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Apocalypse now

The TV programmes you watched as a child are like acid flashbacks.

26 November 2008

12:00 AM

26 November 2008

12:00 AM

The TV programmes you watched as a child are like acid flashbacks. You never fully understood them at the time and you understand them even less now that you’ve forgotten most of the context and detail. But by golly, don’t they half haunt the imagination ever after?

Terry Nation’s late Seventies series Survivors had just this effect on me. It was about the aftermath of a killer virus which wipes out virtually the entire human species leaving just a handful of survivors to roam the earth, scrape by without TV or electric lights or hot showers, and generally rediscover the old agrarian ways before we became so dependent on technology. The ultimate fantasy of the modern green movement, in other words.

Not having seen the series in 30 years, I can’t vouch for how crap it was. But I would suspect not crap at all. Terry Nation was a scriptwriter of some genius. He invented the Daleks — indeed many of early Doctor Who’s best storylines — and he created Blake’s 7, and he had a knack for writing cultish drama which not only pushed all the right ‘scare’ and ‘tension’ buttons at all the right moments, but which was also intelligent and profound and stuck in your brain in the way, say, Dennis Potter dramas do.

And now the BBC has done a remake — Survivors (BBC 1, Sunday and Tuesday) and it’s really dismal. It’s like a case study of all the things that have gone wrong with telly in the intervening period: the shallowness, the political correctness, the hacky scripting, the so-so acting, the crassness, the stereotyping. It’s born not out of love of the medium, but out of fear. Fear of not getting the right number of minority viewers; fear that the audience is going to switch off at the slightest hint of intelligence or sophistication and play a videogame instead; fear of originality or depth.

What annoys me is that it’s such a waste of a perfect premise. The post-apocalypse scenario raises so many interesting questions: what would you do with all the dead bodies (or how long would it be before they decomposed into harmlessness)? How much of the old technology would still be operable? How quickly would everyone get their act together and start growing new food? Would there not be a massive surge of frenzied breeding?

Survivors touches these issues, but only very cursorily. In the Radio Times the screenwriter Adrian Hodges says that, though we think that there’d be lots of petrol to go round there actually wouldn’t, first because the petrol pumps in garages need electricity in order to operate, second because in most modern cars it’s very hard to siphon out the petrol.

But I’m not sure I buy this. In the original series one of the characters estimates that one out of 15,000 people have survived the apocalypse. Today, that would give Britain a post-virus population of what, maybe 40,000? Think of all the cars there must be with full and half-full tanks to be borrowed at their leisure.

Similar rules apply to food. One of Survivors’ main premises — as it was in the original, though much less clunkily done — was that instead of banding together in co-operative groups, Britain would start resembling Somalia, with lots of savage, greedy gun-toting groups vying for supremacy, all trying to take control of the main food depots.

Is that really our way? Would it really be anyone’s way after such a traumatic event? I reckon, once you’d seen every single person you know — all your family, all your friends — wiped out over the space of a weekend, you’d frankly be grateful for all the company you could get. You’d want to find a mate so you could repopulate the planet; you’d spend an awful lot of time involved in conversations which began, ‘Bloody hell. Who’d have thought it?’; you’d be particularly on the lookout for someone who knew how to work a generator or could make cheese.

‘Episode Six: The Quest for a Cheesemaker.’ Yes, of course I quite see why Terry Nation had to take a slightly more pessimistic route than this. But his series remained much more grounded in verisimilitude than the new one does. In Survivors Mark II, everyone is called on to act like a character from Big Brother, needlessly generating tension when any normal person would just shrug their shoulders and get on with it. So, for example, the girl who’s a doctor decides she doesn’t want to be a doctor any more (why?), and the omni-talented black man has to undergo serious persuasion before he agrees to team up with anyone else (why?) and one of the characters has to be a murdering thug (because obviously, 99.99 per cent of the human population having been wiped out just isn’t interesting enough a storyline on its own…)

God, and I was so looking forward to this drama becoming a staple of my viewing week. I despair, I really do.

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