Friday, January 25, 2008

Survivors Reborn?


I love Survivors. Along with Goodnight Sweetheart, it's the only genre show which I might watch instead of Doctor Who. I love the starkness and brutality of Nation's vision for the post-Death future in series 1, I love the often banal but sometimes lyrical farming stories of series 2, and I even love bits of series 3, at a point when Terrance Dudley had tried his ham-fisted best to make the entire series rubbish.

So I should in theory be over-joyed the BBC are bringing it back. But now that the euphoria has worn off, I'm more than a little bit worried.

First cause for concern: the Doctor Who revival experience

Take something which I treasure for its underlying themes and tropes as much as anything else, and drop all of the elements which made it worth watching. Next, wrap it up in brainless bright lights, chuck in a Mary Sue companion and throw it onto prime time.

So I worry that where Rusty dropped the idea of the heroic Doctor as a man of science who made sense out of the nonsensical, and replaced him with an idiot savant who more often than not needs saved by Rusty's prefered heroine, the young feisty female companion, so I'm concerned that the bleakness at the heart of the first two series of Survivors will be buffed up and brightened for modern viewers, and that post-Death Britain will follow the same brain-dead pattern as American series with similar settings.

For an example try watching a few episodes of the perfectly adequate, if fairly brainless, Jeremiah, which is packed to groaning with extras from the first Mad Max film and where every town has a curiously clean and well organised market where they trade for batteries and old transistor radios.

Second cause for concern: The Writer

Survivors is a series for grown-ups, but it's been put in the hands of Adrian Hodges, the brains behind Primeval, a series primarily noted for being full of shiny effects and pretty girls inexplicably in their underwear. Admittedly basing my views entirely on that show, he really doesn't do thoughtful at all well, and I simply can't imagine him doing justice to a series about the adult (note, not teenager or young adult) reaction to an apocalypse. As with Chris Chibnall and Torchwood, adult will be confused with sex obsessed and what we'll get is lots of scenes of hard 'n' nasty nookie because there's nothing else to do after the Death, man.

Third Cause for Concern: The America Perspective

Which in part also informs my belief that New Survivors will again ape New Who and be written with one and a half eyes on the American market. I fully expect guns and explosions and lots of Survivors with great figures and a penchant for walking about in vests looking all sweaty. And if the ratings still aren't great, I predict aliens who need to mate with humans to ensure the survival of their species will land at the start of series 2.

Final Cause for Concern: Happy, Shiny People

TV execs nowadays don't really approve of bleak or downbeat. It doesn't do well in focus groups of stoned students and bored housewives, nor does it sell well to advertisers. So expect every episode to be a self-contained feast of sanitised squalor with a suitably chirpy ending in which everything Turns Out All Right. Certainly don't expect anything like 'Law and Order'.

Actually all those moans basically boil down to the same thing - after New Who I no longer trust the BBC to stay true to the spirit of any show they relaunch. Scrabbling after as broad a demographic as possible as defence in their battle to keep the license fee, combined with a deep desire to make any new series as US-friendly as they can manage, means that quality comes a distant second to saleability. Anything which is different or which could ever be seen as cause for offense to anyone must be jettisoned in favour of the innocuous but glittery.

And Survivors, in its original incarnation, is as different as can be from the BBC's current anodyne fayre.

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31 Comments:

Blogger TimeWarden said...

Good post, well argued, and I agree with you. I would prefer "Survivors" to be left alone as, indeed, I now wish "Doctor Who" had been left alone.

Actually, I had doubts about "Who" even before "Rose" transmitted based, partly, on the resurrected "Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)" bearing very little resemblance to its original!

ITV all but brought "Survivors" back to the small screen in a six-part serial called "The Last Train" in 1999 but the initial premise was far less believable than Nation's series.

One thing I'll say in favour of "Primeval" is that at least it doesn't come with RTD's agenda. Hodges doesn't seem to want all men to be gay like Rusty does! The dinosaur series is completely shallow but doesn't pretend to be anything more than empty-headed fun.

And, yes, I'll watch a new version of "Survivors" and, no doubt, regret it afterwards for tainting the legacy of a classic.

1:34 am  
Blogger SAF said...

Naturally enough, I share your concerns, Stuart. The resurrection of an old quality TV favourite should be an exciting prospect, but it actually comes hand in hand with some trepidation as to just how they're going to screw it up. ;) The American perspective element interests me too, as when I think of US TV I think of their highest quality output (West Wing, ER, Homicide to name a few) and I wonder why it is that, if UK TV is so set on aping US TV - in which, in any case, it generally fails - why it never seems to aim at those higher standards. It always seems to aim squarely for the middle of the road, then frequently falls short. Go figure.

12:59 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

saf: "if UK TV is so set on aping US TV - in which, in any case, it generally fails - why it never seems to aim at those higher standards."

{cynical}

Lack of talent and vision?

3:27 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "{cynical}

Lack of talent and vision?"

Surely that should read {realistic}?

I don't know, it seems to me that especially with something like Survivors, aiming at the more mature, intelligent US market - actually, scrub that - mature, intelligent *drama* market would be the sensible way to go.

But what do I know, eh. I'm just a punter, accustomed to disappointment.

5:38 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

My main concern really is that Survivors as was is an essentially British show, much more even than Who. Without the British element - the landscape, the weather, the attitudes - it could very easily become just another one Jeremiah.

Also, as you say, it needs to be pitched at an adult audience (that's adult without Torchwood quotation marks round it) - and TV nowadays seems incapable of focusing on grown-ups rather than Young Adults or whatever.

6:13 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

You're right, and a show like that could not only retain the essential Britishness, but actually capitalise on it and use it as a key selling point to the US market. Of course, that would require a degree of flair, ingenuity and courage, all of which are currently in short supply in the UK TV industry.

I know I am thoroughly biased, but on some of the DW DVD extras I've been watching lately, there is talk of how Hinchcliffe's philosophy was to produce a show for grown-ups that children could also enjoy. Pretty much the reverse of what we get today in Who (on top of which you end up with something that patronises younger and older viewers alike, but that's another story! :) ) In the same way, it seems to me that something like Survivors would need to adopt a similar approach: make it with adults in mind, and if the 'younger adults' also happen to catch on to it, then great. It's a risk, but safe telly, popular or not, is so bloody dull! :)

11:32 pm  
Blogger SK said...

I quite liked Primeval.

(Have I just lost all my credibility?)

Admittedly I was comparing it to Torchwood, and anything's going to come off better. But it does have a much better cast (Douglas Henshall vs John Barrowman, for goodness' sake, I mean, it's hardly even fair) and it has a much more certain tone.

And it's not entirely lacking depth, either: the whole business with the wife in season one added a nice extra layer that was lacking from 'Doctor Who' post-Eccleston and from 'Torchwood' entirely, and has led in season two to the interestingly changed dynamic betwen the two male leads (even though that has played out in a bit of a bog-standard way, for exampline in the first episode of this series -- I wouldn't want to claim it's perfect or even close, just that it has some redeeming features -- you know, dramatic ones).

That said, there's a big gap between an effects-heavy action-adventure family series with a couple of extra layers, and the adult-no-not-in-that-way, effectsless, character-based drama that Survivors needs to be, and that according to IMDB Hodges' nearest attempt to that is... [looks it up...] Charles II: The Power and the Passion.

Oh dear.

9:49 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "Survivors would need to adopt a similar approach: make it with adults in mind, and if the 'younger adults' also happen to catch on to it, then great."

Exactly - but I can't help but think that TV bosses are so blinded by the light bouncing off of Rusty's shiny glitterball of a show that they'll go for something far less realstic than the original. I confidently expect, for instance, that it won't take three whole seasons to get the electricity back on :)

11:53 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "I quite liked Primeval."

So did I. Not enough to watch the second series on transmission, but I'll probably watch it at some point.

And you're right - at least Hodges tried to create more than the single, tissue thin layer of drama which is Torchwood.

Hmm, for 'Survivors' to work as a decent reflection of the original series it needs to be a genuine ensemble drama with a supporting arc holding it together. I suspect Hodges can do the kind of arc which RTD is clearly incapable of, but nothing he's written convinces me he can do ensemble character driven drama (most of the cast of Primeval are basically cyphers much of the time IIRC).

12:01 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "Exactly - but I can't help but think that TV bosses are so blinded by the light bouncing off of Rusty's shiny glitterball of a show that they'll go for something far less realstic than the original. I confidently expect, for instance, that it won't take three whole seasons to get the electricity back on :)"

Sadly, that has the ring of truth. The ring of truth often sounding quite like the Cloister Bell ;)

1:16 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

sk: "that according to IMDB Hodges' nearest attempt to that is... [looks it up...] Charles II: The Power and the Passion."

Hodges was responsible for that? New Survivors is doomed.

1:19 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "Hodges was responsible for that? New Survivors is doomed."

Bad, was it?

1:23 pm  
Blogger SK said...

IMDB say so.

Though also the 1999 David Copperfield (the one with Harry Potter in) and the recent Pullman/Piper fusions.

Having said all that --

Who, working in British TV today, would you trust to remake Survivors properly (obviously no Yank could do it)?

Only name that comes to my mind is Joe Aherne, but then I think he should be writing most of television (Perfect Parents last year showing he hasn't lost his touch).

1:46 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

sk: "the recent Pullman/Piper fusions"

And they were ordinary run-of-the-mill at best. Charles II was pretty dire and Primeval inspires little confidence from where I'm standing.

There probably are "Yanks" who could pull it off (in terms of talent, vision etc), but they'd probably have to spend a year or two in the UK soaking up the atmosphere.

Er, what about the Life On Mars chap? (Not seen a lot of it myself, but it seems to get fairly consistent praise from diverse individuals and from what I did see of it, it managed to present a bit of a gritty edge along with the humour etc)

2:38 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "Who, working in British TV today, would you trust to remake Survivors properly"

That's a difficult one and a question I had intended answering in the original blog post - but couldn't think of anyone bar my default choice of Steven Moffat.

I suspect that's due to the paucity of decent writers in UK telly at the moment, but equally it could just be that I don't watch a lot of current television.

SAF: "Er, what about the Life On Mars chap?"

Matthew Graham? I loved LoM but having seen interviews with Graham afterwards, the various layers I thought were present in the set-up and scripts seem to have been wholly unintentional.

Actually, I've just this second remembered that Graham also wrote 'The Last Train' that Tim mentioned earlier which was pitched at perfect Survivors level, even if the plotting was gripping enough for me to remember to watch it every week.

Hmm, maybe Graham as a possibility then...

3:43 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Funnily enough, much as I admire Moffat for DW, I can't fit him together with something like Survivors. Still, I admire his Who work so much, he'd be welcome to prove me mistaken :)

Stuart: "Matthew Graham? I loved LoM but having seen interviews with Graham afterwards, the various layers I thought were present in the set-up and scripts seem to have been wholly unintentional."

This sounds less encouraging. On the other hand, the number of times I've been told that authorial intent doesn't mean anything... ;)

SAF

4:01 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "Funnily enough, much as I admire Moffat for DW, I can't fit him together with something like Survivors"

That's sort of why I had to admit he was just my default choice - I think he's talented enough to turn his hand to almost anything, but whether he'd be attracted by Survivors is another matter...

4:07 pm  
Blogger SK said...

Likewise I can't see Moffatt for Survivors: what he's good at, clever, witty dialogue and gloriously complex yet easy-to-follow fractured storytelling, would be completely out of place in Survivors. I'm not sure you want to be laughing at every other line when watching Survivors. Sometimes, yes, at black humour, but, well, it would be asking him to write with one hand tied behind his back; like hiring Monet to take black-and-white photographs.

Graham maybe.

4:19 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Of course Graham wrote 'Fear Her', - a rip-off of 'Escape into Night' with all the drama and tension removed, so his ability to script something as dramatic (in the old fashioned sense) as Survivors is questionable.

Whatever happened to writers liker Terry Nation - hacks in the true sense who could knock out acceptbale scripts for any occasion?

4:40 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

sk: "Graham maybe."

I was going to say that's practically a consensus...until Stuart popped up and reminded us all of 'Fear Her' :)

8:54 pm  
Blogger SK said...

Oh! I know, I know.

Jed Mercurio.

Or Bill Gallagher?

12:52 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Slightly out of left field - Rob Shearman?

His Big Finish audios and plays tend to be about playing with the nature of reality rather than actual realism, but he does character stuff very well and his short story collection is one of the better things I've read recently.

10:59 am  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "Slightly out of left field - Rob Shearman?"

I'm biased, cos I think he's also a really really nice bloke, but yes, I think he could do it justice if they'd let him.

Must get myself a copy of his book, thanks for the reminder!

1:59 pm  
Blogger SK said...

I've only been in the same place as him once, and that was just after I'd described his Doctor Who episode as 'like Jubilee without all that boring English Empire guff', so I considered it politic not to say hello.

He might be able to do it though. I've been impressed by the radio plays of his I've heard (the only ones in the Afternoon Play slot I actually manage to finish listening to). I wonder why he doesn't do more TV

If Mercurio turned it down, or was too expensive.

PS Daleks still don't do trick shots.

2:08 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "PS Daleks still don't do trick shots."

IIRC hasn't it now officially been decided that Rusty wrote the trick shot in 'Dalek'? :-)

8:52 pm  
Blogger SK said...

Not being in the loop, I lose track. I still only know the hints that there's a Joe Aherne story and a story behind 'The Satan Pit'.

... 'Primeval' went officially silly this week.

9:27 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "Not being in the loop, I lose track."

Not that I'm in the loop either, but a couple of people who really should know have said that Rusty basically re-writes everything not handed in by Steven Moffat, including Cornell and Shearman's stuff. I've also heard it said that Shearman probably wouldn't do another Who because of this and that Matt Jones so objected to the rewrite of 'The Satan Pit' that he refused to take part in pre-publicity for the story.

I wrote about the questions this idea throws up here

9:58 am  
Blogger SK said...

Oh, I've heard that too, but 'basically re-writes' can cover a multitude of sins -- from 'punching up' all the dialogue to completely restructuring the episode, altering characters, etc.

What interests me is how some people seem to be happy with this and come back to write for the series again and again (and praise Davies to high heaven), but others (allegedly) run the gamut from 'quietly swearing it's not worth the hassle' to 'walking off in a huff and refusing to do publicity'. (Of course nobody says anything publically - it's that kind of business, a reputation as someone who will bad-mouth their former employers won't help if you want to have more former employers).

Is it that some episodes get more serious hatchet work done on them than others? Is it that some of the original writers are more sensitive to the same level of hatchet work?

And how does any of this relate to Aherne, whose only work on the series to date has been as a director?

But whichever, I'm loath to start assigning specific scenes/lines to one writer or another when it's known that there was rewriting/collaboration going on, because I know that it's very very easy to make mistakes that way, unless there's actual information -- or at least people who are prepared to say they heard a specific rumour.

10:31 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "Oh, I've heard that too, but 'basically re-writes' can cover a multitude of sins -- from 'punching up' all the dialogue to completely restructuring the episode, altering characters, etc."

True enough - what I was told directly of HN/FoB is that 'if a line is not a direct lift from the book then Davies wrote it'.

Generally, as you say, credit should be assigned to the name on the box, but in this case there seems to be a weight of anecdotal evidence which suggests otherwise.

As to Aherne, a simple clash of personalities, I thought?

10:44 am  
Blogger SK said...

Given the Stalinist style of production on American TV, which I understand new Doctor Who apes, I wouldn't even say 'credit should be assigned to the name on the box' -- I'd say that whatever the name on the box, it's impossible to assign credit for any particular aspect of an episode unless (a) Davies's name is on the box, in which case he bears full responsibility, or (b) you have inside scuttlebutt.

(In the case of Human Nature, Cornell has stated publically that he got the script back after Davies's final pass to do a final pass of his own, a consideration not normally given to mere mortal writers. Now of course in that situation it's hardly politic to go changing all the alterations made by Davies back, and I assume that Davies still had to approve the final draft and could have changed it again if he'd wanted, so it wasn't quite like Cornell getting 'final cut', but it suggests the changes weren't quite so extreme as you suggest. But then even if you're not in the loop you seem to be close enough to get the anecdotal evidence, which I don't, so...)

A clash of personalities? Yes, but whose? Collinson -- in which case might we see Aherne back now he's gone? Davies himself? And where there any specific sticking-points (particular shots he was forced to put in? elements of the working process that he chafed against?) or was it just general friction?

I just want the gossip, me.

10:09 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "Given the Stalinist style of production on American TV, which I understand new Doctor Who apes"

Very good point.

SK: "I just want the gossip, me."

Don't we all - but if I could in any sense be said to be near the loop for writery stuff (in the actual sense that I can just about see said loop a long way in the distance) then my relationship to the directorial loop is one where I'd need a telescope to even glimpse someone who can see that loop ('this is a dead analogy, it is no longer living').

On that basis, I've heard both a falling out with Collinson and a failure to recognise Rusty's genius or to kowtow sufficiently - both of which I'm sure you've heard too :(

4:48 pm  

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