Survivors (BBC 1975-1977)

Ever since I gave up cable TV years ago I’ve discovered I really love finding a TV series and watching it from the first to last episode.  Preferably from Netflix streaming, but DVDs are an okay second choice.  Watching a complete TV series is like enjoying a very long novel.  I listen to novels all the time, so I’m used to their length in hours.  Average novels are 10-20 hours.  Recently I listened to Anna Karenina and it was 42 hours.  I’ve just finished 38 episodes of Survivors which ran on the BBC for three seasons (series as they say) from 1975 till 1977.  Each episode was slightly less than an hour, so the entire run was equal to one long novel.  It’s a shame actual novels aren’t filmed this way.

Survivors is a post-apocalyptic story set in England about a handful of people who survive a world-wide plague.  In the course of the story we hear that only 1 person in 5,000 survived, another time they guessed 1 in 10,000.  This plague is far more virulent than the famous Black Plague of the middle ages.  Viewers assume the plague was engineered as a bio-weapon from the opening credits.


In the first season Greg, Jenny and Abby each find themselves alone among the dead.  They strike out on their own with very different plans but they eventually meet up and work to survive together.  Most of the episodes deal with finding food, encountering other bands of survivors with different agendas for surviving, wild dogs and rats, and much talk about how to start civilization all over again.  The driving plot of the first season is Abby’s desperate need to find her son who was away at boarding school when the death came.  Greg and Jenny agree to help her enthusiastically at first, but as the season progresses and chances dim, become reluctant to keep traveling.

In the second season, Jenny and Greg have settled with others on a farm and the season is about rebuilding civilization at the rural level.  Charles, a new main character replaces Abby.  Each episode deals with various post-apocalyptic issues, like having babies, finding medicine, fighting roving bands of thugs, producing methane for tractor fuel, handling dysfunctional people, how to decide who does what jobs, making alliances with other settlements, developing trade, and so on.  Many fans didn’t like this season because the action slows.  Stories are about raising sheep and cabbages.  I actually like the second season quite a lot.  Each episode dealt with true post-apocalyptic problems.

For the last season, Jenny, Greg and Charles travel most of the season seeing other settlements, promoting trade, and hoping to get electricity going again.  Our characters do a lot of horseback riding around rural England and Scotland.  Fans felt the action picked up in the third season. 

It’s too bad this show is 1970s television technology because the bucolic scenery, old manor houses, and rustic farms would have been beautiful in modern high definition.  There was a 2008 remake of Survivors that only ran for two short seasons that gives us a taste of what could have been.  The original series never had big production values but that never bothered me because after-the-collapse stories are among my favorite fictional themes, and living is inherently low tech in such a scenario.

Overall, I really enjoyed Survivors, which is only available on DVD through Netflix, so I had to wait patiently for each new disc.  Sadly, the discs are old and scratched so I don’t know how much longer they will be available.  There is a 6-disc set of the entire three seasons at Amazon that came out in 2010, but I wonder how long they will stay in print.  Plus the set is on 5 double-sided “flippy” DVDs and 1 single sided DVD.  In England and Australia the set was on 11 single sided discs.  I consider it bad form, lack of respect and cheapness to put shows on double-sided DVDs, which keeps me from buying it.  I enjoyed the series enough that I know I’ll want to watch them again in the future, but I don’t want to buy it with flippy discs. 

Evidently this show still has lots of fans in England, but it’s little known in America.  That’s too bad because it’s a intriguing show.  It’s not fantastic, but it is thought provoking and I liked the characters.  I was sad they fired Carolyn Seymour who played Abby at the end of the first season.  And many appealing secondary characters get killed – but hey, that’s what life would be like after the collapse.  Survivors introduced many secondary characters over the course of the three seasons, several of which I really got to like before they disappeared or were killed off.

The show had lots of room to grow because of all these additional characters, and I’m sorry the producers and writers didn’t explore their lives more.  Instead of 13 episode seasons the concept could easily have supported 26 episode per year, and the entire show could have run five or six years without running out of interesting topics to pursue.  But then I like technical stuff.  I’d gladly would have watched several episodes about getting the steam trains running again, or getting tractors to run off of methane.  The 1970s was a big back to nature era and this show would have been perfect for the Mother Earth News crowd.

To me, the Gold Standard of post-apocalyptic novels is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.  In England I assume it’s The Day of the Triffids.  Only Earth Abides takes its story into the third generation after the collapse.  When they remade Survivors in 2008, they should have started with the second or third generation after the original 1975-1977 series.  The actors who play Abby, Jenny and Greg are still alive, so it would be interesting to see them reprise their roles as grandparents.  Instead they modernize the original series and brought in a ridiculous secret government program.

Since Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, every generation has imagined what life would be like if civilization collapsed.  The list of novels is long, and there have been many movies dealing with the theme, but there have been few television shows covering the topic. Survivors, both 1975 and 2008, are the standouts, along with Jericho from 2006-2008.

JWH – 7/8/12

9 thoughts on “Survivors (BBC 1975-1977)”

  1. Hmm,… I like the idea that characters die off, Jim – and not just minor characters. Many TV shows have characters who continually do dangerous things, but none of them ever die from it (or not unless they need to replace a character, for some reason).

    But I don’t know if I could watch three seasons of a TV show like this, either. I tend to get tired of television shows relatively quickly. Even those I really like get old after awhile.

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