It takes just days for the ‘European Flu’ to reach every living human being in the United Kingdom in Survivors. But it takes over a year for the show to reach an Australian television network.
For this ambitious, apocolyptic miniseries, the BBC looks to the work of writer Terry Nation, who created a series of the same name in 1975. He later published a book in which he continued his tale of a plague wiping out the UK. Now with screenwriter Adrian Hodges (Primeval) the novel has been updated for this series.
Survivors aired in the UK in late 2008 as a six part series, with another 6 episodes airing this year. That puts it into the universe post-Bird Flu but predates the Swine Flu -both of which help one to believe the premise when watching this 90 minute premiere (2hrs with ads).
Whether in 28 Days Later, Dead Set or here in Survivors, the image of an empty British city is a remarkable sight. There are aerial shots of vacant streetscapes, devoid of traffic, people and life as we know it. Even filmed at dawn with street closures the scenes are captivating.
In Survivors it is a killer flu that devastates a nation. It strikes 90% of the country, from the Prime Minister down. Our story hones in on several disparate characters in Manchester: a mother, a prisoner, a Muslim child, a wealthy young man, a doctor and more. They are all impacted in varying ways and each finds themselves alone when loved ones expire. As the story unfolds it shifts from subplot to subplot as swiftly as the virus.
In key roles are Julie Graham (Casualty, William and Mary) as Abby Grant, the mother whose husband and neighbours are dead, but is determined to find her teenage son; Max Beesley (Hotel Babylon) as Tom Price, a prisoner who is immune to the virus that has killed his cellmate; and Phillip Rhys (Nip / Tuck, 24) as Al Sadiq, a wealthy lad who awakens to find his one night stand, and everyone else, has died. Doctor Who‘s Freema Agyeman also makes an appearance.
Government is represented by Nikki Amuka-Bird as the Health Minister, struggling to comprehend the enormity of the rapid virus. She tries to upkeep a lie to the nation for its own good, but will soon buckle as it becomes impossible to contain. Police and army are all but absent from the first episode, presumably having been just as decimated as the population.
There’s something rather sanitised about Survivors, which thrives on lots of lifeless bodies scattered across its scenes, but almost entirely avoids anarchy, lawlessness and gore. Only on occasions does it nod to the stench that must necessarily inhabit every location. Instead it focusses on the small-scale stories of its ensemble characters as they come to terms with the reality of being the only humans left standing. None understands why. Some react in desperation, others confusion, and one seems to be revelling in a new lease on life. All face choices.
As a TV drama it works rather well, narrowing in on ordinary heroes to compensate for the fact it doesn’t trade in big screen effects. It’s also refreshing to see a female protagonist in Julie Graham, while the usually charming Max Beesley turns bad boy as a criminal who breaks free from a crumbling prison.
At least in the hands of the Brits the story doesn’t yet descend into earnestness, even if it does require the suspension of disbelief. Hopefully it keeps it up in coming episodes.
Survivors premieres 9:30pm Sunday March 21 on Nine.