EPISODE REVIEW: Survivors: “Episode 1” (Season 1, Episode 1)

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Once upon a time, back in the middle ages - by which I mean the 1970s - there was a TV show in England called “Survivors.” The premise was simple, and most importantly low-budget: a plague wipes out 99% of humanity, and those who lived through it attempt to make new low-tech lives for themselves in a depopulated - and frequently belligerent - world. Think of it as kind of like “Jericho” without the nukes and internet access. I’ve never actually seen the show, though I’ve heard of it. Several Dr. Who alums were working behind the camera.

In 2008, the BBC decided to remake the series, and it premiered on BBC-A tonight, presumably because a second season is in production right now, and I assume once the first year is done airing here in the ‘States, they’ll have the second one ready to go. So here’s what it was like:

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A virus called “European Flu” spreads rapidly throughout England and eventually the world. We’re introduced to a slew of characters, most of whom are then killed off ten-little-Indians style by the disease in the next half hour or so. After this irritating and depressing bit of bait-and-switch, we’re left with a handful of protagonists: A pretty lady doctor, a psycho killer, a Muslim kid, a wealthy idiot playboy of Kuwaiti extraction, and a housewife who died, but then got better three days later. You don’t need to be Freud to figure that one out: We get is - she’s the savior of humanity. Could you guys have telegraphed that a bit more obviously? Sheesh.

The Houswife Messiah cremates the body of her husband, and heads to the summer camp her son was vacationing at, in hopes that he’s still alive. The doctor attempts to kill herself, but can’t do it, and just starts walking. The rich idiot drinks himself stupid, then goes tear-assing around in his car, nearly running over the Muslim kid, whom he grudgingly takes under his wing. “No funny stuff, though, ok?” “What’d’you mean ‘no funny stuff?’” “You’re not a pedophile are you?” “No, I’m not a bloody pedophile, now get in the bloody car!” The psycho killer kills the last surviving guard and escapes.

Housewife makes it to the summer camp, and we get a really good sequence of her looking at all the dead kids, and being perversely overjoyed that none of the dead kids are hers. She realizes this, of course, and is quite disturbed by it, but happy that there’s at least a chance he’s still alive. She meets the assistant camp counselor, who tells her the boy was pretty sick, so the counselor took him to a hospital in town. She goes to look, breaks into the hospital, but it’s already in a pretty bad state of decay, and she doesn’t know what to do next.

The psycho-killer gets taken in by two 20-somethings, but then gets pushed out of a moving car when he gets all psycho-killer on their asses. The doctor, who’s basically been shown walking at random intervals through the whole thing - honestly, if she was carrying a lawn chair, it’d be like the Depeche Mode video for “Enjoy the Silence” -

- stumbles across him, and helps him out.

Housewife, meanwhile, nearly crashes into a Range Rover being driven by a mysterious-yet-immediately-engaging black guy, who’s been appropriating the supplies he needs, and is talking about starting a farm. He lets her travel with him. They have a run-in with a guy who’s pumping gas out of a station, but manages to blow himself up like a chump, so they head on out, and stumble across Psycho-Killer and Pretty Lady Doctor. They invite them along for a ride, and presently they stumble across the Rich Idiot and the Muslim Kid playing soccer in the middle of the road.

Everyone decides to go their own ways, when Housewife calls them all idiots and gives a rousing speech about how life is starting over and they all need to stay together. They’re all moved by this.

“Ok, Boss, what next?” the black guy asks, and we end with a great long shot of them all staring at her, waiting for instruction, and her not having a clue what to do next.

Alas, this near-perfect ending is ruined by a subplot/tag of some doctors in a lab somewhere working on something.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

Plague has been humanity’s frequent fellow-traveler through history, so it’s always a good easy subject for a story. We’ve all had the flu, it’s not hard to extrapolate what a flu you don’t get better from would be like in personal terms. It’s scary and nearly magical - the bad kind of magic - in its capriciousness. We have plenty of historical precedents - the Black Plague, the Spanish Flu, the European diseases that wiped out most of the population of the New World - and sure as shootin’, eventually it’ll happen again. It’s a real, palpable fear.

Plague, and its more interesting aftermath has been a staple of SF since pretty much the beginning. Jack London wrote about it prior to World War I, Stephen King’s “The Stand” revolved around it (Granted, that was more fantasy than SF, but you get my point), and there others and others and then still others after that. My personal favorite is the lyrical and beautifully sad “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth_Abides ) and more recently, the “Black Death” web series has mined the same vein in some detail.

So there’s a lot of real potential here, but they’re not exactly starting out with an original concept, so they really need something strong to sort of justify its existence, something to make you go “Wow! I’ve seen all this before, but not in this way! Wow!”

Unfortunately, they completely fail in this regard.

It’s hard to believe a show in which six billion, nine hundred and thirty million people die in the first half hour could be so damn dull, but there it is. Everything of any note happens in the first half hour, and while the rest would probably make for a fairly brisk thirty minutes or so, it feels terribly padded out at 90 minutes. I’ve long been a fan of ‘decompressed’ storytelling, with long silences and the interesting tensions that arise from that, particularly if it’s surrounded by more actiony stuff, but it just flat out doesn’t work here. Whatever quality they’re going for, it isn’t quite working. And as you can see from my synopsis above, there really isn’t all that much story to go ‘round.

There is some interesting sound design in the last two thirds: They emphasize birds chirping and dogs barking in nearly every scene, which is a nice touch, and there’s a few good scenes - the one at the summer camp I described above, and pretty much everything involving the Rich Idiot and the Muslim Kid were great, and while the Mysterious-Yet-Engaging Black Guy doesn’t really get any particularly good scenes, he’s got a charisma about him that makes him memorable. On the whole, however, the acting seemed kind of bland and passive and unimpressive, and of course the pacing was way off.

For a show about the end of our world and the beginning of another, there’s oddly little tension. They evidently think they’re getting a lot of mileage out of a ‘no tech’ world in which people have to re-learn how to slaughter hogs and milk cows to survive, but even if that’s a valid threat in a hyper populated megacity like London, it doesn’t hold the same weight over here for a guy like me living in Nebraska, where I can’t throw an apple core out the window without hitting someone slaughtering hogs and milking cows, but on the whole, I think the US is still somewhat more DIY and rural than the UK. While this kind of thing might play well in California and New York and Florida, throughout most of the heartland, it’s just not all that scary. And of course Housewife points out that most of those lost skills can be readily re-learned from library books, and there’s plenty of canned food and bottled water to tide people over in the meantime.

So much for tension there.

And of course one percent of a seven billion dead people is still a hell of a lot of live people. I mean, seventy million is considerably larger than the population of France. If only one percent of the population of the US survived, that’s three million people, which is the amount we started with at the Revolution. The population of the UK would theoretically be about 620,000, which is a pretty dinky number by comparison, but still pretty substantial. There’d be more than thirteen million people left in China.

My point being that there’s not really all that much threat of extinction when you’ve got seventy million people left in the world. Even if half of these are complete idiots who manage to wander into minefields or get themselves eaten by piranha, that’s still a massive and viable gene pool.

So no real tension there.

In the end, it was rather bland. I have some hopes that next week will be better, this episode suffered from a lot of “Pilot-itis.”  While it's not as unabashedly soul-suckingly awful as the recent "Prisoner" remake, it's still not particularly good.

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