Series Five of Big Finish’s Survivors audio dramas has a great premise: “the Death” makes its return. The set follows its spread through a number of communities, each episode using a different permutation of Big Finish’s Survivors cast of Jenny, Greg, Abby, Evelyn Piper, and Hannah (who was called “Molly” in earlier sets). Moving between them all is Carol Baker, played by Neve McIntosh, an Army medic who might hurt more than she helps.
I continue to have a mixed relationship with Big Finish’s Survivors. There are things it can do better than the television programme, as Barnaby Edwards highlights in the extras, but there are things it struggles with too. Part of it is the available cast of characters, as I understand it (much of my Survivors knowledge is admittedly obscure): only Greg, Jenny, and Abby are available, which means no stories can be told about the community that Greg and Jenny resided in during the television programme. Big Finish created its own cast of the characters in the first couple Survivors sets, but since then has been slowly winnowing them down in favour of the television cast, disappointingly.
So the stories always have to be told about Greg, Jenny, and Abby on the road encountering other communities. But as I pointed out in my review of Series Four, production considerations make this hard to pull off: “The small cast makes telling stories about communities difficult: when you have five or six visitors to [a community], that leaves you only its leader and basically one prominent community member in each episode — if that.”
The first story here is definitely the best one, Andrew Smith’s The Second Coming, which follows Abby and Evelyn at Carol’s community as the Death makes its return. I’ve complained about a lack of nuance in previous Survivors stories, but The Second Coming is a dark and disturbing look at what fear will make people do — terrible things are done, but you totally get why those people do it, and it includes some of the most disturbing scenes Survivors has yet done.
Unfortunately, the middle two episodes are a little too same-y, both to each other and to The Second Coming, and both suffer from the small-cast-having-to-represent-a-whole-village problem. In both New Blood and Angel of Death, Greg and Jenny arrive at a community just in time to see it collapse thanks to the Death, and in both you basically have two people who are that community — and thus the tragedy of this event isn’t adequately communicated on an emotional level. I don’t care if this bunch of weird nobodies suffers, and the scripts don’t make me care. Both scripts have something to enjoy in them; there are lots of nice touches and character moments in New Blood, while I really enjoyed the character of Pearl in Angel of Death. There are times I wish these Survivors boxes could be less tightly plotted. I sense that Christopher Hatherall and Simon Clark have great Survivors stories within them, but they’re always having to tie into the story arcs plotted out by David Richardson and Matt Fitton.
I found the last story particularly disappointing. There are some great moments, such Abby returning to Peter’s old school (her previous trip was dramatised in the Survivors audiobook), but the whole thing revolves around a moral dilemma that is completely neutered. People tell me that on television, Survivors’s best hour was Law and Order, and while it’s the only one I’ve seen, I agree: a group of well-intentioned people have a moral disagreement, and they make a poor decision for comprehensible reasons. In contrast to that, Andrew Smith’s Come the Horsemen makes the person opposing Greg and Jenny an over-the-top villain. Even though I think he has a very comprehensible argument, and probably a better one than Greg, he’s rendered as a sadist and a misogynist. He delights in causing pain to Jenny, he calls women “bitch”, and he shoots a dog just to prove how evil he is. The moral debate here is completely one-sided, but Law and Order shows us it could have been so much more… and based on Law and Order, I feel like Greg would actually be on the opposite side than he is here! I feel like Big Finish is pulling away from the kind of stories they can and should tell with this post-apocalyptic setting.
The real highlight of this set is Neve McIntosh as Carol Baker. Halfway through the first episode here, I thought she was another character from the television programme we hadn’t heard on audio before! Part of this has to be down to the name, which seems just so perfectly 1970s British television to me. (Reminds me of Tom Baker and George Baker and Carol off The Tomorrow People.) Some of this is down to how well she was written, particularly in The Second Coming, though events quickly make it clear she is definitely not a television character. And most of it is down to McIntosh’s performance — David Richardson praises her on the extras for how good she is at being the character of Carol, not just acting, and he’s absolutely right; she feels real from the first moment you hear her up until her final scene. It’s in the moments with Carol where Survivors Series Five really shines, achieving its goal of providing genuine character-based drama in the postapocalypse.
Survivors Series Five (by Andrew Smith, Christopher Hatherall, Simon Clark) was released by Big Finish Productions in November 2016.