Sometimes I think we don’t truly appreciate the times in which we live. Those of us who are lucky enough to be born in one of the developed, economically powerful nations are incredibly blessed with ample food, shelter, protection, and more leisure time than any other time in history. While we certainly don’t live in paradise, compared to how 90% of the world’s population lived in, say, the sixteenth century, what we have is pretty darn close.
But what happens when the societal, cultural, and political constructs that enable the world to function this way breaks down? What happens when survival becomes an every-day concern? What happens to our morals, our basic human decency? Those are the questions the BBC show Survivors poses with every episode, and the answers are typically not comforting.
Over two weeks 90% of the world’s population dies from a worldwide pandemic. Economies fall, governments break down, and the ten percent left don’t know whether to count themselves lucky to have survived, or curse the genetic crapshoot that made them immune to the flu. With the infrastructure of society disabled—no municipal utilities, no manufacturing or distributing sources to get food and other goods from manufacturers to consumers, and no people or organizations to enforce the law—thugs and bullies become petite warlords doing whatever they want to whoever they want. Surviving in this post-pandemic world means relearning how to farm, tend livestock, and the thousands of other activities that in our modern world have become specialized tasks, and avoiding people at any cost.
The show focuses on a group of six survivors: Abby, Tom, Greg, Anya, Aalim, and Najid. Abby is the de facto star because, of all the survivors, she’s the only one that has something to live for: her son, Peter. You see, unlike the others, Abby wasn’t actually immune to the virus. She contracted it and went into some kind of mini-coma. When she awoke she found her husband dead, her son missing, and her world completely in shambles. As the group comes together she serves as the unofficial leader and conscience of the group. When everyone else seems ready and willing to give up their morals when it’s most expedient, Abby is the one that steps up and persuades them to do what’s right, not what’s easy.
But the line between doing what’s right and what’s necessary to survive becomes increasingly blurred as the show progresses, and upholding one’s morals becomes harder and harder when nobody else seems to be playing by the same set of rules. The subtext of Survivors, though, seems to be that you lose everything if you compromise your morals. We especially see this with the character Samantha Willis, the former government member who’s desperately trying to restart civilization and isn’t afraid to stoop to using thugs, making backroom deals, and employing Machiavellian schemes to ensure that she succeeds.
That’s not to say that the Survivors are all squeaky clean. Far from it. One member, Tom, is an ex-con and probably the only reason that the group, well, survives. He’s the one most comfortable making the hard choices and carrying them out (sometimes, to be fair, with disastrous results); this ability makes him the most successful in living in this new world, and, frustratingly, the group doesn’t seem to realize it.
The sad fact of the matter is that assholes are best equipped for surviving in a post apocalyptic world. As much as I value human compassion, mercy, and empathy, those qualities can be huge detriments when everything goes all Mad Max. My wife constantly teases me for being too trusting and naïve when it comes to people, and, as much as I hate to admit it, I probably wouldn’t last very long if I were in this show.
The best dramas put ordinary people in extraordinary situations where everything they hold dear and true is put to the test. We like to think that strong people will hold to their convictions, but the reality is much more complicated than that. Survivors deals with this complexity in each episode and it’s smart enough not to provide easy answers. Although the show is ostensibly science fiction, the pandemic it proposes is really just an excuse to clear the board, so to speak, and show us what humanity is like when the bolsters of law and society are taken away. It’s a very bleak view, but not without brief, shining moments of humanity at its best. Not only is this show great drama, it reminds us that humanity at its noblest is a far more fragile and wonderful thing than we realize.
Each episode is present in 16×9 aspect ratio with the audio in Dolby Digital Stereo. There were no problems with either the audio or video, but those new to BBC productions should be aware that it will look a little different than American shows.
The extras in this set are good, but not spectacular. You’ve got the standard behind-the-scenes featurettes, character profiles, and the like. Nothing really stands out as noteworthy or particularly worth watching.
A New World
The Making of Survivors
Survivors FX Featurette
The quality of the show is top-notch, but a word of warning: don’t try and watch it in marathon sessions as I did; the episodes are long and emotionally heavy, leaving you exhausted. Other than that little caveat, I heartily recommend this show.
BBC presents Survivors: Complete Seasons One and Two. Directed by John Alexander, Andrew Gunn, Iain B Macdonald, Jamie Payne, David Evans, and Farren Blackburn. Starring Julie Graham, Max Beesley, Peterson Joseph, Zoë Tapper, Phillip Rhys, Robyn Addison, Nicholas Gleaves, Geraldine Somerville, Chahak Patel, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Patrick Malahide. Written by Adrian Hodges, Gaby Chiappe, Simon Tyrrell, and Jimmy Gardner. Running time: 733 minutes. Rated NR. Released on DVD: April 27, 2010. Available at Amazon.