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.…