Monday, August 11, 2008

Mad Dogs And Englishmen

There wasn't a whole lot of midday sun in Terry Nation's Survivors for anyone to go out in, the weather being frequently grey and overcast and often downright wintry, but there's no reason why we should expect that to change just because the vast majority of the population has been wiped out by a plague. But Englishmen are very much a feature, as you'd expect - particularly of that middle class, slightly stiff upper lip sort you'd expect from thespians in a 70s BBC TV Drama - and mad dogs too as rabies becomes one more threat in the pile stacked against our brave band of heroes.

Of course, as touched upon before, they're not 'heroes' as such and, sadly, as the series progresses through into its third season, they're not even much of a band any more. And there, as I had been warned, problems begin to creep in and what started as an outstanding series with very few low spots ends as a slightly disappointing affair with a few outstanding highlights.

Although, it being Survivors, the highlights generally occur at the lowest points. That is to say, it's when the show's at its bleakest that it really soars. And you can pretty much mark the point where the series takes its downward turn from the moment the balloon goes up.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's backtrack to the opening of the second series, which I'd been awaiting eagerly since that optimistic end note on Series One.

There's a slightly disconcerting hiccough, but luckily it's not the early symptom of anything terminal: we discover that Abby(Carolyn Seymour)'s gone (with her good news of a possible sighting of her son, Peter, we have to adjust to the notion that her story is over) and then the budding community is struck by fire, which is all the more unfortunate for the fact that it disposes of half the previous regulars off-screen. That's a hard pill to swallow and although the characters are no doubt somewhat hardened to the question of death, they appear to take this devastating blow more in their stride than I could as a mere viewer. The surviving Survivors relocate to another community, headed by Dennis Lill who, as Charles Vaughan - although borderline bonkers and wanting to procreate with every woman in sight when we last saw him - now supplies us with an excellent and worthy lead to rival Ian McCulloch's Greg Preston.

Fortunately (?) further misfortune follows hot on disaster's heels in the second episode, Greater Love, and although it brings with it the loss of yet another character - and a good one too, in Chris Tranchell's Paul - the handling is much more sensitive and consequently effective - and also substantiates what I was saying about the series being best at its bleakest. The episode also serves as a proper introduction to Ruth (Celia Gregory), who - perhaps through the connection established with her here, or perhaps because of a good solid performance as a strong female character - grew to be another favourite of mine.

To the extent that in the ensuing two-parter, Lights Of London, when it seems likely we're going to lose Ruth too, I was ready to cry, "Oi! Survivors! Noooooo!" Or something to that effect. Ultimately, its tale of a rat-besieged fascistic community in the rotten core of London is not quite as gritty stuff as I'd have preferred from the series' first visit to one of the big cities - but this does occur at a year's remove from the outbreak of the plague and it's highly probably that the two-parter I might have liked to have seen wouldn't have passed the censors back then.

After that, the series settles down into an exploration of the trials, tribulations and growth of the Preston-Vaughan community, to an extent picking up where we left off at the end of Season One, in terms of pressing on into the next phase of rebuilding. There's talk of a federation of communities, banding together for protection, discussion of a telephone system and other practical developments, such as Greg's pet gas-power project.

Most of it is strong, if inevitably less urgent than preceding incidents on the survival road. But there is a natural, well-considered progression to it all, highly suggestive that the producers had a plan all fully worked out. And along the way there are some truly cracking episodes - Face Of The Tiger and A Friend In Need, particularly, stood out for me - the latter being evidence that it's not always a bad idea to let one of your leading actors turn scribe for a story or (as it eventually turns out) several. Parasites too is shocking (in a good way), not least because it has the gall to introduce the awesome Pat Troughton in sterling character-actor mode, then kill him off. The only major weak point along the way - just as I'd been warned - turns out to be The Witch, an episode that perhaps could have worked, with a stronger basis for the community's suspicions, but one which ends up being plain silly. Luckily, Mina, the 'witch' of the title, is redeemed in Parasites, with her touching - and ultimately crushed - hopes of romance with Troughton's bargee character. In any case, everything feels like it is building towards something and that something materialises as a balloon which, like a lot of things that are full of hot-air, appears to hold a great deal of promise for the future, but ultimately leads to a let down.

The arrival of a traveller from Norway, armed with maps from the air, holds the seeds for all that federalising and rebuilding of industry and infra-structure that Vaughan and Preston have been enthusing about throughout. The potential realisation of all their dreams. It's a big, momentous ending to the season and an optimistic one in many senses, but it is tinged with pain as Jenny (Lucy Fleming) and her beloved Greg are forced to part company.

Departures are, it emerges as we move keenly on to the next and final series, exactly what the event signals. If the adjustment was challenging at the beginning of the second season, then it's doubly so at the outset of the third. The opening episode, Manhunt, failing to make a great deal of sense doesn't entirely help, but more crucially a new pattern is set: the series ahead of us is to be a manhunt of sorts, with Jenny and Charles and Hubert (John Abineri) forever - it seems like - chasing after the elusive Greg and never quite catching up with the fellow. This chap who was so much at the core of things previously, now takes on the air of a myth. And frankly it gets fairly tiresome and by the time Jenny, at one point, is ready to give up on him, well, my sympathies were entirely with her.

Greg though is like Blake in Blake's Seven. To a large extent he was the glue holding things together, and his absence is felt keenly here. Fair to say, the lack of cohesion also arises from a mission to show us the 'community of the week' visited by Charles and Jenny in their quest, but I have to feel there must have been better ways of going about it. Perhaps alternating between Greg's story and the chasing group, so that we weren't suffering quite so much with the frustration along with them, of hearing news of the man, rushing on to the next episode only to discover he had moved on. Fewer strange and rather misjudged episodes like Manhunt and Sparks and other things that make you go "Hmm" would have been welcome. It might even have been just as well to merely explore a different community each week and dispense with the established set of characters altogether.

But in that event, we would not have been so emotionally involved when it came to the key highlights of the season which, for my money have to include Mad Dog - a stark tale in which Charles ends up hunted on the mere suspicion that he might have rabies - genuinely scary - and the superb The Last Laugh. Which, as well as featuring Greg, was also penned by the actor - lending the impression that McCulloch only agreed to star in the episodes he scribed for this season. His previous for the third series, A Little Learning, didn't impress me, although in fairness it was severely let down by a bad child-actor more than bad enough for me to have completely forgiven poor Stephen Dudley (who did a fair enough job, bless 'im, when it came to Reunion, the tale of his reunion with his mother - the title of which unfortunately led us to believe Jenny was due to finally meet up with Greg. How wrong we were!)

The Last Laugh is a bitter, bitter tale and, honestly, one of the best of all three seasons. (And I'd forgive McCulloch's appearance in Doctor Who's Warriors Of The Deep on the strength of that alone!) If I had to gauge from this story alone, I'd guess McCulloch had a real love for the character he played, although those in the know are free to correct me on that. And, aside from the vital reaction to news of his demise from Jenny, that is where I would have left Greg's story.

But unfortunately, no, we have to endure the ignominy of Long Live The King after that, where the sight of a Union Jack being raised with the initials GP emblazoned in the centre succeeds more in characterising how badly the episode misfires than it does in immortalising Greg Preston in the way the story intends. It also features Roy Marsden as the Captain who, in contrast to the genuinely dangerous men in The Last Laugh, amounts to the closest thing to a 'villain' the series has fielded and whose plans are sadly inconsequential and ultimately rather lacking in the drama department. It's all a bit of a shame and even manages to undermine what should have been a crushing, devastating moment for Jenny when she is given the news - after chasing all around the country after him - that Greg is dead. That is a truly sad end.

And as for the actual final episode, Power, well, apart from the fact that it is a fitting closure in terms of the practical reconstruction side of things, the idea that so many Scots survive relatively comfortably north of the border while the rest of us are left scraping together a pathetic existence here in England is an outrage! It's just that sort of racist anti-English propoganda that will have this country falling apart at the seams, I tell you! I should have seen it coming: the series is positively crawling with Scots in key roles!

Although, to tell the truth, I only include that little mock rant because I'm reasonably sure Stuart will be reading - tee hee :) . And it's as well to be nice to the Scots just in case they do end up in control of our hyrdo-electric power in the event of a global disaster.

All in all then, 'power' is what this drama has and it ends as it began - 'not with a bang'. It's only a shame that by the closing stages, with the cited exceptions, it's not nearly as impressive. The story of rebuilding worked better when it was focused, smaller-scale, and although the third series ranges far and wide and offers us variety, in this case it's not the spice of life. Rather, to some extent, it's a few too many potentially interesting seeds falling on stony ground. And Survivors really should know better and concentrate their efforts on more fertile pastures.

Taken as a whole then, strongly recommended viewing, parts of which might qualify as some of the best TV drama ever. Just watch out for that balloon and prepare yourself for a bit of a bumpy journey from there on.


Stuart Douglas said...

hat's a relief - I had feared that either you;d not like it at all after the fabulous first series or you'd think I'd been exaggerating about some of the low points.

Some little points that may be of interest - in 'Lights of London' even the directors admitted that the bad fx (of the Oval and the city in flames in particular) severely limited the impact of the supposedly ruinous city described by Tom Price and Paul in previous episodes.

Manhunt is generally considered to be the hig point of the entire show I believe - certainly it's mine and Ebbsy's favourite episode :)

Both Dennis Lill as Charles and Iam McCullough as Greg were very fond of their characters, and it was the fact that McCullogh saw Lill as being moved int to replace him as the main male lead that eld to his scaling back his involvement in series 3. I think it was only the fact that he got to write that got him abck at all. Certainly in the 80ps he hoped to bring the series back for a fourth series in which IIRC a group of African survivors land invade England.

And in final and absolute agreement - isn't 'The Last Laugh' a fantastic bit of television, with one of the best final couple of scenes ever?

SAF said...

Ah, cheers, Stuart, I knew I could rely on you to fill me in on some of the background.

(PS. Manhunt? Seriously? Still, the fact that I'm not of a like mind with Ebbsy is no surprise and not at all discomforting :) )

Not too sure how the African invasion series would have turned out. But maybe they could have helped us English keep those Scots at bay. ;)

Stuart Douglas said...

Actually no, not really - I mean to type 'Mad Dog' :)

'Manhunt' is OK I thought, but only in comparison to some of the mid-season series 3 stories.

SAF said...

Ah yeah, that makes much more sense, not least because Mad Dog *is* brilliant. So, that's me you and Ebbsy in agreement - which does qualify for the phrase "generally considered" :)

Manhunt probably suffered a bit in being the first episode, and so as with the Season 2 opener, I was having to adjust somewhat to a new setup again. So yeah, there are almost certainly some in the middle that are actually poorer.

Stuart Douglas said...

My least favourite series 3 story is 'The Peacemaker' although I'm not very keen on any scene with the Saintly Frank in it...

SAF said...

Peacemaker... that'd be the one with the Monks of the Order Of Windy Miller, right? Yeah, and then they go and take Frank with them, so he can a) drug the electrician and b) snuff it due to his dicky ticker. Hmm. Not my favourite character in the series, no ;)

Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "that'd be the one with the Monks of the Order Of Windy Miller"

Ah, you remember it! :)