In one corner, we have Doctor Who running, with considerable vigor, away from the legacy of the Pertwee era. Not just in the sense of moving into a postmodern aesthetic instead of a glam one, or in the sense of its massive and definitive breaks with its history. But in a broader sense, the transition we’re following is in part a turn away from the materialism of the Pertwee era. The series is turning from the immediate concerns of the world back towards a realm of ideas and stories. The first great era of social realism in Doctor Who, which began to spark roughly with The Macra Terror, here is flickering to a close, and we’re still more than a decade out from its next real rise.
With Survivors, then, Terry Nation walks pointedly in the other direction: a science fiction series that is based almost entirely on social realism. A series that is 100%, unabashedly about the ethical issues seemingly raised in The War Games, and for that matter about the ones raised by The Daleks, in which the Doctor pointedly declines to stick around for the business of rebuilding. This is the polar opposite – a series in which rebuilding is the entire focus.
It is, of course, a disaster. It’s tough to call this a surprise. I mean, looking at Terry Nation’s Doctor Who scripts, cutting social realism is not what you’d call his wheelhouse. He’s king of the tedious moralizers. Genesis of the Daleks is a great script, yes, but that’s because he successfully uses the twin mythic giants of the Daleks and Nazi Germany to cover up the fact that Kaled society is astonishingly lazily designed and that the centuries-long war on Skaro is between two domed cities within walking distance of one another that have hilariously lax security. Yes, it’s very good, but the thing that is good about it is very obviously not that it depicts a remotely sane or realistic view of society.
And now he’s tackling a series where the entire idea is probing and realistic views of society. I mean, the premise here is straightforward: an overwhelming majority of the world’s population drops dead of a pandemic, and the survivors have to try to preserve human society. It is, in other words, a sort of prototypical Deadwood – a story about how civilization establishes itself and deals with its most basic problems like providing food or security. In other words, a story that demands the exact opposite of what Nation has proven himself good at.
In light of this, it’s actually surprising how good the show is. Or, at least, it could be taken as surprising. Actually, for all Nation’s inadequacies in portraying civilization, there are things Nation is good at that turn out to be very useful here. Most obviously, Nation has always been one of the best Doctor Who writers at the job of crafting situations of physical and material danger. To my surprise when reading About Time, apparently the scene at the start of Genesis of the Daleks in which the Doctor steps on a landmine is widely hated. Which honestly baffles me, as to my mind it’s a scene that captures one thing that Nation is among the best at: having his characters dealing with immediate and real problems. What’s great about the landmine scene is that it’s not the sort of problem we expect to see the Doctor dealing with, and even though we don’t really think Harry is going to accidentally set it off, watching him carefully wedge rocks under a mundane, real-world military weapon is startling and visceral in a way that the series hardly ever hits without Nation.
What it comes down to is that Nation is clearly steeped in a tradition of science fiction that values a dashing and endlessly pragmatic male action hero – the sort of Robert Heinlein tradition, if you will. He is, in fact, far more steeped in that tradition than anyone else working on the series, and it shows. And it’s a subtle thing, but this helps Survivors tremendously, because it means that he can at least write extremely engaging sequences about struggling with mundane issues of survival.
It also helps that a post-apocalyptic world is a world suitable for writing Terry Nation characters, and he proceeds to pack the cast with various iterations of hardened pragmatists. This helps cover up the fact that Nation is at sea writing much of anything other than hardened pragmatists. The result is that, as with the premiere of The Tomorrow People, Survivors crackles with energy. The first episode in particular, with its relentless march towards global catastrophe, is stunningly bleak.
There are, then, two problems. The first is that eventually Nation finds himself marginalized by the show. The other writers on it are quite capable, so this isn’t a complete disaster, but it does mean that a bit of Gilligan’s Island syndrome sets in. Where Nation is happiest leaving everybody struggling and scraping by, other writers steadily drag the show towards being little more than a post-apocalyptic soap opera – a sense that is in no way helped by the show’s heavy use of outdoor videotaping that recodes scenes that would normally be cinematic as looking like studio-bound dramas such that it’s only the lengthy speeches about the future of humanity that usefully distinguish it from Emmerdale at times.
The second is the lengthy speeches and moralizing. Nation has always been a bit of a moralizing windbag, but in and of itself, this isn’t any more of a problem for Survivors than his other quirks. Stirring speeches about the future of humanity are, in the end, something a show like this should have. That’s all well and good. The problem isn’t the incessant moralizing. It’s the fact that Terry Nation – and indeed the writers of Survivors at large – are all insane.
It’s often said that one of the major faults of Survivors is that it’s excessively middle class. What this argument basically means is that, mysteriously, the overwhelming majority of people who survive the plague are white and middle class. Three episodes displayed exactly zero racial minorities. The working class characters who appear are all generally untrustworthy schemers. And this is absolutely true. The series is unambiguously a fantasy about the ability of middle class English people – and it’s clearly English people – to muddle through adversity. And the belief of the series is very clearly that it is middle class people of English ancestry that are the proper muddlers. The working class and the proper nobility just get in the way and risk endangering the glorious English ability to muddle.
It’s horrid, and while you can say much about the dubious ethics of the Pertwee era, particularly in dealing with the Welsh (where Survivors, as we’ll see, gets really egregious), at least Malcolm Hulke never allowed crap like this to happen. But this suggests that the ethical/political problems with Survivors are confined to one fundamental misconception. And I should hate to give the false impression that the problems with this show are less jaw-droppingly deep than they are.
Let’s start with the bewildering idea the show has that, following a pandemic, rural living would be preferable to urban living. Now it’s true that within a pandemic, urban areas are disasters because of the increased spread of germs. But if you assume small bands of survivors, cities are in fact great. Yes, there’s an immediate sanitation problem of tons of dead bodies, but this is a sanitation problem across the planet, and one the series appears to discretely sidestep, as the large piles of corpses seem to vanish about five minutes into the second episode. Perhaps more importantly, though, in reality the matter would be, if not trivial to handle, at least predictable: there would be mass incinerations. Even Torchwood: Miracle Day understood that.
But more important is the show’s bizarre idea that cities would be disastrous and to be avoided. When it finally gets around to dealing with London in its second season, London turns out to be disease-ridden and dying out, despite the fact that, unlike most settlements, it has access to things like hospitals full of medical supplies. But more than that, this ignores the fundamental role cities play in the rise of civilization. I mean, we’ve talked about the nature of London on this blog before. London is not unaccustomed to massive social collapses. It does fine, as major cities do, because major cities are not simply dropped randomly onto landmasses. They are built up at sensible geographic locations near major resources.
On top of that, there are huge numbers of resources in cities. People are living in part largely on scavenged supplies, and yet they mysteriously do not favor living in areas that are full of supplies. And shelters. Plus, there are, you know, people there. Since global infection appears to have happened, meaning that all survivors either have immunity to the disease or survived it, cities are still going to have more people than anywhere else. The amount of time spent by people wandering the countryside being disappointed that they can’t find anyone else instead of going into a bloody city where they’re actually likely to find some. If you want to, you know, build a functioning community – as the people in Survivors ostensibly do – going to a city with an actual population is probably a good idea. Because the fact of the matter is, short of a zombie apocalypse in which the cities are populated by undead hordes, cities would in fact be absolutely crucial centers
But ultimately, and this is the real problem with Survivors, it’s not actually about the practical matters of survival, except inasmuch as they provide fodder for speeches. It’s about the moral issues of survival. This starts to be clearest in the second episode, in which we meet Arthur Wormley, a former union president, who sets up a barbaric regime of capital punishment in the name of reconstructing government. But what’s wrong with Wormley, in the show’s judgment, is twofold. First, he has the wrong priorities – being interested in building big institutions instead of a proper Blitz-style muddling. But second, and seemingly more important, at least in terms of how he’s presented to us as a character, he’s a union man, and thus apparently inherently corrupt and power mad. Yeah. Fuck you too, Terry.
But this is the problem. The show isn’t about surviving, it’s about what sorts of people are the best people, and what sorts of people aren’t. Its plotlines aren’t about the material experiences of survivors at all – that’s just window dressing for what amounts to ethics lessons about which sorts of people are secretly fascists or criminals just waiting for an opportunity and what sorts of people are good god-fearing Brits who are the sorts of people that helped us win the war. Which is a problem both because Nation has a horribly classist (and frankly racist and sexist, albeit mostly tacitly in both of those) view of who the best people are, and because the vision of survival offered has nothing to do with the material conditions of the world. It’s a story of rugged survival in which the conditions in which people are trying to survive is irrelevant.
But the real epic nadir of the show has to be the much-discussed episode “Law and Order” from its first season. Let us take a moment and look at the sheer and dizzying lows to which this episode strives. The basic premise of the episode is simple enough – there is a murder with the settlement that the characters have founded, and the characters must identify the murderer and settle how to handle it. The audience knows full well that the murderer is Tom, the scheming Welshman (played, of course, by Talfryn Thomas, the BBC’s default Welshman, who previously appeared in both The Green Death and Spearhead From Space). But the camp assumes it’s Barney, the other working class person, who is also mentally disabled.
There are, of course, the obvious class issues involved in having the two working class people be the ones who are suspected or guilty. But this is only the beginning! First of all, right before Tom rapes and murders his victim two other characters talk about Mayday and the ancient practice of human sacrifice. This scene is explicitly symbolic, coming directly between when Tom first attacks his victim and when we find out that he’s killed her. So it’s unambiguously the case that the rape and murder is, at least in part, because Tom is a Welshman and thus closer to these pagan roots and their barbarism.
Then comes the actual trial and decision to execute Barney. In the decision to convict, the vote is 6-3, with the people voting to acquit all being either women or Tom. In the decision to execute, however, with the exception of Abby, the short haired and most boyish of the female characters, the votes against execution are precisely the female characters and Tom. In other words, only women and people with a guilty conscience oppose capital punishment.
Then comes the drawing of lots for who has to carry out the execution. This is possibly my favorite moment, based purely on who has to draw lots. Namely the men, All of the women – even Abby – are spared having to do this. This is just about the least sane way to decide who has to execute Barney imaginable. They do not, for instance, pick only people who actually voted for execution. They do not excuse Tom, who, in the eyes of the characters, both doesn’t think Barney did it and doesn’t want to execute him – he’s on the hook for executing him. Nor is it just out of some belief that men, being stronger and more physically capable, are better executioners. Because the character who uses a wheelchair, who is possibly not the best executioner available, also has to draw. No. It’s the flat-out sexism of “men have to draw, women don’t.”
And yet we’re still not up to the worst part. No, no. After Barney is killed, Tom finally confesses. At which point the two lead characters, after the male lead informs the female lead that she’s just a figurehead and he’s really in charge, decide that his skills are too useful and they have to let him live and not tell anyone he was the real killer. In other words, the mentally disabled – who are, of course, dangerous and prone to murderous rampages – ought be subject to a more rigorous justice system than people who have more useful skills. It’s more OK to rape and murder someone if you’re useful, and the useless are subject to execution in a way others aren’t. And notably, nobody is given a voice to dissent here. This is the show’s final judgment – that Tom can’t be executed like Barney, because Barney is stupid and useless and Tom is useful.
This, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with Survivors. Because it’s so disconnected from the material reality and its ethics are ultimately based entirely on the society it ostensibly burns down at the end of the first episode, it comes up with an ethical system that is both incoherent for the circumstances and morally indefensible.
And what’s worst is that, like the last piece of jaw-dropping moral bankruptcy we saw, it’s not overt. It’s not that Survivors is made by bad people, any more than Moonbase 3 was. Rather it’s a systemic problem. The BBC of the mid-70s wasn’t good enough for social realism, at least not in the science fiction end of it. It tried, and it even had some successes, but ultimately, at this moment in time, the limits of what, culturally and aesthetically the BBC could do were such that they weren’t capable of taking the next steps in social realism right then. They weren’t capable of doing genuinely good female characters, or diverse casts, and TV writing hadn’t gotten sophisticated enough to do issues stories without tedious and often very bad speeches.
And fine. This happens sometimes. The old generation of writers like Terry Nation and Terrance Dicks are, at this point, starting to reach the limits of what they can do in this area, and the next generation isn’t quite good enough to pick up the torch yet. Essentially what we need is for the generation who was influenced by, say, JG Ballard to grow up to where they can get jobs. And until then, social realism, for a bit, at least, is going to duck back under the water and bide its time until people who can help evolve it come along. We’ll see it again later. But for now, we need to bid it a necessary farewell.