Sadly his falling out with Terrance Dudley and resulting walking away from the show at the end of its first year is something it never quite recovered from. There are some excellent episodes in the final two seasons, but also a lot of dull filler and it never again regained that strong sense of purpose Nation’s driving force originally gave it. The Fourth Horseman is quite easily one of the best TV pilots of all time.
So the current Big Finish revival had its work cut out, especially as it’s set alongside those early brilliant TV episodes. The first smart move made by the new team (led by producer David Richardson, director Ken Bentley and script editor Matt Fitton, who also kicks things off with the first script) is that the advantage of a disaster that affects the entire world is you’re not just limited to dealing with the characters of the series, you can show the fall of civilisation from multiple new perspectives.
The most interesting part of these episodes are the scenes of Terry Molloy’s civil servant trying to desperately maintain a quarantine at Heathrow airport as the locked in passengers all start to die horribly. Not only does this allow a plane crash the original series could never afford, the tense claustrophobia makes for gripping listening. Props to former Star Trek: Deep Space Nine regular Chase Masterson who manages to take her potentially very clichéd ball breaking American lawyer character and add a layer of repressed hysteria that makes her much more interesting than could have been the case.
The other thrust of the plot is John Banks’ journalist character and his attempts to cover the disaster and maintain some record for prosperity. Despite theoretically being the lead he’s probably the least interesting character in the boxset, partly because he’s instantly knocked into second place once Greg arrives, but mainly because we don’t really learn very much about him across the four episodes beyond being an all round nice bloke. There’s a possible hint he might be gay (which in the ultra conservative old fashioned community they wind up in at one point might actually have been an interesting direction to explore) but other than that he’s entirely defined in terms of his relationships with other people- in the first episode his boss- rather than anything that unique to him.
He does however get good support from Louise Jameson (who seems to be permanently camping at the Big Finish studios so she can be in every single range) as a grieving mother he encounters in a state of shock that has reduced her to an almost childlike state.
One trend kept up from those early Survivors TV episodes is a game of bluff and double bluff over who the main characters are, and by the end of the second episode only two of the four mentioned above are still with us, along with the deaths of several others who looked as if they might have played a major role. Those who are written out do get good memorable exits, with only one character that just runs off never to be seen again feeling underwhelming (it comes over as if the original intent had been to kill them as well but it was decided at the last second to leave the option open for them to return in future).
By the end of the second episode the surviving survivors are welcomed into the polytechnic based community run by James Gillison (Adrian Lukis), a character who has obviously read Day of the Triffids one too many times as most of his ideas about the future, including drawing people to a teaching centre with messages, are taken from the initial group Bill and Josella meet in that book. The listener already knows he’s well onto a dark path, which adds a nice degree of tension as the main characters think they’ve been welcomed into a safe haven with open arms.
The direction of the final two episodes is that they- and Greg and Jenny who have arrived in the Heathrow area looking for new supplies after the flood in the TV series- come to realise that Gillison is becoming an increasingly mad despot and that they have to escape before his paranoia destroys everything.
The third episode is the weakest of the four, mainly because the TV season did the definitive look at justice in the post apocalyptic world in Law and Order (a strong contender for best episode of the entire series) meaning that the less thorough exploration here can’t help but feel a poor retread. Gillison is also at his most unsubtle here, setting up a double cross of another community in such an overt way the fact Jenny and Jameson’s Jackie don’t immediately twig what he’s up to just makes them look really dumb.
It’s the return of Ian McCulloch as Greg that really holds things together, he completely dominates the last two episodes in a way that might drown out the new characters (Lucy Fleming having an established rapport with him at least means she gets to hold her own a bit more) but also reminds you just how brilliant he was and what a shame it is his reported difficult behaviour at the time effectively killed his career. He clearly still cares passionately about the character and the show and it shines through his every line.
It’s fairly obvious things are going to end badly for everyone, if nothing else because we know all these new characters are not going to wind up teaming up with Abbey’s group from the TV series, but the last episode still makes for captivating listening as things devolve and the need to escape from the now sealed off community increases. John Dorney is probably my favourite Big Finish writer, mainly because he always structures his plots really well rather than just going “Hey, it’s SF! Anything can happen!” and his mastery of set up and pay off means various throwaway and innocent lines early in the play turn out to have very nasty consequences at the end.
Overall, this first series is rather brilliant. The third episode may be the weakest but it’s still extremely listenable and there’s a solid foundation for future adventures here. The only real complaint I can make is that Carolyn Seymour’s very brief cameo as Abbey is a bit of a waste of a fine actress; just there to spout exposition and allow Big Finish to establish a working relationship with her to enable a more substantial role in future sets. For any fans of the show or post apocalyptic fiction in general this comes highly recommended.