Were a deadly virus to wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population in a matter of days, the first instincts of those left behind would not be to mourn the dead, but to find a way to survive.
Or at least that is what BBC America’s new sci-fi drama Survivors, airing Saturday night, postulates. It is based on the 1976 novel by Terry Nation, which itself was a retelling of Nation’s BBC sci-fi series which aired between 1975 and 1977. The new version of Survivors is overseen by writer/executive producer Adrian Hodges (ITV’s Primeval) and departs radically from its previous iteration.
“I’m not really a post-apocalyptic guy,” said Adrian Hodges.
Survivors follows the aftermath of the European Flu, a virulent outbreak that leaves England a lawless society. From the ashes of this destruction, a group of strangers band together to form a new society, led by reluctant matriarch, Abby (Julie Graham), who is desperate to locate her missing son, whom she believes survived the outbreak. Finding a kindred spirit with loner Greg (Paterson Joseph), the two form a community made up of individuals looking to build something out of the chaos and destruction, but the mystery of the cause of the virus—and just how Abby managed to become infected and survived—looms large over the action.
The first season of Survivors, which aired in the fall of 2008 on BBC One, averaged 5.1 million viewers across six episodes. A lengthy delay between the two seasons led to rumors that the transmission of the second season was being held back to due to the global swine flu outbreak and public sensitivity regarding H1N1, a claim that Hodges refutes. The first two seasons of Survivors—comprising 12 episodes in total—will air back-to-back on BBC America.
For legal reasons, Survivors leans heavily toward Nation’s novel than the previous Survivors series, but the main difference, besides for character alterations and additions, is a tonal shift, according to Hodges.
“The world has had lots of different visions of a post-apocalyptic future and I’m conscious of that,” said Hodges. “Shows like Lost have moved on the landscape of this kind of show… When Terry Nation wrote the original, the situation itself was so shocking that it was enough to keep people entertained... Whereas now you need a stronger narrative thread... I was very concerned, as he was, to keep the characters at the forefront of the drama, to keep it very human. But I also have a slightly more optimistic view of human nature than Terry Nation did; his show in the end became quite bleak about people’s prospects. It wasn’t [Cormac McCarthy’s] The Road exactly, but it was heading in that direction.”
Hodges’ Survivors is more about the spirit of hope and unity that emerges out of a global crisis like European Flu than on the darkness and savagery of the survivors. Still, the little group of strangers that bands together is little more than that: strangers. And there’s an underlying sense of dread and fear that springs up every time they encounter someone they don’t know.
“I think the great question about a show like this is how we would be behave,” said Hodges. “Do we know who we are? One of the characters says at one point, ‘People are bad and the sooner you learn that, the better and then you can protect yourself.’ …I think we have the capacity to behave well and regroup… but not everybody would be able to do it. There would be people who would revert to forms of behavior that would be anti-social and scary… it would be many generations before you would have anything resembling any stability.”
Another major difference between this version of Survivors and its predecessor is that it offers a more modern view of a multicultural England, a very obvious update given the changing face of the British population in the last 40 years or so.
Hodges said: “There isn’t a single black face in the original that I can recall and… now [that] would simply be dishonest… Obviously, one doesn’t want it to be too tidy but it is just a representation of the country. The one thing I did want to do is I wanted to present the Muslim characters—particularly Najid [Chahak Patel]—in a positive way and his religion in a positive way because there’s so much negative imagery attached to the Muslim religion.”
Despite the fictional nature of the project, Survivors arrives at a time when the viewing audience is all too wary of avian flu, swine flu, Asian flu, and other global pandemics—Hodges was quick to say that the sort of viral outbreak the show dramatizes will happen eventually in the real world.
“You can’t ask people to think about stuff on an imaginative level if they’re living it in their lives,” said Hodges. “The virologist that I used as the main [scientific consultant] said, this pandemic is going to happen. It may not be tomorrow or next week. But it is going to happen and it’s going to happen really soon… The conditions are perfect, there are so many people in the world now and it’s fantastically interlinked… It’s unintentionally hilarious in Terry Nation’s book where he says the virus is traveling fast because nearly 5,000 people a day go through Heathrow. [Now] there’s about 500,000 a day, and there’s not a destination in the world that you can’t get to from Heathrow in a day.”
There are also unsettling echoes within Survivors that point to our own tentative battles against viral outbreaks; medical doctor Anya Raczynski (Zoe Tapper) has a line in the first episode about a vaccine being rushed onto the market that hadn’t been tested. Should viewers be reading into Hodges’ own stance on H1N1 vaccines and similar panaceas?
“Although you may be able to develop vaccines reasonably quickly for one particular string like H1N1—although there certainly isn’t a vaccine for it yet,” said Hodges, “you will never come up with a vaccine that can be a cure-all.”
“The fantasy element of Survivors—at least I hope it’s a fantasy element—is the speed and the severity of this particular [flu],” Hodges continued. “In the real world, it would not be so quick or so decisive.”
But putting aside the drama of a society in chaos as bodies mount in the streets, Survivors is ultimately an exploration of what it means to be human, even in the face of overwhelming loss.
“I’m not really a post-apocalyptic guy,” said Hodges. “It’s not a particular obsession of mine. It’s more about writing about us, human beings, outside of society because nearly all drama is about our relationship with society in one form or another whereas the great beauty of a show like Survivors is that it’s just us with everything stripped away. It’s just what we can be as people, whether we fall away or whether we get stronger. That’s great fun.”
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.