaks – in a shrunken, back-to-basics society like this, it’s not like they’ll all be doing daily lateral flow tests, but more than one episode of the original series showed that a new strain of the virus would remain a danger. It’s a little odd that a box set that might owe its existence to an interest in pandemic drama hardly mentions the virus at all.
Overall, though, this is a strong release in a consistently strong series, and very much recommended. Survivors: New Dawn 1 is available to purchase from the Big Finish site here, and is also on general release now.
As in previous Survivors sets, each episode is accompanied by a short suite of interviews, talking to all three writers and most of the cast. The most consistent voice, however, is director Ken Bentley. I haven’t mentioned him earlier in this review, but he deserves credit for consistently drawing powerful performances from all his actors, and for his clear commitment to and passion for Survivors (he’s directed every episode of every box set, and also written for the series). The most entertaining segment, however, is that for Behind You. It’s clear that Bentley, Roland Moore and Jonathan Rigby are all on the same page about the character of Leonard Cross and are delighted to be crafting an affectionately savage portrait of the self-delusional failed actor.
The world has ended. The pandemic crossed continents, sparing only a fraction of the global population. The survivors are now trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild society to create a new future. But with only a handful of towns and cities starting to rise from the ashes, and governance and law-making in a fragile, fledgling state, everyone must start over. And the worst of human nature has survived along with the best.
Abby Grant and Jenny Richards return to an England devastated by disease, and face a renewed fight for survival…
1.1 Tethered by Andrew Smith
Abby Grant is heading home on a tragic mission when she meets an apparent Good Samaritan, who may be nothing of the sort. And in Cambridge, the seat of the New Federal Government, the Prime Minister tasks Law Minister Jenny Richards with a secret assignment. Both women soon find themselves in deadly peril.
1.2 My Generation by Katharine Armitage
Abby is on the run, and Jenny risks her future to protect her. An old friend, Jackie Burchall, is also eager to help. But when Abby falls in with an activist group called The Veil, it jeopardises everyone.
1.3 Behind You by Roland Moore
Abby remembers Leonard Cross as the awful children’s entertainer who came to one of her son’s birthday parties before the Death. She doesn’t expect to find herself relying on him as she recovers from injury and tragedy. And he may be even more awful than she knows…
- Carolyn Seymour (Abby Grant)
- Lucy Fleming (Jenny Richards)
- Louise Jameson (Jackie Burchall)
- Peter Bankolé (Zack Bakare / Freddie Faulkner)
- Barney Fishwick (Robin)
- Clive Hayward (John Bedwell)
- Belinda Lang (Celia Tate)
- James MacCallum (Arthur)
- Glen McCready (Ulrik Larson)
- Cameron Percival (Tobias Cross)
- Jonathan Rigby (Leonard Cross)
- Script Editors Roland Moore & Andrew Smith
- Written by Andrew Smith Katharine Armitage andRoland Moore
- Senior Producer David Richardson
- Cover Art by Tom Newsom
- Director Ken Bentley
- Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
- Music by Nicholas Briggs
- Producer Emma Haigh
- Sound Design by Benji Clifford
- Theme Music by Anthony Isaac
- Based on the format created by Terry Nation
Doctor Who: After the Daleks (a sequel to Terry Nation’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth)
Doctor Who: Masters of Earth (another sequel to Terry Nation’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth)