The first box set of Survivors was one of the best pieces of drama that Big Finish has ever produced, and Matt Fitton’s opening episode was rightly up for the Audio Awards earlier this year. It gave us fresh perspectives on the events of the opening episodes of Terry Nation’s series, introducing us to a brand new set of characters who briefly interacted with the original cast. It was bleak, even nihilistic at times, and put the story on a wider stage than the BBC series managed. The stories were dramatic without becoming melodramatic, building out of character and an escalation of events.
I’d love to be able to say that the second box set builds on those foundations, and, to be fair, Louise Jameson’s Mother’s Courage, the second and by far the strongest of the stories in this set, does. It features three mothers with very different outlooks on motherhood: Jameson’s Jackie, who killed her own children believing she was saving them from a much worse fate; Lucy Fleming’s Jenny, who has just learned that she’s pregnant; and Carolyn Seymour’s Abby, desperately searching for her son Peter, and feeling guilty at her lack of involvement in his life to date. Add into the mix Molly, a new character who’s escaped from being passed around like a piece of meat, and you’ve got potential for some cracking dialogue. Jameson delivers this, and when she puts the quartet in a women’s camp where any male presence isn’t just unwelcome but steps are taken to actively remove it, sparks are bound to fly. A character is perhaps entrusted with critical information earlier than one might expect, but otherwise Jameson’s first solo script hardly puts a foot wrong.
The first story – Ken Bentley’s The Flood – reintroduces our characters, and adds some new ones as Abby searches for clues as to Peter’s whereabouts and Greg tags along to help build relationships with new communities. Jackie and John Banks’ Daniel are placed in jeopardy and, given the fate of certain characters in the first box set, we really don’t know what’s going to happen to them.
But of course, we do know that Greg, Jenny and Abby are going to make it – because they’ve got to appear in, or at the very least be referenced in the TV episodes that follow (this is set around the end of the first season) – and focusing stories on them takes away some of the edge Big Finish’s incarnation of Survivors had over their Doctor Who/Blake’s 7 ranges. This is nothing against Ian McCulloch, Fleming or Seymour, who bring back their characters with gusto, and had the range begun like this – with it basically being a series of Missing Adventures for Survivors, in the Who/B7 mould – then I wouldn’t feel as cheated of the story potential as I did by the end of this set.
In the extras accompanying the third and fourth stories, producer David Richardson makes reference (as does director/writer Bentley) to “the line” that they can’t cross. There’s also discussion of Survivors allowing Big Finish to tell dark, mature/adult stories – as if by simply being the former it somehow becomes the latter. As some of the New Adventures, and a lot of Torchwood proved, being dark, and including swearing and nastiness does not mean you are creating adult adventures. You’re creating stories that are definitely not for children, that’s very true, but adult themes do not have to include – as these stories do – torture, dismemberment, and worse (I won’t spoil the worst of these). Dealing with the guilt of killing your children, yes that is an adult theme; dealing with a world that is not going to judge you for your sexuality after years of hiding it because it’s more important that you’re one of the very few survivors – yes, so is that.
And those are the tales that I had hoped we would be getting, based on the first series – not a further pseudo-Biblical event, apparently because that’s what the first set started with. Finding a survivalist, seeing how he’s coping, and discovering what he can bring to the party? That’s a brilliant use of the concept and great drama. But then putting him and others in the position they are in for the latter part of the third episode and the whole of the fourth? No, that’s melodrama, and it feels like shlock exploitation – it’s not a Heart of Darkness. As Bentley notes, in this sort of apocalyptic situation, certain activities are inevitable, but they don’t need to be amalgamated with the tropes of torture porn to be effective drama.
I must emphasise that this is nothing at all against the quality of the finished product: Bentley’s direction is spot-on, the sound design (particularly in the latter two episodes) by Neil Gardner is horrifically good, and there are some stunning pieces of acting, not just from the regulars, but also from the guest actors. But I came away from it not wanting to spend further time with these characters – which, after waiting forty years for their return, is a real shame.
Verdict: By far the darkest tales Big Finish have told. 7/10