Thursday, June 12, 2008

Not With A Bang

In all probability, not many people will remember Not With A Bang, a post-apocalyptic sitcom, circa 1990. Truth to tell, I only have vague recollections of it being quite funny and that the plague that wipes out most of the human race is triggered by a butter-fingered Judith Hann on the set of Tomorrow's World. Luckily, the plague instantly reduces everyone to piles of dust, which is a whole lot more comical than the rotting corpses left by the killer disease released by that equally clumsy Japanese germ-warfare scientist in Survivors, of which we've just finished watching series one.

But 'not with a bang' is also, coincidentally, how Survivors manages to impress.

The genuinely terrifying title sequence (which I've mentioned before) is, arguably, the only 'gimmick' used and since that neatly hands you the entire background in one effective capsule, to be taken with each episode, it's no gimmick at all, just a very clever device. The rest is just the bare necessities: a bunch of actors (mostly decent - but boy, good child actors were hard to come by back then), good scripts (with only one - Revenge - that didn't quite work for me), appropriately rural locations (they mention how dire conditions are in the cities and thankfully don't venture there!). (Plus a few props and animals.) And it's entirely fitting that a post-apocalyptic drama should get by on the basics. But Survivors does very much more than 'get by'.

In fact, I have to use phrases like 'the bare necessities' just to evoke catchy little Disney numbers and jolly things up a bit. To be fair, when I saw Dawn Of The Dead (2004), I found the social decay far scarier than the zombies, so maybe I'm just a wuss in the face of such widespread civil disintegration. But in my defence, I have good reason: I'm a writer - a sensitive, artistic type - and in any Survivors scenario, I'd be completely useless. They might keep me around for procreation, I guess, but beyond that I'd really have to brush up on my cooking. And even then, I'd insist there was no skinning of bunnies involved.

So, yes, it frightens me. But there's something to be said for any series that can take your fears and turn them into compelling viewing. Of course, more than just tap into that nerve of mine, it had to sustain my interest over thirteen episodes, and there it does a brilliant job of tracing the lives of its principal characters (some more eponymous than others), exploring so many of the implications and ramifications of the collapse, lending us insights along the way into how others are responding, steadily drawing them together into a community and testing its ability to sink or swim. On occasions, some of our 'heroes' seem too naive, idealistic, and that's fair enough, except they persist in their tendency to be too trusting in the face of all the more hostile folk who come their way, but that's what sets them apart as 'heroes' in inverted commas. Some of their decisions are questionable and heavily reliant on the much-diminished general populace being a good deal more civilised than I'd imagine. (Although maybe that's because they're British: an American Survivors would, I'm sure involve many more guns and a lot more paranoia.) That's the show's core optimism at work: that we might be able to hold onto some of our more precious values - compassion, trust, charity - in the face of such a meltdown. It's why we're following these people's stories, as opposed to any others, even though - or maybe because - there's a sense that maybe this lot aren't going to make it if they don't toughen up a bit.

But, naturally enough in any drama, it's when they're confronted with the real bastard choices, obliged to make the harshest decisions, that you really get to know these characters - and your blood runs all kinds of hot and cold. Contrast early on when Ann abandons Vic for dead in a quarry and you're condemning her as a heartless, spoilt bitch (not that you'd be altogether wrong) with (much later on) Greg and Abby - whom we've grown to know and respect - conspiring to keep silent about their mistake, like any good corrupt leadership, over their first botched attempt to mete out justice in the gut-wrenchingly good episode, Law And Order. It's when it's at its bleakest that the series is at its best.

It's similar, to my mind, to the way Battlestar Galactica constantly challenges us to rethink our perspective on the characters we like or respect or admire or connect to because of their behaviour under extreme circumstances. And, as much as any of us might be tempted to judge from the comfort of our sofas or armchairs, surely it's really about asking ourselves: seriously, really, what the f*** would I do? And, of course, coming up blank, because how could we possibly know? But the fact that we're prompted to ask, that's the barb on the hook.

Of course, Battlestar does also rely on CNN-inspired space battles and that's just the nature of its very different end-of-humanity scenario. But watching Survivors pretty much in parallel with BSG's 4th season has made for such a fascinating contrast, with the senior citizen standing up well next to the, er, flashier youngster. There is an odd bit where one character, Vic, gives himself a miraculous face-lift with a shotgun, but presumably there's some good behind the scenes story for the cast-change and again, it's not like the series had a gimmick like regeneration to fall back on. So it has to do things the hard, basic way.

Series one ends on an optimistic note, with that rare thing in season finales: the sense of a rounded, satisfying conclusion instead of a massive cliffhanger to get you salivating for the next season. Again, no gimmicks, nothing flashy. Only some subtle feeds into what might be a second series, the suggestion of hope and possibilities. Which is, as I say, just typical of the way Survivors impresses. Not with a bang: quietly awesome.


Stuart Douglas said...

Excellent review Simon, much the same as I would have said (though I don't mind Revenge).

Incidentally, I do remember 'Not With a Bang' - Josie Lawrence and a young Steven Rea, along with Ronald Pickup IIRC. It was tricky one to watch because they kept moving it about (for all 7 paltry episodes) in the schedules since no-one was apparently watching it.

"They might keep me around for procreation" - Uh huh, like you should be reqarded for being no use at anything else in the post-apocalypse :)

Interesting comparison to BSG - I'm still saving up season 4 to watch in a quick run, but it's definitely the best of even vaguely post-apocalypse dramas to come out of the States, though that's no great trick when ost of them are bog-standard watered down versions of Mad Max like Jeremiah. Even BSG isn't a patch on the first two series of Survivors, however, imo (the third series is considerably weaker though there are some stand out episodes which make the series worth watching).

One little disagreement - I think Tanya Ronder and Steven Dudley are excellent as the two children. You want to see poor child acting, wait until you get to the Scottish lad in 'A Little Learning' in series 3. He's awful!

SAF said...

Stuart: "though I don't mind Revenge"

It's possible the casting change jumped me out of the action a bit. Probably too preoccupied getting accustomed to the new Vic, so it wasn't as involving as perhaps it should have been. But I'm guessing! (Don't suppose you know the reason for the cast change? Seems odd they didn't sign up the original actor for the whole season at least.)

Stuart: "Uh huh, like you should be reqarded for being no use at anything else in the post-apocalypse :)"


Stuart: "BSG - I'm still saving up season 4 to watch in a quick run"

Yeah, in retrospect a smart move. I'm gonna be screaming Saturday when we hit that mid-season break! Other than that, I'm being good and remaining totally tight-lipped on the subject.

Stuart: "One little disagreement - I think Tanya Ronder and Steven Dudley are excellent as the two children."

To be fair, there's a worse kid earlier on in series one. Maybe I just found them annoying, because frankly I wouldn't want those two running around while I was busy surviving. ;)

Stuart: "You want to see poor child acting, wait until you get to the Scottish lad in 'A Little Learning' in series 3. He's awful!"

Something to look forward to! Our DVD rental people appear to have picked up the pace on sending out Survivors so it mightn't be all that long before we get through S2 anyway. There was a massive delay between Disc 1 and the rest on our series one watch, but luckily it was just that good that the first four episodes really stayed with me. Even if the gap was still frustrating! :)

Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "(Don't suppose you know the reason for the cast change?"

Terry Scully had personal problems (drink or depression IIRC) and so couldn't appear and had to be replaced by Hugh Walters.

SAF: "Maybe I just found them annoying, because frankly I wouldn't want those two running around while I was busy surviving. ;)"

Hey, there's good eating on them there youngsters, if it comes to it :)