From the archives: Before there was Contagion, there was Survivors (2011)

July 16, 2012

Contagion has broken out on movie screens across America. The big budget blockbuster with the all-star cast, which debuted on Friday, is the #1 movie in the country. At least for the time being.

Contagion is an action-thriller about a deadly disease and the international team of doctors who attempt to deal with its outbreak. As more and more people get sick and die, panic spreads, and ordinary individuals struggle to survive in a society coming apart at the seams. Contagion is a well-made film, to be sure. It’s gritty, apocalyptic, emotionally disturbing, and best to avoid if you’re afraid of germs either cinematic or real.

The premise behind Contagion – that of a quickly spreading pandemic which kills most of the people on Earth – brings to mind one of my favorite television shows, a British series from the 1970′s called Survivors. Admittedly, it’s somewhat obscure, and something of a “survivalist soap opera.” At least that’s the way I used to describe it to friends, like the playwright Jeremy Greco, to whom I once loaned my imported DVDs.

Survivors is an acquired taste even among genre enthusiasts. Its obscurity may be explained, in part, by the fact that it was little seen in the United States. KTEH (Channel 54) in San Jose was one of the few stations in the country to have run it. Back in the 1980′s and 1990′s, KTEH paired it with old episodes of Doctor Who as part of their science fiction programming on Sunday nights. I recall seeing it then, and renewing my interest in the show.

I first caught episodes of Survivors in the late 1970′s, around the time it first aired in England. Having grown up in suburban Detroit, we got one broadcast station from Canada, which was just across the river from the Motor City. That station was CBET, Channel 9 from Windsor, Ontario. Channel 9 used to show all kinds of unusual films and programs, including British series which PBS or Masterpiece Theater didn’t show.

To describe Survivors as downbeat would be something of an overstatement. Its premise centers on a pandemic of Chinese origin that pretty much wipes out the world’s population, leaving only small groups roaming a desolate British countryside. How does one get along without electricity and supermarkets and ready transportation? Is it safe to venture into bigger cities like London, or are they littered with corpses and filled with disease? How does one grow food, and keep warm, and protect oneself against packs of rabid dogs and roving bandits? This is realistic TV before reality TV. One of the most gruesome episodes concerns a character who contracts rabies, for which nothing can be done. When he dies foaming at the mouth, you know this show doesn’t flinch.

Survivors is pretty strong stuff for television in the 1970′s. It’s also thought provoking. The show’s grim storyline and emotionally grey palette explains why it lasted only three seasons. I sometimes wonder how it lasted even that long.

Survivors was devised by Terry Nation, a Welsh writer best known for scripting episodes of Doctor Who and for creating that show’s celebrated Daleks. Nation also created another British science fiction series with a cult following, Blake’s 7, and worked on programs such as The AvengersThe Champions, and The Saint. In 1976, Nation penned a novel based on Survivors. Though now rare, an original hardback edition of Nation’s novel can still be found on the shelves of the San Francisco Public Library.

Ian McCullough, Lucy Fleming, and Carolyn Seymour in “Survivors.”
Not to be confused with the similarly-named reality TV show.

Produced by Terence Dudley, Survivors ran on the BBC from 1975 to 1977. The series’ main actors include Lucy Fleming (the niece of James Bond author Ian Fleming) as Jenny Richards, Ian McCulloch as Greg Preston, Carolyn Seymour (who later appeared in a handful of latter Star Trekepisodes) as Abby Grant, and Denis Lill as Charles Vaughan. These and other characters came and went – some died, while others went off in search of missing family members. Guest stars included Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who), Denis Lawson (Star Wars) and others familiar to fans of British TV.

The low-budget series was shot quickly on early video cameras which did not always work well under the gloomy conditions in which much of the program was made. Nevertheless, that crudeness only adds to the show’s verisimilitude.

Admittedly, over the course of the Survivors’ 38 episodes, not all that much really happens. Unless, of course, you consider growing vegetables and protecting a few livestock from dangerous animals and poachers pivotal plot points. There are arguments about how to reform society. And an innocent, mentally handicapped individual is put to death for a crime he didn’t commit. But basically, the show’s central characters basically just roam around the countryside until they settle down on an estate and attempt to establish a community. Finally, a few Norwegian survivors arrive via a hot-air balloon and bring with them the possibility of re-establishing worldwide contact and cooperation.

Survivors is cult TV at its best. Since my glowing description has undoubtedly got you interested and eager to check it out, I can tell you that in 2010 the show was finally released on DVD in the United States. No need now to borrow my once hard-to-get British DVDs.

The show has spawned its own fandom, books, websites, a documentary, and get-togethers in the rural locations around England and Wales where it was originally shot. Terry Nation’s 1976 novel was also the basis for a riveting 2008 remake which aired on the BBC for two seasons. Like its predecessor, however, it didn’t last long.

The end of the world, I’m afraid, is not a pretty sight.


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